In the second chapter of his First Epistle to the Thessalonians Paul defends his authority and the message he preached to the Thessalonians. In short, what he had preached to them was nothing less than the Word of God.
Most people know that Paul, who wrote the letter that contained this morning’s epistle lesson, was an apostle; but there are a surprising number of people who don’t know what that means. You see, an apostle is more than just a church planter or someone who has authority in the church. Paul planted churches because Jesus had sent him to do just that. He had authority because it had been given him by Christ. The word apostle means one has been sent and Paul had been sent by Jesus to preach the Word of God.
The message that Paul had brought to the Thessalonians was a very straightforward one: The God who made heaven and earth is calling all everyone to repentance that they might escape the wrath to come because of the evil in the world. Such repentance is possible because Jesus, the Christ, atoned for the sins of all people and all who trust in him are accounted righteous by God. Paul not only preached this, he also spent time showing those familiar with what we call the Old Testament that the writings of Moses and the prophets spoke in exactly this way about the Christ and his work.
When the Thessalonian Christians heard this message, they believed it and received the grace that God offered through Paul’s preaching gladly and were soon baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Paul says that they had received his message properly because they had received not as mere human speculation about God, but as God’s own word and promise to them.
In other words, they believed that Paul was speaking for God when he addressed them. Consequently, they kept the letter he wrote them and shared it with other churches. It continues to be shared in churches all over the world to this very day. Because Paul was speaking for God when we finish reading sections of his letters we do it with the words “This is the Word of Lord.”
Not everyone believes that Paul was speaking for God in what he said and wrote, certainly the people who were bullying the Thessalonians and trying to get them to abandon their faith did not; but Paul repeats and reinforces this claim several times in the chapter we just read. He doesn’t do this to build up his own importance. He does it to strengthen their faith, so he does it by distinguishing himself from others who traveled from city to city teaching philosophy and other things for a living.
We have folks like that in our age, though they are beginning to alter their methods because of new technologies. We used to call them motivational speakers, but now others do much the same things online and are called influencers. Instead of making their money from passing the hat, or selling tickets, they sell advertising and product placement. But they are still in it for the money.
Paul was not. He reminded the Thessalonians he had not come to them for the sake of profit—he had supported himself. He had not come to build his reputation–he had attracted brutal mobs rather than crowds of excited listeners. He did not act out of error—hadn’t he shown them where all these things were in the writings of the prophets? Nor had he acted from impure motives—they had seen how he lived and that he neither abused nor took advantage of anyone. He had taught as much by example as he had by his words.
And what he taught was what Jesus had taught. With a different voice and in a different style and location, but the same content and often the same words. He was like a singer covering another person’s song. He sang the song of Jesus and the lyrics were by God himself.
That Paul’s words are God’s words is the whole point of this chapter of Thessalonians. It was the belief that Paul’s words were God’s Word that gave birth to the Reformation. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God and to go against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe, therefore here I stand, I cannot do otherwise,” said Martin Luther. Where had he heard the Word on which he stood? In the Holy Scriptures! And Paul had been the one whose writings finally opened Luther’s eyes to the fact that true righteousness is a gift that God gives to those who believe his Son atoned for their sins.
But that teaching had somehow been lost in the myriad of human traditions that had begun to replace simple obedience to the scriptures in the churches. God has given us his word and that word needs to take precedence over the opinions and speculations of men.
But, although God has given his word to humankind, people have been quick to set that word aside. We do so because it often makes us uncomfortable. Because Paul’s words are God’s words what Paul forbids, he forbids because God forbids it. Therefore, it is forbidden. We can’t say “that’s just Paul” and set aside what he says about family life, sexuality, or how we go about being the church.
Likewise, when Paul encourages people to live in holiness and brotherly love for one another, he does so as a messenger of God. What Paul commands, God commands, and we should not leave it undone.
Likewise, though, what Paul and the other apostles and prophets leave free remains free. We dare not try to bind the consciences of other Christians to our own taste or preferences. Where scripture has not spoken, we should remain silent. There is enough to do or not to do already in the book that God has given us. So, our churches believe, teach, and confess that scripture is the sole source and norm of faith and practice.
Most important of all is the Gospel itself. Paul refers to it repeatedly in the passage we are considering. He uses it in a way that indicates the Gospel is the heart and center of what he preached. That is, Paul preached the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the Good News that it was all done to reconcile us to God.
It is Christ alone, his cross and empty tomb, to whom we direct our faith and in him alone that we hope. There are no other saviors, no other intercessors to whom we should flee, no saints, no angels, no powers on earth or in heaven, but Christ alone who can reconcile us to God and who intercedes for us in heaven at God’s right hand.
Our own works contribute nothing to our salvation. Paul was pleased with the way the Thessalonians were living out their faith and spreading it to others, but all of those works followed faith. Like Paul, they had been saved when they put their trust in Jesus Christ. They were saved by faith alone, apart from the works of the law, for God had accounted them fully righteous from the moment they first believed, and in their baptisms he had washed away their sins and joined them with his beloved Son, that they might have eternal life.
And all of this came to them by grace alone. Paul had brought them the good news simply because he had been asked to leave Philippi and Thessalonica was the next big city on his route. Further other people in the same community with similar backgrounds to theirs had turned violently against the message that Paul brought. But the people to whom Paul wrote had accepted his message because God’s living and active word was working in them. Through Paul’s preaching they had been called into the kingdom and glory of God despite the opposition of others.
Therefore, friends, since we have received that same word of God and the same call. Since we have been baptized with the same baptism and have put our faith in the same Christ, let us continue steadfast in the Word of God proclaimed by Paul, so that by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake, we inherit the kingdom of heaven. Amen.