A COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 2:17But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored more eagerly to see your face with great desire. 18 Therefore we wanted to come to you; even I, Paul, time and again; but Satan hindered us." KJV (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18)
The Thessalonians had received the Gospel so eagerly they were willing to suffer the reprisals of their own countrymen. Their conversion was not attended with popularity. They could not boast of identity with a mega-church, recognized in the community. They had become followers of, what was considered, a small but growing sect. One place early believers were called "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5). Another place, it was called "the way which they call heresy" (Acts 24:14). Still another place, it was referred to as a "sect. . . that is everywhere spoken against"(Acts 28:22). All of these views were articulated well after the Thessalonians had believed the Gospel, turned from idols, and started serving God while waiting for His Son from heaven. They had NOT embraced a popular religion, but had risen above the desires of the flesh in their embrace of the truth. They set a noble example for succeeding generations. That is why Paul could speak so extensively about them abandoning idolatry, turning to serve God, and anxiously awaiting the return of His Son. Now, after an extensive review of the powerful effects of the Gospel upon them, Paul comments about his own desires. The spiritual nobility of the Thessalonians had endeared them to Paul. He is now compelled to share his deep desires with them, and how they had been thwarted. He too had suffered for righteousness' sake, being a "companion in tribulation" (Rev 1:9).
TAKEN AWAY, BUT NOT IN HEART
" 2:17a But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart . . . " In Christ, there is a bond between the teacher and the ones taught, the leader and the ones led. Nothing is merely academic or formal. Salvation is an infinitely larger enterprise than merely learning some facts, or becoming acquainted with a movement. Professional religion has always been an enemy to spiritual progress. Careers, formalism, and institutionalism rob the soul, bringing no spiritual benefit to the people. Yet, to this day, such things dominate the Christian world.
TAKEN FROM YOU. This expression is unusually strong-one of violence. Other versions read, "we were torn away from you," NIV "we were made orphans by being separated from you," NRSV and "we had been deprived of you." NJB The expression denotes a mother, or nurse, being violently removed from her children-children who required her tender care. Paul's removal from the Thessalonians was not voluntary, as it was at Caesarea (Acts 21:8) and Ephesus (Acts 20:31-38). Remember, because of the uproar that had been caused in the city, "the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea" (Acts 17:10). Even though they were linked with omnipotence, they were suddenly forced to be separated from the Thessalonians like parents are suddenly severed from their children by death.
Imagine the impact this must have had upon young believers! Yet, they were not totally dependent upon Paul and those with him, just as the Ethiopian eunuch was moved along without the benefit of the one who brought the Gospel to him (Acts 8:39). While this is not a consistent circumstance, it does serve to confirm that the growth of the saints depends more upon the Lord than upon kindred spirits. As this text will confirm, faith will sustain those who live by it. That is because the believer is personally related to the Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel, and sustained by the Holy Spirit who inspired its utterance and recording.
One also senses that the expression "taken from you" includes the idea of a Sovereign God-as though He was in the matter more than the enemies who threatened Paul and his co-laborers. From a higher vantage point, Paul, was moved along to another place where there were also hungry souls, waiting to hear the good news. We learn from this that the heavenly Kingdom does not depend upon a single group of people, nor is all grace focused upon them alone. The work of the Lord is infinitely larger than our own involvements.
A SHORT TIME. This is a phrase addressed to faith, for the time no doubt seemed long to the flesh. Whether he would be afforded the blessing of coming to them again in the body, or whether he would meet them "in the air" (4:17), it would only be a brief time-brief as compared with eternity, and "short" when laid along side the life of faith. The life of faith does not remove trouble, but it views it as "short," brief, and soon to be ended (1 Cor 7:29; Rev 12:12; Psa 37:10; Isa 10:25; 29:17; Hag 2:6; Heb 10:37). This is a perspective that can be enjoyed by all believers. It helps to alleviate the many sorrows that come to the saints, including separation from kindred spirits, persecution, and longing for the Lord's return. I cannot leave this point without observing that contemporary religion utterly fails to promote this needful perspective. That deficiency has occasioned the fall of many.
IN PRESENCE, NOT IN HEART. Faith enables the relationships of the godly to continue, even though they are not attended by the bodily presence of the ones we love. Thus, Paul could say the Thessalonians were deprived of his presence, but not his "heart." Other versions read "not in spirit," NASB "not in thought," NIV and "never in affection." NJB This is much like an expression written to the Corinthians: "You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts" NIV (2 Cor 3:2). Again, Paul said to the Corinthians, "you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together" (2 Cor 7:3). This is another way of saying they had been knit together in Jesus Christ-made ONE in Him. This unity is very close and remarkable. In the Lord we become "members one of another" (Rom 12:5; Eph 4:25). That relationship is not severed or rendered ineffective by physical separation!
But there is something else here that is noteworthy. Because believers are joined in heart, they can actually benefit from one another, even though they are deprived of a face-to-face relationship. Thus, the Corinthians could gather together with Paul's "spirit," even though he was not bodily with them (1 Cor 5:4). As with the Colossians, it is possible to be "absent in the flesh," yet "with you in the spirit" (Col 2:5). The extent of this experience cannot be fully known this side of glory. We have, however, been called into the fellowship of all "whose names are written in heaven," including "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb 12:23). There are no doubt untapped benefits for us in this remarkable relationship.
EAGERLY ENDEAVORING TO SEE THEIR FACE
" 17b . . . endeavored more eagerly to see your face with great desire." While it is possible to benefit from one another in separation, yet there are advantages that can be realized only in being together. The grace of God can be more thoroughly ministered in face-to-face relationships, even though it is not confined to them. What Paul is expressing is more than mere sentimentality. This is not an emotional outburst, but the articulation of his heart. It is obvious that he had gained spiritual advantages from the receptivity of the Thessalonians. How well this experience was articulated to the Romans: "that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me" (Rom 1:12). This was not a "we-belong-to-the-same-church" attitude-a sort of club or community spirit. Other versions accentuate the strength of this desire. "All the more eager with great desire to see your face," NASB "our intense longing we made every effort to see you," NIV and "great eagerness to see you face to face." NRSV Being ripped from their presence by adversity, the heart of Paul had not cooled toward the Thessalonians.
ENDEAVORED. The mutual ministries of the brethren cement them together. As it is written, "the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" NKJV (Eph 4:16). Faith causes the saved to be mutually dependent upon one another. When this is realized, there is a strong desire for the fellowship of those aligned with Jesus. Thus Paul says he "endeavored" to be with the Thessalonians. The word "endeavor" means to make every effort, do your best, give diligence, try hard to, and exert one's self. It involves intense personal initiative, looking for any opportunity, and being diligent about it.
Some believers, because of erroneous teaching, approach life from a fatalistic point of view. They do not extend themselves for any preferences or desire. They feel as though "whatever will be will be," and thus they disengage their hearts and minds from any resolves or purpose. But this was NOT the case with Jesus or the Apostles. When it came time for the Lord Jesus to lay down His life, He "steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9:51). Paul was determined to preach the Gospel to those in Rome "as much as is in me" (Rom 1:15). In old time, Solomon "determined to build an house for the name of the LORD" (2 Chron 2:1). Early believers "determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea" (Acts 11:29). On one occasion, when he was going to Jerusalem for the day of Pentecost, Paul "determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia" (Acts 20:16).
The point to be seen in all of this is that being directed by the Lord does not mean we disengage our minds, or that we make no resolves. Many believers deprive themselves of great spiritual advantages simply because they never make solid determinations. They do not extend themselves to obtain advantages or to be involved in the work of the Lord. Those who would be blessed must be "vigilant" and alert, looking for opportunities to fulfill their desires. This is involved in "watching unto prayer" (1 Pet 4:7). This attitude is expressed very well in Colossians 4:2. "Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving." One of the disadvantages of being slothful, sluggardly, and haphazard in ones spiritual life is that desires and opportunities are missed. They pass by men without them ever realizing they were there. Paul was eager to see the Thessalonians, being constantly alert to any opportunity that would afford him that blessing.
TO SEE YOUR FACE. What blessings are afforded by the sight of holy brethren! Should such an occasion take place, the affirmation of Psalm 119:74 is fulfilled. "They that fear thee will be glad when they see me; because I have hoped in thy word." In their presence, Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus "refreshed" the spirit of Paul and the church in Corinth (1 Cor 16:18). The spirit of Titus was "refreshed" when he saw the growing Corinthian brethren (2 Cor 7:13). Paul said Onesiphorous had frequently "refreshed" his spirit (2 Tim 1:16). Philemon was noted for "refreshing" the hearts of the saints (Phile 7). All of these references, and more, speak of face-to-face meetings.
The desire of Paul to see the Thessalonians in person was so strong that he said later, "Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face." He had many things to say to them that were withheld because of his swift and unplanned departure. He earnestly wanted to supply what was lacking in their faith (3:10). He knew they were suffering, and there were great Kingdom realities that could help them in their trial. How pleasant it would be to see a revival of this kind of eager and diligent spirit! We would soon see such marvelous growth in the saints of God as would cause joyful shouting and more firm resolves to please God.
WE WANTED TO, BUT SATAN HINDERED US
" 17 Therefore we wanted to come to you; even I, Paul, time and again; but Satan hindered us." It is the tendency of men to either complicate or over simplify life in Christ Jesus. Some have chosen to present Satan as utterly powerless-one who can have no effect upon us at all. While he is a defeated foe, his defeat does not mean he can cause us no trouble. Rather, it means that we can "overcome" him. As it is written, "because ye have overcome the wicked one" (1 John 2:13-14). Overcoming involves confrontation! It includes resisting the devil (1 Pet 5:8; James 4:7), and standing against his "wiles" (Eph 6:11). With zeal, we must avoid simplistic views of our adversary that paint him as harmless and powerless. Many simple souls have gone down in defeat because they underestimated the foe.
Note this text, for it is pregnant with instruction. Here was the Apostle who "labored more abundantly than they all" (1 Cor 15:10). With unrelenting fervor, he was pressing "toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:14). He confessed he was "able to do all things through Christ" who strengthened him (Phil 4:13). Now he earnestly wants to see the Thessalonians. His objective is to benefit them in Christ, and to be strengthened by their mutual faith. "Time and again" he determines to go to them, looking for an opportunity to do so. His motives are pure. His objective is holy. Surely such a godly desire will be honored, and he will find himself with the Thessalonians.
Rather than the holy desire being fulfilled, Paul acknowledges "Satan hindered us!" Other versions read, "Satan thwarted us," NASB "Satan stopped us," NIV "Satan blocked our way," NRSV "Satan kept us from coming," BBE and "Satan prevented us." NLT Does your view of the Kingdom allow for such a confession? It is important to note that Satan did not hinder God, but Paul. He did not hinder the purpose of God, but Paul's desire. Satan is not making war with Jesus, but with those who "keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev 12:17). We should not expect that war to be simplistic or without discouraging effects. The devil can "hinder" us, impeding the fulfillment of our spiritual desires.
When addressing the church at Smyrna, Jesus said "the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days" (Rev 2:10). Satan is NOT invincible or omnipotent, and he must obtain permission to harass the saints. But often he is granted that request, as with Job (Job 1:9-12) and Peter (Lk 22:31-32). When Paul was given a "thorn in the flesh," it was assigned by God, but was "the messenger of Satan" (2 Cor 12:7). To overcome Satan, we must confront him, and "wrestle" against his hosts (Eph 6:12). Away with the notion that we can shout some trite saying at the devil, causing him to run in terror from us! If such a privilege was vouchsafed to us, would Paul not have used it in the matter of desiring to be with the Thessalonians?
Satan's hindrances were accomplished through his people-the tares, who are called the "children of the wicked one" (Matt 13:38). He does not always use a blasting wind, as he did against the children of Job (Job 1:19), or grievous boils as he did with Job himself (Job 2:7). In the case of Paul, he also used unbelieving Jews, who laid in wait for him (Acts 20:3). He also used Alexander the coppersmith, who did much evil to Paul (2 Tim 4:14). There were three shipwrecks (2 Cor 11:25), detainment in prison (Acts 16:23), and the idolaters of Ephesus (Acts 19:24-35). From the higher point of view, the Lord was moving Paul along to other appointed places. However, from the experiential point of view, his purposes were hindered by Satan. It was much like the experience of Joseph. He confronted the animosity of his brothers, who sold him into slavery. Yet, God used what was intended for evil to bring about good (Gen 50:20). Thus, Satan is seen as hindering men from doing what they will. However, the Almighty God hinders Satan from doing all that he wills.
The thing to learn from section is to avoid views of the Kingdom that will yield unfavorable results. Do not think that because you desire to do good, all will go well with you. Do not imagine that Satan will back away from you if you intend, as it were, to go to Thessalonica! If Satan could hinder Paul "time and again," he can surely hinder you. However, his hindrance will not be the last word! It may be grievous, and even life-threatening! You may be forced, against your will, to leave the place you prefer to be-like Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica. But you must not allow that to dampen your spirit! If you are hindered, determine again! If you are thwarted in your desire, still seek an opportunity to fulfill it! Embrace the "time and again" principle! Is it not written, "for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again" NIV (Prov 24:16). Let that be YOU!