Commentary on First Thessalonians
" 2:19 For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? 20 For ye are our glory and joy." KJV (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
In Christ Jesus, what is the relationship between the teacher and the taught, the preacher and the believer, the one who brings the Gospel and the one who receives it. Viewing the average church, one might imagine it was a professional relationship, or maybe even one of casual friendship. Our text presents quite another picture, one that is harmonious with the nature of salvation. Those who preach the Gospel are called "ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man" (1 Cor 3:5). This does not allow for an unjust veneration of such individuals. Rather, they are to be seen as a Divinely appointed means of inducing faith in men and women. Too, those who preach the Gospel are to have a godly view of those to whom they declare that Gospel. Everything is seen from a heavenly perspective, with eternal investments considered. All of this is confirmed in Paul's lengthy recollection of his providential ministry among the Thessalonians. He does not view them after the flesh, but in the Spirit. Their value is seen in the blazing light of the Gospel of Christ. They had responded to an "everlasting Gospel" in a manner that brought glory to God and honor to Jesus. They did not allow tumultuous circumstances to turn them from the work of faith. When dishonorable people were present during the hearing of the Gospel, they did not conclude it was a shameful message, but took hold of it with zeal. When those who preached the Gospel were forced out of town by the Jews and town officials, they maintained their faith, refusing to allow that hardship to turn them from the salvation of God.
OUR HOPE, JOY, AND CROWN OF REJOICING
" 2:19a For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? . . . " This is an exceedingly powerful expression, and as rare as it is powerful! There is an objective to preaching the Gospel of Christ. It is not a mere career, but an investment in eternity. It is a fulfilling ministry that looks to the future with joyful anticipation. Salvation is "eternal" (Heb 5:9), and thus brings expectations that reach beyond this present time and this present evil world.
OUR HOPE. Here, the word "hope" is used differently than elsewhere. The "one hope" (Eph 4:4), common to all believers, is a foundational one-an "anchor of the soul" (Heb 6:19). It is the "hope" by which we "are saved" (Rom 8:24,25), and for which we were begotten by God (1 Pet 1:3). That "one hope" is embodied in a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, who "is our Hope" (1 Tim 1:1). However, this is not the sense of "hope" in our text. Even though it is taken from the same original word, it is used in a different sense. This is a subsidiary hope-a sort of branch of the "one hope." It depends upon the hope by which we are saved, which is an anchor of the soul, but it is different. Here, the converts themselves are the objects of "our hope." The idea is that Paul had earnest expectations for the Thessalonians. Those expectations were related to the Lord's appearing, yet his soul was not anchored to them. His thoughts concerning the Thessalonians were not limited to this world and time. For him, it was not enough that they had come into Christ-that they had embraced the Gospel. Their new birth was not the end of the matter, but the means to an appointed end.
Paul expressed a similar thought to the Corinthians. "And our hope of you is steadfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation" (2 Cor 1:7). While not precisely the same, it confirms that a true minister of the Gospel has prolonged desires for those who have received Christ. While we long for the lost to be found, and the alienated to be reconciled, our desires do not stop there. Those who would leave us satisfied when people are "added to the church," are not our friends.
OUR JOY. It is true that "joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" (Lk 15:7). It is also true that Jesus portrayed Himself as a shepherd who found a straying sheep and "rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray" (Matt 18:13). However, we greatly err if we imagine this suggests there is no care for the "flock of God." In fact, the latter test is speaking about a sheep that strayed from the flock. The first text does not suggest there are people who "need no repentance." Christ's love and care for the church should confirm He has a profound interest in them.
This is the attitude expressed by Paul to the Thessalonians. He confesses to the delights that are related to life in Christ Jesus. They are not temporal pleasures or passing fancies. Again, this "joy" is not his primary joy, but one that springs from it. Foundationally, believers "joy in God" and "rejoice in Christ Jesus" (Rom 5:11; Phil 3:3). Related to that gladness is a joy having to do with the advancement and stability of those to whom we have ministered. Fallen believers are no source of joy to those who have preached to them!
The believer who "holds on his way" (Job 17:9) is a source of joy to those who have ministered to him/her. As we will see, that joy is not limited to the here and now, although it is surely experienced "now." There is a coming joy for those who labor for Christ in which the faithful believers to whom they have ministered will play a vital part.
