When I began to preach on 1 Thessalonians before Christmas I explained that I decided to go through 1 and 2 Thessalonians on Sunday evenings because it had connections with the book of Daniel which we studied together last year on Sunday evenings. In particular, Paul refers in 2 Thessalonians to ‘the man of lawlessness’. And his description of ‘the man of lawlessness’ — who will oppose and exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped — matches what Daniel said about a wicked king who would appear near the end of human history who will do as he pleases; and who will exalt and magnify himself above every god; and who will set himself up against the Lord. So, there’s that connection between the book of Daniel and the books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
However, the books are connected in other ways; and we see another connection in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, where Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about the trials they were undergoing and which they were destined for. Do you see that in verse 3 of chapter 3?
You know quite well that we were destined for them.
Well, back in Daniel 7, Daniel had a vision from the Lord in which he saw four beasts. And those four beasts symbolise four great kings and kingdoms. The first beast was like a lion with the wings of an eagle; and it symbolised Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire. The second beast was like a bear; and it symbolised the Medes and Persians. The third beast was like a leopard with wings; and it symbolised Alexander the Great and the Greek Empire. And the fourth beast was very terrifying and frightening and powerful; and it symbolised the Roman Empire.
And do you remember? Out of the fourth beast there came a little horn. And this little horn had eyes and it could speak; and it spoke boastful words. It symbolised another king who will be different from the others; and who will speak against the Most High God; and who will oppress and wear out the saints; and who will try to stop the saints from worshipping the Lord; and who will do what he can to undermine God’s law; and the saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time.
Do you remember that? If you do, you might remember that I explained that a time, times and half a time is an expression which refers to the last days in which we’re living. The last days of this present evil age began when the Lord Jesus died and was raised and was exalted to heaven as king over all; and these last days will continue until he comes again in glory and with power to judge the living and the dead.
And so, in Daniel 7 the Lord revealed to Daniel that during the whole of these, the last days in which we’re living, the Lord’s people will suffer because of this little horn. And so, who is this little horn? Well, at the time I explained that while some commentators think it’s a particular person in history, it’s more likely that the Lord was warning Daniel that throughout these, the last days, the church will always face opposition and persecution and troubles and trials. In other words, the little horn symbolises every anti-Christian power which sets itself up against the Lord and his people. But behind all the opposition and persecution we face, there’s the Devil, who from the beginning has hated the Lord and his people; and who is continually coming against us with his wicked schemes; and he will do all that he can either to lead believers astray or to crush us.
The Lord revealed these things to Daniel and announced to him that this is the way things will be in these, the last days. And so, believers living in these, the last days, need to stand firm and remain faithful, just as Daniel’s three friends did when they were ordered to worship an idol; and just as Daniel did when he was commanded not to pray to the Lord. They stood firm in the faith and remained faithful to the Lord, even under the threat of death.
Well, that’s what we learned from Daniel. And now what do we have in 1 Thessalonians? We have the Apostle Paul writing to believers who — like us — are living in the last days of this present evil age. And Paul explained to them that believers are destined to suffer trials. He’s saying that this is the way it will be for God’s people in these, the last days. And so, we need to stand firm and remain faithful.
Well, today’s passage can be divided into four parts. In verses 17 to 20 of chapter 2, Paul expresses his concern because he was torn away from the Thessalonians. In verses 1 to 5 of chapter 3, he expresses his concern because of the trials they faced. In verses 6 to 10 he makes clear that his concerns have been alleviated by the return of Timothy. And then verses 11 to 13 are a prayer to the Lord.
Verses 17 to 20
So, in verse 17 Paul speak about being torn away from the Thessalonians. You’ll perhaps remember the historical background which we find in Acts 17. Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica on one of their missionary journeys. As was his custom, Paul went into the Jewish synagogue; and on three Sabbath Days, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. And he made clear that Jesus is the Christ. Some of the Jews and a large number of god-fearing Gentiles believed. However, the unbelieving Jews rounded up some bad characters and formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They dragged some of the believers before the city officials and made false allegations against them. Because of this trouble, Paul and Silas had to leave Thessalonica. In fact, we’re told they left at night, presumably so that they wouldn’t be detected by their enemies.
