Benefiting from Scripture
1 Thessalonians 2:13 13 For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
It goes beyond saying that God’s word is man’s life. That is, that without properly relating to the word of God we will have great difficultly in our relationship to God himself— the God of the word. When Moses told the children of Israel, that the word of God they received at that time was not a ‘futile word’ for them but was ‘their life’ (cf. Dt. 32.47); he was alerting the people of God to the vital role Scripture is to have in the life of God’s people. God’s word is central, God’s word is preeminent and indispensible for the life of the believer. All of our coming and going, all of our rising and sleeping, all of our taking and giving, all spheres and seasons of life are informed and dependent on Scripture. We can’t love without it, we cannot know God without it, we cannot be saved apart from it, we cannot run a church, worship and, to Paul’s point, we cannot be rightly sanctified apart from a proper appropriation and application of God’s word in our lives.
The broader context focuses on the word of God, especially the gospel, being received by the Thessalonians and being rejected by the world both Jews and Gentiles (1 Th. 2.13-16). In verse 14, Paul will expound on the precise evidence of the Thessalonian’s obedience and reception of the word of God in the context of persecution. Verses 15-16 focuses on Paul’s own persecution from the Jews and God’s condemnation of their unbelief. Here, Paul begins on a note of gratitude and demonstrates that when Scripture is accepted and applied it results in worship and thanksgiving. Because not every church can be said to have had the same faithful reception to the word of God, especially concerning the gospel message e.g. Galatia. Paul is giving us an inside look at how we can best benefit from the word of God. The principles here are invaluable. That is why this verse can be said to be central to the entire Thessalonian correspondence. This is an amazing declaration of authentic salvation in the life of these believers and it reminds us how we can best profit from Scripture in our own Christian lives.
Scripture Received Under Proper Authority
We easily see this point from the text that what Paul has in view is a praiseworthy faith from the Thessalonians. When Scripture is accepted and applied with the right heart and the right motive it results in true joy and blessedness for pastors, for the church and for every believer. To see this we need to consider Paul’s opening phrase, “for this reason” (διὰ τοῦτο) and how he is logically connecting these two contexts.
The prior context shows that the proper authority has been there. Paul and his companions laid the proper foundation for the church with the proper that is, biblical ministry built on proper and pure motives (2.3-12), namely love and sincerity (2.5-6). Now that this foundation has been set in place, the natural reason, the best reason to give thanks is when the word, under those conditions is accepted and applied. It is another way for Paul to say that his labor was not in vain or as Paul says, “our coming to you was not in vain” (2.1).
We should think it strange when the word of God has been accurately preached, the heart has been tilled, in a sense the foundation has been laid and the structure is ready for people to move in, and nothing happens. Some time ago I researched what some have called China’s ghost cities; something truly remarkable and unheard off in my life. These are brand new cities in various provinces of China that have been recently built equipped with amazing high rises, apartment complexes, massive shopping malls and modern infrastructure. The same can be found all around here in North Dallas as the growth around here shows no sings of slowing down. The difference? Population. They are called ‘ghost towns’ because despite being newly built the cities they are almost entirely empty or at least were and for years and counting. There’s one in a hundred apartments rented out, one in dozens of storefronts that are actually open and the roads are eerily devoid of traffic. It’s a story because it’s a remarkable contradiction. Everything has been made ready, all the codes were followed, all the rules and regulations were kept but no response (China has various economic explanations for these ghost towns). But that tells why Paul is giving thanks here. Again, “For this reason” (διὰ τοῦτο) points to Paul having laid the foundation, and like a master builder (cf. 1 Cor. 3.10), building not a ghost town but a gospel metropolis of truth for the believers to respond and dwell in through faithful obedience to God’s word. Anything else would be a contradiction and great cause for concern.
Paul’s giving of thanks follows the response of the church to the gospel message and the preaching of the word because these believers received the word in connection with official apostolic teaching, “you received the word of God which you heard from us” (ὅτι παραλαβόντες λόγον ἀκοῆς παρʼ ἡμῶν τοῦ θεοῦ). In other words, these believers joined themselves to the church and identified with the church and submitted to the authority of this newly established apostolic church and remained in unity with the church. That is truly praise worthy. This just brings us a crucial point of discipleship that our faith grows best in the community of the church under proper leadership and authority (cf. Heb. 13.7, 17). The church serves to foster our growth in the word and our maturity in the Lord (Eph. 4.11-16). The church serves to stimulate believers to love and good works (Heb. 10.24-25). The church serves to protect and guard the flock of believers from error and sinful influences as they grow in the word (Acts 20.28).
