Sermon for Sunday, January 29th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Hag 2:1-9 ESV] 1 In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet: 2 “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, 3 ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? 4 Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, 5 according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. 6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts. 9 The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.'”
New Testament reading:
[Act 17:1-15 ESV] 1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. 6 And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 8 And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. 10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14 Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
[Jhn 14:25-31 ESV] 25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. 30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, 31 but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.
[1Th 1:1 ESV] 1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In my time so far here at Unionville Presbyterian Church I have preached to you from the Word of God given to John, to James, to Moses, and to Joshua, and presently in the evening service preaching through the word of God spoken by Luke (who is the author of the book of Acts). But I have not yet preached to you from any of the letters of Paul.
While each biblical author is in each their own way very dear to me, there is none who has more moved me and influenced me than the Apostle Paul. And it is long past due that I preach from one of his epistles.
But where to start?
Paul wrote 13 epistles (or letters) that we have preserved in the New Testament. That is almost half of the New Testament books, and almost ¼ of the total text of the New Testament. And while the Gospels explain the life of Christ, Paul’s letters — more fully than any other — explain the ramifications of Christ’s life.
Well, of all of Paul’s letters, 1st Thessalonians is generally believed to be the earliest.
So I have chosen this day to begin preaching from Paul’s Fist Letter to the Church at Thessaloniki. (There are, incidentally, various spellings and pronunciations of this city, from Thessaloniki to Thessalonian, to merely Salonica.)
The order of his epistles in the New Testament is not a chronological order. Paul’s letter have come to us in an order that is generally from longest to shortest. This isn’t precisely the case, but it is the trend. (I’ve heard once that this may somehow have been related to economizing the amount of writing material, vellum or papyrus that the letters were copied onto.)
So I’ve decided to begin preaching from Paul’s letters by starting with his first letter, 1st Thessalonians. This is, of course, one of two letters that he writes to the Christians in the city of Thessaloniki in Greece.
The city itself was named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great Her name was Thessaonike, meaning “Victory in Thessaly” which is the surrounding region. And it has long been an important and large city; today second only to Athens in population among the cities of Greece.
Well, sermons that begin books of the Bible are often some of the worst sermons that a minister gives because message of the text gets lost in the historical details. The historical details are no doubt important for us to understand the context. But then we are to use that context to get the meaning, the doctrine, the teaching of the text.
Today, I’d like you to take away from this next, not primarily historical details of Greek city-states, but to depart from here benefitting from the word of God given to (and through) the Apostle Paul in this text. Ultimately, we seek to understand the meaning of the text.
Though I have chosen a single verse today as the sermon text, there is much meaning within it.
We’ll look at three points in particular. First, the equality of Christians. Then, second and third, we’ll look at those two terms from Paul’s greeting “Grace and Peace.”
I. The Equality of Christians
We when write letters or emails today, we put our name at the end. In the Ancient world they put their name (or names) at the beginning of a letter. And this makes a lot more sense. The reader doesn’t need to scroll (no pun intend) down to the end to figure out who has written them a letter. They know right from the beginning.
A. Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy together.
So we have right from the beginning the acknowledgment that this letter is from “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.”
Paul and Timothy are no doubt familiar to you. Silvanus is the Roman name of Silas. And these three travel together at some points in their missionary journeys.
We’re not quite to their travels together yet in our evening study on Acts. In chapter 17 of Acts, Paul, Silas, and Timothy are in Thessaloniki. Then in chapter 18 these three are together again in Corinth and it is probably from there, in about 48 AD, that they write back to the Thessalonians.
We see in chapter 17 of Acts that Paul was the first to preach Christ in that city. And, as was often his practice, he went to the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. And this is something quite profound in itself. Paul didn’t just leave a message with them, he argued with them. He made persuasive arguments to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the messiah and very Lord of Lords. And some of the Jews believed and MANY of the Greeks who had attended the temple and were worshippers of God. But other Jews did not believe and even created a mob that essentially ran Paul, Silas, and Timothy out of the city.
But the word had been planted, and a group of believers — a church — then formed in the city.
Now Paul writes a letter back to them encouraging them to persevere in the faith. God willing, we’ll look at this subject of perseverance in later sermons from 1st Thessalonians.
But now we want to emphasize that this letter of Paul is also a letter of Silas and Timothy. They share together in writing and approving the message being sent.
Paul doesn’t consider himself so great that he must write alone. He is not on a different level that Silas and Timothy. They work together for the Gospel.
B. Written to a church, not to a Bishop.
Also, on the thought of the equality of all Christians, we find that this letter is written “To the church of the Thessalonians.”
If there were some grand hierarchy with a bishop in charge you’d expect the letter to be sent to him. But that is not the case.
Now, there very well may have been a bishop there. The text doesn’t say. But what a Bishop truly is, is important to understand. In the New Testament, a Bishop is not a person who is of higher rank or higher position than an elder. A Bishop IS an elder. They are one at the same.
The elder (presbuteros) is the bishop (episkopos).
Paul equates the two in his letter to Titus. He asks Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” Then Paul explains the qualifications these men are to have saying of them “a bishop is must be above reproach.”
An elder is a bishop, and a bishop is an elder. There is no hierarchy of leadership in the church of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Paul writes to ALL of the people in the church of the Thessalonians. All who are in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
C. The priesthood of ALL believers
Martin Luther especially emphasized the equality of Christians in the doctrine which came to be called “The Priesthood of all believers.”
While Luther wasn’t saying that all are called to preach or to rule a church, he was saying that all Christians share in Christ’s priestly status by virtue of their union with Christ and therefore do not need another to mediate knowledge or forgiveness to them. Christ has fulfilled the role of the priest. And all Christians can go to God directly in prayer for forgiveness and can read the word of God themselves without the need of an interpreter.
Ultimately, the point is that bishops and monks are no holier than any other Christian. We are equal in the eyes of God.
And so Paul, Silas, and Timothy write to the church. It is first the church at Thessaloniki, but also applicable to all churches, and to all Christians everywhere and through all time. So we can benefit from the same teaching that the first recipients of the letter benefitted from.
This is a letter to us. We may (and should) consider it personally.
From this personal letter, in this personal greeting we then have two other major points of doctrine. Grace and peace.
This has come to be a commonly used greeting, often used by pastors when starting a worship service. Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I, for one, find it to be a beautiful saying as it directs my mind towards that peace which is only known through the Grace of God.
Paul has a similar greeting of “grace and peace” in every one of his letters. (I checked myself). It varies a bit from letter to letter, but is essentially the same greeting. Incidentally the Book of Hebrews (thought by some to have been written by Paul) lacks this greeting. It is among a number of reasons why it is best concluded that Paul did not write Hebrews.
Well, back to our text. Grace and Peace.
It is no surprise that Paul mentions grace right away in his letters. That is what it is all about. The grace of God; the undeserved love of God for his people. This is the greatest concept of the Christians faith.
Indeed, it is the very gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ IS the gospel of grace.
Grace is good news because all who are honest with themselves know that they do not meet up to the standard of God. If anything, those who are closer to God know their sin even more. And so must rely fully on the Grace of God.
When we say “we are saved by the grace of God” we mean it. We are indeed saved by the grace of God, totally. It is to the exclusion of everything else.
Salvation is not us + God, nor God working after all that we do, no we patching up the remaining holes in God’s work. Rather, God’s grace is fully sufficient for our salvation. It is good news because He has done what we have not and cannot do.
What a great greeting Paul has. Grace is the first thing he wishes upon the Thessalonians. And it is the last thing as well. Paul ends the letter saying “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
So from beginning to end, Paul preaches the Grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Then there is that second term in his greeting. There is grace AND there is peace.
The relationship between the two is clear. It is because of God’s grace that you can have peace.
There was a day when God was your enemy. And there was a day when you were God’s enemy. In that day you had no peace.
But Paul says:
[Rom 5:1 ESV] 1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
[Col 1:19-20 ESV] 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Christ, and Christ alone, made peace between God and His people.
This peace brings about rest. We receive and rest in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. And we can sleep soundly, knowing that he is in control of all things. Jesus slept in the boat though a storm was a-brewin’. Well, he was the God-Man and so He could naturally achieve that. But Peter, just a regular man, also had that peace. When Herod Antipas imprisoned Peter with plans to kill him the next day, Peter was not up tossing and turning with jitters through the night. No, he was sleeping. That is the type of peace we may have. We have been saved from the wrath of God and trust in the Lord for all things. Therefore, we need not worry. We may cast on him our anxieties and trust in His plan. What a relief THAT is.
And we see the Love of God because just as grace is given to us as a gift, so also is peace given to us a gift. All good things are from God.
Though we are wretched dirty sinners, God sent his Son Jesus Christ for our salvation. Even when we were enemies He loved us. What remarkable love. What remarkable grace. And what a remarkable peace is the result.
Indeed, peace is among the fruit of the spirit. It is the result of what God has worked in you. Knowing that you are love of God, with your sins forgiven, and forever held in his arms, this all should give you great peace.
Through all the turmoil of the world, through we travel down a bumpy road, by the Grace of God we know His peace. We are calm through the storm, and have tranquility like the birds of spring. We rest, in all things, upon Jesus Christ our savior.
While 1st Thessalonians ends with Paul’s wishing grace upon them, his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians has a benediction of peace. “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.”
As with Paul, so with Christ himself. And I will conclude with His words:
[Jhn 14:27 ESV] 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.