The next few verses fascinate me —
(1 Thess. 2:17-18 ESV) 17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again– but Satan hindered us.
Paul apologizes, in effect, for not being able to return in person to Thessaloniki to meet face to face. Cryptically, he says that “Satan hindered us.” His language is very strong: “I, Paul” — nearly an oath affirming the truth of the matter. “Again and again.” Paul repeatedly tried to return but was hindered by Satan each time.
“Hindered” is a military term used when an enemy tears up a road to prevent travel. We might translate “Satan detained us” or “Satan interdicted us” (I know, too obscure) or “Satan did to us what Sherman did to the Confederacy.” (Around here, this would be very clear. Maybe not up North.)
In truth, we do not know how Satan frustrated their plans to return before the writing of this letter. All we can say is that the opposition was formidable enough to put a halt to their best efforts.
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 153.
This brings us to —
(1 Thess. 2:19-20 ESV) 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
Paul seems to be speaking of salvation predicated somehow on works. Paul’s “hope” before “Lord Jesus” is the church at Thessaloniki. He credits them with being his ticket into heaven.
Doubt me? (Well, I doubt me, so let’s be sure) —
But for the moment we note that when Paul looks forward to that day, as he does eagerly, the thing that he regards as his reason for confidence, his ‘boasting’, in the presence of the Lord is the Christians who have become established and mature through his work. They are his ‘hope, joy and crown’, his ‘glory and joy’.
This is remarkable for several reasons, and should be an encouragement and stimulus both to pastors and to congregations. But it might, at first glance, seem to be odd. Surely for Paul the single hope for the future, the thing that will stand him in good stead on the last day, is simply the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ? ‘God forbid’, he writes in Galatians 6:14, ‘that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.’ Has he changed his mind?
Of course not. Jesus’ death and resurrection remain foundational for who Paul is and what he does (see, e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:14). But the ‘boasting’ he there refers to relates to his present status, his standing before God in faith; this is what rules out, as Galatians makes clear, all present standing based on the marks of belonging to a particular race or tribe, or on any human achievement or effort. What Paul is now talking about is his hope for the future, for the last day when, as he says in Galatians 5:6, what will count is ‘faith at work through love’. For Paul, the work of love has meant the founding and nurturing of churches, as the substantial sign that the living God has indeed been at work through him.
Of course, there are thousands of different Christian callings, most of them not nearly so spectacular and obvious as Paul’s. Each of us has our own work of love to perform, whether it be quiet and secret or well known and public. Each pastor and teacher should look to the future, and see those in their charge as their potential joy, hope and crown. And each congregation should recognize that this is how they will appear on the last day. Both should be challenged and encouraged, by this forward look, to learn and live the faith, to celebrate the hope, to consolidate and practise the love revealed in the gospel.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 106–107.
In other words, we are saved by grace through faith, but genuine faith produces Christian love, and Christian love bears fruit. It may not be the founding of a new church, but it touches others and reshapes the world in the image of Jesus. In Acts and the Gospels, we’re repeatedly told to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. It’s not the fruit that saves, but saved people (absent health or other impediments) bear fruit.
The point then, laid out in Romans 8:1–11, is this: the verdict already issued over Christian faith in Romans 3 does indeed genuinely anticipate the verdict to be issued over the entirety of the life led, because the Spirit now at work in you, the Spirit because of whose presence you are beginning to walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh, is the Spirit of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and hence the Spirit through whom God will raise all those who belong to the Messiah. This is why, when Paul looks ahead to the future and asks, as well one might, what God will say on the last day, he holds up as his joy and crown, not the merits and death of Jesus, but the churches he has planted who remain faithful to the gospel. The path from initial faith to final resurrection (and resurrection, we must remind ourselves, constitutes rescue, that is, salvation, from death itself) lies through holy and faithful Spirit-led service, including suffering.
N. T. Wright, Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2005), 148.
If you’ve read the Gospels, you know that Jesus expected his followers to live radically changed lives. They weren’t called to hide in monasteries and just “believe” without actually following Jesus in living a changed life. To become a Christian has always been about much more than a change in worldview or intellectual assent to Jesus as the second member of the Trinity living in hypostatic union with God the Father. I mean, “hypostatic union” doesn’t even sound like NT language or thought — although I believe it to be true. It’s not the core of what Jesus expected from his followers.
In fact, we see his followers suffering persecution, fleeing their homes, selling their belongings, suffering exclusion from their countrymen, participating in mission works, funding charitable gifts to the Jerusalem church …
We grossly abuse the scriptures when we turn “faith” into “mindset” or “belief system.” It is that, but it is much more than that.
In Gal 5:6, Paul says that faith must express itself through love. The word itself (in the Greek) includes faithfulness and loyalty — and that is much more than what we believe to be true. It’s also how we live.
The key distinction is not “faith” vs. “works.” The problem with works is that works aren’t faith — and faith is where we find our salvation. Anything that is not faith cannot save. Hence, the question is not “Is X a ‘work’?” but “Is X ‘faith’?” (A bulldozer isn’t a work, but it doesn’t save. Bulldozers aren’t faith.)
Now, faith > faithfulness = loyalty = obedience=penitence. That is faith includes but is not limited to faithfulness. Faithfulness is one very important aspect of saving faith, but not the only one.
A faithful, loyal, obedient, penitent person will obey God’s will as he or she understands it. If they are taught incorrectly about how to organize the deacons, and so they organize the deacons in error, they are indeed in error but such a person is still faithful, loyal, obedient, and penitent — as messed up as the deacons may be. They still have faith — and therefore they will be anxious to learn about anything important to Jesus, including how to organize the deacons. They’ll be open to new learning on the subject because they want — more than anything — to be like their rabbi Jesus. Loyalty leads to a desire to learn more. (Fear of new learning is therefore a mark of a works salvation, that is, a false gospel.)
It’s about the heart. It’s subjective. But a heart that follows Jesus will be obvious enough, even though you and I may disagree about what obedience Jesus commands. I may insist that Jesus’ commands found in the Gospels are central to following Jesus. (It would make sense, you know.) You may find the heart of Jesus’ commands in inferences drawn from the silences in Paul’s letters. (Seems unlikely that the core commands would be found in silences, but the argument has been made often.)
How does God deal with such differences of opinion?
(Rom. 14:1-13 ESV) As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. … 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
In other words, we may not divide over disputable matters, because it’s our hearts that will be judged. If we disagree about what we may eat or what days we may or must celebrate, we both do what we do (or refuse what we refuse) to honor God. It’s all worship. And it’s all from a heart of faithfulness, loyalty, obedience, and penitence to our rabbi Jesus. And so we are saved much more by to whom we are faithful — it must be faith in/faithfulness to Jesus — than how we believe we are to be faithful.
There are boundaries — and as we learn in Galatians, one of those boundaries is that we must trust God to save by faith, and hence not by something that is not faith, such as works. And if we insist on salvation by works, we lose our salvation.
(Gal. 5:2-6 ESV) 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
The problem with circumcision is not that it’s something done. The problem is that it’s not faith/faithfulness. Now, if you believe God insists on circumcision, you should endure circumcision for God. By all means.
But if your brother disagrees, then he is being faithful — admittedly subjectively from your point of view — by declining circumcision — and you must honor his faithful heart even if you disagree with his understanding of God’s will. Otherwise, you are not allowing him to be saved by faith in/faithfulness to Jesus. Hence, God will make him stand and you welcome him as a brother despite your disagreement. If you insist on circumcision as a matter of salvation, then you’ve redefined “faith/faithfulness” to mean “be circumcised,” which is just plain wrong.
Or you’ve insisted that someone cannot be faithful unless he gets all the commands right. Which is impossible. And so damning — even to yourself. Which is Paul’s very point in Gal 5.
The faithfulness part of faith is subjective, and that makes church a little messy, and some of us find that intellectually intolerable. We like sharp lines with no gray and no smudges. But God judges the heart — and so we must do the same.
The human heart is complex, confusing, and consternating. We like simple True-False questions. We want to check the boxes all the way to heaven. But God wants our hearts — as messy as they are.
(Ps. 7:10 ESV) 10 My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart.