A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13. 2). Paul explains his absence.
Paul returns from his digression about the Jews to his *apologia* for himself. His detractors were criticizing him not only for his motives and conduct during his visit to Thessalonica, but also for his precipitate departure and his irresponsible failure to return. Either he had now abandoned and even forgotten the Thessalonians, they seem to have been saying, or he was too craven to go back. So the apostle defends himself against this further calumny. If 2:1-16 is his *apologia pro vita sua*, 2:17-3:13 is his *apologia pro absentia sua*.
Addressing his Thessalonian readers affectionately as ‘brothers’ (17), as he has done previously in verse 1, Paul develops a telling fivefold rebuttal of his critics arguments, while at the same time advancing evidence of his genuine love for the Thessalonians.
a). He had left them with great reluctance. (2:17a).
It had given Paul no pleasure to leave the city. He had not gone voluntarily. On the contrary, *we were torn away from you*, he writes. The Greek verb is *aporphanizomai*, whose only New Testament occurrence is in this verse. Since *orphanos* normally means an orphan, namely a parentless child, some commentators take this as a further example of Paul’s love of mixing metaphors. Having called himself their father, mother, even baby (7, 11) and brother (1, 17), he now also pictures himself as their orphaned child. But the word has a wider sense than children deprived of their parents; it ‘applies also to parents deprived of their children’, which would link more easily with the earlier father and mother metaphors. But Lightfoot broadens the word further still to include bereavement in general, ‘the loss of any friend or relation’. Hence the modern translations ‘we were bereft of you’ (RSV) and ‘you were lost to us’ (REB). The emphasis is on an unnatural separation, both forcible and painful. At the same time, Paul felt sure that it was only temporary (*for a short time*), and he assured them that it was *in person not in thought*, which Bicknell neatly renders ‘out of sight but never out of mind’.
b). He had made repeated efforts to return to them (2:17b-20).
Paul writes of his *intense longing* to see them, which lay behind his efforts to return (17b). *For*, he goes on, *we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us* (18). It is not clear whether the change from ‘we’ to ‘I, Paul’ is meant to distinguish the pronouns (‘we all wanted to visit you, but I specially’) or to identify them (‘we wanted to come, by which I really mean that I did’). I will come back to this question later. Meanwhile, we observe that the apostle blames the devil for the failure in his attempts to return. Satan ‘thwarted us’ (REB) or ‘prevented’ us (JBP, JB), he says, using a verb (*enkopto*, to cut into) which could be applied either to ‘breaking up a road to render it impassable’ or to an athlete ‘cutting in’ during a race (Gal.5:7),
A number of conjectures have been made as to precisely how Satan hindered the apostle’s return to Thessalonica. (1) Some think it was continuing Jewish opposition, even ‘a plot…being formed against him by the Jews’. (2) Others (e.g. Lightfoot) guess that it was his ‘thorn in the flesh’, and that this was a debilitating illness which he later called ‘a messenger of Satan’ (2 Cor.12:7; Gal.4:13-14). (3) William Ramsay suggested that the satanic hindrance was a legal ban which the plutarchs of Thessalonica had put on Jason. They ‘took security from Jason and the others before letting them go’ (Acts 17:9, REB; or NEB, ‘They bound over Jason and the others’.), with severe penalties if Paul were to return. ‘This ingenious device put an impassable chasm between Paul and the Thessalonians’. (4) Another possibility is that Paul was referring to ‘some sin or scandal that detained him in Corinth’. Presumably both Paul and the Thessalonians knew well what the interference was. Since we lack this information, it is better for us to confess our ignorance than express an unwarranted confidence.
A more important question is why Paul attributed this blockage to Satan, while attributing others to God (E.g. Acts 16:6-7, 10, and probably Rom. 1:13). One answer could be that God gave Paul spiritual discernment to distinguish between providential and demonic happenings. Another is that the attribution could be made only with the benefit of hindsight. ‘It was probably evident – in retrospect, if not immediately – that the one check worked out for the advance of the gospel and the other for its hindrance’. A third and more theological perspective is to say that ‘both statements are true. Although Satan does his part, God still retains supreme authority…’. At all events Paul’s purpose is to affirm that his inability to return to them was not due to any indifference on his part, but rather to the malign influence of the devil.
In verses 19 and 20, unconsciously supplying evidence that he really has longed and tried to revisit them, Paul asks rhetorical unanswerable questions which express his great love for them: *For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory [our ‘triumphal crown’ (REB)] in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy* (cf.Phil.4:1). The double reference to joy perhaps refers to the present, while the double reference to glory certainly refers to the future when Christ comes again. We must not interpret Paul’s glory in the Thessalonians in a way which conflicts with his affirmations that he will glory only in Christ and his cross (e.g. 1 Cor.1:31; Gal.6:14). For the Thessalonians are trophies of Christ crucified. What Paul seems to mean, in this transport of love, is that his joy in this world and his glory in the next are tied up with the Thessalonians, whom Christ through the apostle’s ministry has so signally transformed.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.