How the Church Receives the Gospel
Consider this quote from Graham Cole. “When it comes to the problem of evil, the Bible is not as interested in the arrival of evil as it is in the survival of evil.”
The problem of evil simply put is this. How can a God who is perfectly loving, powerful, and just allow evil, pain, sickness, death, hardship, and conflict to exist? We are faced with these things on a daily basis. And these things can cause us to question God’s existence (at an extreme level), or more commonly, they can discourage us from pressing on in the faith in the face of difficulties. Does the Bible offer answers concerning the arrival of evil; why evil exists? It does, but it is more interested in answering the question, “How long, O Lord?” How long will evil survive?
Listen to some of these prayers from the Psalms. As I read them try to pinpoint areas of your life where these prayers might be specifically appropriate.
- My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long? (6:3)
- How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?(13:1)
- How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction, my precious life from the lions! (35:17)
- How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? (74:10)
The problem of evil may be one of the biggest intellectual challenges to Christian theism. How can a loving, powerful, and just God allow evil to exist? But when it comes to the survival of evil, or how long evil will exist, Christian theism is really the only system of belief that adequately deals with the problem of evil.
The gospel deals with the problem of evil. In Christ’s death, resurrection, and promised return, he deals with the problem of evil in one of two ways. For those who receive the gospel, the love and power of God are seen clearly, as justice for evil is taken care of at the cross and the effect of evil is taken care of in Christ’s resurrection and his return. When he returns there will be no more pain, sickness, death, hardship or conflict. But for those who reject the gospel, the justice of God will be seen in judgment. In both cases, the answer to the question, “How long, O Lord?” is clearly answered. Evil will not survive. That should be a source of encouragement for believers. And that should be a reason for those who don’t yet believe to receive the gospel by faith.
Sermon in a sentence: We can be encouraged to press on in the face of opposition if we have received the gospel as the word of God.
Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16. We know from Acts 17 that when the gospel came to Thessalonica it was received by Jews and Gentiles. But the Thessalonians’ reception of the gospel was immediately met by opposition. Some leading Jews became jealous, most likely because they were losing people (and thus money) from the synagogue.[i] So they set the city in an uproar and brought the new believers before the city officials and charged them with sedition – saying they gave allegiance to another king, King Jesus. As a result the Thessalonian Christians were suffering at the hands of their fellow countrymen, the Gentiles in Thessalonica. They were discouraged. I would not be surprised if they were praying, “How long, O Lord?!”
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 (ESV)
13And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews,15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved–so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!
Paul’s words in our text this morning are an attempt to encourage Christians to continue on faithfully in the face of great opposition. That’s his purpose in telling them he is thankful for them in verse 13.
You can be thankful for someone without telling them. Maggie ironed this shirt for me last night. I’m genuinely thankful for that, but I don’t have to tell her I’m thankful in order to be thankful. However, there are good reasons to tell her I’m thankful. One reason you might tell someone you’re thankful is so they know you haven’t taken them for granted – it’s a courtesy. But another reason you tell someone you’re thankful is to encourage them. Maggie does a lot of work for our family that goes unnoticed and I’m sure she can feel unappreciated and discouraged at times. I need to tell her I’m appreciative of the work she does, not simply so she’ll continue to iron my shirts, but to encourage her to continue on in her important ministry to our family. I think that is what Paul is doing here for the Thessalonians – he’s telling them he’s thankful for them so they will be encouraged to press on. And because Paul’s words for the Thessalonians are also God’s words for us, we can be encouraged to press on in the face of opposition if we have received the gospel as the word of God.
We will see the reason we can be encouraged to face opposition as we look at the way Paul contrasts those who receive the gospel with those who reject the gospel.
Those who receive the gospel as the word of God will experience the opposition of men. (13‑14)
Paul’s purpose in telling the Thessalonians he’s thankful for them is to encourage them. But his reason for being thankful was they had received the gospel preached to them as the very word of God.