OUR CROWN OF REJOICING. Other versions read, "crown of exultation," NASB "crown in which we will glory," NIV "crown of boasting," NSRV and "crown of honor." NJB The Spirit speaks much to us about crowns. There is "a crown of righteousness" (2 Tim 4:8), "a crown of life" (James 1:12), and "a crown of glory" (1 Pet 5:4). There is also an "incorruptible crown" (1 Cor 9:25). All of these relate to the culmination of our race. They have to do with the conclusion of a race in which we have competed "according to the rules" (2 Tim 2:5). The crown is associated with a reward (Rev 22:12), the praise of God (1 Cor 4:5), and ultimate triumph (2 Cor 2:14). It is an "end-of-the-race" view, so necessary to completing our course with patience. Labor without a crown has no attraction. A race without a crown does not draw upon the hearts of the elect. A "crown," however, is an exceedingly strong incentive.
On the surface, it may appear as though Paul's expression contradicts his own exhortation: "Therefore let no one boast in men" (1 Cor 3:21). But this is not the case. The boasting, or glorying, that is forbidden is one that places confidence in the subject of boasting. This is not what Paul is doing in the case of the Thessalonians. Rather, he is perceiving the wonderful work of God in the Thessalonians, rejoicing in them as does the Lord (Zeph 3:17).
IN THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST AT HIS COMING
" 19b . . . Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?" This is a revelation of the perspective of faith-a perspective that does not allow for judgment "according to appearance" (John 7:24). Faith stretches forward to the coming of Christ, and views the revelation that will attend His coming as preeminent. It is not enough to be found faithful today. The ultimate test is not the circumstances that attend life in the body. Rather, it is how men will appear "in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming." It is unfortunate that many believers rarely, if ever, hear of this perspective. The state of all men when Jesus comes will determine their eternal destiny. Then, there will be no rejoicing in those whose faith is flawed, who ceased to run the race set before them, or who were worn out by trials and difficulties. If those to whom we have ministered fail to pass the test of Jesus' judgment, we will "suffer loss" (1 Cor 3:15). In one sense, it is possible for our labors to be in vain. Thus it is written, "Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain" (Phil 2:14-16). This was the very point that troubled Paul concerning the Galatians. "I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain" (Gal 4:11).
IN THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST. While there is a sense in which we are currently in Christ's presence (Psa 100:2), that is not the point of this text. We have, indeed, been called into His blessed fellowship (1 Cor 1:9), and enjoy His indwelling (Col 1:27). All of this, however, is by faith, and is only realized to the degree that we believe.
There is coming a time when "we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (Rom 14:10). That is the "presence" of which our text speaks. It is the ultimate confrontation, and no person is excluded from the appointment to be there. What is more, everyone will be there simultaneously, even though a personal accounting will take place. That is precisely why Paul says the Thessalonians will be his hope, joy, and crown of rejoicing at that time. Then, the fruits of his labors will be seen and known. The effectiveness of his work will be shown to the assembled universe. The truth of the Gospel that he preached will be confirmed in its effects among those who believed.
Any work that does not stand up "in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ" is unworthy of any recognition in this world! If the work is not ultimately honored by Jesus, it will count for nothing. No church roll, sectarian recognition, or identity with a supposedly exclusive group can compensate for Divine displeasure "in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ." In my judgment, the preponderance of Christianity in our day does not even take this into account. Too much of what takes place in Jesus' name does not promote sensitivity to His presence now, or preparation for His full and unquestionable presence at the end of time.
AT HIS COMING. The Thessalonians have already been reminded they had turned from idols to serve the living God and "wait for His Son from heaven" (1:9-10). Now they are again confronted with the coming of the Lord. This is no strange view. The Spirit consistently moved holy men of God to associate successful labors with the Lord's coming. "To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess 3:3). "And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess 5:23). "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God" (1 Cor 4:5). "Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain" (Phil 2:16). "And now, little children, abide in Him; that, when He shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming" (1 John 2:28). If, indeed, we are "waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1:7), it will impact on the way we live. That is the time when Divine approval will be made known.
