Every year I give a State of the Church address to the church I pastor. This is usually directed toward our small local church and what challenges we may face in the coming year. Of course, we are not alone in the coming year. All local churches will face whatever comes, and God alone knows just what that may be. 2016 is an election year in the United States which could be the best of times or the worst of times. Our world is increasingly chaotic and lacks the necessary leadership to do anything about it. Christianity is under attack by Satan and his false apostles both globally and locally because of its very name and message and also because of its spiritual influence in the world in which Satan rules. What this means is that God’s people, wherever they live and worship, must be more diligent than ever to keep their hearts and minds in the right place.
This year I used as my text 1 Thessalonians 1:1 where Paul greets the believers saying, “unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Two important things are said here. First, the church is of Thessalonica. It is a local church that exists in a certain locale at that time. The same is said in 2 Thessalonians 1:1, Colossians 1:2, and in similar ways in other books. Second, the church is in God because they are believers in Jesus Christ and are spiritually connected with Him through regeneration. In the rest of the epistle Paul also connects this church with other churches in their own country of Macedonia and even with other churches in the world such as in Judea. In a turbulent world full of hatred for Christians, this is a comforting thought. This can be developed in the following four ways.
The church in the mind of God
The church of Thessalonica was “in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul never has difficulty enumerating the responsibilities of the persons of the Godhead. God is one in essence manifested in three persons. If we are in Christ, and the believer is said to be over sixty times in the New Testament, placed there by Spirit baptism at the moment of our salvation, then we are in God the Father also. The local church of the New Testament is a baptized gathering of God’s people, taken from among the universal church of God, the church that exists only in this dispensation of grace.
The church, then, is a mystery. “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” (Col. 1:26). “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). The church is God’s program for this age, unseen in ages before, but now manifested through the workings of the gospel. God does not leave His church without purpose and protection.
Though the church is manifested at this time in history, it was seen in the mind of God before the foundation of the world. “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). Regardless of where one is on the Calvinistic scale, it is a comfort to know that God, from all eternity, has seen His church in this current situation, with all of its troubles and opposition, and has designed the circumstances with us in mind. “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:5-6).
The church, then, also has a future. “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21). We may leave this world in one of a number of ways. We could die suddenly by accident or illness; we could live to old age or we could be raptured out if the Lord would come. Our Lord has gone ahead to prepare a place in the Father’s house which will be our eternal abode. That existence will more than compensate for whatever discomfort we may experience between now and then. If God is for us, who can be against us?
The church in the world
A second consideration for the church in the new year is that our local church is one of many that exist in this world, around the globe. Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians, “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews” (1 Thes. 2:14). The local churches across the sea in Judea were also earthly representatives of those who are “in Christ Jesus” and were their brothers and sisters in tribulation. I am using the word “world” now in a global sense and not in the other biblical usage where it is said that Satan is “the god of this world” or the kosmos. The little Greek word gē is usually translated
earth” and in English becomes the geo, as in geology, or the study of the earth. God declares, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool” (Isa. 66:1; Acts 7:49). John saw four angels “standing on the four corners of the earth” (Rev. 7:1). But in speaking of churches Paul wrote, “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).
This connection of churches was very precious to Paul, especially during those times of trial when brethren in other parts of the world were being persecuted for their faith. We live in such times. I am not necessarily speaking of “Christianity” in a broad, generic or “Christendom” sense though even that is being condemned in the world as well. The world knows no better than to lump all “Christian” things together. I remember being in Israel where our Jewish guide only spoke of three world religions: Jews, Muslims, and Christians. But I am speaking of our true brothers and sisters who gather in churches like ours and worship the Lord “in reverence and godly fear.” Most still do so legally, and face only ridicule or hatred. “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4), the writer of Hebrews declared. Yet many must gather and worship in fear of physical harm. Some are underground, and others meet, waiting for the knock on the door by the civil authorities. In Judea, after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus appeared to them “when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19).
This reminder of the church in the world should exhort us to communicate with our churches and missionaries in other parts of the world. It ought to encourage us to pray more, to support more, to communicate with them and even visit their lands. This sense of universal brotherhood and fellow servanthood will encourage all the churches both home and abroad.
The church in our own country
During his missionary journeys, Paul spent much time in the Thessalonians’ own country. “So that ye were examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad” (1 Thes. 1:7-8). This was common with biblical writers. Peter begins his epistle, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet. 1:1). Thessalonica, Philippi, and Berea were cities in Macedonia, the northern province of Greece, whereas Corinth and Athens were cities in the southern province, Achaia. When Paul took up the offering (in 2 Corinthians 8-9) he was concerned about how the churches of Macedonian and Achaia would encourage or discourage one another in that joint ministry to the saints in Judea.
