He couldn’t take it anymore! Twice Paul says that he “could bear it no longer.” What was it that caused such anxiety for the beloved apostle? What was so taxing that this man who had been beaten with rods, stoned at the hands of his enemies, and had suffered shipwreck multiple times, was almost at a breaking point.? What was it that was beyond enduring for this one who lived in constant danger on multiple fronts and was accustomed to sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, and cold and exposure? It was not knowing how his children in the faith were fairing.
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.
(1Thessalonians 3:5 ESV)
Paul had only been permitted three Sabbaths to proclaim the gospel in Thessalonica before he was run out of town (Acts. 17:1-10). While he had spent months, even years, in other places, in this place he was able to only to plant the seed, and to see only the early evidence of life before he was forced to leave the tending of this fertile ground to others and to the Spirit of God.
What I find so interesting is that Paul’s view of what it meant to win appears to have nothing to do with numbers or markers. There was obviously something beyond “professions made” or “souls saved” that drove Paul’s view of “winning.” Setting a record for the church most quickly established in the shortest amount of time amidst the most hostile of climates wasn’t the sort of statistic that Paul used to measure “success.”
Instead, what Paul needed to know–what he could not bear not knowing–was whether or not their confession of Christ bore the fruit of consecration to Christ. Having received Jesus as Savior seemed to mean little to the apostle if it were not also evident that they had given themselves to Jesus as Lord. He knew, given the hostility toward the gospel in Thessalonica, that if the believers there were not feeling the heat of opposition they probably were not living out the light of the kingdom.
He feared that the tempter would get the best of them, convince them that the cost they would need to pay was not worth the prize promised them. And so, unable to deal with not knowing any longer, he sent Timothy to learn about their faith and to “establish and exhort” them in their faith (3:2).
What grabs me this morning is that Paul seems to view a salvation which does not bear the fruit of salvation as no salvation at all. Had he not heard that their faith had resulted in them turning “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1:9), he would have considered his time there in vain. Had the report not come back indicating that now these brothers and sisters directed their lives in anticipation of the Son’s imminent return (1:10), Paul would have considered his work there useless. Given the hatred and opposition toward the gospel in that place, if Paul had heard that his children in Christ were not feeling the heat of opposition and suffering for the sake of the kingdom (3:3-4), he would wonder if they had, in fact, really entered God’s kingdom.
Paul’s end game was not about the number who came forward for the altar call. The win wasn’t in simply planting a church. Rather, it was about disciples who lived out the faith. Followers who followed. New creations in Christ who lived as if Christ lived in them.
For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . . And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
(1Thessalonians 1:4-7 ESV)
Imitators of Christ. Examples to other believers. That was Paul’s hope and joy. That was Paul’s “crown of boasting” (2:19). That was Paul’s win.
The fruit of grace. For the glory of God