So, Paul and Silas had to leave Thessalonica in a hurry, because of the trouble the unbelievers had caused. And so now, in verse 17 of chapter 2, he wrote to the Thessalonians about how he was torn away from them. The verb translated ‘torn away’ is literally ‘orphaned’ and refers to children being taken from their parents. That’s how Paul regarded his separation from the believers in Thessalonica: it seemed to him that he was like a child who has been torn away from his parents. It therefore conveys something of the anguish he felt by being separated from them.
He says it was for a short time, because he was hopeful that he will have the opportunity to return to Thessalonica. So, although he’s been separated from them, he wants to return there as soon as possible. And he also makes clear that though he is physically apart from them, they are very much on his mind and in his thoughts. It’s not a case of ‘out of sight and out of mind’, but it’s a case of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. And so, at the end of verse 17, he refers to his intense longing for them; and how he has made every effort to return to them.
However, look what he tells them in verse 18:
Satan stopped us.
So, he wanted to return to Thessalonica. He longed to return to them. He tried to return to them. But Satan prevented him. The verb translated ‘prevented’ really means ‘blocked’; and it’s a military term for blocking a road with obstacles to hold up your enemy. So, Satan is depicted as Paul’s enemy who has thrown obstacles in his way to prevent him from reaching Thessalonica.
Paul doesn’t say how Satan prevented him. Some commentators suggest he was prevented by an illness which Satan caused him to suffer. Others suggest that the city officials had banned him from the city; and Satan was behind it. However, we don’t really know. The main point he’s making, though, is that he wanted to go to Thessalonica, but was prevented from doing so by the Devil. And some of the commentators suggest that the reason he’s saying this is because his enemies in Thessalonica were trying to turn the believers against him. His enemies — the unbelieving Jews — were perhaps saying that Paul had abandoned them; and he didn’t care about them; and he’d forgotten all about them. We can imagine them saying:
If Paul was such a great Christian leader, why isn’t he here to help you?
And certainly that fits with what we read in the first part of chapter 2, where Paul seemed to be answering his critics who were making all kinds of false accusations against him.
And then, in verse 19, Paul makes clear that his conscience is clear and he has nothing to be ashamed of when he thinks about his ministry in Thessalonica. And he makes this clear by describing the believers as his hope and joy and crown. In other words, he’s confident that instead of being ashamed in the presence of the Lord, he’ll receive the victor’s crown as a reward for his ministry among them. Whereas the unbelieving Jews were accusing him of all kinds of wicked things, he’s confident that the Lord will be pleased with him and his ministry and will reward him for it. When he thinks of them, it fills him with glory — that is, with pride — and with joy.
Verses 1 to 5
Well, whereas in verses 17 to 20 he expressed his concern because he was torn away from the Thessalonians, in verses 1 to 5 of chapter 3, he expresses his concern because of the trials they faced. He says in verse 1 that when we could stand it no longer, we decided to send Timothy to you. So, his longing for the Thessalonians was so great, his love for them so powerful, his concern for their well-being so intense, that he couldn’t bear it any longer, but he had to do something to help them. And so, he decided to send Timothy to them.
He describes Timothy as his brother. Well, we tend to think that the word ‘brother’ simply refers to a fellow believer. However, it’s likely that’s it refers more specifically to those who worked with Paul in gospel ministry. Paul also refers to Timothy as God’s fellow-worker, which recalls what Paul wrote to the Corinthians about how one preacher sows the seed of God’s word, and another waters it, but God makes it grow. Preachers work with the Lord to make known the good news of the gospel and to plant churches. And by using these two terms — brother and God’s fellow-worker — to describe Timothy, Paul is making clear to the Thessalonians that Timothy wasn’t just an errand boy or a messenger. In case any of his critics were saying that Paul couldn’t be bothered coming himself and sent only his errand boy, Paul made clear that he sent in his place a trusted and faithful colleague.
And he sent Timothy to them in order to strengthen and to encourage them in their faith. The Thessalonians were only new believers; and Paul hadn’t had time when he was with them to instruct them for very long. And now, they were suffering for the faith, because of the unbelieving Jews in the city who stood against them and opposed them. And Paul was worried that the persecution they faced might crush their faith; and that they would stumble and fall away from Christ. And so, he sent Timothy to strengthen their faith and to encourage them to keep believing despite their trials. The word translated ‘unsettled’ in verse 3 means ‘shaken’. So, Paul was worried that their faith would be shaken by what they were suffering; and he wanted Timothy to encourage them to stand firm.
And isn’t that how we feel sometimes? After the General Assembly made clear last summer that churches should only admit to membership those who make a credible profession of faith — and that excludes people in same-sex relationships — the Assembly faced all kinds of abuse and criticism by those who disagreed with their decision. The General Assembly was criticised on TV and the radio and in newspapers and all kinds of letters were sent to Church House; and people who disagreed gave up their membership in the church. Others made clear that they would never join a church which believed what we believe. Then Queen’s University withdrew their support from Union College, where our students for the ministry are trained. And in the face of criticisms like this, it’s very easy for God’s people to be shaken and to think:
Perhaps we shouldn’t have said what we said.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have done what we did.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken the stand that we took if it means the world hates us for it.
And when the whole world thinks differently from the church, and criticises the church for what we believe, it’s very easy for the church to be shaken, and to give up what we believe and to conform to the ways of the world.
And when believers face trials and troubles in their own personal lives because of what we believe, they’re tempted to think that life would be so much easier if I didn’t believe.
I’m tired of being mocked.
I’m tired of being the odd-one out.
I’m tired of facing questions and accusations from those who don’t believe.
I just want an easier life than this.
And sometimes we’re not even aware of it, but over years of pressure, a believer’s devotion to the Lord diminishes bit by bit until it’s gone; and the believer didn’t even notice. Well, as the Lord Jesus warned in his parable of the seed and the sower, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word of God, some will fall away from the faith.
And since that’s the case, Paul sent Timothy to strengthen the believers in Thessalonica and to encourage them in the faith. And Paul reminded them as well of what we’ve already noted: that they were destined for trials like this. And he reminded them that when he was with them, he kept telling them that believers would be persecuted. Isn’t that interesting? Paul wasn’t in Thessalonica very long. He was only there a few weeks. Well, if you only had a short time to spend with a new believer, what would you teach them? What would you want them to know? Well, Paul wanted these new believers to know that they would suffer persecution. And so, he wanted them — and us — to know that suffering persecution is not strange or unusual for believers. In fact, it’s something we’re destined for, which means that part of God’s plan for his people is that we will face trials and troubles. God revealed through the prophet Daniel that this would be the case. And the believers in Thessalonica discovered for themselves that this was the case. And so, it shouldn’t seem strange to us when we suffer, because the Lord warned us that this is how it would be for his people in these, the last days. And the Lord calls on his people to stand firm in the faith as Daniel did and as Daniel’s three friends did. He calls on us to endure as Christ our Saviour endured all things before entering his glory.
And, of course, behind all the opposition and trials which the believers in Thessalonica suffered, there was the tempter. Do you see that in verse 5? The tempter is the Devil. And so, just as the Devil prevented Paul for returning to Thessalonica, so the Devil stirred up opposition to the church in Thessalonica. The Devil uses the trials we face to tempt us to give up the faith. He’s a roaring lion, who prowls around looking for someone to devour. He comes at us with his fiery darts and wicked schemes, hoping to get past the armour of God. He wants to crush our faith and sift us like wheat. And just as he stirred up trouble for Job, so he stirs up trouble for believers, in order to tempt us to renounce the Lord and to give up our faith in him. But the good news is that though he’s a roaring lion, he’ll flee from us if we resist him. Though he comes at us with his fiery darts and wicked schemes, we have the armour of God to protect us. Though he wants to crush our faith, the Lord Jesus Christ is praying for us, that we will not fall. Though the Devil is a strong man, who stands against us, the Lord Jesus is an even stronger man who has bound Satan. And so, if we stand firm in the faith, looking to the Lord to help us, the Devil will not triumph over us.
Verses 6 to 10
Well, on this occasion, Paul was encouraged by Timothy’s report. Paul tells us in verse 6 that Timothy had returned from Thessalonica with good news about their faith and their love. Well, Paul was concerned that they would believe his critics who said Paul had abandoned them. And Paul was concerned that they would be shaken by their trials. But Timothy returned with good news about their faith: they still trusted in the Lord despite the trials they suffered. And Timothy returned with good news about their love: they still loved Paul and had pleasant memories of him and longed to see him too. And this report from Timothy was an encouragement to Paul. He says in verse 8 that now we really live, since you stand firm in the Lord. In other words, while he was unsure about their faith, while he did not know if they were standing firm or not, it was as if he was dead, because of the anxiety he felt. But now that he’s been reassured, that weight of anxiety and those dark clouds of worry have been lifted and it’s as if his life has been restored to him.
And so, he wants to give thanks to the Lord for the believers in Thessalonica and for all the joy they have brought to him. And he prays to the Lord that he’ll be able to see them again and supply what was lacking in their faith. So, Paul is glad that they’re standing firm, despite all the trials they’re going through. But he’s also aware that they’re so much more for them to know about the faith. And that leads us on to the final part of today’s passage where Paul prays for his readers.
Verses 11 to 13
And in his prayer, he asks the Lord to clear the way for him and his preaching companions to come to Thessalonica again. He prays to the Lord about this, because he knows that God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ rule over all things. And so, when there are obstacles in our way, when troubles face us at every turn, when there are things which might cause us to stumble, we know that the Lord is able to clear away those obstacles from our path, if it’s his will, because he rules over all his creatures and he rules over all the circumstances of our life. There is nothing outside of his authority.
And Paul asked the Lord to make their love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else. When we face trials and troubles, when we suffer, it’s very easy for us to become self-centred and to think only of ourselves and our suffering. We lose all sympathy and interest in others. We might even become bitter and resentful towards others who don’t seem to be suffering what we have to suffer. And Paul seems to be aware of that danger. So, he asks the Lord to make their love grow. Instead of thinking only of themselves and what they’re going through, he prays that they will look outwards to one another and to how they can love and serve each other.
And he prays that their hearts will be strengthened. In other words, he prays that they will be strengthened inwardly. Being able to lift weights in the gym is good for some things, but in order to persevere in the Christian life we need inner strength which only comes from the Lord.
And he prays that they will be blameless and holy. He’s thinking now about their willingness to obey the Lord and to separate themselves from all that is evil. The Lord God has set his people apart from a sinful, unbelieving world so that we might belong to him and serve him. Instead of living our lives for ourselves, we’re to live to please him. Sometimes, when believers suffer, they think they’re excused from obeying the Lord and they no longer have to do as he says, because of what they’re going through. But Paul prays for the believers who were suffering, asking God to strengthen them inwardly, so that they will remain blameless before the Lord.
And what Paul prayed for them, we can pray for one another, so that our love increases and will overflow to one another and to everyone. We can pray for one another, that our hearts will be strengthened. We can pray for one another, that we will be blameless and holy.
But notice this in closing. On two occasions in this passage, Paul referred to the presence of the Lord Jesus. He refers to it in verse 19 of chapter 2; and he refers to it in verse 13 of chapter 3. He’s referring, of course, to the coming of the Lord, because the word translated ‘presence’ really means ‘appearing’. In ancient times, people would refer to the coming or to the appearing of a great king. You know, the emperor was coming; or the emperor’s governor was coming. And everyone had to get ready to welcome him.
And our Great King is coming, because the day is coming when the Lord Jesus will come in glory and with great power to punish his enemies once and for all and to give his faithful people everlasting life in his glorious presence. And since we know that day is coming, it’s vital that we stand firm and remain faithful, enduring all things. It’s vital that we stand firm, because our sufferings in the present evil age are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us when Christ the King comes again.
Like Paul, we may be afflicted in every way; we may be perplexed; we may be persecuted; we may be struck down; we may be carrying in our body the death of Christ; But we don’t need to lose heart, so long as we remember that our sufferings in this present evil age are far outweighed, far outweighed by the eternal glory which we will possess when Christ our Great King comes again. What is seen — what we see around us and what we currently experience — is temporary; it’s temporary. But what is unseen — the glory of the life to come — is eternal. And so, we’re to set our hearts not on what we can see, but on what we cannot see, which is waiting for us with Christ our King.