Passage: 1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:5
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5. In preparation for this lesson, I spent less time than normal in the commentaries, and yet I feel like my heart has been warmed more so than usual. This is a simple, and yet a very convicting and encouraging passage. Let’s read it, and then we’ll pray (1 Thess 2:17-3:5).
In chapters one and two of 1 Thessalonians, Paul talks a lot about his coming to the Thessalonians and what God did in their lives as a result of that visit. Now, Paul picks up by telling the Thessalonians a little about what had happened to him, Silas, and Timothy since they left Thessalonica. No doubt Timothy had shared some of these things when he visited the Thessalonians; but as we are going to see, it was also necessary for Paul to say these things himself, in order to reaffirm his love for the Thessalonians.
So for the sake of your understanding of this passage, let’s review the movements of Paul’s missionary team since leaving Thessalonica. First, tell me, why did Paul have to leave Thessalonica? (The Jews living there stirred up trouble against him and Silas.) After that incident, Acts 17:10 says that “the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea.”
But their ministry in Berea was also short-lived, because the Jews from Thessalonica came and stirred up trouble against them there, too. As a result, the Berean believers also send Paul away quickly–this time, to Athens! (Silas and Timothy stay in Berea for a while, but then, apparently, they rejoin Paul in Athens.)
So that’s the basis storyline. However, what we see from our text today is that throughout all of that time, Paul couldn’t get the Thessalonian believers off of his mind. He was worried about them. Paul knew firsthand how rough those Thessalonian Jews could be, and he is really concerned about these new believers living in Thessalonica who will soon face persecution without him. Will they stand up under pressure or “fall off the wagon”? Will the church be disbanded? Will his labor be in vain?
With those questions running around in their minds, Paul and Silas made multiple attempts to get back to Thessalonica. In fact, according to 2:17, they made every effort to return, but Satan “hindered” them.
That’s an interesting word, that word “hindered.” It was a military word. In order to delay an advancing army, soldiers would tear up the roads to impede travel. That’s what Satan was doing–impeding Paul’s advance. But it wasn’t just Paul’s advance; it was the advance of the gospel!
Paul doesn’t say how Satan had hindered him. But he and Silas are keenly aware of the fact that they are experiencing spiritual warfare. Satan’s strategy is to buy time so that he can tempt these new believers. But not only is he tempting them to sin; he’s tempting them to walk away from the faith. That’s why in 3:5, Paul mentions his fear that his labor would prove to be in vain. It was a very real danger, and Paul was growing more and more concerned.
Paul and Silas still can’t return to Thessalonica–Satan has blocked their path somehow–so they do the next best thing. They send Timothy instead. According to 3:5, Timothy is supposed to find out what is going on, but he’s also more than just a messenger boy, because in 3:2, Paul says that he and Silas sent Timothy in order to establish and encourage the Thessalonians. Timothy is acting on Paul’s behalf doing the ministry he wished he could do in Thessalonica.
3:6 says that Timothy comes back with a good report. The Thessalonians are standing fir, and this is great news! However, we also get the impression that some of the Thessalonian believers are a little grumpy that Paul didn’t come himself. “Why send the kid?” So Paul writes this passage to reaffirm his love for the Thessalonians and to explain personally why he was unable to return. Paul also knows that he is going to send Timothy back with this letter, so he commends Timothy to the Thessalonians.
That’s the story behind this passage. And in a way, I just taught you the entire passage. But now, let’s dive in a little deeper.
Do you remember several weeks ago when we talked about spiritual parenting? We learned that we are to love like a mother and love like a father. I said that spiritual parenting involves leading people to Christ and/or discipling them. Do you remember that? This passage is the full of the same ideas.
But this passage is also very personal. Paul uses lots of emotive language. Can you find any of the emotions in this passage?
Because this passage is so emotional and because it’s about spiritual parenting, I’ve entitled this lesson, “Passionate Parenting.” I have two main points: 1) “Spiritual parents love their children” (from 2:17-20), and 2) “Spiritual parents look out for their children (from 3:1-5).”
1. Spiritual Parents Love Their Children.
The first thing I want you to see from this passage about a spiritual parent’s love for his or her child is that spiritual parents long to be with their children, and they hold their children close to their hearts when circumstances separate them.
The idea of longing to be with your loved ones is represented in v. 17 with the word “face.” The Greek word for “face” shows up twice in that verse. Paul says he was taken away from the Thessalonians literally, “in face, not in heart”; and he made every effort to see the Thessalonians’ faces “with great desire.”
I’m sure that all of us can relate to that sense of longing we have to be with our loved ones who live far away. In today’s world, we can just pick up the phone and call them–or maybe text or even Facetime. But needless to say, you couldn’t do that in Paul’s day! So Paul was very sad.
