2 Thess 1:3-4 – Paul’s Debt of Thanksgiving

Paul normally opens his letters with a prayer of thanksgiving, conforming to the rhetorical style of the first century.  In this introductory section, an author would normally praise his readers and introduce to them something of the plan of the letter.   The “praise” section of the letter intends to put the readers in a positive frame of mind, more likely to accept the teaching that follows (see Wanamaker, 1-2 Thessalonians, 215). In this case, Paul praises his readers and then introduces the idea of the return of the Lord, the subject of the main section of the book

Paul begins by saying “we ought to always thank God for you….”  The use of the word “ought”  in this thanksgiving section is quite unique in Paul.  ὀφείλω means “to be indebted” and it appears here in the thanksgiving section and in again in 2:13, another prayer of thanksgiving,   This world therefore “frames” the first major section of the book.

Why would Paul say that he is obligated to praise the readers?  It sounds a bit cold and perfunctory, especially in contrast to the warm praise offered in the first letter. It is possible that the praise Paul gave them in the first letter embarrassed them, they did not feel they were worthy of the high praise that Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 1.

The debt owed is not to the congregation, but rather to God.  Since God is working in their church to develop fruit from the seeds he planted, it is his responsibility to praise God for the growth. Two specific areas are mentioned, faith and love.  The third part of the familiar Pauline “faith-hope-love” is present in the next section when Paul outlines the hope of the believer in the soon return of Christ.

Their faith is growing.  The verb for growing in this verse (ὑπεραυξάνω) is an intensive form of the normal word for growth.  The word has a nuance of exceeding or abundant growth.  The verb is in the present tense, indicating on-going growth.  The church did not think that they had arrived spiritually and were no longer in need of any further growth. What growth that has occurred has been abundant, beyond expectations perhaps, but not yet perfection.

Their love is increasing.   Like “growing,” increasing is a word which highlights the abundance of the growth (πλεονάζω). In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 Paul prays that the church experience an increase in their love “to the point of overflowing.”  To some extent Paul is thanking God for answering his prayer, the church has continued to grow in love to the point of abundance. They are increasing in love for one another.  The growth that is happening is drawing them closer together, the persecution that they are facing is making their congregation much more loving and supportive of the individual elements within the group.

The basis for this growth is that the church as endured trials (v. 4).   As in the first letter, Paul makes a point of telling the congregation that he boast of them to other churches.  Perhaps a church like Corinth did not prosper in faith and love because they had not experienced external persecution.

Paul’s boast, therefore, may be an instruction to churches which have not yet been persecuted.  When the difficult times come, be like the Thessalonians, whose faith grew stronger during times of persecution.  The fact that their faith grew stronger during persecution should not surprise us.  It is always the case that Christians in persecuted countries have a stronger faith that Christians in countries were Christianity is legal and popular.  The persecution serves to focus the attention on what is important rather than on petty differences and minor points.

How would the church in America be different if it was facing a serious persecution?  My guess is that it would be stronger, growing in love and faith.  I also doubt we would be renovating malls or sports arenas either.

18 thoughts on “2 Thess 1:3-4 – Paul’s Debt of Thanksgiving

  1. I believe that the church in America would benefit tremendously if faced with persecution. If Christians in this country were forced to suffer for the cause of Christ the faith would change overnight. Because attending church and calling oneself a “Christian” has become more of a social club than an identity, many would simply leave the church in order to avoid suffering for something they do not truly believe in. This would leave a smaller group true believers that would be forced to depend upon one another for encouragement and support, creating a more intimate body. I also believe that our devotion to prayer and our dependence on God’s provision would increase drastically. The health and wealth Gospel that now seems to dominate Christianity in America would be replaced with the suffering and dependence on God’s will similar to early church times. I think that we could look to the modern day state of Christianity in China, South Korea (when under communism), or Russia to get a realistic picture of what would happen if we were faced with similar persecution. Although the Gospel has been prohibited in these countries the faithful have flourished in God’s work under the fiercest of conditions. Due to the purification of faith South Korea went through under communist rule in the mid-1900’s, it is now sending out more missionaries than the United States despite its size. The impact of that work has now provided the message of hope for lost sinners all over the world. As Paul said in Romans 5:3-4, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

  2. It is always tempting to ask the question: if Paul went to a stereotypical evangelical church on a missionary journey, what would he say? Would he boast in how the church has followed Christ’s leading? There are plenty of people who have went through hard times and came out with a stronger faith. The difference is that it is not something that is physically felt together as a community or nation of believers. We might emotionally feel hurt together as a Church but, how physically is it felt by all Christians at the same time in a country. Persecution would of course rototill the ground and leave the stubborn, deep, and thick roots (those with true faith in Christ). If anything there would still be lots Christians but, they would not feel safe meeting together. Hebrews 10:25 reminded its readers to “not give up meeting together, as some of are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” It is very encouraging to see those people who are enduring persecution yet still meet together in house churches. It seems like if the churches of the US encountered a road block that would not allow them to meet publicly Christians could resist it but, you never know. If there was any threat to this freedom that came to fruition it would serve as a snow plow throwing the nominal people to one side with some who are in the “middle of the road”. The other side of the road would consist of the other bit of “middle of the road” Christians and the ones with true faith.

  3. The church in America would definitely be more challenged in ways regarding their faith if it faced more persecution. Things in countries that do face persecution that matter are not material things, but spiritual things. 1 Thessalonians 3:7-8 are a couple verses that really stood out to me when I thought about the idea of American churches today. The fact that Paul says they can really live now because they know this church is standing firm in the Lord, that is crucial to the proof that persecution really does strengthen faith and hunger for Christ. We would not value things as much on this earth if they were threatened every day like they are in other countries. We would strive to be more like Christ if we had nothing on this earth but the hope that one day we will be with Him again!

  4. Although I think understand I the type of persecution you are speaking of P. Long, I think the American church today is indeed facing persecution. I believe that persecution can manifest itself in different ways. In countries where Christianity and Bibles are illegal, it is easy to see the persecution. In America however, I believe the persecution is hidden under our culture. I think that the devil is very crafty in the way he persecuted the American church. Things like money, adultery, self-centered ambition, and lust (to name only a few) are all persecutors of the church. Rather, I should say that the devil is the persecutor and these are his tools. These things can tear the church apart. They can make us flee from church and depart from our faith. This may be a poor argument, but this is how I see it.

    I do agree with you, P. Long, when you said the church would be stronger under “serious persecution.” People would start to rely more on God than worldly things. One of the ways true spiritual growth occurs is when we are presented with a problem that we cannot handle alone, a problem with which we must turn to God. Oddly enough, I think we should pray for some “serious” persecution. It would do the church some good.

  5. Sometimes I wish I was persecuted more intensely for my faith, I want to be challenged by others to stand up for God. The more I read in Thessalonians and thought about what Paul and the other churches were going through, I realized my intentions were purely self-reasoned, I wanted to look better, I wanted to feel better. I think Paul uses his persecutions not as a self-thing, but as a God thing. He is challenging the church, not just the church from his time but all the churches, all the followers of God to reach the limits he had while being persecuted, use them for God and not for self.
    I believe if our churches were persecuted more, or even if they went through more hard times that it would bring many doctrines, many dispensations and differences in beliefs together, making the church stronger and less self-seeking. I think the church is being persecuted right now, maybe not the way Paul faced, but in a now-a-days way, with the media and the current “in” things such as sex, swearing, prostitution, etc. we as Christians are being persecuted for standing up for what we believe in such a different way than Paul, but also in the same way. Ecclesiastes 1:9 states that there is nothing new under the sun, meaning persecution is not new, there may be new ways but we face them differently.
    I want to be challenged, I want to be persecuted; not for the reasons I used to think, but now for the sake of Christ. I want to stand up for what I believe, I want to be able to have the faith and be held at gun point and say with confidence and with ease “yes, I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ the son of God, the Holy Trinity. I believe that even when the trigger is pulled I will be standing up for my savior, I am standing up and saying yes to anything and everything he lets get in my way. I say yes to God, yes to his love, no to the world”.

  6. “The persecution serves to focus the attention on what is important rather than on petty differences and minor points.”

    This is the main reason why the church in America would be stronger if faced with persecution. None of the little issues and differences in thoughts would matter and the image of the church being a place that people go to on a Sunday morning just because everyone else does would fade. Paul refers to the Thessalonians’ strengthened faith at the beginning of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. “Paul again commended the Thessalonians for their faith and love and referred to their experiencing persecution” (Polhill, 196). This is another point towards the benefit of persecution pertaining to the church.
    Thinking perhaps too deeply on the subject, I question myself a lot in what I would do in a position of severe persecution, and I truly do not know what I would do. It would be tough to gather with people and worship God if death was a threat every time it occurred, like in some countries. Being content with keeping my faith very individual and behind closed doors would likely result. This would be tough for a lot of Christians like myself, but with that being said, I feel like it would strengthen my faith individually, but would not help strengthen the church, if a lot of people are like me and sort of keep it to themselves. So really, I believe that it could be beneficial, but you never know.

    In another respect, looking at other areas in which Christians are persecuted heavily, the bulk of the people are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhist, or Islamic; and although the Christians do have to have very strong faith to keep worshipping God in such a persecuted area, I wonder how all these people worshipping different gods would react in a society where Christianity is accepted like America. Although the small intimate church that is strong in faith through persecution could result, it could also result if we persecuted ourselves, and thought of ourselves as slaves to Christ and servants to all those around us as Paul did.

    1 Corinthians 1:19 – “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”

    Also, is this worded right? “I also doubt we would not be renovating malls or sports arenas either.”

    • Would it really be beneficial to the CHURCH itself as a community to be persecuted more? That point you made about wanting to stay more private and individual while being persecute is exactly how I would feel too. It is easy for us in America to say that we would be all gung ho about being on fire for God even in midst of persecution, but when it comes down to it…unless we have actually been in those kinds of situations with the bubble of a church mission trip…we really cannot say what we would do. It really does not seem like the church, in the way we view it (like going on Sundays and stuff) would benefit from being persecute. If anything, the thing that would get strongest, is Christians will and drive to be more like Christ and stand up for Him when it really comes down to the wire.

    • Maybe an extra “not” there….my personal dig at mega churches fails.

  7. Are churches persecuted because of their growth? Or do they grow because they are persecuted? While reading this blog, I was continuously reminded of my own home church… For most of my time there, it would not be inaccurate to say that our church was “stagnant.” Even I, as a high schooler, didn’t feel like my spirit was being fed actual meat instead of mere milk (1 Cor 3:2)… I was bored, just as many others in the congregation were. We just wanted something more. I believe this is a big part of why our church became divided and why we asked our pastor to step down. That was a really hard time for us, and a lot of people left. But even now that we have a new pastor and we are gaining new members, I still see very little growth. Why is my church growing as a body? A good explanation might be because we are not being persecuted. And why not? …Honestly, because we aren’t doing anything radical enough to even be noticed by those who would persecute us. We’re not really standing out in our faith.
    P. Long says “It is always the case that Christians in persecuted countries have a stronger faith that Christians in countries were Christianity is legal and popular.” Christians in these countries are taking a huge risk when they display or even disclose their faith. This causes them to treasure everything about their faith, be it the Word of God, prayer, fellowship with other believers, the works of God through them to the world… These are things that so many of us here in our comfy country take for granted.
    Polhill touched on this a little bit as well: “The fervor of the apocalyptic group may have heightened the uneasiness of outsiders about the Christians and led to stronger persecution” (Polhill, 188). The apocalyptic group of Christians were standing out; they were making big statements that didn’t conform at all to the way the rest of the world though. Which is essentially what Christianity is about (not conforming to the world, see Rom 12:2). But the Christians in said apocalyptic group were not doing it in the right manner, which is why Paul had to write to them and correct their thinking. Regardless, it is because of the persecution that followed that the church in Thessalonica was able to grow. The persecution forced them to put their trust more in God than in themselves, forced them to really analyze their faith, and made them treasure what they had in Christ.

  8. I believe that the church could benefit from persecution. History seems to show that when Christians are persecuted the most, the faith grows the strongest. There may not be as many so-called “Christians” (because shallow Christianity in a hostile environment isn’t worth it), but the fewer Christians that there will be will practically have to be more devoted. When you’re threatened with death for what you believe, you better make sure you really believe it!

  9. I really like what Lauren had said in her post. “The persecution forced them to put their trust more in God than in themselves, forced them to really analyze their faith, and made them treasure what they had in Christ.” (Lauren A.) Some times when I am back home I always have my friends asking me why I believe this, or that, or why do I put my faith in something I can’t say. Also, the things said to me kind of cut deep when it is about my religion. I am not going to lie, I always find my self analyzing my faith, and asking why do I believe what I believe. And I continually find myself growing deeper in my faith, because of this soul searching in a sense. And along with that, I agree with Ryan to a point, it would be good for the Church, (which is happening a little bit now I believe) to go through a persecution.

  10. Anytime the question of how our Christianity would look if we were under more persecution like Christians in many other parts of the world, I tend to get a little bit upset. I suppose it is because I don’t find a lot of utility value in this question.

    Maybe my roommate is rubbing off on me, but I tend to think that any discussion of how American Christianity would respond to persecution has only a very limited potential for benefit. We are not under the same sort of persecution as Christians in many other places. Would the quality of our faith increase overall with some persecution, I would wager that it probably would, but the only thing I have gained from that admission is that I know that the relative comfort and security that Christians enjoy in America also has the significant drawback of weakening some aspects of our individual faiths.

