This blog continues my work on First Thessalonians
THESSALONIANS 3: 17
For our part, brothers and sisters, when we were bereft of you for a short time – as faces but not as hearts – we tried all the more, with great longing, to see you face to face. We wanted to come to you, yes, I, Paul wanted to come time and again, but the Adversary thwarted me. For what, if not you, is our hope and joy and crown of honour before our Lord Jesus Messiah on his return? You are our glory and our joy!
So, when we could put up with it no more, we thought it best to remain on our own in Athens, and to send Timotheos our brother and God’s co-worker in the joyful announcement of Messiah, to steady you and cheer you about your trust in God, so that no one should be made to cringe by these pressures. You know yourselves that we are bound to suffer this kind of thing. Indeed when we were with you, we warned you in advance that we were going to be ill-treated; and it’s turned out that way, as you know.
For that reason, when I could put up with it no longer, I sent to be assured of your faithfulness, fearing that the Tester had put you to the test, and that our work had become fruitless. Now Timotheos has come back to us from you, bringing the good news of your faithfulness and love: that you have good thoughts of us, longing keenly to see us, just as we long to see you.
For this reason, brothers and sisters, throughout all our need and trouble, we’ve been encouraged about you, because of your faithfulness, so that now we’re alive again, if you stand firm in the Lord. How can we give equal thanks to God for you, in return for all the joy that we express before our God because of you? Night and day we pray without limit to see you face to face, and to make up anything that’s missing in your faith. Now may our God and Father, and our Lord Jesus Messiah guide our way to you! May the Lord make you increase and overflow in love for each other, and for all people, just as we overflow in love for you! May he strengthen your hearts in holiness so that you may be blameless in the presence of our God and Father, when our Lord Jesus appears with all his holy ones!
I’ve been emphasising Paul’s fundamental message of a shared life in Jesus/ God/ Spirit, a sharing which holds good across space, time, ethnicity, empire, and as we will see later in the letter, over death itself. Certainly this sharing is based on common trust in God and a common ethic for daily life, but it is upheld always by personal friendship, expressed by Paul in the expectation that it will be reciprocated. The first pararaph above is a good example of this. Absence from his converts is described as a bereavement. He emphasises his real desire to visit them, and calls them his joy and crown before Jesus.
It astonishes me that many have taken Paul’s occasional bad temper or authoritarianism very seriously while ignoring the repeated evidence for his affection. Clearly he made affectionate relationships with his converts, which are of course part of his evangelical responsibility to them, but are not less important than it.
He uses the greek phrase “meketi stegontes” which has connotations of fending off say, bad weather, to express his acute anxiety about them: when we could fend it off no longer, he says, making sure they know his concern. Then he lets them see him also as a leader of the missionary enterprise by stating his authority to “send” Timotheos, whose status, like Paul’s, is as God’s co-worker, one of God’s workmates!
He knows that they have been put under pressure in their own city, but reminds them that he had prophesied their troubles and encourages them to understand them as another part of the shared life of believers. He admits his worry that the spiritual power that inspires persecution might have overcome them. This power is Satanas, which means God’s Adversary, whom here he calls “The Tester” referencing the figure in the book of Job who tests Job’s dedication to God.
He refers to the happy report which Timotheos has brought back of their faithfulness to God. We should note that the news of their affection for Paul is mentioned as of equal importance. Then Paul does one of the amazing things that are easy to overlook: he tells the Thesalonians how much they are contributing to his life and happiness. This is genuine sharing, when the emissary of Jesus notes how much he has received as well as given. He uses a beautiful word, “antapodidomi” which means repaying or recompensing. How can we repay God, he asks, for the joy you have given us?
The blessings at the end of the section sum up Paul’s thought:
All believers are in God’s hand but in this case God ought to direct Paul to Thessaloniki.
The life believers share with each other and God is a life of love which extends outside the Assemblies to “all people.”
God’s love also asks for practical goodness of living which will be rewarded when Jesus returns.
*There is a small translation problem, in the Greek verb “sainesthai” which I have translated “made to cringe.” The active verb means to wag your tail like a dog, or to cringe before someone, so I have interpreted the passive form as causitive, that is, “made to cringe” or to accept a will which is not your own.