Thankful for a Church Faithful in the Last Days

Together with most of the other New Testament writers, Paul affirms that the last days were inaugurated in the first-century A.D. when Christ first came down from heaven. If this is true, then like the Thessalonians, we are to be equally steadfast and patient in our hope for Christ’s return.

Isaiah 42:1-3; Acts 17:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 a (text)
January 9, 2011

"Saint Paul Preaching in Athens" by Raphael (1483-1520)

"Saint Paul Preaching in Athens" by Raphael (1483-1520) (Click image to enlarge)

The next two years are exciting years for prophecy buffs. In the Philippines, it started with the “Jubilee of Jubilees” in 2010—prosperity gospel peddlers teaching that a popular evangelical leader would be elected president and would inaugurate the blessedness of the country. This year, a charismatic former Reformed radio teacher is predicting the return of Christ on May 21. And next year, some Christians have been seduced to believe that the ancient Mayans actually predicted the end of the world on December 21, 2012!

In his two letters to the church in Thessalonica, Paul paints a very different picture of events related to the return of Jesus and how they should affect the lives of Christians waiting for this last day on earth. The church was first established about 50 A.D. when Paul went to this provincial capital of the Roman province of Macedonia (mostly present-day Greece), as described in Acts 17:1-9. After he arrived there, Paul preached the gospel in the synagogue there on three Sabbaths, proclaiming that the Old Testament prophesied the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah, and that “this Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Messiah” (Acts 17:3).

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As a result of his preaching, some Jews, and “a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” among the city’s 200,000 people, were persuaded. Devout Greeks were sometimes called “God-fearers,” converts to the Jewish religion who worshiped at the synagogue. But the unbelieving Jews fomented a mob against Paul and his companions and those who have believed. Paul and the others then escaped to Berea where many Jews and Gentiles also believed. Hearing about Paul’s success in Berea, some of his enemies in Thessalonica went to Berea and stirred up unbelievers against Paul. Again, Paul was forced out of Berea and proceeded to Athens.

While in Athens, Paul became concerned about the Thessalonian church’s newfound faith upon hearing of troubles there because of false teachings about the Second Coming of Christ, persecution, and sinful behavior among some believers. So Paul sent his young disciple Timothy back to the city to see what was really happening there. When Timothy returned to Paul, he brought an encouraging report about the church. Paul then left for Corinth, and while he was there, he wrote the two letters to the church in Thessalonica only a few months apart.

Unlike letters or emails today, letters in the first century A.D. did not begin with a “Dear Thessalonians.” They began with the sender, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.” Sometimes Paul would add his credentials to authenticate his calling and apostleship, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1). Silvanus is probably the Latin form of the name Silas, a Judean Christian who joined Paul after Barnabas left Paul (Acts 15:39-40). He was the same Silas who, with Paul, was miraculously freed from prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25-40). We know Timothy as the young Jewish-Greek convert from Lystra in Galatia (Acts 16:1-4).

Timothy’s report brought great joy to Paul, but it also brought up some of the concerns mentioned above. In Paul’s first letter, he begins with giving thanks to God for two things that gave him assurance of their true faith: first, for the Thessalonians’ faith, love and hope; second, for God’s electing love for them.

For the Church’s Faith, Love and Hope

Similar to most of his other letters, Paul greets the recipients, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He thereby unites the church to the Trinitarian God—Father, Son, and later in verse 5, Holy Spirit. The church, ekklesia in the New Testament, is the same ekklesia in the wilderness in the Old Testament called out of this world by God (Acts 7:38). For example, the Greek Septuagint translates Deuteronomy 23:2-3′s “assembly (“congregation”) of Yahweh” as ekklesian kyriou (“the assembly of the Lord”). Paul was therefore declaring to the believers in Thessalonica their inclusion into the universal church or assembly made up of Jews and Gentiles from all nations, an expansion of God’s Old Testament people Israel.

Notice also that God and Jesus Christ are closely connected, and that Christ is called Lord (kyrios), the same word translated “Lord” from the Hebrew Yahweh, the covenant God. This is Paul’s way of underscoring that Jesus is both the Divine Messiah and Lord of the church: God the Father and God the Son are thus two distinct Divine Persons subsisting in one Divine Being.

Because the letters of Paul are part of the inspired Word of God, when Paul writes his greeting to the Thessalonian church, we consider his greeting as God’s greeting to us today in our worship service. This is why we start our worship with a greeting from one of Paul’s epistles. This greeting is not only a Trinitarian greeting, but also a prayer for “Grace… and peace.” In his letters to Timothy, Paul adds “mercy” to these two words. Grace of course is God’s favor, goodwill and benefits which he bestows to undeserving, sinful mankind. Peace is a state of well-being of a person’s life brought about by God’s saving grace. These two are the believers’ present state of being as God’s people in Christ. But Paul also prays that they will continue to receive and to be in God’s grace and peace.

