In the first half of this chapter, Paul has recounted for the Thessalonians the kind of character that he and his co-workers displayed when they labored there in Thessalonica. In other words, what kind of man preached the gospel to them? But now he moves on to describe the authority of the gospel as preached in itself.
“For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe . . .” (1 Thessalonians 2:13-20)
Summary of the Text
Paul says that he constantly thanks God for the reception that the Thessalonians gave to the preached message (v. 13). When they first heard it, they received it, not as a word from men, but as it was in fact, the Word of God. As the Word of God, it worked effectively and powerfully in the lives of those who believed (v. 13). The Thessalonians became, in effect, the younger brothers of the believers in Judea. They were persecuted by their countrymen, and then the same thing had happened to the Thessalonians (v. 14). The Jews had murdered the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and they persecuted the apostles. They don’t please God, and they are contrary to all men (v. 15). They get in the way of those preaching to Gentiles, that they might be saved, and this is why utmost wrath is coming down on them (v. 16). This utmost wrath likely refers to the impending judgment that is about to fall on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. We should also dispatch any anti-Semitic sentiments that some might want to assign to this kind of statement. It is true that the Jews did these awful things to Christ and the apostles. It is also true that Paul makes the point of saying that the Thessalonians got exactly the same treatment from their unregenerate countrymen. This viciousness is not how Jews are; it is how unregenerate people are.
Paul had to leave the Thessalonians for a brief time, and longed greatly to see them again (v. 17). He attempted to revisit them repeatedly, but Satan hindered those efforts (v. 18). What is Paul’s reward? What is his hope, joy, or crown of rejoicing? (v. 19). That would be the Thessalonians in the presence of Christ at His coming (v. 19). They were Paul’s glory and joy (v. 20).
How to Hear a Sermon
Paul here says that when they first arrived in Thessalonica, they preached the gospel. He goes on to commend the Thessalonians for how they heard him. They received the message proclaimed, not as the words of men—even though they were the words of men—but as the Word of God Himself. God speaks in and through the gospel.
You have no doubt noticed that when I read the text I am going to preach from, I preface it with “these are the words of God.” The Scriptures are the Word of God. When you open your Bible, you don’t have to hunt around in order to try to find something God said. He said it all. But there is a theological school of thought (neo-orthodoxy) that teaches that the Bible is the place where you might encounter or meet with the Word of God (and then again, maybe not). This is obviously a deficient view, but we can take an illustration from it. That is not how to approach the Bible, but it can be a helpful way to approach a sermon.
When a minister of the Word, lawfully called and set apart, stands before you with an open Bible in order to expound what it says, you should prepare your hearts to encounter the Word of God. You should come to worship expecting Christ to speak to you. Evangelical sermons are not the Bible, stem to stern, obviously not. But something happens there, and when it happens, it is a profound work of the Spirit.
“If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.:
1 Pet. 4:11 (KJV)
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him [of] whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?”
Rom. 10:14 (KJV)
In this Romans passage, there is a translation issue. Without getting into the weeds, the verb (akouo) can take a different case ending for the object than verbs usually do. This makes the difference between whom and of whom. When you listen to the gospel preached, are you hearing about Jesus, or are you hearing Jesus?
So when the sermon accords with the text, and the people are listening in faith, then and there Jesus Christ is speaking to His people.
The Second Helvetic Confession puts it this way: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God” (Ch. 1).
“The true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying it as a word from God to his hearers . . . in order that the text may speak . . . and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner that [the congregation] may discern [the voice of God]”Westminster Directory
The Scriptures are not embarrassed to offer us staggering rewards in the next life for faithfulness in this life. This has been mocked by some (“opiate of the masses”) and thoughtlessly pursued by others, as if God were going to give them a chest full of gold doubloons for having been such good boys. Now the fact of the promised rewards is undeniable, but we also have to consider the nature of the rewards. They are all bound up in personal relationships. Paul says that his crown is made up of Thessalonians. They were his hope, joy, and crown of rejoicing. They were his glory and joy. This is more like a wedding day than a pay day. The relationship is the reward.
Consider how this flows out from what was said just before this. When the gospel is preached in power, that means that Christ Himself meets with His people there. And when Christ meets with His people, His people also meet with His people (1 John 1:7). This is how fellowship in the Spirit arises. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One body, one Spirit.
Christ and a Yard Sale Violin
Sermons are not sacraments, but I think it is fair to say that they are sacramentals. A sermon is not a lecture, or a talk. It is not a chat about the things of God. It is a declaration, but unless Christ picks it up and uses it for His intended purposes, a sermon makes the hollowest sound any mortal has ever heard. Christ speaks with authority, and not as the scribes (Matt. 7:29). But He has so much authority that He can even pick up a scribe and do wonderful things through him. Every mortal preacher is in this position, and needs to keep it in mind at all times. Remember how Paul once cried out in a holy despair (2 Cor. 2:6). Who is sufficient for these things? The best preacher in the world is nothing more than a fifteen-dollar yard sale violin. But when Christ picks that thing up, He still astonishes the world with the music He can make.
Christ is the revelation of God Himself, and He cannot be other than what He is. He is the revelation. He is the manifold grace of God. When He is preached, there He is made manifest. Christ is present. How could He not be? He is the Word of God.