A Living ChurchErwin W. Lutzer | January 7, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
God showed up in Thessalonica and the people were transformed by the Gospel. Their church was growing and overflowing with confidence and joy in Christ.
Do we want God to show up in our church? When He comes, it can be difficult, because God’s presence brings about painful repentance. But, as in Thessalonica, joy will follow. In this message, Pastor Lutzer shows us the characteristics of a living, active, church.
Sometimes God comes to church. You say, “Well God always comes to church! He is always there. In fact, he’s everywhere.” Yes, of course he is everywhere. So in that sense he is always with us. But sometimes the manifest presence of God, as the ancients used to call it, is much stronger than it is at other times. There are times when God comes to church in such a way that there is greater blessing, greater conviction, and greater joy than you and I have ever seen in a congregation when God shows up. Remember, the reality of God is much greater than our experience of God. When God shows up people know that God has shown up and he’s come to church.
In fact, in this series of messages I am going to be telling you in a future message how God showed up in Chicago in 1858 in ways that you perhaps have never heard about. It began in New York City and came here to Chicago and on to other cities in America. A secular historian said that, “The revival of 1858 was the event of the century.” God showed up.
Today I am going to simply tell you very briefly about the 1740’s. In North Hampton, Massachusetts, there was a man by the name of Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards began to preach and people were converted almost spontaneously. He also began concerts of prayer throughout the area.
Then he teamed up with an evangelist by the name of George Whitefield, who was born in a tavern in England, so you can understand his heritage and his background. He was converted and he became a great friend and a great evangelist in New England and here in America as well. He was a particularly good friend of Benjamin Franklin, though Franklin did not accept Whitefield’s message. But, they did become friends.
The revival was so great that Benjamin Franklin said, “One could not walk down the street without hearing Psalms sung in different families on every street.” God showed up in New England. The crowds were very large and they would often preach to miners. The description is that miners stood there and wept and the tears would go down their sooty faces, making furrows on their cheeks. As a result of that there was deep conviction of sin.
But, there was also a passion for God. That is always part of revival. If all that you had was conviction of sin there are people who would say, “What would I do if God took all my sins away? I would have nothing to do. I would have such a vacuum in my life that I wouldn’t know where in the world to turn.” You see, the passion of God filled that vacuum and people began to pursue God and to seek him out.
In fact, there was so much righteousness that according to one biographer, “One could leave a bag of gold in the street and it would still be there in the morning, even if it was there all night.” In other words, convicted people don’t steal. You could leave a bag of gold and no one would take it because the revival was so intense.
It is estimated that 50,000 people were converted as a result of what we call in America the First Great Awakening. There is no doubt that God showed up. It was in response to prayer, but it was also this sovereign work where God sometimes comes and simply decides that he is going to do the extraordinary. Usually his work is imperceptible. But sometimes it is powerful and visible, and when it is everybody knows that God has come to church.
In fact, throughout history this has often happened. Let’s go back two thousand years. Two thousand years ago there was a city north of Athens called Thessalonica. Today it is known as Solanica. When you think of a map of Greece, think of Athens and then go up the coast along the Aegean Sea and there is Thessalonica.
The Apostle Paul decided to go there with a man by the name of Silas and they had meetings in the synagogue. The Bible says that when they were there they stayed with a man by the name of Jason. We don’t know too much about Jason, but he allowed them to stay in his home. Paul was there for three weeks reasoning in the synagogue. Paul argued first of all that Jesus had to suffer, which was a very new concept to the Jews because they thought that the Messiah wouldn’t suffer, he’d just come to rule. Secondly, he proved that Jesus fulfilled the suffering predicted in the Old Testament and that Jesus was the Messiah.
The Bible says that many God-fearing Greeks believed. That is an interesting expression - God-fearing Greeks. It also says that some prominent women believed and were converted. Now, this created a riot. In fact, the Jews didn’t like what was happening, so this is the story.
It says in Acts chapter seventeen that they go into Jason’s house, “And when they could not find them,” that is, Paul and Jason, “they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’” So they drag Jason out of the house and he has to post bond before he can get free. Paul and Silas decide to leave town and they go to Berea.
