On Sunday I preached on 1 Thess 5.12–28, the ending of what might well be the earliest letter of Paul that we have. As with many of his letters, this conclusion is packed full of practical instructions—many of which could be expanded and reflected on for some time. Why should we ‘Rejoice always’ (v 16)? What does it mean to ‘Pray continually’ (v 17)? Is it really possible to ‘Give thanks in all circumstances’ (v 18)? But overall three themes emerge.
Paul refers to one particular group, who appear to be in some sort of leadership amongst the Thessalonian Christians, as ‘those who work hard among you’. The verb he uses, kopiao, is his consistent term elsewhere for those engaged in Christian ministry. But the whole tone of his instructions here is dynamic and energetic—he is not expecting those reading the letter to simply sit back and relax, but to be provoked into action in response to the gospel he has preached and the teaching he has offered.
We might well object to this kind of approach to Christian discipleship on at least two grounds. The first is to say ‘I am already worn out by the demands of my life Monday to Saturday; I have come to church for rest and refreshment, not to be told to work hard!’ That highlights a serious challenge we are facing in our culture, and the issue of whether (with all the jobs to do when we meet together, like leading children’s groups, making coffee, running the sound desk and so on) Sundays really are a ‘day of rest’ for most Christians. Related to that, we might protest ‘I have come here with my wounds to receive healing, and with my sins and hurts to receive forgiveness’. So did many in the gospels—and when they received their healing from Jesus, they very often then received a commission, either to ‘follow me’ or to ‘go and tell what the Lord has done for you’ (Mark 5.19).
A second, theological, objection might be: ‘Surely God has in Jesus done everything for us, and there is nothing we can do to add to that?’ It is quite true that God’s grace comes to us without preconditions, and that our primary task is simply to receive the gift that he holds out to us. But the NT consistently shows that this gift, when received, evokes a response which is evident in a change of life. In fact, this is precisely where Paul began in this letter:
We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 1.2–3)
Paul can see that the inner realities of faith, love and hope have expressed themselves as outward actions. Faith had led to ‘work’, and the term Paul uses (ergon) gives us our term ‘energy‘. The Authorised Version of 1611 matches the compression of Paul’s phrases, translating these as ‘work of faith, labour of love and patience of hope’—and this is the source of our common phrase ‘labour of love’. There are many things to be done, but when animated by these inner realities, they don’t feel like a burden.
Paul is quite clear that ‘it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast’ (Eph 2.8–9). But he immediately goes on to say: ‘For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Eph 2.10). He would entirely agree with James when he says ‘Someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.’ (James 2.18). And when our faith does make a difference—to the things we do, the priorities we have, our attitudes and our actions—then others can see the reality of faith, just as those around saw change in the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thess 1.7–8).
At a time like this, it is quite hard not to mention rugby at some point! I love watching rugby, and one of the major difference between rugby and football is that it is much harder to be a lone star in rugby; it is at every stage a team sport. You might see a star striker in football weave his way down the pitch, and try on his own to score a goal, only to miss—and then notice a team-mate to one side with an open goal who has been screaming for the ball! But in rugby, for example in the scrum, you cannot identify a single person who has been the star; though there will be great individual performances, it is a team sport at every point.
In this passage, Paul paints a remarkable vision of integrated partnership within the community of faith, a picture he develops more fully in his discussion of the work of the Spirit in giving gifts in 1 Cor 12 and 14.
He explores it first in relation to those exercising some sort of leadership role, those who ‘care for you and admonish you’. There are two important things to note here. First, these people are to be held in the ‘highest esteem’. Paul goes rather other the top here—the word he uses suggests ‘super excessive respect’! By this stage in his ministry, Paul has received financial support so that he does not have to earn money by making tents, but can give himself to teaching and preaching full time. But those he is referring to here will be as he was in his early ministry—supporting himself, and exercising ministry in his ‘spare’ time. No stipend, house and pension for these! As someone with a teaching ministry, I find this encouragement of Paul deeply moving.
But notice that this esteem should be given ‘in love’. This is not about establishing a hierarchy of leadership which exercises control over the believers; Paul never once says ‘Do just what your leaders tell you to do’! Though Paul later in his writings refers to ‘elders’ and ‘overseers’, he uses no such terms here. In the news last week it was reported that Bishop Auckland Castle, which had been the seat of the ‘prince bishops’ who ruled over the Durham area, was re-opening after refurbishment. Castles? Princes? Ruling? Jesus is quite clear: ‘Not so with you!’ (Luke 22.26). For Paul, this is no hierarchy, but a partnership.
