Romans chapter 16 shows that true fellowship is not just Christians socializing with one another, but Christians gathering around the Word and sharing the common life we have in the Lord Jesus Christ. Fellowship is more Christ-centered and of deeper significance than we usually have in mind when we use the term. If this is what true fellowship is, then it must include praising God for one another. We will see from the example of the apostle Paul that the act of praising God for one another is not only a direct participation in the life of the church, but also an indication that one has already been participating.
Sharing in the Life of the Church
Paul told the Thessalonian church,
“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 Thess. 1:2, ESV)
When Paul said “always for all of you,” was he exaggerating? Only in a literary sense, in order to make a point. He was not flattering the Thessalonians, or trying to make them believe that he somehow remembered each and every one of them in prayer. Rather, he simply meant that he was deeply concerned for them, and prayed for them often, maybe every day. At this time, Paul was 300 kilometres away in Corinth and had not been in direct contact with the Thessalonians for several months, yet he was still participating in the life of the church!
Now, it's important to note that in this sense God is not calling us to follow Paul's example. He was a missionary, the apostle to the Gentiles, and his ministry was to plant churches. Therefore, he was always on the move and was not called by God to remain in one church for many years. Meanwhile, the New Testament makes it clear that the requirement for all Christians—except in extreme cases—is that we should be committed to one local church. We should follow Paul's example, however, in being deeply concerned for the spiritual growth of the church.
Excited Over God’s Grace
Paul's prayer sprang from amazement at God's saving grace in the life of the Thessalonians. In verse 3 he recounts how he praises God for the believers'
“work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 1:3)
In verse 4 he gushes over the fact that,
“our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1 Thess. 1:4)
In verses 6 and 7 he boasts of the fact that they,
“received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (1 Thess. 1:6-7)
Paul's excitement is clear enough in our English Bibles, but it's even more obvious in the Greek text, because verses 2 to 10 (virtually the entire chapter) are actually just one, long sentence. Paul is so excited over God's grace to the Thessalonian church that he is rambling!
If we want to do justice to Paul's pastoral, prayerful concern for the church, however, we should also note that the reason he was so excited about the Thessalonians' salvation was that he saw it as part of God's grand plan of redemption. In verse 10 he says that the Thessalonians were saved,
“to wait for [God's] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:10)
All throughout the letter, Paul reminds and teaches them about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Always, he had the “big picture” in mind. We should note, however, that Paul did not use the big picture as an excuse for being disinterested and nonchalant towards individual believers. How sad it is that while some Christians struggle to see the whole forest, other Christians find it hard to care about individual trees! Thank God for Paul's example here! Indeed, Paul always had the end goal in mind, but it only motivated him to live more fully in the present.
Seeing God’s Hand in the Little Things
When Paul spoke of “remembering” the Thessalonians before God, what did he mean? The original Greek word is mnemoneuō, which can simply mean to be mindful of something or someone, but can also mean to make mention, to rehearse or repeat. For example, in Hebrews 11:22, it is said,
“By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention [mnemoneuō] of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.” (Heb. 11:22)
Another clue can be found in verses 4 and following:
“For we know... that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you... in power and in the Holy Spirit and in full conviction...” (1 Thess. 1:4-5)
and Paul goes on. The key is the word translated “know,” the Greek word eidō. While it can mean to know, its primary meaning is to see. So Paul was confident that the Thessalonians were truly saved because of the consistency that he saw between the great God they professed to believe and the divine power that was obviously at work in their lives. And so when Paul “remembered” the Thessalonians before God, he recalled the reports he had heard concerning them and recounted these in worshipful awe of the God who is gathering for Himself a holy nation out of every tongue and tribe and people and nation on the earth, and will subject all things under the reign of the Son.
Being Properly Impressed
Do we praise God privately for the salvation of our brothers and sisters? Do we allow ourselves to be impressed by what God does in and through the lives of each member? Now, some brethren may be proud and cynical and hard to impress. They may look at a brother's good works and say,
“Oh that's not so impressive! I know non-Christians who have even more good works than this brother!”
But that is a foolish way to think. Why? Because even though a Christian's good works are not always impressive in and of themselves, they are the evidence of God's redemptive work in the world. The same cannot be said of even the best works of an unbeliever. And so, even the smallest work, even the littlest growth in grace of a brother or sister in Christ has underneath it the cosmic purpose of the Trinity. And that is impressive, indeed!
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