I often wonder how such a central consideration can be nearly totally omitted from the pulpit! Purported laborers for Christ can neither honor the Lord nor benefit the saints if they do not have the Lord's coming in view. The work that survives that appearing is good. Everything else will be bad. As far as the Thessalonians were concerned, Paul anticipated having his joy and reward enhanced by their revealed faithfulness in the Lord's presence when He comes. Let us be sure our presence then will also bring joy and reward to someone.
OUR GLORY AND OUR JOY
" 20 For ye are our glory and joy." The strength of this expression reveals the extent to which the Thessalonians were faithful. Ponder what a marvelous confession is made here. The taught were the teacher's "glory and joy." That tells us Paul's labors were not mechanical-like carrying out a professional responsibility. It also unveils why "the care of the churches" was a daily burden for the Apostle to the Gentiles (2 Cor 11:28). Because they were presently bringing joy to his heart, Paul anticipated the greatness of the joy the Thessalonians would bring to him in the Lord's presence--when He comes.
Those who embrace the Gospel are the seal and proof of the validity of the ministry of those declaring that Gospel. What Paul's message produced in the believing Thessalonians proved its truth and worth.
OUR GLORY. This is the only place in all of the Bible where believers are said to be the "glory" of those bringing the Gospel to them. That certainly does not diminish the power of the expression. Rather, it reveals the marvelous advancement of the Thessalonians. There were those who gloried in the flesh of professed believers-exploiting them as though the people belonged to them (Gal 6:13). For such teachers, the people were just numbers, and a means of satisfying their own quest for prominence. Those teachers use "feigned words" to "make merchandise" of people (2 Pet 2:3). They have no real heart for the saints, and are not personally gratified by their advancement in the faith.
By being Paul's "glory," the steadfastness of the Thessalonians proved he had been sent to them by God. It confirmed the Gospel that he preached was from heaven. It verified that his motives were pure, and that he was not promoting himself. We know this is the case because the Thessalonians were good fruit, and good fruit can only come from a good tree (Matt 7:17-18). Ordinarily, men apply "by their fruits ye shall know them" only to false teachers. However, Jesus applied it to good teachers as well (Matt 7:16-20).
Where you find stable, consistent, and thoughtful believers, you have evidence they were exposed to sound doctrine. Where there is consistent shallowness, a lack of commitment, and general disinterest in the things of God, either the truth has not been heard, or it has been denied. The validity of truth is not measured by the number of those embracing it, but by their quality. The "glory" of a servant of God is not determined by the number of those following his preaching and teaching, but by the quality of those who embrace it. Just as man is the glory of God (1 Cor 11:7), so those who live out the doctrine they embrace are the glory of those who have declared it.
The current trend of ministers becoming immersed in the daily problems of the people may appear to be virtuous. It has certainly contributed to the popularity of many ministers. No such entanglements are ever emphasized in God's Word, and no minister of Scriptural record ever made reference to such involvements. The real minister of God brings people into a lively fellowship with both the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). In that marvelous relationship, "every man" becomes wonderfully capable of bearing "his own burden" (Gal 6:5). While believers do assist one another, bearing one another's burdens (Gal 6:2), it is on a level above the flesh. There is an aspect of spiritual life where each soul must shoulder life, going to the Lord for mercy, and grace to help in the time of need (Heb 4:15-16). Where this does not occur, grace will eventually be frustrated. Where personal faith is exhibited in bearing the burdens of life, God is honored and glory brought to His ministering servants.
The Thessalonians were exemplary models of this circumstance. They had been deprived of the bodily presence of Paul, Silas, and Timothy. Yet, they continued steadfast in the faith, serving God and waiting for His Son from heaven.
OUR JOY. Although removed from the presence of the Thessalonians, the recollection of their faith and commitment brought joy to the Apostle. To him, they were like a refreshing drink of cool water in the midst of an arid desert. In this we see that Paul and his fellow laborers were not only "helpers of their joy" (2 Cor 1:24), but the Thessalonians helped theirs as well. On one occasion, Paul spoke of being made joyful when he heard Titus was made joyful at beholding the advancement of the Corinthians (2 Cor 7:13). This is a joy that comes from the like-mindedness of kindred spirits (Phil 2:2). It produces an earnest longing to be with the individuals bringing such joy. It was said of the Philippians, "Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved" (Phil 4:1). May you also be a source of refreshing joy to those who have nurtured your soul.