Paul's Missionary Journeys

Paul's Missionary Journeys (Click image to enlarge)

In verse 2, Paul thanks God for the Thessalonians’ genuine Christian living. These are familiar opening words of thanksgiving which Paul also uses in his letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. This thanksgiving comes from an attitude of prayerfulness in Paul’s life—remembering his brethren in constant, continuous, “unceasing” prayers. This does not mean that all he does every day is pray, but that the people were always in his mind; he never forgets to pray for them. This also helps us to be in a constant, consistent attitude of prayer. This is also why thanksgiving comes before all our requests in our prayers. Paul adds thanksgiving to the prayer that Jesus commands us to model after in Matthew 6:9-13: praising God first, confessing our sin, and then thanking God for his grace, mercy and peace before bringing our petitions. This is also the pattern that we use in our worship liturgy.

When we remember other brethren in our prayers—their faithfulness and disobedience, their blessings and sufferings, their joys and sorrows—thanksgiving flows out of our hearts for them. We thank God for his grace, mercy and peace in their lives, but we also pray that they will continue to receive these blessings from God. These prayers are not for health and wealth—although peace includes health and well-being—but for very basic spiritual needs that only God could give: divine grace, mercy and peace.

So thankfulness to God flows from remembering God’s “yes” or “no” or “later” to our prayers. We also give thanks to him for his grace and mercy in forgiving us of all our sins because Christ’s has paid for all of them in his sacrificial death. Lastly, we are grateful to God for his being a God who bestows his spiritual and material provisions on his undeserving people.

Paul’s thanksgiving to God arises out of Timothy’s report about a triad of qualities that authenticate the genuineness of their faith: faith itself, love and hope. These three also produce results in their lives: their work from faith, labor from love, and steadfastness from hope. This triad is very familiar (1 Thess 5:8; Rom 5:2-5; Gal 5:5-6; Eph 4:2-5), but in 1 Corinthians 13:13, the sequence is different in that “love” is listed last, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Here, the focus of Paul is on “love” (agape) between the brethren in the church. In contrast, our text focuses on the believers’ blessed hope in the last days, which produces endurance and strength.

Paul gives thanks to God for the work that the people produce because of faith (Gal 5:6; 2 Thess 1:11; Heb 6:10; Jas 2:22); not work that results in salvation, but work coming out of saving faith. This includes loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Paul says their “labor” also arises out of this agape love for the brethren (2 Thess 1:3-4; Rev 2:19). God’s love poured out on us through Christ’s death compels us to love others, especially our brethren in Christ. John says one of the evidences that we love God is our love for the brethren in Christ, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers… By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers… Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18). For John, loving God without loving the brethren is antithetical, If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar (1 John 4:20).

The last of this triad is “steadfastness of hope” (Rom 8:25; 15:4). The Thessalonians had patience, endurance and steadfastness even through the greatest of trials and sufferings. Why is hope last in the triad in our text, in contrast to other texts? This is because the Thessalonians were facing trials and temptations arising out of the false teaching that the resurrection had already occurred unnoticed. Because of this teaching, they were losing hope for themselves and for their loved ones who had already died. Later, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul encourages them about the hope of resurrection from the dead, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

Paul encourages the first-century Christians not to lose hope in the face of trials and persecutions. If they must have faith, love and hope, why must we also have these three qualities? The reason for this correspondence is that both of us live in these difficult last days with its sufferings from apostasy, false teachings, temptations and persecutions. Together with most of the other New Testament writers, Paul affirms that the last days were inaugurated in the first-century A.D. when Christ first came down from heaven (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim 3:1; 1 Cor. 10:11; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; 9:26; Jas 5:3; 1 Pet 1:10; 2 Pet. 3:3; Jude 18). If this is true, then like the Thessalonians, we are to be equally steadfast and patient in our hope for Christ’s return.

Paul was thankful to God for the Thessalonians’ genuine Christianity as evidenced by their faith, love and hope in Christ.

For God’s Electing Love

Many people who learn the Reformed doctrine of election for the first time often ask, “How do I know that I’m one of the elect? I want to be sure.” Paul answers this question in our text, and he was certain—he “knew”—that they were God’s chosen ones, “brothers loved by God.” This certainty flows out of two things.

Evidence of Faith

First, they showed the evidence that they were elect. Paul thanked God for the Thessalonians’ genuine faith, love and hope because he knew that they had those qualities as a result of being chosen by God for salvation. From Timothy’s report about their work, labor and endurance, Paul knew for sure that they were God’s elect.

How do you know you are one of God’s “frozen chosen,” a derogatory name that many freewill evangelicals use of those who hold to the doctrine of predestination? Those who are chosen to be united to Christ are indwelt by the Spirit and thereby exhibit the Sprit’s fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22). As mentioned above, your love for God and his Word, and love for your brethren in Christ also testify of your election.

When you want to be sure of your election, it means that salvation from sin and God’s wrath, loving God and neighbor, and walking in newness of eternal life are the most important things in your life. Does the unrepentant have any interest in these things? Have you ever met an unbeliever who wants to be sure that he is one of the elect? No, these things are all foolishness to him (1 Cor 2:4). He couldn’t care less, because his only interest in life are the things of the world—“the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:15-16).

In their passions, the Christian and the unbeliever are diametrically opposed. The word of God dwells richly in the Christian (Col 3:16), and he has set his mind “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). This is because he knows what God commands him as one of his chosen ones, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience … And above all these put on love” (Col 3:12, 14). Christian, are you zealous for God’s word and godly living and thereby prove your election?

Paul refers to Christians as “brothers loved by God.” This is how God calls his people, whether in the Old or New Testament. In Isaiah 42:1-3, God calls Israel and the Messiah his beloved chosen one, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isa 42:1; cf Deut 33:12). Matthew quotes these verses to refer to Jesus after he healed many of their diseases (Matt 12:15-20). The Father also uses similar words when Jesus was baptized by John, and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt 3:17; cf 17:5).

Because Christians are united to Christ, we are also beloved of God. Later in his epistle, Paul again says of the Thessalonians, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved” (2 Thess 2:13).

God’s election of the Thessalonians is solely based on his love for them from eternity. Most Christians today understand this electing love backwards, believing that God’s love for us is based on our love for God, and that God chose us because we first chose him. But Paul very clearly teaches that from eternity, God predestined his people only according to his will, purpose, love, mercy and grace,

In love he predestined us … according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace … In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace … In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:3-11).

His eternal purpose in election is to make us “holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4) and for “the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12, 14). Nothing in us counts for God’s choice.

Power of the Gospel through the Holy Spirit

Secondly, Paul is certain of the church’s election because, he says in verse 5, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Mention of the Holy Spirit completes Paul’s Trinitarian thanksgiving, because the Spirit’s power created faith in God’s chosen people so that they believed in the gospel of Christ that Paul preached. Here, Paul again mentions three things involved in salvation: power, Holy Spirit and full conviction. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Without the preaching of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, no one will be saved.

Paul’s teaching about the power of gospel is contradicted by most churches today, which use all sorts of man-made gimmicks and creativity to entice unbelievers to believe, even distorting the gospel and preaching a different gospel. But how would unbelievers be saved, except by the power of the Spirit, since for unbelievers, the gospel we preach is foolishness, For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Anyone who says he was saved through a movie, a drama, a song, or a crusade, apart from the preaching of the true gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit does not have genuine faith. And this false assurance is usually evidenced by the absence of the fruits of faith, love and hope in them. It is only the Spirit who gives new life to those who are spiritually dead, and who gives them the fruits of their true faith through the preaching of the true gospel (Rom 10:17; Gal 3:2, 5).

There is therefore no such thing as a “carnal Christian,” one who claims to be a Christian but does not have anything to show for it. This concept is impossible because the word of God does not return void, or without effect (Isa 55:11). Paul has a sober warning to all those who claim to have faith in Christ, but without works, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Pet 1:10). This is only a reminder to us that when we have faith, love and hope in Christ, our calling and election is sure. Be assured then that the word of God is not in vain for you. With true faith, you are sure not to fall into unbelief, because nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:38-39).

Conclusion

Dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, be assured then that your true faith, love and hope in Christ are evidences of your calling and election by God the Father. By the power of the Spirit, you have full conviction, assurance, confidence, and certainty that even in the face of trials, sufferings and false teachings, you will bear fruits and endurance till our Lord Jesus Christ returns to bring us to our heavenly home.

In the meantime, while you await his coming, you are to diligently attend to the preaching of the Word so that you may remember the perfect will of God for your lives in this wilderness of sin. And you are to remember and be nourished by the body and blood of Christ broken and shed for you on the cross.

Let us now attend to the service of the Lord’s Supper.

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Nollie says:

“Half empty or half full” is an apt description of our life in this world. It reminds me of the Reformed “already-not-yet” principle. We are pilgrims living in this age, but the age to come has broken into this age, so we enjoy the benefits of the age to come, but still “carry our crosses” in this age. Thanks for visiting, and may this website continue to bless you.

compugor says:

Thank you for such a gloriously exhortational article. The mention our “lives in this wilderness of sin” prompts me to make the following observation.

As far as the man-made labels go, I’ve been amillennial teetering on the edge of postmillennialism (premillennialism was never in the running). My singular objection to postmillennialism has been the proclamation of a “golden age”. Perhaps the only difference is one of eschatological outlook, i.e. instead of seeing this age on earth as a wilderness of sin, it can also be seen as our Lord’s present dominion in which he is triumphant as is being progressively manifested through us (the church).

So perhaps its kind of a half empty or half full glass. The Bible tells us that we must carry our crosses as our faith is tested and we will experience persecution and affliction for Christ in the world, but one thing I hope is agreed by all: satan has been defeated, the world is the Lord’s (He is reigning now) and the outcome is certain.

admin says:

Hi Marilyn! Great to hear from both of you. You’re all amazing. I’ll be posting my series every week. My main resource is G. K. Beale’s commentary (IVP Series).

Marilyn Shaver says:

Thanks Nollie. Bill and I have a home Bible Study and we are beginning The study of Thessalonians.
Our groups average age is 84 and have been in the church for years, yet God,s word is a daily help as we all go through the aging process.
We now have 7 great grand children!
Love In His Service.
Marilyn