1 Thessalonians 3 v 1 Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at At
Sheep are a common sight in the fields here in North Devon. At this time of the year they are in the fields low down, near to shelter and some even are kept indoors in cosy farm pens. Sheep have no means of defence. They cannot fly – God did not make them with wings. They are not particularly fast runners – they have been formed to graze slowly and look most ungainly when going faster than a slow walk. Sheep flock together, but merely being in large numbers does not increase their strength. The sheep’s only safety lies in the power and the carefulness of the shepherd.
The believer’s at Thessalonica were the sheep of Christ’s flock and His pasture. They could only be defended and fed by the Lord Jesus Christ by His Holy Spirit.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Psalm 23 v 1.
However Christ the shepherd appoints under-shepherds to physically do the work of shepherding the flock.
Paul, Silas and Timothy had been appointed to plant churches and then to make sure that they were shepherded.
We have examined the history of the new church at Thessalonica and noticed many things about the birth of that church – the Lord Jesus Christ the shepherd brought by His Holy Spirit, many of his own sheep to new birth in that strategic city. But it appears that in His sovereignty He permitted the under shepherds to be chased out of the city, apparently leaving the flock to fend for itself.
Paul was most concerned for these precious sheep of Christ’s. He expresses this loving concern at the end of chapter 2 of this letter. He had called the believers by some interesting terms
19 For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? 20 For ye are our glory and joy.
We continue to see how great a concern the Apostle Paul had for the church in Thessalonica as Chapter three opens and unfolds. There are five main areas of his concern and he expresses his deep love towards them by
1. SENDING Timothy back to them – at great personal cost –
PROVISION THROUGH SACRIFICE v 1 – 2
2. WARNING them of afflictions to come –
PERSECUTION PREDICTED v 3 – 5
3. DESCRIBING his delight in the news brought to him by Timothy –
PLEASURE THROUGH GOOD NEWS RECEIVED v 6 – 8
4. PRAYING for them fervently – with
PRAYER THAT PREVAILS v 9 – 10
5. PRAYING for them pastorally as if Paul was there at Thessalonica –
PRAYER THOUGH FAR AWAY v 11 – 13.
Many people refer to Paul only as a great missionary. A great missionary he certainly was – but Paul was also a man with a Pastor’s heart. He cared deeply about the further care of the new believers.
So let us see what kind of love and concern Paul showed from the words of this letter.
1. PROVISION THROUGH SACRIFICE v 1 – 2
From the available Biblical data we know that Paul, Silas and Timothy were obliged to leave Thessalonica after the riot Acts 17 v 1 – 9. However when we turn to Acts 17 we find in verse 10 this –
And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.
And we find ourselves wondering why Dr Luke has not mentioned Timothy being sent away to Berea.
We need to understand Timothy’s role in the work of missions in these days. He is first mentioned in Acts 16 v 1 and was probably from Lystra. He had a Greek pagan father and a devout Jewish mother whose name was Eunice. Timothy had been instructed in the Jewish scriptures from childhood and was converted to the Lord Jesus Christ on Paul’s first missionary journey in AD 47.
In the years after his coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ Timothy showed promise as a Christian worker. When Paul and Silas came to Lystra and Derbe Timothy responded favourably to join the group in their missionary work in about AD 51. Timothy was highly regarded by his own community, but because his father was a Greek, a Gentile, there was a possibility that his influence amongst the Jews would be reduced severely. Something had to be done to establish without doubt that he had true devotion to the sacred scriptures of the Old Testament, or else he would never have obtained a hearing amongst Jews anywhere. Paul arranged for Timothy to be circumcised, to produce as much Jewishness in him as a man with a Gentile father could have; and he was ordained into the task of team member of the mission led by Paul. This is referred to in Paul’s first letter to Timothy –
4 v 14 Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (existing eldership).
