A Passion for Jesus and His Church
by Jack Wald | January 19th, 2020

1 Thessalonians 3:1-5

Of Paul’s New Testament letters, Galatians is the earliest written and I Thessalonians is the second. I began preaching from I Thessalonians last January and we made it up to the end of chapter 2 before we entered the season of Lent. I’m continuing this January and we should get through the end of I Thessalonians before Lent at the end of February this year.

Paul and his companions visited Thessalonica in AD 49 or 50. It was an important city with a long history. It benefitted from a natural harbor at the head of the Thermaic Gulf and was situated on the Via Egnatia which was the main route between Rome and the East.

Luke writes in Acts 17 about how a church was planted in Thessalonica. It happened during Paul’s second missionary journey. Paul left the Council of Jerusalem with Silas as his partner. (Some translations use Silas’ Greek/Roman name – Silvanus.) They headed up to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were called to go out on his first missionary journey. In Lystra he invited Timothy to join them and then in Troas, Luke was added to the team. So Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke were the four missionaries who sailed across the Northern Aegean Sea into Europe.

After a successful mission in Philippi, Paul, Silas, and Timothy moved on to Thessalonica while Luke stayed behind. Paul preached the gospel on three successive Sabbaths. (Acts 17:2-4)
he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.

Opposition to the gospel is often not a theological problem; it is a struggle to maintain power and control. And so, in Thessalonica as in many other cities where Paul preached the gospel of Christ, the Jewish leaders were threatened by all the people joining the newly planted church. Some of those people left the synagogue to go to the new church. When the Jewish leaders went to the synagogue, there were less people gathered than there had been before Paul arrived. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the financial donations to the synagogue dropped off. The establishment’s security was threatened so the Jewish leaders gathered some trouble makers and paid them to oppose Paul.

A riot ensued and that night Paul and Silas slipped away and went to Berea. Here Paul had a positive reception. Luke writes, (Acts 17:11–12)
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

But then some of the Jewish leaders in Thessalonica received word that Paul was preaching in Berea and made a trip south to stir up opposition against him in that city. Once again Paul had to leave but this time Silas and Timothy stayed behind.

Paul went south to Athens and soon sent for Silas and Timothy to join him so he could get first-hand news about what was happening in the churches he had planted. After receiving their news, he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica and Silas to Philippi. He was not able to go himself, he had too high a profile. But Silas and Timothy could go on his behalf, carry his message to the churches, and encourage them in their new faith.

By the time Silas and Timothy returned, Paul had moved on from Athens to Corinth and that is where Paul wrote I Thessalonians.

In the first chapter of his letter, Paul writes a short summary of the church that was planted in Thessalonica. He describes what the church in a community should look like.
The church is a community which lives in relationship with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
The church is a community which is distinguished by faith, hope and love that is expressed in practical, tangible ways
The church is a community which is loved and chosen by God

Then in verses 5-10 Paul makes a transition to the gospel: how it comes to us, how we receive it, and how we send it out.

In I Thessalonians 2:1-3:13, which is the next section of Paul’s letter, Paul focuses on the attacks and accusations made against him by those who forced him out of Thessalonica and makes his defense against those accusations. Let me read from John Stott’s commentary that presents the historical background for what Paul writes.

The brief mission in Thessalonica had been brought to [an embarrassing, shameful, dishonorable] end. The public riot and the legal charges against the missionaries were so serious that they were persuaded to make a humiliating night flight from the city. Paul’s critics took full advantage of his sudden disappearance. In order to undermine his authority and his gospel, they determined to discredit him. So they launched a malicious smear campaign. By studying Paul’s self-defense it is possible for us to reconstruct their slanders. ‘He ran away’, they sneered, ‘and hasn’t been seen or heard of since. Obviously he’s insincere, impelled by the basest motives. He’s just one more of those many phoney teachers who tramp up and down the Egnatian Way. In a word, he’s a charlatan. He’s in his job only for what he can get out of it in terms of sex, money, prestige or power. So when opposition arose, and he found himself in personal danger, he took to his heels and ran! He doesn’t care about you Thessalonian disciples of his; he has abandoned you! He’s much more concerned about his own skin than your welfare.’

Paul’s enemies were clever in the spin they put on the facts of what had happened. His abrupt departure and his failure to return seemed to fit the accusations made against him. Their accusations seemed to carry truth.

