In the initial months of my first pastorate I preached a series of messages from 1 Thessalonians. As it turned out it was a wonderful way to begin a preaching ministry. While the Thessalonian epistles contain some of the most important New Testament teaching concerning eschatology, they also reveal the loving heart of the Apostle Paul. There is a sweetness and tenderness expressed in these epistles that is quite touching. They read like love letters, and the love relationship that Paul enjoyed with the Thessalonian church provides a beautiful example for all pastors and churches.
J. W. Storer, former pastor of the First Baptist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma, said two kinds of authority exist. “One is represented by the slave driver, the other by the mother. One will kill the slave for selfish gain, the other will work herself to death for love.”J. W. Storer, The Preacher: His Belief and Behavior (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1953), 64. Dr. Storer’s statement could have been inspired by the ministry model Paul presents in 1 Thessalonians, for there he reminded the church that “we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children” (2:7).All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted. They shared not only the gospel with them, but their lives as well. Indeed, Paul told them that he was born a mother and a father to them. He taught them, warned them and prayed for them. He was grateful for what they had become in Jesus Christ.
Sermons from these epistles should reflect the passionate, loving concern for the church that Paul demonstrates. Preaching that connects with the hearer communicates a passion fueled by love. The congregation must sense the preacher is speaking from deep conviction and not mere interest in the given text or topic. Paul wrote to encourage, teach and admonish the church, and he did so with the authority of one who suffered persecution for the love of them. Anyone preparing to preach from these letters would do well to speak with the same passionate love and urgency that is found in them.
Preparing to Preach
Preaching begins with reading. The first step in preparation is reading the biblical book from which you will preach. When one is preparing to preach a series of messages through a book, the book should be read several times in various translations with a desire to saturate oneself with its content. This is a vital part of the preparation and demands that careful attention be given to key words and ideas, the flow and the theme of the book, as well as questions arise in the text. The questions that one should ask include: Who were the Thessalonians? When and how was the church in Thessalonica founded? What was Paul’s relationship to the church? What occasion prompted these letters? Why are there two letters? What is the day of the Lord? Who is the man of lawlessness?
At this early stage it is helpful to prepare a folder, or several folders, in which one can begin gathering notes and other information; perhaps a folder for each chapter would suffice. Later, prepare a separate folder for each sermon. In this folder place study notes, application ideas, illustrations, and other information gleaned from Scripture reading, commentaries and other study helps.
In addition to reading the epistles, study their background and context. Three or four good commentaries will provide helpful background information on the city of Thessalonica, the church and the epistles.
When speaking of context, the preacher must determine how the message of 1 and 2 Thessalonians applies to his contemporary context. The eschatological message of these epistles is especially timely as we look toward a new millennium. Issues such as Y2K and genetic engineering are receiving a great deal of attention, some of which is expressed in apocalyptic language and is generating real fear in many people. There also seems to be an increase in cult activity, some of which is predicting the end of the world and other sundry cataclysms. As false prophets attempt to use the transition to a new millennium for their selfish purposes, it is important that preachers are ready with a word from the Lord. The letters to the Thessalonians can and will provide this word.
Other aspects of contemporary culture that could be addressed from these letters include various bases for authority in the church (1 Thess. 2:1-13), how one discovers true joy in life (1 Thess. 2:19f; 3:6-10), matters of sexual immorality (1 Thess. 4:1-8), and the importance of work (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). In a society wracked by scandal, the issue of trust is paramount. The Thessalonian epistles provide keen insight into why Paul enjoyed the trust of the church.
As the preacher prepares to speak, he must look for points in which the world of his hearers intersects with the biblical text. Preaching happens when the timeless truths of the biblical text are applied to the present situation.
The Book Sermon
One way to introduce a sermon series from 1 and 2 Thessalonians is through a book(s) sermon. Although 1 and 2 Thessalonians are two distinct epistles, it is possible to introduce both epistles in one sermon. No new subjects are introduced in the second letter, and it was written only weeks or a few months after the first letter. An introductory sermon could address the founding of the church in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9) as well as Paul’s chief concerns for the church as revealed in the two epistles. Such a sermon would develop the purpose of the epistles, which is to express tender concern for the church and joy in what they were becoming.Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistler to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), 21. A good text for an introductory sermon is 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:10. This is a rather lengthy text, but significant regarding both the purpose of Timothy’s visit and that of the letters subsequent to that visit. The title “The Great Joy of Ministry” would create interest in the sermon. With this title the sermon would focus on the joy found when the gospel bears fruit in the lives of others, particularly one’s spiritual children. In the sermon the preacher would also encourage further growth so the church would stand strong in the face of various troubles.
The introductory sermon can introduce the epistles and create interest in an upcoming series of messages. In a sermon series the preacher would then develop the theme introduced in the initial sermon. A sermon on 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:10 would set the stage for messages focusing on the impact of the gospel on relationships.
A book sermon introduces the book(s) and prepares for a more detailed exposition. Typically, an exposition of the Thessalonian epistles would begin with verse one of chapter one, and proceed verse-by-verse through the epistles, carefully explaining, illustrating and applying the content of both books. Paul’s epistles lend themselves to this approach. A sermon series could vary from one or two sermons per chapter or major division, to several messages per chapter.
God’s Way to Change the World 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Every pastor watches to see what will become of his work. It has been said that the real test of a ministry is what happens after the pastor has left that ministry field. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was short lived, but fruitful (see Acts 17:10). The question was, “what became of the new Christians that Paul left behind in Thessalonica?” The report that Timothy brought to Paul after visiting them greatly encouraged Paul. It confirmed two things primarily: the gospel of Jesus Christ established a church in Thessalonica and that church was now proclaiming the gospel to the world. Thus the gospel produced the church, which proclaimed the gospel, which produced more churches, which spread the gospel to the world.
The gospel of Jesus Christ creates the church (1:1-6).
When God’s messenger proclaims the gospel and it comes to the people “with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (v. 5), a church is created. Paul gave thanks for the “work,” “labor” and “endurance” of those in the church. These visible expressions of Christian deeds, in spite of persecution, were evidence of a genuine faith.
Moreover, the Thessalonians were imitating Paul and his colleagues, as well as the Lord. They were faithful followers of the apostolic faith, which was further evidence the gospel had created new life within them. This also points out the nature of the relationship between the preacher and those to whom he proclaims the gospel. It is vital that the preacher imitate the Lord, knowing that to some extent the church will imitate the preacher.
The church proclaims the gospel to the world (1:7-10).
As Paul, Silas and Timothy had been examples to the Thessalonians, now they were examples to others (v. 7). Indeed, the Gospel “rang out” from them so that their “faith in God” became known “everywhere” (v. 8). The Greek word for “rang out” means to sound out like a trumpet, or like thunder, and is used nowhere else in the New Testament.A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 12. This is an appropriate and powerful metaphor for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. God intends that every church trumpet the message of Christ to the world.
The content of the message ringing out from Thessalonica is detailed in vv. 9-10. Two particulars are mentioned: they turned to God from idols, and they were awaiting the return of God’s Son from heaven.
Leadership Ignited by Tender Passion
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Positive examples of effective leadership in the church are always needed. In Paul we see the best example of church leadership. He reveals two great passions that are vital for ministry: a passion to faithfully proclaim God’s Word and a passion to serve God’s people. “Leadership Ignited by Tender passion” describes Paul’s ministry.
Leadership ignited by a passion for God’s Word (2:1-6a).
Proclaiming the gospel in the face of stiff opposition requires passionate commitment and the power of God (v. 2). Paul insisted God entrusted his message to him.Therefore, Paul’s message was true, and his motivation was pure. He avoided the temptations so common to ministry: greed, selfish ambition and the desire to please people and not God. To strengthen his argument, Paul told them four times that they knew these things to be true (vv. 1, 2, 5, 11).
Leadership ignited by a passion for God)s people (2:6-12).
No description of the relationship between a pastor and his people is so intimate as the one Paul described in these verses. The parental metaphors of “mother” and “father” reveal a love and concern that is unsurpassed in human relationships. Like a mother he was gentle and sacrificial in his care of them. Like a father guiding his children toward maturity, Paul gave fatherly leadership to the church. The participles “encouraging,” “comforting” and “urging” could be used as a description of a pastor’s preaching.Robertson, 20. Every pastor and church leader should have such tender passion for God’s Word and God’s people.
The Great Joy of Ministry
1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13
One of the common experiences in life is the realization that what we thought was the most important thing in the world to us is suddenly shown to be far less important than we had always thought. And in the same moment, things that were neglected suddenly became the most important things in our lives. This experience can happen even in ministry. Where is the great joy in ministry? What is it that gives you the biggest thrill and the most satisfaction? This text has much to say to us on this subject.
The greatest joy and satisfaction comes through our relationships with God’s people (2:19-20)
The joy in ministry is not in dreaming dreams or building facilities. The joy in ministry is seeing God at work in people’s lives, especially a people in whom you have invested your life.
The relationships enjoyed by God’s people are subject to serious attack by Satan (2:17-18)
Paul did not want to leave the church in Thessalonica. He was “torn away” from them, literally “orphaned” from them. And though he “made every effort to see” them, “Satan stopped” him (v. 18). Several reasons exist as to why Satan would attack the togetherness experienced by God’s people. First, our joy is found in seeing God’s people prosper in their faith (2:19-20). Second, such relationships are used by God to mature us and strengthen our faith. Paul sent Timothy for just this purpose (3:2). Third, it is discouraging to labor with love for a people, only to see your efforts prove to be useless (3:5 ).
Our great God can take what Satan means for destruction and turn it to our good (3:6-13)
Timothy’s encouraging report rejuvenated Paul and caused him to thank God for the Thessalonian church (vv. 8-9). He prayed for an opportunity to return to the church (vv. 10-11). He desired that their love increase and their hearts grow strong so they would be ready for Christ when he returns (vv. 12-13).
A Life that Pleases God
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
Utmost in the heart of a Christian is the desire to please God. But as the text reveals, the Christian life is lived in relationships with other people. Thus, even as Paul urged them to live so as to please God, his prescription for doing so centered on their relationships with others.
The life that pleases God requires sexual purity (4:3-8)
Indeed, it is “God’s will that you should be sanctified” (v. 3), and sexual purity is essential to holy living. Three specifics are highlighted: sexual immorality is to be avoided, sexual appetite is to be controlled, and sexual immorality hurts others. The hurt immorality inflicts on others is largely denied by many. The ripple effect of an immoral life could be developed from this text (see especially v. 6).
The life that pleases God expresses brotherly love (4:9-10)
Such love is not natural to man. Paul used a unique term to express how brotherly love is learned: theodidaktoi, which means “taught by God.” God must teach us how to love our spiritual family.
The life that pleases God strengthens the witness of the church in the world (4:11-12)
The Christian is to please God, not appease the world. But the church is not to alienate the world needlessly and carelessly through political entanglements (“mind your own business”) or through failure to engage in respectable occupations.
Hope in the Valley of Death
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The question this text addresses is clear, “What happens to our friends and loved ones who have died?” The Thessalonian church expected that Christ would soon return, and they held to that hope. But what about those who die before he returns? The question that burned in their minds surely burns in the minds of many today. The Bible assures us that there is hope in the valley of death.
Hope in death’s valley centers on Christ (4:14-17)
The resurrection of Christ from death is the guarantee of our hope for resurrection. Furthermore, the Lord himself will come at the end of the age to receive his people. He will come personally, visibly and majestically.
Hope in death’s valley includes the certainty that Christ and his people will be reunited (4: 14-18)
Those who have fallen “asleep in Jesus” will rise first to take their places with the Lord. Then those saints on earth will be caught up to be with Christ and the departed saints. Hell includes the ending of friendship and family. Heaven includes the continuation of our relationships with God’s people. The hope of being with Jesus and fellow believers is encouraging indeed!
No Time to Nap
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
When Jesus Christ comes again it will be unavoidable and without warning. In light of this, believers must remain alert and live responsibly.
When Christ returns some will be caught napping (5:1-3)
Like a thief, his coming will be sudden and unexpected. Like a woman in the pains of childbirth, his coming is certain and unavoidable. Those in spiritual darkness, and thus unprepared, will reap the wrath of God.
Believers must remain awake and alert, prepared for Christ’s coming (5:4-10)
Believers live in the light of God’s revelation and will not be surprised when Christ comes. Living in the light means believers should be alert and self-controlled. The fact of salvation and the believer’s future with Christ must shape present behavior.
Life in the Family
1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
The New Testament picture of the church as God’s family reflects the nature of the relationships among church members. Paul used the word “brothers” as he described what life in the church is like.
Church leaders deserve the respect and affection of their church family (5:12-13)
Those who serve the church family faithfully, providing leadership and admonishment, are to be esteemed and loved for their work.
Church members bear the responsibility to care for each other, including the “children” of the family (5:14-15)
Every church has members with special needs, as well as those who are spiritually immature. Pastors and other leaders cannot care for all the needs of the church. It is the responsibility of the entire church to provide care to the family.
The church family must worship God according to his will (5:16-18)
Rejoicing, praying and giving thanks are imperatives of worship. The fact that all verbs are plural means these are not simply matters for private devotion, but are expressions of worship with the church family
The vitality of the church family demands the presence of the Holy Spirit and openness to God’s truth (5:19-22)
Ultimately, the health of a church family depends on the leadership of the Spirit and adherence to God’s truth.
God Knows Best
2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
It is most helpful to compare that for which Paul offered thanks and prayer with those things for which we commonly give thanks and prayer. We so often focus on material blessings and concerns. Paul always centered on spiritual concerns and matters of Christian maturity.
God deserves our gratitude for maturing the church (1:3-4). Paul was thankful for the signs of grace evident in the church. They were growing in faith and love, and persevering under persecution.
The faithfulness of the church demonstrates that God knows best (1:5-10). Spiritual growth and perseverance are evidence of the believer’s right to participate in the kingdom of God. God knows best and he will vindicate believers when Jesus Christ is revealed at his second coming. Christians must live in expectation of this vindication.
Unbelievers, on the other hand, will be punished for their disobedience. Punishment will be “everlasting destruction” and banishment from the presence and power of the Lord.
Prayer should center on God’s agenda for the church, for he knows best (1:11-12). Paul made two requests: that these believers would live up to the call of God on their lives, and that God would bring to fruition their faith-prompted works. He prayed they would grow in all the things that please God. The goal of Paul’s prayer was that Jesus Christ would be glorified in the church, and the Thessalonians would be made more like him. Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer embraced his grand vision for God’s people, always remembering that such a vision is accomplished “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 12).
The Day of the Lord
2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
Apocalyptic enthusiasm has been with the church since the beginning. There has also been considerable speculation, much of it centering on 2 Thessalonians 2. As we approach the third millennium since Christ, speculation is increasing, perhaps with good reason. Certainly the “day of the Lord” is closer than ever before. Yet it is helpful to remember that other times and ages experienced similar speculation. The bubonic plague swept across Europe between 1347 and 1350, killing perhaps 40 percent of the population. Following this the Great Schism in 1378 divided the church between popes in Avignon and Rome. These events caused the Benedictine monk Henry of Kirkstede to wonder if such events signaled the coming of the Antichrist and the end of history, or the beginning of genuine church reform.E. Randolph Daniel, “Looking for ‘the Last Emporer,”‘ Christian History 18 (Issue 61): 18.
The Thessalonian church had an apocalyptic problem. They feared that the day of the Lord had come, and they somehow missed it. This would have meant that they missed “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” (2 Thess. 2:1). Paul assured them that they had not missed this great day.
The rebellion and revelation of the “man of lawlessness”) will proceed the day of the Lord (2:3-8)
Before “the day of the Lord” occurs, two things will happen. First, the rebellion must occur (v. 3) Second, the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed (v. 3). The nature of the “rebellion” is not stated, but certainly it involves rebellion against God. The work of the “man of lawlessness” is to oppose God, assume the place of God, and proclaim himself God (v. 4). This will happen when that which restrains the “man of lawlessness” is removed (vv. 6-7). The nature and identity of this restraining force is uncertain, but the fact that the “man of lawlessness” will be publicly revealed is certain. An even greater certainty is the inevitable destruction of the “man of lawlessness” by the Lord Jesus. It will require only “the breath of his mouth” and “the splendor of his coming” to destroy the lawless one (v. 8).
The “man of lawlessness” will deceive those who reject the truth in Christ (2:9-12)
The work of the lawless one has its origins in the work of Satan, including counterfeit miracles (v. 9). Deception offers what appears to be good but which is actually evil and destructive. Those who are susceptible to such evil, and who will thus perish, are those who have refused to live the truth (v. 10). Because they have rejected the truth, God will send them a “powerful delusion so they will believe the lie and so all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness” (v. 11). God does not cause them to reject the truth, but he does give them the means to demonstrate their unbelief openly. Thus, one must either trust in Jesus Christ and live, or trust in a lie and be condemned.
The “man of lawlessness” will not deceive God’s people (2:13-17)
For this Paul thanked God. He was confident that God’s people are destined for salvation. The work of the Holy Spirit in them and their belief in the truth demonstrated that God chose them for salvation (v. 13). Receiving the gospel Paul preached to them meant they would share in the “glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). These things being true, Paul could rightly encourage them to “stand firm and hold to the teachings” they received (v.15).
Life in the In-between Times
2 Thessalonians 3:1-18
Much of life is lived in between significant events such as weekends, holidays and vacations. Preachers live in between Sundays! In a very real sense, Christians live in between the two comings of Christ. In the final chapter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul turns our attention from the next coming of Christ to how we ought to live in the meantime.
During these in-between times the church must spread the gospel throughout the world (3:1-5)
Paul requested his friends in Thessalonica to pray for him. Specifically, he asked for prayer regarding the rapid spread of the “message of the Lord” (v. 1), and for protection from those who would hinder such spreading of the message (v. 2). The work of evangelism was not given only to apostles, as Paul understood. In his first letter to the church he exalted in the fact that the Lord’s message had “rang out” from the Thessalonian church (1 Thess. 1:8). So in addition to asking for prayer from them regarding evangelistic work, Paul encouraged the church by expressing confidence God would strengthen and protect them as they continued to do the Lord’s work (vv.3-4). Such work would require “God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (v. 5).
During these in-between times the church must adhere to apostolic teaching (3:6-15)
Troubles in the church are best addressed by appealing to the teaching of Scripture and by following those who model that teaching. The problem of idlers in the Thessalonian church was addressed in Paul’s first letter ( 5:14), but more needed to be said on the matter. This time Paul issued a direct command to “keep away from every brother who is idle” (v. 6). He did so on the basis that the idlers were not following the apostle’s teaching (vv. 6, 10). Furthermore, while in Thessalonica Paul was a vigorous, hardworking man, and they would do well to follow his example (vv. 7-9). His instructions to the church were direct: if you are idle, get to work (v. 12); regarding those who remain idle, do not associate with them (v. 14); and finally, do not treat idlers as enemies, but warn them as brothers (v. 15). Thus, Paul instructed the church to work at redeeming the idlers.
One value of this text is the practical instruction regarding the use of church discipline. When there is public, intentional and persistent disobedience by a church member, the proper discipline is to withdraw fellowship from that person. The offender is not the enemy of the church, but a brother, and thus the purpose of church discipline is not to destroy the person, but lead him back to obedience and fellowship.
Effective sermons are the fruit of study, prayer and especially the unction of the Holy Spirit. Whoever first said, “I’d as soon preach undressed as unprepared” knew something about preaching to change lives! Churches are yearning for a prepared preacher delivering a prepared message in the power of the Holy Spirit. A preacher “ignited by tender passion” – that is what God’s people are hungering for, and that is what the world needs!