If you are involved in home repair or you watch any of the repair or design shows on television, you know that one of the obstacles often faced are walls that aren’t plumb or floors that aren’t level. Sometimes this is the result of a home settling over the years. Other times it is due to sloppy labor. A good builder is always looking to make things plumb or level.
We live in a world that is not level. Values are in constant flux. Religious beliefs are often a collage of various religions. Political correctness has everyone feeling unsteady.
Because of this I believe a study of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is appropriate. It is a short letter that gives us practical guidance on how to live straight in a crooked world. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians was most likely the second letter that Paul wrote (the first being to the Galatians). In this letter Paul gives practical guidance and regularly directs the attention of his “now generation” to the future return of Jesus Christ. I believe this letter continues to speak relevant truth to those who will listen.
Thessalonica is a city that is in the northern part of Greece. If you check out a map you will find the city of Thessaloniki as a port city off the northern edge of the Aegean Sea south of Bulgaria.
In Paul’s day, Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia. It was a major city because of it’s location on the Via Egnatia the major Roman highway connecting Rome and Constantinople.
Acts 17 tells of Paul’s first visit to Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. Paul had been traveling in Turkey when he believed God was calling him to extend his missionary work to Europe. Paul went to Philippi and then on to Thessalonica where he ministered for three weeks. As a result of his ministry some of the Jewish people in the region believed and a large number of God-fearing Greeks became Christians. The Jews of the city became jealous of Paul and began a smear campaign against him. Because of the turmoil that was created, Paul and his friend Silas had to leave.
After a little time, Paul was concerned about the new church in Thessalonica and sent his protégé Timothy back to the city to see how the church was faring. Timothy reported the church stood firm but was now facing some doctrinal divisions and strong temptation from the surrounding culture (sound familiar?). In response, Paul wrote this first letter.
Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. (v.1)
When Paul references the “church” in Thessalonica he is not talking about a building. The church was a group of people that had been called together by God. The Church was anchored in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to focus today on verse three. In this verse are three indicators of a healthy church, or, if you, a spiritually healthy life. These three things are markers along the way of maturity.
2 We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (vv. 2-3)
A good parallel to our text are Christ’s words to the church at Ephesus in the book of Revelation: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance” (Rev. 2:2). Paul affirms the same three things in the young church at Thessalonica.
WORKING BY FAITH
Paul talks about the “work produced by faith”. It’s important that you not MIS-understand this phrase. The word for “work” is singular. Paul is not commending them for the works that lead to faith. Paul was clear in his writings that we cannot earn our salvation by anything that we do. He is instead talking about the change that comes into the life of every true believer as a byproduct of faith.
It’s important to get this. Christian faith is not merely intellectual. It is not just some class you have to pass in order to get to Heaven. It sometimes sounds that way because we tell people if they say a prayer, believe certain truths, sign on the dotted line, or perform some initiation rite, they are in. Jesus didn’t call people to say a prayer; He called them to follow Him. He did not call us to join a church; He called us to be His disciples. True Biblical faith is not passive . . . it is active. A true believer is a person who has made Christ the ruler of their lives.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. [James 2:14-19]
James isn’t arguing that you have to do good before you can be forgiven . . . He is saying, genuine faith involves a commitment to Christ as Lord that will change the way we live. If you have really received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, it will change the way you live!
In Keokuk each year there is a Civil War reenactment. People come from all over to put on a drama that depicts what happened during the civil war. People go all out. They have their Civil War uniforms and most have read a great deal about the history of the various battles.
The participants in these reenactments are not real soldiers in the Union or Confederate armies. They are simply playing a part. They pretend to be a soldier for a couple of days and then they go home to pick up their life as it was. The true soldiers lived the life. They served day after day and fought in one battle after another.
There are too many people in the church who are like the people who reenact the battles. They dress the part, speak the language, and may even be “Christianity buffs” but they are only playing a part. The true believer is involved in the battle every day. Following Christ is their life.
You will hear people say all the time, “I don’t have time to serve the Lord. I have family responsibilities, I have work responsibilities, and I need my free time.” Of course you need to give time to your wife, your family, your employer and we all need some free time. . . but what about your obligation to your Lord?
The healthy church is one that is engaged in reaching out to a lost and sometimes hostile world. It is not content to merely meet for services. The people of a healthy church are working to bring the message of Jesus Christ to their children, to the marketplace, into their community involvements, their finances, and their amusements. When there is a need they rise to meet that need. There is an evidence of the work of faith.
LABORING IN LOVE
The second characteristic that Paul sees in the church in Thessalonica is their labor in love.
As we tend to view faith as something intellectual, so we are inclined to view love as something emotional. Paul uses the word “labor” to denote something that is hard work – the kind of labor that produces fatigue and even exhaustion.
When I am talking to people about getting married or about a marriage that is struggling I always try to make the same point: “True love is not so much an emotion as it is a decision.” Love is a commitment you make to another person.
The word Paul uses for love is the word agape. It denotes a sacrificial, intentional love.
