First Thessalonians Chapter Three:
Chapter Three Overview:
vv.1-2: Inability to forbear; the sending of Timothy; vv.3-4: Divinely appointed affliction, (Acts 14:22; 2 Corinthians 1:4-10; Philippians 1:29; 3:10; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:12); accurate foretelling of tribulation; v.5: Paul’s inability to forbear, and his pastoral response; vv.6-8: Timothy’s good tidings; the immensity and reason for Paul’s comfort; vv.9-10: Paul’s inexpressible gratitude and diligent prayerfulness; v.11: Paul seeking to minister under the providence of God; v.12: Prayer for increase of their love; so that: v.13: God thereby preserves them blameless, (Psalm 89:24-37; John 6:44; Romans 8:28-30; Philippians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
“Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone; And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith:”
– Twice in this chapter does the apostle speak of being unable to forbear; vv.1 & 5. In this instance, the reason for Paul’s inability to forbear, or endure, is that which he gives in ch.2 vv.14-20. He and his fellowlabourers greatly desired to see and to minister unto the Thessalonian saints as they endured their appointed trials, but Paul and his fellowlabourers were hindered by Satan. This gives us something against which to compare and evaluate our hearts. It seems that it should go without saying that suffering saints ought to be of grave concern to our hearts. But it is often the case that our hearts are far from the problems of others, for either we ourselves face our own trials, or else we are taken up with more pleasant providences of the Lord.
There is no shortage of suffering saints to bless. We need not even know them, for we can bring them before the Lord to intercede for them; and for those whom we do know, we ought also to pray, and to seek opportunity to bless them personally, and to study God’s Word in relation to whatever trials we might know them to be undergoing.
It is interesting that these godly ministers could not bear any longer; they needed to know the state of the Thessalonians. The sinfulness of our hearts instead often cannot bear to help others, or often helps them for impure motives.
The response of these ministers was to send Timotheus. Evidently, Paul and Silvanus needed to remain to continue whatever labours they were concerned with. Perhaps Satan’s hindrances were in fomenting a significant controversy or contention among saints of another congregation; we do not know. But knowing Paul, and the unbearable longings he here expresses, it was no trivial reason that hindered his going to the Thessalonians, and so they sent Timotheus.
Timotheus was their “brother, and minister of God, and… fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ”. Whenever we read such descriptions of particular saints in Scripture, we ought to be careful not to read passed them presuming them to be lacking in theological depth and significance. Consider this description of Timotheus for two reasons:
1) This is the manner in which Paul spoke of his fellowlabourer. Do you speak about your fellowlabourers so? or do you never acknowledge their godly service, presuming that such speaking would be unprofitable and would perhaps puff them up? There are times to withhold such speaking, but as we see in this text, there are also times to speak like this; see Romans 16.
2) These are honourable and noble descriptions. They ought to be respected by God’s people. Though office bearing is not for everyone, being firstly confined solely to men (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:12-14; 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-6) and even so, office bearing is only for those who are given the necessary calling and gifting (Titus 1:6-9). But if you are currently not eligible for the ministry, or never will be; it is profitable all the same that you pursue the godly character required of an elder or a deacon. It may be that in the course of time you and others in your church realise a calling upon you to the ministry. If not, the fact of having pursued such a sanctified character is a blessing in itself, as this will help you to minister unto the brethren in other ways; to equip you for parenthood; and to glorify God; leaving you more sanctified than you might otherwise have been. Are you a diligent servant? Have your brethren noted your giftedness in certain areas? Do you love the brethren in practical ways, and diligently so? If not, what is hindering you?
Lastly, Timotheus was sent for a worthy and important purpose: “to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith:”, which are some of the important duties of elders. As has been seen numerous times throughout this epistle, the duties of an elder are to be done tenderly. The brethren are not to be ruled by a cold iron fist. No Christian ought to need heavy-handedness upon them; and although sometimes unpleasant firmness is necessary, yet such an approach ought to be resorted to with discretion and wisdom, and rarely as the first resort. The Spirit of God works conviction and the hatred of sin in the hearts of true saints. We should pray for this to be deepened, especially when we see brethren slacken in holiness. Timotheus was sent to comfort them concerning their faith. Comforting someone concerning their faith is a sanctifying thing which ought to be constantly practiced, see Titus 3:4-8; cf. 2 Peter 1:9 (see vv.5-15).
“That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto. For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know.”
– Scripture has many such exhortations. Spend time reading and contemplating the following: Matthew 5:10-12,43-44; John 16:33; Romans 5:3-5; 12:12,14; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 3:12; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 3:14.
Today, many use carnal sales pitches to coax sinners to climb over the fence into the sheepfold. They say: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I must be clear here; God does indeed love His saints “with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3); and “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, cf. Isaiah 64:4); and therefore it is true that He has a wonderful plan for their lives; but the Lord Jesus Himself told us: “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33). How many ministers are telling people these things? We ought to tell every man up front what it means to follow the Lord. This is a good way of separating wheat from chaff. Who has a more valuable stock? The man with only an hundredth of a ton of wheat? or the man with ten tons of chaff? Read Luke 14:25-35, and ask yourself, is your goal in preaching from the pulpit or your method of evangelism of the Lord? or is it from the imaginations of men? For the latter leads to the harvesting of chaff, and the pleasing of goats; but the Lord uses preaching and evangelism to divide His sheep from the goats, and gather wheat into His barn, casting the chaff into the furnace. What crop and livestock do you gather and take care of? It is foolish to presume to gather sheep using methods other than those of the Good Shepherd. Are you His counselor? Does He need your help, or do you need His? Whether you are speaking to those who claim to be of Christ, or else those who do not, tell them the truth of the promised sufferings in this world, that they might consider whether they esteem Christ as worth suffering for, that they might know if they truly want a part with Him, or else be shown that they have a dead faith; that only those with a genuine faith will be left amongst the people of God, and that only those who truly love the Lord will call themselves by His name.
But the main point of this verse is that we might accept what providences the Lord sends. Our trials are appointed unto us by the wise and sovereign hand of God: “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29). “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12). “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). Though many of our hard trials are wrought by Satan intending our hurt, nothing has ever happened unto us but by the approval and appointment of God to our profit and blessing. See Luke 12:6-7; Romans 8:28. Whether the providence of God be joyous or painful, let us in all circumstances bless the Lord and seek Him, so that whatsoever He sends our way might more conform us to His image, make us to know His goodness, and cause us to further abandon our dependence upon the arm of the flesh; and in this we should grow to glory in God’s strength all the more.
“For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labour be in vain.”
– Before commenting on the true meaning of this verse, we will first refute and dismiss a heresy. There are many who look to this verse and others like it in an attempt to prove a theology which ultimately declares that salvation is not wholly of the Lord, but is contingent upon the strength of the will of sinners to persevere. One such verse often misapplied to this end is Revelation 3:11: “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” The assumption is that even the fact of this command having been issued is proof that its fulfillment is contingent upon our own ability to obey the command, but “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13). Concerning the words “that no man take thy crown”; we remember what the Lord Jesus said of His sheep: “I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.” (John 10:28-30). And Paul was “persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39). No Pelagian, nor Roman Catholic, nor any five-point Arminian, nor so-called Jehovah’s Witness can honestly speak these words. It is certain that the tempter is wholly incapable of destroying God’s saving work in any man, seeing as how the love of God has been invincibly bestowed upon us, and we are inseparably joined to it. I am commanded to hold that fast which I have, that no man take my crown; but my God is working in me to will and to do of His good pleasure. Were it otherwise, I would have something to boast of, seeing as how the difference between my perseverance in faith, and another’s apostasy from it, would have to lie in the strength of our wills.
Consider our confidence “that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6); in light of the fact that the day of Jesus Christ has not yet occurred, and these words were originally spoken to people who have long since died. Are we to conclude that Christ keeps working in the hearts of people who apostasise and then die in sin? Paul seemed sufficiently persuaded that the apostasy of the saints to whom He wrote was impossible. Considering the fact that we have no Biblical reason to differentiate between us and the Philippians, but on the contrary, we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) with one hope of our calling, and one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6); if what was written to those who have received like precious faith with us is true for them but not for us, then that would make God the author of confusion. Seeing then as how God is not the author of confusion, and we are all called in one hope of our calling, we therefore conclude “that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ”, (Philippians 1:6).
Our present verse reveals Paul’s fear that Satan might have tempted the Thessalonians to the effect that his labours might have been in vain. Satan can certainly cause the apostasy of those who merely profess to have faith in Christ; and such apostasy is always a grief to the souls of the righteous. Seeing as how Satan can tempt us to sin and unbelief, and apostasy consists of falling into the constant practice of sin and unbelief; if genuine believers can truly apostatise, then Satan can snatch believers from Christ’s and the Father’s hand. But as we have already read in John 10:28-30 and Romans 8:38-39, neither man nor devil is able to cause such apostasy, even though they can tempt us unto the things that constitute apostasy; and therefore, apostasy of the true believer is impossible. God’s Word denies this in many places, and even in this present epistle:
“And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
Paul sent to know the state of the Thessalonians’ faith. In this is an example, that we should not allow news of desperate circumstances and trials to hinder our attempts at ministering to the brethren; nor should we be afraid to enquire into the truth of their situation, where it seems the truth might be painful to know. It would have grieved Paul if the Thessalonians had proven false converts in being snatched away by Satan’s temptations; but Paul nevertheless sought to know their state. Do you sometimes choose not to enquire after the truth of certain situations because you reckon that the truth might be more than you can bear? Do you sometimes fear unearthing a brother’s struggles like disturbing a hornet’s nest? Do we leave them in silence just so long as we can have peace from their trials? Remember this and apply it; Paul could not bear to be without knowledge of the state of the Thessalonians. Would not a parent unhesitatingly enquire after their child’s state when the child goes missing, even if the worst news seems most likely? The parents of a lost child are the most diligent to search for them when they go missing, though they might fear the worst, and fear it more than any others. As we have already seen in 1 Thessalonians 2:7,11; the care which Paul had toward the Thessalonian believers was maternal in gentleness, and paternal in exhortation. Paul was as a parent to them; they were as his own children. Consider this question: do you so love your brethren? Inasmuch as you have a want of love for the brethren, you have a want of love for Christ. Pray to God for greater measures of the Holy Spirit, for His chief fruit is love.
“But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you: Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.”
– Can you imagine news that would have given Paul more joy than this? From the gravest fear, to the greatest joy; not only had they not fallen away, but all manner of good fruit was seen in them: faith, charity, remembrance of those who ministered to them, a desire for fellowship with the saints, and also love for them. These fruits cheered Paul’s heart because they are the fruits of authentic conversion, and abounding in these fruits is the token of thorough sanctification. These fruits are here put forth as being in contradistinction to labours in vain, and so are present to one degree or another in the lives of all true Christians. This very thing cheered Paul’s heart. We must all consider whether Paul would be comforted over the tidings of our present state.
Affliction and distress did not prevail against the immense comfort which these ministers received when they heard as good a report as they could have hoped for. It would be as a death blow to the heart of a concerned parent if he came to believe the worst news of his child; but life to his soul if he came to know that not only was his child alive, but that he was healthy and prosperous also. Even so was Paul’s comfort and relief somewhat bound to the state of his brethren, saying “For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.” Such news was as life to his heart and soul. This further underscores the importance of the saints to Paul, and his love to them. Consider then how much more the sinless Saviour loves us.
“For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?”
– That which you are thankful for, and that which you have little thanks for; these two are good measures of your heart. Many are only thankful to God when in health and wealth. Not only were these ministers exceedingly thankful and joyous for the spiritual well-being of their brethren, and that amidst tribulations; but they even saw such value in their spiritual well-being that they felt wholly inadequate to render what gratitude was owed unto God.
Paul here is thankful to God alone, without an ounce of gratitude directed to the Thessalonians for what we read in vv.6-7, that they persevered in the faith, and fruitfully so. This is another of many proofs against the notion that our perseverance is in any way of our own doing or to our own glory. God preserves His people: John 6:37,39-40,44; 10:27-30; Romans 8:28-39; Philippians 1:6; 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.
Consider what we read here, that Paul and his fellowlabourers did pray night and day exceedingly; and consider what they prayed for. They make no mention of praying for riches or physical health. It is also notable that they do not merely pray that God would work in the hearts of the saints, though such is doubtless a worthy prayer, and doubtless also a prayer that Paul prayed. Paul instead here mentions two things for which he diligently prayed: Firstly, that he might see their face, which is a tender expression showing his earnest desire to enjoy their fellowship in person. Secondly, that he might have opportunity to personally edify their faith. This is so much the opposite of a sluggard’s attitude. It is an attitude motivated by fervent love wrought by God. What do your prayers consist of? Is your attitude similar or different to Paul’s on this account?
“Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you.”
– Paul trusted in the providence of God. “Thy will be done” was evidently an important element of Paul’s prayers to God, and a priority in his life of service to God. He trusted in God’s will and wisdom, and in His providence and power to grant him opportunity in due season, as well as sure and safe passage to minister unto the saints at Thessalonica. He also evidently trusted that the Thessalonians would be cared for by the great Shepherd of their souls in the meantime, God of course needing no help from any creature, but gladly accepting our striving to minister to the brethren as an offering of worship, and a deed of gratitude and love to Him. It is also the natural response of a minister who loves the brethren.
“And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you:”
– Paul’s benediction here shows that he looked only to the root and not to the branch as being able to bring forth fruit. He saw all good fruit as being to the glory of God and not to the glory of those in whom it is borne. Synergism, if held to consistently, cannot truly affirm this. However much a synergist might claim to ascribe all glory to God, the theology of synergism logically demands a share of glory for the man who, of his own free will, chooses to bear good fruit. Soli Deo Gloria is no longer truly prominent in Christendom, but is instead given lip service, or abandoned altogether. Paul regarded it as God’s work that we increase and abound in love. This is seen unmistakably in Philippians 2:13 and Hebrews 13:20-21. The same truth is seen also in the following Scripture: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” (John 15:16).
Note that we are “to increase and abound in love one toward another”. The word “another” here refers to the brethren, and this is confirmed in that it is distinct from “and toward all men” which evidently is here a reference to those outside the Church. We are to do good insofar as we have opportunity, and we are even to seek opportunity as Paul did, to do good unto all men; but especially to those of the household of faith. Let us love the brethren, and unbelievers, and even those who hate and persecute us; see Matthew 5:43-48; Galatians 6:10.
“To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.”
– Again we read that it is God who establishes us unblameable; and He does so by making us “to increase and abound in love one toward another”; (v.12). If you subscribe to a system of theology that in anyway rests the perseverance of the saints upon men, then you do not believe this verse, nor the previous verse; nor do you believe John 6:37,39-40,44; Romans 8:28-39; Philippians 1:6; 2:13; or 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; except insofar as you understand them through the lense of man-centred tradition.
All glory for the salvation of sinners belongs to God alone, for it is His work from beginning to end. Self-reliance is a damning thing; for saving faith is dependence upon Christ alone for salvation; and those who are saved see nothing righteous in themselves but look to God alone for His righteousness. This is the very definition of the Greek word translated “believe” (πιστεύω; pisteuō), which essentially means to depend in faith upon; to rely upon; to entrust something to. How can I say that I truly depend upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation if in fact I daily walk in the darkened notion that I must, by my own will and power, keep walking worthy enough of Christ so that I continue to merit my standing in His grace? Man’s merit and God’s grace are less able to mix than oil and water. They are mutually exclusive, and grace by definition cannot be deserved. And so if we are saved by grace alone, as Ephesians 2:8-9 says, then there is no room at all for man’s contribution.
According to 1 John 3:6,9-10, it is impossible for any man to practice sin if he has been born again. It is important to point out that this is not something which is only true of the inner man, for v.10 reveals that by the markers spoken of in vv.6-9, you will know the hypocrites from the saints. The present tense participle in the Greek of that passage is not so clear in the King James rendering, but is more clear in the ESV, which translation I do not normally use, but is helpful here:
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Being born again causes an inability to willfully indulge in, enjoy, and continue in sin. Not to say that we have already attained, either were already perfect, or were already like the Lord Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14, 1 John 3:2), for that does not happen until we see Him in glory, and this corruptible puts on incorruption. That we do not practice sin is evidence that we have truly been born again, and are not false professors of religion; for in this are the children of God and the children of the devil manifest, that is, evidenced or shown. We are either justified or denounced before men on the basis of our testimony. Some “profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him” (Titus 1:16). But preserving us “unblameable in holiness before God” is the work of God, and God alone; otherwise we have reason to boast; but not before God! See Romans 4:2, and 1 Corinthians 1:29-31; see also Psalm 44:8.
May the Lord preserve you, for you will not do so of your own accord, nor are you even able to; but God be praised that He will continue to work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure until the day of Jesus Christ, for He has saved us from our sins. This is a very encouraging thought. Do you often remind the brethren of this glorious and sanctifying truth? or do you bolster their natural inclination to self-reliance either by forbearing to teach this doctrine, or even by denying it? May the Lord set our hearts to preaching and teaching all of His truth.
“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)