COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
LESSON NUMBER 14
3:1-3 Therefore, when we could no longer endure it, we thought it good to be left in Athens alone, 2 and sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith, 3 that no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this." NKJV (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3)
In this chapter Paul confirms his profound love for the Thessalonian saints. He does not love in word only, but "in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18). In expressing his concern for the saints he speaks from a heavenly perspective. In the context of brotherly associations he mentions Timothy being a "brother," "fellowlaborer," and "minister of God." He refers to "the Gospel of Christ," and the establishment and comfort of the people of God. He speaks of Divine appointments (v 2), and the role of affliction in spiritual life (v 3-4). The Apostle mentions a driving compulsion to know of the faith of the Thessalonians, and of the activity of the "Tempter" (v 5). He refers to the gladness he experienced when he heard of the faith and love of the Thessalonian brethren, and their steadfastness of faith in the midst of difficulties (v 6-7). Rather than associating life with his own comforts, he connects it with knowing the people of God are standing firm in the faith (v 8). There is mention of his joy before God (v 9), his persistent prayers for God to direct him to the Thessalonians (v 10), that God would cause great spiritual increase among them, and that they would be firmly established when Jesus comes (v12-13). This is the kind of expression that is provoked by true spiritual life. Compare this manner of speaking with modern Christianity, where there appears to be little genuine interest in the progress of the saints of God.
WE COULD NOT STAND IT ANY LONGER
" 3:1-2a Therefore, when we could no longer endure it, we thought it good to be left in Athens alone, 2 and sent Timothy . . . " Faith does not dehumanize us. There remain deep longings that cannot be suppressed-feelings that move us to action. While faith and love do not cause us to be impetuous, they do work within us, constraining us to action. Other versions reflect this nature of Kingdom life. "So when we could stand it no longer," NIV "Wherefore, being no longer able to refrain ourselves," DARBYS "At last our desire to have news of you was so strong that . . . " BBE
NO LONGER ENDURE IT. It may appear on the surface that Paul is "anxious," something that is to be strictly avoided (Phil 4:6). But this is not the case, for being anxious is self-centered, with no regard for the glory of God. The Apostle has a burning desire to know of the spiritual welfare of the Thessalonians, in whom he had invested himself. He had the same kind of driving compulsion expressed by Jeremiah. "But His word was in my heart like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, And I could not" (Jer 20:9). The prophet's compulsion related to speaking the Word of God. The Apostle's constraint had to do with knowing of the fruit of speaking that Word. Both were the result of identity with God and His work. Both faith and love are compelling, moving the child of God to know of, and bring advantages to, the people of God.
Having been forced to leave Thessalonica because of the aggression of his enemies, Paul had not been able to forget those believers with whom he resided only briefly. He could not purge them from his mind, and thus was constrained to find out how they were progressing. He is assuring them that although they have not heard from him for a while, they have been on his mind. His faith and love would not allow him to forget them.
WE THOUGHT IT GOOD. Note, he does not say "I thought it good," but "WE thought it good." This decision was made by several of the faithful. The assumed record of this decision is recorded in the seventeenth chapter of Acts. The decision was made almost immediately after they were forced to leave Thessalonica. "And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea [coast]: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still. And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed" (Acts 17:14-15). The point to be seen here is that personal comforts and advantages were willingly forfeited in the interest of the greater work of God. This came as a result of thinking on the circumstances within the light of God's great salvation. What might not seem "good" in the flesh, appeared quite clearly to be proper and beneficial in the Spirit.
ALONE IN ATHENS. This is particularly noteworthy when you consider the compelling desire faith brings for spiritual fellowship. Early believers "continued steadfastly in . . . fellowship" (Acts 2:42). There is a profound longing for those of like precious faith in the deep resources of fellowship with Christ (Phil 1:8). Yet, in this instance, Paul forfeits profitable fellowship in order that the Thessalonians might be given a greater advantage in their trials. In this, he had "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2:16), which he urged others to have also (Phil 2:5). Having the proper mind involves more than embracing the correct teaching. It also includes having the right spirit, or attitude.
