Reasons to be prayerful - 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Aim: To persuade the congregation that prayer works and to encourage them to fill their prayers with Godís concerns.
Theme: As Paul nears the end of his letter he asks for the prayer support of the Thessalonians.
A new ice age is about to sweep across the planet. But despite the best efforts of a climatologist, called Jack Hall, the American government refuses to believe his predictions until it is too late. Bizarre weather conditions around the world are the signs that a major shift in the earthís climate is under way. But despite the fact that everyone notices the changes there is apparently only one man who correctly understands what they mean - Professor Jack Hall. He is the central character in the 2004 disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow. I donít know if you have ever seen the film but I must admit I was very disappointed when I paid my money to see it. The trailers promised so much but I thought the actual movie was a bit of a let down. Lots of special effects but no substantial story line. Thankfully, however, I didnít think it was a complete waste of time because as I watching it I saw a great illustration about what many people believe about prayer.
The scene was tense. At last the American president was prepared to listen to the advice of one of his expert scientists. He was told that everyone south of a particular line on the map must head straight to Mexico. This was their only hope of survival. But what about those north of the line? What can they do as the cold weather begins to surround them? The scientist replies, ďIím afraid itís too late for them. If they go outside the storm will kill them. At this point their best chance is to stay inside. Try to ride it out. Pray.Ē
When all the options are gone, why not pray? Isnít this how many people think about prayer? When life is going well why speak to the ceiling? But when all the other possibilities have been exhausted then we have absolutely nothing to lose. So why not pray?
There are many reasons why Christians donít pray. Sometimes itís because they lack the discipline to pray. Sometimes a Christian will not put aside the time necessary to pray when life is busy. And, as a result, their prayer life is disastrous. Because when we donít put aside time to pray, we donít continue to pray. Donít you find that? Yes perhaps we might say the odd prayer here and there but without discipline a Christians will always struggle to maintain regular contact with the heavenly throne room. For other Christians the problem lies elsewhere. Not so much a lack of discipline but a lack of energy. Perhaps you know what I mean. Sometimes the intensity of daily existence drains our internal batteries and so we find it increasingly difficult to muster the strength to pray for any duration. And so, in the end, we donít pray. Lack of discipline, lack of energy, but what about lack of conviction? How many of us are still convinced that prayer actually achieves anything? Does it have a purpose or is it pointless?
In the first five verses of 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 we are provided with three wonderful topics to pray about: the Lordís message, the Lordís messengers and the Lordís people. And in just a few moments Iíll explain why we should be praying for these particular concerns. But before we examine the content of our prayers I want us to be thoroughly convinced of the usefulness of prayer. There is little point knowing what to pray for if, deep down, we are not convinced of why we need to pray. Like many things in life we need motivation before we even begin. So let me show you from 2 Thessalonians how important prayer was for the apostle Paul.
Have a look at 1:3. Paul begins his letter by talking about prayer. He says, ďWe ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.Ē Or what about 1:11? After speaking about the future destiny of the Thessalonian Christians Paul says, ďWith this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.Ē And then, as we saw last week, after encouraging the Thessalonians with the true teaching about Godís election, what does Paul do? He prays for them. 2:16-17: ďMay our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.Ē And he doesnít stop at the end of chapter 2. Paul continues his passion for prayer at the beginning and the end of chapter 3, 3:1-5 and 3:16. Or to put it like this: every single part of this short letter is surrounded and steeped in prayer. There is no doubt Paul believed in the usefulness of prayer. He was convinced it was not something you did when all the other possibilities had been exhausted. It was not an emergency SOS signal when you had nothing to lose. No, it was the privilege of a Christian to have a conversation with God that would change events here on earth. It was not the last thing we should do but the first thing we should do. Paul was fully persuaded that what he said to God actually did make a difference. He understood very clearly that God had chosen to accomplish his plans through the prayers of his people. And so what did he do? He prayed. Or to be more precise, he prayed for Godís plans to be accomplished in his world.
