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Encouragement Works Both Ways -- Paul's experience in 1 Thessalonians 3:4-13

Nothing makes a teacher prouder than a student's success.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 3:4-13

In the wrap-up of Paul's opening defense, Paul expresses his great relief that not only has the church done well in his absence, but their love for him has not been shaken. Paul had feared for the church's discouragement, but instead he was filled with joy by their encouragement. And he prays that their love for everyone will remain strong.


Getting Started: Things to Think About


Your First Time on Your Own

The leader material suggested a "parents sending us off" discussion topic, which is the first idea I had, too. But if your group doesn't demographically connect with that topic, there are plenty of other ways to get to the same end. It's all about having a "first time responsibility". Let these spark some ideas:

  • The first time you were running the plays in a real high school basketball game (or pick any sport)

  • The first time you student-taught (or the first time you did so without an observer)

  • The first time you went on a sales call or repair call on your own

  • The first time you were the project manager

  • Or any other scenario in which you were trained for something and then finally did it on your own for the first time


It's also likely that you've been through this from "the other side", as in you were the coach or the trainer or the supervisor. It would be great if you could talk about this from both perspectives. Think of a first time you were on your own with something. What thoughts and emotions were running through you? Were you caught up in trying to do your best? Were you focused on just remembering the things to do?


And then think about it from the other side (even if you haven't been here yourself, you can probably imagine what it would be like). What was going through your mind the first time you let someone you've trained/coached "do it on their own"? Were you worried? Were you following along in real-time? Did you second-guess everything?


And then finally, what was your first get-together like after that event? If you were the newbie, were you nervous about trying to explain your decisions? If you were the trainer, were you more worried about the "teachable moment" or trying to build the other person up?


To put a final twist on this topic, think about it in a world before cell phones (or even phones period) when it might take days or weeks (or longer) to hear the news about how something went. How might that time gap affect your feelings?


The Coach Is in the Hospital

This version of the topic might be more appropriate because it involves a sudden and unexpected absence. In the COVID era, an unexpected positive demolished workplace coherence. And all the more so if the boss is who tested positive! It's not all about COVID, of course -- any illness or injury can create this scenario. Has this happened in your workplace, where the boss/manager was unexpectedly absent and someone had to step in? How did it go? What "life lessons" did you take from the situation?

I love the sports team aspect of it. Coaches spend a ridiculous amount of time preparing for a game, and if they get taken out at the last moment, it throws everything in a tizzy. Some coaches, like Hugh Freeze, will find a way to stay involved. Others, like Deion Sanders, empower a second-in-command to take full authority. Do you have a story or personal anecdote about this kind of situation? What seemed to work best?


Paul left the church in Thessalonica after only a few weeks, and he had been worried sick about how they were doing. What do you think was going through Paul's mind when he saw Timothy coming back with news from the church?

 

This Week's Big Idea: The Travel Itinerary for Timothy

This week's passage has created some controversy among the skeptical crowd (no, really!). Let me point us back to some key verses in Acts 17-20:

  • Paul "and his companions" traveled to Thessalonica after being released from prison in Philippi (17:1).

  • Paul and Silas and Timothy escaped Thessalonica to go to Berea (17:10).

  • Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea while Paul went on to Athens (17:15).

  • Paul asked Silas and Timothy to join him ASAP in Athens (17:15).

  • Paul left for Corinth, where he met Priscilla and Aquilla (18:1).

  • Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia (18:5).

  • After 18 months, Paul left Corinth for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquilla (18:18).

  • Paul ministered in Ephesus for 2 years (19:10).

  • Paul sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia (19:22).

  • Paul eventually traveled back through Macedonia, intending to go to Rome, accompanied by Timothy and several others (20:1).

Now let me point out some key verses in 1 Thessalonians:

  • Paul and his companions limped from Philippi to Thessalonica (2:2).

  • They were forced to leave Thessalonica and could not return for some time (2:17).

  • They sent Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens (3:1).

  • Timothy returned from Thessalonica to Paul who was now in Corinth, and Paul wrote his first letter to the church (3:6).

Here's the key controversy (and these are some of the few verses we skip in this letter): how could Paul send Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens if Timothy never came to Athens with Paul? A few weeks back, I said that Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica from Corinth. I just realized that I had fallen into the same trap as these skeptics -- because Acts didn't say anything about Timothy in Athens, Timothy must never have come to Athens at all. But read Acts 17 for yourself. Acts doesn't say that! Acts mentions Timothy in Berea and again in Corinth -- and nothing in between.


The simple harmony is this: Silas and Timothy did respond to Paul's ASAP summons in Athens, and Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica from there (at great personal cost because Paul was so overwhelmed by the spiritual condition of Athens). And it sounds like Paul sent Silas to Thessalonica right before he left Athens for Corinth, which is how Timothy knew to find Paul in Corinth.

 

Bonus Big Idea: The Absurdity of What Paul Accomplished in Three Weeks in Thessalonica

For Southern Baptists, the Easter season points us to Annie Armstrong and North American church planting. (Need a refresher on who Annie Armstrong was?) Our North American Mission Board (NAMB) is very good at church planting. They have a robust and streamlined process ("pathway") for working with them to plant a church:

It's a multi-year process of training, coaching, and networking, and a lot of that happens before a church planter even officially plants the church!


And wouldn't you know it, but this Sunday (March 27) is Church Planting Emphasis Sunday. No, I'm not making that up:

At some point during your morning together, make sure that church planting comes up as a topic, and then encourage everyone in your group to spend time praying for our church planters here in North America (we set apart Christmas for international work). We handed out prayer guides last Sunday in church, but you can use this handy resource:


My point? It's a multi-year process. And then, NAMB commits to help fund the church plant for an agreed-upon period of time, understanding that it can take years for a church plant to become financially self-sustaining.


But let's say that you're in a time crunch like Paul. Can you speed that process up?


There are two different issues in play: church planting and pastor training.


"Short-Term Church Planting." I recommend working through the Georgia Baptist Mission Board for short-term mission opportunities. But for the sake of this illustration, I'll pick a ministry platform called ShortTermMissions.com that currently lists about 1,000 opportunities through 68 different mission organizations:

I'm not making any evaluations about anything listed on that site; that's not my point. My point is this: every one of those "short-term church planting" opportunities works with a team of in-country specialists who coordinates group-to-group efforts that have been building for years.


"Short-Term Pastor Training." There are so many pastor training ministries. I'm just going to pick one -- TrainingLeadersInternational.org (which has some people I respect on their advisory board). They currently list 15 opportunities to help with short-term pastor training all over the world, from Asia to Africa to South America:

Some of those training opportunities last 2 weeks. BUT -- all of them are connected with a long-term, well-coordinated network of classes that can take years to complete.


"Paul-Term Church Planting and Pastor Training." In less than three weeks, Paul was able to establish a stable, functioning church that could survive persecution and grow, as well as identify and cultivate responsible leaders who had ZERO prior training in being a Christian, let alone a church leader.


Impressed? I am.


But lest anyone say "church planting isn't that hard", let me remind you that Paul (for all intents and purposes) wrote two books of the Bible for this church plant. And he sent them Timothy as a coach. As in Timothy-from-the-Bible.


So yeah, church planting is hard.

 

Where We Are in 1 Thessalonians

After all of this time in the letter, we are still in Paul's opening defense. As I mentioned above, we skipped a few verses (3:1-3) in which Paul mentioned why he had sent Timothy to them in the first place. It's because he loved them and cared greatly about them and wanted to know how they were doing (contra the accusation made by Paul's opponents).


Timothy's report will be the occasion for the rest of the letter, the few questions and concerns Timothy brought on their behalf. That means that next week we will finally get to a different topic.


But I've looked through Lifeway's lesson breakdown, and I couldn't come up with anything better. They are constrained by having 12 weeks to cover 1/2 Thessalonians (there's a standalone Easter lesson). That's not enough time to add a third book, and it's too much time to cover one of these books individually. They are already devoting two weeks to the complex (and controversial) verses about the Day of the Lord.


If anyone in your group has complained about this series moving slowly, I don't know what to say. I hope they appreciate how important these verses are and what they tell us about the apostle Paul and the perspective they give us on what our priorities should be.

 

Part 1: Distressed (1 Thessalonians 3:4-5)

4 In fact, when we were with you, we told you in advance that we were going to experience affliction, and as you know, it happened. 5 For this reason, when I could no longer stand it, I also sent him to find out about your faith, fearing that the tempter had tempted you and that our labor might be for nothing.

Paul tells us the biggest thing he was worried about: discouragement.


That should only make sense, and it should be an easy topic to talk about. Has discouragement ever caused you to give up on something? What and why?


We can turn this to spiritual matters really easily. Do you read and study the Bible as much as you think you should? Do you share your faith as much as you think you should? If not, why not?


I realize this in now 5 years old, but a 2017 Lifeway Research survey found that few Christians read the Bible as much as they think they should. Primary reasons given include not caring enough, not making time, not agreeing with it, and being intimidated by it. Those things are all directly tied to discouragement. If something is hard for you, it will take longer than you think it should and give smaller results than you expect. That will discourage you from sticking to it.


