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Bible spine dwtx.orgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK) with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 Thessalonians 2:17-20

Paul’s Longing to See Them Again

17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s displeasure with the Jews who prevented the Thessalonians from extending his ministry there, saying that the congregation suffered as much as the Judean converts did.

In true Pauline fashion, the Apostle wears his heart on his sleeve in today’s verses.

I want to show you the difference in the first few words of verse 17 in three translations, the first being from the ESVUK above:

But since we were torn away from you, brothers,

The second is Matthew Henry’s:

But we, brethren, being taken from you

The third is John MacArthur’s:

But we, brethren, having been bereft of you for a short while

The verb, whether ‘torn away’, ‘taken’ or ‘bereft’ denotes an unwilling and forced departure, in this case, to Berea, as I explained last week. Paul’s time in Berea was similarly short-lived for the same reasons.

Henry’s commentary says (emphases mine):

Here observe, 1. He tells them they were involuntarily forced from them: We, brethren, were taken from you, v. 17. Such was the rage of his persecutors. He was unwillingly sent away by night to Berea, Acts 17 10.

John MacArthur tells us:

He doesn’t say “having been gone from you” in just sort of generic terms.  The verb here, “having been bereft of you” is used only here in the New Testament, but we know its meaning from other uses.  It means “to be orphaned, to be bereaved.”  It literally means “to be torn away from.”  And that’s what he felt.

Henry’s and MacArthur’s respective translations begin with ‘But we, brethren’, meaning in contrast with the Jews who would not allow the Gospel to be preached at all.

MacArthur explains:

Look at verse 17.  “But we,” boy, that is a strong contrast, “But we,” compared to whom?  We’re going back to the prior passage.  He talks about the Jews in verse 14 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved.  Contrary to the Jews who don’t care that you get the gospel, contrary to the Jews who don’t care that you know Christ, contrary to the Jews who don’t care about your spiritual condition, we do. That’s the contrast.  “But we,” in contrast to the Jews who resented Christianity, Christians and Christ, we do, brethren.

Paul says that, even though he was torn away from them physically for a short while, but not in heart — not emotionally — he tried all the more, eagerly and with great desire, to see them face to face (verse 17).

That is one powerful verse.

MacArthur analyses Paul’s emotions as well as the quality of the Thessalonian congregation in faith and love:

The work was not done.  He stayed in Ephesus three years, and, Ephesus, it’s questionable whether they had the quality of Thessalonica.  He stayed in Corinth 18 months and the Corinthian church certainly didn’t have the quality of Thessalonica.  There’s no way he wanted to stay only a few weeks in Thessalonica.  He was ripped out of there, torn out of there.  He experienced a forced, sudden separation and he felt orphaned.  Remember back in verse 7 he talked about himself as a nursing mother who cares for his children, and back in verse 11 as a father who encourages and exhorts and implores his children. He had that parental heart and now he feels like a parent who has been torn away from his beloved children

… he says, “We’ve been ripped away from you,” note this, please, “for a short while.”  It indicates that though it had only been a brief separation so far, and though it might be only a temporary one as he, on his third journey, may have gone back to them, he still had a great longing in his heart for them.  Even though Timothy had brought word back and said they’re progressing, they love you, Paul, they love you, their faith is solid, their faith is growing, he still wanted to be with them.  That’s the heart of the shepherd; you can’t rip him away from his sheep.  That’s the heart of a spiritual mother; you can’t tear her away from her children.  That’s the heart of a spiritual father; you can’t rip him away from his children.

… though they are physically separated, they are still in his thoughts.  “I have you in my heart.”  His inward affection for them was strong, even though the physical separation existed.  They had his heart, if not his face.  I’m reminded of Colossians 2:5 where Paul says to the Colossians, “Even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit.”  Why?  “I want to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith.”  I want to see how you live, how you walk, you’re on my heart.

It had to do with the weight that was laid on the man’s emotion, on his heart, because of the immense capacity he had to care about people.  And because he cared so deeply and so widely, he bore this immense burden of care.

