A Pastorâ€™s Prayer for His Church
As true brotherly love increases and abounds more and more, it is also accompanied by â€œknowledge and all discernment.” It is not blind love. We do not love for the sake of love, just as we do not unite for the sake of unity.
Psalm 42:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 (text)
February 6, 2011
Remember that after Paul preached in Thessalonica for three Sabbaths, many Jews and Gentile proselytes believed in Christ. But those Jews who rejected the gospel fomented a mob against Paul, his companions, and those who have believed. So Paul and the others escaped to Berea where many Jews and Gentiles also believed. But when the Thessalonian Jews heard about Paul’s success in Berea, they went to Berea and stirred up unbelievers against Paul. Again, Paul was forced out of Berea and proceeded to Athens.
While in Athens, Paul became concerned about the Thessalonian church’s newfound faith upon hearing of troubles there because of false teachings about the Second Coming of Christ, persecution, and sinful behavior among some believers. So Paul, even when it meant he was going to be alone in Athens, sent his young disciple Timothy back to the city to see what was really happening there. When Timothy returned to Paul, he brought an encouraging report about the church. Paul then continued his missionary travels to Corinth, and while he was there, he wrote two letters of encouragement to the Thessalonian believers.
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His letters were in part an expression of his great desire to visit the Thessalonians again, but he explained that â€œSatan hindered us.â€ He writes that his failure to return to the city was not to be interpreted as a lack of pastoral concern for them, because even though he was â€œtorn awayâ€ from them, he was absent from them â€œin person but not in heartâ€ (1 Thess 2:17, 18).
We read an almost identical opening thanksgiving and prayer to his letter to the Philippians (Phil 1:3-9). Like the Thessalonians, the Philippians were dear to the heart of Paul. It was the first church that was established in Europe, and Paul visited there a few times. His letter to them is also one of encouragement and commendation.
Our text is Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians, a prayer worthy of emulation by pastors and congregations today. Even while he was away from them, he did not fail to pray for them night and day, thanking God for their faith, hope and love in the face of trials, persecutions and false teachings. He prayed for three things: (1) that he might see and fellowship with them again â€œface to faceâ€; (2) that they will abound in love for one another; and (3) that they might be ready at the Second Coming of Christ.
For Face-to-Face Communion
As Paul prays for the Thessalonian church, he first gives thanks to God for the faith that God has given to them. And as he gives thanks, joy overwhelms him, â€œHow can I thank God enough for you?â€ He knows that God does not need anything from his creatures, but his joy and thankfulness are pleasing to God.
As God’s people, we are always to be thankful for all things, because he gives us all things. Every morsel of food, every stitch of our clothing, every block of wood and stone of our houses are given by our Providence. Whenever we sit down at the table with our families, we say a prayer of joy and thanksgiving for everything that he has given to us. But of all the things that God gives to us, we are most thankful for when a member of our family or a friend is given faith and repentance by the Holy Spirit. If a thousand angels rejoice in heaven when one lost sheep is found, then it is just fitting that we too rejoice when someone we know is found by God. No amount of financial blessing or prosperity can match the blessing of a lost soul snatched from eternal darkness. Jesus himself assures us of this joy in heaven over a person’s salvation, â€œAnd I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of Godâ€ (Luke 12:8).
But Paul’s joy is not complete, because he is also distressed over his inability to be with his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica. He knows that one of the reasons why there are problems in the church is because they were â€œlacking in faith.â€ Not that the faith that they have received from God was not enough for their salvation, but that they needed more maturity through Paul’s teachings, exhortations, and instructions. Thus, in the next two chapters and in his second letter, Paul discusses one of these needs: correct teaching about the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection.
Notice that thanksgiving, joy and prayer are all connected. As he was joyful and thankful to God, Paul prayed a prayer of thanksgiving day and night. In verse 10, he prayed that he might see them face to face in order that he may supply what they lacked in faith: further instructions to maturity.
We are to always pray for our brethren, day and night and at all times if possible, especially when we are separated. In our congregational prayer every Lord’s Day worship services, we pray that those who are not with us may also be in God’s providential care, that they may be strengthened in their faith. We pray that those who are sick may be healed, and that those who are troubled by difficulties in life may be comforted and have peace that only Christ can give. We pray for those who are in financial difficulties and how we may be able to help them as a community sharing each other’s resources.
Above all, we pray for peace and love in our church community, as Paul did for the Thessalonians, â€œmay the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for youâ€ (verse 12).
For Abounding Brotherly Love
The faith of these young converts will be strengthened by God by means of teaching them how to love one another. This is one of Jesus’ primary teachings to his disciples during the Last Supper before his death, â€œA new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one anotherâ€ (John 13:34). He repeated this exhortation three more times in the same setting (John 13:35; 15:12, 17).
The ultimate kind of love is God’s perfect love for his people, the kind that compelled him to send his only begotten Son into the world so that we may not be condemned, but that we may be saved from God’s wrath. This love then originates from God, and he bestows it to us through the Spirit when he renews our spirits.
