For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
My university graduation featured an address by a speaker who told us he intended to be “aspirational, inspirational, and motivational”. Sadly, he was none of those things, but was a rather dull speaker who trotted out the standard tropes of such occasional addresses: work hard; act well towards your colleagues and clients; persevere towards a better tomorrow.
On the face of it, Paul’s opening prayer for the Thessalonian church contains similar elements:
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 1:2-3)
The difference, of course, is that Paul’s mention of their work of faith, labour of love, and steadfastness of hope shows his deep relationship with the Triune God.
The hope displayed by the Thessalonians is in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is both the source of their hope and also the goal: he is the one who delivers us from the wrath to come, and the one whose return they are patiently waiting for. And so when the gospel of Christ came to them, they became imitators of those who spoke it to them—which, of course, means they became imitators of the Lord Jesus himself.
But this kind of imitation of Christ isn’t just about the here and now. One of the great testimonies to the gospel is the work of the Spirit in believers’ lives, as they act differently to the world around them—loving the unlovely, caring for the poor and oppressed, and so on—but it’s not only about this kind of action now. The change brought about in Christ is future-oriented: the Thessalonians turned from idols to the true and living God, and now stand and wait for his Son from heaven. Without a sure hope in Jesus and confidence in our standing with him before the Father, imitation of Jesus easily descends into rather empty moralism. In contrast, we serve God, waiting patiently in a sure hope.
When the gospel came and found reception with the Thessalonians, itself a sign of God’s prior love for them, they turned from idols. What a contrast in devotion: our Father is not a lifeless idol, unable to speak or act, but he is the powerful creator, compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and truth. Such a change of life doesn’t come about on its own, but “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (v. 5). The power of the Spirit of God brought about the Thessalonians’ repentance and faith in God, as they trust in Jesus, their saviour and redeemer.
The lives of the Thessalonians for which Paul gives thanks are properly Christian lives, bound up, as they should be, with the Triune God. Known and chosen by God, they know and wait for the Lord Jesus, living in the power of the Spirit.
Paul goes on in this letter to talk about not only how the gospel came to them, but how he himself lived among them. He lived out the gospel with them from day to day and, despite the hardships that would have occurred, he gives thanks for their response to the gospel: they turned from idols to serve the true and living God.
Likewise, I am thankful for all those I’m in personal contact with who live their lives as faithful Christian men and women, who have turned to serve the living God. Their steadfastness, labour, and love is evident in so many ways: those who look after children each week in kids’ church and teach them the gospel; those who are involved in care for others in the community; the ones who faithfully pray for their brothers and sisters; the parents who each day work at being Christian with their children. I’m thankful to God for those who are diligent in their Christian walk, expressing their faith in action as they are changed by the Spirit. I’m thankful for brothers and sisters all over the world who in great steadfastness endure all manner of persecutions and hardships, never wavering from their hope in Jesus, raised from the dead, who delivers us from the wrath to come.