1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 (English Standard Version)
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.
I've spent a lot of time the past couple of days reading and re-reading Paul's letters to the church in Thessalonica, and what strikes me about them is how much Paul loves that little church and how he praises them for their growth in the faith. Last night, as I read the verses above, I got to wondering: If Paul were to visit a random church in America today, would he be able to say the same things about that church? Would the apostle Paul be able to say he thanked God always for us, that he spoke to the Lord about our "work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ"?
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
It is true that we are saved solely by our faith in Jesus Christ, and that faith itself is the gracious gift of God. (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9) But when we believe on Christ, then we must put on a "new man" (Ephesians 4:20-24), being transformed in our minds to act differently than we did before. When Paul told the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, and so forth, he was telling them that there should be a tangible and visible result of their faith. (Galatians 5:22-23) When we place our faith in Jesus and are sealed by His Holy Spirit, then we naturally show evidence of that faith, and our works, our words, our very thoughts all grow out of our abiding faith in our Lord and Savior. From His love comes our love (1 John 4:19), and from that love grows good works--which, of course, the Father prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)
Of course, work of faith is one thing--our job as believers, the deeds we naturally do, everyday activities growing out of our faith. Works naturally spring up as we find that faith transforms the way we see the world. In the words of the advertising slogan, we just do it. But labor of love is something different.
The word translated here as "labor" is the verb "kopos, which means to cut, to toil--as in something that wears down our strength. A labor of love, therefore, is not simply a deed springing out of our faith, it is toil that comes from the love we share in Jesus Christ. A labor of love may wear us down, may cost us physically and emotionally. It may take us to places we never thought we'd go, but we go there nonetheless because we love God and we love our fellow man. If we read further in Paul's letter, we read that the church in Thessalonica became an example to other churches in the region, and that they suffered for their faith, persecuted just as the Judean churches had suffered at the hands of their countrymen. (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8, 2:13-16)
1 Corinthians 15:58
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
We will suffer for our faith, suffer for the love we show others. We will toil and sweat in the name of Christ, and yet people will not reward us, and they will still accuse us of wrongdoing, still shun and revile us. (1 Peter 2:11-12) But labor we must, for God will not forget how we struggled in His name to bring the gospel of Christ into the world through our labors. (Hebrews 6:10)
Works will grow out of our faith, and we will toil for others out of the love we have in Jesus, but the thing that keeps us going through all of this is hope.
3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance;
4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Perseverance, steadfastness, patience: in English translations of the Bible, those words often come from the same Greek root word "hupomone", which means to undergo, to stay under, to bear up. The idea is that we remain steadfast even when we are weighed down. Hope in Christ gives us strength to stay where we are and not abandon our post. And our hope is strengthened by the labors we undergo, because the longer we abide in the love of Christ in the midst of our labors, then the greater becomes our faith and the grace that God pours out on us to His eternal glory. If we did not have this hope--the hope of salvation, the hope of peace with God, the hope of eternal life--then we would not see a reason or meaning for all our labors. But because we see Christ, because we fix our eyes upon the cross and the glory found there, because we see ahead of us the joy of salvation and life with God, we bear with all manner of things. We not only do good works, we not only labor for others out of love, we actually persevere even in the face of persecution and death--all because we have HOPE.
Today, looking at ourselves, do we have these things? Are our everyday deeds shaped by our faith? Do we make a point to labor for others because of the love we have for them in Christ? Do we remain steadfast in our hope, knowing that despite all the troubles and persecutions we face, we yet have the grace of God to see us through? I think many of our churches and many individuals within our churches would fail this test. But, honestly, we must not think of it as a test but a goal, an example for us--just like the Thessalonians were an example to the churches around them.
Just as the Thessalonians modeled their behavior on what they saw in Paul and Timothy and the first churches in Judea, so should we model our own works and labors and hope on what we see in those first churches. Like them, let our deeds and works spring up from our faith in Jesus Christ. Let our labors be done out of the love we have for God and the obedience we share with His Son. Let our hope be steadfast and true, strengthened and growing through the grace of God and the presence of His Holy Spirit. Let us not compare ourselves to others but instead simply be the new and hopeful creation we are meant to be, new men and women who model our behavior on our one Lord, Jesus Christ.
Holy Lord God, only through Your grace am I saved, and only through the faith You have authored through Jesus can I say I have any hope at all. Therefore, Father, may my faith spring forth in deeds done in Your name. May I seek to labor for You and Your kingdom, all because of the love I bear for You. And may I display the same steadfastness of hope that we see in so many of Your saints in the Bible. In short, O Lord, let me be used to Your purpose and Your calling without ever losing hope. Amen.