It might be easy to skip past the first several verses of 1 Thessalonians. Paul often begins his letters with grateful praise to the people to whom he’s writing. (The one notable exception being the Galatians, proving that, if necessary, he can take a more confrontational approach. In Galatians, Paul demonstrates that he won’t use an introduction of thankfulness if it is not deserved.)
Another reason why some might move rather quickly through the beginning of Thessalonians is because of the feeling that the heart of the book is still three chapters away in the discussion about the second coming of Jesus Christ starting in 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
However, there is much to treasure in the initial verses of the letter, even texts as seemingly innocent as chapter 1:3 (NIV):
“We 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.”
Praising members for their work, labor, and endurance? Paul preached that we are saved by faith. Does this verse conflict with Paul’s rejection of the works of the law found in Galatians 3 and 4? It certainly raises the issue debated through the centuries. Are we saved by God’s choosing, or by our actions? At first glance, it appears that Paul expresses his continual thanksgiving for the Christian piety demonstrated in this church he started and so lovingly cares for.
A few principles make it difficult to enter into the debate too deeply:
1. In Thessalonians, as in all Paul’s letters, we have a one-sided conversation. We don’t know what the members said to Paul in their letters, and we don’t know what Paul said verbally to the church when he first established it. What shaped the letters—the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonians—is largely unknown. We get a few glimpses in the book of Acts, but not enough to help significantly.
2. Paul was not writing a clearly articulated theological treatise for the ages in his letters to the Thessalonians. He is writing regarding the current needs of the church. He doesn’t discuss issues on which the church is already well informed.
Still, it is rewarding to investigate a little more. The apostle is pleased with their “work” and “labor,” two words nearly synonymous with strenuous effort. We’ve all heard the expression, “Let go and let God!” But here Paul is thankful for the hard work demonstrated in the dedicated lives of the members, especially in facing severe persecution.
At the same time, he is equally thankful for the divine election that sought them out and chose them as God’s children! Logically, these two seem unrelated and leads a reader to ask: which is it? God’s sovereignty or human volition? The debate continues.
We must also recognize that Thessalonians is just a small portion of the scriptural evidence that might be used to answer the question. I believe the apostle’s presentation does little to resolve the issue, except to recognize thatboth options are presented without one diminishing the other. The “works” Paul refers to are not prerequisites of salvation, but the natural results of the Spirit dwelling within us. We can all be thankful to God for His “Amazing grace . . . that saved a wretch like me. I once was . . . blind, but now I see!”
Paul states in verse 3 that he is thankful for the “endurance” of the people. This word is often used referencing a faith that remains strong in the face of persecution. This endurance is founded on the hope they have in the Lord, and is the reason, I believe, for the affirmation in chapter 4 concerning “those that are asleep” not being left behind when Jesus comes. Hope in the Lord is always vindicated.
In his commentary on Thessalonians, D. Michael Martin expressed it so beautifully I felt compelled to “tweet” (@Barbarosa) the following passage so that others would have an opportunity to enjoy it as well.
Believers are able to endure because of the hope they have in the Lord. “Hope” does not express a baseless wish but a confident expectation of the Lord’s future work. That Christians live expectantly (in hope) is evidence of the genuineness of their commitment to and confidence in the Lord. It is this proof of a genuine faith that Paul was celebrating in his thanksgiving. When in our churches faith and love are evidenced in word and deed, when hope enables endurance, our leaders have cause for joyful thanksgiving and an obligation to affirm the fellowship.
I like to take personally Paul’s affirmation in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. I replace “brethren” with my own name. “Knowing, Fred beloved by God, His choice is you” (NASB). Here is the basis for a grateful heart! It is as if Paul is saying to us all, “Thank you for choosing God, because He chose you!”
A fundamental principle seems to be established here—if you’re going to call yourself a Christian, live like one. The church and its members enjoy a special relationship with God and it should be evident to outside observers.
Paul is grateful for two things in this opening of his letter to his beloved church—God’s choosing and the people’s commitment to God. “There is no indication in the Thessalonian correspondence that Paul considered these two truths incompatible” (Martin).
As we study this passage, may the two always go together. We recognize that Christ chose us, and we will demonstrate that commitment by the way we live and treat others. It’s one thing to have the affirmation of a great apostle, but I more sincerely crave the appreciation of my Lord and Master. I hope one day to hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”