Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
I’ve said this before, but I know some of you like “to-do lists” so much that you even add things to your lists you’ve already done just so you can feel good about checking them off. You know who you are. And if that is you, be encouraged that because of the way we’ve set up this service, before I’ve preached this morning’s passage or even read this morning’s passage, we’ve already together obeyed one of the things God tells us to do. That should be encouraging. That doesn’t mean we check it off and never do it again, but it does mean we’ve already had some practice. I’ll explain as we get into the passage and sermon. But let’s go ahead and read first. We’re nearly finished with our series through 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Just this sermon and one more. Starting in October we’ll begin in the book of Acts, the story of the victory of the gospel midst a hundred hindrances.
Follow along with me as I read 2 Thessalonians 3:1–5, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
3 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. 4 And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
Years ago I waded far into the ocean from Cocoa Beach—not too far, but far enough to know the ocean is not something to be trifled with. I sloshed about passive in the waves like a bobber on a fishing line. Wherever the waves rolled, I went. On vacation last month I got a reminder of the power of the ocean. The waves were mostly mild off Kitty Hawk that week, that is, mild unless you positioned yourself where the waves broke. I did that accidentally once and lost my sunglasses when my head was smacked by a breaking wave. While I looked in vain for my glasses, I got hit again, this time in the back, which felt like I had belly-flopped off the high dive. My back turned bright red. Evidently, it not only felt like a belly flop but sounded like one too because my son heard it and asked me if I was okay.
I’ve been thinking about those glimpses into the power of the ocean as I caught bits and pieces of the reporting on Hurricane Dorian. On the way to pick up my daughter from volleyball practice, I caught an NPR interview. I listened to a man weep as he told the story of how he barely escaped death. Though he lived on an island in the path of the Hurricane, he hadn’t thought too much about the warnings and didn’t really prepare. A life vest floated up to him in the water that saved his life. In another report I saw and heard from the Bahamas, I saw a picture of a Humvee, a massive vehicle, that had been tossed through the side of a house like you might toss a marble through a Kleenex.
Hurricanes like Dorian cause us to reflect on warnings and evacuations and what the right thing to do is. That’s not actually the reason I bring up the violent storms. Whether someone stays or evacuates during a Hurricane of differing sizes isn’t anything I can speak to with expertise. That’s a different conversation. But all the reporting did cause me to think about this: if a person does stay in a violent storm knowing the winds might reach 180 mph, then we better have a shelter sufficient for the task.
In 2 Thessalonians, Paul has spoken of the many dangers to these young believers. They experienced persecution for their faith. False teachers sought to undermine their hope in the gospel. The false teachers also maligned the character of the one who taught the gospel to them. “Paul is just a crook in an apostle’s clothing,” they’d say. The false teachers also tried to discourage them by saying they’d missed the coming of the Lord. And so I picture these young believers as battered by wind and wave on a beach with saltwater in their eyes.
“But the Lord is faithful,” Paul writes in v. 3. The Lord is faithful. Paul believes that statement, or I should say the truth of that statement, will make all the difference. They have a shelter that’s big enough and strong enough to protect them. They have a solid rock to stand upon. “I know about your affliction,” Paul writes. “I know the false teaching who oppresses you and your anxiety about the future; I know the opposition you face from faithless men. But the Lord is faithful,” Paul writes.
We sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” this morning. The chorus is mainly drawn from the Old Testament book of Lamentations. The context of Lamentations is a time when the people of God were in a storm. If you know the context, you wouldn’t call it Hurricane Dorian, but Hurricane Babylonian. And the only anchor the remnant of believers had was the fresh faithfulness of the Lord—each morning, God faithfully serving new mercies. Lamentations 3:16–24 contrasts the people’s plight with only their hope.
16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, / and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace; / I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished; / so has my hope from the Lord.”
19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings, / the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it / and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind, / and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; / his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning; / great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, / “therefore I will hope in him.”
In a similar way, this is where Paul points us in 2 Thessalonians. In an uncertain world filled with fickle and faithfulness men, we may be tempted to lose hope as though the tidal wave of evil will wash us out to sea. “But the Lord is faithful,” Paul writes. The Lord is faithful. And clinging to the truth of the great faithfulness of the Lord, rather than making us passive or ineffective, it actually unleashes boldness to do the Lord’s will.
1. The faithfulness of the Lord invites our prayers
There is certainly a boldness to our prayers. Look with me at v. 1 again.
3 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you . . .
Paul encourages these young Christians to pray and to pray bold and big prayers. I find several things interesting about this verse.
First, note that Paul doesn’t just tell them to pray, but he actually asks for prayer. Think about that. We can wrongly assume that what it means to be a spiritual leader is to be the one who doesn’t need to be prayed for. Spiritual leaders, we think, are those who pray for us. Paul does pray for them in v. 5 and other places in these letters (cf. 2:16–17 and 1 Thes 3:11–13).
But let me ask you a question: Which is more comfortable for you, to ask people if you can pray for them or to ask for prayer for yourself? I think people often have a more difficult time asking for prayer for themselves because it implies need and dependence, which prick our pride.
“Let me know how I can pray for you,” we say. “Oh, you’re having trouble at work and you’re injured and your coworker is antagonizing you about your faith in Jesus. Sure, I’d love to pray for you. In fact, may I do that now?”
“Oh, you want to know how you can pray for me? Oh, I’m good.”
If you’ve never asked for prayer, you might not be a Christian. Prayer doesn’t save us, but realizing our own inability is part of what it means to be a Christian. If you never need others, you might think you never need God. Before you take Paul’s words in this passage as a command that you must do more praying, perhaps you need to do more asking for prayer.
But because Paul trusted that the Lord is the Lord, the God abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6), Paul could be a person, a human, a sinner who by God’s grace was made a saint, and who by God’s grace could now boldly ask for prayer from his friends. Put yourself in Paul’s shoes. Think how humbling it would be to ask what Paul asks them to pray for if you were Paul. Why does Paul need to pray for the word to speed ahead and be honored? If he was a good enough preacher, wouldn’t that be the result? Maybe he’s not such a great apostle after all.Paul didn’t worry about that. The only thing he knew he was the best at was being the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Now that we’ve talked about that fact that Paul asked for prayer, look at the content of the prayer closer. I’ve already said it. But look again. Verse 1 reads, “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you.” I mentioned at the start that you’ve already obeyed Paul’s commands—before we even begun the sermon and heard the passage. When we sang together “Speak O Lord,” and if you were singing those words from a heart captured by grace, then you were praying to God that his word would speed ahead and be honored. The last line of the final verse goes, “Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built / And the earth is filled with Your glory.” That’s what Paul tells us to pray for. And that’s what we do as we sing. Rightly understood, your singing is praying, praying that the word of God would speed ahead and be honored.
In college I helped out in a Christian ministry to fellow athletes. We met every Tuesday night at 9 in the room where the football team would watch game film. (That sounds so late to me now. A Bible study that starts at 9?I guess I’m getting old.) But before we’d meet, my friend Remington and I would meet outside on what we called our prayer bench. It was this metal bench just behind the athletic training building. Rain or shine, snow or sun, we’d meet to pray. We’d pray that the speaker would preach and teach the Bible well. We’d pray that the word would be received with soft hearts and people would respond to the gospel. I think about those nights on the prayer bench with Rem with a certain fondness, almost a spiritual nostalgia. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But I do wonder what present-tense focused praying I’m doing with God’s people for God’s word to run fast and famously all around the world. I wonder in what ways is the Lord’s faithfulness—God’s love and Christ’s steadfastness—are drawing me into a ministry of prayer? What about you? We have benches here at church right behind the offices below the parking lot. We even have a prayer room that’s open for business. God wants us to be a people who pray to him. Would that 15 years from now you could look back on this season at our church as the a sweet time in your life when God banded you together with other pilgrims in prayer. Would that lost people in Harrisburg 15 years from now could say, “I’m no longer lost because my friends prayed for me, and I’ve been changed by the gospel.” The Lord is faithful; he can do that.
One final thing to note. Paul says, “as happened among you.” The word of God changed them. In 1 Thessalonians Paul wrote to them about the changes he observed in their lives that were produced by the word of God. Look at these verses.
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . . we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5; 2:13)
Paul’s saying that when they heard the word preached, they had a hunger and thirst for it. As Christians, they weren’t content to leave the Bible to a Sunday-only thing. As Christians, they didn’t believe the Bible was only for professionals or Sunday school teachers or youth pastors or scholars. The Bible was God’s good news to them, their solid rock. Paul appeals to what happened among them, and he asks them to pray that same passion and joy would spread to others.
The takeaway for us is two-fold. First, if you’ve never tasted a passion for the word of God, pray for yourself. Ask others to pray for you. And if you have tasted the goodness of the word, pray that others you know might receive the word that way too.
2. The faithfulness of the Lord ensures our protection
Not only does the faithfulness of the Lord invite our prayer, but it also ensures our protection. Paul asks them to pray about the word and about protection from evil. Let me re-read vv. 1–4.
3 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. 4 And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command.
Paul contrasts the Lord’s faithfulness with the damage caused by those who do not have faith. Note what he says: to not have faith is not to be neutral. Those without faith cause damage. They hurt people.
But here’s my question: why does Paul need to write, “For not all have faith”? Why say that? How might saying those words be an encouragement to them? “Of course, Paul,” we’d say, “not all have faith. Why remind us of something obvious?”
I think he means for this to encourage them because they feel beat down and battered by those who should have faith. The persecution they received and the false teachers among them were those who should have had the Christian faith (cf. Acts 18:6ff and Paul’s persecution he’s receiving from unbelieving Jews, likely as he writes this letter). The Thessalonian Christians had been wounded by those who should be following the Lord but aren’t.
I won’t tell stories, but I can say there is a special kind of wound when you’re hurt by those in the church who should be Christians but prove not to be. When the hands that offer communion have also abused women, there is a special wound. When men who stand behind Christian pulpits eventually end up denying every truth of Christianity, that hurts people, especially if you don’t have in your mind the possibility that though someone looks like a Christian, they really are not a Christian.
J.I. Packer is a Christian theologian. He’s 93 and God has used him powerfully over decades of Christian ministry. Perhaps the most famous of Packer’s many books is his classic Knowing Godwritten in the early 70s. Chapter 2 begins with this story:
I walked in the sunshine with a scholar who had effectively forfeited his prospects of academic advancement by clashing with church dignitaries over the gospel of grace. “But it doesn’t matter,” he said at length, “for I’ve known God and they haven’t.” (Packer, Knowing God, Chapter 2)
Packer goes on to explain why that was such an odd way to phrase it, such an odd thing to be encouraged by. It almost feels arrogant to say, though the Christian who said it, said it with only humility. In his book, Packer doesn’t explain the specifics of the clash this Christian scholar had with unconverted scholars, but likely they are the same kinds of clash’s you have and the same kinds of clashes Christians all over the country have. There are those who claim to be Christians but don’t believe that people must trust Jesus to receive forgiveness from God. There are those who claim to be Christians but don’t believe what the Bible says about sexual ethics. There are those who claim to be Christians but say Jesus never actually rose from the dead nor is coming back again. There are those who claim to be Christians but each month they watch 100 hours of Fox News and never open their Bible or serve in a local church.
Now, having one wrong view of God and the Bible doesn’t make you not a Christian. I’m not saying that. But I am saying that if you are receiving persecution for the way the word of God has worked among you, and the people doing the persecution claim to be Christians but deny the most basic elements of Christianity, then I am saying that what Paul says here would be an encouragement to you. You might have family you love dearly, and you’re so confused why, though they claim to know God, they seem to deny him in every area of their life, and their lack of faith has consequences for how they live and how they mistreat you. It’s hard. It hurts. “For not all have faith,” he writes. “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you . . .” The faithfulness of the Lord is what will carry you in an environment where people are “believers” in name only.
And look again at v. 4. Look at what the faithfulness of the Lord is working among them.
4 And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command.
Paul doesn’t say he has confidence in them that they will do the will of the Lord. He says he has confidence in the Lord that they will do the will of the Lord. That’s different. He knows they are battered on the shore by wind and wave. And he says, I know that the one who holds on to you is faithful. By ourselves, we wouldn’t make it, but the Lord is faithful. In the opening verses of the Bible we read that when the Lord speaks, whole galaxies fly into existence. He’s that powerful, and he upholds you with same power.
I want to close our sermon time early so we can share in the Lord’s Supper together. Look at verse 5 with me.
5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
I don’t know a better way for the Lord to direct our hearts to the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ than participating in the Lord’s Supper. I mentioned the story of the man who was being washed out to sea and a life vest floated up to him. This morning, I wonder how you’re doing. I wonder if you’re disappointed by the faithlessness you see around you. Perhaps you’re disappointed by the pride and faithlessness in your own heart. You want to do better than you do, you want to be better than you are. I hope this morning’s church service, I hope the singing of songs about the Lord’s faithfulness, I hope the preaching about the faithfulness of the Lord, is for you a life vest that floats up and saves you from washing out to sea. Put on Christ. Put him on by trusting him, trusting that when he died on the cross, he died for your sins. And when he rose from the dead, he showed death no longer has power over him. And if you trust him, if you put on the Lord Jesus, then his death for sin was your death to sin. His resurrection from the dead is your resurrection to life with God—forever. If you put on Christ, then for you he is faithful, and he will keep you in the storm.