2 Thessalonians 1: 3 & 4
Remember the church in Thessalonica was a fairly young church. Paul and his other missionary companions had to flee due to religious persecution. So, Paul is concerned with how they are doing. He begins this second letter similarly to how he begins the first. He almost always begins on a note of thanks. Look what he is thanking God for: v. 3, “because your faith is growing abundantly…”
I grew up with three brothers and I can remember my mom and dad frequently having us stand up against the door frame to mark out how tall we were, whether we had grown. We had always grown an inch or two. This is what you expect. If children do not grow it is frightening because something is terribly wrong.
We can say this about the Christian life; it is a life of growth. Very Christian grows. If you don’t, something is wrong. Spiritual stagnation and backsliding may account for why a Christian isn’t growing as he should, but every Christian grows to some degree. Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerned with their lack of growth. He calls them babes and carnal. The writer to the Hebrews was concerned about growth. They weren’t exercising mature discernment, so he reprimands them for still drinking milk when they should be eating meat.
How can we know from our Bible that a Christian must grow? At least three ways. First, from its pictures and images of spiritual growth. For example, the agricultural image of an olive tree; a house being built up; a race, running or walking toward a goal.
Second, God commands us to grow. At the end of 2 Peter, he says “Grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”. That is an imperative. God doesn’t command us to do something we cannot do, does He?
Third, when Paul writes to the churches he is looking for growth. In 1 Thessalonians he exhorts them to grow. And now, writing again, he gives thanks for their growth. He saw and heard of their growth. Their faith was growing abundantly.
A Christian grows. He ought to grow and he will grow. This growth can be seen. Isn’t that one of the reasons why we put ourselves under the ministry of the Word? We read our Bibles and come to the worship of God in order to grow. The means of grace, or the habits of grace help us grow. Why do we come to a prayer meeting? Why put ourselves under public preaching and teaching? Because God wants us to grow and we have a desire to grow.
1 Thessalonians 5: 12-22
This last chapter is full of imperatives. Paul begins his epistle like many others reminding us what Christ has done for us, emphasizing Gospel indicatives- based on what God has done, this is how we should live - Gospel imperatives.
I want to focus on the injunction in verse 17, “pray without ceasing”. Some time ago I read a Banner of Truth article written by a pastor at the back end of his life entitled, “I Wish I had Prayed More”. This comes to my mind sometimes when I prepare to go into a counseling session or a difficult situation in a church. Maybe with a friend or in a marriage, in sermon preparation I might think, “I wish I had prayed more.” I’m sure every Christian feels that regret sometimes.
Why don’t we pray more? Many reasons perhaps; we could probably build a list. If I had only one word for why we don’t pray more it would be: forget. What do we forget? We forget who God is. We can forget He’s our friend, our Father. We can forget how capable He is, how powerful He is – that He can do far above what we could ever ask or think. We forget that He can solve any problem we have, heal any disease, or give us victory over any sin.
This is half the problem. We also forget something else. We forget who we are. We forget we are dependent creatures; we learn that in Genesis 1 & 2. God made us in His image, but we are not God. He made us accountable, but dependent on Him. God made man to eat, and also to produce what he eats. Animals can’t do that. God made us dependent on Him for food. Jesus reminds us of that in the Lord’s Prayer. If God didn’t cause the crops to grow, the rain to fall, the sun to shine, none of us would be able to feed ourselves. We are also dependent on God for breath itself, every heart-beat. Acts 17, “in Him we live and move and have our being”. Every breath and heart-beat come from God Himself. Also, we are dependent upon God for our plans. There is nothing wrong with making plans; we make plans every day. But they are all dependent on God. Proverbs 16, “A man plans his way, but God directs his steps.” Remember what James says in James 4 where he gives something of a reprimand, warning those who are engaging in presumptuous planning without reference to God.
