People of Prayer & Progress
As we close out our series in 2 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul is going to leave us with some closing counsel. Counsel, that if taken to heart, makes a world of difference in our lives and in the world around us. Join Dr. Marty Baker as he takes us through 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 and encourages us with what it means to be people of prayer and progress.
Dr. John Hannah, the head of the historical theology department at Dallas Theological Seminary, where I attended from 1981-1985, gave our graduating class a final challenge in April of 1985. Afterward, he gave each of us a copy of his four-page sermon. I’m sure he did this because he wanted us to remember the sagacious counsel he gave us before we all gave our lives to full-time Christian service. I kept my copy and have reflected on it many times over the last thirty-eight years because his wise words provide guidance for how to serve Christ and Christ’s body well. His wise words, if applied, assure you will finish well when Christ calls you home to give an account of your ministry.
Closing counsel from gifted, godly people in your life is invaluable. They help you see pitfalls as you live for God. They remind you of what things should be primary versus secondary concerns. They encourage you to maintain a balance between understanding biblical truth and caring for people. They remind you that you are supposed to be a brilliant light that shines in the darkness no matter the cost. They keep you on the straight and narrow path so your life has a maximum impact on your family, friends, and culture. So, I thank God for men like Dr. Hannah. He impacted me in school many years ago, and his final word to his students has guided me throughout my personal and pastoral life.
In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul is Dr. Hannah. He has corrected incorrect theology about the end-times that was taught in their new church, congratulated them on their excellent Christian conduct, called them to live sexually pure lives in a promiscuous city, taught them about the importance of prayer, and educated them how to spiritually prep for prophesied days of spiritual darkness before the Lord’s return. Now, in this final chapter, Paul turns to give these maturing saints more sensible advice about how to answer the following question:
How Should We Live For Christ In Tough Times (2 Thess. 3:1-18)
Be People Of Prayer (2 Thess. 3:1-2)
Like a good pastor, Paul spent most of his time in these two letters addressing the needs of his sheep. However, starting in verse one, he pauses and opens up about his spiritual needs. His ministry had been far from easy and enjoyable.
Although he knew thousands of people, he felt lonely. Going from city to city to spread the gospel of Christ, no one greeted or welcomed him. Finding places to meet so he could speak was on him. No one offered him speaking fees either, and he lived off the meager money he made from repairing and making tents. Not able to answer his airtight arguments, many hurled nasty names at him to discredit his teaching. Devious people misquoted him so they could whip people into a frenzy regarding the content of his sermons. Typically, Jews in synagogues were curious to hear what this converted rabbi had to say; however, the majority turned against him as Jewish spiritual leadership turned against him for daring to teach that Jesus was the crucified and resurrected Messiah. All godly, biblical-based leaders will indeed experience the loneliness of the position, and they will feel the heat from cultural opponents. Paul’s transparency in the first two verses shows us this much while also letting sheep know how to care for their pastor(s):
1 Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you;
A great, godly leader doesn’t spend much time articulating how tough their life is. Doing so merely discourages some weaker saints and keeps others from being encouraged to push forward to victory. Yet, in the end, the pastor/teacher is only a human with weaknesses, limitations, and needs. What should they do then? Find strategic times to open up to the sheep so those sheep will know how to pray for their leader(s) specifically. This is precisely what Paul does here.
Paul had prayed for these saints numerous times (1 Thess. 3:10; 2 Thess. 1:11), but now he pauses to ask them to pray for two things in his life:
One, Paul asks his church to pray for the effectiveness of his missionary work. His request is a command in Greek, and the verb's present tense nature (προσεύχεσθε) underscores the imperative's perpetual nature. Put differently; Paul commands these saints never to forget to pray for the positive and life-changing impact of his gospel presentations as he travels from city to city. The phrase “the word of the Lord” is just another way to speak of the gospel. This is precisely how the phrase is used in Acts 13, verse 49:
Acts 13:49 And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region.
Acts 13:49 διεφέρετο δὲ ὁ λόγος τοῦ κυρίου δι᾽ ὅλης τῆς χώρας.
Before this, Paul’s words in the Jewish synagogue in Antioch in Psidia (Acts 13:14) focused on the death and resurrection in time and space of Jesus (vv. 23, 26, 29, 30, 32), the Christ. Verse 38 showcases the spiritual power of the historical gospel:
38 Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses (Acts 13).
This is the gospel, and this is what the phrase “the word of the Lord” means in Acts 13:49 and 2 Thessalonians 3:1. Since Jesus died and rose again, and there is unequivocal evidence to prove it, this changes everything. It means all other religions, as well-meaning as they might be, are false and do not provide a solution for man’s sin problem (Rom. 3) and hope for a living relationship with their Creator in time and eternity. A restored relationship with a holy God demands a sinner come to God using the gospel and by no other means. Only those who bow in faith before the blood-stained cross and the empty tomb of Jesus are freed from their sinful status and eternally forgiven. No wonder Paul commands these saints to pray for his ministry to be effective. Eternity was, and is, at stake.
Nothing has changed in the last two thousand years.
In the spirit of Paul, I want to see sinners trade kingdoms. In the spirit of Paul, I want to see sinners become saints. I, in the spirit of Paul, want to see people delivered from false religious systems to step into the only valid religious system, Christianity. In the spirit of Paul, I want to see people leave spiritual darkness and walk into the light of Christ’s gospel. In the spirit of Paul, I want to see old and young alike lined up to step into the baptismal waters to showcase what Jesus has done for them. In the spirit of Paul, I want to see a wicked city like Thessalonica turned from godlessness to godliness using the gospel. In the spirit of Paul, I want to see more people like famed tattoo artist and occultist Kat Von D come to know the transformative power of a faith relationship with Jesus.
How is the power of the gospel unleashed in lives? It starts with the power of prayer. Sure, God could release the gospel without prayer, but by waiting for us to pray, God grows our faith and causes us to show Him how much we realize our most challenging life questions are resolved in and through the gospel. What nitro is to the engine in a sports car, prayer is to the gospel. Once the switch is purposefully thrown, it unleashes a power that dispels darkness, confounds the Devil and his minions, convicts sinners of sin, releases people from the chains of false belief, and ushers them into a new life with the Savior. So, I ask, do you pray for your pastors as we preach and teach the gospel? Will you pray more, especially as our culture becomes more hostile to the faith? And how should you pray? Pray that God would permit the gospel spoken inside and outside these walls to advance unabated so lives are spiritually transformed.
Two, Paul asked the church to pray that he (and other leaders) would delivered from nasty, mean-spirited people. Here is how he puts it:
2 and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith.
Note what Paul didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Pray we would be spared from facing perverse and evil men.” Paul’s ministry was known for how Christ-rejecting people squared off against him and his missionary team. In Iconium, in what is now southern Turkey, we read about a day in the life of Paul:
1 And it came about that in Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. 2 But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles, and embittered them against the brethren. 3 Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. 4 But the multitude of the city was divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. 5 And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, 6 they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel (Acts 14).
When the unbelievers didn’t know how to handle Paul’s preaching and teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, what did they do? They set things in motion to have him stoned to death. Paul caught wind of it and fled to other surrounding cities. While in Lystra, Paul healed a man who had never walked but who evidenced faith in Jesus (v. 9-10). As a spiritual movement started from this spark, Jewish troublemakers from Antioch and Iconium sowed seeds of disinformation about Paul. This resulted in the fickle crowds turning against Paul. They grabbed his tunic, drug him outside the city, pelted him with stones, and then walked away thinking they had killed him (vv. 19-20). Eventually, Paul regained consciousness and ventured to Derbe to preach the gospel. Then he boldly returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where he had experienced verbal and vicious opposition (v. 21). Amazing.
So, Paul wasn’t asking the Theassolnians to ask God to spare him from dealing with menacing miscreants. He asked to be delivered or protected from them when they did, in fact, launch attacks against him. The words he uses to describe these pernicious people are interesting and instructive. Atopon (ἀτόπων) literally denotes something that is out of place. If you came to my home and noticed my easy chair on my kitchen table, you’d understand this Greek word. Applied to morality, it denotes behavior that is unusual, unexpected, surprising, or simply evil. When a pro-Hamas man beat a 65-year-old Jewish rabbi to death in Los Angeles this week with a bull-horn, this is atopon. It was surprising and wicked. When the State of New Jersey sued a school district this week for daring to share with parents what their children are thinking about concerning transgenderism, this is atopon. It was surprising and wicked. The State should side with the parents, not oppose them on such a pivotal issue. Paul had faced unreasonable, surprisingly hostile behavior from religiously inflamed Jewish instigators in many cities. He knew this word well.
The second word Paul used to describe his opponents is poneros (πονηρός). It represents a person who is bad to the bone and aggressively wicked. Study how a member of Antifa will burn, break, and destroy anything from a police car to a Federal building, and you have a handle on poneros. Watch how some Hamas followers will rip down the posters of innocent Israelis who are being held in underground tunnels in Gaza, and you have a handle on poneros. People like this are actively wicked, seeking to intimidate, thwart, and destroy those who dare stand for truth and morality. Again, Paul was quite familiar with them. Jesus had encountered them, too. The more He preached, the more they actively opposed Him. Even after He cast a demon out of a man, the Pharisees looked at the evidence of the miracle and instead of attributing it to God, they wickedly attributed it to Beelzebul, the ruler of demons (Matt. 12:24). As Jesus taught the masses at the Temple during the last week of His life, the religious leaders, who saw Him as a threat to their power, wealth, and control of the masses, wasted no time in hatching a plan to get him executed (Matt. 26:3). These were evil people. Faced with incontrovertible hard evidence using miracles that He was the Messiah, all they could do was actively think of how to get Him permanently silenced.
Trust me, the same types of people still exist today. They want to silence pastors who teach the Word of God. They want to devise new laws so they can prosecute pastors with hate speech laws and thereby silence them. They attack Christian buildings and shout down Christian voices who speak up for biblical morality and spirituality. Paul faced these types of people repeatedly, and he didn’t shy away from them because he knew they needed to be saved. But he also wanted to live another day to spread the gospel. Hence, he asked the saints to pray for his welfare and his ministry team's. We, as your spiritual leaders, breathe the same prayer as Paul. May we boldly share the gospel while speaking the truth, and may God protect us as we do. As our nation continues to unravel morally, spiritually, and financially, Paul’s prayer will be needed more often than not. So, will you pray for our protection as we preach and teach in the belly of the Beast, Washington, D.C.?
What happens when you pray? God hears those prayers; He sees how serious you are; he understands that you know the battle is spiritual above all else, and He answers from heaven in profound ways. So, please, unleash God’s protective power as we lead in unleashing the power of the gospel and the Word of God. And then stand back and watch God move out.
Paul’s second area of counsel is most instructive:
Be People Of Progress (2 Thess. 3:3-5)
As Paul wrote this letter from Corinth, he didn’t know how these saints in Thessalonica would do as they faced unrelenting opposition and persecution. So, this is why he makes this statement:
3 But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.
The first word in the Greek sentence is the adjective faithful, pistos ( 3 Πιστὸς δέ ἐστιν ὁ κύριος, ὃς στηρίξει ὑμᾶς καὶ φυλάξει ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ, 2 Thess. 3). Ever reserved an Uber driver only to have them not show? Ever bought a product, and when it malfunctioned, and you called the manufacturer, you could only speak with an unhelpful AI voice? We all experience unfaithful people, and sometimes it is us. Conversely, God is always faithful, especially when facing tough times. He will always be there to give us inner strength and outer protection, which are the emphases of these two Greek words. When Paul should have cowered after being stoned in Lystra, he had the internal strength to go back there to encourage new Christians. Where do you think that strength came from? God. And he went back to a town where some of the townspeople had pelted him unconscious with stones. His second time passing through town went off peacefully. How did that happen? God heard their prayers and protected his man from evil. The same Lord who had strengthened and protected Paul would be there for the Thessalonians, so they needn’t fear. On the contrary, they should be bold. May we learn from this counsel as well. With each passing day, our culture becomes increasingly hostile to the faith, but let us never flinch and falter in our duty because our Lord is and will be faithful to us.
As these saints in Thessalonica basked in the faithfulness of God, Paul challenged them to continue to mature in the faith.
4 And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will continue to do what we command.
What more excellent thing can a pastor see than sheep who hear the Word of God and immediately go out and apply it to their lives? Show me a sick, weak church, and I’ll show you one where the sheep hear the Word and then go out and disregard it so they can enjoy their carnal lives. Show me a strong, healthy church, and I’ll show you one where they may not always like to hear what the Word says, but they know it is true and dutifully submit to it. I, like Paul, am thankful for a group of believers whose lives are in and about the living Word. Not only are you maturing and progressing spiritually, but you are also cutting deep into Satan’s flimsy kingdom of lies and distortions by living a Christian life. As Dr. Howard Hendricks used to say, “May your tribe increase.” Amen to that.
Before Paul finished this section and moved on to another topic with verse 6, he offered a prayer for these maturing saints:
5 And may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ. (2 Thess. 3).
Paul asked for God to do two things in their lives, and these are certainly things I would want for God to do for you as well.
One, Paul asks God to help these Christians grow in their love of Him. The phrase “of God” is a genetival construction in Greek and can denote what is called either a subjective or objective use of the genitive. I’ve taken it as an objective use highlighting the call to love God more each day. If the phrase is subjective, it refers to Christians gaining a deeper appreciation for God’s love for them. Both are theologically acceptable, but I think Paul’s emphasis here on these saints growing in the faith, that growth reflects Paul’s emphasis in the passage, but also dovetails with our mandate to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30). How does your love for God grow? It grows when you give Him glory in tough times. It grows when you pause and praise Him for the beauty you see. It grows when He speaks to you through your Bible reading. It develops when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt He has spoken definitively through a life event. It grows as a particular song about Him that touches your heart. And as your love grows, your fear of man diminishes because you know your heavenly Father will be there for you, no matter what. So, how is your love level with the Lord? Is it growing or slowing?
Two, Paul asks God to enable these persecuted believers to grow in understanding the “steadfastness of Christ.” The Greek word here is hupomone (ὑπομονή). This is an intensive word since it is composed of the preposition hupo, wedded to the verb mone, which means to remain. As such, the word means to super-remain, to be sure-footed, and doggedly committed. No wonder it is sometimes translated as patience. What is patience but the ability to hang on when others flee? At other times, it is translated as endurance. Again, endurance is directly related to the concept of patience. Think of a young man who heads off to Ranger school. With a drop-out rate of over 40%, chances are he may not make it, but he will give it his best. What will happen in this particular school? I’ll let an officer explain it . . . and he is an officer who loves God per two of our men who served as his chief aids over the years:
Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the United States Military Academy superintendent, often uses the analogy of a coffee cup to explain character. All of your values (duty, selfless service, courage, respect) are poured into the cup until it is almost overflowing. Then life gives your elbow a bump, and your values spill out, exposing your true character. Ranger School is more like getting into a car wreck. It is a collision, not a jostle. After weeks of starvation, sleep deprivation, pushing toward physical limits, and stress—all while being evaluated—your true character will come spilling out.
The school uses cold, heat, hunger, physical stress, and the like to challenge each candidate's character. Like many of you here this Veteran’s Day, those who patiently endure the process become Rangers and proudly wear the coveted patch.
Realizing saints are in a spiritual war, he asks for God to give them what every spiritual Ranger needs: patient, dogged endurance that will drive the saint forward no matter what the Devil hurls at them and no matter how the trials they face cause their character to slosh out of the proverbial cup. At the end of the day, the spiritual Ranger stands strong and true . . . just like Jesus.
- When reviled, Jesus endured (1 Pet. 2:23).
- When people were openly hostile to His teaching, Jesus endured (John 6:41-59).
- When He was mistreated, Jesus endured (Luke 23:34).
- When they unjustly struck Him for speaking truth, Jesus endured (John 18:19-23).
- When they sought to intimidate Him with the prospects of crucifixion, He endured (John 19:10-11).
What will you do? May you endure just like Jesus, and if you don’t think you have it in you, then know today that I, along with Paul, have prayed you’d stay the course and make God proud.
 John Spencer, Ranger School Is Not A Leadership School, accessed November 19, 2023: https://mwi.westpoint.edu/ranger-school-not-leadership-school/#:~:text=Only%2040%20percent%20of%20the, Ranger%20Assessment%20Phase%20(RAP).