Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
At first reading three things leap out of this passage: thankfulness, love and relationship.
Our passage begin with the words, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel … ” The passage continues with references to love that is increasing and abounding. Then there is the earnest desire that Paul and the Thessalonians should all be reunited. In fact, if we were to isolate these five verses, it would be easy to think that both the experience of the Thessalonian Christians to whom this letter is written and the experience of Paul and Silas, abound with love and joy as some kind of natural phenomena. The popular — and very attractive — idea that the Christian life is inevitably filled with love and joy and thankfulness and peace is of course a misnomer. And yet there is no hiding the reality that in these verses love, thankfulness, joy, and relationship are not only evident but are central. So, perhaps the best way for us to begin to unravel and understand these verses is to first consider who these words are addressed to, second, what is the immediate context for such effusive references, and third to begin to consider how might they resonate with us in our everyday lives?
Intro: The Thessalonian Disciples
This letter is addressed to the small community of Christ-followers who live in Thessalonica. Luke outlines the story of Paul and Silas’ mission to Thessalonica, which led to the Thessalonians’ conversion to Christ, in his account in Acts 17. A quick glance there makes clear that even from the beginning things were not easy, and to be frank, we shouldn’t imagine that it would ever be easy. The broader population is often all too easily threatened when small groups begin to re-evaluate their allegiance to the ruling powers and transfer their commitment over to a new Lord, even Jesus Christ (Acts 17:7). Stability and the status quo are reassuring norms for most societies, even if injustice and inequality are sometimes the price we have to pay.
But Paul has also earlier identified the Thessalonians’ response to hearing the good news about Jesus. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 Paul speaks of how the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God and to wait for his son from the heavens, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” The Thessalonians themselves have turned away from idols and aligned themselves with a new Lord. The radicalism of this move should not be underestimated. Idols permeated every level of city life: home, work, family, religion, economics, politics. Nothing was excluded from attentiveness and devotion to the gods. The Thessalonians’ radical move will possibly have separated them out from everything that would ordinarily be considered normal, creating pressures and even stresses in the home, marketplace, and the workplace. For a newly converted Thessalonian, the gathered community of disciples was their new home, family, and support network. Relationships mattered more now than ever as they sought to work out together what it meant to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Additionally, we should note that the Thessalonians’ are continuing to relate well to Paul and Silas (1 Thessalonians 3:6), and this is in spite of the shame that would no doubt be associated with Paul and Silas’ suffering.
This reaction by the broader population against those Thessalonians who have begun to follow Jesus is a key aspect in the context of our verses. If we sneak a peek at the verses that are prior to our passage we note there that Paul refers to persecution and suffering on three occasions in just eight verses. It is clear that Paul and Silas are suffering persecution (1 Thessalonians 3:7), but also that the Thessalonians themselves are in the midst of persecution for their faith (3:3). The Thessalonian believers have begun to follow a new King, and are seeking to adopt a set of values and an ethos rooted in Jesus. Consequently, they have begun to turn away from and reject some of the norms of their immediate society. So, how might this all begin to resonate with us?
First, we are reminded here of the joy of knowing that we are loved when life is tough.
The joy and thankfulness that is expressed in 1 Thessalonians 3:9 comes across to us as sheer delight and even with a hint of relief. The reason for this is twofold: First, because in spite of everything that is set against the fledgling Thessalonian community they are continuing in their faith. But second, I think that Paul and Silas’ exuberant thankfulness relates to the fact that the Thessalonians have maintained their commitment to relationship with Paul and Silas. They have not disowned Paul and Silas. The Thessalonians are suffering; Paul and Silas are suffering. Nothing would be easier than to call the whole thing off and to desert each other. But this is not what has happened. They continue to love, and support, and encourage one another. Relationships matter, and particularly when life is tough — which it most often is — relationships matter. To know that you are loved, prayed for and supported in the midst of suffering is a wonderful and joyous experience.
Second, that the key to Christian discipleship is love.
That love is central to Thessalonians is evident throughout the letter (1 Thessalonians 1:3), but Paul and Silas’ prayer here is that “the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). This apprentice Christian community have rooted themselves and their relationships in love. And it is love that will ensure their survival in the midst of suffering persecution. Paul elsewhere made that radical claim that without love we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2), and the Apostle John is emphatic is his assertion that love, rooted in the life and example of the Lord Jesus, is to be demonstrated in practical ways amongst the community (1 John 3:16-17). Indeed, Jesus himself, made clear that the only thing that mattered is to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as you loved yourself (Luke 10:27-28). To be rooted in love and to practice love ensures not just the survival of faith in the midst of difficulty, but the growth and increase of faith.
Third, there is the prayer that the Thessalonians may be strengthened in holiness (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
In some ways holiness is similar to love. Both are expressions of the reality of God. God is love and those who encountered God speak of his holiness. To live a holy life is to live as a living and breathing expression of the love, life, and reality of God. This reality has already been seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, to live in holiness is not to make life any easier. The trials and persecutions experienced by the Thessalonians will not subside once they intensify their imitation of the life, love, and reality of the Lord Jesus. But rather, Paul turns the Thessalonians attention to a higher and more glorious goal, that of the coming of the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 3:13).