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The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece. Greece, a place of such wonder, beauty, and glorious history. From this place burst forth such a level of creative thinking about all subjects that the world continues to stand in awe of it. It inspires politicians, architects, artists, philosophers, and theologians to this day. It is the foundation of much of our own civilization. Lord Byron, the great English poet, who died in the cause of Greek independence, said, “Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more! Though fallen, great!” (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 2.73).
Even in Paul’s day, people would have looked at Greece in the same way. When the Romans conquered it, they took the Greek philosophers and teachers as tutors for their children and imbibed all they could of Greek culture and philosophy. For Christian theologians, the writings of the Greeks have been a conversation partner in a somewhat tumultuous relationship, sometimes wanting to throw them out and then going back to them again, seeing their value.
The Greeks themselves are today a Christian people, in the broad sense of that term. That is part of the story of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. In Acts 16, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia, calling him over to Europe. He crossed the Hellespont and went into Europe. He entered the Roman colony of Philippi and met a woman named Lydia. She and her companions became the first church in Europe.
Paul and the Thessalonian Church
From there, Paul made his way to the capitol city of the region, Thessalonika. Today, the Greeks call it Thessaloniki. If you go to Greece, you can visit this ancient city. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue and told the people that Jesus was the promised Messiah or Christ. Several responded positively. “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4).
Others were not as enthusiastic. In fact, they were downright hostile. They gathered a mob that searched for Paul and his associate Silas. They didn’t find him, so they took a man named Jason and brought him before the authorities. Here’s what they said, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:6b–7). The authorities made Jason pay bond, and then they let him go.
The young church felt so concerned about Paul and Silas that they helped them leave the city that night and go away to the nearby town of Berea (see Acts 17:10). This made the Apostle Paul feel what he calls “orphaned” from them because of their abrupt separation.
But that wasn’t the end of their suffering. The pressure on the young church was still intense. They continued to suffer trials, as Paul had warned them. Paul was deeply concerned about his fledgling church. He felt that his work was not complete, and he had anxiety over whether the church would continue in the face of suffering.
Because of this concern, he sent Timothy back to the Thessalonians to see how they were doing. This letter (1 Thessalonians) was written just after he had received a positive report from Timothy. “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” (1 Thess. 3:6).
So, Paul wrote this letter with great excitement. He loved these Thessalonian Christians and wanted to see them thriving. “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:19–20).
Faith, Hope, and Love
And what was it that gave Paul such joy in these Christians? It was the type of people they were. As noted, he was encouraged because Timothy told him about “their faith and love.” At the beginning of the letter, we read, “We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We 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” (1 Thess. 1:2–3). The Thessalonians were a people of faith, hope, and love. This manifested itself in work, labor, and endurance.
You will notice that Paul mentions three virtues: faith, hope, and love. Virtues are positive character traits that reflect the glory of God and show the nobility of human beings. You need to pay special attention to these three characteristics. These are gifts from God, and they are gifts that we have responsibility to nurture and develop, as we shall see.
Paul uses these categories regularly. He describes them in 1 Cor. 13:13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” He also mentions them again later in the letter: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thess. 5:8).
This is the glory of the children of light. Greece has a glory, but the children of light have a glory which surpasses it. It is a glory that reflects the divine glory in a unique and powerful way. It is the character of a Christian. It is a gift more precious than gold, as Peter says it. It is this character of the Thessalonians that caused Paul to rejoice and give thanks. To enable them to grow in faith, hope, and love was the purpose of this letter.
There’s also something significant here in the context of suffering. Paul wanted them to grow in their virtues, to become more of what God has called them to be. They were experiencing suffering, but this was an opportunity for them to grow in faith, hope, and love. For example, we can think we trust God, but when things fall apart, we will have a better idea if we really trust God’s plan for our well-being. This is always the appropriate response to our suffering. It is something hard, but it is also an opportunity to grow into what God has called us to be. So, suffering isn’t an unqualified evil.
Understanding the Virtues
What’s important here is to understand who we are, what our character is, and how God develops that character within us to enable us to grow. Verse 3 gives us some helpful guidance in this regard. Listen carefully to these words: “We 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” (1 Thess. 1:3). Let me note seven things about these virtues based on this verse and its context in the book of Thessalonians.
1. Their virtue was demonstrated by their actions. Faith led them to work. Love led them to labor. Hope gave them endurance. As James puts it, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (James 2:14). Our character will manifest itself in actions appropriate to that character.
2. Their actions were rooted in their character. To enable us to work and labor, we shouldn’t just try harder. We need to grow in our character. We need greater faith, hope, and love. What keeps people from being able to do good in the world? Is it not the fear, lusts, anxiety, and pride that shape us on the inside? The reverse is also true. A character of faith, hope, and love will manifest itself in work and labor for the glory of God and others.
3. Their character was a gift from God. Their character as Christians was produced by God Himself. As we shall see in our next sermon, it was the power of the Holy Spirit that produced these virtues in connection with the Word. They were taught by God to love, as Paul says in 1 Thess. 4:9.
4. Their character was shaped by the Word. What did they have faith in? It was God’s Word and promise. So, they needed to replace the stories that had shaped their lives with a different story, God’s story as taught in His Word.
Consider an example. As we approach new endeavors, why are we so nervous? We think of the future as full of bad things. But what does God tell us? He wants to bless us! We don’t need to fear the future. It is full of blessing. This is the virtue of hope.
5. They needed to work at growing their own character. God is the author of these virtues, but they were also to join what God was already doing and seek to stir up these virtues. After Paul said that God was the one who taught them to love, he says, “Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more.” How? By praying for their increase, re-shaping their minds through the Word, and engaging in difficult things that would call them to trust in the Lord and require the hope of the Holy Spirit.
6. They were to labor to grow the character of others. Christians help each other grow. That’s why Paul wrote this letter—to help them grow in their virtues. The Thessalonians were to do the same thing for each other. Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). They were to build each other up. Growth in character is a communal activity.
7. Character is always a mixed bag in this life. We have this glory, but it is in jars of clay. I like the way Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, “There is no limit to either the sanctification individual life, or social perfection in collective life, or to the discovery of truth in cultural life; except of course the one limit, that there will be some corruption, as well as deficiency, of virtue and truth on the new level of achievements” (The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2.156). We should not look at any particular sin and say it is impossible to overcome. We should not look at any good trait and say that it is impossible to attain. However, when we make progress in these areas, we always recognize that they will contain some deficiency.
The glory of the children of light in the virtues of faith, hope, and love is not some minor point. It is what being a Christian is all about. It is Christ in us, the hope of glory!
So, let me ask you to consider. Do you think about being a person of greater faith, hope, and love? Is this your ambition? This is God’s ambition for your life. It’s more important than where you go to college, what job you have, what house you have, what shows you watch, how many friends you have, how many children you have, or anything else. God wants to form this character in you. Are you joining in what God is doing?
Second, do we have clarity on what we are doing as a church? This is our goal: to make people of faith, hope, and love. Once we gather such people, our goal is to help them grow into people whose lives are more and more characterized by faith, hope, and love.
Now, you are working at this, but we can do so more and more. That’s Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, and that’s my message to you. This point is of tremendous importance. This is the glory of the children of light. It is a glory greater than that of Greece and a grandeur greater than that of Rome. It is the very glory of God Himself reflected in the human person! It is the work that God is doing in the world and in us. So, let’s join in with Him and pursue this glory.