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Thessalonians Series: How to Love the Local Church More Deeply (1 Thess 2:17-3:13)




How to Love the Local Church More Deeply

 

But when we were separated from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time (in presence, not in affection) we became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person. For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again), but Satan thwarted us. For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? For you are our glory and joy! So when we could bear it no longer, we decided to stay on in Athens alone. We sent Timothy, our brother and fellow worker for God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and encourage you about your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know. So when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter somehow tempted you and our toil had proven useless. But now Timothy has come to us from you and given us the good news of your faith and love and that you always think of us with affection and long to see us just as we also long to see you! So in all our distress and affliction, we were reassured about you, brothers and sisters, through your faith. For now we are alive again if you stand firm in the Lord. For how can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy we feel because of you before our God? We pray earnestly night and day to see you in person and make up what may be lacking in your faith. Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13 (NET)

 

 

How can we develop a deeper love and concern for believers in our churches? In John 13:35, Christ said, “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.” Also, in Romans 5:5, Paul said, “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Christ taught that true believers will be marked by loving one another. This is because we have the Holy Spirit within us. One of the promises of the New Covenant is that God would take away our stony hearts and give us hearts of flesh (Ez 36:26-27). He would do this by giving us his Holy Spirit.

 

Unfortunately, instead of being marked by deep love and concern for one another, most members of Christ’s church are marked by apathy. At most, we show up to church on Sunday, but we often don’t take time to get to know one another and carry one another’s burdens. Sometimes, we’re even marked by discord with others.

 

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:10, Paul demonstrates what it means to love a church deeply. It must be remembered that Paul only preached in Thessalonica publicly for three sabbath days and possibly a few more weeks privately with those who followed Christ. Because of his following, the Jews in the city became jealous. Consequently, in Acts 17, they stirred up a riot over Paul’s ministry, and he had to quickly leave the city for safety. After Thessalonica, he briefly ministered in Berea, but the Jews from Thessalonica heard about his ministry and went to Berea to stir up trouble for him there. Therefore, Paul had to leave Berea for Athens. While in Athens, Paul sent Timothy to check in on the Thessalonians because he was worried about their faith. He had heard that they were being persecuted just like he was. Also, apparently, the Jews were lying about Paul to pull the Thessalonians away from Christ. Since Thessalonica was a popular trade destination, many religious teachers would come through the city to teach their philosophies. In doing so, they commonly would take advantage of the people they ministered to by gaining their unquestioned allegiance and taking their money and their women. The Jews were saying that Paul was simply another religious huckster, so Paul defended himself against those attacks in the heart of the Thessalonian letter in Chapter 2.

 

However, it seems that they were not just accusing his ministry there but also his quick departure. Why did Paul leave so quickly and not return, they asked? For those accusing him, this was proof that Paul really did not care about the Thessalonians and that his motives were spurious. In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:10, Paul argued that even though he was taken away from them in body, he never left them in spirit and that he always sought to return to them. In 1 Thessalonians 2:17, he said this: “But when we were separated from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time (in presence, not in affection) we became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person.” Therefore, from his arguments, we learn how we can love the church more deeply as well. Paul was marked by his love. In fact, even though persecuted by the Jews in every town he went to, in Romans 9:3, he said that he wished that he was “accursed—cut off from Christ” for the sake of the Jews. He deeply loved people, even those who hated him. With that said, he had a special love for believers, as demonstrated in his love for the Thessalonians.

 

As we consider this text, we must ask ourselves, “How can we more deeply love and care for the local church God has called us to, the individual believers in it, and the universal church around the world?” In 1 Peter 4:9 (NIV), Peter said, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” We must above all love our church and the individuals within it more deeply.

 

Big Question: In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:10, what principles can we learn about deeply loving believers?

 

To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Continually Seek to Meet with Them, Both Individually and Corporately

 

But when we were separated from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time (in presence, not in affection) we became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person. For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again), but Satan thwarted us.

1 Thessalonians 2:17-18

 

After being separated from the Thessalonians, Paul labored to see them. In fact, he said he tried to return to see them again and again (at least two different times). When verse 17 in the NET says, “separated from you,” the NIV translates it “orphaned by being separated from you” and the ESV translates it “torn away from you.” The Greek word for “separated” was used for a child whose parents died. That’s why the NIV translates it “orphaned.” However, the term was also used for parents whose child died.[1] By being torn away from the Thessalonians after just a few weeks of being with them, it was like the death of a child for Paul. Obviously, Paul would have loved to stay with them. With the Ephesian church, Paul stayed for three years (Acts 20:31), and with the Corinthian church, Paul stayed for around eighteen months (Acts 18:11). Certainly, Paul would have loved to stay with the Thessalonians for more than a few weeks. It hurt not being with them; therefore, he constantly tried to return.

 

His sudden departure from them made his desire to see them again even greater. In verse 17, when he says, “We became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person,” the phrase “great desire” is a very strong term. It was used of a dominant controlling passion, most used in secular Greek of sexual passion.[2] Paul had a very strong desire to return to see the Thessalonians, which only increased because of his unfortunate, swift departure.

 

Hindered by Satan

 

Why didn’t he return? In verse 18, Paul said that Satan “thwarted” or “hindered” (ESV) his return. The title “Satan” means accuser or adversary. He is against God and his people and seeks to tempt, deceive, and destroy the people of God and works of God at all costs. The word “hindered” Paul used to describe Satan’s work was used of an army building a ditch or breaking up a road to stop or impede an opposing army’s movement.[3] Paul saw Satan doing the same, as he sought to get to Thessalonica. This naturally provokes several questions.

