The Pain of Labor, the Joy of Delivery

I. Gospel-induced Anxiety – 3:1-5; The gospel creates a number of earnest and irrepressible expectations and desires

A. We and I – The word “we” is used twice in 1, once in 2, once in 3, three times in 4; in verse 5 he switches to “I” twice, but uses the pronoun “our” in speaking of the evangelistic labor. Verse 6 uses “us” three times and “we” once. Verse 7 has “our” and “we; verse 8 “we,” verse 9 “we” twice, verse 10 “we” twice. Verse 11 uses “our” three times but just once specifically related to Paul and his cohort. Verse 12 uses “we” once.

    1. Though it is possible that this is a literary “we” meaning “I,” its use in verse 4 (“when we were with you”) indicates that he has in mind the entire cohort, including at least Paul, Silas (Acts 17:10), and probably Timothy (Acts 17:14) and maybe Luke (Acts 16:10-17 [“we” and “us”]).
    2. The consistent use of the plural shows that the work was a corporate work. The entire team, apostle Paul and those qualified messengers, Silas, Timothy, and Luke were zealous for the success of the gospel. This consisted of two Jews, one mixed Jew/Gentile, and one Gentile. All of them knew that the Messiah had come for them to create a new people zealous for the glory of Jesus’ name and for good works (Titus 2:11-14 and Philippians 2:9-11).
    3. The “I” indicates that Paul as the apostle took the initiative in relation to develop strategy and lead the team in its journeys under God’s providence and specific direction (Acts 16:9, 10; 17:14, 15). “When we could endure it no longer, … when I could endure it no longer: (1, 5).

B. Paul and the others had unbearable desire to know about the faith of the Thessalonians.

    1. The gospel had indeed come to them, the Thessalonians, in the context of affliction and even violent opposition. All of the team sensed their responsibility to be stewards of both their message and their suffering (2:2-4). Jointly their hope and expectations were challenged severely by the abrupt way in which Paul had to go (Acts 17:14). Silas and Timothy stayed a while longer, (perhaps Luke also) but Paul soon sent for Timothy and Silas to join him. They came to him after he had moved from Athens to Corinth (Acts 18:5).
    2. Paul’s language indicates that Timothy went back to Thessalonica from Berea before joining Paul. Though he loved the support, fellowship, and participation of his gospel friends, his desire for their presence was second place to his desire for knowledge about the stability and progress of the saints in Thessalonica. Thus, they all were invested in the spiritual well-being of the church in Thessalonica. They would not, could not, rest until they gained first-hand intelligence about this church’s young pilgrimage as followers of Jesus.
    3. Every Christian finds a peculiar joy in learning about the progress of Christians with whom they have been associated in the past, though providence has separated them by time and distance. This joy and concern rests on the foundation of a common eternal interest: a status as children of God by adoption, the astonishment of forgiveness and justification, and the unhindered and unalloyed vision and worship of the triune God.

C. A Mission fit for Timothy (2).

    1. The chronology suggested by this statement makes difficult a perfect re-creation of the chronology in Acts. Timothy joined Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5), but this suggests that Paul sent Timothy from Athens, where Paul was before he went to Corinth (“We thought it best to be left at Athens alone.”) There can be no doubt that both accounts are accurate, but we do not have sufficient detail immediately available to present a consecutively flowing chronology. Perhaps the answer as suggested above, is that Paul asked Timothy to delay his coming to Athens (Acts 17:15), to return to Thessalonica from Berea to make sure that the freshly founded church was prospering in their faith. Silas, and possibly Luke, were to stay in Berea and minister to the believers there while Timothy made his return trip to Thessalonica.
    2. Timothy was the perfect person to do this. Paul also sent him to Philippi as one who “will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. … You know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance like a child serving his father” (Philippians 2:19-22).
      • Here he is described as “our brother” (2) showing Paul’s confidence in Timothy’s depth of experience in gospel truth and power (2 Timothy 1:5).
      • Also we read, “God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ” showing his submission in mind and heart to the apostolic message revealed to Paul concerning the person and work of Christ and the purpose of the Father in bringing particular glory to each person of the triune God through the redemptive work of the Son (Ephesians 1:3-14). Timothy was not making up a separate gospel but followed and understood the teaching of Paul without equivocation (See 1 Corinthians 2:6-13 for Paul’s claim to revelation of truth to be known in no other way; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; 3:10-17 for Timothy’s utter compliance in Paul’s message– “according to my gospel; … You, however, followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings”)
      • Paul had had to leave in such a flurry, that he knew these people needed encouragement and further strengthening in their grasp of what is involved in the gospel (“in your faith”) both as to basic teachings concerning Christ and the ethical implications of repentance. God would give them prophets with instructions arising from special revelation, but they needed deeper grounding in apostolic doctrine so they would know how to judge these supposed revelatory episodes in their corporate times of worship (5:19-22). There were false apostles as well as false prophets and the instruction from Timothy as an unvarnished messenger from Paul would give the kind of maturity in truth needed in this early stage of growth in grace and knowledge that they might test those who sought to function as inspired teachers (Revelation 2:2).

D. Affliction a concomitant of gospel faith (3, 4). Paul as was concerned that the resistance that remained with them even after his departure could discourage them. As they saw in him, and as he instructed them while he was there, affliction would accompany faith as believers lived before an unbelieving, and even hostile, world.

    1. Paul used the strong word, set, or destined, for afflictions. This word was used by Simeon in the temple when he told Mary that this child “is set, or destined, for the fall and rise of many in Israel ” (Luke 2:34). By the very nature of who Christ was, upon his person and work rested the final destiny of all people. Even so, by the very nature of true faith in Christ as seen by the world, affliction will be in the offing.
    2. In accord with this relation between faith and the world, Paul did indeed before their very eyes experience affliction. Paul warned them it would happen “and so it came to pass, as you know.” And so, it was a matter of realistic concern that he wanted to know how this aspect of faith, endurance under distress, was working out for these professed believers.
    3. Endurance under trial is a vital element of the early confessional doctrine of apostolic Christianity.

For if we died with him,

We will also live with him;

If we endure,

We will also reign with him;

If we deny him,

He also will deny us;

If we are faithless, he remains faithful,

For he cannot deny himself.

2 Timothy 2:11-13

God remains faithful to himself when he denies those who deny him. This was apostolic doctrine and Paul wanted to make sure that the pressure of affliction had not revealed love for the present world to be more than love for Christ.

E. Should they not have persevered, an essential element of gospel faith, the labor and tribulation involved in the Thessalonican ministry would have been in vain (5). Paul knows that in his consistent and inveterate opposition to all that involves the work of the Son of God, the “tempter” (5) would see to it that doubts were sown and opposition seemingly formidable. But true faith, generated by the Spirit of God, will look beyond the present trial to the eternal glory (Compare 2 Timothy 2:14-19).

F. “Faith,” “the faith,” and “your faith (2, 5, 6, 7, 10). Paul in referring consistently to “your faith” is concerned to ascertain that it is a real “faith” (Hebrews 11:1; 2 Timothy 1:5) and that it is in conformity with “the faith” (Titus 1:1; 1 Timothy 6:10; 2 Timothy 4:7). The Baptist Catechism defines faith in Jesus Christ as a “saving grace whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” This definition includes:

    1. God’s grace draws the sinner effectually, for, left to himself, the traits of faith would never arise in the heart of stone.
    2. “We receive and rest” means that faith, in part, consists of an attitude of complete reliance. Something not of ourselves is set before us so perfectly fitting to our revealed needs that we grasp it wholeheartedly without reservation, knowing that that thing alone will suffice for the need.
    3. “Upon him alone” means that the sinner finds in Christ everything that is needful for reconciliation with a holy God: not him plus our works, not him plus any sacraments or sacramentals, not him in conjunction with anything outside of his person and redemptive work. “In Christ alone my hope is found” and my faith is placed.
    4. “As he is offered to us in the gospel” means that the object of our faith conforms to the historical reality of who Christ is as God and man in one person. This divine human person lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s revealed law summarized in perfect love for God and neighbor. This perfect righteousness is imputed to us. This person also died for sinners by a substitutionary death in which he himself took the just punishment that those sinners for whom he died deserved. By this death we are justly and graciously forgiven. “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 9).
    5. There is, therefore, a flow of continuity between faith as a posture of dependence, the faith as defining the content of that on which one may fully depend, and “your faith” as conforming to those qualities of faith.

II. Love-induced relief – 3:6-10

A. “But now” (6) – Replacing his anxiety was a joyful confidence of a powerful working of God that brought them to true faith.

    1. We have seen the movement from a sense of distress to exuberant joy and relief in many human situations. A half-court three pointer that gains a one point victory, a 52 yard field goal that turn defeat to victory, a letter from authorities that confirms the safety of a person reported as MIA: These show the reality of human emotions that see both sadness and joy as an expression of the image of God.
    2. God’s simplicity and immutability in their infinite perfection embrace distinct manifestations of expression in relation to the finiteness of the created order. These divine expressions toward individual phenomena form variety in affections that correspond to human interaction to grievous events and joyful events. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name in Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry, for the spirit would grow faint before me, and the breath of life that I made. Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain, I was angry. I struck him, I hid my face and was angry, …but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners, creating the fruit of the lips. ‘Peace, peace to the far and the near,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will heal him.’” (Isaiah 57:15-20) “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate. But you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married. For the Lord delights in you … and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62: 4, 5).
    3. Paul and his fellow-workers were distressed but good news brought them to rejoice.

B. The return and the report of Timothy (6). Timothy brought news of true spiritual fruit and of a reciprocal love and desire for future fellowship. Paul viewed each element of Timothy’s news as indicative of a true work of the Spirit of God in drawing them to the gospel.

    1. “Your faith and love,” Faith is never empty consent to propositions but arises from a heart change that approves “the things that are excellent” (Philippians 1:10; 4:8). One would never have faith apart from an alteration of affections from irreverence to love (1 Peter 1:7-9; 2 Peter 1:5-8). Their love for Paul and his gospel gave evidence of real faith.
    2. “You think kindly of us.” For the sake of their suffering to bring to them the gospel, the Thessalonians felt bonded with Paul and his fellow-workers. To be loved rather than disliked, to generate thought and feelings of kindness rather than contempt or suspicion lifts he spirit and pleases the mind. When it is for the right reasons, it is good for men to speak well of us. “Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself; and we add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true” (3 John 12).
    3. “Longing to see us just as we also long to see you” (6). Admiration and kind thought from afar are excellent in Christian relations, but how much better to receive benefit from face to face fellowship, teaching, admonition and testimony. Later (11) Paul prays for his way to be made clear so that he himself can see them, expand their faith through expanded teaching, and that they will be mutually encouraged to walk in faith and move toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. He wanted to say to them as he said to the Philippians, “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).
    4. Because of this report received from Timothy, Paul could begin his letter with the confidence he showed in 1:2-6. He knew that they were elect of God and that the gospel had come with true converting power from the Holy Spirit. Their work arose from faith, their labor arose from love, and their (now observed) steadfastness arose from genuine gospel hope. They desired to emulate the Christian witness and steadfastness of Paul, Timothy, and Silas (1:1).

C. The comfort of gospel faith transcends distress and affliction (7). To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” The good news of a reciprocated love made present distress seem as nothing, especially as this love arises from a common source in the eternal love of God for an elect people. His main comfort centered on their faith. Their unwavering trust in the unchanging truth of the gospel demonstrated that their heart had been transformed by the love of Christ and was, therefore, fixed on a love for Christ.

D. “We live” – Life here has durability and transcends the sentence of death when penetrated with the qualities of eternal life. In spite of repressive circumstances in every place he goes and the constant threat of arrest or of death, Paul can say, with, a shout of confidence and assurance and triumph, “We live.” This exuberant affirmation comes because he has gained information that the Thessalonian are standing firm in the Lord. The faithfulness of others to the truth of the gospel and to the exclusive truth claims of the living Lord Jesus Christ brings overcoming joy to believers. Especially was this so with Paul who had suffered in bringing to them this message of forgiveness, holiness, and hope of eternal life.

E. A prayer for the expansion of apostolic labor (10) – Paul wanted to see their face, that is he wanted to be in the personal presence of all the believers to whom he had preached, with whom and for the sake of whom he had suffered affliction, and other believers that had been added since that day. He prayed “night and day” with deep feeling and earnest solicitation for this. Not only for the joy of fellowship did he pray, but that he might extend his peculiar apostolic calling in that church for their growth and deeper confirmation in the revealed truth of God—“Complete what is lacking in your faith.” Their faith as a matter of trust lacked nothing; their faith as a matter of expanded content had many gaps yet to fill.

III. God-induced holiness – 11-13

A. The sovereign operations of the triune God for which Paul prays are all actions of grace in concert with each other.

B. Three distinct elements of Paul’s prayer.

    1. Temporal possibility: The first request is for divine arrangement of Paul’s return to Thessalonica (11). As Paul conceived it, this request was consistent with his call as an apostle and his duty to the Thessalonians. It was directly connected with the means of God’s communication of growth in grace to his holy people. Though not mentioned specifically, this prayer probably was fulfilled in Acts 20:1, 2: Paul “departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece”
    2. Spiritual necessity: The second request (12) concerns a work of sanctification that will irresistibly operate in all Christians at different rates and to different degrees. Till God brings this transformation to unmixed purity, we will by stops and starts, in bits and pieces, but with an ever upward trajectory, pursue the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. The specific manifestation of this growth in grace would be their love for each other and for all people. Paul mentioned this again in 4:9, 10—“You yourselves are taught by God to love one another.” This is consistent with the idea of love as foundational to faith.
    3. Eternal certainty: Request three looks toward the inevitable perfection of all the saints at the return of Christ (13). This process of sanctification in love and holiness will be perfected “at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” The completion of sanctification at the coming of Christ he addressed again in 5:23, 24. John looks toward this with a palpable delight and hopeful anticipation: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, be cause we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2, 3).
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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