Meditations in 1 Thessalonians :
Part 1: 5. The Apostle’s Frustration
1 Thess 2:18 For we wanted to come to you–certainly I, Paul, did, again and again–but Satan stopped us.
Now I have always marvelled at this verse, and still do. Here is Paul who had fled Thessalonica in the face of persecution and had longed to go back and see them again – and again – but had been hindered and stopped in doing that – and he blames Satan. Now I’ll tell you why I find that strange: it is because when I have studied Satan in the Bible I see that he is a fallen angel with power but he only has it because he is granted it by God and God only allows it to further His overall purposes. Indeed I have observed that God uses him to reveal men’s hearts, to bring judgement on unbelievers, to bring discipline to believers, to subjugate unbelievers, to maintain humility in our lives, to develop faith & righteousness in our lives, to bring about trials whereby we can be rewarded, to teach us how to fight and to demonstrate God’s power over the enemy. Those are clear reasons revealed in Scripture why God tolerates Satan. (Let’s face it, He could wipe him out with a single word and we could claim that would be justice!) He uses him!
So the question arises, why did God allow Satan to hinder Paul from getting back to Thessalonica? Well before we answer that, let’s look at what else he says about his frustration. They have clearly been on his mind: “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember… your…” (1:2,3) But it goes way beyond that for in chapter two after he has made his comments about how they had been when they were with them, he really opens his heart: “But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” (2:17) It had not been long (“a short time”) before he felt a concern for them and made attempts to get back there. He had an “intense longing” and therefore “made very effort” to get back. That is strong, purposeful language.
But he carried on, “For we wanted to come to you–certainly I, Paul, did, again and again.” (2:18) Perhaps some of the others hadn’t had such strong feelings but he certainly had, which is when he shares the reason, “but Satan stopped us.” Having failed himself to come back, and realizing it wasn’t going to happen, they talk alternative measures: “So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.” (3:1-3) Now that is interesting because if Timothy could physically get back there, surely Paul could. There must have been reasons why Paul could not leave wherever it was he was writing from.
Trying to piece together the apostle’s journey we find from Thessalonica he went to Berea (Acts 17:10) and then on to Athens (Acts 17:15). There he was joined by Silas and Timothy and according to this letter Timothy was then sent back to Thessalonica to check on them. Paul then moved on to Corinth (Acts 18:1) and it was to there that Timothy came with the news of the Thessalonians (Acts 18:5) that we find being referred to in this letter: “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” (3:6) He thus presumably wrote this letter in Corinth. Now of course we know from the letter to the Corinthians that Paul received both opposition and encouragement there (see Acts 18:6-10) and ended up having to stay there for a year and a half (Acts 18:11) but while there received even more opposition from the Jews (Acts 18:12,13) Now of course we don’t know when in that year and a half that Paul eventually realised he was just not going to be able to get back to the believers in Thessalonica and so wrote this letter.
So now we begin to see the agency that Satan used that Paul was blaming – the unbelieving Jews in every place whose hostility rose up against him wherever he went. Now our question, why did God allow him to do this begins to get an answer. The price God pays, if you like, for allowing Satan access to His world is that he captures the minds of unbelievers. Thus the apostle John was able to write, “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19) Unless God overrides the free will that he gives every person, then Satan is going to be able to stir up and use the minds and lives of ungodly people. The book of Job shows us this very clearly when he clearly stirs up the ungodly to come and destroy Job’s family and possessions.
As Paul clearly shows us in the verses we have to live in a battle, a fallen world where the enemy has access to unbelievers and uses them to seek to thwart the work of God through His people. From our perspective sometimes this seems very frustrating as we long for one thing but are hindered getting it. Indeed Paul went on, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” (3:10) We have to say he didn’t get an answer to that prayer, or if he did it was, “No!” He never, it seems managed to get back to them. Was his ministry thus a failure? Definitely not! The used him in Athens and Corinth and so on, just simply not back in Thessalonica, but in many ways they seem, to be getting on quite well without him! Timothy, at least, had been back there and no doubt encouraged them and had in turn been encouraged and brought a good report back to Paul in Corinth. Does God always give us everything we ask for? No. Does that mean we are failures and wrong for asking? No. It just means we are in a battle in a fallen world and the Lord deems it best that we go other ways. Rest in that and rejoice in it. He IS Sovereign even though at times it seems Satan is getting his way. If he does, it is still within the plan of God. Our question has to be, what next?