The Agora
Bible Commentary
1 Thessalonians

1 2 3 4 5

1 Thessalonians 3

1Th 3:1

Vv 1-5: Timothy's mission.

WHEN WE COULD STAND IT NO LONGER: The verb "stego" (also in v 5) originally meant to remain watertight -- as a house or a ship that does not leak. Then of course it came to mean "to contain" or "to endure", as in 1Co 9:12: "But (we) suffer ('endure') all things", and 1Co 13:7 -- love "endureth all things." When Paul could no longer endure having no news of the Thessalonians, the "roof caved in" and he decided he must send Timothy to them.

WE THOUGHT IT BEST TO BE LEFT BY OURSELVES IN ATHENS: "We" would include Silas and Timothy. It is possible Silas had already gone on some other mission, or that he left at this time -- since both Silas and Timothy rejoin Paul later at Corinth (Acts 18:5). Now, with these departures, "we" becomes "I" (cp 1Th 2:18 -- "I Paul"); Paul was left truly alone to preach in Athens. The city was the intellectual capital of the world, its inhabitants for the most part educated and cultured. But to Paul it was the most barren wilderness. The small results of his efforts there (Acts 17:34) prove what a forbidding place it was for Paul. For the good of the Thessalonians (and for his own ultimate peace of mind) he realized it was necessary to send Timothy to them, but this verse gives us a glimpse of what it cost him.

1Th 3:2

TIMOTHY: See 1Th 1:1n.

GOD'S FELLOW WORKER: Literally, as 1Co 3:9, this is "fellow-worker with God." There is some question about the text at this point, and some commentators object to the idea that man can be a companion in work with God. Why being a fellow-laborer with God should be objectionable is rather difficult to see.

There are many reasons, it would seem, why we should be fellow-workers with God. Primary among these is that we, along with Christ, must work, to repair the breach between God and man -- following the example of Christ himself: "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" (John 5:17).

Labor is needed on our part, as well as God's and His Son's. Also, and more to the point, in preaching and in strengthening the believers, we must work with God -- because there is no one else to do it. These activities are "off-limits" to the direct physical efforts of either Christ or his angels. "Fellow-laborers with God" indeed! If we do not do this work, then who will?

Since Timothy was a mere lad at this time (cp 1Ti 4:12 -- where about twelve years later he is still a "youth"), Paul speaks so highly of him so as to encourage the Thessalonians to respect his presence and his mission.

At this point, some mss have "minister" -- the Gr "diakonos." The word literally means servant, and a lowly servant at that -- one who waits on tables. In the NT the word refers to many variations of service. It is used of the following: (1) The angels who ministered to Jesus (Mat 4:11); (2) Jesus himself (Luke 22:22; Rom 15:8); (3) Timothy, at a time when he would surely have been an "elder-bishop" as well (1Ti 4:6); (4) The other apostles (Acts 1:25; 6:4); (5) A sister (Rom 16:11); (6) All the followers of Jesus (John 12:26; Eph 6:21); and (7) A special class of servants within the church (1Ti 3:8-13).

TO STRENGTHEN: "To establish you": The verb "sterizo" means, in the classical sense, to put a buttress or support so as to strengthen a building. It appears in Exo 17:12, LXX, of Aaron and Hur "staying up" the arms of Moses. It is used primarily by Paul of the work of "strengthening" or confirming new believers (Acts 14:22; 15:32,41; 18:23; Rom 1:11), although he well recognized that the Father and the Son were the ultimate workers in this matter (1Th 3:13; 2Th 2:16,17; 3:13; Rom 16:25-27). So "fellow-workers with God" is, after all, a very Scriptural concept.

ENCOURAGE: "To comfort you": "Parakaleo" (cp 1Th 2:11).

1Th 3:3

SO THAT NO ONE WOULD BE UNSETTLED: "Saineo" (only here in New Testament) is used of a dog wagging its tail. Here it means to be tempted (cp v 5) from one's duty by an alluring bait -- in other words, to be coaxed or wheedled away from the faith by the "kind" words of former friends: "Why can't we be friends again? Give up these weird ideas of yours -- it can't be worth it! Look at all the problems it's causing you!"

Perhaps in our more relaxed atmosphere we tend to forget how hard the way was, and correspondingly how insidiously easy would have been the choice of surrender. In the first century all it would have meant in many cases was to burn a handful of incense to Caesar -- a mere "nominal" gesture. Time and again lenient judges pleaded with the early Christians to do so, but in most cases their pleadings were met with absolute refusal. How would WE have fared under the same circumstances?

BY THESE TRIALS: Literally, "in the MIDST of these trials." Cp notes on "suffering" in 1Th 1:6.

YOU KNOW QUITE WELL THAT WE WERE DESTINED FOR THEM: "Destined" is the word "keimai". It actually applies to a sentry posted by his officer ("set for the defense of the gospel": Phi 1:16 -- Phi 1:17 in AV), or a "city set on a hill" (Mat 5:14). The idea is of remaining steadfast and doing one's duty; bearing up under afflictions is part of that duty, as the NT abundantly testifies: "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2Ti 3:12).

1Th 3:4

WHEN WE WERE WITH YOU, WE KEPT TELLING YOU THAT WE WOULD BE PERSECUTED: Paul is not telling them anything strange and new. Even in his short stay with them, he had emphasized this lesson -- knowing, no doubt, how much they would need it.

1Th 3:5

FOR THIS REASON: Because of the tribulations I know you to be experiencing, I was desperate to know how you were faring.


I SENT TO FIND OUT ABOUT YOUR FAITH: He wanted to learn how well they were holding on to their faith. For Paul, faith was the fundamental activity and characteristic of a believer, out of which grew everything else. He knew that there were possibilities of defection, and he wanted to be sure that their faith was still real and active to sustain them.

I WAS AFRAID THAT IN SOME WAY THE TEMPTER MIGHT HAVE TEMPTED YOU: The Greek reads literally "how the tempter did not tempt you,'' neatly implying their steadfastness. The words "tempter" and "temptation" are both from the same root, signifying to test or try. The "tempter" must be the same as the "Satan" of 1Th 2:18 -- the Jewish and Gentile opposition to the new Thessalonian believers. As Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness immediately after his baptism to meet the "tempter" (Mat 4:3 -- the only other verse where the noun occurs), so these new believers were experiencing severe temptations very soon after their baptisms. Sometimes some of the severest trials can come upon those who are newly baptized, as soon as the newness of their conversion begins to wear off, and especially if problems impinge upon them from the world outside. This entire verse is very similar to the idea expressed by Paul when writing to the Corinthians: "For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things... lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices" (2Co 2:9,11).

AND OUR EFFORTS MIGHT HAVE BEEN USELESS: If the Thessalonians' faith collapsed, then truly Paul's work would become meaningless (cp 1Th 1:5; 2:1) and he would have no "crown" to wear (1Th 2:19). The phrase "in vain" is found only in Paul's writings. The idea of laboring in vain is found also in 1Co 15:58, associated with the thought of no resurrection; and in Phi 2:16, in a form very similar to this verse. In Gal 2:2 Paul submits his gospel before the leaders of the Jerusalem ecclesia, "lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain"; in 2Co 6:1 he warns the Corinthian believers against receiving the grace of God in vain.

1Th 3:6

Vv 6-10: Timothy's encouraging report: There can be no question that Paul loved these people more than life itself. He prays for them continually, and desires more than anything to be with them. They have suffered together, and out of that shared experience of adversity they have developed an unshakeable bond of fellowship (1Th 1:6). Surely this is the "fellowship of his sufferings" to which Paul refers in Phi 3:10.

Although Paul is constantly moving about to preach in new areas, he never abandons the ecclesias he has established. Paul at Athens and at Corinth still feels obligated to the believers in Galatia and Thessalonica. All of his ministry is marked by such concern: although he is heavily involved in the concerns of the Gentile ecclesias of Europe, he nevertheless works hard at taking up an offering for the material needs of the Judean brethren. Paul's faith is a global faith, an international faith that ignores (or breaks down, if necessary) the cultural and ethnic barriers that exist in the Roman Empire.

Paul's strategy takes risks with the newly established ecclesias. It leans heavily upon faith in and prayer to the Father through the Son, and that the Holy Spirit they control can work in ways unrecognized by men to strengthen and comfort believers. Paul cannot be everywhere and do everything himself; with a reasonable view of his own limitations, he instructs and trains (and then trusts!) his assistants in the work -- young men like Timothy and Titus. This benevolent responsible attitude allows them in turn to grow to their full potential, and become more useful "fellow-laborers with God."

BUT TIMOTHY HAS JUST NOW COME TO US FROM YOU AND HAS BROUGHT GOOD NEWS ABOUT YOUR FAITH AND LOVE. HE HAS TOLD US THAT YOU ALWAYS HAVE PLEASANT MEMORIES OF US AND THAT YOU LONG TO SEE US, JUST AS WE ALSO LONG TO SEE YOU: Notice that Timothy brought good news of their faith and love -- but not necessarily of their hope! Does Paul hint here at the deficiencies which he decides to make good in 1Th 4:13-14? At this point they had just arrived (Acts 18:5; Pro 25:25) with the good news (literally, the "gospel", as in v 2) that all is well, and that the believers in Thessalonica are holding fast the faith as they were taught (1Th 1:3). Out of great relief Paul now begins to write this letter (cp his feelings: 2Co 7:4-6). Paul expresses a great deal of personal satisfaction here. First, it was a good sign that the Thessalonians held the apostles in affectionate remembrance and longed to see them again (cp 1Th 2:17). They could hardly have had such intense longing if they had been inclined to give way under the temptations they were experiencing. Secondly, it proved to Paul that they held no ill will against him for indirectly bringing this tribulation upon them, in introducing the gospel to them. Thirdly, they were anxious to see him again, notwithstanding the wave of increased persecution which no doubt would ensue if he were to return to Thessalonica. This also would cheer him greatly.

1Th 3:7

THEREFORE, BROTHERS, IN ALL OUR DISTRESS AND PERSECUTION WE WERE ENCOURAGED ABOUT YOU BECAUSE OF YOUR FAITH: Since leaving Thessalonica, Paul had been rejected at Berea (Acts 17:13,14) and Athens (Acts 17:32,33) and had met with many difficulties at Corinth: hunger, thirst, nakedness, revilings, and persecutions (1Co 4:11-13; 9:12). All this had left him "pressed in the spirit" (Acts 18:5), and living in "weakness (malaria, or some other illness?) and in fear, and in much trembling" (1Co 2:3). It is possible even that malaria (or some other physical infirmity) was as much the "Satan" that hindered Paul's return to Thessalonica (1Th 2:18) as was the persecution that awaited him there.

1Th 3:8

FOR NOW WE REALLY LIVE, SINCE YOU ARE STANDING FIRM IN THE LORD: Until the wonderful news of vv 6,7, Paul was a dying man (perhaps even literally so). But now he has found a new lease of life. Like John, he could experience no greater joy than to learn that his "children" continued to walk in the Truth (3Jo 1:4).

"Life" (ie, v 8) and "death" take on new symbolic meanings for the believer. In his struggles against sin and human adversaries he expects to "die daily" (1Co 15:31) -- for he bears about in his body "the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest" in that body (2Co 4:10-12). The believer is a continually changing compound of the old man, who is (or should be) dying, and the new man, who is continually being born or "created" (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:8-10). And even as the physical body is wasting away day by day, so the inner man is being renewed (2Co 4:16).

The business of serving Christ intensifies the daily experiences of life. Literally everything about one's life is now seen to hold the potential of affecting eternity. Thus we see Paul cast down and afflicted because of thoughts of problems of other people many miles away. And we then find him, in a moment, overjoyed at the good report about them. "Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?" So it must be small "deaths" and small "resurrections" each day -- for one who takes upon himself the care of all the ecclesias (2Co 11:28,29). Is this a difficult way of life? Most assuredly. But can there be any other way for a true follower of Christ?

1Th 3:9

HOW CAN WE THANK GOD ENOUGH FOR YOU...?: The sustained thanksgiving introduced in 1Th 1:2-10 and resumed in 1Th 2:13 is concluded in 3:9 with a rhetorical question. It is as if Paul is implying, "This gift (of good news about you) is so marvelous that I can never repay God for it!" (cp the question of Psa 116:12: "What shall I render unto the LORD for all His benefits toward me?").

The word "render" (as in "render thanks") conveys the idea of giving somebody what is due to him (Rom 12:19; 2Th 1:6).

1Th 3:10

MOST EARNESTLY: "Exceedingly" (AV). "Hyper-ekperissou", a quite unusual word that means to overflow abundantly: in this case, "super-abundantly!" Thessalonica was famous for its hot springs which continually overflowed; the city had once been called after them: "Therma" (see Introduction). Paul was fond of using this figure in varying degrees; he was like a hot spring, bubbling over with warmth and love -- and so he wanted his converts to be. (The same or similar words occur in v 12; 1Th 4:1,10; Eph 3:20; Rom 5:21; and 2Co 7:4.)

AND SUPPLY WHAT IS LACKING IN YOUR FAITH: "And make good the deficiencies in your faith." "Katartizo" is a verb signifying "to render fit or complete"; it occurs 13 times in the NT. It is used of mending nets (Mat 4:21; Mark 1:19); of reconciling disputes (1Co 1:10), of preparing a person for a work (Heb 10:5); of restoring a sinner to fellowship (Gal 6:1); and of completing the instruction and character of a believer (as here; Luke 6:40; Eph 4:12; 2Co 13:11; Heb 13:21; 1 Pet 5:10). The perfecting of believers is therefore the fitting or equipping of them, not for "show", but for service.

It is possible that, in his absence, some of Paul's converts had gone astray in their understanding of certain doctrines, and that this fact was revealed to him by Timothy in addition to the more joyful news (see note, v 6). It might as reasonably be assumed that Paul knew of some of these deficiencies even before Timothy came to him, deficiencies in their faith due to the little time he had to devote to them originally. (In that case, we have at least an indication that new converts were not expected to know absolutely everything before baptism!) Certainly among these problems were matters concerning the resurrection and the return of Christ. Paul's words here serve as a gentle reminder to the Thessalonians of their continuing need for further spiritual growth -- a fact which he did not deny or try to "sweep under the carpet." His words also tactfully prepare them for the remaining part of his letter.

1Th 3:11

Vv 11-13: Paul's first prayer for the Thessalonians.

NOW MAY OUR GOD AND FATHER HIMSELF AND OUR LORD JESUS CLEAR THE WAY FOR US TO COME TO YOU: "Clear" = "to make straight" -- a word that appears also in 2Th 3:5 and Luke 1:79. Paul prays that God and Christ may remove all hindrances (as in 1Th 2:18) to open the way for Paul to return to Thessalonica. As Paul was directed to them in the first place (Acts 16:6-10), so he prays, and confidently expects, to be directed again: "The steps of a good man are ordered ('made straight:' sw in LXX) by the Lord: And he delighteth in His way" (Psa 37:23).

Though he may not fully understand, still he relies upon the unseen constraints, the "ways of providence": "Ponder the path of thy feet, And let all thy ways be established ('made straight' -- sw again)" (Pro 4:26).

1Th 3:12

MAY THE LORD MAKE YOUR LOVE INCREASE AND OVERFLOW: "Increase" and "overflow" are practically synonymous; thus they reinforce one another, ie, "greatly abound" or "abound more and more." "Increase" ("pleonazo") is used of grace (Rom 6:1); the manna (2Co 8:15) and love (here). "Overflow" is the word we saw also in v 10, which conveys the delightful impression of a bubbling, overflowing spring.

LOVE... FOR EACH OTHER: "Agape", the self-sacrificing love that is distinctly Christian. It is the pre-eminent "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22), out of which all other aspects of Christ-like character arise. God's sacrificial love is seen in the gift of His Son (John 3:16; Rom 8:22; 1Jo 4:9,10), which sets the pattern for all subsequent acts of love to which His children are directed (1Th 4:9). In the same way that Christ loved us, so we the believers must love one another (John 13:34). Only by their acts of love, and only in their participation in the "agape"/"love feast" of fellowship, may they show others that they belong to Christ (John 13:35). There is nothing more important, for love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:8).

AND FOR EVERYONE ELSE: This aspect of love is perhaps one that is most easily overlooked. The love of God is basic to our lives in the Truth. His love for us is so immense and far-reaching that it seems almost "natural" for us to love Him in return. Loving our Christian brothers and sisters, as members of the same divine family, is but the next logical step, for we are all bound together in the most wonderful fellowship. However, having come this far, something inside us seems to balk at the next step... "toward all men." Perhaps our failure here is that our perceptions of God and His work and His love are just too limited. The God who loved us when we were yet "sinners" (Rom 5:8) -- and loved us so much that He gave up His Son in death -- surely expects us to love all men in the same way. The God who bestows the blessings of sunshine and rain on just and unjust alike is teaching us to love even our enemies and those who despitefully use us (Mat 5:44,45).

Jesus, in perhaps the greatest and most sublime of his parables, warns us against a narrow conception of one's "neighbor" (Luke 10:25-37). "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" is the second commandment, like unto the first, and like the first unlimited in its scope (Mat 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Gal 6:10).

JUST AS OURS DOES FOR YOU: Paul refers to his own example, an indication that this verse is not only a prayer but also an exhortation. That Paul and his companions could present themselves as examples of overflowing love may seem embarrassingly bold, but it is not uncommon in his letters (1:6; 2Th 3:7-9; Acts 20:35; 1Co 4:16; 11:1; Phi 3:17; 4:9). While we would not wish to emulate Paul in what might easily appear to be -- for us! -- unwarranted "boasting", still it is useful for us all to remember how the examples of our own personal lives either support or detract from the message we preach.

1Th 3:13

MAY HE STRENGTHEN YOUR HEARTS SO THAT YOU WILL BLAMELESS AND HOLY IN THE PRESENCE OF OUR GOD AND FATHER: A man can never hope to stand "blameless and holy" before God (Col 1:21-23) by means of his own efforts, no matter how dedicated he may be. But he may be "established" or "presented" (Col 1:22; Jude 1:24; Eph 5:25-27) blameless by Christ, if he "continues" (again, Col 1:22) or "abides" (1Jo 2:28) in him. The emphasis must not be on strenuous endeavor, but on thankful loyalty. Good works are a reasonable expectation from those who have been gratefully redeemed, who have already received the means through God's grace of standing blameless in His sight (Eph 2:9,10); but good works will never be the means themselves for that standing -- that can be only by "grace" (Eph 2:7,8)!

In the love and mercy of God, as revealed through Christ, we may have confidence to stand unblameable before God (1Jo 2:28; 3:20,23; 4:17); but never can we place such confidence in our own works -- no matter how numerous and how commendable!

THAT YOU WILL BE... HOLY: "We are called to holiness. Now that word is a very expressive and comprehensive one: holiness is a state of cleanness, and cleanness in its moral relations consists of freedom from all that is constituted morally polluting by the law of God. That is right which God commands -- that is wrong which He forbids. That is holy which He calls clean, and that is unholy which He disallows. There is no other rule of righteousness than that. The moral philosophy of the world is a very artificial affair. In most cases, it is an attempt to justify the commandments of God on natural principles. Certain maxims have been brought to the notice of the world in the teaching of Christ, and men of carnal minds, utterly unsubject to the law of God, have taken hold of the mere aesthetic beauties of these things, and constructed out of them a philosophy of their own -- a standard of their own; but in point of fact they have no standard; there is no standard of right except the will of God. When men begin to talk of 'the eternal fitness of things', they get into an intellectual morass. There is no standard of righteousness but obedience to God's commandments" (SC 125).

WHEN OUR LORD JESUS COMES: See Lesson, "Parousia".

WITH ALL HIS HOLY ONES: "Saints" in KJV. We may tend too much to equate "saints" with believers only, whereas the word literally means "holy ones" and can also refer to the angels. Numerous passages, both in the OT and the NT, refer to the angels of God as the "holy ones", or other similar designations. While some of the passages appended here may be ambiguous, it is a good principle of interpretation to be aware of the two possibilities in almost every Theophany-type passage where "hagios" or its equivalent occurs. To fail to do this is to invite unnecessary misunderstandings and complications: Deu 33:2; Psa 68:17; 89:5; Dan 4:13; 7:10; 8:13; Zec 14:5; Mat 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 2Th 1:10; Jude 1:14.

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