3:1-5. Timothy Sent to Thessalonica. The forced separation from the Thessalonians became unbearable for Paul, anxious as he was to know how they fared under the duress. In Athens, he decided to send Timothy to strengthen them in their faith.
As he will later remind Timothy himself (2 Timothy 3:12), Paul makes it clear that Christians are destined for suffering. It was not something “strange” that was happening to them, as Peter would later tell his readers (1 Peter 4:12). Suffering for the gospel is integral to life in Christ, so much so that Paul rejoiced in his suffering in behalf of the body of Christ, considering them a filling up or completing in his physical body of the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24). Just as redemption came by suffering, so its proclamation is accomplished through suffering as well. This is the destiny of God’s people, by him determined and willed that it should be so. To shrink from suffering for the gospel is to draw back from following him. So Paul had forewarned the Thessalonians to expect it, as it indeed happened.
But the knowledge and expectation of such affliction did not assuage his anxiety about them, so he sent to find out about their faith. He must know how they are faring, for fear that the tempter somehow had tempted them. If Satan had been able to thwart Paul’s plans to visit the new converts (2:18), the apostle knows he will be working on their end to entice them to avoid the suffering by compromising or abandoning their faith. He had tempted Jesus to avoid the cross by promising him an easy way out to acquire the kingdom. He would undoubtedly offer the Thessalonians some similar false promise, which, if they did not recognize it for what it was, would prove Paul’s toil useless.
3:6-10. Timothy’s Good Report. When Timothy returns from his visit with good news of their faith and love, Paul is motivated to write his letter. He wants to praise them and provide still more encouragement. He is glad the converts always think of them with affection and reciprocate in their desire to see Paul and his coworkers, which Paul takes as a sign that they are standing firm in their faith. The omission of hope (see 1:3) here lends no evidence that there was indeed something lacking in their faith. In verses 7 and 10, faith seems to be used in a wider sense than in verse 6 to speak of their life in Christ and firmness in the gospel. Such firmness served to reassure Paul in the midst of his distress and affliction, perhaps referring to his difficulties in Athens, or more generally. Timothy’s news goes so far to re-animate him, he feels he’s been given a new lease on life, by saying now we are alive again, an evident hyperbole to speak of his intense joy at the news. Paul’s if in verse 8 holds no condition or uncertainty; NIV rightly has since.
Such good news naturally leads Paul to thank God, and he finds it hard to offer enough gratitude. His language continues to be effusive, but his emotions are genuine before our God (1:3). Today, in an era that wallows in shallow emotionalism, and in a spiritual environment sometimes restrained from warm demonstrations of affection, Paul’s language shows a proper role for the expression of strong feelings and deserves greater study because of it.
Paul’s joy was not tied to seasons or circumstances, but to faith in others. What he felt before God served as a reflection of the joy in heaven over their faithfulness. When the shepherd and the woman exclaimed, “Rejoice with me,” they echoed the invitation of heaven to enter into the celestial celebration at the repentance of sinners (Luke 15:1-10). Paul knows that God rejoices at the Thessalonians’ steady faith and, hence, he does as well.
This text reveals something of what Paul later called “the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). While others felt the pressure of personal and family commitments or financial and professional demands, Paul’s personal life was marked by deep contentment (Philippians 4:11-13). His preoccupations centered in the conversion of others and their development in Christ.
The thanksgiving segued into supplication night and day in hopes that God would permit them to soon see them in person that Paul might resume his service among them and make up what may be lacking in their faith. As recent converts, they would still have much to learn, in spite of such a wonderful beginning and faithful stance, surrounded as they were by controversy and conflict.
3:11-13. Paul’s Prayer for Them. Like the apostles at the beginning of the gospel, Paul devoted himself “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Having mentioned his prayer, he now proceeds to insert his requests in his letter. He mentions two: that God may direct their way to them, and that their love may increase. While Paul does not mention any specific insufficiency in their spiritual life, he encourages them to progress in growth and to continue what they are doing (4:1, 10; 5:11). He prays to God that both the Father himself and our Lord Jesus may engage themselves in the granting of this prayer. If it is Satan who thwarts a journey, it is God who directs it, indicating that the devil’s task is one of impediment and destruction, while the Lord’s is one of empowerment and edification, even when he blocks a path (Acts 16:6-10). In the second petition the Lord refers, as is Paul’s custom, to Jesus. Though Paul may impart blessing and teaching, it is the Lord who causes the increase. By heart he means the center and essence of the person, and not merely the emotions, as is common today.
The second petition desires greater love in order to be strengthened in holiness, and it is to these that he will now turn, in symmetrical order: holiness (4:1-8) and love (4:9-12). Holiness is a complete dedication to the Lord, both mindset and morals. The mutual love between Christians encourages them to be holy. To be blameless … at the coming of the Lord is to be welcomed by him into the eternal above (Hebrews 12:14). Again, all is open before our God and Father, in whose presence saints will be judged and approved. Jesus will be accompanied by all his saints, which may include both angels and deceased disciples.
The end of each major section in 1 Thessalonians highlights a coming, each of which is a part of the final things (1:10, coming wrath; 2:16, wrath has come; 3:13, coming of our Lord Jesus; 4:16, the Lord himself will come down; 5:23, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ). These endings, besides the fuller treatment of the second coming in chapters 4 and 5, indicate that this may be a special concern of the Thessalonians due to questions on their part, or a critical need to understand their afflictions in light of, and as a part of, the end times. If the latter case, Paul is placing the sufferings of the Christian within an eschatological context. Not only does the death of Christ give meaning to their sufferings, but his return does as well.