 

Interpretation Question: How did Paul know Satan was the one doing this?

 

In Acts 16:6, when Paul tried to go to Asia, he said that he was “prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in the province of Asia.” With the Thessalonians, how could Paul discern that Satan was hindering him and not God? Certainly, Paul believed God was sovereign over the works of Satan, so that even hindrances were working for his ultimate good (Rom 8:28). However, Paul could discern between Satan’s working and God’s. It seems that Paul could discern the difference between the two because he knew for certain it was God’s will for him to help the Thessalonians with their faith. Therefore, he knew that the persecution he received in Thessalonica which made him flee and whatever hindrances he experienced which kept him from returning was from the devil. Certainly, when we are seeking to evangelize the lost, disciple believers, get more involved with our local church, or simply grow spiritually and experience attacks, we can discern Satan is also trying to break up the road and hinder our spiritual progress as well. He is the adversary of what is good. Here is another question:

 

Interpretation Question: How did Satan hinder Paul’s return to the Thessalonians?

 

The text does not tell us how Satan hindered Paul from returning; however, from looking at Acts 17 where he was forced to leave Thessalonica and then Berea, we can discern something about Satan’s work. As mentioned, when Paul’s preaching led to converts in Thessalonica, the Jews became jealous and stirred up a riot, forcing him to leave. Also, when Paul was doing ministry in nearby Berea, the same Jews heard that he was there and went to Berea to stir up trouble, so he was forced to leave again. When considering that Paul had just said how the Jews were persecuting him and hindering him from preaching to the Gentiles in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, most likely Paul saw Satan using the Jews to hinder his return to Thessalonica. Every time he wanted to return, they started riots and even persecuted his friends. In Thessalonica, during the riot, Jason, Paul’s host, was taken before the authorities by the Jews and forced to post bond to not have to stay in jail (Acts 17:5-9). Satan pulled out all the stops to get Paul to leave both Thessalonica and Berea—to hinder his ministry to the Gentiles and Jews in both places. Again, we should not be surprised when Satan does the same as we start serving the youth in the church, leading a small group, witnessing at work, or preparing to go on missions. The devil will commonly try to break up the ground to stop all spiritual progress. We must be aware of his work and resist him through prayer and persistence in the same path. James 4:7 says, “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” It seems clear from Acts 20:3 that Paul eventually returned to Thessalonica. It says, “... Because the Jews had made a plot against him as he was intending to sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia.”

 

With that said, though Satan will at times attack when we are making spiritual progress or seeking to help others do so, we must remember that God is sovereign over the attacks of the devil and that he uses them for the good. Satan had to get permission from God to attack Job. Job lost his wealth, health, and even his children. However, God revealed himself to Job in a special way and eventually blessed him with two times more than he originally had. In addition, with Paul, though initially hindered from going to Thessalonica, his great passion and desire to be with them led him to write two letters which were included in Scripture, 1 and 2 Thessalonians. There is debate over whether Galatians or 1 Thessalonians was his first epistle. Either way, God is now speaking to the entire world through the Thessalonian letters. What Satan meant for bad by hindering Paul’s return to Thessalonica, God meant for good, as it has led to the saving and sanctifying of many lives. Likewise, we must trust God with our hindrances, difficulties, and delays as well. God uses hindrances, difficulties, and delays to sanctify us and prepare us for greater works.

 

Desiring to Meet with Believers

 

In considering all this, the main thing we must gain from Paul’s great desire to see the Thessalonians and his continual trying to return to meet with them is how we need to have the same desire and effort to meet with our local churches and the believers within them as well. If we are going to love our churches deeply, we must constantly seek to meet with them for worship, prayer, accountability, support, and encouragement. Consider how Paul said the same thing about other churches and believers: In Romans 1:9-12, Paul said this about the Romans whom he had never met:

 

For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, is my witness that I continually remember you and I always ask in my prayers, if perhaps now at last I may succeed in visiting you according to the will of God. For I long to see you, so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually comforted by one another’s faith, both yours and mine.

 

He wanted to meet with them not just to build up their faith, but so his faith could be built up as well. We must have those same desires with our church. In 2 Timothy 1:4, Paul said this about his desire to see Timothy while he was in prison: “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” By meeting with him, he would be filled with joy. No doubt, many in the church are not growing in the faith because they sparingly meet with other believers for mutual edification. It’s just their mandatory duty on Sundays, if that. Many are struggling with depression and worry because they never gather to share their prayer with requests with others, support and lift each other up; therefore, their joy is never full.

 

If we are going to love the church and believers deeply, we must greatly desire and put maximum effort into meeting with them for mutual edification. Satan should not be able to stop us, our flesh, friends, entertainment, or work. We should constantly labor at this, and as we do so, our love and care for the local church will grow. Hebrews 10:24-25 says,

 

And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near. 

 

This is certainly something that must be considered as online church is becoming more prevalent. Being able to worship at home through online streaming is convenient and a blessing, but it is no substitute for meeting with the body of believers. If we are going to grow in our love for the church, we must consistently meet together in public gatherings and private ones.