Sharing faith is similar. An undated Jesus Film survey found that the reasons Christians give for not sharing their faith include fear of rejection, fear of inadequacy, and fear of hostility.


That's exactly the sort of thing Paul was worried about for the Thessalonians! He knew that they would face opposition, and he feared that it would discourage them from their commitment to following Jesus and sharing Jesus.


Notice that reference to "the tempter" -- clearly, Satan (see 2:18). Satan has opposed everything about God's plan to save humanity from the consequence of their sin, sin that Satan so easily manipulated into existence. Don't you think he will do everything in his power to continue to prevent churches from boldly share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a dying world?


We have all had friends and acquaintances who were new Christians. We have all given advice and encouragement to them. We have all seen them face difficult choices and opposition in their commitment to follow Jesus. What are the kinds of situations that made us most nervous for these new Christians?

 

Part 2: Rejuvenated (1 Thessalonians 3:6-10)

6 But now Timothy has come to us from you and brought us good news about your faith and love. He reported that you always have good memories of us and that you long to see us, as we also long to see you. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and affliction, we were encouraged about you through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you stand firm in the Lord. 9 How can we thank God for you in return for all the joy we experience before our God because of you, 10 as we pray very earnestly night and day to see you face to face and to complete what is lacking in your faith?

"But now" is such a great transition. Not only have Paul's opponents failed to drive a wedge between Paul and this church, but the church has endured their hardships and come through even stronger. I'm sure you've had this kind of experience -- "I came here hoping to encourage you, and instead you've been encouraging me!"


The phrase "for now we live" carries the idea of "for now we have a new lease on life". That's the level of relief Paul felt at this great news.


What's the news that has brought you the most relief about a person? (Our gut reaction will be about medical news, but I'm talking about things in that person's control, like a decision or an action.)


My high school/college years seem filled with "hero teacher" movies. Sometimes the students make the right decision when it counts; sometimes they don't. Sometimes it works out well for them; sometimes it doesn't. Check out this lineup -- Stand and Deliver, 1988; Dead Poet's Society, 1989; Lean on Me, 1989; Dangerous Minds, 1995.

The relief when they find out the young person has made a good decision is palpable. And the pain when they made the wrong decision is equally palpable. What's that movie or story for you?


The key words here (and they are repeated throughout the letter) are faith, love, and joy. They have stood firm in their faith, and they have continued to love Paul, which has brought Paul joy. In fact, Timothy's news has brought Paul so much joy that he likens it to the gospel! (This is the only place where Paul doesn't use evangelizo of the gospel; remember that the word itself simply means "good news".)


Are you filled with joy when you hear of other Christians living for Jesus? It seems that too many of us are filled with jealousy or criticisms when we think about how other Christians are doing. Let's start by being joyful for the good that God is doing in and through them.


Because ... they're not perfect. Paul uses verse 10 to kick off his transition into the rest of his letter, answering the questions they have and giving instruction. "Complete what is lacking" means they aren't there yet.


This is not an indictment on the Thessalonians at all! Most of us have continuing ed requirements in our jobs; that's because we all still have things to learn. And we all still make mistakes.


Here's what I consider to be the biggest question coming out of this passage: what are the areas where your faith (actions or attitudes or knowledge) is lacking? We established above that many Christians do not read the Bible or share our faith like we should. That leads to a spiral. For example, if you don't read the Bible enough, you don't know as much of the Bible as you should, which will stunt your faith which will both discourage you from and make you apathetic toward reading the Bible. Right?


Here's another way of looking at it: if Paul had planted your church, what are the questions you would want to ask him?

 

Part 3: Focused (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13)

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. 13 May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

Paul closes this opening section with a simple but powerful prayer. First, Paul has longed to see the church face-to-face, and so he prays that God will make that possible. (Paul had been praying this a bunch; he's just letting the church know how he's praying.) Second, Paul prays that God would continue to work in them in the ways He already has.


Just like in the opening verses, Paul emphasizes God the Father and God the Son. Does this mean that God the Spirit is unimportant to Paul? No. Paul's belief (which he has clearly taught the Thessalonians) is that the Spirit is the means by which God the Father will answer Paul's prayers; the Spirit is how the Father works in the hearts of people (see 5:19).


And what's Paul's focus for them? Love. Paul's singular, overarching focus for the lives of these new believers is love. (Note -- agape love.) Why do you think that is? What does Christian love look like and why is it so important to the Christian life?


Paul does continue his prayer into a desire for holiness, but I want you to note that Paul uses verse 13 to set up the major themes of the rest of the letter: sexual ethics and the return of Jesus. Obviously, don't spend a whole lot of time here talking about those two topics -- we're going to have upcoming lessons on them! But I would absolutely recommend two basic questions:

  • Why is "holiness" important to Christian behavior?

  • What does Jesus' second coming have to do with our behavior?

You remember that "holiness" is the idea of being set apart. We are to "be holy as God is holy" (Lev 11:44). But I really like how Paul said it to the Colossians:

1:21 Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds as expressed in your evil actions. 22 But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him—23 if indeed you remain grounded and steadfast in the faith and are not shifted away from the hope of the gospel that you heard.

Pop quiz time: what does it mean to "be saved"?


When we are saved, our sins are forgiven and we are thus set apart by Jesus to God the Father. There's nothing we can do to achieve or earn that status. But we demonstrate our holiness by behaving like holy people. This is why Paul cared so much about their behavior. If the Thessalonians were behaving like muppets, then that would indicate that the gospel had not taken root there, and all of Paul's labor (and anxiety) would have been for nothing.


Obviously, we can't be talking about perfect holiness, else Paul wouldn't have mentioned the things lacking in their faith!


Our outward behavior reflects our inward reality. Christ died to set us free from sin. We are set apart to God now. Therefore, let us be who we are.


How's your love? How's your holiness?

 

Closing Thoughts: The Second Coming

This is a big deal in Thessalonians, so we may as well start wrapping our heads around this.


When Paul says "when the Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones", he uses the Greek word parousia, which means "coming" or "presence", and hagioi, which means "holy ones" and is used by Paul to refer to the Christian community.


Parousia is the most common word used of Christ's "Second Coming":

  • 1 Thess 4:15: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

  • 2 Thess 2:8: The Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of his mouth and will bring him to nothing at the appearance of his coming.

(We're going to talk about those passages in the weeks to come, so don't look too far ahead!)


The other two common words are

  • Apocalypse ("revelation") -- 1 Cor 1:7: as you eagerly wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Epiphany ("manifestation") -- 1 Tim 6:14: to keep this command without fault or failure until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.


As we will see, the Thessalonian Christians had questions and concerns about Christ's return, in particular "what happens to the Christians who have already died? will they miss out?" We will cover that in the weeks to come. My point is that Paul used this term to emphasize the imminence and inevitability of Christ's physical return to the earth to destroy His enemies and inaugurate His full kingdom.


We covered Jesus' teachings on His return last year:

I'll bring those things up when Paul starts telling the Thessalonians how they are supposed to live knowing that Christ will return soon.


Okay -- so that's all great. What return is Paul talking about here? If Jesus is coming with His holy ones (Christians), then this can't be the coming mentioned in 4:15-17 in which Christ comes to His holy ones, right?


My favorite answer is that parousia means more than just what we think about as "The Second Coming" (that part where Jesus comes down out of the clouds on a white horse). The word parousia also means "presence", and Paul did use it in that way (1 Cor 16:17, Phil 2:12). In other words, in this verse, Paul wasn't just thinking about Christ's initial return -- he was thinking about Christ's return and the judgment and the inauguration of the Kingdom. The whole kit and kaboodle. The previous time Paul mentioned "the coming" (2:19), the implied circumstance was judgment. Christ comes to judge (2 Cor 5:10).


Consider what Jesus said in John 5:

24 “Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life. 25 “Truly I tell you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself. 27 And he has granted him the right to pass judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of condemnation."

Here's a rough sketch of Last Things

  • Christ returns

  • All people, living and dead, are presented to Him

  • Christ separates "the sheep from the goats"

  • The sheep ("His holy ones") enter into Jesus' "happiness"

  • The goats are judged and condemned and sent away


So, when Paul here says "when the Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones", he is telescoping things for his audience in such a way that they will understand what he's talking about. Paul clearly hadn't had time for an "End of Time" seminar with this church. I'm sure that's why they had so many questions about it. (And remember, John hasn't even had his Revelation yet!)


You'll be disappointed to hear this, but I don't believe Paul was using this phrase in any technical sense. Paul was simply using a phrase to help this young church -- who had zero resources about last things -- take heart that "one day Jesus will come, and His people will be with Him". Is that not true? Put that way, is it not encouraging? And when you think about it, doesn't it give you a fire that you want to be with His people?


Later in this letter, Paul will speak much more specifically about Christ's return, and we will get to have all the debates you want about it. But here, Paul is simply speaking in general and encouraging terms.

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