The Perseverance of a Healthy Church
Topic: English Passage: 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
The first official king of Israel was a man named Saul. The Israelites wanted to be more like the nations around them, and they demanded that Samuel the prophet give them a king. Although this displeased God, He allowed them to have a king and gave them Saul. Saul was tall and handsome. He looked the part, and he was the kind of man Israel wanted.
After being anointed by Samuel and proclaimed as king, one of Saul’s first recorded acts was to unite the nation against the threat of the Ammonites. That led to a great victory for God’s people, and the nation was marked by joy and by an anticipation of what the rest of Saul’s reign might look like.
The next major conflict was against the Philistines. Saul let fear get the better of him, and instead of waiting for Samuel to perform the sacrifice, as instructed, Saul decided to perform the sacrifice himself. This was a breach of his role as king. Saul was attempting to step into the role of the priest. Samuel arrived just in time to see Saul’s disobedience, and this is what Samuel said. This is from 1 Samuel 13:13
“You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue… because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”
If you’re familiar with the rest of Saul’s reign, you know that his kingdom was a failure, and he slipped further and further from God. Saul is one instance in the Bible of someone who starts out looking great but ends in disaster.
Jesus talked about that possibility when He shared a parable about a man sowing seed onto different kinds of soils.
Part of the seed falls among shallow, rocky soil, and the plant comes up quickly. Unfortunately, because there are no strong roots, when the sun comes out, the plant is scorched. Another portion of the seed falls among thorns and weeds which end up choking the plant.
Jesus said these soils represent people who hear the word of God and receive it joyfully, but their commitment is only temporary. When affliction or persecution comes, these people fall away from the faith. Or their hearts are turned toward the worries and the wealth of the world, and their faith is choked out. In other words, their faith starts out looking great, but it ends in disaster.
This is the great concern for all of us, both personally and in our mission. We want to persevere in the faith, and we want to others who come to faith in Jesus Christ persevere as well. When the gospel of Christ is faithfully and clearly proclaimed, and someone receives the message in faith and repentance, we should rightly celebrate. But that’s not the end of our task or our hope. We want this person to grow in their maturity. We want to see a continued confirmation of their faith.
That’s why when the Apostle Paul went from city to city proclaiming the message of Christ, he didn’t move on to the next city as soon as a couple people came to faith. He stayed there. He continued to teach and exhort. He wanted them to be mature and to persevere.
The book of Acts tells us that Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half, teaching the word of God. Not long before that, Paul had been in the city of Thessalonica, and I think it’s fair to assume he would have wanted to stay about the same length of time. But that’s not what happened.
After only a few weeks, opposition to and violence against the message of Christ had grown, and Paul and his team were forced to leave in the middle of the night. That meant that the new believers in Thessalonica would have had to face their opponents without Paul there to defend them and to teach them. And with that kind of pressure came the risk that some might abandon the faith.
Well, before Thessalonica was too far behind Paul, he sent the younger Timothy to follow up with the church. Skip down with me to chapter 3 of this letter. Look at what Paul says:
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.
Paul wanted to make sure the Thessalonians hadn’t call it quits. That’s why he sent Timothy. Verse 4—For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
In other words, Paul did not want his ministry to have been for nothing. He didn’t want the Thessalonians to become like Saul or like so many other professing Christians. He didn’t want them to start out looking great but end in disaster.
Well, Timothy gets back to Paul, and what a relief and joy it was to find out that the church, even though they were suffering, had continued in the faith. Paul and his team were grateful to God that the church had endured.
Go ahead and go back with me to the beginning of this letter. Paul’s gratitude is one of the themes we see scattered throughout in this letter, and we see it pop up right after his introduction. Paul opens this letter by giving thanks.
Look again at verse 2 with me. Paul writes—We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers.
For the Thessalonian church, that statement would have been an encouragement. It’s nice to know that someone hasn’t forgotten about you. Paul was a man of prayer, and his prayers included giving thanks for the Thessalonian church.
Now, more specifically, what was he thankful for? The next verse tells us. Verse 3—remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul isn’t just describing what he personally saw in the Thessalonian church; he is including what Timothy would have reported back to him. This was a baby church, not more than a year old, but they had remained faithful even amidst persecution.
And Paul writes to them, not just to praise them for what he saw and heard about, but to encourage them to continue in the same direction.
Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is a helpful example to us of how to help keep our own church on track.
We’re going to look at the example of the Thessalonian church in a moment, but first, let me briefly highlight Paul’s example here.
All of us who are members have a responsibility to strengthen and encourage one another. And Paul models for us some practical ways to do that.
First of all, we should be praying for one another. Verse 2 mentions about Paul’s prayers. That was the normal pattern of his life, not just because he was a pastor or a missionary, but because he was a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus means you want to help others follow Jesus too. So, to that end, we need to pray for one another. That should be part of the normal pattern of our life. Even if we’re not with someone physically, God can use us to strengthen others if we pray for them.
Secondly, and this is a little more specific, we should be thanking God for one another. That’s the specific focus of verse 2. Paul gives thanks for the Thessalonian church. And notice, he says he gives thanks always and for all of them.
Paul wasn’t just praying for the Thessalonian church in some of his prayers. And he wasn’t just giving thanks for some of the people there. He had a comprehensive gratitude. He regularly prayed and gave thanks for the entire church.
Rather than emphasize what was lacking in the church, or what he thought could use some improvement, the main characteristic of Paul’s prayers for the church was thanksgiving. And that can be done at any time.
Like I said last week, we’re not supposed to be praying just when there are physical or financial or relational or spiritual difficulties. We should be giving thanks for one another all the time. This is one way to build affection in our hearts. This is a way to remind ourselves that our church family is a gift to us from God.
So, in following Paul’s example, we pray for one another. We give thanks for one another. And lastly, we encourage one another. Prayer and thanksgiving are directed to God; encouragement on the other hand, is directed to one another.
Encouragement is a reminder to someone that their progress has not gone unnoticed. Isn’t that what good Little League coaches do? Isn’t that what you parents do for your children when they are learning a new skill? You encourage them. You praise them. You tell them how much it pleases you that they are progressing.
That kind of encouragement is not just for parents whose kids are learning to use the potty, or swim, or swing a baseball bat, or play the guitar. That kind of encouragement is an important part of a local church. That encouragement strengthens the church, particularly those who are younger in the faith. It helps them know that their efforts are not going unnoticed, and it encourages them to persevere.
For you younger children, we adults in the church want you to know that our desire for you is that you would grow to walk with Jesus Christ. We want you to surpass us in righteousness and holiness and faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
For those of you in the youth, I hope you don’t get the impression that the rest of us take you for granted. And forgive us for when that happens. Every time someone graduates, we are aware that they are entering into the adult world, and there is no guarantee that they are going to stay in this church or even continue walking with Christ. That’s true for any of us, but we see that possibility even more when someone graduates and gets a new level of personal freedom.
And so, because of that possibility, we want to encourage you. And we need you to encourage us. We’re all at different stages of our Christian life, but we will all benefit from the encouragement of others.
Now, what exactly should we be encouraging one another in? What should we be prompting others to pursue? Paul helps us answer that by pointing out three virtues of the Thessalonian church. He had seen these when he was with them, and he had heard about them in Timothy’s report.
Look at verse 3 one more time. Paul lists these virtues to praise the church for its faithfulness and to encourage the church to persevere. In verse 3, Paul says to the Thessalonians that he prays—remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just to point it out, different translations put the phrase “before our God and Father” in different places. In the original Greek, the phrase comes at the end of the verse, but it’s not immediately clear if Paul was intending to describe the Thessalonians’ life as being before our God and Father, or if it’s Paul’s prayers which were made before our God and Father.
Both statements are true, and it’s not a big deal which one you prefer, so I’m not going to spend more time on that. Our focus right now is going to be the virtues of the church which Paul lists.
He says he remembers, number 1, their work of faith. Number 2, he points out their labor of love. And lastly, he mentions their steadfastness of hope.
That list of virtues might sound familiar because Paul lists them in 1 Corinthians 13, when he says faith, hope, and love abide. Clearly, they had abided in the Thessalonian church. And for every generation of Christians, they should be manifest.
Let’s talk for just a little bit about each one, and we’ll use them as reminders or gauges of our own Christian life.
The first description Paul mentions is the church’s work of faith. That word “work” simple refers to an activity. It’s something you do. It’s an intentional act or deed.
Today, when we talk about someone’s work, we’re usually talking about their job or their attention to their home. But Paul is not talking about the Thessalonians’ ability to earn a living or to take care of their home. He is talking about their “work of faith.”
Hebrews 11 has a wonderful remind of what faith is. Verse 1 says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
And then later, in verse 6, we’re told, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Faith is the complete acceptance of His truth. For the Thessalonians and for us, faith means believing that God is perfectly holy and that none of us can be counted worthy before Him in our own efforts. Faith means you believe that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh who came to die as the sacrifice for sin and then be raised from the dead in victory. Faith means you believe He’s coming again for a final rescue and a final victory. Faith means you’re surrendered your life to Him because He is Lord and King and the only Savior.
If you’re visiting with us this morning, that’s message we proclaim because that the message of Jesus. That’s the message of the Bible. If you will believe that message, and embrace it, you will be saved.
Now, the great difference between the message of Jesus Christ and the message of this world is that Jesus has already accomplished redemption for His people. Your works don’t save you. It’s His work that saves you, if you will trust in Him.
Roman Catholic theology and Mormon theology and Jehovah’s Witness theology all say that faith is a requirement for salvation. They all say that we need faith. They all say that we are saved by faith. But what they will not say is that we are saved by faith alone. That’s the message of the Bible.
Salvation does not come through works. And it is not maintained by works. Salvation is by faith. That’s why Paul tells the Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 8—For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Now, in understanding that, we also need to understand something else. Salvation comes by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. True faith produces a change. You are a new creation in Christ, and that is going to be visible. That’s why Paul adds in Ephesians 2:10—For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
So, we are not saved by works, but salvation does result in works. Paul calls them good works. As many have said, works are the fruit of salvation, but they are not the root of it. We are not working FOR our salvation; we’re working BECAUSE of our salvation.
Just to give a simple analogy, think of a fiancée who has been proposed to and given her ring. From that point forward, she’s not working in order to get married; it’s already been promised. He sealed the deal. She’s working out of joy of that promised union.
Well, that’s a picture of the church today. Christ has committed Himself to us. We belong to him. We are the bride of Christ, and we are called to work. We don't work so that He'll save us. We work because our salvation is already done.
If you claim to follow Jesus Christ, there better be some kind of visible works flowing from that. And this is much more than saying you’ve been baptized, or you walked down an aisle one day, or you rededicated your life to Christ.
The good works of the Christian life include humility before God and others, proclaiming the truth to others, battling against the sin in your life, and loving one another in practical ways.
This is exactly what the book of James said to the early church. In chapter 2, verse 14, James asks—What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? And James’ answer is no. That’s not true faith. That’s not saving faith.
In verse 17, he says—Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Later on, he says, “Faith apart from works is useless”. In that context, James can say, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” If all you have is faith, but no works, that’s meaningless. And so, chapter 2 ends by saying, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
What does your faith look like? What are the objective changes in your life? What are the specific actions and activities that have no other explanation other than your faith in Jesus Christ? Ask yourself that question, and ask one another that question. And then, persevere in your work of faith.
The second virtue Paul points out to the church is their “labor of love.” Work pointed to activity, but labor points to intensity. This is talking about exertion, sweat, pain, and difficulty.
And what is the impetus and the character of this toil? Paul says it’s love. It’s a labor of love.
The world has no problem with a Jesus who says love one another. They are content to love one another in their own way. But true Christian love is not easy. Many times, it’s a labor. It’s hard work—if not physically, then at least spiritually.
It was the love of God that sent Christ to die. It was the love of Christ that washed His disciples’ feet. It was the love of Jesus that led him to lay down His life on the cross. That’s the example we’re called to follow.
In Philippians 2, Paul tells the church to have the same love, and then he says this—Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.
It's hard enough sometimes to give someone the remote control, let alone a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon. But that’s what love looks like sometimes. It’s a laying down of your rights, your privileges, your desires, for the benefit of someone else. And that is not easy.
What does your love look like? Like with your deeds of faith, are there acts of love in your life that have no other earthly explanation other than the love of Jesus Christ? Is there a love manifest in your life that forces someone to ask a question? Is there a labor of love that characterizes your life? Not for how thoughtful or sentimental it is, but for how self-sacrificing it is.
Maybe love was a good description of your life when you first became a Christian, but now, you don’t see it very much. Don’t drift away from Christ and form one another. Love is difficult. Love is a labor. But we are called to persevere.
In John 13:35, Jesus said—By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
How can we keep our love from growing cold? What can we do?
Well, the final characteristic reminds us of the key behind all this. And that is the church’s steadfastness of hope.
Steadfastness is talking about endurance and perseverance. Those are the more common translations of this term.
The Greek noun here is connected to the verb hupōménō, which literally means “to remain under.” It’s the picture of someone remaining and enduring under a heavy burden. They’re not quitting; they’re enduring.
God did not intend our faith to result in a one-time deed. He did not intend out love to produce a short-term labor. God has placed within us an endurance. He has equipped us for a marathon in the faith.
Behind the deeds of faith and the labor of love is an enduring or a persevering hope. It’s the hope that compels us and motivates us. Hope in what?
Well, Paul simply summarizes it by saying it’s a hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ is the source and the example of our love, and He is the object of your faith and our hope.
Don’t fall into the trap of treating Christianity like some generic value-system that’s just telling you how to behave for the good of society and your fellow man. If that’s all this is, Paul said we are of all people most to be pitied.
This is all going somewhere. This is all heading somewhere. It’s moving toward a final reward and an eternal inheritance, which Christ will bring with Him.
Faith, love, and hope are not meant to exists in the abstract. They are supposed to be visible with power and with pain and with perseverance. But we do it because one day we will stand before our Master, and we will give an account.
So, let’s take these three short phrases as a gauge and as a challenge for our Christian lives. Our faith, our love, and our hope should be visible. In your own life, keep at it. And keep growing in that.
If you see someone younger in the faith, encourage them. Help them along. When you talk to someone older in the faith, ask them to help you. Help one another grow.
In addition to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we have another letter to the Ephesian church in the book of Revelation. It’s found in Revelation chapter 3. And in that letter, Jesus says to the church—I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance… I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake
In other words, Jesus says, “I see what you’re doing. I’ve noticed it.”
But He also said to the church, and some of you know this—But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
In other words, the Ephesian church started out looking great, but they were on their way to ending in disaster. That’s not what we want. That shouldn’t be what you want.
Let’s be like that newly formed Thessalonians church. Let’s remember what faith was like at the beginning. And let’s persevere in hope, so that our faith and our love endure for the glory of God.