Lesson 7: For Their Faithfulness Part 2 of 4 (series: Lessons on 1 Thess.)
by John Lowe
When the leaders of Israel rejected Jesus Christ and persecuted His followers, they were only repeating the sins of their fathers. Their ancestors had persecuted the prophets long before Jesus came to earth (Matthew 5:10-12; see note 14.2). They could not see that their law was only a temporary preparation for God’s New Covenant of grace. By rejecting God’s truth, they protected their man-made traditions (Mark 7:1-8). Our Lord’s parable in Luke 20:9-19 explained their sinful attitudes.
• (Note 14.1) “But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people . . . But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds” (Acts 17:5, 13)
• (Note 14.2) “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and others; which shows, that what should befall them was no new and strange thing, but what had been the lot of the most eminent servants of God in former ages.
15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone
16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
The Thessalonians were not alone in their suffering; they had abundant and worthy company. Their persecutors had killed the Lord Jesus Himself and the Old Testament prophets. They drove out their father in the faith, the Apostle Paul, and his fellow missionaries. Though Paul had lain guilt for the death of Christ at the feet of the Jews he did not charge them alone with this crime. The Romans who were involved in Jesus’ trial and execution were also guilty (1 Corinthians 2:8; see note 15.1) as was every human being for whose sins Christ tasted death (Hebrews 2:9; see note 15.2).
Those who set themselves against God’s people also set themselves against God. And they also hurt other non-Christians. The worst thing about unbelief is not that it damns the unbeliever, but that it hinders the salvation of others. Such people seek to extinguish the lamp of truth and in doing so cause others to stumble.
I consider this to be a remarkable passage of Scripture. It reveals a great principle: God permits sin to run its full course. The figure of speech which the prophets used was that the cup of iniquity must be filled up. God is permitting the cup to be filled. God won’t stop it so that Satan will never be able to say, “See, I never was given a chance because God wouldn’t permit me to go all the way.” It’s a sad thing that Israel was filling up their sins (v. 16) and storing up wrath for the day of judgment. This image is used in Genesis 15:16 (see note 16.1), and Jesus used it in His sermon against the Pharisees (Matthew 23:32). God patiently waits as sinners rebel against Him, and He watches as their measure of sin and judgment fills up. When the time is up, God’s patience will end and judgment will fall. God will only allow an individual or a group of individuals to accumulate so much sin, and then He will judge. He does not judge before this limit, which He alone knows, has been reached (Genesis 15:16; see note 16.1). The Thessalonians’ persecutors were hastening God’s judgment on themselves by their actions.
I think the time of the Great Tribulation is the time when God will allow Satan full rein. “The wrath of God” may refer to the Tribulation which will assuredly come upon them because of their rejection of Jesus Christ. This was probably Paul’s thought since in other contexts in this epistle where he speaks of the wrath to come he has the Tribulation in mind.
• (note 15.1) “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). Jesus Christ is the Lord of glory; a title much too great for any creature. There are many things which people would not do, if they knew the wisdom of God in the great work of redemption.
• (note 15.2) “But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Christ was made a little lower than the angels by becoming man, and assuming a body frail and mortal, that he might die for his church and people.
• (Note 16.1) “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure" (Genesis 15:16). Wicked people have a measure of iniquity to fill up, which is known by God only; some are longer, some are quicker in filling it up, during which time God waits patiently and bears with them; but, when it is completed, he stays no longer, but takes vengeance on them, Matthew 23:32.
17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.
“Brothers and sisters”—again, this is the real brotherhood, the real sisterhood. This is the real ecumenical movement. When a person is in Christ Jesus, he is a brother to all others who are in Christ. Outside of Christ there is only the brotherhood of sinners.
“Brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought).” Isn’t this lovely of the apostle Paul? He was actually run out of Thessalonica, but his heart was still there. He hated to leave these Christians and wanted to be able to see them again. By the way, he did.
Paul was not ashamed to state his affection for the Thessalonian Christians. He felt as though he had been “orphaned” from them since he was their spiritual mother and father (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11). Paul wanted to remain there longer to help ground them in the faith, but the enemy drove him out. However, his absence was only physical; he was still with them in his heart (see Philippians 1:7).
Paul made every effort possible to return to them, though Satan was “breaking up the road and putting up obstacles” (literal meaning, “hindered”). Paul had the same kind of deep desire to be with them as Jesus had to be with His disciples before His death―“And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:15). Christ kept the ordinances of the law, particularly that of the Passover, to teach us to observe His gospel rituals, and most of all that of the Lord's Supper. To Paul it was as though his family were being torn apart when he left them. He hoped the separation would be brief, but it broke his heart to leave them as infant babes in Christ.
But Paul did not look back and give in to regret and remorse. Instead, he looked ahead and rejoiced. For the Christian, the best is yet to come. Paul looked ahead by faith and saw his friends in the presence of Jesus Christ in glory.
18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.
I believe that today Satan seeks to hinder any program of getting out the Word of God. We have seen several instances of this by those who want “In God we trust” removed from our coins, “prayer” banished from public meetings, and the “Ten Commandments” removed from public buildings. He doesn’t want the Word of God to be given out. As John Calvin wrote, “Whenever the ungodly cause us trouble, they are fighting under the banner of Satan, and are his instruments for harassing us.”
19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?
20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
Paul says that one of the great things he is looking forward to when Christ comes to take His church will be the opportunity to see these people whom he has led to the Lord. The Thessalonian believers whom he had won to Christ were a joy for him here and would be hereafter. “You are our glory and joy” is how he penned it: the Philippians believers were the only others who received such warm words of personal love from Paul.
I would paraphrase verses 19 and 20 thus: “When life is over and we stand in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming, you Thessalonians will be our source of glory and joy; you mean that much to us.” This profession of affection should have removed any thoughts from the Thessalonian Christians’ minds that Paul had not returned because he was unconcerned or selfish.