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“And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” — 1 Thessalonians 3:12
A Time for Anticipation
As we enter the season of Advent, we are reminded to look forward to the coming of Christ, but we know it is also a time of looking forward to reunions with friends and family. Many people have blessed us and loved us through the years, and we have loved them in return. There’s nothing inherently Christmas-like about family gatherings, but they often happen during this season. Any opportunity to visit with people of our hearts has an inherently spiritual feeling about it.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Thessalonica (today called Thessaloniki), he was feeling that same mix of love and joy and spiritual blessing.
A happy report(vv. 6-8)
Paul had first come to know and love the people of Thessalonica while engaged in what is popularly known as his second missionary journey. Along with Silas and Timothy, Paul had passed through northern Asia (now Turkey), and was led by a vision to set sail from Troas, where Luke joined them on the way to Macedonia (Acts 16:1-10).They landed at Neapolis and made their way inland to Philippi, where they experienced a tumultuous ministry before moving on.
When the party arrived in Thessalonica, Paul preached in the local synagogue for three weeks, but was thrown out after he had convinced “a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women” to follow Jesus (Acts 17:4).
After they began to meet at the home of a man named Jason, angry synagogue leaders instigated a mob that stormed Jason’s home. When they could not find Paul and Silas, they hauled Jason and some other new believers before the authorities on charges of harboring treasonous troublemakers (Acts 17:5-9). Friends spirited Paul and Silas out of town in the dark of night and the missionaries moved on to Berea, then to Athens, but Paul did not forget the young believers in Thessalonica.
While in Athens, the companions decided to send Timothy back for a quiet visit, concerned that the young church might have floundered in the face of persecution (1 Thess. 2:17-3:5). Timothy returned with a glowing report that the church was not fizzling, but sizzling, and Paul expressed his delight by sending the letter we now call 1 Thessalonians. In today’s text, Paul speaks of his longing to visit the young believers again and to encourage them in their continued growth and progress. Thus, Paul rejoices that Timothy had just arrived with “the good news of your faith and love,” and had affirmed their longing for Paul to visit again (v. 6).
If someone should visit your church and return to tell others about the experience, what terms would they use to describe it? Would they describe your congregation as cold or warm? Dull or vibrant? Engaged or apathetic?
Timothy had told Paul that the Thessalonians were known for their faith and their love. In his opening prayer of thanks, Paul had expressed gratitude for the church’s work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope (1:3). Now he reiterates his joy that they were steadfast in their commitment to God, and acted on their faith through showing love to one another.
Isn’t that what we would want others to say of our church? Not that we bicker over non-essentials or isolate ourselves from society, but that we focus on a common faith and live out a common love? Attracting more people to our congregation is not a matter of flashy advertising campaigns or technological wizardry. People longing for connection with God and others will naturally gravitate toward a church that is truly faithful and loving.
Paul knew what it was like to face struggles, but found them easier to deal with when he knew that his work had borne fruit and his friends were doing well: “During all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith” (v. 7). We can experience similar encouragement.
This is one of the primary reasons why belonging to a community of faith and attending worship is so beneficial. Even when we’re facing difficult or doubting days, the faith and love of others can lift us up.
Recognizing this helps us to interpret v. 8, which seems a bit strange if read on the surface only: “For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.” Paul was not saying that his literal life depended on the Thessalonians’ continued faithfulness, but there was a connection between them. The good news of their persistent faith and love had been renewing and life-giving.
A thankful prayer(vv. 9-10)
Paul’s consolation gave rise to thanksgiving: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (v. 9). Paul’s prior concern and present prayer might lead us to ask whether we share a similar concern for our own friends in the faith, or whether we have tended to live in a bubble of self-absorption, feeling neither anxiety over others’ stumbles in the faith nor joy when we see growth and progress.
Paul’s concern is a reminder that we need each other. If we are to grow in faith, we need a community of mutual care and concern where brothers and sisters pray for each other, reach out in times of trial, and rejoice over spiritual progress.
This is why Paul went on to say: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (v. 10). Paul’s relationship with the people of Thessalonica did not end when he left the city. His prayers for them continued, and he longed to see them again.
The word for “restore” should not be read to suggest that the Thessalonians had possessed some elements of faith but had lost them, like bricks falling from a wall. The verb could be better translated “to make adequate” or “to make complete.” If we think of the Thessalonians’ faith as a wall, it had not tumbled down, but was unfinished. The believers had a firm foundation, but there were things they still needed to learn about being faithful believers who honor God and live in harmony.
A joyful hope(vv. 11-13)
Whether a visit was likely or not, Paul still longed to see his friends in Thessalonica, and prayed “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you” (v. 11).
Paul’s wishful prayer in vv. 11-13 marks a significant turning point in the letter. From 1:1-3:10, Paul has gushed over the Thessalonians as if they were a model church in every way, praising their faith, their love, their perseverance in hope, and their exemplary behavior in difficult days. One of the few hints that there might be shadows in the church is found in 3:10, where Paul longed for a face-to-face meeting so he could “make up whatever is lacking in your faith” (v. 10, NET).
Paul’s prayer in 3:11-13 serves as a bridge between his warm words of praise and friendship in 1:1-3:10, and his sterner words of instruction in chapters 4-5. He eases into the coming sermon on ethics and the end times by praying that they might continue to grow in love and in holiness.
Paul had previously praised the believers’ faithful love (1:3, 3:6), but he knew that true love never stops growing. Thus Paul went on to pray “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you” (v. 12). Paul’s upcoming words of instruction would be offered in love, and he hoped they would be received in a similar spirit.
Paul wanted the best for his friends in Thessalonica, and there were ethical issues he wanted to address. As a gentle segue to that topic, he prayed that Christ would “so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (v. 13).
This written prayer accomplishes at least three things. First, it draws attention to the church members’ need for greater holiness. Second, it subtly reminds them of a future judgment, where he hopes they will appear “blameless.” Finally, it is a prelude to his upcoming teaching about the fate of the dead and the second coming of Christ – all areas in which Paul hoped to fill in gaps to complete their understanding of the faith.
Have you had – or do you still have – a “Paul” in your life? Someone who wants the best for you, who prays for you, who encourages you, and who may occasionally offer words of advice whether you want them or not?
We should be grateful to have such people in our lives, but it’s easy to become a bit resentful of them, even as Paul feared the Thessalonians would resent him. The measure of our resentment is usually proportional to the state of our faith: If we’ve been wandering from the fold, as it were, we may take exception to someone calling us back, however gentle their words may be.
Perhaps Paul’s heartfelt care for the Thessalonians can remind us to be more appreciative of those who pray for us and encourage us along the way. The times we resent it most could well be the times we are most in need of their care. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for November 29, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Living a life of faith is not easy and why we need a community live our faith in. This is why the groups that we form with young people are so important. So much of what our students do comes down to them doing it by themselves, but we have to provide a different atmosphere. We have to create communities where we can celebrate each other as well as help others through times of trouble. We have to be like to Paul to each other, praising what is going well, and calling attention to what needs work. In community we will grow and flourish.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Healing the King” from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13