How to Advance the Gospel
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you. (2 Thess 2:15)
The Macedonians knew a thing or two about how to advance quickly. In Daniel 7, Alexander the Great’s empire is depicted, not just as a leopard, but as a leopard with two pairs of wings. In only thirteen years he created an empire which stretched three thousand miles east from Macedonia to the Himalayas. That’s why Paul is so surprising when he writes to Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, and tells the Thessalonians how to advance the Gospel. He tells them that the way to advance in the Christian life is to stay standing still.
It must have been a bit of a disappointment when Paul told them in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you.” It meant that, despite the Macedonians’ illustrious history of empire and advance, Paul believed their biggest need was simply to stand firm in the Gospel. The Greek word which Paul uses in this verse for teachings is paradoseis, which is normally translated as traditions. True warriors of Jesus do not advance by adding something extra to the Gospel. They advance by not seeking to modify the Gospel and by experiencing it ever more deeply.1
Paul tells us in 2:13 that we are to stand firm in the fact that God has chosen us.2 In some Greek manuscripts Paul tells the Thessalonians that God chose to save them ap’archês, or from the beginning. In other Greek manuscripts Paul says that God chose them to be the aparchê, or firstfruits, of his salvation. Both statements are true. If we want to advance in our Christian lives and to influence others, then we need to stand firm in the fact that God chose to save us before the dawn of time3 in order that we might spread the message of his salvation to many others.4
Paul tells us in 2:14 that we are to stand firm in the fact that God has called us to have a share in his glory. Since our salvation was based on God’s initiative and not our own, we can expect its fruit to be God-sized and not man-sized. Elsewhere Paul tells us that God has transformed us by grace into his peripoiêsis or treasured possession, the word which the Greek Old Testament used for God choosing Israel to be his private treasure collection.5 But in this verse Paul tells us something new which is just as mind-blowing as the Old Testament promise that God turns scrap metal into gold. He tells us that God has also turned his own glory into our peripoiêsis or treasured possession too! We do not advance by becoming distracted by things which are not the Gospel. We only ever advance by standing firm in what it means for us to have been granted a share in Jesus’ glory.
Paul tells us in 2:16-17 that we are to stand firm in the fact that God loves us and wants to strengthen us by giving us an eternal encouragement and hope. He uses past tenses to remind us that God has already given us these things, but he slips in and out of prayer because we need to lay hold of them through active prayer. It is tragic when Christians get distracted by things which are fascinating but which are not the Gospel, playing with fool’s gold instead of the real thing. God has given us all that we need in the Gospel. We simply need to stand firm and to lay hold of it in prayer.
In the movie Die Hard, Alan Rickman’s villain remarks that “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”6 The Thessalonians must have felt the same way when, despite their heritage, Paul commanded them simply to stand. However, Alan Rickman’s villain is misquoting Plutarch. What he actually said was that Alexander wept and told his friends: “It is right that I cry because the number of worlds is infinite and I have not yet fully conquered one.”7 Paul is actually telling us that it will take us an entire lifetime to explore and to lay hold of everything which is ours through the Gospel. Standing firm in the Gospel is never passive. It means advancing rapidly. To encourage us, Paul gives us three prayer requests which show us what will happen if we stand firm in the Gospel.
Paul tells us in 3:1 that if we stand firm in the Gospel then the Word of God will run. Paul uses such a strange word to describe the spread of the Gospel that he must do so as a deliberate contrast to 2:15.8 If we rest in what Jesus has done for us, then spreading the Gospel is not difficult because the Gospel does the hard work for us. Whenever those around us see the contagious lifestyle, contagious hope and contagious community which the Gospel produces in those who honour its commands, they are attracted to Jesus much more quickly than they ever are by busy evangelistic programmes.9
Paul tells us in 3:2-4 that if we stand firm in the Gospel then God will deliver us from danger. Our confidence in the face of danger, both here and in 1 Thessalonians 5:24, is firmly grounded in the fact that God is faithful.10 Moses preached this Gospel to the panicking Israelites when he told them at the Red Sea: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm ... The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:13-14). This same Gospel still turns fearful converts into fearsome warriors for Jesus.
Paul tells us in 3:5 that if we stand firm in the Gospel then God will direct and guide us. The problem with running quickly is that we often run in the wrong direction. We tire ourselves out and end up making far less progress than we would if we simply stood firm in the Gospel. Paul promises us that the Gospel will teach us to love like God and to persevere like Jesus. It will turn us into warriors who have all we need to keep pressing forward in the midst of persecution.
Christians advance because they have first learned to stand firm, so let’s not get distracted from the Gospel. If we stand firm in the Gospel then it will run forward very quickly.
Like a leopard with two pairs of wings.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, Straight to the Heart of Galatians to Colossians, published this month by Monarch Books.
To read more free chapters from the Straight to the Heart series of commentaries, please go to www.philmoorebooks.com
1) Paul says something similar when he tells us four times in Ephesians 6:11,13&14 that the only way for us to advance in the spiritual battle is if we learn to stand.
2) Paul refers to the doctrine of election several times in 1 and 2 Thessalonians because he expects it to give us courage under fire.
3) Ephesians 1:4-5 and Revelation 17:8 both state this unambiguously.
4) The firstfruits which grew at the start of harvest season promised that much more fruit was on its way. Paul uses this word in Romans 16:5 & 1 Corinthians 16:15 to promise God will use us to reach many others.
5) When the New Testament uses the word peripoiêsis in Ephesians 1:14 and 1 Peter 2:9, it echoes Malachi 3:17.
6) Die Hard, 20th Century Fox (1988).
7) Plutarch in his essay “On Contentedness of Mind”, which forms part of his Moralia (33.4).
8) The Greek word stêkô in 2:15 and trechô in 3:1 are opposites, meaning to stand firm and to run.
9) Luke uses this same phrase to describe non-Christians responding to the Gospel in Acts 13:48. Paul is linking back to 1 Thessalonians 2:13 and to his teaching in his earlier letter about how the Gospel spreads.
10) The word for faith in 3:2 is pistis and the word for faithful in 3:3 is pistos. Paul is making a deliberate play on words here between the faithlessness of people and the faithfulness of God.