A Primary, Heartfelt Concern
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
1 Thessalonians 3:1-12
Ministry is tough. Caring for souls is an arduous, gut-wrenching, exhausting, emotionally draining endeavor. That’s what I see in this chapter. When I read these words, it’s almost as if Paul was on an emotional rollercoaster. He knew the “ups” and “downs” and “going-around” of life and ministry. He knew the joy of ministry, the hardship of ministry, the personal cost of ministry, the heavy burden of ministry, and even wondered at times if his labors were all for nothing.
As we resume our studies in this epistle, I remind you we’ve assumed our course under the heading of ‘the excellent ministry.’ Paul was, of course, an excellent minister. He therefore serves as a model for all who would do ministry. His pattern is the right one because it’s the Biblical one. We aren’t interested in doing life and ministry any other way. Many of our contemporaries may call out to us from any number of platforms and by any number of means, telling us to do church, to do ministry their way. But they don’t have our ears because, despite who they claim to be, they do not carry the weight of the Bible. We must never forget this. I will not tire of saying it to you. The Bible is our book. It is the authority for all matters of faith and practice. It’s clear on these things. And the Bible is sufficient for these things. And regarding the excellent ministry, the chapter before us tells us that:
“A primary, heartfelt concern of excellent ministry is steadfastness in the faith.”
Three main heads:
I. Paul’s attitude was selfless.
First head concerns the attitude required for this. The very first verse drips of this. Paul writes: “Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone.” The apostle had just recounted how he was ripped away from these new believers. He had poured his life into them, teaching them the faith. But because of their activities, because the Jewish establishment became jealous, and because they preached Christ, Paul and Silas were run out of town. It wasn’t their choice. But it was providential, and not without pain. In fact, Paul also writes of his many attempts to return to Thessalonica. But, he says, Satan hindered them. Satan, the invisible ‘monkey wrench,’ prevented their return. “Therefore when we could bear it no longer,” he says, “we were willing to be left behind at Athens.” The separation had become unbearable. Why it was so was in part due to his love for them. These were dear folks to Paul. He loved them. He had real affections for these bunch of – sinners. He deeply wished to be with them again for this reason alone. But when it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, he was ‘willing to be left behind – at Athens – alone.’
Paul’s attitude was selfless. He really and truly considered the needs of the Thessalonian church above his own. I want us to hear this. Paul considered the needs of the church and its welfare as more important than his needs – like comfort afforded by companionship, in a city such as Athens, no less. What was it like to stroll through Athens, a city of intellectuals, religious intellectuals of many stripes, with a message that wasn’t quite, shall we say ‘politically correct?’ My guess would be that it would be like walking the streets of any strange 21st century city with no cell phone, hotel room, or friend at your side- but with one difference. Christ was unknown. The God who is was an unknown God. What was it like for Paul, the man, the fallen man, to be alone in that city, with no one to buttress him! This is to say nothing of the benefits of group travel. Luggage had to be carried. And there was safety in numbers. We can only imagine how exposed and vulnerable he felt. But Paul thought it best to be left alone rather than leave the Thessalonians by themselves. They came first. Why they did so we shall see in a moment.
But there’s something very Christ-like about this, isn’t there?
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…” (Phil. 2:1-7).
Paul’s attitude was selfless. It was Christ-like. This is what excellent ministry looks like, even ‘participation in the Spirit.’
II. Paul’s action was decisive.
Second head: Paul’s action was decisive. In the second verse we learn Paul sent one of his ‘top guns’ back to Thessalonica. Timothy wasn’t just any ‘Tom, Dick, or Harry.’ Timothy was, as he’s described here, ‘our brother,’ –which makes him bound spiritually to Paul – and ‘God’s coworker in the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ Such were Timothy’s credentials. Whatever it is we wish to make of them, one thing is clear: Paul’s decisive action was anything but cheap. It cost him a good, dear man, and a faithful one.
Why he did this, why he decided to give up what he gave up in Timothy, and why he chose to go it alone, simply underscores both Paul’s concern and the nature of the task assigned. The last phrase of verse 2 tells the story. Timothy’s mission was ‘to establish and exhort [them] in [their] faith.’ This is a very pastoral assignment. This is the aim of every Biblically faithful pastor. To establish is ‘to cause to be inwardly firm or committed’ (BDAG). Timothy’s job was to cause these believers to be ‘inwardly firm’ in their faith, that is, in the faith, in the one Paul preached. How he was to do this is by exhorting. Exhortation, weighty admonition, is the means. Let me give you an example. One elder recently expressed to another elder elder how he felt inadequate for the task. The elder elder replied, “Shut up and follow your Master!” So, he did. True story. I won’t soon forget it. It’s what I needed to hear to snap me out of my self-obsession and pity party. I didn’t need emotional coddling. Pastor Moe told me to shut up! Don’t listen to yourself, in other words. Fix thine eyes on Christ!
But let’s be clear on something.
Establishing, or strengthening churches in the faith by exhortation is central to faithful, excellent ministry (The way we tell someone to close his mouth depends, of course, on the relationship). Jesus tells Simon Peter in Luke 22:32 – “…I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” So, what does Peter do before he’s nailed upside down on a cross? He writes two letters. In the second he writes, “…I intend always to remind you of these qualities [he had just listed several godly qualities], though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.” Luke records that “After spending some time [in Antioch], he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23). And why does Paul describe Timothy as a coworker with God? Maybe Romans 16:25 sheds some light. It reads, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ…” Establishing believers is a work of God, one in which men like Paul and Timothy and pastors share. But that’s not all. All believers are called to share this work.
Hebrews chapter 3 fits here nicely.
Remember this? “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, IF we hold our original confidence firm until the end.” This is the responsibility of every believer, not just a select few. This is why the local church exists, in part, and why watching church on TV, or merely listening to sermons on mp3 doesn’t cut it. Christ did not die to make isolated believers. He died to create the church, a body of believer in fellowship for the fight against, not each other, but sin. That’s what the church is for. That’s what churches, real churches, do. And that’s part of what makes the church the church and not a simple, mere association or club for those who need a pat on the back. It stung for a second. What Moe said to me was like Buckley’s: It tasted awful. Who likes to be told to shut up? ‘But Moe, don’t you want to know how it feels for me?’ Ha! He never gave me the chance to ask. Instead, he cut straight to the issue. ‘Stop talking and do what you’re called to do! Follow Christ!’ And guess what? It worked!
The charge to Timothy to establish and exhort them in their faith came for the following purpose. It’s right there in the third and fourth verses: “that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.” Timothy’s ministry aimed at stability in the midst of persecution. Because they weren’t closet Christians, the Thessalonians took hits for their faith, for their allegiance to Christ in all things. The precise danger and concern is that any might be moved by these afflictions. That is to say, Paul’s concern for them is for their steadfastness in the faith. To be moved here is to be shaken so as to give up one’s beliefs. Yes. Paul was concerned about apostasy in Thessalonica. Actually, he feared that his labors were all for nothing. Fruitless. That’s what he says in verse five. He feared that the tempter had tempted them and that his labor was in vain.
I do not know what Timothy might have said to establish them in such a time. But this is my guess. He would have reminded them of at least these five things:
(1) “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
- This is not a ‘maybe.’ It doesn’t say that. This is a sure-fire thing. Truly believing and living godly in Christ and persecution go hand in glove. Ill-treatment and true religion go together. It’s not that mockery and the cold shoulder and hatred on account of Christ isn‘t normal. It is normal.
(2) “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ IF they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 16:18-20).
- If they hate you because you’re serving Christ, you have solid proof of your election.
(3) “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 24:13).
- But the question is “Endures in what?” The verse before this one makes it plain: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” Those who endure to the end in hot love for Christ will be saved! What’s your spiritual temperature?
(4) Jesus is coming back to get you (cf. 1:10). Jesus is coming back to get you. This isn’t it. This will pass. Christ, in all His splendor and power and glory is coming back. So, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb. 12:3).
(5) Our God predestined our persecution. It’s right there in verse three. Paul says believers are ‘destined for this.’ “Shall I take from your hand your blessings yet not welcome any pain. Shall I thank you for days of sunshine yet grumble in days of rain?” And many say yes, not with their lips per se. But here’s the deal: God says suffering for Him is a gift and therefore is a blessing. We got it all wrong. Just listen to Paul: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).
I think that’s some of what Timothy might have said to them by way of exhortation, to keep them from falling away.
But this is the context into which Paul sent Timothy.
He knew these converts would be taking hits, big hits, because they turned to Christ. So, he sent Timothy. And he did so, not just for exhortation, but for his own education. Verse 5: “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.” Paul wished desperately to know how the people of God were faring in the face of the enemy of God and His people. Two things are striking here.
First, notice what Paul actually feared.
He feared the tempter, Satan, had tempted them so as to bring his labors among them to nothing. Remember, these were new converts, maybe 2-3 months old. Maybe. I’m guessing. And remember they received the word with joy. We know that from chapter one. Now listen: “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for awhile; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). Evidently, this was Paul’s concern: apostasy. Falling away from the faith, from Christ and his church. It happens all the time. People start well. But they crash sometime afterwards. They might publically renounce Christ. Or they may not. Instead they just might blend in, be flat, and then slowly drift away.
The second striking thing is this…
Paul wanted to know about their faith. He longed to know their spiritual temperature. Were they caving under pressure? Was their love for Christ growing cold so that they gave up being together? One of the very first signs of lukewarm-ness is drift away from the church. It is remarkable to consider, furthermore, everything Paul wasn’t concerned to learn. These folks were being pelted, and yet Paul shows no concern for their emotional well-being, their physical safety, their job status, or anything. It’s not that these things are unimportant. But they’re not ultimate! Paul’s only concern here is for their faith! This is what excellent ministry is concerned about. Again, it’s not that the physical or emotional is to be ignored. But neither are they to define life and ministry. Why not? Here it is: “…while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Excellent ministry is concerned about spiritual matters, soul matters, eternal matters, faith in Christ! Does this describe us? Is this truly our concern? Or are we happy to converse about, and encourage each other in lesser things?
“A primary, heartfelt concern of excellent ministry is steadfastness in the faith.”
Where are you in relation to all this this morning? Are you holding steady? Drifting? Indifferent? Is the state of your faith, your relationship to Christ, His truth, and His people of primary concern for you? Or do you have something better to do?
Paul’s attitude was selfless. His action was decisive. And finally…
III. Paul’s joy is explosive.
This is what I see in verses 6-13. We won’t take the time to re-read them. I simply draw two things from them for our consideration before we close.
First, Paul’s joy is their faithfulness.
That’s what he means when he says in verse 8: “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” Here’s a man with virtually nothing. He’s a poor preacher with shirt on his back and shoes on his feet. And what makes him happy? Their faithfulness to Christ makes him happy! Period! He didn’t want anything from them. He’s already made that clear to us. He never came to them with a pretext for greed. He wasn’t in it for himself. He was in it for them. So, I think the application is obvious. I’m going to say this and then as soon as I do, I’ll regret saying it (kidding): If you want to make your pastor happy, whoever he is, if his heart is right, don’t give him stuff. He’s not in it for stuff. He’s in it for you. Your faithfulness to Christ makes him happy. [You can tweak that a bit. But you know what I’m saying!] Secondly, we must pay close attention to how Paul envisions ‘standing fast in the Lord.’ Some key phrases scattered throughout the epistle to this point:
- “work of faith”
- “labor of love”
- “steadfastness of hope in the Lord”
- ‘you became imitators of us and the Lord’
- ‘you became an example to all the believers’
- ‘your faith has gone forth everywhere
- ’you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’
- ‘you received the word of God…as the word of God’
- ‘you suffered’
- ‘your faith and love’
- ‘you…long to see us’
This is what the gospel looks like in everyday life. This is what standing fast looks like. It’s not in the closet, but very public. It’s not home alone, but with others. It’s not even private devotions, or ‘quiet time.’ These aren’t bad things. But they’re not the ultimate things. The truly valuable thing is not private devotion per se; evidently it’s corporate affection. Just listen to how Paul links love and holiness together (in verses 11-13):
“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
Why does Paul wish that the Lord ‘make you increase and abound in love for one another’? It’s so that he might ‘establish your hearts blameless in holiness!’ That’s the main thing. That’s the real deal. That’s what standing fast in the faith looks like. And that’s a primary, heartfelt concern of an excellent ministry. Therefore, so stand we all.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://christmycovenant.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/todd-braye.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Todd Braye (B. Mus., M.Div) is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Blacke, Alberta, Canada. After graduating from the Canadian Theological Seminary, he served a Baptist church in eastern Ontario for six years before coming home to Alberta. He has been SGBC’s pastor since October 1, 2005.[/author_info] [/author]