Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Learning to Stand

“I can’t stand it anymore!” Has that comment ever crossed your lips? It certainly has mine, and as we will discover in this post, this exclamation was heard coming from the Apostle Paul as well. We have been studying the book of 1 Thessalonians, and today we have reached the third chapter. The first word of the third chapter is “Wherefore”; that is an important word because it connects today’s passage with last week’s text – 1 Thessalonians 2:7-20. In that passage Paul expressed his genuine affection for the church at Thessalonica. His earnest desire was to be reunited with that church, and his eternal delight, his glory and joy, was the thought of being in the presence of Jesus with them for eternity.

“Wherefore”…in light of that love for this church we read 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5. The suspense was unbearable for Paul; twice he said “When we could no longer forbear” (vv. 1 & 5) or in 21st century parlance, “I couldn’t stand it anymore!” He had planted this church. He had invested everything; his own soul, into this church. He had been hindered from making a return visit, and he earnestly desired to see them. His anxiety was compounded by the utter silence that emanated from Thessalonica.

Why was Paul so concerned?

Paul’s Motive – 1 Thessalonians 3:1 and 5a

For starters, he was greatly concerned because he loved them! The fact that Paul dispatched Timothy to the church was solid evidence of his affection. This was a sacrificial expression on Paul’s part, because Timothy was his son in the faith; his protégé, companion, and colleague. Paul was willing to be left alone in Athens, so that he could encourage the Thessalonians and minister to them through Timothy. Love always gives itself away for its object. Strong affection always leads to sacrifice.

Focus on that last word in v. 1 for just a moment – “alone”. Alone isn’t easy, is it? I mean, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever see”. No one wants to be alone. We were not created to be alone. Paul didn’t send Timothy to Thessalonica (and he probably sent Silas elsewhere in Macedonia) just so he could have some “personal time”. This was a difficult juncture in Paul’s ministry. If you remember, Paul and his colleagues had been forced out of Philippi to Thessalonica; then out of Thessalonica to Berea. The Thessalonican thugs followed the team to Berea, and once again Paul was forced to leave, this time alone. He traveled to Athens, a city wholly given to religious superstition and idolatry. He preached the gospel in Athens, and for the first time in his European missionary effort, the gospel was more rejected than received.

He was reunited with his buddies in Athens, but earnestly desiring to know of the Thessalonians, he thought it best “to be left at Athens alone”. The verb translated “to be left” literally means “abandoned” or “forsaken”. Silas and Timothy had not abandoned or forsaken Paul, but he was willing to be abandoned for the Thessalonians’ sake. You can be sure that Paul enjoyed communion with the Friend “that sticketh closer than a brother” (Proverbs 12:24), but you can also be sure that he longed for his brethren.

All pastors should have this sacrificial affection for their congregations, and this passion must be rooted in a desire to see the congregation established in their faith. This isn’t difficult to understand; he loved these people. His love for them was not based in a desire to socialize with them. We often equate love for the brethren with a willingness and desire to share fried chicken. Of course, there is nothing wrong, and there is much right, with brethren sharing a meal and being sociable.

That was not Paul’s concern; however, he desired to develop the spiritual maturity of the Thessalonians. He wanted them to be “established and comforted in their faith” (v. 2). Paul was deeply concerned for their spiritual condition and growth. This was always the overriding concern of the apostle Paul. As he wrote to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 12:15. Paul exhausted himself in people, and in the Corinthian context his love was not reciprocated. Later on it will be clear that was not the case with the Thessalonians.

Timothy’s Mission – 1 Thessalonians 3:2-4 and 5b

Paul’s concern prompted Timothy’s mission, and that mission was to strengthen and encourage these young Christians in their faith.

It is very important that every Christian be firmly established in their faith - that they form healthy patterns of Christian living which will produce growth and strength and stability. It really is the simple things like faithful church attendance, daily prayer and Bible reading, taking advantage of fellowship opportunities where you make Christian friends and establish accountability, getting involved in a ministry where you give of yourself, your time, your talent, your money - these things will firmly establish you and help you to not fall away from serving God. People who don't learn these things quickly fall through the cracks.

This is what we call discipleship, or you could call it “follow-up” to evangelism. Personally, I believe that evangelism is much more than merely proclaiming the gospel, it is also following up with those who upon hearing the gospel make a profession of faith; we follow-up with those people, establishing them and comforting them in and with the scriptures. This is the only Biblical model of evangelistic effort. No where in scripture do you see evangelists blowing into town, proclaiming the word, God saving souls, and then the evangelists leaving town and the new Christians to fend for themselves.