It is not that there were a lot of brethren in Athens-in fact, it was dominated by idolatry and ungodly philosophers-a citadel of human wisdom. The city, we are told, was "wholly given to idolatry" (Acts 17:16). Paul had been forced out of Thessalonica, so could surely use some comfort and godly fellowship. However, because love "seeketh not her own" (1 Cor 13:5), and in keeping with the nature of the New Covenant, Paul esteemed "others better than himself" (Phil 2:3). While he remained in Athens, he was "stirred" within, or "greatly distressed" NIV at the level of idolatry found in that ancient city. Agitated with the whole situation, he daily disputed in the synagogue of the Jews and the public marketplace (Acts 17:16-17). Ordinarily, he had kindred brethren with him, but this time he was "alone in Athens." we see the greatness of this Apostle in this circumstance.
SENT TIMOTHY. Instead of having the Thessalonians send a helper to him, Paul sent one to them. He did not send just anyone, like a professional person, or one with academic credentials. In fact, all we know about Timothy is that he was expert in the Word of God. He would probably not even be recognized by modern churches. But he could be trusted to lift up the saints, bringing them strength and joy. All of this was because he had distinguished himself as being "genuinely concerned" for the welfare of saints (Phil 2:20).
DESCRIPTION OF A TRUE MINISTER OF GOD
" 2b . . . our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith." Jesus once said, "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!" (Lk 6:26). He was speaking, of course, of unsaved men, natural men, or men of this world. Such people "hate" those who are of Christ because of the sharp contrast they confirm exists between them and God (John 15:19). But there is a group of people in whose eyes we all do well to find favor. Our text provides an excellent example of a proper view of the people of God. Here is how Paul viewed Timothy.
OUR BROTHER. Here is one of the most tender and insightful views of a saint of God. It is not an institutional view, as though Paul was saying "He belongs to our group." Timothy was his brother because he was a child of God and a brother to Jesus. As members of Christ, we are also "members of one another" (Eph 4:25). This has nothing whatsoever to do with blood lines, for God's children are not born "of blood nor of the will of the flesh" (John 1:13). "Our brother" acknowledges Timothy is born of God and joined to Christ. It declares he possessed the same life Paul did, and was part of the family of God.
MINISTER OF GOD. This means "servant" RSV of God, for a "minister" is one who serves, or provides the needs of others. In this case, a "minister" is someone who is serving God, carrying out His will among the sons of men, and meeting the spiritual needs of His people. In his ministry to the people of God, Timothy was accomplishing what God desired. God's revealed cause was furthered by what this young man was doing. There are many who wear the title "minister," who are not ministers of God! God's ministers are people through whom He effectively works to establish His children and bring them home to glory.
FELLOW LABORER. There have never been a lot of people in this category. Often Paul confessed to the fewness of such people (2 Tim 1:5; 4:10,16; Phil 2:20). One of the great sorrows that attend labors for the Lord is the relative fewness of kindred workers. A fellow laborer is more than someone who is working. It is one who is heartily and diligently working for the same God and in the same purpose. It is a person whose labors complement or enhance the labors of another. Timothy's work tended to advance people in the faith.
IN THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST. The circumference within which Timothy labored was "the Gospel of Christ." That was his reference point and the area of his expertise. His proclamation concerned that Gospel, clarifying the message itself, and bringing the power of it to bear upon the lives of people. His labors were not in the field of economics, problem resolution, or numeric growth. Neither, indeed, did he operate under the delusion that the Gospel was only for the lost. He knew the Gospel was primarily for the saints, who derive the most from it. He knew it was God's "power unto salvation" from the beginning to the end (Rom 1:16). He could effectively bring the Gospel to bear upon the hearts of believers.
ESTABLISH YOU. The modern church is very defective in this area: establishment. To "establish" a person means to make them solid and immoveable in the faith. Paul is not suggesting the Thessalonians were weak and vacillating. However, by its very nature, spiritual life must advance and move forward. This is owing to at least two factors. First, believers are being prepared for eternity by being changed from one stage of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). This requires a stability that does not allow for retrogression, or falling back. Second, as believers move steadily toward the promised land, their adversary the devil intensifies his efforts to turn them aside (2 Cor 11:3; 1 Pet 5:8-9). Because he uses subtlety and craftiness, it is imperative that the saints be strong in the faith. Being "established" in the faith accomplishes these objectives.
ENCOURAGE YOU. The KJV reads, "to comfort you." The RSV reads, "to exhort you." Encouragement, or comfort, involves consolation and making strong. It includes teaching and powerful admonition to move forward in the faith. Those who are suffering for righteousness sake are inspired by encouragement to bear their cross and advance to glory. Those who have become weak or discouraged and thus made strong. Their spirits are lifted so they see "if God is for us, who can be against us" (Rom 8:31). What a marvelous advantage to have brethren among us who can accomplish these necessities! Timothy was such a man.