MacArthur discusses Paul’s passion, as evidenced by ‘more eagerly’ and ‘great desire’. These are strong words:

… he says, “We were all the more eager with great desire to see your face.”  Now that little phrase is just a sort of an emotional stack, just a piling of words with intense significance.  He starts out, “We were all the more.” That means abundantly, excessively, fervently and it’s a comparative. We were more abundantly, more excessively, more fervently. Then he adds the word “eager” which means haste; you’re in a hurry.  It’s sort of a compelling thing, short of breath, anticipation.  He’s saying we were more abundantly, more excessively, more fervently eager.

And then he adds, if that isn’t enough, “With great desire.”  And he throws in the word epithumia which most often is used of sexual desire, sexual passion.  It is a neutral word. It can be used of any kind of passion, any kind of compelling, any kind of driving desire, any kind of desire that dominates.  And so he is saying we have a fierce passion driving us greatly into an abundant, excessive, fervent eagerness.  Boy, that’s pretty strong stuff.

Paul specifies he wants to see them ‘face to face’ or ‘to see your face’.

MacArthur looks at that, combined with Paul’s passion for the Thessalonians:

If we had time, we’d find that that’s a rich biblical statement, to see your face It means to come into intimacy with you ... Seeing the face is the full expression of the personThat’s why the telephone is only marginal Sometimes we’ll say, “Ah, this is too important to talk on the telephone, I want to see you face to face,” right?  Because there’s…there’s an interchange of life, not just words.  And so he says, “I want to be intimate with you, I want to make contact with your eyes. I want to look in your face.  I want to be there.”  That was his strong, compelling, fierce, passionate, abundant, successive, fervent desire.  Boy, that’s strong language.

From verse 17, we can feel Paul’s passion for the Thessalonians’ spiritual well being. It’s obvious that, even if he did not get to know them well, he loves them like a spiritual father.

The next thing we discover about the Apostle is that he knows his enemy.

He says that he wanted to see the Thessalonians again and again, but Satan hindered him (verse 18).

Henry says that Satan worked through Paul’s enemies to get him out and prevent him from returning:

He tells them that Satan hindered his return (v. 18), that is, either some enemy or enemies, or the great enemy of mankind, who stirred up opposition to Paul, either in his return to Thessalonica, when he intended to return thither, or stirred up such contentions or dissensions in those places whether he went as made his presence necessary. Note, Satan is a constant enemy to the work of God, and does all he can to obstruct it.

Sometimes Paul refers to himself as ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. MacArthur says that here, he is referring to Silas and Timothy, too, then himself:

He’s “we” in verse 17 and “we” in verse 18, embracing Timothy and Silas, and now, all of a sudden, he says, “I, Paul, more than once.”  And he says, “I’m not just talking about the group here, I, Paul.”  “More than once” means repeatedly. It’s the same term used in Philippians 4:16, the Philippians gave money to Paul repeatedly And here he says, “Repeatedly, I, Paul, personally want to see your face.”  Can’t delegate compassion, can’t delegate concern, can’t delegate love, can’t leave it to someone else to be concerned about the condition of your flock while you’re only concerned about the expansion of your ministry.

Paul did send Timothy back, but Paul as much as he wanted to go couldn’t go.  It wasn’t from a lack of concern. It wasn’t from a lack of effort.  He loved his people.  He desired to be with them.  He didn’t want to drop a load of information on them and then get out of there.  He wanted to find out their spiritual condition, nurture that spiritual condition.

MacArthur points out that Paul knew when the Holy Spirit prevented him from going places and when Satan hindered him:

Paul was very discerning.  You know, in Acts chapter 16 verses 6 and 7 the apostle Paul was moving on his missionary enterprise when he was stopped by the Holy Spirit.  Acts 16:6, they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia.  When they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go to Bithynia and the Spirit of Jesus didn’t permit them.  Now here he is being stopped by the Holy Spirit.  Over here he says, “I’m being stopped by Satan.”  Here was a man of discernment.  I believe this man walked with God in such a way that he knew the Spirit of God from Satan.  He understood when Satan invaded his territory.  “Satan thwarted us.”