 

Application Question: Why is continually gathering with the saints so important for our spiritual lives? What are some common hindrances of believers for gathering with other saints (or your personal hindrances)? In what ways has God enriched your life through the local church and its ministries (cf. small group, youth and college ministries, mission trips, children’s ministry, Alpha, Awana, etc.)? How should believers think about and respond to the prevalence of online platforms for church and worship? What are good and bad ways to respond?

 

To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Understand the Eternal Value of Our Relationships and Hope in Them

 

For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? For you are our glory and joy!

1 Thessalonians 2:19-20

 

In 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20, we can discern in part why Paul loved the Thessalonian believers so much. It’s not simply that they were agreeable and that he enjoyed them. Like all believers, they had problems. Apparently, some in the church had a wrong form of eschatology. They were right to be hoping in and waiting on the Lord’s coming; however, some had stopped working and were living off the others’ hospitality. He hints at that in this letter when he calls them to “admonish the undisciplined” and be “patient” with them in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, but in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, he is more direct. He says whoever doesn’t work should not eat (3:10) and that they should not associate with the undisciplined so that they would be ashamed (3:14, 6). So Paul’s deep love for the Thessalonians was not because they were perfect. We often love those we enjoy and despise those who get on our nerves or hurt us. However, with Paul, when it came to his relationships with believers, he not only saw them as they were in the present (sins and all), but he also saw them from an eternal standpoint, as the maturing saints he would stand with before Christ.

 

When he says in verse 19, “For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming,” the word “coming” is the Greek word parousia. It was used for royal visits when an emperor or king visited the cities in his realm. When this would happen, the residents of that city would go to great lengths to prepare the highways for his arrival and present their best to him. Oftentimes, they would even present a crown to the king to honor him for visiting the city.[4] It might be in this sense that Paul viewed the Thessalonians. For him, their sanctification—growth in holiness and faithfulness in the midst of persecution—was his personal reward and great boast of which he would present to Jesus at his coming (cf. Rev 4:10). He saw them both from a present perspective (sin and all) and a future perspective—a sanctified gift for Christ (cf. Eph 5:25-27).

 

Likewise, when seeking to love the members of our family or our local church who are not perfect, we must remember that God has called us to play a role in their sanctification and preparation for the coming King. We must spare no prayer or labor, as we seek to love them and stir them toward good deeds and their calling in Christ. As God completes his work in them, one day, we will greatly rejoice together at Christ’s coming. For Paul, their sanctification would lead to overflowing joy in eternity.

 

In fact, Paul’s eternal view of relationships may be seen in how Christ encouraged believers to be generous in giving to expand the kingdom because one day, if they did so, they will be welcomed into heaven by people who accepted Christ because of their generous acts. In Luke 16:9, Christ said this: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.” Christ pictures a generous believer’s entrance into heaven. There he will be welcomed by all those who came to Christ through his generous giving to church and various ministries. When he enters heaven, those saved by his generous acts will be his glory, joy, and crown. Consequently, a great part of heaven’s bliss will be being there with those the Lord has used us to reach and disciple.

 

With that said, this reality also comes with a warning. Those who have not been diligent in seeking to win the lost and disciple believers will lack some of the greatest joys in heaven. Someone said it this way when considering the rewards of heaven for our faithfulness: “In heaven, all our cups will be full; however, some will have bigger cups.” The faithful will have greater capacities to enjoy heaven because of their righteous acts on earth, and a great part of that capacity for joy will come from the relationships they cultivated and sacrificed for on earth. In that sense, the Thessalonians would be Paul’s joy, glory, and crown at Christ’s coming.

 

Therefore, in considering Paul’s future view of the Thessalonians, we must ask ourselves this question: Do we see the relationships God has given us from an eternal perspective or only from a present perspective? If we only see them from a present perspective, they will commonly be only a burden and not at the same time a hope and crown of rejoicing. If we only view them in the present tense, we will more easily give up on them when they fail us and God. It is easier to faithfully love others when we see them from an eternal perspective (beyond the present warts and difficulties they now display). In fact, one of the qualities of agape love, God’s love, is hope. First Corinthians 13:7 says this about agape love, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love always hopes.

 

In this present season, we must love our children, family, friends, and church members with hope. We pray in hope, labor in hope, weep in hope, rebuke in hope, and wait in hope. We hope that they may become all God has called them to be. And Lord willing, one day, they will be our glory, joy, and crown at Christ’s coming as we celebrate with them in heaven and present them to the Lord.

 

Are our relationships one of our great hopes for Christ’s return? If so, there will be more grace to love people in the present. If we are going to love our local church more deeply, we must understand the eternal value of those relationships. They are our hope, joy, and future glory.

 

Application Question: Why is hope so important for loving others? How is God calling you to love others, including your church members, more from an eternal perspective? What are some of the specific hopes and prayers you have for those you love and continually minister to?

 

To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Protect and Care for Them, Especially During Trials

 

So when we could bear it no longer, we decided to stay on in Athens alone. We sent Timothy, our brother and fellow worker for God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and encourage you about your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know. So when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter somehow tempted you and our toil had proven useless.