There are two planes to this love Paul talked about. First, there is the vertical plane: our love FOR God. The true believer is one who is “in love” with the Lord. He or she is working to align his or her heart with His desires. A person who loves another person tries to learn everything they can about that person. They make time for the person. They long to find ways to delight that person. They think about them constantly. Let me ask you: does that describe your relationship with God? If you don’t work at your love relationship with God, it will die.
Secondly, there is the horizontal plane or how we express the love OF God to others. This love is not easy. God has called us to love even our enemies and to bless those who persecute us. We are to love those who try to take advantage of us. We don’t love them because we necessarily like what they do or because we feel warm and gooey toward them; we love them because God loves them and they are valuable in His eyes.
I have to be honest; I find it too easy to write someone off. When someone doesn’t behave the way I want them to behave; when they don’t respond to my attempts at kindness; when they don’t find me immediately charming it is easy to dismiss the person and conclude that they aren’t worth the effort. I want to love those who are easy to love. God calls us to love people because they need love.
When you truly love someone, you don’t give up. You keep working. You continue to look for ways to build a bridge. And you do it all because you know the person whom you love is worth the effort. You love because God has first loved you.
The healthy church is one that is involved in reaching out to the hurting. They are willing to be inconvenienced. They understand that love takes time and sometimes sacrifice. True believers are willing to roll up their sleeves to help others.
ENDURING BY HOPE
Things were not easy in Thessalonica. There was an opposition party that was opposing everything they were doing. I would imagine that they were called godless, deserters of the faith, heretics and more. They may have faced economic pressures, social pressures and even some legal pressures. In spite of the pressure, they endured.
I love the word for endurance or patience in the Bible. This word means to “bear up under”. Our English word patience sometimes is seen as being passive. The Greek work had the idea of fortitude or tenacity.
The Christians in Thessalonica were tenaciously clinging to the faith in spite of opposition. They make me think of those who endured abuse during the civil rights movement. They were beaten, ridiculed, and often thrown in jail, but they continued to stand up for their rights as human beings and as citizens of our country.
I think about the martyrs of the early church and during the time of the Reformation who endured persecution, torture, and imprisonment but remained true to the faith. I think about those who continue to praise and honor God even though their health fails, they are rejected by others, loved ones die, their job is downsized or their circumstances are difficult.
Paul tells us that the reason the Thessalonians endured was because of hope. We too often think of hope as wishful thinking. Biblical hope is not a wish; it is a strong confidence. It is a certainty that is anchored to truth. This is why the Christian symbol for hope is an anchor. The Thessalonians endured because they trusted the promise of God that there is more to life than what we see at present.
If you will, it is like a mother going through labor. She endures the pain (some better than others) because she is looking forward to the payoff in the end. She perseveres because of that hope of holding her baby in her arms. She endures because she envisions watching that child grow, witnessing that first step, hearing that first word, seeing a smile of love, hearing the laughter of joy, watching the maturation of the mind and maybe even someday, holding a Grandchild. That’s the hope that keeps mom going.
Biblical endurance is anchor to that hope that a better day is coming. We are patient because we believe life is not out of control, even when it feels like it is. God is on the throne. He knows what He is doing even when we don’t have a clue. We hang tough because we believe that the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will reward all those who have stood firm. We endure because we know that some day Jesus Christ is going to return and when He does, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. We know that He is preparing a place for us. The solid believer has learned to view life with perspective.
What are we supposed to learn from all of this? I think we should be led to evaluate our own lives. We need to measure our lives and our church by these three characteristics.
Is your faith active or passive? If Jesus is truly your Lord, in what ways are you serving Him? What priority does the Lord really have in your life? Is there a place where God wants me to serve but I am ignoring Him? If people judged the depth of your faith not by your words but by the way that you live, what would they conclude?
How hard are you working at love? Are you making any effort to reach those who are outside of the community of faith? Are you trying to build bridges to people that you find difficult? Are you giving in to stereotypes and prejudice? Is there a relationship where you need to “mend a fence?” When was the last time you sacrificed for someone who was not related to you? What are we doing to introduce our non-Christian friends to the message of eternal life?
Are you enduring in the faith or are you spending your life grumbling? Are you fueled by hope of what is to come or weighted down by the entrapments of the world? Are you tied to your circumstances or are you placing your circumstances under the authority of the God who knows what He is doing, even if we don’t?
As a church we need to ask,
1. If people looked only at what we do, would they see the impact that Jesus has made upon us? What are we doing as a congregation to serve the Lord? Are we operating as a business or as a shelter reaching out to the hurting?
2. What are we doing to reach the non-Christian people around us? Would a stranger feel welcomed in our midst or would they feel condemned? Would we embrace them or ignore them?
3. Are we willing to continue to be faithful no matter what happens in the future?
I hope you see that these are all important questions. Please take your time and answer them carefully. If we only measure our lives by those around us, we will find that we will be “crooked”, just like the rest of the world. Our job is to live straight lives. To do this we must take the Level of the Word of God and apply it to our lives, being willing to make whatever corrections are necessary.
We’re only beginning our study of 1 Thessalonians. There will be many more questions to come. I don’t know about you, but I already have enough to work on for one week.