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, which is at work among you who believe. 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, 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, 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.
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. 18 For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again) but Satan thwarted us. 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? 20 For you are our glory and joy!
1 So when we could bear it no longer, we decided to stay on in Athens alone. 2 We sent Timothy, our brother and fellow worker for God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and encourage you about your faith, 3 so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know. 5 So when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter somehow tempted you and our toil had proven useless.
6 But now Timothy has come to us from you and given us the good news of your faith and love and that you always think of us with affection and long to see us just as we also long to see you! 7 So in all our distress and affliction, we were reassured about you, brothers and sisters, through your faith. 8 For now we are alive again, if you stand firm in the Lord. 9 For how can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy we feel because of you before our God? 10 We pray earnestly night and day to see you in person and make up what may be lacking in your faith. 11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 2:13-3:13).1
Okay, I might as well begin by explaining why I chose the titles for this message (the last of which I decided upon just before preaching this message). It has been my observation that some Americans seem determined to identify some new malady (medical or psychological) in order to explain (rationalize?) bad conduct (sin). Sin and the depravity of man is never a sufficient explanation. These maladies come and go, and when a new disorder is identified, some seem obliged to join the ranks of the thus-afflicted. One such malady (that I don’t hear discussed as much lately – it probably has been replaced by some newer disorder) is that of codependency.
Surely there are some who may be genuinely codependent, but if this is a real disorder, then I am convinced that there must be a more biblical term for it.2 I would suspect that at the height of its popularity (especially in Christian circles) some might even dare to conclude that Paul suffered from this mental ailment, based largely upon our text, and especially 1 Thessalonians 3:8:
For now we are alive again, if you stand firm in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 3:8).
Paul’s mental outlook (rejoicing or sorrow) seems to be completely dependent upon the frame of mind and spiritual state of those to whom he has ministered, especially those whose spiritual state is a great concern to him.3 And so the question is this: In our text, is Paul our example as to how we should respond to the spiritual health of others, or is this an example of unhealthy codependency, which we should seek to avoid? I say this because a number of years ago a popular Christian psychiatrist publicly advised that we must take care of ourselves first, before we care for others. I read this statement in a Christian magazine4 to mean: Our priority should be “me first, others second.”5
Now, for my second title: “Would Paul Twitter, Tweet, and Text?” Imagine living in Paul’s day when correspondence took days or weeks to reach a distant destination. Contrast that with my ability (and yours) to communicate with people around the world in a few seconds. I cannot only communicate by phone, but by means of recent technology (Skype, for example), I can even see the person to whom I am speaking. Just this week one of the families in our church communicated this way with a family that just moved to Denmark. How would Paul feel about our modern means of communication? Here is a man who communicated more with others in distant places than we can imagine, given the state of technology in his day. And he communicated well. What use would he make of our technology? Would he prefer one method to another? I believe that Paul’s words actually serve to give us some guiding principles in the matter of communication, as I will seek to demonstrate as this message develops.
Our text contains a couple of my very favorite verses:
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? 20 For you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
I love these verses because they inform us, just as they did the Thessalonian saints of that day, of Paul’s great love and affection for these believers, people whom he has not known long, but with whom he has lived and worked and worshipped. I also love these words because they express the great affection that I and my fellow elders feel toward you whom we serve.
But having said this, some may feel that there is nothing very significant here because this text does not appear to teach any major doctrines. Paul’s words seem to emphasize his emotions, rather than expound some deep theological truth. Why, then, should we attempt to examine these verses carefully? This is a question I will attempt to answer in this message. I am hopeful that we shall soon see just how important this text really is.
Let me remind you that this passage is the conclusion of the foundation that Paul has been laying in chapters 1-3, paving the way for the application section of his epistle in chapters 4-5. If there is any place where an author should be clear in revealing the purpose of his writing thus far, it should be right here – at the conclusion of the first part of this epistle. I believe that our text is the key to discerning why Paul spends so much time expressing his emotions and reminiscing about his history with these saints. It will help us understand how Paul can appeal to experience (his and that of the Thessalonians) as the basis for application.
