This Sunday's lesson addresses 1 Thessalonians 2.17-20.
In this passage of this letter to the believers at Thessalonica, Paul writes from Corinth that
he wanted to return to them "again and again – but Satan stopped us." (NIV 1984)
What is this about Satan? And what about God's sovereignty? Juicy problems.
N. T. Wright is not so sure about a being named Satan. His translation of the problem passage is "but the satan got in our way." Note that Wright does not capitalize "satan."
Here is what he writes in pertinent part in his essay on this passage:
Paul doesn't always mention 'the satan', but when he does he seems to be aware that behind at least some of the ordinary frustrations and thwarted plans that are common to the human race we may discern a darker and more malevolent force at work. This force – and it may
be going too far to see it as 'personal' – embodies itself from time to time in human beings and organizations that block God's purpose or hold it up for awhile.
-Wright, N. T., Paul for Everyone – Galatians and Thessalonians (Westminster John Knox Press 2004) at p. 105.
John Stott takes a little more time with this passage in his short "exposition" of Thessalonians. (He doesn't want to
elevate his book to the status of "commentary"), The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
His translation is the NIV 1984, "But Satan stopped us." Stott does not stop to consider the question of whether there is a "personal" Satan, that is a being, a sort of person, named Satan. Instead, Stott addresses the question of whether this being at this time and place frustrates God's will:
[W]e observe that the apostle blames the devil for the failure of his attempts to return. Satan 'thwarted us'
(REB) or 'prevented us' (JBP, JB), he says, using a verb (enkopto, to cut into) which could be applied either to 'breaking up a road to render it impassable' or to an athlete 'cutting in' during a race. The more important question is why Paul attributed this blockage to Satan, while attributing others to God. One answer could be that God gave Paul spiritual discernment to distinguish between providential and demonic happenings. Another is that the attribution could be made
only with the benefit of hindsight. 'It was probably evident – in retrospect, if not immediately – that the one check worked out for the advancement of the gospel and the other for its hindrance.'. A third and more theological perspective is to say that 'both statements are true. Although Satan does his part,
God still retains supreme authority . . . '. At all events, Paul's purpose is to affirm that his inability to return to them [the believers in Thessalonica] was not due to any indifference on his part, but rather to the malign influence of the devil. [footnotes omitted]
On the question of God's providence, N. T. Wright does have this important thing to say:
Underneath the opposition of 'the satan' we may sometimes discern the strange providence of God. This does not rob the 'satanic' opposition of danger or threat, but reminds us that God remains sovereign even over present dark frustrations.
-Wright at p. 106.