1 Thessalonians 3:1-5

 

While Paul was away from the Thessalonians, he was worried that their faith might be shaken because of the trials they were experiencing. The word “faith” is used five times in Chapter 3 (v. 2, 5, 6, 7, 10). Paul was worried that they might be tempted to fall away from Christ while going through the trials. In fact, when Paul says in verse 3, “so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions,” the word “shaken” was used of how a dog wags its tail to get attention and gain what he wants.[5] Therefore, the term came to mean to flatter, deceive, or beguile.[6] Since they were being persecuted for their new faith, they were probably being tempted by the Jews to return to Judaism. The same happened to the persecuted Jewish believers in the book of Hebrews. That’s why the author wrote an apologetic about why the New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant, so they wouldn’t be tempted to turn away from Christ in their sufferings. Likewise, the Thessalonians were probably tempted by the Jews to return to Judaism and forsake Christ. Others were tempted to turn away from Christ simply to not be persecuted. As persecution grows for believers around the world, they will be tempted to deny Christ so they can have more comfort, wealth, and acceptability in society. Luxury will always be a temptation to taking one’s cross. Others were probably tempted to doubt God’s goodness. Some were no doubt questioning, “If God loves us, why is he allowing this suffering to happen?” The afflictions the Thessalonians were going through came with a host of temptations to fall away from the faith, as Satan, the tempter, was seeking to exploit them. Consequently, since Paul could not return to Thessalonica, he sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage their faith (3:2). By doing this, Paul was lovingly seeking to protect the Thessalonians from Satan’s attack.

 

Loving someone naturally lends towards seeking to protect them, even as Paul did with the Thessalonians. We should seek to do the same with our churches and the individuals within. As we consider Paul’s attempts to protect the Thessalonian believers in verses 1-5, we gain insight on how to protect our local church and the believers within. As we get closer to Christ’s return, persecution of believers will only increase. As Christ said, we will be hated by all nations for his name’s sake (Matt 24:9). Even now, the church is suffering from a large departure of its youth. Some stats say that around seventy percent of Christian youth fall away from the faith when they get to college and never return. When they encounter the temptations and arguments of the world, away from family and church, most succumb.

 

Application Question: How can we protect the faith of local believers from Satan and his attacks, as seen by Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians?

 

1.     To protect the faith of believers, we must at times sacrifice for them.

 

When Paul couldn’t get to the Thessalonians, he sent Timothy at great cost to himself. When Paul says that he was left “alone,” the word is commonly used for bereavement—leaving loved ones at death. [7] This shows how important Timothy was to Paul while he was ministering in Athens. It was painful for Paul to leave the Thessalonians; it was like a parent losing his child. But it was also painful to send Timothy away. Timothy was young and had just become one of Paul’s travel companions (Acts 16:1-3). When Paul sent Timothy away, it was like Paul lost a very close friend. Furthermore, in Athens, where Paul was ministering at that time, there was something like 30,000 gods [8], and Paul could have used his help. It was a deeply pagan city with lots of philosophers. In Acts 17:16, we see that he was “greatly upset” at all the idols in this city before he started debating the philosophers. It was hard to let Timothy go because Paul needed him. In addition, after being persecuted by the Jews in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, maybe Paul was especially vulnerable emotionally (with potential aspects of PTSD), so it hurt him more to let Timothy go in this season. Apparently, he also sent Silas away to minister in Macedonia, most likely in Philippi (cf. Acts 18:5). It felt like death being left all alone in Athens; however, for Paul, it was worth it to protect the Thessalonians, whom he loved deeply.

 

Likewise, to protect our local churches and the believers within, we’ll often have to make sacrifices as well. When caring for someone struggling in the church, we may need to stay up late to counsel them and take time away from family, sleep, or other activities. Sometimes, our sacrifice might be in being hated or despised, as we challenge somebody we love who is going in the wrong direction in life. The Jews hated Paul for his teaching and persecuted him. In addition, at times, we may need to sacrificially give to help someone struggling financially. As we give, we demonstrate the love of Christ when they are tempted to doubt it. For parents seeking to raise godly children, they may need to sacrifice by taking a job with less responsibility, so they can give the kids more time and attention. For other parents, it might mean sacrificing financially by homeschooling their kids or sending them to Christian schools, at least temporarily, to protect their young faith or to give them special attention during vulnerable seasons of life. To protect the faith of believers, we’ll often need to sacrifice, like Paul did, in various ways.

 

In what ways are we sacrificing, allowing ourselves to experience what feels like death, to help other believers with their faith?

 

2.     To protect the faith of believers, we must make sure they are sitting under biblical teaching.

 

When Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica, he was meant to encourage their faith not just by his presence but primarily by his teaching. Timothy eventually became one of Paul’s trouble-shooters, along with Titus. Paul later sends Timothy to correct problems in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 16:10–11), and he will also be left to pastor in Ephesus (cf. 1 and 2 Timothy). Paul also planned to send him back to Philippi to encourage the church there (Phil 2:19). It seems like Timothy’s being sent to Thessalonica was preparation for these later assignments. While Timothy was in Thessalonica, he would have taught them the Word of God, so their faith would be built up, enabling them to stand in the midst of persecution and temptations. This is needed for all of us. In Ephesians 4:14, Paul said that God gave pastors and teachers to the church so that they would no longer “be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people.” Biblical teaching is a protection for believers from Satan’s schemes. Therefore, those who are weak in Scripture are especially vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. In addition, right before Paul left the elders in Ephesus in Acts 20, he warned them that from amongst their own number false teachers would arise and destroy the flock. To help protect them, he said this in verse 32: “And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” It was God and his Word that would protect these elders from being deceived, falling away from the faith, and taking others with them.

