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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

1 Thessalonians 3

Verse 1

1 THESS. 3

The chain of events which puts this chapter in focus was as follows:

Paul left Silas and Timothy at Berea, proceeding to Athens (Acts 17:14,15).

On arriving in Athens he urgently summoned them to join him.

They did so at once, and Timothy was sent back to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:1-12).

Silas was sent to another part of Macedonia (Berea?) (Acts 18:5).

Paul left Athens and went to Corinth (Acts 18:1).

Both Silas and Timothy joined Paul at Corinth (Acts 18:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:6).

This epistle was written shortly after the reunion of the three in Corinth.[1]

It will be noted that many details are omitted, but the above sequence of events would seem to include all the information available.

The chapter is largely devoted to the expression of Paul's concern over the fate of the beloved converts left in Thessalonica when Paul was compelled to flee, due to Jewish-instigated opposition from the city magistrates, and of the apostle's joy upon receiving the good news of their fidelity to the Lord and of their love for Paul (1 Thessalonians 3:1-10). It concludes with a fervent prayer that he might be spared to visit them again, and that the Thessalonians might abound and increase in their love of both God and man (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13). Regarding his prayerful hope to "see your face again," "The prayer was answered some years later" (Acts 20:1).[2]

[1] Ronald A. Ward, Commentary on 1,2Thessalonians (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1973), p. 81.

[2] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 988.

Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left behind at Athens alone; (1 Thessalonians 3:1)

The significance of Paul's being left alone derives from the fact of his enemies seeking to kill him, the threat being so serious that an escort guarded his journey to Athens. The poignant mention of "alone" in this verse suggests that Paul recognized the danger of his unguarded exposure; and as his name was already known throughout Athens following his address on Mars Hill, he must have been very apprehensive of what could easily befall him. Thus his consent to be left alone derived from a genuine love of converts and the utmost unselfishness on his own part.

We could not longer forbear ... The "we" of this clause is certainly epistolary, or editorial, the "we" standing for Paul alone. This has been disputed, even by such a reputable scholar as Kelcy who stated that "The word from which `alone' comes is plural in the Greek, indicating that Paul meant to include Silvanus,"[3] even referring to Paul's companions as among `the writers' of 1Thessalonians. It is true, of course, that "alone" is plural in the Greek, but Paul might very well have meant that the Lord was with him and that he was never alone (in the singular); besides, in any epistolary usage, all of the members of a sentence are in apposition with the plural "we" anyway. Many scholars support the view taken here:

Some refer the plural to Paul, Silas and Timothy; others to Paul and Silas, as Timothy had been sent to Thessalonica; but it is to be restricted to Paul, as is evident from 1 Thessalonians 3:5, and inasmuch as Paul was left alone in Athens; the plural being used here for the singular.[4]

Here the "we" is purely epistolary, referring to Paul himself.[5]

The word "alone" in 1 Thessalonians 3:1 and the parallel between "we sent" (1 Thessalonians 3:2) and "I sent" (1 Thessalonians 3:5) suggest that the plural here is not to be taken literally.[6]

"Alone" at the end of the verse (1 Thessalonians 3:1) is also plural ([@monoi]), although it is quite clear that it refers to Paul only.[7]

The plural (for alone) does not decide the issue either way.[8]

[3] Raymond C. Kelcy, The Letters of Paul to the Thessalonians (Austin, Texas: R. B; Sweet Company, Inc., 1968), p. 64.

[4] P. J. Gloat, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 21 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 55.

[5] A. M. Stibbs, New Bible Commentary, Revised (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 1158.

[6] Peter E. Cousins, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 494.

[7] Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1,2Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), p. 61.

[8] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, 1Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1955), p. 82.

Verse 2

and sent Timothy, our brother, and God's minister in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith;

God's minister ... Some scholars insist on translating this, "God's co-worker," as some respected manuscripts have this; however, despite the attractiveness of doing so (it would fit in so beautifully with 1 Corinthians 3:9), there is no sufficient reason for the change. As Hendriksen said, "The external evidence in favor of the reading, "God's co-worker,' is not any stronger than that in favor of reading `God's minister.'"[9]

There were several reasons for sending Timothy (or Silas) to visit the Thessalonians. Not only was Paul most urgently concerned in knowing how they were doing and in receiving the encouragement which a good report might provide, there would also be definite benefits to the Thessalonians as well. They would be: (1) established and (2) comforted. They needed both. Young converts facing a storm of persecution might fall away unless established and comforted.

My fellow-laborer ... These words added to this verse in the KJV are quite properly left out of subsequent versions; but they are included here for the sake of an interesting comment made by Adam Clarke, as follows:

There were no sinecures then; preaching the gospel was God's work; the primitive preachers were his workmen, and labored in this calling. It is the same still, but who works?[10]

[9] Ibid., p. 83.

[10] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. VI (London: Carlton and Porter, 1829), p. 546.

Verse 3

that no man be moved by these afflictions; for yourselves know that hereunto are we appointed.

Every Christian should understand that it is always thus. The antagonism between light and darkness is such that the upright, moral behavior of Christians is alone sufficient to incur the world's displeasure and hatred. Cain hated Abel, and why? "Because his own works were evil and Abel's righteous" (1 John 3:12). Paul and his co-workers had fully warned and prepared the Thessalonians for that eventuality, as indicated by the words, "yourselves know."

Be moved ... The word thus translated is [@sainesthai]; and the comment by Morris is that:

This word is used by Homer and others of a dog wagging his tail, and so comes to signify "to fawn upon" or "to flatter" ... Paul is saying that the Thessalonians should not be cajoled by smooth talk.[11]

Verse 4

For verily, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we are to suffer affliction; even as it came to pass, as ye know.

All Christians are servants of Jesus Christ and may expect the same treatment, wherever it is possible for the world to inflict it, that was received by the blessed Lord himself and his holy apostles. The warning that he gave the apostles (John 16:1,4) on the night he was betrayed has its application to Christians of all generations. "A servant is not greater than his Lord. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you, etc." (John 15:20).

Another thing in view here derives from the fact of Paul's indoctrination of the Thessalonian converts with information they were sure to need. As Ward said,

(Preachers) should teach basic doctrine to new converts and also prepare them for coming battles. In saying that "we" are on the road to affliction, the author was thinking of Christians generally.[12]

Verse 5

For this cause I also, when I could no longer forbear, sent that I might know your faith, lest by any means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor should be in vain.

The tempter ... "Only in one other passage (Matthew 4:3) is Satan thus designated in the New Testament." [13] Paul's usual designation of the evil one was by his proper name, Satan; and some scholars have even based their denial of Pauline authorship of Hebrews on the "fact!" that Paul nowhere uses "devil" as in Hebrews 2:14. This so-called "fact" is like many that are alleged by critics; because Paul used "devil" frequently, as in Acts 13:10; Ephesians 4:27; 6:11,1 Timothy 3:6,7; 2 Timothy 2:26, and Hebrews 2:14!

Our labor should be in vain ... If old five-point Calvinism had any proof in the New Testament, Paul could have spared himself any concern about any of the Thessalonians being lost!

Verse 6

But when Timothy came even now unto us from you, and brought us glad tidings of your faith and love, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, longing to see us, even as we also to see you;

Your faith ... T.W. Manson interpreted faith in this and the preceding verse as "fidelity," that is, "obedient faith"; and, although Morris denies this as having been "on inadequate grounds," he nevertheless admitted that "The word can have this meaning; and in this verse it would not be inappropriate."[14] The position maintained in this series is that "faith" in the New Testament frequently has this objective meaning, and that sinner's trust/faith is hardly ever the true meaning. More and more scholars should be aware of this. See my Commentary on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians under Galatians 2:16,20.

The obedient faith of the Thessalonians, their true Christian love ([Greek: agape]) for both God and man, and their continuing affection for the beloved apostles were sufficient grounds for Paul's full encouragement and thanksgiving.

Verse 7

for this cause, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our distress and affliction through your faith:

For this cause ... The cause was the state of the Thessalonians in the three particulars just cited in 1 Thessalonians 3:6.

Through your faith ... This is likewise objective, meaning faith as demonstrated and proved by their actions, in another word, "fidelity."

Verse 8

for now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.

As Dummelow commented on this verse, "Better, `if only ye stand fast.' The Greek expresses some doubt and anxiety."[15] "This is the utterance of profound and overpowering emotion."[16] Paul loved the young converts to Christ with a pure and holy passion; and this is even more impressive when understood in context of Paul's schooling and racial background, those being so fervently loved being citizens of a once hated and despised race, degraded by centuries of idol-worship, and contaminated by pagan value-judgments.

[15] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 988.

[16] William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 88.

Verse 9

For what thanksgiving can we render again unto God for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God;

The thought of this passage is that Paul's gratitude at the state of the Thessalonians was so great that it would be difficult properly to thank God for so great a joy and blessing. Paul's joy was so great that all of the sufferings and hardships he had endured were as nothing compared with it.

Verse 10

night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face, and may perfect that which is lacking in your faith?

As noted in the chapter introduction, this prayer was answered years afterward (Acts 20:1,2), indicating that, even in the case of such a holy one as Paul, prayers were sometimes not answered at once, but after long delay. The great admonition is always to pray and not to faint.

Verse 11

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way unto you:

These three verses (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13) are "a prayer to Christ as co-equal with the Father."[17] The Christology of Paul is not something which "developed," but was implicit and explicit in all that he wrote, even in this letter, one of the very first epistles from his pen. "Here we have an express prayer directed to Christ, thus necessarily implying his divine nature."[18]

[17] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 988.

[18] P. J. Gloag, op. cit., p. 56.

Verse 12

and the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you:

In 1 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul had mentioned what might be lacking in their faith, and here is a hint of one area in which they were not perfect. They no doubt loved one another, but Paul prayed that they might "abound and increase, but Paul prayed that they might "abound and increase" in that mutual love; and then, daringly, he extended it to require their love "toward all men"! In this virtue the Thessalonians, like all people, fell far short of the high and holy standards of true Christianity. As Morris declared, "The Christian quality of [Greek: agape] is never natural to man, and comes only to him who has been transformed by the power of God."[19]

Verse 13

to the end he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Our God ... Paul's God was the same as the God of all the rest of the apostles and of all Christians in all generations; and the same was true of Paul's gospel. To suppose that Paul's gospel was any different from that of James or Peter is to ignore this basic truth.

Coming of our Lord Jesus ... There is not a word here of any "soon-coming" so frequently alleged as "the mistake" both of our Lord and of his holy apostles. True, some of the Thessalonians got that impression, but it was from their dull understanding, not from any statement Paul had made to that effect. If this were not the case, Paul could not have written 2Thessalonians so soon afterward for the specific purpose of correcting their false notions.

With all his saints ... It is difficult to know exactly what this means. The following summary of the difficulty is from Kelcy.[20]

The word for "holy ones" is that commonly used for all Christians in the New Testament.

On the other hand, the angels of heaven are frequently associated with Christ in the Second Advent. See Matthew 14:41,49; 25:31; Mark 8:38, etc. Of course, the angels are also called "holy."

Commentators have frequently solved the difficulty by supposing that perhaps both will be included, a view supported by 1 Thessalonians 4:14, under which passage further comment on this will be made. It is not safe, under any circumstance, to postulate any detailed description of what will take place at the Second Coming of Christ, because the glimpses afforded of that event in the New Testament are not full reports, but only glimpses, given here and there, of that glorious and terrible morning when all people will be summoned before the great white throne for their accounting before the Lord of all creation. It is an event devoutly believed as certain to occur in the future; but concerning exactly what shall take place at that time, people are doomed to a lack of full understanding until the occasion arrives, because the New Testament has left out any detailed descriptions of it.

Christ will bring "them that have fallen asleep" with him (1 Thessalonians 4:14); and his holy angels shall likewise attend the event (2 Thessalonians 1:7); and, upon the basis of these Scriptures, the view is preferable that holds "saints" in this passage as including both.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.