Thursday, October 29, 2009

1 Thessalonians 1:1-3

V1-3 – 1Paul, Silas [or Silvanus] and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. 2We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3We 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.

As we noted in the introduction, Paul traveled around Asia Minor and Greece during his second mission trip, converting some Jews and a large number of Gentiles to Christianity. He experienced persecution in various forms – violent rioting, imprisonment, mockery, etc. – throughout his trip, and generally speaking, we could affirm that God purposed that persecution as a means by which the gospel would spread quickly throughout the world. Furthermore, persecution of the young church kept it pure, in the sense that there were limited numbers of false believers within. Do to the lack of persecution in our churches today, we see a very high number of false believers, tares mixed in with the wheat. Thus we conclude that legitimate ministry may not be without hardship, for it is through the hardship that God works to bring His own unto Himself. And it also follows that in times of persecution, we serve as witnesses for Jesus. “This understanding,” says Vincent Cheung, “enables us to maintain a joyful attitude in the face of persecution, and to combat doubt and discouragement. Men’s endorsement does not validate a ministry, just as men’s rejection does not disqualify it. Only the word of God, the standard that has been revealed and established by divine revelation, is the true and final judge. But even though we speak with this note of triumph, the pain of persecution is actual and intense in those who must bear it. Therefore, let us be mindful of the suffering of our fellow believers, and pray for those who must endure hardship for the sake of the gospel.”

We see the truth above illustrated for us by the apostle Paul and also by the congregations to which he wrote. In fact, the Thessalonian church was, as Vincent Cheung notes, “birthed in persecution and remained in persecution.” Paul begins this letter with his standard greeting, including a benediction of grace and peace. His mention that the Thessalonians are “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” reveals the intimacy between Father and Son, as the Church is “in” both. Some find it interesting that Paul doesn’t elaborate on his apostleship or calling or authority as he does in other letters. This may be due to the fact that the letters came to the Thessalonians so soon after having been with Paul in person; or it may be due to the fact that the Thessalonian church already knew Paul well enough to not require an elaboration on his apostleship. Lastly, from v1, we covered in the introduction that Silas and Timothy were with him and may have even influenced Paul’s letters, in as much as they differ from Paul’s typical writing style.

In v2, Paul explains that he prays for the Thessalonian Christians, and specifically that he thanks God for them. This remark is an exhortation to perseverance. Cheung says, “Whatever good that is found in them, it is a work of God, so that Paul does not ask God to thank the Thessalonians for their much coveted endorsement of the gospel, but he thanks God for causing faith and holiness in them. A doctrine of human autonomy leaves room for only half-hearted thanksgiving. Thanksgiving necessitates remembrance of divine grace, a calling to mind God’s faithfulness and generosity toward us.”

In v3, Paul elaborates that he remembers in his prayers three things about them, and he mentions faith, hope, and love. Paul is thankful that the Thessalonians exhibit signs of these three paramount virtues of a genuine and thriving Christian. First, faith – being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1) – produces work, or works. James echoes this sentiment in his epistle. Cheung says, “The works of faith, then, will include obedience toward biblical commands, compassion for the sick and needy, eagerness to suffer for righteous reasons, boldness in speech and action, and enterprising efforts to advance the gospel.”

Second, love prompts labor. Cheung says, “Now, there are various wrong motives for spiritual labor. Some perform ministry work for vainglory, to impress other men and to be admired by them. Some are taken up by a sense of ambition – the same kind of ambition that men have for secular careers and achievements, but applied to ministry work. Others are driven by competition. Whether there is any need or reason for it, they want to be better than everyone else, or at least better than some specific individuals that they have in mind, because the thought of being less successful than they are is unbearable. In connection with this, there is the motive of spite. It is possible to pursue what appears to be worthy spiritual projects for no other reason than malice and revenge. Of course, these wrong motives, and many others not mentioned, tend to overlap. They are against the spirit of Christ and must be exorcised from the heart. Love is the only motive for spiritual labor that is worthy of the gospel. Contrary to the world's opinion and even most Christian teachings, this love is mainly not an emotion or a feeling, but a disposition that cares about the things of God, to honor his name and obey his commands, and that cares about the welfare of other people, regardless of any emotion or feeling. A person who loves may consistently experience certain emotions or feelings that seem to accord with such a disposition, but he thinks and behaves with love – that is, a sacrificial obedience to God’s law concerning how to relate to God and to people – whether or not he is experiencing these emotions and feelings. Christian love drives emotions and feelings, while non-Christian love, which is not love at all, defines love itself by their emotions and feelings, and then allow love to fluctuate along with these emotions and feelings… True love is biblical, intelligent, sacrificial, consistent, and persistent.”

Third, hope inspires endurance. The world’s hope is not Biblical hope. The former is like a wish or desire – I hope it doesn’t rain – an aspiration that is beyond one’s control; but the latter is a certainty for which we wait on God’s faithful timing. Paul writes elsewhere, “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:23-25). We hope in Jesus Christ, and though we wait for salvation, we already have it. It is so certain that oftentimes the Bible speaks of it in the past tense. It’s an already but not yet reality. This hope inspires endurance, which is perseverance, or preservation. We will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11). Cheung concludes, “No wonder that those who grasp this shout and leap for joy. And no wonder those who have this hope possess great endurance. It is not a passive quality, but an active virtue. It energizes us to pursue that which God has ordained for us to do. As Jesus, ‘who for the joy set before Him endured the cross’ (Hebrews 12:2), so we will consider ‘that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18)… Our knowledge of God in the present forms the basis of our hope for the future, and this hope in turn enhances our comprehension about the present. We are not only able to interpret any event in the past and present in relation to Christ’s anticipated and then accomplished redemption, but we are also able to interpret any past and present event in the light of what we know God has in store in the future. Unbelievers cannot do this.”

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