1 Thessalonians 3 - Paul's Joy in the Report from Thessalonica
Read 1 Thessalonians 3
One of the most fascinating things about the Epistles of Paul is the fact that they are indeed letters sent to a specific people, dealing with a specific purpose and written at a specific time. They are not, as has often been charged, dry treatises on doctrinal matters, but are throbbing with life which is of great benefit for all subsequent ages. We learn to know him who writes and also those to whom he is writing and find that their experiences were similar to ours.
Solicitude for the Church
In the closing part of the previous chapter the Apostle had spoken of his strong desire to go to Thessalonica to meet with the brethren there. However, it wasn't possible for him to go — Satan had hindered him. But, he says at the beginning of this chapter, I couldn't stand it anymore! Something has to be done. If he is not able to go himself he will send someone else whom he trusts. As a result, Timothy is sent. We thought it was so important, he says, that we were even willing to be left alone at Athens. It is not easy to determine exactly what he means by this. When we go to the book of Acts there are some historic items given us, but usually the Bible does not give a detailed history. We know that Paul had first gone to Athens and that he had requested that Timothy and Silas join him there as soon as possible. No doubt they came to him there. When he now speaks of being left alone at Athens, he seemingly includes Silas with himself as having been left there alone. This departure of Timothy for Thessalonica would create a real hardship for those left behind in Athens because that city proved to be very difficult. We do not read of a church having been formed here.
Timothy, though young, was one of Paul's most trusted helpers. When he addresses two letters to him later he calls him his "child in the faith." Here he refers to him as "our brother." This man is a minister of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of his travel to Thessalonica is to establish (strengthen) and to comfort (encourage) them concerning their faith. This is the same message he would have brought had he been able to come. Paul is concerned about these particular things. How are these people, newly come to the faith, going to be able to stand when the difficulties come? That strengthening and encouragement is, of course, necessary for believers everywhere at all times, but there was a special reason for the Apostle to be concerned about these matters in this particular church.
He had been afraid that they might be received by the afflictions which came on them. No doubt many attempts had been made by those who were opponents of the gospel to cause them to renounce the word and return to the paganism out of which they had come. He reminds them that they have been appointed to this affliction, i.e., it is inevitable that afflictions come on those who follow Jesus Christ. They must not be surprised at this. When the missionaries had worked among them they had told them of these things. They had been forewarned. Well, it has happened! To know about these things before they actually come will serve to strengthen them, but to know about them or to experience them, are two different things. It may be that the pressure of opposition has now become greater than they can bear.
Once more he mentions the fact that he could no longer endure his uncertainty about the Thessalonian believers. While he had spoken in the plural in verse one, he now emphasizes the fact that he couldn't stand it any longer. Others may say that he has left Thessalonica only to save himself; his readers will now hear from him how he thought about them. He is sending Timothy so that he may learn of their faith. He wants to know whether or not the tempter has ruined the work he performed while he was with them. Then our labors would have been in vain. How is it possible that this thought should even enter his mind? Had he not spoken of his assurance concerning their election? (1:4) Some have seen a contradiction between 3:5 and 1:4. However, there is no contradiction here at all. Remember, he has written both 3:5 and 1:4 after he has heard the report from Timothy! He simply speaks in terminology which is immediately understandable to all readers. There had been a wonderful turning to the Lord in the city of Thessalonica. But, suppose this had been only a temporary or historical faith. Then the tempter could easily lead them astray. He does not minimize the works of the evil one! He has sent Timothy to find out what the situation is and when he knows of their faith he is assured of their election! It (their faith) has stood the test of affliction! That is true faith. Those people are elect.
Good News of Persevering Saints
Timothy has just returned from Thessalonica and the "news" he brought causes the Apostle to sit down immediately to write this epistle. He is overjoyed by the news Timothy brought. Paul is informed that the faith of these people is genuine. That is the faith which will stand regardless of the attacks made upon it. Their love, too, is genuine. Their love also goes out to Paul and Silas. They want to see the Apostles as much as these want to see them. This does the heart of Paul good. The malignity of his opponents has had no effect on these Thessalonian believers! Their influence has, therefore, not been undermined. This is also an evidence of faith and love on their part. They might speak glibly of their faith and love but if it was not directed to those who had brought them the gospel, it would not be genuine but hypocritical. Oh, how the news Timothy has brought has comforted the heart of Paul! The faith of these Thessalonians has made it possible for Paul and Silas to continue even though they find themselves in great distress and affliction. He is writing from Corinth and they have suffered many things there. But, they have undergone distress and affliction wherever they have worked. Persecuted for bringing the greatest news ever heard! Working day and night — both as gospel ministers and laboring with their hands. But, the news he has heard of the Christians makes it all worthwhile! They are comforted. God is still in control!
"Now we really live," he says when he hears that these young Christians are standing fast in the faith they have professed. That faith is anchored and grounded in the Lord Himself and gives a life-union. That is the whole life of the Apostle — to see the work of his Lord flourish.
