The Concern Expressed (1 Thess. 3:1-13)
In chapter 2, in answer to the accusations leveled against the Apostle by the enemies of the gospel, Paul reviewed his ministry among the Thessalonians as a nursing mother and an encouraging father (2:1-12). Having then declared their thankfulness for the wonderful way the Thessalonians had responded to the gospel as it was in truth, the effectual Word of God (2:13), he addressed their common experience of suffering (2:14-20). As seen, verses 14-16 speak of the fact of suffering because of one’s faith in Christ while verses 17-18 continue the thought of suffering, but address it from the standpoint of the cause—the fight or battle with Satan. Following that, in verses 19-20 he addresses the subject of suffering from the standpoint of our hope or that which motivated them to endure, faith in our future hope and rewards.
Now, even though he has basically silenced the false insinuations of his opponents regarding a lack of concern, in chapter 3 the Apostle not only continues to show their deep love and concern, but seeks to dull the pain of their separation from this body of believers. However, as Paul continues to express their concern and heart for the Thessalonians, we also see what motivated and guided him in his ministry to men. Not only does he expose a pastoral heart, but one that was directed by biblical goals and objectives. Again we get a glimpse of the great mission or objective of the Apostle as expressed in Colossians 1:28-29.
1:28 We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all men with all wisdom so that we may present every man mature in Christ. 1:29 Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me. (emphasis mine)
As also stated in Ephesians 4:11-16, Paul’s objective was to bring believers to full Christ-like maturity of faith according to the standards of biblical wisdom.
When a person puts their trust in Christ, he or she is born into the family of God as a babe in Christ. Babies need to grow. They need to learn to crawl, then stand, and then walk. As stated in chapter two, Paul saw himself as a spiritual parent to these believers and, as a parent, he was concerned for their growth in Christ. He wanted to see their faith developed and see them become more and more stable and mature. This is a repeated emphasis in this chapter, which shows his pastoral concern for the condition of their faith (vss. 2-3, 5, 6, 7-8, 10). Two key ideas of chapter three are spiritual stability and spiritual growth as expressed in verses 8 and 10.
In this we have an excellent example of pastoral objectives for elders, disciple makers, and parents. One of the biblical purposes of the church is the edification of the flock. For that to happen, church leaders must examine the situations they are facing with their people (i.e., Paul’s separation, their pressures, the fact these were relatively new Christians, etc.), check out their options (what are the possibilities for this flock), and then develop procedures for accomplishing the critical biblical objective of building their faith. That is precisely what the Apostle did.
First, we see that there was the necessary burden and concern to want to do what was needed (vs. 1). Second, Paul then examined his options. He wanted to go, but due to the circumstance that led to his expulsion, he, as the leader and one they would easily recognize, could not at that point return. Remember, Paul had planned several times to return to Thessalonica, but was hindered by Satan. This undoubtedly refers to the security taken of Jason (Acts 17:9), which most likely included a guarantee that Paul would not return to the city. Thus, praying about and examining his options with his missionary team, Paul explained three ministries that he performed on behalf of these believers all of which were in keeping with their biblical objectives: (1) he sent a helper (vss. 1-8), (2) he prayed earnestly for them (vss. 9-13), and (3) sent this letter to encourage, instruct, and warn them all with a view to building them up even more in the Lord.
The Helper Sent to the Thessalonians
3:1 So when we could bear it no longer, we decided to stay on in Athens alone. 3:2 We sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow-worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and encourage you about your faith, 3:3 so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 3:4 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. 3:5 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.
3:6 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! 3:7 So in all our distress and affliction, we were reassured about you, brothers and sisters, through your faith. 3:8 For now we are alive again, if you stand firm in the Lord.
The Catalyst for Sending Timothy—Their Concern (vs. 1)
“So then.” This opening conjunction (dio, “wherefore, on which account”) connects this verse with the preceding chapter where the Apostle expressed his care for the Thessalonians. It was because of his concern and love for them that he not only would not, but could not abandon them when they needed spiritual growth. Again, this not only reveals pastoral concern, but a biblical perspective. Leading a person to the Lord is only the first step in the discipleship process.
“When we could bear it no longer.” “Bear it” (“endure” NASB) is stegeo which means “to protect by covering, then cover up with silence” much as a roof over a house both protects from the elements and conceals. From this it came to mean simply “endure.” Certainly we can see something of the pastoral heart in this—they were so concerned, they could no longer keep it concealed nor endure not doing what was needed. This demonstrates how effective ministry has its source not only in having biblical goals, but in loving concern and burden.
“We decided to stay on in Athens alone,” or “We thought it best to be left behind” (NASB). The words Paul chose here are full of instruction. The first is eudokeo which means “to be well pleased, to willingly determine, to think it a good thing to do.” It stresses the willingness, the positive choice. Too often, ministry is performed out of a sense of, “Well, if I have to.” The option the missionary team chose was not done grudgingly. The second word is kataleipo, which meant “to leave, leave behind” or in the passive, “be left alone or behind, be forsaken.” The word was used of leaving loved ones at death. It could carry the idea of being bereaved. The idea here is they needed Timothy in their present work, but because of their concern for this church, they were willing to be forsaken. It says much both of their heart for the people and for Timothy. Paul and his associates were not hirelings. They ministered and made choices out of loving concern for others.
The Character of Timothy—The Helper Sent (vs. 2a)
One of the great needs in the body of Christ is more Timothy-like believers, men and women who are mature and committed enough to be able to take on an assignment like this. Certainly, part of one’s ability to do this depends on one’s spiritual gift and training, but all believers should be able to do this to some degree if they have not been negligent in their own spiritual growth (Heb. 5:11-14) and if the church leadership is faithful to equip its members for ministry (Eph. 4:11-16). The problem is that (1) we have too many believers in the body of Christ who are in the condition of those discussed in Hebrews 5:11-14, or (2) they are so tangled up in the affairs of this life, they have no desire, burden, or time for ministry (2 Tim. 2:4; Heb. 12:1-2), or (3) the leaders of the church are simply not equipping others for ministry (Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 2:1-4).
Paul mentions two qualifications of Timothy’s character in verse 2. First, Paul describes Timothy as “our brother.” To be qualified to minister to others in true Christian ministry one must first be a Christian himself. “Brother” is basically a technical term for a believer, one who has been born into the family of God by the new birth.
Second, Timothy is described as “God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ.” To be able to minister to others, we must understand and accept the fact we are to be more than simply a brother or a Christian. Being a Christian brother also means caring for the family and that means being God’s fellow worker. But what exactly is a fellow worker? “Fellow worker” is sunergo from ergon, “work, deed, task, employment,” plus the preposition sun, “with, together.” This word refers to someone who is a team player. This is someone who does not seek to run or control things on his own, nor serve for selfish or personal agendas. There are two aspects of a team player in the body of Christ:
1. He or she is one who is a fellow worker with God. The head of the body is the Lord Jesus. The church belongs to Christ, not us. This means we are to get our orders and spiritual strength from the Lord and allow Him to work in and through us. We work as God’s fellow workers by submission to Him and by faith in His provision.
2. This also means we are to work together with our brethren in Christ as a part of God’s team. There is no such thing as a one-man team. We work to build up others and to help the body to function as a body. It means team work with each believer doing his share for the goals of the Head and the team.
In addition, sunergo brings out the fact that Timothy was a worker, which, in New Testament terms, means a minister or a servant of others. Selfish, self-centered agendas spoil our ability to not only be team players, but to work as servants.
The Charge Assigned to Timothy—His Objectives (vs. 2b)
As we work in and for the body of Christ, it is naturally important that we know what we are to do. It is so easy to get side tracked by our own personal agendas or objectives or by the objectives of people who want to dictate the priorities of ministry. It has been my experience that too often this is not in keeping with the major goals of the Bible (cf. Acts 6:1-7). Thus, we need constant evaluation here concerning our pursuits and activities as a church. An important question is this: Is what we are doing contributing to the mission, goals, and objectives of the Word for the body of Christ?
Timothy’s objectives and thus his procedures were set down for him according to biblical aims. He was to return to Thessalonica to strengthen and encourage them as to their faith. What does this mean?
