“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God …” (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
Christians use various different ways to describe the experience of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. Amongst the phrases I’ve heard used over the years are ‘I accepted Jesus into my heart’, ‘I was converted’, ‘I trusted in Jesus’, ‘I came to faith in Christ’, ‘I got saved’, ‘I became a believer’ and ‘I came to know Jesus.’ You may well have heard – or indeed used – an alternative expression.
But I can’t recall anyone ever putting it like this in sharing their personal testimony: “I turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” And yet this is how Paul chooses to describe the way in which these believers in Thessalonica had responded to his preaching of the gospel. Sounds pretty radical, doesn’t it? Costly too. That’s because genuine faith in Jesus Christ must inevitably lead to a complete turnaround in the allegiance of our hearts and to drastic changes in our behaviour.
The birth of the Thessalonian church is recounted for us in Acts 17. In response to Paul’s reasoning from the Scriptures in the synagogue, some Jews “were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:4). However, others “were jealous…formed a mob, set the city in an uproar” (v 5). Some of the brothers were dragged before the city authorities and accused of “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (v 7).
Their accusers were intent on stirring up trouble, of course, by falsely suggesting that these new believers in Christ were rising up in outright rebellion against the authority of Caesar. But in one sense there was real substance to their accusations. Because there was indeed “another king, Jesus” who was now seated on the throne of the Thessalonian believers’ hearts. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.
In the same way, nothing should ever be quite the same again for anyone today who professes that there is another king, Jesus. Authentic gospel faith means turning to King Jesus from idols. An idol is anything or anyone that I seek to worship before or besides the one living and true God (Exodus 20:3). Amongst the things that we bow down to and worship today are career, pride, selfish ambition, the perfect home, the accumulation of wealth or of things, an illicit relationship, an addiction to pornography, family, children, the endless pursuit of pleasure and entertainment.
Much so-called gospel proclamation focusses on the benefits of Christian faith, but has little or nothing to say about the cost of following Jesus and the radical nature of true discipleship. This has the effect of duping many of us into thinking that we can turn to God and bring our idols along with us. That we can simply add Jesus to an already full and busy life. But we can’t. Our turning to God must be matched by our turning away from idols.
So is there anything or anyone that I’m clinging to and not turning away from? Anything that’s keeping me from wholeheartedly serving the living and true God? If so, I need to remind myself that “another king, Jesus” is now on the throne of my heart and that his “love, so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” [i]
[i] When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts