1 Thessalonians 1:8–10 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 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.
We should qualify the title of this sermon somewhat since this is not intended by Paul to be a teaching on evangelism per se. Instead this is a commendation of a church that had been established as a result of a genuine work of the Spirit (v.6), and was founded on the truth of the gospel (v.5), for which they endured persecution and affliction so that their conduct became worthy of imitation (v.6-7). But it is in this commendation and thanksgiving for the church that we find invaluable principles for authentic evangelism. Paul’s words here could only be described as an evangelistic explosion since Paul himself emphasizes the spread of the gospel through the evangelistic efforts of this church; efforts that could only be described as a clarion call that went out “in every place” as Paul says v.8. This evangelistic explosion gives us a raw look at authentic, Spirit-wrought, word-driven and God-exalting evangelism. Thessalonians continue to be worthy of imitation for all true biblical churches and any and every believer today and in the future.
Authentic Evangelism Is Accompanied By Zeal
There are many characteristics in the Thessalonian church that were commendable and evangelism was one of them. The Thessalonians remind us that the biblical evangelist must be zealous. Which is just another way of saying that part of the result of regeneration is a passion for the preaching and furtherance of the gospel through the clear proclamation of the word of God. If there was one all consuming passion for the apostle Paul it could be summed up in the statement to ‘know Him and make Him known’ (cf. Phil. 3.9; Eph. 3.8; Col. 1.29). To illustrate to the world what are the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ, His cross and His kingdom. When Paul saw a little of his own heart in the Thessalonians it must have made his heart soar with joy. Paul’s description of their evangelism reminds us of our own duties in evangelizing the lost and qualities we should strive for.
True Evangelistic Zeal Is Bible Saturated
Perhaps the most distinguishing mark of the Thessalonian evangelism, what they learned from the apostolic witness no doubt, was their emphasis on the “word” (ὁ λόγος). The soul and substance of the church’s witness was not merely their testimony, their newfound joy, or their sense of love and community; the essence of their witness was “the word of the Lord” (ὁ λόγος τοῦ κυρίου). Of course the essence of this “word” is the gospel itself. It is the communication of the life saving message of Jesus Christ (Lord) that was the center of their evangelistic efforts. Like Paul they were committed to proclaiming Him (Col. 1.28), preaching Christ (1 Cor. 1.23), and the word of the cross the gospel (1 Cor. 1.17; 2.18). The parallel in the second letter shows us the nature of this evangelism and its explosive character:
2 Thessalonians 3:1–2 1 Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you; 2 and that we will be rescued from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith.
The church had learned well from Paul’s short visit with them that the gospel was the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1.16 cf. Col. 2.10-11). That their faith did not rest in the cleverness of men or in the fanciful philosophy of sophists but in the power of God and the wisdom of God centered upon the cross:
1 Corinthians 2:1–5 1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
This is why it’s so crucial to always circle back around to the gospel message regardless of the platform or context of our evangelism. Whether your standing on a box, sitting in a restaurant or standing at the end of driveway with your neighbor; labor to point people to the cross (cf. Gal. 6.14-15).
The Gospel, “the word of the Lord,” is concerned first and foremost with God’s Son who suffered and died and who rose again in keeping with the Scriptures (cf. Rom. 1.1-4; 1 Cor. 15.1-4; Heb. 1.1-4). If we are not willing to communicate the relevance of that we will not be relevant in God’s estimation though all the world call you relevant. We can focus on all the issues we want; above what people need most is not for Christians to become theologians of the culture but theologians of the cross! This was Paul’s focus when he became their father in the faith:
Acts 17:1–3 1 Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.”
Notice, that it was the dual estates of Christ in His dying and rising again which was the heart of the word that went to and then from the Thessalonians to the surrounding region. What Paul proclaimed to them they proclaimed to the world. All authentic evangelism must have Christ as the all-important center and focus. Everything rests on Him (cf. 1 Cor. 15.19). In Christ Crucified, Charnock declared so eloquently:
“… let us look upon a crucified Christ, the remedy of all our miseries. His cross hath procured a crown, his passion hath expiated our transgressions. His death hath disarmed the law, his blood hath washed a believer’s soul. This death is the destruction of our enemies, the spring of our happiness, the eternal testimony of divine love. We have good reason, as well as the apostle, to determine with ourselves ‘to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and especially him crucified.” (Stephen Charnock, Christ Crucified, The Once For All Sacrifice (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2013) 52-53).
More than man’s condemnation, more than the Law’s power to condemn, or our apologetic argument, more than what is culturally relevant at the time; it is Christ crucified that is the soul of the gospel. This is why it is essential to know what the gospel is and how to articulate it biblically. Furthermore what are the necessary components to a true gospel call? These are all questions we need to be able to answer and articulate if we want our evangelism to be faithful and authentic.
