8. Final Confidences in God’s Grace Expressed (2 Thes. 3:1-5)
With chapter 3 Paul begins to bring this epistle to a close, but in doing so, we are privileged to see a wonderful model as Paul demonstrates how his team’s confidence lay not in human plans, promotion, programs, or human personalities, but in the Lord Himself. Their confidence for whatever they might need and face was an unending trust in the provision and faithfulness of the Lord and His powerful Word. The Lord Jesus said emphatically, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” While God uses frail human instruments in accomplishing His work on earth, the ultimate accomplishment of the work depends on the work and faithfulness of the Lord and His Word.
Our modern ‘go-go’ tendency is to be quick to plan and act rather than pray, wait on the Lord, and then in God’s timing and leading, work in His strength, leading, and provision. This is not only the position of wisdom but of humility as we put our trust not in ourselves, but in a sovereign God and Savior. Again, the apostle provides us with a model, not just for ministry but for life.
Paul’s Confidence in Prayer
3:1 Finally pray for us, brothers and sisters, that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be honored as in fact it was among you, 3:2 and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith.
With the word “finally” (Greek loipon, a particle of transition often found toward the end of a letter) the apostle indicates that he is coming to the close of the letter, but not necessarily implying that he was immediately ending the letter or that other matters might not be discussed.88
As is 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Paul asks for prayer on behalf of their missionary team. He says, “Pray, brethren (the plural adelphoi used as a vocative of address), for us.” The use of the vocative (as in 1 Thes. 5:25) puts some emphasis on the request and the sense of Paul’s awareness of his need of God’s hand and the important part the prayer of the saints has on our ministries. Thus, it was not unusual for Paul, who consistently prayed for his converts, to ask for prayer himself (see Rom. 15:30; 2 Cor. 1:11; Eph. 6:19, 20; Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3-4). Too much Christian work is attempted today by human plans and promotion with far too much dependence on the methods employed and in the dynamic personalities of people rather than on a prayerful dependence on the Lord.
There is an important lesson in this for all of us. Here was a giant among men and one used mightily by the Lord. Paul gave us more books of the New Testament than any other of the apostles or their associates, yet this great man of God humbly sought the prayer of those he and his team had led to Christ and were teaching to help them grow in Christ. Thus, recognizing their own inadequacy and need of God’s enablement, the apostle and his team humbly sought the prayer support of others.
The content of their prayer is spelled out in two specific requests. They did not just ask for prayer in general (i.e., pray for us), but they were specific with two primary requests seen in the clauses introduced by “that” (two hina clauses introducing the content of the request). Significantly, both of these requests ultimately related to the progress of the gospel, even though the second request was more personal.
The First Request: Literally, “that the message (ho logos, the word) of the Lord may run and be glorified just as also with you.” The message of the word is the message of gospel, the divine revelation which God breathed and which thereby comes with God’s authority behind it.
(1) The first need is that it may run. This is the present continuous tense of the Greek word trecho, which means literally, “run” but it is used figuratively of “proceeding quickly without hindrance.” This is, then, a prayer that God’s message will continue to progress swiftly and without hindrance to and within the hearts of men and women as it had done so powerfully among the Thessalonians (see 1 Thes. 1 and 2:13). Note first that the focus here is on the message rather than the messenger for in the final analysis it is the message that transforms people. Again, we get a glimpse of Paul’s confidence. It is in God and His precious Word. Second, the very nature of such a request calls to mind the fact that Satan and this world is always at work to throw up hindrances or barriers against the message. If the message is to run swiftly, it must have the sovereign work of God make clear the way (cf. 1 Thes. 2:18 with 3:11-13).
(2) The second need spelled out in this first request is that the message may continue to be glorified. The verb here is continuos present of doxazo, “to honor, magnify, praise.” The idea is that God’s message, and thus God Himself, may be honored among men as they recognize its authority and submit their lives to its glorious truth in faith and continued obedience and growth. For an example of this and as a further encouragement to the Thessalonians, he quickly added, “… just as it was with you.” This recalls the amazing success of the message in Thessalonica as described in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 6, 8 and 2:13. This is the kind of response Paul and his team wanted to see wherever the gospel is proclaimed.
