Acts 17:1-4 records a portion of Paul the Apostle's second missionary journey where he traveled to Thessalonica, a large Roman city in ancient Macedonia. While there, Paul preached in the synagogue and laid the foundations of the Thessalonian church. Though he was forced to leave after only three weeks because of violence from envious Jews, his words had persuaded many to put their faith in Jesus.
Paul visits the church again later (Acts 20:1-3) and subsequently writes them two letters of encouragement. In both of the letters, he opens by saying he and his companions continually thank God for them. The gratitude they had about the Thessalonian church was not generic, but rather very specific:
"We give thanks to God...remembering...your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3)
"We ought always to give thanks to God for you ... because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing." (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4)
Paul's gratefulness was for the Thessalonians' faith in Jesus' work on the cross as the basis for righteousness, hope in Jesus as the promised Messiah that would return to rule from Jerusalem, and sacrificial love for Jesus and for others. In his second letter to them, Paul said that he even boasted to other believers of their "steadfastness and faith in all [their] persecutions and in the afflictions that [they were] enduring" (2 Thessalonians 1:4).
It does not take much effort to see that the boast of modern evangelicalism is fundamentally different from Paul's. We often evaluate the success of missions organizations, parachurch ministries, or local churches because of the finesse of their worship leaders, the size of their buildings, their number of attendees, or the number prayer meetings they have per week. Why is this the case?
The discrepancy between the early and the modern church is exposed in our attitude toward this present evil age. The early church regarded themselves as "strangers, pilgrims, and sojourners" (1 Peter 2:11), waiting for their "blessed hope" (Titus 2:13). They were not seeking to build an institution, make worldwide ministry impact, or influence governments and laws. They were patiently waiting for Someone who had promised to do all of those things. As sojourners, they could "lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1 Timothy 2:2), without being fettered to the fantasy of ministry or cultural impact. Their identity as pilgrims gave them boldness to share their faith, have unwavering confidence in their future hope even in the face of persecution, and possess power to love even their enemies well because of the example Jesus had left for them to follow.
We do well to heed the Thessalonians' example and the apostle's boast. When a sojourning mentality is exchanged for our modern western ministry mentality, our boast is constrained in measuring impact in this age by the apostolic standard of faith, hope, and love. In doing so, our hearts are subsequently even more free to "eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness" (Galatians 5:5), the “appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13).