First Sunday in Advent – Epistle

by Crossings

The Coming Joy
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
First Sunday in Advent
Analysis by Steven C. Kuhl

1 Thessalonians 3: 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. 11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus Christ direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

(Note: In order to understand this rather thinly cut piece of 1 Thessalonians, the reader would do well to include 1 Thess. 2:1-3:8 as part of their analysis. This analysis proceeds on that basis.)


DIAGNOSIS: Separation Anxiety

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) – Geographical Separation Anxiety: “that we may see you” (3:10)
The immediate occasion of this letter is Paul’s geographical separation from the congregation he planted in Thessalonica. Paul planted the congregation and his feelings run deep. As he describes it, he had been to them as a “father with his children, urging and encouraging [them] and pleading that they lead a life worthy of God, who calls [them] into his own kingdom and glory” (2:11-12). But now the congregation was now facing the very dangers that Paul predicted they would face (3:4): They were being persecuted by their “own compatriots” (2:12)-fellow gentiles and countrymen-because they openly followed the way of Jesus Christ. Paul’s separation anxiety, however, has to do with the fact that he is so tied up with his own afflictions for the sake of the gospel that he cannot immediately come to the Thessalonians to encourage them in the midst their afflictions. Paul is especially worried because he knows that the source of all these affliction (theirs, his, ours) is none other than Satan (2:18, or in 3:5 “the Tempter”), that great enemy of the gospel. [Note that even though the immediate agents are different they nevertheless tempt: Paul’s tempters were the Jews, the Thessalonians’ were the Gentiles, and ours perhaps are postmodern nihilists, consummate pessimists, eternal optimists, hopeless consumerists or maybe some other kind of “-ists”-take your pick.]

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) – Heart Separation Anxiety: “lacking in faith” (3:10)
Of course, Paul’s physical (geographical) separation anxiety is not the sum or the heart of the danger that he and his Thessalonians face because of persecution by their respective compatriots. As Paul says, the bigger issue is not so much being separated “in person” but “in heart” (2:17). Paul’s greater concern (his “fear,” 3:5) is that, without a preacher (like himself) to encourage his dear Thessalonians with “God’s word” (2:13), they may lose their faith in Christ. That’s what Paul means by the phrase “lacking in faith.” It means to “lack faith” or to be faithless. That phrase does mean that faith is somehow “lacking”-that is, weak or insufficient in itself for the struggles at hand. Quite the opposite, faith alone conquers; lack of faith defeats. What is at risk, according to Paul (if his dear Thessalonians should be found lacking in faith) is the bond of faith that makes him, a Jew, a compatriot with them, as Gentiles. Faith alone makes them compatriots because faith alone is the one thing that makes them all alike WHERE IT COUNTS: faith alone makes them “holy” and “blameless” before God, regardless of all the other differences that may exist between them. Therefore, if the Thessalonians lacked faith it would mean a personal loss for Paul: he would lose them as compatriots in the Lord and all that Paul had striven for with them would have been in vain (3:5)-for nothing.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) – Christ-Separation Anxiety: No “joy before our God” (3:9) 
But ultimately, Paul is well aware that a lack of faith (brought on by the present persecutions and his separation from them) would not only jeopardize his companionship with them, now, in this geographical space and time. Far worse, their lack of faith also signals their unholy and blameworthy standing before God already-even though that unholiness may not be visible until the end of time (“at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints,” 3:13). Therefore, Paul warns, separation from Christ is the worst kind of separation-and that is precisely what faithlessness is. Without faith, Paul knows that no one can be numbered among the saints of Christ. Without faith, Paul knows that Christ’s “coming” at the end of time will mark the end-not the consummation-of hope and joy. If his dear Thessalonians lose faith, Paul knows that they also lose Christ and all his saints as compatriots. Instead, they will gain their current persecutors as their compatriots and inevitably share the same fate as them: “the wrath that is coming” (1:10, 2:16). This bad news is at the root of Paul’s separation anxiety for his beloved Thessalonians.

PROGNOSIS: The Coming Joy

Step 4: Initial Diagnosis (Eternal Solution) – Christ’s first coming: “the coming of our Lord Jesus” (3:13)
While it is true that Paul is talking about the end of time and the coming of the “Son of Man,” nevertheless, it is equally clear that Paul knows much more about that ominous figure than did Jewish apocalyptic literature. For Paul, the Son of Man has a name, “Jesus,” and that name he knows because this end-time figure has already come in the meantime, ahead of the end of time, to “rescue us from the wrath that is coming” (1:10). For Paul, this is the wonderful irony (scandal) of the gospel. The One who is still to come at the end of time to judge the world has already come ahead of time to rescue sinful humanity from the very (deadly) judgment that God has assigned him to carry out. That feat merited him the name Jesus, which means “savior,” instead of some other name like Satan, which means “accuser” (the one who wills to block such a strange, merciful coming, cf. 2:18). What’s more, Jesus accomplished this rescue precisely by grappling with that very Accuser (that same faith-tempting enemy of the gospel, 3:5) whom Paul, the Thessalonians, and even you and I wrestle with whenever we are among our worldly compatriots. Of course, Jesus’ personal place of struggle was not in Thessalonica, or Hometown, USA, but on a cross outside Jerusalem. But, nevertheless, it was in that place, on that cross, that he conquered the power of the Accuser once and for all through his death and resurrection. And it is there, through him, that our rescue is accomplished and our joy and hope accomplished.

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) – Coming to faith: “strengthen your hearts in holiness” (3:13)
The event of the cross is separated from us in space and time-as separated as Paul was from the Thessalonians and we from them. But that space/time separation, as Paul knew, was not the obstacle that ultimately separates us from being rescued Christ ourselves. What matters, says Paul, is faith in “God’s word” (2:13) concerning this Christ. It is not essential that we have Jesus Christ “in person” or “face to face,” though the day will certainly come when everyone will see him face to face. (That face-to-face encounter at the end of time will not create faith, but confirm it.) What is important, says Paul, is that we have Christ now “in [the] heart” through the preached word. That is how Paul, the Thessalonians, and all believers receive Christ and his holiness. Such faith is nothing less than Christ’s rescue coming into the hearts and lives of believers even as they struggle against that accusing Satan who (in the guise of persecuting compatriots) is set on separating hearts from Christ. As Paul knew, this faith is the believer’s joy-especially in the midst of struggle! This faith so bonds believers to Christ that it makes strangers into compatriots for the Lord. This faith is the basis of all thanksgiving (3:9).

Step 6: Final Diagnosis (External Solution) – Coming together: “direct our way to you” (3:11)
As Christ’s rescue becomes ours by faith, we become people whose lives are “directed” by God and the Lord Jesus to nurture one another in faith and to uphold one another in love. That was the experience of the congregation in Thessalonica-and, by God’s grace, it can be the experience of every congregation. Although Paul could not be with the Thessalonians face to face, the word that he had planted in them was affectionately remembered and believed and shared as “God’s word” (2:13). As a result-and much to Paul’s joy-a marvelous reciprocity of ministry emerged, a return of joy (3:9). The “good news” (3:6) that Timothy brought back to Paul revealed that his dear Thessalonians were so enriched in “faith and love” that they were freely exercising the same concern for Paul, (their “father in the faith”), that he had exercised for them. Although they were not living face to face, in the same geographical space, nevertheless, their hearts were directed toward one another as compatriots in the Lord. Indeed, space could no longer separate them-just as space and time cannot really separate us from the saving work of Christ. That is evident by the way their faith and love moved them to share their faith and love with one another. In that way, they preached to one another and restored whatever may have been lacking in faith, making it possible to increase their thanksgiving to God for one another and the Lord Jesus Christ. They did all this in the midst of persecution and struggle. No wonder Paul writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before God because of you?” Paul had received “the coming joy” in advance. For in that joy “the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:13) becomes a present reality.

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