Our text is 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 and verse 17 up through chapter 3, verse 13. We’re going to take two weeks on this section, looking up through chapter 3, verse 5 this evening, and then verses 6-13 next Lord’s Day evening.
Remember that Paul, Silas, and Timothy arrived in Thessalonica around AD 49 or 50. They found a synagogue and preached the gospel there for three Sabbaths, showing from the Scriptures how Jesus was the Messiah. Only a few Jews believed, but a large number of God-fearing Greeks and several prominent women, wives of the elite, principal men of the city, were persuaded and became part of this brand new church. The number of converts from the synagogue, both Jews and God-fearers, brought a strong reaction from the Jewish community. They rounded up some bad characters, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They attacked the house of Jason, a man who was hosting the missionaries. The mob wanted to take Paul and Silas before the city assembly, but they could not find Paul and Silas. So they dragged away Jason and some other Christians, bringing them before the governing officials and shouted, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house” (Acts 17.6-7).
They also accused the Christians of defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus. In the political climate of the day, predictions and announcements about a victorious coming king would have been viewed as a daring violation of imperial decrees. In fact, Augustus in AD 11 had issued a decree forbidding all political predictions. Think of modern dictatorships where no dissent is allowed, where all opposing voices are silenced. So when Paul came into these cities and announced that Jesus was Lord, that it was only a matter of time until Jesus returned to crush all his enemies, you can see how these missionaries might have been perceived as revolutionaries. It would be a bit like someone organizing a press conference with all the major media present and announcing that it was only a matter of time before a new President, a new Commander-in-chief, would descend upon Washington, D.C. and that everyone who opposed his victorious coming would be destroyed. That would not go unnoticed by the White House. So it is not surprising that the Christians in Thessalonica, in the midst of all this civic unrest, urge Paul and his colleagues to leave the city for their own safety.
Paul’s hasty departure left the young church without leadership, and without having received all the instruction they needed to get off to a healthy life together as the followers of Christ. And of course once Paul and his colleagues left town, the hostility that was directed toward them probably was turned towards these new Christians. And Paul’s opponents waged a smear campaign against him – questioning his message and his motives, and pointing to the fact that he had left town. Obviously, they said, he didn’t really care about his converts. He left them to face the music, while he went on in safety to the next town.
It was therefore necessary for Paul to explain his reasons for not yet returning to provide further leadership for this new church. The text before us gives this explanation, and in the providence of God, what was undoubtedly a source of great frustration and disappointment – Paul’s departure and subsequent inability to get back to Thessalonica – turned out to be a great blessing to the church for the last 2000 years.
1 Thessalonians 2.17ff…
(Summarized in large measure from Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians)
SCRIPTURE READING & TEXT COMMENTS
At times Paul is providentially hindered from preaching the gospel, as in Acts 16 when the Holy Spirit forbids him from speaking the word in Asia, and the Spirit of Jesus redirects the missionary journey, opening the way for this Macedonian part of the journey. But in this case it was a Satanic opposition. Paul borrows a term from the military when he says that Satan hindered him from coming. In order to stop the advance of enemy armies, soldiers would tear up and destroy the road to hinder their passage. In this case, we don’t know exactly what form the opposition took, exactly how it was that Satan hindered Paul. It may have been sickness. It may have been the Jewish opposition in the city. Or it is possible that the bond that Jason and the others were required to post may have served as a guarantee to the officials that Paul and company would not return (Green, p.153). We don’t know for sure.
This is the earliest mention in Paul’s letters of the parousia, the coming of the Lord Jesus, which is a major theme in 1 & 2 Thessalonians. We will have more to say about that when we come to the middle of chapter four, where Paul develops this theme.
One other very interesting point that Pastor Rayburn drew my attention to is this phrase “before our Lord” (or before our God…), or as the NIV has it, “in the presence of the Lord.” You find this phrase 4X in Thessalonians, 2X in the context of prayer (1.2; 3.9), 2X in the context of the 2nd coming (2.19; 3.13). What a tremendous encouragement to prayer, to know that we are before the Lord, in the presence of the Lord, just as much in prayer as we will be at his coming.
We see here the prominence of Timothy – his role and ministry, especially in this striking choice of language – Timothy is said to be God’s coworkers, a phrase so striking that some scribes, uncomfortable with this elevation of Timothy, changed the text to read “God’s servant.” But the original phrase in all likelihood is God’s coworker.
Here we have a note that is sounded throughout the New Testament, that being a Christian inevitably brings suffering. Paul’s concern here that they might be unsettled or shaken by these trials perhaps hints that they may have been surprised by the amount of suffering that came their way. Over and over again Paul’s catechism for new believers included statements about the fact of suffering. Christians are destined for suffering, something that is sometimes forgotten in the prosperous west, but not forgotten by our brothers and sisters around the world, and it must not be forgotten by us either.
Here Satan is described as the “tempter,” — his mission is to tempt people to sin, and in this context not just any sin but the sin of apostasy, of turning away from the Lord Jesus. Paul fears that the tempter might lead this new Christians to abandon their allegiance to Christ. The enemy is always out to weaken your faith, to get you off track, to shift your focus, to lead you away from a wholehearted loyalty to Jesus.
John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Wanamaker, Charles, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians
F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians
In the ancient world it was common for one friend to write to another to say that the physical separation between them did not mean emotional or mental separation, as Paul does in verse 17, when he says, “we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart….” People still write those sorts of things in letters to their loved ones. But the text before us takes this sentiment to a whole new level. If you didn’t know the genuine, sincere earnestness of the apostle Paul, we might be tempted to read this as some kind of hyperbole, or a kind of over-the-top rhetorical flourish, authorial affection on steroids, and not as the real expression of the man’s heart.
Consider just a few of the ways that Paul expresses such a deep concern, such a tone of anguish and great depth of feeling for the Thessalonians.
The verb that he uses in verse 17 when he says, “…we were torn away from you…” is literally, “we were made orphans.” In the ancient world the term “orphan” could mean either the child who had lost his parents, or the parents who had lost their child. Sometimes the word took on a broader meaning of being bereaved, losing someone precious to you. Paul uses this strong term. These people that he had probably only known for a short time, maybe a few months at the most, were dear to him and the separation was a painful one.
His language in the remainder of verse 17 is emphatic in the extreme. He says “we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.” The word for longing is a passionate word, frequently used in the NT to mean “lust.” Paul says we had a passionate longing to see you, and we took great pains, we made every possible effort in order to see you face to face. So great was his desire to return and visit the Thessalonians that it took a power as great as the devil himself to thwart such plans.
In verses 19 and 20 Paul uses language that by many standards today (and probably in his day as well) would be considered imbalanced, unhealthy, obsessive, and perhaps even manipulative. Paul says, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord when he comes again? You are! You are our glory and our joy!” He says, “You Thessalonian believers are the thing we boast in. If there is anything that brings us honor or fame, it is you!” It’s similar to 2 Corinthians, where Paul says, “You are our letters of recommendation.” You are our credentials, our resume; you are the thing that we want to be known for! The Greek is emphatic – you yourselves are our glory and joy!
You say, now hold on a second, Paul, you’re supposed to only boast in the cross, and you only find your hope and joy in the Lord Jesus himself, not in sinful human beings. What is this talk of having your happiness all wrapped up in these brand new Christians? Isn’t that some kind of weird codependency? Isn’t it a recipe for pastoral disappointment? Apparently not! Paul didn’t say, “Well, Silas, Timothy, we preached the gospel faithfully to the Thessalonians, and if providentially we were hindered from providing them with a more complete picture of discipleship, well, that’s up to the Lord, and I’m sure he’ll take care of them. We’ve got more pressing matters in Athens, or in Corinth, we’ve just got to deal with the situation in front of us, and not fret about what might have come of the church in Thessalonica.” Paul would have none of that attitude! He was in anguish, he was worried sick that the newfound faith of the Thessalonian Christians would not come to its full flowering. He can’t forget about them. He can’t let it go. He’s got to do something about it.
He says twice in the passage, “I could bear it no longer!” Verse one – “When we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone,” and again in verse five, “When I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith.” This is the statement of a man who feels the weight of this pressing upon him. He agonizes about their spiritual well being. He carried them in his heart.
He is willing to be left behind – this is no small thing, in a world in which travel was hard and dangerous. It was risky to split up the missionary team. He was willing to lose his right hand man, Timothy. Paul was putting himself at risk, because it was more important to him that these new Christians remain steadfast in their faith.
How do we explain Paul’s intensity here? Where did it come from?
Paul’s intense concern here came from his own deep and vital union with the Lord Jesus himself. This kind of pastoral concern comes from the Lord himself. It is the same thing we read of in Philippians 1, where Paul says, “God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ” (Philippians 1.8).
Remember that Paul is an ambassador of Christ. He brings in his own person the embodiment, as it were, of Jesus’ own pastoral heart for these Christians. Paul is the representative of the Lord, not only in the content of the gospel, but also in the manner and the tone and the deep concern of the Lord for his people.
Paul tells us elsewhere, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Paul’s anguish and his compassion and his sense that he just had to do something on behalf of these new Christians, and his passionate longing to ensure that they persevered in the faith – these things were put into Paul by Jesus Christ, they are a reflection of Jesus Christ, and the measure of those things that we see in Paul’s life are – get this – only a small measure of the intensity of Jesus Christ for the salvation and perseverance of his people! Does that not astound you? The Son of God himself feels this way about your faith, your salvation?
What we see in Paul is only a shadowy reflection of the deep affection of God himself, which compelled him to send the Son in the incarnation, and which compelled the Son to withstand the abuse hurled at him by sinful men, and ultimately compelled him to be lifted up on a cross, to give his life as the payment for our sin. If you want to understand Paul’s emotionally charged language here in our text, look at the Son of God dying on a cross. The Son of God’s greatest desire, his most intense longing, was to be in the presence of his Father, and on the cross, he was willing to be torn away from his Father’s blessing and presence, for our sake. In Paul’s case, when he could bear it no longer, he sent Timothy to check on the Thessalonians. In the case of the Triune God, if we can put it this way, when God could bear it no longer, he sent his own Son not just to check on us, not just to point the way, not primarily to teach, but to be our substitute, to do the thing that we could not do for ourselves, saving us from sin by himself becoming accursed. That is the measure of God’s intense concern for your spiritual well being.
And it didn’t stop with the incarnation or with the cross. It continued in the resurrection and the ascension, it continued at Pentecost as God more fully unveiled his deep concern for all the nations to find the forgiveness of sins by being gathered to his Son Jesus. And it continues in a myriad of ways. How would it change your view of your circumstances if you knew that everything that comes to you is filtered through the hand of a God who would speak about you personally this way, the way that Paul speaks about the Thessalonians?
What if you were caught up into heaven, to the very throne of God where the Sovereign Lord is surrounded by saints and angels, and you heard a voice coming from the throne itself, and that voice was dictating a letter to one of the angelic messengers, and as you craned your neck to hear what was being said, you heard your own name mentioned?
And you listened intently to see what instructions God himself was giving about your life, and what if you heard him speak of the Scriptures, and the Lord’s Supper, and the fiery trials that come to you, and the mutual encouragement of fellow believers, and on and on – and at the mention of every one of those things, the divine voice is mentioning you and how his chief concern is the establishment and preservation of your faith, and how you are his joy, his trophies of grace, the treasured possession that he glories in?! And you can hear it in the tone of that divine voice, you can hear the parental love, the gut level compassion, the sense of almost agony at the prospect that any of his people might go astray, or might neglect the means of grace, or lose their desire to serve him. He says to the angels, “I will not let it happen! I will do whatever it takes. I will complete the good work that I have begun!” And the letter is dispatched, the angels who are ministering spirits are sent to do their business, and at once you return to the earth, and the heavenly vision is over.
Brothers and sisters, we don’t need a heavenly vision to know that these things are true. The Word of God reveals to us the heart of God for the preservation of our faith, for our discipleship, for our sanctification, our being brought to Christian maturity. Behind it all stands the zeal of the Lord himself. Paul’s words to you here expressing this pastoral concern are a revelation of the living God – expressing His pastoral concern for you. Let that truth work its way deeply into your heart. Amen.