Before we get into the exposition of this passage, I want to direct your attention to another passage that will feed an understanding of this one. One of the chief rules in the study of the Bible is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Paul prays a very specific prayer here and I want you to understand why he does so. To do that, we need to take a close look at Ephesians 4:11-15.
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”
Paul says that Jesus gave to the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, & pastor-teachers for what purpose? To equip the saints for the work of ministry. What does that accomplish? It builds up the body of Christ until it attains unity of doctrine (the faith), knowledge of Christ, and spiritual maturity. So, in summary, Christ gave apostles and pastors to promote the spiritual maturity of the church. Paul sees this as his role.
Paul believes his purpose as an apostle is to help the church grow into spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-13,15; Col. 1:28-29), thus his prayer is in alignment with that purpose: his prayer is that God will allow him to return again to Thessalonica to equip them for spiritual maturity.
There are two textual areas of Paul’s prayer I want you to notice. The first is the meeting (3:11). Paul prays that God would allow him to see the Thessalonians again.
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you…
Paul first uses the phrase, our God and Father himself (John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:1). How amazing it is that he is even able to pray this prayer. How amazing is it that God has given us the right to call him Father? We call God Father because he has first called us children of God. Second, he speaks about our Lord Jesus Christ who is the one through whom we have adoption, our brother, the substitutionary sacrifice for our sin, clearly grouped with the Father in this phrase, and thus divine. Third, the point of Paul’s prayer is that God would direct our way to you: The phrase “direct our way” means to clear the way, or to make the path straight. Remember, Paul described the devil’s prevention of a reunion between himself and the Thessalonians in 2:18, and here he is asking God to remove that obstacle. Interestingly, if you read Acts 20:1-4, apparently that prayer was answered, the obstacles were removed and Paul was able to come to them!
Our prayer as pastors should be that God would remove whatever obstacles are keeping our church from being the church. Be it pride, idolatry, legalism, or anything else. If there are obstacles that are keeping us from engaging one another in Christ-centered community, pastors should pray that God would remove those obstacles and cause us to seek after spiritual maturity together.
The Meeting For Maturity
The second major textual area in this passage is the reason for his meeting, the maturity of the Thessalonians
- (1:12-13): Paul prays that God would allow him to see the Thessalonians again so that he could equip them for spiritual maturity.
“…12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 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.”
Two areas of maturity fall under Paul’s concern. The first is love (12). He wants them to increase (superlative; greater and greater) and abound (overflow, more than enough) in love (agape; the unconditional even if you don’t deserve it love).
That love is meant first for those inside the community of faith (one another). G.K. Beale says, “The Christian community is the school in which we learn to love. Like great musicians who practice tedious drills for long hours, Christians practice their scales at home in order to sing in public. In the community love is commanded and modeled, and here is where it must be lived out and practiced. This does not mean that love is limited to the boundaries of this community. But if the community does not live by the model and teaching of its founder, Jesus, how can it expect others to do so or to hear its call to join with them?” Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35).
Love isn’t, as Beale noted, limited to the Christian community. Paul directs the Thessalonians to demonstrate love for all, that is, for those outside the community of faith. We love those who are not within the community of faith, though we do so in a different way. What did Jesus tell his disciples? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Other passages talk about our behavior toward those outside the community of faith in that we are to pursue peace with them (Romans 12:18), do good (Galatians 6:10), be patient (Ephesians 4:2), Praying (1 Timothy 2:1), showing consideration (Titus 3:2), obeying authority and government (Romans 13), honoring (1 Peter 2:17). Love is learned and practiced inside the community of faith and it overflows to those outside.
CLARIFICATION: This is a clear message from the apostle and it is clear from the previous passage (3:6-10) that this kind of love is produced by our faith in the gospel. That we won’t love people like this, whether they be inside the church or outside. If we are to love people, we will do so only as the gospel permeates every area of our being, which is what he talks about next.
- Paul moves into his second concern for the Thessalonian church’s maturity and that is what I call holistic holiness (13). So that he may establish (strengthen; make strong or firm) your hearts (comprehensive being; Pr. 4:23; not just your emotions)
- Christians tend to relegate their emotions and their actions to completely separate areas of their being. They say, “I may act like a jerk sometimes, and sure I ran over that old lady, but inside, I’m a really good person.” This is how Juvenile Christians get away with sin. It can be relegated it to a corner of their personality and they say something spiritual like, “In my heart of hearts, I’m not the kind of person who would say/do something like that.” Well, actually, it’s because you are that kind of person in your heart of hears that you said or did what you said or did. We have to be clear on this reality as we shepherd the hearts of our people.
Paul wants them to mature in Christ until they are spiritually mature, or blameless. And they will be so before God. They had to remember, and we must always remember that God is watching. Not just the world. It’s mystifying to me that I am more concerned about the fact that other people might be watching me than I am about the fact that God always is. I’m not alone, though. A few years ago, I started out a tithing sermon by saying that I decided to look at the financial records for our church and see what everyone gave. You should have seen the looks on everyone’s faces. Horror. Then I said I was kidding and asked why it was such a problem for them that I might know what they give, when God already knows what they give. God is watching. God wants his people to be spiritually mature, and he sees when they refuse to be.
Not only are we to be mature before the face of God, but also before the end: We don’t have much time until the trumpet sounds and Christ returns once and for all to establish his kingdom. He is coming and coming soon. Romans 13:11-14.
“11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Let us be sober and awake and take advantage of the time we have been given. Are you saying that we should tell our people to obey God because we are afraid of the judgment? Isn’t that fear-mongering legalism? No. While we rest completely in the finished work of Christ on our behalf for our standing in God (2 Corinthians 5:21), we cannot ignore the seriousness of the Christian life of maturity. We must tell our people not to waste their lives storing up treasure on earth when they could be storing up treasure in heaven. We must tell our people to press on to maturity in their relationship with Christ because that’s what the Bible says the Holy Spirit is in them to accomplish (Galatians 5: 16-25), and I’d like to go ahead and be on the same team with the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t you?
Patience in Pastoral Prayer
Maturity is what we are to be about as pastors and as churches. But that doesn’t mean we get to be impatient. We understand that there are babies and there are grown ups in the people of God. In a survey we took a month ago we learned that by far, the majority of people in our church have been saved for 10 years or more, which could and should mean a degree of spiritual maturity.
By way of an illustration, when you’re dealing with babies, there are certain things you understand. One pastor explained it like this and I like this illustration. When you go to a pool and you see toddlers splashing in the baby pool together (in that water that’s just a little bit warmer than the other pool), you don’t think anything about it. Why? Because they’re babies, in the baby pool. However, if you came into the pool area and there was a 55 year old man in the pool just splashing and giggling…wouldn’t you grab your phone and call the authorities? In the same way, we have patience with babies, but not with those who should no longer be acting like them. That’s why we take this so seriously. It’s our job, and it’s their life.
Let’s pray with the apostle Paul for our people that they would be mature and that we would mature, not above them, but along with them for God’s glory and our joy.
“Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith”(2 Corinthians 1:24).