Just before we get into the chapter today, I should tell you that there are things in this book that people are of differing opinion about. I can only tell you what I am persuaded of, and I can’t even always tell you why, but it comes down to something called hermeneutics, the science of interpreting the Scriptures. I once saw a diagram that can give you a sense of how hermeneutics will affect your understanding of the Bible presented by the late Dr. Chuck Missler. It looks like this:
The further you are to the right of the diagram, the more literal your interpretation of the Bible. There are a few schools of thought on this, and none of them agree on just what this book is saying. I feel that I owe it to you to declare my bias at the beginning. I’m more to the right of this diagram. I am in the pre-millenial camp, and I admit to being undecided about pre- or some version of mid-tribulation harpazo event (we’ll get to that in this book). I’m not asking you to agree with me. As always, I’m asking you to do your own intellectual work and draw your own conclusions. What I say here will be my own conclusions from such activities. Ready?
Then let’s dive in to chapter 3. It’s a short one, but a good one! Thirteen verses.
1: Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone,
- Okay! There’s everyone’s favorite word, “therefore!” What do we do when we see it? We find out what it’s there for. Context for the word “therefore” or the word “for” or “because” is usually from what immediately precedes it, so recall 1 Thessalonians 2. The last paragraph of that chapter is talking about how the apostle and companions were separated from them physically, and Satan was hindering them from coming back to them.
- There are a number of things here, and I’m going to deal with the big one first.
- Does this hindering by Satan mean he’s as powerful or more powerful than God? Unequivocally, NO! Satan is always permissively restrained by God, I suspect by the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, but I’m not dogmatic on that. If the Father has allowed Satan to move and act, the Father always has a reason for it, and it usually has to do with teaching and perfecting His people, the Church!
- However, Satan IS more powerful than WE are in the natural realm. It is possible for him to stretch us as God’s servants beyond our own endurance. I’ve heard it taught that God never tries us beyond what we are able to bear as doctrine. I’m not sure that’s true from the word and from my own experience. Paul tells the church at Corinth in his second letter to them this in Chapter 1:8 – “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life;” Why does God do this? To teach us and anyone looking at us that we cannot face things on our own by our own strength. He continues in v. 9: “indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead…”
- When that happened to Paul in this situation, Paul took action, which he continues with in verse 2…
2: and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith,
- What did Paul do? He had Timothy leave him in Athens and sent him back to Thessalonica, that’s what! Why? Well, in this verse, Paul tells us that Timothy’s mission was to strengthen [sterizo, to resolutely in a certain direction, or figuratively to confirm; to make stable, place firmly, set fast, affix; strengthen, make firm; to render constant or confirm one’s mind] and encourage [parakaleo, to call near; invite, implore, invoke; beseech, call for, comfort,desire, exhort, intreat, pray] – about whom?
- About YOU! Specifically, Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica. Remember, Paul is NOT Jesus (though he met Him on the road to Damascus and was forever changed). Paul could not see things from an eternal perspective easily. He likely had no concept that his writings would be being read and discussed nearly 2000 years after his own death. And yet, here we are, reading the preserved writings and discussing what they mean 2000 years later. We can read this as Paul’s letter to us if we are a part of the Church, the body of Christ, because he was God’s Apostle to the Gentiles – and for most of us here in this place, that means US!
- What was he strengthening and encouraging for them? Their faith [pistis, a firm persuasion or opinion held]. Paul was assigning Timothy to be their guest pastor for a short while, I suppose – so that they could learn the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications in their lives for a purpose he describes in verse 3…
3: so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.
- That purpose was so that no one would be disturbed by “these afflictions.” What afflictions is Paul referring to? Well, at a minimum he is talking about the afflictions that drove them out of Thessalonica in the first place, but I think you could extend it to a general level reasonably. It isn’t like the believers in Thessalonica were driven out of their homes like Paul was driven out of Thessalonica.
- Paul is saying that they were “destined” [keimai, to be laid, to lie at; appointed, destined, laid, lain, lay, lies, lying, made, set, standing] for this, i.e., these afflictions. This is why I think this can be reasonably extended to a general level – all of the writers of the New Testament talk about the suffering a believer will go through and they encourage us to undergo these afflictions joyfully, because they are the instrument of our sanctification, so that we may see and stand before a holy God.
4: For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.
- This verse serves as a continuation of the thought in verse 3. Paul said in advance that these things were going to happen, and they happened, just as Paul said. Did he give details? It doesn’t say, and neither should we. Some commentators suggest that Paul gave specific details as to the nature of the trouble they were going to undergo, as part of the accompanying signs and wonders that attest to the credentials of apostleship. Okay, let’s allow that for a second – why would that be a sign? Think about that logically. Paul would say, “I am going to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the synagogue and those in power will become so angry with me that they will stone me and leave me for dead just outside of town. (Okay, I know that happened on his first missionary journey with Barnabas at Lystra, but that isn’t my point.) What possible good is that? Wow, getting stoned and left for dead sure shows the unbeliever and believer the power of God…not. Rather, I think Paul could predict trouble at this point because of his past experiences like what happened at Lystra, and Iconium, and Derbe, and everywhere else he preached Christ.
- This brings us to a good rule for hermeneutics – the principle of parsimony. Anyone here know what that is? Okay, anyone know about Occam’s razor? It is the principle that says the simplest explanation is the best. This does NOT upset Scripture in the least, and prevents wild speculation where meaning can be taken more than one way. Is it possible that Paul was supernaturally gifted and could see the exact trouble that would befall him as proof of his office of Apostle? [Actually, it is not, see Acts 20 and his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders that came to visit him at Miletus, where he (20:22) says he does not know what will happen to him there. One cannot therefore assume this ability to foretell the exact trouble is an accompanying miracle of Apostleship – what – except this instance? Gee, that makes no sense either.] Or is it more simple to say that Paul had ridden the ride before and knew what to expect? The latter answer simply assumes the evidence in front of us. The former must make conjectural assumptions based on a theological stance that can be refuted by Scripture at least in some measure.
5: For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain.
- “For this reason” refers to the very first “therefore” of the chapter – the reason that Paul stated in 1 Thessalonians 2:17, 18. Paul and companions were physically separated from the Thessalonians, and were trying to go back to them to check on them, but Satan hindered them.
- Paul then talks about the fact that this pushed him beyond the limits of his endurance, so much so, he had to send someone in his place to find out if they had truly been persuaded [the word for faith is pistis here as well] or if the hindering source, here called the tempter, had tempted them away from the faith.
- “…and our labour might have been in vain.” Paul wanted to know that their work among the Thessalonians had been effective and that the Gospel was spreading according to the will of God. Is it possible to labour in vain? I think it is, because Paul here thinks so. There are a lot of ways that it might have gone awry, but that is not Paul’s specific topic here, so I’ll leave that alone for the moment.
6: But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you,
- Well, Timothy has come and given us a report about you, your faith, and your love, and it was very favourable!
- Paul was encouraged that they always thought kindly of them, and that they longed to see Paul as much as Paul longed to see them. I’ve experienced that a little. I used to go to conferences, and I met people from literally all around the world there. I still maintain those friendships, and I am happy to report that they miss me as much as I miss them.
7: for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith;
- And Paul, knowing this principle very well, tells us that this is the very reason (the report from Timothy), that we were comforted [parakleo, to call to or for, to exhort, to encourage] about them – because of their faith [pistis, that firm persuasion about Jesus and His work on the cross].
8: for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.
- If you look at that verse in your Bibles, you will see that the word “really” is italicized in most of your translations. That means that the word itself does not occur in the original text, but was inserted by the translators for clarity. The word for “live” is zao, used in this sense of enjoying real life, that is, to have true life and also to be active, blessed, endless life in the kingdom of God. The word here does actually capture the sense of the phrase and is a good insertion by the NASB translators.
- “…if you stand form in the Lord.” What’s with the conditional if? It is the most common translation of the word ean in the New Testament (222 times out of 319 total uses, and the other 97 times are split between 14 words, one of which is actually “if” (2 times) used as an active mood instead of subjunctive). So clearly if the believers do not stand firm, we don’t enjoy that real life Paul is talking about. If you have ever shared the Gospel with someone and they went away, even for a while, you will begin to understand what Paul is saying.
- It is important for me to note that this condition actually had to do with the general attitude of the apostles, and does not regard salvation in this verse. Some commentators have tried to make this verse a proof text for the idea that once you are saved you can lose your salvation. It is an extremely poor verse choice for that, especially when it is so clear from the immediate context that Paul is talking about his own level of encouragement, and it is theologically incorrect, mostly because of a misunderstanding I think between justification and sanctification. But enough of that.
9: For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account,
- How do we even begin to say thank you to God? Where can we even start? If you’ve ever discipled someone, you begin to see this. When you’re teaching them the basics of the faith (seen in Acts 2:42 – the Apostles’ Teaching, Fellowship, Worship, and Prayer), and then you start to see them get into the Word on their own, start to contribute at fellowships, start to worship on their own, and pray on their own…it fills your heart with joy! They GET it! The Lord has them now! And it is because of THEIR growing faith! Paul felt this way about the Thessalonians too.
10: as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?
- And such joy fills the heart with a desire to help that disciple, just like it did with Paul. It was even harder for Paul in a way – he was physically separated from them geographically, and trying to get to see them, but Satan was hindering, so that Paul’s own walk was being sanctified.
- Why that desire to help, or to paraklete [come along side for aid]. I believe it is the Holy Spirit knitting our hearts together into one person, the Church. The point for Paul was to complete what was lacking in their faith. What were they lacking? Well, commentators don’t agree in general, and that tells me that it was something that was at an individual and personal level. Questions and issues in the believer’s life should be an occasion for a pastor to come alongside for aid, which means we must belong to a gathering, not just Lone Rangering it out by gritting our teeth. I respectfully submit to those that think of themselves as Lone Rangers that even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Where else can you get a reliable answer from a brother in person?
11: Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you;
- Paul, praying in print here, letting us know that He was praying to the Father, in the authority of the Son (by the power of the Holy Spirit) that they were actively trying to visit in person.
12: and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you;
- The language here is superlative – may the Lord cause you to over-abound and to be over and above in love [agape, divine, self-giving, self-sacrificing] for:
- One another
- All people
- Just as the apostles were for them (growing in that agape love). And why should that overabounding increase take place in us for each other and for all people?
13: so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.
- Establish [sterizo, to turn resolutely in a certain direction] your hearts [kardia, literally the heart. In ancient times, this was thought to be the seat of emotions, and so today I refer to this as the decision-making center of our souls. This is some of that figurative language.] Without blame in holiness – we’ve run into that phrase before, and it simply means what it says.
- Before our God and Father. Isn’t that amazing to be able to say? OUR God and father? We are His – and He is ours, just like Jesus prayed in john 17.
- “…at the coming of our Lord Jesus…” What? Jesus is returning! The man that died for our sins and then rose again on the third day is returning! And He isn’t coming alone.
- “…with all His saints.” He is coming with all of His holy ones [hagios] – and friends, as we have been seeing throughout the Pauline letters, that is a direct reference to US! You know, I find it completely mind-numbing to know that Jesus views ME with that kind of lens. That He would give ME that kind of gift – one which I do NOT deserve in the least – is truly amazing.
And that’s chapter 3! It’s short, but it’s packed with great stuff, yes?