As Paul is thinking about this experience he is saying, “I taught them all of this about the church, there were some new converts, but what about the leadership of the church? Did the church survive?” The Bible says that he prayed for them night and day. Church planting is such a challenge, so you never know.
We here at the Moody Church want to plant churches. Pastor Hurtzberg is our executive pastor and part of his job description is to be the director of church planting. What we would like to do is to raise up young men who are able and trained to begin churches. We haven’t been able to do that yet. One problem is time and scheduling and another quite frankly, if I may be very upfront today, is money. If you look at our bulletin you will notice that we are falling behind in our general fund. We don’t say much about this, but there are many ministries we cannot do because we are constantly behind in our general giving. That has an impact on us. Pastor Hurtzberg has had experience in church planting and that is what we would like to do. We would like to become a church planting church.
But, you can imagine the Apostle Paul struggling with wondering how they are doing. So he goes to Berea and he goes to Athens and he ends up at Corinth. He sends Timothy, who wasn’t associated with the riot, and says, “Go check on the church and bring me word.” Timothy comes back and says, “Paul, you won’t believe it! This church is thriving!” The book of 1 Thessalonians was written by Paul to this thriving church that was only a few months old. It was unbelievable to think of the characteristics of this church because God showed up.
It is well known that in ancient times you could switch religions. When you switched religions what happened is that you began to serve this other God and you got the rules and regulations connected with it, but it didn’t change your heart. Yet what happened in this pagan city is that when the Gospel came it actually changed people’s affections and it actually changed what they loved and what they hated. That’s what the Gospel does; it changes us from the inside out.
As a result you have the characteristics of a church that is alive and brand new, but with all the problems of a new church. Of course eventually they would have all the problems of an old church, because every church has its challenges. But, what a church this was!
Would you turn please to 1 Thessalonians chapter one to the letter that Paul wrote to this thriving church, and very briefly I am going to list for you five characteristics of this church that had come alive as a result of the Gospel being preached in it. This is a church in which no doubt God attended and his presence was incredible.
Paul gives a greeting first and then in verse two it says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
First of all, it was a transformed church. Where do you get this faith that inspires work? Where do you get the kind of love that can be a labor of love? Where do you get the hope in the midst of a pagan world that believed that there was no hope? The only answer is through the Gospel. These qualities were birthed in their hearts by God. Wherever you have a church that has the right to be called a church it should always have the characteristics of faith, love, and hope. If we do not have that we are not converted. Paul is saying here that what they experienced is a miracle of God.
In fact, these three virtues are actually given in the right order, aren’t they? Faith looks to the past, to what Jesus Christ has done, love serves in the present, and hope endures knowing that there is a future. It is the endurance of hope and not, “I hope so.” It’s the sure confidence that God is on your side and no matter how tough it is in your vocation, no matter how much you hate Monday mornings, no matter how difficult it is within your relationships within the family, you always know that God is there and that his help is present and a better day is coming. It is a transformed church because God showed up.
Secondly, you’ll notice that it is also a confident church. Where does it get its confidence from? Notice what Paul says: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” It is a confident church. Who started the church? Whose idea was it?
I grew up going to school in a one room school house. And by the way, I think it was in high school when I finally discovered that there were some schools in the city where you had Grade 1 in one room and Grade 2 in another. We had never heard of that. We had Grade 1 over here, and the teacher started in that row, then she left that grade and moved to Grade 2 all the way up to Grade 8. In those country school houses sometimes there were squabbles and sometimes there were arguments and even fights. Of course you know that I steadfastly stayed away from those kinds of things. But what the teacher always asked was, “Who started it?” That is what she wanted to know.
Let me ask you: who started the church? Whose idea was it? “It was God who chose you,” Paul says. It is God who started this. It has nothing to do with human origin. It is the Lord God who begins the church through choosing people to eternal life. What does he choose them for, to leave their sins? Yes, he does choose them out of the world. But they are for himself. God wants you, it’s your heart, it’s everything that you own, all of your loves. And so God chooses us for himself. Once you know that the God who chose you is not going to give up on you and that he is going to be with you until the end, that gives you confidence.
