What If It’s Not Your Plan? (1 Thessalonians 1:1)
GIST: God can use unexpected people doing unexpected things in unexpected places to change lives in miraculously unexpected ways.
Today, we’re moving away from an 18-month journey in Revelation to our “regularly scheduled programming” ☺️. Some of you might not realize this, but there is actually a loose schedule to our covering the whole Bible verse-by-verse. In general, we are walking through the books of the New Testament in the order in which they were initially written, taking breaks every summer to work through the book of Psalms so we’re never too far removed from the Old Testament (about because saying Summer in Psalms is really fun for me), and periodic breaks to walk through one of the Gospels so we’re never too far removed from looking at the life of Jesus. Of course, sometimes general outcries will also lead us to walk through what was originally planned as our final study ☺️…
Today, we’re preparing to dive into a study of what are often considered two of Paul’s earliest letters: 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The only of his letters that might have been written earlier is Galatians, which is also the only of his letters we have covered together.
We’re actually going to spend time walking through the context of this letter being written as our main focus today, but I did want to give you a bit of a sweeping overview of the themes in this short epistle before we dive headlong into it. Blue Letter Bible provided this helpful “big picture”→
To praise them for their steadfastness under persecution
To instruct them concerning holy living
To correct any misunderstanding, especially about the second coming of Christ. (In fact, every chapter ends with a reference to Jesus’ second coming.)
Sprinkled in this, there are also not only references to praying for these believers but also actual prayers Paul was praying in the moment for them… which is really a beautiful picture of Christian compassion and pastoral care.
However, in preparation for this study, one thing that has struck me most about these letters is how easily they could never have existed. Though this is something that could be said of much of the Bible, it is undoubtedly true here. Therefore, I want to do something very out of the ordinary with you this morning and chew on this reality before we really break down much of the text at all. In fact, we won’t even get through verse 1 today… which is fine because we have a guest speaker next week anyway ☺️.
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”
The gist I have for us this morning is simple, but it’s really spoke to my heart this week, so I have a feeling someone else needs to hear this too (and for the rest of you… it promises to be a fairly short message, as well ☺️). Here’s our gist: God can use unexpected people doing unexpected things in unexpected places to change lives in miraculously unexpected ways.
I. Unexpected Messenger
Much of the New Testament consists of letters which were written by the apostle Paul to churches he helped start on his missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor and the surrounding area. Thessalonians is one of those letters, and that, in itself, is miraculous. This might be common knowledge for many here, but it’s definitely worth remembering. Before an incredible and life-changing encounter with Jesus, Paul was a zealous persecutor of Christians fully bent on their complete annihilation. In fact, as the first Christian martyr was stoned to death by Paul’s fellow religious elites, he held their coats and watched in approval.
We talked about this a bit in the context of the nativity story a few months ago. It is very easy to look at the context of Scripture through the very filtered lens of our modern eyes. We have to be cautious with this. No one expected Paul to become one of the most influential Christian evangelists of all time. In fact, when he was first saved, Christians were understandably nervous about accepting him. He wasn’t candidate #1 for this ministry… but God had a different plan, and He knew what He was doing ☺️.
II. Unexpected Method
Moreover, not only was this messenger an unlikely vessel, but his method was unconventional. After spending several years growing in his walk with Jesus, he was sent with his companion Barnabas to share the gospel with the world…and not just the Jewish world. By the time Paul accepts Christ, we have seen several Gentile conversions. Philip and the Ethopian. Peter and Cornelis. Still, it wasn’t normal. The prevailing thought of the time remained that salvation was for “their community”. (We never struggle with that, right? ☺️) However, Jesus came to seek and save the world, so Paul— being transformed by that same amazing grace— stepped out in faith.
He went away from his comfort zone into a world steeped in the popular, pagan cultures of the time. Though his go-to method was still to visit Jewish synagogues first, his welcome there rarely lasted long, so his journeys often brought him into contact with people who had little to no exposure to the God of Israel. It wasn’t conventional or comfortable, but—again—God had another plan, and—again— He knew what He was doing ☺️.
III. Unexpected Meeting
Add to all this that Thessalonica wasn’t even on the itinerary of these unconventional journeys, and we really see how God’s plans don’t always line up with our preconceptions! The book of Acts tells us Paul wanted to travel deeper into Asia but was prevented because the Holy Spirit had other plans for him. He was then given a vision of a Macedonian man calling for help, so he and his companions took that as a sign and traveled to the main Roman colony of the region, Philippi. God did awesome things while they were there, but the environment quickly grew incredibly hostile and dangerous. It’s here that they were beaten with rods and thrown in prison. It’s also here that God sent an earthquake to shake that prison which gave Paul and Silas an opportunity to witness to the Philippian jailer, who accepted Christ.
After a pretty tense encounter with the local magistrates, they were encouraged to leave, so Paul and company traveled through the nearest towns and ended up in the next closest Jewish synagogue. It was about a two-day journey away (approximately 60+ miles by foot) and happened to be in a place called Thessalonica. It was a significant city, but it doesn’t seem to have been part of their original plan. Nonetheless, as we’ll see detailed in this letter, through a fairly turbulent three weeks, the gospel was spread and many souls were saved. In fact, the Christian church has continued to worship in Thessalonica (now Thessaloniki) to this day.
So, what’s the big deal?
God can use unexpected people. He’s not looking for perfect people with everything figured out. He’s not looking for the ones everyone else would choose. He’s moving in the lives of broken people who want to be used to carry hope to a broken world. He wants to use you.
God can use unexpected things. Sometimes the things we have seen work before continue to work well for years and years. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes something unexpected comes along—a change we didn’t see coming, a conversation we didn’t know would happen, an opportunity to walk through a door we never foresaw—and God reminds us He’s the one calling the shots.
God can use unexpected places. Paul’s plan wasn’t revolutionary. He was going to travel from city to city sharing the gospel with whoever would hear him. He let God take care of the details, and He did!
God changes lives in miraculously unexpected ways. This remains true in all circumstances—God makes the difference. Not our plans. Not our wisdom. Not our articulations. God. And the change He makes—the life-altering, grace-providing, marvelously rescuing change—is nothing short of a miracle every time.
Maybe you needed to hear that today.