Priorities in prayer - 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5
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There are three subjects for a speaker which are guaranteed to produce guilt within his Christian audience: prayer, evangelism and sex. The first two because they expose the things which we are not doing which we should be doing, and the last one because we are probably doing things we shouldn’t be doing. So, begin to speak on any of those topics and straight away you go into guilt mode. And since tonight we are going to be looking at Gospel praying, already many of you will be steeling yourself to deal with your feelings of guilt. Well, that is not really the purpose of this passage. I hope to show that while we will find that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to our prayer life, what Paul says here will actually inspire and instruct us in our praying.
It was the French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said that through prayer God ‘bestows upon us the dignity of causality’, which is the sort of thing you would expect a philosopher to say- a philosopher being defined as someone who takes that which everyone can understand in order to turn it into something no one can understand! But what Pascal meant, was that God has given to us this wonderful, mind boggling gift called prayer through which things get done which otherwise wouldn’t get done. Or to put it crudely, prayer, if you like, ‘causes things to happen.’ Of course it is not like the kind of ‘causing’ that you get if you put in a coin into a chocolate dispensing machine which is automatic and mechanical. It is more like the change brought about by speaking to a person of influence. So, for example you may speak to a local councillor to get your area smartened up and so ‘cause’ things to happen that way. Or think of a mother who approaches a monarch to plead for clemency on behalf of her son accused of a major crime- if granted the mother can be said to have ‘caused’ her son’s release. But both are personal. Well, through prayer, the all knowing, all powerful, all personal God weaves the requests of his people into a plan of his design in order to bring about the extension of his kingdom. Now why God has chosen to do things that way, rather than going it alone, we don’t know. But that he has chosen to do things that way is a certainty because of what the Bible teaches in passages like this one.
First of all we are to note the context of Gospel praying, v1, ‘Finally, brothers pray for us.’ This ‘finally’ isn’t a sort of afterthought, a kind of, ‘PS’. No. It flows from everything else he has been saying up to this point, especially about the return of Jesus Christ. You see, what we think is going to happen in the future often determines our priorities in the present. Consider for a moment what happens in a country where it is forecast that a recession is just around the corner. The prudent amongst us will start to tighten our belts accordingly- getting ready for hard times which lie ahead. However, if we are told that we are coming out of a recession, then the mood lifts and people become a little more optimistic and free and easy in their spending. That is in the realm of economics. But in the spiritual realm Paul claims that Jesus Christ is going to come back to judge the world and rescue his people. Not only that, but in the meantime we face opposition and these should determine our mood and priorities as believers. On the one hand we can have eternal encouragement and good hope, as he says in 2:16. On the other hand our hearts can be strengthened so we can ‘get on with every good deed and word.’ chapter 2:17. Our priorities are shaped you see by the future. In other words with Christ coming at any moment, it is not a time for loafing around, as some Christians were doing then and some are doing today, as Paul will say later on in this chapter; rather it is a time for action- ‘good deeds and words.’ And included in those good deeds is prayer.
You see, Paul has already made it clear that Jesus is the reigning King who at the moment is in heaven but who one day will return in glorious power. Over and over again he has said how much we are loved by the God who chose us to be saved; how the well being of his people is close to his heart- their ‘sanctification’. As a result we can be sure that God will not only hear our prayers, but want to hear our prayers. As I mentioned the other week, one of the reasons why God saved us was so that we could pray because prayer-talking to God- is vital in enabling us to have a personal relationship with him, that is what we were saved for. It is one of the main ways we show that we do believe we are God’s children and that he is our heavenly Father. If my children never asked anything of me or if I never encouraged them to ask, you could hardly call that a healthy relationship could you? So to ask things of God shows that we do trust him, that his promises can be relied upon, that the relationship with him is living and real and that his concerns are our concerns- we are bothered about the family business- Gospel business. Martin Luther was right when he said, ‘Prayer is a special exercise of faith, and faith makes prayer so acceptable that either it will be surely granted, or something better than we ask will be given in its stead.’
So if it is the Gospel which has brought these Thessalonian Christians, and us, into a restored relationship with God so that we will not have to face the ‘wrath which is to come’, then surely it is the spread of the Gospel which should be the main concern of our prayers. We will want as many people as possible to experience what we have experienced. And that is exactly what Paul goes on to say, as we see in the content of Gospel praying.
Look again at verse 1, ‘Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith.’
Now I think that it is striking that the one who throughout this letter has been sharing how much he prays for the Thessalonians, now asks them pray for him. Prayer is not just the activity of the spiritual elite- ministers, missionaries, the keenies, it the duty of everyone. Paul needs praying for just as much as these young Christians need praying for.
But notice how specific Paul is in what he asks the Thessalonians to pray for. This is not like those Anglican prayers you sometimes hear in our Cathedrals, you know, ‘We pray for the Archbishop and Bishops and for all those in authority- full stop’ ‘We pray for our government and those with responsibilities- full stop’ without actually praying anything, saying just exactly what it is you are asking God to do in the lives of these people. No, Paul is very precise. Paul’s concerns are Gospel concerns.
The first concern is that the Gospel will go ‘viral’- ‘that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly’ and that it will not only be heard but believed, ‘.. be honoured, just as it was with you.’ Evangelism means ‘Gospel proclamation’. So if someone has the Christian message explained to them, whether they believe it or not, they have been evangelised. However, for people to actually be converted - then that message must be believed from the heart- ‘honoured.’ Let me say that if you are here this evening and you know the Christian message but have not yet believed it in your heart that Christ died for you, such that you are grateful to him and you love him and his people as a result, then whatever you are you are not yet a Christian. You might be near but you haven’t arrived. For that to happen you have to honour that word, embrace it for yourself.
And will you notice what this tells us about Paul’s priorities in prayer and therefore what our priorities should be? He is saying that if we really do believe that there is a wrath to come and that there is a dreadful lawlessness at work in the world which is deceiving people and destroying people and we care about those things, then praying that the Gospel will spread will be at the top of our prayer list. And what he is also saying is that if we want to see the Gospel spread, then there most be a praying ‘for us’, as it were, that is, for those who are doing the Gospel spreading. We are not to pray for evangelism in the abstract, but for particular people who are doing the evangelising. You see, God has chosen certain means whereby people will be saved, namely, by people hearing the Gospel message. If that doesn’t happen then evangelism doesn’t happen. He has also decreed that there are certain means to enable that means to happen, namely, prayer. We don’t pray, evangelism doesn’t happen and people don’t get saved. Do you see the connection?
So let me tell you about Joseph Milner. Joseph Milner was the headmaster of Hull Grammar school, who in 1770 was converted and to the shear horror of the Mayor and Corporation became a Bible believing, Gospel preaching Christian- an Evangelical. He used to preach at Holy Trinity church in the afternoons and packed the place out, as he did what Paul asked the Thessalonian Christians to pray he would do, namely, spread the message of the Lord. By the time of his death, Hull was one of the major Gospel centres in the country. This is the way Dr Croft, who did not hide his dislike of evangelicals, put it in his Bampton lecture of 1795: he lamented that Hull, “affords one unfortunate instance of their (evangelicals) success, for all the churches there are occupied by these pretended favourites of heaven.’ Under the strategic watchful eye of Milner and later Wilberforce, Gospel ministers were raised up from the pupils of Hull Grammar school to spread the Gospel throughout the world. The first missionary to Australia and the first missionary to New Zealand came from Hull. And you can be sure that they were praying for that to happen. That was nearly three hundred years ago. What is to stop us praying that God will do the same through people like us 300 years later? Of course there is nothing to stop us and everything to encourage us.
But notice the second thing Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray about which again is all to do with the spread of the Gospel- that Paul and his friends would be ‘delivered from wicked men because not all have faith.’ Paul is not asking that they will have an easy time of it. Rather, he asking that in order for people to hear the Gospel message, nothing untoward should happen to the gospel messengers at the hands of those who oppose the Gospel which will prevent evangelism happening. And these two things always go together- Gospel spreading and Gospel opposition as surely as night follows day. And so both things need to be prayed about.
So let us go back to the story of Joseph Milner. When Milner had become a Gospel spreader, his standing in society plummeted. To be the headmaster of Hull Grammar school in those days was to occupy one of the most prestigious and influential positions in the City- you were ‘up there’ with the Mayor and the Magistrate. But once he devoted himself to sharing the Gospel- especially with the drunks and prostitutes in the city- his friends dropped him like a stone. This is the way his brother, Isaac, who later was instrumental in the conversion of William Wilberforce, describes what happened, he says, ‘few persons who wore a tolerably good coat would take notice of him when they met him in the street.’ In other words he was publically given the cold shoulder by the well to do. People would prefer to walk on the other side of the road than have to say ‘good morning’ to Milner. Tell me, do you think that would have been easy for him? A man of refinement and standing like that would have found that cutting. Don’t you think he needed people to pray for him to keep on being steadfast and not to downplay his evangelism so that he would be more socially acceptable? Wicked men can try and put a strangle hold on the Gospel in other ways than outright persecution. We are all only too human and the pressure to dilute the message and cut corners is very real. And the only way that Gospel workers will be able to keep on and not cave in, is if we pray for them. I know that the only way I am going to keep at it doing what I am doing is if you pray for me. So here is the encouraging thing: as we pray for the Gospel to spread, and as we pray for Gospel workers to be freed up to do the spreading- people will be saved. Isn’t that an activity worth giving yourself over to? So here is a practical thing for starters. Why not commit yourself to giving over one session of prayer every week to pray for specific Gospel workers and for the spread of the Gospel here in Hull- if you are not doing that already? Because then I am sure that we shall see great things happening.