It also speaks to the priority therefore that we have to be church-minded. Before we flourish anywhere else we had better be flourishing in the local church. Anything else is to have our priorities out of step with the teaching of Scripture. It was in connection with the apostles that that the Thessalonians were the safest, where oversight was present, where discipleship was cultivated and gifts were recognized and used for the glory of God. This is why Paul went into so much detail about the character of his pastoral ministry among them. It is when believers have a low view of the church, a low view of leadership, it is when believers think they can flourish spiritually on their own, in isolation and independently of proper ecclesial accountability— this is when disaster strikes (cf. Heb. 10.25).
This text also reminds us of the great accountability of the preacher. Notice the content of their task i.e. the communication of “the word of God” (λόγον... τοῦ θεοῦ). This is what they “heard” (ἀκοῆς). Too often people can go into church and hear so much about the church or the preacher or the incredible opportunities for ministries or the potential to partner with churches, but we are often left wondering, ‘where is the word?’ After all that was what Paul instructs preachers to focus on, “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4.2) not yourself, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4.5). Not only is the preacher, the herald, the evangelist, the expositor or the missionary not to preach themselves, they are also not to preach a message that falls short of the true Christ-centered gospel. Gene Green explains:
“This message was not a philosophical discourse on the means to the virtuous life (or a self-help seminar on how to overcome personal and social issues, as the gospel is frequently portrayed in our era). It was the word of God, which powerfully transformed their lives.” (Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians: Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 141).
Paul did not leave the church with any other gospel than the true gospel. He did not leave a gospel of philosophy, art, economics, politics, social or racial matters (subjects the Thessalonians would have considered ‘relevant’), Paul left them with the life changing power of the cross. This was Paul’s emphasis everywhere. He was not even concerned with the rite of baptism as with preaching gospel, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1.17). This shows us the absolute centrality and preeminence of the word of God in faithful biblical ministry and it should mark today’s pastoral vision for the church as well. This text speaks to the ambassadorship of the one who communicates the word of God (cf. 2 Cor. 5.20).
Scripture Received As Divinely Authored
If the previous point answers the who of the text, who they received the word from, this answers the what. What is the word they received? This “word” or this message does not ultimately originate with man but with God, “you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God,” (ἐδέξασθε οὐ λόγον ἀνθρώπων ἀλλὰ καθώς ἐστιν ἀληθῶς λόγον θεοῦ). To believe in the divine inspiration and authorship of Scripture is the difference between liberalism and orthodoxy! It is the difference between heaven and hell. It is the difference between having a form of godliness or ‘denying the power thereof’ or being changed by its power. One conforms us to humanism the other to Christ.
There is also a difference between inspiration and authorship. To view Scripture as divinely inspired but not as divinely authored can be a subtle error in one’s hermeneutics which has the potential for significant error especially as it pertains to the nature of Scripture itself. Inspiration is not God ‘inspiring’ men to be great writers with a great imagination and proper grammar; its more than that. It means that behind the human author the true author of the words being written was God. God moved His people to write (cf. 1 Pet. 1.20-21). God did not just invest them with special talent, He invested through them His revelation and message. It is a message from another world. The result is that Scripture is a divine organic revelation from the mind of God through the pen and lives of men. This is the only reason Paul could say that when he wrote, God spoke and commanded the churches (cf. 1 Cor. 14.37)!
This is why Paul was praising these believers and thanking God, they saw the reality of God’s revelation especially as it pertained to the message of the cross. This is precisely what is at the root of unbelief, the rejection of God’s wisdom, God’s speaking through the cross:
1 Corinthians 1:18–23 18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness,
If you do not believe the Bible, the gospel, the message of the cross is the word of God, coming from God, originating from the mind of God, supernaturally revealed by God, you will not be saved by it, you will not conform to it, you will not be changed by it, you will not weep over it, you will not sweat for it, you will not die for it and you will not live in it. This means that the task of the church is to handle something divine. God’s word is a divine depository of truth. Paul called it ‘the deposit’ that is entrusted to the preacher (cf. 1 Tim. 6.20). Consequently, when we preach the word, or the gospel message, we are heralds of God’s message not our own. Paul has already addressed this, “we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition” (2.2). It is God’s gospel before it is anyone else’s. Paul called the gospel, “my gospel” and yet, he knew that this gospel did not originate with man:
Galatians 1:11–12 11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Although we no longer receive such theophanic revelation personally, what we have is God’s sure and prophetic word inscripturated for us in the Scriptures.
