“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:2-3 TNIV).
How are we to discern reality and preserve it when we find it? The church in Thessalonica was undoubtedly under pressure from the Jews to concede that they had got the wrong message, from a wrong messenger. This is also true in our current context – how are to discern the true spiritual reality from the spurious?
1 Thess. 2-3: Faith, love and hope are three great Christian distinctives to which Paul is going to return over and over again. Peter and the writer to the Hebrews also refer to these essential ingredients of orthodox Christianity (1 Peter 1:8; 2 Peter 1:5-7; Hebrews 10:23-24).
The faith referred to here is the faith that works; it is based on God’s intervention in Christ Jesus (v.10) who comes on a great rescue mission and who procures our salvation through His death and resurrection. There is a reality in time and space, in which it trusts and on which it stands. Faith must have an objective reality, or else it is merely wishful thinking.
Love is the relationship between God and His people, restored through Jesus the Rescuer and Redeemer. It is expressed in the Church in the quality of relationships between those who have been rescued.
Hope is the expectation of the completion of that great work, when the Rescuer returns, as Lord and King to wind up human history, to bring in His eternal kingdom, and to rescue us from the wrath that will be revealed (v.10).
Paul explained, reasoned and proved from the Scriptures that Jesus had to die and rise, and that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 17:2-3).Indeed the appeal to the mind in sharing the gospel was always vital for Paul; however he came not to generate an emotional response, but to persuade the minds of his hearers of the truth of his declaration that Jesus is the Christ. But Paul does not point to the objective content alone as the evidence of spiritual reality – the content is absolutely vital and without it Christianity would not be Christianity, but simply to embrace that content intellectually, or even hold on to it tenaciously as a doctrinal position, is not where Paul puts his emphasis. What Paul remembers with thankfulness is the active proof, externally, of the inward reality – the work of faith, the labour of love, and the endurance of hope – all these are the proofs of the reality – and these can only come about through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
So my faith is not belief in a creed, it is trust in a person whose nature and activity the creed explains and describes. And that trust in a person (Jesus Christ) will always express itself in outworking of life.
The Christian love is experienced in relationship of a deep and personal kind with that person – the living God – and then with our neighbour. And that sort of love must always express itself – true love always does. The reality of our love for God and for our fellow human beings can be seen in the way we live.
Even our hope is personal – it is hope in our Lord Jesus Christ – Jesus is the end and goal of everything. That sort of hope perseveres and holds up under all sorts of trials and tests.
Christian reality is a relationship with our God and Father, in and through our Lord Jesus Christ; it is a relationship we enter into only as we respond in faith to the self-revelation of God in Scripture. Truth and experience must not be polarised – we cannot learn theology as we might learn mathematics – it is about relationship with the Triune God.
Paul’s appeal here in this epistle is to the irrefutable evidence of life, but that is only explicable in terms of the reality of belief. The objective realities prove themselves to be genuine in the revelation of lifestyle that they produce, as nothing else can. The Thessalonian believers themselves are evidence of God’s love and mercy at work in the wonder of their salvation, and there can be no reality more ultimate or even more dependable than the fact that God has chosen them. For Paul, then, the evidence and proof of our election is in both our current believing correctly and our faithful living. His choice is the outworking of His love.
The gospel has to come in words, yet not simply in words. That is literally not in words alone. In Acts 27 Paul reasoned, explained, proved and persuaded his hearers, but what Paul is telling us is that it was not his speech that did the job. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul wrote that when he came to them, he did not come with eloquence or human wisdom. He came in weakness and with great fear lest his message and preaching were not with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power; he was careful to ensure that the faith of the hearers might not rest in human wisdom, but in God’s power. Paul knew that what did the job was another supernatural power at work – the power of the Holy Spirit.
How do we know the gospel of Christ is more than human words ? Because the power of the Holy Spirit is seen in the deep conviction produced in the hearers.
But we need to note also in verse 5 the manner of life of Paul and his co-workers among the Thessalonians – they lived authentic gospel lives among them, and that helped to convince the Thessalonians of the truth of their words. John Stott rightly said that one major reason the gospel is not well received is because the messenger of the gospel does not look like the message he proclaimed.