The Apostle Paul traveled from Athens to the city of Thessalonica and preached the Gospel for about 3 weeks before he was forced to return back to Athens. After he returned, he reflected back on his time in Thessalonica. He must have been wondering what was happening in the new church that was only a few months old. So he sent his young disciple, Timothy, on a follow-up visit to see what was really happening in the lives of the Thessalonians. Timothy came back with amazing news and said, “God is working there, it's unbelievable!” Paul was blown away with this sense of spiritual joy. So he wrote a letter to them known as 1 Thessalonians and sent it to them.
Paul greets them, then writes “3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” 1 Thessalonians 1:3.
In this one verse, Paul shares three reasons why he was thankful for the church in Thessalonica. First, Paul was thankful because of their work produced by faith. What work? Work like helping their neighbors, work like serving others, work like caring for the poor. The text doesn’t go into great detail about what they did, Paul just spoke of their works in general. He immediately praised the Thessalonians for the good works they were performing.
Why did they do good works? Because they had faith in Christ. Paul clearly states in other texts that salvation is a matter of faith not good works, but when you have faith in Christ, you are expected to take it to the streets. You share that faith through good works. It’s one thing to hear how much God loves you, it’s another to see God’s love in action through others. The beautiful thing about good works through faith is that it connects us with our purpose.
Second, Paul was thankful for their labor that was prompted by love. The love Paul is speaking about here is “agape love”. The essence of agape love is goodwill, benevolence, and involves faithfulness, commitment, and an act of the will. As soon as we discover what agape love is, we are forced to make a decision. We either yield to that love or we reject it. If we accept God’s agape love, we are made new in it. By the grace of God, we begin to see people like God sees them. We love them because God loves them like he loves us. That changes everything. Instead of being selfish, we become self-less. Instead of being greedy we become graceful. Instead of receiving, we become more giving. In this text, Paul praises them for their agape love toward others. Because they understood the love of God, they willingly shared it with others and people became followers of Christ because they admired the great love they displayed.
I am convinced that when we love others like Jesus, it makes a difference. If you don’t show the love of Christ, how will anyone ever see the love of God? We show the love of God through serving others. You and I are holy agents commissioned to serve others and it’s a commissioning that we need to take seriously. Because when we serve others out of our love for them, they see Christ.
Third, Paul was thankful for their endurance inspired by hope. Hope enables us to see setbacks as comebacks. Hope enables us to overcome even the worst of situations. The Thessalonians were being persecuted by the Jews who wanted them gone but were willing to endure trials because they had blazing hope in Christ. Hope changes things because hope changes our perspective. The Gospel is based on truth and saturated in hope.
The Gospel enables us to look past our current struggles and set our eyes on the hope of being with Jesus in eternity. You may have endured immense hardships. You may have endured more pain and suffering than anyone should have to go through. Because you have endured, many people have come to see that the gospel is real.
The three key words in verse 3, faith, hope, and love, are seen together several times in the New Testament because when you and I demonstrate these, it makes a tangible difference in our lives and in the lives of others. The Thessalonians were all in. They loved God with their whole heart. They were authentic. They were the real deal. They were full of faith, hope, and love and because of them, disciples were made. In the same way, when we are full of faith, hope, and love, people see Jesus.
Joshua, Moses’ successor, had seen God deliver the Israelites providing them with food, protection, and direction. He didn’t only witness these blessings upon the Israelites once. God delivered them again and again. After Moses died, one of the first things that Joshua had to do was lead the people into the Promised Land. The only problem was that the Jordan river was between them and their destination. They had no boats, the water was too deep to wade across, and too far to swim, especially since it was flooded that time of year.
God could have easily stopped the water like he did for Moses. He could have provided a thousand boats or even erected a bridge for the people to cross, but he didn’t. He just let the river flow. He gave Joshua some instructions to follow. The story is recorded in Joshua chapter 3 and points out three acts of faith.
First, keep their eyes on God.
“2 After three days the officers went throughout the camp, 3 giving orders to the people: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. 4 Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.” Joshua 3:2-4
The Ark of the Covenant was a chest made of acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold inside and out. It was 3 feet, 9 inches long and 2 feet, 3 inches wide and high. The Ark contained the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them and some manna. It was where the presence of God dwelled; it was the most holy object and represented the living God. Joshua told the people that when they saw the Ark of the Covenant pass in front of them, held by the Levitical priests, they needed to follow it. Their first act of faith was to keep their eyes on God (the Ark) and move when he moved.
Second, expect something amazing to happen.
