Who would you say your best friend is? What characterises that relationship? Shared interests, way at looking at things? Trust? Humour? Common circumstance?
Tonight we see in Paul's relationship with the Thessalonians a model of true Christian friendship. It's a deep friendship that takes root quickly despite great difficulties and even through physical separation. I hope that as we look at these few verses we will be encouraged to develop truly Christian friendships that bring us lasting joy, sustain us through trials and have ambitious goals for our holiness. That's our big idea if you like tonight:
True Christian friendship produces joy, sustains through trials and is ambitious about our holiness
1. True Christian friendship is a joyful reality [v17-20]
2:17 But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 2:18 For we wanted to come to you--certainly I, Paul, did, again and again--but Satan stopped us.
Paul continues his defense over from 2.1-16 explaining why he left the Thessalonians after such a short time. He first explains that this was not by choice v17 'when we were torn away from you' the language is extreme; Paul is bereft, like a parent who has lost their child. Again in v18 Paul tells the Thessalonians that he especially wanted to see them but that Satan stopped them from coming. What exactly Paul is referring to when he says 'but Satan stopped us' is unclear - was it Jewish opposition, scandal in Corinth (where Paul was most likely writing from), physical illness? We don't know. However Paul's basic point is clear he (and Timothy and Silas) were not apart from the Thessalonians by choice.
Instead out of their intense longing they had made every effort to try and see the Thessalonians. The reason for that intense longing is found in v19,20:
2:19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 2:20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
Now I have to admit that I struggled with this; how can Paul use such language about the Thessalonians who Paul barely knew? Acts 17 tells us that Paul preached in Thessalonica over three Sabbath days before being run out of town by an angry mob. How can Paul have such affection for a group of people he has only known for at most a month? Is Paul that guy who tells the girl that he loves her after the first date? How can Paul sincerely call the Thessalonians his hope, his joy, his crown?
Key is in the second half of v19 the Paul will glory in the Thessalonians 'in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes'. Throughout the letter Paul seems always to have at least one eye on Jesus' coming return. The horizon on which Paul's view is fixed on is heaven. So Paul reasons: when Jesus returns and Paul stands before him what will truly matter?
Lots of things won't matter; Paul's reputation, his lack of comfort and security, the false accusations, slander, beatings and imprisonments he would later face won't matter. But Paul says - the Thessalonians will matter to him. As they stand there with him sharing in his joy as Jesus is revealed in all his majesty, the Thessalonians and in particular their faith in Jesus Christ, will matter.
Now I don't think that means that the Thessalonians aren't precious to Paul now. No, I think Paul means that the reality of Jesus' return makes very clear the things which are really important now. Paul sees the Thessalonians like a photograph with a very shallow depth of field; everything around the subject is blurred almost beyond recognition but the subject is in crisp focus. The subject is the Thessalonians faith - that's what matters and that's reflected in Paul's concern for the Thessalonians in the first part of chapter three:
Verse 2: We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith
Verse 5: I sent to find out about your faith.
Verse 6: But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith
Verse 7: Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.
Verse 10: 3:10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
Paul and the Thessalonians are united by faith. They are headed in the same direction because of it, their eternal destinations are aligned. Paul's future hope in heaven unites him to other Christians now.
Paul didn't go to Thessalonica on some kind of gospel preaching arena tour. He's not just hitting the big venues; the synagogues and the areopagus' and then heading back to his trailer. No, chapter 2.8 said that they were delighted to share not only the gospel but their very lives (literally 'souls') with the Thessalonians. Paul has given himself fully to the Thessalonians dealing with them not merely as a teacher but as a father cares for his own children.
We know how a shared hope can unite us. Think back to the olympics even a cynical yorkshireman like myself could feel the shared excitement and joy of 'Super Saturday'. Paul and the Thessalonians share Jesus they are united to him and united to each other in him.
One day you and I are going to stand before our Saviour. We are going to be like him and we are going to know him and he us. We are going to enjoy him and praise him with bodies that are made new, freed from our sin, in a place where there is no more sickness, no more pain, no more grieving, no more death and we are going to reign there with the risen king Jesus, forever and it will be paradise.
If that is our shared destination then we are not friends, still less mere acquaintances we are brothers and sisters adopted into the same family, sharing the same father. That should make a difference to the way we think of and treat one another. Jesus prays for us in John 17 asking:
21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Christians are to be united to be one, just as Jesus and God the Father are one. We are to have that same level of intimate oneness amongst ourselves so that the world may believe that God has sent Jesus. Our friendship is supernatural, it's not just a desire that we try to get along, we are one body in Christ. That's the joyful reality of Christian friendship.
2. True Christian friendship sustains us during trials [v1-8]
Let's pick things up again at the beginning of chapter three, where Paul in his desperation sends to find out about the Thessalonians faith:
3:1 So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 3:2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3:3 so that no-one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. 3:4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 3:5 For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.
When Paul can no longer stand not knowing how the Thessalonians are doing he sends Timothy to them. Notice how Paul describes Timothy he is no second-best alternative to Paul returning he is 'God's fellow-worker'. Paul's purpose in sending Timothy to the Thessalonians is v2 to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. Paul knows that the Thessalonians are being persecuted and is concerned that v3 they might be unsettled by these trials, v5 that satan (the tempter) might have undermined their new faith in Jesus.You can imagine Paul worrying that the Thessalonians might be like the rocky ground in Matthew 13 which:
'is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.'
