A Message That Works

Dirty hands

1 Thessalonians 1:2-5 “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”

Why did Paul offer such thanksgiving and prayer when he thought about these Christians in Thessalonica? He was moved by three evidences that the gospel was working in their lives. First, we hear a whir of activity. “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith.” Good works may not belong to the equation of salvation. But they are still an indispensable evidence that saving faith is genuine. This is not that restless, driven kind of religious busyness produced by feelings of guilt, or fear of the law, or insecurity about what God or others think about me. These flow from faith like water from a spring. These grow on faith like fruit on a tree.

The next thing we hear is a sigh of weariness. “We remember…your labor prompted by love.” Labor here is not exactly the same thing as work. Labor refers to the kind of hard and tiring activity that sometimes is full of frustration and disappointment. You know what I am talking about? We toil away at some church program only to see it flop. We make sacrifices to help others only to find that we are being taken advantage of. We suffer through personality conflicts, poor decision making, and inept, uninspired service because we are trying to get God’s work done.

Genuine Christian service is not always “fun,” or necessarily even “fulfilling.” Sometimes it may hurt. That does not mean it is not valuable. That certainly should not be used as excuse to bail out or sit on the sidelines. Paul simply offers a realistic view of service in God’s kingdom. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes we’re guilty of making it hard for others.

Who wants to volunteer for that? What could move us to subject ourselves to that kind of experience? This, Paul says, is “labor prompted by love.” We must keep someone else in mind when we get our hands dirty and faces sweaty in the hard labor of God’s kingdom. Love for the Lord who so loves us, love for the lost souls around us, and love for the dear children of God with whom we serve prompt us to labor on.

Paul’s third evidence even exposes us to groans of suffering. “We remember…your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Some promote the idea that Christianity makes everything in your life suddenly wonderful. The Thessalonians knew that it gave you just as much need for patient endurance. The plain teachings of Scripture invite rejection, even persecution, from the people around us. It can cost us friends. It can cost us respect. It can put us in danger. It can make us the targets of attack.

But we don’t endure all this for nothing. We are inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Have you ever seen news stories of people camped out in front of the ticket office when some popular show or sporting event is coming to town? Reporters go through the line and interview people about how long they have been camped out and how hard it has been to endure the elements to keep their place. But you don’t ever hear of anyone going through the ordeal without expecting something at the end. People don’t wait in that line in the cold just for the experience. They hope to hold a ticket in their hands at the end.

When our convictions lead us to endure insults, accusations, and maybe even physical abuse for our Lord Jesus, we don’t do so for nothing. We have hope. We have certainty that we will be holding something in our hands at the end: the ticket to get us through the gates of heaven, the deed to our own heavenly home.

Where, then, does such conviction come from? Listen to Paul again, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.” Do you hear the strains of love? The gospel is not just a collection of nice-sounding, religious words. It is more than information about the way to heaven. It is the powerful, creative message by which the Holy Spirit works a miracle change in our hearts. Through it he convinces us the things Paul says about us here are true.

We are loved by God. How could it be any other way if he still wants us as his own, fully aware of all our sins? How could it be any other way if he was willing to sacrifice his only Son to remove our sins and purify us for himself?

He has chosen you. Do you hear the welcome of an adoptive family? Our place in God’s family is not due to natural forces beyond his control. He specifically sought us and chose us. He directed all of human history to make sure that your sins were paid for, and you heard the gospel, and you were brought to faith, and you could be certain that God had made you his own and surrounded you with a loving family of brothers and sisters.

That’s the powerful gospel we have believed. That’s the powerful difference it makes.

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