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1 Thessalonians 2 v 17 But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence

It is an interesting providence that brings us this morning to this 17th verse of the letter of Paul to the church at Thessalonica.

17 But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.

It becomes a kind of personal testimony when God’s providences take us away from one another, as we have experienced during these past few weeks.

I have missed being here in the pulpit. I have appreciated being in the congregation – but for a short time things have been different and the Lord has sent us some excellent ministry from other brothers who have preached.

But Paul the missionary Apostle has arrived at a point in his letter where, if he had been using chapters, as our version has them, he would have started a new chapter with verse 17.

The first 16 verses have been a detailed description of the mission to Thessalonica, the strategic city of Macedonia, on the main road called the Egnatian Way.

In case we had forgotten Thessalonica was a Roman colony, a well placed sea port and a commercial centre that had attracted many Jewish people. The original Macedonian Greek people who were there before either the Romans or the Jews arrived, were worshippers of a host of oriental deities, and since the Roman occupation, all of Rome’s Gods too, including the Emperor himself, whom they revered as Divine.

Paul, Silas and Timothy, Christian missionaries commissioned by God and the church at Antioch, arrived here in AD 51 as Acts 17 tells us.

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: 2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, 3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. 4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. 5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. 6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; 7 Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. 8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go. 10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.

We can see that all had not been smooth! Roughly hurried away to Berea after the uproar, the 3 missionaries desperately wanted to go back there. There had been great conversions in Thessalonica in the few short months that they had been there. So a church was born – and swiftly set on a pathway of survival – with God’s help – but now without the oversight of the missionaries.

So as Paul writes to these believers, he outlines the experience of separation. Our experience here is NOTHING compared with theirs in Thessalonica! Paul defends his reasons for leaving the fledgling church saying how desperately hard it was for him and the others to leave them behind. His language in verse 17 is full of feeling.

1. They had been TAKEN AWAY.

17 But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.

I do not believe that we yet feel the sense of deep trauma that is being communicated in our text in verse 17. How bland is our English phrase – we being taken!

It is true that to be taken can mean to die – that God takes a person out of this scene. But when we examine the Greek verb here it sheds a whole new light on Paul’s emotions. The word rendered being taken is this – AP ORPHANOS THENTES. It means to be orphaned, to be bereaved of a parent because the parent has been taken away, literally torn away from the child. Paul and the others, banished from Thessalonica, were bereft of the company of the new Christians there. There was a double amount of pain here.

1. When someone dies they are gone! The Bible says in Psalm 103 v 15 & 16

As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. 16 For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.

A believer is transported to heaven to enjoy the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ for ever; to be with Him and all those who have ever truly loved Him and been converted, putting their trust in Him alone for their salvation. The familiar things of earth fade rapidly and are gone because there is a fresh absorption with the Lamb on the Throne!

An unbeliever, a rejecter of the Lord Jesus and His grace, knows no more of earth either – he or she is in hell, in torment – enduring suffering that focuses the mind, turning it from the world in which we live, except perhaps for a few thoughts of regret and remorse for the wasted opportunities in this life to seek the Living God as saviour – that will compound the terrors of hell.

2. But as we know it is those who are left behind who feel the passing of a loved one very keenly. We feel the pain of separation in bereavement, especially if it is a spouse or a parent.

HOWEVER – here in verse 17 both those who had been wrenched away from Thessalonica – AND those who remained behind, felt the separation most severely. Paul, Silas and Timothy felt it – as spiritual parents so to speak. They were forced to abandon their spiritual children and leave them as ORPHANS. The word orphan is right in the middle of this Greek verb - AP ORPHANOS THENTES.

And the new church of newly converted believers, Christians, felt a deep bereavement as would a child robbed of the parents. They were spiritual orphans now!

Ruth and I have been reading in the later chapters of Genesis recently. Only yesterday we arrived at the portion in Genesis 42 and 43. The patriarch Jacob had sent his 10 sons to Egypt to buy grain. On their return they found their money in their sacks but had left Simeon in Egypt as an insurance that they would return – with the younger brother Benjamin. The Prime Minister of Egypt had terrified the brothers. They told Jacob when they had returned and he said this in Chapter 42 v 36

Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me.

When all the grain had gone again and it was time to send the brothers back for more food to Egypt they reminded their father of the conditions that the man had insisted upon – bring your younger brother! Jacob came to see the inevitability of it all – comply or die of starvation. It was only in Egypt that there was grain! So as the 10 brothers left, Jacob bade them farewell like this –

Genesis 43 v 11 And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds: 12 And take double money in your hand; and the money that was brought again in the mouth of your sacks, carry it again in your hand; peradventure it was an oversight: 13 Take also your brother, and arise, go again unto the man: 14 And God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may send away your other brother, and Benjamin. If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.

Can we not sense the awesome emotion in this statement! Anticipated bereavement in Jacob’s heart – loss of dear sons – hopes dashed – God had promised to make a great nation out of his sons – was he now going to be so careless as to lose all 11 of the 12 now all at once?

Paul must have felt the same as he left Thessalonica. Perhaps he asked questions “What providence is this Lord? Everything was going so well in Thessalonica – now this! Am I to be bereaved of these new children in the Lord Jesus Christ? They are going to be orphans!

And what of the believers saved from paganism and false legalistic Judaism? Double pain of separation.

It must be like a missionary going away from the field on a much needed furlough.

Ann Dakin, a missionary in Solo, Indonesia and the founder of a children’s home called Beth Shan, had a 3 month furlough in UK in autumn 1978. On her return in December one of the little boys is described like this by the biographer – “Now that she was back again, Adi surveyed Ann with eyes that were apprehensive and questioning. ‘Mami. How could you leave me for such a long time? Will you leave me again tomorrow?’”

He felt bereft when Ann went home to visit her ill mother – little Adi felt orphaned all over again!

This must have been something that the Thessalonians felt. But Ann also felt her own absence keenly as she flew out of Jakarta – and surely she identified with Paul and his colleagues too.

We cannot help but be impressed with the tender way that Paul and the others treated the new converts. It was like a family had come into existence in Thessalonica. Let us recall two earlier verses that illustrate this. In this same chapter –

7 But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: 8 So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us.

And then verse 11

As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, 12 That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory.

Paul and his friends were mother and father in the family of the Lord Jesus Christ at Thessalonica. These metaphors tell us of the care that they felt – and the consequent bereavement when they were forced to leave.

2. It was only TEMPORARY.

But moving on we can notice that Paul seeks to comfort them with the next words –

17 But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time

Paul uses 2 words here – the word for time – KAIROS and the word for hour – HORA. KAIROS is a word meaning a fixed and definite period of time – perhaps we would think of it as a season. HORA on the other hand is only ever used for ONE hour – a twelfth part of daylight in the ancient world. So compared to a whole day, an hour is but a short time. Used as a metaphor Paul clearly means that he did not intend to be away for very long. His absence was only temporary.

However Paul’s critics were keen to identify him as just another fly by night. In a place for a little while – then move on. The slanderous accusers would speak like this

“They have gone! You are out of sight so out of their minds! They are probably teaching some other gullible people their gospel of a man who died and rose again!” As we have noticed before there were plenty of false teachers like that roaming around Macedonia. The new Christians were taunted with this – so the Apostle states this defence – it is only for a little while.

Paul meets the accusations full on –

in presence, not in heart,

We may be away from you in physical presence – but we are with you in every other way! Again the Greek helps us to gain a deeper understanding of Paul’s assurance that the missionaries and Thessalonian believers were never to be separated from each other ever again – because they were linked in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Presence and face later in the verse are the same Greek word. Face to face. True face to face encounters imply actual physical presence.

Their mere PHYSICAL separation was not an indication of their SPIRITUAL alienation. They could pray for each other when apart as much as when they were together. Their concern would not diminish. Their hearts, in the sense of the centre of their spiritual life as believers, were as passionately concerned for the new Christians as ever they were when actually in the city with them.

Surely this is what is happening when we as a church come to pray together in our Prayer Meetings. We have communications and information from people away from us – friends in other places; missionaries in other parts of this country and abroad. We pray for Zdenek and Nicola Karasek in the Czech Republic. We pray for others on our prayer list. Most of you have not met them – but you pray for them as if you knew them face to face. Such is Christian heart felt praying. Oh my friends what a ministry prayer is! Tuesday by Tuesday and at other times in the week we are able to do what Paul was doing – we are not face to face with the Karaseks – but we are present with them in Liberec in our hearts. What joy will be ours when we do meet those for whom we pray! We may have to wait for heaven’s glory for that, when we never will be separated physically ever again. In the meantime there is nothing preventing us from treating those for whom we pray as Paul did – with an intense longing for fellow believers.

3. The TOIL involved in Caring.

17 But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.

The distress of separation from the spiritual children at Thessalonica led Paul, Silas and Timothy to diligently exert themselves to find any means of getting back to Macedonia to see them face to face again. Paul is almost saying “We struggled to get back to you.” Our desire was great!

What is great desire?

If we thought about it long enough we could each of us say what a great desire we might have. Indeed it may be in the plural – we have great desires.

* We long to see family members and friends converted and trusting the Lord Jesus Christ.

* We desire greatly to see things get better in our country, because we seem to be descending lower and lower into decay and immorality – all sponsored and encouraged by those who make our laws.

* We desire that everyone should know the joy of having their sins forgiven through the Lord Jesus Christ.

* We desire that the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ would be lifted up rather than ignored, discounted or ridiculed by unbelieving men, women and boys and girls.

There are so many desires that we may express. These desires express our deep longing for God to work.

It may surprise you that Paul uses an interesting but very intense word for great desire. It is EPITHUMAI. It is used in scripture in two ways – a good way and a bad way.

By bad way I mean that it is used to describe EVIL desires that the Lord forbids us to have. There is lust and craving after sensual pleasures. Several scriptures use it – among them these –

John 8 v 44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.

Jesus speaking to religious leaders.

Romans 1 v 24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

Paul speaking of heathens.

Galatians 5 v 16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

Paul advising Christians.

In Romans 7 our Authorised Version translators bring a long word into scripture rendering EPITHUMAI like this -

Romans 7 v 8 But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.

Concupiscence is evil cravings and desires. They have an overwhelming tendency in all of us to lead us into sin. It is a product of our fallen sinful natures.

But God has done a wonderful thing for His chosen elect and precious believing Christian people. God has graciously given us a new desire through His Holy Spirit to do good and to fight the inclinations of the flesh. What is more He has cleansed us by removing the penalty of our old offences of breaking His laws and following our lustful inclinations, through the sacrificial death of His own Son the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know Him this morning my friend? Is He your saviour? Has He dealt with your sins yet? Are you free from their condemning power and living that transformed life with new and good desires. Desires to serve Him? Desires to love Him and honour Him? Desires to see His name exalted?

Do not delay, any of you from seeking pardon and forgiveness from the Lord Jesus Christ the only one who can make a difference in your life.

Paul is using this word in its Good sense. He craved to see them at Thessalonica again. He wished and wished to be back – we

endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.

There are at least 3 occasions in the New testament when this word EPITHUMIA is used in the good sense.

The Lord Jesus used it when he said these words recorded in Luke 22 v 15

And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer:

The Lord had longed to be with His disciples – to have deep fellowship with them before the great act of giving Himself for His people in suffering on the cross.

Then Paul speaks about what he really wanted – in

Philippians 1 v 23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:

But Paul knew that God held the key to his life and that he would not be called home to heaven a moment sooner than God willed it. But it did not stop him from desiring to be with the Lord! Do we have a similar desire my friends? Or is this present life so attractive to us that we sometimes lose sight of the future glory that is ours ahead? May we remember that we are no longer citizens of an earthly kingdom, but of God’s heavenly Kingdom. We are merely temporary residents here on earth – and eye hath not seen nor ear heard what things the Lord hath prepared for those that love Him!

The bottom line of Paul’s earnest desire for the Thessalonians was this – he had an intense longing for the church he had left behind and it was a passionate, urgent affectionate desire to be with them. This meant that he was constantly in prayer for them and desired their welfare. He loved them – he agonised over them.

Paul is an example to us in our day.

Surely his concern rebukes our indifference to the lost around us! Surely it brings us up sharply to consider how much effort we put in to serve the Lord. Do we serve Him out of duty with a coldness of heart, only considering our own interests as Christian people?

Or do we care so deeply for people that we are willing to put ourselves out and make sacrifices for the sake of others? Paul makes us think about these things.

Actions speak louder than words. Paul’s words in this letter were certainly sincere and strong. But they were followed up with practical efforts to see him and his colleagues return to Thessalonica. He was determined to return mentioning it several times in this and the next chapter. How we need to learn from their determination. May the Lord God make us people who are determined to care – for each other and the lost around us!

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