But can Christians really commit themselves to praying in this way for the spread of the Gospel? Is it realistic? After all, Gospel work can be so hard. The opposition to the Gospel can be so strong. In the kind of circumstances where perhaps people have been labouring away for decades and not seeing much Gospel fruit at all, as in Turkey for instance, the feeling of being overwhelmed and the temptation to become disillusioned must be very strong. In our society the main thing we face is not so much opposition but shear indifference. When time after time you come up against a shrug of the shoulder with a ‘who cares’ attitude, it is so easy to become more than a little disheartened in prayer. That is when the devil comes along and whispers in our ears, ‘Is it really worth it? Where are the converts you have been praying for? Why not do something more worthwhile or more enjoyable with your time?’ Is it just me or do you get those thoughts too?
But here Paul has an answer to those kinds of thoughts which leads us nicely to the confidence of Gospel praying, v3ff, ‘But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do these things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.’ You see, Gospel praying is as much a divine activity as it is a human activity. It is not just something we do but something which God enables us to do. Sure, as Paul says, not everyone has faith which is why wicked men oppose what we do, but the Lord is faithful and will support us in what we do. Paul’s confidence that these young believers will pray is not a confidence primarily in them, but in the Lord, who will keep them at it.
Tell me if this is not your experience. It is a Wednesday night and it is either a prayer meeting or a homegroup. It has been a busy day, you have deadlines to meet, things to prepare, phone calls to make and to be frank the last thing you feel you could do with is going out to pray. You feel tired, maybe a little drowsy and pre-occupied. But you go anyway because it is the right thing to do, as Paul says here, it’s a command. That is when you find something strange happening. The tiredness doesn’t necessarily go away; the pre-occupying thoughts are still flitting around at the back of your mind, but by virtue of being with God’s people, intent on the business of Gospel praying you find yourself becoming invigorated. As the requests start to pour out from your lips and from the lips of others, God proves himself to be faithful as prayer begins to happen. There is an engagement with the Almighty and our heavenly Father is pleased. And you leave the meeting maybe still tired-that is alright- but content that something very special has happened; the Gospel, by virtue of your prayers- has been promoted- in China, in Africa, in Germany, in Hull. It is as you have launched out on the sea of prayer in faith that the wind of God’s Spirit has directed your hearts in love and you have experienced Christ’s perseverance. Do you not think that Jesus wasn’t tired when he prayed or had a thousand and one things which were burdening him? Yet, what did he do? He persevered in prayer- for people like you and me and are we not grateful that he did?
Here is a lovely thought to share with you. I am not sure it will ever happen quite like this, but it might be the way things turn out when we get to heaven. Imagine that you have been enjoying the overwhelming delight of God’s love in glory for two hundred years and each day is more deeply satisfying than the last. Everywhere you turn you see God’s love being displayed- a new river flowing, a new constellation appearing in the sky, a rainbow made of colours not seen in this world of ours. And of course you have met some of the most wonderful, wonderful people who radiate the glory and presence of Christ to you… and you to them. Then one day, someone you have never met before approaches you and introduces themselves. In this world, they lived in Iran. And then they say something like this, ‘I know we have never met on earth and you were not even aware of my name, neither I yours, but while being here I have been told that you were someone who prayed for Christians in my country and especially the little town in which I lived. There is no doubt that we had a hard time of things, two of my children were killed, and my wife and I wondered how we would ever recover from that and cope. But more than anything we wanted to see people come to know Christ and we tried to share the Gospel and how hard we tried! And this went on for years until one day there was a break through. A leading member of the community gave his life to Christ, followed by the rest of his family. Then we had dozens of people coming to our door wanting to find out more about the Lord Jesus. This went on and on until we not only had one church, but six churches in our district when previously we had none. We couldn’t understand how this had happened. But since being here, and being reunited with our children, we have been told it was your praying which led to that breakthrough. I just wanted to say ‘Thank you’ to you and to our Lord for those prayers.’
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