The Second Request: “And that we may be delivered from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith.” This request is certainly more personal, but it is still related to the first request for the speedy and unhindered progress of the Word for they were messengers of the message. The Word of God is not bound or imprisoned (2 Ti. 2:9) and Satan is impotent against the Word when it is accurately proclaimed. He may deny it, attack it, try to add to it or subtract from it, but his primary attacks must come against those who proclaim it (see 1 Thes. 2:18). He will seek to use those under his influence and who do not have faith to imprison, kill, distract, detain, or in some way through temptation and deception to negate the testimony of the messenger. This had happened in Philippi and in Thessalonica (cf. 1 Thes. 2:1; Acts 16:22f). There was undoubtedly the element of self-preservation in this request, but the primary aim is for the purpose of spreading the gospel.
“May be delivered” is the aorist of the verb ruomai, “to deliver, rescue, preserve.” The aorist could possibly express Paul’s desire for deliverance from a particular situation he was then facing, or it could express his desire as a whole, from beginning to end, knowing that there would always be those who would seek to hinder his ministry. In view of Acts 18:9-11, it is significant that though Paul had already received the Lord’s promise of personal safety while he was in Corinth, this fact did not cause Paul to take the Lord for granted or make him independent from the prayer of the saints. Knowing God’s will and having His assurances should never lead to prayerlessness and a spirit of independence.
Literally, the text has, “from the perverse and evil men.” The presence of the article could indicate a specific group of men, but more likely this is an illustration of a generic article and points to a class of individuals, a class of men that form a very real obstacle for messengers of the gospel. As such, it categorizes rather than particularizes. What is the category of men like? They are first of all “perverse.” This is the adjective atopos, “out of place, strange, outrageous,” and thus, “morally evil, perverse, improper” (see Luke 23:41; Acts 25:5). “Evil” is poneros, which, in the physical sense means, “painful, virulent, serious, spoiled, worthless,” but ethically, it means “wicked, evil, base, vicious, degenerate.” It often refers to an active malignant kind of evil, one that affects others in some negative way. In comparing kakos, “bad, evil, wicked,” with poneros, Trench writes, “The kakos may be content to perish in his own corruption, but the poneros is not content unless he is corrupting others as well, and drawing them into the same destruction with himself.”89 For this reason, Satan is called ho poneros, the evil one.
The next clause, “for not all have faith” points us to the reason for this category of men. Since “faith” has the article (he pistis) this could be understood as “the faith,” the objective body of truth, but the following contrast, “the Lord is faithful” puts the focus more on the subjective aspect of “trust.” They are what they are because they have no faith or trust in the Lord.
Paul’s Confidence in Continued Growth
3:3 But the Lord is faithful and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 3:4 And we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing, and will do, what we are commanding. 3:5 Now may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ.
With the human unbelief and behavior just described, the apostle quickly turns to focus the Thessalonians on the Lord and His faithfulness. Literally, “But faithful is the Lord.” The term “faithful” is put first for emphasis and displays a definite contrast. As the last word of the previous sentence of the Greek text was “faith,” pistis, and focused on the unbelief of evil men, so the first word of this sentence is pistos, “faithful, trustworthy,” which turns our attention to the Lord and His character.90 While there are many who do not have faith in the Lord and may oppose the gospel and its messengers, we can rest in the Lord because He is faithful or trustworthy.
As the apostle thinks of the Lord’s character, he thinks also of the spiritual and emotional needs of the Thessalonians and quickly assures them that the Lord who is faithful will “strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.” English Bibles typically translate this as simply another independent clause, but in the Greek text we have a relative clause which more tightly describes or clarifies the nature of the Lord as one who is faithful. Literally, “But faithful is the Lord, who will strengthen and guard you …” Both verbs are what could be called gnomic futures in that they portray that which is true of the Lord at any time. Thus, in the future, or as the need arises, they can count on Him as the One who will strengthen and guard or protect them from the evil one. For the word “strengthen” (sterizo), see the comments in lesson 7 at 2:17. “Protect” is phulasso, “to guard, protect, defend.” It naturally suggests the presence of some form of danger which Paul defines as “the evil one.” Above the apostle mentioned evil (poneros) men. Part of the reason they are actively evil and mentioned above is because they are unbelievers, but behind their unbelief and their evil activity is the evil one himself. “Evil” is again the Greek term poneros but here it has the article, ho poneros. This is a common name for Satan in the New Testament (Matt. 5:37; 6:13; 13:19, 38; John 17:15; Eph. 6:16; 1 John 2:13f; 5:18f) and calls to mind his character and constant work of actively causing evil, especially against the people of God. It is he who is behind the “mystery of lawlessness” (2:7).