And this is evident in the instructions that follow. The Thessalonian Christians should welcome those who ‘admonish’ them—but they are to do the same to those who are ‘lazy’. Most English translations obscure this, but Paul uses the same word in both instructions. We are to learn to give and receive both encouragement and rebuke—something that demands a high level of communal trust, openness and respect. It is striking that he puts right next to each other the commands to ‘admonish the idle’ and ‘encourage the disheartened’. The word here suggests ‘those with little souls’, who have shrunk under the pressures of life. How do we tell the difference between the lazy and the disheartened? Surely only by love. We are to ‘live in peace’ with one another (v 13)—not merely with the absence of conflict, but as those sharing in a common life, reconciled to one another as we have been reconciled to God in Christ (2 Cor 5.19).
In a rugby match, the referee instructs the players in the pack: ‘Crouch [or kneel]; bind; engage!’ It is not a bad set of rules for our life together.
Paul here constantly emphasises two things: first, that we need to engage actively in the growth of our faith; secondly, that God is at work in us doing precisely the same thing!
On the one hand, we need to be open to what the Spirit of God is actively doing amongst us, and not to try and smother it. In particular, we need to be ready to listen to what God is saying to us through prophetic words from others. And in and through this, God is at work forming us as holy people, so that we will be like the ‘spotless bride’ in Rev 21 at the return of the Lord Jesus. He says to the Christians at Thessaloniki in this earliest of letters the same thing that he says to those in neighbouring Philippi in the last letter he writes to a church:
He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1.6)
Don’t worry—it all depends on God! But don’t be complacent—it all depends on us too! The paradox here is neatly captured in Paul’s exhortation to ‘Pray continually’. This might mean having specific moments in the day when we ask God for different things. Tim Keller helpfully suggests writing our own prayers for these moments—which coincide with the ancient practice of the office Hours of monastic practice. Or it might mean developing the habit of quickly and quietly inviting God in to all the situations in which we find ourselves—before a business meeting at work, when meeting a friend for coffee, in conversation with neighbours and family members. But here is the paradox: we are working hard to be open to the work that God is going to do!
For Paul, our growth in maturity and God’s work in us is not a ‘zero sum’ game, where more of one means less of the other. Quite the opposite! As we are more and more open to the work of God in and amongst us, we also need to be more mature and discerning, so that we test and weigh up everything we receive. As Andrew Wilson comments (in relation to Paul writing to the Corinthians):
Paul is confident that all of his converts will persevere in faith, yet he also insists that they must be diligent to persevere and live lives of ethical propriety. That is how Paul can assure the Romans that the eschatological verdict over their lives is already secure, and yet insist that everyone will be judged in accordance with their works (Rom 2.6–11, 3.21–26, 5.1–11). It is how he can assure all those in Christ that they are, in a real sense, already glorified and inseparable from God’s love, and yet plead with Gentiles to continue in God’s kindness lest they be cut off…
The grace of God, for Paul, is finally responsible for effecting his labour in the gospel, and ensuring that the original grace-gift does not prove empty, but this in no way diminishes the need for Paul’s hard work, no reduces him to a passive vehicle through God acts unilaterally. Paul strives, but with the energy which God has powerfully worked within him.
He believes the same about the Thessalonians that he believes about himself. And he models this dynamic of his own work with partnership in the work of God in his surprisingly strong command for the letter to be read in all the houses where the small groups of Christians will be meeting across the city of Thessaloniki. It is vital that his readers work hard to share and attend to what he says so that the gracious work of God might have its full effect.
This is a wonderful vision of what it means to be Christian community. Because of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we have a new sense of energy, of purpose and of vision. Because he has reconciled each of us to himself, we are bound together in a bond of love. We need each other for encouragement, reassurance and correction, as we live out our shared life in Christ. And in all this we are working in a dynamic partnership with God. This interwoven dynamic has the goal of allowing the grace of God not just to be contained in the community, but to spill out to those around us (‘always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else‘, v 15) so that they too might be drawn in and experience this grace for themselves.
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