Turning To God: What it Means to be a Christian
A vast amount of literature has been written to explain the Bible's teachings. This is due, in part, to the complexity of mankind's predicament before a holy God. Because man has a variety of spiritual needs, the Christian gospel must, by the nature of the case, be able to adequately meet those needs. In this sense, the message of Scripture is complex. Indeed, this is precisely why believers should strive to better comprehend biblical doctrine (I Tim 4:6; 2 Tim 2:15). Yet as intricate as theology can be, it is also necessary for believers to be able to present a condensed version of the gospel. After all, an overly complicated message would render evangelism quite impractical, if not impossible. Thankfully, the Scriptures tell us that the gospel is not only detailed (i.e. able to meet the varied needs of man) but also simple (i.e. accessible to anyone). Among the texts which help us understand this fact is 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. This passage concisely explains Christian conversion, and how the gospel influences those persuaded of its truthfulness. In essence, we discover here what it means to turn to God.
The Gospel at Thessalonica
When Christianity came to the city of Thessalonica it met with a variety of responses. In many ways the message of the gospel was embraced. After preaching in the synagogue for three Sabbaths, the apostle Paul persuaded both Jews and God-fearers that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 17:1ff). This number was augmented when those from outright paganism received the apostolic message. Thus, the gospel had a clear and mighty impact on those who received it. But all was not well in Thessalonica. Because of severe opposition from unbelieving Jews, Paul had to flee from the city. As he did, his concern for those he left behind only intensified. Would they endure the persecution which surely awaited them? How would these new Christians survive when surrounded by the allurements of their pagan society? It is with these thoughts in mind that Paul sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage the believers (3:1), and to determine whether they had withstood the onslaughts of God's enemies (3:5). Timothy's report, then, became the basis for much of what Paul would write in his first letter to the Thessalonians. The situation among the Thessalonian church was not unlike many congregations. In general, progress was evident, for Paul describes them as "walk[ing] and pleas[ing] God" (4:1). Of course there were problems as well, some of them related to persecution (e.g., 2:14-16), others to doctrinal confusion (e.g., 4:13-18). At any rate, Paul has much to say to these new Christians, and he communicates a number of important truths in order that they might "walk in a manner worthy of God" (2:12). Here, we will survey a small segment of this inspired letter. In particular, we are concerned with Paul's summary of Christian conversion in 1:9-10. Our goal is to unfold the meaning of this passage, and so extract basic principles conducive to Christian living in any age.
The Setting of Chapter One
In chapter one, Paul is concerned that his hearers understand the gospel he had labored to preach when in their presence. He tells them (and us) that the gospel is not a weak, ineffective message. Rather, it is something which originates in God, and therefore effectively works in the lives of those whom God chooses (1:4-5). In fact, so powerful is the good news that people are willing to, if need be, endure great suffering for it (1:6-7). Furthermore, this "word of the Lord" cannot be buried; the gospel received produces messengers who can't stop telling others what God has done for them (1:8-9). This entire section (1:4-8), then, is basically a review of the reality of the Thessalonian believer's faith. They were genuinely changed by the gospel. The experiences of the Thessalonian believers have not only historical value, but also serve as a model of Christian conversion. What happened in their lives has been repeated countless times since. Thus it is important that we grasp the meaning and significance of these words for today. How does Paul define conversion? In what ways does believing affect the way a person thinks and lives? In short, what are the identifying marks of a Christian?
Survey of 1:9-10
9"For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come."
When Paul visited Macedonia and Achaia, word of the missionaries' impact in Thessalonica had already circulated throughout the region. The "they" in this passage (v. 8), therefore, is a reference to those influenced by what they had learned of the Thessalonian's reception of the gospel. What is significant here is the fact that it was the apostolic message to which they properly responded. In the first chapter alone, this message is termed the "gospel" (v. 5), "the word" (v. 6), and "the word of the Lord" (v. 8). The Thessalonian converts had not merely accepted the viewpoint of men, but "the word of God, which also performs its work in [those] who believe" (2:13). This, of course, explains the happenings at Thessalonica; God was actively pursing His people by means of the gospel He had entrusted with His apostles. As a result of this divine initiative we find men and women dramatically transformed. For Paul, conversion involves a "turning to" and a "turning from." That is, those who hear the gospel reject evil and all faulty concepts of God, and embrace that which is true. The verb "turn," while found in Paul (2 Cor 3:16), is especially prevalent in Acts of conversion (e.g., 3:19; 9:35). To turn "to God" (Gr. pros ton theon) is to place one's entire self in His care. Therefore, acceptance of Paul's message is the equivalent of looking to God (i.e. for salvation). On the other hand, there is also a "turning...from idols." It is probable that a great many of those converted under Paul were from a pagan, idolatrous background. Idolatry can be understood in a broad sense as an allegiance to anyone or anything other than the true God. In any case, Paul's description of the Thessalonian's reception of the gospel includes both faith and repentance. There is a personal adherence and commitment to God, as well as a repudiation of all that is false and worthless. But the converts at Thessalonica didn't remain stagnant once they received the gospel. Rather, they embarked on a journey in which their chief occupation was one of service, and that of "a living and true God." God is "living" in that His dealings are real and observable; in contrast to false, impotent gods, the living God actively displays Himself in this world. "True" probably means genuine. The Lord is no counterfeit; He is real. This is the God to whom the Thessalonian believers swore their loyalty. Indeed, their zeal found expression in a number of ways—from showing themselves an example to other believers (1:7) to evangelizing the various communities and people they encountered (1:8). Of course, Christian salvation involves a future element as well. There is a past conversion, a present service, and a future hope. Paul writes of the believers "wait[ing] for His Son from heaven." Though persecution was their current lot (1:6), there was also an anticipation of better days. Interestingly, the future joys Paul has in mind are not simply environment related (i.e. involving improved conditions, etc.), for the hope of which he speaks is anchored to a person, Jesus Christ. The same historical figure who had secured their spiritual freedom would reappear at the end of the age. Thus, the eschaton (i.e. the end) is viewed as a time when God's people are finally reunited with their Savior. Jesus is spoken of as the one "who delivers us from the wrath to come." The eschatological wrath is averted through Christ, "who died for us" (5:10). "Deliver" might be understood as a reference to Jesus' saving activity. This is what He does: He delivers. Or perhaps it would be better to interpret the term as a kind of descriptive title; Jesus is "the deliverer," the Savior, the Rescuer. All who trust Him are forever changed.
We have observed Paul's portrayal of what transpired in the lives of the Thessalonian believers. And by extension we see here a kind of Pauline model of true conversion. Finally, then, what basic principles can we glean from this section of Scripture?
1. Becoming a Christian involves fundamentally a change of heart.
It is obvious from this passage that the converts from Thessalonica were greatly influenced by the message they believed. So it is with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who entrust themselves to the living God are inwardly renovated. Their desires are altered, their thoughts revitalized, and their hopes turned heavenward. Christians are fundamentally changed people, and the mainspring of their lives is a new attitude. Have you experienced this change? Has your life been reoriented? Is it true that you have believed (i.e. turned to God) and repented (i.e. turned from idols)? Do you now await the return of the Savior? If you can answer in the affirmative, thank God for His immense and never-ending provisions. If not, this new life is yours for the taking. Simply cast yourself upon Jesus Christ. He will not reject you.
2. Genuine conversion affects all of life.
Notice that the Thessalonian's conversion went beyond the theoretical, reaching out in practical ways. Their supernaturally changed attitudes resulted in a new life as well. The Bible everywhere declares that genuine faith ushers in godliness (e.g., Eph 2:8-10; Jas 2:14-26). Converted people serve Christ and other believers. Is this true with you? Are there obvious, tangible indications of a life in which service matters? Examine yourself, asking whether or not you are truly living like a Christian. But don't despair when you fail, for the merciful Lord is willing to pardon your faults and enable you to live for Him.
3. Conversion is personal in that it is grounded in the living God, who has revealed Himself in His Son.
As we have noted, Christianity involves a relationship with God. This makes sense, of course, since the God in whom we place our confidence is a personal Being. Along these lines, it is pertinent that we understand that the daily activities of the Christian convert are not merely legalistic requirements. Rather, Christian service is offered for Jesus' sake. Does your Christian walk involve more than a series of do's and don'ts? Are you swayed by the reality that God is alive and near? Remember, we are called to serve a living and true God. Therefore, expend much energy cultivating a relationship with Him.
4. The greatest joys of ministry revolve around the successes of the gospel.
Throughout this letter Paul's concern for his converts is evident. Always they are on his mind. Indeed, he can't stand the thought that his labors among them should be in vain. Is this you attitude as well? Can you say that you are zealous for the people of God? Search you heart, asking whether you are truly thrilled by the progress of the gospel. And ask God to increase your fervor for Christ and His people.
5. All Christians experience a tension between what is and what will be.
Being a believer involves a strange blend of blessedness and frustration. In one sense we are content; in Christ there is peace and completeness. Then again, we long for an increase of the same. We feel there must be something more, and indeed there is. That something is the beatific vision and the presence of Jesus Himself. We ought to treasure what is already ours as children of God, even as we remember that the best is yet to come! Have you experienced the tension of living between two worlds?
As Christians, we must all learn to cherish the tremendous grace of God which transforms idol worshipers into heavenly citizens. Those who place their faith in the living God are never the same again. Rejoice, therefore, if you know something of these heavenly blessings. But what of those on the outside? Are you one of those who longs for divine acceptance, forgiveness, and change? The biblical prescription is quite simple: Renounce falsehood and take hold of God's resurrected Son. Look to the marvelous Savior, who is able to rescue you, even as He revamps your life, and fills you with hope.
Turning To God: What it Means to be a Christian
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