1 Thess 3
3 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, 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. 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, the guy who wrote “Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything pray, and God’s peace will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Wrote here that “when he could stand it no longer” he sent Timothy to check on them.
This phrase he uses means that his anxiety about them had become intolerable.
He could no longer endure waiting to hear how they were doing.
Is Paul inconsistent or do we misunderstand what it means to “trust God” with the things that we can become anxious about?
First, when Paul said “Don’t be anxious” clearly he is speaking to a common struggle.
-We are often prone to become anxious, we are to tempted to become anxious at least…because there are many things in life to be anxious about.
-Life can be scary…we can’t control all the outcomes…especially some that are most important to us…health, safety, well-being of our loved ones.
-Why would Paul consistently address this if it were not so common a struggle?
-It was and it is.
Second, never “being anxious” is a noble goal, but it is probably not going to happen…we are, however, not to remain in our anxiety…we are not to passively let it control us
-We are not to allow it dictate the course of our lives.
-Instead we are to take that anxiety, over and over to God…and learn to live in his peace.
*I doubt he is referring to the kind of anxiety that is a mental health/medical issue.
*My assumption is that this is about the regular anxiety we all struggle with at various levels.
*Although, having said that…the same principles have application whether it is “normal” anxiety…or more severe in nature.
*More severe anxiety, which is a terrible thing to suffer from… will need more help certainly not less…it will need prayer, community, God’s word, and trusting God…plus all the other resources God puts at our disposal…medical help, counseling, etc.
Third, Paul was most certainly taking his concerns to God but he also made the legitimate proactive choices that he could make to deal with the cause of his anxiety.
*He was worried about their faith (left column)
*He sent Timothy to encourage them (right column)
-This seems simple enough but the wording he uses indicates that this was a difficult and costly choice.
-The phrase “left by ourselves” was used of a person who has died…it expresses a sense of desolation.
He had to face the many challenges of his life, for a while at least…alone…or without his battle buddy…Timothy
But he made the sacrifice of his own sense of well-being for the good of these believers.
It’s a bit of paradox…he deals with his anxiety about their well-being by sacrificing his closet friend and source of encouragement.
Seems like he is trading one problem for another…and in a sense he is.
But in both cases he is considering the needs of others ahead of his own.
He is concerned to hear about them because he loves them…and so he sends Timothy, at a personal cost because he loves them.
This was how Christ lived, putting others first…at great personal cost.
And Christ is the ultimate human…and if we want to live in maximal relational, spiritual, mental health…we will walk in his footsteps.
Back to Paul…this admission of feeling desolation of isolation without Timothy was a bit of a startling thing for me to consider.
I tend to see Paul as this noble lone ranger…going through whatever came his way like a cowboy apostle…an “I need-nobody except Jesus kind of guy.”
To be honest, when I first got married…39 years ago…one of the things I resisted was the idea of needing Christy…I loved her, loved being with her…
I didn’t like the idea of needing anyone.
I know it was silly…I was 24 and still half-baked…but it went against my internal narrative to “need anyone” except Jesus.
I’ve outgrown that, thankfully…but I revert from time to time back to thinking I can go it alone…or at least should be able to.
Paul was unashamed in his admission of need for others…even though he trusted Christ, probably like few ever have.
He didn’t go anywhere alone…all his journeys he always had at least one buddy with him.
He was too smart to try to go at life and ministry alone…and not afraid to admit his need.
He had others with him at this time, but Timothy was the guy he trusted the most.
He uses the word for “desolation” because there is always desolation in isolation.
One cause of discouragement, and giving up on trying to walk with Christ is an unrealistic (unbiblical) view of what it actually means to live the Christian life in the real world.
If we fail to see the Biblical characters as being very similar to ourselves…then we will not “hear” what they are actually saying in their writings.
Paul was anxious about their faith and Paul trusted God…he gave his anxiety over.
Paul felt alone and Paul had deep relationship with Christ.
We are not going to conquer anxiety or the temptation to anxiety completely in this life…but we can live trusting Christ day to day…or minute by minute.
We are needy people…we are designed by God to need him and others.
-People who try to go it alone…do poorly…without exception.
Look at another common misconception that is set right in this passage…
(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, 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. 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.)
He sent Timothy to “strengthen and encourage them in their faith” but why, specifically, did they need it?
Well, we all need encouragement from time to time…but the reason here was “so they would not be unsettled by their trials.”
They were experiencing discouraging times…he was eager for them to be encouraged in their faith in the midst of these trials.
Then, look what he says about these trials… “we were destined for them”
And, “When I was with you I kept telling you that they were coming.”
So, he had heard they were going through trials…and he was not surprised by this and neither should they have been.
But he knows how disorienting trials and troubles can be so he wanted to send Timothy to ensure they hung in there in the face of these trials.
So what is the common misconception that is addressed here?
That if we do things just right…trust God, pray, be faithful, give, go to church…whatever…then we will be protected from all or most hard things
The Bible communicates the exact opposite of this.
Phil. 1:29 “It is granted not only to believe but to suffer”
2 Tim. 3:12 “Anyone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted”
Then there are the OT stories, the story of Christ, the entire NT…that demonstrates the reality that trusting God will not remove difficulty and suffering from our lives.
Look at Revelation 12, where the epic heavenly war is depicted and the great dragon, Satan is thrown down.
There he is “conquered” by those that he has been accusing day and night…the Christian believers.
How is Satan conquered by them?
Verse 11 “by the blood of the Lamb (the gospel) and the word of their testimony”
-What is the word of their testimony?
-Here the word of their testimony by which they conquered the great enemy was their suffering and their death…”they loved not their lives even unto death.”
The enemy is conquered through sacrificial faith…enduring faith in the face of trouble…all the way to death.
It was great faith that allowed them to go through trouble all the way to death…not great faith that took trouble from them.
*I recently spoke with a man…good man, smart man, leader of a large organization…he talked about how “God would work everything out, he always does.”
-That statement is certainly true, but in context it meant something that is not fully true.
-Everything will work out in ways that are mostly pleasant for me and my family.
Maybe it will…maybe it won’t…there is no promise that it will…not in this life at least.
God working all things for the good of those who love him…has to be understood in that the good is from God’s eternal viewpoint…not our immediate and often biased one.
I’ve probably spoken with as many people who have become disillusioned in their faith by experiencing difficulty as by any other factor.
Including the common factor of seeing other Christians fail.
The seeming “failure of God” is a bigger factor in fizzling faith…than the “failure of Christians.”
Because they expect, not unreasonably, that if they trust and obey God…then he will make their lives easier, better, with fewer problems.
I say, not unreasonably…because intuitively we think…
“If I was really powerful…I would make sure nothing bad happens to people I love…so if I do the things that make God love me…he will make sure nothing bad happens to me.”
So, if I suffer…either God is not good (he doesn’t really love me), God is not powerful (he can’t stop this suffering), or God is not even there.
Our instincts on this are wrong.
First, if we were really powerful AND really wise…we wouldn’t see”nothing bad” happening as the greatest good.
The greatest good is what or who we are becoming…and it involves eternity not just time.
And our greatest good involves more than just “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain…then we die and neither mattered in the end.”
Second, there is that idea that we can do things that “make God love us”…we cannot.
And, God gave his beloved Son to a death on the cross…for his and our greater good…we would do well to pay careful and consistent attention to that fact.
But at any rate…a person believes, for a variety of reasons…that God will keep bad stuff from them…
But then someone gets sick, or dies.
A job is lost, a marriage, a problem or addiction persists.
And they conclude…
“This isn’t working as advertised…God has failed me.”
No, it’s not working…but it was false advertising that told you that faith in God would exempt you from trouble.
God has not failed…he never promised that to us.
You are, after all, following in the footsteps, as a Christian, of the one the prophet Isaiah spoke of in this way:
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
I am belaboring this point because it is just so important.
Paul had told them over and over to expect difficulty…now he was very concerned for them, enough to send Timothy…because they were experiencing difficulty…and because he knew from experience…that suffering is disorienting.
**Notice that Paul didn’t send his book on apologetics “Why God is still good when things are bad.”
Not that books like that aren’t helpful at times…but Paul sent them what they needed most…a person they trusted to pour encouragement into their hearts.
It doesn’t matter how you much you warn people with words…the actual experience of hard times…inevitably puts a strain on their faith.
During those times…we all need God to pour courage into us through his people.
We can all doubt in the dark of night what we know to be true in the light of day.
In the dark of night…God loves to shine his light through his people to his people.
There are answers to our questions…because the gospel is true…but often we don’t need answers, at least in the middle of the struggle…we need encouragement, courage to push through until daylight returns.
Daylight…may be in the land of the living, or it may be post death…but it will return for the follower of Christ.
So, what does “faith” do…as we approach troubles?
-It’s trusts and obeys God.
Like Shad, Mes, Abe…as they were being threatened with painful burning death by a foolish king, their response showed tremendous balance…and is instructive for us…Dan 3
“If we are thrown into the furnace, the God we serve is able to rescue us…but even if he does not we are not going to bow down to the idol.”
So…faith, full confidence in God’s ability…”he is able to rescue us” (he is there and he is powerful)
And…obedience…full confidence in God’s final decisions on what happens to us…if he doesn’t…its his call, our call is to stay faithful.
Here is the unspoken question behind some of the struggles…”Why even follow Christ if he will not keep hard times from me?””
Consider the implications of that question.
If I am following Christ…SO that he will make my life now, easier…do I understand what it means to follow him?
He said, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me….whoever wants to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Luke 9:23,24.
There is a real and profound sense in which following Christ WILL make life “better” and in so many ways “easier”
But it is the “better” of living life as it was designed…for the glory of God, the good of others.
It is the “easier” of living with purpose, meaning…
…everyone will suffer, not everyone will know purpose and lasting meaning in their suffering…the gospel, the truth of God…brings this.
Certainly it is easier to live, and to suffer with purpose…that to try to do so without it.
**Please hear this…the Bible does not teach that faith will keep trouble from you…it promises that in this life you will have trouble…but Jesus has overcome the world.
We will have trouble…difficulty…trials…physical suffering…whether we trust God or not.
We will only have purpose in all of it…and life eternal in the end…if we trust God.
*So how did it go for the folks back in Thessonalicca?
What did Peter discover…Were they hanging in there?
Let’s find out…
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. 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? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
What a relief, the truth had not been mere words for them…it had been the power of God at work in them.
In fact this news is so good that Paul uses the word for gospel to describe it.
Gospel means good news…it was taken over by Christians to describe the life, death, resurrection of Jesus.
Here is the only time it is used in NT of any news other than the good news of God’s saving work in Christ.
Timothy brought the “gospel” that their faith was hanging tough.
But…this fact of their enduring faith…was closely tied to the good news of the gospel itself.
They were enduring because they were faithful…but they were able to be faithful…because of God’s faithfulness…not because they are so good or strong.
They were, in fact, enduring in the face of persecution.
He was encouraged because their faith was hanging strong…they were standing firm.
Verse 10 is interesting…he still wants to go see them himself so that he could “supply what is lacking in their faith.”
What is that about? What could be lacking in their faith?
It is not a critique, just a statement of enduring fact.
These new believers were hanging tough in their faith…but they would need ongoing instruction in truth and practice in order to be equipped for life as it would continue come at them.
We do not ever, in this life, “arrive”…we are always lacking in full maturity…again, this is not a criticism it is a reality.
The writer of Hebrews would critique his readers not for a lack of full maturity but a lack of sufficient maturity…they were not where they should be in their faith
It’s okay for a young believer…to be young in their faith.
It’s not okay for someone who should be mature…to act with ongoing immaturity.
Watch a two-year old act their age…it can bring a smile (or not, depending on what time of day or night it is)
Watch a 30-year-old act like a two-year-old…it is always a tragic, ugly thing.
He said that by now you ought to be teaching the truth (the work of spiritual adults) but instead you need to be continually taught the bare basics of faith (a sign of a spiritual infancy).
The tension here is that although we will always need to continually grow in our faith…we cannot ever become content with immaturity in our faith.
To grow older physically you need only to stay alive…to grow older spiritually you must apply full effort to doing so.
He finishes this section with a prayer that God will in fact clear the way for him to visit them…and a prayer that they will continue to grow up into spiritual maturity.
Listen to his prayer…
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.
From that prayer, what do you notice about what spiritual maturity looks like?
Two things that mark spiritual maturity:
Love for others
Holiness (love for God, revealed in a set apart lifestyle)
Really one thing marks maturity…love…growth in love.
Francis Shaeffer, great evangelist, author wrote a short book called “The Mark of a Christian”…that ONE distinguishing mark is “love”
Love for others, is not hard to understand. We cannot say we love God or are spiritually mature if we lack practical love for others.
Holiness, is a word that means to be “set apart for a purpose.”
Holy means that God has set us apart in order to reveal himself to others…to honor him by the way we live.
-We grow in holiness by growing in our understanding and application of what it means to to live to know and love God and to make his love known.
Let’s contrast those evidences of maturity with some misconceptions of maturity that are sometimes held:
Knowledge is maturity:
-Knowledge is information.
-Knowledge is a part of maturity, and you won’t be mature without growth in it.
-But knowledge without practice is just information.
In Hebrews 5 it was not a lack of knowledge that kept these believers in perpetual immaturity but a lack of practice.
“For everyone who lives on milk is still an infant, inexperienced in the message of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained their senses to distinguish good from evil.”
“Constant use” leading to a set apart life…truth in practice
Activity is maturity
-Maturity comes through actions (faith put to practice) and maturity leads to actions.
-But a small child is super active…they may not be doing anything productive.
-Mature activity is biblically purposeful…it is being faithful with what God has for us now.
*It is the active love for others in word and deed not just “doing stuff” that reveals maturity.
-Sometimes maturity just stands by…not trying to make things happen in our own time or our own way.
It takes more maturity to “actively wait” than to “impatiently act.”
Charisma/Ability is maturity
-I was watching a documentary about WWII and in the clips of Hitler, I was, as I always am…amazed at how a nation would follow such a pathetic person.
If you watch him…you think “He’s a loser, what in the world. ”
As two Russian Army were bearing down on Berlin…raping, killing, burning…Hitler, knowing he was going to kill himself before they arrived, ordered the city water and communications be shut off…if he was finished they were finished.
-He had, what could only be understood, I think, as demonic empowered charisma.
-When the demons were done with him…his power of control disappeared.
I know the historical facts for rise of the Nazis but they cannot explain to my satisfaction the rise of Hitler.
My point…there are many sources of human charisma…but humans tend to be impressed with it regardless of where it originates.
-Paul often contrasted his own non-impressive persona with the spectacular celebrity teachers who tried to undermine his life and message.
The one thing that sets us apart as mature is the one thing that is within our own ability to pursue and grow in.
We all have limits on our intellect…and these limits will increase if we are allowed to grow old.
We all have limits on our ability to “do things”…we have physical and time limits.
We all have personality limits…even those with great charisma…often suffer insecurity, and can in worse case scenarios…put confidence in their Charisma over God.
But there is no limit on our ability to grow in love for others and love for God
And there is no downside…no warning label…no negative side effects for growing in love for God and others.
There is no outside force that can impede our progress in these areas…nothing outside of us can stop our pursuit of maturity in these things.
We get to decide if we want to become more and more mature…by growth in love for others and love for God.
You get to pick your application today, I’ll remind you of the options.
- Paul was a real person, who was anxious and trusted God.
-He dealt with his anxiety in God-honoring, people-first, proactive fashion.
-Is your application…here?
-Are you approaching the manifold things to be afraid of/anxious about in ways that are revealing trust in God and application of all of his resources?
- Give up on the desolation of isolation.
Paul revealed in his own life and his assessment of the needs of the church…that we need encouragement from one another.
-Is your application…here?
-Are you trying to make it alone, or mostly alone?
-You can’t…it’s impossible to do well for long…by yourself.
-And you can have people around you without letting people inside your personal security perimeter.
- In my suffering will I trust and obey?
-Peter said, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as if something strange were happening to you.”
-Have you been surprised, dismayed, disillusioned by the trials in your life?
-Paul said to them, what he could very well say to us… “You know quite well we were destined for them.”
-Is this your application? If so…please take this to God and talk it over with him.
-Take this to others…let God use others to pour courage in your heart.
If you are in deep spiritual/emotional/relational/physical suffering…and if it goes on for any length of time…you will be disoriented.
*Get help…disorientation is the normal response to this…use all of God’s resources: word, Spirit, people.
People especially when you cannot think clearly for yourself.
Covid isolation has led to many forms of desolation in people…they have become their own echo chambers…unhealthy thoughts bouncing off the walls of their minds and getting louder and louder.
We need each other for courage and for sanity.
- Have you believed false views of maturity: information, power, activity?
If so, here is your application.
Pursue the one sure sign of Christian/spiritual maturity…love.
You can do this…as I said last week…it requires no special gifting or training.
No program, no permission…just go walk with and learn to love Jesus, and walk with and grow in love for others.
Okay…you pick your application…this is your time.
*But quickly…before I am quiet…one important thing that is foundational to all this:
The desolation of isolation and the desperation of suffering…are magnified when we do not have personal relationship with Christ.
“Have you ever committed your life to Christ or are you still unsure about where you stand with him?