In most of the apostle Paul’s letters, the greeting is followed by an expression of thanks to God. Since 1 Thessalonians is an entire letter of thanks for the readers’ faith, Paul expresses his gratitude throughout the first three chapters. This thanksgiving begins with a long sentence that runs from 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5, in which Paul rejoices over the proofs of their salvation: “For we know, brothers loved by god, that he has chosen you” (v. 4). Paul had been concerned about the reality of the Thessalonians’ faith when he was forced to hastily leave them in the midst of trials, and he thanks God for proof of His grace in their lives.
Assurance of salvation is based on biblically sanctioned evidences, and in 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 Paul identifies the proofs that mark the Thessalonains as God’s elect: “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). In doing this, Paul identifies the qualities of a healthy church and a thriving Christian life, while also noting the graces for which believers should pray to God.
Before commending the proofs of their salvation, Paul assures his readers of his fervent prayers on their behalf: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers” (v, 2). This statement is one of the many references in his letters that present Paul’s commitment to prayer. One of the keys to Paul’s prayer is the word “constantly.” Paul seems to have maintained an incessant prayer vigil for his persecuted friends in Thessalonica. Paul would have kept the practice of formal prayers at least three times a day, as he did in his former days as a pharisee. We too, would benefit from regular periods of prayer in our daily schedules. Like Paul, we should pray for a wide range of family, friends, and servants of Christ.
Moreover, our prayers, like Paul’s, should be richly adorned with thanks, realizing that, as James put it, “every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17). Thanksgiving is a distinctive mark of Christian prayer. Paul, Silas, and Timothy are daily filled with fervent thanksgiving to God as they think of what His grace has wrought in the lives of the Thessalonians. We too, through our faith in Christ, have ample reasons to pray continually with thanksgiving because of the saving grace that has flowed to us from the cross of Christ and from the throne in heaven where He reigns for us. As Paul writes toward the end of this letter: “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:17-18).
Paul’s opening prayer identifies the marks of grace that bear testimony to the believers’ salvation. He writes to express his joy over the report that Timothy brought back from Thessalonica, noting their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (v. 3). Readers familiar with Paul will recognize the threefold virtues about which he often spoke: faith, love, and hope.
The first evidence of salvation is faith as it is observed through good works” “your work of faith” (v. 3). Some Christians become alarmed whenever the concepts of works and faith appear together in the Bible. Paul makes clear in his writings that sinners are justified by faith alone, apart from any good works (Gal. 2:16). As sinners, we could never cover our guilt before God with any number of good works, since works cannot erase the record of our sin. Being imperfect, they cannot merit salvation. Instead, God justifies us through the finished work of His Son, Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty of our sin on the cross and achieved righteousness for us by His perfect life of obedience. While we are most certainly not saved by works, Paul specifies that we are certainly saved to good works.
Second, Paul rejoices in the Thessalonians’ “labor of love.” Paul rejoices that the Thessalonains were willing to serve in costly ways because of the love that had arisen from their faith in Christ. Paul envisions love in labor among fellow Christians, in esteem for spiritual leaders, in concern for Chrisitians in other places, and “for all”, which includes non-Christians. The gracious love of God works in the hearts of those who receive it, so that we begin to see others as God sees them and to love them without thought of gain or cost to ourselves. Hearing of the “labor of love” among the Thessalonians, Paul rejoices at this evidence of God’s saving power at work within them.
Third, Paul notes their “steadfastness of hope” (v. 3). The hope to which he refers is not mere wishful thinking, as when we say, “I hope is snows on Christmas morning!” Rather, biblical hope is the certainty of receiving what God has promised, including forgiveness of sin and an inheritance in eternal glory. Like love, hope springs from a living faith in Christ and His Word. The result of this hope is the ability to remain steadfast in the face of present trials, knowing that by persevering in faith we will be saved. The steadfastness of Christian hope is not a grim, stoic resignation to hardship but a believing fortitude that faces trials in the certain expectation of victory through Jesus Christ.
Credible evidences are important to Christian assurance, which is why those who do not live out their faith impractical godliness and love will often be tormented with doubts about their salvation. Yet the evidences are not the source or cause of salvation. Instead, Paul explains, these are signs of God’s saving work and even of a believer’s eternal election (v. 4). With this in mind, Paul concludes verse 3 by directing his readers to look to Jesus Christ and to God the Father for security of their salvation.
Notice that the Thessalonians’ faith, love, and hope are located “in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). This reference to Jesus is especially linked to the concluding matter of hope. Since Paul is writing to new believers who are struggling with persecution and other hardships, his particular concern is that they will press on in hope. This letter goes on to emphasize that believers’ hope is grounded in the promised return of Jesus Christ to complete the salvation of His people (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Anticipating Christ’s return, they are to “encourage one another” amid the brief struggles of this life (5:11).
Paul is wrapping up his expression of thanksgiving by first relating the believers’ hope to Jesus Christ and then reminding them that God sees and is glorified by their evidences of His saving grace. In this respect, Paul emphasizes the fatherhood of God for believers, who are His children in Jesus Christ. As children, we are reminded of our responsibilities by the presence of our Father. But even more so, we are encouraged by the love, support, and provision of our Father. Just as children want their earthly father to be present for baseball, or soccer games, drawing strength and encouragement from his supportive presence, so Christians are emboldened in the work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope by their awareness of God’s love, acceptance, and provision. The Father’s presence motivates us to glorify Him through lives transformed by the grace He gives.
The record of the Thessalonians, who had only recently become believers, shows that everyone who is born again in Christ has God’s power for radical change. Trusting Christ therefore calls us to strive in God’s Word and in prayer to realize this potential and grow in God’s grace. In raising Christian children, we likewise should aspire to far more than keeping them from getting into trouble or abandoning the faith. Instead, we should minister God’s Word in confident expectation of divine blessing, setting an inspiring example through our own transformed lives and praying fervently that God will empower our children in the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, Paul’s example in prayer should inform our own intercessions. We should think frequently of other Christians and also of the well-being and ministry of the church, constantly bearing their needs in prayer before God. We should pray in keeping with the priorities of Christ’s kingdom, in which the things that really matter are faith, love and hope. And we should often thank God for the evidences that His saving power is at work among us.
A successful Christian is not one who has attained to a high position in society but one who has advanced in evidences of God’s grace. A rich Chirstian is not one who boasts of a great deal of money but one who abounds in faith, love, and hope through Jesus Christ. As Paul remembers the evidences of salvation among the Thessalonians, we realize that a life worth remembering is one sketched out on the canvas of Paul’s prayer of thanks.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 Study Questions:
As Paul looks back and gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians, he knows that God was indeed at work in them as the word of the gospel was preached. Why is Paul convinced that God has chosen these believers?
In verses 3-4 Paul recalls the signs of life he observed among the Thessalonian church, even in the short time he spent with them. What might an accomplishment of faith, the hard work of love or the patience of hope look like in your life or that of your Christian community?