By now you’ve become familiar with the basic historical setting for this letter. Paul and Silas and Timothy had preached the gospel in Thessalonica around AD 49 or 50, and a new church was formed – comprised of a few Jews, a large number of God-fearing Greeks and several prominent women, wives of the elite men of the city. Then persecution came from both the Jewish leadership and the city authorities, and Paul had to flee in the middle of the night. His mission was cut short. He hadn’t been able to provide to these Thessalonians an adequate measure of teaching for their newfound faith. So he was quite worried about them. Many of them came from a totally pagan background, and here they were trying to follow this new path, without any mentoring, without adequate teaching, in the midst of hostilities, It seemed like a recipe for their faith to be extinguished, and for this little church to be a very short-lived enterprise.
Throughout the book, we’ve seen the depth of Paul’s pastoral heart for these believers, and his great desire to come back and minister to them. He was so worried that he sent his right hand man, Timothy, on a long and dangerous journey to check on them, and now Timothy has come back with an excellent report. There is still work to be done, but they are standing fast in the Lord, and Paul is elated! He is filled with thanksgiving. He had said in chapter three, verse nine, “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God?” Then in verse ten he says to them, “We still pray continually for you, we pray most earnestly night and day for you – that we’ll be able to come back and visit you, and to supply what is lacking in your faith.” This brings us to verses 11-13, which are a kind of mid-point of the letter. Prior to this Paul has mostly been talking about things that happened in the past, and from here on he turns to the future.
1 Thessalonians 3.11-13…
SCRIPTURE READING & TEXT COMMENTS
This a prayer – it is stated in the form of a wish, and the commentators point out that this may have been a form taken from the liturgy of the synagogue.
Notice in this prayer Jesus is on par with God the Father, both in verse 11, where they are both mentioned, and then in verse 12 where it is the Lord (meaning the Lord Jesus) to whom Paul prays. In verse 11 Paul makes the Father and the Son the joint subject of a verb that is in the singular. He sees the two subjects as essentially a unity.
This exalted view of the Son is striking, not only because it was written less than 20 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, but also because Paul simply assumes that it is appropriate to pray to the Son as to the Father. He just instinctively speaks this way. It is a very strong argument against any notion that the deity of Christ was a doctrine that only developed through a long, drawn-out process over many decades.
One other text comment, and that is on the phrase in verse 13 “holy ones” as the NIV has it, or “saints” as the ESV renders it. Are these Christians who have passed away? After all, he says in chapter 4, verse 16 that the saints will accompany Christ at his second coming. And “holy ones” or “saints” are a common way Christians are described in the NT. Or are these angelic beings, as portrayed in 2 Thessalonians 1.10, who will likewise accompany the Lord at his return? Perhaps there is an allusion to Zechariah 14.5, where we read, “Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.” In Zechariah and in almost all of the OT texts with that kind of language, it is referring to celestial beings (Deut 33.2; Job 5.1; Psalm 89.5,7; Dan 4.13; 8.13). And there are a number of NT references to angels accompanying the Lord at his second coming (Matt 13.41; Mark 8.38; 13.27; 2 Thess. 1.7-10; Jude 14-15). However, as Leon Morris points out, there is no reason to limit it to only one of the two groups. Paul could have intentionally used “holy ones” knowing that it would include both saints and angels (Morris, pp.111-112).
John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Wanamaker, Charles, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians
F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians
Let’s pray together…
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Our heavenly Father, we ask for the presence and power of your Holy Spirit to open our hearts to your Word. We want to be fully devoted to you, with hearts and minds entirely set apart to your purposes. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. We pray all this in Jesus name, Amen.
I don’t know about you, but as a child when I would hear the word “holiness,” it was very mysterious to me, a strange word. And especially when someone would point to a particular saint and say, “Do you see that man? He is a holy man.” I didn’t quite know what to make of that, whether that meant that he was part of a secret club, or that he never smiled or didn’t like ice cream, or that he was living on some higher level of existence. Holiness seemed to be something distant, something totally removed from ordinary life.
I think many Christians have this sort of view of holiness. Sometimes God’s people see holiness as some esoteric or abstract thing, or as something lofty and unattainable, or something that is so religious and so spiritual that it’s hard to know how it connects with real life. Paul doesn’t see it that way, as we’ll discover in our text.
The main point I want to bring out from this text is this:
If you want to be perfected in holiness, you need to grow in love.
One day we are going to be perfected in holiness, to be rid of sin, completely liberated from the corruption and power of sin, fully alive to God’s will, fully able to reflect in our conduct perfect conformity to God’s law. The people of God will be perfectly sanctified, so that, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, Christ the Bridegroom might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and blameless.
Paul always has that in view. In this text he prays for it to become a reality.
But notice the particular way that he prays for it. He doesn’t just pray that their hearts will be established blameless in holiness for that coming day. He prays for it with a particular view to their growth in love. Unfortunately this is obscured by the NIV. There are only two prayer requests here—in verse 11 when Paul prays that God would direct his way to the Thessalonians. That’s first request, that God would clear the way for a personal visit. The second request is found in verse 12, where Paul says, “…may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you….” Verse 13 is not actually a new sentence, nor is it a third request. Verse 13 flows out of verse 12. The way it actually reads, and the ESV and NASB and NKJV all bring out this point, is this “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….”
Do you see that connection? Paul prays that their love would increase and abound so that, or with the result that their hearts would be established blameless in holiness at the coming of the Lord Jesus.
You find the same idea in Philippians 1.9-11, where Paul says it this way,
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ….
Paul doesn’t view holiness as something so religious or abstract that it doesn’t connect with real life. Yes, it is something lofty, and something religious and spiritual – but it also very much connects with everyday life. It must connect with everyday life. If holiness is not lived out in a concrete way that can be described as love, it is not really holiness.
Of course it makes perfect sense! It makes sense theologically – after all, if holiness is a matter of being increasingly conformed to God’s law, and if as Paul says in Romans 13, love is the fulfillment of the law, then it makes sense that as we grow in love, we come more in line with God’s law, and thus become more holy. This dynamic also makes sense to us experientially, as we face our sin. For example, if you grow in love for your neighbor, you are less likely to covet your neighbor’s possessions. The more you grow in depth of love for your spouse, the less attractive becomes the prospect of adultery. The more you love your fellow man, the harder it is to harbor any malice towards them. If we perfectly loved everyone, there would be no sin! Chrysostom, the great 4th century preacher, put it this way, “Love to our neighbor does not suffer any entrance of transgression; there is not any sin, which the power of love cannot consume.” Love is the soil in which holiness grows toward perfection. Love is the means by which a person’s heart gets established blameless in holiness.
So why does Paul show us this connection between love and holiness? What are we supposed to do with this?
Let me mention just a couple of points of application.
- This ought to shape our prayers.
Here we have a window on Paul’s prayer life, and of all the things he might pray for them, this is at the top of the list. It’s as though Paul is saying, “Ideally we will be able to come and give you the teaching and mentoring you need for spiritual maturity, but even if that doesn’t happen, if I could ask God for only one thing to guide your life together as a congregation, it would be that your love would increase and abound.”
We have this tremendous privilege to pray for one another in the body of Christ, and this should be a theme that is frequently on our lips – that the Lord would make us to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men and women. And notice that it is the Lord who must accomplish this – as easy as the concept of love might be, it can be the most difficult thing in the world to actually implement! 99 times out of 100, the difficulty lies not in figuring out how to express love in a given situation; the difficulty is in actually having the willpower and the humility and the sacrificial attitude necessary to express that love. An increasing, abounding love for one another and for all people is not something that comes naturally or easily to us. It takes divine power, so Paul prays to the One who has that power.
We must do the same, if we would see an increase and abundance of love.
Now, the fact that we rely upon God’s power for this does not diminish one iota our responsibility to be actively cultivating this love. This brings us to the second point of application.
- We ought to renew our commitment to love one another.
You might think, “Well, Pastor Scott, you win the award for the most obvious statement of the day! Everybody knows we’re supposed to love one another.” And you know, some of the Thessalonians might have had the same reaction, but it doesn’t stop Paul from reminding them of it. It’s actually a bit surprising that Paul would so emphasize the importance of love in this particular church. After all, they were already noteworthy for the love they showed one another. But listen to what he will say over in chapter four:
Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.
The Lord is speaking to his people tonight, to you and to me – asking us if we will once again embrace this. If we are to take the lesson of this passage to heart, it will require actual change on our part. So what would it be for you? How ought this passage change your approach to the various relationships God has put in your life – here at the church, with your neighbors, friends, in your marriage, with your kids, or at the office or school?
As a parent of small children, I can’t help but think of how radically different our parenting would be if at every turn, we had this one thing in mind – not how can I get the kids to quiet down, or how can I stop the two children from arguing or complaining, or how can I get them to obey the first time, as important as all of those things are – but first and foremost, how can I work toward enabling their love for one another to increase and abound? And how can my love for them increase and abound? That certainly changes the way that you appeal to them for obedience, and how you break up an argument. If you’re like me as a parent of little ones, so often the primary thing in your mind is your own convenience, or your embarrassment or reputation, or your desire for peace and quiet, or just to get the tasks done. But the primary thing has to be shepherding these little ones to increase and abound in love for one another.
That’s just one example. Seek the Lord for wisdom on how to cultivate a deeper love for others, and he will certainly give you ample opportunity to apply this text in your situation.
Well, you say, I want that to be the case – I want love to be at the forefront in my daily life, in my conversations, in my decisions and my words and my actions.
But where can I get the power to live this way? How can we cultivate this? Listen to the words of the great 20th century Reformed theologian, John Murray:
Love is not a static emotion; it must increase and abound more and more. And love is fed by the increasing apprehension of the glory of him who is love, and of him in whom the love of God is manifested. (Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p.299)
The way that you cultivate a love for others is fix your eyes on the glorious embodiment of God’s love, the Lord Jesus Christ. God so loved the world that he gave his Son to us. The more that we have our eyes fixed on Jesus, the more we will be marveling at the love of God, and that love will begin to work its way deeper and deeper into our hearts, it will begin to overflow for others, so that we are increasing and abounding in love.
Let me close by asking you a question:
Why do you want to grow in holiness?
We said earlier that Paul wanted the Thessalonians to grow so that he would be able to present them blameless before God on the day of Christ. Is that the thing that compels you and animates you? You see, the growth in holiness that we want is not so much about our perfection as it is about the Lord Jesus Christ receiving the glory that he deserves. It’s not so much that we are going to rejoice that we are freed from sin, as glorious as that will be. The greater joy and the greater goal is that Christ himself will be glorified – the redemption that he accomplished will on that day come to its final and complete application in the lives of his people. Listen again to Professor John Murray:
There is a final end or goal that is more ultimate than the glorification of the people of God. It is the pre-eminence of Christ, vindicated and exemplified [on that day]. The glory of God is always supreme and ultimate. (Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p.316)
That’s our great motive for praying for an increase in love, and for seeking to renew our efforts to grow and abound in love. We want him to be adored and honored and magnified! We want to hasten the day when Jesus receives the glory he deserves in the full and final sanctification of sinners. To that end, let me join the apostle Paul in saying to you, the saints in Tacoma, “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.” Amen.