1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13
Encouraging One Another

 Copyright 2009 (c) American Journal of Biblical Theology 
www.biblicaltheology.com     Scripture quotes from KJV

It was just a few short years ago when most of the world watched in horror as two of its largest and well-known buildings were destroyed in a terrorist mass-murder, the largest ever in loss of life in America, and the largest ever in financial loss in the world.  In the aftermath of this event we witnessed a world-wide impact in both of these areas of loss.  The financial impact affected the economies throughout the world, as consumer confidence was shaken, and people were cautious about traveling and shopping.  However, the impact of the loss of life on the American culture was quite the opposite.  We witnessed the President of the United States and the Congress of the United States call for nation-wide prayer that became a world-wide prayer event.  We saw a nationalistic pride in America that had been silent for many years.  People set aside their petty differences, at least for the moment, and worked together to deal with the aftermath of the attack.  We saw a quite unexpected spiritual tolerance and renewal across this land that has not been witnessed since the great revivals of the 19th century.

 All across America people came together to help those who have been victimized by this attack, and to support those who are involved in providing relief in a variety of ways.  My wife and I were privileged to spend a week in the south parking lot of the Pentagon in Washington, DC, where support for the investigative and recovery activity took place at the scene of the destruction caused by the crash of a commercial airliner into the side of the building.  This activity involved thousands of workers.  We, supported by the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, were part of a disaster relief team of the Baptist Men of the Southern Baptist Convention of North Carolina.  This group is organized to provide disaster relief and recovery efforts, often responding to natural disasters throughout the region.  Our team of 27 volunteers provided meals to all of the relief workers at the Pentagon site.  Food was provided by donations channeled through  the Red Cross, including on-site contributions by Outback Steak House, Tyson Chicken, Burger King, and McDonalds.  We provided meals 24 hours per day, feeding from 3000 - 8000 meals each day.  We also worked side-by-side with volunteers who were friends of those killed in the attack, including several flight attendants who frequently fly in and out of the D.C. area.  Not only did we provide meals, but we also spent time with many of the relief workers and those who were grieving, trying to encourage them.  All around us was a spirit of unity, in what was called "Camp Unity," in which people came together to support and encourage one another.  There were no divisions based upon race, religion, creed, or in the case of the military, rank, that caused separation in the efforts.

Our nation had come through a tough event, and we witnessed the unity of people from every walk of life in a way we would never imagine.  A spirit of caring and love filled the area, while those from many different governmental investigative and law enforcement agencies were engaged in the gruesome task of investigating and meticulously cleaning up the crash site.

 Again, we were privileged to go to the Pentagon and contribute directly to the needs that are there.  Meanwhile, many more people would liked to have gone to New York or Washington to encourage and support those who were dealing with this crisis, but cannot.  Having been there, we are now prepared to give a report of our experience to all of those who would ask.  We can certainly state that the setting at the Pentagon was very positive, people of faith turned out in large numbers to support and encourage the recovery and investigative workers (and one another.)  It is wonderful to see how people were drawn together and being drawn closer to God.

 More recently we witnessed a similar response to the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought to the Gulf coast.  People of faith respond with compassion during times of stress and crisis as they seek to support and encourage one another.

 The following Bible study passage is taken from the third chapter of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.  The Thessalonian Christians had come to faith as a direct result of the ministry of Paul, Silas, and Timothy.  The church in Thessalonica was experiencing a continual crisis of stress caused by their persecution by both the pagan and Jewish communities.  Unable to travel to Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to visit, and return a report to him.  Like our report from the Pentagon, Timothy's report was a very enthusiastic and positive report that was a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their congregation at a time of great stress.

 1 Thess. 2:17-18.  But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. 18Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us.

 When people experience times of crisis, one of the first things we wish to do is to go to those who need comfort and support.  The disaster relief and recovery  organization of the Baptist Men of the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the larger such organizations in the world and provides opportunity for people to go to those who are in critical need following disastrous circumstances.  However, it is not always possible for one to go to the location where people are in need.  Paul was hindered by circumstances that were not of his choosing referring to his hindrance being caused by the work of satan.  Unable to travel, Paul wrote this letter to the church, a letter that contains the same manner of encouragement and guidance that he would have brought if he were able to travel. 

 Travel and communication today are much simpler and less costly than that known by the first century church.  With the advent of Email, people write to one another frequently, though if Paul had communicated with Thessalonica via Email we probably would have no record of his words.  Cellular telephones give us instant contact with one another in many areas of the world, and have served to enable us to communicate with one another more often.  A 100-mile round-trip was a major effort in the first century, requiring about a week of investment.  Today we make such a trip in a few hours simply to go shopping.

 Where Paul was greatly hindered from ministering to those in need, he still found a way.  With so few hindrances, we have opportunities through a variety of means to encourage one another in times of difficulty and stress.

 1 Thess. 2:19-20.  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? 20For ye are our glory and joy.

 We rarely find the depths of hope and joy within ourselves as we do when we invest our love in others.  Our compassion for others grows out of that love, and through the expression of that compassion we will always find a source of great joy.  When Paul considered the fellowship of the Thessalonians, he recalls people who were lost and without the hope of salvation, and now knows of both their salvation and their joy in it.  He rejoices when he observes the fruit of his work, a work that was inspired and led by the Holy Spirit.  How much of a blessing do we miss when we become so busy in the activities of our own lives that we fail to invest ourselves for the benefit of others? 

 We see in Paul one who dedicated his life to the ministry of others.  We do not have to quit our jobs and start an itinerant ministry in order to receive the joy and crown to which Paul refers.  Each Christian is a minister of the gospel by virtue of the Holy Spirit who guides and directs the lives of each of the faithful.  Similar joy of ministry is found when one simply takes every opportunity to minister to others.  We all know of those in our circle of relationships who need some encouragement and love.  All that stops us from that ministry is a failure to take the first step towards that individual or those individuals in need.  The first step is followed by a second, and is followed by the joy and reward of the ministry event, one that makes the next opportunity that much easier to move upon.  Together, that pattern of ministry to others can grow and create a boundless joy and peace that comes with the knowledge of being part of Godís kingdom work.

 1 Thess. 3:1-2  Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone; 2And sent Timothy, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith: 

 Again, Paul (and presumably Silas) were unable to travel to Thessalonica, so they sent Timothy with a two-fold purpose.  First, he was to strengthen the spiritual state of the congregation, and second, he was to comfort and encourage its members.  When Timothy was in Thessalonica he was attending to a task that was bigger than himself.  He was also representing Paul, Silas, and all who pray for their ministry.  He was fully aware of his accountability to the Lord and to Paul, and aware of the prayers that they were speaking on his behalf.

 We often desire to go to places where ministry is needed, such as the Pentagon, New York, or the Gulf Coast, in times of crisis, but cannot do so for any variety of reasons.   Likewise, Paul and Silas were busily engaged in the ministry where they were, and felt that they could not leave.  When we find ourselves unable to travel, we often assign, ordain, or support others who go in our place. We might call them missionaries.  Oftentimes, we support groups who go on short volunteer efforts without actually using the title, "missionary," but their true mission is still the same.   When we send out missionaries, they are also engaged in a task larger than themselves, representing those who have sent them, and working for a purpose that is designed to honor the kingdom of God.  While they are working they are continually aware of their accountability to the Lord and to those who sent them.  They are also continually aware of the prayers that have been lifted on their behalf, and find that knowledge to be a comfort and strength throughout their ministry effort. 

 There is little question that the travel and ministry that Timothy experienced was difficult and tiring.  Exhaustion that comes from meaningful ministry is empowered by the nature of that ministry.  The 7-person "night shift" crew on which my wife and I worked at the Pentagon put in eight 12-hour shifts in seven days (the first two were a single 24-hour shift that followed another 24 hours of work and travel).  Though we became physically exhausted from the long hours of labor, our spirits never tired because of the nature of our ordained task and because of our knowledge of the prayers that supported us.  This is what empowers and encourages our missionaries as they often face significant difficulties and stress. 

 1 Thess. 3:3-5 That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto. 4For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know. 5For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labor be in vain. 

 Here Paul re-explains the purpose of Timothy's visit.  It was Paul's concern that the stresses that faced the Thessalonians[1] could be used of Satan to disrupt the fellowship and turn people away from the faith.  One does not have to look far to see examples of how stress can be destructive in relationships.  The tremendous stress placed on America on September 11, 2001 drew the country together.  Often when a community is brought under stress, the opposite response is true, particularly in the church fellowship.  When faced with unanswered questions, church members tend to line up behind the varying opinions of their leaders, and by doing so, divide the fellowship.  Paul had such a division with Barnabus prior to his second missionary journey, and as a result, each man went out on his own journey.  Churches split and disfellowship their members at an alarming rate.  Invariably, these divisions come from a failure to identify who the enemy in the conflict really is:

 Eph. 6:12.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

 When Christians attack one another, they are attacking the wrong enemy.  When such stresses are encountered in the fellowship, Christians need to pray together and identify the true source of the conflict, ferreting out the spirit of Satan that is causing the schism.  Paul had feared that such division would take place in the church in Thessalonica, becoming more continually concerned as time continued to pass.

 1 Thess. 3:6-7.  But now when Timothy came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you: 7Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: 

 Expecting the worst, Paul was greatly relieved to hear Timothy's report. Not only were the Thessalonians remaining strong in their faith midst adversity, their faith was growing, and they were a witness to the entire region around them.  We know that God can use the circumstances around all tragic events to turn people to Him, and to promote His work[2] so that Christians will mature in their faith and be more like Him.  Paul is seeing the fruits of that growth in the lives of the people in the church at Thessalonica. 

 1 Thess. 3:8-10.  For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord. 9For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; 10Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?

 The results of the good news from Thessalonica was not without effect on Paul and Silas.  Paul expressed his own relief and encouragement by stating, "for now we really live."  It is as if Paul's concern had put his life and spirit on hold until he learned of the faithfulness of the church.  When catastrophe strikes, it is quite normal for us to individually or collectively pause and wait anxiously for the outcome.  When that outcome is bad, we grieve, and when the outcome is good, we are relieved, we can relax, and we often will praise God.  Do not forget that even when the outcome is bad, it is still appropriate that God be praised.

 1 Thess. 3:11-13.  Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you. 12And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: 13To the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.

 Paul's desire to return to Thessalonica is quite evident.  Though he separates the names of Father and Lord, the verb "direct" is singular, illustrating for what is probably the first time in written literature, the deity of Jesus Christ.  Since the "obstacle" that had kept him from his desired visit[3] was an instrument of Satan, his return could easily be made with God's intervention.  Paul also prayed that the love that they have for one another and for others would increase.  Paul would later teach that to love one's neighbor was the fulfillment of the law.[4]  Through Paul's prayer he is communicating his instruction that the people should love those outside their church body, which at a time of such persecution was not a simple thing to do.  With the opposition they faced, such love would require people to look past the sin nature of those around them and look to their potential as saints as God does.  Even now when we look upon the images of faces of individuals that we may consider enemies, we should not forget that we contend not against men, but against Satan and the power of sin.  We can focus our attack on Satan while we love the one that he controls, and see their potential as saved people.

 Paul also prays that the faith of the Thessalonians would be the foundation for lives that are righteous and holy.  To be "unblamable in holiness" does not imply innocence.  It describes a person who is completely separated to God's purpose.  That person may commit sin, but because of their faith in Christ, they have been sanctified by the new covenant[5] and are presented before God with "clean hands and a pure heart"[6] because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives through their acceptance of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

 As you look at your own life, can the Lord use you to inspire fellow believers, or there some significant changes in your actions that need to be made?  When other Christians think of you, do they see someone who is "unblameable in holiness," one who is noticeably "sold out" to God?  Or, are their attitudes and actions in your life that would cause other Christians to pause, or even criticize?  Is your spirit of love overpowered by Satan's spirit of anger or criticism?

 Are you an encourager of other Christians?  When they look to you, do they find someone who loves and supports them, or someone who is self-centered, arrogant, or critical?

 For some, these questions might bring a crisis of its own.  Even midst the turmoil of their persecution, rather than split apart, the Thessalonians were drawn even closer together, much in the same way that the attack on the United States has drawn people together across the land.  This has given Christians an opportunity to pray, to demonstrate their love, and to be drawn together by the recognition of the triviality of many of our petty disputes that is illuminated by the far more significant persecution that we suffer at the hands of extreme fundamentalist terrorists.

 Let it be our prayer that the unity that has arisen from this recent catastrophe will continue to bind together people from all walks of life, that the prayers that have been lifted up by millions of people will continue, and that the Lord's Kingdom work on earth will be increased.  Through this, the great loss of the previous weeks can have a meaning that is illustrated in the attitudes and actions of people who turn to God, finding themselves engaged in a ministry that is bigger than themselves.

[1] Acts 18:5-6, 12-13.

[2] Romans 8:28-29.

[3] 1 Thessalonians 2:18.

[4] Romans 13:9.

[5] Ezekiel 36:26.

[6] Psalm 24:4.