1 Thessalonians 2:13 (ESV)
13And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
What Paul is doing here is giving a brief theology on preaching. Notice the interplay between the words “us,” “God,” and “you”. Paul says the word which they heard (he’s referring specifically to the gospel as seen in 9) was from us, of God, and at work in you.[ii] This is a pretty big deal. Let me explain.
The Bible is the very word of God.
2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)
16All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness
Therefore, when the Bible is taught or preached faithfully it is a message from the lips of a person, but the words being spoken are not merely the words of man, they are the very words of God.
This is why we are so committed to expository preaching in this church. Expository preaching is a commitment to expose the content and intent of the Bible and let it speak on its own terms. We want God’s word to shine brightly, so God can speak through his Word to his people and accomplish his purposes in his people.
This is also the reason we stand when the word of God is read – to acknowledge that the words being read are the very words of God. And that is why we say at the end of the reading, “This is the word of the Lord,” and why you respond by saying, “Thanks be to God!”
Paul says the Thessalonians received the word of God which they heard from him, and they acceptedit as the word of God. The words “receive” and “accept” have similar meaning in English, but in Greek they have two distinct meanings. Receiving is an objective verb – the gospel they heard from Paul was the word of God; it didn’t become the word of God when they heard it; it actually was the word of God. But they also accepted that word subjectively. What this means is the gospel took root in their personal lives; they welcomed the word; they embraced it.[iii] As I use the word “received” in this sermon I am combining both of these ideas.
The goals of preaching and teaching are to faithfully and clearly say what God says in his word, so the objective word of God can be heard. But that does not mean that the word of God will be subjectively accepted. Many people have heard the gospel, so they have received the word of God, in one sense. But not all people who have heard the gospel have been impacted personally by the gospel. We pray that the objective word of God which is taught in this church would be personally accepted by each of us through the work of the Holy Spirit. And the reason we pray to that end is that when the word of God is accepted it is effective to change lives.
Paul is saying that in verse 13 when he says the word of God that was accepted is at work in you believers. I’ve heard Mike Bullmore say it this way: “the word of God is trying to get something done.” He gets this from Isaiah 55:10-11.
Isaiah 55:10–11 (ESV)
10“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
God’s word will get God’s work done in the lives of God’s people when they accept it – it won’t return empty; it shall accomplish that which God intends for it to accomplish.
One of God’s intended purposes is salvation. God saves people through his word.
1 Corinthians 1:21 (ESV)
21 …since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
Another intended purpose is the transformation of believers, so that they become more and more like Jesus. The Greek word in verse 13 translated “at work” is energeo. This is where we get our word energy. Those who have received the gospel as the word of God are “plugged into” the Holy Spirit, the author of the Word and the source of power and transformation. And the Spirit is “at work” in the lives of believers.
As the Word does its work in our lives through the Holy Spirit and we become more like Christ, we will face opposition. One reason Paul knew the word of God was at work in the Thessalonians was they were becoming imitators of the churches in Judea who had suffered for their faith.
1 Thessalonians 2:14 (ESV)
14For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews,
When God’s word has been accepted and then goes to work in our lives we will invariably receive opposition – it won’t be easy to stand firm in this life. I was recently told by a parent that her middle school aged son was made fun of simply because their family prays at the dinner table. This is mild opposition, but it illustrates the fact that being a Christian is not accepted as “cool” by the culture.
The Thessalonians were being opposed by their fellow countrymen. Paul wanted them to know that they weren’t alone. So, he compares them to the churches in Judea. I think Paul uses the churches at Judea as an example because they were the oldest churches and would be considered genuine. Paul is saying, if you’re suffering, you’re in good company. If you’re suffering for your reception of the gospel, you must be genuine believers.
Why is it important to be reminded that we are genuinely saved when we receive the gospel? Remember verse 10 of chapter 1 from two weeks ago? Those who receive the gospel are delivered from the wrath to come. If we have received the gospel we will face troubles in this lifetime, but we can face the judgment in confidence. That reality encourages us to stand up now for Christ, knowing that in the end Christ will do away with all evil and opposition and will ultimately stand up for us in the judgment. The people who were opposing the Thessalonians couldn’t say the same.