I will begin this lesson by taking a closer look at the context of our text. Next, I will examine the major segments of 1 Thessalonians 2:17—3:13. The major divisions of our text are:
After identifying the point of each of these paragraphs, we will seek to trace the flow of Paul’s argument. Having done so, I will endeavor to identify the purpose of Paul’s lengthy introduction, and then explore some implications and applications.
Chapter 1 is Paul’s enthusiastic and joyful expression of his confidence in the work which God initiated by choosing these saints for salvation. Their faith, love, and hope were evidences of God’s election, salvation, and sanctifying work in their lives. Paul had every reason to anticipate even greater things. In chapter 2, Paul expanded on something to which he had only alluded in chapter 1:
5 in that our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you) (1 Thessalonians 1:5, emphasis mine).
In chapter 2, Paul expands on this statement significantly. In verses 1-12, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the way he and his colleagues conducted themselves while they were among them. In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 through 3:13, Paul brings the Thessalonians up to date regarding his attitudes and conduct toward them since the time he was forced to leave them.
Of particular interest is the paragraph which immediately precedes our text:
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, which is at work among you who believe. 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, 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, 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 (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16).
The Thessalonians had become imitators of Paul (see 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2) when they joyfully accepted and endured persecution from their own countrymen for trusting in the Lord Jesus (1:6). But in 2:14-16, Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as imitators of their Jewish brethren in Judea, rather than as imitators of him. Why does Paul make a point of this? Why emphasize the similarity of the Thessalonians’ experience of suffering to that of their Jewish brethren in Judea?
I believe we must begin by considering the magnitude of the reaction these Thessalonian believers experienced for having “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1:9). It was no great thing for an idol worshipper to add one more “god” to his or her pantheon of gods. It was a very big thing for an idol worshipper to renounce all of his gods and to trust only in the One true God. This would almost certainly have alienated the new believer from his or her family. Faith in Christ would likewise have severed ties within the community. One only needs to read Acts 16:19-23 and 19:23-41 to see how quickly the Gentiles of Philippi and Ephesus become enraged when the success of the gospel adversely impacted their economy.
My point in all this is to show how important one’s church family is to the believer whose faith has alienated him from his family and society. No wonder Paul describes his relationship with the Thessalonians in “motherly” and “fatherly” (as well as “sisterly” and “brotherly”) terms (2:7-12); thus, the frequent family references in this and other New Testament epistles. I believe Paul has not only emphasized a very intimate relationship between the Thessalonians and himself (and his two companions, Silvanus and Timothy), but now he sets out to show the Thessalonian saints that their new family includes the Jewish believers in Judea.6 In doing so, he also highlights the fact that their oppressors are also “one in spirit.”
I never really considered any kind of kinship between the Jewish oppressors of Judea with the Gentile oppressors of Thessalonica, but it is quite clear here when you look at Paul’s carefully chosen words:
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, 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, 16 because they hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16a).
One can hardly question that those in Judea to whom Paul referred were Jews who had come to trust in Jesus as their Messiah. And given the fact that these Thessalonians are said to have “turned to God from idols” (1:9), we must conclude that they were Gentiles. The Jewish brethren in Judea would have suffered from unbelieving Jews (their own countrymen), while the Gentile brethren in Thessalonica were said to be suffering at the hands of their Gentile brethren. What these very different congregations (one Jewish, the other Gentile) have in common is that they are both being opposed by their own countrymen, who strongly oppose their turning to Christ for salvation.
As I read the account of Paul’s stoning at Lystra in Acts 14, I marvel at how those who had so recently tried to worship Barnabas and Paul as two of their own gods could so quickly turn against them and then stand by (and perhaps even participate) as they were being stoned by Jews. But then I remembered that something very similar occurred to our Lord after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week. It was but a few days before the crowds would be crying out, “Crucify! Crucify!”7 The unity of the Jews at this point in time is amazing, given the way in which one group differed from the others.8 You might describe both incidents (at Jerusalem and at Lystra) as “the unity of unbelief.”
Let’s consider the opposition of unbelieving Jews to the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles. We must begin by remembering God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants:
Now the LORD said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father's house,
To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB95).
