COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 3:4-5 For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know. 5 For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labor be in vain." NKJV (1 Thessalonians 3:4-5)
There is a spirit associated with Kingdom labors as well as work and responsibility. What is done is important, but so is the manner in which it is done. A stewardship from the Lord is to be handled with wisdom, insight, and keen interest. All of these qualities are seen in the book of First Thessalonians. Faith came to the Thessalonians because of Paul's faithfulness to his stewardship. That stewardship involved a continued concern for the spiritual welfare of these believers. The spirit of Kingdom labors is revealed in Paul's expression of that concern. Because of the times in which we live, it is important that this be comprehended. What is presently called "ministry" is more professional than spiritual. It is more associated with career development, economic advantage, and self-satisfaction than the advancement of the saints. In the wake of these purported "ministries" there is a wave of spiritual ignorance and weakness that is unparalleled. A lack of genuine concern for the saints of God is revealed by spiritual froth and carnal lightheartedness. The seemingly prospering churches of our day are actually more involved in social issues and community concerns than the building up of the saints. But there is not a single syllable in Scripture that supports such a thrust among the servants of God. The ministry of Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus, and the Apostles were exclusively in things pertaining to God.
WHAT WE SAID WHEN WE WERE WITH YOU
" 4For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know." The idea expressed is that of repeatedly mentioning something. Other versions confirm this perspective: "we kept telling you." NASB,NIV There is also a sense of warning in the words, alerting the people to something for which they must be prepared. Thus some versions read, "we warned you." NLT As with the Ephesians, Paul had withheld nothing from the Thessalonian believers: "I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you." (Acts 20:20). And again, "For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). He did not portray life in Christ as though it was the resolution to all human difficulty. Rather, as the true servant of God, the nature of spiritual life was opened to the Thessalonians, lest they should become confused by the experiences of life. Thus Paul, Silas, and Timothy, were not among the Thessalonians merely as friends, but as true ministers of God. They proclaimed and clarified the nature of life in Christ.
CONFUSED BY LIFE. Many contemporary believers have been thrown into consternation by the experiences of life, simply because they do not understand the manner of spiritual life. When they are opposed by the world and suffer hardship, they are unable to make any association of those occurrences with their faith, or with life in Christ Jesus. They tend to view their problems in the flesh instead of in the Spirit. Further, there remains enough flesh in every believer to actually encourage these grossly deficient and debilitating views. It is the obligation of all who labor in the vineyard of the Lord to teach people what this text affirms: "we should suffer tribulation." The idea of "should" is not that it is an obligation that we suffer, but that we are "going to suffer affliction." NASB It WILL happen! It only remains for us to know what form it will take. This is part of being in Christ Jesus - suffering affliction, or tribulation. Paul said they repeatedly told the people this.
ALL BELIEVERS INCLUDED. When Paul says "we" (i.e., we should suffer), he does not mean himself, Silas, and Timothy alone. He is not saying, "We told you we were going to suffer because of our preaching, and, as you can see, that is precisely what happened." Rather, he is using the word "we" in a family sense: i.e., we believers. We know this is the case because of the very next verse. He sent to find out about their faith-how they were holding up under their suffering.
SUFFERING TRIBULATION. Faith puts us at variance with the world. It moves the believer to live for another world. A different mind and heart are received, so that one sees things differently, has a different set of values, and has a different focus in life. Because of this Jesus said, "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). This is because the world actually hates believers (John 15:19). They do not always know precisely why they hate them, and thus are clumsy in stating their reasons. Their nature clashes with the disposition of those with faith. As a result, they lash out against them, oppose them, and speak evil of them. They will fulfill the word of Jesus, "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20).
It is elsewhere confirmed, "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim 3:12). The word "will" is a vital one. It reflects a desire rather than an accomplishment-for where the desire is found, the godly life will be lived. Thus the NIV reads, "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Let it be clear, those who do not live godly lives do not WANT to live godly. But for those desiring to do so, their lives become a source of irritation to the godless. Sometimes that agitation can be a convicting one, as in Saul of Tarsus kicking against the goads (Acts 9:5). But whether a godly life provokes opposition or conviction, God is glorified in the matter. Thus it is written, "For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life" (2 Cor 2:15). The godly life actually brings out the status of those who are exposed to it.