Thus, the love that we have for God and neighbor comes from God himself, and afterwards, it issues from our hearts. This is why Paul says that the goal of his ministry to the churches is to teach them that love â€œissues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faithâ€ (1 Tim 1:5). Later, Paul commends them for their increasing love for another â€œbecause your faith is growing abundantlyâ€ (2 Thess 1:3).
All human beings have love that comes from their hearts. Even the most wicked menâ€”Pharaoh, Herod, Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladenâ€”surely loved their wives and families. But even the best among human beingsâ€”Buddha, Confucius, Mahatma Gandhi, and philanthropists who have given away billions for the betterment of the poor in the worldâ€”do not have this kind of love if their love does not issue from a pure heart, good conscience, and most of all, a sincere faith in Christ Jesus. For no good works is pleasing to God if it does not result from true faith. As Isaiah 64:6 says, â€œour righteous deeds are like a polluted garmentâ€ or filthy rags before God.
Why is that? Because they are motivated not by a sincere faith in Christ, not to please God, but to please other gods, other people, or themselves. When Buddhists and Hindus do good works, they want to please their idol-gods. When Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Iglesia ni Cristo do good things, they want to please their false gods. When the common men and women in the streets live moral lives, they want to please their families, friends, or even themselves. When a rich person launches a foundation to help the poor, who are pleased? The poor, the government, their families and friends, and most of all, they are pleased with themselves. They feel good that they are doing something for the good of many people.
True brotherly love issues from God’s love that purifies our souls and hearts with the truth of God’s word, â€œHaving purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heartâ€ (1 Pet 1:22).
Jesus and his apostles teach us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, â€œLove one another.â€ This is a source of joy and thanksgiving for Paul. We are to love our brothers and sisters in Christ first, then comes those outside our covenant family, â€œlove for one another and for all.â€ Indeed, â€œand for allâ€ might also be referring to believers, but in other places, â€œyou yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedoniaâ€ (1 Thess 4:9-10).
What about New Testament injunctions to Christians to do good to everyone (Gal 6:10; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Tim 6:18; Heb 13:16)? Didnâ€™t Jesus himself say that the sheep who fed the hungry and thirsty and cared for the stranger, naked, sick and the prisoner will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matt 25:34-36)? The overwhelming evidence in Scripture is that believers are to do good and care for each other.
We see in the Old Testament commands given to Israel to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans among them. But the command to â€œopen wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poorâ€ was towards those â€œin your land,â€ brothers who are part of Godâ€™s covenant people (Deut 15:11). Israel was never commanded to care for the poor of the Philistines or Moabites. Christ rewards the sheep of Matthew 25 because they cared for â€œone of the least of these my brothersâ€ (Matt 25:40, 45). Notice also that when a severe famine struck Judea, Paul never gathered help for unbelievers, but only for the churches that were suffering (Rom 15:25-26; Acts 11:27-30; I Cor 16:1-3).
To be sure, we are commanded by Christ and Paul to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, even providing for their needs (Luke 6:27; Rom 12:20). But our highest priority as a church is to care for our own community. This is why in saying â€œlet us do good to everyone,â€ he also stresses, â€œespecially to those who are of the household of faithâ€ (Gal 6:10).
True brotherly love comes from a pure heart and a sincere faith. Its object is the people of God first, then those outside the church. What then are the characteristics of this kind of love?
Its Characteristics and Results
Paul says that true brotherly love increases and abounds. It does not stand still or stagnates, rather, it grows and matures. To â€œaboundâ€ means to overfill or overflow beyond measure or capacity. The familiar words of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 gives the characteristics of God’s perfect love:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
As true brotherly love increases and abounds more and more, it is also accompanied by â€œknowledge and all discernmentâ€ (Phil 1:9). It is not blind love, as the saying goes. We do not love for the sake of love, just as we do not unite for the sake of unity. For example, when we â€œfall in love,â€ isn’t it true for most to say, as the Backstreet Boys do,
I don’t care who you are,
Where you’re from,
What you did,
As long as you love me.
But our brotherly love for one another is not blind love. It is based on our love for one God, one Lord, one baptism and one faith. It is rooted in our true knowledge of the Bible. It is grounded on our common Reformed heritage which we share in our creeds and confessions, the Three Forms Unity and the Westminster Standards.
And so this brotherly love binds us together, â€œAnd above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmonyâ€ (Col 3:14). With this love, the church would fellowship and function together in harmony. And when other people see this love, communion and harmony in our church, â€œall people will know that you are [Jesus’] disciples, if you have love for one anotherâ€ (John 13:35).
Finally, Paul says, when our love for one another continues and increases, Christ will â€œestablish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saintsâ€ (1 Thess 3:13).
