Surviving and Thriving

17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy. 

1 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. – 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5 ESV

Paul’s great love for the believers in Thessalonica can be seen in his words expressing his deep desire to see them again. Ever since he and Silas had been forced to leave the city under the cover of darkness due to threats against them, he had been longing to return. And while Paul had been ministering in other cities, he doesn’t give busyness as his excuse. He blames Satan. He provides no clarification or explanation, but seems to be indicating that spiritual warfare was involved. Paul was well acquainted with the reality of Satan and had first-hand experience with the invisible battle taking place in “the heavenly places.” He told the believers in Ephesus:

…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 NLT

There were a lot of places Paul wanted to go, but he wasn’t always able to squeeze them into his plans. He told the Romans:

I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. – Romans 1:16 NLT

But in this case, Paul doesn’t blame his absence on Satan. He simply states that he had been busy sharing the gospel in places where it had not yet been heard.

I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.”

This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. –Romans 15:20-22 ESV

But, for whatever reason, Paul felt that his delay in returning to Thessalonica was a blatant case of spiritual warfare. The enemy didn’t want him to go back and had set up obstacles in his path. Again, while Paul provides no specifics, he does shed light on his outlook regarding the invisible war taking place around him. The intensity of his love for the Thessalonian believers was offset by Satan’s intense hatred for them. Paul knew that they were under attack as well, and longed to return in order that he might encourage and strengthen them in their faith. He describes them as “our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 2:19 ESV). They were his whole reason for existence, and their spiritual well-being was his greatest concern. Paul wanted each and every believer to remain firm in their faith all the way to the end. Their spiritual survival and success would one day bring Paul great joy and provide him with reason for “boasting before our Lord Jesus.” Their presence in heaven will give him great pride. Paul isn’t taking credit for their salvation or saying that he will deserve honor from God for all his efforts on their behalf. He’s simply indicating that nothing means more to him than accomplishing the work given to him by God – the spreading of the gospel and the spiritual development of the church.

Paul’s apparent delay didn’t prevent him from sending Timothy in his place. He had his young disciple return to Thessalonica with instructions “to establish and exhort” them in their faith. The two Greek words Paul used provide us with insight into Timothy’s responsibilities. The first is stērizō and it means “to strengthen or make stable.” The second word is parakaleō and it means “to comfort or encourage.” This is one of the functions of the Holy Spirit Himself, whom Jesus referred to as the paraklētos or comforter. Paul wanted Timothy to build up the church in Thessalonica by establishing them in their faith and comforting them as they encountered persecution.

Paul knew that trials could easily shake the church, leaving them discouraged and disillusioned in their faith. They were going to need to proper instruction and ongoing emotional support. So, he sent Timothy to provide the church with everything from sound doctrinal instruction to much-needed encouragement to stay the course. Paul wanted them to know that affliction was to be expected. He reminds them that “we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). When he had been with them, he had told them that trials were coming. And they had arrived just as he had predicted.

Paul had not been caught off guard by the presence of trials among the believers in Thessalonica. But he was concerned that they would allow those trials to negatively impact their walk with Christ. He knew that “the tempter” was going to do everything in his power to deceive, distract, and defeat them. Satan was going to use the presence of difficulties to cause doubts about the goodness of God and the efficacy of the Christian faith. He would be whispering in their ears, “What kind of God lets these kinds of things happen to those He claims to love?”

Paul’s greatest fear was that any believer would allow the difficulties of life to draw he or she away from God. Faith requires perseverence in the face of the inevitable trials of life. Walking with Christ will have its ups and downs. Living in a fallen world will bring its fair share of difficulties, and Paul worried about the Thessalonians taking their eyes off the prize and focusing on the temporal nature of their trials. And he knew that every believer faced the very real threat of having their faith weakened by the presence of unexpected and unwanted trials. Which is why he reminded the Roman believers not allow present suffering to distract them from the promise of future glory.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 NLT

Seeing the lost come to faith was a passion for Paul. But he was unwilling to stop there. He knew that the post-conversion life of the believer was a difficult one. Coming to faith was just the beginning. Growing in faith and confidence in the promises or God took time. Standing firm in storms of life was not easy. The spiritual battle was real and enemy’s efforts to destroy the believer’s faith would be intense and unrelenting. So, Paul sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. The Christian life requires endurance. The walk of faith demands steadfastness in the face of difficulty, and unwavering determination to stand against the inevitable attacks of the enemy.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson