When my oldest daughter was born seventeen years ago, I remember holding her in my arms and wondering: "Now what?" I thought I would have felt more confident since we had purposely waited seven years before having children. I was wrong.
How do we raise children? How do we mature them? This has really come home to me since that little baby actually walked across the stage to receive her diploma a few weeks ago! The process doesn’t seem to end, does it? You who are parents know what I mean. Even when your children are young adults in their twenties and thirties, sometimes you hope they will continue to mature—maturity is a life time process.
Paul was a church father. He planted churches—he considered these new followers of Jesus his children and he desperately wanted them to grow up and mature. One of these church plants was in a huge city located in Macedonia. Paul, Silas and Timothy had just left Philippi where they started a church—ran into some persecution, were beaten and imprisoned, and finally left town. They made their way to the Metropolis of Macedonia: a town called Thessalonica.
Thessalonica was a large port town and the capital of one of the four districts of Macedonia. Some have suggested the town was around 200,000 in population at the time of Paul’s visit. In Acts 17:1-10 we have a record of Paul’s church planting activity. We don’t know exactly how long Paul and Silas stayed—it’s possible Paul was in Thessalonica for a few months. The reading in Acts does allow for this—we don’t know the exact time lapse between verse 4 and 5. And there is strong indication from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he stayed there more than a few weeks and many of the new converts came out of the pagan culture.
Paul went on to Berea, Athens and then to Corinth. While in Athens, Paul became very concerned about this young church plant—especially the persecution they were suffering, and sent Timothy back to check on them. In Corinth Timothy returns with good news of the congregation’s progress. Paul then writes them a letter to encourage them and to help them mature in their faith. We know this letter as 1 Thessalonians. It was written perhaps six months after Paul left Thessalonica—between 50 and 51 A. D. It represents his earliest written attempts to mature new believers in Christ. So, what does this father in the faith tell them?
Paul says: “There’s three things I want you to grasp—these three things are essential in your growth: faith, love, and hope.” What is interesting is how these three items are rooted in the three-fold nature of God: Father, Son and Spirit. It’s as if Paul is saying “the very nature of God is the foundation of your life and of your maturity.” It isn’t a new system—like a new diet or new self-help theory. It isn’t just a new religion;it is a whole new way of life. It’s a new relationship with the world and with people based solidly on a new relationship with one called God. What we are reading here is theology in the making. Paul’s theology is taking shape in the lab of planting churches and loving on people.
For Paul, being an apprentice of Jesus means a person must live counter to the culture in which one finds himself. The gospel message is a message of God’s love demonstrated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a message empowered through the Holy Spirit. However, that message is not merely to be heard—it is to be acted upon. It is to produce a unique way of living. Faith corresponds with being set apart—the words sanctification and holiness are tied to this idea of faith. There is a certain way in which a Christ-follower conducts his life every day. We are not called to sit idly by and wait for something to happen. We are to be engaged in this world—but we are to be engaged in a certain way: a way that involves sexual purity, hard and honest work, gentleness and self-discipline.
Paul also speaks of love—especially for one another. The way of God is the way of love. God, by his very nature, lives in perfect community: Father, Son and Spirit. Paul constantly speaks of his affection and love for the Thessalonians and he appeals to their early grasp of loving community. But he knows the fragile nature of such community and encourages them to increase their love. By virtue of their conversions, they have been alienated from friends and families. They desperately need a new community—a new family to encourage them and keep them going.
Paul speaks of hope—this idea of desire and expectation of God’s deliverance. They are undergoing persecution. They need something on which to hang: salvation. Persecution will not last forever. There will come a time when everything will be redeemed—when practical holiness will be made perfectly complete; when body, soul, and spirit will be made whole and blameless in the coming of Jesus.
To faith, love and hope Paul adds two complementary characteristics. The first characteristic is an attitude of thanksgiving. If the nature of God is the center of our faith, love and hope then one would think that praise and thanksgiving to him would be a dominant attitude. We have been set apart as special to God, we have been given a new family, and we have an incredible hope that lasts forever—an attitude of thankfulness is the proper attitude. The second is imitation. Throughout the letter Paul points out how these Christians have imitated Jesus, himself, the Judean churches—and how they themselves are becoming a model for other groups of believers. That’s the way it is supposed to be! Maturity comes through imitation. We see it in our children. Whether we like it or not—they usually do not conform to our preaching—but to our practice. They imitate us.
Faith, love, and hope are developed the same way.
So, how does this maturing process look today? How do we grow up into fully mature followers of Jesus? Here are the broad ideas for us. Our lives are to be wrapped up in the nature of God: Father, Son and Spirit. God has called us to be his people, Jesus died to make us holy, and the Spirit lives in us to empower us to demonstrate God’s character right here and now. The story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is our story, too. We have died to our old self-centered ways and now we are to live our lives to honor God. This is called faith. God’s nature implies loving community. We are called to live as one people—just as the Father, Son and Spirit are one in love, purpose and focus. This is called love. We are called to end well. No matter how difficult life may be—through persecution, natural disaster, or just the pain of life—we are called to endure and not let go of God. God will preserve us to the coming of Jesus where we will be united with him—preserved body, soul and spirit. This is called hope. And through all of this, we continually live a life of thanksgiving and praise, looking to the examples of those who have gone on before us and seeking to live our lives as an example to those who will follow.
So, as children, may you grow to full maturity in God. May you come to understand your lives as wrapped up in the Father, Son and Spirit. May you live holy and blameless in keeping with the holiness of God. May you love each other deeply from the heart. May you endure to the end fully expecting God to preserve you and grant you wholeness. May your life reflect praise and gratitude—and may you find that example to follow so that you will be an example to others.