I continue with this series from Thessalonians. Today we look at 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 and the return of Timothy from Thessalonica.
6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith
The story of Timothy’s return and Paul’s ongoing concern for the Thessalonian church should serve as in important reminder to us. The work of the gospel doesn’t end once the person has entered salvation. The apostolic anxiety that we witnessed in 3:1-5 seems to almost vanish into thin air with Timothy’s announcement of “good news.” Yet at the same time, Paul recognizes that although things are “ok” in Thessalonica, he expresses the desire to return in order to make up “what is lacking in [their] faith.” The story of Timothy’s return highlights the tension between being “saved” and knowing that God is still at work. It is an ongoing story that began with God working in Israel and continues through to this day.
An important aspect of understanding the gospel is that it is an ongoing story that requires us to play an ongoing part. God began this story way back in Genesis. As the Manila Manifesto declares God is the chief evangelist. That is, he is the one who began the story, is writing the story and will end the story. Yet, we play a role. Paul recognizes that although the Thessalonians are certainly saved, there are also aspects of their faith in which they are lacking and he wants to make sure that he gets back there to help them to continue to understand their part in God’s story. If we step back and examine Paul’s thoughts and actions here we realize that what he is doing is discipling the Thessalonians.
The act of “discipling” or the definition of who is a “disciple” is something that has sometimes been misunderstood by the church. Because Jesus’ first twelve followers were called “disciples” we sometimes assume that they are the “special ones” the ones who get it. But in reality, a disciple is someone who is living out the gospel; they are participating in the story of what God has and is doing. I like the way Tim Morey puts it in his book - Embodying our Faith when he says:
A disciple is a Christian – not the supercharged version of a Christian, one that is more mature than “ordinary” Christians or one that has been through a certain curriculum. A disciple is a person who has trusted in Jesus for salvation and consequently has enlisted as his apprentice, learning from him how to live, and becoming like him in the process. “Discipleship is the Christian life. And the goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus.”(Morey Embodying Our Faith: Becoming a Living Sharing, Practicing Church [IVP, 2009], 83).
Morey points out that too often we understand discpling as what happens between evangelism and spiritual formation. But he also points out that the attrition between the two is quite high. This is because we confuse the gospel with selling a ticket into heaven, and discipling as what happens once the ticket is bought. The problem, however, is that the person buying the “gospel ticket” doesn't always consider or even know the cost of what they are “buying.” Once they discover “the cost” they turn and go back to where they came from. But the model Morey suggests is one that making the choice to follow Jesus is also part and parcel with learning what it means to follow Jesus. The apprentice analogy works well here. Those who want to become a carpenter don’t just get a job as one; they start out working with a carpenter and over time decide for sure if this is really for them. Morey suggests that it is the same with the Christian life. Interaction with Christians helps those who are seekers to see what being a follower of Jesus is really all about. In turn they understand that “accepting the gospel” is not simply about accepting salvation and forgiveness of sins. While that is certainly an important part of the process it is not all. They learn what it means to enter into the gospel and to become part of the story that God began writing so very long ago.
The return of Timothy demonstrates that Paul didn't simply get the Thessalonians to buy the gospel ticket. He made them apprentices, disciples of Jesus Christ. This is why in spite of Paul’s own fears for them, Timothy returns with a report that makes Paul’s pen stop and go in another direction. Yes things are difficult in Thessalonica and yes they still have much to learn. But they are apprentices of Christ who know the cost of following Christ and as a result were still there progressing in their faith as disciples when Timothy returned.