You can’t read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians without detecting a bit of an edge. Understandably so. His opponents back in Thessalonica were questioning his character, his motives, and his conduct. They were trying to turn the hearts of the new believers in the church he planted there against him.
It is true there were certain men out to get Paul and undermine his ministry. Luke describes them in his account in Acts 17 as “jealous” and “wicked.” But Paul’s theology brings to bear another perspective.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)
Paul’s opponents were criticizing his abrupt departure from the city and his failure to return, even though they were the ones who provoked that abrupt departure. Paul defends himself in his letter, insisting he was “torn away” and had eagerly and earnestly endeavored to return to see the believers in person.
What kept Paul from heading back to see children in the Lord? He tells us:
… we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. (1 Thess. 2:18)
How did Satan do that? Did he stand as a mighty angel with flaming sword barring Paul’s way from reentering the city? More likely, Satan used men and means at his disposal by virtue of being ruler of this age (see Eph. 2:2).
Satan uses the pawns of his kingdom, like Judas (Lk. 22:3) and those, like Peter, who serve his ends unawares (Matt. 16:23), to hinder the work of the gospel. Notice in the two passages below the connection between Satan and his human servants.
Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. (2 Thess. 3:1-3)
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)
Satan also uses means, circumstances permitted him at the discretion and purpose of God. That latitude is certainly evident in the book of Job. It is also in evidence in Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a “messenger of Satan” given by God. We see God’s rule over Satan and use of him in the ministry of Jesus and by comparing passages like 2 Samuel 24:1 (“the Lord incited David”) and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21:1 (“Satan incited David”).
But how did Paul know it was Satan who was hindering him? After all, we find God Himself hindering Paul in his missionary movement (e.g., Acts 16:6-7). How did Paul know if it was the Spirit closing doors or if it was Satan? For that matter, how do we know as we contend for the gospel?
There are those who believe it necessary to discern whether a hindrance is of God or of the devil. I’m not sure we need to pin it down. The reconnaissance report given us in Scripture alerts us to our spiritual enemy, his character, his schemes and tactics, and his goals. We don’t have to know that Satan is behind a hindrance. We just have to have him on our radar and assume his efforts to oppose us to some degree, in some manner (see 1 Thess. 3:5).
I led a retreat for the men of my church. We’ve done this for a number of years and attendance has always been strong. This time was strangely different. Men who have been regulars over the years were not able to come. Others who signed up had to back out and for legitimate reasons, like unexpectedly being scheduled to work.
The theme of this year’s retreat was “Manhood: Pure and Simple.” I had been reading a number of disturbing articles that highlighted the advancing danger of pornography in the church. The statistics were astounding. One article mentioned a survey that showed 70 percent of men struggle with it, not just dabble in or have occasional involvement with it but struggle with it. And these men surveyed were not on the fringe but in the thick of the ministry of the church, including officers, staff and ministry leaders.
Men in my own church, married men, had come to me recently telling me of their fall into pornography and how its exposure had rocked their marriages. In all this, I came across a book (Sexual Detox by Tim Challies) that I thought was perfect for the retreat. It was well written, down-to-earth and full of grace and wisdom.
But it couldn’t have been the topic that kept men from signing up for the retreat, because I hadn’t even publicized the theme at that point. Neither did those who backed out know the topic.
So I asked myself what was going on. The perspective brought to bear by the Apostle Paul told me I needed to take spiritual opposition into account. Satan has a strong foothold in men’s hearts and in the church through pornography. He certainly would not want that jeopardized. It is reasonable to think that he would try to hinder men from attending.
While I didn’t need to know for certain that Satan had a hand in preventing men from attending the retreat, I did need to receive our Lord’s reconnaissance report and raise the possibility, and act accordingly.
How do we act accordingly, knowing our spiritual enemy is alive and active (cf. Gen. 4:7; 1 Pet. 4:8)? We do just what the Apostle does (1 Thess. 3:11-13; 2 Thess. 3:1; Eph. 6:18-19). We pray. We seek our God to break down barriers, to open doors, to thwart the efforts of the evil one.
With that in mind, I prayed. Friday evening, when the men were to travel to the retreat, the weather was a mess. A nor’easter had brought torrents of rain. One of the men was on his way when his windshield wipers suddenly stopped working. He pulled off the road. It wasn’t a problem with a fuse or anything impeding the wipers. It turned out he knew the area and was not far from a garage he remembered. He drove his car there and had to leave it. He called the car rental place, which was about 15 minutes away. They came to him. He arrived at the retreat late, but undeterred from what God had for him that weekend. Saturday turned out beautiful.
As our Lord Jesus teaches us in His model prayer (Mt. 6:9-13) and shows us in His high priestly prayer (John 17:15), we must take into account the enemy of our souls and opponent to Christ’s church as part of our ordinary, ongoing prayer. Whether it be church ministry or struggles of the heart or conflicts in the home or adversities of our lives, we need to seek our God for protection, strength and wisdom from above to press on against the foe.