Bible penngrovechurchofchristorgThe 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 3:1-5

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s co-worker[a] in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labour would be in vain.


Last week’s post discussed Paul’s yearning to see the Thessalonians again to check on their spiritual health; he said that Satan — through the persecuting Jews — prevented him from doing so.

The first verse of this chapter picks up where 1 Thessalonians 2 left off:

20 For you are our glory and joy.

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone …

Paul was so consumed with love and concern for the new congregation in Thessalonica that he was willing to be left alone in Athens (verse 1).

John MacArthur gives us the chronological background. Recall that the three had been driven out of Thessalonica and, shortly afterwards, Paul from Berea (emphases mine):

Paul and Silas and Timothy had come to Thessalonica in Acts 17. They had preached there in the synagogue for three Sabbaths and then done some work among the Gentiles and established a churchPaul, Silas, Timothy then left Thessalonica. They left.  Paul then left Silas and Timothy at Berea, left them there to carry on a work. And in Acts 17 it says he went to Athens by himself.  So Paul went to Athens all alone.  Later it is obvious that Silas and Timothy came back and rejoined Paul at Athens because Paul here says he was left at Athens alone because he sent Timothy away.  And as I noted for you, Silas also was sent to MacedoniaSo they were left in Berea for a time.  Paul was alone in Athens for a while. Then they came and joined him in Athens.  Not long after that — we don’t have any time frame on this — according to verse 2, Timothy was then sent to Thessalonica, according to Acts 18:5, Silas was sent to Philippi, and Paul was again alone in Athens.

Now when he’s writing this he’s in Corinth He stayed in Athens for a while. Then he went to Corinth.  When he got to Corinth, Timothy came back to him and Silas came back to him.  So they were all rejoined in Corinth and it was after Timothy had come back there that he wrote this letter because now he had the information he wanted and he could write back and say how thankful he was about the good report from Timothy and he could also record some of these things about the integrity of his life, what he did, what he said, what he was, and what he felt, for the record.  But as he writes in chapter 3, he reminds them of the time when he was in Athens and sent Timothy to them and was left alone.

Coming to the second verse, note the different wording in the ESVUK above and those versions of our two commentators.

This is what Matthew Henry’s Bible version says:

2 And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith:

This is John MacArthur’s:

2 And we sent Timothy, our brother, and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith

Paul is referring to himself once again in the first person plural. He did this in his other letters. It seems he viewed using the first person singular — ‘I’ — as being vulgar. He did not want to make his letters all about himself. Today, we would view what we call the ‘Royal we’ as being pompous, but it was not so centuries ago.

Timothy, as students of Paul’s letters know, was much younger than Paul. Yet, the Apostle viewed him as being spiritually one with him. In some letters, he refers to Timothy as ‘a son’. Here he refers to him as ‘our brother’. In all cases, he normally attributes a description, as he does here as ‘minister of God’ or ‘God’s fellow worker’ or ‘God’s co-worker’. Paul was willing to dispense with his help in order to go check in on the Thessalonians’ spiritual development, to establish — confirm — and exhort — encourage and comfort — them in their faith (verse 2).

Henry’s commentary explains Paul’s selflessness in sending Timothy:

We sent Timotheus, our brother. Elsewhere he calls him his son; here he calls him brother. Timothy was Paul’s junior in age, his inferior in gifts and graces, and of a lower rank in the ministry: for Paul was an apostle, and Timothy but an evangelist; yet Paul calls him brother. This was an instance of the apostle’s humility, and showed his desire to put honour upon Timothy and to recommend him to the esteem of the churches. He calls him also a minister of God. Note, Ministers of the gospel of Christ are ministers of God, to promote the kingdom of God among men. He calls him also his fellow-labourer in the gospel of Christ. Note, Ministers of the gospel must look upon themselves as labourers in the Lord’s vineyard; they have an honourable office and hard work, yet a good work. This is a true saying, If any man desire the office of a bishop, he desires a good work, 1 Tim 3 1. And ministers should look upon one another, and strengthen one another’s hands, not strive and contend one with another (which will hinder their work), but strive together to carry on the great work they are engaged in, namely, to preach and publish the gospel of Christ, and to persuade people to embrace and entertain it and live suitably thereto.

