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Lesson 6: God Bless All the Missionaries (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)

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March 12, 2017

It’s always cute to hear little children say their bedtime prayers. Often, they make sweeping, catch-all prayers that go something like: “God bless mommy and God bless daddy and God bless all my brothers and sisters and God bless all the missionaries. Amen!”

But, maybe your prayers sometimes sound like that, too. It’s a lot of work to get specific. It’s easier just to shoot up blanket prayers and let God sort out the specific needs. But in our text the apostle Paul gives us two specific requests that we can pray on behalf of missionaries, other Christian workers, and for all the Lord’s people. To sum up:

Pray for the word of the Lord to spread and that the Lord’s people, relying on His faithfulness, will stand firm in Him in the spiritual battle.

Paul knew that these new converts were going through intense persecution (1 Thess. 3:3-4; 2 Thess. 1:6-7). Also, false teachers were spreading spiritually damaging teachings in the church (2 Thess. 2:1-3). In light of this, note the flow of Paul’s thoughts here: After commanding them to stand firm (2 Thess. 2:15), he directs them to focus on praying for the gospel to spread through him and others, who also needed God’s protection from evil men; and, he emphasizes the Lord’s faithfulness along with the need for their continuing obedience. Then, he asks the Lord to direct their hearts into God’s love and into the example of Christ’s steadfastness, who obeyed God through the things He suffered (Heb. 2:10; 5:8; 12:3).

That’s a healthy way to deal with your own trials, or to help others who are going through trials. Get your focus off your problem and onto others’ needs. Especially, pray for those who serve the Lord in difficult places, who may be suffering on behalf of the gospel. And, get your focus onto the Lord’s faithfulness, love, and example of steadfast obedience when He suffered.

1. Pray that the word of the Lord will spread and that those who proclaim it will be protected so that the word will continue to spread (2 Thess. 3:1-2).

A. Pray that the word of the Lord will spread through the gospel being received.

2 Thess. 3:1: “Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you.” Paul’s “finally” is like many preachers’ “finally”: it doesn’t mean that the sermon is almost over! In 1 Thessalonians 4:1, Paul says “finally” and then goes on for two more chapters (see, also, Phil. 3:1). The phrase means, “As far as the rest is concerned,” or, “in addition” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Walter Bauer, William Arndt, Wilbur Gingrich, & Frederick Danker [University of Chicago Press], 2nd ed., p. 480).

In asking for prayer for himself, Paul’s focus was not only for personal safety, but also that the gospel would spread so that God would be glorified, as had happened in Thessalonica. Even though he was a veteran apostle and the Thessalonians were new believers, Paul needed their prayers. He didn’t assume that his impressive spiritual gifts or his past successes would result in future success. Paul knew that he had to depend on the Lord through prayer.

When people respond in faith to the gospel, they glorify the Lord who gave that gospel to us. Verse 1 is really asking these new converts to pray the first part of the Lord’s Prayer on behalf of Paul and his fellow missionaries (Matt. 6:9-10): “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Note several other things about Paul’s request.

1) The gospel is not a message that Paul or the other apostles made up.

Rather, it is “the word of the Lord.” It comes from the Lord and centers on the Lord. It is the message that the eternal Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8) came to this earth, took on human flesh, and suffered and died in our place, bearing the punishment that we deserved for our sins. And God raised Him from the dead. The good news is that God offers forgiveness for all our sins and eternal life as a free gift to all who trust in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9).

2) In whatever culture people respond to the gospel, their lives are demonstrably changed.

Paul could say, “just as it did also with you,” because he saw that these former pagan idolaters had turned from idols to the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). If people profess to believe in Jesus but there is no observable change in their lives, they need to examine whether they truly believed.

3) Paul asks for prayer that the word of the Lord will “spread rapidly and be glorified.”

The Greek is literally, “will run and be glorified.” Paul was probably thinking of Psalm 147:15, “He sends forth His command to the earth; His word runs very swiftly.” Paul was writing from Corinth, which hosted the Isthmian Games. So he may have had in mind an athletic contest, where the winning runner received the prize and was honored. Paul wants the gospel to win the hearts of those who hear so that it, and the Lord who sends it forth, will get the honor and glory. For people to respond favorably to the gospel, God has to open their blind eyes and draw them to Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-6; John 6:44, 65). Even a preacher as gifted as Paul knew that if God did not open the hearts of those who heard him preach, they would not respond (Acts 16:14).

4) Paul saw no contradiction between the doctrine of election and the need for evangelism and prayer for the success of the gospel.

Sometimes people object, “If God predestines all who will be saved, then why evangelize? Why pray?” But Paul mentions election, prayer, and evangelism in close proximity (2 Thess. 2:13; 3:1) with no need to explain the seeming tension. The Bible teaches that God ordains the means as well as the ends. He has chosen many to be saved, but they come to salvation through the prayerful proclamation of the gospel. We don’t change God’s mind through our prayers, but in a mysterious way God uses our prayers to accomplish His predetermined will (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], pp. 242-243).

