The frustration I’ve heard expressed most often by non-conformist or free church ministers over the last year is of having worked really hard in a very changed situation having to do everything really, really differently - but simply not knowing what’s going on.
It’s been like standing down-stage front centre in a big echoing theatre unable to see past the lights and not daring to break the ‘Fourth Wall’ to push for a response from the audience (is anyone out there?) so that you’ve SOME idea of what’s going on.
In our passage today, Paul, Silas and Timothy have worked very hard in really adverse circumstances and poured themselves into the founding of the church in Thessalonica.
But the apostolic team has had to leave in a big hurry to protect the new believers from a legal bond placed on them by the town council.
So then, he team have taken themselves off, but have absolutely no idea about what’s going on back at the new church … and their hearts are 100% back down the road at Thessalonica.
Face to face fellowship has been trashed … no longer possible.
All the apostles have been able to do is hope and hold out by way of reminder the Way of Jesus that the apostles had had so little time to demonstrate.
In the context of what we read today you’ve got, then:
B. The limited potential for teaching soul-stabilising theology with a mimetic model, in terms of steeling the troops for the battle they are facing.
So, the passage is structured around a timeline with three points of reference: the past (2:17-3:5), the present (3:6-9) and the future they’re planning and praying for (3:10-13).
The apostolic team start this section by addressing the imperfect and frustrating past situation they’ve been subject to.
“But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.
… “in person not in thought” is (Gk.) προσώπῳ οὐ καρδίᾳ … ‘in face not in heart’
And ‘our great desire to see you in person’ is a great desire τὸ πρόσωπον ὑμῶν ἰδεῖν – ‘to see your face’
It is a longing for face-to-face fellowship that the apostles are going on about here … and they are PASSIONATE that it should be restored.
The nouns here are all about faces, but ...
- Passionate is the word that is used: ἐπιθυμία - desire, craving, longing, desire for what is forbidden, and that's how the word came to be used about lust.
And of course, it was that face-to-face fellowship they longed for that had been forbidden by the magistrates in Thessalonica.
It was a devastating blow.
- There's passion too in the word used for 'separation': 'When we were orphaned by being separated from you'.
- The verb here is ἀπορφανίζω - to bereave of a parent or parents.
It is a powerful emotion that the apostles are describing – they were not just travelling Greek philosophers who’d left town and moved on, in search of fresh or richer pickings elsewhere!
When the apostolic team saw what God did in those Thessalonian believers, and then had to move on from their spiritually young, vulnerable lives to protect them from much more serious consequences from the authorities … these men who were committed to them in Christ felt a terrible wrench.
THAT is the way it should be.
When we see people truly coming to Christ, that’s the sort of commitment we have to them.
Look what v. 18 says here …
“18 For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan blocked our way.”
We touched on the idea last time that the enemy of souls can frustrate the good intentions and well-motivated desires of God’s people … but what he can’t do is frustrate God’s plans.
But notice how Paul sees the Biblical, cosmic tussle with the defeated foe … the devil … in the set-backs that his life and ministry faces.
As he says elsewhere, he is not unaware of the devil's schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11), and is very alert therefore of the need to put on the full armour of God (Ephesians 6:11) to stand up to what the enemy is up to.
The contrast between all that and how Paul views the Thessalonians is stark:
19 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? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.”
How many Ministers or church leaders do we know who could truthfully be saying these things about the people that God has given them to serve?
You see … we’ve missed a turning somewhere along the way, and Paul lets us in on this for our instruction and renewed discipleship.
This is the healthy place we ought to be in.
Well this wasn’t just words, this was his action ... Paul says 'we made every effort to see you', and they couldn't do it, they couldn't get there.
So in the face of their non-ideal circumstances, a temporary lash up was made.
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. 4 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. 5 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 that our labours might have been in vain.”
So why was it so important Timothy should be sent and that this temporary expedient should be found?
Well, the young flock looked like it wasn’t being shepherded, but predated upon really rather heavily by the persecution that it seems to have been going through.
It was a long time ago that we noted that the whole social and economic life of Thessalonica revolved around the pagan cults and practices of the place, in civic, economic and private life.
Stepping out of paganism came at a price!
Without the benefit of the face-to-face means of grace, their faith would be under pressure to cope with this.
It was togetherness for encouragement they needed … and we’ve certainly experienced something like that at Ty’r Bugail over the last year!
