All of us who have raised teenagers remember those times when they were in high school, and we watched them leave the house with the car keys in their hands. They were headed out for a football game or a movie or just a night hanging out with their friends; but as we saw the taillights fading into the distance, we inevitably had our parental anxieties. “Will they be safe out there?” we asked ourselves in some form or fashion. “Will they drive safely? Will they make wise choices when they are faced with the temptation of negative peer pressure? Will they make it home OK?”
Sometime later that night, probably long after you had gone to bed (but not gone to sleep), you heard keys jingling in the front-door lock, and the sound of the door opening and closing. Your bedroom door opened, and your son or daughter said softly, “I’m home. Goodnight.” And a sense of happiness and relief washed over you so that you finally could close your eyes and go to sleep.
In the closing verses of 1 Thessalonians 2 and all of chapter 3, the Apostle Paul was writing about his emotions—emotions probably not too different from those I just described—at his having to be separated from the Thessalonian Christians for a time and his concerns over their welfare.
Paul and Silas had come to Thessalonica with the gospel message and initially had found a warm reception with many people coming to faith in Christ. But after just a few weeks of ministry there, the circumstances changed. Vocal and even violent opposition to their work quickly sprang up, and Paul and his companions were forced to move down the road (Acts 17:1-10).
The evangelists went from Thessalonica to the city of Berea, then from there to Athens, and ultimately to the city of Corinth; but with every step Paul worried about the young church in Thessalonica. In poignant terms, Paul told the Thessalonians of his anxiety at their sudden separation; the phrase “torn away from you” (KJV, “taken away from you”) in verse 17 translates a form of the Greek verb aporphanizo, from which we get our English word “orphan.” The great apostle felt much like a loving father would feel if he had to leave his young children behind without a parent to care for them.
Paul also described how time and time again, he had attempted to go back to their city so he could make sure they were doing well, but every time his plans were frustrated (2:18). Paul probably was thinking, “They did well while we were there to help and encourage them. But how are they doing now? Are they safe? Are they still making the sort of wise choices that lead to maturity in Christ?”
Finally, no longer able to stand the uncertainty, Paul dispatched Timothy to go back to Thessalonica and encourage them to remain faithful in the face of their severe trial (3:1-5). The trial Paul had in mind was not just the problems and hurts that all people face, whether inside or outside the church. He was concerned about other problems the Thessalonian Christians were experiencing precisely because they were followers of Jesus Christ—the trials of persecution by the enemies of Christ.
In verse 3, the apostle described their situation as one in which they were in danger of being “unsettled” (KJV, “moved”) by those trials. The Greek word carries the idea of being slung violently around—picture a bull rider hanging on for dear life as the bull pitches and twists in an effort to throw him off, and you’ll get the idea. Paul was afraid the temptation of the devil and the severity of persecution had “unseated them from the bull” and sent them sprawling, so that they walked out of the metaphorical arena and refused to climb back on again (v. 5).
But when Timothy returned to Paul from Thessalonica, he delivered the encouraging news to Paul that the church in that city was alive and well, and the believers there were strong and stable (v. 6). Paul’s own hardships continued wherever he went, but Timothy’s report of the faithfulness of the Thessalonian church gave him great encouragement (vv. 7-8).
Even though Paul was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief at how well things were going in Thessalonica, he still longed to see them again (vv. 10-11). Sometimes it’s not enough just to hear that things are going well for the ones you love; you want to see them face to face and be physically close to them.
These verses pluck a special chord in my life. As I write these words, my wife and I are preparing to leave in just a few days to go to Guatemala to visit some girls who have become very dear to us. We met these young ladies while traveling on mission trips with Buckner International, during which we ministered to them through Bible study and Christian discipleship training, and gave them gifts of school supplies and personal items. We continually hear good things about how well these girls are doing, and we stay in fairly regular contact with them by telephone. But it’s just not the same as being with them in person, and so we are going to see them—hopefully to bring joy into their lives, as well as to receive joy from them when we see how they have grown physically and spiritually (vv. 8-9, 12).
The study passage closes with Paul’s prayers for the Thessalonians. He prayed God would increase their love for all those who were inside as well as those who were outside of the church (v. 12). He also asked God to make them inwardly strong, so that they would successfully face the challenges which were coming their way, and remain faithful to Christ through them all (v. 13).
Paul’s love and concern for the Thessalonians is a model of how we should relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as those who are outside the Christian family. His concern wasn’t merely a mental exercise, but it expressed itself in specific concrete action. We ourselves also have countless opportunities to give meaningful ministry to those in and outside of the church.
When we pray for others, our prayers might sound something like this: “God, please do something to meet the needs of this person.” Perhaps what they need to sound like, though, is this: “God, please somehow use me to meet his (or her) needs.” Through compassionate action motivated by Christ-like love, we might in fact become the answer to our own prayer.