“Strengthen” is sterizo which means “to support, stabilize, establish, fix, strengthen.” This word is used 14 times in the New Testament and in all but two of its uses, it is used metaphorically of providing some form of spiritual stability or strength.
It points up one of our basic needs—spiritual stability. Because of his fallenness, man is inherently unstable emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and volitionally. It calls attention to our tendency toward fluctuations in moods, viewpoints, attitudes, and behavior caused by the variegated problems of life—trials, temptations, personal weaknesses, ignorance of biblical truth, eyes off the Lord, walking in unbelief or being weak in our faith or having the wrong objects of faith, etc.
So Timothy was to remove whatever instability he might find. But how was he to do this? The means emphasized in the New Testament for accomplishing this are:
- The Word or Truth of Scripture (cf. Luke 22:32 with John 21; Rom. 16:25)
- Fervent and consistent prayer (1 Thess. 3:13; 2 Thess. 2:17; 3:3)
- Looking for the coming of the Lord (Jam. 5:7-8)
- God’s work through suffering (1 Pet. 5:10)
- The exercise of our spiritual gifts on behalf of others (Rom. 1:11; 2 Pet. 1:12: Rom. 16:25; 1 Thess. 3:2)
- Restoration to fellowship (Rev. 3:2-3)
Of course, the key to spiritual strength and stability is our faith, so Timothy was sent to “encourage you about your faith.” “Encourage” is parakaleo which has (1) a prospective appeal meaning “to exhort, entreat to action,” or (2) a retrospective appeal meaning “to encourage, comfort, cheer up, or help.” It is the first word of the trio used in 2:11. There it means “to exhort.” From the context of the next verse, here it means “to encourage.”
“About your faith” points to the area that needs stabilizing and encouraging. “About” is the Greek huper, which is best understood here as “on behalf.” The goal was to help them rest or trust in God’s provision and control. Instability and discouragement is usually the result of a faith that is weak, out of focus, or focused on the wrong object. Paul mentions his concern for their faith four times in this section (vss. 1-8). One of the objects or goals of a firm faith is spiritual stability in the face of pressure (cf. vss. 3-4 with vs. 8). One of the goals of faith anchored in the Lord is stability in the ups and downs of life
The Conflict Facing the Church—The Concerns Described (vss. 3-5)
Verse 3a, “so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions,” gives us the intended result or goal which is essentially the spiritual stability which comes from an active faith that rests in the Lord .
“That no one.” These words bring to mind two items of importance for us. It reminds us that God intends for all believers to become spiritually strong and stable in the midst of the disturbing problems of life. Not only are we each to know that affliction is often God’s will for our lives, but that we can experience His strength and supply in the midst of the affliction. This means that through our assets in Christ we all have the capacity and potential to become stable and strong believers. But what are some of the assets God uses to stabilize us? They include such things as:
- The ministry of the Spirit who is described as the Helper or Comforter or Enabler (John 14:16), the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17), and the anointing whom God uses to teach us, guide us, and assure our hearts of His love as our Father (2 John 2:20; Rom. 8:14-16).
- The Word which is alive, powerful, and active, and which teaches us about who God is and what we have in Christ—security, significance, capacity (Heb. 4:12). Though sinners, we are now accepted in Jesus Christ, we belong to the family of God, and we each have important gifts, talents, and a part to play in the plan and kingdom of God (Eph. 1:5-7; John 1:12; Col. 1:12-14).
- God’s plan for learning the Word (a new spiritual capacity for discerning truth, the privilege of private study, corporate study, and encouragement in large and small groups, etc.).
- The privilege of prayer as a priest and as child of God.
“Be shaken” is saino, which originally meant “to shake or wag the tail.” It was used especially of a dog wagging his tail to get his way, to allure, etc. It came to mean, “to beguile through flattery or draw aside from the right path.” Remember, Satan told Eve that she would be like God if she ate of the tree and she fell for his lie (cf. vs. 5). But in view of the cause expressed in the words, “by these afflictions,” it is better to understand this in the sense of “shaken, disturbed, moved, agitated.” “By these afflictions” refers to the sufferings they experienced at the hands of their countrymen because of their faith and stand for the Lord Jesus as mentioned back in 2:14.