This is another relationship that any servant of the Lord has to take into account.  If you’re going to be an effective servant of the Lord, plan on satanic attack. That malignant, evil, spiritual, supernatural person, Satan, that fallen angel, is going to get in the way of effective ministry.  Here was Paul separated from these believers, longing to be with them.  His heart was there.  His parental instincts were there.  He had been ripped apart from them.  He wanted to go there.  More than once he tried to go there.  He could never get there.  Why?  Satan was thwarting him.  Satan is very active in doing that.  I’m not under any illusions about that.  There are many times when I believe that I need to accomplish something for the Lord, to speak some place, to get a radio program on in a certain city, to accomplish some ministry here in the church and it just never happens.  It’s a good and noble effort and you make it several times, but it never happens.  Satan thwarts it …

MacArthur gives us instances in the New Testament where Satan was on the attack:

Now when he comes to attack, he desires to attack the church.  No question about that.  He desires to attack the church.  He attacked the first church in Jerusalem.  He moved right inside Ananias and Sapphira to make them lie to the Holy Spirit and God had to kill them before the whole church.  He was attacking the integrity of the first church, the only church right after its birth in Acts 5.  He attacks the church.  That’s one of his major ploys, to thwart the church, to prevent it from doing what it would otherwise do.  Paul told the Corinthians, don’t be taken advantage of by Satan.  He’s after the church.  You read Revelation if you have any question about that.  Just listen to this, Revelation 2:9, the church at Smyrna, “You have there” He says “blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan, an assembly of Satan.”  Pretty strong.  You find in chapter 2 verse 13, the church at Pergamum. “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.”  And He says there are some who died, even Antipas, who was killed among you where Satan dwells.  Satan always attacks the church.  Chapter 2, verse 24, the church at Thyatira, He says, “The rest who are in Thyatira who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan.”  There were some in the church who were into the deep things of Satan, wittingly or unwittingly.  Chapter 3 verse 9, it says here about the Philadelphia church, “I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews and are not but lie…” and so forth and so on.  Satan’s always in and around the church.

Let me go a step further.  He particularly attacks the leaders.  In 1 Timothy chapter 3 it tells us that when we choose elders and deacons, “They must have a good reputation with those outside the church so that they may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”  The devil wants to snare leaders.  Why do you think there are so many scandals among leaders?  Money scandals, sex scandals, why?  Because he wants to snare leadership in the church.  He’s after the church.  He’s after the church’s leaders.  He went to God one day and he said, “I want Job. I’ll destroy him.”  God said, “Have at him.”  Couldn’t destroy him.  But he wanted the most righteous man who was the most faithful representative of the true God and he wanted to tear him down.  He wanted to devour him.  He didn’t succeed.

You come into the New Testament, who is the leading apostle?  Who is it?  Who is number one of the twelve?  Peter.  Satan again comes to God and according to Luke 22:31 Satan says to God, “I want Peter.”  God…Christ said, “Satan has asked for you, he wants you, Peter, to sift you like wheat.”  What does that mean?  You know how they sifted wheat?  They took a big basket; they threw it in the air like this. They sifted it that way.  And then they would put it through a process where that which was heaviest would fall back down. Obviously the wind would blow the chaff away.  And there were other processes of turbulence.  And so what is being said here is Satan wants to shake your life up.  He wants to flip everything in the air and shake it all loose.  He went after Peter.  Why?  Because Peter was the key guy.  Peter said, “I’ll go to prison and I’ll die for You, I don’t care what he does.”  Huh. The Lord said, “No you won’t, you’ll deny Me but you’ll get restored.”  He’ll get you temporarily but he won’t get you permanently.  So he tried Peter and didn’t succeed.

Satan came back to God and he said, “There’s another guy I want, I want Paul. I want Paul.”  And he gave to Paul, according to 2 Corinthians 12, a thorn what? In the flesh, a messenger of Satan sent to buffet me Satan went to God because he can’t go to any of God’s servants without permission. He said, “I want Paul, You give me Paul, I’ll destroy him. I’ll destroy him.”  Couldn’t do it.  Paul prayed three times for that satanic thorn to be removed. God said no every time and then Paul said, “Fine, my weakness becomes God’s (what?) strength.”  He’s always after the leaders.

He got Judas.  Satan entered into Judas and he betrayed Christ.  But he was never God’s to begin with.  He can only get his own, he can’t get God’s.  But he’ll come after the church and he’ll come after the Jobs and the Peters and the Pauls and anyone who is in spiritual leadership.  He’s not omnipresent, he can’t be everywhere. but he goes after certain leaders. 

And what does he want to do?  He wants to hinder the progress.  That word “hinder” or “thwart,” very interesting word, it’s a military word. It means to dig a trench or to break up a road.  If you’ve got your army sitting here and here comes the enemy, one of the ways that you would defeat the enemy is by making sure he can’t get access to you.  What you would do is send your soldiers out and dig a massive trench.  They can’t cross the trench.  Or you would go out and break up the road, tear up the road.  Roads would be made of stone. You just tear it up so that they can’t traverse.  You hinder their progress.

Paul says, I want to come, Satan’s breaking up the road.  Satan’s dug a bunch of trenches, I can’t get there.  I can’t get it done.  A warring tactic.

And it shows that the…the servant of God must understand not only loving his people but he has to understand his enemy He’s got to recognize satanic opposition. 

MacArthur explains that God sometimes allows satanic attacks if they further His plan:

Now remember this, though Satan is opposing us, he is controlled by the overruling providence and sovereignty of God He can only do what he can do within the limits that God allows.  God allowed him to go after Job.  God allowed him to sift Peter.  God allowed him to deal with Paul.  Why?  Because in Job’s weakness he was made strong.  In Peter’s weakness he was made strong.  In Paul’s weakness he was made strong.  And the end product benefits God’s work.  So within the limits that God allows, Satan hinders, prevents God’s servant from doing what he desires to do.

MacArthur cites the Lutheran theologian and Bible scholar Richard C H Lenski (1864-1936), who wrote the following:

This by no means excludes divine providence which rules in the midst of our enemies. Satan entered the heart of Judas so that he made plans to betray Jesus and God permitted the betrayal for His own divine and blessed ends.  So Satan succeeded in frustrating Paul’s plans to return to Thessalonica, but only because this accorded with God’s own plans regarding the work Paul was to do Satan has brought many a martyr to his death and God permitted it.  The death of these martyrs was more blessed for them and for the cause of the gospel than their life would have been.  It is ever so with Satan’s successes.  No thanks to Satan, his guilt is the greater.

Paul turns his attention to the Thessalonians’ spirituality, paying them a great compliment in saying that they are his hope, his joy, his heavenly crown; he hopes to boast of them to the Lord at His Second Coming (verse 19). He repeats himself, telling them that they are his glory and his joy (verse 20).

Henry says:

They were his hope, and joy, and crown of rejoicing; his glory and joy. These are expressions of great and endeared affection, and high estimation. And it is happy when ministers and people have such mutual affection and esteem of each other, and especially if they shall thus rejoice, if those that sow and those that reap shall rejoice together, in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming.

MacArthur says this brings us to the third aspect of a good servant of the Lord — anticipating His return:

If you are to be a good servant, you must love your people; you must understand your enemy; thirdly, you must anticipate your Lord.

MacArthur explains these verses in light of any detractors Paul might have had who infiltrated the Thessalonian congregation:

Paul lived in the light of the return of Christ.  He says in verse 19 that very thing.  “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation?  Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming, for you are our glory and joy.”  The great motivation of the apostle Paul was that the Lord was coming, the return of the Lord.  This is a marvelous statement.  Listen very carefully to what he’s saying here, very rich.  He says this, “Who is our hope?  Who is it that we are hoping to see?  Who is that which is all bound up with our future hope?”  He’s talking about his hope of eternal reward, his hope of eternal blessing.  Who will be that hope?  Who will fulfill that anticipation?  And he secondly says, “Who is our joy?  Who is the source of our eternal happiness?  Who is the source of our eternal bliss?  Who is the source of our eternal satisfaction?”

