A little while ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit my alma mater, Christopher Newport University. I graduated from CNU in 2018, and then stayed on campus for two years working with a campus ministry called Reformed University Fellowship. Although it felt more like a homecoming, this most recent visit was a work-trip. I and a number of other church staff were visiting our college students at William and Mary and Christopher Newport to show that their home church still loves them while they’re at school. We bought coffee for our students, spent time catching up, and worshipped with them at their RUF large groups. CNU’s RUF campus minister—and my former boss—Jeff invited me to preach at large group while we were in town. This is an adapted version of that sermon.
The message I preached on was from 1 Thessalonians 2-3, and the focus of this passage is Paul missing his old congregation. I love this passage, and really all of 1 Thessalonians, because we get to see a side of Paul we don’t usually focus on: his personal life and feelings. Normally when we approach the Bible, and particularly Paul’s letters, we’re looking to extract theology from the text, to suck the facts out of it. Paul’s not explaining justification here, he’s not making a case for the divinity of Christ, he’s not even commanding the Thessalonians to live a certain way or avoid certain sins. Paul’s singular focus in our passage tonight is to communicate just how much he loves his people. Now you might be wondering, “That’s great for Paul and all, but what does that have to do with us?” Let’s find out. Here’s 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13.
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Longing for Family
How did it feel to leave home and move out for the first time? Whether it was leaving for your first semester of college, or finally getting a place of your own, or being uprooted for another reason. What did it feel like when you said goodbye to your family? I realize that for some of us, that departure was a long-awaited escape from really hard family situations. But for others, leaving home and family behind might have been a heartbreaking, anxious endeavor. Why? Because it’s really hard to be separated from a loving family. There’s something in us that longs for deep family connection and unity, and when we find it, it becomes precious to us. Family is home.
Who is your family? Who feels like home for you? Looking at our passage, it’s obvious who feels like home for Paul: the Thessalonians. Even zooming out from our passage, 1 Thessalonians is full of family language. Paul addresses his letter to his “brothers [and sisters] loved by God.” (1:4) Paul fell in love with these people and cared for them “like a nursing mother.” (2:7) As their pastor, he taught and led them “like a father with his children.” (2:11)
That family relationship is what’s at the heart of our passage today. We’re going to look at it develop in three stages.
- Paul’s anxiety
- Paul’s relief
- Paul’s prayer
Paul’s anxiety is two-fold here. Can you imagine that? Being anxious over more than one thing at the same time? Just Paul?
Paul is anxious over their separation. That anxiety that you might have felt when leaving home for college is exactly the sort of pain Paul is feeling, times a hundred. Notice how he describes their separation: “Torn away.” That word in Greek most literally translates to “to be orphaned away from.” Paul feels like he’s left his children in Thessalonica as orphans. They’re alone, they’re a young church, they’re without their founding pastor.
Did you ever get lost when you were younger? When I was three or four years old, my parents had hired a babysitter for me and my siblings. I really liked this babysitter, and when my parents came home and the babysitter left, I followed her out the door to go with her. The next thing I remember, I was alone on a sidewalk somewhere in my neighborhood, totally lost in the middle of the night. I can’t remember who found me, if it was my dad, my mom, or one of the police officers that came searching for me. My dad will never forget that panic, that anxiety, that urgency to find me and bring me home safe.
That’s what Paul is feeling after leaving his church. His children are alone, he doesn’t know how they’re managing, they’re in danger. Their mere separation is hard enough, but the circumstances surrounding that separation exacerbate his anxiety.
Paul is anxious over their suffering. The reason Paul had to leave the Thessalonians was because persecution was becoming so intense, the city wanted to murder Paul. He and his ministry team fled for their lives in a haste. Losing track of a child must be anxiety-inducing enough for a parent, but imagine leaving your kid behind in a situation you know is dangerous. This is what sets Paul over the edge. He can’t bear the thought of his family suffering. I’ve got a few thoughts on this I want to draw out.
Watching the ones you love suffer is often harder than suffering yourself. Paul knows a thing or two about suffering; he gives an account of his affliction in 2 Corinthians 11.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
Any one of those experiences is far worse than any suffering I’ve endured ever, and yet hear the last item on Paul’s list: “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” At the end of it all, like a capstone, he mentions his constant anxiety for the churches. Paul can bear all that suffering, but when it comes to watching the people that he loves face affliction, he can’t bear the thought of it.
Second thought: Paul especially hates being separated from loved ones. Paul writes “We were willing to be left behind…” It seems Paul’s love is split; he doesn’t want to be separated from the Thessalonians, but he really doesn’t want to be separated from Timothy. You might wonder why Paul makes such a big deal out of sending Timothy to go check on the Thessalonians. If you’ve read 1-2 Timothy, you know how deeply Paul loves Timothy; he almost can’t stand being apart from him, and probably never would be if it were up to himself. He calls him his true son, his beloved child, he calls himself Timothy’s father—the same language he feels for all the Thessalonians, but even deeper and more personal. The cost of sending Timothy is high—and yet, it’s worth the cost for Paul because he knows Timothy can reassure them. Read 3:2-3, he sends Timothy “to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions.” This leads me to my last thought on this section.
Friends, the Bible is not sentimental about suffering and doubt. Paul is really honest about the impact that suffering can have on one’s faith. Keeping the faith is a matter of eternal life and death, and doubts brought on by suffering are no small thing. His chief concern is that these precious believers not fall away from their faith on account of their afflictions. I’m sure if it were up to Paul, he’d rather have his children avoid all suffering in the first place. But again, the Bible isn’t sentimental. Suffering is unavoidable; it’s not just likely, it’s actually promised to believers. Notice what Paul says “you know that we are destined for this.” He spent time teaching them to handle suffering well.
The reality is, suffering wasn’t new for the Thessalonians. It wasn’t new for Paul. If I had to wager, it’s probably not new for you, either. If I may, let me just ask you: Do you operate from a position that assumes you’ll encounter affliction? Not just failing a class, or getting a concussion, or being harassed for your faith. Big things, life-altering things, heartbreaking things. I could give you a list of hypotheticals, but after the past two years, I don’t think I have to. How have these past two years been for you? How was Covid? How was isolation? How have you suffered?
How have you responded? How will you respond?
Suffering is never easy to endure, and it’s especially difficult when we’re separated from the ones we love. What this passage offers us is a glimpse into a family that loves and supports each other through the best of times and the worst of times. It’s a family that loves deeply, and because of the brokenness of this world, hurts deeply, too. And yet, even through the pain, this is a family that finds reason for joy. As we keep reading, we find Paul’s relief from his anxiety.
Look with me to 3:6-10 and we find two aspects of Paul’s relief: their faith, and their joy.
First, their faith. Timothy returns to Paul, which is a relief in and of itself, but the news he brings sends Paul to the moon. The Thessalonians, even through all their afflictions, have kept the faith. See Paul’s authenticity in his relief: “now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.”
Friends, it is such an immense comfort to ministers when they see their people stand fast in the Lord. I can’t tell you how thankful I was to come back to RUF after two years and see Seniors I met as Freshman. As you can imagine, being a college student through Covid has been anything but easy, and it put my heart at ease to know that my students have stayed connected to the family they had found here. I told them—and I meant it—I’ve continued to pray for them, many by name, and visiting them was so life-giving for me.
A part of the reason I was so encouraged is because the reverse is also true—it can be crushing to see those we’ve loved and poured into walk away from the faith. There are plenty of students who had come faithfully to RUF when they were Freshman, who fell away from RUF and haven’t come back. Not just with RUF, but in general. I’ve got loads of friends who used to be brothers and sisters to me in the faith, and over the years, have fallen out of love with Jesus and out of connection with his family. I’m sure you have your own names and faces that come to mind. You know how hard it is to watch brothers and sisters in Christ walk away from the faith. Being a Christian is hard; it’s too hard for some people, and when our friends walk away, it makes it harder for us.
That’s why Paul is so relieved to know that these Thessalonians are keeping the faith. Not only that, but they’ve kept it in a way that hasn’t left them jaded; they’re known by their faith and love. Even more, the affection that Paul and company feel for them is mutual. This is a two-way love, it’s a family whose children love their parents and whose parents love their children.
Their faith leads us to the second aspect of Paul’s relief: their joy. Their, as in “Paul and company.” Their spirits are resurrected at this news. In the face of all their other afflictions—all the stuff Paul lists out in 2 Cor—they find encouragement to keep going. The rest of their suffering isn’t so bad, because they know their family is making it. Look with me to verses 8-10: “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?”
The love and encouragement Paul receives actually increases his love and devotion to the church: “pray night and day.” It’s not like Paul checked in, saw they were good, and decided he could check that off his prayer list. Their faith has redoubled his efforts, it’s drawn him into even deeper community and deeper love. Have you ever called an old friend, maybe one you haven’t spoken to or seen face-to-face since college? I called one of my best friends from elementary school last week; we hadn’t talked for over a year outside of sparse texting. We talked for over an hour, and since then, he’s been on my mind a whole lot, and we’ve started texting a lot more frequently.
Friends, that’s how the family of God works. Love makes joy contagious, and joy reinforces love. They’re kindle and flame. Paul’s love for the Thessalonians has been rekindled and is burning brighter than ever. This leads him directly into prayer, and our last main focus tonight.
As we look at Paul’s prayer, I wonder how many of you are sitting here thinking to yourself “I still don’t see what the big deal is. What is the reason for this strong family bond? Why does Paul love these people so much in the first place?”
Pauls’ prayer shows us that it’s not just a bond they share with each other; it’s who they are both bonded to. Paul prays for three things, and I’ll cover these quickly: their reunion, their love, and their adoption.
First, their reunion. Obviously, Paul prays that he and the Thessalonians be reunited; that’s been his desire from the first verse in our passage. So far it hasn’t been able to happen, partially because, as he says, “Satan hindered them.” I don’t have time to go into a ton of detail about that right now—if you’re curious, follow up with me about it. I’ll just say this: The devil is real, and seeks to cause as much division, separation, and disunity as he can, especially within the family of God. Paul knows this, and so he prays that God might thwart the devil’s opposition.
Second, their love. The family of God is all about love—not just for those inside the family, but for all outside of it as well. The church is to be known by its love; that love should be so obvious and so genuine, that outsiders want in. Not only that, but our love needs to be stronger than the division and disunity we’re prone to face. It’s right for Paul to ask God for this love, because it can’t come from ourselves. And that tees us up for understanding the main point here.
Their adoption. This love and joy that they feel—the love and joy that Paul prays increases to everyone everywhere—has a purpose. Read 3:13 – “so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” I said before that it’s not just a bond they share with each other; it’s who they are both bonded to.
The only reason Paul can call the Thessalonians his brothers and sisters is because they’ve both been adopted by the same Father. This is the marvel of the gospel message: that God, the transcendent, all powerful Creator, in his great mercy chose to love us, to become our Father. He did this by sending Jesus. Christ came to gather together people who are broken, lost, and divided and make them into a family. Paul can pray for reunion because through Christ we have been reunited with God. Paul can pray for love because we’ve been loved by God first.
Christian, if you hear nothing else, hear this: The church is a family, cherished by the Father and loved by our brothers and sisters. You are precious to your Christian friends and leaders because you are precious to God—so precious that he sent his Son to suffer the worst kinds of affliction and separation, so that you and I might be adopted by our Heavenly Father. We have not been left as orphans. We now have union with Christ by the Holy Spirit, and union with the body of Christ, the church.
And so Paul prays for us to be made blameless before God as we await Christ’s return, when we will be reunited with our Father and our family not just in Spirit, but face-to-face. He prays that we become blameless, because that’s what marks us as children of God; that’s us as children learning our new family culture. That’s us growing up to be like Dad and our oldest brother Jesus. We’re not just to be a part of the family in name, we’re to be true members of the family; Paul’s praying for family resemblance.
That’s what our text is all about: you are precious to us because you are precious to God. Let me close with a few brief words of application.
If you’re reading or listening to this message and you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, and this idea of family and belonging sounds attractive to you—if you are longing for a place to belong, a place where you can find meaning and purpose and a caring community—there is no communion more satisfying to your soul than union with Christ. You can come to whatever church event or Christian gathering and make tons of friends and get lots of great life advice, but the only way for you to truly join the family of the church is to be united to Christ by faith, because Christ has reconciled us with the Father. It’s our connection to God that turns complete strangers into a genuine family.
And I know that the prospect of building a family when you live in a transient place can be scary, whether you’re living in DC for work or starting out at college. It was for me when I came to college. I came to CNU with the mindset of “I’m only here for four years, so don’t get to close with anyone. Don’t grow roots here.” That came out of a place of being deeply hurt the last time I had to uproot myself. Maybe you’ve got the same mindset. Maybe you’re at the tail end of your college years or your current internship and you’re thinking to yourself, “Well now it’s too late.”
You know how long Paul spent in Thessalonica? Not four years. Not two years. Paul spent no more than six months. Some scholars believe Paul only spent six weeks there. And this was the level of love he grew for the church there in that short time. It’s not too late to invest in the community around you. If you hear this and you think, it’s a miracle that people could become so close in such a short amount of time, it is a miracle! It’s nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit binding Christians together as a family! It’s a miracle because it’s God who does it.
For the record, I checked CNU’s academic calendar before preaching this to see when their finals end: they’ve got eight weeks left. I hope some of those students are making the most of it.
Maybe you’re scared of finding that kind of community because you’re terrified of losing it. I was, and this quote by CS Lewis totally spoke to me:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries [or school, or work]; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – [your heart] will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers..of love is Hell.”
Part of being in a family in this broken world is the risk of having your heart broken. And that’s scary, but it is so worth it. And we can know it’s worth it because of Paul’s prayer: Jesus Christ will return with all his saints: we’ll all be reunited, not just our beloved brothers and sisters from our own time, but multitudes and millions of brothers and sisters we’ve not yet met—the saints of old who have gone before us, even the Thessalonians Paul wrote to.
If you’re looking for a family who will always love you, never leave you, and welcome you with open arms, this is the family you’ve been looking for. God is ready to be your Father.