As you’re being seated, please turn in your Bibles to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians chapter 3, and we’ll be studying verses 6 through 13 this evening; that’s found on page 987 if you’re using a pew Bible. Before we listen to God’s Word, let us pray and ask His blessing on it.
Our Father in heaven, we would know more of our Savior this evening, we would know more of His power, and we would pray that You would increase and strengthen and shore up our faith and that we would be enabled to live by the Holy Spirit to the praise of Your glorious grace. Would You do that this evening through the preaching of Your Word, by the power of Your Spirit, for the glory and praise of Jesus? For we pray in His name, amen.
1 Thessalonians chapter 3 beginning at verse 6. This is God’s inspired and therefore inerrant Word:
“But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you - for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever, amen.
Well, not too long ago, 60 Minutes featured a company that was located not too far from where Callie and I used to live in Cary, North Carolina. And the title of the piece that was on the program was, “Working the Good Life,” and it featured SAS Software Corporation. Now if you live anywhere in the research triangle area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, you know SAS Corporation because it’s the one place everybody wants to work. And for good reason - there is onsite medical care! Some of the finest doctors from Duke University will do rounds there at SAS onsite so you never have to leave to get medical care. There is a state of the art fitness center; free paid artists to inspire creativity among the software developers that are paid simply to paint all around the facility. There’s no dress code, all employees work a flexible, thirty-five hour work week, and on the off chance that you get stressed at working at a place like this, you could always take advantage of one of the free, 24-hour company masseuses, in case you needed that. Membership at the exclusive country club in Cary, North Carolina which normally runs a membership fee of $30,000 is waved for any SAS employee, and one of the finest private schools in the southeast is located right next door to the facility. Now, this seems to be working for SAS. They are the only software company in the country to record twenty-six straight years of double-digit growth and a 3% employee turnover rate. You can see why people - we had a lot of young engineers and such that came to the church I used to pastor and they would always say, “Where are you applying first?” “SAS!” And you can see why this piece was entitled, “Working the Good Life.”
And that brings the question to our minds, doesn’t it? What is the good life? As always, the Gospel turns our expectations on their heads and Paul will set forth a very different version of the good life for us in the text before us this evening for us to consider and embrace. Now just again to set the context briefly for us, we’re in a series called, “How To Live in the Last Days,” and what that symbolizes for us here as we think about the time between Christ’s first and second coming, which the New Testament almost without exception refers to as “the last days,” Paul is going to give us practical instruction by the Spirit’s inspiration on how to live in the last days. Tonight we conclude a thanksgiving section that began on some scholars reckoning back in chapter 1 and verse 2. Paul has kind of meandered for two chapters and in between giving thanksgiving and praying and saying things about this congregation, but the dominant theme is one of thanksgiving. From here, for the last two chapters of the book, he is going to address the practical matters facing his congregation. What are we to do with our bodies? What is the purpose of sex? What does it mean to live a pure and holy life before God? What do we do about work? What happens when Jesus returns? Paul is going to answer all of that for us in the coming chapters.
But for tonight, I want us to see that Paul teaches us that the good life is a life lived in the power of and by the prayer of faith. The good life is a life lived in the power and by the prayer of faith. And those will be our headings this evening. The power of faith in verses 6 through 10, and the prayer of faith in verses 11 through 13. So the power of faith and the prayer of faith.
- The Power of Faith
First of all then, the power of faith. Look with me there at verse 6. “But now that Timothy has come to us from you and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you - for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.” Paul begins here by telling the Thessalonians that Timothy’s report to him was quite literally Gospel. Remember he was concerned for their faith. They’d faced trials and temptations. This was a greatly afflicted tiny group of believers and Paul wanted to make sure they were going to make it and so he, as we read about last week, sent Timothy when he could bear it no longer and Timothy brings back what Paul calls, “Gospel.” And what was it that encouraged Paul so much? Their faith, their continued trust and belief in the truth of the Gospel that Paul and the other apostles had taught them. That’s what encouraged Paul. “You guys are continuing on in your faith in Jesus, your trust and love of the Gospel,” and that was resulting in love as well. Paul always puts those three things - and the other one is there, just kind of under the surface - faith, hope, and love, as the cardinal virtues, as it were, of the Christian life.
In fact, so encouraged by Timothy’s report was Paul that he could write that the Thessalonians’ faith, their continued trust in, and belief in the Gospel that was what comforted him and his fellow apostles in the midst of their own afflictions. Now think about that! They’re being persecuted, they’re being moved from town to town, dangers within, dangers without Paul tells the Corinthians, all kinds of trials and afflictions - and what was the thing that encouraged Paul and the other apostles? The faith of these Thessalonians. And remember back in chapter 1 their faith was something spectacular by God’s grace. It spread throughout the ancient world. It was used by other apostles to say, “Be like the Thessalonians” in their faith.
