When Paul started the church at Thessalonica he was opposed by the Jewish community as well as the secular authorities (Acts 17:1-8). The Jews reacted to Paul’s message that Jesus was the messiah who was crucified and raised to life by God. The city officials in Thessalonica reacted against Paul’s rejection of Caesar as Lord. The idea that there is another king besides Caesar was politically dangerous. If Paul also taught Jesus was returning soon to judge the word (which 1 Thess 4:17-5:10 and 2 Thess 2 imply), the secular authorities may have interpreted this as a prophecy against the emperor and against Rome. As a result, he was forced to leave the city before he had fully prepared the church, and certainly before he wanted to leave. Acts 17:10 says the believer’s in Thessalonica sent Paul and Silas away at night, certainly not the way Paul would have liked to leave these new Christians.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 Paul describes this sudden departure as being “torn away” from the new Christians. The verb ἀπορφανίζω has the sense of a child that is orphaned, but also a parent who has lost a child. This is a separation under great emotional distress. Paul did not want to leave, he was forced to leave under threat from the local officials. Notice the verb is passive: Paul did not cause his own departure, he was the victim of circumstances beyond his control.
The letter was written after a short time after his forced departure and Paul thinks of the church often. The introduction to the letter says Paul prays for the church each day and in 2:17 he says he thinks of the church often. Even though Paul’s desire was to return it is possible his enemies were slandering him by saying he never intended to revisit the church. They accuse Paul of taking all the money he could could from the church and then left them on their own to face a black lash from the Thessalonian officials. The opponents are likely blaming Paul for any persecution the church faces.
Paul says he has a strong desire to return.The word for this desire is one of the strongest words for desire available to Paul, it means to “crave” something, usually in an especially inordinate way. In other places the word ἐπιθυμία is translated “lust.” This strong desire makes him make an effort to return. The verb σπουδάζω is not a light or a token effort, but rather doing “something with intense effort and motivation. Elsewhere the word is translated as “be eager to….” (Gal 2:10, Eph 4:3). His one burning desire was to return to the small community of new believers in Thessalonica and continue to build them up spiritually so they would continue the work of the Gospel in the whole region of Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess 1:7).
Even though he has made every effort to return, Satan stopped him. The word“hinder” (ἐγκόπτω) has the sense of“tearing up the road.” If an army wanted to hinder another army from pursuing them they would tear up the road, burn the bridges, etc. Paul sees Satan’s operation as making any progress Paul might make very difficult. The book of Acts does not describe this Paul’s travels in Acts 17-18 as hindered by Satan, although it is possible Paul saw the ongoing threat of further persecution at the hands of the Jews and civil authorities in Thessalonica as a reason not to return. On the other hand, Paul does not usually avoid ministry because of the threat of persecution. He may have in mind his short time in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) where he was distressed at the idolatry of the city (17:16-17) and did not have much success (17:33, no church is formed). The important thing to observe here is that Paul sees any circumstances which kept him from returning to Thessalonica as spiritual warfare.
This hindrance may have been more subtle. Paul’s efforts to travel back to the city were slowed by what seemed to be coincidental problems or bureaucratic nonsense. It is easy for a Christian to read “Satan hindered me” in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 and assume there was some epic spiritual battle. Satan does not need to appear on the road in the form of a great red dragon breathing fire to destroy Paul and SIlas (in fact, does he ever really do that?) More often than not, Satan is in the details. Travel papers are lost, roads are closed, a minor bureaucrat refuses to sign a paper, luggage is lost, etc.
The important thing to see here is that the source of Paul inability to return is Satan. The church is not suffering because of the civil authorities in Thessalonica, nor are they suffering because of jealousy from the synagogue, they suffer because they are engaged in spiritual warfare. As he says in Ephesians 6:10, the struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers of darkness. And sometimes those spiritual powers of darkness take very subtle forms in order to hinder the Gospel.