An Example to All Believers
Robert Wurtz II
Knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God. For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake. And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe.
For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:5-10).
In his revision of the New International Commentary, Gordon Fee explains that secondary source material that sheds light on the background of the epistles is forthcoming at too fast of a pace to keep up. This means that any critical commentary that seeks to articulate or theorize regarding the historical background of an epistle is outdated before the ink dries on the pages (so to speak). Fee’s comments are dated 2009. Where are we today?
I say that to caution us as we make dogmatic statements regarding the background and even dating of certain of Paul’s epistles. Timelines, I would argue, should be written in pencil unless there is definitive proof of their accuracy. Timelines are important because they offer insight into the dating of events as related to each other, but only if they are right; otherwise, they darken counsel. What about 1 Thessalonians?
We need to know what epistles were written first because they offer the first glimpses into the thinking and emphasis regarding the Gospel and when and where it was “once and for all delivered unto the saints.” What was the expectation in regards to being born again in the early days? What was “normal” to them as it relates to Gospel preaching and new birth (regeneration)?
The Word with Power
Paul’s emphasis early in the epistle suggests emphatically that we must have Spirit-empowered preaching in order to achieve Spirit-empowered conversion. This is far more than persuasion or proof-texting, it is the operation of the Holy Spirit first in the heart and life of the preacher and then in the transformation of the willing and obedient hearer. Does the way a preacher lives impact his preaching? Absolutely.
Paul reminds the Thessalonians about the type of person that he, Silas, and Timothy were among them. He was appealing to their witness that these men were authentic, spirit-filled, men of God who lived what they preached. This was a bold saying that demonstrated that Paul had a clear conscience and nothing to hide. Spirit-empowered preaching begins with a Spirit-filled and directed life. Every preacher brings a week’s worth of living to the pulpit when he delivers God’s word.
Paul’s preaching was accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that God was backing the words in such a way that the people were not hearing the feeble words of man’s imaginations, but the Word of His Grace that contained within itself the power to accomplish what was communicated. Signs and wonders followed when he preached. Is God a respecter of persons? In nowise. If we live in obedience to God like Paul did, we will see the results that Paul experienced.
Preaching that Invites Persecution
The Holy Spirit, through Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s preaching, brought the Word into the hearts of the people with tremendous conviction so that the hearer would either “submit to” or “resist” the Holy Spirit. This had (has) a great effect upon the person so that they cannot simply dismiss what they heard. It drives people to a response. Often that response was to assault Paul physically.
From Conviction to Joy
The Spirit is to the Word what rain is to planted seed. God’s intention is that the hearer will be transformed (by way of analogy) from a thorn producing tree to a fruit tree. Keep that in mind as we unpack a key verse from our passage.
The life of a pagan during the second temple period was one of great heaviness and toil, arid in religion but devoid of meaningful fulfillment. This can be proven by the sheer number of idols and gods that were worshipped. Even the Judaism of the time was described as a heavy yoke that neither the disciples or their fathers could bear. So when Paul states, “And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit…” he was drawing their attention to the JOY of the Holy Spirit that they received when they received the word. It was a radically new experience of unparalleled joy.
This is significant, because 1 Thessalonians dates to around 49-51 AD, making it possibly the oldest Christian text we possess. Therefore, not only is joy to be regarded as “initial evidence” of regeneration (receiving the Holy Spirit), but it was an essential hallmark of true spirituality (and essential to a victorious life) in the midst of suffering and persecution in the earliest texts and at the earliest dates. Christians in the first century were sorely persecuted, but they were sustained by the joy of the Holy Spirit. In other words, no matter how bad things got, they still had joy.
The net result of the Thessalonians “beginning in the Spirit” (to borrow a phrase from Galatians) was that it served as a model for believers throughout Greece and to all who hear and receive the Gospel. Paul’s expectation, or as Wesley would call “marks of the new birth,” most certainly had joy front-and-center along with faith and love. Why is this important?
The joy of the Holy Spirit is as essential to the Christian life as is love, peace, faithfulness, or any other fruit of the Holy Spirit. Paul reminded the Thessalonians of the joy they received when they believed to reaffirm or encourage them that their initial experience was authentic. Understand that the fruit of the Spirit are (is) not competing with one another for emphasis, but they are complementary. Each has its own distinct purpose or else God had not given it.
It is not God’s intention that Christianity is made a heavy yoke, but that His children be examples of fulfilled people who have their delight in God whether it be a calm or excited joy. When David sinned with Bathsheba he asked God to restore the joy of his salvation. Why? Because without joy we will seek fulfillment in familiar sins to substitute vanity for joy. Solomon could have used the joy that his father spoke of.
Sometimes when we, as believers, think it’s time to fret and mourn, God is calling us to rejoice. Understand that the operation of the Holy Spirit changes from convicting of sin to pouring in the balm of joy once true repentance and faith are achieved. The old-time preachers of centuries ago understood this and wrote about it. It is neither novel or mysterious.
I have been in revival meetings where the expectation was that the saints would wail and mourn when true revival came. Some tried to promote it, but it never came. Why? Because this outlook is a fundamental misunderstanding of the operation of the Spirit. Let the sinner weep and howl. Let the double-minded trade their joy for heaviness. The saints are called to rejoice!
What many modern revivalists and historians misunderstand is that the JOY of the Lord is perhaps the first evidence that the Holy Spirit has achieved His work in turning the heart from darkness to light and that the resistance has ended. When “revival” comes, the saints will be energized with the great joy that they need to live a victorious Christian life.
And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe (1 Thess. 1:6).