The first letter to the Thessalonians was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and is a portion of the Word of God. But at the same time, it was Paul’s second choice. What he really wanted was to be together with the Thessalonians, face to face, so that he could truly encourage them.
“But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you: Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord. For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith? Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you. And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:6–13)
Summary of the Text
Remember that Paul had said earlier that he was beside himself with concern over how the Thessalonians were doing (1 Thess. 3:1, 5), which is why he had sent Timothy to them (v. 2). Now he said that Timothy had returned to him with very good news. That news was that their faith and love were solid, and that they had good memories of Paul (v. 6). They wanted to see Paul and company, and the feeling went both ways. That news was a comfort to Paul in the middle of his afflictions and distress. So the news was refreshment to Paul in the midst of a trial. It was such good news that Paul describes it in terms of life—“for now we live” (v. 8). It was like a resurrection. The Thessalonians standing fast was life to Paul. Paul had so much joy over them that he was without words when it came to rendering thanks to God (v. 9). Paul had been praying day and night, and doing so “exceedingly,” as he asked for two things. First, he wanted to see the Thessalonians face to face, and second, that he might be able to complete or perfect whatever was lacking in their faith (v. 10). And so he repeats his prayer request again—that God Himself, the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ “direct our way unto you” (v. 11). He also prays that God would make them grow and increase in their love for one another, not to mention everyone else, in the same way that Paul felt about them (v. 12). The purpose of this is so that their hearts might be established without blame in holiness before God the Father, until the parousia of the Lord Jesus with all His saints (v. 13).
The End of the Age
One of the challenges we will have as we work through the two letters to the Thessalonians will be the challenge of distinguishing the end of the age (which occurred in 70 A.D.) and the end of the world (which will occur we know not when). I am taking the reference to the parousia at the end of our text here as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the passage coming up in 1 Thess. 4:16 as referring to the Second Coming.
Briefly, that will happen when the Lord Jesus “will descend from heaven,” and when He does there will be a general resurrection of the dead. Then we will face another question, when we get to chapter 5, about whether the “day of the Lord” refers to the Second Coming of chapter 4, or is referring back to the judgment on Jerusalem found in the earlier chapters.
The word parousia simply means arrival, coming, or presence. The word is not a synonym for the Second Coming. Paul can even use it of his own arrival somewhere (2 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 1:26; 2:12), or of the arrival of his companions (1 Cor 16:17; 2 Cor. 7:6-7). He even uses it to refer to the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:9). And there are also (obviously) references to the coming of Jesus, as in our text here (1 Thess. 3:13). There is no a priori reason why the word might not refer to different kinds of “arrivals” or manifestations of the Lord’s presence or power. So I take this as a coming in judgment on Jerusalem, the appearance of the Lord being manifested in the complete fulfillment of His prophecy that Jerusalem was not going to have one stone left on another. The phrasing is likely an allusion to Zechariah.
“And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; For the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: Yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: And the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee.”
Zech. 14:5 (KJV)
Here are the reasons for thinking that we are talking about a visitation of wrath in the first century. The first chapter refers to the “wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). The Jews in chapter 2 fight against Gentiles receiving the gospel, and Paul says that “wrath is come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:16). This is clearly a reference to 70 A.D. This book was written circa 50/51 A.D. During Passover in 49 A.D. there had been a massacre of thousands of Jews at the Temple. Also the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome in that same year. Such events were not the fullness of wrath, but the pot was certainly starting to boil, and Paul was clearly expecting it to boil all over the stove. Although he moves on to talk about the end of the world in chapter 4, we make that determination from the immediate context (“the dead in Christ shall rise”). From the descriptions in the first three chapters, we have no reason to believe that Paul has moved out of the first century yet.
Notice how deeply Paul yearns for the growth of the Thessalonians in holiness. Also notice that he “settles” for writing to them. He would much prefer to see them face to face. He prayed exceedingly that he might be able to see them in person.
Catechized by our digital world, we think we have conquered distance when we really haven’t. Our letters have gotten much more sophisticated than they were in Paul’s day, but our face-to-face communication is not what Paul would have made of it. Our texting, and Zoom meetings, and online sermons, and POD books, and blogs, and phone calls, are just souped-up letters. They are not an adequate replacement for in-person community. Paul would have used them all, but he still would have yearned to be with the Thessalonians, in the same room, breathing the same air, and not through a mask.
As we grow in the Lord, notice that it is the Lord who enables us to grow in the Lord. God gives the increase. When we increase and abound in love for one another, this is not our doing. It is being done for us. The Lord is the one who makes us love each other, and He is the one who establishes us in holiness. Love for Christ is part of the work of Christ. We are commanded to love Him, and this command to bear fruit is fulfilled as the fruit of the Spirit.
Notice this from v. 12. Paul’s prayer is that God would enable the Thessalonians to grow. As we are talking about life, it is God who must give the increase.
As the great Augustine once put it, “Give what you command, and command what you will.”