Let’s look at how Paul describes those who reject the gospel in contrast to those who receive it.
Those who reject the gospel as the word of God will experience the wrath of God. (15-16)
Look again at verses 15-16 where Paul describes the Jews who opposed the Judean Christians.
1 Thessalonians 2:15–16 (ESV)
15,,,who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!
This description obviously reveals that these particular Jews rejected the gospel. They rejected the subject of the gospel, the Lord Jesus, by killing him. They also rejected the messengers of the gospel. First, they rejected the prophets who foretold of the coming Christ, by killing them. Then they rejected Paul and his companions, by driving them out of every place they preached the gospel. But not only did they oppose Jesus and the gospel preachers, they opposed all mankind by hindering Paul from preaching the gospel to the Gentiles so that they might be saved.
Romans 1:16 (ESV)
16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Without the gospel being preached, the gospel cannot be received, and if the gospel is not received then people cannot be saved; they remain dead in their sins. So, by hindering the spread of the gospel they were hindering the salvation of all mankind. That’s why Paul says these Jews were opposed to all mankind.
But not only had they rejected the subject of the gospel (Jesus) and the spread of the gospel; they also rejected the gospel itself – although they had heard the gospel, they hadn’t accepted it. That is why Paul says, “they always fill up the measure of their sins.” What this means is they reject God’s initiative in their life to the very end – all the way to final judgment.[iv] And so, Paul completes the picture of their rejection of the gospel by saying, “God’s wrath has come upon them at last!”
This is quite a contrast to the Thessalonians who had received the gospel. Reception of the gospel results in opposition in this life by men, but ultimately deliverance from the wrath of God. Rejection of the gospel may include some victory in this life, but ultimately results in defeat, as the wrath of God comes upon those who reject God.
Paul’s conclusion leaves two questions in my mind? 1) Is Paul anti-Jewish and 2) How does Paul’s description of the judgment of the opposition give encouragement to the Thessalonians?
Is Paul anti-Jewish? As I read Paul’s words in verses 15-16, at first glance it read like a polemic against Jews in general. But upon closer examination it can’t be. For one, Paul is pointing to a specific group of Jews who persecuted the Judean churches.
Secondly, Paul is drawing a comparison between the Jewish opposition to the gospel in Judea with the Gentile opposition in Thessalonica. So, everything he is saying against the Jews he is also saying against Gentiles who reject the gospel.
If you remember from our series in Galatians, Paul becomes very vocal when you mess with the gospel – or put another way, Paul does not want anyone to mess with the message or the messenger who brings the message, because eternity is at stake. So, Paul is not against anyone based upon their ethnicity. In fact, as we read Paul’s epistles it becomes very clear that Paul has a heart for the Jewish people and wants them to come to salvation. However, these particular Jews he is speaking of have rejected the gospel that leads to salvation.
How does the judgment of these persecutors encourage the Thessalonians?
I don’t think Paul is trying to get his readers to relish in the eternal damnation of their enemies. I think he is simply trying to give them perspective.
In this life we face opposition to living our life in a manner worthy of God (v. 12). And in the face of opposition it is the natural cry of our heart to ask, “How long, O Lord?!” Paul wants those who had received the gospel at Thessalonica to remember that the gospel they had received may result in temporary persecution by men, but ultimately leads to eternal salvation. The alternative is rejection of the gospel, which leads to eternal opposition by God – or more specifically the wrath of God. So, in the large scheme of things they were really in good shape.
As we try to remain faithful to God we can sometimes wonder if it’s worth it. After all, the people who have rejected God’s gospel sometimes seem to be living at ease, while we’re struggling. Though we experience opposition in this life, we ultimately have God on our side, through faith in Christ. That should encourage us to stand firm now.
