A Minister’s Heart
1 Thessalonians 2:13–20
The testimony of a new believer in Christ causes other believers to rejoice. Imagine how overjoyed the apostle Paul was to learn of the Thessalonians’ steadfast faith despite their persecution. He rejoiced over them and longed to see them again. But that was not to be.
Soon after the Thessalonians received Christ, Paul fled the city because of great opposition. His soul was in agony as he awaited word on their fate. They were facing great persecution because of their faith in Christ. When word finally arrived from Timothy, Paul rejoiced and praised God.
First Thessalonians 2 closes with Paul reviewing the Thessalonians’ faith, his compassion for them during their persecution, and his crown of rejoicing when they all will be together in the presence of the Lord.
Paul continually thanked God for a number of things concerning the Thessalonians:
For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us [Paul and Silvanus], you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe (v. 13).
The Greek text uses two different words for “receive.” The first (translated “received”) means to receive a message spoken by someone. The second (translated “welcomed” in the NKJV) means to accept the message into the heart as truth. Although the gospel was delivered by a man (Paul), the Thessalonians “received,” or accepted, it as God’s Word.
Paul said the Word “effectively works in you who believe.” God’s Word powerfully transformed the Thessalonians’ lives through the Holy Spirit, turning them from idols to serve the living God (cf. 1:9). Proof of their total commitment was that they “became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus” (2:14). In other words, they imitated Paul and his missionary team’s devotion to Christian living (cf. 1:6), and they imitated the churches in Judea in that they “suffered the same things from [their] own countrymen” (v. 14). Because of their union and communion with Jesus Christ, they suffered persecution and abuse from their own people who opposed their faith, just as believers in Judea suffered extreme persecution at the hands of their unbelieving Jewish brethren.
Paul then launched into a discourse on how viciously many of the Jewish people had treated their own prophets and Jesus Christ Himself: “[They] killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men” (v. 15).
Paul cited three groups that were persecuted and/or murdered: Jesus Christ, the Old Testament prophets, and “us” (Paul and his ministry team). Jesus is cited first because His death was greatest by far. While on Earth, Jesus pointed out that Jewish people killed their own prophets (cf. Mt. 23:34–35, 37; Lk. 11:47–48). In the parable of the wicked vinedressers, He predicted they would be held responsible for His death, as well (Mt. 21:33–41).
Paul knew the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, allowed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who had prophesied that Gentiles actually would kill Him (Lk. 18:31–33). But the high priest Caiaphas, the Jewish body called the Sanhedrin, and Roman ruler Herod Antipas conspired, collaborated, and cooperated in condemning Christ to death. Thus they, too, were responsible. Even the apostle himself persecuted the church before his salvation. That said, we should remember that Christ’s crucifixion was carried out according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts 4:28).
Such persecution did “not please God” and is “contrary [hostile] to all men” (1 Th. 2:15). All persecution (Jewish and Gentile) of Jesus and believers in Him is odious to God, and the persecutors eventually will suffer God’s judgment.
Paul indicated that the Jewish opposition’s goal was to stop the spread of salvation by “forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (v. 16).
It is important to understand that not all Jewish people persecuted believers in Jesus. Many became Christians. In fact, all the apostles were Jewish, as were most of the people in the early church. The persecutors, however, were vicious; and Paul made two points about them:
- They worked tirelessly to impede Paul and his missionary team from preaching the gospel to Gentiles (cf. Acts 13:45–50; 14:2, 19; 17:5). Their main aim was to deter non-Jews from becoming saved—from experiencing redemption and deliverance by embracing Jesus as Savior.
- They were filling up the “measure of their sins” (1 Th. 2:16). That is, they were pouring one sin upon another like one pours liquid into a cup, and they were destined to reap God’s wrath.
Opposition to the gospel has been prevalent for centuries. When the world’s cup of wickedness is full (God alone knows when that will be), God’s judgment will fall. Even in Paul’s day, judgment seemed imminent.
Paul said, “But wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (v. 16). The words has come indicate God unleashed His wrath in the past on Jewish people who rejected His program for them (see the Hebrew Scriptures; cf. Rom. 9—11), and He will do so in the future until they repent. Jesus predicted a future judgment.
Persecution in Thessalonica forced Paul to leave the city for his own safety: “But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored more eagerly to see your face with great desire” (1 Th. 2:17).
The phrase having been taken away from you implies Paul actually was torn away from the Thessalonians. He expressed his separation from them as being orphaned, much like someone is bereft of a parent who dies. Such depth of expression reveals Paul’s anguish, misery, and loneliness. The Thessalonians were extremely dear to him, for they came to the Lord through his preaching. He loved them profoundly. In fact, Paul’s epistles reveal that he bonded with all whom he led to belief in Christ and felt a strong love for them.
Paul thought his separation from the Thessalonians would be “for a short time” and that he would soon return when the persecution passed. But it was not to be. The phrase in presence, not in heart communicates that his heart was still with them. He ached over the loss of their fellowship, and his love for them never quenched his desire to be with them.
The phrase endeavored more eagerly to see your face with great desire (v. 17) expresses Paul’s diligence and haste to embrace the Thessalonians. He even bared his heart more when he spoke of his “great desire” to see them. But Satan hindered Paul and his team from returning to Thessalonica: “We wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us” (v. 18). How Satan hindered them is not stated.
Satan is a spirit who works in many ways through people and circumstances to accomplish his purposes and to try to disrupt God’s program and impede those serving Him. He has many means available to him, including a host of demonic spirits who try continually to hinder godly endeavors. He is a liar, slanderer, deceiver, accuser, tempter, murderer, false angel of light, the prince of the power of the air, and the god of this world.
The word hinder means “to cut something up” and is used to speak of cutting up a road or making it impassable. How Paul discerned that it was Satan preventing his return to Thessalonica is not stated. Apparently, the indwelling Holy Spirit witnessed to him that the hindrance came from Satan and that God allowed it for a specific reason.
Paul anticipated his presence with the Thessalonians in the Lord and asked two rhetorical questions to assure them they would be held in high esteem on that day.
First, he asked, “For what [who] is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?” (v. 19). They were his “hope” (they would fulfill all his expectations for them in their service for Christ), his “joy” (they brought joy to his heart as trophies of God’s grace), and his “crown of rejoicing” (he looked forward to receiving the soul-winner’s crown at the Bema judgment as they looked on). In that day, Paul will glory in what God wrought through his ministry.
Having asked the first question, he answered it with a second question: “Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?” (v. 19). The Thessalonians were Paul’s glory and joy then, and they will be again at the Lord’s coming.
Today there is much talk about mature men mentoring younger men who are going into the ministry. What better mentor could one have than the apostle Paul? And we can appropriate him through an in-depth study of his epistles and his heart for ministry. What was the secret of Paul’s leadership and mentoring?
- He was a man of integrity in character and conduct.
- He was trustworthy and truthful, anxious to please God rather than men.
- He was not authoritarian but, rather, led with tender love.
- He was not mercenary. He did not minister for money but, rather, paid his own way by working a secular job.
- He was unselfish, untainted, transparent, and authentic—without reproach in morals, manners, and motives.
- He was exemplary to all in fulfilling his calling, commission, and commitment to God.
What a model in ministry to imitate!