Sunday School Lesson for September 23, 2001
I Thessalonians 2:17-3:5
Paul’s Desire to Return to Thessalonica (2:17-20)
In this section of the epistle, Paul speaks openly of his great love and concern for the spiritual children he was so suddenly forced to abandon. He testifies of having been "bereft of them," or more literally "orphaned" or torn away, by the actions of the authorities in Thessalonica (Acts 17:8-10). While Paul had earlier compared himself to both a mother and father, it is significant that he now sees himself as a child forcefully taken from his family. Such language displays some degree of the intense love that the apostle had developed for those he had led to Christ. The physical separation from his "brethren"—"in person, not in spirit"—had spawned a fervent "desire" to be with them again. Interestingly, this is one of the few occurrences of the word translated "desire," typically rendered "lust," where it is used in a positive light.
The intense love and concern that he had for his Thessalonian brethren repeatedly –"more than once"—fueled Paul’s determination to return to the city in order to personally minister to them again. However, despite his intentions, the apostle declared that "Satan thwarted us." This dramatic statement indicates that, in some unspecified manner, Satan prevented Paul and his companions from fulfilling their intentions to visit the city and the church once again. The verb "thwarted" was a military term employed outside of Scripture to describe the destruction or fragmentation of a roadway in order to make it impassible for invading troops. Here the idea seems to be that of hindering or impeding the progress of Paul’s missionary endeavors. Clearly, Paul regarded this as the diabolical work of a personal, evil being—the "tempter" (3:5) or the "evil one" (2 Thess. 2:3)—who had intervened in the affairs of the missionaries. We are not informed as to the exact nature of this satanic activity, although there is much speculation that it primarily centered in the actions of the politarchs in expelling the missionaries from Thessalonica (Acts 17:8-10). If this is the case, the apparent significance of this statement is that Paul regarded Satan as the ultimate power behind such violent and determined opposition to the gospel. While the individuals who perpetrated this type of antagonism to the work of Christ were both guilty and accountable to God, their actions betrayed the signature of Satan himself who initiates and empowers such conflict.
Having stated his earnest intentions to visit them again, Paul continued to communicate his apostolic delight in his Thessalonian brethren. Here, Paul makes use of three descriptive terms that depict his righteous sense of pride in his spiritual children. Note that each of the three words—"hope," "joy," and "crown"—are qualified by the phrase "in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming." Thus, at the glorious return of Christ, referred to here as "the presence," or royal appearance (3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1,8) of the Lord, Paul would have abundant justification for his sense of satisfaction in them.
The Purpose for Sending Timothy (3:1-5)
Here, the deep concern Paul had for the young believers at Thessalonica is evidenced by his desire to discover news of their faithfulness to Christ. He speaks of his inability to "endure it [any] longer"—that is, the passage of time without any confirmation of their spiritual condition. Literally, Paul confessed that he was powerless to contain his anxiety any longer. He had a pressing need to see that they were secured in their faith and adequately shielded from a variety of spiritual dangers. Therefore, he determined to dispatch Timothy to Thessalonica and "be left behind in Athens alone." According to this description, it is clear that the great Apostle faced a "real sense of privation" with the decision to send Timothy back to the church. Though he was keenly aware that "his helper’s departure was necessary, he had felt himself abandoned. He had to face the cultured philosophers and idolaters of Athens, and to face them alone" (Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, TNTC vol. 13, 61).
Upon his arrival at Thessalonica, Timothy, the faithful "brother" and "God’s fellow worker," was charged with the twin tasks of "strengthening" and "encouraging" the believers there. As Charles Wanamaker observes, this was "but the first of many occasions on which Timothy served as Paul’s agent when Paul was unable to pay a personal visit to one of the churches that he had established (see 1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10; Phil. 2:19)"(The Epistles to the Thessalonians, NIGTC, 127). That Timothy was allowed to return to Thessalonica when Paul and Silas were not may be explained by the fact that, as the son of a Greek father, he might have been less obvious to the authorities and the hostile Jews present in the city (see Bruce, 64).
The principle meaning of "strengthening. . . as to your faith" is that of establishing stability and soundness in both the cognitive and ethical dimensions of the Christian faith. To "encourage. . . as to you faith" means that Timothy would come alongside of his brothers and sisters in Christ for the purpose of providing them with continual comfort and assurance. This special ministry would be especially vital in light of the many and varied difficulties which they constantly faced (v. 3). Such "afflictions," or more literally "pressures," might possibly cause them to be "disturbed," or dislodged, set adrift, and broken loose from their spiritual moorings. Thus, Timothy’s essential task was to ensure that the Thessalonians would not be "cajoled with smooth talk when they were in the midst of persecution and difficulties" (Morris, 63). Morris adds that while they were continually being harassed by the Gentiles, "the Jews were urging them to abandon the Christian way and accept Judaism, which would immediately free them from their plight" (63). Note that Paul is quick to remind his readers that such afflictions were the norm for all believers who had been "destined for this" type of persecution. In the same way that God had "destined," or appointed them for salvation (1:4) and deliverance on the day of judgment (5:9), He had "equally appointed them to endure affliction in their present mortal life" (Bruce, 62). According to verse 4, this was Paul’s repeated message and solemn warning to them—"that we [are] going to suffer affliction"—that "came to pass" indeed. The news of certain affliction would, in a strange way, provide encouragement to the Thessalonian church and assurance that they were the children of God. Wanamaker comments that Paul desired to reassure them that
the tribulations suffered at the hands of their fellow citizens were neither arbitrary nor isolated happenings but part of their God-appointed destiny . . . . God had destined Christians for affliction as part of the process that leads to their salvation. Therefore suffering of affliction is actually a proof of divine election and of the imminence of redemption for the people of God (130).
Again, Paul states his rationale for sending Timothy to them as his trusted representative—"to find out about your faith." Since there was the very real "fear that the tempter might have tempted [them]" to abandon their trust in Christ, Timothy would be able to provide the necessary leadership and teaching to ensure their spiritual purity and devotion.
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: Christian Leadership Style—How would you characterize the style of leadership employed by Paul? What words or descriptive phrase would best depict his ministry to the Thessalonians? What elements should be duplicated in our ministries as leaders of Christ’s church?
Two: A Biblical Theology of Satan—What two extremes must be avoided in developing a biblical view of Satan? How does Satan thwart the plans and purposes of God’s people today? What are his main weapons against the church?
Three: The Benefits of Affliction and Persecution—How do tribulation, persecution, and other such difficulties actually serve the church? What are the positive effects of persecution upon doctrine, fellowship, evangelism, and personal holiness?
Four: The Leader’s Job Description—Based upon 3:2, how would you define and describe the main tasks of Christian leaders today?
Five: The Leader’s Motivation for Service—What is the connection between the coming of Christ and our service to Christ’s body?