CONCERNING YOUR FAITH. Other versions read, "as to your faith," NASB "in your faith," NIV and "for the sake of your faith." NRSV If our faith is not strong, we are not strong! Our ability to "stand" is directly proportionate to the stability of our faith. Timothy's reliability was found in his commitment to strengthening the faith of God's people. Paul could send him to the Thessalonians, fully confident their faith would made more firm through him.
A GODLY VIEW OF AFFLICTIONS
" 3 . . . that no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this." The Thessalonians were suffering, and it was important that they endure these afflictions. One of the strongest tests of faith is the trial through which it leads. Believers must be strong and encouraged to pass these tests. That is why Timothy was sent.
SHAKEN BY THESE AFFLICTIONS. It is possible for the believer to be jarred loose from spiritual moorings. In affliction, God's design is to prove the strength of our faith and develop godly character. In the very same affliction, Satan attempts to sift out of us the good things we have received from God. This third verse explains more fully why Paul was sending Timothy to them. It was to establish and comfort them in their faith so they would not be moved backward by their afflictions. Other versions read, "so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions," NASB "so that no one would be unsettled by these trials," NIV and "so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions." NSRV The words "afflictions" and "trials" are more appropriate than "persecutions." Even though the Thessalonians were experiencing persecution, this is not the only form of trial or affliction. Often there are tests that do not involve other people, and siftings that are endured alone. Yet, all such trials have the ability to move us away from the Lord and commitment to Him if we are weak and doubting.
Think of the strength of the words "moved," "shaken," "unsettled," and "disturbed." They speak of agitation, turmoil, and trouble. It is when life itself becomes like a troubled sea that thrashes us about. One of the root meanings of the word "shaken," or "moved" is deceived or deluded. The idea is that trouble can deceive us into thinking things are not well with us, or that faith cannot sustain us. It can tempt us to compromise our faith in an attempt to lessen the pressure that it has caused. When that occurs, we have been "shaken" by our afflictions- moved into an area of unsound thought and degenerative contemplation.
We are living in a time when this type of backward movement is alarmingly present in the contemporary church. Much of the purported counseling that so dominates the religious scene is a feeble attempt to correct "shaken" and "unsettled" lives. While the motives for such involvement may appear noble, it is not wise. Unstable souls cannot be strengthened by merely speaking of their problems! Paul did not send Timothy to the Thessalonians to discuss their difficulties with them, or gain a better understanding of their circumstances. He sent him to "strengthen and encourage" them.
Whether men can receive it or not, a strong faith and encouraged spirit do enable the believer to withstand testings. Strengthened and inspired believers will be helped through their trials by their faith. God Himself, working through their faith, will be with them. It is sad to acknowledge that this kind of faith is rarely evident in our time.
YOU YOURSELVES KNOW. There is a common knowledge possessed by those of "common faith" (Tit 1:4). Sometimes that knowledge gets pushed to the background of our thinking during the stresses of life. It is then that our "pure minds" must be "stirred up" (2 Pet 3:1), so we can adjust both the compass and telescope of life-the direction we are going and the vision we sustain. What word, therefore, will Paul give them concerning their trials?
APPOINTED TO THIS. Here is something resident in true teaching. Our trials do not come by happenstance! We are "appointed" to them! Other versions read "destined for this," NASB "destined for them," NIV and "this is to be our lot." RSV There are two ways in which this is true. First, we are appointed to a life in this world that is attended by trouble, testing, and difficulty. In the world, we will have tribulation (John 16:33). Second, specific trials are appointed to us. These are tailored for us personally, to try our faith and keep us humble. An example of such a trial is the "thorn" received by Paul (2 Cor 12:7-9).
In both the general and specific views, we will not be tested above our ability (1 Cor 10:13). In both, we are being "counted worthy of the kingdom for which ye suffer" (2 Thess 1:5). In both, "weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psa 30:5). One of the most significant advances one makes in the faith, is when a proper view of suffering is realized. Few things serve to sweeten the cup of life as this. When trials are seen as Divine appointments, designed to ready us for the realm where there will be no trials, a holy determination will grip the heart. In the strength of that determination we will confidently "fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life" (1 Tim 6:12).
May you be given the grace to see the difficulties of your life through the eyes of faith. And, may each of us be instrumental in strengthening and encouraging one another for life.