A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 3:1-5. c). He had sent Timothy to them.
Paul’s repeated efforts to revisit Thessalonica were made more frustrating by the lack of news about the church there. So the suspense grew until *we could stand it no longer* (1a). Something simply had to be done to relieve the tension. So, since Paul could not go himself, the decision was taken to send Timothy in his place. It seemed ‘the best plan’ (JBP), although it was a costly sacrifice on Paul’s part because it meant that he would have ‘to stay on alone at Athens’ (1b, REB). He had been alone there once before, since on arrival his escort had left him (Acts 17:15), and a very painful experience it had proved. His whole being had felt oppressed and provoked by the city’s prevailing idolatry (Acts 17:16). Soon, however, in keeping with his instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible (Acts 17:15), at least Timothy did so (without bringing any news, however). But must Paul now send Timothy away and be left a second time isolated from Christian fellowship in the idolatrous city? His sensitive spirit shrank from this further ordeal. But he could bear another bout of loneliness better than a further period of suspense over the Thessalonians.
So *we sent Timothy*, whose fellowship would have meant so much to Paul, for he is *our brother and God’s fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ* (2a). Perhaps Paul gave Timothy this exalted description because he wanted to show that in sending him he had sent a gifted and qualified representative. Otherwise, we might have expected Paul to describe him as ‘our brother and *our* fellow-worker’; it was a daring assertion to say that he was *God’s*. Indeed, some later scribes did not like it. So ‘in order to remove the objectionable character which the bold designation *synergos tou theou* (“God’s fellow-worker”) appeared to have’, some copyists deleted the words ‘of God’, while others replaced ‘fellow-worker’ with ‘servant’.
Paul had three reasons for sending Timothy on this mission to Thessalonica. The first was *to strengthen and encourage you in your faith* (2b). The verb to strengthen (*sterixai*) was an almost technical term for the consolidation and building up of new converts (E.g. Acts 14:22; 15:32; Rom. 1:11; 16:25; 2 Thess. 2:17). Timothy was to do more than establish the Thessalonians in their faith; he was also to encourage, comfort or cheer them (*parakaleo*). Paul’s second concern was *that no-one would be unsettled by these trials* (3a). To ‘unsettle’ is *saino*, which was used at first of dogs wagging their tail, and so came to mean to ‘flatter’, ‘fawn upon’ and therefore ‘deceive’ (BAGD). Paul was worried that the Thessalonians’ sufferings might lead them astray from Christ. Perhaps the best way to protect people from being upset by tribulation is to remind them that it is a necessary part of our Christian vocation. This Paul proceeded to do: *You know quite well that we were destined for them* (3b), for ‘these are the terms on which we are Christians’. *In fact, when we were with you*, Paul continues, *we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know* (4). It is very interesting to learn that a regular topic of Paul’s instruction to converts was the inevitability of suffering. But Jesus had plainly taught it (E.g. Mt. 5:11; Jn.15:20; 16:33). So Paul taught it too. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’, he said (Acts 14:22; cf. Rom.8:17; Phil.1:29; 2 Tim.3:12).
Then Paul had a third objective in sending Timothy: *For
this reason, when I could stand it no longer* (he repeats the reference to the intolerable suspense, but now makes it personal, ‘I’ not ‘we’), *I sent to find out about your faith*, how it was ‘standing the strain’ (JBP). *I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless* (5) or ‘wasted’ (JB). The apostle refers again to the devil. He is not ignorant of his devices, whether in hindering the apostle’s ministry or in tempting his converts to renounce their faith. So Timothy had been sent on both a nurturing and a fact- finding mission. His brief had been to stabilize the Thessalonians in their faith, to remind them that suffering for Christ was unavoidable, and to come back with news of how they were doing.
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.