In 2008 four year old *** was taken out of Australia by his mother against the orders of the Family Court. They flew to Frankfurt, Germany, and then disappeared. His father, ***, was heart-broken. *** was his only child. He spent the next two years trying to find him. Then, in May last year, he took the desperate step of cycling through Europe, publicising ***’s disappearance wherever he went, and looking for clues. Eventually, in October, *** and his mother were found in Amsterdam, and he was re-united with his father.
For ***, the separation had been terrible. It wasn’t just the broken relationship – that he missed out on seeing his son grow up. There was the uncertainty – not knowing where *** was, whether he was safe. And healthy. And happy.
Caron and I can relate just a TINY bit this last week. Alex has been in Bali, holidaying with some friends. Perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation as a parent. Being separated, and uncertain how your children are doing.
And it was the same feelings Paul had for his SPIRITUAL children, the Thessalonian church. We saw a couple of weeks ago how he’d STARTED the church. From Acts 17. How the kids had been born.
And like MOST births, it was a difficult labour. The Jewish leaders were jealous, rounded up a mob, and started a riot. They drove Paul and Silas out of town, and began persecuting the new believers.
And being separated cut Paul to the heart. Listen to how he felt. Ch 2 v17.
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. 18 For we wanted to come to you-certainly I, Paul, did, again and again-but Satan stopped us. 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? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
He’d been separated in person, but not in thought. In literally says torn away “by sight, but not by heart”. Paul might have been a long way away PHYSICALLY, but he was right there with them in thoughts and prayer.
And it wasn’t just a cool, professional responsibility. Paul felt INTENSE LONGING to be with them. They were much more than a project or a target. They were his glory and hope and joy. They were the crown in which he’d glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes.
The picture is of the proud parent at the graduation of their child. All the hard work and pain and struggle. Now being acknowledged and vindicated and appreciated. And the parent is full of pride and love and gratitude for how the child’s turned out.
But it’s not just THE SEPARATION Paul’s feeling. There’s the UNCERTAINTY. Because things were so UP IN THE AIR when he was forced out of town. Would the brand-new Christians give up in the face of the violent persecution? Would they just take the EASY option, and blend back in to their old lives?
Because it’s so common. People giving up on being Christians. I know DOZENS of people who’ve started out strong. Who’ve made commitments. Who loved coming to church, and learning more. Who said all the right things. But for a whole range of different reasons, one small wrong decision after another. They drift away, and blend back in to their old lives. And before long, there’s no trace left of following Jesus at all. You’d never even have KNOWN they’d once said they were Christians. And, it breaks my heart.
And Paul’s got the same concerns. He can’t help imagining the worst. So he has to do something about it. He can’t go there himself – it just seems like one slammed door after another. But he does the next best thing. He sends his co-worker, Timothy. V1 of Ch 3.
3:1 So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 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,
That’s what we ALL need. Leaders to strengthen and encourage us in our faith. Gardeners in God’s garden to pull up weeds, kill pests, trim branches, and fertilise healthy fruit trees.
But, for Paul, the Thessalonians were in SPECIAL need of it. v3. Timothy came
3 so that no one would be UNSETTLED BY THESE TRIALS. You know quite well that we were destined for them. 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.
And Timothy’s job isn’t just to strengthen and encourage, but to send word back to Paul about how they’re doing. V5.
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.
Paul’s DESPERATE for news. News about whether they’d given in to temptation, and whether all Paul’s work had been wasted.
There’s nothing worse than losing what you’ve worked so hard for. Like when you’ve spent hours working on the computer – an assignment or a project. And the computer crashes, or you bump the power cord, or you forget to save it. And, just like that, it’s all gone.
And you can never go back. You can try re-writing it. But there’s this nagging feeling that it’s never as good SECOND time around as what you’d done the FIRST time. It’s so frustrating. All that effort WASTED.
And Paul’s concerned that all his efforts aren’t WASTED. He worked so hard to start the church. Put up with all the persecution, all the sleepless nights, all the emotional energy and prayer.
And it would be TRAGIC for it to all go to waste.
Unless, of course, you’re SATAN. The tempter, there in v5. He LOVES to see people dropping the ball. Giving up. Blending back in. Loves to see hard Christian work go to waste.
And it’s SO EASY. He just has to whisper little lies into your ear. “You’re imagining it all. It’s not real. You were much happier before. You can’t trust God. You’re missing out.”
Or he sends PERSECUTION to add a little more weight to the whispers. “See how DIFFICULT life is. If you just give up, everything will be SO MUCH EASIER. It’s not WORTH the hassle.”
That’s what Satan had been TRYING with the Thessalonians, as well as with Paul. But notice what Paul thinks about the trials. There in v3 and 4. Satan’s BRINGING them, Trying to tempt and undermine. But Paul KNEW they’d come. And he’d WARNED the Thessalonians.
In fact he says in v3 they know quite well “WE WERE DESTINED for them.” The word for DESTINED is also translated as SET or ESTABLISHED. In other words GOD’S established the trials. Satan’s BRINGING them, but God’s plans are being worked out through it all. And that gives Paul, and US, a perspective on it all that makes it easier to bear.
But that’s not Satan’s ONLY trick. He’s already had another mention in this passage. Back up in v18 of Ch 2. It was Satan who was PREVENTING PAUL FROM VISITING. We don’t know exactly HOW he was doing that. Perhaps there was official opposition, or persecution, or Paul was sick, or there was bad weather stopping travel.
Whatever the reason, Satan didn’t WANT Paul and the Thessalonians getting together. Because Christians getting together is the ordinary means God uses to keep us standing firm. It’s one Christian speaking God’s words of encouragement to another. Singing, praying, reminding, challenging, correcting, training, providing an example, strengthening.
If Satan doesn’t want us DOING it – if it matters so much to HIM- why does it mean SO LITTLE TO US? Why are we so laid back about whether we meet or not? Why do we only make the decision to come to church if we don’t have a better offer? Why do we think nothing of missing a week or two?
There’s a good strategy when you captain a sporting team. When you’ve got a decision to make – whether to bat or bowl, whether to kick for goal or run the ball, or whether to substitute this player for that player – do whatever the opposition WOULDN’T want you to do. That’s the best decision for YOUR team – do what’s WORST for the OTHER team.
And it should be the same for US. If Satan doesn’t WANT us meeting together. If he tries to STOP us. If he TEMPTS us to give up, down tools, throw in the towel. so all our effort’s WASTED. Then, let’s do THE OPPOSITE.
Let’s make sure we DON’T take the easy option. Let’s push through the barriers, and the excuses, and the soft alternatives. Let’s KEEP meeting together. Even when it’s easier NOT too. When there’s no one at YOUR stage of life. Or with YOUR particular interests or concerns. Even when YOU’RE not getting YOUR needs met. Do it to meet OTHER’S needs. Do it because Satan doesn’t WANT you doing it.
And let’s make the MOST of that time when we’re together. Let’s do what Satan HATES. Let’s speak constructive, strengthening, useful things to each other. Let’s be servant-hearted, other –person centred, and open- handed. Let’s be generous, and humble, and genuine.
That’s what PAUL wanted to do. And that was TIMOTHY’S job. To strengthen and encourage.
So how did it turn out? Paul couldn’t WAIT for the report. And in v6 we see Paul’s RELIEF. He was HOPING his work wasn’t wasted, v6
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. 7 Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution WE WERE ENCOURAGED ABOUT YOU BECAUSE OF YOUR FAITH. 8 FOR NOW WE REALLY LIVE, SINCE YOU ARE STANDING FIRM IN THE LORD.
All the things that COULD have gone wrong. But the reality was God kept them safe and sound. They’re STANDING FIRM. Unshaken.
And that just makes Paul’s day! “Now we really live,” he says (v8). Life’s worth living. There’s a purpose and a satisfaction to life that makes all the struggles WORTH it. Because the haqrd work’s PAID OFF.
And Paul can’t stop thanking God – because he’s the One who’s made sure it’s such a good outcome. V9.
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?
When Paul’s thoughts turn to the Thessalonians, he just breaks out in a smile and a chuckle. Because it’s been such a good outcome. They HAVEN’T been unsettled by the trials. They HAVEN’T stumbled, or been tempted. They haven’t wasted their effort. They’re STANDING FIRM.
