Early in 2019 I was visiting a large M country. I spent several days listening to, and writing, the stories of men and women whose lives had been transformed by the Good News.
I came away from these meetings deeply moved by the radical changes in the lives of the new believers. More than that, I was intensely challenged by the burning passion of those taking the message out, and the cost they were willing to pay to do so. No wonder this movement has been doubling in size every 15 months for the past 14 years and has now more than 300,000 disciples.
It would not be unreasonable to think of the believers in this difficult place as a ‘model church,’ much like the church at Thessalonika (1 Thess 1:7) and the reasons Paul gives for concluding this seem very similar to my observations.
It’s obvious from reading 1 Thessalonians that the new believers’ lives were being completely reconstructed. Paul could clearly see that they were chosen (1:4) because of the transformation going on. From chapter 1:5, we see two major factors bringing about this change. First, the way the Good News was delivered and, second, the context in which it was delivered.
Paul and his team brought a message that was constructed with words, but not simply delivered by words. The words came with power, the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. Those who brought the message knew and were experiencing the power of the Gospel in their own lives. They were being transformed, their minds and hearts shaped and controlled by the Holy Spirit. They were absolutely convinced that this message was life-changing. They didn’t just know the Gospel message, the Gospel had an overwhelming grip on them. They knew it was truth in a culture that was riddled with lies. They knew it was life in a culture of powerless, dead, stone idols.
The preachers were so overcome by the God of the Gospel that they chose to live among the people for the benefit of those people. They didn’t just visit on weekends or arrange a few programmes. The message was delivered at great cost and inconvenience. Chapter 2:9 says “Surely you remember… our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.”
The power and conviction of the message was transferred to the recipients through the Holy Spirit. Chapter 2:13 says “…when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” Paul and his team were emulating the Master: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Words are essential, but that is not the whole story. Words make a real difference. But words gain real power and convicting penetration when the one delivering the words is “dwelling among.” Just like Paul, just like Jesus.
We expect this sort of thing from missionaries we send into other cultures. But I wonder, do we now live in a post-Christian, pagan era in the West because we have done too much talking and not enough dwelling? Maybe our Gospel has diminished in power? Perhaps the Holy Spirit seems less active in conversion because we’re not quite so convinced about the life-transforming nature of the Gospel?
We’re spouting out words but, they seem to contain little transforming power. We’re shouting answers to questions no one is asking.
Could it be that many of the people sitting in our pews are powerless, Spiritless and lacking conviction because all they hear is empty words? Could it be that ordinary Kiwis are never really exposed to Gospel-power and the deep, gracious work of the Holy Spirit because we’ve lost our conviction and it’s all just words and formulas?
What is the evidence that the gospel has captured you to the point of Gospel conviction? In what ways are you dwelling among them, for their sake?