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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
1 Thessalonians 3

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 3. Paul Expresses His Gladness about their State and Prays That It Will Abound Yet More and More.

This chapter simply continues chapter 2, describing in terms of it the sending of Timothy to them and his joy when Timothy returned with the good news of their continued progress and steadfastness in the face of their difficulties. He assures them that they are not forgotten in the midst of their afflictions, and prays for their continued perseverance and growth.


Verses 1-3

‘Wherefore when we could not longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone, and sent Timothy, our brother and God’s minister (or fellow worker) in the Good News of Christ, to establish you and comfort you concerning your faith, that no man be moved by these afflictions, for you yourselves know that hereunto we were appointed.’

Paul’s concern for the Thessalonians had been such that it had preyed on his mind, and in the end, at great sacrifice to himself, for it meant that he and Silas were then alone in Athens, he had sent Timothy to them. The purpose behind this had been to establish and strengthen them in their faith.

‘To be left at Athens alone.’ The verb is a strong one conveying something of the cost to them. Compare its use in Mark 12:19 and Ephesians 5:31. It indicates how difficult they were finding ministry in Athens to which they presumably returned some time after Paul’s first visit (see Acts 17:16-34, although that was before Silas and Timothy joined him at Corinth).

‘God’s minister’ or ‘God’s fellow-worker. The manuscripts are divided on this (with variations). The latter is the more difficult reading as representing a description that might be felt to be too bold, although a similar also appears in 1 Corinthians 3:9. We can see why it might have been softened to the former. It demonstrates the highest regard for Timothy in his ministry. To be God’s fellow-worker, a worker together with God, is the highest honour that can be paid to a man. Notice that it is a fellow-worker in the Gospel. It is in passing on the Good News of Christ by which we become uniquely fellow-workers with God.

‘To establish and comfort you concerning your faith.’ To act as a support (sterizo) and to come alongside to help (parakaleo). The idea behind both words is of strengthening. The idea is used of the Holy Spirit (Parakletos) in John 14:16; John 14:26. The aim was to bolster their faith in the face of persecution.

‘That no man be moved by these afflictions, for you yourselves know that hereunto we were appointed.’ The assumption is that tribulation and persecution are to be seen as a normal part of the Christian life. We are in enemy territory (‘the world’) and must therefore expect affliction. We therefore need encouragement to stand firm and not allow faith to waver or become doubt. ‘Great tribulation’ is to be expected when we undermine the Enemy’s position but we need not fear for Christ ‘has overcome the world’ (Revelation 7:14; John 16:33; Matthew 13:21; Acts 14:22; Romans 5:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; Revelation 1:9).

‘Hereunto we were appointed.’ It is quite clear that the Thessalonians were continually experiencing persecution and tribulation (see also 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:6). Perhaps that was one reason why they were so buoyant and alive (Romans 5:3-5). As good soldiers of Jesus Christ they responded to the challenge (2 Timothy 2:3). Paul here makes clear that it is the expected lot of all Christians. It is something established, ‘set’ like a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14). We should not therefore be surprised when tribulation comes, nor should we make excessive efforts to avoid it unless thereby we help others.


Verse 4

‘For truly when we were with you we told you beforehand that we are to suffer affliction, even as it happened, and you know.’

Paul reinforces his statements by reminding them that they had continually pre-warned (imperfect) the Thessalonians that tribulation was the Christian’s lot. And now they knew it for themselves for it had happened.


Verse 5

‘For this reason I also, when I could no longer forbear, sent that I might know your faith, lest by any means the tempter had tempted you and our labour should be in vain.’

The change to the first person singular brings out how much he was moved by what he was talking about. He felt personally involved. He had heard about what they were going through, and was concerned about what effect it was having on their faith. So in the end he could not restrain himself. He had to know. That was why he had despatched Timothy in order to find out.

‘Lest by any means the tempter had tempted you.’ Paul was very much aware that once a person became a Christian they became a prey of the Tempter. ‘By any means’ reminds us that his methods are not restricted to persecution and affliction (compare Ephesians 6:12). But in context that was clearly to the fore. Paul saw the hand of the Tempter behind all attacks on Christians. He was encouraged in this by the words of Jesus Himself. Satan had desired to have them that he might sift them as wheat (Luke 22:31 compare Job 1-2). He had used tribulation to try to shake their faith, and persuade them to turn from Christ.

‘And our labour should be in vain.’ The change to the subjunctive indicates that this was something mooted, not something believed. It had been a possibility that their labour might have been in vain, but Paul had hoped for better things, in which as it turned out he was justified. The word for labour suggests great effort. The ministry had not been an easy one, as indeed no ministry should be.


Verse 6-7

‘But when Timothy came even now to us from you, and brought us the good news of your faith and love, and that you have good remembrance of us always, longing to see us as we also to see you, for this reason, brothers and sisters, we were comforted over you in all our distress and affliction through your faith.’

The recent arrival of Timothy had come to Paul like a breath of fresh air in the midst of his problems, and especially the news of their faith and love, and of their good memories of him. (It would have been so easy to add ‘hope’ here after ‘faith and love’, but he did not. This should warn us against assuming too much about Paul’s emphasis on the second coming in this letter. His view was balanced and realistic, not overloaded).

‘Your faith and love.’ His first rejoicing was in that which demonstrated their growth in the Gospel. That their faith was strong and true, and manifested itself in love. That was all important. His second rejoicing was in the fact of their good remembrance of him and of their desire to see him again. He suffered so much from news of the activities of false teachers and the problems they caused that to learn of those who had not allowed themselves to be affected by such was good news indeed.

Note that Paul is not ashamed to mention the trials he is going through. He wants them to know that they have been a great help to him. The distress and affliction may have been referring to his worries about them, but it is far more likely that it refers to other factors, for while he had not been certain about their state there is no reason to think that lack of news had caused him distress to that extent. Anxiety, yes, but not distress (‘crushing pressures’). So Paul, as often, was going through tough times. His life was one of continual triumph over great tribulation.


Verse 8

‘For now we live if you stand firm in the Lord.’

‘Now we are alive.’ This use of the word live emphasises the great burden under which Paul had suffered. He had felt dead and discouraged, but now he had sprung to life. We tend to overlook the dreadful burdens he had to bear, the constant worries as more and more seemingly bad news filtered through which could not be tested, the pressures of learning of the activities of false teachers, especially when they were accompanied by seeming success, the constant brushes with authority and what they could mean for the success of his mission. But now this great news had come though that this vital church was alive and well and prospering. The word was going out in Macedonia and around. All was well.

Note that ‘if’ (ean) is followed, not by the subjunctive of doubt, but by the indicative of greater certainty. Possibly we should paraphrase ‘as long as you go on standing firm’. For the meaning of the verb compare 1 Corinthians 16:13; Galatians 5:1; Philippians 4:1.


Verse 9-10

‘For what thanksgiving can we render again to God for you, for all the joy with which we joy for your sakes before our God, night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face, and perfect that which is lacking in your faith.’

Paul might have been excused for feeling a little self-satisfaction for the success of his ministry, but had he done so it might have been the end of his success. Once a man begins to think he is something in the spiritual realm he becomes nothing (Galatians 6:3; 1 Corinthians 8:2). But Paul was too wise for that. He knew that the spiritual success of his work was totally due to God and he accordingly rendered thanks to Him. Indeed he recognised that the thanksgiving due was so much that he could not achieve it. When he thought of the joy he had experienced as a result of what God had done he was overwhelmed.

‘For all the joy with which we joy for your sakes before our God.’ As he prayed before God to be able to see them again and build them up further in the faith, his joy overflowed in the presence of God at the blessings God had bestowed on them.

‘Night and day praying exceedingly.’ There was nothing half hearted about his desire to see them and bring them blessing. The cry of his heart was continual and fervent, for he knew that there was more that they needed to know.

‘Perfect that which was lacking in your faith.’ His longing was to be able to teach them more so that they would be well rounded in their theology. ‘Faith’ here surely includes reference to the content of their faith, what they believed. There was so much more that he wanted to pass on. But such expansion of knowledge of the faith, if rightly received, will also result in growth in faith and in the love of God.

‘Perfect.’ A word used of the mending of nets, of equipping someone, of supplying what is missing, of making complete.


Verses 11-13

‘Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you. And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love, one toward another, and towards all men, even as we also do towards you, to the end that he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’

In the prayer that closes this section Paul clearly demonstrates that all must be of God. If they are to come to Thessalonika it must be because God directs them, removing the obstacles and the interference of Satan which has prevented it. Note again how God the Father and the Lord Jesus are in parallel. They are our God and Lord, working in full unity. And all our ways must be in their hands. That they are addressed in prayer together confirms the full deity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then he prays for their growth, that they may ‘increase and abound’. Both words convey the same general idea, growth and fullness. The growth and fullness are to be in love, first towards each other and then towards all men, a love comparable to that Paul has for them. The comparison brings out the genuineness of his love. This will then result in their fulfilling all God’s requirements (Galatians 5:14 see also John 14:15), and prepare them for the coming of the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 3:13). Love for one another was a central feature of the final words of Jesus Christ to His disciples (John 13:34-35; John 15:12-13; John 15:17). It was one way by which all men would be able to identify the true disciples of Christ (John 13:35).

‘To the end that he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ The purpose of this love being made to increase and abound in them is that their hearts may be established, ‘unblameable in holiness’, ready to meet God at Jesus’ second coming. We note again the importance of faith (1 Thessalonians 3:10 b), love (1 Thessalonians 3:12) and here, the Christian hope, the three foundation pillars manward of Christian belief.

‘He may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness.’ The verb ‘establish’ is used in LXX Psalms 112:8 to signify someone whose heart is established so that he need not be afraid. It refers to a strong and sure position and attitude resulting from faith (‘the fear of the Lord’) and past experience of righteousness. Thus here faith and its outworking in love is seen as establishing the hearts of Christians ‘unblameable in holiness’. The former, the faith and love, is the outworking of salvation as seen within man, unblameable in holiness is the outworking of salvation on God’s part. It is through the sacrifice of Christ, resulting in sanctification and cleansing, that we are presented before God holy and without blame (Ephesians 5:25-27; Colossians 1:22), but it is our faith and love, worked within us by God, that give us the confidence that we will be so, and reproduce something of that holiness within us (see 2 Corinthians 7:1).

‘Before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ At the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus with all His saints (all the people of God) (1 Thessalonians 4:14) we will be presented before our God and Father. Our Lord will ‘confess us’, bear witness to us, before Him (Matthew 10:32; Luke 12:8). Then indeed we will need to be unblameable in holiness. Were that to mean in actuality as a result of righteous living none could stand before Him. We will indeed be clothed with ‘the righteous acts of the saints’ (Revelation 19:8), and presented as a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2), but our final assurance can only rest in the fact that our clothes have been washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14), that Christ is made unto us sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30), that we have become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

‘With all his saints (holy ones).’ The question has been asked whether this means His people as resurrected (1 Thessalonians 4:14), or His angels, or all His people. But in the New Testament the word ‘holy ones’ always signifies the whole people of God or a section of the whole people of God (sixty times) with the possible exception of Jude 1:14, which is a quotation from extra-Biblical literature.

While therefore it is true that Christ will come with His angels (Matthew 16:27; Matthew 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 2 Thessalonians 1:7), and in LXX angels are sometimes called ‘holy ones’ (Zechariah 14:5; Daniel 8:13), but never in the New Testament outside of Jude’s quotation from pre-New Testament days which is based on Deuteronomy 33:2 where the meaning is obscure, the force of the New Testament evidence is on translating this ‘saints’ as meaning the whole people of God or a section of them.

Thus here it probably primarily means the resurrected saints who will accompany Him, although we would not exclude the possibility that it allows for the angels as also coming with them, a splendid and glorious array (the same question arises in Revelation 19:14). In view of the close connection with 1 Thessalonians 4:14 the primary connection with the resurrected saints is surely certain, and the non-mention of angels in that passage must be seen as telling.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/1-thessalonians-3.html. 2013.

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Saturday, December 7th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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