Paul opens 1 Thessalonians 3 giving his side of recent events, about how he reached a point where he needed to know what was happening with in Thessalonica, so he sent Timothy to check on the believers there. Here, it is helpful to remember the chronology from Acts 17, that Paul was only in town for a few weeks before being run out by the angry mob. He then went to Berea, and then on to Athens.
I see no reason to think that the recollections Paul makes here, of sending Timothy to the Thessalonians from Athens, are from any other time frame. It is, of course, possible, but the simpler solution puts the origin point there in the narrative. Of course, one should note that everything that happened in the life of Paul or Timothy is not recorded in the text, so we cannot make it an absolute claim. But let’s let the simple be the solution.
Having pointed out his personal concern for the church, he goes on to remind them of what he had told them in person—which is noteworthy, considering how little time they had together. There is something here to be considered, briefly: if you took a 3-week slice of any of your relationships and only had that to call on, what would your relationship have? Specifically, in your Christian relationships: do you go more than 3 weeks without encouraging other believers? Pastors and teachers, if someone took a 3-week slice of your teaching, how much would it help?
On track again, we wee Paul is concerned that the Thessalonian believers have been swallowed up by temptation in the absence of encouragement and teaching, even though he had warned them about the coming affliction that both he and they would suffer. The chapter ends with a benediction-type statement, a prayer that reads very much like it should be the end of the message. Paul, however, being a Baptist preacher, still has 2 chapters left to go…
Put 1 Thessalonians 3:7 in your focus for the time being: Paul is encouraged by hearing how the church is responding, even as he faces distress and affliction.
What affliction? Well, since Thessalonica, where Paul was run out in a riot, he’s been run out in a riot in Berea; he’s faced the philosopher’s guild of Athens and been cold-shouldered; he’s now most likely in Corinth—where he’ll be for over a year, but not without trial and difficulty.
Yet hearing from those he loves is an encouragement. Hearing from the ones he has taught is a positive for him.
Well, the first thing to do “in practice” is to keep the faith with what you have been taught! Not that this means we do not grow, develop, and change, but we should separate core truth from other understandings. Knowing that Jesus really lived, really died, really rose from the grave is crucial; your understanding of how to observe the Lord’s Supper is a secondary matter and can change. The first thing we should practice is keeping the faith.
The second thing we should practice is sharing with those who have taught us how we’re doing in keeping the faith. Sometimes, it’s obvious: if you are still face-to-face (or even Internet-to-Internet) with your teachers and mentors, they should be able to see it normal life. Although it’s also valuable to communicate directly about the impact someone has had in your life, you should also be obvious with it. If you are distant—send a note, an email, a card—there are ways.
The third thing we should do is keep in touch with those we have taught: how are you encouraging those who you have taught and moved away from? That’s a challenge for me, personally, as I’m wrestling with what it means for someone who has preached and taught in several churches in the last few decades: how do I make sure to reach back and encourage? Not because those churches need me, but because I should continue to carry a burden for them. (And I do. Somebody damaged the calm of one my previous pastorates, and I think I was almost as aggravated as their current pastor)
I have taken the assumption that Paul writes the Thessalonians from Corinth, where Timothy was able to rejoin him after checking on the church. Other options exist—and I’m not a New Testament scholar, so you’ll have to check out some of the good resources on Thessalonians for that.
I also would note John Chrysostom’s comments on v. 3 (found in The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture): Paul notes that his sufferings are the glory of the church, because God showed His love for the Thessalonians by allowing one of His servants, Paul, to suffer on their behalf. What would become of us if we thought that way? How much does God love us that someone suffered for our faith? How much does God love others that we should suffer for them?