I’d like to share an example of what this looks like. I had the opportunity earlier this week to meet with Pastor John, our Chinese pastor, and he shared with me part of his faith journey. In the late 60s John was experiencing significant opposition in China. In 1966 Mao initiated his Cultural Revolution. John was in college at this time and was opposed to this communist revolution. As a result of his anti-revolutionary stance he was a target for persecution from the government. Being a target caused him great anxiety. It was during this time that the parents of a friend shared the gospel with him. Having grown up in a Christian home, John had heard the gospel before objectively. But it wasn’t until this day that he received the gospel both objectively and subjectively on Christmas Eve of 1968. The gospel took root in his life and he was a changed man. But it didn’t remove the opposition in his life, in fact it intensified it.
During this time John was actually living in a labor camp because of his opposition to the revolution. It wasn’t an official labor camp; he was given freedom to go to school but was kept under close watch. One of the things required of him at the camp was to stand before a large picture of Mao every day and “confess his sins” against the government. As an anti-revolutionary and a new Christian John refused to do this. Instead he stood in front of the picture of Mao and confessed his sins to God. John stood firm in the face of opposition, with confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For the next twenty years of John’s life he lived in a manner worthy of God as a mechanical engineer and a member of the underground church. He then came to the States in 1989 and went into full-time ministry. John’s genuine reception of the gospel enabled him to face much opposition and persecution.
I was inspired by this story and wish I could tell you more. It made me stop and think as I prepared this sermon. If John’s faith in Christ encouraged him to stand strong in communist China, then surely we can stand strong too, for the same gospel that is at work in John is at work in us.
You’re likely not facing opposition like John did or like the Thessalonians did. But if we’re serious about the gospel we will face opposition of some kind. It may be something as small as not being accepted by the popular culture. It may mean rejection by family or friends. Or it could simply be the difficulty of living our lives in a manner worthy of God in this world that is still full of evil, sickness, death, hardships, and conflict. Who we are in the gospel should encourage us today to stand firm in the face of opposition. Even as we pray, “How long, O Lord?” we pray in confidence, knowing opposition won’t last forever.
If I can be so bold, you’ve all received the word of God this morning, objectively; it has been preached. Jesus Christ died for your sins and if you place your faith in him you will be delivered from the wrath to come. But have you accepted the gospel personally? Have you embraced Jesus as your Savior and Lord? Without receiving the gospel there is no hope in this life and only wrath after this life. But if you receive the gospel by faith, you will have hope and new life. You will also be a part of the family of God.
As we come to the Lord’s Table I ask you to turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 11.
1 Corinthians 11:23–25 (ESV)
23For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Notice that Paul says he received from the Lord what he delivered unto the Corinthians. He’s referring to the gospel generally, but he’s also referring to the words of institution used at communion. The word “received” here is the same word Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, when he says they received the word of God.
It is important to note that the Lord’s Supper is to be received by those who have received the gospel. It is not for those who have not yet received the gospel. So we invite all who have placed their faith in the gospel to participate with us this morning. If you haven’t yet received the gospel, we invite you to take this time to consider the good news.
Notice also in verse 24 it says “and when he had given thanks…” The word translated here “given thanks” is the Greek word eucharisteo. This is where we get the word Eucharist. The Eucharist is what the Lord’s Table has been called throughout the centuries. We don’t use the word in Protestant churches much today, but it is a good word. We should come to the Table in thanksgiving for what Christ has done. It is the same word Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 when he says he “gave thanks” for the Thessalonians’ reception of the gospel.
Paul expressed his thanks (eucharisteo) for the Thessalonians to encourage them. We come to the Eucharist this morning to be encouraged and strengthened. As we remember who we are in the gospel, and celebrate that at the Lord’s Table, I pray we would be encouraged and strengthened as a church to stand firm in this world which is not our home.
Problem of evil
[i] Green, Gene. The Letters to the Thessalonians.
[ii] Stott, John. The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
[iii] Piper, John. “How to Receive the Word of Man as the Word of God.”
[iv] Green, Gene. The Letters to the Thessalonians.