“5 Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” Joshua 3:5
The people were told to expect God to show up. They needed to have faith that God would answer their prayers. The Ark passed by and the people followed. When the priests came to the river, it was still flowing. The moment must have been tough. All the people were looking ahead at an impossible situation while Joshua was trying to earn credibility. Now it was up to God.
Third, stand in the water without any promise that it will stop flowing.
“13 And as soon as the priests who carry the Ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.” Joshua 3:13
Only after they stepped in the water did it stop flowing. God could have stopped it prior to their arrival. He could have parted it like he did for Moses. But he didn’t. He told the priests to step in, without any reassurance other than his promise, and only after they got wet did the water stop. It was then that the people were finally able to cross over on dry ground.
In the end, God led Joshua into the Promised Land.
Joshua’s life is remarkable and filled with stories of faith and answered prayer. He was a man who trusted God to move and God did. If you were to compare Joshua’s map to the Promised Land with God’s map, they would not have been identical, but God’s way was the best way and it took faith to walk with him.
The path of life ahead of you may at times look impossible to cross. Too many trials, too many obstacles, too big of a task, too many naysayers, lack of confidence...the list goes on. Most of us want the water to stop flowing before we step in. We want to have proof before we take the plunge. A follower of Christ trusts that God can, and will, move the mountains in their life. They trust that if they step out in faith, he will make a way for them. Sometimes we need to get our feet wet before God parts the water. Don’t be afraid to step in the water, God will show up.
Jesus says: “9As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” John 15:9-11
There are four decisions you need to make in order to experience more joy in your life. First, receive God’s love unconditionally. Jesus tells you that the father loves him and he loves you. Receive it unconditionally. Don’t tell yourself that God will love you more if you clean up your act. He already loves you and wants to help you grow closer to him, you just need to trust him.
Second, repent often. Repenting from sin is like taking out the trash. When you keep unconfessed sin in your heart, it begins to stink up the rest of your life as well. When you take the trash out in your own life, God fills you with joy.
Third, regret less. Joyful people don’t dwell on missed opportunities; they look for new ones. Let the Holy Spirit lead you. He will give you opportunities to develop spiritually, fellowship with other Christians, and to serve others. Take the opportunity to attend that retreat or conference that has been on your heart, even though it might be hard to break away from your day-to-day life. Join that group that seems like it might be good for your spiritual health, even though you aren’t sure you have the time and are a bit uneasy about opening up to strangers. Invite a friend who might need a listening ear to coffee with you, even if it means you need to find a place for your kids to go. These things honor God. When you go to bed at night, you want to be able to fall asleep knowing that you made the most out of your day. There is joy in that.
Fourth, release others. In other words, forgive those who have hurt you. Forgiving others is not something that you can do on your own. You might be able to successfully repress your anger, but you cannot grant forgiveness unless you know what it is like to be forgiven by Jesus yourself. We don’t forgive others to give them a free pass to get away with something, we forgive them to release ourselves from the pain they caused. There is joy in that.
Joy comes from knowing that you matter to God. Joy comes from knowing God’s got your back. Joy comes from knowing you are being held in the very hands of God. Joy comes from knowing that you are a friend of God. Joy is a supernatural gift that comes from being connected to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the worst moments of your life, God will show up. Receive God’s love, repent, regret less, and release others through forgiveness. This is where you will find joy.
People who don’t pray, or refuse to pray, miss out on the power, peace, and presence of God. God most definitely listens to prayers, answers prayers, and moves in response to prayers because prayer moves the heart of God. Jesus said: “21Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Matthew 21:21-22 Jesus used the term “mountain” figuratively. He wanted to convey that believers should be confident that our prayers carry great power. Our prayers can be more than empty wishes or good thoughts. But in order for our prayers to have power, they need to be fueled by faith.
There are two main principles that will help you to pray mountain-moving prayers. The first principle is to be connected to Christ at all times. If you are living far from God, it’s very hard to sense his presence or hear his voice. When we are connected to Christ, we have spiritual power. We receive the power to endure, change direction, press on, or respond in a million other ways.
My friend Van Johnson, my son Josh, and I went to visit Chris and Maggie Hostetter in Papua New Guinea. On the way back, we stopped in Japan for a couple days. During our stay in Japan, we rode the trains to get around. Most people who live in the inner city don’t have cars. They rely heavily on public transportation. Every time I got on a train, I couldn’t help but look up. Suspended above me was a web of wires that resembled a spider’s nest. They were low hanging, open power lines that had thousands of stabilizers connected to them. The trains all had mechanisms that reached up and touched the wire providing power to the giant electric motors, that in turn, powered the train. I am no electrician, nor am I an engineer, but I do know that all the power for the train comes from the wires and the train needs to be in constant contact with the wires or they won’t move even an inch. John 15:5 says: “5I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
All of our power comes from Jesus. He sustains us, strengthens us, gives us wisdom, and enables us to do things and see things that we never thought possible. Another word here is “abide.” We must “abide in Christ”. To “abide” means to remain in or live in. It’s through our connection to Christ that we receive healing and direction. If you are connected to Christ, he will get you to where you need to be. Drop the connection and you will feel powerless.
