Who is a Christian? Who is a true believer? These are 2 questions that we will consider as we look at the opening verses of this letter to the church. Why is this important? Nothing is more important than a proper understanding of our spiritual condition, and it is of greater importance to those of us who understand what our spiritual condition should be.
Paul wrote two letters, also known as epistles, to the church that he established in Thessalonica, now modern-day Thessaloniki. In what is now 1 and 2 Thessalonians, he writes about his feelings to them, things in his own life, and teachings on Christian doctrine to encourage them.
(A) Setting the context: Letters that reveal a missionary’s heart
Paul introduces himself here as just ‘Paul’, whereas in other letters he takes pains to establish his credentials. His identity was never in doubt to the Thessalonians. The ‘Silvanus’ mentioned in the letter is the Latin name for ‘Silas’, who was part of Paul’s team who heled him in discipling, mentoring and pastoring. How did this letter come about?
What was Paul’s tone like in these opening verses? He was encouraged, enthusiastic and genuinely glad, and wrote to encourage them further. This shows the pastoral heart of Paul—he’s someone who prays continuously out of a place of love for his brothers. The Thessalonians were a source of great encouragement to Paul: he’s clear about their new identity “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 The 1:4). Paul identifies believers as those who are chosen and loved by God. On its own, this is a truism. What does it look like in practice? If you’ve been chosen by God, what should your life look like?
(B) Marks of Those Chosen by God: Faith, Love, Hope and Joy
Paul remembers 4 marks that are distinctive of the Thessalonian church. The first is their works of faith. In 1 Thess 1:9b he talks about how they “turned… from idols to serve the living and true God”. Faith is a work begun by God in the heart of the Christian. John 6:29 suggests two counter-cultural notions: that faith is bound up in the person and not just the mid, and that faith doesn’t begin by mental effort but by God doing His work. Faith is accomplished by the Holy Spirit that convicts them of truth and converts them. Our hearts are always inclined to God: we will fail and stumble, but we will never stop having the disposition to obey God. True faith in God produces works (c.f. Jas 2:22). Faith is not preceded but planted by God. Works show something representational of faith.
The second mark is their labor of love. Love is the motivation behind their labor: it implies sacrifice and is not easy to do. It’s not just about the outcome, but the effort it requires. It was not just what the Thessalonians did, but what they were motivated to do. When we enter into conflict with others, it’s easy to put it aside, but hard to begin loving the person again. Christ’s love compels us to love someone, no matter how difficult it is. That is labor.
Third is their steadfastness of hope. The Thessalonians were converts in a hostile pagan society. Thessalonica was historically on the east-west trade route between Macedonia and Athens, where piracy and theft was common, and houses had to be built with no windows to prevent break-ins. How and what they knew helped them endure and built up steadfastness and perseverance. Their hope was in the Gospel and its promises. They set their expectations on what they knew would happen: the coming and glory of Jesus Christ. They were waiting for the endgame. No other sort of hope causes you to endure and persevere more than this. Paul is thanking God for the new believers He is using. Here we see how faith produces love, love produces labor, and hope produces endurance. They mark those who are chosen by Christ.
Fourth is their joy in affliction. Paul commended the Thessalonians for being imitators of missionaries who were themselves imitators of the Lord Jesus Christ. They were imitators of ‘older’ Christians who imitate Jesus. They received the Gospel with the joy of the Holy Spirit, which helps us to do the impossible: find joy that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Joy allowed them to receive the Gospel in the mist of their affliction. Joy was planted in them to give them strength—as Nehemiah 3:8 puts it, the joy of the Lord is their strength. Yet things that please God can anger the world. Their reaction in adversity was testimony to their faith. How we deal with adversity reveals our faith: if God is in you, what are you doing with your life? Paul set an example that the disciples followed, and they began to be examples, reproducing the character of what is being copied to be examples to believers in the surrounding regions to follow. The imitators became worth imitating.
We need Christians to show us how to love in daily and practical examples. This should lead us to think: Is there someone looking out for you spiritually in the way Paul had concern for the Thessalonians? We should seek out discipling relationships It should also lead us to think about how you have been chosen by God. Evidence of this is our changed life. How do our lives measure up against these marks of faith
This passage also assures us that we have been chosen by God and the clear evidence is shown in our lives. How do our lives measure up against these marks? Have we been trying to change our lives in order to achieve some higher moral standard and in the process, hindering God’s work in our lives? What is hindering God’s work?
This passage gives us a model for discipleship, gives us a picture of faith in Christ and calls us to examine our faith. We may be at different stages of maturity, but this passage clearly calls all Christians to repent of our sins, and to turn to Christ in faith and to also persevere in faith, because we have a hope that will last. He will get us to where He wants us to be!