A Biblical Church Model

The Apostle Paul describes the church of the Thessalonians as "a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia" (1Thessalonians 1:7). If Paul chooses to call this church a model, then perhaps we should look closely at what they were doing and his instructions on how we can improve our pattern of ministry.

Paul's first visit to this city was on his second missionary journey (Acts 17:1). In his day, the population of the city was about 200,000. Thessalonica was an important seaport city which made it a strategic trading center. It was on the Egnatian Way which was an important trade and military route between Rome and Asia Minor. This busy and prosperous city was accessible both by land and sea.

The majority of the city's population was Greek although there was a large and influential Jewish presence. When Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica, "As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead" (Acts 17:2-3). Some of the Jews followed Christ as did a large number of Greeks. Being jealous, the Jews started a riot and looked for Paul and Silas but could not find them.

Choosing to avoid more trouble, Paul and his companions left Thessalonica. Concerning the chronology of Paul's later contacts with the church, Jensen says:

  1. Twice Paul was hindered from returning to Thessalonica soon after his first visit (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18)
  2. He sent Timothy to minister in his place (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2)
  3. He wrote the two epistles
  4. The apostle made at least two other visits to the area on his third missionary journey (Acts 20:1-4; 2 Corinthians 2:12-13) (350).

Since Paul had to leave Thessalonica quickly, there was no support system for the new converts. It is in this context that he writes to them after learning from Timothy about their wonderful progress and the need for further instructions in practical relationships and doctrine.

Being a model church does not mean they were without problems. This church was full of young converts fresh from paganism but eager to follow Christ even though they had their struggles. This paradigm shift from serving idols to serving God is a model which deserves our attention. The principles are applicable for our present addictive society.

It is not that this shift occurred without problems. Coming out of a paganistic society, their morals were very low. A standard of holiness was new to them. Paul told them, "It is God's will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable" (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4). Paul dealt with them concerning idleness. He encouraged them "to mind [their] own business and to work with [their] hands" (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Apparently their idleness was causing some to get unduly involved in the business of others.

Paul addressed their misunderstanding regarding the Second Coming of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). The Thessalonians were concerned about those who had already died and their missing the event of meeting "the Lord in the air." Some apparently had misinterpreted the teaching of the imminence of the Lord's return as giving warrant for idleness. They may have reasoned, "If He were coming so soon, why such carefulness as to physical necessities? Why not just luxuriate in the white robe of divine righteousness and wait [as some in modern time have done] on some mountain top for the trumpet to sound? (4:11-12)" (Boyd, 24). Their restlessness can be contributed to an unhealthy view concerning the coming of the Lord.

In addition to these problems, the Thessalonians were having to face the criticisms against Paul which were probably instigated by Jewish opposition. In this letter, Paul defended his conduct and character. The church of the Thessalonians was not removed from problems, trials, and misunderstandings. However, Paul serves notice that this was a model community of believers. Let's look at some of the principles involved with this church.


The Church Is in God

Paul opens his letter with these words: "To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Immediately we see a living relationship with the Father and the Son. John writes, "And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). Jesus says: "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (John 14:23).

One of the tools of Satan is isolation or hiding. Everyone will have a hiding place. Paul describes the believer's hiding place in Colossians 3:3: "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." The Church is a community of believers hidden in God. The life in the Church comes from God. The Church is not a building; it is believers in a living relationship with Christ. Unfortunately, some so-called churches are "hidden" in the arts, social movements, politics, and denominations. However, many do not know what it is to be "hidden in God."

Have you ever been tempted just to run away from your responsibilities? In Psalm 11:1, David was being encouraged to "flee like a bird to [his] mountain." We all have a mountain we want to flee to at times. David refused the advice. He said, "In the Lord I take refuge." In God we have assurance and protection in changing times to serve as our anchor. "Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. . . . We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Hebrews 6:17,19).