God purposed and promised to bless Abraham, but not so that he and his offspring could enjoy God’s blessings while the rest of mankind is banished to hell. God promised that he would bless Abraham in order to bless men from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Israel was not to be a reservoir of God’s blessings, hoarding them all for themselves, but a river through which God’s blessings would flow to others. God’s blessings were not merely to flow to Abraham, but through him to many others. Jonah is but one example of Jewish resistance to God’s purpose for making this covenant with Abraham and his offspring. Thus, unbelieving Jews in Judea did not want the gospel to be proclaimed to the Gentiles, and so they did everything they could to resist Gentile evangelism.9 And if evangelism did take place, then their fallback position was to insist that Gentile Christians put themselves under the Law of Moses – in effect, to force Gentile converts to become (or at least act like) Jews.10
But how and why did unbelieving Gentiles come to oppose the evangelization of their fellow Gentiles? Gentile evangelism was as great a threat to the Gentile establishment as it was to the Jewish establishment. Think back to Acts 14, when Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra and Paul healed the man who was lame from birth. If Paul and Barnabas had allowed themselves to be worshipped as Hermes and Zeus, they would have furthered the heathen religion of Lystra, for this would have been interpreted as a confirmation of the existence of these gods and of their presence among men. But Paul and Barnabas refused to be worshipped as gods, insisting that such gods were no-gods, and that the only true God was the God of Israel. Paul and Barnabas were now a threat to the heathen religious system of Lystra because faith in Christ is exclusive, not inclusive (of other gods). The Gentile residents of Lystra would thus have welcomed the arrival of the unbelieving Jews of Antioch and Iconium, allowing them (and perhaps even helping them) to stone Paul and leave him for dead.
Likewise, we see the opposition of Gentiles to the presence and preaching of Paul (and those with him) at Philippi11 and at Ephesus.12 In both of these cities, the gospel adversely impacted certain elements of the economy. In Philippi, when Paul cast the demon from the fortune-teller, it put her owners out of business. In Ephesus, when saints turned to God from idols, it dealt a serious blow to the idol manufacturing business. And thus Gentiles opposed the evangelization of Gentiles.
Economics is but one of the implications of the gospel, but there are many more. Think of the way a religion (whichever one it might be) defines or impacts culture. When Christianity was taken to India, it undermined the caste system, and the implications of this are monumental. When Christianity comes to a Buddhist country, the family is impacted. Christianity really does turn the world upside-down, and when it does, those who want to maintain the status quo oppose it strongly. I believe this explains why the same thing happened in Thessalonica that occurred in Ephesus, Philippi, and Lystra.
What does this have to do with Paul and Silvanus and Timothy? These men had been forced to leave Thessalonica in the dead of night (Acts 17:10). They had not been able to return to Thessalonica or to maintain close communication with these saints. Paul’s absence could easily have been misunderstood and misapplied. It might have looked as if Paul did not care about the Thessalonian saints. You remember what happened at Mount Sinai when Moses was gone “too long” (in the people’s minds) and the Israelites began to wonder if he would ever return (Exodus 32:1ff.). Paul likewise found it necessary to explain his absence to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 1:15—2:13) and to those in Rome (Romans 1:8-15). Some may have been asking (or alleging), “How can Paul really care about us if he doesn’t come back and hasn’t corresponded with us?” Our text is Paul’s explanation of his absence. Rather than prove he doesn’t care about them, it demonstrates just the opposite, as we are about to see.
17 But when we were separated13 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. 18 For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again) but Satan thwarted us. 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? 20 For you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)
The first word of verse 17 – “But” – indicates that Paul is setting out to contrast his response to the salvation of the Thessalonians with that of their unbelieving countrymen (as described in the preceding verses). Did their countrymen reject and persecute them, just as the Judean Jews opposed the conversion of their Jewish brethren? Paul, along with Silvanus and Timothy, responded in a very different way to their faith in Christ. They rejoiced greatly because these beloved brethren had placed their faith and hope in Jesus.
The word rendered “separated” in verse 17 (above) is not really strong enough to convey the intense love which Paul and his associates had for the Thessalonian believers. A better – and much more literal – translation of this word would be “orphaned.” Think of parents who have their child snatched from them, and who are subsequently forbidden contact with their beloved offspring. That is the way Paul felt about his premature (humanly speaking) separation from these saints. The passing of time had in no way diminished Paul’s sense of loss at being torn away from those he loved. He now feels the loss even more strongly than he did at first, and he is therefore more eager than ever to return to them. Notice that nothing – no letter, and no second-hand report – will do; it must be a face-to-face visit for Paul to be content.