If we are dependent on God in the natural realm: food, breath, how much more so in the spiritual realm? Can you fight the devil on your own? Conquer your sin on your own? Prevent yourself from becoming conformed to this world on your own? Can you grow any grace on your own? No, we are dependent on God. I’m convinced that many people fall into sin later in life because at some time in their lives they forgot how weak they are, how dependent they are.
Why is there prayerlessness among Christians today? I think the answer is a culpable forgetfulness. We forget about God and about ourselves – our dependency on Him.
1 Peter 5:6-11 “Watch and Pray”
The theme I want to focus on tonight is Watch and Pray, the command we receive from Christ in Mark 14:38. “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This same concept is here in our passage: “casting all your anxieties on Him, for He cares for you.” (v 7) There is no better way to unburden, or transfer your burden – our word is casting, the placing upon. It is the same word that is used by Luke to describe everyone taking their coats off and putting them on the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The idea here is: taking it off you and putting it on someone else. Placing all our anxieties on Him; there is no better way to do that than through prayer.
Notice he uses the same word as in “watch and pray”. “Be sober-minded, be watchful.” There is a fine balance, which can be difficult depending on our focus. We are to be care-free in the Lord, but not careless. Care-free, but not presumptuous. Watchful, but not worried. The Lord wants us to be watchful. He’s not saying everything is safe; it is not safe. There is the Devil seeking to hurt us. So, He isn’t saying it is safe; he’s saying do not worry.
Don’t worry about the anxieties and stresses of this world. Be watchful, but don’t worry. It almost sounds impossible to do. But we notice the Lord wants us to have our focus on Him, to trust Him to take care of us. Regarding the things for which we are responsible, we must be vigilant, watchful. We don’t get to say, “Well I prayed about it so now I can do what I want to do and see what happens.” We have to be watchful, but not worried.
This is very hard, especially when we think about their circumstances. The first century believers had all the worries we do: family, finances, the future. But they had additional worries like government intervention and religious persecution. But the Lord wants us to watch and pray, not worry, but rely on Him. Colossians 4:2, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Also, Philippians 4:6 & 7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is the miracle of casting our anxieties on the Lord, being watchful and praying, not worrying, but being vigilant – He will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.
People talk about good mental health. There is nothing better than the Lord calming your soul, in the midst of trial and difficulty, when anxieties want to hijack your mind. As we come to the Lord we should be vigilant and watchful, but not anxious. If we are, then we haven’t let go of our anxieties; we are sill trying to hold on to them. We haven’t transferred them to Christ. “Watch and pray”.
Remember how Ephesians begins. It couldn’t begin on a more positive note, beginning with all the blessings we have in Christ. He ends the epistle on a realistic note, reminding us that we are engaged in warfare. Notice, he uses corporate language. This is not just for the individual but is addressed to the church. Each of us is part of an army; the church, as a whole, is the army. Ephesians is a prison epistle. The apostle is in jail suffering for his faith.
We are living in a culture that is changing very quickly. We hear more and more a mantra that there is no such thing as truth. The big word used for that is postmodernism. This can be hard to define with precision, something like trying to nail jello to a wall. I would say the driving force of postmodernism has to do with truth. Dr. MacArthur says, “If you were to challenge me to boil down postmodern thought into its pure essence and identify it in one simple, central characteristic I would say it is the rejection of every expression of certainty”. In other words, you can’t be sure about anything. According to postmodern though you can’t be sure there is a God, or a hell, or a heaven. You can be sure about moral absolutes – who is right and who is wrong; everything is up for grabs. You can’t be sure about marriage or gender. Everything is pliable; everything is in flux like playdough. You can twist it and shape it into anything you want it to be. Even the baby in the womb is acknowledged to be human. They just say he isn’t a person until he is born and begins to make independent decisions of his own. This is the drum beat of our day: there are no laws, no givens, no absolutes.
