Many years ago, I remember reading a book called If I Had Only One Sermon to Preach. The photos of the ministers on the front cover or dust jacket made me think twice about reading it, though, because these men had some of the sourest expressions I’ve ever seen! It reminded me of a bit of testimony from Hudson Taylor, who observed that he went to a church where, as he put it, the members were known for taking their Christianity seriously. He went on to say that after looking at them, they were indeed serious in expression—and probably everything else, too!
Oddly enough, I don’t remember one word of any sermon in that entire collection—and a collection it was, having messages from conservatives and liberals alike, but I never have forgotten the book itself. There are times when I think, “Could this be the only time our Lord allows me to give a message to the congregation here?” or “Might this be my last sermon, the only sermon I’ll get to preach?”
A classic example of a situation such as this is in 1 Thessalonians 1. The text is from the New American Standard Version, with footnotes at the end of the text itself:
“Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and [fn1] steadfastness of hope [fn2] in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we [fn3] proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 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. For they themselves report about us what kind of a [fn4] reception we had [fn5] with you, and how you turned to God from [fn6] idols to serve [fn7] a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from [fn8] heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.”
1:3 Or, perseverance
1:3 Literally: of
1:5 Or, became
1:9 Literally: entrance
1:9 Literally: to
1:9 Or, the idols
1:9 Or, the
1:10 Literally: the heavens
The first thing we can see from 1 Thessalonians 1:9 is the fact these believers had turned to God from idols. We could make this the first point and say they worshiped the Lord God, the True and the Living God. Was it easy for them to make that radical change? We’ll never know down here, but refer back to Acts 17, where we can find the brief sketch, as Luke recorded, of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica. Paul went to the synagogue first, as was his pattern of preaching the gospel to Jews first, then the Gentiles. He preached God’s message, and many people believed.
To me, this is something that’s beyond amazing. True, the Jewish people had prophets for many years, the aim being to restore Israel back to her proper relationship to God. After the last prophet, Malachi, delivered his messages, however, there was a four-century period of silence when the only message from God they had was the Law and the Prophets—our Old Testament Scripture. The Jews went to many places, bringing the synagogue and their belief in one God only, but I have yet to find a reference that any of them actually preached or brought messages from God Himself. Paul and others preached God’s message, and God blessed!
I find one thing, also, that is remarkable: Thessalonica wasn’t too far from Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek deities or pagan gods: Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Hermes and all the rest. These Greeks had worshiped these pagan deities and the images or idols of these gods, for hundreds of years, maybe longer, and had built some of the most beautiful buildings in history as temples to these deities. They were thoroughly pagan, worshiping these idols and images; and carved statues from wood and stone, perhaps some of metal—and were as lost as could be in sin and separation from God.
However, when the simple message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, came near, they heard and believed! We’ll see these believers and many more in heaven when we get there; may the Lord hasten the day when this happens.
Another thing we find from verse 9 is the concept of working for the Lord. Paul used the word which in the original means “to serve as a bond-slave.” So, just as slaves did exactly as their master or overlord wanted them to do, so also should we as believers seek to do exactly as our Lord wants us to do. Paul later would give some very precise or concrete examples about how these believers were supposed to live.
Yet there is another aspect of working for the Lord. Jesus Himself said before He was crucified and rose from the dead that the disciples would do greater works than He had done. Certainly He wasn’t speaking of salvation—none of us, as much as we might desire, could provide this for anyone else. We all are born sinners because of Adam’s fall, but we all can experience the grace of God which brings salvation. Of what then was Jesus speaking?
One thought is that after He returned to heaven, the Holy Spirit began His ministry through what became the New Testament church. Think about it: After Pentecost, instead of only Jesus Himself bringing healing and so on, there were the 12 apostles; hence, a 12-fold increase in manpower alone! Then, after other people became Christians, thousands and thousands more were able to exercise gifts in many capacities. That is one way in which we can do greater works than Jesus did on the earth.
There is still another aspect. We have many more ways to share Christ than ever before. Think about radio, TV, newspapers, correspondence courses, the Internet. The apostles must have thought somebody was speaking about science-fiction if there were such a type of literature then!
There is still another meaning to this concept of working for the Lord, and it involves any believer taking an active part in his or her local church. This could be in some of the more visible means, such as preaching, teaching, singing (some are better at these ministries than others!) or similar ventures. Others could find a way to serve in (for lack of a better term) some of the less-visible roles. Even so, don’t let that be a discouragement. If someone isn’t greeted warmly and sincerely at the door, don’t be surprised if he or she doesn’t enter the door again. Greeters, ushers, and any number of people can have a very positive influence in any church service. Need we say the opposite is just as true if not more so (Been there, experienced it).
One more comment before we explore the final point of this message: These works, deeds or whatever we do never were designed or intended to be a means of salvation—far from it! Nobody can earn enough points to win salvation. I am reminded of an exercise we did in a Sunday School class several years ago. The teacher asked each one of us to draw a straight line, using chalk on a blackboard. Some had better lines on the board than others, but when the teacher measured each of our lines against a yardstick, all of us knew clearly no one’s line was perfectly straight. The best we can do is still nowhere near God’s absolute perfection. Don’t trust in your deeds—trust Jesus alone for salvation. There is no other way.
Now the final thing to consider in the text is in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, where Paul gives us the phrase to wait for (God’s) Son, Jesus. The word here doesn’t mean to wait idly as if waiting in line at the checkout, or to be called to the principal’s office or the next case in traffic court. The word has a preposition used as an intensifier, so we could say we are to wait eagerly for Jesus.
Let me share two very personal examples. While on active military duty, I was stationed many miles (several states) away from my extended family. One Christmas, my mother and an aunt decided they were going to visit us for Christmas! I remember being at the airport, listening for the flight number, straining my ears and eyes, hoping to see Mom and Aunt B! Eventually we found each other, and it’s hard to say who was the happiest. We had been away for a long time and suddenly were together again. It doesn’t stop there.
Pulling up to the curb near our house, I (and they, too, I think!) looked at the front window. Three small sets of eyes saw the car, and three small children absolutely zoomed to the car. Mom and Aunt B almost couldn’t get out of the car! What a happy reunion we all had once we got inside!
Now imagine this: We have the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ the Righteous, promising one day to take us home to be with Him forever. Wouldn’t that give us a reason to do what we can for our Lord here on earth?
So let’s pull it all together. We can worship the Lord by turning to God from idols. By idol, we don’t have to restrict that to mean visible things we bow to in worship; an idol can be anyone or anything that takes our attention away from God. Then when we’ve become believers, we can begin working for our Lord; trust me, there is plenty to do for Jesus while we’re here on earth. Finally, we always have the promise He is coming back. That, my friends, is worth waiting for; and we always remember God never has broken a promise in the past; and He’s not going to start breaking any of these promises now. He means what He says.
If I had only one sermon to preach, these would be the points: Worship the Lord; work for the Lord; and wait eagerly for the Lord.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.