As we advance toward glory, we must go through the maze of affliction. The intensity of the afflictions are measured by the Lord, and will not exceed our ability (1 Cor 10:13). It is the business of every faithful minister to make this known to the saints. Thus Paul and Barnabas elsewhere returned to those to whom they had ministered, "confirming" or strengthening them, and exhorting them to "continue in the faith," and affirming "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" NKJV (Acts 14:22). May God raise up faithful laborers who will again proclaim this warning with conviction and power.
I SENT TO KNOW YOUR FAITH
" 5a For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith . . . " Concerned for the spiritual welfare of those to whom he had ministered, Paul's spirit was agitated as he pondered their status. Although he was inspired, God did not reveal the status of the Thessalonians to Paul. As God had hidden the condition of the Shunammite woman from the prophet Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27), so God had hidden the situation of the Thessalonians from Paul. Elisha had to ask the Shunammite woman about her circumstances, and Paul had to inquire of the Thessalonians about theirs-even after he had long pondered them. He did not do this by simply asking about their faith, but by sending a discerning individual who would be able to perceive how they were doing in Christ.
THE NATURE OF MINISTRY. Something of the nature of spiritual ministry is seen in this text. Faith brings with it involvement with those to whom one ministers. It is not involvement on a fleshly level, but has to do with "in Christ Jesus." This does not mean there is no care for the physical circumstances of the elect. Knowing of the poverty of early saints, Paul was zealous to gather collections for their sustenance ( Acts 24:17; Rom 15:25-26; 1 Cor 16:1). Faith will not leave the minister satisfied in a state of ignorance concerning those to whom he has ministered. Thus Paul could not rest until he knew about the Thessalonians.
FINDING OUT ABOUT THEIR FAITH. What did Paul mean by saying "I sent to know your faith?" He was not inquiring if they had any faith at all, for he already knew them as believers (1:3,8; 2:10,13). Paul took some action to learn of the status of their faith. He wanted to know if their faith was strong (Rom 4:20) or weak (Rom 4:19); whether they were staggering through unbelief, or giving glory to God (Rom 4:20). This is the same spirit expressed by Paul to Barnabas when he sought to return to the places in which they had preached. "Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do" (Acts 15:36).
WHY INQUIRE ABOUT FAITH? Why did Paul send to learn about their faith? Why not their health or economic status? It is certainly not because he had no interest in those things, for he had a keen interest in relieving the oppressed (Acts 11:29; 1 Tim 5:16). There was, however, a higher motive here. People can go to heaven even though they are "destitute" (Heb 11:37), even though the saints are to relieve such (James 1:27; 2:16). However, a deficiency in faith brings eternal consequences. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God" (Heb 11:6). Those who are justified "live by faith" (Rom 1:17). That is the appointed means through which we receive the indispensable "righteousness of God" (Rom 3:22). Our access to the sorely required grace of God is "by faith" (Rom 5:2). Faith is what enables us to "stand," unmoved by the assaults of the wicked one and the appointed tests of God (2 Cor 1:24). Christ dwells in our hearts "by faith" (Eph 3:17), and the promised Spirit is received "through faith" (Gal 3:14). The grace of God saves us, but it does so "through faith" (Eph 2:8). The Scriptures can only be comprehended through faith, so that one becomes "wise in the matter of salvation" (2 Tim 3:15). It is "through faith and patience" that we "inherit the promises" of God (Heb 6:12). God even keeps us by His power "through faith" (1 Pet 1:5).
If our faith is weak, all of these benefits are about to slip away from us. They can only be grasped by faith. That is why faith must be strong. If people are not built up in the faith, they will be torn down by unbelief. If their afflictions erode their faith, they are moving them closer to perdition. There simply is no way for us to be sustained apart from faith. If we find it difficult to rely upon the Lord, we have need of a strong faith. If we cannot rely upon the Lord in the midst of trouble, we are weak in the faith and need strengthening.
All of the great exploits of men and woman of God were credited to their faith. Abel's superior offering was owing to his faith (Heb 11:4). Enoch was translated because of his faith (Heb 11:5). Noah built the ark because of faith (Heb 11:7). Abraham obeyed God, sojourned in the land of promise, and offered Isaac because of his faith (Heb 11:8,9,17). Isaac blessed Jacob, and Jacob blessed both of Joseph's sons, because of their faith (Heb 11:20-21). Joseph asked to have his bones removed from Egypt because he believed (Heb 11:22). Moses' parents hid him when he was born because of their faith (Heb 11:23). Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, and forsook Egypt, because of his faith (Heb 11:24,27).