 

If church elders are vulnerable, certainly, we all must soberly protect ourselves and others by faithfully studying, listening to, teaching, and submitting to God’s Word. As leaders of our families, we must always make sure we attend churches that preach God’s Word, properly interpreting it and explaining it verse by verse. Verse-by-verse teaching is important because it doesn’t allow preachers to only preach their favorite texts or uncontroversial texts. Verse-by-verse preaching, if done correctly, makes sure that the teaching is balanced, and it also teaches the congregation how to study the Bible properly on their own. If we are going to protect ourselves and our families, we must learn Scripture by sitting under good teaching. We also must take responsibility at times to teach others, especially as parents or mentors to others, or spiritual leaders in a church.

 

3.     To protect the faith of believers, we must constantly warn and equip them for the trials and temptations ahead, including by helping them focus on God’s sovereign purposes in the trials.

 

In 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4, Paul said this,

 

so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know.

 

While Paul was with the Thessalonians for a few weeks, he tried to prepare them for the temptations and trials ahead. He said, they “knew” they were destined for this (3:3). They knew because he kept telling them in advance that they would suffer. He constantly warned them of the antagonism of the world and temptations of the devil. In John 3:19-20 (NIV), John said this about the world’s antagonism to Christ’s ministry:

 

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

 

Likewise, believers are destined for afflictions because their righteous life and views will contradict the world’s and cause antagonism. They may be hated for their views on abortion, marriage, gender, or simply that Christ is the only way to heaven. In the same way people hated Christ, the world will commonly hate believers and at times persecute them. No doubt, Paul taught them this.

 

In addition, when Paul said they were “destined” or “appointed” (NKJV) to “suffer affliction,” that implies that he taught them God was in control of the trials and using them for the good (Rom 8:28). God knows that we naturally seek comfort and avoid difficulty; however, trials are necessary for our spiritual growth and to reach others for the faith. So our Lord leads us into them (or allows them), even as the Holy Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Furthermore, when believers converted, they entered into a spiritual battle with Satan and numerous angels. Satan, at all times, seeks to tempt, deceive, attack, and destroy believers.

 

For these reasons, the church will constantly go through various attacks—from Satan and the world for our bad, and from God, in his sovereignty, for our good. Believers will experience persecution for their faith and temptations from the world to love wealth, success, and sex instead of God. There will also be various false teachings. There will be attacks from within the church and outside the church. With each, Satan will try to pull God’s people away from him. Therefore, to protect the faith of the saints, we must constantly warn them of these various attacks.

 

Though there is nothing new under the sun and therefore the temptations in many ways are the same, we still need to exegete our various cultures so we can prepare believers for the specific attacks they will experience. Today, we’ll need to warn and equip the church to deal with pornography, homosexuality, the removal of gender differences, abortion, illicit drugs, assisted suicide, and other contemporary threats. And certainly, as Paul did, we must warn them about the antagonism the church will experience because of their different views and practices on these issues. We are destined for affliction because the church is called to be salt and light to the world. It’s called to be different and to be different often will lead to being hated.

 

With that said, we must also teach believers that God sovereignly decrees our trials and uses them to purify and sanctify his church. First Corinthians 10:13 says,

 

No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.

 

God holds the temperature gauge on our trials and only allows us to be tried according to what we can handle and is for our good. Romans 5:3-4 says, “Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope.” According to Paul, believers must have a redeemed view of suffering, which causes them to rejoice in them. We rejoice not because we enjoy suffering, but because of what God does through them. He develops endurance in us, as we continue forward in the right direction while suffering. And as we endure, God develops our character. We grow in love for God and our enemies. We grow in integrity as we choose not to compromise our beliefs. We grow in patience as we trust God and wait for him to deliver us, in this life or the next. But ultimately, suffering leads to hope in God and his coming. It delivers us from a focus on the temporary things of this world and helps our hearts take a grip on eternity. One day, Christ will return and make all things right, or we will go to him.

 

Paul taught the Thessalonian believers about suffering in his short time with them to equip them for what they would experience at the hands of their fellow Thessalonians, and he sent Timothy to reinforce these truths and to answer any questions or doubts they had. Likewise, if we are going to love the believers deeply, including our family and local church believers, we must aim to protect them from the evil one, especially when they encounter trials. We do this by sacrificing for them, making sure they know Scripture, warning them of the trials and temptations that will come, and helping them understand and trust God’s sovereignty over the trials, as he uses them for our good.

 

Application Question: What are some contemporary threats that the local church, and especially young believers, must be constantly warned of? Why are believers destined for trials? How did God use a specific trial for your good? Why is believing in God’s sovereignty over trials so important for faithfully enduring them?

 

To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Sincerely Rejoice in Believers’ Successes

 

But now Timothy has come to us from you and given us the good news of your faith and love and that you always think of us with affection and long to see us just as we also long to see you! So in all our distress and affliction, we were reassured about you, brothers and sisters, through your faith. For now we are alive again if you stand firm in the Lord. 9 For how can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy we feel because of you before our God?

1 Thessalonians 3:6-8

 

Another mark of deeply loving someone, and also a way that we grow in our love, is by rejoicing in his or her successes. Unfortunately, because of our sin nature and therefore propensity to pride, we often become jealous of other’s successes instead of rejoicing over them. Commonly, when someone gets a promotion, scholarship, or graduates with a degree, we struggle with not being very excited for them because we feel that it in some way takes away from our successes. It’s a sad reality of the human existence. Because we love ourselves more than others, we tend to be jealous of others’ successes. However, when we really love someone, we rejoice over their successes and will even sacrifice so that they can be more successful. That’s what we see in Paul. After Timothy returned from Thessalonica, he shared that the Thessalonians were excelling in the faith. Typically, when a trial comes, it either hurts our faith where we become angry at God, start to doubt his goodness, and start to have conflict with others, or it helps our faith grow. We start to study God’s Word more, meet with his people for comfort and encouragement, and even start to serve. That’s what was happening with the Thessalonians in the midst of their suffering. In fact, he previously shared how the Thessalonians had become examples to the believers in Macedonia and Achaia through their endurance and sharing of their faith in the region. First Thessalonians 1:6-8 says,

 

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction. As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For from you the message of the Lord has echoed forth not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place reports of your faith in God have spread, so that we do not need to say anything.

 

This apparently was still true despite the continued persecution they were receiving. They were “standing firm in the Lord” (v. 8). “Standing firm” is military terminology. It means not retreating or giving up while facing attack. The Thessalonians did not doubt or get angry at God, nor did they turn away from the church. Instead of running away from God and his people in their trial, they ran to God and the church. They stood firm in the Lord. Timothy reported good news about their faith and love (3:6). Their faith grew instead of decreasing, and their growing faith led to a greater love for others. Again, the trials could have made them bitter with their persecutors and caused conflict amongst the people in the church, but it didn’t. No doubt, Timothy was pleasantly surprised to see their faith and love still in tack and growing. Their love was not only demonstrated by loving God, the church, and probably their persecutors, but also in their love for Paul, Silas, and Timothy. Unlike the Corinthians who apparently started to believe the lies about Paul that the false teachers spewed, including attacks on his apostleship, as evidenced by Paul’s defense in 2 Corinthians, the Thessalonians could not be fooled. They had great respect for their spiritual founders, who suffered so they could hear the gospel.

 

Because of these realities, Paul boasted in their spiritual achievements. In fact, in 1 Thessalonians 3:8-9, he said, “For now we are alive again if you stand firm in the Lord. For how can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy we feel because of you before our God?” When he was worried about their faith, it was like he died. It was like a parent waiting to hear an update about his child who just got into a car accident. When the parent initially heard the bad news, his heart, mind, and breathing started to race but when he heard that his child was safe, he could breathe calmly again. That’s how Paul felt. In fact, the NIV translates verse 8, “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” The present tense of the verb “live” means this was not just a momentary joy but a continual one for Paul.[9] Their spiritual success caused continual joy for Paul.

 

For some of us, we really live when we are watching our favorite sports team and they are winning. Others really live when they are shopping, eating, or sleeping. But for Paul, he was really alive when he heard about the spiritual success of this local congregation that he loved. This showed his passion and heart. He deeply loved these believers. John, the apostle, felt the same way about the spiritual successes of others. In 3 John 1:4, he said this: “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are living according to the truth.”

 

Are we really alive when we hear about the spiritual, social, and vocational successes of others? Is it our greatest joy? Are we really alive when we see that the youth in our church are really growing in the faith, as they bring their friends to youth group? Are we really alive when we see God bring more families to our church? Are we really alive when we see our church members going to the mission field? Are we boasting about the successes of our local church and other churches? If not, it may show a heart problem and a lack of investment in the local church. Maybe, God is telling us to invest more in her through prayer, giving, time, service, and simply getting to know the people in our local church.

 

But this can be applied more broadly than our local churches, it can be applied to all our relationships. We often are not excited about others’ successes because we are so infected with self-love instead of selfless love for God and others. As a discipline, when we hear of others’ successes, we should take time to congratulate them, praise God, and ask that he would bless them more.

 

Our response to the success of others is a litmus test for our heart health. A selfish, prideful heart compares, mourns, despises, and becomes jealous of the successes of others instead of rejoicing over them. When we see this in our hearts, we should confess it to the Lord, and again, thank God for his grace over others and pray that it would increase. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We should rejoice when others rejoice and weep when others weep because their successes and failures are ours, as we are Christ’s body together.

 

Application Question: Why are we so prone to not rejoice and at times even become jealous of others’ successes? How should we respond when we struggle with apathy or at worst jealousy over others’ successes? How is God calling you to grow in rejoicing and mourning over the successes and failures of your local church and other people in general?

 

To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Consistently Intercede for Them

 

We pray earnestly night and day to see you in person and make up what may be lacking in your faith. Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1 Thessalonians 3:10-13

 

Paul’s love for the Thessalonians did not just cause him to send Timothy to encourage them or just for him to write this letter, his love also encouraged him to pray for Thessalonians. This prayer is addressed to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (3:11). It’s interesting to note that the plural subject (God and Jesus) has a singular verb, which demonstrates both the deity of Christ and the unity of the Godhead.[10]

 

Paul prayed for God to reunite him with the Thessalonians so he could make up for what was lacking in their faith (3:10). “Make up” can also be translated “restore” (cf. Gal 6:1 NET), and it was used of mending broken fishing nets.[11] It means “to make complete.”[12] Paul wanted to help prepare them fully for what God had designed them for. Though the Thessalonians were a model church with many achievements, they still lacked a great deal, as all of us do, so Paul consistently prayed for them. Paul’s prayer to strengthen their faith would probably be answered through his teaching them more doctrine (3:10-11). He also prayed for their love to abound “for one another and for all” (3:12). In times of suffering, people often become selfish and self-focused. They tend to build walls that push God and people out instead of bridges to draw near to God and others. Paul prayed for their love to grow during their trial. The Thessalonians’ love should grow toward the local body of believers (“one another”) and expand to other believers, unbelieving neighbors, and even their enemies (“for all”). Christ taught if we simply love people who love and reward us, we are no different than unbelievers who also love those who love them; however, as children of God, we should love the just and unjust alike, so we can be perfect like our Father (cf. Matt 5:43-48). Paul set himself, Timothy, and Silas as standards for their love. He says, “love for one another and for all, just as we do for you” (3:12). We should aim to love others in such a way that we can call others to follow our example (cf. 1 Cor 11:1).

 

The Thessalonians were already noted for their great love for one another, as Paul praised them in the opening of the letter (1:3); however, love is something we can always grow in. He will return to their need to abound in love in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10. The result of their abounding love for God and others would be them being “strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:13). Holiness is always a result of truly loving others, as all God’s commands are summed up in love for God and others (Rom 13:8). There is some debate over what Christ coming “with all his saints” refers to. It could refer to either departed believers or angels or both, as Scripture teaches, they will both come with the Lord (cf. 1 Thess 4:14, 2 Thess 1:7, Mk 8:38). While away from the Thessalonians and unable to see them, Paul abounded in prayer for them, as we should for our churches.

 

From Paul’s prayer, we learn several principles about interceding for our local churches and the believers in them.

 

1.     Our intercession for the church should be earnest.

 

Paul said he prayed “earnestly” for them (3:10). This means his prayers were not rote and mindless, as ours often are before daily meals. They were passionate prayers because he really cared for the Thessalonians. It’s been rightly asked, “If our petitions do not truly touch our hearts, how will they touch God’s?” When somebody asks us for something, but it’s very clear by their demeanor and tone that they do not really care about what they are asking for, we’ll be less likely to care about their requests either. James 5:16, in the NLT, says: “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.”

 

Are our prayers for others earnest or are they rote, mindless, and mechanical—a simple going through the motions? Prayers that don’t truly move our hearts, probably won’t move God’s.

 

2.     Our intercession for the church should be constant.

 

Paul said he prayed for the Thessalonians “night and day” (3:10). They were on his mind when he woke up in the morning and when he went to bed at night. In fact, night and day seem to be a literary device meaning that he was praying all the time for them. They were always on his mind and in his heart. It must be remembered that Paul was only with this church in person for a couple of weeks, or possibly a few months, before he had to leave them because of persecution. How much more should we constantly lift up the members of our local church who we’ve been with much longer, sometimes for years? We should pray for the marriages to be healthy, for the parents to raise their kids in the Lord, for the elders to clearly teach God’s Word and lead well, for the church to reach the surrounding community, and to be protected from the evil one. Our prayers for the local church should be constant. In the context of spiritual warfare, Paul said this in Ephesians 6:18, “With every prayer and petition, pray at all times in the Spirit, and to this end be alert, with all perseverance and petitions for all the saints.” He says we should pray “at all times … for all the saints.” We should not only pray for our local church but churches and believers throughout the world. We should pray for God to sanctify, empower, protect, and use the church mightily in North and South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and the entire world.

 

3.     Our intercession for the church should primarily focus on the spiritual instead of the temporal.

 

Though our prayers are often about temporary things like the health of believers or for them to find a job, etc., they should primarily be spiritual in nature. When considering Paul’s prayers in the New Testament, they are primarily about the spiritual growth of believers. In Ephesians 1:16-23, he prays for the churches in that region to have the spirit of wisdom and revelation to know God more, to understand how they are God’s inheritance/reward, and to know the great, resurrection power at work in them. In Ephesians 3:16-21, he prays for God to strengthen them in the inner man and that they may know the depth, height, and width of God’s love for them, so they can be filled with the fullness of God (empowered by him). For the Thessalonians, in 3:10-13, Paul prays for four things: (1) the fellowship of the Thessalonians, in that Paul would be reunited with them, (2) that their faith would become complete through that union, (3) that their love would grow especially for the church but also for all, including other believers, unbelievers, and their enemies, and (4) that they would grow in holiness as they awaited Christ’s return. We can pray these exact petitions for our church and the believers in it but also the universal church. We should constantly petition for the spiritual health of God’s people and the salvation of unbelievers. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray for temporary things like health and finances, we should. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to do so, as we’re called to pray for “our daily bread” (Matt 6:11). However, we should emphasize spiritual or eternal things, as evidenced by the prayers in Scripture. In John 17, Christ prayed for the church to be sanctified by his Word, to be one so the world would know that God sent the Son, and for them to be protected from the evil one. In fact, one of the best ways to intercede for our local churches is to simply pray the prayers of Scripture, including how Paul prayed for the Thessalonians in this text (1 Thess 3:10-13; cf. Eph 1:17-23, 3:14-21, Col 1:9-14, 1 Thess 3:11-13, Phil 1:9-11, Heb 13:20-21, etc.).

