The Lord's Day Morning
June 10, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Pastor Who Loves His People”
1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 2. We’re going to read to the end of that chapter and then into the first few verses of 1 Thessalonians chapter 3. You remember the last time we were together in this passage we were saying that Paul has detractors in Thessalonica who are slandering him. They’re saying things to the Thessalonians Christians like, “Paul only cares about your money. What he's really after is money,” or, “He only cares about building up a group of followers. He's looking for position. He's looking for respect. He's looking for importance. You are simply chattel to him. He's using you for what he can get out of you and as evidence of this, look at him — he's left and you haven't heard from him since.” And there's a real sense in which the passage that we're reading today, and it will actually go on to verse 13 — we’ll look at chapter 2 verse 17 down to verse 5 today. Paul is saying to the Thessalonians, “What those people are saying about me is not true. I deeply love you, I wish that I could be with you, there are specific reasons why I can't be with you right now even though I want to be with you right now, but I want to express to you the intensity of my love for you, my affection for you, my concern for you. I want you to understand what my motivations really are in ministry. They’re not what these other people are saying about me. I have very definite motives for ministry and I'm going to tell you what those are.” That's what Paul is doing in this passage. He's showing his love for these Christians. And in fact, we kind of get a picture of how a pastor loves his people in this passage as Paul talks about how he loves the Thessalonians.
But along the way, Paul manages to tell us four things that are very important for the living of the Christian life. If we're going to live our lives in light of the return of Jesus Christ, and we said that's one of the great themes of this letter of 1 Thessalonians, then we need to understand these four things. I want you to be on the lookout for them as we read this passage. The first one you’ll see in verse 18. There's this little phrase, “Satan hindered us.” You’ll see it crop up again in the fifth verse of chapter 3 where Paul speaks about worrying that the tempter may have tempted the Thessalonians. Paul is conscious of Satan attempting to undermine and oppose God's people. That's the first thing I want you to keep your eye on in this passage.
The second thing you’ll see in verse 20. Paul, when describing what his real motivation is for ministry, says this, “You are our glory and joy.” Now we need to figure out what in the world Paul means by that. What is Paul saying when he says, “You are our glory and joy”? That's where he expresses what his ultimate reward is for Gospel ministry.
Then, in chapter 3, if you look especially at verse 2, you’ll see him use this phrase, “to establish and exhort you in the faith.” When he sends Timothy to go be with the Thessalonians and to minister to him he explicitly says to the Thessalonians, “The reason that I sent Timothy was to establish and to exhort you in the faith.” We need to understand that because Paul is there explaining the purpose of pastoral ministry. So he's given a warning about Satan, he's explained something about what the ultimate reward of his ministry is, and now he's explaining the purpose of pastoral ministry.
And then if you look in verse 3 he says, “We are destined for this.” Now what is “this”? You have to look back up to the previous sentence which ends with the words, “these afflictions.” So he says in verse 3, “We are destined for affliction.” So he's preparing them for the trials of life. I want to think about those four things with you today and I want you to be on the lookout for those as we read God's Word. Let's pray before we read it.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. Open our eyes that we might behold wonderful things in it. Give us ears to hear and to respond in belief to the truth that You teach us. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the Gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 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. 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.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Here is Paul, writing to the Thessalonians to tell them that he loves them, that he wants to be with them, that even while he's been away he's tried to get back to be with them, and that when he couldn't get back to be with them, he thought about them, he prayed for them, he was concerned for their wellbeing, and ultimately he sent his most faithful colleague in ministry back to be with them even though he missed having him in Athens. And in the course of telling the Thessalonians that he loves them, Paul tells us four things that are very important about living life in light of Jesus’ return. He gives us a warning, he expresses to us what the ultimate reward of a minister of the Gospel is for ministry, he explains the purpose of Gospel ministry — these things are important for us to understand — and he talks about preparing us to suffer trials and afflictions. And I want to look at those four things with you.
A PASTOR’S WARNING
And the first thing you see is the warning. It comes incidentally. It's Paul in the context of explaining why he hasn't come back to Thessalonica. “I've wanted to come back,” he says. “In fact, I've tried. Over and over again I've wanted to come back but – end of verse 2 or end of verse 18, 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 18, “but Satan hindered us.” Paul is saying he wanted to come back to see the Thessalonians but Satan hindered him. Now you need to be asking the question, “How exactly did Satan do that?” The commentators have a number of interesting suggestions. Some think that Paul is indicating that the Jewish opposition to his ministry in Thessalonica or maybe where he is now is keeping him from being able to come back to the Thessalonians. That's a possibility. It's also a possibility that Paul's thorn in the flesh is keeping him from being able to come back to them. Do you remember in his letter to the Corinthians Paul calls his thorn in the flesh a what? “A messenger from Satan.”Heavenly HHHIHHeaven And commentators for two thousand years have speculated on what that thorn in the flesh was. Was it a physical malady that he had that had flared up and was keeping him from coming back to the Thessalonians? I don't know.
Some have said maybe the leaders in Thessalonica had actually put in place legal restrictions against Paul and his team from coming back. You know Paul and his team had kicked up a little fuss in Thessalonica and so maybe the civil leaders had actually passed legal restrictions on Paul coming back into the city. Or maybe, maybe the reason that Paul has not been able to come back is because of sin and scandal in Corinth and he's having to deal with that even from Athens and it's keeping him from coming back to Thessalonica. In the end, my answer is, “I don't know how it was that Satan hindered Paul from coming to the Thessalonians, but Paul is actually aware of the fact that Satan is behind his inability to get back to the Thessalonians.” That is huge. You need to think about that. Now he doesn't drop that idea because if you look down to chapter 3 verse 5 he tells us that one of his worries while he's away from the Thessalonians is that the tempter had come and tempted them. In other words, Paul is concerned that a real, personal evil is not only opposing his ability to come back and minister to the Thessalonians but may be attempting to undermine the Thessalonians themselves. This is huge; we need to understand this.
In this world, we not only have to deal with the allurement of the world and the culture with the enticement to sin that comes from the flesh, our own inclination to sin, we have to deal with the devil. There is a being in this world that is older than humanity that has a design to destroy you forever. And the apostle Paul believes that with all his heart and so he writes about it here. Do you believe it? I do. I've seen it at work. When people who know better look you in the eye and act against their own best interest here and hereafter, I smell that angel from the pit that Billy read about – Abaddon, Apollyon, Satan. Paul will call him “the evil one.” He’ll call him, “the tempter” in this passage. There is a real, personal evil in this world who wants to sift you like wheat. We've got to factor that into our thinking. No, that's not an excuse for us to say, “The devil made us do it. I don't have any personal responsibility.” The Bible never undermines our personal responsibility by appeal to Satan. We always have to look at our own hearts. We always have to consider all of the total context of sin and situation in our lives, but we must also remember that there is a person that wants to destroy us, Satan, the devil. And that means that we cannot fight him with flesh and blood.
Martin Luther, in his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” where he sort of gives a Christian paraphrase of Psalm 46, has us sing early on in that great hymn, “For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate; on earth is not his equal.” Martin Luther believed in Satan just like Paul and he knew that you and I do not have the power within us natively, naturally to withstand him. So what, later on in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” does Martin Luther say that we do have? We have “the right Man on our side” and we have the Spirit and the gifts. We have the Lord Jesus Christ who died to liberate us from the bondage and power of sin and Satan and we have the third person on the Trinity indwelling us, uniting us to Christ, and gifting us to live the Christian life. How do we fight Satan? By the right Man who is on our side and by the Spirit and the gifts. Flesh and blood will not avail against him. It is so important for us to remember that in our marriages, in our families. It's not just our interpersonal tensions that threaten to destroy us. There is a being older than humanity that wants to destroy us and he cannot be fought with flesh and blood. Paul is so kind, even in the midst of reminding these Christians that he loves them, to remind them that Satan sought to hinder him and Satan sought to tempt them. Satan works to hinder, to oppose, to accuse, and to tempt us, and we must rely on spiritual weapons to respond. That's the first thing I want you to see here — a warning from Paul even while he tells us that he loves the Thessalonians.
A PASTOR’S HOPE AND GLORY
The second thing is this. Paul explains what's in it for him. You know, if you walked up to Paul and you said, “Okay, so Paul, you've been beaten, you've been left for dead, you've been shipwrecked, you've been stranded, you've been slandered, you've been falsely accused, you’re in chains on your way to Rome, what's in it for you? Why do you do this?” He tells you his answer right here. It's in verse 19 and 20. “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” Now Paul had people in Thessalonica who were saying, “Paul's in it for money. Paul's in it for ambition. Paul's in it for praise and fame.” Paul says, “You want to know what I'm in it for? I'm in it for you.” And he pictures a scene. What's the scene? The Lord Jesus Christ has come and what is Paul doing? His boast, his reward, his crown — what's he going to get from the Lord? You, before the Lord Jesus. You, with the Lord Jesus. You, safe home with the Lord Jesus on the day of His return. Paul says, “That's what makes me do this. That's what makes me work night and day. That's what enables me to bear the anxiety and the pressure and the persecution is to get to that day when you’re safe home with Jesus and His return. That's what I'm in it for. You are my reward, safe home with Jesus.”
I was a youth director in my previous life and one of the great fears and terrors that I had was that I would go off on a retreat with fifty kids and come back with forty-nine. I kid you not, the whole time I was away — massive amusement parks, big cities, beach retreats, and foreign mission trips – the whole time I was thinking, “Lord, just get me back with all fifty of those kids.” And when we pulled into the parking lot of the church and all of them were distributed to their parents and they were happily on the way home, I was the most relieved human being on the planet.
And here's the apostle Paul saying, “You want to know what I'm in it for? I'm in it for the day when I hand you over to Jesus and you’re safe home for eternity and I'm going to take a billion year nap because I've spent my life making sure that you weren't temporarily happy but that you were everlastingly happy. And that meant I had to fight when you were tempted to swap cheap, temporary happiness for eternal happiness. I had to fight your sin. I had to fight the world. I had to fight the flesh. I had to fight the evil. But I do it all because I want to be there on the day when you’re safe home with the Lord Jesus Christ. And I can say, ‘There they are, Jesus. They’re safe with you now. That's all the reward I want. I just want them safe home.’ That's what I'm in it for.” That's huge for us to understand. There are people ready to pour their lives out for us just to get us there. They’re ready to put blinders on us so we won't be pulled off the pathway – keep going, keep going, cross the finish line — because they want us to be there. That's what Paul's saying to the Thessalonians. “That's my hope. That's my crown. That's my glory. That's my joy — to get you safe home with Jesus.”
A PASTOR’S PURPOSE
Third, Paul explains the purpose of his ministry to the Thessalonians. And Paul says, “You know, after I had tried and tried to come back to you and I couldn't, first I sent word to hear how you were doing and then finally I sent Timothy to be with you.” And what did he send Timothy to do? Look at chapter 3 verse 2. “We sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the Gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith.” What does that mean? To strengthen and encourage you in the Gospel. Paul wanted them to be rooted and grounded in the faith, in the truth, in the Gospel, and he wanted them to be encouraged in the faith, in the truth, in the Gospel, and so he sent Timothy for ministry. That's what pastors want their ministry to result in — you being strengthened, grounded, established; you being encouraged, exhorted, comforted in the faith, in the truth, in the Gospel, so that what? It's the end of the sentence. “So that no one would be moved by these afflictions.”
A PASTOR’S PREPARATION
That takes us to the fourth thing that Paul says in passing here. Look at verse 3. “For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.” For what? For these afflictions. “We are destined for afflictions,” Paul says. He elaborates on that in verse 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.” Paul is saying suffering, affliction, trials in the Christian life are not a surprise. We are destined for them. They are certain to come. They won't maybe come, they won't might come, they won't might could come; they will come, they are destined to come, and it's our job to prepare you for them. How do we prepare you for them? By rooting and grounding you, by exhorting and encouraging you, by establishing and strengthening you in the truth, in the faith, in the Gospel. That's how we prepare you to endure those trials, those afflictions, those sufferings. They are coming.
A few years ago Matt Chandler, the pastor of The Village Church in Fort Worth, Texas, was burdened pastorally that part of his job was to prepare his congregation to suffer. Now you understand his congregation is very young. If you’re over thirty-five at The Village Church you’re an old timer. And he had not done many funerals at The Village Church to that point, but he felt convicted that he needed to prepare his people for suffering. One of the first things that happened was that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was in his home playing with his children, he fell over with a seizure, and he found out that he had a brain cancer. Since then there have been numerous trials that proved out the importance of him as a pastor preparing his people to suffer. He, in preparing them to suffer, was preparing himself to suffer and then preparing them to experience the afflictions of life.
Paul's saying that to the Thessalonians. “I want to prepare you for those afflictions so that you can” — do what? Remember I told you to look at the second to last line in the first hymn that we sang. Turn back to hymn number 4, second to last line, it's all the way in the sixth stanza, and what does Johann Schuetz have us sing? He has us sing, “Though great distress my soul befell, the Lord my God did all things well.” Paul wants the Thessalonians and you and me, in affliction, to be able to say, “Though great distress my soul befell, the Lord my God did all things well.” In other words, we want you to come through affliction, we want you to come through suffering — how? By faith in Christ, being grounded, being established, being strengthened in faith, in the truth, in the Gospel, so that you can resist Satan in his opposition, in his accusation, and his temptation, so that you can withstand trials and tribulations and afflictions.
See, in the midst of just saying to this congregation, “I love you. I care about you,” Paul has told us four things that we really need to understand if we're going to live life in light of Jesus’ return. May God bring those truths home to our hearts. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we need experientially to understand these truths in our lives so come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove, with all Your quickening powers, and wake us up and make us see and believe and embrace the Gospel and depend upon the right Man who is on our side and the Holy Spirit and His gifts at work in our lives that we might not succumb to the world, the flesh, or the devil, or trial. In Jesus' name, amen.
Now let's take our hymnals and turn to number 332 and sing it as a prayer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.