Christians Must Mutually Encourage One Another in the Faith.
And the point is this for us - we see once again, as we talked about last week, why we need each other. Our faith is never meant to be something lived out in solitary confinement. No, instead, as believers we come together because we need that mutual encouragement together in the faith. Paul needed it! I dare say if the inspired apostle needed it, we certainly need it as well. It reminds me of a well-known story about the great general, Stonewall Jackson. There was a young officer under his charge who was mortally wounded in one of the battles and he had professed faith. Jackson was a devout Christian, a Presbyterian deacon as a matter of fact, from Virginia. And as he knelt beside this dying officer, the young man was terrified. He said, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it, general. I’m scared about what happens at death. I don’t know if I’ve got enough faith.” Jackson knelt beside him to pray and he said, “Well then let my faith be enough for both of us.” In a similar way, for Paul, the Thessalonians’ faith was what encouraged Paul and his fellow apostles along the way in their own afflictions.
Knowing Jesus and Making Him Known is the Christians Primary Goal.
And then he continues in verse 8. If it’s possible, he ramps it up even more. Look at verse 8! “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” And this is the center point of this passage. Paul says, “What is my life?” Let’s ask that question of ourselves! What are we living for? If somebody stopped and asked you today, “What is your life?” And Paul’s going to tell us in other places, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And he’s not contradicting himself here. The two meet wonderfully in this text that living for Christ and seeing the continuing in faith of this young congregation and Paul’s saying, “That’s our life.” For Paul, the main point, the thing he lived for, what got him out of bed every morning was to know Jesus through the Gospel, by the Word of God, and to make Him known and to see those who came to faith under his ministry continuing, day by day, believing the Gospel, following Jesus - this is what he lived for. This is his life, he says. “Now we live, if you’re continuing steadfastly in the Lord. Why do we care so much about your faith? Because it’s what is our life! It’s our center! Jesus! Knowing Him, making Him known, seeing the Word of God spread, seeing others come to faith in Jesus.” That’s the goal for any church. Now we live if we see people continuing in faith and making progress, people coming to the Lord Jesus and making progress in the faith. This then is the secret of the good life. It’s not a thirty-five hour workweek wearing whatever you want to wear. That’s a nice thing. The root, the reason, the purpose of it all is to know Christ and to make Him known. That’s what Paul is telling us.
And then finally in verses 9 through 10 he tells us something else about the power of faith. Look with me there. “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?” Paul once again returns to thanksgiving. He says - it’s a rhetorical question - “What else can we offer to God? Thanksgiving on your behalf for your faith, which He’s told us is a gift of God.” He’s not so much praising the Thessalonians as he is praising the God who gave them their faith. He’s saying to them, “I see this and I’m giving thanks to God for what He’s doing in your lives.”
The Joy of Seeing Others Grow in Christ.
And notice what else! A dominant note is struck here. “For all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God.” That pierces me! When is the last time you went to prayer and you could say something like this? I don’t know what else to say! I don’t have words for the joy that overwhelms me in thankfulness for watching people grow in Christ. Paul says this is his life, and because his life is centered there on the Gospel, on Jesus, in making progress in the faith, joy results. Joy overflows in his life and in his ministry because of these people trusting Jesus more and more. And if there’s one thing we need today in the church, in our individual lives as Christians, it’s this - joy that only God can give us. If you’re not a Christian here tonight, I fear so oftentimes people like me, others who aren’t joyful like we should be, may have turned you away from the faith. But let me say, don’t judge Jesus so much by His followers when it comes to joy, for so often we are not a joyful people. And yet when you open the New Testament, if you’ve ever noticed this, the last time we read a psalm of lament is Jesus saying it on the cross. After that, there’s no more psalms of lament. There’s prayer of joy and thanksgiving like we read right here because Jesus brings us joy! How else does Paul put it? “Joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
Do we have that kind of joy, especially in watching other believers grow, seeing them grow, coming to this place and growing? And the joy that Jesus gives is so different than the passing, fleeting joys of this life. Nothing wrong with those - joy of family, joy of friendship, joy of food and drink and whatever else, all the good things God provides for us. Nothing comes close to the joy of knowing Jesus! Is that what causes us joy day by day? Do you wake up and say, “Lord, please give me more joy”? Isn’t that what so many people are after today? And they’re looking in so many other places - drugs, one-night stands, endless entertainment. What are we looking for? Joy! And Paul says the only place to get it is right here, right from the Gospel, right from Jesus Himself by the power of the Spirit - joy which lasts, joy which never ends, joy which continues after death, after all the bodily joys pass away, everlasting joy only in Jesus! That’s what Paul says is the result of faith. So faith is powerful because it brings encouragement, it gives us purpose in life, and it results in joyful thanksgiving.
