God grows the faith of the discipler: The case of Paul and the Thessalonians

Our team recently did an in depth, inductive study of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians.  At the end of that 3+ month study, we were asked to create something "pass on-able" from our notes.  The following is from that assignment. 

_________________________________________________________________

Discipleship is an indispensable tool for the expansion of the Kingdom of God.  It was Jesus’ personal method for preparing His Kingdom to expand across the globe, and what He equipped His closest friends to do (Matthew 4:19, John 6:1-13); it was the imperative command of the Great Commission (make disciples, Matt 28:18-20); it was demonstrated in the lives of the Apostles, especially in the writings of Paul (see especially 1 & 2 Timothy); it is a core principle of some of todays most effective gospel based organizations.  Much has been written about the value and importance of discipleship, but one thing that is sometimes overlooked is the way that God can use the discipleship process not just to form a new believer but also to grow the faith of the discipler.  The letters to the Thessalonian believers are often studied for insights into effective, Bible based discipleship, and these letters also tell a story of growing faith for a maybe unexpected character-- the Apostle Paul.

As pointed out above, these letters are often looked at for insight into Paul’s approach to discipleship.  This is because the letters show us how Paul and Silus consciously lived their lives in a way that would serve as a relevant example for the believers in that region, showing them how to live out their faith and lead a righteous life in the name of Christ (1 Thess 1:5-6, 1 Thess 2:9-10, 1 Thess 4:1, 2 Thess 3:6-9).  Maybe more importantly, these letters display the intimacy that Paul and Silus developed with those whom they shared their lives with, as well as the dept of their love for those they were discipling.  They came and truly lived in their midst, gently, tenderly, nurturing deep connection and relationship as they shared their very selves with them (1 Thess 2:5-12, 2:17-20).  The significancy of this intimacy is accurately compared with both a mother nurturing her children and a father leading his children (1 Thess 2:7, 11).  One lesson on discipleship that is often overlooked in these letters, however, is how the Lord God uses this intimate, discipleship relationship--together with answered prayer and sanctification--to grow the faith of the discipler, Paul.

The first letter opens with the writers expressing their thanks and certainty that the Thessalonians are chosen by God because of the way the gospel was received there: not only in word, but in power and with the Spirit (1 Thess 1:1-5).  However, a closer read reveals that before deciding to send Timothy to check in on them, Paul was afraid that the persecution and lies surrounding the Thessalonian believers had caused their faith to falter (1 Thess 3:1-5; a similar concern is expressed in 2 Cor 11:3).  If they had faltered, Paul feels that his and Silus’ work would have been in vain. It seems like Paul was genuinely concerned that the enemy could have caused them to falter to the point that all the work would have been in vain.

However, God showed up (for it is God who keeps us and sanctifies us--1 Thess 5:23, 2 Thess 2:13), and Timothy returned with a report about the strength and abundance of the Thessalonian believers’ faith and love, about how they still lovingly regard Paul and Silus, and that they long to see them as well.  Because of this, Paul no longer is afraid for the Thessalonians, but is in fact encouraged by their faith to face his own persecution and trials!  The Thessalonians standing fast has given him and his companions renewed life.  Not only that, but they feel so much Joy in God at His goodness to the Thessalonians that they cannot properly express their thanks (1 Thess 3:6-10). It is after this that they write the opening to this first letter, expressing their certainty and confidence in the Thessalonians faith, and this continues in the opening to the second letter as they express their confidence and hope that the Lord will bring justice on behalf of the believers (2 Thess 1:5-12).

Also in the opening of the second letter, the writers say they have a “goodwill duty to be always giving thanks and praise to God” because of the Thessalonian believers (2 Thess 1:3). This is not only because of the work God did in the Thessalonians before the writing of the first letter, but also because of new work the Lord has done in them and because of their faithfulness and obedience.  In the first letter, Paul had prayed that God would cause the Thessalonians to increase in love (1 Thess 3:12) and he also urged them to strive to grow in love (1 Thess 4:9-10).  Here in the second letter we see that the Thessalonians have a greatly enlarged faith and an ever growing love (2 Thess 1:3), meaning that they were obedient to Paul’s instruction and that the Lord answered his prayer and did a work in them!  This is the “BECAUSE” to why Paul says he has a goodwill duty to be thankful.  This also has the effect of growing the writers faith, and in the end of the second letter they express confidence that the Lord will continue to establish His body in Thessalonica and guard them from the work of the enemy (2 Thess 3:1-3:5).

So, before the writing of the first letter Paul appeared genuinely concerned that the Thessalonian believers would fall away from their faith due to the persecution and trial they were experiencing, but as the Lord guarded them, sanctified them, and answered Paul, Silus, and Timothy’s prayers for them, and as the Thessalonians themselves strived to walk humbly and in obedience, the writers grew to a seemingly unshakeable, joy filled confidence that the Lord would protect those committed to Him.  What does this teach us?

Discipleship is a difficult process that takes faith.  Sometimes, the faith of those we disciple will be challenged, and in this our own faith will also be challenged.  This is not something to shy away from; God has shown that He will show up, answer prayer, and as He brings us through challenges He can increase the faith of not only the discipled but also the discipler.  So when such challenges come, the proper response is to pray fervently for those we have intimately shared our life with (reference), urge them to follow our example and the example of Christ (reference), and seek to be there to encourage them (reference).  And we can wait expectantly for the Lord to work and grow our faith.  Once He does, we will feel a joy and thankfulness that cannot be contained, and this we express to God and those around us (reference).
 

--Richard 

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash