A Minister’s Encouragement
1 Thessalonians 3:1–5
Birthing is not easy. That’s why it’s called labor. Paul felt personally responsible for the Thessalonian church, which he had birthed through his ministry. He cared for the babes in Christ there with the gentle love of a mother and firm love of a father—providing instruction, training, and discipline as to a family needing his care.
His purpose was to educate, edify, and exhort the Thessalonians on how to live, so they might “walk worthy [befitting or suitable] of God,” whom they served (1 Th. 2:12).
Persecution in Thessalonica had cut Paul’s ministry there short. For safety reasons, Paul and Silvanus escaped Thessalonica at night for Berea, 45 miles away. They knew it would be impossible to return, so they quickly made plans to establish and encourage the Thessalonian church.
First Thessalonians 3 opens with Paul bearing his pastor’s heart and his intention to send Timothy to Thessalonica to pastor in his place. Upon his arrival, Timothy explained why Paul was unable to return, and he told the church his purpose in coming.
In the previous chapter, Paul expressed sadness on being so swiftly separated from the Thessalonians. The phrase having been taken away from you (2:17) means to be torn from someone like a child becoming orphaned. Paul felt great remorse, anguish, misery, and loneliness after being snatched from these new believers so soon after their salvation.
Continuing his thought from chapter 2, he wrote, “Therefore, when we could no longer endure it, we thought it good to be left in Athens alone” (3:1). The word therefore builds on the previous paragraph (2:16–20) to explain why Paul could not return to Thessalonica and his reason for sending Timothy. He blamed Satan’s opposition for estranging him from Thessalonica. Therefore, the next best thing Paul could do was to send his associate Timothy.
Paul expressed his and his ministry team’s frustration, anguish, and loneliness due to separation from the church. Not knowing how the Thessalonian believers were doing under persecution disturbed them greatly. Some scholars believe the word we (3:1) is used editorially, expressing Paul’s feelings only. But most scholars believe it includes Silvanus and Timothy.
Once in Athens, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy decided Timothy should return immediately to see how the Thessalonians were faring. They also decided Silvanus should return to Philippi, which left Paul “alone” in Athens. The word alone literally means “forsaken” or “abandoned” and refers to how Paul felt after his team left him. It is understandable that he would feel alone, particularly since he was surrounded by the heathen Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of Athens who mocked Christianity.
Paul did not tell the Thessalonians why he was sending Timothy, but he described the young man as “our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ” (v. 2). Paul had witnessed Timothy’s knowledge, boldness, steadfastness, and perseverance under severe persecution. He knew Timothy to be a faithful, zealous associate and fully believed he possessed the ability and competence to oversee the Thessalonian church and lead it to maturity.
The purpose of Timothy’s ministry was twofold:
- “To establish…and encourage” the Thessalonians in their faith (v. 2).
- To ensure they were not “shaken by these afflictions” (v. 3).
The word establish means to “support, strengthen, or make firm or solid.” These new believers in Thessalonica needed Timothy’s teaching to strengthen them spiritually amid all the persecution they faced.
The word encourage is used in many different ways. It means to “comfort” or “console,” but more often in the New Testament it means to “beseech” or “exhort.” In other words, Paul commissioned Timothy to equip the Thessalonian believers to face persecution for their faith. Their survival as a church depended on it; they needed to be grounded in God’s Word. Paul and his team had led them to Christ and given them general teaching, but they did not have enough time to “establish” and instruct these new believers in their faith. So he sent Timothy to do it.
Timothy needed to ensure the Thessalonians would not be “shaken by these afflictions” (v. 3). The Greek word for “shaken” means “moved, disturbed, agitated,” or “shaken back and forth,” conveying the idea the individual has become unsettled in his faith because of doubt, deception, or affliction suffered for belief in Christ. Paul feared the Devil might use the Thessalonians’ pagan families or friends to plant doubts in their minds and persuade them to abandon their faith to avoid persecution: “I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain” (v. 5).
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that all who live godly lives in Christ are “appointed,” or destined, to suffer for their faith: “For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this” (v. 3; cf. Acts 14:22; 2 Tim. 3:12). The same principle holds true today, as it did for Paul himself. Thus Paul assured them their afflictions were not by accident, but by divine appointment for a purpose. In fact, suffering for Christ provides evidence of one’s salvation and perseverance in the faith.
Paul and his ministry team had forewarned the Thessalonians that continual persecution awaited them if they accepted Christ: “For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation” (1 Th. 3:4; cf. 2 Cor. 4:8–11; 11:24–27). The Greek word for “tribulation” means “to be afflicted, troubled, oppressed, or pressured from all sides.” Tribulation is not a one-time event but, rather, a series of continuous events throughout a believer’s life.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians his prediction came true after they had accepted Christ: “Just as it happened, and you know” (1 Th. 3:4). He told them tribulation should encourage, rather than discourage them in their faith. Paul knew what he was talking about, since he had experienced every possible tribulation in his ministry.
Knowing the Thessalonians’ tribulation, Paul anxiously yearned to hear about their spiritual state: “For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain” (v. 5).
The word I emphasizes Paul’s personal motivation to learn of their situation: He “could no longer endure” the suspense of not knowing. He did not doubt they still had faith in Christ, but he wanted to send Timothy to receive firsthand information. He wanted assurance of their spiritual condition under tribulation so he could minister effectively to them.
Paul feared “the tempter had tempted” them to become despondent and feel discouraged, defeated, and depressed. The word tempter refers to Satan. He is the major adversary to Christ and the gospel (2:18). He is a liar, slanderer, deceiver, accuser, tempter, the prince of the power of the air, and the god of this age who comes disguised as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14; cf. 4:4). (Scripture uses the words the tempter only one other time—when it refers to Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; Mt. 4:3–11).
The phrase had tempted you indicates Paul realized from past experiences that Satan had already tempted them, yet he did not know the outcome. Had they succumbed to Satan’s temptation, Paul believed his and Silvanus’s “labor might be in vain” (1 Th. 3:5). The word vain means “empty” or “useless.” In other words, Paul’s difficult labor, sacrifice, and persecution in Thessalonica would have been useless if the Thessalonians had given in to Satan’s temptation.
Paul’s anxiety and anticipation over the Thessalonians’ spiritual situation was relieved when Timothy returned with the good news that they had remained strong in their faith (v. 6).
Some might say Paul’s anxiety was unwarranted and showed a lack of faith in the Thessalonian believers. Not so! Paul knew how he himself had persecuted the church before his own salvation, and he had witnessed how persecution affected people who stood for the Lord. He knew Satan’s tactic to come as an angel of light to draw people away from faith in Christ. He also knew the Thessalonians were babes in Christ, so he feared some of them might not possess the strength to withstand Satan’s temptation.
Yet he had personally witnessed their faith and strength, even though he had only spent a short time with them. Hearing good news from Timothy relieved Paul’s anxiety and confirmed his original belief that these people were truly God’s elect (1:4).
Do we have the same commitment, care, and concern for young Christians as Paul? If not, we should!