Paul’s Reason for Sending Timothy
“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. 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.”- 1 Thessalonians 3:4–5
Suffering then exaltation—that is the pattern God has for His people. We see this throughout Scripture. For instance, Joseph spent time in prison though he was an innocent man, but he was finally raised up to rule Egypt alongside Pharaoh (Gen. 37–41). David spent years on the run from Saul, who wanted to kill him, before he became king of Israel (1 Sam. 18–2 Sam. 5). And of course, this sequence is most evident in the work of Christ, whose life of suffering and atoning death preceded His resurrection and His receiving from the Father the name above all names (Phil. 2:5–11).
This pattern continues for new covenant believers. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Yet while we know this to be true, it is easy to forget what we know and thus to think that suffering is an anomaly. Intense suffering can even make us think that we should give up the faith. This is especially true when suffering is brought on by persecution, for we see that abandoning Christ will make things easier for us, at least temporarily.
From the beginning of the Christian church in Thessalonica, the believers there suffered at the hands of Jews and gentiles alike (Acts 17:1–9; 1 Thess. 2:14–16). In today’s passage, Paul explains that this suffering was no surprise to them. He “kept telling” them about the suffering that was sure to come even before it happened, explaining that suffering is the lot of the believer (1 Thess. 3:4). But Paul, being no stranger to suffering himself, understood the temptations they faced as they endured persecution. So, in sending Timothy to check up on them and to exhort and establish them in the faith, he was also sending Timothy to see if they had succumbed to the temptation to turn aside from following Jesus (vv. 1–5). The Greek grammar of 1 Thessalonians 3:5 indicates that while Paul knew Satan (“the tempter”) had likely tempted them, he also knew that it was unlikely that they had given in. Timothy’s trip was conducted, in part, to reassure the Apostle of something that he thought highly probable.
Note how the text speaks of Satan’s work even though verse 3 indicates that the Christians were “destined”—by the Lord—for suffering. Paul understands that nothing—not even temptation and suffering—is outside of God’s sovereign plan. He governs all things, even the evil we endure, not doing wrong Himself but directing evil to achieve His good intentions. Thus, we can always be confident that our suffering has purpose (Rom. 8:28).
Many people think that they are solving the problem of suffering by saying that God has nothing whatsoever to do with evil. But if God is not using evil for our good and His glory, we have no guarantee that our suffering will not derail His plans or that it has any meaning. Since the Lord is sovereign even over suffering, we can be confident that there is a good purpose behind all the pain we endure, even if we cannot see that purpose now.
Passages for Further Study
2 Corinthians 1:3–7