When Others Cared for You

Explore the Bible Series

December 28, 2008


Background Passage: I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

Lesson Passage: I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13


This passage provides a fascinating glimpse into the emotional life of the Apostle Paul.  Some may have an inclination to so deeply admire Paul that they diminish his obvious humanity.  Like all of us, the apostle experienced seasons of distress, both physical and emotional (these two aspects of human character are profoundly intertwined).  With my reader’s gracious indulgence, this lesson “outline” will depart a bit from the accustomed format.  This week, I trust we can explore the contours of Paul’s internal life, and, in doing so, investigate our own attitudes in the Lord’s service.  Of course, a simple description of Paul’s struggles serves little purpose; therefore, we must probe the passage for the manner in which the apostle dealt with his struggles


Loneliness: Paul employed striking language to express his longing to see the Thessalonians.  “Being taken from you” (v. 17) translates a word that means to be orphaned (ESV says “torn away from”).  Many orphaned children roamed the streets of cities in the Mediterranean world.  No doubt, Paul had seen many of these children in Athens and Corinth.  These desperate children had little chance for survival, left to their own devices, and the apostle used this familiar imagery to express his sense of isolation from the Thessalonians.  


Recently I reviewed a film about the horrific bloodshed during the civil war in Sierra Leone.  Political insurgents, hoping to control the lucrative diamond industry,  terrorized the countryside; killing, pillaging, and raping the helpless.  The violence separated thousands of children from their parents.  Cholera-ridden refugee camps teemed with displaced families searching desperately for loved ones.  The rebel forces often kidnapped boys and brainwashed the children to become cold-blooded killers, sometimes murdering their own family members.  I cannot adequately describe the anguish I felt as I observed the filmmakers’ efforts to capture the unspeakable anguish in Sierra Leone.  Perhaps Paul felt something of this kind of desolation in his separation from his spiritual children. 


Frustration: Again and again, Paul had made efforts to reconnect with his friends in Thessalonica, but Satan frustrated the apostle’s best intentions.  He sought this reunion “eagerly” and “with great desire.”  “Epithumia” (“great desire”) is often used in the New Testament to describe lust or covetousness, but here, Paul used the term to reflect his deep passion for seeing his friends. Unmistakably, Paul laid the blame for his frustration at the feet of Satan.


Modern readers may recoil from this reference to a malignant spiritual being who frustrates the intentions of good men, but Paul’s belief in Satan cannot be denied.  The text doesn’t reveal how Satan hindered Paul.  Some think the apostle was stricken with some illness, while others have speculated that the political situation in Macedonia may have prevented Paul’s travel.  In the end, we cannot know what prevented the apostle from reuniting with the believers in Thessalonica, but Paul believed Satan was at the root of the problem..


At the end of this paragraph, Paul revealed the remedy for loneliness and frustration.  He took consolation in the character of those who had benefited from his ministry.  Like any person, Paul was not immune to the temptation to feel that his work had borne little fruit, but churches, like that in Thessalonica, salved Paul’s troubled heart.  As long as they continued to grow in the faith, the Lord’s servant knew he had not wasted his life.  The Thessalonian believers were his hope, joy, and crown. 


Dear friends, do you understand the important role you play in encouraging those who preach the gospel to you?  The measure of their success rests in the love and spiritual growth of you who profit from their tireless labor in the word. Does your pastor see you as his glory and joy?


Affliction: Chapter Three focuses on Paul’s suffering as a missionary.  Shortly after Paul’s conversion, a man named Ananias told the apostle that he would suffer great things for the sake of God’s name (See Acts 9:16), and the Lord had remained true to his promise!  At almost every turn, the apostle experienced great hardship in his gospel labors: imprisonment, stoning, murderous riots, beatings, and scourgings. The Thessalonians had first-hand evidence of the truth of Paul’s observations about suffering.  This passage reveals that the apostle felt the sting of these persecutions.  He was no dispassionate, robotic, Stoic; rather, he keenly anguished over the physical and emotional pain he experienced, especially at the hands of his own people.   Above all, he feared that his circumstances might discourage his friends.  Surely, in time, they too would experience persecution, and the prospect of suffering may have tempted some to turn from the gospel.  Paul, some time before he wrote this letter, sent Timothy to affirm the faith of the Thessalonians (See 3:5f)


Conclusion:  The last few verses of Chapter Three (vv. 6-13) give insight into Paul’s manner of dealing with the loneliness, frustration, and affliction he experienced and God’s people, of every generation, would be wise to follow the apostle’s example.


