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Paul next characterizes the congregation's life by the familiar triad of faith, love and hope (1 Thess 1:3; 1 Cor 13:13).
I work best under the pressure of a deadline. Having a particular goal in mind for a task helps me to accomplish it more quickly and effectively. And Paul here lays a goal before his readers. While he uses the triad of faith, love and hope to commend the Colossians, it also serves to set out the objectives of Christian life. Every task that we perform, every calling we hear, every burden we respond to, every act of worship and every opportunity to witness should aim to strengthen our faith, love and hope.
Paul mentions faith first; faith for him occupies the place of prominence in the Christian life. (More than one-half of all the New Testament references to "faith" are found in Pauline writings!) Unlike John, who emphasizes the act of believing, Paul's phrase your faith in Christ Jesus probably does not refer to personal decisions for Christ as the object of faith (but see Schweizer 1982:33). Rather, Paul's idea of faith emphasizes a relationship with Christ which nurtures a distinctive religious identity. Typically, Paul distinguishes the church's relationship with Christ from other religious traditions (especially Judaism) whose identity in the world is fashioned by different practices (such as observance of the law). Further, in continuity with the Old Testament writers, the content of faith for Paul is a narrative of God's salvation. The believer trusts in the God whose promised salvation is fulfilled in the life of God's people through a sequence of historic events, climaxing with the dying and rising of the Messiah. Often, as in the confessions of Colossians 1:13-23, Paul provides his readers with a recital of the redemptive events which are to be trusted as true and effective for salvation (see also Rom 10:9).
Also note that Paul often uses various prepositions with faith to express different aspects of the church's vital relationship with Christ. For example, through (dia) is combined with faith to express the means by which reconciliation with God is achieved during the new dispensation (as in Col 2:12 and Rom 3:25). Or when Paul wishes to specify the precise object of human trust, he will use on (epi): a relationship with Christ requires trusting on God's gracious action in Christ (Rom 4:5). In the triadic formula of Colossians 1:4-5, Paul uses the preposition in (en) to indicate a place or even a community where people live. A community of faith has been cleansed of sin; it is a place, created by divine grace through human faith, where the Spirit reigns and where believers are liberated from the power and consequences of sin. In this sense, faith in God is the way into Christ, where spiritual resources are found that empower faithful living.
Paul sees salvation as something Christians experience together. To enter the living Christ by faith is to experience intimate fellowship with him and also with other believers (1 Cor 12; Gal 5:6-11). Christianity is not the private religion of a particular believer. Rather, every believer is baptized with other believers into Christ, where they worship God together and where God's grace forms them into a community to love one another.
Appropriately, love (agape) comes next in Paul's triad. He uses an article with love (literally, "the love") to make more definitive and concrete his idea of love. Paul resists abstractions; for him love is a transforming act, not a moral principle or an empathetic feeling. Love is faith in motion (Gal 5:6), so that even divine love is understood by specific acts, such as Christ's death. Further, the phrase for all the saints suggests love's unconditional and inclusive character: it embraces the entire congregation. Here too the preposition for (eis) is crucial, because it points love in the direction of another person; love is always for someone else.
Finally, the community's shared faith and mutual love result in their common hope for God's coming salvation. The NIV's loose translation of the difficult phrase dia ten elpida, "for the sake of hope," correctly indicates that faith and love are the effective yield of hope: faith and love . . . spring from hope. This should not seem remarkable to us (cf. Moule 1968:49), even though we might expect Paul to view faith or love as the ground of hope. He does speak elsewhere about the impossibility of a hopeless faith (1 Cor 15:12-19) or a hopeless love (1 Thess 3:12-13), and in 1 Thessalonians he combines faith and love to make hope their common foundation (1 Thess 1:3; cf. 5:8). The curious phrase which speaks of hope as stored up in heaven (see also 1:23, 27) may point to the tension between a salvation already realized in heaven but not yet fully realized on earth (3:1-4). Paul recognizes that our experience of God's salvation is partial, our love still imperfect and our faith yet incomplete (1 Cor 13:10-12). Hope projects the completion of love and perfection of faith into a certain future, when the Risen Christ returns to earth and God triumphs over sin and death "on earth as it is in heaven."
Hope may also point to a crisis of faith and love. Biblical writers, especially Paul, are quite clear about the logical relationship between eschatology and present life. For example, if we believe that a restored creation awaits the end of history when Christ returns, then we are likely to view the present order in pessimistic, world-denying ways. We are less likely to work for changes within the cultural order if our hope for change rests only in Christ's future return. We are likely to view salvation as personal rather than public and as spiritual rather than social. Paul's concern is for a balanced perspective. On the one hand, he agrees that Christ's work will have its perfect result in the restoration of all things at his future return. On the other hand, Christ's work already is transforming believers into the community of faith and love, and the presence of that transformed community does make a positive difference in the surrounding social order.
Illustrations of this abound. Even now, evil cannot triumph over grace! Paul never promotes a world-denying discipleship; he underscores how life within the world is transformed by God's grace. Believers who trust Christ for their salvation belong to him and not to the world; they are "in him" and under his lordship (1:15-20), where all things spiritual and material are made new by grace (3:9-10).
In the case of the Thessalonians, both faith in Christ and love for one another were threatened by a faulty hope. Apparently, new Christians had become confused about the status of those who had died before Christ's return. They supposed that the "dead in Christ" could not now participate fully in God's final triumph over sin, discouraging those still "alive in Christ." Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to correct a faulty futuristic eschatology (see 1 Thess 4:13—5:11), in order to comfort believers (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11) and encourage a more mature faith (1 Thess 3:2-10; 4:14; 5:8) and active love (1 Thess 3:11-13; 4:9-10; 5:8).
Perhaps Paul introduces his letter to the Colossians with the faith-love-hope triad to correct another faulty hope that threatened the faith and love of early Christians. Paul's emphasis in Colossians, however, is on a "realized" rather than "futuristic" eschatology (see introduction; also see R. Martin 1991:48 for a different view). Indeed, there is some evidence that Paul's Colossian opponents promote a futuristic view of salvation, resulting in a retreat from society (2:16-23; O'Brien 1982:12). While I do not think eschatology is a primary feature of the false teaching at Colosse, Paul clearly writes this letter to find a proper balance between what portion of God's salvation is already possessed and what portion will be possessed at Christ's return (3:1-4). Moreover, Paul opposes any retreat from society that neglects the church's responsibility to confront and convert the lost. I suspect Paul's stress on hope may even carry evangelistic freight: only when the lost are made to see the hope of their salvation will faith and love spring forth from them.