Timothy and Luke joined Paul and Silas when they went into Europe. The events of the gospel work at Philippi are recorded in Acts 16 – Lydia, young girl possessed, the objections of the girl’s employers, the arrest and beating of Paul and Silas, their imprisonment and the earthquake with the jailer and his family’s conversion, make fascinating historical reading. Luke and Timothy appear to have stayed in Philippi after Paul and Silas moved on. Timothy must have joined them later in Thessalonica because his name does not appear until verse 14 of Acts 17. Timothy was a really helpful and useful missionary assistant. He seemed to be willing to go anywhere and virtually do anything for the cause of the Gospel and in support of Paul. Paul was his spiritual father and he had a special relationship with the apostle.
However even though we do not read that Timothy left Thessalonica at the same time as Paul and Silas after the riot, we can safely assume that Timothy did leave, and being Paul’s assistant would naturally want to be with him. And we are sure that Timothy was in Berea because Acts 17 v 14 confirms it.
14 And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still.
We know then that Paul ended up in Athens. It is possible that Silas joined Paul at some point in Athens but Luke has not recorded that and we have to assume that Timothy also travelled to Athens to link up with Paul – for as we shall see Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica.
With this background information let us move to Chapter 3 v 1
Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone;
“Wherefore” enables us to connect the fact of Paul’s deep affection for the Thessalonians which we have thought about in chapter 2. Paul is saying – “In light of the fact that you are so very dear to me, and how I long to see you and to be there with you – because of this – I want you to know something!”
What did Paul want them to know?
He wanted them to know just how anxious he was for them and how frustrated he felt that Satan had hindered him from returning to them. And he uses strong terms to communicate his feelings – he says WHEN WE COULDN’T STAND IT ANY LONGER! When the separation became unbearable – when we had received no news and were not sure if you were surviving under the pressure of hostility from Jews and others – when we became so desperate for news – we made a decision!
How much are we able to identify with Paul? They say that no news is good news. But that did not seem to apply here. No news was bad news.
Paul, Silas and Timothy were like us when we are waiting for some particular news to come in the post. We know what time the postman is due to come. We listen for the letterbox to be pushed open or for the doorbell to ring. When the thump on the mat eventually comes we race to the hallway and pick up the letters anxiously looking for that familiar handwriting or that specific postmark indicating the letter that we have been waiting for.
But disappointment can be the name of the scene when hopes are not realised!
Weeks went by – and no news from Thessalonica.
Paul uses an interesting word to communicate these feelings. He tells us that he has been holding back; he has been trying to be patient. The word FOREBEAR in the Greek is the word STEGO which usually means to protect by covering or to conceal by covering. Sometimes by covering something you are trying to imagine that it is not there – you are hiding it. By using STEGO Paul means that he has been covering his anxious thoughts and frustrations and forbearing to do anything about them.
But now, suddenly, and explosively those thoughts are uncovered – out it all comes in a torrent. He is desperate to know about the Thessalonians. He loves them so much that he is so concerned for their welfare. He was desperate now – he cannot stand it any longer – someone must go to find out how they are. He and Silas were somehow barred from returning – therefore Timothy must go!
In their reasoning the three men made a good decision. The word for the English phrase “we thought it good” is a rendering of EUDOXIA – meaning “good pleasure.”
Paul valued Timothy’s help greatly – but he was prepared to deprive him and Silas of the company of the younger man even though it would mean that they were left alone in the very worldly and idolatrous city of Athens.
Some commentators have tied themselves up in knots as they try to unravel the text here and work out why Paul uses the plural WE and the word MONOS for alone. To be alone means to be without accompaniment. They wonder whether Paul was alone – because Paul in Acts 17 v 15 is reported to have told Silas and Timothy to come to Athens as quickly as possible after dismissing his escort from Berea.
It was probably after they arrived from Berea that the decision was made jointly to send Timothy back to Thessalonica. So who stayed alone? Can 2 people stay in a place alone? An interesting question.
The Acts account does indicate that Paul was on his own for a while in Athens. The Apostle missed Timothy keenly having come to depend on him and his companionship so much. The poet Milton says this about Athens –
“Where on the Aegean shore a city stood, Built nobly, pure the air and light the soul, Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts, And eloquence.”
