(October 20, 2018) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, shares…
The 1968 comedy movie, The Odd Couple, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau centred on two men, Felix and Oscar, who decided to live with each other after their wives left them. Felix was neurotically obsessed with tidiness and cleanliness while Oscar was a messy and quick-tempered layabout. They made an odd couple indeed.
Odd couples come in many shapes and forms!
A real life odd couple is Joelison Fernandes da Silva and Evem Medeiros from Brazil. Joelison is 7 feet 8 inches (2.36 meters) tall and his wife is just 5 foot (1.5 meters).
Joelison said, ‘The day I saw her I think it was love at first sight.’
Six oddly coupled but significant Greek words
Recently as I was reading 1 Thessalonians, I particularly noticed what Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica. He stated that he continually remembered ‘before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:3 RSV).
It struck me as odd, or at least unexpected, that in these three phrases are found words that normally one would not put together, that is…
- Labour/love and
The sense of what Paul was stating is even more surprising in the original Greek. (In this article I explore the essential meaning of these six significant Greek words).
Before we look at each phrase separately, let us first notice the reference to the words faith, love and hope. Paul also uses those same words in 1 Corinthians 13 in his affirmation of the greatness of love. He sums it all up in verse 13 in which he states that there are three great permanent qualities of the Christian life – faith, hope and love.
In the Koine Greek language in which Paul wrote he unexpectedly uses the first person singular form of the verb menei (which in English can be translated as ‘remains’, ‘continues’ or endures’) that unites the three qualities – ‘faith, hope and love remains.’ The three are inseparably connected!
So what is Paul telling his readers in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 in his coupling of apparently incongruous phrases such as work and faith, labour and love and, thirdly, steadfastness and hope? Let’s look at the three phrases separately.
1. ‘Work of faith’
The Greek word for ‘work’ that is used here is ergon and the word for ’faith’ is pistis. Paul’s joining of these two words may appear to contradict what he has written elsewhere, for example, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In Romans 4:5 Paul further writes, ‘However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.’ Paul strongly emphasises the significant differences between these two words – indeed his contrasting of them is a fundamental aspect of Christian theology.
The context of Paul’s comments centres on the ‘operating principle’ by which a saving relationship with God is established and he therefore emphasises the primacy and indispensability of faith. In Titus 3:5 he makes the same point, ‘… not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us.’
Paul’s uncompromising teaching denies us the opportunity to boast that we personally can make a significant and indispensable contribution to our salvation. This is the same point he highlights in Romans 4:2, ‘If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God!’
John Calvin made this comment, ‘If Abraham was justified by his works, he might boast of his own merits. But he has no ground of boasting before God. Therefore he was not justified by works.’
- On the other hand James writes, ‘But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?’ (James 2:20 NKJ).
- And James continues in verse 24, ‘You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only’ (NKJV). James appears to be strongly making the point that the key factor in our salvation is works!
- Indeed the great Reformer, Martin Luther, who rightly understood that our salvation is entirely the work of God – ‘by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone’ – had difficulty accepting James’ letter and described it as a ‘strawy epistle.’ He considered that it undermined the truth that we cannot save ourselves by our good works.
So, who is right – Paul or James? If what Paul wrote concerning the irreplaceable role of faith in the Christian life is foundational, are James’ comments therefore wholly off base? Did James not have a grasp of a fundamental Christian truth? It may appear that he is going ‘head to head’ with Paul on this. How can both be right? Some maintain that they are in total disagreement with each other – but how can that be so if the integrity of the Bible inviolable?
That would be a wholly wrong assumption to make! James’ emphasis in comparing the roles of faith and works was not about the basis of our relationship with God but about the practical and visible outworking of that faith! He was making the point that faith that is real is expressed in action!
A closer look at what both Paul and James actually wrote shows that what may be considered as a disagreement between them is actually a wrong conclusion to make. Paul was not pitting faith against works in our relationship with God; but he was arguing that if we depend on our works to save us, we are going to be bitterly disappointed for it is our faith in God that establishes a saving relationship with him.
Indeed Paul reflects his agreement with James’ teaching in writing in Ephesians 2:10, ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.’ James in 2:18 is actually complementing what Paul wrote about faith and works, ‘Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ Both men are therefore in agreement in highlighting the words of Jesus: ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16).
John Calvin recognised that Paul and James were not in disagreement with each other. He succinctly summarises the teaching of both Paul and James in writing, ‘Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is not alone.’ Genuine Christian discipleship requires faith that is seen in action.
2. ‘Labour of love’
In English the word ‘labour’ is commonly used today as a synonym of ‘work.’ But the Greek word that is in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 translated as ‘labour’ is kopos has a totally different meaning from ergon. Its meaning contains such concepts as struggle, exertion, pain and suffering. At first sight kopos appears to have little in common with ‘love’ yet in this verse Paul joins them together – ‘labour of love.’
But when Paul writes about love, he is not referring to fuzzy feelings, romantic love, physical intimacy, friendship or family relationships. He is writing about a special kind of love for which he used the Greek word is agape (which is found over 200 times in the New Testament).
- Paul describes agape as the greatest of all virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13).
- John tells us that agape is the principal attribute of God’s character – ‘God is agape’ (1 John 4:8).
- Peter advises us to ‘… hold unfailing your agape for one another, since agape covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8 RSV). This instruction requires us to love even when it is not returned; it means loving those who hate us; it means loving those whose character and attitude is repellent.
- Jesus gives us two basic commands – love God and love other people! (Matthew 22:37–39).
Agape is not, therefore, a feeling but an attitude and an act of the will. It is not a ‘felt’ thing but a ‘chosen’ thing. It is active, not passive. It does not require a response to sustain it because it is based on a decision.
Why, then, has Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 joined together two apparently differing concepts, that is, painful exertion on the one hand and absolute and active caring on the other?
The answer is that agape love comes at a cost. Its focus is not on personal benefit but on practical service for the benefit of others. And that often comes at a cost – sometimes even at a considerable personal and painfully sacrificial cost. There is a sense in which agape is demanding – as the hymn so eloquently says: ‘Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.
History records many examples of Christians whose lives have demonstrated an active and committed love that has persevered through much struggle, sacrifice and pain. And the greatest example of all of a ‘labour of love’ – the union of suffering (kopos) and love (agape) – was demonstrated by Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The cross forever stands as a testimony to the greatness and wonder of Jesus’ agape. ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers’ (1 John 3:16).
3. ‘Steadfastness of hope’
Paul writes about ‘steadfastness’ in association with ‘hope.’
Let’s explore first of all the word ‘steadfastness’… which is a translation of the Geek word hupomone which is composed of two words – hupo (meaning ‘under’) and mone (meaning ‘abide’ or ‘remain’). This combination refers to living unwaveringly under various circumstances, that is, ‘persevering.’
The Greek word appears 32 times in the New Testament and, apart from 2 Corinthians 1:6 where it is translated by ‘enduring’ the KJV consistently translates it as ‘patience.’ That, however, fails to capture the sense of ‘unfaltering reliability’ that hupomone indicates. It suggests the possibility of something negative to come. Hupomone means persevering and not surrendering when under any attack or pressure.
The other word in the phrase is ‘hope’ which is elpis in Greek. In English the definition of hope refers to something good that we want to happen in the future but do not know whether or not it will. Our understanding of hope embraces uncertainty! But in the New Testament elpis always refers to anticipation of a good conclusion. Elpis is a word of confidence about the future. It holds to the promise of something positive to come. It rejoices in the confidence of an assured result.
Here then is the unexpectedness of the combination of ‘hupomone ‘and ‘elpis.’ One holds within it the possibility of an uncertain future outcome while the other looks forward with expectancy to an assured future outcome.
However they are very much related, as Paul further explains in Rom 5:4, ‘… endurance (hupomone) produces character, and character produces (elpis’).’ JB Phillips translates this phrase as, ‘the hope that you have in our Lord Jesus Christ means sheer dogged endurance.’
- William Barclay interestingly translates verse 5 this way, ‘and hope does not prove an illusion, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given unto us.’
- In Romans 8:25 Paul elaborates: ‘If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (hupomone). The endurance we require in coping with the testings we experience in life actually contributes to the strengthening of our confidence in God. Steadfastness and hope, acting jointly with one another, reveals the integrity of our faith in God.
So faith and works, labour and love, and steadfastness and hope are not such odd couples after all! They are, in fact, twosomes that belong to one another!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Recommended is his enlightening Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org