I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13
Have you ever asked someone, “How did you enjoy your vacation? or “How did the doctor appointment go?” or “How was your job interview?” or “Are you enjoying school?” These are questions that are common. We care about people and often inquire about the things that interest them or that are happening to them. How often have you asked another person the question, “how are you doing spiritually?”
I remember a man in our church when I was growing up. We will call him deacon Peter. He was a deacon and he often asked this question of the young people in the church. It felt awkward when he did this because he seldom asked other questions, but I understood even then that he was concerned about us spiritually.
When I was in my first church, my predecessor in that church became my advisor. He often asked me such questions. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, but other times it was important and helpful. I know that his concern was that I grow in faith and that I do well in ministry.
I have a friend with whom I have been in a relationship which allowed us to ask each other this question. It was a good relationship because we were friends and we were trying to help each other grow in faith.
Beyond these incidents, I don’t know how often this question has been asked of me. It is something we do reluctantly, but if we really cared for one another, would it not make sense to have these kind of conversations with each other? If we care about one another’s happiness, job, health should we not also care about one another’s spiritual life?
As we go on in our study of Thessalonians, we read a story about Paul’s concern for the spiritual life of the Thessalonians. This is a narrative of Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians after he left them. In this passage we see his heart for them. The words of I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13 are filled with words of deep concern and strong spiritual care. As we examine his concern, we will be challenged to consider how much we care about the spiritual needs of others. I trust we will be encouraged to be bold enough to ask. Let us read I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13.
I. Reason for Concern
In this passage, we see the passion in Paul’s heart when he says, “…when we were torn away from you for a short time, out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” The phrase is just loaded with words that demonstrate spiritual care. Just to show you how strong his desire is, consider the word “intense longing.” The Greek word is epithemia which appears 38 times in the NT. In the KJV it is translated “lust” at least 32 times and is thus most often a negative term referring to a wrong, but powerful desire. In fact, this is the only time it is used in a positive sense. The strength of the word tells us just how deeply Paul was concerned about them. Why did he have such a strong longing?
As we have previously noted, Paul came to Thessalonica from Philippi where he had been persecuted. In spite of that, he continued to proclaim the gospel to the people of Thessalonica and there was a good response to his preaching. People embraced the gospel and rejoiced to know Christ. Then there was opposition again and Paul and Silas were accused of being trouble makers. Suddenly, after having just reached these new believers and having just established the church they were forced to leave. For Paul, it felt like being torn away from them. They were separated and then prevented from returning and it seemed to them that Satan was preventing them from finishing their responsibility, as it says in verse 18.
Do you remember when your child reached the age of 5 and could go to school? It was hard to let them go, especially the first one and the last one. Do you remember when they graduated from high school and it was time for them to go out on their own? It was hard to let them go. The fears we have at times like that are fears of wondering, “Are they ready?” “will they be safe?” What kinds of dangers will they face that I will not be able to protect them from?” These are the same kind of fears Paul had for the new believers at Thessalonica.
Since he perceived that it was Satan preventing them from going back to Thessalonica, he was fully aware that Satan could also be influencing them to give up the faith. In fact, he expresses this fear in 3:5 when he says, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” Can’t you just hear the parent heart of Paul. He knew the dangers presented by the evil one and the trials that could come upon them. Satan is known as the one who puts obstacles in the way, hindering God’s work. He knew that they were not strong enough yet. “Were they ready?” “would they be safe?” “What kind of dangers would they face that he could not protect them from?” The same questions were in his mind as those in the mind of a parent. In 2:7, 11 he had used the imagery of parenting. He had seen himself and his co-workers as being like a mother caring for her children and as a father nurturing his own. Now, it felt like he was orphaned from them. The tearing apart from them felt just like that kind of a separation.
We see something more of the heart of Paul in 2:19 when he says, “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?” What does this mean? It means that there was nothing more important to Paul than the spiritual life and health of people. Their joy was that these people had come to faith. Their crown was that they would see them in eternity. Paul is not being selfish in this. He so bound in love for the Thessalonian believers that their well-being was his joy. Paul cared deeply about his converts. When they were led astray, he was indignant. When they slipped back, he was distressed. When they showed evidence of a faith life, he was overjoyed.
There is correspondence included in Martyr’s Mirror between a husband and wife. The wife, whose name is Adriaenken, has been arrested and her husband is still free. She is obviously facing martyrdom. We see the same kind of spiritual concern for each other in the correspondence they have. She writes: “Herewith I will commend you my dearest husband and beloved brother in the Lord, to the Almighty God, and to the rich Word of His grace which is able to build you up, to keep from evil and to bring you to the eternal inheritance; there I hope to see you with eternal joy…” He writes, “Farewell, and pray the Lord for me, that He may keep me in this evil time that I may always walk in the way of the Lord. I also pray for you, that the Lord will grant you strength, that you may be an acceptable offering unto Him, and that through your bonds and through the voluntary surrender of your body into the tyrants’ hands, many may come to the truth.”
Do we have the concern and take the time to express concern for the spiritual life and health of other believers? Are we concerned when they go astray? Are we joyful when they grow in faith?
II. Paul’s Desire For Them
As we continue to read, we notice that Paul’s spiritual concern for them was not general. He had some very specific spiritual hopes for them.
The Mennonite Brethren church has developed material to help plan for Christian education programs. Their national Christian education office has developed what they call the “description of a discipled person.” When they plan Sunday School, youth, and even adult programs, they use this description of a discipled person to evaluate what aspect of the program needs to be strengthened to develop disciples that are well trained. The description of the discipled person includes six things. A discipled person will have accepted Christ as Saviour; they will have a regular devotional life which includes Bible reading, prayer and worship; they will have a certain level of Bible knowledge; they will be significantly involved in a Christian community including whole church and small group involvement; they will be involved in outreach to the people around them and they will have a servant heart and be willing to serve God with their gifts and abilities.
In a similar way, Paul has some things in mind that he considers essentials in the life of these new believers. He is concerned about these things which are basic to their stability and growth as believers.
Several times in the passage, he indicates his concern that they be firm in their faith. In 3:5 he talks about sending to find out about their faith, expressing the fear of what the tempter might have done. In 3:6, he rejoices when Timothy brings good news about their faith. In 3:8, he says, “now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” And then in 3:10, he desires to have further influence in their lives so that he can “supply what is lacking in your faith.” His concern is that they be firmly grounded in the truths of the gospel and hold fast to them not being moved or influenced by all kinds of false teachings.
This was his concern not only for the Thessalonians, but also for all the churches. We read similar concern in I Corinthians 16:13, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith…” In Galatians 5:1, he encourages, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then…” and likewise in Philippians 1:27, “…conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then…I will know that you stand firm…”
The concern of steadfastness is a concern for a solid theology. He cares that they are strong on truth. Sometimes we may feel that theology is for theologians and we find it uninteresting, but knowing God’s truth is basic to our life in Christ. Often people wander away from God because they have a poor understanding of who God is and how He works with us. We must have a good grasp of His Word. Do we care that people we know are strong in the faith? Are we able to express concern if they deviate from the truth? How much do we care?
The second area in which he hopes that they are strong is in their love for each other. He mentions this several times as well. In 3:6, he rejoices at Timothy’s report that their love continues. It is expressed in the “pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us…” He also prays for them in 3:12, “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.”
The importance of love permeates the Scripture. How can it not? When we understand the love we have received from God through Christ, how can we not choose to love one another. Francis Schaeffer called love, “The mark of the Christian.”
This means that we care about one another, it means that we be willing to bear with one another and that we be willing to forgive each other. Unwillingness to forgive concerns me deeply. When we read the parable of the unforgiving servant - who was forgiven a huge debt, but refused to forgive a small one and when we understand how greatly God has forgiven us, I find it hard to understand how year after year people hold grudges and nurse bitterness.
Love is an essential in the life of a follower of Jesus. Are we challenging and encouraging each other to love?
The third thing which Paul is concerned about is holiness. In 3:13, Paul prays, “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.” When Christ comes into a person’s life, that person begins to walk in a different way.
The passage reminds us of the return of Christ. It reminds us that when Christ returns, he will return with his holy ones and will come to gather his holy church. There is a lot of temptation today to walk in the way of the world. Some have emphasized freedom and God’s love to the extent of considering holiness irrelevant. However, in Scripture we still see that God calls his children to holy living. The third mark of a follower of Jesus is a life that looks like the life of Jesus. Are we encouraging each other to walk in holiness?
III. Paul’s Actions Due To Concern
As Paul thought about his hopes for them - that they be strong in faith, love and holiness - and realized that they were vulnerable, He acted on that concern. Paul didn’t only worry about them and express his hope for them, he cared enough to do something about it.
A. Made Contact
They had been so suddenly torn from the Thessalonians because of the persecution that they had no time to properly build them up as disciples according to Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:20. Finally, he could stand it no longer. He stayed in Athens and sent Timothy to see how they were doing. When they had the trouble in Thessalonica, it was he and Silas who were at the forefront of the persecution. Timothy may not even have been there, so would not be known by the authorities. So it was safe to send Timothy. Timothy was also someone whom Paul trusted. So he went, did some teaching, inquired to see how the people were doing and then returned to Paul with a good report. Paul rejoiced when he heard this good report, but even though it was good news, he still longed to go back himself. He did not sit back and forget about them, he did not give up and think there was nothing he could do. He made contact, through Timothy, to find out just how they were doing.
This is a good thing for us to do. Unfortunately, we often listen to rumours, express concern to people not involved, which often looks an awful lot like gossip. If we truly cared about people, would it not make sense to go see them and talk to them? Would it not make sense to inquire - how is it going with you spiritually? Are you solid in your faith? Do you still love this brother? Are you walking in holiness? If we come with humility and deep concern, it has a better chance of being received then if we come with a “holier-than-thou” attitude, judging the other person and looking for an excuse to jump on them. The outpouring of love in this letter gave Paul the right to inquire about their spiritual well being. Let us take a lesson from him and also be willing to inquire about another’s spiritual health.
B. Wrote The Letter
The second thing he did, after Timothy had returned, which was also an expression of his care for them, was to write this letter. Timothy returned and in 3:6 we notice that now he is writing to them about what he heard and then goes on to write further about what he yet hopes and continues to teach them by letter.
Today we have email and we still have letters. I know that there are people who often write letters or notes of encouragement. I have received some great notes of encouragement expressing appreciation and sometimes challenging me. I have had some good email correspondence with different people in the church and have had the privilege of encouraging them in faith and hope. Let us take the opportunity to write to encourage one another.
The final thing we notice is that Paul prayed for them. He indicates in 3:10 that “night and day we pray most earnestly.” The content of prayer is given as a “wish prayer” in verses 11-13. He prays that he will be able to see them, that they will increase in love and that they will walk in holiness. The prayer emphasizes that it is God who makes these things happen.
There is a group in the church who receives a prayer letter every week which invites prayer and gives specific prayer requests. Sometimes the prayer letter has included requests to pray for the spiritual concerns of the church. If you would like to join that prayer team, just let me know. Starting next Sunday, there will be a prayer time in the pastor’s office during the Sunday School hour. I invite you to come for a time of prayer. Prayer is a key element in our concern for one another and I would like to encourage such prayer.
Paul was an apostle, church planter and pastor to these people. But is such concern only for pastors? One or two pastors can never keep watch over an entire congregation. Even a whole ministerial cannot do it. If we want to have a church in which all members are healthy and growing, we need to share this responsibility. We need to care enough to ask more than just the questions about physical health and well being. We need to ask each other about one another’s spiritual health. We need to care about the faith, love and holiness of our brothers and sisters. What are we doing to demonstrate our spiritual concern for one another?