1 Thessalonians 3 Commentary

vv.1-5 Almost from the time Paul arrived in Thessalonica, the believers had experienced “trials” as a result of their conversion to Christianity. Indeed, Paul took it for granted (to the extent that he prophesied ahead of time, 3:4) that they would experience affliction to one degree or another, simply as a result of declaring their allegiance to Christ. The conviction that “trials” are an expected consequence of following Jesus is found not only in Paul (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 1:29 – 30) but throughout the New Testament, both in the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 5:11 – 12, 44; 10:17 – 23; 23:34; 24:9 – 10) and of the apostles (Acts 9:16; 1 Peter 1:6; 3:13 – 17; Rev. 2:10).[1]

vv.6-8 Apostolic Relief and Joy: Timothy Returns with Good News

Almost audible in 3:6 is the sense of relief that Paul felt when Timothy returned with the welcome news that the Thessalonians had indeed successfully resisted Satan’s temptations. Whereas Timothy had been sent to inquire about their “faith,” he reported back about their “faith and love.” This suggests that he not only found them persevering in their confidence in God (which would have been severely tested by the afflictions they experienced), but also maintaining a proper standard of Christian conduct (i.e., love) toward those around them (cf. 1:6 – 7; 4:9) — no doubt something hard to do under the circumstances. But to Paul, it was evidence of the work of the Spirit (Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22) and of the reality of faith (1 Thess. 1:5 – 6; cf. Gal. 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus … the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”).

Moreover, Timothy also reported the Thessalonians had positive memories of Paul and his fellow missionaries and would welcome a return visit (3:6b). “The apostle gives the impression that he was especially pleased to learn the Thessalonians had a ‘kind or affectionate remembrance’ … of him and his colleagues.

v.9 The refusal of the Thessalonian believers to participate in “normal” social and cultic activities and the exclusivity of their claim to worship the “living and true God” (1:9) would have left non-Christian friends feeling offended, resentful, or betrayed. Family members, meanwhile, would have viewed a refusal to maintain ancestral traditions as evidence of an appalling lack of concern for family responsibilities. Moreover, since civic peace, agricultural success, and freedom from natural catastrophe were thought to lie in the hands of the traditional gods, it was considered dangerous to ignore or offend them. It is not difficult to imagine how conversion to Christianity in such circumstances would routinely result in “trials,” that is, conflict, persecution, ostracism, and social pressure.

Paul simply assumed that such “trials” or affliction for the sake of Jesus and the gospel would be part of the common experience of Christians (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”).

vv.9-13 Note that Paul grounds his petitions in thanksgiving, which amounts to both praise and acknowledgment of God as the one ultimately responsible for the blessings and growth the Thessalonians have experienced. Moreover, there is an interesting contrast in his actual petitions. His requests for the Thessalonians (3:12 – 13) are that they might experience spiritual growth, while those for himself (3:10 – 11) are that he might be able to minister to them. That is, his prayer, like his behavior described in 2:1 – 3:5, is primarily other-directed. That is not to say that Paul never prayed for his own concerns, for we know that he did (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:7 – 10). It is, however, striking that in this letter, even in his prayers for himself, he models the concern for others that he will encourage the Thessalonians to practice (4:9 – 12).

[…]

Two other matters. Before leaving this section, two further matters call for comment. (1) The theocentric emphasis of Paul’s prayer reminds us of the proper context in which to consider the tension between divine activity and human responsibility that runs throughout this letter. The issue arises here if one compares 3:12 (“May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else”) and 4:10 (“you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more”). On the one hand, Paul consistently emphasizes God’s grace and initiative (cf. 3:12). On the other hand, Paul never ceases to exhort and command those to whom he writes (cf. 4:10), even to the point of piling imperative upon imperative (see, e.g., 5:12 – 22, with its seventeen commands, or for an extreme instance, Rom. 12:9 – 21).


[1] All commentaries from Holmes, Michael W. “1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:8” In The NIV Application Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians. By Michael W. Holmes, 93-113. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1998.

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