Verses 3b-4 point to the reasons why they should remain stable. Note the little word “for” in verse 3b. It introduces us to why we should not be disturbed or shaken. There are two things to note here:
(1) They should not be shaken because Paul and his helpers had taught them about the subject of suffering, especially suffering for their faith in Christ (cf. vss. 3b & 4). The principle here is that their knowledge of biblical truth, Bible doctrine, provided the basis for spiritual stability in the face of suffering in all its forms, only one of which is persecution.
(2) They were to remember that the trials or testings that come to us as believers are appointed by God. Undoubtedly, this only summarizes what he had taught them about suffering.
Afflictions are not accidents. “Destined” is keimai, which has the idea of “appointed,” or as the NASB and NET Bible have translated it, “destined.” Our trials are part of God’s sovereign plan. Since we live in a fallen world and are called upon “to suffer for His sake” (Phil. 1:29), we should never be surprised by persecution (1 Pet. 4:12f.). As seen previously, Paul gave another reason in 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Sometimes God allows us to be persecuted to show the evil nature of men and the righteousness of His judgment when it falls.62, 63
Verse 5 again restates his concern and the reason he sent Timothy, only now he also adds the dimension of the activity of Satan as the tempter. “The tempter” is one of the many descriptive titles of the devil that reveal both his character and his activities or strategies. There is an important connection in this verse between the condition of one’s faith and the work of the devil as “the tempter.” One of Satan’s constant objectives is to negatively affect our faith in the promises and truth of God’s Word. He wants us to doubt God’s love. He wants us to depend on our own strategies to handle life and on our human works rather than depend on the Lord and His love.
What exactly does the Apostle mean when he says, “and our toil had proven useless”? “Useless” or “vain” (NASB) is kenos, which means “vain, empty, fruitless, without effect, without reaching its goal.” Paul knew that no labor in the Lord is in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). We have the Lord’s promise that He will reward us for faithful labors. But he also knew, because of the workings of Satan, some of his labor could be annulled or tarnished as to its effect on the lives of others, i.e., hindered from reaching its goal. This is why the Apostle was so concerned about their faith and took steps to protect his labor. For an illustration of this compare the parable of the sower, the seed, and the soils (Mark 4:14f.).
By way of application, this should first remind us of the need to be prayerfully on alert for other members of the body of Christ, our spiritual family. Satan is at work day and night to neutralize our faith and nullify all the work that has gone on in building and training believers in the Lord. But also, I trust we see how the reality of Satan’s activity and objectives actually impacted the heart and ministry of the Apostle.
The Comfort of the Apostle—News of Their Stability (vss. 6-8)
Verses 6-8 tell of Timothy’s return and the rejuvenating effect this had on Paul and his associates. Timothy had a good report which declared the stability of the faith of the Thessalonians. The Apostle not only called this “good news,” the same word used of the gospel, but he said the real meaning of life for them was found in seeing believers become strong and firm in their stand in the Lord. What a heart for people and God’s purpose! What an illustration of true stability and other-centered living! Quite a contrast to the ‘me’ centered mentality of our day.
Here also we see Paul’s joy over the combined elements of faith and love for which he was thankful. Earlier he had combined faith, love, and hope (1:3). The point is that a stable, growing, and active faith will lead to acts of love. An active faith—one living in the light of the gospel and the person of God and His promises—will be productive in loving ministry for others. A person’s faith can be real, a genuine trust in Christ, but it can become dormant and unfocused and fundamentally unfruitful because of carnality or failure to walk and grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (1 Cor. 3:3f.; Jam. 2:1f.; 2 Pet. 1:8-11).
The Prayer of the Apostle for the Thessalonians
3:9 For how can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy we feel because of you before our God? 3:10 We pray earnestly night and day to see you in person and make up what may be lacking in your faith. 3:11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 3:12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 3:13 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.
The Thanksgiving of the Apostle (vs. 9)
In Paul’s thanksgiving to God, we get another glimpse of the heart and perspective of the Apostle. He was a thankful servant, one who always lived with the perspective of God’s hand on his life. His heart was full of gratitude for the work of God in the lives of others. He recognized that coming to God in faith and changed lives was the work of God. He was but an instrument used of God. Here was a man who labored hard not because he was trusting in his hard labor, but because his faith was in the work of God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10; Col. 2:27f.).
