TAKING OWNERSHIP OF THE GOSPEL
Speaking of taking ownership, consider some of the leading (rich) sisters of Thessalonica. We remember standing in a prayer circle with a group of men. All of us were praying. When it came time for one brother to pray, he prayed, “God, forgive us men of arguing over who is in control. Thank you for our women, for all they say is, ‘What’s next.’”
Sometimes we need to follow the example of the women. Lydia was in Philippi (At 16:11-15) and there were leading women in Thessalonica (At 17:4). Both the church in Philippi and Thessalonica were financially functional when it came to supporting evangelism. We wonder if the Christian sisters in both areas did not have some influence over what the disciples as a whole should be doing?
A. Ability to do and send:
When Paul, Timothy and Silas went to Thessalonica for the first time, they went straight to the religious center in town, which was the synagogue of the Jews (At 17:1). What was unique about this synagogue was that there was a great number of Gentile converts (proselytes) who met in the synagogue. From these “a great multitude of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” were obedient to the gospel (At 17:4). We would assume that these “leading women” were possibly quite wealthy. At least for some reason, many years later Demas was possibly attracted to their wealth when Paul wrote of him while he himself was in a Roman prison, “… for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed to Thessalonica …” (2 Tm 4:10).
If the leading women in Acts 17 were indeed wealthy women, then they did not give themselves into poverty. By the time 2 Thessalonians was written, the Holy Spirit had to write a letter through Paul that these women not be begged into poverty by some among the Thessalonian disciples who had quit their work. 2 Thessalonians was written less than a year after these leading (wealthy) women became disciples. Then also consider the fact that when Paul wrote of the behavior of Demas, we might assume that the leading women were still wealthy. At the time, Demas forsook Paul and went to Thessalonica. 2 Timothy 4:10, where Paul spoke of Demas’ behavior, was written several years after the conversion of the leading women in Thessalonica in Acts 17. The point is that the New Testament teaches nowhere that the wealthy should contribute themselves into poverty. Doing such is simply not good stewardship on the part of the wealthy. Neither is it beneficial for the evangelism of the church. Paul wrote the “disfellowship” context of 2 Thessalonians 3 to protect the wealthy. Those who are gifted in making money are encouraged to give, but they are not encouraged to give themselves into poverty. We have always asked churches that are in developing world environments if a wealthy person could be a part of their fellowship. If the wealthy could not be a part of a fellowship of disciples, then the disciples have a problem, not the wealthy who are giving. If the local disciples beg the wealthy members into poverty, then from where will the funds come to preach the gospel to the world? The poor must acknowledge the fact that there are some in the body who are gifted with the ability to make money. We must not envy this gift, but give glory to God. This is a grace in which some can truly praise God. “But as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all diligence, and in your love for us, see that you abound in this grace also” (2 Co 8:7). This is the grace of giving. And we encourage one another to abound in the grace of giving.
B. Desire to be a doer and sender:
Now consider the Thessalonians. Since the majority of those who were converted in Thessalonica were Gentiles, and very devout, we would assume that their desire would be to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. The result of what the Thessalonians did in the months that followed is a testimony to their devout convictions, as well as their desire to take ownership of the mission of the body of Christ. As the Philippians, they were financially functional as active parts of the one body.
After Paul left Thessalonica, he traveled on to Achaia. What is interesting to note is what he found in the region of Achaia when he arrived. It was about six months after he had left Thessalonica that he wrote back to the new converts the following testimony of the fact that the Thessalonian Christians had taken ownership of the gospel they had obeyed:
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you were examples to all the believers in Macedonia and 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 spread abroad, so that we do not need to speak anything. For they themselves report about us, what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God …” (1 Th 1:6-9).
Notice carefully the Holy Spirit’s witness to the evangelistic function of the Thessalonian disciples. They became imitators of the evangelistic zeal of Paul, Timothy and Silas who came to them working with their own hands to support themselves, and receiving once and gain from the functioning disciples in Philippi (Ph 4:16). The example of the Philippians even influenced the Thessalonians. In fact, when contributions came from the Philippians, the Thessalonians may have felt somewhat embarrassed. If they were to take ownership of the preaching of the gospel in their own region, then they had to financially come to the party. And such they did in an overwhelming manner.
As the Philippians, the Thessalonian disciples became “examples to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Th 1:7). It was a phenomenal contagion of evangelistic enthusiasm. Philippi inspired Thessalonica and Thessalonica inspired the whole provinces of Macedonia and Achaia. The enthusiasm for evangelism spread like holy wild fire from one obedient heart to another.
C. The result of doers and senders:
The testimony of the Thessalonians’ zeal was in the fact that “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from” them (1 Th 1:8). Such is the identity of a functioning organic body. The Philippians sounded forth the word from Philippi by sending support once and again to the evangelists Paul, Timothy and Silas in Thessalonica. The Thessalonian disciples sounded forth the word in Achaia, specifically Corinth. But the Corinthians? They were financially and evangelistically dysfunctional. They became a dead-end in the function of the body to sound forth the word of the Lord. And now we know why most of the Holy Spirit’s teaching concerning the support of evangelists is found in the letters of 1 & 2 Corinthians. As members of the universal organic body, they were dysfunctional in supporting evangelism.
“We do not need to speak anything” (1 Th 1:8). This is the testimony of a functional body of disciples. This is the Spirit’s testimony of the organic body at work, both in the local area where body members reside, as well as in areas beyond where they live. When local Christians take ownership of the gospel where they live, there need be no more evangelists coming by to do the job of preaching the gospel. If an evangelist cannot make this statement to those where he has preached, it is possible that he planted the wrong seed, or he failed in his work to disciple those he first taught. He may have failed Jesus when Jesus instructed, “… teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Or he may have failed the Spirit when the Spirit said through Paul, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tm 2:2).
However, the problem is usually with the soil in which the evangelist plants the seed of the word of God. Remember the dysfunction of the Corinthians on this matter? Paul chastised the Corinthians. It was the Corinthian soil, not the Seed, that was the problem.
For no other foundation can man lay than what is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will be manifested, for the day will declare it because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test each man’s work to determine what quality it is. If anyone’s work endures that he has built, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss. But he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Co 3:11-15).
Paul’s efforts with the “Corinthian soil” was about to be burned if they did not repent of their immature ways. If they did not turn from their dysfunctional ways, he would suffer loss because he was their father in the faith (1 Co 4:15). But he would carry on and receive his reward for his labors as an evangelist. The Corinthians, if they did not repent, would become smouldering ashes.
The Corinthian situation was certainly a different story from the Thessalonians and Philippians, as well as those in Antioch, Ephesus and Jerusalem.
When Paul wrote the 1 Thessalonian letter, he stated, “They themselves report about us” (1 Th 1:9). Who is the “they”? It was not the Christians in Achaia. There were no Christians there when Paul arrived. By the time Paul reached Achaia, word-of-mouth, the “bush telegraph,” had already communicated the phenomenal conversion and dedication of the Thessalonians. The whole region was talking about the conversion of the Gentiles and leading women in Thessalonica. The point is that we should ask ourselves the question, “Was our conversion so radical that the whole province is talking about it”? Admittedly, the Thessalonians had the fire and conviction of new converts. We must not let that fire of conviction be extinguished from our lives. The only way to keep it burning in our hearts is to continually be in the presence of the newly converted. But if we stop preaching the gospel to the lost in our local areas, we will have no newly converted in our presence to keep our fire going. When we stop preaching and converting the lost, we have set a course for our fire to be extinguished. Is this what Jesus meant when He spoke to the church in Ephesus many years after they were new converts, a time when they had lost their first love (Rv 2:4).