Our passage for today was written at a time when the apostle Paul, the spiritual father of the church, was kept from seeing the people in the church, kept from meeting with them and knowing how they were. And it opens with these words, which seem particularly apt for this day. Week 10 of being unable to meet together as a large group and our passage begins with: “…when we could bear it no longer…”
1 Thessalonians 3:1–13 (ESV)
1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.
5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. 6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— 7 for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.
9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
“We could bear it no longer“
That phrase hit me, and I really resonate with it. There are days when, from a ministry standpoint, I feel like I’m close to that feeling, and I know the other pastors have expressed similar things. Some of you I get to interact with regularly on the phone or over email or over zoom, but some of you, I have no contact with, and I wonder how you are doing!
But what struck me is the driving force that causes him to be anxious to see them again. The relational longing had a direction. It is not simply the relationship that he was grieving, that he missed his close friends, but rather, because he loved them (and so missed them) – he was very concerned for their spiritual thriving, and needed to check in with them.
And this is the feeling I relate to most as your pastor. My heart is tempted to fear for your spiritual health. Are you thriving in your faith during this time?
Godly longing vs. Idolatrous longing
The longing Paul felt toward his spiritual children in the Thessalonian church was not an idolatrous “I miss you so much and I cannot bear to be without you because this is just the worst thing! Woe is me, I can’t see my friends.”
It was a godly longing to see them and help to nurture them in their faith, to spur them on to love and good deeds and a life pleasing to God.
This is not a transactional type relationship, the church was not a project to Paul, he loved them with a fatherly affection, he just knew what was of ultimate importance: ultimate thriving means thriving in the faith. Physical thriving pales in comparison. Yes it is somewhat important but it is not ultimately important.
Illustration: A Parent’s concern for physical health of children
Every parent in their right mind will do whatever it takes to see to the physical health and thriving of their children. If their child has a severe illness, they will spare no expense to make sure they get the treatment they need. Even if the expense is a quarter of a million dollars, no parent weighs the life of their child against the value of their house, or the weight of slavery of debt. It’s a non-discussion, they will do what it takes to get the treatment.
In the same way, a spiritual parent’s primary concern is for the spiritual well being of their children. A christian parent carries the same weight of concern for the physical health of their children, but they know that there is something even more important, the spiritual health of their child. Christians know there is a fate worse than sickness and death, and the lengths a parent will go to for the physical health of their children, a Christian will go to even greater lengths for their children, and those that are in their spiritual care.
Paul sent Timothy with a message: Stand Firm!
So, Paul, being so concerned about the spiritual health of the church, sends Timothy not simply to get a report from them, a letter back from them, or a letter to them, he sent Timothy (verse 2) “to establish and exhort them in their faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions.”
The message he sent with Timothy: “Stand firm!”
Standing firm in the Lord and not be shaken by affliction in these areas:
- Convinced of the Gospel (1:5)
- Proclaiming the Gospel (1:8)
- Sexual purity – no sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage – (4:3)
- Love one another (4:9)
- Live quietly, work with your hands, minding your own business (4:11)
- Misconceptions about the end times (4:13+)
- Respect leaders in the church (esteem them because of their work…) (5:12)
Church how are you doing in these areas during this time of isolation?
The Story of Marie Durand, the thriving prisoner
Christians can thrive in captivity. In fact we were designed to. Our Lord Jesus showed us how to thrive in the midst of suffering.
I learned recently of one example of faith in captivity.`
Marie Durand was a Christian in France in the early 1700s, part of the protestant Huguenot church, who believed very much as we do in the authority of the Scriptures and that salvation was by faith alone. She was imprisoned by Roman Catholic authorities for her protestant beliefs at age 18. She was in prison for 38 years for her faith. Any single one of those days she could have been released simply by saying “I recant”. But she would not, understanding the clear teaching of God’s word and refusing to add to it.
The best years of her life were spent in the Tower of Constance. After 38 years she was released, and she died 8 years later. I believe Paul would have said her life was well lived. She held fast to her faith, as we know from over 50 letters she wrote from prison.
Paul was speaking of those like her in verse 8 of our passage where he says “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God…”
Stand fast in affliction
Paul knew persecution and suffering would come for the Thessalonians. In fact, he says “I told you so!” in verse 4. Paul was not surprised at the suffering the Thessalonians faced, neither was God, and we shouldn’t be surprised when affliction and suffering come, and we are able to thrive in it.
A challenge to us
Church, is our concern for one-another’s spiritual thriving during this time?
Challenge: search your heart – are you merely missing the social and relational aspect of being physically present (which is normal and good) – or is your more primary concern for the spiritual well being of your brothers and sisters?
How can you encourage one another during these times?
- pray for one another,
- call one person each day,
- make sure you’re participating with a community group, however it is happening, where someone can keep tabs on you and you can work together in more tactical ways with a smaller group of believers in the church.
Jesus is Enough in quarantine
So, direct your longing for one-another while we’re apart to a concern for the spiritual health of your brothers and sisters, and realize there are things you can do to affect this.
And finally, I want to remind us each to continue to stand firm in the faith ourselves. I have wondered if at least part of what God is doing in his church during this time of social distancing, is to remove all excuses of busyness from our personal and family devotional time.
We don’t have the same insane schedule of school, church, and extracurricular activities to keep up with, and school is quieting down now through the Summer months as well. Yes, certain parts of our lives are more complicated and I know many of us feel busier than ever, but if we take a look at our actual daily agendas, they are definitely less full.
I want to encourage you during this time, and maybe I’m nine weeks too late with this one, not to spend the time binge watching shows on Netflix, or reading every single article on social media, or watching the news media go crazy bananas with how terrible everything seems to be.
Don’t worry about murder hornets!
Spend the time, each day, taking time to read God’s word. If you’re concerned that you’re having to deal with children and so don’t have time, make them do it with you. You can actually do that you know, make them, you can. No, I’m serious, you actually can.
Take the time in the morning before the craziness of working from home starts to read a small section of scripture, and pray. Take the time at meals to discuss what you’re reading. We have an opportunity here to spend time with God each day through his word and through prayer, either on our own, or with our families and households. Don’t miss this opportunity.
And this is where Paul finishes with is prayer in verse 11 through 13. First that God would bring them back together, and finally that God would build their souls up in holiness and love for one another. And that’s my prayer for our church today, this week, and always.