Paul says, “Our word came unto you not in word only.” If all that you hear from me today are words, so that you conceptually understand the message so that you can know what I am saying, if that’s all that happens to you then we have failed in our prayer life and in our yieldedness. The word should never go out just in word only! It should always go out with the demonstration of power to convict, the power to change, and the power to transform. That’s the way the word of God should go out.
It should also go out with much conviction. It is a settled conviction that you belong to God and that God is number one in your life and that nothing else matters above God and his promises. It is that overwhelming conviction that you should experience when the word of God is read and when it is preached. If it goes out in word only it is not transforming. It may challenge the mind, you may learn new ideas and new insights, but unless it is transforming to the heart and not just the emotions, but the actual heart, there is disconnect.
I called my family last night in Canada and there is a man who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack at age seventy-five. He was a very wealthy farmer who wanted to buy most of the land in his area and almost did. The only thing that was said at his funeral about his spiritual life was that he attended church and he would always say to the pastor, “Good sermon.” All right, we’ll take “good sermon.” That is better than a bad sermon, I guess.
Like a woman said to the pastor at the door, “Your sermon is like a cup of cold water to a drowning man.” Think about that for a moment folks, think about it!
But his wife said that he had no spiritual interest at all. He came and sat and listened and always left unchanged. That is the word in word only. But when it comes with the power of God and conviction there is that settled idea of walking with God and knowing that you do, even apart from arguments and the apologetics for the Christian faith. Paul says that it was a confident church.
It was also a joyful church. You’ll notice in verse six he says, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” Can you put those two words together, those two phrases? “You received the word in much affliction,” and the blood was running down their backs because of the persecution, “yet you received the word with much joy.”
How do you have joy? You can’t unless God shows up. First of all what God does is he takes care of the nagging conscience. Can you imagine how joyful you would be if your conscience didn’t trouble you over sins you have committed, relationships that are broken and mistakes you have made? Can you imagine having all that taken away? And then to be given the confidence that no matter what the fluctuating circumstances are that you belong to God forever because he chose you to belong to him? It brings a sense of joy even in the midst of great affliction. This church had it because God showed up.
There was a time when God visited some churches that I will tell you about in some future message. I wrote about it and I interviewed a lot of people. Somebody said, “There was so much joy in my heart when I got rid of all of my sin and I began to concentrate on Jesus that sometimes I couldn’t sleep and I would say, ‘God, turn off the joy so that I can get some sleep!’” Have you ever had to ask God to turn off the joy so that you can sleep?
Let me say also that it was a growing church. It says in verse eight, “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” How in the world did they do that? It says, “It sounded forth.” It is the only place in the New Testament where that phrase is used. Sometimes that phrase is used to mean, “it echoed,” or for the blast of a trumpet. It says, “The word of God came to you and surrounded the entire area because of your witness.”
In fact, it was not only in Macedonia. It went beyond that. As ships came into the harbor at Thessalonica everybody said, “Do you know what is going on in town? People are turning to Jesus Christ. The people who are turning to Jesus Christ treat their wives better than the rest of us. They are people of integrity and you can’t get them to lie or cheat. In fact, some of them left their businesses because they would have to cheat. They never attend the baths anymore because there is too much immorality going on there.”
Suddenly you have these transformed people who love each other and are together and without a program necessarily for missions, word begins to spread all throughout the area that something unusual is happening in Thessalonica. Paul says, “It’s as if you took the word of God that we gave you and now you used it and through its transforming power it has touched the whole area.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if from the Moody Church sounding forth the Gospel would go out to the city of Chicago and beyond? To some extent it is going forth to the world through our missionary witness. But we have so much that can be done and from us the word of God can go forth and can sound forth throughout the area. That is what happens when God shows up. The best advertisement for Christianity is a transformed Christian who loves, who is not judgmental and who has a different level of integrity. That’s the best advertisement for Christianity.
The worst advertisement for Christianity is a Christian who is angry, petty, judgmental, selfish and in other ways difficult to get along with. If you fit into that category don’t tell people that you are a Christian. Do us a favor and keep your faith private. I could tell you a story along that line where a young woman wrote a letter to someone else in the organization and said, “I just want you to know that I am a Christian, too. But because I do A, B, C and D, I don’t want anyone to know it.” That is a bad advertisement for Christianity.