In this letter Paul defended himself against these unjust accusations, not to protect his image for the sake of his ego, but because he knew the truth of the gospel and the future of the church were at stake. Chapters two and three of I Thessalonians are a defense of his life that is being lived in submission to Jesus.

I preached from 1 Thessalonians 2:17–20 on March 3 last year.
But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated 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 blocked our way. 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.

In Paul’s defense against his accusers he writes to them, telling then he had left them with great reluctance.
But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought)
He uses strong language, saying he was orphaned. He had been ripped apart from them against his will. This was an emotionally painful experience for Paul.

And then he tells them how he had tried repeatedly to return to them.
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 blocked our way.

Paul’s longing was not casual; it was intense. Pay attention to the words Paul uses. This is a letter packed with strong emotion.

The third prong of Paul’s defense begins in chapter 3. He left with great reluctance. He tried repeatedly to return to them. And now, in chapter 3, he presents the third prong of his defense. He could not come to see them himself, so he did the next best thing – he sent Timothy to them.

1 Thessalonians 3:1–5
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 co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are 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. 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 had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.

I have said this many times: When I was a young follower of Jesus I was deeply impressed with Paul’s intellect, but over the years I have discovered that Paul’s intellect was matched by his heart for the world. You can see this when Paul wrote his brilliant letter to the church in Rome. He wrote eight chapters of brilliant theology followed by the firework extravaganza at the end of chapter eight. (Romans 8:38–39)
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

He stopped dictating and then asked, “What about my fellow Jews?” (Romans 9:1–5)
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.

And then there comes three chapters while he deals with this heart issue. Gentiles were becoming followers of Jesus but his fellow Jews were resisting. Paul’s heart was broken because of the Jewish resistance to the Good News of Jesus. Jews prayed for the coming of the Messiah and yet when Jesus, the Messiah, came most of them rejected him. Paul had a great heart and he cared deeply about the Jews who were resisting his preaching of the gospel.

On Paul’s second missionary journey, he planted churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea and because of physical violence and threats against him had to leave each new church before he wanted to. He left physically, but his heart remained in these three cities.

Paul writes, “when we could stand it no longer.” Day after day after day Paul prayed with Silas and Timothy. They talked with each other about the people in the churches of Thessalonica and Philippi. They talked about who they feared was not strong enough to endure. They prayed for those who were opposing the church. Paul knew what it was like to be a persecutor of the church and then become a passionate advocate for the church. They prayed for the hearts of these persecutors to be transformed as Paul’s heart had been transformed. They talked about who they thought would be able to be a good leader in their absence. And then they prayed some more. After days of this, Paul, Silas, and Timothy “could stand it no longer,” and Timothy was sent to go back to visit Thessalonica. After his departure Paul and Silas decided Silas should go back to visit Philippi.

I think Paul sits in heaven and sees all the technology that allows us to be in instant communication with each other, that allows us to send emails and pictures, that allows us to send videos of our preaching and teaching, that allows us to not only talk with each other but also to see each other as we talk – I think Paul looks at all this technology and wonders how much more he could have accomplished if he had had the technology that is available to us.

But Paul could not send sermons and teachings to people. He had to be there or write a letter and have someone deliver it by hand. This meant he had a lot of time to think – which I envy. He also had a lot of time to be anxious because he did not have news about what was happening in the churches he had planted – which I do not envy.

Paul waited and waited and waited. And while he waited he prayed and prayed and prayed.

So finally Paul sent Timothy. He could not go himself. He had been too prominently public in Thessalonica. Perhaps Silas had also been too prominently public. In addition, both Paul and Silas were Jewish whereas Timothy was a young Greek man. He could more easily slip into Thessalonica without being noticed.

Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica and then Silas back to Philippi, leaving him alone in the idol-infested city of Athens. Paul sent Timothy and Silas at the cost of having to face the spiritual oppression of Athens by himself.

Why did Paul send Timothy and Silas? He wanted to encourage these new churches. He feared they might find the persecution too much to bear. He feared that the leadership would not be strong enough to keep the church going in the midst of such difficulty.

Paul sent Timothy to encourage the new, fledgling churches. How did he intend to encourage them?
We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.

Paul encouraged them in the midst of persecution by sending Timothy who passed on messages from Paul, reminding them that they had not been forgotten, they were not alone. They may have felt alone. Paul had waited and waited but so had they also waited and waited. Paul left suddenly and they had not had any communication from him. Paul’s accusers continually ridiculed and tried to undermine Paul, but Paul was not there to respond. So when Timothy arrived, his presence was a great encouragement. His arrival must have been met with great enthusiasm.

The second way Paul encouraged them is that when he wrote to them later from Corinth, he reminded them that the trials they were experiencing, the persecution that was afflicting them, was not unexpected.
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.

It is better to know that there will be persecution than to be surprised by it when it comes. My father was in the US Navy during WWII. He served in the Pacific theater of the war. He told me that when the Marines were on the decks of ships, preparing to invade one of the islands, the officer would prepare them for what was to come by telling them that two out of every three men would die in the invasion. The goal was to make the young soldiers unafraid of death as they attacked the beaches. My dad said that every man on the ship thought to himself, “I feel sorry for the SOBs on either side of me.”

It is better to know there will be persecution than to be surprised by it when it comes. This is why Paul told the Thessalonian church that they would face persecution. Do you remember who else told the church that they should expect persecution? Jesus.

When Jesus taught his disciples about the end times, he told them there would be many coming to say they are Jesus and that the time is near. There have certainly been many who have done that over the centuries of the history of the church. Jesus told them there will be wars and earthquakes, famines and pestilences, and other fearful events. We have seen these over the centures of the history of the church. And then Jesus said, (Luke 21:12–13)
“But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me.

In Matthew 24:9 Jesus told his disciples,
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.

Jesus warned of persecution in his Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:11–12)
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Persecution in these end times is to be expected.

When are the end times? Now are the end times. The end times began at Pentecost in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. But, you say, we are not experiencing that kind of persecution. Yes, but a large percentage of the church today is experiencing this kind of persecution. There are some in our RIC community who have come to Morocco from countries where they have experienced severe persecution.

Although we may not be experiencing significant persecution now, we need to know that when persecution comes, it should not be unexpected. We need to be prepared for what will come.

What can we take away from this part of Paul’s letter?

First, our work with Jesus in this world needs to come out of our love for Jesus. It is far too easy to work for Jesus, keeping a list of all that has to be done, preparing sermons, taking responsibility for administrative duties, evangelizing, leading Bible studies, prayer meetings, all the things we do in the church. We work, we work, we work, but why do we work?
We work for the church, we work for the ministry, but who are we working for?

There are some who work hard to build up their reputation. There are some who work hard to advance their career. There are some who work for Jesus’ kingdom but are so caught up in the work that has to be done that they distance themselves from the one they are working for.

In a book that Paul Miller is writing he talks about making a long trip to visit someone who had the potential to be helpful to his ministry.
My lower back ached as I drove through Maryland. I wondered, “Why do I keep throwing myself at this unmovable barrier? Why do I keep recruiting, writing, and praying? Am I in denial?” I know that sometimes God just closes the door. Some times, no matter how long you pray, like the apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh, you hit a wall. Even with a good thing, I didn’t want to be stubborn. While I was mulling on this, it dawned on me, “I’m not in denial; I’m in love!”

As G. K. Chesterton said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

We work for Jesus, we work with Jesus, because we love him. If we are not in love, then the solution is not to work harder, it is to spend more time with Jesus, read and reread the gospels, and fall in love all over again.

Second, how do we prepare for persecution?

I don’t know our future, but I expect that few of us will experience severe persecution. But at the same time that we worship with relative freedom, we have brothers and sisters in Christ in the Arab world, North Africa, the Middle East, East Africa, parts of Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and East Asia who suffer greatly.

Those of us from the other parts of the world feel much safer, but in the age of social media, cultural trends can change much more rapidly and we do not know what will happen in the next few decades. We don’t know what lies ahead of us.

Christians from the Western world might say that the persecution they face is the cultural drift taking place in their countries that is moving away from Christian values. Christians from the Western world feel threatened by this. They view this as persecution.

So whether we face severe persecution or feel persecuted by the shifting values in our culture, how are we to face persecution? Do we pick up the sword? When Peter did this in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus told him, (Matthew 26:52)
“Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Many years later when Peter was crucified, he did not pick up the sword to defend himself. According to tradition, he asked to be crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same way his Lord died.

As Paul traveled toward Jerusalem the Holy Spirit told him over and over again that prison and hardships awaited him. He was warned by prophets that if he went to Jerusalem he would die. How did he respond? Did he organize a team of men trained to defend himself against any attacks? (Acts 21:13)
Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

The twenty-one Egyptian Coptics who were beheaded in Libya five years ago did not resist the men leading them. The knelt, refused to recant, and were martyred.

This is how we are to respond to persecution. We stand our ground, hold on to faith, protest the injustice of what is happening, and love our enemies – even in the face of death.

There are many Christians in the Western world who are fighting a cultural war to defend Biblical values. This has led some Christians to pick up the sword and make unwise political choices in an attempt to defend their values. They fight to pass laws that will make Christian values the law of the land.

I think we need a better way to approach the drifting values we face. I am not in favor of accommodation to the culture. I stand on Biblical truth and do not want to move away from that truth.

But I do not want to fight culture wars. I am distressed by the choices being made as the culture is drifting away from Biblical values, but rather than impose those values on others, I want those values to become part of the culture because they come from transformed hearts.

If Christians win this cultural war and impose laws that maintain Biblical truth, will they really have won? That would result in a surface veneer of morality covering a rebellious culture that would resist the laws. The only way to win is to have the hearts of people in the culture be transformed.

Jonathan Edwards, the leading theologian of the Great Awakening in the 1740s, thought that this awakening would lead to the thousand years of peace talked about in Revelation as the Millenium. So to preserve the awakening in his church in Massacusetts, he instituted rules to prolong the awakening.

This did not work well. The church rebelled, he was voted out as pastor, and went to the west of Massachusetts to start a church among the Native American Indians who lived there.

I don’t want a superficial veneer of Christian culture, I want followers of Jesus who are in love with Jesus and whose values come from their hearts. I want to see the cultures of the Western world transformed by hearts in love with Jesus.

We prepare for persecution by falling in love with Jesus and following him, even if it leads to death.

Third, we need to be aware that the devil is at work to destroy the people of God and the work of God in the world. Paul wrote in verse 5:
I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.

Persecution is one way the devil works to defeat the work of God, but it is a curiously ineffective tool of the devil. In countries where persecution is strongest, the growth of the church is most dynamic. Iran, Yemen, and China are all experiencing great growth and strength in the church in those countries.

What seems to be much more effective is to weaken the church through moral failures, jealousies, and tensions.

I have lived in Morocco for twenty years and in my early years, if I heard of one or two or even three Moroccans becoming followers of Jesus and being baptized, that was big news. But in the last year I have heard reports of 28 being baptized, 17 being baptized, much larger numbers than in any other time in the last two decades.

Part of this is the large movement toward secularism among the youth of Morocco. The youth are moving away from Islam toward atheism or agnosticism. This means that in conversations with these youth, they do not feel the need to defend Islam and are more openly curious about what Christian faith looks like. So this is an interesting time in Morocco.

But unfortunately, at the same time there is greater openness to the good news of Jesus, there are rising tensions and jealousies between Moroccan followers of Jesus that are dividing and weakening the Moroccan church. The West has unfortunately brought their denominational baggage to Morocco so there are Baptist house churches and Pentecostal house churches and the Baptist house churches do not want to have anything to do with the Pentecostal house churches.

At a time when the Moroccan church needs to be strong it is being weakened by division.

In addition, there are some who view ministry as a means of making a living, something churches in the West are well acquainted with. So there are some who view house churches as a family business through which family members and friends can get jobs.

This is not to say that these people are not followers of Jesus, only God knows whose name is written in the Book of Life, but this is weakening the church at a time when it needs to be strong.

The church in the US is also suffering from multiple divisions, dividing along political lines and the shifting cultural values.

Jesus said, (Mark 3:25)
If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.

Abraham Lincoln who was president of the United States during the Civil War in the 1860s took inspiration from this teaching of Jesus and said, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

This truth is found all the way back in 620 BC when Aesop, a Greek story teller wrote a fable titled The Four Oxen and the Lion.

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to warn another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarreling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in the separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

We need to work for unity in the church in Morocco. We need to pray for unity in Morocco and in the churches of our home countries. We need to pray for unity among the expatriate churches in Morocco.

The devil never stops, never gives up trying to weaken the church, working against the growth of the Kingdom of God.

We need to resist the devil and work for unity. If you have any influence, use your influence to bring unity to the churches in Morocco.

We often feel tired, overwhelmed. The world can seem too discouraging. (I trust I am not speaking just for myself.) We need to fall in love all over again with Jesus. Read the encounters of Jesus with people in the gospels. Take time to visualize what you read. Try to put yourself in the place of the people who met with Jesus. Discover again how wonderful Jesus is.

In Revelation 2:4 the resurrected Jesus gave this message to the church in Ephesus.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.

It is time to fall in love with Jesus once again.