The Rich Crown – 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20
By: Northern Seminary
(Part 1 of a study of 1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:13)
One of the hardest decisions Alison and I ever made was leaving the first church where I was the pastor. We were moving to a new challenge. The time was right, we were highly motivated, and many remarkable signs had convinced us that the new call was from God.
But leaving that first church was very, very hard. We had been part of its founding; our dearest friends in the world were there; more than half of the 150 church members had come to faith during our six years in that place; there had been long hours, many sacrifices, but we had seen God change lives and a strong, vibrant, godly church had been born. It hurt very badly to go and I knew these wonderful people would always be deep in our hearts. The call to move on was clear, but I knew I would never stop loving those people.
That’s exactly how Paul felt about the Christians in Thessalonica. They were his spiritual children. He’d brought them the gospel, nurtured their faith, shown them how to witness to others, and suffered with them for the faith. He was rightfully, unashamedly proud of them. But now they are in Thessalonica. And he is not. And it hurt. It hurt a lot.
As a father torn away from the children he loves, Paul writes to these Christians. From verse 17 of chapter 2 right through chapter 3 he pours out his longings for them.
Today, 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20:
17 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 these verses Paul describes something deeply painful, something deeply frustrating and something deeply wonderful, and all three are about just one thing! They are all part of one experience.
First, what is so painful for Paul is separation from the Thessalonian church which he had founded. For him, this was a family torn apart. He feels “orphaned.” It’s as if his children have been ripped away from him. He cares for them; he’s invested in their wellbeing. But now he’s not with them. They’re away from his presence, but, he stresses, never – not for a moment – out of his thoughts.
Paul really loved them. I confess, I have not felt like that about all of the Christians I’ve known through church life:
Bert – who did not seem to have discovered soap, a reality of which you were powerfully aware if you had the courage to sit beside him.
Maisie – who sang solos with passion and with a gift for inventing notes the composer had never intended.
Angie – who demanded everything be done her way, and was never pleased when it wasn’t or even when it was.
Danny – who invented problems in his life at a faster rate than even ten pastors could have helped him solve.
Brian – whose gossip and slander wounded and even destroyed some very fine Christians.
George – who had a genius for creating heresies not even the early church fathers had thought of, and then evangelized and upset church members with his quaint and dangerous views.
These names are not real, but I promise you they are real people. I confess, I struggled to love the Berts, Maisies, Angies, Dannys, Brians and Georges of my church life. But did Paul never meet people like that? Was there no-one odd, difficult, or annoying in the church in Thessalonica?
They were there. Bert was there. Maisie was there. All of them were there. But God loved them in their oddness and awkwardness, and Paul had learned to love them too – to love them from his heart, and so much that it hurt deeply to be apart from them.
That is not easy, but Jesus said Christians would be known by their love for one another (John 13: 35). So, my prayer – maybe your prayer – is “God help me to love the unlovely, to value them, and to know they matter as your children.”
Second, what so frustrates Paul is being stopped from doing what he feels is right to do.
In verse 18 you can hear the despair in Paul’s voice as he says, “We wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.” He’s angry, but above all he’s disappointed.
Two lessons here – one about what is true, and one about what is not true.
What is true, what is real, is spiritual warfare. Paul could have said that he did not get to Thessalonica for all sorts of reasons: perhaps finances were low, or the risk of persecution was high, or there were unexpected needs elsewhere. Perhaps one of these things did happen. But these ordinary things were not the underlying problem. Instead Paul writes, “Satan blocked our way.”
In Ephesians 6 Paul wrote, “For our struggle is … against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We must never over-rate the devil’s power but equally never under-rate it. We have a spiritual enemy who at times may hinder our lives.
That is what is true. What is not true is the pious but mistaken idea that everything in life works out wonderfully if you are in the will of God.
- Paul tried again and again to go back and see these baby Christians, but he didn’t get there.
- The Old Testament character Job lived a righteous life, but he lost his possessions, his ten children died, and he suffered dreadful physical pain.
- Elijah, Jeremiah, and other prophets preached God’s word and experienced great persecution because of that.
- Paul was thrown in prison, whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, got hungry and thirsty, and countless times was in danger from natural disasters and human enemies (2 Cor. 11: 23-27).
They all did what was right. But life was never easy for any of these spiritual giants. It didn’t all just work out because they were doing God’s will.
Those who teach health, wealth, and happiness for Christians teach a lie. If anyone tells you, “You wouldn’t be having these problems if only you followed God better, if only you prayed more, if only you were more devoted to Jesus,” remember Job, remember the prophets, remember the apostle Paul. They followed God’s ways and life was hard. Often that’s exactly how it is as a Christian. We bleed.
Finally, what Paul finds so deeply wonderful is that these Christians are people in whom he can glory.
Imagine little Tommy runs into the house, just home from school, and says: “Mom, Mom – look what I made!” and he holds up a little wooden car, or a painting, something he created that day at school. Mom admires it, says all the right words, gives him a hug of congratulations, and Tommy is the happiest little boy in the street.
I can’t tell you that Paul’s words here about these Thessalonian Christians are exactly like that. But almost.
He says, “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?”
‘Crown’ is the Greek word stephanos and often means a winner’s wreath. In the ancient games (and still in a few sports today) the winner had a wreath of leaves or flowers put round his neck or on his head. It was his prize, the sign of success. He’d run well, done something wonderful, and he deserved honor.
Paul is saying, “You are my wreath, my crown. I’m not looking for any other prize – you are my wreath – you are the trophy I will give to God one day.”
They were. He told them about Jesus, he led them to faith, he discipled them, and he has seen them grow to be strong Christians. He is proud of them, and he will be thrilled to show them off to his Heavenly Father.
There is the ultimate challenge. When we stand in the presence of Jesus, what will we show him from these lives? Not everyone will have led dozens to Christ and planted churches, but, oh, let there be something, something that matters which will be the trophy we offer our Lord.
Paul really cared for these people.
He was stopped from doing everything he wanted for them.
But he would finish his life confident that something lasting, something wonderful, something glorious had happened in them, and he would enter eternity knowing they are his wreath, his crown.
God grant all of us a rich crown of knowing our lives have been used greatly for God’s purposes.