A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 3: Paul’s Joy
In this series we have seen that Paul preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. These people turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. They were also a good example for all believers in Greece. Paul loved new believers like a mother caring for her baby, and coached them like a father training his children. He was a hard worker. He knew the opposition the Thessalonians faced because he had faced it as well.
In Part 3 we look at Paul’s joy, which is mentioned three times (1 Th. 2:19,20; 3:9). We will see his priorities in life and his attitude towards new believers.
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us. 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? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1 Th. 2:17-20 NIV)
Paul explained his failure to return to Thessalonica (2:17-18). Perhaps his critics accused him of being afraid to go back because of the opposition he faced, but Paul said that his separation from them was like being “torn away.” He felt like an orphan – their close relationship was like family.
His concern for the Thessalonians is clearly evident. Although he was forced to leave the city, he still thought about them regularly. In fact, he had an “intense longing” to know how they were doing, and did all he could to visit them again. He tried at least twice, but his plans were blocked by Satan (2:18). But God always overrules Satan’s opposition, and in this case He used Paul’s delay so this letter would be written and believers in all eras could benefit from Paul’s example.
Satan wants to hinder the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of believers. When we face hindrances in God’s work, Satan is often behind them. Paul wrote: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Satan and his demons are the real enemy, not the people or circumstances that they use. Satanic opposition is permitted by God. Remember how Satan got God’s permission before he afflicted Job. It is God’s way of getting our attention. Nothing happens by chance to Christians.
Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. He also said that the believers in Philippi were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1).
The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, 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. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 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 had tempted you and our efforts might have been useless” (1 Th. 3:1-5).
Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.
Hardship And Opposition
Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). When he revisited Pisidia he said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The journey for believers before they share in Christ’s glory involves suffering (2 Tim. 3:12; Jn. 16:33). The Lord warned His disciples that to follow Him meant facing opposition: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). We know that Christ and the apostles were persecuted (1 Pet. 2:21). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.
God uses opposition, persecution, suffering and trials to discipline and train us (Heb. 12:7-11). They can test and prove our faith and weed out those who profess but don’t have true faith (Mk. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). As we experience God’s comfort, we can encourage others who are going through difficult times (2 Cor. 1:4). Difficulties also develop character (Rom. 5:3; Jas. 1:3) and make us more zealous in spreading the gospel (Acts 8:3-4).
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. 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. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 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?” (1Th. 3:6-9).
Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were clearly evident. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter.
They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. To the Galatians Paul wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And to the Ephesians he wrote: “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints I have not stopped giving thanks” (Eph. 1:15-16).
Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9). His attitude was like John who wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn. 4).
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. 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” (1 Th. 3:10-13).
When it’s hard to know what to pray for Paul wrote: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).
When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically. “Most earnestly” is a compound Greek word meaning “most exceedingly.” He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). He also wrote, “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-17).
Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.
In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1 Th. 1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually.
Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).
Lessons For Us
This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.
The Lord’s command to His disciples was, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Making disciples was Paul’s passion.
Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?
Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong in the midst of suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?
This was Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians, and for us.
Published, March 2009