Wednesday 20 November 2013

Pray the gospel (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)

Theme sentence: Paul responds to gospel opposition by praying for perseverance.
Aim sentence: Pray the gospel

     Paul begins with prayer and he ends with prayer. He begins by requesting prayer for himself for the work of the gospel. He ends by praying for his readers, the fruit of that same gospel.
     In doing so, Paul teaches us how the gospel shapes our prayers; how the gospel focuses our prayers on God’s mission and God’s love.

1. Paul asks for prayer (verses 1-2)

     Paul begins by asking for prayer in verse 1.

1 As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.

     Paul and his friends, Silas and Timothy, are on God’s mission preaching God’s word from city to city, and he wants his readers to pray for a right response to the gospel.
     We expect that right response to be faith and repentance (that’s what we’ve learned at TEAM). But Paul uses a different word.
     Paul says, “Pray that the message of the Lord … be honoured.” And that word “honour” literally means glory. It can even mean worship.
     And what Paul is saying is: Pray that this mission results in worship. Pray that this gospel results with praise.
     John Piper very famously writes, “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” That’s saying: The goal of mission is not simply to gain attention to the gospel but to display God’s glory in the gospel.

     In the same breath, at the end of verse 1, Paul adds, “just as it was with you.”
     I imagine Paul smiling to himself as he writes this. It’s his version of an emoticon - colon, bracket - smiley face :) He is saying, “What an encouragement you guys have been to my ministry.”
     He is thinking of their response to the gospel - their faith, their love, their perseverance, their worship; we’ve seen all this in Chapter 1 - and Paul says, “Pray that God would cause others to respond just the way you did.”

     Because verse 2 reminds us: Not everyone responds in this way.

2 And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith.

     Who are these wicked and evil people? Most likely, they are the same men who pursued Paul from city to city, stirring up riots in Philippi and Thessalonica and Berea and Corinth...
     But notice how Paul gives a reason for their hatred when he says “for not everyone has faith.”
     This is also a response to the gospel. A response he fully expects. It’s one of hatred and hostility towards the message as well as the messenger. And Paul expects this.
     “Not everyone’s going to respond to this gospel the way you did,” he says, “So please, pray for God’s mercy for those who hear this message but also for us who often have to speak this message into hostile situations.”
     Our first point: Paul asks for prayer - for God’s mission, God’s message and the right response to that message.

2. Paul is confident of God’s protection (verses 3-4)

     Our second point: Paul is confident of God’s protection.

3 But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.

     The thought of persecution triggers a switch in Paul’s mind - from talking about faithless men to thinking about a faithful God; from requesting prayer for himself to reassuring his readers: “God will strengthen you… he will protect you.”
     Yet once again, Paul’s confidence is rooted in the gospel.

4 We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command.

     How will God strengthen and protect these Christians - from persecution, from deception, from the evil one? By enabling them to continue on in obedience to his Word.
     This is in direct contrast to the faithless men in verse 2. Here, Paul puts his faith (the NIV has ‘confidence’, but the word is ‘faith’) in a faithful God (verse 3) who makes us faithful to his Word (verse 4).

     Notice the emphasis on doing the Word. “You are doing… you will continue to do… everything we command” echoing Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” -  or what Paul describes “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1).
     “You began with the gospel,” Paul is saying, so now, “continue in obedience to this same gospel.”
     Paul is confident in God’s protection over his people.

3. Paul is focussed on Christ’s perseverance (verse 5)

     Finally: Paul is focussed on Christ’s perseverance.

5 May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.

     Elsewhere, Paul prays for the Lord of peace to grant them peace (2 Thess 3:16) for the Lord of eternal encouragement to encourage their hearts (2 Thessalonians 2:16) and for the Lord of glory to be glorified in his people (2 Thessalonians 1:12). So here in Chapter 3 verse 5, after Paul has been considering suffering Christians, he prays that their hearts might gaze upon a suffering Christ.

     “The Lord,” in verse 5, is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is praying to Jesus.
     All this while, Paul has been referring to Jesus as Lord. Look at verse 6, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you…”
     [The same expression occurs eight times in Chapter 1 (1:1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 12), six times in Chapter 2 (2:1, 2, 8, 13, 14, 16) and six times in Chapter 3 - always referring to Jesus Christ as Lord.]

     This is important because the message of the Lord (verse 1) and the faithfulness of the Lord (verse 3) comes together in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in verse 5. That is what he means by the “perseverance of Christ”. It’s the cross.
     So when Paul prays, “Direct their hearts to God’s love and Christ’s perseverance,” what he is saying is, “Help them see the cross - when they are suffering and when they are calling out to you for strength and protection - show them what it meant for Jesus to persevere on the cross.”

     Additionally, what I think Paul is doing here is: Praying they will pray. He is praying that they will pray.
     What Paul is doing is praying that Jesus would create a longing in their hearts such that that every fibre in their being yearns for God’s love - such that when they do suffer and when they do face opposition and when they do face rejection - their hearts will turn to Jesus and say, “I want to know you in the power of your resurrection and the fellowship of your suffering.”
     You see, earlier on Paul tells them how they should pray - for God’s mission. He tells them why they can pray - because of God’s faithfulness. But he ends by praying that they will pray - out of longing for God’s love and out of response to Christ’s salvation on the cross.
     Paul prays that they will pray.

     It’s saying that you can teach people how to pray but only God can make them pray. It’s saying that you can pray for Christians when they suffer, when they need healing, when they need God’s love; but above all, rather than just praying for them, let them know that they, too can pray to this same God. Pray that they will pray.
     We have said that the gospel leads to worship and that the gospel leads to faith. But here, Paul is saying that the gospel, rightly understood, leads to prayer. It creates a people longing to come to God because their hearts are drawn to him and their eyes are fixed on the cross.

     To recap, my theme sentence had to do with Paul’s response: Paul responds to gospel opposition by praying for perseverance.
     But my aim sentence has to do with our response - what do we do when we face challenges or opposition? Pray the gospel.
     Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:38

     Pray the gospel

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