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Lesson 8: A Pattern for Christian Growth (2 Thessalonians 3:16-18)

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March 26, 2017

It’s always fun to watch our children and grandchildren grow. They get so excited about their progress: “Grandpa, watch me do this!” “Grandma, I drew you this picture!” (Which usually goes on the refrigerator). As they get older, especially with the girls, it’s like watching a beautiful flower unfold before your eyes.

It’s also gratifying to watch believers grow in Christ. I especially enjoy watching someone who has come out of a difficult past gain victory over some sin or see them serving the Lord in some way. And while as we grow older in the Lord the changes may not be as visible, Christian growth should continue until the day that we are with Jesus.

As Paul wraps up this second letter to these new Thessalonian believers, he offers his fourth prayer for them in three chapters (see 2 Thess. 1:11-12; 2:16-17; 3:5). He prays (2 Thess. 3:16), “Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all!” Then, after a verse authenticating himself as the author of this letter, he adds (2 Thess. 3:18), “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”

Paul’s frequent prayers show that we must depend on the Lord’s grace and strength in every situation, both for our own growth and for the growth of others we care about. Also, God’s grace and love are recurring themes in Paul’s prayers. Those qualities are the prime motivation for spiritual growth. While it’s not comprehensive, Paul’s concluding prayer and his authenticating signature to this letter give us a short pattern for Christian growth:

To grow in Christ, seek His peace in every situation, seek His presence every day, submit to His word as your authority, and saturate your life with His grace.

1. To grow in Christ, seek His peace in every situation.

2 Thess. 3:16a: “Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance.” The Thessalonians were going through persecution, battling false teaching, and dealing with unruly church members. Each of those situations can create tension and strife in a local church. In this battle, Paul prays for the reality of the Lord’s peace continually and in every circumstance. While his prayer has an individual application, the primary application in this context is for the church to experience God’s peace.

This is the only time the phrase “the Lord of peace,” (referring to Jesus) occurs in the New Testament (but, see Eph. 2:14). More often, the expression is, “the God of peace,” referring to God the Father (Rom. 15:33, 16:20; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 13:20). The Holy Spirit is also the source of peace, which is part of the fruit He produces in us (Gal. 5:22; see, also, Rom. 14:17). So all three members of the trinity are the source of peace for believers. The Hebrew concept of “shalom,” which was behind Paul’s thinking, referred not just to the absence of strife, but to overall well-being or wholeness. Peace has three dimensions:

A. Peace with God is a gift that comes from Christ through justification by faith and through sanctification.

By birth and because of our sins, we all were hostile toward God, alienated from Him in our thoughts and deeds (Rom. 8:7; Col. 1:21). But by His grace, Christ obtained our peace with God through the blood of His cross (Col. 1:20). Thus Paul states (Rom. 5:1), “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

People outside of Christ may have a false sense of peace because they think too highly of themselves and too lowly of God, who is absolutely holy. They assume that their good works will get them into heaven. After all, they’re not mass murderers and rapists! They’re basically good people! And there have always been plenty of false prophets who tell people, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). But as Isaiah (57:21) declares, “‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’” The Puritan Thomas Watson put it (A Body of Divinity [Banner of Truth], p. 262), “The seeming peace a sinner has, is not from the knowledge of his happiness, but the ignorance of his danger.” So peace with God comes first through justification by faith in Christ.

Also, peace comes through sanctification by the Holy Spirit. As Paul prayed (1 Thess. 5:23), “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We cannot enjoy peace with God while we’re living in known disobedience to His commands. David was clearly a believer when he sinned with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered. But in Psalm 38, he goes on for verse after verse describing the turmoil and lack of peace that engulfed him because of his sin. Again, as Thomas Watson graphically puts it (ibid.), “You may as well suck health out of poison, as peace out of sin.”

The solution, as Watson again pointedly states is (ibid., p. 265), “If you would have peace, make war with sin.” But then, once you’ve confessed your sin and turned from it, don’t trust in your own righteousness for peace. Rather, as Watson goes on to remind us (p. 266), “Go to Christ’s blood for peace…. That blood of Christ which pacified God, must pacify conscience. Christ’s blood being sucked in by faith, gives peace.”

B. Peace with God also results in peace with other believers, even if they are very different than you are.

Concerning the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the church, Paul wrote (Eph. 2:14), “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.” The dividing wall was a chest high wall in the temple that divided the court of the Gentiles from the court of the Jews. There was a sign on it warning Gentiles that if they ventured beyond that point, they were responsible for their own deaths! But in Christ, that barrier is removed, so that in the church (Col. 3:11), “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”

But even though Christ is our peace, peace among believers is not automatic. Because of our different personalities, backgrounds, and perspectives and because of residual sin in our hearts, we need constantly to work at peaceful relationships (Col. 3:12-15). Paul’s command (2 Thess. 3:14-15) for the church to discipline unruly brothers who refused to work could have resulted in discord in the church, as people who were friends or relatives of the disciplined members may have come to their defense. But Paul’s approach was not to achieve peace by avoiding confronting sin. That would have resulted in bigger problems later. Rather, his approach was to deal with sin and then pray for the Lord’s peace to be experienced in every circumstance.

I’ve seen believers who avoid conflicts with other believers by just moving on to another church. Sometimes after repeated conflicts, they become so disillusioned with the church that they drop out altogether. I’ve also seen marriages where the husband and wife allow tension to build up over the years without working at resolving conflict God’s way. I’ve seen pastors who dodge conflict by not confronting sinning members. But dodging conflict without dealing with sin never results in lasting peace. We should do all that we can to seek peace with others (Rom. 12:18), but not by glossing over sin or major doctrinal errors.

C. Peace with God also results in inner peace even in difficult situations.

I hope that you apply often Paul’s prescription for anxiety (Phil. 4:6-7): “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Don’t forget the “thanksgiving” part! Even though you may not feel thankful for a trial, you can thank God by faith that He will work it together for your good. Thankful prayer results in inner peace, even in the midst of difficult trials.

So to grow in Christ, seek peace with God through faith in Jesus’ shed blood and by turning from all known sin. Seek peace with others, not by avoiding conflicts, but by working through them in a godly manner. And seek inner peace through thankful prayer.

2. To grow in Christ, seek His presence every day.

2 Thess. 3:16b: “The Lord be with you all.” One of my seminary professors once told us that he thought that it was dumb to pray for the Lord to be with us, since He promised to be with us always. But we pointed out this verse to him and he had to recant! On the one hand, Christ has promised to dwell in us forever (John 14:18, 20, 23; 15:4); yet on the other hand, Paul prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17). I think that he’s praying for us to know experientially the fact of Christ’s indwelling presence. He dwells in every believer, but we need daily to experience the reality of His indwelling presence. Note three truths:

A. Christ’s experienced presence is essential for the journey toward heaven.

In Exodus 33, after the incident with the golden calf, the Lord tells Moses to continue on toward the land of Canaan, but the Lord says (Exod. 33:3), “I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.” But Moses, who spoke with the Lord face to face (Exod. 33:11), pled with God and said (Exod. 33:15), “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” He goes on and boldly asks the Lord that he might see His glory.

Ryan Lister’s excellent, The Presence of God [Crossway], convincingly argues that from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, the theme of God’s presence with His people ties together the storyline of the Bible. He says (p. 25), “God is working to establish a people and a place for his presence.” The church is God’s temple, where He dwells. What distinguishes the church from every secular group is the presence of God in our midst! But, do we experience this? We should have a sense of holy awe when we come together each Lord’s Day because the living God is here in our midst!

B. Christ’s presence cannot be experienced when we harbor sin in our hearts.

This is true both individually and as a church. Of course, we wouldn’t ever sin if we remembered that God is with us! When David sinned with Bathsheba and finally came to repentance, he cried (Ps. 51:11), “Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” While the Lord promised that the Holy Spirit would be with us forever (John 14:16-17), we forfeit the experience of His presence if we harbor known sin in our hearts. If we have bitterness toward those who have wronged us or if we have not asked forgiveness and sought to restore relationships where we have wronged others, we will not experience God’s presence in this church, in our homes, or in our personal lives. Don’t let any sin rob you of experiencing Christ’s presence!

C. Christ’s presence should be experienced both individually and corporately.

Individually, Jesus promised His followers who help fulfill His Great Commission (Matt. 28:20), “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Hebrews 13:5 assures us, “for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.” At the end of Paul’s life, when he faced execution and everyone had deserted him, he wrote (2 Tim. 4:17), “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me ….”

David Livingstone, who suffered incredible hardships taking the gospel into the uncharted heart of Africa, relied often on the promise of Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He said (cited in A Frank Boreham Treasury [Moody Press], compiled by Peter Gunther, p. 107), “On those words I staked everything, and they never failed!” The same text also supported John Paton, who encountered many life-threatening dangers as he took the gospel to the cannibals of the New Hebrides Islands (ibid. p. 123). The promise of Christ’s presence should sustain us in every difficulty we face.

But also, as a church we need to experience God’s presence in our midst. Anything less is just going through the motions. Paul said (1 Cor. 14:25) that when an unbeliever comes into our assembly, the result should be that “the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.” My prayer is that we won’t just run through the program each week, but that God will show up and that everyone will know that He is certainly among us.

So to grow in Christ, seek His peace in every situation. Seek His presence every day.

3. To grow in Christ, submit to His word as your authority in life.

2 Thess. 3:17: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write.” Paul had been dictating this letter to a secretary. Now Paul takes the quill and writes the rest of the letter in his own hand to authenticate that the letter was truly from him. This was necessary because the church had already received a letter purporting to be from Paul that was spreading false teaching (2 Thess. 2:2). So, as Gene L. Green (The Letters to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 359) writes, “Much more than being a personal note, the subscript was a weapon in the war against heresy.”

That war continues. False prophets today in charismatic churches claim to have revelations from God that are on a par with or even override Scripture. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches elevate their traditions over Scripture. But the apostolic testimony as found in the New Testament is our only authority in matters of faith and practice. Make sure to compare every teaching against God’s authoritative word. John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 196) writes, “There is nobody in the church who has an authority which even remotely resembles that of the apostles of Christ; nor has there been since the last apostle died.” He concludes (p. 199), “For to despise the Word of the Lord is to despise the Lord of the Word, to distrust his faithfulness and to disregard his authority.”

Submission to God’s word is our only compass in this confused and rebellious world. How do we know that abortion is wrong? We know because God’s word reveals that He is the giver of life and that every person is created in His image. How do we know that homosexual behavior is sin? We know because God’s word clearly spells that out over and over again. I recently had a woman from another city call me. Her husband is planning to become a woman and wants her to stay married to him and she was wondering what she should do! God’s word, not modern opinion, is our only guide. The same applies to every other moral and ethical issue we face in this world that has rejected God’s word of truth.

To submit to God’s word, you need to know His word by continually reading and studying it. To apply it correctly, you first must interpret it correctly. To grow in your Christian walk, submit all of your life to all of God’s word or you will be carried along by this godless culture. Finally,

4. To grow in Christ, saturate your life with His grace.

2 Thess. 3:18: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” This closing verse is identical with 1 Thess. 5:28, except for the addition of “all,” which includes even the unruly. They need the Lord’s grace. The entire church needs the Lord’s grace to deal with persecution, false teaching, and with the unruly members. As Gary Shogren (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Zondervan], p. 343) writes, “For Paul there is no experience of God apart from the Lord Jesus Christ and his grace.” And John Stott (p. 198) observes, “There can be no peace without grace.” Three brief observations:

A. Both legalism and licentiousness are enemies of God’s grace.

I’ve often heard Bible teachers say that grace is the balance point between legalism on the one hand and licentiousness on the other, but that is not true. Legalism and licentiousness are flip sides of the same coin, because both are manifestations of the flesh. God’s grace operates through the Holy Spirit, changing our hearts, giving us the desire to please and obey Him. Jesus Christ is the Lord Jesus Christ, so His grace is not opposed to submitting to His lordship over every area of your life. God’s grace does not give us the freedom to sin (Rom. 6:1); rather, it frees us from sin (Rom. 6:14).

B. God’s grace in the gospel is the motivation for holiness and serving the Lord.

In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” He would later write to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:1), “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul usually begins and ends his letters by invoking God’s grace on the readers, which was more than a formula or formality. He never got over the wonder that as the chief of sinners he found God’s undeserved favor at the cross.

Neither should you! That’s especially true for those of us from Christian homes. It was God’s grace that gave us Christian parents who loved us, shared the gospel with us, and taught us the ways of the Lord. It was His grace that convicted us of our sins, opened our eyes to the love of Jesus, and saved us from trusting in our own righteousness. Bathe yourself daily in the Lord’s abundant grace so that you’re motivated to obey and serve Him.

C. God’s grace shown to you should flow through you to others.

If you have experienced the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ through the gospel, you’re now a channel for that grace to flow to other sinners. With the self-righteous, who think that they’re good enough to get into heaven, you may need to preach the law, as Jesus did to the Pharisees. But with the broken, who are burdened with their sin and guilt, Jesus always extended grace, and so should we. He invites all sinners (Matt. 11:28), “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” The almost final verse of the Bible (Rev. 22:17) invites, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” And the very last verse of the Bible is (Rev. 22:21), “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”

Not only should we extend the grace of the gospel to others, but also, those who have experienced God’s grace should be gracious toward difficult people and toward people who are enslaved to sin. It grieves me when I see Christians being harsh, judgmental, and condemning, whether towards other believers or towards those in the world. Yes, we need to hold the line on God’s absolute moral standards. But if it were not for God’s grace, we’d all be violating those standards. Everyone you meet has difficult struggles of some sort and so everyone needs God’s grace. You’re the channel for that grace to flow to them.

Conclusion

Someone has defined a rut as a grave with the ends knocked out. It’s possible that some of you are in a spiritual rut. But the Lord wants you to be growing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who survived the Gulag, wrote (goodreads.com), “The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering but in the development of the soul.”

The Lord wants you to develop your soul by seeking His peace in every situation, by seeking His presence every day, by submitting to His word as your absolute authority, and by saturating your life with His grace.

Application Questions

  1. Do you have any relationships where you need to seek peace? How can you begin that process this week?
  2. Discuss: Should the Lord’s presence be something we feel, or a matter that we count on by faith?
  3. Does God give prophetic revelation to people today? If so, is it authoritative, like Scripture? Support your answer biblically.
  4. Where is the balance between being gracious people and yet confronting people with their sin?

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

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