For Readiness at the Coming of Christ
The Bible tells us that God’s purpose for our salvation from the beginning to the end is to present us a the Bride of Christ holy and blameless before God (Eph 5:27). When he predestined us, it was for us to be â€œholy and blamelessâ€ (Eph 1:4). We have learned previously that we are get ready for our heavenly city by marching in our pilgrimage living in holiness. And when Christ returns on the last day, Paul tells us that we will be utterly holy and blameless, ready for our heavenly home.
This was one of Paul’s main concern for the Thessalonians. He was not able to continue teaching them, and one of the things lacking in them is the truth about the Second Coming. Because of this lack of instruction, some fell easy prey to false teachers who deceived them to believe that Christ is coming very soon, and they probably quit their jobs waiting for his return. This is not unlike many people today who are deceived by false teachers who set exact dates for the so-called Secret Rapture.
So beginning with the next chapter, Paul embarks on his teaching about holy living while waiting for his coming, particularly about sexual purity in 4:3-8 and in 5:23-24. Those who are to taken up to heaven by Christ when he returns are those who have lived holy and blameless lives before God because they have been given Christ’s perfect righteousness.
The last part of our text is somewhat ambiguous and controversial, but with careful interpretation, we can come to a most plausible conclusion. Paul says that when Christ comes, he will come with â€œall his saints,â€ literally, â€œall his holy ones.â€
This is an allusion to Zechariah 14:5, â€œThen the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.â€ Most Jewish interpreters believe these are the heavenly army of angels, as when they interpret â€œthe holy onesâ€ in Psalm 89:5, 7 as angels, â€œLet the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!â€ (see also Dan 7:18, 8:13). In fact, Matthew 25:31 also uses this text, but changes â€œholy onesâ€ to â€œangels,â€ â€œWhen the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.â€ This is why Matthew also says that when he returns, Jesus â€œwill send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect…â€ (Matt 24:31). Later, Paul also changes â€œthe holy onesâ€ of Zechariah 14:5 to â€œangelsâ€ in 2 Thessalonians 1:7, â€œwhen the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire.â€
However, the same Greek word for â€œholy onesâ€ is also frequently translated as â€œsaints,â€ those who believe in Christ, as when Paul greets the Corinthian believers, â€œTo the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saintsâ€ (1 Cor 1:2). Thus, when Christ returns from heaven, he will come with his holy ones, most probably believers in heaven who have been waiting for this day and angels as his mighty army to destroy all evildoers.
Many interpreters also mistakenly distinguish between a â€œsecretâ€ coming (Secret Rapture) and the real Second Coming, which makes for two Second Comings! This claim, however, fails with even a cursory look at a few New Testament texts.
According to this claim, Jesus will return for the saints in a secret coming that only the believers will see and knowâ€”they will suddenly disappear from the world so that unbelievers will not even realize that they have been â€œrapturedâ€ into heaven. Then, seven years later, Jesus will come again with the saints from heavenâ€”for a third timeâ€”to judge the unbelieving world and inaugurate his millennial reign.
How did they come up with this clever two-phase Second Coming? In their faulty interpretation, they distinguish three Greek terms: (1) parousia (coming or presence): (2) epiphaneia (appearance or manifestation), two words that describe the secret coming; and (3) apokalypsis (revelation or unveiling), which they connect with the â€œrealâ€ Second Coming.
Parousia is used by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, supposedly reserved for the Secret Rapture, â€œthe coming of the Lordâ€ (verse 15). But Jesus’ disciples also used parousia to ask about his Second Coming, â€œWhat will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?â€ (Matt 24:3) Later, in verse 27, Jesus explained the manner of his coming using parousia, â€œFor as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.â€ Obviously, this is not a secret coming. Paul uses the same word in our text in verse 13 to refer to â€œthe coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.â€ Again, in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, Paul uses parousia to refer to the destruction of the Antichrist â€œby the appearance of his coming.â€ These two events are supposed to take place seven years after the Rapture.
What is even more disturbing about this view is that both epiphaneia and parousia are used in the phrase â€œte epiphaneia tes parousias autouâ€ (â€œthe appearance of his comingâ€),Â two words that are supposed to refer to two events that are seven years apart! Likewise, in 2 Timothy 4:1, epiphaneia definitely refers to the Second Coming of Christ, â€œwho is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom.â€ This contradicts even more their teaching that epiphaneia in 1 Timothy 6:14, â€œthe appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,â€ is the Secret Rapture.
Apokalypsis is definitely a word used to refer to the Second Coming when Jesus returns to punish the wicked, â€œwhen the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know Godâ€ (2 Thess 1:7).
With this overwhelming evidence that these three words are used interchangeably, we know that the New Testament writers do not teach a two-phase Second Coming of Christ at the end of the age.
Paul as a pastor prayed for his church. He longed to see them personally. He prayed for continuing brotherly love. He prayed that they may live holy and blameless lives, ready for the coming of Christ.
As God’s people, you are also exhorted and commanded to do the same, to pray for one for another and to love one another. In this way, you will grow in holiness and righteousness as you await the return of the Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.