STANDING FIRM IN THE FAITH…NO MATTER WHAT!

1 Thessalonians 3

Chapter 3 is actually part of a larger, more common sense division of 1 Thessalonians that takes in 2:13—3:13. The chapter break at the end of chapter 2 seems forced and out of place, so it’s best to ignore it. The theme of the larger division is suffering. Specifically, Paul seemed very concerned that suffering might hinder the growth and spiritual progress of the Thessalonian church.

Why was this such a concern for Paul? It probably had a lot to do with his state of mind. Paul and his friends had been forced to leave Thessalonica, cutting short their efforts to firmly establish the newly founded church there. Because of that, he had sent Timothy from Athens to make sure the young congregation was doing well. He got a good report and was overjoyed with the news. However, we discover here that Paul still had a mighty concern for their spiritual state. Interestingly, he was not at all concerned about their material needs, only their spiritual ones. His priorities are important to note.

1. Strength in adversity, 3:1—5

The “we” in verse one refers to Paul, who was stuck by himself in Athens, since young Timothy had been sent by Paul to Thessalonica, and Silas, was probably still preaching in Berea. By the time this letter was written, all three preachers had met in Corinth.

As much as Paul loved the folks in Thessalonica, he hated to send Timothy back there. Literally, he felt “abandoned” in Athens. Yet even though he felt this way, Paul continued to do the work God had called him to. He would face down the arrogant philosophers of Athens in Acts 17. Even faithful, dedicated ministers and missionaries at times may feel overwhelmed or abandoned. But the work of the Lord always continues.

Paul wanted the company in Athens, but he knew it was more important for the Thessalonians to send Timothy. His purpose was clear:

to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them… (verses 2b, 3)

Timothy’s mission was three-pronged. He was to “strengthen” them. The root meaning of the Greek word used here is “to support” or “to buttress.” The second part of his job was to “encourage” them. The Greek word used here is very interesting; it’s parakalesai, which looks a like the word used of the Holy Spirit, parakletos. It means “one who comes alongside to comfort.” And the third part of his mission was to keep them from being “unsettled.”

Timothy, though not their pastor, was performing very pastoral duties. To encourage and to exhort a congregation to keep the faith and to remain ever faithful to Christ in spite of circumstances is an integral part of what the pastor does in his church. To suffer persecution in one form or another is part of being a Christian. Paul knew this, and he knew his friends in Thessalonica would experience their share of it.

For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless. (verse 5)

Here is a verse that really gets under the skin of the “once in faith, always in faith” crowd. Their take on this verse is that Paul sent Timothy to the Thessalonians to see whether or not these people had genuinely converted to Christ or just made a spur of the moment emotional decision. However, it seems clear from 1:4—10 that Paul believed that their salvation was genuine.

There is only way to understand this verse: Paul was desperate to know if the flames of faith in Thessalonica were still burning or if they had been extinguished, a result of their persecutions.

The “tempter” is just another name for Satan. The believers in Thessalonica were not only being persecuted, but tempted at the same time. The temptation was probably to abandon the faith, thus ending the persecution. It’s easy for Christians to feel this way. Sometimes we feel abandoned by God—Paul felt abandoned in Athens!—and those kind of feelings can trick us into thinking our faith in God doesn’t work. Had the Thessalonians decided to throw in the towel, Paul would have considered his work there a waste of time.

2. Comfort in affliction, 3:6—10

Paul’s worries, however, proved to be groundless. Timothy came back with the best news possible:

He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. (verse 6b)

you are standing firm in the Lord. (verse 8b)

Young Timothy had two bits of news that excited Paul. First, they still thought the world of Paul and his friends. In spite of the suffering and persecution they may have been experiencing, they still loved Paul; they didn’t harbor any ill feelings toward him.

Second, the congregation continued to “stand firm.” Though the NIV makes it sound like the congregation is definitely standing firm, the sentence is really conditional and the RSV is probably a little more accurate: “if you stand firm.” The Greek word means to be steadfast and resolute. It’s a common New Testament word used to describe how Christians should behave in the face of any kind of negativity. Always persevere! Never give up! Never surrender to your circumstances!

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. (verse 9, 10)

The question proceeding from verse 10 is naturally, What are the Thessalonians lacking? After Timothy’s good news and Paul’s glowing opinion of them, what could they possibly be lacking?

Unfortunately, we don’t know. What we do know is that in none of Paul’s letters does he ever suggest a Christian or a congregation will ever reach a state of perfection. There is never a time when a believer or his church reaches full maturity in the Lord. When it comes to Christian growth, Paul can never be satisfied. In fact, the “night and day” refers not only to Paul’s desire to see the Thessalonians again, but also to how often he prays that God would supply their lack; that God would always enable them to grow. It’s an intense prayer. “Day and night” and “earnestly” suggest the most intense prayer possible. As is very common in Paul’s writing, he got deeply personal here and burst into a verse or two of intercessory prayer.

Part of this prayer was finally answered years later when Paul returned to the region in Acts 20.

So, Paul, feeling alone and abandoned in Athens, remained faithful in his mission to preach and teach the Gospel, was rewarded with some great news. All his fears and worries surrounding the Thessalonians proved to be false. The Thessalonians, in the face of persecution, also remained faithful. Paul sent Timothy to encourage the Thessalonians, but Paul himself received encouragement from the example of the Thessalonians. It’s amazing what happens when believers live like they’re supposed to!

3. Grow in love and holiness, 3:11—13

Here is Paul’s prayer, which is made up of three simple requests:

  • He wanted God to make it possible for him to return to Thessalonica;

  • He wanted God to cause their love to grow and grow;

  • He wanted God to strengthen their hearts.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Clear the way.

That phrase means a couple of things: “to make straight” or “to direct.” Paul probably was praying for God to clear away any obstacles so as to make his visit possible. Something was keeping him from visiting Thessalonica. It was some kind of spiritual hindrance, since in 2:18 he writes that “Satan stopped us.” A spiritual problem can only be solved spiritually. We know, thanks to the timeline in Acts, it would be several years—after his work in Ephesus—before Paul would make it back to his friends in Thessalonica.

Overflowing love.

The main thing Paul wished for the Thessalonians was holiness. He wanted them to be “blameless,” as way of expressing righteous living. But there is a distinct connection between holiness and love. Love is the impetus behind holiness—love for God and love for other believers. We are set free from sin by the love of God in Christ. A heart full of God’s love will think twice about yielding to temptation. Love, we are told elsewhere, if the fulfilling of the law. Since love is of God, there are no limits to its increase.

Strengthened hearts.

The heart, we are told, is the seat of the intellect and the will. To have your heart strengthened is to be firm, resolute and committed. A weak heart is a wavering heart. In this request, Paul wanted God to enable his friends to be strong; to remain completely committed to the cause of Christ.

This is also a condition of holiness. God’s saints, God’s “holy ones,” are those who are dedicated and sold out to Him in every way. Paul wants them to to be strengthened in the dedication to God, manifested in a holy life.

(c)  2012 WitzEnd

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