There are three times Paul worries that one of his churches will make his labor vain. There are three contexts for his worry. They are worth a little consideration.
Here are three things Paul says these churches need to do to not vainitize his work in them.
1) Paul worries that the church in Galatia will return to works of the law, or to the empty religion of idol worship. In both cases–OT law keeping or idolatry–they will leave the Gospel and focus on works of the flesh that have no profit.
Although few in the church need fear someone entering the church telling them to be circumcised, churches often fall into legalistic, empty, flesh-centered religious ritual. This sort of thing sucks out spiritual life, breeds conformity to group identity, and leads many astray from God to follow traditions of men. Neither is helpful in maintaining spiritual growth in a church.
2) Paul worries that the church in Philippi will become lax when he leaves their presence. The Philippian church loved Paul. They were the only church to send Paul a monetary gift. They even did this three times! This is cool, but it also worries Paul. Perhaps their devotion is more to him than to Christ. What will they do when Paul leaves?
Pastors can be cool people, trust me, I know. They can really help you out. Co-dependency is a danger in here though. Pastors become needy of attention and praise, while their parishioners become needy of answers, guidance, and someone to blame. Churches need to carefully discern whether Christ is the head of their group, or is a guy heading it?
3) Paul worries that the church in Thessalonica will be tempted into dropping out. First Thessalonians is allegedly the first book Paul wrote. It’s a young minister preaching to a young church. It’s exciting, it’s cool, and it’s also tough. Persecution surrounds them. Paul is worried for their faith to persevere. He’s been away from them, he wants Timothy to go visit and give him a report of their faith. He worries that tribulation might wear them thin and make them susceptible to temptation.
As times get tough and evil men wax worse and worse, the willpower and steadfastness of a church can wane. It is in these moments of tiredness that the Tempter can get a foothold. We are not ignorant of his devices, but we do get tired, distracted, busy, and afraid. Paul tells them to persevere, keep it up, and trust in the Lord to provide.
“the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.”
Every church is different. Each church has its own strengths and weaknesses. There is no need to demand cookie-cutter churches. Let them be different, but let them all be ware of their weaknesses, keep pressing on toward Christ, and looking for the return of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.