Having mentioned the Lord’s faithfulness, in verse 4 Paul expresses their confidence that the Thessalonians were doing and would do the things the missionary team had commanded them (continue in the apostolic teaching). But the key to that confidence is seen in the words, “in the Lord.” Literally, “But we are confident in the Lord about you.” Their confidence was rooted in the Lord. The missionary team trusted the faithful Lord to be at work to maintain them in growth and obedience because of their relationship to Him as those who were “in the Lord.”
Now in verse 5, though confident in the Lord, we see that they did not take the Lord for granted, but expressed that confidence in a request to Lord. The verb in “may the Lord direct your hearts” is kateuthunai, an optative of kateuthuno, “make straight, direct, lead.” This verb is repeatedly used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) in 1 and 2 Chronicles (1 Chr. 2:18; 2 Chr. 12:14; 19:3 20:33). The optative mood represents a strong wish which they expressed to the Lord. In the first epistle (3:11), Paul used kateuthuno in his prayer that God might direct their way, undoubtedly by removing obstacles and opening doors that they might return to the Thessalonians. But here the verb is used of the “heart,” which often refers to the whole inner person—mind, emotions, and will, or it may simply be used as a synonym for the personal pronoun. The apostle desired to see the Lord so lead that they might experience both the love of God and the endurance of Christ. But what does this mean? Each of these expressions, the love of God and the endurance of Christ, are capable of more than one meaning.
The love of God: A prayer (1) that they might be led more deeply in their love for God (an objective genitive); (2) that they might be led to apprehend more and more the love that God has for them (a subjective genitive); (3) that they might experience God’s love for each other as God has loved them (see 1 John 4:7f, perhaps an attributive genitive, godly love). But perhaps this is plenary and includes all three ideas. “The comprehensiveness of the term is probably designed to include every aspect of the love of God, and every possible effect of that love upon the hearers.”91
The endurance of Christ: Endurance is hupomone, “patience, endurance, fortitude, perseverance,” etc. This is a prayer (1) that they might wait patiently for the coming Savior as translated by the KJV (objective genitive); (2) that they might have the kind of endurance that Christ gives, an endurance that comes from relationship with Him (subjective genitive); (3) that they might experience the kind of endurance that belongs to Christ or that was demonstrated in His sufferings on earth and that He is demonstrating even now as He waits for His enemies to be made a footstool for His feet (Heb. 12:2; 10:13, either a possessive or attributive genitive). Again, all three are true and perhaps all are intended. While a too rigid exegesis is to be avoided, it may, perhaps, be permissible to paraphrase: “the Lord teach and enable you to love as God loves, and to be patient as Christ is patient.”92
In verses 1-2, we have seen how the apostolic team humbly turned to their students for prayer for their ministry. Though requesting prayer for deliverance from evil men who have no faith in the gospel, the focus was not so much for personal deliverance as it was for the ministry of the Word of the Lord, that it might have speedy and unhindered progress as men honor it by responding in faith and obedience to its message.
But the Lord is faithful and so there follows an emphasis that comes out of this vital truth. There is, then, an intimate connection, somewhat like cause and effect, between the key thoughts in verses 3, 4, and 5. In verse 3, the emphasis is on “the faithfulness” of the Lord in contrast to the unbelief and persecution of evil men. In verse 4, the focus is on human obedience to this glorious message, but such obedience must come from the believer’s relationship with the Lord (“in the Lord”), and thus in verse 5, the focus is on their growth in the love of God and endurance of Christ which is always the root of obedience to the Word. In the background of all of this is the confident expectation of the sure return of the Savior, which we must all anticipate.
The writers pray that the risen Lord will lead their Thessalonian friends into a growing appreciation of God’s love for them (which will inevitably increase their love for him and for one another) and into a still greater participation in the steadfast endurance of Christ. Even if there is no explicit reference to his Advent in this wish-prayer, their steadfast endurance will in any case be strengthened by their confident expectation of that consummation of their hope.93
90 Both the noun pistis and the adjective pistos can have an active and a passive meaning. In the active sense, pistis can mean, “faith, belief, trust, confidence,” or in the passive sense, “fidelity, faithfulness.” In the active sense, pistos can mean “believing, trusting, relying,” or in the passive sense, (1) of persons, “faithful, trustworthy,” or (2) of things, “trustworthy, reliable, sure.”