How, then, does Paul explain his absence from them? What has kept him away all this time? His absence is not the result of a lack of desire on his part. Time after time14 he had attempted to come to them, and each time Satan had thwarted his efforts. It is not Paul who is to blame for his absence, but Satan. Now, we can be sure that Paul does not mean to describe a situation in which Satan is in control, for he is certain of the sovereignty of God in all things. But he knew, as we do, that God sometimes makes use of Satan’s efforts to accomplish His purposes. We see this in the affliction of Job15 and in David’s numbering of the Israelites.16 Paul also experienced this in his own life:
7 Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me – so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).
Thus, Satan – like the Thessalonian and Jewish unbelievers (see above) – opposes those who have turned to God by faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah.
So Paul’s expression of his affection grows more and more emphatic as his words in our text unfold. Yes, he was torn from them unwillingly, but always with a desire to be reunited with them face-to-face (verse 17). Paul repeatedly attempted to return to Thessalonica, but Satan was used to prevent this (verse 18). And now in verses 19 and 20, we come to the pinnacle of Paul’s expression of love for these saints:
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? 20 For you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
Verse 19 looks forward to the time when Christ returns, when saints will be reunited in the presence of their Lord. Jesus had said it during His time on earth:
19 “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9).
Paul took this matter seriously. Does he look forward to the time when God will grant him the blessing of seeing these saints face-to-face? He clearly does. But here he speaks of a far better reunion, a heavenly reunion when he will be reunited with these saints in heaven, in the presence of the Lord, to enjoy fellowship with Him and with His people for all eternity. No more painful parting there; no more separation then.
When we read Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:19-20 (and even in Luke 16:9), we tend to think in terms of money. But that is not where the emphasis lies. In both texts, Jesus challenges Christians not to be too attached to money, to acquiring and maintaining wealth. He speaks of money – our earthly treasure – as a means to bringing others to faith, who will joyfully greet us in heaven. The true treasure that we should lay up in heaven is the saints whom we have introduced to faith in Jesus. If we are to obey Jesus and be like Paul, then it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who should be our hope, our joy, and our crown. Do the Thessalonians’ countrymen reject and persecute them? Let them know that they will not be lacking friends in heaven.
Now, when we come to verse 20, the word “hope” disappears. Instead we simply read, “For you are our glory and joy!” I believe Paul changes his focus here from the future to the present. If the saints are our hope and joy and crown in heaven, then they should also be precious to us here on earth. That is what I believe Paul is saying here. Does he treasure these saints? He surely does, for they are a significant part of his heavenly hope. And because of this, they are also treasured by him now, here on earth. Let these beloved saints not think that his absence is an indication of a diminishing affection for them. One could hardly think of any words which convey his love and affection better than those employed in verses 19 and 20.
1 So when we could bear it no longer, we decided to stay on in Athens alone. 2 We sent Timothy, our brother and fellow worker for God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and encourage you about your faith, 3 so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know. 5 So when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter somehow tempted you and our toil had proven useless (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5).
Paul has already told the Thessalonians that he was not permitted to return to Thessalonica, but this in no way indicated any cooling of his affections for his brothers and sisters there. In the most emphatic way, he affirmed his love for them, as well as for his hope of being with them for all eternity. But now he describes in even greater detail the depth of his concern for them and commitment to them.
If Paul’s absence caused the Thessalonians to be concerned about him, it also caused Paul to be concerned about them. When Paul arrived in Thessalonica, he had recently suffered persecution in Philippi.17 Beyond this, he had made it very clear to the Thessalonians that they, too, would suffer for placing their faith in the Lord Jesus,18 something they had already experienced.19 No longer in Thessalonica and unable to return at the moment, Paul was concerned to know how these saints were holding up under persecution, knowing that Satan was seeking to take advantage of this situation. Had the “tempter” been able to gain a foothold in the church? Had he been successful in undoing what had been accomplished there?
Given these concerns, Paul was not willing to passively sit back and accept his separation from those whom he had served as a nursing mother and a caring father.20 Since he could not personally go to Thessalonica, Paul sent his beloved associate Timothy to strengthen and encourage the saints there, as well as to assess their spiritual progress. (Because Paul indicated that doing this caused him to be “left alone,”21 it would appear that Silvanus must not have been with Paul at the time. The “we” would therefore be an editorial “we.”)
I doubt that we can fully appreciate the sacrifice it was for Paul to remain alone in order to send Timothy to Thessalonica. Just as the saints were facing trials and tribulations at Thessalonica, Paul was dealing with his own troubles:
7 So in all our distress and affliction, we were reassured about you, brothers and sisters, through your faith (1 Thessalonians 3:7).
Timothy was like a son to Paul22 and was one of Paul’s most treasured companions:
19 Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be encouraged by hearing news about you. 20 For there is no one here like him who will readily demonstrate his deep concern for you. 21 Others are busy with their own concerns, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know his qualifications, that like a son working with his father, he served with me in advancing the gospel (Philippians 2:19-22).
Sending Timothy was a great sacrifice on Paul’s part and his finest gift to the Thessalonians. This was an indication of his love for these saints.
In addition to this, I am inclined to think that sending Timothy at this time was the beginning of good things to come from Timothy. Remember that this is Timothy’s first journey with Paul.23 Later on, we know that Paul will send Timothy to Corinth,24 Philippi,25 and Ephesus.26 Sending Timothy to Thessalonica was Timothy’s first mission as Paul’s representative, but it was surely not the last. What may have looked like Paul’s last resort in our text will later become his first choice. Paul’s anguish over his absence and over the fate of the Thessalonians paved the way for Timothy’s future ministry.
6 But now Timothy has come to us from you and given us the good news of your faith and love and that you always think of us with affection and long to see us just as we also long to see you! 7 So in all our distress and affliction, we were reassured about you, brothers and sisters, through your faith. 8 For now we are alive again, if you stand firm in the Lord. 9 For how can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy we feel because of you before our God? 10 We pray earnestly night and day to see you in person and make up what may be lacking in your faith. 11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:6-13).
Timothy has returned from his visit to Thessalonica, and his report greatly encouraged Paul. He told Paul the good news about the faith and love of the Thessalonians.27 As mentioned above, in verse 7 Paul indicates that he was suffering great distress and affliction at the time he sent Timothy. It would seem that such suffering was often Paul’s experience:
4 I have great confidence in you; I take great pride on your behalf. I am filled with encouragement; I am overflowing with joy in the midst of all our suffering. 5 For even when we came into Macedonia, our body had no rest at all, but we were troubled in every way – struggles from the outside, fears from within. 6 But God, who encourages the downhearted, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. 7 We were encouraged not only by his arrival, but also by the encouragement you gave him, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your deep concern for me, so that I rejoiced more than ever (2 Corinthians 7:4-7).
29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast about the things that show my weakness (2 Corinthians 11:29-30).
Paul’s response to Timothy’s encouraging report regarding the Thessalonians is described in verses 9-13. His first response (it would seem) was to give thanks to God for these saints for the joy which God granted Paul through their salvation and spiritual growth. This is hardly surprising since Paul spent so much time praying for the saints in the churches he helped to establish, as well as others.28 Paul was also prompted to pray earnestly and constantly that God might grant him the opportunity to return to Thessalonica and see these dear saints face-to-face. Such a visit would not merely be for fellowship (as important as this was for Paul), for Paul had much more that he wished to teach them, completing those things which were, as yet, still lacking in their faith. (By this, Paul makes it clear that even though these saints were doing well, there was always room for future growth.)
As pleased as Paul was with the Thessalonians’ faith, love, and hope (see 1:3), he was eager for them to continue to grow in these qualities.29 Growth would not come by sheer effort – by the Thessalonians trying harder – but would come about through the Lord. It is He who will “make them increase in their love for one another and for all” (verse 12), just as it is He who will “establish their hearts blameless in holiness before God at the coming of Christ” (verse 13). Paul’s passion was to present these saints blameless and without blemish to God at the coming of our Lord. This is a desire that every Christian should have for others, because it is the desire of the Savior:
1 I wish that you would be patient with me in a little foolishness, but indeed you are being patient with me! 2 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy, because I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1-2).
25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).
One cannot help but notice the “all” in the final verse (13) of our text:
so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:13, emphasis mine).
With this word “all,” Paul is setting up a transition to his next subject. It will become apparent that some at Thessalonica were not so sure about the fate of those who died before the Lord’s return. By using the word “all,” Paul is making it clear those who have died in Christ will participate at the coming of our Lord (as verses 13-18 in chapter 4 will state in the clearest of terms). So, Paul’s passion for the purity of these saints (3:13) will be unpacked in verses 1-12 in chapter 4, just as his assertion that “all” of the saints will participate in Christ’s appearance will be expanded upon in 4:13-18. Paul is now ready to move on to application.
At the beginning of this message, I raised the question as to whether the Apostle Paul would twitter, tweet, and text if the technology had been available to him at the time. I suspect that he would have done so if that were his only means of communicating with the Thessalonians. But from Paul’s words in our text, I am convinced that such communication would not have been sufficiently “up close and personal” for Paul. To put it in Paul’s own words, it would not have been the same as being with them “face-to-face.”30
Our text underscores the importance of face-to-face interaction with one another. I know that many people text and twitter, and I don’t wish to give the impression that I have serious objections to this form of communication, as long as we recognize its limitations. Texting and twittering does not facilitate the kind of personal communication which promotes deeply spiritual interaction. This form of communication is abbreviated and relies heavily on code words and shortcuts. One cannot read body language or hear the tone of one’s voice by this means of communication.
I believe that Paul wrote a number of letters in addition to those we have preserved in our New Testament. The New Testament epistles he penned are surely inspired, and they convey not only important truths but Paul’s emotions as well. And yet, having written this epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul was not content with anything short of a personal visit. He recognized the value of face-to-face communication. I would guess that this would mean that Paul would prefer to communicate via Skype than to Twitter so long as there was a video connection as well as audio.
Just recently I was reviewing Dallas Theological Seminary’s guidelines for internship programs. As a supervisor of interns, I am required to regularly meet with a seminary intern. What I found most interesting is that the seminary does not allow this meeting to be by phone or e-mail. They require that the meeting be done face-to-face. The seminary gets it, just as Paul did. Some things have to be done in person, face-to-face, and not by e-mail, phone, texting, or twittering.
Spiritual ministry happens best face-to-face. I know that this is not always possible, but it is certainly preferable. Those who attend mega-churches will suffer spiritually if their gathering for teaching and worship occurs in only very large numbers, where you are lost in a crowd and are looking at the back of the neck of the person sitting ahead of you. This is why the best mega-churches have small groups as an integral part of their ministry. Here is where people get to know each other well, and where face-to-face ministry occurs.
In our church, we have purposed to encourage face-to-face ministry in several ways. First of all, we encourage everyone who is a part of our body to be actively involved in a ministry group, where shepherding occurs not only top-down,31 but also in a one-another context. Second, we have purposed not to grow too large. If necessary, we would prefer to start new churches, rather than to become too large. Third, we are strongly committed to a weekly open worship time around the Lord’s Table. It is during this weekly gathering that the men of our church lead us in our worship. Besides teaching, exhortation, and worship, we devote a portion of this meeting to sharing needs and prayer. It is my opinion that much of the ministry that takes place during the week is the result of what has taken place around the Lord’s Table. As testimonies are shared and prayer requests are expressed, we have the opportunity to learn of some of the needs of our brothers and sisters.
We did not design our current building. If we had designed it, we would most likely have designed a room in which all the members of our congregation would sit in a circle or a square, so that everyone can look the others in the eye. Just as Paul was committed to face-to-face ministry, so are we, and we promote it in every way that we can.
While Paul agonized over the fact that he could not be with the Thessalonians, and did everything he could to correct this situation, we should recognize that Paul’s absence was by divine design, and it achieved His good purposes. Granted, Satan had a hand in Paul’s absence (2:18), but this in no way hindered God from achieving His purposes. Timothy grew greatly because of Paul’s absence; he was sent to minister to the Thessalonians in Paul’s place. And because Paul could not be with the Thessalonians, he wrote two epistles to them, epistles that have been read and studied by saints and sinners since they were penned. In his absence, Paul spent much time in prayer for these saints, and those prayers were answered. The prayers which Paul recorded in his epistles are models for our prayers today. Note, too, that Paul’s absence caused the Thessalonians to cling more fervently to God because Paul was not there to help them. We can look back and say with conviction, “It was good that Paul was prevented from quickly returning to Thessalonica.”
Now, having come to the end of chapter 3, let us consider Paul’s primary message in chapters 1-3 and its relationship to chapters 4 and 5. As I have pointed out before, these chapters have much to say about experience – Paul’s experience before coming to Thessalonica, his experience while with these saints, and also his experience after being forced to leave them. In addition, Paul has given considerable attention to their experience, in responding to the gospel, in their growth in faith, love, and hope. But let it be stated very emphatically that Paul is not stressing experience at the expense of sound doctrine. Many times Paul refers to what they already know (“you know…”) because he has taught them a great deal. Paul does not speak of their experience apart from doctrine, but rather their experience of doctrine. The truth (sound doctrine) is not merely information to be stored in the mind; it is truth that is to be lived out in daily life. It is experiencing the truth that enables Christians to apprehend and apply further truth, such as that which Paul is about to deal with in chapters 4 and 5. As the writer to the Hebrews put it:
13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:13-15).
Having said this, I want to explore the relationship between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-5 a bit more in depth. I think it would be incorrect to say that the essence of chapters 1-3 is “experience.” I believe that the essence of chapters 1-3 is “love.” What Paul has spent so much time describing in these first three chapters is his love for the Thessalonian saints and their love for him. I believe that the time Paul spent teaching these saints while he was with them in Thessalonica produced a great love. This is entirely consistent with what the Scriptures teach us about the relationship between doctrine (truth) and love:
But the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).
14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love [literally, “truthing in love”], we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love (Ephesians 4:14-16, emphasis mine).
This really helps me to understand the relationship between chapters 1-3 and 4-6. Chapters 1-3 are intended to fan the flames of love – love for God, love for Paul, and love for one another. The reason for this is that love is the strongest motivation for obedience. It is not authority, or fear, but love which most strongly prompts us to obey God. We see this in both the Old Testament and the New:
6 And showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:6, emphasis mine).
15 “Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. 16 What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. 17 However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, 18 I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish! You will not extend your time in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 30:15-18, emphasis mine).
4 I prayed to the LORD my God, confessing in this way: “O Lord, great and awesome God who is faithful to his covenant with those who love him and keep his commandments (Daniel 9:4, emphasis mine).
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).
15 “If you love me, you will obey my commandments (John 14:15).
21 The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will reveal myself to him” (John 14:21).
Since love is so crucial to our Christian walk, it would be good for us to give some thought to how we can assess our love for God and for others. Here are a few of the indications of a love for God and for others:
2. My concern will be for the spiritual well being of others; I will be grieved by the spiritual failure of others (Romans 16:19; 1 Corinthians 12:6; 2 Corinthians 2:1-4; 7:5-16; 11:28-29; Colossians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-10).
3. Love will be evident in my attitudes and actions toward those who are not present (Romans 1:8-15; 15:22—16:2732; Philippians 1:3-11; 1 Thessalonians 2:17—3:13).33 This may involve my desire to be with other saints so that I may be able to edify them (2 Corinthians 9:13-14; Hebrews 10:24-25), as well as a desire to be encouraged by them (Romans 15:30-33).
5. Love is demonstrated by the subordination of my own interests in order to achieve what is in the best interest of others (Philippians 2:1-8ff.).
Paul has not only expressed his love for the Thessalonians in chapters 1-3, he has explained how he continued to love them in his absence from them. And having set forth this context of love, Paul can now move on to application, giving instructions which their love will prompt them to obey.
Earlier I raised the question as to whether or not Paul was co-dependent. Paul’s hope and joy was very closely tied to the spiritual well-being of the Thessalonians. This is not viewed as something unhealthy that needs to be corrected, but as an encouraging expression of Paul’s love for these saints. Paul is not co-dependent, nor does he advocate it for others. What Paul practices and promotes is inter-dependence. We are not to strive for rugged individualism and competition as much as we are to strive for unity, cooperation, and complimentary ministry.
