1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13
December 14, 2014
Lord’s Day Worship
Watch the video of the service.
The sermon starts at 16:28 in the audio file.
Or, When Hope and Glory and Joy Are Tied Together
I think that when we say, “Tie your shoelaces,” we usually mean that both shoes need tying, but I think we also say it when the shoe on either foot needs attention. I’ve never said, “I need to tie my lace” in reference to only one shoe. It sounds right to speak with a plural because there are two ends to tie together but, of course, there really is only one lace. We typically think more about the two tips than the outright oneness, unless we wear slip-ons or unless one end breaks and we need to replace the whole thing.
I bring it up not because of autistic preferences for abstract concepts or because I’m in a stage of life with little kids who need a lot of help tying their shoes. I bring it up because I think it works well to illustrate Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians, as well as for relationships today between shepherds and sheep, disciplers and disciples, parents and kids.
Ministry may appear to take two separate entities and bring them together, a work that may or may not be successful. But in the church we are not only within reach of one another, we are part of the same lace. What benefits me benefits you necessarily. Your strength and joy is my joy inherently. As I said, this is true for Paul and the church in Thessalonica, and among us as well.
In 1 Thessalonians chapter one the missionary team of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy greeted the Christians in Thessalonica and expressed their thanks to God for His electing, saving, transforming grace that worked so obviously among them that Paul was hearing stories about them; the word was out about their faith, love, and hope.
In chapter two the missionary team reminded the believers about their motivation for coming, serving, and preaching. Ministry wasn’t easy, they weren’t greedy, but they acted like a gentle-mother and exhorting father, enduring difficulty in order to urge the believers to walk in a manner worthy of God. The Thessalonians received the message as the Word of God and that motivated their own endurance amidst affliction.
In chapter three the focus turns from what Paul was like when he was with them to what it was like for Paul now that he wasn’t with them. We’ll see that knowledge of their afflictions caused Paul to write the letter. Actually, we’ll see that knowledge of their afflictions caused Paul to send Timothy to find out how they were doing and Timothy’s report caused Paul to write.
What he said was that “we live if you are standing fast in the Lord” (3:8). He said, “You are our glory and joy” (2:20). He said, “What thanksgiving can we return to God for you for all the joy that we feel for your sake” (3:9). It’s not because their fortitude assured him that money would keep coming in. It’s because the two ends really were one. The health of one was the joy of both.
Last Lord’s Day we ended at 2:16 because in 2:17 Paul switches subjects to this concern and check-up which continues through his prayer for them in 3:13. Perhaps those who divided chapters made the break at 2:20 to keep each chapter ending with an explicit reference to Christ’s coming (1:10; 2:20; 3:13)(Hiebert). Regardless, 2:17-20 belong by content with chapter three and we’ll see four ways that Paul was tied to them.
The missionaries worked with a goal in mind, namely, to please the Lord. Paul also realized that his commendation from the Lord related to those he presented to the Lord.
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:17–20)
We know about the abrupt departure of Paul from the account in Acts 17:1-10. Here Paul includes it as a part of the reason for his letter. The missionaries had been torn away or “orphaned” (NIV), even “bereaved” (per Calvin), from the church for a short time. The persecution was bad, but so was the feeling of loss. This may be some of the reason why Paul said everything he did about their motivations in 2:1-16. He didn’t want to leave them, and in some way, it wasn’t a clean break, in person not in heart. They were still affectionately desirous of these new believers (2:8).
Apparently the missionaries not only had great desire, “strong lust” (epithumia), but even planned and “made every effort” (NIV) to get back again and again, over and over, but Satan hindered us. He doesn’t say how Satan stopped them, but delay was part of the enemy’s plan to keep Paul away and tempt the Thessalonians (3:5) by keeping them ignorant and weak and isolated. Satan could keep him from getting to the Christians but not from loving them.
Not only did Paul serve as a steward who answered to God, he realized that he was tied to his charge. If they endured, he would be commended. When he presented the Thessalonians to Christ (think Colossians 1:28), his hope and joy and crown of boasting before Jesus at his coming was them. People were the test of his faithfulness, not his consistent quiet times. It is possible to wrap our hopes up in people wrongly. For that matter, men can gather a crowd and without being connected with them. Heaping up a pile of laces doesn’t mean that they work together. But Paul believed that his glory and joy, his excitement before and pleasure from the Lord, was bound together with these Christians.
By the way, coming is the Greek word parousia and the Latin translation is adventus. This is the first time Paul used the word in his letters and Christ’s coming is a primary thread in both Thessalonian letters (six times). Our advent season is not liturgical claptrap, it extends our celebration of the Christ’s first coming even as it raises our hopes for His second coming.
Paul couldn’t stop thinking about them and if they were doing alright.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5)
Calling them on the phone or checking their blog wasn’t an option for Paul. Though on one hand their testimony of turning to God from idols had gone out into all of Macedonia, he was concerned for the ongoing health and perseverance of the church. In Jesus’ parable about the soils, the seed that fell on the stony ground didn’t make it.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:20–21)
Were the roots of faith deep enough in Thessalonica to survive the affliction? He had to know.
He could bear it no longer and, at cost to his own immediate joy, he sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ. It hurt to wonder, it hurt to be alone, but the it was worth it to establish (sterizo) and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. Timothy could come because he wasn’t known as a trouble-maker.
Their afflictions were real. They also weren’t a surprise. You yourselves know that we are destined for this. God established the antithesis between sides (Genesis 3:15) and until Christ returns we’ll be in that battle. God appointed this, He put it in place. Part of the missionaries’ syllabus for Discipleship 101 was, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction. As one commentator summarized, “Paul is not thinking of a period of persecution which will pass and the church return to normality; normality is persecution” (Best, quoted by Gene Green). He had given them instructions about these pressures (see Acts 14:22), they heard and saw it in Paul, and they themselves experienced it. It was par for the faith, not a proof of lack of faith as so many prosperity preachers pronounce nowadays.
Paul says again that he could bear it no longer, he was invested in their endurance, concerned that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. He wasn’t wondering about his work efficiency but about his connection to his investment.
Here is the reason for the letter. Timothy has returned from what could easily have been a month or more long trip. But he came with good news.
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thessalonians 3:6–10)
It was good news. Timothy has come to us from you and has brought us the evangelisamenou, usually translated “gospel” or “good news” in the New Testament referring to the news about Jesus Christ. Paul uses it here rather than the more general word for “report” as he did in 1:9. The faith and love and the affectionate attitude from the Thessalonians was strong and this was like gospel to Paul.
For this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. They were tied together. If their ship of faith went under, it would have dragged Paul down.
The expressions of connection continue. For now we live if you are standing fast in the Lord. A kind of energy returned to Paul because of their endurance. “The good news about this church was like a resurrection” (Green). More than his comfort, his vitality was tied to them.
Then he asks a rhetorical question: For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God? Either Paul is laying it on thick or he’s actually really excited that they are making it. He can’t thank (eucharistian) God enough, he can’t express gratitude sufficient for his joy in them. It’s the third time in three chapters that he’s given God thanks for them. They are tied together.
He prays that he can see them again and that he can still supply what is lacking in your faith. “Those who far surpass others are still far distant from the goal” (Calvin). New trials and temptations and situations come up; conversion is only the first step of many. Paul desires fellowship with them and he desires–like a father–to continue helping them reach the goal.
Having mentioned his earnest and constant prayers, he tells them what he’s praying. It isn’t a prayer proper because it is addressed to them, like a benediction, a “word of wellness” over them.
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:11–13)
Again, he wants to come to them. He cannot rightly be charged with neglect or dereliction. He hasn’t abdicated his apostolic or spiritual parenting responsibilities. He’s wanted, planned, tried to come, and he keeps praying for it. He eventually would get a positive answer to his request four to five years later.
He wants one thing for them that results in one thing: abounding love unto blameless holiness.
May the Lord make you increase or grow enlarge, and abound or overflow in love for one another and for all. Why shouldn’t they? They were tied together. Paul modeled it: as we do for you. The last chapter has been about communicating that overflow of affection.
Love leads to lifestyle, one that is pleasing to the Lord. Selfishness leads to disobedience. Love leads to others. so that he may establish your hearts blameless, without criticism, in holiness before our God and Father, the one who knows holiness when He sees it, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. When Christ returns–our hope, what it is that we’re waiting for–we ought to be ready. Paul prays for it, and he gives instructions for it in the next two chapters. God produces it, and we are responsible for it.
In this chapter Paul could see God’s work. He gives thanks to God for the news of their standing fast. Who enabled them to endure? God. It was God’s work. Paul could also talk about doing God’s work. Note the description of Timothy as “God’s coworker.” Just because God could choose to use a different instrument, or no instrument at all, doesn’t mean that He’s not choosing to use us. And this lead Paul to be burdened about God’s work. Mr. Pre-Calvinist himself, Mr. You’re-not-the-Potter, and Mr. He-will-finish-what-He-started, could bear it no longer. He had to do something. He was dying, and he lived when he heard the gospel of their endurance.
Ministry is not mechanical. That’s why the integrity of the missionaries was good for the Thessalonians. That’s why the faith of the Thessalonians was a comfort to the missionaries. They were tied together. They were to keep being tied together in love.
The Christian life is not every man for himself. We will not have hope or joy or a crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His second coming apart from how we bring along others to celebrate His first coming.
Elders, L2L leaders, parents, and then members, L2L attenders, and kids, we are all in this together. We are one lace. You cannot go off the reservation and have that affect only yourself. You cannot isolate yourself and have that be a joy to us, even if you think it’s a joy to you. Jesus prays that we would be one, and in Him we are one. He is coming again. Will He find us loving each other toward holiness? We ought to pray for it and work toward it.
The lights wrapped around the tree and the presents placed under it should remind us that we will see another advent of the Lord. What should we be doing in the meantime? The priority is abounding love unto blameless holiness. Love is holiness. Caring for others means not taking their stuff. Holiness doesn’t happen outside of relationship. So may He be causing us to grow and overflow in love within the church and extending out. We are one lace.
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:11–13, ESV)