This is the third post in my series on what we can learn about church planting follow-up from Paul’s letters. In a previous post on Paul’s follow-up with churches he planted, we looked at the letter to Galatians. There the key issue was making sure they got the gospel right. Turning to Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the key issue is making sure they continue to grow in faith, love, and hope. Getting the gospel right is essential but making sure these new believers fully understand the gospel is a dynamic process. The biblical gospel produces in believers continuing growth in faith, love, and hope.
Thankful for their faith, love, and hope
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were in Thessalonica less than a month (Acts 17:2) before they were run out of town. But nevertheless, some Jews and “a great many devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:4) accepted the gospel. In that short time, Paul and his companions developed a close bond with these new converts (1 Thess 2:7-11) and he had observed a remarkable transformation in their lives. He noted that this young church was characterized by faith, love, and hope, and he comments on these in the opening thanksgiving of each letter (in the second letter he does not use the word hope but the concept is implied by the word steadfastness).
In 1 Thess 1:2-3, Paul writes:
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. (ESV)
In 2 Thess 1:3-4 he writes:
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and your love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. (ESV)
Urge them to grow in faith
The Thessalonian believers had a solid beginning to their faith. The gospel came to them in power, in the Holy Spirit with full conviction (1 Thess 1:5). Throughout Macedonia and Achaia, people were talking about their faith (1 Thess 1:8). They had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). They had accepted the gospel as the word of God (1 Thess 2:13) even in the midst of persecution.
It was the affliction and the sudden separation that raised Paul’s concern for their faith (1 Thess 3:1-5). Paul had tried to visit them again and again (1 Thess 2:17-18) but Satan hindered him. So he sent Timothy to “establish and exhort”(1 Thess 3:2) them in the faith. Timothy’s report brought good news of their faith and love (1 Thess 3:6-8) which was a great comfort to Paul in his own affliction. Yet Paul also desired to visit them again to “supply what was lacking in their faith” (1 Thess 3:10). In 1 Thess 2:12 and again in 1 Thess 4:1, he urges them to live worthy of God in a way that pleases God. Their faith needed to grow in practical ways. They needed to get rid of any sexual immorality (1 Thess 4:3-8) and turn from a lifestyle of idleness (2 Thess 3:6-12).
Paul urges them to grow in their faith with confidence in God’s grace at work in them. He prays for them:
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thess 1:11,12 ESV)
So in our follow-up with churches we plant, we ought to join Paul in thanking God for genuine conversion and the fruit of conversion. But we must also not hesitate to encourage continued growth in faith. We will need to keep communication open so we may learn what is lacking in their faith. Then we can encourage them to grow in their faith empowered by the grace of God. We ought to encourage them to demonstrate their faith by the way they live. Of course, modeling a lifestyle shaped by faith in Jesus Christ will be foundational for any encouragement we give.
Urge them to grow in love
The Thessalonians had a love that was active (1 Thess 1:3) and was increasing (2 Thess 1:3). Paul, Sylvanus, and Timothy had modeled love when they were in Thessalonica (1 Thess 2:7-8). God himself had taught the Thessalonian believers to love one another (1 Thess 4:9). While acknowledging that they are loving all the brothers throughout Macedonia, Paul urges them to do so more and more (1 Thess 4:10). He exhorts them to esteem their leaders in love (1 Thess 5:13). As God’s power fuels growth in faith, so increasing in love is a work of God. Paul prays that God will make them increase and abound in love (1 Thess 3:12).
Loving one another is the ultimate apologetic (John 13:34,35). The Apostle John makes it clear that brotherly love must follow from our love for God (1 John 4:19-21). So in following-up with churches, we need to urge believers to continue to grow in love. Taking the time to communicate and visit will demonstrate the reality of our continued love for them. Like Paul and his companions, we need to model love for one another and urge them to do so more and more.
Urge them to grow in hope
Hope is living out our faith in Jesus Christ when we are experiencing affliction and persecution in this present age. As we wait for Jesus Christ to return and deliver us, we demonstrate our hope (1 Thess 1:10). Hope assures us that God will judge those who are persecuting his church (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9). In the face of death, we do not grieve as others who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Paul links hope to faith in 1 Thess 4:14:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (ESV)
Faith, love, and hope are joined together in anticipation of the day of the Lord in 1 Thess 5:8-11:
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (ESV)
Throughout church history and in many parts of the world today, Christ’s churches have endured affliction and persecution. We need to encourage hope to continue to grow in churches we have planted. Again, as with faith and love, our hope in Christ needs to be modeled. The churches we have planted need to see how our hope grows in the midst of life’s difficulties. Hope is an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ and a platform to express our love for one another.
Faith, Love, and Hope: the DNA of God’s Grace.
Faith, love, and hope are the virtues that God’s grace produces in believers. It was these virtues that produced evangelism/discipleship in the Thessalonian church (1 Thess 1:6-10). May we join Paul in praying for the churches we plant:
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 ESV)