Also, it’s hard enough to be separated from adult children. But what about when your children are young and vulnerable!?
The Greek word for “having been taken away” in v. 17 is ap-orphan-izo. Does that sound like an English word that you know? It sounds like the English word “orphan”! Paul says that he was “orphaned” from the Thessalonians! Now, when we speak about being “orphaned,” we are usually talking about a child losing a parent. But the Greek word could also refer to a parent losing a child. When Paul and Silas were driven from Thessalonica prematurely, they felt like parents who had been torn away from their children.
In our day in age, we might talk about holding our loved ones close to our hearts, and in those days, people would often use the same kind of language. So Paul says that he was taken away from the Thessalonians “in presence, not in heart.” Like a parent who never stops thinking about his long-lost child, Paul continued to hold the Thessalonians close to his heart.
Before we go on, I want to ask you a question. Do you have that kind of close, emotional connection with any believers in your life? If not, it may be a sign that you are not currently engaged in a spiritual parent-child relationship. If you are a young believer, find someone to mentor you. If you are an older believer, look for someone to mentor.
Before we go on, I want to point out once again the “we” language in 1 Thessalonians. You might remember from our first lesson that not only Paul, but also Silas and Timothy are listed in 1:1 as authors of the book. Also, this is the only one of Paul’s letters to consistently use the first-person plural “we” throughout the book. So we know that Silas and Timothy had a hand in this book’s writing (and likely Silas was more involved than Timothy). However, from verses like 2:18, we can also tell that Paul was the primary force behind its writing.
I’m sure the Thessalonians appreciated Timothy’s visit, and no doubt they would have enjoyed seeing Silas, as well; but most importantly, they wanted to see Paul. So Paul breaks out of the “we” language in v. 18 to call attention to the fact that he specifically tried to visit them on multiple occasions and that the only reason why he did not make it was that Satan had hindered him.
It is instructive based upon this text to remember the importance of physical presence. Paul could send letters to the Thessalonians, and he could send emissaries, but nothing could compare with his physical presence with the Thessalonians.
As you engage in spiritual parenting, do not underestimate the power of showing up to important events, inviting people over to your home or going to their houses, making a hospital visit, or buying that expensive plane ticket. Spiritual parenting is best done in person.
Spiritual parents long to be with their children, and they hold their children close to their hearts when circumstances separate them.
But also, spiritual parents have great hopes and dreams for their children. Their kids bring them a tremendous amount of joy, and they are very proud of them (vv. 19-20).
These verses are remarkable because of the language Paul uses to refer to the Thessalonians. Most of the times Paul refers to hope in his letters, he is saying that Jesus is his hope. The same is true of the words “joy” and “rejoicing,” which could actually be translated “boasting.” Christ makes Paul happy, and he says in 1 Corinthians 1:31, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”
However, in these verses, Paul says that the Thessalonians are his hope, his joy, and his crown of rejoicing!
So what does that mean? Well first, let’s talk about hope. Hopefully you remember that hope is forward-looking. We talked about that in chapter one. Hope is something you look forward to in the future that keeps you going in the here and now. So how does that word relate to the Thessalonians?
One of the thoughts that kept Paul going was that one day, at Christ’s return, the Thessalonians would join him in the presence of Jesus. We sing a hymn that says, “Look to the Throne for the sake of His name; think of the throng who will share in His reign. Some for whose souls we pray will share our joy that day, joining our song for the sake of His name!” When was the last time that you stopped to contemplate the possibility that there may be people in heaven who are there because of you? Is that even the case? Will there be people there because of you? Now I understand that salvation is by grace alone. That means that in an ultimate sense, no one will be there because of you; they will be there because of God. But God may use you to save a soul, or perhaps many souls! Does that thought excite you? It should!
The second word Paul uses to refer to the Thessalonians is “joy.” It would seem that Paul expected to be happier in heaven because the Thessalonians would be there with him. Think about that. Are you providing now for your future joy?
Finally, Paul said that the Thessalonians would be his “crown of rejoicing.” When a Macedonian athlete won a race, he would be crowned with a wreath of oak leaves. Paul says that his prize for faithful service among the Thessalonians will be their presence with him in glory. They will be his “crown of rejoicing” or “the crown in which he boasts” on that day!
All of that has to do with v. 19, and it’s all forward-looking. But v. 20 has to do with life here on earth (v. 20). Paul doesn’t have to wait for heaven to receive joy from the Thessalonians or to boast in them. He gets a preview of that in this life. They give him joy now and he is proud of them now.
One of my favorite things to do when I meet someone new and they ask about my family is to pull out my phone and show them some pictures. Why? Because I think I have a pretty good-looking family! I’m proud of them! I love tell my parents about funny things the girls have said or smart things they do. Why? Because I’m a parent! We all like to brag on our kids! And this dynamic only increases with grandkids! They bring smiles to our faces. We have hopes and dreams for their futures. They give us joy. This is how Paul felt toward the Thessalonians.
Spiritual parents love their children. But also…
2. Spiritual Parents Look Out for Their Children.
First, spiritual parents become anxious when they know their children are in danger (3:1, 5). Is it good to be anxious? Yes and no, right? Paul says in Philippians 4:6, “Be anxious for nothing”; but in this passage, he is obviously proud of the fact that he was anxious about the Thessalonians. Why? Because the Thessalonians were in real danger.
You hear stories about parents whose children are kidnapped and then later returned to them by the police. I cannot imagine a more helpless feeling that not knowing what is going on with my children, but knowing that they are in trouble. That is how Paul felt in these verses. You can almost sense the pressure mounting because he says, “When we could bear it no longer… we sent Timothy!” Paul says, “We waited and waited and tried to make a personal visit work for as long as possible; but eventually, we just couldn’t take it anymore! So we sent Timothy.”
So once again, I ask you, are there people in your life about whom you feel this way when they are in spiritual danger? If not, you might not be involved in spiritual parenting.
Spiritual parents become anxious when they know their children are in danger. But they also do everything in their power to keep their children safe.
What did Paul do to keep the Thessalonians safe, spiritually-speaking? He sent Timothy! This is what I would refer to as “on-site care.” In verse four, we are going to see that Paul warned the Thessalonians ahead of time about trials. I call that “preemptive teaching.” But preemptive teaching is never a substitute for on-site care!
My oldest two girls got bikes for Christmas. So lately, we’ve been riding bikes (with training wheels) in the driveway. And I’ve taken the time to warn my girls about going out into the street and about various other dangers. However, I can’t just give Felicity a safety talk and then leave her alone to ride in the front yard! At this stage in the game, I need to be walking alongside her as she rides, helping to get the feel of what she is doing and keeping her safe.
That is what Paul sent Timothy to do. Timothy was to establish and encourage the Thessalonians concerning their faith (v. 2).
The words “establish” and “encourage” are very, very important in this passage. To establish someone is to help him stand up or stay on his feet. You see, the Thessalonians were like those baby giraffes you see on the nature shows. They were still a little wobbly in their faith. They were high risk. So Paul told Timothy to hold them up.
Paul also told Timothy to encourage them. In other contexts, this word has to do with encouraging new converts to persevere in the faith. Put together, these two words encapsulate the ministry we are supposed to have to new believers. They need to be established and encouraged. They need to be firmly grounded in the faith, and they need lots and lots of encouragement. Are you establishing and encouraging new believers?
The Thessalonians needed to be established because they were new in the faith. But they also needed to be established because of the persecution that was coming (vv. 2-3).
The word “shaken” in this verse was used to describe the way that a dog shakes his tail. In this context, it describes the emotional turmoil that the Thessalonians may have been facing as a result of their trials.
Verse four describes Paul’s preemptive teaching about trials. There were a lot of things he didn’t have time to cover during his short stay in the city, but he did teach on trials! He and Silas told the Thessalonians explicitly that they would suffer tribulation. How did they know that? Because that is exactly what Jesus said! Christ said in John 16:33, “In the world, you will have tribulation.” This is not a matter of “you might,” but “you will.” And just like Jesus, Paul tried to prepare his disciples to stand by warning them about what was coming.
There are many churches today that emphasize the ways in which Christianity can make your life better. Those churches are not incorrect. Christianity is great, and when we live by God’s wisdom, life typically does go better in many, many ways.
However, the New Testament is also crystal clear that to be a Christian is to suffer. There is no escaping this reality. And if I as a pastor suggest otherwise to people, I am doing them a profound disservice.
Paul guaranteed the Thessalonians that they would suffer. In fact, in v. 3, he said that we are appointed to this (v. 3). We are appointed to what? To suffering!
We often take comfort in the fact that God chose us to be saved. But God also chose us to suffer. If you are a Christian, you are literally destined to suffer!
Let me be very clear with all of you this morning. I want you all to look at me. Based upon the authority of God’s Word, I am telling you that you will suffer as a Christian.
You say, “Why are you telling this? Seems like kind of a downer for a Sunday morning!” I’m telling you this for the same reason Paul told the Thessalonians that they would suffer. I don’t want you to be surprised. If you know what is coming, you can prepare for it mentally. But if you are blindsided by suffering, you are much more likely to be swept off your feet.