How can he give adequate thanks to God for this great favor shown him? His soul is flooded with thanks and he cannot find words to express it. The concern he had for them has given way to a joy which cannot be expressed. He also prays for them day and night. His prayer is that he may himself be able to go to them and — that he may then supply those things in which they are still deficient. He rejoices greatly but he prays for still more! Of course, faith is never perfect. Later he will speak of those things in which they are indeed deficient and in which they will need far more instruction. The genuine faith, however, is present and therefore there is a solid foundation on which he will be able to build further.
Prayer to the Lord Christ
The last paragraph of this chapter is really a prayer even though it does not come in the regular form of a prayer. He prays, as he said in the previous verse, that God will open the way for him to come to Thessalonica. He prays that God the Father Himself and our Lord Jesus may open this way. The author is not teaching a doctrine of the Deity of Christ, he simply assumes it! This is one of the earliest writings of the New Testament and the fact of the Deity of Jesus Christ is spoken of as a fact believed by all who have believed the gospel. When critics say that this was a doctrine of late development, they ignore such passages as these. We are not certain whether or not this prayer of Paul was answered although it is very well possible that he was able to see the members of this church during the time of the third missionary journey.
Everything is, however, not dependent on the Apostle's physical presence in Thessalonica. That would be wonderful and he hopes and prays that this may happen. But, they have the word and they have the Spirit of God! They are to labor with the gifts they have received. May the Lord give them the power to increase and abound in love to each other and to all men. Paul is fond of joining Greek words together in all of his writings. Thereby he is able to express himself in what could be called "super superlatives"! The increase in love might be expected as something quite natural. He wants them to do more. They must abound — they must overflow in love toward others. It must be in such volume that they are not able to contain it! This is to be shown to their fellow members of the church, of course! How can there be true faith without the accompanying love which is the fruit of faith? But it must also be shown to others, even those who do not have that same faith. This will take that overflowing amount. This is the kind of love which the Apostles have also shown them. Paul has a consuming zeal for the church and its members because he has such a love for his Lord! And — he has that love for his Lord because his Lord has loved him with a love which knows no bounds.
He prays that God will so strengthen them that they may be blameless in holiness. He here refers to the mode of life which is to be followed by the believer. This kind of life is based upon the love wherewith their hearts are to be filled. It is a holy life to which they are called. This does not mean "perfection," but a life which is separated unto the service of God! It is a manner of life separated from the world. The love which has been shed abroad in their hearts does not feel at home with the pleasures of this world. Now they are to walk blameless in that holiness. They are not to live a life for which they have set the standards themselves, but it is to be lived before the face of God. He has set the standards and He will judge. They, and all believers, must learn to walk in faith and love.
Who are the Returning Saints?
The last words of the last verse of this chapter have given a great deal of difficulty. As a result, there are many different interpretations. The Apostle again speaks of the "coming" of our Lord Jesus. Here the term "parousia" is again used as also in an earlier passage. Everyone is quite well agreed that this has reference to the second coming of our Lord. In that "coming" He will bless His people with His presence. However, the words are added: "with all his saints." Saints means "holy ones." The question is: who are meant by these saints or holy ones? It is true that the Bible sometimes refers to the angels when it speaks of His holy ones, Psalm 89:5, Daniel 4:13, Zechariah 14:5. Although the Apostle uses the term "saints" frequently, he nowhere uses the term to mean "angels." He always uses it to refer to the true believers in Jesus Christ. It is not impossible that he would use the term once to mean something different than his usual meaning, but it is not very probable. Besides, the angels, of course, accompany the Christ at the time of His second coming. This is clearly taught in the Book of Revelation.
Perhaps the most important reason for seeking Paul's usual meaning in this term is the fact that one of their "deficiencies" was their view of the second coming of our Lord. As chapter 4 will show, they wondered about those who had already died when the Lord would return. Will they be in a less favored position than those who are still alive? Here he already lays the groundwork for an answer to that question. When the Lord returns in great glory He will not only be accompanied by an angel host, but those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will come with Him! They will not have a lesser position than those who are still alive on the earth at that time. There will be the throng of the redeemed who will come with Him and share in His glory. Their bodies shall then be given them! What a day that will be!
They are to see to it that they walk blameless before Him in holiness so that they will be able to greet the Lord at His coming with all His saints. Those who had fallen asleep in Jesus before His return will not have an inferior place with Him and those who are still alive must so walk that they will not receive an inferior place!
Questions for Discussion:
Is Paul's concern for the Thessalonian church also a good indication that we constantly need strengthening and encouragement in the faith? Can our faith "live on itself"?
Could Paul's labors have been in vain in Thessalonica? Does he give any indication how we should view election and our own concerns?
Why does he attach so much significance to the fact that these people loved him and desired to see him? Isn't this glorifying self?
Can one be thankful and still not satisfied? Or is this a must in our spiritual life?
Notice Paul's treatment of the Deity of Christ. How important are "proof texts"? Must our beliefs be totally grounded on specific proof texts? Explain.
Do you get the impression from the verses 11-13 that to believe is easier than to live the Christian life?
Does the fact that Jesus will return "with all his saints" make that day even more glorious and more desirable?