The end and design why Paul sent Timothy: To establish you and to comfort you concerning your faith, v. 2. Paul had converted them to the Christian faith, and now he was desirous that they might be confirmed and comforted, that they might confirmed in the choice they had made of the Christian religion, and comforted in the profession and practice of it. Note, The more we are comforted, the more we shall be confirmed, because, when we find pleasure in the ways of God, we shall thereby be engaged to continue and persevere therein. The apostle’s design was to establish and comfort the Thessalonians concerning their faith,—concerning the object of their faith, namely, the truths of the gospel, and particularly that Jesus Christ was the Saviour of the world, and so wise and good, so powerful and faithful, that they might rely upon him,—concerning the recompence of faith, which was more than sufficient to balance all their losses and reward all their labours.

MacArthur recaps the times Paul sent Timothy to other churches:

It wasn’t easy for him to be dispossessed of his precious friends. But that kind of sacrifice marks the pastor’s heart. For the sake of someone else, he would gladly give up the best that he has. In this case it was Timothy. First Corinthians chapter 4, he was so concerned about the Corinthian church he said, “I’m going to send you Timothy. I’m going to send him to you.” To the Philippian church, chapter 2 he says in verse 19, “I hope to send Timothy to you.” In verse 20 he says, “I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare.” He dispatched Timothy a lot of places. It wasn’t easy to let him go, but it was necessary, and Timothy was his best and he gave his best. That’s what sacrifice is all about, it’s all about giving your best.

Paul didn’t have any worthy goods. He didn’t have anything worth value in terms of economics, monetary value. What he did have and what was so precious to him were his friends. I can understand that life would be extremely lonely and threatening for him. And the presence of friends was the best that he had. And when he gave it, he showed you the unselfishness of his heart.

MacArthur looks at the wording of the verse, explaining some of the Greek manuscript:

he calls him “God’s fellow worker.” Many manuscripts say, “God’s servant.”  It’s almost a toss-up, very hard to make a decision.  God’s servant, diakonos, would mean God’s servant, God’s minister, and surely he was that.  The word here in some manuscripts is sunergon, God’s fellow worker, God’s fellow doer.  He was both God’s minister or God’s servant and God’s fellow worker.  And so he commends Timothy not only for his relationship to himself as his brother but for his relationship to God as God’s fellow worker, God’s servant, if you will, either one.  During their 20-year relationship the apostle had discipled Timothy and all during that 20-year relationship, that young man, Timothy, was the man to whom Paul would give his mantle.  And from the very beginning Paul trusted him. This, by the way, was Paul’s missionary trip, still in progress, the first trip Timothy ever took with himHe’s brand new.  He joined Paul in Acts 16. In Acts 17 they’re in Thessalonica.  So Timothy is pretty new.  Yet the deep trust had developed, a deep confidence, a settled confidence.  Paul really believed in this young man and he sent him to the very difficult places.

MacArthur summarises Paul’s deep friendship with Timothy:

During those years of relationship he never lost that trust.  And as Timothy was floundering a little bit at the end, he had to write 1 and 2 Timothy to really strengthen him just before his own death so Timothy would carry on the work. But from the start he trusted him and he respected him.  And he said, “He’s our brother and God’s fellow worker,” I love this, “in the gospel of Christ.”  He’s involved in extending the gospel.  He’s involved in the salvation message.  Three times in chapter 2 the gospel is called the gospel of God; now it’s called the gospel of Christ, same gospel.  God is source, Christ is subject, right?  God is source, Christ is subject, same gospel, the good news of salvation provided by God in Christ.

So he sent Timothy, the best, the very best, gave his best gift, his dearest friend, his companion, though it meant hardship, personal loneliness, and exposure for him Truly a good reminder, good lesson for me.  You spend your time discipling men and some day you think maybe you’ll pass the mantle onto them, but God begins to move and all of a sudden you have to let them go. Somewhere else calls and you have to send your best.  We’ve been doing that for many years.  It’s hard to do that, to let some of the best men go.  It’s wonderful that God lets you keep some but you have to send some where they’re needed and you can’t be selfish. You have to be unselfish.

MacArthur elaborates on Paul’s deep desire to see the Thessalonians strengthened, encouraged and comforted in their faith:

Compassion for the people, compassion for his people. This flows out of that affection and that unselfishness. And when I say compassion I’m not using that word in a very general sense but in a rather specific sense. It means to suffer with. And that’s exactly the sense in which I mean it.