What do we do as Christians? We can cower in silence. We can run and hide. We can drown in the tsunami of this cultural change. Or there is another option – it is the biblical way. We are the light and salt of the world. The early Christians dared to confront the culture of their day and paid the price. They preached the Gospel; they preached Christ crucified. Paul tells us the answer here: we must remind ourselves that we are soldiers, we are an army. The emphasis that he uses again and again to call us to action is to put on and to stand fast (v.13, 14). We have to put on the armor of God in order to stand. He reminds us we are on a battlefield. Paul isn’t running and hiding himself. He wants to continue to fight. In v. 19 he asks for prayer that he will have words to boldly proclaim the Gospel. He is not backing down an inch. He’s in jail, but he’s not compromising. The story of Christianity has always been the story of martyrdom.
Things are going to get more difficult, greater costs, greater sacrifices. How do we stand? What is the secret to standing? Supernatural strength. We need grace. We don’t stand on our own strength. “Be strong in the Lord, in the strength of His might”. We need to pray for strength and courage, even in the matter of the Lord’s Day. The cultural winds are pushing us; we need to stand fast with regard to the Lord’s Day. RC Ryle has a sermon on victory, seeking to encourage Christian soldiers. He says, “Remember that the best time is yet to come. Here in this world we are in warfare. There are many hard things to be born, wounds and bruises, fatigues, reverses and disappointments. The end of all things, don’t forget, is that he who overcomes will receive the conqueror’s crown.” This is why we keep our eye on the future. Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world”.
This past Sunday Pr. Ibrahim dealt with the Confession chapter 21, on Christian Liberty and the conscience. The framers of the confession place this chapter right after the one on the Gospel. It is only because of the Gospel that we are set free. Christ is the great liberator. Many years ago, Dr. John Stott said, When we talk to sinners about the Gospel we should talk to them about freedom. They need to be set free because they are enslaved to sin.
In the Confession, we are given 10 particulars, expressed in the negative, that we are set free from: guilt of sin, wrath of God, curse of the Law, this present evil world, bondage to Satan, dominion of sin, evil of afflictions, fear and sting of death, and everlasting damnation. We ought to consistently reflect on these. We are free indeed; there is no one who is freer than the child of God. The Confession follows it up with positives. We are set free from – and we are set free for. We could put it this way: we are set free from sin and self-worship to Christ and God-worship.
The first thing the Confession focuses on from a positive standpoint is our free access to God through prayer. Someone could argue, Everybody prays. Doesn’t every major religion place a significant stress on prayer? In one sense, yes. The Muslim prays facing Mecca five times a day. The Buddhist prays, sitting on his floor mat facing the Buddha. The Jews pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Roman Catholics pray with the rosary and recite their Hail Mary’s. Yet here’s the question: Is that real praying? It is a slavish form of praying. The prayer of slaves, not sons marks their prayers.
Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount distinguishes between false, pagan type of praying, a hypocritical praying and true prayer. He doesn’t want Christians to be praying with a dead, slavish formality. A Christian prays differently. He prays by the Spirit, in the Spirit (Romans 8). We have liberty; we go to the throne of grace as children, not as slaves. We don’t go to God to gain merit, but to pray. We come any time and any where because we are in Christ.
Another reason we are free is because of forgiveness of sin. We can go to God because we have been forgiven of our sins and accepted in Christ. He doctrine of justification sets us free – from guilt and sin. It is why the writer of Hebrews could say, We go boldly to the throne of grace. The reason why most people don’t want to pray, or can’t pray, is because sin and shame cripples them, like chains and shackles. Isn’t it true when we sin against God we don’t want to talk to Him. When we sin, we pull away from the prayer closet like our first parents. When they sinned they ran away from God. But because of this blood-bought privilege in Christ we now have freedom. We don’t have to fear rejection, a cold shoulder, an angry face. There is no closed door; it is wide open to fellowship with our Savior and our God. One thing we can shout from the rooftops, We are free!