  1. Gratitude (vv 6-9): At long last, Timothy had returned to Paul to give a good report on the progress of the Lord’s work in Thessalonica.  The believers loved and prayed for Paul, and they stood fast in the faith.  Many times, the burden of our afflictions will lighten in the presence of thanksgiving. God did not shield Paul from affliction and distress (both words denote pressure, crushing weight, choking by pressure), but the Lord did encourage Paul in his hardships.
  2. Prayerfulness (vv. 10-13): The apostle prayed earnestly (word denotes abundant prayer) and continuously (“day and night”) for his friends.  In particular, he asked God for an opportunity to fill up what was lacking in their faith. Recall that Paul had only spent a short time with the Thessalonians (about three weeks), and they had much to learn about the Christian faith. Paul wanted to aid these dear folks in their understanding of the gospel and its implications for their worship and conduct.  With that end in mind, he continually prayed that God would again direct his path to his brethren.  He also petitioned the Lord for their growth in love and holiness.  Note that the text makes clear that holiness of conduct arises from a blameless heart (See v. 13).  Finally, Paul directed their attention to the return of Jesus, at the end of the age. 





A Personal Word


I hope all of you will indulge me for a moment as I do some reflection about the last four and a half years.  I began writing these little outlines in August, 2004, and I have no words to adequately express my gratitude to the Founders folks for giving me this opportunity.  Frankly, this work has helped me in my discipline of studying the Bible. 


This week’s lesson reminds me of my need to grow in my appreciation of the Lord’s blessings, and you folk bless me.  Sometimes I hear from my readers, and the messages you send almost always encourage me.  In fact, I have developed and deepened some friendships through corresponding with you (Bob and Al, I especially appreciate your friendship and helpfulness). 


I appreciate the work many of you do in Bible classes in your local churches.  Hopefully, your classes express their gratitude for your selfless, sacrificial labors, in their behalf. May the Lord bless each of you with great fruitfulness in your labors for the Kingdom of God.  Southern Baptists have many areas where we need to grow (I write as a life-long Southern Baptist and the son of a Baptist preacher), but we do some things very well.  In particular, I rejoice that our churches give opportunity to capable people to teach the Bible.  Keep up the good work. 


Also, I am grateful for our textbook, the Bible.  Frankly, the Scriptures puzzle me at times, and I certainly do not claim any remarkable knowledge or insight into its mysteries and riches.  Nevertheless, I have found these studies very helpful.  The Bible serves as reliable, authoritative source of spiritual insight, wisdom, and direction, and it continually challenges me to think more clearly and walk more blamelessly (got a long way to go on this). 


Next, I want to express my appreciation again to the Founders folks for giving me his opportunity.  These men serve as good examples of pastoral leadership and have helped many in the quest to grow in an understanding of the gospel.  In particular, I want to thank Tom Nettles and Bill Ascol for their encouragement and support of my work.  Stan Reeves works tirelessly, despite a heavy teaching schedule, to administer the Founders website.  Thanks, Stan.  All of us owe a debt of gratitude, and I’m very thankful for your patience and helpfulness. 


Above all, I thank the Lord for this opportunity.  Frankly, I know many people could write these outlines with greater wisdom and insight than I possess; nevertheless, God has given me the privilege of completing this work, and I rejoice in the blessing.  He has blessed me despite myself, in his warm, patient grace. 


I write these words on Christmas Eve and thoughts of the wonder of the incarnation fill my heart.  You folks are a gift to me.  May the Lord bless all of you with a wonderful Christmas season.