Then he adds this, “Who is our crown of boasting?” That’s what exultation means.  “Who is our crown to boast about?”  He’s using crown, festive wreath, victor’s crown.  “Who is my hope in?  Who is my source of joy?  Who will be my eternal reward?  Who will cause the burst of joy coming out of my heart when Jesus comes?  Who?”  Well, you’d think it would be Christ and surely it is, but that’s not his point here.  Look what he says, verse 19, “Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus?”  It’s the whole thing, it’s the presence of the Lord Jesus but it’s you in His presence.  That’s my joy.  That’s my hope.  Paul is saying, “Can you imagine that the critics are right in suggesting I don’t care about you when you are my hope and you are my joy and you are my eternal reward?”  You’re it.  What a statement, what a marvelous statement.

And it wasn’t just them.  To the Corinthians he wrote, 2 Corinthians 1:14, “We are your reason to be proud as you also are ours in the day of our Lord Jesus.”  Paul said, “I’m going to boast about you in the day of the Lord Jesus.  When I see the Lord Jesus you’re going to be my boast, you’re going to be my joy, you’re going to be the fulfillment of my hope.”  Oh did he understand ministry.  What he understood was, when you get to glory you’re not going to get a crown for your glorified head. 

Here is the application for us:

Your crown is going to be the presence of the people that you were responsible to lead to the knowledge of Christ, the people with whom you planted the seed or watered or harvested, the people whose lives were influenced by your teaching and your living and your praying.  That’s your eternal reward.  It isn’t something you stick on your head and parade around saying, “I’ve got more of these than you.”  It isn’t something like that.  It is the accumulated impact of your life on the lives of others. That’s why in Luke 16 Jesus says, “Use your money to purchase friends for eternity.”  Spend your money as well as your time and effort to bring people to the knowledge of Christ so that you can know them forever as your friends and the source of your eternal joy.

Henry and MacArthur disagree on whether Paul saw the Thessalonians once more.

Henry says:

The apostle here puts the Thessalonians in mind that though he could not come to them as yet, and though he should never be able to come to them, yet our Lord Jesus Christ will come, nothing shall hinder this.

MacArthur thinks that Paul returned, as alluded to in Acts 20:

in God’s providence things cooled down and apparently he was able to get back on his third missionary journey You can read Acts 20 and take note of that.

Acts 20:1-6 might well be that passage, as Luke says two Thessalonians joined him:

Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus.

In closing, MacArthur describes his own personal longing to check in with his own church when he is away:

I, while not comparing myself in any measure to Paul, understand this to some degree.  People always ask me, “When I’m gone why I call back to the church every day?”  For the days that I’m gone, there’s a very few days that I would not call back and the reason is not because I have something to do or some question to ask, but because I must know the state of the congregation.  I need to know how it is with the sheep.  I find it very difficult to think about leaving this church, as many as offers as I might have to do that, I find it difficult to consider any of them because I feel I would spend the rest of my life wondering about your spiritual condition.  That’s just how it is.

It isn’t that the leader seeks the socialization and the sentiment of fellowship, but he seeks the responsibility of fellowship, which is to see the spiritual condition of the people, to be sure that all is well … 

There are people in ministry, I fear, who care very little, who care a lot about their sermons, who care a lot about how they come across, who care a lot about their popularity, who care a lot about drawing a crowd, who care a lot about traveling around and being well known, who care a lot about their preeminence, who care a lot about satisfaction, who care a lot about success, who care very little about their people There are, on the other hand, many faithful servants of God who care much about their people, who in continuous prayer and concern hold up their people before God, who are very uncomfortable when being dispossessed from their people, who long to be in the place of responsibility, the place of accountability, so they know the condition of their flock That’s Paul.  These people were new to him.  It wasn’t that there was some lifelong sentimentality. It wasn’t that there was some bonding, as they say today, that was deep and profound over a long period of time, not at all.  These were strangers in a sense.  And yet because they had become his charge and he was now their spiritual mother and father, his heart was there.  That’s how it must be in ministry.  You cannot effectively serve whom you cannot love and be concerned about.

In next week’s verses, Paul explains why he sent Timothy back to the Thessalonians.

Next time — 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5

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