Welcome to Mining the Word!
This is the third part of an ongoing series where we take an in-depth look at scripture. We’re currently working our way through Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to go back and read part one, ‘Introducing 1 Thessalonians‘, as well as part two, ‘1 Thessalonians 1:1.’
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a look at 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 – A Brief Summary of Paul’s Thanksgiving
“We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers;” – 1 Thessalonians 1:2
In an earlier post, I mentioned that Paul often begins his letters with a thanksgiving. From a rhetorical perspective, it only makes sense to begin with something positive. If I want people to listen to me, I’m probably not going to immediately lambast them. Instead, I’ll try to establish rapport with them by focusing on the positive at the outset. However, I don’t believe this is the only reason Paul begins with thanksgiving. Even in letters like this one, where he has very little (if anything) to rebuke them for, he still begins with a thanksgiving.
I tend to believe that Paul was taking his own advice. In the fifth chapter of this letter, Paul exhorts the Thessalonian believers, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Likewise, he told the Philippian congregation, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Philippians 4:11). Paul understands that one of the keys to the Christian life is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving leads to contentment. And contentment and reliance on God go hand in hand.
Giving Thanks for the Past
In both verses 2 and 3, Paul uses words that imply consistency in his thankfulness and prayers. He gives thanks “always” and “constantly” bears their faith, hope, and love in mind. Ben Witherington III writes, “One is left with the impression of regular, persistent, and insistent prayer on behalf of the Thessalonian converts” (Witherington, pg.56). If we read Paul’s letters carefully, his shepherd’s heart becomes clear.
Paul genuinely loved these people. They were – through Christ – family to him. And he treated them as such.
We also ought to note that he thanks God for “all of you.” He doesn’t leave anyone out. He doesn’t focus on the leadership. There are no exceptions. This is even more outstanding when we consider the fact that the congregation at Thessalonica had a group of people who were “unruly.” He deals with them at some length in his second letter. And yet, I believe he was even thankful for them. They were, after all, part of the body. Though misled, God was at work in their lives.
And Paul understood that when God is at work, we can be thankful, knowing he is working out a future that will be worthy of thanks.
Thanksgiving is primarily about what has already been done. My wife and I like to ask our daughters what they’re thankful for. Recently, my oldest daughter has been responding, “I’m thankful for a sewing machine.” That would be fine except she doesn’t own a sewing machine. She wants one for Christmas. And so, my wife has gently corrected her several times. Thanksgiving is about what God has already done – or what we know he is going to do.
Praying for the Future
On the other hand, prayer is about what we hope God will do. And so, Paul not only gives thanks as he reflects on God’s work in the Thessalonians up until this point. He also prays that God will continue to transform them in the future.
Again, we’re reminded of Paul’s care for these believers. And as we reflect on his attitude toward them, we should examine our own. Are we thankful for the work God has done in the lives of our fellow believers? Are we praying for their continued transformation? Do we make mention of our brothers and sisters in Christ in our own prayers?
Paul’s concern should be our own.
“…constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father…” – 1 Thessalonians 1:3
As I’ve already mentioned, Paul uses language that reinforces his continual concern and thought for the Thessalonian believers. However, in this verse, he gets specific. Paul notes three things that he reflects on as he gives thanks and as he prays. You may recognize the things Paul mentions here from his famous passage on love – 1 Corinthians 13. Faith, hope, and love.
Work of Faith
Protestants usually think of faith and works as being opposed to one another. And yet here is Paul, setting them side by side. It might make more sense to switch the order and think about this phrase as ‘Faith’s Work.’ You see, faith and works are not naturally opposed to one another. They go hand-in-hand. It’s people who set them in opposition, as they ask bad questions (Yes, there is such a thing as a ‘bad question’).
Works are a natural outflow of faith. If I have faith that it’s going to rain today – if I truly believe that – then I will act differently than if I have faith that it will be sunny and 75. Likewise, if we truly have faith that Christ is who he said he is and will do what he said he’s going to do, then I will act differently than if I don’t believe. My faith is the rudder that steers the course of my life, my words, and my actions.
And the Thessalonians had acted on their faith. In other words, their faith produced works. They became imitators of Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:6). They turned from idols to serve the living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). And when persecution came, they endured suffering (1 Thessalonians 2:14). These sorts of things (among others) were their work of faith.
And Paul was thankful that they didn’t merely have a head-faith. They had a heart-faith.
The Thessalonians were fulfilling God’s calling on their lives. As Paul would later tell the Ephesians, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Labor of Love
Paul’s thanksgiving also extends to their “labor of love.” The word for ‘labor’ is a word that “puts a bit more emphasis on the idea of toil and hardship” than the word used for “work” (Fee, pg. 25). We ought to take into account the fact that Paul was dealing with a congregation which included some ‘lazy’ people (we’ll look at them a little later in this study). By noting the ‘labor of love’ he saw in the congregation as a whole, he may be slightly chiding those who aren’t laboring.
Love compels us to work. It creates a desire in us to serve others and to put ourselves in second place (or third, or fourth, or fifth – you get the picture). When we have genuine Christian love in our hearts, labor will be produced. We’ll be willing to do what needs to be done.
Paul saw this in many of the Thessalonians and he was thankful that they were willing to work hard for love’s sake.
Steadfastness of Hope
The Thessalonians not only were growing in faith and love, they were also growing in hope. For Paul, as for all Christians, hope is not a vague or ethereal wish. Hope is that confidence we have which looks forward to the consummation of all things. When Christians speak of hope, we don’t mean something that may or may not happen. Hope is certain.
But why is it certain? It’s certain because Jesus’ resurrection certified it. Just as Christ was raised, we too will be raised. This confidence bears steadfastness or patience in our lives. When we face problems, difficulties, or opposition, we are given the strength to press on because of this hope.
Paul was concerned for the Thessalonian believers because he knew they would be facing opposition. When he heard that they were continuing to walk in the faith, his heart was gladdened because he saw that their hope was bearing steadfastness.
Are We Walking in Faith, Hope, and Love?
As we reflect on these things, we would be wise to ask ourselves the question, ‘Am I walking in this kind of faith, hope, and love?’
Is my faith bearing good works? Does my belief impact my behavior?
Is my love compelling me to labor? Do I love people enough to serve them?
Is my hope creating steadfastness? Do I see Christ’s future clear enough that it keeps me going, no matter the circumstances?
Paul saw all of these things in the lives of the Thessalonian believers so many years ago. I pray that God will see these things in our lives, today
For Next Week…
Starting in verse 4, Paul begins recounting the history of the Thessalonian congregation and his relationship with them. You can go ahead and read 1 Thessalonians 1 again in order to prepare. I’m not sure how far we’ll get. In the meantime, reflect on the thoughts we’ve uncovered this week. There’s much to consider and more to come.