The letters Paul wrote to the Thessalonians were letters that taught them how to live in light of eternity. This is the theme for our study of these letters. Every chapter in 1 Thessalonians speaks about Christ’s coming and living our lives in relation to that great event. What Paul will do for us is how us how eternity helps us through difficulties. Eternity is the great hope we have which encourages us to be faithful in this life.
The city of Thessalonica was a thriving city on a major Roman highway, the Via Egnatia (show map). Thessalonica was the capital city of the Macedonian province. A poet named Antipater called Thessalonica “the mother of all Macedonia.” The city laid in the lap of the Roman Empire. It had a statue and temple to Caesar Augustus and emperor worship was already occurring in this city by the time Paul came to it. There is another aspect that made this city special. Thessalonica was a free city. It did not have Roman military occupation. It had its own government, controlled their own affairs, and minted their own coins. If problems arose, the Roman government would easily come in and take all of these freedoms away. In fact, this did happen under Emperor Tiberius. But their privileges were returned Thessalonica in 44 AD by Emperor Claudius, about 6 years before this letter was written. With this in mind, consider how this influences what we read about Paul and his companions in the city of Thessalonica. Turn to Acts 17:1-9.
Notice what charge the Jews used against Paul’s companions when they are brought to the city authorities.
“These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:6–7 ESV)
The city authorities do not dismiss this charge. According to verse 8, “The people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.” Thus Jason and the other Christians who were brought before the authorities had to pay a bond so that Paul could not return to this city for one year. The tension in this city is high, especially against anyone who would challenge the authority of Caesar. They had lost their free status before and now someone is acting against Caesar’s decrees and saying there is another king. Not only is there tension against these Christians who remained in Thessalonica, but Paul did not have time to instruct them fully in the Christian life. So this first letter is written immediately after his expulsion from the city to teach them how to live through the difficulties they face in the light of the eternity that is ahead. As Paul begins his letter, he notes three areas where the gospel has radically changed the lives of these Thessalonians.
Work of Faith (1:3)
Paul begins by declaring that he gives thanks to God for them and constantly remembers them in his prayers because of their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. I want to begin by noticing that often we can think of faith, hope, and love as invisible qualities of the heart. However, to Paul faith results in work, love is shown in labor, and hope is seen in steadfastness. There is evidence of faith, hope, and love in our lives that can be visibly seen by others.
Paul begins by being thankful for their work of faith. Often Paul and James are put at odds, suggesting that faith is without works while James says that faith requires works. But we can see here that Paul and James are not at odds with each other. Paul understood and taught that faith works. Paul is thankful for the working of their faith. They had a faith that showed.
But I want us to see these three pictures of Christian characteristics in their proper light. The point is not that you all need to get working to show you have faith. So often we approach our walk with God in this way. But this is not the point at all. Paul is not saying that you need to get to work and then I will know you have faith. This is the wrong order. Rather, these Thessalonians have true faith because true faith works. Do not focus on the work, but focus on your faith. If you have faith, then you will be working in God’s kingdom. The lack of working shows the lack of faith but focusing your attention to working is not the solution. The Pharisees did this, focusing their attention on works and Jesus condemned them because it lacked the faith and love that God requires. True faith works and this is what the Thessalonians were showing.
Labor of Love (1:3)
The second characteristic they exhibited was a labor of love. Love is vital in our working for the Lord. Recall what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the first letter that one could have faith, knowledge, prophetic powers, and give away all one has, but if love was lacking, nothing was gained. Our labor must come from love. Think about this: do you have love if it does not labor? Do you have love if it is not working? Genuine love goes the distance. Love sacrifices. Love acts even when one is weary. Paul praises the Thessalonians because their love is seen in the work they are doing. We see this point made by Paul later in this letter.
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. (1 Thessalonians 4:9–10 ESV)
Again, we need to see that the focus is not on the work, but on love. True love works for another person. Love is displayed through labor and sacrifice. Love is the giving of oneself to another. God wants our work to be generated from love. We do not work because we have to work for the Lord, as if we have a job to do. We love God and love each other and therefore we work. Love drives our work.
Steadfastness of Hope (1:3)
Third, the Thessalonians possess a steadfastness of hope. Hope is the confident expectation that the future is in God’s hands and he does as he says. Our hope is what makes us steadfast. Our hope is what gives us confidence. Hope is what makes us unshakeable. Think about it this way: do you have hope if it is not steadfast?
We are seeing that faith, hope, and love are not merely traits of the spiritual, but describe how any Christian is able to weather the storms of life. If you have hope in God, then you will endure and remain steadfast. If we struggle with endurance and steadfastness, the answer is to not try to endure better. The answer is to build your hope in God. Hope produces endurance.
Eternity is in view in this letter to the Thessalonians. This hope in eternity is the fuel for our work and our steadfastness. I want us to think about how eternity is supposed to change everything about how we live. It is interesting that if you polled the world, most people believe in eternity. Every funeral of every person gives a message about eternity and an afterlife. I have never been to a funeral where the person leading the service said the person is dead and that is the end of the matter. Everyone has eternity in their hearts but no one lives life with eternity in view. Eternity does not mean anything to most people. We look at this life as the goal. But God is telling us that this world is preparation for the next. This life is not the destination. This life is preparation for the life to come. But when we treat this world as all there is to life and that this life is the destination, then we lose faith, lose hope, and lose love. We become dissatisfied and disappointed. This life in this world does not fulfill. But we keep trying to find fulfillment. We reduce all of live to self-enjoyment and self-satisfaction, and yet nothing ever satisfies in this life. Should it not tell us something that all that we try to gain out of this life still leaves us with a void and wanting more that the goal must not be this life? C.S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Paul Tripp said this well: “Peace is found only in knowing that this world is meant to prepare us for the next and that the temporary pleasures and pains of this world are not our final address. When we live knowing that the God of grace will lift us out of this broken world and is now readying us for the world to come, we can face difficulty without wanting to give up and experience pleasure without becoming addicted to it. We live with hope in our heart, eyes to the future, and hands holding this present world loosely.”
Eternity changes how we live. We have received the good news about King Jesus who has conquered sin and death so that we can be in relationship with him forever. Do not live this life as if this is all there is. When we do, we lose faith, we lack love, and hope collapses. But with the good news before our eyes, living for the world to come and not this life, faith will work, love will labor, and hope will be steadfast.
Let me end with one final quote from C.S. Lewis:
Most of us find it very difficult to want “Heaven” at all— except in so far as “Heaven” means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize it. Most people, if they really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.