The pastor’s heart feels the heart of his people. We find that in verse 2. Let’s look at it. Timothy was sent, and here’s the reason, “To strengthen and encourage you as to your faith,” to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith. Now the Thessalonian Christians were good. In fact, chapter 1 outlines how really noble they were. We went through that in great detail. They had heard the Word, and applied it. They had become imitators of the apostle and his companions and the Lord. They had endured some persecution. They had turned to God from idols. They were waiting for the Second Coming. They were really a noble bunch. But they were still a baby church. They were still young in the faith. They still needed nurturing and growth. And he says, “I’m sending Timothy for the express purpose of strengthening and encouraging you as to your faith …

This was Timothy’s task. And certainly he had seen it modeled by Paul. You notice those two words “strengthen and encourage.” Very simply let me tell you what they mean. The word “strengthen” means to support or establish, it’s the idea of buttressing something, to support it. In other words, I want your faith in God to be strong, to be established, to be firm, to be solid, to be unwavering. And then I want to encourage you to apply what you know. I want to strengthen the foundation of your faith and I want to encourage you to apply it.

Now he’s not saying, “I want to strengthen and encourage you in any other specific” than in your faith. You say, “Well why does he sort of reduce it to that?” Because listen, folks, it’s very simple. If you are strong in your faith in God and Christ, then you have a foundation by which you can live your life. If you are weak in that, it’s hard to apply it. But once that foundation is strong and you’re firm, you can be encouraged to apply what you know.

Let me say it another way. What you believe about God and what you believe about Christ are the key to how you live. The stronger my knowledge of God and Christ, the stronger my trust in them, right? The more I know about God through His revelation, the more I know about Christ, the more that is deeply imbedded in my heart, the stronger, more resolute and unwavering my confidence in Him will be. And then I can be encouraged to make application of those things I know. But if I don’t know too much about God, then I don’t know enough to trust Him in every issue. If I don’t know that much about Christ, then I can get knocked all over the place when somebody attacks me because I…I don’t know that much, my faith is vacillating.

Paul is saying, “I want Timothy to come and increase your capacity for trusting God and therefore encouraging you to apply God’s truth.” If I don’t trust God, I’m going to worry about everything. And if I don’t know all I need to know about God and about Christ, I don’t have enough information to make application. So he says I’m going to have Timothy come.

Paul says he is sending Timothy so that none of them will be ‘moved’ — discouraged — by their afflictions, because believers are destined for ‘this’, meaning a challenge to one’s faith by false teachers, who were already in Thessalonica, as well as persecution (verse 3).

Henry says:

There was danger, [1.] By reason of affliction and persecution for the sake of the gospel, v. 3. These Thessalonians could not but perceive what afflictions the apostles and preachers of the gospel met with, and this might possibly stumble them; and also those who made profession of the gospel were persecuted, and without doubt these Thessalonians themselves were afflicted.

MacArthur says that Paul was worried about the Thessalonians, so new to the faith, being lured away from it or vaccilating in it because of false teachers and/or persecution:

That is a very interesting verb, sainō. It means to wag and it was used of a dog wagging his tail.  I don’t want any of you going through this, being…going back and forth, back and forth.  In fact, it had a kind of an interesting possible meaning as well, it came to mean to allure, to fascinate, flatter or beguile.  You say, “How does that connect with a dog wagging his tail?”   Well, because when a dog comes up and wags his tail it is usually trying to draw attention to itself because it wants something.  And the word sort of went through an etymology and finally meant to allure, to fascinate, to flatter, to beguile.  I don’t want anybody either to knock you around and I don’t want anybody to fascinate, beguile, or allure you away from the truth.  So either meaning could have been in Paul’s mind. It’s difficult to know which.

Now what’s going to cause that? What’s going to cause them to waver or to be [lured] away from truth? He says, “These afflictions,” these pressures, these tests of faith. They can do that. I don’t want that to happen. So I’ve got to get Timothy there to get you strong. And he says, “I…I know they’re coming, for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.” How did they know? “For indeed when we were with you we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction and so it came to pass, as you know.” It was inevitable that it was going to come, we told you it was going to come, but when it comes I don’t want you to start moving around and being beguiled. I want you to stay strong and firm and true so I’m sending Timothy to do that. And he was already feeling their pain and their pressure and their tribulation and identifying with it.