Why did you want to send Timothy, guys?
a) The expedient, 3:1-2a
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ …”
The apostolic team has moved on from Berea where they'd originally fled to Athens … although from this point there's no mention of Suilas.
Athens was a centre of pagan practice and ideology, with a large complement of academics and philosophers in the place.
Paul was never happy to try to operate single handed as an apostolic one man band, and being in a place so full of idols and immorality Paul was going to be under GREAT constraint in the Gospel by putting his preaching on hold while Timothy travelled to Thessalonica, discipled people there for a while then came back.
Paul wouldn't find being left alone in Athens easy!
It was therefore ‘when we could stand it no longer’ that Timothy actually got sent.
This was no off-hand sending them the office junior and Paul goes out of his way to make that point: Timothy is “our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ”
It was an extreme measure put in place out of deep soul-constraint because of an IMMEDIATE need, and it came at a price
So this was the temporary expedient, in the face of the immediate perceived need which was to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonians' faith.
The need wasn’t to keep numbers up or to safeguard the free flow of funding.
It was to safeguard these young believers’ souls.
They were starting out their Christian lives somewhere between the hammer and the anvil, and while the Great Shepherd can undoubtedly shepherd the young of His flock, He choses normally to deploy the people He’s called to use the means of grace, weakly and humanly ministered to do so.
“… to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials …”
But in coming to the Thessalonians to ‘strengthen their faith’, it’s the teaching of God’s Word in the power of His Spirit that the Apostle was accustomed to embrace as the means to this end.
They need strengthening against the shock of their exclusion and oppression by their clients, colleagues, family and fellow citizens and the trials that have come against them since they came savingly to Christ.
It’s nothing unusual … quite normal and actually accredits you in Christ, is what Paul is about to tell these new believers.
Now this here is very revealing and in this short passage o the letter he’s writing Paul shows US three really significant things about trials you face purely for genuinely following Jesus:
i) Firstly this is the destiny of believers, in a world that is hostile to God.
“For you know quite well that we are destined for them."
ii) Secondly this was part of Paul’s teaching ministry to those considering coming to Christ and who’d just done so
“4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we
would be persecuted.”
iii) Thirdly the genuine experience of believers engaged with non-Christian cultures supports the pattern of Paul’s teaching on this subject
And it turned out that way, as you well know.”
God gave ministry of the Word to meet the believers’ needs (check that out through 2 Timothy 3:16), and when face-to-face ministry was unable to deliver that, the expedient was to quietly send them Timothy.
And Timothy was sent with two objectives in view:
- to strengthen and encourage their faith, (vv. 2b-3) and
- to take stock of where they were in the faith (v. 5)
“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 that our labours might have been in vain.”
The way they responded to Timothy's expedient teaching would reveal what was going on in their hearts under the pressure of isolation, when the props to faith were removed.
Paul now moves on from reprising the past expedient they’d deployed on a mission to fact-find and if possible strengthen the pressurised young church at Thessalonica, to speak of the present encouragement Timothy’s covert mission had brought.
“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. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9 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?”
Paul sets up this new section about the present by referring to the faith and love of the Thessalonian believers.
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.”
Why is that so significant?
- · Firstly, faith is the work God requires (John 6:28-29) “they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’
29 Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’
- Secondly, love is the evidence that a person is a disciple of Jesus: (John 13:35) “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’”
So when Timothy comes back to Paul at Athens with these two leading elements in his report (their faith and love), Paul is overjoyed that the Lord has kept these new Christians he’d been ripped away from.
How does that love for one another work out?
“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.”
The love of the brethren is good evidence of real faith ... in this case it shows up as love for the Apostles, just as the Apostles show real love for the Thessalonians.
So 1 John, for example, is written to provide the readers with an understanding of what genuine Spirit-born faith looks like and has the three recurring touchstones of genuine God-given faith: obedience, love and sound doctrine!
Here Paul reports that this evidence of genuine living faith was evident amongst them on his visit … but the application and the focus of that love is on the apostolic team!
There's good news about the Thessalonians love, and there's good news about their faith too.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.”
Paul is encouraged because they are persevering through persecution in trusting God.
This is GREAT stuff, and this report has a profound effect on Paul their Apostle ... and it's enlightening to see what that effect is.
Hearing Timothy's report spurred Paul on not just to feel (encouraged) but to DO … it spurred him to action and to getting thought through and prepared for the future
“For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9 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?”
Now, that is what’s now spurring Paul on.
Encouragement is not something to sit back with and cuddle to make you feel good.
It puts COURAGE into Paul to act now ‘going forwards’, which brings usto the final and forward looking section of this passage.
We are approaching a time now, of course when the restrictions on our face to face meetings might soon start to lift … and if you’ve really been missing those, that’s a great sign of good things as the example of Paul seems to be saying to us.
So now there are voices in the land saying that it is time to be planning to get things going again in the churches for face to face meetings, singing and so on to start ... not yet but in the foreseeable future.
It’s instructive for us then to notice that as the apostolic team anticipates face to face fellowship again, their process doesn’t begin with strategic planning.
I’m not saying there’s no place for that.
But what Paul & co. have been planning is their prayer diary!
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
The encouragement has led to future oriented, persistent, passionate prayer.
The team isn’t praying for a return to the old ‘normal’, specifying that they want to gather big crowds, stand up and preach, going back into synagogues and things of that sort.
It is prayer is focused on the ACTUAL eternal and spiritual necessities.
Firstly, it’s focused on strengthening discipleship their fundamental discipleship … to ‘supply what is lacking in your faith’.
The key to that is going to be the renewal of face-to-face fellowship.
11 “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.”
Fellowship is personal – in person.
If a shepherd or a cow hand goes out to the field and sees an animal shunning contact with the herd, that stockman KNOWS there’s something wrong with that animal.
The same principle applies to believers.
Now, I do suspect that before the last year’s lockdowns quite a few of us might have been tempted to toy with the idea that actually meeting up face to face with believers might be a bit optional.
We might have felt some Sundays that falling asleep might be better for us than finding fellowship.
We might not have valued very highly the privilege of feeding our faith through fellowship around ministry very highly.
But we MAY now have corrected that tacit assumption as we've passed recently through these more difficult times.
Paul and Silas and Timothy … no doubt the Thessalonians too … have learned the lesson of the importance of face-to-face fellowship to faith through their hard times.
I really hope that we have that lesson too.
“May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.”
Love for who? For one another and for everyone else, just as the apostolic team's love overflows for them
Then Paul moves on to pray for their holiness.
“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.”
It's all been about the love and faith they already have and then ... BAM!
Out of the blue comes this fresh idea about something they have NOT been commended for already in the course of the plentiful praise they've been given in the book so far.
And this is not something they're being praised for but URGED TOWARDS!
It's something they're urged towards in view of the return of the Lord Jesus that some of them sitting there in the congregation listening were already beginning to entertain severe doubts about ... the return of the Lord ... as some of their number had died before the promised return of Christ and some of that congregation were beginning to have doubts about whether Jesus was coming back at all!
There are clear differences between all this and our experience of the rupture of face-to-face fellowship during this pandemic … but there are clear similarities as well, not least in the principles and the priorities the apostles applied.
Sometimes in God’s providence the plots of the enemy seem to be allowed the power to prevail.
The clear priority to the Lord of face-to-face fellowship can sometimes be removed … perhaps to teach us what a privilege and priority it is to be able to gather to worship and hear from God’s Word.
At such times we need 'expedients' ... we have to do our best with what we’ve got ... as all the while the faithful Remnant of God’s people seems to be getting pared down.
But in reality, we can’t SEE what’s going on then at all and we have to trust God with the welfare of His Church.
But look – as soon as they could the apostles broke through that fourth wall in the theatre, reaching into the darkness to test the waters and find out what God had been doing all along, out there beyond the footlights in the darkness of the auditorium.
And what a JOY to find those who’d fed their souls through that dark spell with what they’d been served up.
And what a JOY to prayerfully prepare for a better future.
Are we longing for face-to-face fellowship?
That IS the normal means by which God forms a person's character in Christ.
Are we praying for it to return to us, so that we can make progress by His means in our faith?
Are we preparing to return to face-to-face fellowship?
Where ARE our hearts now?
We’ve done the best we could with what we had to hand along the way.
We’ve slipped and slid and no doubt had our moments.
But the plans are being prayed for the future … and the privilege of face-to-face fellowship restored safely and responsibly seems present on the horizon now, like Elijah’s cloud just the size of a man’s hand.
Do you remember 1 Kings 18:44 and the servant of Elijah’s report:
“the servant reported, ‘A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.’”
And that was happening in response to Elijah's fervent prayer!
Elijah knew that was all the sign he needed, and he then tucked up his garment and RAN … preparations now needed to be made … the time is here for us to plan to pray so when the time comes we'll be ready to run.