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.
1 Thessalonians 1.2-3
But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 12.31, 13.13
As we begins 1 Thessalonians in our sermon series, it is interesting how Paul includes in his thanksgiving this triad: faith, hope, and love. As we look at Corinthians it seems like this triad is a collection of the ‘higher gifts’. So what is it about these higher gifts that make them the more excellent way? I would suggest that they are so important because of their relationship to salvation. So let’s consider each virtue in turn especially as it relates to the nature of salvation and the passages listed about.
1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest books in the New Testament. It was probably written soon after Paul had helped establish the church in Thessalonica and left the city for Athens. Paul felt the need to follow up on his work. In the letter he addresses some of their concerns and commends their faith and salvation. In his thanksgiving Paul begins by noting these three things: faith, hope, and love- their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness of hope. Paul is thanking God for the presence of these three virtues in the life of the church in Thessalonica. Paul could have written, it seems, ‘I thank God for you remembering your salvation.’ This would have been an analogous statement, and following verse 3, Paul considers in more depth the Thessalonians’ salvation.
Now why are these three so important? If we were to take a moment and actually consider the broader biblical evidence, we might be astounded. What is the simple gospel proclamation? Repent and believe! (Here we must remember believe and faith are the same word group.) So faith is essential to salvation as it is the very essence of the human response. So in 1 Thessalonians, Paul as he prays for the Thessalonians remembers their work of faith. We could continue to meditate on faith as we consider the source of the faith: it is a gift of God (Ephesians 2.8). It is by faith you have been saved which is trusting in the work of Christ which Paul describes in Thessalonians as a work of faith. Just imagine: a man comes into your city and teaches a whole new paradigm of the gods (i.e. there is one God), and how to live (love your neighbor as yourself) and that this is ultimately satisfying (Jesus says take my yoke upon you and you will find rest for your souls). You are called to respond by repenting of your sin (some of which you hadn’t ever thought of as wrong before) and believe in a person you have never seen but who died and was raised and ascended into the sky. This is quite the work of faith, and God gave the gift of faith to this fledgling church.
The second in the list in 1 Thessalonians is the labor of love. Having been saved, now this new congregation in Thessalonica was called to love God and love their neighbor. On these two commandments hang the law and the prophets. In fact, loving in this way is a beginning of man fulfilling his created purpose: being made in the image and likeness of God means that man is responsible to love both God and humanity. Love God and love their neighbor, and as the church has responded to the gospel and been saved, they are freed to love as God created them to love. And in Christ, we have a person whose name is love who is our example as we seek to love others.
The last virtue is hope. Where faith is the beginning of salvation, and love is presently seen in our relationships with God and with one another, hope anticipates a future. It looks forward to a day when evil will be vanquished, tears will be wiped away and our salvation, which we (and the Thessalonians) had only experienced in part, will be fully experienced. We will see our Lord face to face and this is our great hope.
Given these cursory thoughts, I think we can now see why these three are the higher gifts: they are all aspects of our salvation: the past, the present, and the future. May we seek these higher gifts along with the Corinthians.