The text before us this evening is 1 Thessalonians chapter three, verses 6-10. I was originally planning for us to finish the chapter tonight, but there are several ideas here I wanted us to look at more closely, so we’ll take verses 6-10 this evening, and verses 11-13 next week.
Paul had sent Timothy on a long and difficult journey from Athens back to Thessalonica, a distance of about 200 miles, probably a ten or eleven day journey, to see how the believers there were doing. If Timothy stayed there a week to minister to the Thessalonians, and then headed back toward Athens, and beyond Athens to Corinth where he met up with Paul, the whole trip probably took about a month. To Paul, it seemed like an eternity.
And now Timothy had come back with the news that they were standing firm in their faith, they had not been moved by afflictions, nor by the devil’s temptations. Upon hearing such a great report, Paul wrote these words.
1 Thessalonians 3.6-10…
SCRIPTURE READING & TEXT COMMENTS
Paul says in verse seven that Timothy’s report brought him such joy and encouragement that even in the midst of his own sufferings, it had lifted his spirits. Paul had been attacked, beaten, and jailed in Philippi, persecuted and chased out of town in Thessalonica and Berea, rejected and mocked in Athens – as he would later summarize in 2 Corinthians, he faced affliction, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger, on frequent journeys facing danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from his own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, on and on and on. And, he says in 2 Corinthians 11, apart from all this, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. So in the midst of all this, it was tremendously rewarding for him to hear Timothy’s report, to know that his labor had not been in vain.
Paul expression of thanksgiving is reminiscent of Psalm 116.12 – “How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?” He is overflowing with joy. He even uses a redundant expression for the sake of emphasis, one that the NIV and ESV do not bring out: “…all the joy with which we rejoice….” He is bursting with joy, and recognizes that God deserves all the glory for this good report.
Note also that at this point in Paul’s letter, we might expect him to say, “OK, now that Timothy’s report has come and it is a good report about your faith and love, we can breathe a sigh of relief and not worry anymore about you. We can move on and focus on other churches where it is still an open question as to the strength and stability of people’s faith.” But he doesn’t say that. The thanksgiving and overflowing joy in verse nine is tightly connected to verse ten, where Paul says, “…we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.” In the midst of Paul’s ecstatic thanksgiving, he never for a minute abandons his intense pastoral concern for them.
One last textual comment concerning Paul’s statement at the end of verse ten that he wants to supply what is lacking in their faith. Because Paul’s initial visit to this city had been cut short, he hadn’t been able to teach them everything they needed to know. And he seems to say in at least a couple of places in chapters four and five that they hadn’t fully taken to heart the things he had taught them. Paul was a realist. Even though he was ecstatic at how these Christians had remained faithful, he knew that more labor was necessary if they were to grow up into full maturity as followers of Christ. There were deficiencies or gaps in their understanding and their practice of the faith. And it’s very likely that the material in chapters four and five is suited to address these deficiencies.
F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians
John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Charles Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Our gracious heavenly Father, we praise you for your Word, and for the Holy Spirit who illumines our understanding. We pray that by the preaching of your Word, you would work deep within us. Take our thoughts and affections and our wills, and redirect them to your purposes, that we might love you more, believe you more, become more dead to sin and more alive to you, more inclined to love one another, more eager to share the good news with others. For these things we look to you, Father, knowing that if even sinful human fathers give good gifts to their children, how much more you are willing to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. We pray these things in Jesus name, Amen.
I am increasingly aware of my age as the years go by. Twice in the last week this came home to me. First, in a conversation with my five-year-old, Rebecca, in which she said, “Daddy, are you 37 or 38?” I said, “I’m 38.” She said, “What comes after that?” I said, “39.” She said, “Is that closer to 40 or 50?”
Then at Tully’s the other morning, the person in front of me gave the clerk one of those half-dollars with President Kennedy’s image on the coin. As I got up to the front, I noticed that the clerk, who was very young, maybe 18 or 19, was looking at that coin, kind of puzzled. I was trying to make conversation and said, “Oh, is that one of those half-dollars?” She said, “Yeah, there’s some dude on the front of it.” I said, “Um, that’s JFK, President Kennedy.” That didn’t appear to register with her. I joked, “Well, he died before you were born.” Then, it dawned on me that JFK had died five years before I was born, and I laughed and said, “He died before I was born, too.” She said, “Wow, that’s really a long time ago!”
Life is short; we want to invest ourselves wisely in the years that we have, we want to be focused on the main things, we want to live life with a deep sense of purpose, not just to make it through the day, but to really live!
Here in verse eight we find one of Paul’s clearest statements about what drives him, the thing that makes his life a worthwhile investment. He says in verse eight, “For now we live…” He is saying, “This is what makes us come alive, this is what it’s really all about.” And what is he referring to? That they are standing fast in the Lord. Paul says, “This is our lifeblood, the thing we live for – that you are standing fast in the Lord.”
This concept of “standing fast” or “standing firm” is a concept you find several times in Paul’s letters. You see it, for example, in 1 Corinthians 16.13, where he says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith…” or 2 Corinthians 1.24, “we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” In Galatians 5.1 the context is freedom in Christ: “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In Philippians 1.27 it has to do with standing firm in one spirit within the community of faith, striving side by side in gospel partnership. In 2 Thessalonians 2.15 Paul has in mind a doctrinal steadfastness: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught…”
How is Paul using this phrase here in verse eight? And what is verse eight doing in this passage – what is its contribution to the overall point that Paul is making? The reason I ask that is because I don’t think he needed verse eight to make the larger point. The flow of thought could go right from verse seven to verse nine without any damage to the main thrust of the paragraph. But verse eight is here for a reason. I think there are at least a couple of things that Paul is doing here.
First, it provides a kind of summary statement of the whole point he is making in this larger section. Verse eight condenses all of the material from 2.17-3.13 into a single, memorable sentence. Perhaps that is a reflection of Paul as a preacher, but more to the point we should see here Paul’s pastoral wisdom – he knows that in the midst of hostility, or temptation, or accusations from the devil, it is helpful for God’s people to have a short, succinct statement of the truth to get our bearings.
It is critical in a moment of temptation, or a moment of doubt, or anxiety – that we be able to quickly remind ourselves of God’s promises, or his warnings, or of the great love he has for us, or our obligation to remain loyal to him. We ought to have specific biblical texts in our hearts when the moment arises, to give us a gracious word in season for another soul, or to keep us from committing a particular sin, or to alleviate our sinful worry, or defuse our anger that is about to come out in an unkind word, or whatever the situation might be. We have this great arsenal of weapons at our disposal, but those weapons will not be of any value to us if they are not stored up in our hearts for quick retrieval.
So let me ask you: you know what things you tend to struggle with over and over – have you developed a plan for how you are going to think and act the next time the situation arises? Do you have God’s promises, and God’s warnings, and statements of his love, at your fingertips to aid you as you walk through that situation? There is nothing quite so wonderful as to be seeing a situation unfold before you, and knowing your typical reaction, and then calling to mind a passage of God’s Word that softens your heart, or gives you resolve to say no to that sin, or reminds you to speak in a manner that is gracious and edifying.
Maybe it is Philippians 2.14 – “do all things without grumbling or complaining,” or Philippians 2.3 – “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Or Romans 6.2 – “how can we who died to sin still live in it” or Psalm 43.5 – “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Or Matthew 6.25ff – “Do not be anxious about your life, about food or clothing, because if the Lord cares for the birds of the air, how much more will he care for you?”
This phrase here in verse eight, “standing fast in the Lord” is one of those phrases to call to mind. Just a short phrase, but what a powerful impact it could have in a thousand situations, if we would think, “How can I speak and think and act in this situation in a way that is steadfast, standing firm in my loyalty to the Lord?”
This aspect of personal loyalty to Jesus brings us to the second thing that I think Paul is doing here with verse eight. When he says, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord,” he is reminding us of our personal solidarity with the Lord Jesus Himself. Those last three words – “in the Lord” — are carefully chosen. He could have said, “standing firm in the faith” and we might have expected him to say that, because the word “faith” has been a keyword throughout chapter three. He has used that word a number of times.
Verse 2 – we sent Timothy…to establish and exhort you in your faith
Verse 5 – when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith
Verse 6 – Timothy has brought us the good news of your faith
Verse 7 – we have been comforted about you through your faith
Verse 10 – we want to see you face-to-face and supply what is lacking in your faith
But here he wants to emphasize the personal connection between these Thessalonians and the Lord Jesus himself. They have not seen Jesus, they have only seen him with the eyes of faith, but there is a deep and vital union with him. They are standing fast “in the Lord.” It is a matter of personal loyalty and love to Jesus.
If you want a great summary of how to think about the Christian’s communion with God, you would be hard pressed to find something better than a personal letter that John Newton wrote. It’s in volume one of the Works of Newton published by Banner of Truth, and you can also find it in the little paperback “Letters of John Newton” also by Banner of Truth. I want to read you a few paragraphs. I don’t normally like to read lengthy quotes in the pulpit, but I found Newton’s words to be such a blessing that I am making an exception.
Newton mentions three main components of our communion with Christ – it is a communion in love, in counsels, and in interests.
Under the heading of “love” he says this:
Under “counsels” he says this:
Under “interests” he says this:
We cannot think long on this topic of communion with Christ without being reminded of the grace of God that first drew us into union with Christ. Communion presupposes union. By nature we are in solidarity with Adam, we are enemies of God, but God the Son loved us and gave himself for us, willingly put himself under the wrath and curse of God so we might have fellowship with Him.
If you sense that your own communion with Christ is sporadic or cold or distant, let me urge you to see your union with Christ as the starting point. Go back to basics. Before you can stand fast and persevere in the Christian life, you have to be solidly rooted in the gospel. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.1-4:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
This is where spiritual vitality begins. We receive great spiritual power – power to stand fast in loyalty to Jesus – by seeing that he first demonstrated the ultimate loyalty, by laying down his life for us. We see how he stood firm not only in facing the kinds of opposition and hostilities that the Thessalonians faced—being rejected by men, tempted by the devil, mocked, falsely accused, and reviled – but in the case of the Son of God he faced something more. He alone faced a power even greater than all human power, greater than the power of the devil. He faced the wrath and curse of God upon sin. And he still stood fast. He did not shrink back. He was faithful to the very end, as the wrath of God was poured out on him.
Tell me, ye who hear him groaning, was there ever grief like his?
Friends through fear his cause disowning, foes insulting his distress;
Many hands were raised to wound him, none would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that Justice gave.
In accomplishing the plan of redemption, Jesus would not be deterred by anything. He did this in order to bring you into real fellowship with the triune God.
John Calvin put it this way:
Christ has been so imparted to you with all his benefits that all his things are made yours, that you are a made a member of him, indeed one with him, his righteousness overwhelms your sins; his salvation wipes out your condemnation; with his worthiness he intercedes that your unworthiness may not come before God’s sight. …We ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us. …That condemnation which we of ourselves deserve has been swallowed up by the salvation that is in Christ. (Institutes, 3.2.24)
Let such a great love draw a great love from you in return. Go to him and have personal dealings with him. As Newton put it, “adore him, admire him, make an unreserved surrender of your heart to him, derive your wisdom, strength, and comfort from him, and cast all your cares upon him.” Brothers and sisters, stand fast in the Lord. Amen.