Our local church is in the United States of America. We have our unique challenges here just as other churches have in their own countries. Our church falls under the laws and jurisdiction of America and we are thereby instructed in the Scripture to be obedient and give unto this country all that we can that does not belong to God alone. While we understand that the New Testament church is not just an American church, we certainly realize that we are especially blessed to be a church in America. So far in our history it has been a wonderful privilege to be a Christian and attend a Christian church in this country. The laws and benefits have been designed for our advantage and we are thankful. Most Christians throughout the church age have not had such a blessing.
Our generation, however, is looking down the slippery slope of losing these privileges. We are rightly concerned about what kind of country our kids and grandkids will live in. We look with historical solemnity at the countries of France, Germany, and England. We realize that our earthly, national circumstances are not guaranteed to us until Jesus comes. The American experiment of a proper separation of church and state has been a blessing, not only to our churches, but to churches all over the world because of God’s blessing upon America. We have sent more money, supplies, missionaries, and gospel preaching all over the globe than any other country in history. And now, in this technological age, we could be the source again, of rich blessings to God’s churches. But will we?
No one needs statistics or polls to tell them that our freedoms are in danger. Antichristian legalities are mounting against Christian churches and Christian businesses daily. Non-Christian beliefs are overtaking Christian beliefs in schools, governments, entertainment, sports, and are being given more protection than Christianity. The threat of physical safety within the church building or meeting place is a phenomenon unheard of in past generations in this country. The heresies of secularism, mysticism, occultism, not to mention the major cults that are now accepted as “Christian,” are now acceptable options for the compartmentalized minds of American youth. And if these things aren’t enough, the worldliness, indecency, and vulgarity of the American culture are sure signs of its imminent destruction.
What to do? Paul complimented the Thessalonians that “ye were examples to all that believe . . . For from you sounded out the word of the Lord . . . Your faith to God-ward is spread abroad . . . Ye turned to God from idols . . . To wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thes. 1:7-10). New Testament business is the best plan for the church in any country. Our churches must again be more retreat and training centers for our faith and less entertainment platforms that only tickle the ears. The church needs to be the church again, salt and light in a tasteless and dark country.
The church in our city
The church at Thessalonica was not only “in God” but it was “of the Thessalonians.” Paul wrote also “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse” (Col. 1:2), and “To all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi” (Phil. 1:1), and similarly to all the churches that have city names. The local church of the New Testament is local because it is made up of believers in a certain place. Paul was only in Thessalonica for three weeks (Acts 17:1-9) on his second missionary journey before being forced to leave, but that was enough to leave a great church behind.
Usually when Paul preached in a certain city, some believed and some did not. In Thessalonica for example, “Some of them believed and consorted with Paul and Silas . . . But the Jews which believed not . . .” (Acts 17:4-5). This same thing resulted even on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:32-34). Such is the case in the towns where we all minister. In fact, far fewer believe than do not. Even years ago when I was an associate pastor at a church in the Chicago suburbs, my job was to knock doors every day. Roughly speaking, the results were that I had to knock on ten doors to get one positive response, and I had to get ten positive responses to actually have one of them visit our church, and I had to have ten visit our church to get one to stay around.
But the results are not as much of our concern as the work. Paul complimented the church at Thessalonica because “our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1Thes. 1:5). And of them he wrote, “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing” (1 Thes. 1:8). Also, “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 Thes. 2:13). The word “effectually,” energēs, is the same word translated “powerful” in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is quick (living) and powerful.” That is, it will do its work if we will just let it.
I think Paul wanted to win the Thessalonians to the Lord as much as anyone. But I don’t think he was at all interested in having false converts. I don’t recall him bragging about how many converts, baptisms, or the size of attendance he had in particular churches. In fact, in Corinth he downplayed the number of baptisms (1 Cor. 1:13-17). But Paul seems very concerned at Thessalonica about how the Word of God is presented, because it is the Word itself that is powerful and will draw men to Christ. A famous evangelist was riding on a train one time when a drunken man came up to him and announced that he was one of the evangelist’s converts. “You look like one of my converts” was the reply. I could give a list of similar results.
At the end of this first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “I charge you by the Lord, that this epistle be read unto all the only brethren” (1 Thes. 5:27). The church had to be gathered in order for the letter to be read, and maybe that’s why Paul calls them “holy,” because they would be the ones who attend the services and hear it. I am only pointing out the importance of being engaged in one’s local church, and putting one’s family in a position to be used of God in a most blessed way.
The church in your house
The Thessalonians were to “study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing” (1 Thes. 4:11-12). Since the people are the church, not the brick and mortar, and since we only meet together periodically, as members we all bring the church home with us the rest of the time. We live the church in front of our children; we covenant with it in our conversation and actions; we build it up in our thoughts and prayers for one another; and we testify of it to our neighbors and friends. If we are hypocrits at home, the church is an anemic church.
And so . . .
Paul told the Corinthians to “Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). Let that be our resolution in 2016. He also said to them “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor. 12:27). We are spiritually connected to every believer in every part of the world, and yet we are vitally connected to those with whom we assemble. The lost world needs us more than ever before. Let’s let the church be the church and let God do His work through us.