Scripture Received For Personal Application
This can also be said to answer the why of the text. Why is the word of God being received? Namely, so that the word would be allowed to do “its work in you who believe” (ἐνεργεῖται ἐν ὑμῖν τοῖς πιστεύουσιν). It is truly remarkable to hear Paul here, referring back to “the word of God”, speaking of the word of God having this active function in the lives of the believers. We benefit most from the word when it is received for personal application. Nothing brought Paul greater joy than the reality that God’s word had its perfect work in these believers (cf. 3.8). First in their conversion and salvation and then in their ongoing sanctification. Notice also the preeminence and sufficiency of Scripture to do this “work” (ἐνεργέω). More than all other books, more than dependency on a personal counselor, or the accountability from other believers, more than church programs, and ‘movements’; nothing holds more divine efficacy in the live of the believer than Scripture. Scripture informing everything that we do transforming and conforming everything that we do according to Christ. Jesus in fact prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17.17).
If we think about the grammar here, Paul uses the present middle of the verb ‘to work’(ἐνεργέω) which means that this work is ongoing and takes place for the benefit of the believer. That is why he says, “in you who believe” (ἐν ὑμῖν τοῖς πιστεύουσιν, Lit. ‘in you the believing ones’). Church is about the business of changing people and that is why the word must be central to everything we do in men’s groups, women’s groups, small groups, and church services; we are hoping the word will be met by faith. Scripture is not just an icon of the church it is an energy source of the church feeding the life of the church. The middle voice of the verb coupled with the substantival participle “who believe” (τοῖς πιστεύουσιν) suggests also personal and individual ownership of God’s word where every believer has a duty to appropriate the word of God by faith and apply it.
We should also see the perfect balance in what Paul is saying here for, the energy of the word of God is only made actual by the faith of the recipient. Scripture is the truth, it endures forever (1 Pet. 1.25), cannot fail or be broken (John 10.35), does not return void (Is. 55.11), is living and active (Heb. 4.12), it is God’s hammer of judgment (Jer. 23.29); but if it is not mingled with faith we can circumvent its powerful effects in our lives (cf. Heb. 5.11). This is so clearly illustrated in Hebrews where, as the author there pointed out, Israel, like the Thessalonians, heard the word but did not mingle it with genuine saving faith and thus could not enter God’s rest (Heb. 2.2-3). They were not dwelling in reality, namely that this was not “the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (οὐ λόγον ἀνθρώπων ἀλλὰ καθώς ἐστιν ἀληθῶς λόγον θεοῦ). They did not believe in the word, they did not hope in God’s promises, they did not fear God’s commandments, and they did not abide in His word religiously but instead were hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and apostatized in unbelief and idolatry and where ultimately laid low in the wilderness (cf. Heb. 3.7-19).
That is why the activity being described here belongs exclusively those “who believe” (τοῖς πιστεύουσιν). You have all sorts misguided sentimentality attached to the word of God today. One can walk into any Wal-Mart or Pharmacy today and find all sorts of Christian literature that is geared to try and encourage the masses. Many of these little books are advertised as Bible promise books or books that can give you peace or spirituality. But Scripture is not so that the masses can consume it in the spirit of self-esteem, or as so many people do today, approaching these types of Christian books as just another kind of luck charm to bring them good luck and positive thinking and good vibes into their lives. That’s a therapeutic approach to the word of God and Christianity. True sanctification is effectual only in those who have genuinely come to faith in Christ through the true gospel and have genuine evidence of electing grace at work in them (cf. 1 Thess. 1.4). These will be those who have genuinely turned in repentance from their sin making a decisive definitive break with sin and are walking humbly with their God in daily communion with God devotion to His transforming word. Paul saw this and was glad:
1 Thessalonians 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, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.