    But, do I look forward with rapt anticipation to the inevitable time when Christians in the US are persecuted like the rest of the world? Of course not. The way things are, are the way things are. I, as an individual, am responsible to affect my surroundings as it is, not spend time criticizing myself and my co-laborers because we, through no fault of our own, were born in a situation which inspires faith in the security of our nation rather than faith in the superior plan and power of my God. We have been placed in this situation such as it is by God. We must continue to do our best in the will and power of God to grow in our faith in the situation as it is.

  11. If the American church was under persecution one would see growth in the positive areas. One would also see a lot of the pettiness found in modern dy churches start to disapear. Alot of the struggles found in churches is that they get less and less attenders. Why is that when we are in the land of the free? Why do people in countries where they are persecuted have people flocking to the church? It is because the Christians there relize the price more than people in countries like America that is payed for them to be there. They realize the true freedom in Christ. We have lost sight most of the time that Christ doesnt care how we dress, what colors the walls are or what type of Christian music is song in our church. What He does care about is our hearts and that they are serving Him.

  12. I have to agree with Joe here (and even a bit of what N.T. Wright says about 1st Thessalonians 4:13) when he says that the reason for this part of the letter is to bring hope and even encouragement to those who are in Thessalonica mourning the loss of their friends and family. It is clearly stated in 1st Thessalonians 4:18 that with His words they should “encourage one another”. I struggle to see where the connection is made between the persecution of Christians in Thessalonians and the rapture. “I cannot imagine Paul teaching his new converts they actually have to live until the return of Jesus to participate in the resurrection!” This statement, used by Phil Long is used to describe the fact that it is hard to believe that Paul would have taught anything about staying alive until Jesus’ return. Of course there had to be elderly people within their midst and it would have been impossible (unless by the grace of God) that they stay alive long enough to see Jesus come back in order to be a part of the resurrection. However, I also believe that this above quote can be used for the idea that Paul was talking about those lost in persecution. How could Paul NOT have talked about what happens to those who die for Christ? I feel that Paul would not have just said ‘hey, you may face persecution…good luck’. No, I believe that while Paul was in Thessalonica, he would have preached about what happens to those who die for the name of Jesus. I would like to restate that I believe that Paul is writing this merely to bring hope to those who may have lost a friend of family member. Maybe some of these mourners are new believers that were not present at the time Paul was in their midst. Going further, maybe they could be talking about those who have died that have not heard the message of Christ and they are worried or concerned for their salvation and that in response Paul states “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1st Thess. 4:16) trying to clarify that only those who are “dead in Christ” or those who believed in Christ while they were living, will be with Christ in the end. But hey, that’s just a thought. I am no scholar to put up enough valuable evidence for this.

  13. The only way that the churches in America will become stronger is through hardship. I don’t think that this strength has to come from persecution but definitely from different kind of trials. As James 1:2 says,” Consider it pure joy, my brother, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” When we are no longer being tried, this is not a time to forget about God. For example, 9/11 brought our country together and made prayer and the saying, ‘God bless America’ seen as normal and necessary. We seek God in times of hardship. This is natural. We forget when time goes by and the hardships are over, though. We should not need these hardships to make us get back on our knees. Therefore, I do think that persecution would make the church much stronger, but we can’t use the fact that we are not being persecuted as an excuse to not grow.

  14. We ought to always give thanks to God for you, makes it sound like Paul feels obligated to give thanks because of the great faith that is flowing out of the Thessolonians. He also states that their faith is growing abundantly. For that to be said about the church in America is a totally different story, I am not saying that everyone fits into that boat but there definetly places where the faith is not being shown.

    During times of persecution the faith tends to grow. For the American church I would hope that everyone would be smart enough to grow on their faith before the persecution comes, but with so many things distracting us from the growing of our faith it is hard to believe that it will grow without that persecution. I also like what you wrote Professor Long saying “I also doubt we would be renovating malls or sports arenas either”. We would be at a place, if everyone was growing in their faith, where the worldly things would not matter as much as the eternal things.

  15. I find myself in a state of awe when I hear stories of believers martyred or gathering under the penalty of death. That is true faith. When I think of persecution and the effects of it, I think of the example of a death in the family. When someone dies, many families draw closer together and their bonds grow stronger out of necessity. The same is true with persecution. James 2:2-4 says “consider it pure joy my brothers when you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish it’s work so that your joy my be complete, not lacking anything”. I think the persecution would a great thing for the church in America. It would weed out the insincere and strengthen the believers as they drew together. In fact, I pray every once in a while for persecution so that my own faith can stand up. I understand what I pray for so it’s not like i’m surprised when i’m persecuted (if i’m persecuted rather). It would not devastate me in the least if I woke up tomorrow and found out that the church buildings all were destroyed and that it was open season on Christians.

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