1 Thessalonians 3:1-13
Why when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone;…
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13. The subject is still
Great desire to see the Thessalonians.
I. PAUL ALONE AT ATHENS. "Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left behind at Athens alone." There is continued the use of the plural; but it is to be regarded as corrected by the use of the singular in the fifth verse. The correction relates to the mission of Timothy, which is to be understood as covering Paul's being left behind at Athens. For want of full materials it is difficult to understand the bearing of what is said in the Acts of the Apostles on what is said here. But the most probable account of matters seems to be the following. Silos and Timothy were left behind at Beraea. They that conducted Paul from Beraea brought him as far as Athens; and immediately returned with a commandment unto Silos and Timothy that they should come to him with all speed. Here comes in the link which is given here: Wherefore (i.e. on account of his endeavor to see the Thessalonians having twice proved abortive) when he could no longer forbear (i.e. when he was necessitated to give some relief to his feeling of being orphaned), he thought it good to be left behind at Athens alone. This was a change of plan, but arising out of the very best feeling. He sent on to Beraea a second commandment, that Timothy should proceed to Thessalonica before joining him, Silas meantime remaining at Beraea. In that case Paul was really left behind at Athens, though not with the greatest literalism. He was left behind from the point of view of Timothy going on to Thessalonica, and also of his intention to have had Silas and Timothy with him at Athens. It was the being alone at Athens that made him think of sending for Silas and Timothy, while his conductors from Beraea had not yet left. He felt the atmosphere to be so oppressive beyond his expectations that he longed for their fellowship. And while he was waiting for them, as we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, the feeling did not abate. He went forth into this beautiful city which was associated with the greatest intellectual refinement. And, though a man of gigantic intellect, he was not attracted to the study of its works of art or philosophies. No, it was the gospel sandals with which his feet were shod. It was in the light of Christ that he contemplated the city. Its principal works of art were temples. There on the Areopagus was a temple of Mars, with the subterranean sanctuary of the Furies. On the prominent Acropolis was the Parthenon, or temple of Athene, the protectress of the city, and, next to it in magnificence, the Erectheum with its presiding deities. A third rock was associated with Jove. There was an altar of Prometheus within the groves of the Academy; the Lyceum was dedicated to Apollo. At every turn were structures connected with idolatrous worship, and, among the many, the eye of the apostle detected an altar with this inscription, "To the Unknown God," from which he afterwards took occasion to preach to the Athenians some of the elementary truths of religion. It was while alone in this city full of idols, oppressed by its false forms of religion, that he longed for Silas and Timothy to come on to him. But, strong as his desire for their fellowship was, it was soon overmastered by another, viz. desire toward the Thessalonians, for the gratification of which he was willing to make sacrifice by remaining alone at Athens.
II. MISSION OF TIMOTHY WITH REFERENCE TO THE THESSALONIANS. "And sent Timothy, our brother and God's minister in the gospel of Christ." Timothy is sometimes called Paul's son; he is here called his brother. He was a son who had already grown up to be a companion and associate in work. He was one to whom Paul gave commandment, yet it was properly to God that he stood or fell. The sphere in which he ministered to God was the gospel of Christ. It was his duty generally to bring the gospel of Christ to the wants of men. But let us think of it as his duty specially to bring the gospel of Christ to the wants of the Thessalonians.
1. Timothy was to seek to influence them against their being moved by the pressing afflictions. "To establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith; that no man be moved by these afflictions." The afflictions, not confined to the Thessalonians, but having the first reference to them, are regarded as present. It was Thessalonian afflictions that forced Paul to leave Thessalonica much sooner than he had intended. It was in a manner Thessalonian afflictions that followed him to Beraea. At the time of sending Timothy he may have had late information of the things suffered by the Thessalonians of their own countrymen. By indications, then, he could only think of the afflictions as what might any moment be experienced by them. In consequence of these afflictions Timothy was sent to establish them. It was work which might expose him to the attacks of the virulent Jews of Thessalonica; and this establishing work is usually committed to older men. But that by which he was himself established was his message. And it was to this that he was to look for establishing the Thessalonians. He was to exhort them (not comfort them) concerning their faith, that no man should be moved by these afflictions. He was to hold up persuasively before them the gospel of Christ, that their faith thereby being strengthened, they might be kept from apostatizing.
2. There was reason for their not being moved by the afflictions. "For yourselves know that hereunto we are appointed. For verily, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we are to suffer affliction; even as it come to pass, and ye know." The Thessalonians, and Paul as well, and not they alone, were appointed to suffer affliction. It was the sovereign, all-wise decree of God that, through the affliction of his people, the gospel was to be spread abroad, and transmitted to future generations. And that was a reason why they were not to be moved in affliction. They were not being made the sport of chance, or simply left to the will of their enemies; but they were submitting to the reasonable necessary appointment of their heavenly Father, and that along with others. The Thessalonians were well acquainted with this doctrine. It had been taught them by Paul, when he was with them. And in this he was simply following the great Teacher. It was impossible for him to hold out false expectations. He told them whom he asked to enter into his service that they were to count the cost; they might be called even to lay down their lives for his sake. And at the last he recurs to this in speaking to his disciples. "If the world hateth you, ye know that it hath hated me before it hated you. Remember the word that I said unto you, A servant is not greater than his lord. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.... These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be made to stumble. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you shall think that he offereth service unto God. And these things will they do, because they have not known the Father, nor me. But these things have I spoken unto you, that when their hour is come, ye may remember them, how that I told you." As Paul, after the Master, taught, so it came to pass, and so they had experience. Being thus prepared beforehand, their affliction, instead of shaking them, was fitted to have a confirming effect upon them.
III. MISSION OF TIMOTHY WITH REFERENCE TO PAUL. "For this cause 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 labor should be in vain." It seems best to connect "also" with "sent," as is grammatically allowable. He sent not merely for the sake of the Thessalonians, but also for his own sake. The affliction was a special reason why he, Paul (the singular being introduced), could no longer forbear. He wanted information regarding their faith. Connected with this was anxiety. As a fact, the tempter had tempted them. God tempteth no man; he seeks only through affliction to make his people conquerors. Through affliction Satan, according to his nature, had sought to seduce the Thessalonians to apostasy. And it might be that by some means (for he is fertile in means) he had succeeded in his nefarious object. In that case his labor among the Thessalonians, and laborious praying for them, in all of which he had a natural interest before God, would be vain. It would be as if his lot had never been cast among them. Wishing, then, to have his mind relieved from this state of anxiety, he had sent on Timothy.
IV. GOOD NEWS FROM THESSALONICA. "But when Timothy came even now unto us from you, and brought us glad tidings." Paul had meantime gone on from Athens to Corinth, where, according to Acts 18:5, he was joined by Silas and Timothy. He lost no time in writing to Thessalonica after their arrival. Timothy, who seems not to have delayed by the way, was the bringer of good news, of a kind of gospel - being. indeed, tidings of the fruit of the gospel. He announced what the gospel had wrought for the Thessalonians in three particulars.
1. "Of your faith." Timothy was able to tell his master, by whom he had been sent, that they had such a hold upon the Divine help, that they were able to stand against the assaults of their enemies.
2. "And love." He had also this good news to tell Paul, that, in the face of opposition, they were not weakened by division, but were only drawn the closer together in the bonds of Christian love.
3. "And that ye have good remembrance of us always, longing to see us, even as we also to see you." He had the further tidings to convey, that they had a lively impression of all he had been to them - to whom, under God, more than to any other, they owed their existence as a Church. His name was a savor of a sweet smell among them. At all times they thought of him with pleasure. And as it had been told them that he had a longing to see them, so they wished it to be told him that they had a longing to see again the face, and not less to hear again the voice, of their teacher.
