"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: Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God." (1 Thessalonians 1:3,4)
WE made some observations this morning in relation to the apostle's particular feeling of confidence with regard to these Thessalonian believers; that they were the children of God, and were eternally chosen--elect according to His divine foreknowledge--in the covenant of grace. What a wonderful mercy it is to feel that of anyone, and to feel it of ourselves! to feel a right and well-grounded hope, at least, that God had purposes of mercy from all eternity toward us, though we are not deserving of the least of His mercy.
It ought to be noted that the apostle observes three particular ways in which the gospel came to these Thessalonians--he speaks of it as coming to them, or as of their receiving it, "in power, and in the Holy Ghost." O what a mercy it is to feel something of the authority and power of the gospel in our hearts! There is something saving in this; it is altogether different from a mere form of godliness, or from just having a formal profession of religion. When the gospel comes into your heart with power, you will feel it, and will be able to say, as we were singing this morning:
"The gospel bears my spirit up;
A faithful and unchanging God
Lays the foundation of my hope
In oaths, and promises, and blood."
Not only did they receive it in its gracious power and efficacy but they received it not as the word of men but as the word of God. The apostle speaks of it "effectually working in them that believe." So he states that when they received the word of God which they heard preached by the apostle and Timotheus, they "received it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe." O what a mercy it is to feel a little, at least, of the effectual working of the truth in our souls! In such a case it is not received as man's word, as though one were preaching something of his own, but as the word of God.
Has there ever been a time with you when you have felt to receive the truth in, and by, the ministry, not as the word of men, not as merely something the poor minister may be trying to say, but as feeling an authority in it, receiving it as the word of God, and feeling it effectually working in your hearts?
Thirdly, they received it not only as the word of God, but also in much affliction. "Ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost." So, then, they had some joy in their affliction. The gospel brought a joy to them. They were in much affliction, probably under much persecution for the gospel's sake, but still they counted it all joy when they fell into those divers temptations. So I believe it often is with the Lord's people--the gospel is received in much affliction. Sin is an affliction; and when sin is felt, mourned over, and grieved over in the heart, when one's state as a sinner brings godly sorrow and repentance, there the gospel, as applied to the heart, brings a sweet healing, a joy, comfort, strength and peace.
Here the apostle refers to their "work of faith." "Remembering without ceasing your work of faith." The work of faith and the trial of faith are very closely linked together; faith will have its work and faith will have its trial. The work of faith may consist principally in receiving what the Lord is pleased to apply to us. The work of faith is in receiving the promises, but not only in receiving the promises--it also consists in receiving reproof, divine chastening, admonitions, and sometimes timely exhortations. When the Lord's chastening hand is upon us, it is the work of faith "to hear the rod and who hath appointed it." Unbelief, pride and hardness that is in us all, more or less, will rise up against it, but it is the work of faith to receive the correction; it is the work of faith to render praise for it; it is the work of faith to believe that it is appointed in love, and it is the work of faith to believe that
"The lash is steeped He on thee lays
And softened in His blood."
It is the work of faith to submit to the will of God in His disposing of matters that may concern us, to be still, and know that He is God, to prove that "in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength." And while we are here in this wilderness there will always be "the work of faith." Sometimes this work of faith consists in battling with the uprisings of unbelief in your heart. Faith will rise up, and pride and resentment will rise up; in fact, sometimes they seem to prevail and the spirit sinks; but it is the work of faith in the deep waters to lay hold on and cleave to the Rock, and trust alone in an unchanging and all-sufficient God. Sometimes it is the work of faith to go forth in things, in difficulties, in matters that may come in your daily life, in certain hard and, it may be, heavy things that you may have before you in a day. Perhaps you may arise in the morning and have matters of a burdensome and difficult nature that you may feel altogether unfit to cope with. What then? Well, it is the work of faith to take those matters to the Lord, to seek strength to wait upon Him, and ask Him to level a mountain for you or raise a valley for you, if it be according to His divine will.
I must reaffirm what I said this morning, that this work of faith is by His good Spirit; it is not something to play with, or do what we will or wish with; but you may sometimes distinctly feel the work and victory of faith, in being helped to overcome some difficulties or to walk in some peculiarly trying path, to bear some particularly heavy cross, or to be sustained in and under some affliction.
It is the work of faith to receive divine teaching; it is the work of faith to receive the Lord Jesus; it is the work of faith to renounce all for His sake, as the apostle did when he "counted all things but dung," that he might win Christ, and be found in Him. "Remembering without ceasing your work of faith." Although, if I had grace I might dilate a long time more upon this, I would seek this evening to consider the second point.
"Remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labour of love." These are, as I hinted this morning, very closely connected. Work and labor imply, of course, the same thing, although perhaps the term labor may indicate some greater difficulty. Some kinds of work may be comparatively easy, but to labor for this or that matter, or in this or that thing, suggests some difficulty and the need of grace and perseverance. So the apostle speaks here of a labor of love. This can be considered in the first place in relation to love to God. It is said in the Scripture that "we love Him because He first loved us." That is a very blessed truth--the former is a proof of the latter. You will never love the Lord unless it be that He first loved you. Moreover, that love that you feel toward Him, is a proof of His eternal love toward you. But, O my friends, sometimes, at least, there may be a great labor in this love.
"'Tis a point I long to know,
Oft it causes anxious thought;
Do I love the Lord, or not?
Am I His, or am I not?"
This may be a great point then, and here a labor may come in as to whether you do truly love the Lord or not, because sometimes, you see, the old enemy will say, what you thought was a little love to the Lord was just a spasm of natural emotion; you thought you had a little softness, but there was not anything in it after all. People of the world can shed a tear as well as you. All kinds of things he can tell you and then you will find yourself in a dilemma and conflict--Was that which I felt love to the Lord or not? Then there will be a labor. What kind of labor? Well, in waiting upon the Lord for a testimony that it was real. And sometimes the Lord is pleased to give a testimony of this reality by a fresh touch. When you get a fresh touch you can say, This is what I felt before, bless His holy Name; I do not want anything different. You see, we shall never rise altogether above this inward conflict.
I remember in my very early days, going one day to Hanover Chapel. Mr. Newton was preaching, and they had that hymn
"'Tis a point I long to know,
Oft it causes anxious thought;
Do I love the Lord, or not?
Am I His, or am I not?"
and when dear Mr. Newton began to preach he spoke like this: You could not have had a hymn more suitable to my feelings than that, for it is exactly how I feel. What? I said, what? do you mean to say that you, a minister and a pastor all these years, have not got any higher than that? Do you mean to say it is a point you long to know, after all this, whether you love the Lord or not? Yes, he said, it is, and he said there was never a time when that language was more suitable to his own feelings than it was that evening. Well, you see, that left rather a sweet memory, especially since I have been in the ministry myself, because the Lord's servants get into very low water sometimes, even if they do not say much about it; they get into very low water, so that they can preach about it; and in fact, they have to get into low water, and feel as opposite as they could feel to those good things they preach about. But whatever ministers' feelings may be, here is the blessed truth.
This labor consists in a seeking unto God to have love shed abroad in the heart. "O, when wilt Thou come unto Me?" Lord, do make that love manifest in my poor heart. Can it be possible I am one of Thy children? Make it known to me. Soften this hard, stony, rocky, flinty heart of mine. Lord, I cannot soften it. Grant me a touch of Thy mercy. What is all this? I believe it is a labor of love. But why all this labor of love? Is it not because you do love Him? Because if you did not love Him, although perhaps you do not feel it to your satisfaction, but if you did not love Him, there would be no waiting upon Him to have that love shed abroad; there would be no desire for it. Do you feel something like the Church in the Canticles, where she says, "Tell me, O Thou Whom my soul loveth, where Thou feedest, where Thou makest Thy flock to rest at noon, for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of Thy companions?" (Songs 1:7) It seems there was a labor of love there. There was a labor of love in her desire to be brought to places of feeding, to be with the flock and to partake of the same food, enjoy the same company, to mingle with those to whom she felt a union of heart, and, most of all, to be where the Shepherd was, where the Lord comes and feeds His flock. O, this labor of love! Sometimes this labor of love, which is a love to the Lord, is under a dark and heavy cloud with regard to one's state of soul, and in much darkness at times too, and on some occasions in, and under, things of a very weakening and distracting nature. O, in your heart you say, Nothing is so sweet as this love. O that I could but love Him; and sometimes when you are thus cogitating, you may feel it flow in, you get it; the touch comes, the Lord makes Himself precious, and then the labor is well rewarded; not because you merited it, but because of the Lord's great compassion. When that is the case you have to say,
"Compared with Christ, in all beside,
No comeliness I see;
The one thing needful, dearest Lord,
Is to be one with Thee."
Well, do you have any labor of love as toward the Lord Himself?
Love has a labor in another direction from this, although flowing out of it, and that is as the apostle mentions in this epistle, love to one another, love to the brethren in the gospel, which is to be distinguished from natural affection, although there may be both, of course; but the love here is of a spiritual nature, and it is very sweet to feel it; it is an evidence of divine life in the soul, if rightly understood. I know some people have almost based their standing for eternity upon feeling a little love to the Lord's people, because the apostle said, "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." (1 John 3:14) But we need to remember that the love the apostle refers to there is the love that flows out of love to the Lord Jesus Christ. You love the brethren because they love Him, because they love the same Jesus that you love, and that knits your heart to them; it is a gospel love; it is as foreign to natural sentiment as the North and South Poles. It is a spiritual bond that joins and unites the Lord's dear people together, and though, naturally speaking, they may have very much to try them, and to try one another too, in their natural mentality and disposition, still, here it is, and it is very sweet to feel that love in the gospel to the Lord's people. "Let brotherly love continue." How blessed it is when this love in the gospel is a means of rightly removing unfriendly feelings or jealousies or differences. This is where the labor of love comes in and it is a very blessed thing when it prevails to the sinking down of other things, which in themselves may be a barrier or a stumblingstone. Even naturally speaking, there is nothing to compare with love. It is said to be the best rag of poor, fallen human nature, and so it is, for after all, apart from anything else, this world would be an arid waste if there were no natural ties and bands of affection, uniting one and another together in that which the Lord has designed. O, it is very sweet to feel a little love in your heart to the Lord Jesus. I remember years ago, working in my shop in Brighton when I felt such a love to the Lord Jesus in my heart that I looked out of the window and said, If I saw a tramp going down the street, if he was one of the Lord's children I could love him, whoever he was. Perhaps you may get a moment like this.
This labor of love may often consist in battling against, and seeking to overcome things of an earthly nature which tend to divide the Lord's people. There can be a flowing together to the goodness of the Lord even when things are somewhat trying and difficult. Should there not be? After all, if we are the Lord's people, as we hope we are, some of us, when we come to think of what He has done for us in delivering our poor souls from eternal death; when we think of His love to us, what He has gone through, suffered and endured; when we think of the love that many waters could not quench and many flames could not burn; when we think of the love from which nothing can separate; then should it not be in the hearts of the Lord's people to labor in this love? that is, should there not be a labor of love one toward another in the gospel, as having professed the Lord's Name? O, so many things are not right, so many things are wrong in me; and we shall never find perfection in the flesh.
Then again, this labor of love in a gospel sense, may sometimes consist in forgiving injuries, and that is a labor of love because, you see, if one should smite you on one cheek, it is not in poor, fallen human nature to invite him to smite you on the other cheek too--and yet that is what the Lord said in His Sermon on the Mount. There can be a very great and profitable labor of love, even in this. After all, you know, if the Lord's love touches your heart, if it does, when it does, if one should injure us when that love is felt, all the harm we can do him is to try and pray for him and that is like "turning the other cheek also," for that is the best way, and often the surest way, of gaining the victory. "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head." O this labor of love when it prevails in heaping coals of fire on the head of an enemy, indeed it has gained its point and it will make him feel ashamed of his treatment of you and acknowledge it too.
This work of faith and labor of love consists in another point, and that is in endeavoring to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." This is a labor of love because the old enemy will always be trying to sow the seeds of discord, if he can, among the Lord's people; he is very busy at that kind of business. Moreover, if he can divide in any way, if he can wedge in with his cloven hoof, he will, and divide the Lord's people; he will divide the church if he can. O what unhappy things have taken place in many churches. This labor of love will consist in endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Not peace at any price, just going with the stream, countenancing all things or glossing everything over, as though it does not matter--we will love one another and that is all there is about it, and passing by what is really wrong and displeasing in the Lord's sight--that is not a labor of love in the right sort of way at all, because it can bring the Lord's displeasure upon us. But this labor of love is in endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, with an eye to the Lord's honor and glory in the church. Many have had to suffer for their faithfulness, many have had to suffer for giving what may be a timely reproof, although perhaps in the tenderest word possible and in a spirit of love, which was a labor of love rightly considered; but there must be faithfulness with it, and a right "contending for the faith once delivered unto the saints." "Remembering without ceasing your labour of love."
This labor of love consists also in ministering to the needs and necessities of the Lord's people in their afflictions. The apostle James defines real religion in its effects and proofs, as made manifest in this sense; he says, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." I am the last one to say much about this, because of my own shortcomings, but here is the point and, moreover, James says, "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him." The 'elder' may be deacons or ministers or even a private member--"let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord." Here is a labor of love. Now and again, I believe I have felt it sweet to try to pray with the Lord's people in their afflictions; here and there it has been a choice spot, with a little sweet softening of heart in waiting upon the Lord sometimes by the bedside of an afflicted saint. There have, at times, been some very choice moments. This is a labor of love.
Of course, in those days particularly, in which the apostle wrote, and up to more recent times, there is a labor of love in ministering to the necessities of those who may be deprived of the needful things of this life. From the very first the apostles practiced and gave direction for the poor to be considered, and to be helped and relieved in their necessities. In writing to the Philippians the apostle makes particular reference to their practical consideration of him, in what they did for him, assuring them that his God would supply all their need.
This labor of love comes in many ways, even in relation to public duties, it is a labor of love, a sacrifice made for the Lord's sick, or in attempting anything for the spiritual welfare or well-being of others, as in instructing children in the truth, or in ministering the gospel for the Lord's sake, in holding any position in the church of God that involves responsibility and anxieties, in taking up the cross for His Name's sake. The Labor of love comes in all these things, and of this the apostle felt confident concerning these Thessalonians. "Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love and patience of hope."
"Patience of hope." Hope is a grace that relates principally to the future and fundamentally to that which "the Lord has promised to those who love Him," to the entering into that inheritance which He has laid up for His dear people. Now we will say you feel a hope of heaven in your heart. Well then, what need is there of any patience? You will need patience in this vale of tears, in this path of tribulation, in holding on in hope, until that hope is fulfilled. The patience of hope will consist in this, because many things may come to try it. It may be a hope that seems sometimes almost to be lost sight of. The apostle speaking to the Romans said, "Hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?" But if the hope of eternal life is in you, patience will be needed, patience of hope, because of all the difficulties that may attend your pilgrimage, until that day when it shall be "Absent from the body--present with the Lord."
Sometimes the patience of hope is exercised by deferred answers to prayers, in our matters, or in our souls, under or in the fulfilling of some particular promise that we may hope and believe the Lord has given us. If you have a promise given you you may have to go through a great deal before the promise is fulfilled, and this is where the patience of hope comes in. James says, "Let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing."
I shall have to leave it now; but in this verse the apostle says all this is "in the sight of God and our Father." All is in His sight, and, moreover, all this labor of love and patience of hope center in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a hope that is built upon His love and righteousness, it is a hope that is fixed upon Him. All these things are "in the sight of God and our Father," and in the exercise of them and the preparation of handling them, and the manifestation of them, the apostle saw the proof of their election. "Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God." We are not able to prove our election of God by searching the divine registers, by looking into the Lamb's Book of Life of which we read, to see if our name is there, to convince ourselves, but rather in the fruits that attend this divine choice, in the work of faith, and labor of love and patience of hope, and in the power of the gospel in our souls. It is as though the apostle would say, Now, beloved brethren, I see your election of God in this work of faith, I see your election of God in this labor of love, I see your election in this patience of hope; he felt assured of it.
May the Lord grant it to us and may He give us grace to receive what I have spoken, in a spirit of love, and may we have grace to follow Him, and one day, by His great mercy, be with Him where sin no more defiles.