But that’s not an excuse for Paul to stop working. To turn his attention in some other direction. He can’t wait to deliver a tonic to make them EVEN STRONGER.
It’s extraordinary to see his train of thought. He just finishes in v9 telling them how JOYFUL he is that they’re powering on. And then he says (v10)
10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again AND SUPPLY WHAT IS LACKING IN YOUR FAITH.
He wants to fill up what they’re LACKING! It’s not that Paul thinks there’s anything WRONG with their faith. After all, he’s said lots already that’s COMPLIMENTARY about their faith.
Like Ch 1 v3
3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith,
Or down in v5, the gospel came to them WITH DEEP CONVICTION.
And in v8.
7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia-YOUR FAITH IN GOD HAS BECOME KNOWN EVERYWHERE.
And even here in Ch 3 (v6) Timothy brings good news about THEIR FAITH. And then in v7 Paul, in all his distress and persecution is ENCOURAGED BY THEIR FAITH.
And yet, when Paul hears about their faith. Hears about how they’re standing firm, he can’t wait to get there to FILL UP WHAT THEY’RE LACKING. The word for “supply” means things like “prepare” or “repair” or “mend”.
That’s the thing about the Christian walk. You never arrive. Until Jesus returns. However FIRM you’re standing. However MATURE you become. However patient and loving and sacrificial and prayerful. There’s always FURTHER TO GO.
And it’s normally the case that the more mature you are as a Christian, the more you realise how much further you’ve got to go. The more you become like Jesus, the more you realise how much you’re NOT like Jesus.
And from Paul’s point of view, when you see God working in people, there’s nothing better than ministry that encourages MORE AND MORE of that growth.
Like Daphne with her favourite fruit tree. It’s exciting to see the fruit ripening. And she just wants to work even harder so even MORE fruit is produced.
And when you’re serving in some sort of ministry, the greatest buzz you get is when people start CHANGING. When they get EXCITED by the Bible, and by following Jesus. And when the pieces start falling into place. And they start putting him first in more and more areas of their life. It’s ADDICTIVE. It’s what keeps you coming back week after week and year after year.
Is that a joy YOU’RE seeing in YOUR ministry? With your kids. Or home group. Or kids church.
Or flip it around. How are you RESPONDING to the ministry of those people teaching YOU? Are you a cause of thanksgiving to them? Are they encouraged by YOUR PROGRESS? By practical ways your faith is working itself out? Have you TOLD them what difference they’re making?
So what sort of things is Paul thinking about? Have a look from v11. The specific areas Paul wants to top-up in their faith. His ANTIDOTE
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your LOVE increase and overflow FOR EACH OTHER and FOR EVERYONE ELSE, just as ours does for you. 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.
FIRST, he wants them to increase in love for each other, and for everyone else. So much love, that it ABOUNDS, or FLOWS OVER.
And it’s to MODEL itself on the love PAUL has for them all. Which is genuine and rich and real and ENJOYABLE. There’s FEELINGS involved.
Yes, we’re COMMANDED to love each other. And there’s an element of OBEDIENCE to that. Of DECISION AND CHOICE. Yes, it’s about SERVICE. But there’s also a GENUINE WARMTH of FEELING there. Is that how YOU feel about God’s people here?
But that’s not all. Paul goes on (v13). And the result of that will be that their HEARTS WILL BE STRENGTHENED, they’ll be even MORE solid and stable. With the final goal that they make it to the finish line blameless and holy in God’s presence.
Paul PRAYS for it. And God can do it without Paul’s physical presence. But Paul ALSO prays that God would clear the way for him to visit again (there in v11). It’s a lovely phrase – it’s literally “May God straighten our road to you.” That’s what he wants.
The normal way God keeps us strong is Christians meeting together. Satan wants to keep us apart. So let’s not give him the satisfaction. Let’s have the same burning desire to encourage each other that Paul had. There’s no excuse NOT TO.
Let’s keep spurring each other on to increase in love, and to be blameless and holy.
And let’s keep reminding each other of the finish line. That appearing before our God and Father, when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.