The second principle to pray mountain-moving prayers is to keep your eyes focused on Jesus, not the mountain. Your mountain might be cancer, it might be a wayward child, your marriage, finances, or any other seemingly unmovable object. Everyone has mountains to climb in their lives and we can’t escape that they are there. When we turn our gaze away from Jesus and onto the mountain, we lose sight of the Mountain Mover.
Florence Chadwick was a well-known endurance swimmer; she was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. When she decided to swim twenty-one miles from Catalina Island to the coast of California, everyone thought she could do it. The morning she jumped into the water, a dense fog had settled in and she could hardly see the boats in her own party. Millions were watching her attempt on national television. Several times sharks got close to her and had to be driven off with shotguns. As the hours ticked off, she swam on. Fatigue had never been her problem in these swims – it was the bone-chilling cold of the water. More than 15 hours later, numbed with the cold, she asked to be taken out. She couldn’t go on. Her mother and her trainer, alongside in the boat, told her that they were near land and assured her that she could make it.
Except when she looked at the California coast, all she could see was dense fog. She had been pulled out only a half mile from the California coast. Later, when she was interviewed, she said that she quit because she could not see the shore. If you lose sight of God, all you will see is the mountain and lose hope.
Two months after Florence Chadwick’s epic attempt and defeat, she tried the swim again. This time the water was just as cold and, once again, the fog had rolled in. The only difference was, this time she knew she could make it. She chose to believe that the shore was just ahead, even though she couldn’t see it until her feet touched the bottom of the sea on the coast of California. She beat the previous record by 2 hours. (http://www.motivationaljoe.com/swimming-in-the-fog-story/, accessed 28 April 2016)
God does hear you and will provide for you, often in ways you would never expect. My friends, stay strong, trust God even if you can’t see the shore, and pray mountain-moving prayers. Believe that God will provide for you each step of the way. He will.
Every year there is only a two-month window when Mount Everest is capable of being climbed. The rest of the year, the winds are so fierce and the temperature so low, that it is considered impossible to climb. It can cost a climber up to seventy thousand dollars to attempt to summit Mount Everest. Thousands of people have sold their cars, homes, and personal belongings for a shot at reaching the top. Gerard McDonnell was one of these people. He paid a huge price for his attempt to reach the summit. As he was scaling the mountain, his trip leader warned him to turn around because his hands and feet were severely frostbitten, but Gerard refused to listen. After hiking up the mountain further, Gerard realized he wasn’t going to summit the mountain without physically paying for it and alas turned around. Unfortunately, this decision was too late. He had frostbite so severely that every finger on one hand, the majority of fingers on the other hand, and half of one of his feet had to be amputated after his attempt.
The truth is, Jesus doesn’t really care if you climb to the top of the world or not. He isn’t into expeditions that try and tame the North Pole or conquer the jungle. He never said "If you really want your life to count, then climb the highest mountain or swim the across the coldest ocean." Jesus tells us that if we want our life to really count, stay really close to Him and he will produce spiritual fruit.
“5I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” John 15:5-6 NIV
The key to remaining in Christ is to obey his commands. And in order to be obedient, you need to let God prune your life. According to Jesus “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). I need the Holy Spirit to prune my life on a regular basis so that I can produce spiritual fruit such as love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
If you have no margin in your life, ask Jesus to help you prune your calendar. If you have someone in your life who is dragging you down and leading you away from Christ, ask Jesus to help prune them from your life. If you have distraction or addictions that keep your gaze away from the Cross, ask for pruning to take place. The cool thing is, when we let God prune our lives, our faith grows. I trust Jesus now, more than ever, because he cut things out of my life that I didn’t think I could let go of and now I can see how that pruning produced spiritual fruit.
Jesus says: “16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” John 15:16
Bearing fruit is the result of staying connected to Jesus, the Vine. You might not ever be the CEO, President of the United States, a famous musician, or climb mount Everest, but I promise, if you let God do a little pruning, and if you remain in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit will produce fruit in your life. This pruning will inevitably spread the Gospel and last into eternity.