1 Thessalonians 3:1-4:8 “Working Faith”
We’ve arrived at the very practical meat of Paul’s First Letter to Thessalonica. This part of the letter is the tenderloin, the filet mignon of what Paul has to say because he’s talking about what it looks like when we put our faith to work. In this one rather long passage, Paul gives us the four things that lie behind a working faith; four essentials, really. Without these, faith in Christ is academic. Without these, faith is all in your mind and not in your heart. But incorporate these four things into your life, and you begin to discover that you have a real faith, a genuine faith, a working faith.
Working Faith Looks
Now, a working faith goes way beyond simply believing in. A working faith puts belief to the test. A working faith stretches. A working faith strains. A working faith, as Jesus said, asks. A working faith seeks. A working faith knocks. A working faith finds because it has gotten into the arena and fought. A working faith finds because it has questioned and wrestled and has said to God, “I will not let you go until you bless me,” as Jacob did. And yet, a working faith is secure and isn’t focused inward at all.
Jesus told the parable of the 99 to explain the faith the Father has in us. He said,” What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Doesn’t that sound strange? With all our sin, all our anger, all our brokenness, he still comes looking for us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Don’t ever wonder, beloved. God has gone looking for you. And those he finds inevitably go looking for others. Listen to the way Paul tells of a working faith. Turn to 1 Thessalonians 3:1, if you’re not already there.
So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.
A working faith looks because a working faith has no choice. Is there someone you love who does not know Jesus? A working faith will bring you to a place where you will go looking for them just because you love them. Just the way Jesus came looking for you.
A working faith looks using its best resources. Paul could have sent anyone to find out how the believers in Thessalonica were doing. But Paul didn’t send just anyone. He sent Timothy. In Philippians he says of Timothy, “I have no one like him who will be genuinely anxious for your welfare.
A working faith looks to build up. It wants to see the another person grow in their faith. It is way too easy to sit at worship and become cynical because you aren’t being fed. Worship isn’t exciting for you. You didn’t get anything out of the sermon. That takes no work at all. If that’s how you’re feeling, you’re probably not looking.
But imagine a church full of people who each were more concerned about whether the person next to them was growing than they are about whether they themselves are growing. It would revolutionize the church. Imagine what it would be like if everyone in this church was thinking right now, “Oh, I wish Dave was here to hear this… Oh, I wish my cousin Sara was here to share in worship… Oh, my neighbor would get so much out of the fellowship here.” And what would it be like if a whole church went beyond the wishing and actually did the work in order to see to it that Dave and Sara and your neighbor was there to experience the worship, the fellowship, the communion, the community?
A working faith looks even when it is hard. Maybe a working faith looks especially when it is hard. Paul uses the words “trial” and “persecution” to describe his situation. Is there some barrier between you going looking for your lost friend, your lost relative, your lost co-worker, your lost neighbor? Would it be hard for you to do it? Could looking even cost you a friendship, a family bond, or a job? If so, you’re probably right where God wants you. Looking is going to take work.
You’ll know when you have a working faith because you… will… get… tired from looking.
Working Faith Longs
There is a dear family – a husband and wife and their two small boys – who Jama and I have come to love as family. A couple of years ago the couple’s marriage nearly came completely unraveled, and the Lord bound us together as Jama and I sat many evenings with them, either in person or on the phone, and listened as they loved, laughed, cried, yelled, told truth, and anguished over the crisis in their relationship.
In time, the crisis passed and the couple began to heal. Shortly after that, an opportunity came up for them to move to North Carolina. It was so hard to help them pack the moving van, knowing that in just a couple of months we would be living only 30 minutes from their home in Connecticut. Because we walked through the hardest point in their marriage with them, it might not surprise you to know that there is hardly a day that goes by when I don’t have the impulse to call and see how they’re doing. How are the boys? How’s your new job? How’s your marriage doing? Are you making friends at church? What can I pray for you? How’s your soul doing? There wasn’t enough time. Your marriage was just healed. We wanted to share the good times with you. We wanted to see the boys grow. There was so much more of Jesus I wanted to share with you all. I love you each so much.
Listen to the longing in Paul’s heart as he writes, starting at verse 6: “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
That’s the cry of the longing heart. It just wants to see them again and be able to share Christ with them. For…now…we…really…live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.
We walked with that family for five years, all told. There are people who were once part of this fellowship that some of you walked with for twenty-five years or for thirty years or more. Some have moved to other parts of the country. Some are still here in Windsor. Do you know how their soul is doing? Do you know how their faith is? Paul doesn’t long to have the Thessalonians in his church… he longs because he has them in his heart.
A working faith looks because a working faith longs. And you’ll know when you have a working faith because you… will… get… tired from longing.
Working Faith Loves
The next three verses are the heart of the heart of a working faith. Three times Paul invokes God’s blessing on these dear believers. The first is a blessing of presence.
In verse 11 he says, “May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.“ That isn’t vanity. This isn’t self-importance. It is just what people do when they love. And you don’t have to be a Christian to understand this.
The spring after my mother-in-law died, my father-in-law learned that his oldest and dearest friend was dying in California. By that time my father-in-law was blind in one eye, had dubious depth perception in the other, had a bad hip, a heart condition, and tired easily. But out of the deep love he had for his friend, at age 79, Jim got in his car one morning in Nashua, New Hampshire, and began to drive west. He stopped in Detroit and spent a night with his son and his family there. They begged him not to continue the trip. But he was determined, and somehow made it to San Francisco before his friend passed away.
Do you have friends you would cross a continent for just so God could bless you both with each other’s presence? If Paul had an inflated ego he would have said, “May God clear the way for you to come to us, and while you’re here I’ll see if I can clear my calendar and give you a little time.” And that’s exactly how most church fellowships work. They put on the signboard in front, “All are Welcome” as the ultimate testimony to their self-importance and indifference.
But the love of Christ is a serving love. The love of Christ is a giving love. The love of Christ is a traveling love that goes – just because it loves – and never complacently tells the other they are welcome to come here anytime. The love of Christ compelled God to come to earth as a man so that he could be “God with us.”
The next, in verse 12, is a blessing of freedom. “Look,” Paul is thinking, “What if I can’t get to them? What if God doesn’t make my visit possible?” Paul is so passionate for the Lord and for these dear believers that he cares more that they experience the kind of love he has for them than that they ever get the opportunity to see him. “May the Lord make your love increase,” he says, “and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” The ultimate expression of passionate care for another isn’t to hold them close, it is to see that they experience the love of Christ in the fullest measure, whether you are there or not.
Finally, in verse 13, it is a blessing of power. “May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” The great truth here is that you will experience the greatest power in your life when you are without blame and when they are freed from the power of sin.
A faith that loves goes out of its way to offer a blessing of presence, a blessing of freedom, a blessing of power. All of this takes real work.
A working faith looks because a working faith longs because a working faith loves. And you’ll know when you have a working faith because you… will… get… tired from loving.
Working Faith Lives
The last two things that make a faith that works will probably grate on you a little. But really, they’re pretty much at the root of it all. We just spent three years living in a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” so I can tell you that most New England Congregationalists would gladly throw someone like Paul out of their church.
Just think of the hubbub it would cause if our Executive Council received a letter that included, “As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”
The unmitigated gall of the man. How dare he tell us how to live and then claim that he’s doing it with the authority of Jesus! Throw the bum out!
And you’d be right to do it if Paul came to you moralizing with a workshop series on how to be sanctified; with a 10 CD set on how to avoid immorality; with an adult Sunday School option on how to control your body and how to live a holy life or with a teaching on what honor looks like. But that’s not what he does.
Paul knows that it isn’t any easier for them to get this right than it is for him. Remember what he says in Romans, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” and then adds, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” So he doesn’t moralize. He doesn’t run a seminar. He simply tells them what Joshua told the people of Israel as they were about to cross over into the promised land, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Do you want to cross over into the promised life that God has for you? Are you discouraged because all the seminars have begun to sound the same? You’ve heard all the how-tos and you don’t feel like you really know any more about how to live a holy life than you did at the beginning?
Choosing life is the one of the four that won’t make you tired because a working faith lives. A working faith is vital. A working faith is alive.
By my count, I lost six “minor” limbs, and one “major” one in the storm that struck last Saturday. I also lost the telephone and internet wires off my house. I lost a trunk-full of wood I gave to a friend, and a pot of soup Jama made for a neighbor. I temporarily lost electric power and the main source of heat in our house. I lost some frozen food from our freezer, a week of work, including an important opportunity to celebrate the work of Poquonock Playschool, and I lost a few nights’ sleep worrying about what might go wrong with our house.
So as I started to clean up the yard on Thursday, I began to count up my losses. With every stroke of the chain saw I griped a little more about what a week I had just had.
At one point I shut off the chain saw and paused. I was standing on my side of Main Street watching my neighbor Steve pull the last few tree limbs on his side to the street corner.
“Are you having fun yet?” I yelled across.
Steve opened the back of his SUV and threw his chain saw in. “Sure,” he said. I’m headed around the corner. There’s a ton of good wood on Broad Street Green for the taking, and then I’m going to stop over on Garden Street and help a friend get some limbs out of his yard.”
Steve laughed and said, “I’ve got a wood insert in my living room and a wood-burning stove in the basement. I won’t have to buy wood for a couple of years!” Steve had chosen life in the midst of all the dead tree limbs. And he wasn’t tired.
What was it that Paul had told the Thessalonians about how to really live? It was way back in chapter 3, verse 8 “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” And that’s what made Paul’s faith really work.
And a working faith lives because a working faith looks because a working faith longs because a working faith loves. And you’ll know when you have a working faith because after all that tiring looking and longing and loving you discover that now you really live.