It is important for true believers not to sugar-coat the Gospel, because our Lord Himself said that there would be trouble for new believers before there is inner peace:

That phrase, “You yourselves know that we have been destined for this,” boy, we ought to really camp on that today. You can say to someone when you’re leading them to Christ, “By the way, you’re not only destined for eternal glory, you’re destined for temporal trouble.” That’s right. There is no health, wealth, prosperity gospel being preached here. Paul is not saying Jesus is the answer to all of your problems. He is saying Jesus is the path to some new ones. When you give your life to Jesus Christ, you are promised eternal peace and temporal trouble. It’s guaranteed, it’s built in. “All that will live godly in this present age will suffer persecution.” Expect it, that’s how it is. We’re called to this. Peter says, “After you’ve suffered a while the Lord will make you perfect.” James says, “Count it all joy when you fall into these trials” because God is using them to perfect you. Paul says, “All these things that happen to you work together for good.” And he says, “No matter what comes against you, life, death, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth, nothing is going to ultimately move you from the love of God.” But the other side of it is, get ready cause it’s all going to come. It’s all going to come. You are destined for trouble. Jesus said, “That they treated Me this way, do you think they’ll treat you any different?” “In this world you shall have (what?) tribulation, be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” In other words, you’re going to have temporal trouble, look ahead to eternal glory

Preaching a prosperity ‘gospel’ or telling a convert that Christianity means a trouble-free life are causing that person to stumble:

You preach that stuff to people that Jesus will make you trouble free and then they have trouble and they’re going to question whether Jesus can do anything. They’re going to question His power. They’re going to question their conversion. Confusion is endless, because whether they preach a prosperity gospel or not, people are going to have trouble. They can preach it all they want, it won’t change anything, it isn’t reality. People are going to have trouble. Now you might as well be told, folks, you come to Christ, you’re going to have trouble, lots of trouble, because you’re living in a fallen world and you’re a fallen person. And not only that, you have enough trouble just being fallen in a fallen world, now you’re going to have trouble from the other fallen people in the fallen world who don’t like what you claim in Christ. So you’re going to have a different kind of trouble, a new kind of trouble.

But be of good cheer because what you have that they don’t have is you know it’s temporary. 

Paul tells the Thessalonians that when he was with them, he said they would suffer affliction, which it had and they knew it (verse 4).

MacArthur says:

“When we were with you we kept telling you in advance.” We were predicting it, that you were going to suffer affliction, you were going to be put under pressure. You knew it, we told you. But even though we told you, I also know you’ve got to be strong to deal with it.

MacArthur looks at Paul’s words and, universally, what should be a good pastor’s heart in leading a congregation:

Sometimes I wonder what people think a pastor is supposed to do. Some people think he’s supposed to entertain them. What a pastor is supposed to do is help you to get your faith so strong that when you go through trouble you can be encouraged to apply your faith. That’s a pastor’s responsibility. That’s a pastor’s heart. And in order to do that, you have to care about that. And Paul had compassion. He felt their pain, he hurt when they hurt, he was weak when they were weak. When they sinned he felt the pain.

Trouble, that’s inevitable. That’s the way it is in this world. Jesus said it, didn’t He? Let’s go a step above Paul and look at an even better model, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when all men revile you, persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake.” Jesus said in Matthew chapter 10, you can expect that the pupil will be like his teacher, the servant will be like his master. Implication, if they treat the master one way, they’ll treat the servant the same way. Expect it. Jesus gave us that pattern and He was so compassionate because He understood the trouble. Give me a pastor who expects that the Christian life is going to have pain and sorrow and difficulty and trouble, because then I’ll have the compassion that the pastor is supposed to have. Deliver me, Lord, from ever being under somebody who thinks life ought to be without trouble.

What is a pastor’s heart? The pastor’s heart is a heart that has affection for his people, the heart that is unselfish toward his people, a heart that has compassion for the trouble of his people. All that moved Paul to do what he did.

Paul then repeats some of the words he used in the first verse to impress upon the Thessalonians that, when he could bear his inner pain for them no longer, he sent Timothy to see how they were progressing in the faith; Paul did not want ‘the tempter’ — Satan — to cause them to vacillate in their faith, rendering his efforts useless (verse 5).

Paul faced trouble in Athens, but he sent Timothy to the Thessalonians anyway.

MacArthur reminds us:

… the work at Athens where he was when he sent Timothy was difficult.  He was facing cynical philosophers and speculators.  He was in a very anti-God, anti-Christ situation.  It would have been easy for him to say, “I wish I could send Timothy but I need him so much here, we’re trying to reach a whole city full of philosophers. We’re trying to reach a city on its way to hell.  I need his help.  I don’t want to be alone in trying to confront this cynical culture.”  But he said, “I couldn’t endure the separation, I couldn’t endure not knowing about you.  I couldn’t stand the lonely ignorance and so I thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone and sent Timothy.”  This is unselfishness.

