So we’ve made it all the way to chapter 3, and Paul hasn’t yet gotten to the “good stuff.” That is, he’s not yet doing theology or talking about the rules we must live by. Rather, he remains focused on the relational stuff — his relationship with the people of that church.
Indeed, far more so than we find in Paul’s other epistles, Paul seems to see the salvation of the Thessalonian church as very closely tied to their perceptions of him.
And in the mission field, this is hardly surprising. The believers at Thessalonica did not inherit their faith from the parents. Their culture certainly didn’t point them toward Jesus. They were persuaded out of paganism by Paul and by the power of the gospel. It was very personal indeed.
(1 Thess. 3:1-7 ESV) Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 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. 5 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. 6 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 — 7 for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.
The word translated “affliction” is θλῖψις thlipsis, literally meaning a pressing. Imagine the making of olive oil or wine in which pressure is applied to the fruit to extract the juice. In olive oil manufacturing, the oil press is a very heavy stone, designed to squeeze out the last of the oil.
The NRSV translates “persecutions.” The NIV prefers “trials.” I can’t help but recall Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (the Garden of the Oil Press) the night before his crucifixion. It’s no coincidence that Jesus prayed for rescue from the crucifixion near an oil press.
Paul’s own afflictions seem, to me, to be the afflictions in mind, although many commentators assume that Paul is speaking of persecutions in Thessalonike. Throughout the epistle, Paul uses “you” to refer to the church and “we” to refer to himself and the other missionaries.
It’s just that we quite naturally assume that the church would be much more concerned about their own sufferings than Paul’s sufferings — but such is not the nature of agape. And v. 7 seems more than clear that Paul was seeking to be himself comforted in his own afflictions by learning that the Thessalonian congregation remains true to the faith.
Paul had predicted that suffering would come from Christianity. He taught the congregation that he and his fellow missionaries would be called on to suffer for Christ (3:3). Paul sees the persecution of the apostles as their destiny, but he doesn’t explain why. I imagine that he expected his career path to parallel that of Jesus. If Jesus ended his mission in suffering, so would his apostles. And there are passages in the Gospels where Jesus as much as says so (Matt 20:22; Mark 10:39).
None of this is to say that the Thessalonians suffered no afflictions of their own. In fact, Paul was worried that their faith would not stand up to the persecution. As we see from the accounts in Acts regarding the founding of this church, Paul was able to stay only briefly because the local rulers expelled him from the city, and so he had every reason to worry.
Thus, he sent Timothy to find out how well they were doing (3:2), and Timothy returned with good news (3:6).
Now, we should notice that Paul was comforted by their “faith” (3:2, 7) — not their soundness, not their precision obedience, not their effective evangelism, not their social justice work. Faith. After all, this is what matters most — by far. And we err when we put other things on the same level with faith in Jesus.
I’m not saying that Paul cared nothing for these other things, but the ultimate test of his labor in the Kingdom is whether the church he planted remains in the faith.
Obviously, Paul wrote other epistles where he dealt with all sorts of issues. But it starts and it ends with faith in Jesus.