 

4.     Our intercession for the church should include God using us to bless her.

 

Again, Paul prayed for God to reunite him with the Thessalonians so he could supply what was lacking in their faith by helping them grow in love and holiness for Christ’s coming (3:10-13). Again, though a model church, they still had deficiencies. In both 1 and 2 Thessalonians, it’s clear they were struggling with eschatology. Some in the church were worried about what would happen to dead believers when Christ returned, as seen by Paul’s teaching on the rapture in the next chapter (1 Thess 4). Others were worried that they were in the day of the Lord, potentially referring to the tribulation period, which he corrects in 2 Thessalonians 3. Some of their deficiencies are addressed in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5. He will teach them that they need to learn how to control their bodies and not live in lust like the pagans (4:3-5). He will teach them their need to honor their spiritual leaders (5:12), admonish the undisciplined among them (5:13), and practice spiritual disciplines like always rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks in all things (5:16-18). There were many areas for them to grow in, just as we all have. Though he could bless them from a distance through his prayers and his writings, he believed he could minister to them more effectively in person, and he asked God to allow him to do so. (This is noteworthy to consider when considering the growing popularity of online worship services. Paul believed there was something special and effective about gathering in person, that we should remember and not neglect). Likewise, even as Paul prayed for God to unite him with the church and use him to equip her, we should pray for God to use us as well. We should pray that he would open doors for us to serve the children, youth, or married couples, or simply minister to individuals who are struggling. In Titus 2, Paul taught that the older women in the church should teach the younger women how to be good wives and homemakers. We should also pray for God to use us to bring new people to church and lead unbelievers to Christ, so they can become part of Christ’s church. In Colossians 4:3-4, Paul asked for the Colossians to pray for his evangelistic witness. He said: “At the same time pray for us too, that God may open a door for the message so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may make it known as I should.”

 

Likewise, we should pray for God to use us to bless our church whether through using the gift of hospitality, where we host others or get a coffee with them to get to know them, listening to those struggling so they feel heard and loved, or even just greeting newcomers so they feel welcomed. Loving others is not primarily an abstract emotion or feeling, it’s seeking the best interest of others through loving acts. For God so loved the world that he “gave” his only begotten Son (John 3:16). Likewise, if we are going to love the church more deeply, we must aim to serve her better. And as we serve others by seeking their best, including by praying for them, often our emotions deepen for them.

 

As we intercede for our local church, like Paul, we should not only pray for God to bless them and use us to do so, but we should also, at times, pray bold prayers for God to use us to bless the universal church or churches in a region. God may at times open doors for that through joint outreaches and prayer services, or even through unique ways. Sometimes English teachers use their gifts to reach out to unbelievers (and believers) by teaching English as a second language. Christian businessmen and women use their leadership and entrepreneurial gifts to put together evangelistic or social service ventures that most pastors lack giftings to do. We can all contribute if we’re willing to pray to God and offer ourselves to the Lord. When we offer him our few loaves and fishes, he is often gracious to allow us to participate in feeding the multitudes.

 

Are we praying earnestly and constantly for our local churches? Are we praying for God to use us to bless them? No doubt, as we pray for our churches, God pours out his love in our hearts for them. They are not perfect, but they are loved by a perfect God who desires us to love them as well.

 

Application Question: What are some good disciplines to practice in helping us pray for our local church and the church abroad? How is God calling you to grow in your prayer life for his church?

 

Conclusion

 

The Jews in Thessalonica were accusing Paul. They were saying that he was a religious huckster seeking to manipulate the Thessalonian believers, trying to gain control of them and use them for their money and their women cf. (1 Thess 2:3-6). One of their accusations apparently was the fact that Paul left them so quickly when confronted with adversity and that he never returned (1 Thess 2:17-20). In Chapter 2 of Thessalonians, Paul defended his ministry in Thessalonica and specifically shared why he had not returned. He tried again and again to return but was hindered by Satan, probably referring to the antagonism he experienced from the Jews (2:18). Though Paul was absent in body, he was not in spirit. He genuinely loved them and being separated from them was like a parent losing his child. He was greatly concerned that the trials they were experiencing would turn them away from God and him, and so he sent Timothy to encourage and build them up and he also prayed for them (3:1-13). From his great love and concern for the Thessalonians, we learn something about how to love our local church more deeply as well.

 

1.     To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Continually Seek to Meet with Them, Both Individually and Corporately

2.     To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Understand the Eternal Value of Our Relationships

3.     To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Protect and Care for Them, Especially During Trials

4.     To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Sincerely Rejoice in Believers’ Successes

5.     To Love the Local Church More Deeply, We Must Consistently Intercede for Them

 

Application Question: What principle about loving the church more deeply stood out most and why? How is God calling you to better love the local church?

 

 

Prayer Prompts

 

·      Pray for God to give us grace through the Holy Spirit to love our local church more deeply.

·      Pray for God to protect our church from the evil one and all his tactics, including discord, worldliness, false teaching, and persecution.

·      Pray for God to bless our local church by increasing the members’ faith, holiness, evangelism, and acts of love for God and others.

·      Pray for God to use us, even in unimaginable ways, to love, bless, serve, and protect our church.

·      Pray for God to pour out a Spirit of love on his global church, unifying, healing, and strengthening her for the work he has called her to.


[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 61.

[2] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 & 2 Thessalonians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), 70–71.

[3] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 & 2 Thessalonians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), 71–72.

[4] Richard D. Phillips, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 88–89.

[5] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 & 2 Thessalonians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), 79.

[6] Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, The Teacher’s Outline & Study Bible (Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 1995), 48.

 

[7] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 & 2 Thessalonians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), 77.

[8] Mark Howell, David Platt, et al., Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2015), 61.

[9] Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 13, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 73.

[10] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2034.

[11] Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 13, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 74.

[12] Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 13, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 74.

 

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