MacArthur describes what the Thessalonians were experiencing:

They were being persecuted.  They were being attacked.  Satan was after them.  Demons were after them. Godless men and women were after them.  And again I submit to you that Jesus is the perfect model of compassion again, for it is He who is the sympathetic high priest who is touched the feelings of our infirmities, who is the perfect Shepherd, the true Shepherd, the great Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who feels the pain of His wounded people.  Jesus, the true Shepherd, Paul the under-shepherd had a pastor’s heart marked by affection, unselfishness and compassion …

MacArthur explains the fifth verse:

For this reason, he says, when I could endure it no longer, so I sent to find out about your faith.  What’s the reason?  The fear that the tempter had tempted you and all our effort was for nothing.  I wanted to protect you from the tempter.  This is the real care of the pastor.  Paul had a great sense of watchfulness, a sense of protectiveness.  He was deeply concerned.  To be real honest with you, when he sent Timothy… Now remember, he was in Athens when he sent Timothy. Later on in Corinth, Timothy returned back and told him everything was well at Thessalonica, and that’s when he wrote this letter back.  So the commendation of this church in chapter 1 is based on Timothy going and bringing back the report But at the time when he sent Timothy, he had no such report.  He didn’t know if their faith would stand the test.  Consequently he didn’t know if it was real faith.

There is a kind of response to the gospel that springs up for a little while.  Remember the rocky ground in Matthew 13?  And when the tribulation comes and the pressure and the persecution, it dies.  There is a kind of response that springs up for a little while, but it’s the weedy ground, and the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the allurements of the flesh choke it out and it dies, and only time will tell.  And when Paul sent Timothy, he didn’t have any word yet about their labor of love and their patience of hope He didn’t have any word about the fact that they were imitators of Paul and the others.  He didn’t have any word yet that the Word was sounding out from them.  He didn’t have any word yet that they had truly turned from idols to serve the living God and that they were waiting for Jesus Christ.  That’s what he wanted to know.  Was their faith real?  You can’t tell at the moment.  You may not be able to tell in the first few weeks.  But when the trials come and the testing comes, then you can tell

What does Satan want to do when the seed is sown?  Well if he can’t come along and pick it right off, he wants to destroy it with the heat of persecution.  He wants to choke it out with the enticing lusts of the flesh and the eyes and the pride of life that are lured by the world and riches.

Henry says that Satan takes advantage of believers’ suffering and lures them away from faith:

The devil is a subtle and unwearied tempter, who seeks an opportunity to beguile and destroy us, and takes all advantages against us, both in a time of prosperity and adversity; and he has often been successful in his attacks upon persons under afflictions. He has often prejudiced the minds of men against religion on account of the sufferings its professors are exposed to. We have reason therefore to be jealous [protective] over ourselves and others, lest we be ensnared by him …

Note, It is the devil’s design to hinder the good fruit and effect of the preaching of the gospel. If he cannot hinder ministers from labouring in the word and doctrine, he will, if he be able, hinder them of the success of their labours. Note also, Faithful ministers are much concerned about the success of their labours. No one would willingly labour in vain; and ministers are loth to spend their strength, and pains, and time, for nought.

MacArthur explains Paul’s concern that his work in planting the Thessalonian church might have been in vain:

“Our fear would be that the tempter would come and tempt you and our labor should be in vain.”  What a statement.  That Satan would come and snatch the seed away.  Satan would come and bring the pressure and the plant would die, choke off, and it would all be for nothing.  Our labor, that word kopos, sweat, toil, would be for nothing, useless, empty, void, wasted, pointless.

And so he was a protector.  He didn’t want to work for nothing.  He didn’t want to come to the end of his life and realize that all the effort he made was absolutely empty and void.  And if their faith did fail, then it would have been for nothing.  If their faith failed then they weren’t real Christians at all.  Or if their faith failed, they had those initial longings toward believing but they were choked out, and even if their faith was real and they were true Christians and they fell into gross sin at some point, temptation, victims of those attacking them, it would have broken his heart and he would have felt like he failed.  So there’s a…there’s a protectiveness.

Jesus thought and prayed similarly:

As He prayed to His Father, the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, verse 15, He says, “I don’t ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.”  He prayed a protective prayer, too.  He told Peter, “I’m going to protect you.  Satan’s going to sift you, he’s going to throw you in the air, turmoil, trouble, but I’m going to protect you.”

Today we learned more about the characteristics of a true pastor, a shepherd of the flock:

What marks the true shepherd’s heart?  Affection, unselfishness, compassion, protectiveness.  Let me give you a fifth, delight in his people

We’ll find out more about the fifth characteristic next week.

Next time — 1 Thessalonians 3:6-8