- The Prayer of Faith.
And then Paul begins to pray again, so look with me at verse 11 as we look at the prayer of faith. “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you.” We want to pray better, all of us. And we have to look at the placement of this. Paul begins to pray after he talks about joy. It’s natural! He gives thanks, it leads to joy, he begins to pray, he can’t help it. And he has such an amazing theology of prayer for us here. He begins by directing our prayers to God and the Lord Jesus. Now we read that, we read over it, we read it in other places in Paul and in the New Testament, and we kind of move on, “Now to God our Father and the Lord Jesus.” It just rolls off our tongue. This is a Pharisee! This is a man who from the time he was as small as these precious covenant children gathered here tonight, knew one thing for sure and one thing only if he knew nothing else - Deuteronomy 6:4, “The LORD our God is one.” No other gods; one God. So when you prayed, you never said, “To God and…” You said, “God” if you were a devout Jew! There was never an “and.” And yet for Paul, God, who He is, what it means to fellowship with Him, has been completely transformed by the coming of Jesus so that in the same breath the man who was putting people to death for saying, “and,” now says, “And the Lord Jesus!” His understanding of God has now expanded to include the one God is really three Persons - Father, Son, and Spirit. And that’s going to be in the rest of this letter. It just now rolls as naturally off his tongue as Deuteronomy 6:4 did. “God our Father and the Lord Jesus and the Spirit,” he’s going to say. Paul’s prayers were Trinitarian.
God’s Sovereignty Brings Comfort.
And notice what else they are. “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus,” the one God and three Persons, “direct our way to you.” Sovereignty! Why did Paul pray like he did? Don’t you want to pray like that - expectantly, full of joy and thanksgiving? Why? Because he knew God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally fellowshipping and loving one another and he knew that this one God sovereignly was disposed and was the one who told us over and over again that he governs all our affairs. Everything is under His sovereign sway and the greatest news is that God does all things well for your sake and mine. That’s why he prayed like he did! No matter his afflictions, Paul went to sleep on the soft pillow of God’s sovereignty. Triune and sovereign!
Notice what else he prays. Verse 12, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.” There’s one thing that you’ll notice about Paul’s prayers that is never there - Paul never prays for outward circumstances to change, never! He never prays for circumstances to change; he always prays for us to change in the middle of those circumstances. He’s interested in an inward change, not an outward change. And how does that manifest itself here? “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and to all.” You see, the Thessalonians - what was he coming to supply? What was their lack? Did they have some lack in their faith? No, they needed further instruction. That’s what Paul wants to give them. What is that further instruction? How to abound in love for one another and for all. This is the sole petition in this prayer. Did you notice that? It’s the sole thing he prays for. May the Lord make you do this - love, growing in love for one another and for all people.
Pray for More Love.
When life is hard, what do we pray for? Most of us, if we’re honest, will say, “I pray for a different life. I pray for my life to change. My circumstances beat me up, six days a week, I come in here on Sundays and I’m still beat up.” And the great thing about coming to corporate worship is that we get to hear again and again and again that what we need is not a different life, but a different love. We need love to Jesus and love to one another and to all people. “By this all men will know you are my disciples.” For your love! That love that we experience from God to us in Jesus that transforms our lives and we can’t help it but it spills out of us. It spills out of our lives into others’ lives. That’s what Paul is praying for! That word for “abound” is unusual. It means to go to the point of overflowing. That’s what he says he wants to see out of these Thessalonian believers. “May God do this for you.” That’s his prayer!
Become what you Already are in Jesus.
And the last thing he says - this happens, this leads to something. “So that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” So this life of love results in showing forth what you already are in Jesus. That’s the center of Paul’s teaching on the Christian life, by the way! You see, for Paul, the divine order, as we’ve said before, as David has shown us in the Ten Commandments so wonderfully, the divine order is - what God has done; then what to do about it. Paul puts it like this - “Become what you already are in Jesus.” It’s counterintuitive! You are holy, so become holy, that God may establish you in holiness. He’s the one who is going to do that. The life of abounding love does not secure that; it evidences it. Do you want to know if you’re a Christian? Do you love? John will give us the same test. Do you love Jesus and do you find yourself growing in love for other believers and those outside?
And that shows us that we’re established in this holiness which will withstand the final judgment. Did you notice that last thing? “At the coming of the lord Jesus and his saints.” That is going to be a theme for the rest of this epistle. Jesus is coming back and only those who are His will survive the final judgment. Only those who are His will go with Him to heaven and the rest will perish. Paul is serious about this! How serious is he? He says, “This is how serious our life of love is, evidencing that we are God’s chosen ones.” How serious? It’s the only thing that gives us assurance, by God’s grace, before that final judgment. So Paul says, “Become what you are.” Don’t ever lose sight of that in the Christian life. “You already are holy,” Paul says. “You already are! He’s the one who establishes you in holiness, therefore on that basis become more and more like Him.” Only on that basis. If you reverse that order you lose the Gospel. If you say, “Become so that you may become,” no, “You are, so become.” That’s what Paul says. That’s the Gospel for us!
The Beauty of Christ Faith and Love for His People.
I wonder if you notice, as we went through this, how Jesus modeled all of these things perfectly for us! He was the one who had perfect faith, day in and day out before His Father, wasn’t He? You see, if the message to us here is, “Just have a lot more faith,” that is going to be discouraging because it’s going to be tested and tried this week and we will fail. But the greatest news about the Gospel is that Jesus is the one who was perfectly faithful in His faith in His Father, as fully God and fully Man. He was the one who did that! And, the one thing that impresses Jesus in all of the Gospels - I wonder if you’ve noticed this - the one thing that gets his attention is not your social standing, it’s not your bank account, it’s not your power. It’s faith! When people exercise faith, Jesus notices. That’s what gets His attention. Moreover, Jesus is the one who abounded in love for us, wasn’t He? “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” You and I could only abound in love as we know His love, that love that knows no bounds, that love that left the glories of heaven and descended to earth and lived in that, what our confession calls, “estate of humiliation,” enduring all the pain and suffering and disappointment and discouragement of this life because He loved! Love sent the Son. He’s the one who abounds in love and that’s the only reason we can be called to abound in love and He’s the one who establishes us as perfectly holy before the Father.
That is really good news for people like us who are not holy so often, who sin and we wonder again and again, “Is this the time that God is going to give up on me? Have I done that one thing so often now that He’s finished? He’s going to throw up His hands in disgust and that’s the end of it?” And the Gospel says to us again and again and again and again, “No,” because Jesus establishes our righteousness, not us, and He gives us the power to become what we already are. Let me close by asking you this. Why is having faith in God’s Word or in Jesus so difficult so often? This sounds great, doesn’t it? We want the Thessalonian-like faith. We want a faith that causes an apostle to rejoice. I would consider myself having a pretty good day if I got a letter from an apostle saying, “Your faith got me through a hard time.” That would be a good day for me! We want that kind of faith? Where is it? Why does it feel so often that we don’t have it? Because faith requires us to look beyond everything that is natural for us. We’re creatures of sight! We experience things in a body, that’s a good thing, but we’re so often caught up in that, that looking beyond that is the most difficult thing for us. It’s why R.C. Sproul once said, “The hardest thing about being a Christian is believing in a God you can’t see.” Isn’t that true? What do we do?
Look at Paul’s prescription here for us! He says, “Fix your faith on the Triune God, know and rest in Him, pray down heaven,” and as a dear old saint at the church we were at in South Carolina gave me a Bible once said this, “when it’s hardest to pray, pray the hardest.” That’s how! Or conversely, what was said to young John Wesley when he asked an old saint, “Why don’t I feel faith? I need more faith for my preaching and my teaching.” She said, “Preach and pray faith until you get it.” That’s what we need. Falling on our knees, prayer, asking God for this kind of faith that endures, that goes forth in love and in the power of the Spirit.”
Philip Yancey, in his book, Disappointment with God, cited Kierkegaard, the great philosopher, who claimed to be a Christian, had some problems with his theology, but wrote profoundly on things like this. Kierkegaard said this, that Christians reminded him of “school boys who want to look up the answers to their math problems in the back of the book rather than work them through.” Isn’t that so often us? We want this kind of faith; we don’t want the hard work that gets us there - the trials, the afflictions that Paul has experienced, that these Thessalonians had experienced. And yet, as one ancient rabbi put it when he considered Job, he said, “Faith like Job’s cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.” So this week, when faith is hard, go back here. Say, “Lord, give me this kind of faith and I will pray until I get it. Give me grace to make it through that prayer.” These Thessalonians experienced unshakable faith producing apostolic joy precisely because their faith had been shaken by trials and persecutions. And as we walk the lonely and often difficult road of faith this week, remember that when it seems like you are being shaken to the core - and some of you have been there in a major way just this past week - when it feels like you have been shaken to the core, it is because God loves you too much to leave your faith unshaken, for He is making it unshakable. That is the only kind of faith that will last, and that’s the only kind of faith worth having, and the only kind of life worth living.
Father, we want faith like we’ve read about. We want faith that endures. We want faith that produces joy. And yet we know Monday is coming, we know that there are tests and trials this week that will come at us and blindside us, and so we pray our faith would not fail. And our confidence is not in working up feelings to that effect this evening. It’s in the fact that Jesus was perfectly faithful and has given us His Spirit beyond measure. Help us, keep us, and bring us safely home. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.