As I was praying over this lesson on Tuesday, names and faces began coming to mind. So I started to make some lists. In the past four-and-a-half years since I came to Life Point, I counted twenty-six adults who have come to faith in Christ Jesus. Now obviously, that’s a bit of a fuzzy number. For instance, some of those people made professions of faith just before they came to Life Point. But basically, we’ve been involved in evangelizing and/or discipling about twenty-six baby Christians since August, 2014. That was an encouraging number! But then I began thinking, “How many of those twenty-six or so people are still standing firm for Christ?” Here’s what I discovered as I began thinking through their stories, one-by-one.
About nine of those adults are standing very firm in their faith. They are attending church regularly and growing in knowledge, they are establishing spiritual disciplines, they have weathered some storms, and they are even beginning to train others! The children of some of these adults have since made professions of faith, as well.
About ten of those adults are still what I would consider to be a little wobbly. Maybe they are attending church, but not regularly–or at least, not as regularly as I would have hoped. They’ve made some good decisions since their professions of faith, but they’ve made some really bad decisions; so I’m a little concerned about their long-term resolve. Maybe they still need to grow a lot in terms of knowledge or basic spiritual disciplines. About ten of the twenty-six adults fall into that category.
But then, sadly, there’s a third category. These are people who have made professions of faith, but have since fallen away. They don’t attend church anymore. Perhaps we’ve lost contact with them, or they don’t seem interested in answering our phone calls or talking about spiritual things. As far as we know, they aren’t walking with God at this time. Maybe they’re saved, maybe they’re not–it’s hard to tell–but they don’t seem to be acting like believers. Unfortunately, about seven adults would fall into this category.
What do these lists illustrate? These are real people! This isn’t just theory. If I put the faces of some of these people up on the screen, you would know them. And each of them is a precious soul who will live forever somewhere. Do you see the urgency of all this?
So where do we go from here? Let me offer several applications as we wrap up.
1. Resolve to become a spiritual parent.
As excited as I was about the twenty-six who have professed faith in Christ over the past four-and-a-half years, one of my first reactions to that list was, “Why aren’t there more? Why only twenty-six?” And I have to tell you, that was and continues to be a very convicting thought for me. Why haven’t I given birth to more children in a spiritual sense over the past four-and-a-half years? Was there more that I could have done? (The answer to that question for all of us is almost certainly, “Yes.”)
I hope that this passage inspires you to lead someone to the Lord. Is there a burning in your soul right for that!?
If you are going to lead people to Christ, that probably will not happen all-of-a-sudden. There are steps you will have to take. First, you need to get burdened about the lost. Second, you need to identify specific lost people and begin praying for them. Third, you need to take tangible steps in order to build friendships with those people and earn trust with them. Finally, you need to open up your mouth and talk about Jesus. Ask them what they believe about God. Tell them what you believe, based upon the Bible. Ask if they would be willing to do a Bible study with you. Pursue them with the gospel!
There may also be specific outreach-related ministries that you can plan into your schedule and attend regularly. Maybe the Lord is leading you to start a new ministry! All of these things are good.
Take steps toward becoming a spiritual parent. (And just as an aside, parents, do not neglect your own children in this. Evangelizing them is just as important as evangelizing others.)
2. Identify young believers in need of being established and get involved in their lives!
Do you know one of the nine people on my list who are wobbly? What faces are coming to your mind right now? It could be that you are thinking of someone I didn’t even think to include on my list! But they need to be established, and God is laying them on your heart. Do not resist the Holy Spirit’s leading. Don’t put it off. Seek that person out today. Ask if you can do coffee with him or her. Invite their family over to play games. See if there is anything you can pray for them about.
You can’t very easily help that person until you get involved in his or her life. So don’t wait for an invitation, because you probably won’t get one. Rather, you initiate the conversation; and make sure they know that you love them.
3. Stand firm in the faith.
Perhaps there are some of you here today for whom the light bulb just came on a minute ago. You say, “I’m one of those twenty-six people! I think I can see where I fit into one of those groups!” I pray that this lesson would help you to see where you stand. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand where they stood. He didn’t want them to be in the dark. So he wrote them a letter telling them where they stood with him, how much he loved them, how proud he was of them, why he had sent Timothy instead of coming himself, etc. But he also wanted them to know where they stood with God and to understand the spiritual battle they were in. That’s why he told them that Satan had hindered him and reminded them that they were going to go through trials and urged them to persevere!
Maybe you are a little bit wobbly this morning. We love you here at Life Point. Personally, I love you, and I know that everyone else here would want me to tell you the same thing. We’re proud of you and how far you’ve come. And we desperately want you to stay strong! So let us know how we can help. Let me know how I can pray for you. We’re here for you. You’re doing a good job. Keep it up!