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TEXT: I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13
SUBJECT: Thessalonians #5: Paul's Love
In the Book of Revelation, our Lord rebukes a church for losing its first love. The people were solid in other ways, but the bloom of their love was off the rose. They didn't hate each other; they weren't splitting into factions; and they still had the shell of brotherly love. But that's all they had-a shell. Like an old married couple, they got along pretty well, but the fire they once had for each other had gone out.
This could not please the Lord, of course, but you'd think He would put up with it. But He didn't. He was angry at that church-furious might be the word I'm looking for. And He told them, in no uncertain terms, that if they did not repent of their room temperature love, He would come to them in an appalling judgment.
Love matters to Christ. He wants us to love one another with a fervent love. He never wants the honeymoon to end.
Not all of us feel this way. We're polite, dutiful, and nice enough to get by, but our love for each other is not what it used to be. Maybe we too have left our first love.
But Paul didn't. He had been a Christian for twenty years when he wrote I Thessalonians, and his love for his brothers and sisters in Christ was hotter than ever. You can find his love splashed all over the Letter, but especially here in the middle.
The goal of my sermon is not to expound this middle part of the Book so that we will understand this middle part of the Book better than we did. I don't want to be a teacher this morning; I want to be an arsonist! I want to take Paul's sacred flame and light my own heart on fire with it-and yours too.
God help us all.
The passage begins with Paul's desire. What does the man want more than anything else? He was in trouble when he wrote the letter, but not he's after relief. He's after his friends in Thessalonica. He and Silas (and the others)
Endeavored more earnestly to see your face with great desire. We wanted to come to you-again and again.
Look at the passion of Paul's desire. He's not a clergyman doing his rounds, but a man of God who truly, deeply, and intensely loves his people.
At the moment, he's absent in body-but not in heart. While he had a million things to do elsewhere, he never forgot the saints in Thessalonica. He not only thought about them now and then or remembered them in his prayers, but he longed for their company; letters weren't good enough: he wanted to see them face to face!
Before going on, I need to ask: Do you feel this way about going to church? Is it something you have to do or something you get to do? On Sunday, or any other day, do you look forward to seeing your brothers and sisters in Christ? Are you unhappy when they're gone? Do you miss them? Not, do you miss what they do for you, but do you miss them? I was away one Sunday, and a man told me, Boy, did I ever miss your preaching last week. I didn't think of it at the time, but I should have replied, Yeah, but did you miss me? People are not tools; we're persons to be thought of and loved as persons-and not as functions.
Paul wanted to see his old friends, but he couldn't. Why not? Not from lack of desire or a lack of effort either, but because
Satan hindered us.
This is an interesting comment and I wonder what we would make of it if it weren't in the Bible? Would we wonder about the person who said it? Would we take him for a Pentecostal? Would we explain to him the doctrine of God's Sovereignty and how not even a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father?
We need to be careful about being too quick to judge; we shouldn't seize on every word a person says and make more of it than it really is.
Of course Paul knew about the Sovereignty of God (he nearly invented the doctrine!). But he saw-under the lordship of God-an evil power at work in the world. The power is real, personal, and relentless. It was set against Paul and kept him from getting back to Thessalonica. The power has a name, and he lives up to it-Satan, which means adversary.
Even though the devil was frustrating his ability to see them, he was not cutting into Paul's desire. In fact, he was increasing it. Satan, you might say, is a sophomore. That's a Greek word that means wise fool. Satan is good at tactics, but he's bad at strategy. He could keep Paul from getting to Thessalonica, but in doing it, he increased Paul's love for them and their love for him! Which is the opposite of what he intended.
Why does Paul want to see his old friends again? I hinted at this already, but let me spell it out for you: He wanted to see them because they were dear to him.
Nobody worked harder than Paul; nobody made more sacrifices than he did, and he did it all for Christ (in one way), but in another way, he did it all for the Church. The believers he won to Christ was the reward he had for his labors. They were his glory, hope, joy and crown of rejoicing.
Seeing them happy in Christ now and one day in heaven with Christ meant everything to Paul. He wanted to see them because they were precious to him; in other words, because he loved them.
PAUL'S BACKUP PLAN
If Paul's spirit was with his friends, his body was not-and he couldn't get it there. But where there's a will, there's a way. If Paul can't visit them, he goes to Plan B: Send Timothy.
This says something about Paul. It says he has a strong will, but he remains flexible. If his wishes are denied, he doesn't sulk or try to ram them through God's will, but he looks for other options. And he chooses the best one.
Timothy is sent in Paul's place. He's a young man, Jewish on his mother's side, shy and sickly. Sounds like a pretty bad choice for working with rough and tumble Gentiles, but he's Paul's man for sure. Why? Because he's a brother, a minister of God, and a fellow laborer in the Gospel.
The most important of these words is brother. Whatever Timothy is or isn't, he is Paul's brother because, like the older man, he's a child of God.
He's also a minister of God. The word, 'minister' does not mean pastor, preacher, evangelist, and so on. It means servant. Timothy not only belongs to God, but he serves Him, not perfectly, but well and from the heart.
He's a fellow laborer in the Gospel. I'm not sure which of these words I should underline-maybe all of them. Laborer means a worker of some kind, but the kind of work he does is the kind you don't want to do! He's not the receptionist who sits at her desk looking pretty, but the ditch digger who breaks his back all day every day. He's also a fellow laborer, meaning he works with Paul and shares in the poverty and persecution that goes with it. The labor he does is the best kind of all: Gospel work. He's announcing the Good News from Heaven-that Christ has died for us and given us a new way to live.
Timothy is Paul's right hand man. In another place, he says of him, I have no man like-minded who will naturally care for the church. Others have to be told what to do and checked up on, but not Timothy. Like Paul, he loves the church from the bottom of his heart and can think of no happier life than one spent serving it. With all the headaches and heartaches that go with it.
Timothy's mission is to
Establish you and encourage you concerning your faith, that no one should be shaken by these afflictions.
The Thessalonians already believed in Christ, but the pressures of life were starting to weaken their faith-that's what Paul feared at least. Who's better suited to buck up their faith than a young man who's weak and shy-but who also stands firm for Christ whatever comes his way?
Timothy is a perfect choice to establish and encourage them.
But he doesn't do it. When he gets to Thessalonica, he finds they don't need his help. They're being excluded and vilified, exiled, and killed, yet their faith and love remain firm.
Paul knows their faith is strong because they're Standing fast in the Lord. The picture he has in mind is a brave soldier. Though the enemy is on the attack and many are falling at his side, the man is holding his ground. If he's going to die, he's going to die fighting and not running.
The picture here may be more than a picture. The enemies were coming at the church with indictments and with clubs. If they couldn't get them in trouble with the law, they'd beat them to death. The Thessalonians could have run-literally run, run off to some other town where nobody knew them and where they could keep their big mouths shut about Jesus and all that.
But they didn't run. They stood fast in the Lord-for Him and by His grace.
There's a lot to be said for plain old guts. I know some people mistake stupidity for courage, but many more mistake cowardice for wisdom. I know some verses in the Bible allow for fleeing and call us to live quiet, peaceable lives, and so on. But many others call for standing up and making noise for Christ! Discretion is needed, but not only discretion! We also need courage-the guts to say what people don't want us to say-and to face the music.
Persecution for Christ's sake is not the exception; it's the rule. Paul says we are appointed to this. We Calvinists love that word, appointment because it teaches that things don't happen by chance or by the free will of man. But we only like it when it comes to good appointments-like meeting your best friend for lunch-on him! We don't like it so well when the appointment is more like a Dentist's Appointment (for double root canal, and a pulled tooth or two).
But the God who made out the calendar for us put two kinds of things on it: some happy (like being forgiven) and others less happy (like suffering for Christ).
If Paul was happy about their faith, he was even happier about their love. It was
Good news about your love.
The love he has in mind is their love for him. Paul was delighted to hear that they had not forgotten their old friend, that he was still very dear to them, and that they wanted to see him as badly as he wants to see them. He calls that Good News-the word is Gospel.
Paul was a devout Jew and he never used holy words casually. Since he had been a Christian, that word, Gospel, was precious to him. And that's the only word he can come up with when he finds out that his old friends in Thessalonica still love him. Good news!
Was Paul an egomaniac who judged people by how much they loved him? No, he was a Christian who knew that love for Christ means love for His people.
THE EFFECTS ON PAUL
Good news has a way of cheering you up. That's what it did for Paul. In vv.8-9, he said it did three things for him:
It kept him alive-For now we live if you stand fast in the Lord. His love was go great that if his loved ones quit the Lord, it would kill him. Did he mean that literally? That he would really die if they gave up Christ? Maybe.
Certainly, it brings to mind poor old Jacob looking at the bloody coat. Tearing his clothes, pulling out his hair, and saying, I shall go to the grave mourning for my son who is torn to pieces!
It made him thankful-For what thanks can we render to God for you? Paul is more than satisfied, he's overjoyed, and overjoyed means just that-joy overflowing. Into what? Into giving thanks to God!
The good news has put Paul in the Presence of God. And, like the priest coming out of the Tabernacle long ago, he comes from God with a blessing-two of them, in fact,
For himself and his partners in ministry, Paul says,
Now may our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you.
I can't labor this, of course, but I should say this throws light on Paul's theology. The source of all blessing is God-I am the Lord and I will not give My glory to another. Yet Paul divvies up that glory (so to speak) between God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Why? Not because our Lord is a saint likely to win God's favor, but because our Lord is God-and is equal to the Father in every way!
Paul hopes the Lord will permit him to see his old friends once again-and the sooner the better.
He also has a blessing for the Thessalonians,
And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another.
Paul has just learned that they love each other with a fervent love, but he wants them to love each other even more. And why not? Who ever loved too much? If Christ is our pattern for loving others, we don't have to worry about overdoing it.
This great love for each other will result in holiness of life and a readiness to meet the Lord when He comes again.
So that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.
Holiness and love cannot be separated. You've heard men described as holy, but lacking in love. By holy, we mean they don't get drunk, thy pay their bills, they don't gawk at women, they go to church, say their prayers, know their Bibles, and so on.
But the fact is, holiness and love are just two names for the same thing. If the root word of holiness is separate, then how can you better separate yourself from the world and devote yourself to God than by loving others?
At the end, he throws in a reminder that the Lord is coming again. He'll develop this later, but for now, he tells us what to do until He does. In a word, we love one another. That's what you do until Jesus Christ. And if you do, you'll be ready for Him.
The example Paul set is worthy of our study and admiration. But more than that, it demands our imitation. If he loves the People of God with all his heart, we should too. If he craves their company and misses them when they're absent, we should do the same. God help us. For Christ sake. Amen.
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