1 Thessalonians Chapter 3 - The marks of a true shepherd

Peter Davies, Swansea, Wales [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

This is a subject of great importance. In these days when there is such a scattering among the sheep of His pasture, our greatest need is for shepherds, true shepherds, godly shepherds. Of course, our supreme example is the Lord Himself, who said, ‘I am the good shepherd’, John 10. 11, 14. He is truly the Chief Shepherd and all who would serve His flock must serve under His control, ever seeking to follow His steps. But, in case we might think His example is too high and lofty, He has given us the example of others who have been true and faithful shepherds, though themselves mere mortals like us. Such a shepherd we have before us in this chapter; someone has described him as ‘the ideal shepherd’. This is true inasmuch as he could say, ‘Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ’, 1 Cor. 11. 1. It is lovely to see the features of the Good Shepherd being lived out in this devoted servant of Christ. Let us see, then, how he bares his heart, and shares his concerns and longings for the flock of God.

Present with the sheep

Every true shepherd knows his place is with the sheep and that is where he desires to be. Is that what marks this shepherd? Paul was at Athens and this flock was at Thessalonica about 200 miles away, but that did not come about by Paul’s choosing. Chapter 2 verse 17 shows that he had been taken from them – torn away violently and suddenly. The facts are found in Acts chapter 17, where, after a three-week mission at Thessalonica, the Lord had blessed His word in the conversion of many. Following a serious riot in the city, Paul and Silas were forced to leave and go on to Berea and though he had endeavoured to return to see them and be with them, his every effort had been hindered. It is interesting to note that he attributes this to the work of Satan, 2. 18. While he was not able to be with them in person, he was in heart. It was his great longing to be with them, ‘Night and day praying exceedingly . . . [to] see your face’, 3. 10. This chapter opens with the pain he felt at the separation; being deprived of their fellowship was just too much for him to bear. What a heart, what an affection for God’s people, he had; they were just babes in Christ, with so much to learn of God and His ways and just to be present with them was what he longed for more than anything. Do we delight to be among the people of God? Is their fellowship more to us than even family ties? Peter touches a very tender cord when he writes, ‘The elders which are among you I exhort’, 1 Pet. 5. 1.

Provides for the sheep

If Paul could not be with them to assess their needs and provide for them, then he would send someone who could – Timothy. Why Timothy? Because he was the most suitable. Paul had every confidence in this younger man that he would fulfil the task. God give us more young men like Timothy! What a lovely commendation he gives him. ‘Our brother’ – I don’t believe that he is simply saying he is a Christian. I believe Paul was saying he is brotherly in a practical and positive way, that the relationship in the family of God was very real and precious to him. You will find him approachable, understanding, and helpful as a brother should be. But more a ‘minister of God’ – he is committed to the service of God. He is not merely a servant of men, but of God; not serving or living for himself but God; occupied, engaged in that higher, nobler service. Obviously, his daily prayer would be, ‘Lord, what will you have me to do?’ It is only he who serves God that can serve His people, and Paul knew this. Again, he describes him as ‘our fellowlabourer’– not afraid of work, not one who left everything to others. So many are like that today, not wanting to become involved, though having all the time for their own interests. Timothy was a labourer; one prepared to work hard and long for God. But more ‘fellow’; he could, and did work with others. Not a loner, not one who did his own thing to the exclusion of others. Partnership in the gospel is a very necessary thing. Striving together, standing shoulder-to-shoulder is what is required of us. We see this was the kind of person Timothy was. No wonder the apostle had every confidence to send him to Thessalonica.

What for? To provide for them; to tend, feed and shepherd these lambs. He uses two words in verse 2 that should be noted. To establish is to confirm, to strengthen so that they might know the certainty of the things they had believed, enjoy more and more the love and care of their heavenly Father, experience the blessedness of the real abiding presence of their living Lord, and the sweet communion of the indwelling Holy Spirit. To comfort is to cheer and to encourage in the face of so much discouragement. They were passing through the furnace of affliction; the opposition was strong, the persecution was fierce, it cost dearly to belong to Christ.

Protects his sheep

Paul was very conscious of all the dangers they were exposed to. The Good Shepherd had reminded His disciples of the dangers and troubles they would encounter, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation’, John 16. 33. 
Speaking of these afflictions, Paul makes a striking statement, ‘we are appointed thereunto’, v. 3. These trials and testings of their, and our, faith do not come by accident or misfortune, they come by appointment, divine appointment. Faith’s trials are intended to produce faith’s triumphs, for His grace is sufficient, His strength is made perfect in our weakness. In 2 Corinthians chapter 4 verse 17, Paul notes, ‘For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory’. Peter records, ‘The trial of your faith being much more precious than gold which perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise, and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ’, 1 Pet. 1. 7. Paul, though, was not only concerned about the trials of life but the temptations of the Devil, v. 5. These are the direct attacks of the wicked one. Faith is the victory – ‘I sent to know your faith’, v. 5! He was keen to know whether they were still trusting, or had their confidence in God their Saviour been shaken? What an ideal shepherd he was, how great was his concern for their safe keeping. So, Timothy is sent to comfort, to reassure, to stimulate their faith.

Pleasure in his sheep

When Timothy returned to report on the conditions he found, was the apostle disappointed at what he heard? No, rather he was overjoyed! It was good news he received; good news of their faith and love. Not love strong at the expense of faith, nor faith strong at the expense of love. They were living in dependence on God and devotion to God and His people. Are we simply trusting every day, being encouraged in the Lord? What about our love for the Lord and His people? This shepherd also had pleasure in knowing that he had not been forgotten, for Timothy could tell him how they treasured every remembrance of him, and how that they too were just longing for the time when they could be reunited. Reciprocal fellowship is a joy. We do need one another! That good news ‘comforted’ the apostle. The news of the continuance of these dear believers was a source of encouragement and blessing to him. It seems that a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, a burden taken from his heart, and that he could now walk with lightened step, ‘now we live if [since] ye stand fast in the Lord’, v. 8. John could say, ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth’, 3 John 4, and the writer to the Hebrews tells us, ‘they watch for your souls . . . that they may do it with joy’, 13. 17. The shepherd has pleasure from the flock when the sheep are healthy and strong, and contented in his care, but pain when things are otherwise. Sometimes unhappiness among the sheep can be because of the inconsiderate impatience and hardness of the shepherds, at other times because of the rebellion and self-will of the sheep. May we learn as shepherds from the example of Paul, that to be loved then we must love. We can only expect others to care about us if we have shown that care for others. The pleasure of the shepherd is also seen here in his thanksgiving to God on their account, ‘For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God’, v. 9. He seems to struggle to express the joy they have given him on learning of their steadfastness and faithful continuance in their faith.

His prayer for the sheep

Because he cared, he prayed; because he wanted the very best for them, he went to the source of all blessing. His praying for them was not fitful, casual, or spasmodic. He prayed at all times, not just in emergencies. He carried them upon his heart always, v. 10. It was a full-time occupation, not a part-time exercise, not just words, but the outpouring of his heart. Would to God we had more shepherds like this! His prayer was specific:

  • ‘That we might see your face’, v. 10. Satan had been hindering, but he prayed that the hindrance might be removed. 
  • ‘God . . . direct our way unto you’, v. 11. Not just that he might be blessed in their fellowship, but that they might be blessed through his ministry.
  • ‘Perfect [adjust, mend, make good] that which is lacking [imperfect] in your faith’, v. 10. No doubt there were amendments to be made in their understanding of the truths of the gospel, as well as in their mode of living, because of what they had been saved from, but he wouldn’t write them off. He would seek, with patience and love as well as firmness, to correct and adjust those inconsistencies. 
  • 'The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you’, v. 12. 

This would have a profound effect upon their fellowship together, and help to motivate them further in their outreach to others with the result being their readiness for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. Do we realize how important it is for us to be ready for that glorious day?

AUTHOR PROFILE: Peter Davies is an elder in the assembly meeting in Treboeth Gospel Hall. He is now retired, and faithfully serves the saints in the ministry of God‘s Word.