The next section, 2:13-20, continues to express the loving concern of Paul and his associates, especially in view of their welcome of God’s Word and in view of the persecution they were facing. In 2:13-16, Paul again thanks God for these Thessalonian believers, but it is not just another thanksgiving, nor a repeat, nor a continuation of 1:2-10. It is more of an amplification of those previous verses. In 1:2-10 we saw the effect, an example to other churches, but here we see the cause, their reception and response to the message of the Apostle as the Word of God, or their appreciation, appropriation, and application of Paul’s message as the Word of God. It is this response to the message which led to their ability to become what they became and to endure their sufferings.
Paul then expresses his fervent hope to return, mentions the hindrances against his returning, and gives the reason for his concern and desire to return (2:17-20).
Verses 13-20 touch on four important topics or areas of biblical truth: the Bible (vs. 13), suffering (vss. 14-16), the spiritual warfare we are in (vss. 17-18), and rewards (vss. 19-20).
At the heart of verse 13 is the nature and character of the Bible as the living Word of God. “The apostle does not state merely that the converts had esteemed the message to be from God, he asserts that it is so. No person or society can by its sanction add weight to the word of God, the authority of which is inherent.”45 Without this book as the Word of God, we have no real message and we are left to the ever changing ideas of men and human reasoning. It’s just one man’s opinion against another or someone’s use of statistics that are often misrepresented and distorted in favor of his or her cause and selfish interests.
2:13 And so we too constantly thank God that when you received God’s message that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human message, but as it truly is, God’s message, that is at work among you who believe.
Literally, the Greek text reads, “And for this reason we also.” According to the context, the Greek construction (dia touto) may look backward or forward, but here the context shows it looks forward to what follows, i.e., to Paul’s thanksgiving for the Thessalonians. This is because the following clause is introduced with “that” (oti) which either gives the content of his thanks or the reason. His thankfulness concerns their response to the message as God’s Word, which, of course, it really is.
“We too” (kai humeis), can mean (1) that here is another reason for their thanksgiving, or (2) we also as well as you. Timothy had just returned and probably with the message of the converts’ thankfulness for their salvation. So Paul adds that they too were thankful, but especially for the way they had responded to the message.
“Constantly thank God” is literally “we are giving thanks to God without ceasing.” Adialeipto is an adverb which means “without interruption, continually, regularly.” It is used in Romans 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2:13; and 5:17. In each passage it has to do with some aspect of prayer.
“That” is oti which is best taken as “because,” introducing the reason for the preceding statement (cf. 1:5).
Paul uses two words for receiving the Word: “receive” and “accepted.” “Received” is paralambano, which means “to receive from another,” but it is especially used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal. 1:9, 12 [2 times], Col. 2:6; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:6). This word stresses the fact the message was delivered to them and they heard it with their own ears in a teaching environment.
“God’s message that you heard from us” is literally, “the word of hearing (the word which you heard) from us, the one of God (i.e., which is really from God).” The Greek construction lays great stress on the nature of the message as being God’s message, not man’s.
“You accepted” is dechomai, which means to receive in the sense of “welcome.” The first word, Paralambo, means the message was delivered to them. The second word, dechomai, means they welcomed it. The first refers to “the hearing of the ear” while the second refers to “the hearing of the heart.” But just how did they welcome the message? This is stated negatively first, perhaps for emphasis, and then positively.
“Not as a human message” draws our attention to what the Bible and the gospel is not. It is not a man-made message. The Apostle often faced those who dismissed the preaching of the Word as merely a message devised by men and thus without authority and without the power to save and transform lives. But such is not the case with the Bible, Genesis to Revelation as we have it today. It is not such a book that man would write if he could and could write if he would. Paul strongly affirmed this about his message in Galatians 1:11-12, “the gospel which was preached by me … is not according to man; for I did not receive it from man nor was I taught it (by man).” The Apostle Peter likewise affirmed this truth with regard to the whole of Scripture in 2 Peter.
2 Peter 1:20-21. Above all, you do well if you recognize this: no prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, 1:21 for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
The true character of the message is stated, “but as it truly is, God’s message” or as the NASB, “For what it really is, the word of God.” “But” is alla, a conjunction of strong contrast which strongly contrasts this statement with the preceding. It helps to stress the true nature of Paul’s message or of what men actually do when they preach and teach the Bible—they are preaching God’s Word, not man’s. “Truly” or “really” is alethos, which stands for truth as distinguished from falsehood. It means true to fact and denotes the actuality of the thing.46 This focuses us on the true origin and nature of the Word of God. It is God’s inspired, inerrant Word.
Application: Of course, this is really only true when men properly study and preach the Bible. Without this, we end up preaching what is in reality man’s opinion and heresy. For this reason, Paul exhorted Timothy to “Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately” (2 Tim. 2:15). Accurately or as the NASB translates, “handling accurately” is a figurative translation of the Greek word, orthotomeo, which means “to cut straight.” In regard to the message of truth, it means “correctly handling” or “imparting it without deviation.” This verb is used in Proverbs 3:6 and 11:5 with the noun hodous (fem. pl. acc. of hodos) and clearly means “to cut a path in a straight direction” or “cut a road across country (that is forested or otherwise difficult to pass through) in a straight direction,” so that the traveler may go directly to his destination.47 As a maker of tents, Paul may have had in mind accurately cutting the tent material. This verse becomes even more significant when seen in the light of its context of the empty chatter of men (see 2 Tim. 2:14, 16-17). An important reality is that the higher our view of the Bible, the more painstaking and conscientious our study of it must be. As Stott comments, “If this book is indeed the Word of God, then away with slovenly, slipshod exegesis! We have to make time to penetrate the text until it yields up its treasures. Only when we have ourselves absorbed its message, can we confidently share it with others.”48 Of course, it is not just a matter of time, but of skill in the art of exegesis using a sound hermeneutic so we are studying Scripture using the grammatical, lexical, cultural, historical approach.
“That is at work among you who believe” or as the NASB, “which also performs its work in you who believe.” “Performs its work” is energeo from which we get our word energy or energize. This word means “to work effectually, to work efficiently and productively.”49 Paul’s choice of the present continuous tense points to that which is consistently true as a principle of life. When we receive God’s Word (through personal study or in a teaching environment) and welcome it by faith, it brings the power of God to bear on our lives. And this is not just a matter of the power of positive thinking, but the product of the miraculous work of the Spirit of God using the Word of God (1:5).
“Among you who believe” is a present active adjectival participle and describes the Thessalonians as believers. It is equivalent to the words “you believers.” Scripture is the cause of faith (Rom. 10:17), and the means of life (Rom. 1:16), and transformed living (Rom. 12:2), but faith is the means by which we appropriate it. They were not just believers in Christ, but those characterized by welcoming and believing in the Word. This also stresses that Paul and his missionary team were those who were men of the Word.
With this clause, the Apostle makes a strong contrast between the mere words of man and the power of the gospel (cf. 1:5). “The word of human beings, however wise in substance or eloquent in expression, cannot produce spiritual life; this is the prerogative of the word of God, which works effectually (energeitai) in believers.”50
Now, let’s look at this verse from the standpoint of its teaching on the Bible, integrate that with other portions of Scripture, and see what that means to us.
Negatively, what it is not. This is seen in the words “not as the word of men.” The Bible is emphatically not just the word of men. Men were merely the human instruments for transmission of the message of God, but God Himself was the author.
Positively, what it is: This is brought out emphatically in two ways in this verse.
First, in relation to the preachers, the uniqueness of their message is brought out by the words “you received from us the word of God’s message.” The preachers were aware of the fact that the message they were proclaiming was not their message. It was really the word of God as we saw in the explanation above.
Second, in relation to the hearers, the uniqueness of their message is brought out by the words, “but for what it really is, the word of God.”
Three concepts and three passages reinforce and develop the concepts of 1 Thessalonians 2:13.
(1) The fact of the inspiration is brought out in 2 Timothy 3:16. This passage states that all Scripture is inspired and profitable. In the process of this statement three important claims are made.
The how of inspiration is both negatively and positively declared in 2 Peter 1:20-21. To understand this, compare Acts 27:15. “Be driven along” refers to the wind in the sail of the ship which carried it along under the control of the wind. This is the same word used in 2 Peter 1:21. This is the Greek word pheromenoi, a present passive participle of phero, “to bring, carry.”
In the same manner as that ship was driven, directed, or carried about by the wind, God directed and moved the human writers He used to produce the books of the Bible. Though the wind was the strong force that moved the ship along, the sailors where not asleep and inactive. Similarly, the Holy Spirit was the guiding force that directed the writers who, nevertheless, played their own active roles in writing the Scriptures.
But this verse also makes another important point. It declares that the wills of the human authors did not direct the writing of the Bible. The same verb, “moved” or “bore,” appears in the latter part of the verse as well. Thus prophecy was not borne by the will of man. The Spirit did it, not the will of man. This statement bears in an important way on the question of the inerrancy of the Bible. Man’s will, including his will to make mistakes, did not bring the Scriptures; rather, the Holy Spirit, who cannot err, brought us the Scriptures. To be sure, the writers were active in writing, but what they wrote was directed, not by their own wills with the possibility of error, but by the Spirit who is true and infallible. 51
(2) The nature of the Bible as holy, pure, and free from error.
Ryrie has this important word regarding a true biblical concept of the nature of the inspiration of the Bible:
While many theological viewpoints would be willing to say the Bible is inspired, one finds little uniformity as to what is meant by inspiration. Some focus it on the writers; others, on the writings; still others, on the readers. Some relate it to the general message of the Bible; others, to the thoughts; still others, to the words. Some include inerrancy; many don’t.
These differences call for precision in stating the biblical doctrine. Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” Each addition to the basic statement arose because of an erroneous teaching.52
This is seen in the words “that is at work among you who believe.” As mentioned previously, “at work” is energeo from which we get our word energy or energize and means “to work efficiently and productively.” It is in the present continuous tense of what is consistently true as a principle of life. Here is one of the many witnesses of the Bible to itself.
Some passages that witness to the powerful activity of the Bible are:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).
12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
25 My soul cleaves to the dust; Revive me according to Thy word. … 28 My soul weeps because of grief; Strengthen me according to Thy word (Psalm 119:25, 28).
107 I am exceedingly afflicted; Revive me, O LORD, according to Thy word (Psalm 119:107).
149 Hear my voice according to Thy lovingkindness; Revive me, O LORD, according to Thine ordinances (Psalm 119:149).
154 Plead my cause and redeem me; Revive me according to Thy word (Psalm 119:154).
159 Consider how I love Thy precepts; Revive me, O LORD, according to Thy lovingkindness (Psalm 119:159).
In these verses of Psalm 119, the hope of strength, revival, endurance, etc., is found in the life giving Word of God. It is seen by the Psalmist as both the standard for our character and the means of change and revival.
Scripture is full of what we might call word pictures or snapshots which depict both the attributes and the actions of the Word or what the Bible is to man. For a detailed study of these beautiful word pictures and what they tell us about Scripture see ABCs for Christian Growth, Part 2, Lesson 6: The Word-Filled Life in the Spiritual Life section on our web site at www.bible.org.
God’s revelation always demands an adequate response. If God has spoken, and He has in creation or nature, in revelation or Scripture, and in the person of His Son, we need a response that is in keeping with the nature of the Bible as God’s Word to man. As this pertains to the church, we will look at this from the standpoint of those given charge over the church as servant leaders and of those who are in the church.
(1) They are to carefully study and proclaim the Word. In this regard, several things are vital and needed:
The Principle of Priority (cf. Acts 6:1-6; 1 Cor. 2:1f.; 2 Tim. 4:1-4; Ps. 138:2) While the church has other critical responsibilities, nothing is more important than the proclamation of the Word. Why? Because it is so fundamental to everything else from the standpoint of truth versus error, authority, direction, motivation, and life itself. Christ is the foundation of the church, but what we believe about Jesus Christ comes from the Word. In essence then, knowing the Word is foundational to everything else.
Our number one priority then is the Word, not social reform or social ministries, not fund raising, not programs, and not administration. We do have responsibilities in these other areas, but not at the expense of effective communication of the Word. Bible teaching is the root while these other things stand as outgrowths, the trunk, branches, and fruit.
The Principle of Careful Preparation (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Rom. 12:6-7; 2 Tim. 2:15). There are three elements involved in preparation: (a) one’s spiritual gift, (b) personal study and training, and (c) experience and skill or maturity.
The Principle of Faithful Proclamation (Col. 1:28; 2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Cor. 2:1f.). Because of the nature of the Bible and its priority, there needs to be adequate opportunity for its proclamation to the flock. What I see happening today is that the teaching of Scripture is being bumped and replaced by other interests and concerns. As a result, an astounding number of people in the body of Christ are biblical and doctrinal illiterates. The principle here is simply that ‘sermonettes’ produce ‘Christianettes.’
This is the grace perspective: regardless of our giftedness, preparation in the study, and skill, without the blessing of the Lord and His hindrance of the work of Satan, our preaching or teaching will fall flat and fail. We face tremendous barriers to the progress of the gospel—the blindness of the human heart, the blinding activity of Satan, and his work to persecute and hinder as is so evident in this epistle. Thus, we must pray for God’s blessing and work to remove the barriers to the progress of the Word (cf. 1 Thess. 2:18 with 3:10-11).
(1) To appreciate the Word—Right Attitudes. Appreciation of the Word is seen in the attitudes of the Thessalonian believers who received the Apostles’ message not as the word of men, but for what it really was and is, the Word of God. This is the attitude which recognizes the Bible’s uniqueness—different from all other books in its origin, character, content, and cost. How is your attitude? Would we rather have our Bible than food?
Job said, “I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12).
Peter wrote, “like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2).
Christ said, “‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).
The Psalmists wrote,
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. 8 The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. 9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether. 10 They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward. 12 Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. 13 Also keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I shall be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression (Psalm 19:7-13).
Would we rather have God’s Word than money? The Psalmists wrote, “they are more desirable than gold, yes than much fine gold” (Ps. 19:10a), and again, “I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches” (Ps. 119:14, cf. vs. 72 [“thousands of gold and silver”], vs. 127 [“fine gold”], vs. 162 [“great spoil”]). Since it is true that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21), how and where do we spend our time? The reasons for our pursuits or objectives is very revealing about our real values.
(2) To appropriate the Word—Right Actions. The Thessalonian church again becomes our example. We read they “accepted” the Word. Remember, Paul used two words for receive here. One means to receive from another in the transmission of doctrine. The other means to welcome. One involves the hearing of the ear while the other the hearing of the heart. They did not just hear the Word taught, but they made it a part of their inner person—they appropriated it. This brings to mind some warnings in Scripture:
“He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). This is the admonition “to take heed that you hear.” It is found some 16 times in the New Testament. While Christians ought to find more opportunities to hear and study the Word, it seems we live in an age and time in this country when the emphasis in many churches is on everything in the world but the careful study of the Bible.
“Take care what you hear” (Mark 4:24). This is a warning against hearing false teachers and the delusions and myths of the world.
(3) To apply the Word—Right Aims in Bible Study. The great aim of all Bible study is its personal application or obedience to the Scripture through faith knowing that God’s way is always best and His means of protection for individuals and for society (Jam. 1:19-25; 2 Tim. 3:17; Luke 11:27-28; Ps. 119).
2:14 For you became imitators, brothers and sisters, of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, because you too suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they in fact did from the Jews,
While verses 13-16 deal with the conduct of the Thessalonians and verses 17-20 with the conduct of Paul and his associates, another common theme that exists in all of these verses is the theme of suffering which very often occurs because of our faith in Christ. It is a continuation of Satan’s and the world’s opposition to the Savior (John 15:18-27; 1 Thess. 3:3). We can outline the theme of suffering or persecution in these verses as follows:
Scripture addresses suffering in various ways but it seems that the goal is nearly always to comfort and give courage to carry on rather than give in. In general, the Bible teaches us that suffering is a tool that God uses like a master craftsman to promote our growth, build our faith, transform our lives, change our sources of trust, change our values and priorities or remove the dross, demonstrate His power, and enhance our testimony to both men and angels.
“For you became imitators … of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea” introduces us to the proof of the powerful working of the Word in the lives of those who receive, welcome, and trust in its truth. “For” is the Greek gar, a conjunction used to introduce a cause or reason, or an explanation. It takes us from the general statement about the Word in verse 13 to a specific illustration—the way these believers handled their suffering or persecution through, as James put it, “the implanted or engrafted Word, which is able to deliver your souls or lives” (Jam. 1:21). Thus, as an evidence of the power of the indwelling Word, the suffering experience of the churches in Judea was reproduced in the believers at Thessalonica.
When we believe and live by the Word, it changes us and forms us into what Christians ought to become in a sinful world; that will sometimes mean suffering depending on the condition of the society in which one is living (cf. 1 Pet. 4:1-4). Regardless, suffering, no matter what the source, is a tool God uses for our growth and spiritual maturity (Jam. 1:2-4).
The Thessalonian believers became imitators of the Judean church in suffering for the Lord or for their faith (vs. 14). “Imitators” is again the Greek mimete from which we get our word “mimic.” As mentioned previously, this word has no negative connotation as it sometimes does in our language. As a quick review: The idea of this word is that of modeling, becoming like, or following after another. It stresses the nature of a particular kind of behavior modeled by another that we are to follow. In the New Testament, it always has a spiritual, ethical or moral emphasis and is generally linked with an obligation to a certain kind of conduct or character as a product of faith. It is linked to certain ones who are living examples for the life of faith.
The Apostle compared the problems Christians at Thessalonica faced from their fellow Greeks with those of the Christians in Judea who were persecuted by their own countrymen, the Jews. This was not an imitation by choice as it had been in following the example of Paul and his associates, but the result of the continuing quarrel of the world that stands in opposition to the Savior. “In Judea” points out the geographical difference while “in Christ” points to their spiritual position and the common bond that becomes the bone of contention with the world no matter what the geographical location. Because of this, there is a common sharing in persecution all over the world. Because of our Christian heritage on which this nation was founded, we have escaped severe persecution in our country, but in view of the way we have turned away from our Judo-Christian heritage, we will undoubtedly see more and more of this in the U.S.
In our society today, Paul’s statement in verses 14b and 15 would be called religious bigotry. Was it? Not at all! He was simply stating a fact. It was Jews along with the Romans who put Christ on the cross (cf. Acts 2:23). But it was the religious Jews themselves who created so much persecution for the Christian community which at first was comprised of Jews alone. In fact, at first, Paul himself had a large part in the persecution of the Jewish church. Though he doesn’t mention it here, he does in other places.
Further, according to the record in Acts 17, it was the Jews in Thessalonica who persecuted the missionaries and drove them out of town. But here in 2:14, we are told that is was their own countrymen, i.e., Gentiles, who were persecuting the Thessalonian church.
Perhaps the Thessalonians were surprised and extremely hurt that their own countrymen would persecute them. To comfort them, Paul reminds them that they are imitators of the suffering of the churches of God in Christ Jesus in Judea who likewise suffered from their own countrymen. This reminds us that no matter where we go, Satan, the god of this world, stands opposed to the gospel and to Christians and will do his best to both thwart the message and attack believers.
2:15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us severely. They are displeasing to God and are opposed to all people, 2:16 because they hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they constantly fill up their measure of sins, but wrath has come upon them completely.
Having mentioned the Jews in verse 14, the Apostle then elaborates on the history (vs. 15a) and the nature, character, and goal of these persecutors (vss. 15b-16) who seek to hinder the propagation the gospel. They are those who have rejected the divine Word, the message of the suffering Savior. By indicting them for killing the Lord Jesus and the prophets, Paul reminds the Thessalonians and us that suffering at the hands of one’s own countrymen and even family is par for the course. It is not only not unusual, but it is simply the continuation of Satan’s and the world’s fight against God’s plan of salvation as revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ. Compare Luke 20:9-19 for a commentary on this principle.
“They are displeasing to God and opposed to people” or as the NASB, “They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to men.” These words don’t just state a fact, but are designed to comfort and promote the Thessalonians’ endurance under suffering by explaining the character of their persecutors.
First, “They are displeasing to God.” The present tense of the verb used here stresses this as a constant condition for the Jewish nation as a whole (excluding the believing remnant, of course) and particularly, the religious leaders who rejected Christ and turned the majority of the nation away from the Lord.
We might wonder why the Apostle made this statement about the Jews? The first part of the answer perhaps lies in the irony of this because it is so typical of the religious self-righteous person.
Second, it assured the Thessalonians they were on God’s side and that such persecution was an act against the Lord Himself. Such suffering was a token of their right relationship with God.
Third, this statement assured these believers that they were not to blame. The persecution was not only against the Thessalonians, but it was really an act against God and an act that clearly displeased Him. Paul knew that people who are abused by others often think the cause for abuse lies with them, so the Apostle assures them otherwise.
Next, we read that they were “opposed to people,” or “hostile to all men.” Their actions of persecution showed they really stood in opposition to mankind. “Opposed” or “hostile” is enantios, which means, “opposed, contrary, hostile, against.” May I suggest three things here:
“Because they hinder us from speaking …” “Hinder” is a present participle which not only points to the cause (an adverbial causal participle), but the present tense points this out as a pattern that manifests itself over and over again. Here is the primary thing that displeased God and was against men. This was not just a matter of passive unbelief, nor just failure to get involved with God’s plan, as bad as both of these are. No, an active opposition to the preaching of the good news to the lost was the issue here. But actually, when we are passive or fail to get involved with God’s plan for our lives as those committed to the Great Commission, making disciples, etc., we ultimately do the same thing, don’t we? We hinder the propagation of the Good News and the training of people in the Savior.
The first Consequence is the judgment in men themselves. When men reject the message of Jesus Christ, then God must turn them over to the consequences of their choice.
The second Consequence is the judgment brought directly against man. “Wrath” refers to the judgment meted out against the nation of Israel for her constant stiff necked condition as prophesied in Deuteronomy 28:15-68.
“Upon them completely” (NET) or “to the utmost” (NASB) is a Greek expression (eis telos) which can mean (1) at the end, or unto the end i.e., of a period of time as the church age, the final period before the Day of the Lord, or (2) to the utmost in the sense of the extent or limit of the wrath. It would then refer to their complete dispersion among all the nations which, of course, would one day culminate in the end time horrors of the Tribulation followed by the Throne Judgment of Revelation 20.
First, Paul encouraged these suffering Christian by assuring them of the commonality of their experiences of suffering. Their experiences were not new nor isolated. They were common to believers. Others had suffered before them, some were even then suffering with them, and others would suffer after them.
Second, the churches in Judea had not been exterminated by suffering. If anything, they had been purified and increased.53
Third, Scripture reminds us, then, that believers are saved to the utmost (Heb. 7:25) while sinners will experience wrath to the utmost (1 Thess. 2:16). The suffering of the Thessalonian believers was a token of their salvation, and a token of the judgment of their persecutors.
Warren Wiersbe writes:
Here is one of the great values of the local church: we stand together in times of difficulty and encourage one another. It was when Elijah isolated himself from the other faithful Israelites that he became discouraged and wanted to quit. One reason Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica was to encourage the believers. A lonely saint is very vulnerable to the attacks of Satan. We need each other in the battles of life.54
For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day (2 Tim. 1:12).
Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:3).
… for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned (2 Tim. 2:9).
2:17 But when we were separated from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time (in presence, not in affection) we became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person. 2:18 Because we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again) but Satan thwarted us. 2:19 For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming—is it not of course you? 2:20 For you are our glory and joy!
As mentioned, there were those who were accusing Paul and his coworkers of not caring for the Thessalonians. If they really cared, why hadn’t they returned? So verses 17-18 (1) express the Apostle’s concern and desire to see the Thessalonians, (2) give the reason for his absence or failure to return, and (3) state the fact that though absent in person, they were with them in spirit. These words clearly demonstrate their pastoral concern and care as also declared in verses 1-12.
With Paul’s statement, “But when we were separated from you,” he strongly expressed his parental love and feeling of desolation by his absence. “Separated” is aporphanizo, from which we get our word “orphan.” It was used of a parentless child, or of childless parents, and even in a general sense of any severe deprivation or desolation.55 The use of this word suits the parental pictures used back in verses 7 and 11.
“For a short time,” literally, “for a season of an hour,” expresses his intention and desire to return as soon as possible. “In presence, not in affection,” literally, “in face, not in heart,” expresses the fact that while he could not be there with them, they were on his mind and in his thoughts just like a parent who is separated from his child or children.
“We became all the more fervent in our great desire …” declares their commitment to get back to see the Thessalonians. Literally, the text says, “more abundantly (or perhaps, excessively) we endeavored (made haste), your face to see with great desire.” What efforts were made are not recorded, but from this it is evident the Apostle was not easily persuaded to leave and did more than his best to find some way to return.
Verse 18 continues the explanation, only now he points to the source of the problem and one of the great causes of suffering in the human race, especially for believers.
“For” is dioti which means “because.” It points us to the cause, which is Satan. Not only had the missionary team desired to see these believers, but at least twice, Paul personally tried to come. In both instances, he was faced with the obstacle of Satanic activity.
“Satan thwarted us.” Satan is ho satanas, which means “the adversary.” In the New Testament it occurs 36 times and always with reference to the adversary, the enemy of God and the enemy all those who belong to Him. Satan is a fallen angel, and not merely the personification of evil. He is seen in Scripture as possessing all the attributes of personality—intelligence, volition, emotions, and moral responsibility. He has a number of other names in Scripture which, consistent with the significance of names in the Bible, point to his insidious character and works. Two such well known terms are: (a) The devil (ho diabollos) which means “the slanderer, defamer.” This stresses his activity and goal of impugning the character of God (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8). In this passage in 1 Peter, he is called “the adversary,” ho antidikos, another word that is similar in meaning to satanas or satan. Specifically, antidikos means an opponent in a lawsuit and suggests a court scene where accusations are made. (b) Another important term is “the serpent” (Rev. 12:9). This title obviously looks back to Genesis 3 and the temptation and stresses Satan’s deceitful and crafty nature (2 Cor. 11:2).56
In the Bible, Satan is not represented as a rival deity, co-equal with, or only slightly inferior to God or Christ. He is always revealed to be a rebellious creature of God, subordinate to God, and holding his authority as allowed from God, even when he uses his rebellion against God.
“Thwarted” is enkopto, and means literally, “to cut into,” but is used figuratively in the sense of “to impede, hinder, detain.” It was used (1) in a military sense of making a break through the enemy’s line, or (2) of an athlete cutting in front of someone in a race. It means to impede the progress of another by cutting off his course. This shows how the activity of Satan is consistent with his names.
With this focus in mind, let’s think a moment about Satan’s strategy or chief scheme as it is shown in Scripture. A strategy is a careful plan or method devised to accomplish a goal or purpose.
(1) Satan’s Goals
(2) Satan’s Strategy
These verses call to mind a crucial topic of Scripture and the cause for Paul’s and his associates’ quick retreat and inability to return. What was the cause? The angelic conflict or the fight that is raging night and day with Satan and the forces at his disposal (see Dan. 10; Eph. 6:10f.).
However, if we read the book of Acts and the preceding context of 1 Thessalonians, we find that it was men who had driven Paul and his partners in ministry out of the city and were keeping them from returning, yet the Apostle attributes all this not simply to men, but to Satan.
This is the subtlety and deceptiveness of what is going on all around us every day. We normally do not see Satan or demons in person. Normally what we see are human beings and strategies and values that oppose the plan of God. We do not see a literal Satan in person or his demonic forces because they are spirit beings. Don’t expect to find Satan as obvious as a serpent on the sidewalk.
Occasionally, we may see or hear of demonic apparitions, and demonic voices coming out of demon possessed people who are also able to perform supernatural acts, but that’s about the extent of it. So what happens? We tend to ignore the reality of who we are really dealing with. We talk about it. We believe it intellectually, but we tend to ignore the reality of Satan and his demonic hosts by our failure to draw close to the Lord, by our failure to use our armor, and our neglect of corporate prayer. But Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12 that “our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places.” Is he saying that we have no struggle with rebellious men and sinful people? No! He is saying that behind the scenes and working through people and the world system are super powerful demonic forces (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-3 where Paul speaks first of demonic activity leading to false doctrine, and then of men proclaiming Satan’s doctrines. But the source is Satan.).
Consequently, the Apostle challenges us in a general way in Ephesians 6:10-11, and then in verses 13-18 we are specifically exhorted to “put on” the spiritual armor of God provided for our defense. Satan will do everything he can to hinder us, neutralize us, or destroy us.
But there is a wonderful and comforting truth here in 1 Thessalonians 2. While Paul was hindered from returning, he continued to have a ministry and to teach the Word. He remained useful. He was not defeated because he knew the Lord was in control and that though he may be bound and hindered, the Word was not bound (cf. 3:11; 2 Thess. 3:1; 2 Tim. 2:9-10).
“For” (the Greek coordinating or explanatory conjunction gar) introduces us to Paul’s reason for his steadfastness of spirit in view of the hindrance and his reason for so wanting to return.
“Who is our …” introduces us to Paul’s reason which is presented in the form of a rhetorical question. It is designed to stress the reason more forcefully and to get the reader to think. “Who” refers to the believers of Thessalonica. In essence, the Apostle declares the Thessalonians are three things to Paul and his companions.
(1) “Our hope.” “Our” reminds us this was a team effort. “Hope” refers to the confident expectation that existed in their hearts in light of the prophetic promises of the Word. Hope involves what has not taken place, but is confidently expected through faith. The text declares these believers were themselves the hope of the Apostle and his companions.
(2) “Or joy.” The Thessalonians were also a source of joy and spiritual delight, not only in the present time, but in the future at the return of the Lord. Seeing them in heaven would bring great joy, but seeing them rewarded would bring even greater joy. For this reason, Paul wanted to return to continue the work they had begun that they might grow and become even more fruitful.
(3) “Or crown to boast of.” Literally, “Crown of boasting or exultation.” “Paul uses boasting or exultation to describe the Christian’s delight in being commended for faithful service by the Lord at his return.”57 The Thessalonians are the crown, and the result at the Bema will be rejoicing or exultation. But what did he mean by this? In view of Paul’s use of “crown” (stephanos, the victor’s crown) in other places, and the fact believers will cast their crowns before the Lord (Rev. 4:10), Paul undoubtedly had in mind a personal crown or reward that believers will receive because of their presence at the return of the Lord for faithful ministry. Though, in this passage the Apostle does not say he would receive a crown, this is suggested, if not here certainly in other passages. Some of these believers were not living as they should, but by looking ahead and seeing them in glory, Paul received joy then and knew there would be great rejoicing in the future.
Because of the reference to a crown of exultation, “in the presence of the Lord at His coming” seems to be a clear reference to the next major phase of God’s program for the church—the rapture and the judgment seat of Christ. This is supported by the term “presence,” emprosthen, a preposition meaning “before, in front of” (cf. 3:13. It clearly portrays the idea of being before the judgment seat of Christ, the Bema.).58
Another important term here is “coming,” the Greek term parousia. This is a very important word used of the return of the Lord. It is rendered in the English Bible by our words “coming” or “presence.” It comes from a verb pareimi, which means “to be present” as in Luke 13:1, John 11:28, and Acts 10:33. It refers to a stay, a presence that follows an arrival or a coming.
In a papyrus document it refers to a royal visit to a certain district; in another, a person states that the care of her property demands her ‘presence’ in a certain city. In Phil. 2:12 Paul speaks of his parousia, his ‘presence,’ at Philippi, in contrast with his apousia, his ‘absence,’ from the city. Always, wherever it occurs, parousia refers to a period of time more or less extended. The usual translation is misleading, because ‘coming’ is more appropriate to other words, such as erchomai, Luke 12:45; 19:23; eleusis, Acts 7:52; … the difference being that whereas these words fix the attention on the journey to, and the arrival at, a place, parousia fixes it on the stay which follows on the arrival there. It would be preferable, therefore, to transliterate the word rather than translate it, that is to use ‘parousia,’ rather than ‘coming,’ wherever the reference is to the Lord Jesus.59
“… Where it is used prophetically, parousia refers to a period beginning with the descent of the Lord from heaven into the air; I Thess. 4:16, 17, and ending with His revelation and manifestation to the world.”60 But it may also focus on the course of events in between like the Bema.
During the Parousia of the Lord in the air with his people, Paul expected to give account of his stewardship before the Judgment Seat of Christ, 1 Cor. 4:1-5, 2 Cor. 5:10; the presence there of the Thessalonian converts and their commendation by the Lord, would mean reward to the evangelists and his associates who had been the means of their conversion, and to the pastors and teachers who had labored among them …
The Parousia of the Lord Jesus is thus a period of time with a beginning, a course, and a conclusion. In some passages the beginning, the arrival is the prominent element. In others, the course, and in others the conclusion are the prominent elements. 61
With the words, “is it not of course you?,” Paul states these believers were their hope, joy, and crown of rejoicing or exultation at the parousia. Paul seems to mean the Thessalonians, who had responded to his ministry and labor and to that of his companions, were the source of their hope, etc. Because they had labored, because these believers had responded and would be in heaven with rewards of their own, and because the Lord rewards His saints for their labor, the Thessalonians had become their hope, joy, and crown of rejoicing. This idea is again repeated in verse 20.
One of the great motivations God gives us for endurance and ministry is the hope of the Savior’s return, being in the presence of His glory, and eternal rewards. Though crowns or rewards are not mentioned here, Paul surely has this in view and addresses this as a further support for their concern and love for the Thessalonians (Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:12-15; 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 5:9-10).
One of the most difficult challenges we have as we face the disappointments and trials of life is our focus. Our natural tendency is to look at life from a purely temporal perspective. This is the mentality of the world or the worldling whom the Bible often describes as an “earth dweller.” However, the Christian life is a life of faith which the author of Hebrews describes as “the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). And to endure and carry on in God’s calling on our lives, we must live by faith and not by sight while staying focused on the Savior and eternal realities as He Himself did (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8 with Heb. 12:1-3 and 2 Cor. 4:16-21).
This is one of the reasons living in the Word is so essential because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Through the lens of Scripture, we are able to keep our eyes riveted on the fact of God’s presence, His love and care, and His promises of the eternal future.
In 2:17-18, Paul expressed his desire to be with these believers, but Satan had hindered that from taking place. Further, he had been accused of not caring for these believers, but rather than looking back and giving in to regret, remorse, and depression, he looked ahead and rejoiced because, for believers in Christ, the best is yet to come. So the Apostle looked ahead by faith and saw himself, his associates, and the Thessalonian believers in glory in the presence of Jesus Christ at His coming.
In times of trial and disappointment when our tendency is to allow the situation to overcome our perspective and defeat our commitment or create discouragement and complaints, we need to take the long view of life. We must learn to live in the present in the light of the future and allow that to govern our attitudes and actions.
Not only did the Apostle know that God was still on the throne and in charge (3:11), but he lived in light of eschatology, the doctrine of Christ’s return, the rapture, our glorification, and the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ and rewards. These were not just theological ideas he believed intellectually, but biblical truths that affected his life dynamically. He knew the Lord would return and reward him and all believers for faithful service.
It is tremendously significant that among the final words of the last book of the Bible, Revelation, we find these words of the Lord: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12).
While salvation is a gift, there will be rewards for faithfulness in the Christian life and loss of rewards for unfaithfulness. Rewards become one of the great motivations of the Christian’s life (or should). But we need to understand the nature of these rewards to understand the nature of the motivation. Some people are troubled by the doctrine of rewards because this seems to suggest “merit” instead of “grace,” and because, as it is pointed out, we should serve the Lord out of love and for God’s glory.
Of course we should serve the Lord out of love and for God’s glory. Understanding the nature of rewards will help us to do just that. But the fact still remains that the Bible promises us rewards. God gives us salvation. It is a gift through faith. But He rewards us for good works when done in the power of the Spirit. God graciously supplies the means by which we may serve Him, but the decision to serve, and the diligence employed in doing so, are our responsibility and our contribution and God sees this as rewardable (cf. Col. 1:29; 1 Cor. 15:10).
47 Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, electronic media.
58 For a detailed discussion of the Bema, see The Doctrine of Rewards under the “Bible Studies / Theology / Eschatology” section on the BSF web site at www.bible.org.