True Evangelistic Zeal Is Bold
Of course, knowing the gospel and proclaiming the gospel are two different things. There are many scholars across the seminary world that know the gospel better than all of us, but how many care just as much about proclaiming it? This is why another mark of true biblical evangelistic zeal is boldness to proclaim the message. This is captured in Paul’s amazing description of the church’s evangelism as the gospel, “sounded forth from you” (ἀφʼ ὑμῶν γὰρ ἐξήχηται). We can safely say that this church was a powerful example of what happens when God moves on a congregation with evangelistic zeal so that “the word of Lord” is virtually thundering forth from members of the church into the community and into the surrounding region and even to the ends of the earth. What encourages me is that, the plural pronoun “you” (ὑμῶν) suggests that this evangelistic activity was not something committed to the leadership as if it was the pastor’s job to do all of the evangelism in the community— the membership was committed, competent and bold enough to preach to the lost. Of course, we all have various degrees of faith and gifts so that our evangelistic efforts may differ from person to person, but to some degree we all should possess this boldness. Jesus told His disciples:
Matthew 5:14–16 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Like the Thessalonians, and in light of Jesus metaphor of light, we are surrounded by darkness. We live in a dark and dying world full of soul-destroying madness where people think they are alive and well, indestructible and innovative, wise with plenty of time to waste— the complete opposite is true. When we have the boldness to sound forth the gospel message into this dark and dismal world we are sounding forth an alarm alerting men and women to the great cosmic crisis of a Christless world and a Christless eternity without God and without hope (cf. Eph. 2.12).
Paul’s use of the term, “sounded forth” (ἐξήχηται) justifies the tone of sobriety here. The term ἐξηχέω carries the basic meaning of ringing out like a sound that echoes in all directions. The actual word is only used here in the NT but in the ancient milieu the term is used in connection with the sound of crashing waves, howling and thunder. It was not however the sound of the waves or wolves or a thunderstorm it was the sound of the gospel as it was lived out in the faith of the church and proclaimed in the world. Everything in the text suggests that Paul wanted to emphasize evangelism here because in the very next clause, Paul again refers to their faith ‘going forth.’
True Evangelistic Zeal Is Visionary
We are not sure if Paul is thinking just in terms of news spreading or actually missionary efforts on the part of the church but probably both are inevitably true. The church had gain a reputation for their conversion and they had probably gone out themselves to the surrounding regions to spread the gospel. But the point is that with any true church and as an expression of true zeal the gospel must spread. This the common pattern in the book of Acts:
Acts 6:7 7 The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
Acts 9:31 31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
Acts 12:24 24 But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.
Acts 16:5 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.
Acts 19:20 20 So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.
Acts 28:31 31 preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.
But this pattern is simply the outworking of the Great Commission given by the risen Lord himself:
Matthew 28:19–20 19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Acts 1:8 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
The point is that the church’s zeal was visionary. It looked for opportunity and was willing to spread the word near and far. That should be the prayer of every church, that the gospel would be spread far and wide. The reason why of course is because this is how God’s kingdom is being built up (Mt. 13.31-32), His temple is being fitted together by living stones (1 Pet. 2.1-2), and God’s glory and dominion is being spread throughout the world for the sake of His name (2 John 5-8). When Jesus spoke of the expansion of the kingdom-Church as that small mustard seed that will grow into a mighty tree He relied on the prophecy of Ezekiel who foresaw the growth of the arboreal kingdom of God:
Ezekiel 17:22–24 22 Thus says the Lord God, “I will also take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and set it out; I will pluck from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 “On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar. And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches. 24 “All the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord; I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will perform it.”
As the Thessalonian’s “faith toward God” (ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν ἡ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν) went forth “in every place” (ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ), God’s eschatological purpose was being fulfilled. This is why evangelism is so important; it is how God will create His new humanity for a new creation. Evangelism is when we join God in His eschatological mission to create a royal priesthood and holy nation from every tribe and tongue (cf. Rev. 5.9-10). Evangelism allows us to be God’s ‘fellow workers’ in His field (1 Cor. 3.9).
True Evangelistic Zeal Is Commendable
Not only was the faith of the Thessalonians commendable it also alleviated Paul’s evangelistic burden by creating fellow workers who were now engaged in the difficult work of evangelizing the lost in those parts of the Roman Empire. Their faith was such a blessing to Paul that he did not even need to say anything about them since news of their conversion because self-evident and undeniable:
“Their influence was so clear and extensive that Paul said he had no need to say anything. In fact, news of the Thessalonians’ salvation and subsequent powerful witness was so convincing that Paul said the people who heard the testimony of the church could themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you. Rather than Paul telling people he met in his travels about what God had done in that city, people were telling him what was becoming commonly known. Every church could wish for such an impact and reputation.” (John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 27).
For Paul to report to the surrounding regions the work that God had done in Thessalonica would be superfluous at this point. Their conversion became a powerful witness to the world and a precious testimony to the Church of God’s power. Their zeal was contagious, and like Paul it was full of conviction or certainty, and as a result it was commendable because it was self-evident it needed no artificial justification.
So much of the church strives for man-centered approval today; approval based on the size of the church, the talent in the church, the fame of the church, the prosperity of the church etc. But like Paul, what the Thessalonians were concerned about was sincerity and the praise of God (cf. 2 Cor. 1.12; 1 Cor. 4.1-5). This is always the mark of genuine ministry, evangelism being no exception. As we think about the entire subject of evangelism, one passage that adequately summarizes all these issues is Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
2 Corinthians 2:14–17 14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. 15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? 17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.
We can all apply this text to ourselves. God is no respecter of persons, He promises to be with us as well. He accompanies His word, He blesses His word and His people and He delights in the fragrance of Christ in us. Whenever we take the gospel upon our lips to share the goodness of Christ crucified with our neighbor, God will lead us in triumph regardless of our inadequacies and our inabilities— the power is in the word of the Lord. We only need to be faithful, obedient and willing to sound it forth.