The inter-dependence which we see in our text is a warning to us regarding the excessive emphasis of our culture on autonomy, independence, and privacy. Privacy has become a fetish in our culture. We put up tall fences between us and our neighbors. We hardly know or interact with our next-door neighbors. And we have allowed “privacy” to interfere with morality, godly living and spiritual health and vitality in the church.
It was the principle of privacy that the Supreme Court embraced as the justification for legalizing abortion in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade. They accepted the faulty claim that whatever a woman may choose to do with her body was a private matter, beyond the protection or interference of the laws of the land. Now, in the name of privacy, innocent life can be snuffed out in the very womb God designed to initiate and sustain life. So, too, sexual immorality and all sorts of evils are legitimized by the claim that they happen in private.
It is one thing for this to happen in our culture, but it is even more distressing to see how “privacy” has affected the church. Divorce is becoming rampant in the church, as is the use of pornography, sexual immorality, and other evils. Rather than to confront these things as sin, and to discipline those who claim to be Christians and who practice such things, the church has caved in to our culture’s demand for privacy, believing that such (“private”) matters are not the concern of others or of the church. Privacy is not what the church is about; community is. We are our brother’s keeper. We are responsible for one another. And face-to-face relationships are essential to facilitate this kind of community.
I have emphasized relationships here because I believe that they play a vital role in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church. But let me be very clear in saying that the most important relationship of all is your relationship to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He came to this earth to live a perfect life, to teach men about how they can enter into relationship with God. It was His death, burial, and resurrection in the sinner’s place that provided salvation for all who would receive it. It is by acknowledging our sin and trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf – bearing the penalty for our sins – that you can be saved and enter into an eternal, intimate relationship with God. If you have never responded to Christ’s offer of salvation through faith in Him, I urge you to do so this very hour.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
2 While time does not permit me to digress here, I have a real passion on this point. If a malady does not have a biblical term to describe it and biblical terms to define and deal with it, I’m not interested in spending a great deal of time on the matter, if it is a spiritual concern (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; 2 Peter 1:1-4).
4 I made a reasonable effort to find this citation because I have referred to it in an earlier sermon, but was unable to locate it. Suffice it to say that it was a statement clearly made by a well-known Christian psychiatrist. No doubt this individual would argue with my interpretation of his words, at least I hope so.
5 A variation of this was the claim that we must first love ourselves before we can love others.
6 This kinship worked both ways. Paul will encourage the Macedonian saints (including the Thessalonians) to share with their Judean brethren in their time of need (see Acts 11:27-30; Romans 15:25-27; 2 Corinthians 8:1-7).
8 The almost unanimous rejection of Jesus by the Jews at Jerusalem resulted when the Pharisees (who believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels) and the Sadducees (who didn’t believe in the resurrection or the supernatural) and the Herodians (who had sold out to Rome) joined forces to be rid of Jesus. If these folks could agree on one thing, it was that they did not want Him as their Messiah. Put differently, they would rather have Barabbas as their leader than Jesus. No, it was Judas (a murderer and revolutionary) who was their kind of “messiah.”
13 “Taken away” (NASB95); “torn away” (ESV, NIV); “forced to leave.” The NET Bible rendering “separated” seems a little too weak and does not convey the more emphatic sense of being “orphaned” (which is how the Greek word would be transliterated). A. T. Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament) writes, “Paul changes the figure again (trophos or mother nurse in verse 7, nêpios or babe in verse 7, patêr or father in verse 11) to orphan (orphanos).”
14 As the notes in the NET Bible indicate, the expression “time and again” probably means more than “twice,” but rather “over and over.”
32 We should recall that Paul had not yet been to Rome. He did not establish this church, and yet he cared deeply for the saints there and was eager to come so that he could minister to them. The final chapter of Romans reveals the degree to which he knew about those in this church, for he spoke of them by name, and he knew in whose homes the saints gathered.
33 I am thinking here of the way in which a number of folks in our church maintain contact with those who have moved to different locations; some have gone out as missionaries while others minister in their communities and places of employment.