In the Hardest of Times – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5
By: Alistair Brown
(Part 2 of a study of 1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:13)
Was it just us, or do all parents worry about their children when they’re left with a babysitter? Especially when they were very young, we needed to call home and ask, “Is everything all right?” Then, when we would find that everyone was just fine without us, we’d tell ourselves, “We didn’t need to do that…” Oh yes we did! Parents get anxious about their children.
Paul felt like that for the young Christians in Thessalonica he’d left behind. As a parent separated from his children, he was worried.
However, Paul had a deeper reason to worry than anything ordinary.
The Christians in Thessalonica were being persecuted. Property was being seized. Workers were stopped from practicing their trades. Those who found a new faith were shunned by their families. Some were insulted, some beaten, and some put to death. They were experiencing suffering of the worst kind. Paul is deeply concerned for these young Christians going through such severe trials all on their own.
1 Thessalonians 3: 1-5
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 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.
Twice Paul says he could stand it no longer. Stand what no longer? Above all, not knowing how they are and not being able to give them help in their time of need. He cared for them, and the force of his words here are “I could not hold out against my feelings and my worries any longer. I had to know, and I had to send help to you.”
Two realities are being made clear in these verses.
First, that suffering is part of the normal Christian life.
In verse 3 Paul says he’s concerned that the Thessalonians might be “unsettled by these trials.” What he doesn’t express – here or anywhere – is any surprise that there are trials. That was simply normal.
Paul wrote in Greek and the word we translate as ‘trials’ is thlipsis. Literally it means ‘pressure.’
On January 2, 1971, eighty thousand soccer fans gathered in Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow, Scotland, to watch the game of the year between the two top teams in the league, Rangers and Celtic. The game was dramatic right to the end, and then the massive crowd turned to leave. Thousands poured down stairway thirteen. Someone fell. Those behind fell on top because the massive crowd following them were all pressing for the exit. Person after person fell down stairway thirteen, body on body, until they were stacked six feet deep. Many of them were children. It was a dreadful tragedy in which sixty-six died, almost all due to compressive asphyxia.
That was pressure, deadly pressure – and that’s thlipsis.
But in the New Testament the word is often used metaphorically and translated trial, persecution, affliction – it is pressure but from opposition. It was a very common experience for the first Christians. In Thessalonica, and many other places, some people wanted to stamp out the new faith, and there were no limits to what they would do. It could be overwhelming. Under severe pressure, new Christians and even experienced Christians, might give in and abandon their faith to save their lives.
Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he warned them trials would happen. And he writes: “For you know quite well that we are destined for them.” What was happening was no surprise. This is how it was always going to be.
That is not unusual teaching in the New Testament. Here are just a few similar statements:
- In this world you will have trouble. (John 16:33)
- You will be hated by everyone because of me (Matt 10:22)
- You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. (Matt 24:9)
- The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. (John 16:2)
- We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God, (Acts 14:22)
- Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12)
Four out of these six statements are from Jesus. What he suffered, his followers would suffer. Trials, hardship, persecution were inevitable for Christians. It’s how things are. It is destined.
For many years I read the New Testament ‘blind’ to these statements. Maybe I did not see them because I did not want to see them. But they are there.
Two things concern me now.
One is that some teach a Christianity of perpetual blessing, as if being in God’s will means you avoid all hardship. That teaching is seriously wrong and dangerously misleading.
My second concern is how little I suffer for my faith. If trials, persecutions, and hardship are inevitable, why are my difficulties so light? Maybe I don’t notice my own hardships, but the ruthless question is: “Do I live out this Christian life as I should?” That is a question I ask myself before God, and pray I will have the courage to change in the light of the answer. It is a good question for all of us to ask.
The second reality made clear in these verses is that every Christian needs strengthening and encouragement.
Many of us have been taught that ‘God and me are all sufficient.’ As long as I have the Lord, I can handle anything. We can do anything through Christ who gives us strength.
Put simplistically these statements are wrong, and that last phrase is a misleading, out-of-context translation of a verse in Philippians 4.
Two truths will put us back on track biblically.
One is that God is always with us, always helping, always strengthening. No matter how great any time of suffering, God has never deserted us nor become uncaring about us. He does not lift us out of every trouble, but he is always with us in the hardship. And he gives us strength. A good paraphrase of Romans 8:28 would be: “We know that in the midst of all things God works for the good of those who love him.” He is not absent. He is not passive. God is always actively at work for our good.
The other truth is that God’s help is not just about him infusing me with his power, but about him sending people into my life to bring support.
Paul did not sit back and simply pray for the Thessalonians. He sent Timothy, and 1 Thessalonians 3:2 gives us Timothy’s remit for them: “to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.”
Can your hand lift a book? Almost certainly ‘yes.’
Can your hand lift a bowl of fruit? Well maybe, but it would depend on the weight.
Can your hand lift a heavy chair? No, your hand can’t. But perhaps if you could also use your arms and shoulders, bend your legs and use your back muscles, then you might be able to lift even a heavy chair.
In other words, one part of your body can handle only the lightest weights but if your whole body gets involved then much heavier burdens can be carried.
You see where I am going. When life’s heavier trials, challenges, struggles, come along, God’s way of giving strength is to involve the whole body of Christ. It’s not about one part of the body in isolation, not about ‘God and me’ on our own. It’s about ‘God with me’ through his body, his family, his people. Through them will come all the strength and encouragement I need even for the hardest of times.
Like an anxious parent who has left his children with a babysitter, Paul was worried about the Thessalonians. He wasn’t with them, and did not know how they were surviving tough times.
He could not remove the hardships, but he could send Timothy to help them.
No-one can make our hardships just go away, but God gives us people who are encouragers and helpers. They are God’s angels. Let’s not miss the strength God intends us to have through them.
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