2 Thessalonians 1:1–4 1 Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; 4 therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.
Thanksgiving is understandably a complicated holiday in our country. For some, Thanksgiving is full of fun, family and food. For others, holidays like Thanksgiving are hard. While most are reminded on the things that are said to matter most, like family, there are those for which family especially represents hardship, dysfunction, division, divorce and heartache. We live in a fallen world and holidays do not erase that fact. My guess is that if we are all honest, Thanksgiving is both good and bad, good times and bad times, joy and sorrow. But this only begs the question about what it means to be truly thankful and what should produce real thanksgiving in us. If we are believers, then Thanksgiving or giving of thanks is supremely a spiritual matter, a gospel issue and we find our highest cause for the giving of thanks the in grace and glory of God.
Some families have the tradition of sitting around the Thanksgiving table and conversing about what they are most thankful for. Their children, their homes, their friends and family, their health or prosperity. There really is nothing wrong with those things; we should as Paul has earlier said, “in everything give thanks” (1 Th. 5.18). For Paul however, thanksgiving was produced from the spiritual matrix of the church. What made Paul’s heart soar with thanksgiving was not a big meal, a big bonus at work, a safe country, and a big family; he lost all of those things (Phil. 3.7-8). For Paul, his thanksgiving was constrained by the presence of genuine spirituality in Christ. It was the advancement and steadfastness of the believer that made Paul swell with gladness and gratefulness (cf. 1 Th. 3.8). While food and family is a big part of our lives, they are not as big as eternity!
Paul’s opening to the letter sets forth the nature of true thanksgiving. This thanksgiving is also something of a commendation (vv.3-4). Next Paul in this opening section of the letter will seek to comfort the church in the midst of their persecution (vv. 5-10), as well as challenge them to live consistently with the gospel of their salvation (vv.11-12; see: Weima, 1-2 Thessalonians, 445).
Thanksgiving For What Is Right
It has not been very long since Paul’s last letter but here he writes them to address several important issues that have apparently developed. Second Thessalonians like the first letter is supremely concerned with eschatology. While the first letter was written to remind them of the impending terrible and awesome Day of the Lord, this letter is written mainly as a corrective of various false notions that have emerged concerning eschatology. Unlike the first letter, the second letter is more precise in that it focuses on specific groups within the church that have arisen to contradict Paul’s teaching. While Paul is writing to address and combat false teaching (2 Th. 2.1-12), he also exposes dangerous developments in the church’s practice (2 Th. 2.15-18; 3.6-15).
Although the main thrust of the letter is to address false teaching and faulty living, there is also a strong tone of encouragement in the letter. Here is where Paul’s giving of thanks comes in. Paul gives thanks for what is right and good and worthy in the church, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting” (Εὐχαριστεῖν ὀφείλομεν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοί, καθὼς ἄξιόν ἐστιν). Paul is constrained to give thanks for what is right or ‘worthy’ (ἄξιόν). We could say that Paul is giving thanks for this church because there is a genuine, sufficient and biblical cause for thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Is Given Above All By Believers
The first thing we should notice from this giving of thanks is that above all true thanksgiving is not only merited by the faith of believers but ultimately rendered by believers. In other words, we as God’s people should supremely be the subjects of genuine giving of thanks. We have the access as after all (cf. Heb. 4.16). No doubt many family traditions and many traditional families bow in giving of thanks before the turkey meal this time of year and sadly for most it is really the only time they render some religious expression of giving thanks. In other words, much of the world is occupied by moralism this time of year. But the church alone is truly capable of giving thanks to God for anything and should thank God in everything.
Thanksgiving Is Given Above All To God
In keeping with the theme of moralism, notice that our thanksgiving is truly vertical, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you” (Εὐχαριστεῖν ὀφείλομεν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν). There is something so good and right and glorious in ascribing all glory to God in our thanksgiving. It means that God is responsible for everything good in our lives. Notice also that for Paul this deep gratefulness to God did not happen once a year, but was “always” a reality in Paul’s heart and prayers. Directing our thanksgiving to God is also important because tells us precisely how we ought to give thanks, namely in true trinitarian fashion:
Colossians 3:17 17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
Having just preached a conference on the Trinity, one of my messages was concerning trinitarian prayer. Here is a perfect example of that. Trinitarian prayer reminds us that praying to God is a multi-personal affair and that every prayer carries with it the responsibility of properly addressing God by praying supremely to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit (as other texts teach e.g. Eph. 6.18; Jude 20).
Thanksgiving Is Given Above All For Godliness
Probably the most striking reality of Paul’s patter of giving thanks is the utterly God-centered nature of giving thanks. In other words, Paul’s giving of thanks surrounded the spiritual life of the church. Paul was not so much concerned about the safety of the church, the material prosperity of the church or the physical needs of the church; those were often points that were included in Paul’s prayers (cf. Acts 27.35; Phil. 4.19-20) but above all Paul’s focus was on the spiritual life of the believer. This point is challenging for us today. When so much of our Western lives consist of materialism and physical comfort, we may be at a great disadvantage here; in fact, I know we are. But this begs the real question because in changing our perspective so that above all we render thanksgiving for godliness, for holiness and for spiritual maturity; this only beckons us to ask if these are truly our priorities? Do we care more about a person’s spiritual health than their physical health? In a world of X-Rays and MRIs, this is not easy.
For Paul it was the spiritual health that mattered even when the physical health was deteriorating so that one could actually flourish when their physical frame gives way to the Fall.
Thanksgiving For Faith And Love
This spiritual life was both to increase and to endure. Paul wanted fruit that was both abounding and abiding, “We ought always to give thanks… because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater” (Εὐχαριστεῖν... ὅτι ὑπεραυξάνει ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν καὶ πλεονάζει ἡ ἀγάπη ἑνὸς ἑκάστου πάντων ὑμῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους). Paul desired so badly to see a true church arise from the pagan ashes of Thessalonica that he was jealous to see the survival and success of this church. In his first thanksgiving for the church in the first letter, Paul gives thanks for their initial conversion to Christ and what can be said to be the origin of their spiritual life and the birth of their faith:
1 Thessalonians 1:9–10 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
Here Paul gives thanks because their faith and love is abounding and abiding. Both verbs here, “enlarged” (ὑπεραυξάνω) and “grows” (πλεονάζω) are present active verbs that stress the ongoing continual character of their maturity in Christ. This church was abounding in the faith; they were truly flourishing. This should also serve as something as a litmus test for us to test whether or not we too are growing in Christ as we ought to. Is our faith “greatly enlarged” (ὑπεραυξάνει)? Is our love for “one anther” (ἀλλήλους) ‘growing ever greater’ (πλεονάζω)?
Just as true growth in Christ consists of theological growth, doctrinal growth, growth through communion with God; so too, these Christian virtues of faith and love are critical ‘tell tell’ signs of our actual growth. I would venture to say that while theology and good works can be easy visible apparent conceptions of Christian growth; “love” (ἡ ἀγάπη) and “faith” (ἡ πίστις) are less given to facile facades and superficial spirituality. On the indispensability of faith, Puritan Thomas Adams said:
“Our heavenly King is pleased with all our graces: hot zeal and cool patience pleaseth Him; cheerful thankfulness and weeping repentance pleaseth Him; but none of them are welcome to Him without faith, as nothing can please Him without Christ” (I.D.E. Thomas, A Puritan Treasury (Carlisle; PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000)102).
Adam’s correctly underscores not only the importance of faith but reminds us of faith’s great object. The object of faith is what makes faith personal, immanent, eternal and intimate. Just as no other grace of God which is ordained to operate upon the hearts and souls of His people are “welcome to Him without faith” conversely, as Thomas Watson says, “faith enlivens the graces” of God. Faith causes all of God’s gracious virtues in us to awaken and thrive! Faith awakens, accompanies and empowers the graces of God in us. So that as Thomas Watson said, “the life of the saint is nothing but a life of faith.” He goes on:
“Faith enlivens the graces; not a grace stirs till faith sets it working. Faith is to the soul what the animal spirits are to the body, exciting lively activity in it. Faith excites repentance; it is like the fire to the still which makes it drop. When I believe God’s love to me, this makes me weep that I should sin against so good a God. Faith is the mother of hope; first we believe the promise, then we hope for it. Faith is the oil which feeds the lamp of hope. Faith and hope are two turtle-dove graces; take away one, and the other languishes. If the sinews are cut, the body is lame; if this sinew of faith is cut, hope is lame. Faith is the ground of patience; he who believes that God is his God, and that all providences work for his good, patiently yields himself to the will of God. Thus faith is a living principle.” (Thomas Watson, A Godly Man’s Picture (Carlisle: PA; The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007) 28-29).
Just as faith enlivens hope, patience, repentance; so too faith, is the oil of the lamp of love causing it to glow and burn with the love of God. Faith is also the fuel of fellowship. That is truly what we are looking at here in terms of love because it is such specific language here. Paul speaks of our love as “the love of each one of you toward one another” (ἡ ἀγάπη ἑνὸς ἑκάστου πάντων ὑμῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους). The emphasis on fellowship begins with longing for one another and a commitment to love one another for Christ’s sake. Paul spoke of this in the first letter in terms of his own relationship to the church as well as their love for each other:
1 Thessalonians 3:6 6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you,
1 Thessalonians 3:12 12 and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you;
As we think about our spiritual growth, our health and vitality in Christ, there is really nothing more abhorrent than a loveless church, a loveless believer— the recipient of the universe’s greatest love— divine love! There could be no greater deformity in our souls than to be lacking love. Like a body that lacks a limb, if we lack love our souls will be hobbled, our progress inhibited, our usefulness stunted and our lives beset by the weight of bitterness, unbelief and wrath (cf. Heb. 12.1-3).
Thanksgiving For Endurance
Finally, the apostle Paul is also grateful to the Lord for the church’s endurance, “therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure” (ὥστε αὐτοὺς ἡμᾶς ἐν ὑμῖν ἐγκαυχᾶσθαι ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τοῦ θεοῦ ὑπὲρ τῆς ὑπομονῆς ὑμῶν καὶ πίστεως ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς διωγμοῖς ὑμῶν καὶ ταῖς θλίψεσιν αἷς ἀνέχεσθε). In order to truly follows Paul thought here, the conjunction his crucial to see here. This conjunction, translated here as “therefore” (ὥστε), related the basis of or the result of something. I think the former is preferred. On the basis of their ongoing faith and love, that fruit and virtue, forms the basis of the present commendation in v.4.
Paul’s thanksgiving extends to the “churches of God” (ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τοῦ θεοῦ) so that the Thessalonians, who also were imitators of other churches (1 Th. 2.14), in their faith and love become exemplary of what true perseverance looks like. This is what Paul is thankful for. He is thankful to God that this church through the muck and the mire of life is persevering and enduring it all in faith. Whether persecution, mainly through social economic ostracization, or affliction ranging from persecution to personal suffering, these “persecutions and afflictions” (τοῖς διωγμοῖς ὑμῶν καὶ ταῖς θλίψεσιν) were not enough to move these believers away from their original confession, love and hope (cf. 3.5; Heb. 6.19; 2 Pet. 3.17).
The opposite of this commendation would have been a condemnation of the church’s failure to persevere and endure by relinquishing their confession, hardening their hearts towards the people of God and the things of God and losing their grip on the hope of their vindication. Suffering, persecution, affliction represent a necessary test to our faith- a test we all must go through:
Hebrews 10:35–36 35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
If we look at our own context, this text puts us in a similar test. Not because we may be experiencing the same level of persecution or the kind of afflictions that the Thessalonians were suffering but because we are as susceptible as they were in losing our love or the sight of our vindication and the hope of our reward. Our modern day cultural oppression, our personal war and weariness with sin, a personal physical infirmity, or the simple passage of time; any one of these or a combination of these factors has the capacity to incapacitate us in many ways. This is why we need the self-examination. This is why we need to test our hearts and try them so that we may genuinely bring them before the Lord for Him to prune us and purify us until we bring forth fruit again (cf. John 14.1-10).