Paul reminds the Thessalonians in v3,4 that their persecution is neither unnatural nor unexpected. Paul tells the Thessalonians that they were destined for these trials v3. These difficulties are not a sign that something is wrong with the Thessalonians faith, no, rather they are a sign of health, a sign that they are following Jesus. Paul later writes to the church in Philippi:
29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him
Suffering for your faith is normal, Christians are destined for it because we are destined to follow after and become like our master; Jesus. The trials the Thessalonians faced were not unnatural. Nor were they unexpected; Paul says in v4 that they kept telling them that they would be persecuted. This type of suffering normal for Christians remember, we told you, repeatedly, that this would happen - it shouldn't come as a surprise to you, it shouldn't knock you off course.
Have you ever had that experience of standing in the sea and being completely knocked off your feet by a crashing wave? You know that moment when you see the wave rise, the water begin to foam and a quick mental calculation tells you that it is going to break precisely where you are right now and you have no hope of getting away. Well Paul is the guy who has been shouting at you: "There's a wave coming, get ready to ride it out". And you can ride out really big waves if you are ready for them can't you? You can certainly mitigate against inhaling a bucketful of sea water.
Paul doesn't want his efforts to be wiped out by the tide of persecution the Thessalonians are now facing. So he reminds them this isn't unnatural, this is normal. This isn't unexpected, we warned you this would happen. And he sends them Timothy 'God's fellow-worker' to strengthen and encourage their faith.
In Paul we have a model of Christian friendship, of brotherhood in Jesus. Firstly Paul is concerned for his fellow Christians, he wants to know how they are doing, particularly how they are doing in their faith so much so that it causes him real mental anguish - 'When we could stand it no longer...' v1. Secondly Paul takes the Thessalonians back to the truth. He doesn't give them platitudes, he doesn't say everything will be fine, or it's not that bad you should hear some of the things I've had to endure. No Paul reminds them of reality; their suffering is real, it is painful but it is not unnatural, nor is it unexpected. Finally Paul sends practical help, he can't go so he sends Timothy, a godly man who will help to encourage and strengthen their faith.
Look at the results as Timothy brings word back to Paul in v6:
3:6 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. 3:7 Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 3:8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.
Paul, Silas and Timothy are encouraged, even whilst enduring persecution themselves, because of the Thessalonians' faith. Notice that it is not because persecution has eased but because the Thessalonians are standing firm in the Lord. It seems like Paul, Silas and Timothy are experiencing here, in miniature, what Paul said was happening across the region in chapter 1. Look back a page with me to 1.6-8:
1:6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 1:7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 1:8 The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia--your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it,
The Thessalonians welcomed the gospel with Holy Spirit produced joy. In doing so they became a model to other Christians in the region and their faith was being talked about everywhere. Now as the Thessalonians stand firm in the Lord they encourage the very people they had set about imitating.
Christian friendship is reciprocal. It's not one way traffic with Paul the super - Apostle only giving out. He does give, he spends himself for the Thessalonians, he labours for them but they are an encouragement to him; they are his joy, his crown and now their faith is an encouragement to him and Timothy and Silas that their labour was not in vain, that their efforts were not useless or without effect but rather that God was at work through their efforts in the continuing faith of the Thessalonians.
We need this type of friendship. Friendship that isn't afraid to talk of difficult realities and to point us back to the truth. Friendship that cares deeply for us and will act accordingly. Friendship that listens and prays for and visits and comforts and encourages and consoles. Do you seek to be that type of friend? Are you willing to open yourself up to this type of friendship? Would you prefer to remain anonymous, private, removed?
True Christian friendship can sustain us through trials, if we are willing to open ourselves up to it and allow others into our lives and to share our lives with them.
3. True Christian friendship is ambitious about our holiness [v9-13]
So what do Paul, Timothy and Silas do next? Relax, assured that they did a good job with the Thessalonians Christianity 101 class? Give themselves a pat on the back that their imitators faith is not only enduring but being made known across the province of Asia. Not quite, look at v9ff:
3:9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 3:10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
Paul, Timothy and Silas wonder how they can thank God for the joyful news about the Thessalonians faith. And they continue to labour on their behalf praying night and day (convinced there are some insomnia issues at work here - they're always doing things both night and day) that they may be able to see the Thessalonians again and be involved in growing their faith. The term 'supply what is lacking' has the sense of restoring, equipping or completing clearly the Thessalonians faith is functional it manifests itself in work produced by faith, labour prompted by love and endurance inspired by hope in Jesus Christ and it is enduring even under persecution. But Paul wants to establish it yet more firmly to fill in the gaps and to grow it further. Verse 11:
3:11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 3:12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 3:13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
Paul desires that the Thessalonians love, which Paul will say in the next chapter has already been taught to them by God, will grow more and more. The Thessalonians are good at loving one another but Paul is ambitious on their behalf. He ask that God would strengthen their hearts and again lifts their eyes and sets them on the horizon of Christ's return. Paul's desire is not just that they would endure until then but that they would stand before God blameless and holy.
Now just like us the Thessalonians were sinful. Literally it is only possible for them to stand before God holy and blameless because they are clothed with Christ's perfect record, his righteousness. However, Paul wants the Thessalonians to arrive before God as ready as is possible on this earth for the heaven.
Christian friendship encourages. The faith of other Christians should encourage us when we find things difficult, when we face trials, when we suffer or grieve. But Christian friendship should also spur us on to greater love, to greater holiness. Hebrews 10.23ff says:
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The day is approaching when Jesus will return with all his holy ones. How will he find us then? Will he find us in joyful, earnest and encouraging Christian friendships? Are we looking forward to that day when trial and suffering and the sin that entangles us will all be gone? Will we stand in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ holy and blameless rejoicing in each other claiming those who have heard the gospel here at HTG as our joy and crown? Let's pray that it would be so...