Power, the Holy Spirit and full conviction

September 20th, 2017

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

As the apostle Paul reflects on the congregations he has established, visited, or is about to see for the first time, he never hesitates to declare his assessment of the state of any one Christian community. The congregation in Galatia, for instance, has compromised the gospel with a cramping legalism, confusing faith in Jesus Christ with moral achievement and ritual observance. Paul tells them bluntly they have denatured the gospel, turning wine into water. At the other extreme, Christians in Corinth have come to think that faith in Christ entails no moral commitment whatsoever. He tells them sadly they are a disgrace.

The Christians in Thessalonica, however, Paul has found exemplary; he can hold them up as a model for all of Asia Minor. While he has a few suggestions to make, Paul has no major criticism. In fact he glows over them, telling them that they are his “glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:20). Why are they a model of Christian faith and practice?

First, Paul reminds them that when the gospel took hold of them it came not in word only (it must always come at least in human speech) but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. While no one disputed that a Christian herald had spoken, everyone was startled as the weight of God’s truth fell upon the people, crumbled their unbelief, and stamped itself upon them indelibly. The messenger of the gospel was eclipsed by the substance of the gospel as Jesus Christ forged himself within them. The power Jesus uniquely bears and bestows—the Holy Spirit—sealed them thereafter as his people, possessed and protected by him exclusively. They were left with as much assurance as they would ever need concerning the truth of the gospel, the reality of him whose gospel it is, and their inclusion in the life of the risen Lord himself.

We must note that the full conviction born of the Holy Spirit’s inherent power overcomes unbelief in those who have not yet come to faith; it relentlessly dispels the doubts that nibble at those possessed of faith; and it renders all gimmickry (“Come out tonight and hear Brother Billy and his musical saw”) as superfluous at best and tawdry at worst.

Following Paul’s visit, the church in Thessalonica continued to exemplify something too readily overlooked in the church today: the mark of pastoral effectiveness isn’t so much what happens while the pastor is in the congregation, but rather what continues to happen once the pastor has left it. The “full conviction” (1:5) that the Spirit’s power quickens in believers is no flash in the pan, but is rather the abiding attestation that as surely as the church brings the gospel in words, the Spirit brings conviction and commitment, with the result that the community thereafter suffers no “power failure.” The life of the risen Christ enlivens it.

Second, the Thessalonians are Paul’s glory and joy in that they turned from idols to serve the living and true God. To modern people the word idols suggests semicivilized people dancing around and bowing to a wooden carving or a metal artifact. We are wrong to think this as a characterization of idolatry, and wrong again to think idolatry unique to primitive persons. Luther was more profound; idolatry, he never tired of saying, is that to which we give ourselves, that to which we look for our greatest good.

Of course the subtlest idolatry isn’t the adulation of what is manifestly bad; it’s the unwarranted confidence in what is undeniably good, even in what is God-ordained. It is good, for instance, to be economically selfsufficient, a financial encumbrance to no one. Yet an all-engrossing concern for financial gain renders self-sufficiency idolatrous, and like all idolatry, totalitarian in its grip on us because no degree of wealth for the financially preoccupied is ever sufficient. Education is good, even God-ordained, since God insists that we love God with our minds. Unnecessary ignorance, therefore, is sheer disobedience. But education rendered idolatrous announces itself as the only good, or at least as the singular saving good; and of course it renders its victims insufferable snobs and contemptuously cruel.

More to the point, everywhere in Scripture idolatry spawns moral collapse. The Israelites, who preferred the golden calf to the God who had delivered them at the Red Sea, came to prefer paganism’s indulgent immorality to Sinai’s claim upon their obedience. The collapse doesn’t happen overnight. To be sure, it begins in one generation, casting a shadow on the believer’s demeanor and testimony. In the next, the accelerating downward spiral effects a compromise evident to everyone except the one who is now preoccupied with rationalizing it. By the third generation, there is no compromise or hypocrisy because no one is making a Christian profession anymore. The Thessalonians had turned away from this situation; every day they thanked God for that “turn” that scripture everywhere calls repentance.

Finally, Paul glories in the Christians in Thessalonica because “in spite of persecution” they “received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1:6). The Thessalonians quickly see that the light now enlightening them simultaneously provokes resentment among those who prefer to cloak themselves and their work with darkness. He who is the light of the world is just that: the world’s only hope. Yet, just as Jesus Christ had found throughout his earthly ministry—from the day his birth announcement provoked the slaughter of the infants to the day his trial found the crowds preferring the release of Barabbas—so the Thessalonian Christians rejoiced at their intimacy with their Lord even as they knew their proximity to him would bring upon them what the world had visited upon him: trouble. Like him, however, they remained unyielding in their confidence in God, undiminished in their joy, and undeviating in the kingdom work to which they now knew themselves appointed.

Paul insisted that his one and only sermon announced Jesus Christ crucified. In the wake of his Damascus Road encounter, he never doubted the resurrection of Jesus. How could he, in light of the fact that he remained the beneficiary of that resurrection? He insisted thereafter that the resurrection of Jesus vivified the preaching of the cross. Yet his stock sermon highlighted the cross. Plainly Paul knew, with his Lord before him, that the gospel advances as someone takes up a cross and trusts God to vivify such cross-bearing anywhere in life. The persecution discipleship precipitates is one such cross. It must be borne and borne cheerfully (or it is not borne at all but merely resented). The Thessalonians received the gospel with joy—and continued to exude joy—in the midst of the hostility that love for their Lord attracted.

What happened in Thessalonica will unfailingly happen elsewhere when the gospel is brought in word and the Holy Spirit supplies power and unalterable conviction, even as Jesus Christ continues to flood his people with his joy amid their hardship.

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