In typical fashion, Paul opens his first letter to the Thessalonians with a greeting, a thanksgiving and a prayer.
v1. Just as we have formal ways of introducing letters, so in the first Century there was a common letter form. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians follows this accepted form. Paul begins by telling us who it's from and who it's too, and then he greets his readers. Usually the Greeks just wrote the word "greeting", although Paul writes "grace". The word "grace" is derived from the Greek word "greeting", but is used here to sum up the gospel. "Grace" depicts God's total acceptance of a believer apart from their worthiness, or unworthiness, and this as a gift for the asking. The word "peace" is the common Jewish greeting. It means not so much a freedom from trouble, but more a wish for prosperity, of wholeness under God.
v2-3. Paul affirms that the Thessalonian church is central in his prayers, although he is not saying that each time he prays they are mentioned. In his prayers he brings before the Lord three qualities in the church for which he gives thanks, namely faith, love and hope.
i] "Your work of faith". Paul gives thanks for their "active / effective faith", for the business side of their faith, the doing of it, the practice of faith.
ii] "Your labor of love." Paul thanks God for their love, a love that labors to the point of weariness. The word he chooses is not often used in Greek writings of the day. The usual word for love referred to the human emotion, or feeling of love - regarding someone or something very highly and with desire. The word for love used in the New Testament takes on its own meaning. It is something that can only be understood by examining the character of God. It is a costly compassion toward another prompted by no worthiness, or future worthiness, in the one so loved. Such love can only be imaged in the death of Jesus on our behalf.
iii] "Your patient hope." Paul thanks God for their "patient hope" - "a spirit which can bear all things, not simply with resignation, but with blazing hope", Barclay. The Thessalonians have a sure belief in God's ultimate purpose. This "hope" is "in the Lord Jesus Christ", and is an enduring hope that rests on him.
Life prepares us for eternity. As we walk with Jesus day-by-day we take on qualities which serve us here on earth, and which will be especially useful for our rule with Christ in eternity. The scriptures identify these three qualities as faith, hope and love.
Paul, writing to the Thessalonian Christians, has observed these three qualities in their church fellowship, and he gives thanks to God for them. They are qualities that should be found in every church, in every Christian life, and so they are qualities we should aspire to possess.
i] A faith that is active. Possessing a faith that is active and productive is going to be essential for our rule with Christ in eternity. Building the muscles of faith requires going out on a limb for the Lord, it involves trusting him when all about us denies the wisdom of that trust. The Thessalonians, since the departure of Paul, had stood firm in the face of disbelief and opposition. The Thessalonians were now on their own, yet they did not waver in their reliance on the Lord. "Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love." Growing in our reliance upon the one who travels with us through life, learning to trust in the living Lord, this must be our goal.
ii] A love that labors. Love is the greatest of the eternal qualities. In fact, it sums up the very character of God; "God is Love". Love is a quality that should consume us and it was Paul's prayer for the Thessalonians. "May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else." To possess a love that labors for others, that seeks the best for others, evidences God's gracious touch. A natural love cares for those we regard highly and want to possess for our own pleasure, yet self-giving love, the love that Christ exhibits, is a miraculous love. Let us look to Jesus that this love may grow in us as a gift of God's grace.
iii] A hope that strengthens. Developing a burning confidence in the ultimate intentions of God enables us to stand steadfast in the present. It is as we develop a sure and steady hope in the coming kingdom that we then begin to handle the present momentary troubles we face. We must pray that our confidence in the future intentions of God will grow in us with every passing day.
1. In v1 our Lord is given three names. Discuss the meaning of each.
2. In v3-4 there are three key words - faith, hope and love. Paul thanks the Lord for these qualities evident in the Thessalonian church. Discuss the meaning of each term.
3. In what particular way would it be possible for your faith to be built up in the coming week?
4. How does hope affect your actions in the present?
5. Try to distinguish between natural human love and the love of Christ that drives us forward in the Christian life.