Monday, October 17, 2011

1 Thessalonians 1: Pauline Triad

One of the things Paul is well known for is his "triad": faith, hope and love. D.A. Carson has a spectacular devotional on the topic in the October 11 entry within his first For the Love of God book. The triad shows up again at the introduction of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. One lesson I (hope I) have learned this year is to be careful with the beginning and end of each epistle. I too often mentally skip over paragraphs because I have perceived them as mere hellos or goodbyes, but they often contain a treasure of theological truth packed into very small spaces.
In this beginning chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul teaches us to pray, and he ties his prayer to faith, hope and love. Paul prays for the Thessalonians without doubt, but his prayers have a specific object associated with them: remembering the church's action in the triad. What's interesting is that Paul prays for them constantly, remembering their work, implying an ongoing labor in these three elements. So Paul is thankful to God for them, but part of the point of Paul's remembering seems to be intercession--that the Thessalonian believers would continue the work begun in them.

In verse three we gain a little more color on the triad: this is a work of faith, a labor of love and a steadfastness of hope. Possessing these three elements produces effects in our lives. Faith, hope and love aren't theoretical niceties--they move our beings.

"Work of faith" is intriguing because of the distinction Paul often makes between works and faith (Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16, Eph 2:8-9). Our primary work is not of the Law but of Faith. And the work flows from the faith, not the other way around. A "work of faith" implies the faith existed and the work comes because the faith was already there.

"Labor of love," we are to work in love, and we are to work at love. Unlike work of faith, which ties faith as a kind of work, love is a labor, or a continuous toil. We must cultivate the garden of our love, for if we slack for a moment, the weeds of selfishness will grow in our hearts.

"Steadfastness of hope" shows that the work of faith and labor of love we're engaged in will not be smooth sailing. For we meet trials of various kinds, and the testing of our faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2-3). But it is the hope within us that helps us endure the test of faith, "for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor 4:17). Christian have the greatest hope in the world, as "we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8).

Finally, this opening prayer has a triad of another kind, the Trinity. Verse 1 says, "To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," and the prayer is sandwiched with verse 4, "because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction."

How do we do a work of faith, a labor of love and have steadfastness of hope?

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