“2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
Every church is known for something. Church A is this big. Thousands attend, gathering in a multi-sport arena. Church B is that small. It meets in an old bank building, floor to ceiling windows in its walls. First Baptist has a great youth group. Second Presbyterian has a brand new building. Third Lutheran offers wonderful programs for both men and women. Another church has 12 elders. Still another has 13 deacons. There are churches that ordain women. Others are known for their evangelistic zeal and success. Still others rise to fame because their pastors get published. This one puts on fabulous dinners and social events. That one excels in social work, brass bands, and fundraising. That one is seeker-sensitive. This one is emerging. That one is charismatic. This one is dead, asleep in the coffin of cold orthodoxy.
Every church is known for something. The question is ‘What should a church be known for?’ What should mark – what in fact ARE the marks – of a NT church? Everyone seems to have their own answers, their own ideas, their own conception. Who is the church? What is the church? What does a thriving, faithful, successful church look like? These are some of questions one gleans from our text today. It’s a text beginning with Paul’s expression of how he prays for those to whom he now writes. He tells them the content of his prayers, the confidence he has when praying, and why he has such confidence. In speaking of these things, he speaks of a church that’s gained renown, a far-reaching reputation for being the company of the truly converted. Let’s look at it.
A Prayer of Thanks
Paul states he with his companions thank God for them. “We thank God for all of you,“ he says. This needs no belaboring. But neither should we gloss over it. It’s a foundational, fundamental, theological necessity that we be mindful of this simple, yet profound fact: God is the one thanked here. The living God is the one to whom Paul gives thanks. Paul is not, in other words, thanking the church. He thanks God for this church. We must bear this in mind as we proceed. It’s imperative that we do so. Otherwise, we shall miss a very important, life-changing truth here.
Then, notice he tells them what he prays, what his prayers look like.
“2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you…”
Apostolic prayer, indeed Biblical prayer, engages the mind. This is a verbal activity. Whether or not Paul means his prayers were spoken and audible is beside the point. What is clear is, whether silent or not, his prayers made use of his mental faculties. He used his brain. Actual words conveyed his thoughts. The words themselves were the prayers. His prayers were not passive. Nor are they receptive, mindless exercises intent on ‘experiencing God.’ There is none of that kind of contemplative thing here. What is actually here, how Paul describes and thus defines his prayers, is with phrases like ‘constantly mentioning you,’ and ‘remembering.’ There is actual content to biblical prayer, content aimed toward God.
Work of Faith & Labor of Love
That content demands much attention. That which Paul mentions before “our God and Father” is “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” What is it a church should be known for? Are these things not the very hallmarks of the saints? Here we have the triple crown of graces: faith, hope, and love. These three are often linked together. Paul often couples faith and love. They are, in NT terms, inseparable. To the Colossians, for example, Paul links the three:
“We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; because of the hope laid up for you in heaven…” (Col. 1:3-5).
“But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
And let’s not forget Galatians 5:6. There, the apostle speaks of “faith working through love.” We must not, therefore, think of these graces as though they aren’t connected. Where there is one we find the others. It is therefore my submission to you that we think of this this way; that “the work of faith” and “labor of love” of which Paul speaks is that same “faith working through love.” That faith works through love, that there is ‘the work of faith’ and ‘labor of love,’ is highly instructive. At the risk of stating the obvious, it must not escape our notice that apathy is conspicuous by its absence. There’s no sign of it here. Moreover, there is no such thing as the lethargy of faith and love. There is a great, abounding energy and toil to this. This is the WORK of faith and LABOR of love- faith working, laboring, exerting itself in the labor of love. What is love? What is that love of which the apostle speaks? Where do we go to see it in action? “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We need quote no further; for with the cross in view, there is much to say concerning this love. This love moves one to a death, the death of self, and a death for those far beneath deserving such love. Christ, the just, the innocent, the righteous, the guiltless, the blameless, put others – the unjust, the guilty, the unrighteous, the undeserving, the blameworthy, before Himself. What’s the point? The point is simply this: love loves even those who offend you. Love dies to self and puts others before you. Hence, whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him” (1 John 3:17)? Love loves not in word only, but in deed and truth.
This past week I read a blog entry on John Wesley. I was deeply challenged by it and share it with you because I think it illustrates the point here very well.
“…in 1731, Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.
Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income,
what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.
This practice, begun at Oxford, continued throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds sterling, he lived simply and he quickly gave away his surplus money. One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds. Because he had no family to care for, he had no need for savings. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had 100 pounds at any one time.”(1)
“What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is [needful] for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:14-17).
This is the very kind of work of faith and labor of love Paul remembered in prayer, as he gave thanks to God for the church at Thessalonica.
Steadfastness of Hope in our Lord Jesus Christ
But he also made mention of their steadfast hope in the Lord. Despite hardship, affliction, trial, tribulation, and great difficulty in life, their hope in Christ did not fade or wane. One wonders if such trial was the trials common to man – family concerns, financial matters, wearisome toil, relationship heartaches, illnesses and cancers. Maybe. After all, men are men, regardless of the century. There’s nothing new under the sun. And believers are not immune to such pressing and even crushing providences.
But somehow I think we must not leave it at that. There is good reason to believe the pain and hardship here was on account of their conversion. Verse 6: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” So, I think we ought not discount the possibility. Those who receive the word, who truly receive it, will, because of that word, know some degree of pain on account of it. Christ after all, came to divide men. Luke 12:51 (Jesus says) – “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on the earth? I tell you no, but rather division.” And men, even families, have been divided ever since. Christ divides. And He shall divide. Dividing men shall in fact be among the very last things He does on earth, if not the very last thing. When He returns in all His glory, and the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations shall be gathered before Him, and He shall divide men from men. He will separate the sheep from the goats. This division will be irrevocable and forever. In any case, it must be expected. Affliction – hardship by the hands of unbelievers – comes to those who receive the word (cf. Mark 4:17, etc.). They will be the targets of mockery, scoffing, all kinds of intimidation tactics (1 Pet. 3:16), opposition, and hostilities (1 Pet. 4:4). The church at Thessalonica was not a church of wimps. There were no ‘crutches’ to be found. These believers were strong. They endured such things. They persevered. They did not give in or give up. In all their hardship, they were marked with a steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus.
The God Factor
Does this church impress you? Do these believers exhaust you? They should! Theirs was a “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” which was second to none! And what if I told you this church in 1st century pagan Thessalonica, surrounded by the same kind of pagans who surround us, what if I told you this church is worthy of our imitation? Does that impress you? Does that exhaust you? The very words themselves exhaust us, don’t they? WORK of faith. LABOR of love. STEADFASTNESS of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, even in the face of hopelessness.
At this point, there is a question that is seldom if ever asked by those who stand as I now stand. That question is “Why?” Why were these believers, this church, marked by such things? What did all this mean? The answer is right before us. The answer is in the very first words of our text: “We give thanks to GOD for you…” “We give thanks to GOD!” God is why these people were marked by these things! These things, this work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope were proof, manifestations, grand evidences that God was at work in them, willing and working for His good pleasure. By and in His Spirit, God lived in these believers. The same God who willed the creation into existence, who flicked the universe into being with his finger, who raised Christ from the dead, dwelt in this church and IN the hearts of these believers. So Paul says “We thank GOD for you, remembering your work and labor and steadfastness.” It was their work and their labor and their steadfastness. But this work was anchored in and originated from and caused by this great, incomprehensible truth – God was not simply watching these believers ‘from a distance;’ God was not simply dwelling high above the heavens; God was, by means of faith alone, dwelling in the very core of their being! We give thanks to God for you, brothers, lest we pat you on the back, as if you had achieved some great achievement, some great performance. This cannot be understood in terms of mere motivation. Not even remotely. This is far bigger, immensely bigger than that. This is God in them. This is God willing his will, causing what he may, commanding, guiding from within. The proof of that divine activity is this work of faith, labor of love, and enduring hope.
Towards the Table
I once was taught that a preacher’s job was to apply the Bible to his people. I no longer think that way. I’m convinced that his job is to apply his people to the Bible. So that’s what I’m going to do from now on. Are we marked by the work of faith, the labor of love [for one another], and the steadfastness of hope in Christ? These are a few of the things a church should be known for. Do these things exhaust you? Discourage you? If so, then hear this: When Christ said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he meant that his death guaranteed not only forgiveness, but His own indwelling presence. The new covenant guarantees that God is not simply way up there [though he is], but resides also in the very core of everyone who trusts in Christ. What Paul said of himself is true for every believer – “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Can we be an exemplary church? Yes! Yes, we can. It doesn’t rest on our size, our building, our location, our programming, or anything of the sort. It rests on God.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).
The command to love, and indeed every imperative placed upon the New Covenant member, is grounded in the gift of the New Covenant itself, namely the sanctifying, obedience causing, holiness necessitating presence of the One who, in His Spirit, is written upon the hearts of believers. New Covenant grace does not simply justify, it actually, and truly, sanctifies! When we eat and drink, let’s feed upon and drink and trust and believe that everything we need for our work of faith and labor of love is given to us in the Person of Jesus Christ. Amen.