Paul was in the rough, pagan city of Corinth when he wrote this letter. He was afraid and thinking about leaving there before he suffered another beating or worse. One night the Lord graciously appeared to Paul in a vision and said (Acts 18:9-10), “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” So Paul settled there for 18 months, teaching the word of God among them (Acts 18:11). Later, he explained to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:10), “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” God has chosen those who will be saved, but He saves them through our prayers and proclaiming the gospel to them.

5) For the word of the Lord to spread and be glorified, the word that is spread must be the true gospel, not a perversion of it.

From the earliest times, Satan has infiltrated the church with teachers who promote a false “gospel” that is really bad news, not good news. In the churches of Galatia, the Judaizers had come in with the message, “Paul was basically right: we are saved by God’s grace through faith. But, also you must be circumcised and keep the Old Testament law.” Many were being led astray by this seemingly “slight” alteration of the gospel. But Paul forcefully wrote (Gal. 1:8-9), “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”

Even so, there are many false “gospels” today: “Believe in Jesus and He will give you wealth and health!” “Believe in Jesus and be baptized, and you will be saved.” “Believe in Jesus and add your good works, so that eventually you will earn enough merit to get out of Purgatory.” So pray that the gospel that is being proclaimed will be the true gospel, not a perversion of it.

B. Pray that the word of the Lord will continue to spread through God’s protection of those who proclaim it.

2 Thess. 3:2: [Pray] “that we will be rescued from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith.” As I said, Paul was not so much trying to save his own skin as he wanted to see the gospel continue to spread. If the messengers are protected from evil men, they have more freedom to proclaim the message. Granted, Paul evangelized the Praetorian Guard while he was a prisoner in Rome. And, the testimonies of many martyrs have resulted in many coming to faith through their deaths. But there is nothing wrong with asking for prayer for protection from persecution for those who take the gospel into hostile areas. The main aim is for the word of the Lord to spread.

Note the prominence of “the Lord” in verses 1-5. In verse 1, it is “the word of the Lord.” In verse 3, “the Lord is faithful.” In verse 4, “We have confidence in the Lord.” In verse 5, “May the Lord direct your hearts ….” In times of trial or persecution for the sake of the gospel, it’s important to remember that Jesus is the Lord, the sovereign of the universe. No one can harm you or kill you unless it is in God’s good and loving purpose for His glory.

Scholars differ over who these perverse and evil men who did not have faith were. Some think that Paul was referring to the unbelieving Jews in Corinth. Acts 18:12-17 reports how they rose up against Paul and brought him before the proconsul, accusing him of persuading people to worship God contrary to the law. When the proconsul wouldn’t listen to them, they took hold of Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue who had trusted in Christ (1 Cor. 1:1) and began beating him in front of the proconsul, who ignored them. So Paul may have been referring to the unbelieving Jews.

But other scholars (e.g. Beale, pp. 239-242) argue that he was referring primarily to false believers in the church, who were either promoting false doctrine or whose lives did not back up their profession of faith. Often, such people can cause more harm to the church from the inside than those who are outside the church. Jesus warned (Matt. 7:15) about false prophets who come into the flock disguised as sheep, but really are ravenous wolves. Paul warned the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29-30), “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” He also said (2 Cor. 11:14-15) that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, and his servants as servants of righteousness.

So the takeaway application from verses 1 & 2 is, pray for everyone in this church to have opportunities to proclaim the gospel and that God will bless those efforts with genuine conversions. And, pray that God will protect us from those, whether from without or within, who oppose the gospel and seek to harm those who proclaim it. We are not wrestling against flesh and blood, but rather against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Also,

2. Pray that the Lord’s people, relying on His faithfulness, will stand firm in Him in the spiritual battle (2 Thess. 3:3-5).

Paul turns from the faithlessness of men to the faithfulness of the Lord, a theme that he mentions often (cf. 1 Thess. 5:24; 1 Cor. 1:9; 10:13; 2 Cor. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:13). Since Paul has been asking for prayer for his own protection, you would expect that he would continue, “But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect us from the evil one.” But rather, he shifts to “strengthen and protect you.” This reflects his pastor’s heart, which was more concerned about these new believers than he was about himself (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 349-350).

“Evil one” may also be translated, “evil,” but it’s more likely that it refers to the archenemy of our souls, the devil (see, 1 Thess. 2:18; 3:5; 2 Thess. 2:9). As Calvin observes (p. 350), “For it were a small thing to be delivered from the cunning or violence of men, if the Lord did not protect us from all spiritual injury.” Again, it’s a reminder that spreading the gospel engages us in a spiritual battle against satanic forces, which are too powerful for us in our own strength. We must rely on the Lord. Note three things:

A. Relying on God’s faithfulness is the foundation for standing firm in the spiritual battle.

2 Thess. 3:3: “But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:24, Paul reminded these new believers who were enduring persecution, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” Here, he again reminds them of this comforting truth, “the Lord is faithful.” After Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, thousands of Jews had been slaughtered, and most of the others were forced into captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah (the most probable author) wrote Lamentations, expressing his overwhelming grief over the tragedy that he had witnessed. In the middle of that sorrowful lament, there is this well-known ray of hope (Lam. 3:22-24):

The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”

So when you’re under attack, whether from criticism or slander or outright persecution, rely on God’s faithfulness. Even when the enemy seems to be winning (as in Jeremiah’s situation), God is faithful and He will work it all together for good.

Paul assures us that our faithful Lord will both strengthen and protect us. “Lord” refers to the Lord Jesus. The fact that Jesus is able both to strengthen and protect his people all around the world when they are under attack shows that He is God. But Paul’s word of assurance raises a problem: If the Lord promises to strengthen and protect His people, then why do they suffer terribly under persecution? Why are there martyrs if the Lord is protecting them?

We need to understand that the Lord’s promise for protection is not a guarantee of deliverance from every enemy. In Luke 21:16-18, Jesus says, “But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish.” By saying, “not a hair of your head will perish,” Jesus was not promising immunity from death, which He just said will happen to some. Rather, He means that if we are faithful to the Lord under persecution, even if they kill the body they cannot touch the soul (Luke 12:4-5). God has sovereignly determined the exact number of martyrs, and when that number is fulfilled, He will judge those who shed their blood (Rev. 6:9-11). So we can rely on God’s faithfulness as our foundation for standing firm in the spiritual battle.

B. Relying on the Lord for ongoing obedience is the framework for standing firm in the spiritual battle.

2 Thess. 3:4: “We have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will continue to do what we command.” Paul’s confidence was “in the Lord” regarding the Thessalonians’ continuing obedience. As an apostle, Paul could give commands (not suggestions!) to the churches. We now have those apostolic commands in the New Testament. In verse 4, Paul is laying the framework for what will follow, where three times he gives commands regarding those who were not working and sponging off the rest of the church (2 Thess. 3:6, 10, 12).

In our day, many professing Christians believe that if you teach the need to obey God’s commandments, you’re legalistic. I’ve been accused of that, even when I preface it by saying that God’s grace is the motivation to obey Him. They claim that God’s grace and their feelings exempt them from obedience. A young woman once told me, “My fiancé isn’t a Christian, but I prayed about marrying him and feel such a peace. So it must be God’s will.” She was disobeying the clear command that a believer should not be unequally yoked to an unbeliever (2 Cor. 6:14) to follow her feelings.

That’s like driving on the wrong side of the road and running red lights so that you’ll get somewhere faster. It may work for a while, but at some point, disobeying the traffic laws will result in severe consequences. It’s the same with disobeying God’s laws. You can’t live in disobedience to God and then, when you get into a difficult place, call out to Him to bless and protect you. Ongoing obedience to the Lord is the framework for standing firm in the spiritual battle.

C. Asking God to direct our hearts into His love and Christ’s steadfastness is the fuel for standing firm in the spiritual battle.

2 Thess. 3:5: “May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ.” By “fuel,” I mean that God’s love and Christ’s steadfastness fuel our desire to stand firm when we’re under attack. Again, keep in mind the context here. These new believers were under attack, both from direct persecution and from dangerous false teaching. In that context of spiritual battle, Paul prays that the Lord will direct their hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ. Note three things:

1) In the spiritual battle, ask God to direct your heart.

“To direct” means “to clear away the obstacles” (Thomas Constable, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck [Victor Books], p. 723) or “to make a straight path.” Paul used this word in 1 Thessalonians 3:11, where he asked that the Lord would “direct our way to you.” When you’re under spiritual attack, you need God to clear away the obstacles, because it’s easy at such times to get confused, turn away from the Lord, and follow worldly counsel to deal with your situation. God directs our hearts at such times through prayerful understanding and obedience to His word.

2) In the spiritual battle, ask God to direct your heart into His love.

When you’re under spiritual attack, often the enemy will tempt you with thoughts like, “If God really loves you, He wouldn’t allow you to be going through this difficult trial.” At such times, you must rely on the many promises in God’s word that assure us of His great love. Don’t focus on the situation, but rather on the Savior.

3) In the spiritual battle, ask God to direct your heart into the steadfastness of Christ.

The King James Version and a few commentators understand this to mean that we should wait patiently for Christ’s return. But it’s more likely that Paul is praying that the Lord will direct our hearts to focus on the steadfastness that Christ displayed as He faced the cross (Heb. 12:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:21-24). Jesus’ example of enduring the cross for our salvation should encourage us to be steadfast when we’re under attack for the sake of the gospel.

Conclusion

So, rather than just praying, “God bless all the missionaries,” pray that the word of the Lord will spread and be received. Pray that those who proclaim the gospel will be protected so that the gospel will continue to spread. Pray that the Lord’s people will rely on His faithfulness so that they might stand firm in Him in the spiritual battle.

Application Questions

  1. Someone asks you, “If God has predetermined all things, why pray? Why evangelize?” Your response?
  2. Someone asks you, “If God really loves us and if He wants all people to hear the gospel, why does He allow the persecution and martyrdom of His people?” Your reply?
  3. Are we being legalistic to teach the necessity of obedience to God’s commandments? Why/why not? Can obedience be taught in a legalistic manner? If so, how?
  4. Are New Testament Christians required to obey the Old Testament commandments? If so, all? Some? Which ones?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Evangelism, Prayer