But the best advertisement is other Christians. The best
Advertisement for Jesus is tomorrow morning at banks and hospitals and all throughout the Chicago area wherever God has planted us, all being strong witnesses to our faith.
Notice also it was a focused church. Paul says in verse nine, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
Did you know that you can’t turn from your idols? You don’t have the strength to turn from your idols. Once you begin the pathway of sin you cannot turn around. That is why some of you are struggling so deeply with issues and addictions. The only way you can turn from an idol is to turn to the living and the true God, which you can do in the name of Jesus and through his strength.
Then you begin to understand the idols for what they are and you can turn from those idols. Suddenly God becomes more important to you than the idols themselves. I want to be clear today: if you do not value God above all other things then you may not be converted. What God does when we are converted is that he gives us a love for God and a love for Jesus, who having not seen, we love.
You can’t turn love on and off like you can a faucet, can you? You can’t wake up in the morning and say, “Today I am going to love God.” You don’t have that power because we are basically desire driven and to some extent a prisoner of our desires. If we love God it is God implanted within us when we were converted and by the ministry of the blessed Holy Spirit. So we turn to God from idols. We have all the things that we’ve insisted upon that we need and all of the rationalizations for who we are, and suddenly we discover that in the process God has shown up and we are a different people.
These are the characteristics of a church where God has shown up. That is why we are praying this year and that is why we are fasting this year. We are asking the question, “Are we ready to have God show up at Moody Church?” Let me say that when God shows up that it is a terrible time and a joyful time. It is always both because I have seen it.
It is a terrible time because God goes down deep into our souls and he begins to deal with all of the hidden sins and agendas that we cover and rationalize. It is really painful. I talked to someone who was in a church where God showed up. She said, “For three weeks I could not do housework because I was under such deep conviction of sin.” It is messy when God shows up.
But then the joy comes and the freedom comes. Once we see God for who he is and we see sin for what it is we begin to say to ourselves, “There is no value in all the earth that can be compared to the Almighty.” God shows up.
Then there is reconciliation. Oh the pain of reconciliation! I love to tell the story of when God showed up in western Canada in the early 70’s many years ago. There were two brothers who had not talked to each other for years because they had a different opinion of themselves, there were family squabbles and things in their history that they didn’t want to deal with. Quite frankly, one walked into one door of the church and the other walked in the other door. They knew where the other was so that they would never have to meet.
Now suddenly God shows up. The pastor took them to the basement of the church and he asked the elders to gather around and he said, “We’re not leaving until the two of you are reconciled.” Well, one knew that he was caught so he said, “Okay, I will reconcile.” The pastor said, “That’s not good enough.” They began to pray there and the Holy Spirit came upon that group. One man was under such conviction that he began to pound on the downstairs wall in such a way that they could hear him in the congregation. These two brothers were reconciled and the next night they sang a duet. People said, “We can’t believe it!”
If God can do that for them, why can’t he do that for our family? You see, that is what happens when God comes to church. It is painful, but it is so incredibly blessed.
God showed up in the Thessalonian church and God has shown up at various times in America in ways that are extraordinary, memorable, and transforming.
Do you believe as a congregation here at the Moody Church that God could do it again? Do you believe that is possible? And if he did we would sing, “In my life Lord be glorified.” It would be a prayer of yieldedness, of dedication, and of surrender to say “God, whatever it takes, in my life be glorified.” Are you ready?
Let’s pray. “Father we want to thank you today for your faithfulness. Thank you that when you come to church everything is different. Lord, we have lived so long with spiritual mediocrity and we don’t know what this is about. All that we are asking is that you would grace us with your undeserved blessing. We pray in Jesus name that you might make us as a congregation alive with the presence and the power of our Lord God. Make us a transforming church in Chicago, in this city and around the world because we are desperate for your blessing. For those who are here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they have heard what is said and know that they need to be converted. May they trust Christ and believe in him and be saved. In Jesus name we pray, amen.”