Dick Purnell, in his 2003 publication Finding a Lasting Love, makes the following statement: "We all need to love and accept the love of other people. Even though we talk about being self-sufficient, we are made by God with a need to connect with others."
This profound statement of truth is a personal reality for each of us and the reason behind Paul's writing of this text. People need love. Love connects people. God's love keeps people together even when they are far apart.
These verses mark the beginning of a new section in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. Thus far, he has engaged in commendation in chapter 1, refutation in chapter 2:1-16, and now he begins his personal explanation for his failed return to this great church.
Paul's critics had not only tried to characterize his ministry as illegitimate, but they had also submitted his absence as a proof that his love was illegitimate, as well. The detractors reasoned, "If Paul loved you like he says he does, then why isn't he here?"
In our text, Paul rips open his chest and allows the Thessalonians then—and the church now—to see what really happens in the heart of a pastor. These words are laced with emotion and conviction because how Paul felt was the exact opposite of what he was being accused of. The great apostle's example and love for this church, which he had only known for a short time and only been away from for a brief period, teach us a lasting lesson about "the love connection" believers have in God.
Here we learn that the love of God keeps us connected even when space, time, and circumstances separate us. Physical separation in life can never end believers' relationships with each other. No matter how distant we are, we are still brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ.
What can we learn about being connected from this response to being torn apart? There are three things that Paul teaches us here. He begs that we would learn them, incorporate them, and take them home with us.
Love can't be limited by geography
Paul begins verse 17 with a conjunction of contrast. In contrast to the affection that he, Silas, and Timothy have for the church in Thessalonica, he cites the misbehavior of the Jews that he has been talking about in the previous verse. He essentially says, "Even though we were torn away from you for a short period of time physically, we were not torn away in our hearts. Yes, we have been separated by geography, but our love is still the same." Our location in relationship to one another does not determine our affection for each other. Our addresses may be miles apart, but our hearts are still knit together. Paul employs a word only used here in the New Testament that means "orphaned," "bereft," or "torn away."
Acts 17:1-9 tells the story of Paul having to leave the city of Thessalonica under duress, while the members of the church were under physical attack. His host, Jason, had to give bond of insurance to the authorities in Thessalonica, saying he would not return. What Paul is trying to say here is: "The reason why I left is not because I was finished ministering to you, but because I was forced out of town. Trouble made me leave."
More important to Paul than the idea of what caused him to leave is how he felt when it happened. He says, "I felt orphaned from you; I felt bereft of you; I felt snatched away." In chapter two, Paul likens himself to a nursing mother and a wise father. He says that when trouble separated them, he felt like a mother who had her children taken and a father who had his children torn away. Paul's point is this: "What happened happened, but how I feel has not changed. I still love you because love can't be limited by geography.
"We were separated against my will. This breach of fellowship, which was imposed on us by others, has not caused a tear in our relationship. We have been snatched away from each other in person, but my love, care, concern, and prayers are still with you. In fact, I have been longing for and working toward a face-to-face reunion with you as an extension of my love for you. My location to you doesn't determine affection for you. Our addresses may be miles apart, but our hearts are still knit together."
The real reason why you are saved is because love can't be limited by geography. Christianity is the ultimate long distance relationship because Jesus lives in heaven and you live on Earth. Even though he is not physically present, your love for him is still intact and his love for you has caused him to send his Spirit to show up and keep you company. Love cannot be limited by geography. 1 Peter 1:8 says, "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy."
Love can't be stopped by the Enemy
Paul says, "Let me explain my situation, I've tried to get back, but the Enemy has hindered me." He uses a Jewish reference in his communication with his Gentile audience; he had taught them comprehensively and informed them about the identity of the devil. This is the first of three times that he will mention Satan in this letter. He says, "The devil broke up the ground and made it impossible for me to return." This was an ancient military tactic, which was used by enemy forces to stop the progress of the opposing army. They would trace the other army's route and break up the road to keep them from reaching the battlefield. Paul here says the devil has worked to keep them from uniting to do greater things for God.
Here, in the text, Paul shows sensitivity. He knows who to blame, and he acknowledges God's sovereignty—God knows when to move. He allows this temporary separation to facilitate growth on both ends. They grew as a body in his absence. He grew as a leader from their separation. In his writings, Paul blames God for some things and blames the devil for other things. Paul has a sensitivity of which activity is directly from God and which activity is from the Enemy. He says to this church that he wants to get back to them to sow into their faith: "I'm trying to get back, but the devil is blocking my way." The devil was fighting against the growth of this great church.
On one hand, Paul may not know what he is doing, but he knows that the devil is the one doing it. He made sure they understood that the reason why he wasn't there was because the devil was blocking him. He says, "The people are slandering me; the devil is hindering me, and he knows that if we get together, we will do some great stuff." You must be sensitive to when God is blocking you directly and when the Enemy is at work.
Then there is a lesson in sovereignty. The devil is not all-powerful. The devil is God's devil, and he can't do anything to us that God doesn't permit. In this instance, God kept pastor and people apart so they could grow where they both were. The Lord knows when, where, and how to use your Enemy. God knows the difference.
The Enemy actively works to keep God's people apart. Is he using you to put obstacles in the church? Is he tricking you out of a love God provided? Are you sensitive to the source of what's being said and done?
Never forget: God unites, and the devil separates. If people who proclaim Jesus fall apart, it is not the work of God. It is the activity of the Enemy. Paul made it back to Thessalonica during his third missionary journey. The Lord stopped Paul from getting back at this point, but the devil couldn't stop him ultimately from making it back.
The devil will never succeed at keeping the saints apart. A word of warning: If you can stay away from God's people, then you might not be who you claimed to be. If you can stay away, then the devil could already have you.
Love can't be erased by time
Paul uses rhetorical questions to expose just how important this church is to him, then he tells them that who they are in his heart now will not be altered by the appearance of Jesus in the future.
He asks, "Who are you? We are believers. What is your hope? Present ministry has future results that are rooted in you. What is your joy? Your presence in heaven will cause me to have joy because God used me to help get you there. What crown is there for you? God will reward me for my work in front of my work—not an imperial crown that is placed on a king's head, but a laurel wreath which is for victors."
What made an athlete's crowning so important was who was witnessing it and watching in the stands. Paul is saying, "When I get to glory, Jesus is going to put a soul winner's crown on my head, and the souls I won will witness it."
Time cannot tarnish what God is doing with us. Paul goes from a rhetorical statement in verse 19 to an emphatic one in verse 20. Paul says his future hope about them will not erase his present feelings for them. He will love them all then because he does love them all now.
If you can love in front of Jesus, then it's the real thing!
Real love can't be limited by location, real love can't be stopped by the devil, and real love can't be erased by the constraints of time. Dr. David Jeremiah says, "A love that cares, that goes out of its way to find what it can do to minister, makes a difference!"
The love connection explains Paul's relationship to the Thessalonians. The love connection prescribes our relationship with each other. The love connection defines God's relationship in our salvation.
God cared so much that he went out of his way to minister, and when he did that, it made a difference. He understood that we couldn't reach up to him because our arms were too short, but in Jesus, God reached down to us.
The love connection extends all the way from heaven down to Earth. The love connection is the reason why he folded his glory under his humanity and walked down through 42 generations and stepped off a train called mercy in Bethlehem of Judah.
The love connection made him heal the sick. The love connection caused him to raise the dead. The love connection caused him to give hands to the nails and give his feet to the spike. The love connection made him give heaven to a thief, his mother to John, and his spirit to his Father. The love connection made him say, "Father, into thine hands do I commend my Spirit." The love connection made him go down to hell to preach a three-day revival to set free everyone who died with a hope in him. The love connection caused him to get up early Sunday morning with all power in his hands. The love connection is why he will return for those who are his.
Aren't you glad that you are a part of the love connection?
Romell Williams is the senior pastor of Lilydale Progressive M.B. Church in Chicago, Illinois.