A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 1:9a. a). You turned to God from idols.
The verb translated ‘turn’ (*epistrepho*) became an almost technical term for conversion, which is a turn from sin to Christ, from darkness to light (Acts 26:18; Col.1:13; 1 Pet 2:9), and from idols to God. Luke in particular uses it repeatedly in Acts (Acts 3:19; 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18, 20; 28:27). It would be difficult to exaggerate how radical is the change of allegiance which is implied by the turn from idols to *the living and true God* (cf. Je.10:10). For idols are dead; God is living. Idols are false; God is true. Idols are many; God is one. Idols are visible and tangible; God is invisible and intangible, beyond the reach of sight and touch. Idols are creatures, the work of human hands; God is the creator of the universe and of all humankind. Besides, Paul knew what he was talking about. Not only had he inveighed against idolatry when addressing the pagans of Lystra (Acts 14) and the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17), but the Thessalonians could themselves see Mount Olympus, about fifty miles south of their city, where the Greek Gods were supposed to live.
Modern missionaries, especially in areas of ‘animism’, which is now usually termed ‘traditional religion’, know all about the power of idols, and of the spirits which are believed to lurk behind them. A tribe’s traditional idols have a tremendous hold over the people’s minds, hearts and lives. For centuries they have lived in superstitious dread of them and in obsequious submission to them. The very thought of breaking away from them fills them with alarm, as they fear the spirits’ revenge.
And the more sophisticated idols (that is, God-substitutes) of modern secular cities are equally powerful. Some people are eaten up with a selfish ambition for money, power or fame. Others are obsessed with their work, or with sport or television, or are infatuated with a person, or addicted to food, alcohol, hard drugs or sex. Both immorality and greed are later pronounced by Paul to be forms of idolatry (Eph 5:5), because they demand an allegiance which is due to God alone. So every idolater is a prisoner, held in humiliating bondage.
Then, through the gospel and the grace of God, in many cases suddenly and completely, the prisoner turns to God from the idols (whether superstitious or sophisticated) which have so far controlled his or her life. The experts call it a ‘power encounter’, for it is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in which the spell of the idol is broken and the superior power of the living and true God is demonstrated. People are amazed and filled with awe, and they spread the good news.
The history of Christian missions contains many examples of such power encounters. In each case a deliberate Christian challenge is thrown down to the false gods which previously held sway in the community. Sometimes the challenge is conversion itself, as people are rescued by Christ from an evil power which can no longer hold them. At other times the challenge is made by new converts who dare to defy their former gods. Then, when no harm follows, the supremacy of Christ is acknowledged and more conversions take place.
As example of the first I would like to quote from the letter of a young Burmese national, who a few years ago went with some friends to evangelize a village inhabited by animists:
We explained to them the pure simple gospel and Christ’s lordship over the devil and all evil foes, after which they were counselled to confess and forsake their evil deeds and to receive Christ Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. With brokenness and tears and guilt they responded. Then we burned up the charms and amulets, took a wood-cutting knife, and broke down a Spirit’s house made of bamboo and wood, claiming the lordship of Jesus Christ, and singing Christ’s victory songs, and putting all of ourselves under the blood of the Lamb of God and the rule of the Holy Spirit, and claiming God’s protection.
Examples of the second kind of power encounter, which took place in Oceania at the beginning of last century, have been documented by the distinguished Australian missionary and anthropologist, Dr. Alan R.Tippett. He tells how Pomare II, the christian chief of Tahiti, baked and ate a sacred turtle without first observing the customary rituals; how Taufa’ahau, chief of Tonga, struck the priestess of his old god with a soft banana club, saying, ‘I will strike the devil-god with this’; and how Malietoa, paramount chief of Samoa taking no precautions, ate a sacred mullet, which was forbidden food. These were deliberately daring and provocative acts. They were performed in public, with relatives and friends watching in silent apprehension of the god’s revenge. They were also symbolic, each being ‘a public rejection of a power which had bound them all for ages’. And when no fatal consequences followed, the people were convinced, conversions took place and the church grew. The Southern Polynesians knew, writes Dr. Tippett, that ‘the only real and effective way of proving the power of their new faith was to demonstrate that the old religion had lost its power and fear’. As a missionary leader commented at the time, ‘idolatry bows and expires at Jesus’ name’.
Truly, now that the strong man (the devil) has been overpowered by one stronger than he (Jesus Christ), his palace can be raided and his prisoners set free (Lk.11:21-22).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.