Many people somewhat mistakenly call 1 Corinthians 13 the “love chapter” of the Bible. It is true that a portion of that chapter gives various attributes of love, but the point of the chapter is the passing of miraculous spiritual gifts, such as speaking in languages not learned in the normal way. In the final verse Paul says, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Most people put the emphasis on the last word or even the trinity of “faith, hope, love” when Paul’s intended emphasis was the word “abide” or “remain.” Even though the miraculous gifts were soon to disappear, these three would not. Regardless of his intent, though, this is not the only time that Paul places these three graces together.
We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father. (1 Thes 1:2-3)
If Paul combines these three qualities in letters to both the Corinthians and Thessalonians, we should consider their importance. Along with the gospel—If you think God owes you salvation because of what you have done, you are sadly mistaken.defined as the death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus—these three constitute important parts of Paul’s theology, possibly dating even from his youth.
Work of Faith
From early days of the church it seems that people misinterpreted the meaning of faith. In English it is often equated with belief, even a passive belief. A more accurate translation, according to some, would be trust. One can believe that a parent will take care of them, but still fear when danger threatens; but trust reduces or eliminates that fear. Trust is a more active word than mere belief. In Paul’s mind, however, faith goes even beyond the action of trust. It extends to proaction, to work.
Paul held an interesting view of faith and action. Some say it differs from that of James, but it really does not. James argued that “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? … Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (Jas 2:14, 17) Faith is revealed by action, and salvation is in the combination. Paul argues that works (actions) cannot save. “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Gal 2:16) What people tend to leave out is the phrase “of law.” Paul’s argument is that faith excludes earning one’s salvation by keeping a law, because nobody can keep law perfectly. Even James made that argument.
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. (Jas 2:10-11)
Paul’s view of work and faith contrasts the “work of faith” with “work of law.” He does not discount the role of work in salvation. Rather he contrasts two motivations. If one thinks, “I will be saved because I did what God demanded,” one is doomed to failure; at some point he will violate a command. If you think God owes you salvation because of what you have done, you are sadly mistaken. You failed before you even began. If, on the other hand, your actions demonstrate your trust in the blood of Jesus for salvation, then you begin to understand the “work of faith.”
Notice also that the contrast is between “works” of law and “work” of faith. When one is obeying law, every individual action is a separate work. Not committing murder is a separate work from obeying the speed limit, which is a separate work from “love your neighbor as yourself.” Many members of the U.S. Navy commit adultery while overseas because they don’t have the fear of getting caught; they can get away with it in the Philippines, whereas their wives might catch them if it is done in their home port. Their obedience is based on fear. In the same way works of law are based on fear that one bad action will counterbalance all good actions.
Work of faith, though, is a lifestyle rather than a set of actions. Faith is itself the work. “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” (Col 3:17) Work of faith says that every action is the same, a means of glorifying God. If everything is done to glorify God, then individual failures of action do not negate the overriding motivation. God sees faith in Jesus and forgives failures in the working of that faith.
Labor of Love
In 1 Corinthians, Paul gives the order of “faith, hope, love.” To the Thessalonians it is “faith, love, hope.” In the former passage love comes last, because it is the greatest. In the latter it is placed second because the work of faith and the labor of love assist the patience of hope.
Some people may be thinking, “Labor of love, work of faith; what is the difference?” When one looks at what Paul really says there is a big difference.
There are advantages and disadvantages to reading the Bible in translation. The obvious advantage is that most people are illiterate in Hebrew and Greek, so the only way they can read the Bible is in translation. That far outweighs the difficulty of translating some things into another language. Sometimes the translators make obvious mistakes, such as using Jesus instead of Joshua in Hebrews 4:8 in the King James Version. Sometimes it is intentional, such as refusing to render a certain Greek word immersion instead of transliterating it to baptism, knowing that many people don’t practice immersion. Sometimes the translators use a perfectly good word which may have more than one meaning in the language to which they are translating. That is the case here.
When you hear the word labor, what do you think? Most men will automatically equate it with work, such as the labors of Hercules or the Labor Party. Some women will make that same association, but many women equate labor with the process of giving birth, such as going into labor or labor pains. The latter idea is actually closer to what Paul says here. It is not the work of love, but the effort of love. Paul says love may include difficulty and pain.
Maybe it is a cultural thing, but in the United States we don’t often associate love and labor. We think in terms of the old Sammy Cahn lyric (made famous by Frank Sinatra) that says, “I fall in love too easily” or the song that says falling in love with Jesus is more important than obeying God. We speak of loving pets, spouses, sports, and food as if they were all on an equal plane. We treat love as a feeling, an emotion. In the Bible, however, Jesus and Paul equate love with a choice, an action.
Jesus says to love your enemies, which is hard work. Paul speaks here of the painful effort of love. In the Roman world it was not easy to be a Christian. They were either ignored or persecuted. Loving other Christians would be easy, but the Thessalonian Christians apparently displayed love beyond the boundaries of their fellowship. Choosing to love when the other person is unlovable is hard work. Maybe even as hard as childbirth.
Patience of Hope
Love may be the greatest of the three because it lasts beyond the need for trust or hope, but to some people the patience of hope may be the most difficult. We in America are used to instant gratification. We have “fast food, fast cars, and fast women.” Instead of saving up for a purchase we put it on the credit card. Even the tax preparation services promise that you don’t have to wait for the government to cut your refund; they will loan you that amount right away. If patience is a virtue there aren’t very many virtuous Americans.
It was not always so. Go back to the generation that was raised during the Great Depression. One of the causes of the depression was excessive credit, and when people were out of work banks were unwilling to extend credit. If that generation wanted something they usually had to wait until they could save enough cash to buy it. In some cases you could put an item on lay-away, and pay for it over time, but you still did not see the fulfillment of hope until it was fully paid for. That generation knew what Paul was talking about.
We live in a painful world. We look forward to a better one. The price has been paid; the lay-away has been fulfilled. And yet we still have a hope of salvation that requires patience. That is not “I hope I am saved.” It is rather “the trip is paid for, but the ship has not left theWe treat love as a feeling. In the Bible Jesus and Paul equate love with an action. dock yet.” We know that for which we hope, and eagerly anticipate its arrival. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
It is just this assurance that informs the patience of hope. With the assurance of heaven we can be patient. The person who says, “I hope I am saved,” may exhibit patience or a lack thereof depending on how he perceives his current standing with God. If he knows he has sinned, and is legalistic enough to believe that each sin will cause him to lose his salvation, he may be willing to wait patiently until he has asked forgiveness. If he thinks he is currently in a saved status he may actually be impatient, for fear of losing his salvation. On the other hand, one who has the assurance of faith has the luxury of patience of hope; he can patiently await death or Christ’s return because day-to-day incidents make no difference in his salvation.
Faith, love, hope. Work, effort, patience. The greatest of these, without the adjective, may be love, but Paul made them equal in his prayers for the Thessalonian church. Each is important in the life of a church or of an individual. Because of our faith we act in hope and out of love. Because of our love we make the effort to maintain our faith and our hope. Because of our hope we can patiently show our faith and our love, even when it seems nobody wants them. If Paul specifically mentioned all three in his prayers about the Thessalonians, then perhaps we should try to show these qualities in our lives as well.