Commentary: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
The passage for this first Sunday of Advent comes from a section of 1 Thessalonians (2:17-3:13) in which Paul is reviewing his relationship with the new church following his departure from Thessalonica. Clearly, Paul is pleased with the church there. They have shown remarkable life and resiliency in the face of some opposition. This section of 1 Thessalonians can be divided into four sections as follows:
1) Paul's frustrated efforts to return (2:17-19); 2) Decision to send Timothy (3:1-5); 3) Timothy's good news about the church (3:6-10); 4) Paul's pastoral prayer (3:11-13).
The lection is drawn from the close of section 3 and includes all of section 4. In turn, this section of 1 Thessalonians belongs to the unusually long "thanksgiving" portion of Paul's letter, a section that begins in 1:2, is renewed at 2:13, and concludes at 3:13.
Elements of Structure
The passage is rhetorically direct. Paul begins with a rhetorical question (3:9) that implies a clear answer, "there is no way to express adequate gratitude." But that doesn't stop Paul from persevering in his prayer for them, so he informs them of his constant prayers for them (3:10). Finally, he moves from talking about his prayers to offering a prayer for the congregation (3:11-13).
A Closer Look at the Passage
3:9 picks up the theme of thanksgiving found in 1:2 and 2:13. The verse points backward through the entire thanksgiving section of the letter (1:2-3:13) while anticipating its concluding prayer (3:11-13). When placed in the context of 2:11 ("we dealt with each one of you as a father with his children"), 3:1, 5 ("when we could bear it no longer"), 3:9 sounds like a parent discovering to his very great relief that his children had handled a difficult situation very well. Paul is well grounded theologically; he thanks God for the outcome because he knows that, left to their own devices, the Thessalonians might not fare so well.
This theme is intensified in 3:10 where Paul reveals that the source of his desire to visit the church is to "restore whatever is lacking in your faith." This need not mean that the Thessalonians have failed or have a weak faith. It is more likely Paul's recognition that the stress and afflictions of the church (2:13-16) have taken their toll, and the church is in need of renewal.
Being aware of their situation but being unable to return to Thessalonica leaves Paul both anxious and prayerful. If he cannot travel to Thessalonica, he can pray for them. "Night and day" is Paul's way of saying that he prays for them whenever the opportunity arises. But note (3:11) that his prayer primarily expresses his desire that God will clear the path for his return. Only God can clear away Satan's obstacles (see 2:18).
Paul's prayer reveals his priorities in prayer. He doesn't beat around the bush but prays for what is most important. "Love" is his priority, an anticipation of what Paul would later say more fully to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:13). One can find here the familiar triad of faith, hope and love. Although the word hope is not used, it is described in 3:13.
Love is the strength that binds and bonds the Thessalonians together in the face of affliction and local hostility. Here Paul cannot help drawing upon his own love for them as an example. This does imply arrogance; for Paul, it is a natural way of speaking about the reciprocity of love. In both cases, the Thessalonians' and his own, Paul is clear that the effective cause of this increase is the Lord, here a reference to the Risen Christ.
Although Paul's prayer has been for his return, he is aware that he might not be able to return to the church, so he prays accordingly, for the endurance and faithfulness of the church until the coming of the Lord. Paul's prayer also anticipates the discussion of the parousia in 4:13-5:11. The prayer is a subtle reminder that the "holiness" for which they strive is holiness before God, not before their fellow citizens in Thessalonica, and the judgment that counts (being "blameless") is the judgment in the heavenly court, not the law courts of the city. Indeed, they may be hassled and judged by their unforgiving neighbors, but they must keep their eyes focused on the only judgment that counts. The very fact that Paul could frame his prayer in this way indicates that he is well aware that he might not be able to return to revisit the church.
Throughout his prayer and in his earlier comments to the Thessalonians, Paul has made it clear that life does not always work out as we would like. Paul wanted to return to Thessalonica but could not. The gospel was not proclaimed to universal acclamation. It generated conflict. Proclaiming the gospel there was hard work, and it took a toll on Paul as well as the new house church. All of these realities make his prayer more earnest and real.
Living a Christian life in Thessalonica was no charade, and the choice to follow the gospel led to confusion and conflict, unanswered questions and a faith stretched almost to the breaking point. But the church held together because, through Christ, God was present with them, and their love bonded them together. In his absence, Paul saw prayer as the bond that held together the new house church and the itinerant apostle.
What has all this to do with advent? Paul is writing to an early house church community about the "advent" of Christ in their world. What did the coming of Christ mean? The answers have been given above. Jesus was born into a world ruled by Augustus Caesar who mistakenly called himself "the savior of the world," and Herod the Oppressor (mistakenly called "the Great"). His birth did not produce joy but the slaughter of the innocents and great disturbance in Jerusalem.
What was true in Jerusalem at Herod's court was no less true in Thessalonica. The coming of Christ brings conflict, confusion and division as often as it brings "peace on earth and goodwill to all" (Lk 2:14). But in the spirit of the angels announcement, Paul calls upon the Lord who sent the Christmas angels to make the Thessalonians "increase and abound in love for one another and for all people" (3:12). In this sense, the spirit of the advent of the Christ child pervades the lection from this letter of Paul.