The Church Is Known by Faith, Love, and Hope
Paul commends the church. "We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 1:3). This triad of faith, love and hope is found in other passages in the New Testament. The often quoted love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, concludes with "faith, hope and love" (v13).

John Stott says: "Each is outgoing. Faith is directed towards God, love towards others (both within the Christian fellowship and beyond it), and hope towards the future, in particular the glorious coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (29-30). Being in God, the Thessalonians had faith that was based on Jesus Christ. Their faith was more than an intellectual exercise; it produced action. The action was a labor of love. Faith in God helps us to work diligently through love for people who are not lovable or who seem to be undeserving of our love. Growing faith is always an indication of life and a healthy walk with Christ. This faith results in an overflowing of love towards others.

The believers at Thessalonica were able to endure because they had hope. Their hope was in Christ and His return. Although some had a misunderstanding about the second coming of Christ, they were a dynamic church with great expectations. Frank M. Boyd suggests a thematic method concerning hope as presented by Robert Lee of London:

The Lord's coming an inspiring hope for the young convert (Ch. 1).
The Lord's coming an encouraging hope for the faithful servant (2 to 3:11).
The Lord's coming a purifying hope for the believer (3:12 to 4:12).
The Lord's coming a comforting hope for the bereaved (4:13-18).
The Lord's coming a rousing hope for the sleepy Christian (Ch. 5) (19).

Love is cradled by faith and hope. Our faith and hope are built around the love of God. "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love" (1 John 4:8). This kind of love labors. It goes the second mile. Even our works of faith are based on God's love. Paul says, "At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. . . . But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6, 8). And because of God's love, we have hope that will not disappoint us "because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Romans 5:5). As love labors, faith works and hope endures.


The Church Embraces the Gospel
Being chosen and loved by God, the Thessalonians received the "message with joy." The message was the gospel. Paul talks about the importance and definition of the gospel: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Speaking to the Thessalonians, Paul said, "Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 1:5). The Holy Spirit reinforces the Word of God. The important balance of the Word of God and the Spirit of God is emphasized by an old preacher who said, "A church with all emphasis on the Spirit will blow up. With only concern for the Word, void of the Spirit, the congregation will dry up. With both Spirit and Word of God, the church will grow up."

When the Word and the Spirit of God are emphasized, the result will be "deep conviction" (v5). The Word of God penetrates man's heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. "We must never divorce what God has married, namely his Word and his Spirit. The Word of God is the Spirit's sword (Ephesians 6:17). The Spirit without the Word is weaponless; the Word without the Spirit is powerless" (Stott, 34).

Evidence that the church of the Thessalonians embraced the gospel is seen in that they became followers of Paul and Christ. Commending the believers, Paul said, "You became imitators of us and of the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 1:6). They followed Paul and Christ "in spite of severe suffering" (v6). These young believers had courage in the midst of persecution. They had the willingness of mind to act out of conviction rather than emotion.

There is a difference between convictions and preferences. Convictions are those things in which we believe so strongly we would give our life for them. This addictive society is looking for the community of believers to stand up for strong convictions. This is especially true since this society advocates tolerance toward ungodly behavior. William Penn said: "Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it" (Tan, 283).


The Church Is a Model to All

An important part of this paradigm is the church at Thessalonica's comprehensive evangelism focus. Notice how the gospel progressed with them. First, the gospel came to them. Next, they "welcomed the message with joy." Then the "message rang out [from them] not only in Macedonia and Achaia--[their] faith in God has become known everywhere" (v8).

Their message concerning Christ rang loudly and clearly and continued to ring. Their faith in God became "known everywhere" (v8), not only in Macedonia and Achaia. Much can be said about media evangelism; however, the Thessalonians did not have television, radio, tapes, or cyberspace. They used the most effective evangelism--one-on-one. They used the strategic location of Thes- salonica to their advantage. Being on the Egnatian Way which was a major route between Rome and Asia minor provided them with access to travelers all over the Roman Empire. So effective were the Thessalonians' evangelism efforts that travelers throughout the Roman Empire reported to Paul the message of the Thessalonians.


The Church Turns to God from Idols
There was testimony of true repentance among this model community of believers. "They tell 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--Jesus" (vv9-10). The turn was not just switching religious affiliations, switching denominational affiliations, or the changing of opinion by pagans, this turn was evidenced by changed lives. They had turned to God from idols.

Why was this change so radical yet wise? John Stott says, "Idols are dead; God is living. Idols are false; God is true. Idols are many; God is one. Idols are visible and tangible; God is invisible and intangible, beyond the reach of sight and touch. Idols are creatures, the work of human hands; God is the Creator of the universe and of all humankind" (39). This evangelism focus did more than report numbers. Instead, they reported changed lives--"They tell how you turned to God from idols" (v9).

The Thessalonians not only turned from, but they also turned to. God always replaces the idols which are God-substitutes with the real thing. A person without a relationship with Jesus Christ is always searching to fill the void with a God-substitute. Merril C. Tenney says, "Paganism is the human attempt to satisfy an inner longing for God by the worship of a deity which will not obstruct one's desire for self-satisfaction" (107-108). The book of Ecclesiastes describes man without a proper relationship with God; "'Meaningless, meaningless!'  says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless' " (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Without God, life is hollow, empty, and without purpose.

It is common for people who have been in the grips of life-controlling substances, behaviors, or relationships to feel a void in their life when they start the road to freedom. Dr. Abraham Twerski says, "Although almost every human disease can be found among animals, there is no evidence that animals in their normal habitat develop addictive diseases. . . . In contrast to animals, which have only physical urges and desires, human beings crave spiritual fulfillment as well" (91). What is the difference between humans and animals? Humans have a spirit. Animals do not. Therefore, the vacuum is a spiritual void.

The church at Thessalonica turned to the only source that could fill the void left by their heathenism. They "turned to God . . . to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Just turning from mastering idols is essential but not enough. When the God-void is not filled, many people in recovery will go to another addiction to fill the void of the one they were battling. Speaking to the Ephesian elders, Paul shows that confession and repentance are essential. However, he said, "both Jews and Greeks . . . must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21) (emphasis added).

Not only were the Thessalonians turning to the true God, but they were also serving the living God. Idols produce no life. They always move a person into a downward spiral. John writes, "He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life" (1 John 5:12). This church was an active, dynamic, and expectant group of believers. They were waiting for God's "Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead" (1 Thessalonians 1:10). The resurrection of Christ was the center of their commitment to the gospel. Christ's resurrection provided the hope they needed as they waited as well as the assurance that believers would be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The Thessalonians were known for their faith, love, and hope. Characteristics of this triad are: "work produced by faith"--"turned to God from idols"; "labor prompted by love"--"to serve the living and true God; "endurance inspired by hope"--"to wait for his Son from heaven" (1:3, 9-10).

In Chapter 5, we discussed the three primary resources of God and how they combat the three common tools used by Satan in this addictive society: delusion, isolation, and hiding. The church at Thessalonica used God's resources. The church of the Thessalonians is an example of the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the people of God working together. Although far from being a perfect church, it is described as "a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia" (1:7). They "welcomed the message" [the word of God] (1:6). The word came "with power, with the Holy Spirit" [the Spirit of God] (1:5). The Thessalonians recognized that Paul and Silas lived the life because they "lived among" them for their sake [the people of God] (1:5).

Building a relationship with Christ and with one another is the way to live in the pressures of a paganistic society. Let us stand on the promises of the Word, be guided by the Holy Spirit, and care for one another in the family of God. Speaking to this family of God, Paul says, "We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well" (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). He describes the father relationship as one of "encouraging, comforting and urging" (1 Thessalonians 2:12). As the people of God we can encourage one another--offering gentleness always and firmness when needed.


Material from Understanding the Times and Knowing What to Do
Copyright © 1991, 1997 by Turning Point Ministries
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