It is no wonder that Paul had a driving compulsion to know about the Thessalonian's faith! He knew the manner of the Kingdom. He knew if their faith was well, so were they. He knew if their faith was weak, they were in jeopardy. I cannot help but marvel that a concern for the faith of saints is so exceedingly rare in our times. It is an omen of trouble.
TEMPTATION AND LABORING IN VAIN
" 5b . . . lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labor be in vain." The more familiar I become with the Word of God, the more I am convinced that there is a dominating ignorance of it in the professed church. The things that were of great concern to the Apostles are hardly known in our time. In fact, some of them are denied by erroneous and damaging theologies. Take the text before us as an example. Paul had a deep concern about Satan's attack of the Thessalonians. "I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless." NIV Some deny that such things are even possible. They have embraced a view of Scripture that repudiates the notion that Satan could put any child of God in jeopardy, or that any spiritual effort could be "useless." It is the devil himself who has promoted such views!
THE TEMPTER. Satan is twice called "the tempter" in Scripture. One is related to the wilderness temptation of Jesus, when "the tempter came to Him" (Matt 4:3). The other is our text. The word "tempter" means one who tests or tries by enticement or allurement. Using subtlety, Satan attempts to move us away from believing. Remember, Paul sent Timothy to learn of the Thessalonian's faith. "The tempter," therefore, had the destruction of their faith as his objective. Only faith can repel the attacks of "the tempter." Thus it is written , "your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith" (1 Pet 5:8-9).
It is interesting to note that the words "tempt" and "tempted" are rarely used in the Old Covenant Scriptures in the sense of our text. In fact, I cannot find a single incident. Nearly every time they are used in Moses and the Prophets, they have to do with men tempting God, not the devil tempting them (Ex 17:2,7; Num 14:22; Deut 6:16; Psa 78:18,41,56; 95:8-9; 106:14; Isa 7:12; Mal 3:15). Once "tempt" is used in reference to God testing Abraham (Gen 22:1). "Temptations" are also used to describe Israel's trials (Deut 4:34; 7:19; 29:3).
Life in Christ Jesus bears very little resemblance to life under the Law. In Him, a very real change has been wrought in men. Now Satan's approach is more subtle, and his activity as a tempter is the means he uses to drag believers back to perdition. He is so active and so intense in this activity that a special Intercessor is provided to neutralize his advances. Therefore it is written, "For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted" (Heb 2:18). That "succor," or Divine help, is realized through our faith, which is the exclusive means of appropriating the grace of God (Eph 2:8). Thus, knowing the condition of their faith would confirm whether or not they had been able to resist Satan's advances. Among other things, this teaches us never to take temptation lightly, or put ourselves into a situation that gives the advantage to "the tempter" (Eph 4:27).
USELESS LABORS. How is it that Paul speaks of laboring in vain, or useless labors? Is it not written that "labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor 15:58)? That statement is made to believers to prompt them to intense spiritual activity, being "steadfast and unmoveable." Our text speaks of another valid facet of the Kingdom. All of our labors for the souls of men will be tested in the day of judgment. This testing is vividly described in the third chapter of First Corinthians. There, converts are depicted as the "works," or results, of Kingdom labors. These converts are likened to non-combustible and combustible materials: "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble." Should the converts prove to be "wood, hay, and stubble," the man's "work shall be burned," and "he shall suffer loss." The laborer himself must also pass the test of Divine judgment, and thus be "saved, but only as one escaping through the flames" NIV(1 Cor 3:12-15). The suffering of "loss" is the same as laboring in vain, or useless labors.
Paul had the same concern for the Galatians, although they had already given evidence of departing from the faith to a system of Law (Gal 4:11). He expressed the same concern for the Philippians, urging them work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, continuing to hold out the word of life, so he could "rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain" (Phil 2:16).
If those to whom we have ministered ultimately fall to the devices of the devil, all labor expended on them will have been useless. God's objective in salvation is not to bring temporary relief to humanity, or enable them to have a mere season of blessing. The aim is to conform them to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29), and bring them to glory (Heb 2:10). As our text indicates, if that does not occur, it is a most serious circumstance. There is no place for heartless and mechanical labors in the Kingdom of God.