Do you ever wonder what to pray for? Iím sure you know the familiar scene. You get to the end of a home group bible study and then itís time for prayer requests.
And so the group leader goes round one by one asking if people have any personal requests for prayer. Now please donít misunderstand what I am about to say. There is nothing wrong with praying about our own concerns. In fact, the Bible encourages us to cast all our anxieties on God because he cares for us. But, nevertheless, the focus of the majority of Bible prayers are not on our personal concerns but on Godís personal concerns. And there I think is one of the biggest challenges we face when we actually do get around to praying. Whose desires will be the focus of what we say? Gods or ours?
In the first five verses of 2 Thessalonians chapter 3, we are reminded of what God wants to see in his world. And so therefore we have the great joy this evening of rediscovering what God would like us to pray for. Have a look a 3:1. ďFinally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.Ē Weíve seen consistently that one of the major themes of 2 Thessalonians is for Christians to hold on to the teachings we find in the Bible. Against outside persecution and inside deception the truth of the Bible will keep Godís people persisting to the end. But here in 3:1 we see that holding on to the word of God is not the only thing Christians are to do as they wait for Jesus to return. Yes, we are to hold on to the truth but we are also to hold out the truth to other people. Against the background of the final day of judgement, we are to be convinced that the gospel is the only means of salvation from the wrath to come. The Lordís message must be proclaimed. And so therefore Paul asks these young Christians to pray for him. Now donít you just love that detail? The great apostle values the prayers of these young believers. They have only been Christians for a few months and yet Paul instructs them to pray for him and his missionary colleagues. Letís never think we are too young in our spiritual life to do anything useful. I know there are some people in this congregation who have only been Christians for a short time. Perhaps only for a few weeks or months. So let me ask you: Do you pray like this?
Do you pray that the Lordís message may spread rapidly among your friends and your work colleagues? And do you pray that when they hear it they will honour it? Letís never think we are too young in our spiritual life to do anything useful. But, secondly, letís never think we are too old in our spiritual life to need the support of others. If the great apostle Paul seeks the prayers of other Christians then what statement are we making if we never ask others to pray for us?
God wants us to pray that his message will be proclaimed. He wants us to get down on our knees or to stand up on our feet or even to participate in what I call the evangelical crash position. You know that uncomfortable thing we do when we stick our head between our knees. It doesnít matter to God how we use our body to pray but he does want us to pray the truth of verse 1. ďPray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.Ē Or more literally, verse 1 reads, ďPray for us that the word of the Lord may run and be honoured, just as it was with you.Ē Paul would like to see the gospel make progress in the same way as a successful athlete. An athlete who is quick out of the blocks and who then after making speedy progress around the track crosses the finishing line in pole position, to be greeted with the rapturous applause of the crowd.
Do you not long to see the gospel make progress in the city of Hull? Do you not long to see more and more people being squashed into these pews on a Sunday evening, gathering together with other believers to thank the Lord Jesus Christ for saving them from the coming wrath? Well, if we do then letís pray 3:1. And if we do pray 3:1 then letís make sure we pray the whole verse. So, although it is good to pray that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly it is even better to pray that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured.
I was never a very quick athlete when I was at secondary school. Everyone else seemed to grow much stronger than me in a much shorter time. So when it came to track and field events I was never expected to stand on the podium at the end of the competition. But I do remember one successful race I took part in when I was at primary school. I must have been about age 11 and I was chosen to run for my school in the 100 metre sprint. It was one of those inter-school competitions and even to this day I remember lining up rather nervously waiting for the gun to be fired. After what seemed like an eternity the bang was heard and we were off. Sprinting down the track, focusing on the goal and hoping to cross the line before anyone else. Now if memory serves me right I came third in the race but, nevertheless, I still remember how the spectators at the side of the track reacted to the winner. They didnít ignore the fact that he had put a lot of effort into winning the race. What a disgusting sight it would have been if after the race had finished the crowd remained motionless! Can you imagine the scene? The boy deserved to be honoured for his victory in the competition. And thatís exactly what happened. He was cheered, he was applauded and he received many congratulations from those who had witnessed his victory. Well, how much more does the message of the Lord deserve to be honoured!
We need to pray that when Godís message gets proclaimed it will be welcomed by those who hear it. It is not good enough for the gospel simply to be preached. Now, of course, there is a wrong preoccupation with the results of evangelism. There can be a wrong obsession with the number of people who decide to become Christians over a certain period of time. But there is also a godly concern with the results of evangelism. Because like a successful athlete, the message of the Lord deserves to be honoured.
So letís ask the key question: How does someone honour Godís message about Jesus? The clue is at the end of verse 1. They react in the same way as the Thessalonians. Just as it was with you. So letís ask the next obvious question: How did the Thessalonians respond to the message? Well, letís find out. Would you please turn with me to 1 Thessalonians 2:13? Itís on page 1187 of the church bibles. And this is how Paul describes the initial response of the Thessalonians to his message. 2:13: ďAnd we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.Ē And if you glance over the page at 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 you will see what this actually meant in practice. How did the Thessalonians respond to the gospel? They turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven Ė Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. Thatís how they honoured the gospel.
And the same is true today. If anyone wants to honour the message of the Lord they must follow the example of the Thessalonians. Instead of dismissing the gospel as the mere opinion of human beings they must obey it as a message from God himself. And then, as a result, they begin to change their whole way of life. They turn away from whatever idols they are currently worshipping: Finance, friends, family, fitness, fashion. Whatever the idols might be, the person who honours the gospel turns away from them and seeks their security, their protection, their significance and their value, in a relationship with the living God himself. From now on they hand over control of their life to the true and living God and they wait with eager expectation for his Son Jesus to return from heaven, the one who by his death on the cross has rescued them from the coming judgement. My friends, there is no greater thing in life than to honour the gospel. So let me ask you: Have you honoured the gospel? Are you someone who has turned away from your personal idols, whatever they may be, to serve the true and living God?
Are you someone who is eagerly waiting for Jesus to appear?
And if we have honoured the gospel, do we pray regularly for other people to do the same thing? God wants us to pray that his message will be proclaimed.
Secondly, he wants us to pray that his messengers will be protected. Have a look at verse 2. Paul says, ďAnd pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith.Ē Let us be realistic. The message of the gospel will always face rejection. Not everyone who hears it will believe it. Now, of course, we want them to believe it but we also need to remember that not everyone has been chosen by the Lord, from the beginning. Therefore, preachers of the gospel will inevitably face opposition. Which is why if we pray verse 1 we also need to pray verse 2. I wonder if you spotted the word Ďandí at the beginning of the second verse. Itís one of those key linking words in the Bible and here it links together prayer 1 and prayer 2.
At the moment, you may have noticed that Tony Blair is on something of a crusade to persuade everyone that all the world religions can live in peace and harmony with each other. And, although deep inside, my heart too does long for such a peaceful and tolerant world, the realistic message of the Bible keeps on reminding me that this will never be the case. Otherwise, why would Paul write what he does in verse 2? ďAnd pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith.Ē Now, of course, we all have faith in something. Itís true that even atheists have a personal faith. In fact, I think atheists probably have more faith than Christians to believe that everything around them is here by chance. But not everyone has the saving faith which Paul talks about at the end of verse 2 Ė that is, personal trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And so therefore, as a consequence, some of those individuals will actively oppose the preachers of the gospel. It is impossible for the people who teach the Bible to be respected by everyone in their society.
Which means that when we pray that the Lordís message will be proclaimed, we also need to pray for the protection of the Lordís messengers. The opposition will come in many different forms. A large number of bible teachers around the world already face imprisonment and even death for their proclamation of Godís message. But regardless of the form the opposition will take, we can be guaranteed that those who announce the message of the Lord will experience hostility against their persons. So when we pray for any Bible teacher we know, whether in this country or further a field, letís remember to ask the Lord to deliver them from the opposition of wicked and evil individuals.
What does God want us to pray for? First of all, his message. Secondly, his messengers. And then, finally, his people. Verses 3-5. Paul says, ďBut the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. 4 We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts into Godís love and Christís perseverance.Ē
No sooner has Paul mentioned the wicked and evil men in verse 2 when his mind suddenly returns to the situation in Thessalonica. They too are under pressure from people who have no faith in the Lord Jesus. And so although we may have expected verse 3 to read, ďBut the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect us from the evil oneĒ, this is not what we find. Instead, we discover that Paul has switched his attention away from himself, after only two verses, and is now concerned again with the Thessalonians. He wants to assure them that the Lord is faithful. In contrast to the faithless people who are trying to ruin their faithfulness, Paul assures them that the God who chose them from the beginning is faithful.
They can be certain that he who began a good work in them will carry it on until completion. Or as Paul puts in verse 3, the Lord will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.
But what does it mean to be protected from the evil one? Well, letís think about what it cannot mean. In the light of all that we have discovered in this letter, and indeed in the light of all that we discover in the New Testament, it cannot mean that the Thessalonians were not to experience any more persecution or that in the future they were not to expect any more inward deception from false teachers. Outside persecution and inside deception will be the experience of Christians until the Lord Jesus returns from heaven. So what is this promise of protection from the evil one? If we are not protected from the assaults of his soldiers or from the penetration of his secret agents then what can genuine Christians be certain of? We can be certain that we will never give up the faith. That is what it means to be protected from the evil one. Just think about the ultimate purpose of Satanís weapons. Whether he decides to use physical violence or false teaching, what is the arch enemy of God attempting to do? He is trying to persuade Godís people to give up the authentic faith preserved in the Bible. And so although genuine Christians will suffer for the name of Jesus and genuine Christians will be killed for the name of Jesus, God promises to protect every single one of us from the evil one. He will make sure we persist to the very end. So notice what Paul says in verse 4. ďWe have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command.Ē Satan will try and stop you but because you are in the Lord, and because the Lord is faithful, Paul has confidence that the Thessalonians will continue to do the things he commands. And yet notice what he also does in verse 5? He prays for them. He knows that God will keep them to the end but he is also persuaded that one of the ways God achieves this is when his people ask him to keep them to the end. And so Paul prays. He says, ďMay the Lord direct your hearts into Godís love and Christís perseverance.Ē
Do we want our Christian friends to persevere until the end? Then letís pray this for them. Letís ask God to direct our hearts into the knowledge of his love for us and letís ask him to repeatedly remind us of the example of the Lord Jesus, who despite severe trials, continued to persevere until the very end.
Did you know that in the majority of cases the New Testament never speaks about Godís love for us in the present tense? (There are two exceptions Ė Hebrews 12:6 and Revelation 1:5) And the reason is because the love of God in the New Testament is linked to the supreme demonstration of his love, which is when his Son Jesus Christ died on a cross so that our sins could be forgiven. So when we ask the Lord to direct our hearts into Godís love we are really asking that he would take us to the cross again. And isnít this exactly what we need to see when times are tough? A once and for all demonstration that God does love us, regardless of how we feel, and so therefore a powerful motivation to keep on persisting as a Christian until we see the Lord face to face.There are many reasons why Christians donít pray. But tonight we have discovered one of the big reasons why we should pray. Wonderfully, we do have a sovereign God. We do have a God who is in complete control of everything that happens. But we also have a God who has chosen to accomplish his plans for his world through our prayers. So letís make sure that whenever we pray, whether itís on our own or with other people, letís make sure we pray for Godís message, for Godís messengers and for Godís people.
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