Each pastor has the responsibility to establish and comfort his flock in the faith, but that responsibility does not rest solely on the pastor; it is shared by the entire body. Of course, personal contact is essential to firmly establish and comfort believers; especially new believers. This is how children are raised. It takes time spent together. It would be absurd to bring an infant home from the hospital and say,
“O.K. Make yourself at home; mi casa su casa! This is your room. There's the fridge; just help yourself. Talk to your parents often; spend time with the family; stay out of trouble.”
But, too often, that's the way baby or immature Christians are “nurtured”.

In Acts 14:21-22 we get a brief case study in discipleship. “Confirming” and “exhorting” are the same words translated “establish” and “comfort” in 1 Thessalonians 3:2. In Acts 15:36 Paul says to Barnabas, “Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.”

How may a Christian be established in their faith? That word “establish” (stērizō) means to support or buttress something and the only way to be established in your faith is by learning and living God’s revealed word. Sound Biblical doctrine is the solid foundation upon which the Christian life must be built. No faith can be strong without knowledge and understanding of the truth.

In his second letter to this congregation Paul wrote, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions [note: that means teachings] which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The Bible is able to establish us because it is the inspired word of God. We do not simply hold an ancient book of myths and religious superstitions; this is not an irrelevant book full of outdated principles. This is the very word of God! As such, it “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”, and as my former pastor repeatedly told me:
"doctrine tells us what is right; reproof tells us what is not right; correction tells us how to get right; and instruction tells us how to stay right!"
NT commentator Warren Wiersbe writes,
A working knowledge of the Bible is essential for spiritual growth and stability. God’s Word is food to nourish us (Matthew 4:4), light to guide us (Psalm 119:105), and a weapon to defend us (Ephesians 6:17). “Thus saith the Lord” is our sure foundation. One reason God established local churches is that believers might grow in the Word, and, in turn, help others to grow (2 Timothy 2:2; Ephesians 4:11-16).
And what about this word “comfort”? That word (parakaleō) carries the idea of coming alongside someone in order to motivate him. That is the verb form of this form, which is how the word was used in Acts 14:22 which said that Paul and Barnabas went about “Confirming the souls the disciples, and exhorting them to continue”. In that passage the word was translated “exhorting” instead of “comfort”. In our study of this letter we have already become acquainted with this word in its noun form; 1 Thessalonians 2:3: “Our exhortation”. And the noun form of this word is one of the NT designations of the Holy Spirit. In John 14:16 Jesus said, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter [paraklētos], that he may abide with you forever”. The word means to be an intercessor, an advocate.

My point with all this is that Timothy’s assignment to comfort the Thessalonians did not include singing them a soothing song as he massaged the kinks from their shoulders! He wasn’t sent up there to kiss their boo-boos and to tell them that “everything would get better”. When we think of the word comfort we think of a gentle soothing, and rightfully so because that is the way in which the term is now used. But the idea here is that Timothy was encouraging and strengthening them; mobilizing them for action.

Motivated by a sacrificial love for this church, Paul assigned Timothy the mission of strengthening and encouraging the Thessalonian church so that they would not “be moved by…afflictions…tribulations or the tempter”. He was to prepare them for their service, and to stabilize them for the trials that they were already experiencing and for the ones that were on the horizon. The unexpected blow is always the most painful. But if you’ve prepared yourself and are stabilized; then the wallop doesn’t hurt so bad. That is why Jesus said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Or in the words of the country and western: “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes.”

Finally, let’s just notice some general yet practical instructions that we can glean from this passage.
  • Sensible Decision Making – 1 Thessalonians 3:1, "We thought it good” – seems to be a practical reminder that God has given us the ability to think and reason, and as Christians who are led by the Spirit through the revelation of the Word, we ought to be making Godly, Biblically informed decisions.
  • Fact of Persecution – 1 Thessalonians 3:3 – 4; James 1:12
  • The Reality of Satan – 1 Thessalonians 3:5
  • The necessity to belong to a local church.
  • The necessity of pastoral care.


Greg said...

Nicely done lesson, Travis. Thank you... Greg.

Travis said...

Thanks, Greg! It's good to hear from you, and I'm glad you're blogging. I'm eager to read as much of your writing as possible.