Faith and Love

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you — for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? – 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 ESV

In time, Timothy had returned from his assignment in Thessalonica, where he had been sent by Paul to establish and exhort the believers in their faith. At his reunion with Paul, Timothy provided a report concerning the state of the churches in Thessalonica, and Paul deemed what he heard as “good news.” Timothy shared details regarding their faith and love – pistis and agapē – two characteristics that Paul deemed indispensable to the Christian life. The writer of Hebrews stressed that “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NLT). Faith begins the Christian’s spiritual journey, but it does not end there. Faith is to be a permanent fixture of the believer’s life from the moment of conversion to the future day of glorification. Paul himself wrote, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). And in the original Greek, that phrase actually reads, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.” Faith is the fuel of the Christian life. It provides new life in Christ and makes possible the abundant life that He promised.

As the author of Hebrews makes clear, faith is a belief in the existence of God. But there’s more. It is a belief that this existent God is a rewarder of those who sincerely seek Him. In other words, those who sincerely seek Him and Him alone will be rewarded with the joy of finding Him. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote:

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20 NLT

While God has revealed His invisible attributes through all that He has made, most men have chosen to worship chosen the creation rather than the creator. They had an awareness of God’s presence, but rather than seeking Him, they turned their attention to things made by Him. And the apostle John reminds us that “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known” (John 1:18 BSB). And Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV), who made God not only knowable but approachable. And yet, Paul also reveals that many who have heard about Jesus, still refuse to believe in Jesus. And their disbelief results in a spiritual blindness to the reality of who He is and what He has come to offer.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

They don’t believe. The Greek word is apistos and it means “not belief.” It is a lack of faith and trust in who Jesus is and the salvation He came to offer.

But for those who do believe in the salvation offered by God through His Son, forgiveness of sin and a restored relationship with God are the reward. But God expects that belief to last well beyond the point of conversion. Placing your faith in Christ is not a singular event, but a lifelong experience. The Christian life is a journey on which the believer’s faith will be tested all along the way. And when Paul heard that the believers in Thessalonica were exhibiting faith amid difficulty, he was encouraged. Their faith was a living faith. They were exhibiting a belief in the promises of God that did not waver in the face of difficulties. They were not allowing the presence of trials to diminish their trust in God. Their perseverance in the face of difficulties made Paul proud because it reflected their adherence to his teachings.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.  No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

They fully believed that they were loved by God and didn’t allow their less-than-ideal circumstances to diminish that belief. And their unwavering belief in God’s love for them manifested itself in a selfless love for others. That was the second characteristic Timothy highlighted. He reported to Paul that the Thessalonian believers loved well. But the text is very specific as to what kind of love they exhibited. The Greek word is agapē, and it refers to a specific kind of love. Timothy could have used the Greek word philadelphia, which refers to a love between brothers or friends. No, he specifically used agapē, which carried a much more powerful connotation. Within Christianity, it came to be associated with the love of Christ. It was a selfless, sacrificial kind of love that exhibited a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of quality that demanded nothing in return. This kind of love is unconditional and not reciprocal. It doesn’t require the one who is loved to return the favor. It doesn’t demand that the one to be loved be lovely or loveable. In fact, Paul tells us that “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). And the apostle John would have us remember that this kind of sacrificial and undeserved love is exactly what we received from God.

This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. – 1 John 4:10 NLT

The Thessalonian believers loved in the same way they had been loved by God: Sacrificially and selflessly. And this brought Paul great joy. It provided him with comfort as he faced his own set of trials and troubles. News of their faith and love was exactly what he needed to hear. And he responded to this encouraging report by telling them, “It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT).  News of their faith and love was like a tonic for Paul. It made all his hard work well worth the effort. For Paul, there was nothing more revitalizing to his own faith than to hear that his spiritual children were growing in godliness. And the two characteristics that best illustrated their growth were persevering faith and selfless love.

Yet, in spite of the good news delivered by Timothy, Paul longed to see his brothers and sisters in Christ again. And he assured them, “we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV). Notice the motivation behind Paul’s desire to return. He wants to fill in any gaps that might exist in their faith. For Paul, faith was dynamic, not static. It was to be living and ever-increasing. That is why James wrote, “faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT). Both Paul and James knew that true saving faith would result in true life change. And they also understood that faith would have a tendency to ebb and flow, based on the circumstances of life. There would be those days when a believer found holes in his faith – those gaps where the seed of doubt tends to take root and, in time, turns into full-grown disbelief. So, Paul wanted to fill in the gaps. He wanted to bring confident assurance to their faith, by increasing their knowledge of God and improving their understanding of and reliance upon His promises. And this desire by Paul to pour into the lives of believers is reflected in his prayer for the congregations in Colossae.

We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. – Colossians 1:9-11 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Descriptive, Not Prescriptive.

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47 ESV

This is one of the more familiar passages in the book of Acts. In it, we have a brief description of what the newly founded church in Jerusalem looked like in the early days following the events of Pentecost. Things had begun to change rapidly and dramatically. After a single sermon, more than 3,000 converts were added to the original number of 120 disciples or followers of Christ. The Holy Spirit had come, the disciples had been empowered with the ability to speak in foreign languages, Peter had given a Spirit-inspired message to the assembled crowd, and thousands accepted his offer of redemption through Jesus Christ. Then, the next thing we read is that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There are many who believe that what we find written by Luke in the verses that follow is a description of the true New Testament church. In other words, he is providing us with a prescription or required mode of operation for every church in every age. Signs, wonders, communal living, sharing of goods, and breaking of bread in homes are said to be evidences of a legitimate New Testament church.

But are the characteristics Luke provides meant to be prescriptive or merely descriptive? Is he attempting to give us a divinely inspired and required methodology for church practice? Or is he simply describing the unique, point-in-time manifestations of the early days of the church as it exploded onto the scene among the Jews living in Jerusalem? It would seem that Luke, the detail-oriented physician/historian, was most interested in describing and chronicling what he had seen take place. What he witnessed and recorded were once-in-time, never-to-be-repeated events that accompanied the coming of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the start of the church age. The truth is, in the book of Acts there is little in the way of actual instruction given regarding how the church was to operate on a daily basis. We are given no mandatory, clearly defined order of worship. When you consider the amount of detail God provided to the Israelites regarding worship in the Old Testament, it is surprising how little information is given about things like order of worship, music, dress, sermon content, church government, or ordinances. What Luke seemed most interested in detailing was the external expansion of the church. Everything was happening within the unique confines of Jerusalem, among a predominantly Jewish population. And the early converts to Christianity after the events of Pentecost were, for the most part, Jews. In the crowd that gathered outside the upper room and who heard the message delivered by Peter, Luke describes people from a wide range of provinces with the Roman Empire…

Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome – Acts 2:9-10 ESV

But he also describe them as “Jews and proselytes.” In other words, they were either native-born Jews or converts to Judaism. But for the most part, they were all worshipers of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. So, what Luke describes in these verses is the immediate result of the 3,000 Jewish converts coming to faith in Christ and how they responded to their newfound faith. The church went from 120 to more than 3,000 in less than an hour, creating a unique problem for the apostles. How were they going to minister to this many people and begin the process of teaching so large a number of disciples? It must be assumed that there were those in the group who were not residents of Jerusalem. They had come to town for the celebration of Passover and Pentecost. But now that they had been saved, there was no doubt a desire among them to remain under the care and training of the apostles. But where would they stay? Who would feed and provide for them? Luke describes the scene:

44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. – Acts 2:44-45 NLT

They gathered together in order to hear the teaching of the apostles. There was instruction involved. Peter’s sermon, while impactful, was not exhaustive in nature. There was far more these new believers needed to know. One of the things Jesus had commanded the apostles to do was to make disciples, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20 ESV). There was much that needed to be conveyed to these new converts. And the Holy Spirit was providing the apostles with new insights into all that Jesus had taught them over the three years they had spent with Him. Jesus had told them that the Holy Spirit would act as a divine interpreter, opening their eyes to the truths contained in all that He had said and taught.

25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. – John 14:25-26 ESV

Not only could they remember things Jesus had said, they could understand what He meant when He had said them. His words, at one time cryptic and difficult to comprehend, suddenly made sense. So, they taught them to the new converts, explaining what life in the Kingdom of God was meant to be. And Luke tells us, “They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2:46 NLT). There was no church building. They had no facilities. So, being Jews, they gathered together at the Temple grounds, and they did so daily. Luke describes them as celebrating the Lord’s Supper in homes and as sharing communal meals together marked by joy and generosity. Again, what Luke provides us is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. He is not demanding that all worship take place at the Temple. He is not dictating that the Lord’s Supper only be celebrated within a home context. These were situations unique to the setting. They took place out of necessity. By the time the church began to spread beyond Jerusalem, we see it taking on new forms depending upon the surrounding environment. In his letters, the apostle Paul will spend far more time discussing the internal structure and organization of the church. But at this point in time, in the early days of the church in Jerusalem, the apostles and the growing number of new converts found themselves dealing with some very unique circumstances that required one-of-a-kind solutions.
And Luke tells us that “each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 NLT). The church continued to grow. And many of these new believers, having come from the various Roman provinces listed in the early verses of this chapter. eventually returned to their homes. And when they made their way to their respective towns and villages, they took their newfound faith in Christ with them. They became ambassadors for the Kingdom of God, spreading the good news of Jesus far beyond the city walls of Jerusalem, and out among the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia.
What we have in these verses is a description of the work of the Spirit of God. He had come just as Jesus had promised and, with His arrival, the message of Jesus had taken on new life. The original disciples of Jesus had been transformed and their understanding of Jesus’ words became suddenly clear and concise. The Spirit was convicting and converting. The disciples were boldly proclaiming and proselytizing. The church was just beginning, and it would soon be spreading. The gospel would quickly move beyond the streets of Jerusalem and out into the world. And the church would continue to evolve and expand, developing a more formal infrastructure designed to meet the growing demands of a richly diverse and rapidly expanding network of community based congregations. Love, fellowship, teaching, sharing, community, prayer, worship, and evangelism will always mark the life of the church. But Luke was less interested in telling us what we should be doing as the local church, than emphasizing what the Holy Spirit was doing to make the growth of the church possible. Without the Spirit of God, the church does not exist. Without the power provided by the Spirit of God, true life change cannot take place. If Luke was prescribing anything, it was the non-negotiable necessity of God’s Spirit in order for God’s work to be done.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Do What Is Right.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. – 2 Corinthians 13:5-10 ESV

At first glance, it may appear that Paul is calling on the Corinthians to examine themselves in order to see if they are truly saved. But in reality, Paul is calling on them to do the right thing, because they are saved. They have Christ within them. Therefore, they have all they need to do what is right – what God would have them do. The real issue here is sanctification, not salvation. Paul wants them to live as who they are – children of God. He wants their behavior to match their confessed belief in Christ. He has no doubts as to whether they have the capacity to do the right thing. It is more a matter of commitment. Are they willing to do what is right? Paul is praying that they will and assures them that he “cannot do anything against the truth, but on for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8 ESV). He is unwilling to act in a way that would be contrary or detrimental to the gospel.

It is essential that much of what Paul has been saying throughout this letter has been a defense of his apostleship. There were those who were casting doubt and dispersions on Paul’s qualifications. So when he asks them to examine themselves, he is really challenging them to take a long hard look at their lives in order to see if they themselves are not the very proof they are looking for. In other words, their changed lives were the greatest testimony to Paul’s calling they would ever find. The gospel message Paul had brought to them had been effective, resulting in their conversions and proving his calling as a messenger of Jesus Christ.

But they had struggled in their sanctification. They had hit some tough spots along the way. Since Paul’s initial visit, there had been divisions and disunity erupt in the church. There were some moral indiscretions that had gone unpunished and that remained unconfessed. Paul has already told them that he feared he was going to find them still struggling with the same old problems of “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20 NLT). So he lets them know that he was praying for their restoration. Not only that, he was writing in a very blunt, in-your-face style because, when he arrived, he didn’t want to have to spend all his time playing bad cop. His goal was to build them up, not tear them down. He wanted to see them continue to grow in their salvation, increasing in their knowledge of Jesus Christ and developing an ever-deeper dependence upon God that resulted in a desire to do His will – to do the right thing.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminded them that God’s will for them was their holiness or sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). In his first letter, the apostle Peter told his readers that it was God’s will that they do good (1 Peter 2:15). Doing good (what is right) and holiness go hand in hand. Our sanctification or growth in Christ-likeness should have an outward expression. It should manifest itself in godly living, doing what God would have us do. That is Paul’s prayer for the Corinthians. He wants them to live out their faith by stepping out in obedience to the will of God. We do good, not to win God’s favor, but because we have been the recipients of His favor. We do what is right, not to make God love us, but because He loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. Doing what is right brings God’s blessing. Doing what is wrong brings His discipline. Both are motivated by His love for us. But Paul would prefer that we learn to live obediently, doing what God deems best, even when it makes no sense. Paul would have us enjoy the benefits of a life lived within the will of God, faithfully doing what He deems right and good.

Sow What?

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. – Galatians 6:6-10 ESV

For the apostle Paul, the body of Christ was to operate in a spirit of mutual love and reciprocity. There was no place for selfishness or a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude. The model Christ had left us was one of selfless sacrifice and love for others. Paul has already talked about coming alongside a fellow believer who has been caught up in sin. He has encouraged that they pursue restoration, rather than practice exclusion. No one was to see themselves as somehow better than anyone else. The Christian life was to be marked by a sense of interdependence and a desire to put the needs of others ahead of their own.

God has equipped the body of Christ to care for itself. In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul wrote, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13 ESV). There are roles and responsibilities within the church that are designed to provide for the well-being of those who make up each local fellowship. Paul says that those who have received the word of God should be willing to share what they have with those who taught it to them. In that day and age, those who served as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, often did so without any form of financial remuneration. Some even became itinerant teachers, traveling from city to city, in order to minister the word of God to local congregations. Paul, as one such individual, encouraged believers to provide for the needs of these people.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul elaborated on the common expectation among believers to care for those who taught them:

Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? – 1 Corinthians 9:4-7 ESV

Paul went on to ask them the question, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Corinthians 9:11 ESV). Even though Paul claimed to have never demanded this God-given right to provision from the churches to whom he ministered, he said, “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14 ESV).

For Paul, this all seemed to boil down to the unique, God-ordained nature of the body of Christ. There was to be no lack, no need unmet. God would provide teachers to proclaim His word, and bless the listeners so they could meet the needs of the teachers. But Paul also knew there was always the temptation to sow to the flesh, or to give in to the natural inclinations of our sin natures. It would have been easy for some to see the prophets, evangelists and teachers as lazy, because they “refused” to work. Others could have simply said, “what is mine, is mine.” In some of these communities, people had a hard enough time just making ends meet. The thought of having to give away your money or food to someone else would have been a difficult burden to bear. But Paul encouraged them to “not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9 ESV). Man’s sin nature will always encourage selfishness and self-centeredness. Isolation and independence are normal human inclinations. But Paul knew that the success of the church was dependent upon its members sowing to the Spirit. In other words, they were to invest their time, energy and talents into those things the Spirit was directing them to do. If they did, they would reap the kind of fruit only the Spirit can produce: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Living according to the Spirit is unnatural. It is a supernatural, divine enablement that is in direct conflict with our old natures. There will always be a part of us that will not want to obey what the Spirit tells us to do. We won’t want to give. We won’t want to share with others. Our natural inclination will be to not share. We will naturally resist putting the needs of others ahead of our own. But Paul tells us, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10 ESV). As long as we live on this planet, we will have opportunities to do good. It is in the here-and-now that our generosity, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control are needed. There will be no need for patience in heaven. There will be no one who has unmet needs. There will be no sin, so it will be unnecessary for us to respond to hatred with love, harsh words with words of kindness, anger with gentleness, or temptation with self-control. But as long as the Lord delays His return and we remain in this life, we will have untold opportunities to live out our faith and display the fruit of the Spirit for the benefit of all those around us. We must sow while the season is right. But what we sow is of utmost importance. If we sow to the flesh, we will reap the deeds of the flesh. But if we sow to the Spirit, living according to His power and in submission to His will, we will reap the fruit of the Spirit. And one day, we will reap the final reward of the life of faith. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22 ESV).