V. COMFORT IMPARTED BY THE GOOD NEWS. "For this cause, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our distress and affliction through your faith: for now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord." "As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country." When Jacob knew that Joseph was alive, his spirit revived. Paul had. not a little of distress and affliction, of trouble from without, that was straitening and oppressive, at Corinth as elsewhere; but, when the good news came regarding his Thessalonian converts, he forgot his distress and affliction. He was comforted over them, in his brooding love. What in them specially communicated comfort to him was their faith, i.e. the faith which enabled them to stand fast in the Lord. So dependent was he on them for happiness, that he only truly lived, had life in its vigor and elasticity, if he could think of them as standing fast in the Lord. While he thus acknowledges their steadfastness in the past, he gently appeals to them to remain steadfast in the future. Let them not take away the condition of his happiness. A Christian parent is dependent for his happiness on the conduct of his children. If he hears of them, when on going out into the world they come to their trial, as departing from the Lord, then his spirit is crushed. But if he hears a good report of them as standing fast in the Lord (in his strength and purpose), then his bones are made fat. And so is it with a Christian minister and his people.
VI. THANKSGIVING ON ACCOUNT OF THE GOOD NEWS. "For what thanksgiving can we render again unto God for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God?" The good news, the glad tidings, filled the apostle's heart with joy. There is an unhallowed joy which is not worthy of the name of joy. Not connected with a recognition of God, not in accordance with God's laws, it cannot bear the Divine inspection. The joy of the apostle for his Thessalonian converts was not of this nature. It extended over a wide range, but over all the range he joyed for them before God. It was not joy away from God, but joy to which he could ask God to be privy, as being joy in their Christian state, especially in their Christian steadfastness. This pure joy, which was his life, the apostle poured forth in thanksgiving. It was God alone who bad made their mountain to stand strong; to him, therefore, was due all the praise. Thanksgiving is a return which God desires from us for his mercies. And we must often feel, with the apostle, that we cannot make a sufficient return in this form for mercies bestowed upon ourselves and upon others.
"Through all eternity to thee
A joyful song I'll raise;
For, oh! eternity's too short
To utter all thy praise."
VII. PRAYER WITH WHICH THE THANKSGIVING IS BLENDED. "Night and day praying exceedingly." He gave thanks when he prayed, and that was night and day. He borrowed from both, which is suggestive of morning and evening as fitting seasons for the duty of prayer. How fitting that in the morning we should turn to God and consecrate to him the powers he has renewed! How fitting that before returning to the world, to meet its temptations, to be entrusted with opportunities of usefulness, to meet what Providence has awaiting us, - how fitting that before we take the first step we should implore the favor of him on whom the lot of every day depends! How fitting, too, that in the evening we should thank God for the benefits of the day, that we should seek to be relieved of the burden of its transgressions, and that we should commit ourselves through the night to the keeping of him who neither slumbers nor sleeps! We can understand that the apostle would borrow largely front the night; for, apart from his labors night and day, his prayers here are described as beyond measure. What a rebuke to those who, instead of breaking beyond bounds in the impetuosity of devotion, narrow their prayers within small compass, or omit them altogether! Here we discover the secret of his power; and let us, in this undevout age, go back to his style of praying, without any loss of intensity, beyond bounds. Two subjects of prayer.
1. "That we may see your face." It has been said of Paul by James Martineau, that "his ardent and generous soul had fastened itself on no one living object, but on an abstraction, a thing of his own mind, the truth;" "that he rested nowhere long enough to feel his nature silently yet irrevocably depositing itself there, but was at all times ready to gather up his feelings and pass on;" that he loved his disciples less in their individual persons and for their own sakes than as depositaries of the truth - as links of a living chain of minds by which that truth would complete its circuit, and find a passage for its renovating power. But it is difficult to know what personal attachment is, if there are not the marks of it in Paul. Did he merely gather up his feelings and pass on, when he was driven by persecution from Thessalonica? No; the Thessalonians, in the short time, had obtained a place in his heart, which was not transient, which they have to this day in heaven. And night and day, when he was away, they came up before him in his audience with God; and what, going beyond bounds, he asked was partly this - that he might see their face. He wished to have fellowship with them, soul with soul, such as is best promoted by direct personal intercourse. That he embraced so many in his affection, that he could not give them more time individually, did not make his attachment less truly personal.
2. "And may perfect that which is lacking in your faith." It is true that Paul had an object beyond seeing their face, and that was that he might the better impart to them spiritual benefit. But is that attaching importance to the person only as a home for the truth? If so, then it is what should be true of all affection. The more ardently we love persons, the more should we love them not as mere earthly beings, but rather as having a heavenly constitution, as those in whom it is fitting that the truth should have a resting-place and home. The more we love to see their face, the more we should seek to perfect that which is lacking in their faith. Paul meant no reflection on the Thessalonians, who were little more than beginners as believers. It was not to be expected that they had come up to the full measure of faith. They had stood the tests to which they had been put, but there might be stronger tests coming. Neither they nor he had come up to the full-measured faith of the Master, who had stood even the forsaking of the Father. Privileged to come among them, he could only hope to be helpful in making up the deficiencies of their faith by a fuller and more earnest exhibition of gospel truth.
VIII. PRAYER THROWN INTO FORM TO BE OVERHEARD BY GOD. Two petitions corresponding to the two subjects of prayer.
1. "Now may our God and Father himself, and the Lord Jesus, direct our way unto you." Paul prayed to have his way directed unto the Thessalonians. In the same way the servant of Abraham prayed to have his way prospered in the obtaining of a wife for Isaac. We may learn that we are to make even external arrangements subjects of prayer. "Our God and Father himself... direct our way unto you." Satan, with his misanthropic qualities, twice succeeded in hindering him in his endeavors to proceed to Thessalonica. He looks above his own feeble endeavors and the hinderings of Satan, to God, in his almightiness and fatherliness, himself to direct his way unto the Thessalonians. "The Lord Jesus direct our way unto you." We may learn that it is right to pray to Christ, though it is more usual to pray to the Father through Christ. The way of his servants, even the external way, is in his sovereign hands. We must not forget that he controls all things in heaven and in earth. In this verse there is a most remarkable enallage of number - two nominatives followed, not by a plural, but by a singular verb. It is one of the most striking proofs in Scripture, all the more that it comes in incidentally, of the absolute unity of the Father and the Son. It was made effective use of by Athanasius, in his case against Arius.
(1) More immediately. "And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and to all men, even as we also do toward you." If there is any distinction between the two main verbs here, it is that the first refers more to range, the second to degree. It is implied that the Thessalonians already increased and abounded in love; still there was room for higher things. "Whether I come or no, the Lord make you to increase and abound in love." They were to increase and abound in love one toward another (within the Christian circle at Thessalonica), and toward all men (the wider Christian circle, and, beyond it, the world lying in wickedness). This is in conformity with what Peter says, that to brotherly kindness we are to add charity. There is a concentration of our affections in our home. But we are not selfishly to confine them there; rather are we to get there refreshment for a wider circle. So there is a concentration of our affections in the Church or enlarged home. But we are not to make it a close guild; rather, in its refreshing fellowship, are we to be fitted for embracing in our affection the whole world. The apostle supports his petition by his own example. It is literally," even as we also toward you." And it is better to leave it thus indefinite, that Paul's example may extend over past and present. He was not one who had confined his affections to any narrow circle; but they had gone out toward them in Thessalonica, and were still going out. It is true that, when the truth finds a home in a person, there is a look beyond him to its finding a home by him in others. And the more truly and deeply we are attached to men as persons, the more shall we with Paul feel prompted to view them as appointed for the transmission of the truth.
(2) Ultimately. "To the end he may stablish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lent Jesus with all his saints." By the stablishing of our hearts we are to understand our being made proof in our inmost being against temptation, our being placed above the reach of a fall. This is to be brought about by love proceeding from faith. As love is said to be the fulfilling of the Law, and the bond of perfection, so it is here viewed as consummating our establishment. We are to be established, so as to be in the sphere of holiness, sanctity without blame, and that under the searching yet loving eye of God. Such a consummation seems far beyond us at present; but it will be realized for us at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. His power ever the evil of our hearts, through His blood and Spirit, will then be fully manifested. With imperfect holiness now, then we shall he saints indeed. And as Christ's saints, the trophies of his power, we shall attend on him at his coming, and swell the majesty of his train. Let us, then, give love the sweep of our being, to the dislodging of sin, to the incoming of saintliness, that in Christ's day of triumph we may be, with the saints: in his train. - R.F.
Parallel VersesKJV: Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone;