December - January 2023
Lighting the Darkness
INTERSECT | Instructions for the Journey
1 Thessalonians 2:17—3:5
If you were going to teach a class to new Christians, what would you include in your teaching? To what essential things would you introduce them? If you cannot imagine teaching a class, what about a conversation with a friend, a new Christian looking for guidance? What would be your advice, your instructions for his or her new journey of faith?
Books for new Christians are filled with topics such as baptism, the importance of being connected to the church, giving, how to practice Bible reading and prayer, and the need for service. And these topics are crucial for new Christians. However, I have rarely—if ever— encountered material on suffering and adversity for new Christians. But Paul made sure to tell the new Christians in Thessalonica afflictions would be part of their Christian experience, sharing three important things the Thessalonians needed to know on their journey of faith.
First, Paul expressed grief he had been torn away from these young Christians and asked how they were doing. The word translated “taken from you” or “torn away” is the Greek word from which the English word “orphan” is derived. When Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica, he and his coworkers were soon driven away by the Jews (Acts 17). The Christians in Thessalonica helped
Paul and Silas escaped by night to Berea, yet the angry group of Jews pursued them even there.
The flight created a separation, an unwilling and unnatural separation between a spiritual father (Paul) and his spiritual children (the Thessalonians). Perhaps you have experienced the emotions of separation when sending a child off to college, helping her or him settle into a dorm room or apartment. Perhaps you remember the long drive home, worrying about how he or she is doing, hoping you have taught all the right things, or perhaps recalling something you meant to say before leaving. In these verses, Paul shared three things with the Thessalonians, who were now “on their own” and apart from him.
Know afflictions are coming. One of the reasons the “prosperity gospel” is so damaging is because it ignores (or denies) hard truths. Paul certainly wasn’t a health and wealth, name-it-and-claim-it, first century evangelist. Absolutely not! He warned the Thessalonians tribulations would come as part of their Christian experience. He shared no hint that suffering affliction results from lack of faith. In contrast, he made it clear afflictions come to all of us.
It seems clear these Christians were suffering persecution for their faith. Earlier in the chapter, Paul described the suffering they faced from their own countrymen, like what Paul and his ministry partners suffered themselves at the hands of the Jews. While we may never experience this level of persecution, we can expect suffering, adversity, and affliction as part of our journey. Jesus Himself urged followers to stand strong in the faith through difficult times, encouraging them that while they would experience tribulation in this world, He has overcome the world
Simply knowing unpleasant things are coming helps you prepare for them. Consider daily commuter traffic, especially in a big city. You know traffic is worse at certain times of the day—the dreaded “rush hour.” And when you find yourself stuck in rush hour traffic—while it doesn’t make the experience any better—you aren’t caught off guard. You knew rush hour was coming and you understood the possibility of being stuck in traffic before you turned the key in the ignition. While we don’t know the specific hardships and afflictions we will encounter in life, knowing they are coming helps prepare for them to arrive.
Know the adversary you face. Paul desperately wanted to visit the Thessalonians, but his plans were continually hindered or thwarted by Satan. While we shouldn’t think Satan is behind every instance when our plans fall apart, Paul makes it clear his efforts to establish these Christians in the faith had been impeded by Satan. This phrase is sometimes interpreted “blocked our way.”
When we desire to help others come to faith in Christ and progress in their faith, we can expect opposition. Just as we should not be surprised by trials and affliction, neither should we be taken off-guard by these attacks from the evil one.
Specifically, the context here is affliction. Paul warned the Thessalonians they would suffer affliction. Further, Timothy had been sent to establish and exhort them, so no one would be defeated by the afflictions. Hardships sometimes create an environment where people, if not careful, move away from God. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, when handled correctly, affliction, hardship, and trials bring us closer to God.
Temptation comes in many forms. Satan tailors them for everyone, exploiting the situation, and his or her weaknesses. In those moments, Satan whispers things like: “Why is God allowing this in your life? I thought He loved you?” “It would be much easier if you stopped going to church. You can do this on your own.” “Here is what you need. After all, you have been through so much, you deserve something; no one will ever know, and God understands.”
He is the tempter, alluring and deceiving, providing the bait while hiding the hook.
Know the allies at your side. Scripture stresses just how much we need other people to live out our faith journey. It is hard to miss Paul’s emotionally charged language as he describes his desire to see the Thessalonians and his reasons for sending Timothy: to establish them in the faith (to confirm their convictions and beliefs); to encourage (exhort) them in their faith; and to bring news back to Paul.
In these words, we observe an interconnectedness in their faith. Paul didn’t simply preach the gospel, make a few converts, and then move on to another city. He was deeply concerned new Christians grow in their faith, their love for Christ, and their concern for one another.
This face-to-face dynamic doesn’t communicate as well in English, but in verse 17, Paul used the word for face/countenance, and it appears again in verse 17. He was eager to see them again, face to face. If the recent pandemic taught us anything, it taught us the value of physical, human interaction. We have been created with soul, mind, and spirit. Yet, as humans, we have physical bodies, part of God’s good design. We need more than virtual interaction.
The Incarnation of Christ is the greatest illustration of this. Jesus, the Word of God, the eternal Son, was made flesh and lived among us, as John wrote in his Gospel. He lived among us—lived and died and rose again—so we might one day enjoy a face-to-face relationship with Him. As
1 Corinthians 13:12 describes it: now we see through a glass darkly, but someday, we will see Him face-to-face. Until then, we need one other, allies on the journey, encouraging, supporting, and correcting one another.
Being prepared for the road before us is important. While we cannot always see what’s coming over the horizon, these essential directions from Paul enable us to navigate our way. Afflictions will come. Our adversary will do his best to steer us off-course. But thank God for our allies, our friends and family in the faith upon whom we can (and should) depend.
About the Columnist: Dr. Barry Raper pastors Bethel FWB Church near Ashland City, Tennessee. He also serves as program coordinator for ministry studies at Welch College. Barry and his wife Amanda have five children.