… Paul found words inadequate to express his appreciation for what had happened in their lives. The change in Paul’s mood was radical; “all our distress and persecution” (pase te anagke kai thlipsei hemon, 3:7) has now become “all the joy we have” (pase te chara he chairomen) because of the steadfastness of the Thessalonians. His was no superficial happiness but heartfelt and sincere joy “in the presence of our God.”64
The Prayer of the Apostle (vs. 10a)
This section reminds us that teaching the Word and praying for the saints go together. Remember what Samuel, the prophet of the Word, told the people? Note there are two parts to Samuel’s statement: First, he said, “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.” But he was quick to add “but I will instruct you in the good and right way” (1 Sam. 12:23). Then, we read in Acts, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). We see the same emphasis with Paul. In Acts 20:32 he said, “And now, brethren, I commend you to God (the element of prayer), and to the Word of His grace which is able to build you up (the element of biblical instruction).”
Finally, we might note what our Lord said to Peter in Luke 22:31-32: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Teaching and even spending time with people is simply not enough; we desperately need to hold up the flock to the throne of grace.
Well, how did Paul and his associates pray for the Thessalonians? “Night and day” does not mean once at night and once in the morning nor does it mean that all night and all day they did nothing but pray. It means they prayed during the night and during the day, i.e., regularly, consistently, and in earnest.65 Their prayer life was not a haphazard affair. This illustrates the reality of their own faith, their dependence on the Lord, and the genuineness of their relationship with Him. They believed God was in charge and that He answered prayer.
Then we see they prayed “earnestly.” This is the Greek uper-ek-perissou, a triple compound word meaning “out of bounds, overflowing, super abundantly.” They worked hard at praying because they meant business with God and believed He answers prayer.
The Prayer Requests of the Apostle (vss. 10b-13)
(1) That they might see them and finish what was lacking in their faith (vs. 10)
There are two requests here, but they blend together into one purpose, which was the desire to see them grow and mature in the Lord. It seemed that this great objective colored all that he did. He loved people, but he knew the greatest blessing he could give them was spiritual growth and stability.
“Complete” is the Greek karartizo. It means “to fit together or adjust, restore, repair, equip.” It was used of setting bones and repairing fishing nets (Mark 1:19). Compare also Hebrews 13:21; Luke 6:40; Galatians 6:1. Spiritually, it has the idea of making something what it ought to be, i.e., equipped for ministry, stable, sound doctrinally, Christ-like in character, etc.
“In your faith” points to the area to be made sound or to be equipped, repaired, or restored, as the need might be. But to what does “your faith” (literally, “of the faith of you”) refer? Some think it refers to “the faith” as the body of revealed truth (cf. Jude 3; Acts 6:7; 1 Co. 16:17; Eph. 4:13). Others think it refers to the personal faith of these believers as a synonym for their spiritual condition since one’s spiritual condition is usually related to the condition of one’s faith. While the personal pronoun “your” supports the latter view, we must bear in mind that one’s faith is always connected to one’s knowledge and application of the Word so they are ultimately related.
“What is lacking” is the Greek husterema, “deficiency, what is behind.” It brings out an important principle. Our faith and our knowledge, application, and faith in the faith never reaches a point of perfection. There is always room for improvement and growth. No one ever arrives, not even the Apostle himself (Phil. 3:12-16; Eph. 4:13; 1 Pe. 2:2; 2 Pe. 3:18). Faith, as we are told in Romans 1:17, must grow from “faith to faith.”
By way of application this would stress several things for us.
- It doesn’t matter how much I know or apply, there is always room for more growth and greater insight. Being puffed up or proud in my knowledge or its application is a sign of carnality or immaturity or both (1 Cor. 8:1-2). We all need a humble and teachable spirit.
- We each need to keep studying and pressing on to know the Word better and to apply it more accurately and consistently (2 Tim. 2:15; Jam. 1:19-27).
- We also need, like Paul, to be concerned about what is lacking in the lives of other believers. We need to be available to pray and work to help others grow in their faith as disciple makers, which is at the heart of the great commission (Matt. 28:19-20).
(2) That God might remove the obstacles to their return (vs. 11)
Verse 11 reminds us of several important principles, but first, the words, “direct our way unto you,” are very instructive.
“Direct” is the Greek kat-euthuno, “to make or keep straight, straighten out, direct, guide.” If we remember 2:18, we see the Apostle was praying for the removal of the obstacles placed in their way by Satan. So we are reminded of the battle going on to hinder the work of the Lord and of our need of God’s direction and protection. Paul was praying for guidance and opened doors.
The translation, “may … direct” represents the optative mood in the Greek text, which expresses a strong wish, often used in prayers. “God our Father Himself” points us to the focus of their prayer. “Himself” is emphatic in the Greek. It shows how Paul knew the fulfillment of his wish, as with everything, is in God’s hands. The inclusion of “and Father” points to Paul’s reliance on the fatherly care of God. They were casting this longing to be with the Thessalonians on the Lord and entrusting it to God’s wisdom and sovereignty.
Paul recognizes the uselessness of personal efforts toward a revisit unless God “clears the way.” At the moment, the path of return is untravelable (cf. 2:18), but Paul prays for the removal of the barriers.66
Finally, the inclusion of “and Jesus our Lord” is a strong affirmation of the deity of Christ. The verb is singular, but the subject is plural, the Father and Jesus. The Lord Jesus is associated with God the Father as the controller of the affairs of men and the powers of Satan. Regarding this point, Robert L. Thomas has an excellent comment here:
Two persons viewed as one (cf. John 10:30) possess power to open the way to Thessalonica once again; “our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus” is the compound subject of a singular verb (kateuthunai, “may [He] clear”)—probably an indication of the unity of the Godhead (Ellicott, p. 46). Even if the deity of Jesus is not to be seen in such a grammatical feature (Best, p. 147), it must be understood, since only God is worthy to be addressed in prayer.67
(3) That the Lord might cause them to abound in love (vs. 12)
Continuing the use of the optative to express their desire for spiritual growth through the trials the Thessalonians were facing, Paul prays that they might continue to increase and abound in love. Regarding this desire Wiersbe writes:
Times of suffering can be times of selfishness. Persecuted people often become very self-centered and demanding. What life does to us depends on what life finds in us; and nothing reveals the true inner man like the furnace of affliction. Some people build walls in times of trial and shut themselves off. Others build bridges and draw closer to the Lord and His people. This was Paul’s prayer for these believers, and God answered it: “the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth” (2 Thes. 1:3).68
Scripture makes it very clear that one of the chief marks of a Christian is love—or should be (John 15:12-17). Thus, in our walk with the Lord, as we grow in faith, we should also to be growing in our love for one another (1 John 4:7-13).
(4) That He might establish their hearts unblamable in holiness at the coming of the Lord, the rapture followed by the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ (vs. 13)
The holiness spoken of here is not positional holiness or positional sanctification that comes to the believer at salvation, nor is it the perfect condition of believers before the Lord after glorification and translation when we receive our glorified bodies. Rather, this is experiential. Positional sanctification is a part of our salvation and a gift given at the moment of faith in Christ. The Apostle would not pray for positional sanctification since that is an accomplished fact (see 1 Cor. 1:2 with 1:8 and vss. 29-30, which refer to the believer’s position in Christ). In 1 Corinthians, Paul was writing to a carnal and divisive church, yet he declares they have been and are sanctified in Christ.
Further, “Since all believers will be transformed to be like Christ when He returns (1 John 3:2), Paul could not be referring to their personal condition in heaven.”69 However, one of God’s objectives for all believers is experiential sanctification or change into the character of Jesus Christ so that when we stand before the Lord at the Bema or Judgment Seat of Christ, we will be blameless (not sinless or faultless experientially) and will be able to receive rewards for faithful service.
There is an important connection between verses 12 and 13. Verse 13 begins with “so that” which introduces it as a result clause (The Greek has eis to + the infinitive to express intended result.). This is a further request, but one which is also a result of the preceding request.
As believers grow in their faith, and as their hearts are strengthened in love, their inner life is stabilized or strengthened with the result their inner motives and desires become more and more pure and blameless before the Lord. We will never face our sins in heaven, for they are remembered no more (Rom. 8:1; Heb. 10:14-18), but our works will be tested as to their quality. Are they the results of the work of the Spirit, or the product of selfish motives (cf. Gal. 5:16f.; 1 Cor. 4:1-5)?
Before God they should be holy, separated to God in their hearts and habits. Paul longed that when Jesus Christ would return He would find them blameless before men and holy before God.70
“With all His saints” is hagioi, the plural of hagios, “holy, set apart.” Literally it means “holy ones,” or “set apart ones.” Though some would refer this to the angels who will accompany the return of Christ (cf. Mark 8:38, “holy angels”), in this context and with emphasis on the return of the Lord for believers in 1 Thessalonians it more likely refers to all who are His—all New Testament believers of the church age who have died and will return with the Lord, those spoken of in the rapture passage in 4:16. Of course some refer Paul’s statement to both angels and believers.71 This is unlikely, however, as expressed by Thomas in The Expositors Bible Commentary:
Others present at this reckoning will be “all his holy ones.” Their identity has been variously taken either as that of angels or of redeemed human beings, or both angels and redeemed human beings. The last possibility can be eliminated in that Paul would hardly include two such diverse groups in the same category. That angels alone are meant is unlikely in light of NT usage of hagioi (“holy ones”). Universally in Paul and perhaps the entire NT Jude 14 is debatable; it is a term for redeemed humanity, though usage in LXX and later Jewish literature differs. The redeemed are elsewhere associated with Christ at his return (2 Thess 1:10). Since human beings are the objects of judgment and their holiness is what is in focus (cf. “blameless and holy”), it is entirely appropriate to identify “the holy ones” as other Christian people joined with the Thessalonian Christians before the bema of God and Christ.72
Thomas L. Constable in The Bible Knowledge Commentary agrees:
The holy ones accompanying Christ at His coming are probably the souls of the saints who have departed this life and gone to be with Christ, whose bodies will be resurrected when He comes (4:16). That is, they are Christians rather than angels.73
Throughout this chapter the author has shown us a number of causes for concern that all Christians face in various ways and degrees as members of the body of Christ. So there is the need for growth and the strengthening of faith, but there is also the constant activity of Satan who is always working to hinder God’s work through and in His saints. In this chapter, we have also found directions for how to strengthen believers so that those things that can hinder one’s faith—like suffering, Satan’s activity, and one’s need of growth—are neutralized in their effect. In this, God uses four key elements: (1) the work of faithful servants who have a deep faith in the Lord and a loving concern for people, (2) fervent prayer, (3) the knowledge of God’s truth, especially as it relates to suffering, to properly appraise the trials of life, and (4) living confidently in view of the coming of the Savior for His church. So once again in this epistle, we see not only a confident expectation in the second coming and the Lord’s return for His church, but how our hope in the return of the Lord is to be a constant motivation for growth and faithful service.
63 For an overview of other reasons for suffering, see “Why Christians Suffer” under the Bible Studies / Spiritual Life / Miscellaneous section on our web site at www.bible.org.
65 The use of the genitive case here with night and day makes it clear Paul was talking about the kind of time, “during or within a period of time, i.e., during the night and the day. If Paul had used the accusative case, it would refer to the extent of the time of the verbal action, how long, i.e., all day and all night.
71 … with all his saints—including both the holy angels and the holy elect of men (1 Th 4:14; Da 7:10; Zec 14:5; Mt 25:31; 2 Th 1:7) (Robert Jamieson; A. R. Fausset; and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1998). Saints. Literally, holy ones. It probably includes holy angels as well as dead believers clothed in bodies “not made with hands” (II Cor 5:1), awaiting the resurrection of their earthly bodies. For other graphic pictures of Christ’s coming with his whole heavenly entourage see Mt 24:30, 31 and Rev 19:11-14 (Everett F. Harrison, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, New Testament, Moody Press, Chicago 1962, electronic media).