Paul all alone at Athens! Christianity represented by a single, lonely man standing in the middle of a well populated city of pagan culture and wholly given over to idolatry! Paul had every reason to wish that Timothy could stay with him. What an encouragement in the face of hostile philosophers and eloquent orators, could young Timothy had been.
But Paul spared Timothy to be sent back to Thessalonica. John Calvin makes the point that
“Paul shows that he had greater consideration for the Thessalonian Christians than for Himself, by choosing to be left alone – rather than that they should be deserted” (and without a shepherd.)
Yet we can think now of all that Paul achieved in Athens! The Areopagus and the preaching referring to the altar to the Unknown God. His direct challenge of idolatry and his appeal to the Athenians minds by preaching a Creation message to them! Acts 17 v 22 – 31 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. 23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. 24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; 26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; 27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: 28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. 29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. 30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: 31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
There are two lessons for us to draw on this morning from Paul’s experience.
1. Paul felt anxious and it was a right anxiety that spurred him to prayer and then a right decision. Paul was rightly concerned for the believers at Thessalonica – but for a while he suppressed this anxiety in favour of trusting the Lord Jesus to care for His flock at Thessalonica in His own way. There is nothing wrong with this kind of anxiety – so long as it is turned into prayer. The apostle was one who practised what he preached. He would have been most familiar with Psalm 55 v 22
Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.
What an antidote this scripture text is for anxiety! Anxiety, worry, can be like a burden weighing you down. A writer of the Puritan period, Samuel Blackerby said this “The best way to ease yourself is to lay your load upon God. – He will take it up and also carry you. There is many a man who would be willing to go to work for God in his own strength, if only someone else would carry his burden for him. But if you throw your burden upon God He will not only carry that, He will also carry you! He does not care how much a Christian may lay on His back. God does not delight to see tears in your eyes, or paleness in your face – your groans and sighs do not make music in His ears. He rather prefers you to free yourself of your burden by laying it on Him, so that He may rejoice in your joy and comfort. True confidence in God and resting upon God will both free you of your burden, and bring in the strength of God to sustain and bear you up from falling. Rest on God always – in times of great weakness, in times of greatest service and in times of greatest trials.”
What sense there is in this advice from this man writing 330 years ago! Do we know how to cast our burdens on the Lord? Or have we got so used to our burdens that they have become old friends and we think we would miss them! Paul had to cast his burden on the Lord and trust God with the care of the Thessalonian Christians. His sending of Timothy was not acting in his own strength – he simply wanted to find out HOW God had answered his prayerful trust – and then to thank and praise God for the outcome. This was true provision through sacrifice!
Peter also knew this truth that he had learned from the Lord Jesus Christ himself –
1 Peter 5 v 7 Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.
May we know how to leave our burdens with the Lord!
2. We can only be impressed with the quality of Paul’s self-sacrifice. He stayed alone in Athens – a worldly place where as we know there was no church – no fellowship – no help – all so that others might benefit from a brother called Timothy. Paul was prepared to go it alone – without Timothy as an assistant.
And sometimes, for the gospel’s sake, the Lord calls us to separate ourselves from our loved ones. Love for others calls us to lay down our lives for them – this is the truth conveyed in 1 John 3 v 16
Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
Provision through sacrifice is supremely seen in the Lord Jesus Christ – He provided salvation for us through His selfless sacrifice on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Are our sacrifices worth it? Are we the kind of people who are really prepared to put ourselves out for the Gospel’s sake? Are we prepared to be disturbed from our cosy comfortable Christianity in order that some other person may find peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ? Andrew Young has said,
“Costless ministry is a rarity – if it exists at all!”
May we all know how to put this into practice in our lives as believers in the Lord Jesus, who truly gave Himself that we may have forgiveness and pardon of all our sins and a place in heaven in eternity!
Verse 2 –
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:
The seriousness of Paul’s desire to know how the church was getting along is reflected in the person that he sent. He could have found a messenger from amongst the first few converts at Athens – just to find out a few facts.
But that was not Paul’s method. He sent his right hand man – his best asset – his dearly loved son in the faith whom he would miss greatly.
Perhaps we have got the impression that Timothy was a kind of ‘Assistant Missionary’ by what has been said so far. Verse 2 dissuades us from that idea. He is called
1. A brother in Christ. 2. A minister of God 3. A fellow worker in the Gospel of Christ.
Timothy was a fully accredited and highly valued member of the team. He was a fitting representative of the Apostle Paul, and more importantly, a worthy representative of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
What excellent credentials Timothy had!
He was first and foremost a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ and therefore a brother in Christ to Paul and Silas.
Then he was a servant of Christ and related to other servants of Christ by the common bond of their servanthood.
And Timothy was an esteemed fellow worker in the spreading of the Gospel.
If Paul had only wanted a messenger to go to Thessalonica with a message for the believers, and to bring news back, then anyone would have been able to do that.
But Paul had more in mind. The goal of missionary work for Paul was not simply getting people to believe the Gospel. True faith, where it arose, needed to be nurtured and strengthened.
It is not uncommon for men who receive a call from the Lord Jesus to preach the Gospel and to concentrate on Evangelistic activities in the community, after a while, to begin to have inner stirrings of soul and mind about the spiritual state of those who have come to faith in Christ through their labours. This is especially so amongst men who work with societies outside of the organisation of the local church. Itinerant evangelists often feel at a loss when people are converted and they have nothing to do with the follow up of such souls. They have to leave such converted friends to the care of others, pastors and elders in churches near the converts’ home. This can be fraught with difficulty. A better arrangement is for evangelists to work from local churches and to encourage the converts into the life of the church very early in their Christian lives.
Thessalonica was an exceptional situation. Paul and Silas would ordinarily have stayed in such a city for years until the local church was established with its own elders to shepherd the flock. It appears that in those pioneer days God matured men into eldership rapidly so that the missionaries could move on. But being thrown out of the city so early in their ministry, a crisis could have loomed. Timothy was available to go to Thessalonica – but not merely to gather information, but as this second verse says
to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith:
Sometimes the nurturing and strengthening of faith involves correction. No new believer can get everything right straight away. There are new things to be learned and discerned. The scriptures need to be explained. More questions than answers arise and new converts need careful teaching and helping.
Sometimes faith is weak and needs to be supplemented with Bible Teaching and exhortation.
Timothy was sent to provide such a ministry in Thessalonica. Paul realised that no effort should be spared to see that the faith of the believers there at Thessalonica was strong and vigorous. Private conversations and public ministry would be the means of ESTABLISHING the Christians. And loving exhortation and gradual setting up of local missionary activity by Christians growing in grace and Christ likeness would be Timothy’s other task – covered by the word in this verse COMFORT concerning the faith.
We too ought to be stimulated by the examples of those by whom we have been instructed in the faith. I can remember many of the sayings and teachings of some of the Scripture Readers who taught me in my early days as a believer. I can recall many of the scriptural and spiritual principles that I learned during our time in Swindon under the ministry of our Dear Pastor Mr Finnie. Many of you can cast your minds back to the things that you learned from godly ministers in the past and through their lives as godly examples of Christian behaviour and devotion to Christ.
God provides such men and their ministry through His Holy Spirit to do what Timothy was sent to do in Thessalonica – to establish and comfort – to teach and exhort – to help and to nurture. This is what the fellowship of saints and the regular gathering of saints is all about – as well as coming together to worship and remember the Lord in His death and resurrection, we are to be helped and encouraged. May this be our desire. May we know of the feeding of our souls. As Christ is preached may He become more and more precious to us. Of course if we are not here very often then our growth in grace and usefulness to the Lord Jesus Christ will be proportionately less than it could be.
Because, as we shall see next time, persecution could be round the corner. Opposition may not be too far away from us. We need to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. We need to be mutually encouraging each other in the battle with the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to exhort one another to be more than conquerors through Him that loved us.
Are we ready for such a challenge my friends and brothers and sisters? May we all be equipped and ready – established in the faith and comforted – through Jesus Christ our Lord.