Thus far, this series has focused on the way individual believers carried the gospel to others, and on how men were called to serve God in a full-time way. We have observed the pattern they established as they advanced into new territory with the Word of God. We must now note how the assemblies that were planted maintained their witness, for that is the situation in which most of us find ourselves, associated as we are with assemblies that have been in existence for many years. In the first three chapters of Revelation, the figure of a lampstand is used as a metaphor, and undoubtedly the purpose of the metaphor is to stress the assemblys responsibility to bear witness in the area, and in particular to let the light of the gospel shine out.
Strangely, little is recorded in Acts about the development of the assemblies established by Paul and his companions, but in the epistles we can learn something of their ongoing work in spreading the gospel. Specifically, we will note what is said about the Macedonian assemblies, Philippi and Thessalonica. In the Epistle to the Philippians we are made aware of our responsibility by instruction; in the Epistle to the Thessalonians we learn it by illustration.
Having spoken of his personal witness in the prison (vv.12-26), Paul now impresses the assembly with its need for commitment to the work of the gospel. There are a number of necessities if the task of evangelism is to progress effectively.
Integrity. "Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ." We all profess that believing the gospel has life-changing effects; we have become "new creature(s)" (2 Cor 5.17). If we fall short of displaying that, then the testimony of the whole assembly is blighted. Dishonesty, impurity, unreliability, and a whole range of disagreeable traits will inevitably dent the assemblys image in the community. The quarrelsome neighbour and the work-shy colleague will bring the witness into disrepute. I have memories of a fellow-preacher establishing contact with a gentleman only for the link to be destroyed when an irritable Christian neighbour raised an issue that almost developed into a fracas. "As much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom 12.18).
Unity. "Stand fast in one spirit." An assembly that is rent with strife is paralysed just as surely as a "house divided against itself shall not stand" (Mt 12.25). The observation of assembly history will show that where there has been a happy dividing of forces on a geographical basis for the sake of establishing a new testimony, there has been the possibility of blessing. However, where constant infighting has given rise to division the passing of time has seen the diminishing or even the demise of both groups. Effective gospel work demands the co-operation of every believer. It took the synchronised efforts of four men to bring the palsied man to the Saviour. Teamwork was essential to land the draught of fishes (Lk 5.5-11,17-26). If the district is going to be evangelised, it needs every assembly member playing their part to maximum capacity, happily co-ordinating their endeavours and being supportive of each other.
Industry. "With one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel." While the phrase re-emphasises the need for co-operation, there is the added thought that we need to be industrious. The word translated "striving together" is rendered "laboured with" in 4.3. Sadly, there the context speaks of two women who had once happily and harmoniously collaborated with Paul in pioneer activity, but their efforts had been disrupted because of friction. Has lethargy impaired the work of the assembly? Is the light being hidden under the bed of ease? Could the desire for recreation, relaxation, and vacation be a hindrance to regular concerted endeavour beyond the Lords Day evening meeting? "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" (Mt 20.6). Are there any in the assembly who will raise their level of commitment, and go to the limits of their energies and resources for the sake of the spread of the gospel?
Bravery. "In nothing terrified by your adversaries." Inevitably there will be hostility to an aggressive assembly witness. In Bible days, the opposition extended to physical violence. In our day, we still experience verbal abuse and attempts to obstruct our activities, but Paul is here encouraging a resilience that is willing to persist despite the opposition. Perhaps it should be noted that on occasions throughout the Acts prudence demanded that he withdraw from situations of high tension and danger, but in withdrawing it was to channel his efforts in another direction; he never threw in the towel. "Bold in our God" is how he described his resolve as he came to Thessalonica after the indignities of Philippi (1 Thess 2.2). Let us emulate him; "God hath not given us the spirit of fear Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel" (2 Tim 1.7-8).
1 Thessalonians 1.6-10
The Thessalonian assembly was exemplary in the work of evangelism simply because they had imitated Paul (v.6). The mimics had become models!
They were exemplary in what they preached - "the word of the Lord". As has been stated in former articles, there is no substitute for preaching the Word. It is the Word that promotes faith in human hearts (Rom 10.17). It is the Word that effects regeneration (1 Pet 1.23). Preachers, quote the texts of the Bible and explain its truths, for "The entrance of thy words giveth light" (Ps 119.130).
They were exemplary in how they preached, for they "sounded out the word of the Lord." The phrase implies clarity. Incoherent preaching is a reproach to the assembly. We need to remember that there are very few people left who have any knowledge of what were once well-known Bible stories, or familiar Bible truths. In gospel preaching we are not catering for the assembled Christians, so assume that the audience knows nothing, and declare the truth with that in mind. In particular, open-air preaching demands clarity. There was once a view that the open-air meeting was a training ground for budding preachers, allowing them in course of time to graduate to preaching in our halls. The open-air meeting is the shop window! It demands the best that we can produce. Let the Word sound out with clarity, devoid of the jargon and clichés that a lifetime of attending meetings has developed.
A previous verse had given further insight as to how they served. Their service was a "work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (v.3). In other words, faith enabled them to rise above the notion that nothing can be done so there is no point in doing anything. Love motivated them to toil to the point of exhaustion. Hope in our Lord Jesus Christ incited them to persevere when the going got tough. No wonder Paul said that they had become examples. Do we as assemblies approximate in any way to the example that they set?
They were also exemplary in where they preached. They started in their immediate area, Macedonia, then their endeavours extended to the neighbouring district of Achaia, and only then did they branch out to "every place". Surely there is a pattern in all of that. We have a prime responsibility to our own neighbourhoods. In Nehemiahs day the priests repaired the walls, "every one over against his house" (Neh 3.28). Where they lived, there they laboured. Gideon commenced his service for God at home (Judg 6.25-32). "The Spirit of the Lord began to move (Samson)...in the camp of Dan", his home territory (Judg 13.25). The man of Gadara was told, "Go home and tell" (Mk 5.19). The lampstand at Ephesus was to illuminate the city of Ephesus! The lampstand at Smyrna illuminated that city, and so on. Only after a satisfactory coverage of our own areas should we think of diversifying as expressed in the article on pioneering evangelism, and that opens up wide possibilities as suggested by the two words, "every place".
Some may ask, what is the reason for the existence of the assembly? The fact that it is "Gods husbandry" (1 Cor 3.9) suggests that there should be something for God in it, a place where fruit is produced for God, not least "the sacrifice of praise the fruit of our lips" (Heb 13.15). The fact that it is "the flock of God" (1 Pet 5.2) suggests that it is a place where the people of God are cared for and fed. But the fact that it is a golden lampstand suggests that it is a place from which the gospel should emanate for the benefit of needy sinners. Let us hold all these in balance, and rise to our responsibility in collective testimony.
To be continued.