Living in Community

October 2, 2022 Preacher: Luis A. Cardenas Series: First Thessalonians

Topic: English Passage: 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20

It’s time for us to return to our study of First Thessalonians, and so I’d like you to turn with me to chapter 2 of the letter. We are going to be finishing the chapter today, and we’ll be starting in verse 17. First Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 17.

Though it’s the end of the chapter, it’s also the beginning of a new section that helps us once again see Paul’s heart for this young church which he planted and cared for. Let me begin by reading from First Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 17, all the way to the end of chapter 3. First Thessalonians 2:17 through chapter 3, verse 13. This is what the word of God says:

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, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.

3:1 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. 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 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.

Pastor and author Mark Dever has a short, little book entitled Discipling. If you want to know what the book is about, you just need to read the subtitle—How to Help Others Follow Jesus. In the Introduction of that book, Dever describes the phenomenon of more and more people living alone, and he cites an author named Eric Klinenberg who shared the following statistics.

In 1950, 4 million Americans lived alone, and that accounted for less than 10 percent of all households. By 2013, when Klinenberg wrote his book, more than 32 million Americans lived alone, and they represent 28 percent of all households.

I checked the numbers from the 2020 census and saw that the number had jumped to 37 million one-person households in the country.

According to Klinenberg, this is happening because people don’t value having space as much as they value living near to the stores, the restaurants, and the gyms they prefer. The dominating factor in all this is convenience.

More and more, we hear people talk about being connected to others through the internet and social media, but many have observed that meaningful relationships are declining. People simply like being alone. It’s easier. It’s safer. There’s no one to disagree with you in a meaningful way. There’s no major problems to have to work through. There’s no awkwardness. There’s no discomfort.

But if you’ve been a student of the Bible for any meaningful length of time, you should know that that’s not how God intended His people to live. That wasn’t the design for Israel, and it isn’t His design for the church.

In some ways, I think we can compare the connections between Christians to marriage. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship both physically and spiritually. Going back to the first week of creation, in Genesis 2, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And so, God formed the woman and instituted marriage.

God designed marriage for joy and for companionship, but He did not design marriage for convenience. That’s not one of the goals of a good marriage. A good marriage is work. It’s a sacrificial investment of serving the other person for the glory of Christ. It’s a commitment not to be taken lightly.

The Pharisees who talked with Jesus had belittled the significance of marriage and erased the commitment required. Divorce was rampant among them. In Matthew 19, when Jesus pointed them back to God’s design for marriage, here’s how the disciples responded. They said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

Some of you here might agree with that. Marriage doesn’t really seem to be worth all the trouble. A lot of people feel like that about involvement in the lives of others. Is it really worth all the difficulty and the risks?

As we look at the end of verse 2, we find that the Apostle Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, would say, “Yes. It absolutely is.” In the passage we’re looking at today, we are faced with some of the challenges of connecting with others, but we also see the promised reward.

In the New Testament, the church is described as a body, a building, a flock, and a family. Those images point to a whole that is made up of parts that are connected to one another. There’s a commitment. It’s a kind of community. Living in community with others is not going to be easy. The Bible never says it is. But there is a great reward.

So, to help remind us about the significance of investing in others and allowing others to invest in us, let me give you four principles about living in community—living a life that is oriented toward and connected with others. This is intended to help remind us what we’re in for and what we can expect if we follow the heart of Jesus Christ. This will also keep us from idolizing a false idea of community.

Principle number 1 is this: If you’re going to live in community with others, be ready for painful separations. Be ready for painful separations.

Look with me one more time at the opening words in verse 17 of chapter 2. Notice how Paul describes his departure from the city—we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart.

The Greek Word Paul uses here is connected to the English word “orphan.” Paul uses a word that was used in that time to describe children who had lost their parents or parents who had lost their children. That was a painful separation.

For any of you who have lost a child or a parent, especially at a young age, you understand that distinct kind of pain. There’s a type of loneliness and bereavement that doesn’t go away. This is how Paul describes having to be separated from the Thessalonians.

Remember, he was only there a short time, and yet his heart had been woven together with them. Because of the threats on his life, he was forced to flee, and that came at a great cost to Paul because he loved this church. There was a distinct affection for them, and that made the separation worse, because Paul knew this baby church was going to face affliction, opposition, and persecution without him.

You might remember that earlier in chapter 2, Paul compared himself to a mother and a father. That’s how he acted, and that’s how he saw himself, but he had to leave his children behind.

But for Paul, it wasn’t “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s why he says they were separated in person, or literally, in face, but not in heart. Paul had to move on to Berea, but his heart never left Thessalonica. Paul’s love for the church meant that leaving them was agonizing. Again, this was a painful separation. But the pain was an expression of his love for them.

What does that mean for you and me? It means that we need to be ready to face this kind of affliction if we are going to open our lives and our hearts to people for the glory of Christ. Following the pattern of Jesus means we will face pain. That’s part of the cost of ministry.

You need to be ready for that in your own life, and we need to be ready for that in our church. People are going to leave us, for one reason or another.

Sometimes those reasons are tragic from a spiritual perspective. In 2 Timothy, Paul talks about his former companion Demas. Demas fell in love with the world, and deserted Paul. Then Paul says that when he went to trial in Rome, “no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.”

That’s going to be part of the pain of ministry and investing in others. There are going to be painful separations. Apart from Christ, I don’t think anyone in the New Testament has a greater example of ministry and faithfulness than the Apostle Paul. But that came at a great cost. You need to be ready for that as well.

And even if the separations don’t come because of a spiritual tragedy, they will come, nonetheless. People die. People move. People go to college. People get new jobs. People get married. Or maybe it’ll be you that has to leave for some reason. You need to be ready for that. It’s part of what it means to live in community. It’s part of the price of investing in others.

Now, as we continue in verse 17, we see a second principle, and it too describes the cost of ministry. Principle number 2: If you’re going to live in community with others, be ready for unmet desires. Be ready for unmet desires.

Every husband and wife, I imagine, knows this by now. If you don’t accept this as a fact, you’re not going to be a faithful spouse. Living in a commitment with someone else means you will have unmet desires. That’s the price of investing. That’s the price of community, and you need to be ready.

Look with me at the second half of verse 17. Because of Paul’s painful separation, he says, “We endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again.”

When we read and study our Bibles, we need to slow down and pay attention when something is being emphasized. Notice how many different ways Paul expressed his desire. He says “we endeavored.” We were diligent. And then he says “more eagerly.” And then he says, “with great desire” and “we wanted.”

What was Paul’s desire? What was he trying to make happen? He wanted to visit this church face to face.

Paul says it to the Thessalonians as a reminder of his love for them. False teachers in the city might have been accusing Paul of abandoning the church, but Paul says, “No. That’s not what happened. I wanted to see you again. But it just wasn’t possible. I tried over and over again, but it didn’t happen.” Paul had to live with an unmet desire.

Now, some people, in order not to face unmet desires just ignore the desires altogether. Or they never allow them to develop. But that’s not Paul’s example. He wanted to see them again face to face.

And with just that statement, and especially in light of our cultural setting, you need to ask yourself, “Is that how I feel about my brothers and sisters in the church?” Do you desire to see them face to face?

I have heard pastors or church planters say things like, “Well, Paul wrote letters to the church. That was the height of technology at the time. And today, we have even greater technology with email and text and the internet. We need to use those as well.” That’s not horrible logic, because there’s a place for all that, but we need to be careful not to allow technology to replace personal interaction. There’s a difference, and the Apostles knew that. Writing letters was no substitute for personal ministry and interaction.

Jump down for a second to chapter 3, verse 10. Paul says it again: we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face.

The Apostle John said something similar to his people. Let me read to you form 2 John, verse 12. He says: Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

And in 3 John 13, he writes: I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

Even as they were writing holy Scripture, which would endure forever, the Apostles understood the immeasurable value of personal connections. That’s part of what it means to be in community with others.

The ultimate expression of a personal connection is what God has done in Jesus Christ. The word became flesh. God came down and took upon Himself humanity. That was the ultimate personal connection. And Jesus is coming back again too, and He’ll be with us for eternity.

So, again, I’m asking you, do you have this kind of desire? Do you look forward, not just to showing up at church, not just to hearing a message or singing worship songs, but to connecting with your brothers and sisters? And if you do, then what does that look like throughout the week?

Our home groups might be a good start for you, but they’re not intended to be the end. Build your life into other people—specific people. Let your heart intertwine with them.

At the same time, however, the joy and the desire of ministry is going to come with the pain of unmet desires. You are going to face times when you can’t connect with others the way you’d like, for one reason or another. That doesn’t have to mean you’re doing something wrong. Paul’s life is evidence for that. It may mean you’re doing it right. That’s the pain of ministry.

Listen, there are preachers out there who want you to think that if you have enough faith in Jesus Christ, life is going to be wonderful. Your emotional state, your relationship status, your finances, your social status—all of that is going to be just fine if you will follow Jesus Christ. That is not the message of the New Testament. Following Jesus will bring pain. There is the pain of separation, and there is the pain of unmet desires. Be ready for that.

Let’s move on now to principle number 3: If you’re going to live in community with others, be ready for satanic opposition. Be ready for satanic opposition.

This is an interesting principle to think about. Notice the final words of verse 18. Paul is saying, “We tried to get back to you over and over again… but Satan hindered us.” Satan hindered us.

In the Greek, that word translated “hindered” has the idea of cutting into. The idea is like if someone was cutting off a road or a path. It’s a type of blockade.

Paul’s statement here is a reminder that Satan is opposed to God’s plans and God’s designs. And if what God desires is personal ministry between His people, Satan is going to oppose that. Satan is going to get in the way of God’s people connecting meaningfully to one another.

But what exactly does it mean when Paul says that Satan opposed him and his team? How was that happening? The simplest answer here is, “We don’t know.” There are a variety of speculations, but we just can’t be sure.

We don’t know if it was physical or spiritual or political, or maybe it was something happening at another church that kept Paul from leaving. We just don’t know. But whatever it was, it’s possible that the Thessalonians knew what he was talking about. They knew that the reason Paul didn’t return wasn’t a lack of desire.

What’s interesting, though, is that Paul doesn’t always attribute hindrances to Satan. In Acts 16, it says Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. Then is says his team attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.

What makes this kind of hindrance any different? Well, it may not be all that different. Just because Satan is working, it doesn’t mean that God’s not working. God is always working. Satan’s work is not independent of God’s sovereign plan, right? You need to know that. Satan might be the god of this world, but he has not dethroned God, and he never will.

For example, was it God’s plan or Satan’s plan to afflict Job? Who’s plan was it? If you’ve read the story, you know the answer is both, but not in the same way. God didn’t directly afflict Job, but in His sovereignty, God used Satan’s plan as part of a greater plan to strengthen Job’s faith.

Along that same line, in the story of Esther, who planned for Haman to threaten all the Jews? Was that Satan’s plan or God’s plan? Again, that was under God’s sovereignty.

Who planned for Herod to kill all the babies? And who planned for Jesus to be killed? The Bible tells us that Satan entered Judas’ heart, and he betrayed Him, leading to His death. But we’re also told that this was all part of God’s eternal plan. Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” 

And one more example, in Acts 4, as the church prays in response to persecution, they recognize that Herod and Pilate simply did whatever God's hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place.

Paul understood this. So, we shouldn’t understand his statement to mean that Satan was more powerful than God. It’s simple a recognition that we have an enemy who will bring difficulty. But even in those difficulties, we can have contentment knowing that God is in control.

In thinking about the possibility of Satan hindering us, turn with me for a moment to 2 Corinthians chapter 12. This might be a familiar passage to many of you, but there’s an important principle we don’t want to miss. Second Corinthians chapter 12, verse 7.

Paul starts by talking about the glorious revelation he had received from heaven, and then he adds this. Second Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 7.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.

To whom does Paul attribute his thorn in the flesh? Well, the immediate cause, he says, is Satan. Whatever he was facing, he called it “a messenger of Satan." And Satan’s goal, Satan’s intent was to harass Paul, to afflict him.

But behind Satan’s intent, was the purpose of God. And this is what Paul starts and ends the verse with. He sandwiches Satan’s purpose with God’s greater purpose. This happened, the beginning of the verse says, to keep Paul from becoming conceited. And then he repeats that idea at the end of the verse—to keep him from becoming conceited. God’s purposes are greater than Satan’s purposes.

The day will come when we will no longer face Satan’s opposition, but even until then God reign. God rules. And in God’s sovereignty, even though Paul was separated from the Thessalonian church, and that grieved him, it led to other churches being planted and it led to more Scripture being written, because Paul wrote letters.

So, you and I need to be ready to face Satan’s opposition, no matter how it may come, with contentment and with confidence, because God is still in charge and in control. But we need to be prepared for the opposition.

Go ahead and turn back to our passage in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2.

How does our list look so far. If you are going to be like Paul, if you are going to invest your life for the sake of other people, if you are going to pour into and connect with others, what are you going to face? You’re going to get painful separations, unmet desires, and satanic opposition. That’s a high cost, isn’t it? That’s not going to be easy.

But now we come to the final principle for today, and here is the reward. This is the tradeoff. Principle number 4: If you’re going to live in community with others, be ready for eternal joy. Be ready for eternal joy.

Paul is talking about pain and suffering and Satan, but that doesn’t get him down. Satan’s opposition was a footnote, a parenthetical note. Paul’s focus is his love and his joy for the Thessalonians. Why did he love them so much?. Look at verses 19 and 20—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.

How many of you are parents? Raise your hands. And how many of you would say that being a parent is hard? It’s difficult and painful? Keep your hand up if you agree with that. Okay, you can put them down now.

I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands on this on this last question, but just think about it. Given all the difficulties and pains of raising children, if you could, would you erase your children from your life?

For the vast majority, I’m going to assume the answer is No. Parents don’t do that. Because there is a profound joy that children bring. And that’s how Paul felt.

But for Paul, his joy wasn’t simply connected to the past, it was connected to the future. It was an eternal joy.

As Paul ministered, his goal was to have the people under his care look more and more like Jesus Christ. He wasn’t worried about the church budget. He wasn’t worried simple about church attendance. Those weren’t his goals. His objective was to have his spiritual children grow up into maturity.

And what he was looking forward to was the day when Jesus appears in all His glory and power, and those precious saints are there, fully glorified by the grace of God. And Paul will know that he had a part of play in that.

That brought Paul tremendous joy. And that’s the kind of heart we need to have when we minister to others in the church. We are working in one another’s lives, and we’re going to see the fruit of that for all eternity.

When a kid gets a trophy or graduates high school or college or gets married, if everything was done with the right heart, mom and dad feel proud, don’t they? There’s a tremendous joy in that.

I know the word proud can be used in a negative way, in terms of pride and arrogance, but there’s a positive component to that as well. It’s a shared joy. It’s a satisfaction in knowing that you had a part in it.

Paul says the same thing about the Thessalonians. He tells them, “You are my hope. You are my joy. You are my crown of boasting.” He takes a word that is usually used in a negative sense but uses it positively. He will boast over them.

Back then, a king or a general who won a war would come home with a crown or a garland on his head. The same would happen with someone who won an event in the Olympics. It’s a crown that symbolizes joy and triumph and victory. It’s a crown of boasting, we might say. But it doesn’t have to be a sort of arrogant boasting; it can be a victorious joy that is grateful and humble.

So, Paul says to the church, “You are our glory and joy. You’re part of the reason I am going to celebrate for all eternity. You’re going to make it, and I’m going to be there too. And I will be so joyful to know that God used me to play a part in your salvation, your sanctification, and your glorification.”

As much as Paul looked back on his time with the Thessalonian believers, he also looked forward to a final reunion with them.

Back in verse 17, Paul said his separation from them was only for a short time. I don’t think it felt like that at the moment. When you love someone, being apart from them can feel like an eternity. But looking through the lens of eternity, Paul knew any pain was only for a short time.

Whatever pain Paul felt over the church, it was going to be overshadowed by the joy of seeing them in heaven.

Think about seeing one another in the perfection of Jesus Christ and think about how God can use you to move someone in that direction. That’s supposed to motivate you.

But in our own society, rather than investing in other people for their eternal good, we have people more concerned and more consumed with earning digital rewards in a video game, training their dogs to do tricks, watching their plants grow, making sure their cars look good. How can we let that be more important to us than the sanctification of our brothers and sisters? Don’t be that kind of person. Invest in the lives of others for their spiritual growth, and God will reward you with an eternal joy.

God has designed us as a family. We are the body of Christ. And whether you are a more prominent part of the body, or a more inconspicuous part of the body, God wants to use you to help others follow Jesus so they can be more and more conformed to His image.

God did not intend for you to be separated from people. He intended for you, as His child, to live in genuine community with other. Yes, there will be challenges and pain and opposition; it’s not going to be comfortable or convenient many time. But there will be eternal joy as we delight in our Lord and in one another forever.

More in First Thessalonians

August 27, 2023

God's Grace for Us

August 20, 2023

Perfectly Sanctified

August 13, 2023

An Empowered Church