Five Themes (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)
In these five verses the apostle sought to impress on the hearts of the young Thessalonian Christians—and every one of us—some thoughts on the following five topics.
1. Prayerfulness. In verse 1 the Thessalonians were asked to remember in prayer the one who wrote this letter. He was the mightiest evangelist, missionary, and teacher of the Word that the church of God has ever known, yet he felt the need of the prayers of these converts so that he could better fulfill his ministry.
How often do you pray for those who are called to preach the Word to others? When you are alone with God, do you remember to pray for Christ’s undershepherds who seek to care for His flock? Do you pray for missionaries who have gone forth into the regions beyond for the Lord Jesus? Do you remember those who labor in the home fields—often in hard places where there is little to offer cheer and encouragement? Many of God’s people cannot preach, or teach, or travel abroad to take the Word to distant lands; but all can pray.
People sometimes say to me, “I do not know what I should pray for. When I get down on my knees, I intend to spend some time in prayer, but in a few moments I have said everything that is on my heart and there seems to be nothing else to pray about.” If this is your experience, why not wait quietly before God at such a time, and ask Him to bring to your mind those who are preaching and teaching the Word. Then as they come to mind, mention them individually to God. Pray that they may be sustained and kept from discouragement. There is no one who needs prayer more than those who are bearing the burden and heat of the day in the terrific battle for righteousness.
Paul had preached the gospel to the Thessalonians and he called on them to pray for blessing as he and his companions went elsewhere with their witness. Just as these Thessalonians prayed for Paul, believers today may cooperate with those who are engaged in public ministry. Then when we all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and the Lord gives out rewards for faithful service, He will see to it that recognition is given not only to those who have preached the Word, but also to those who have backed up His servants in prayer.
You may not be qualified to go to the missionfield, but as you remain at home and give of your means to help support a missionary in Africa, China, South America, or a distant island, you will have a large part in his ministry. You may never stand in a pulpit to preach the Word, but by your prayers and intercessions you can bear up those who do.
I am sure of this: if we prayed more for God’s messengers, we would criticize them less. Some people are constantly finding fault with servants of Christ. From the standpoint of these critics, His messengers never do exactly the right thing. If one of them speaks much about sin, he is too stern; if he says more about the comfort and consolation that is in Christ, he is too soft. If he talks especially to the unsaved, he is neglecting the saints; if he addresses himself particularly to Christians, he is neglecting evangelism. It is easy to get into a criticizing mood. But when we are bearing up God’s servants in prayer, the spirit of criticism gives way to one of loving helpfulness.
2. Preservation. Since the apostle and his companions were exposed to great dangers, he said, “Pray for us…that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2).
It is a sad fact that some men will never believe, no matter how clearly and tenderly the gospel is preached. Many do not have faith because they have closed their hearts and minds to the Word of God. Some say, “I have heard the gospel message over and over and I cannot believe the Bible; I cannot believe in the virgin birth of Christ; I cannot believe that He was the Son of God; I cannot believe in His physical resurrection from the dead; I cannot believe in His ascension to Heaven; I cannot believe that He is coming again.” I can tell you why they cannot believe. They cannot believe because they have no desire to be free from their sins. They roll sin as a sweet morsel under their tongues, and as long as their sin means more to them than a place in Heaven, they will never be able to believe. Such are the people the apostle described as “unreasonable and wicked men/*
God’s gospel is reasonable. He says, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). He wants to reason with men; He wants them to sit down and face thoughtfully the great eternal truths that are presented in His Word. In 1 Corinthians 10:15 Paul said, “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.” The apostle wanted the Corinthians to exercise reason as they considered what he had said; he wanted them to think it through.
Some people will never ponder the truths of Scripture because they are determined not to believe. They do not wish to be delivered from their evil habits; therefore they are unreasonable and they reject the gospel. Unreasonableness itself is wickedness. God says, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). But if men have no desire to turn from their sins and be delivered from their unrighteousness, He will not force them to do so. God commands all men to repent and if they refuse, He must deal with them in judgment.
“Unreasonable and wicked men… have not faith.” Some people have been troubled by these words, which have been misinterpreted as meaning that God does not give faith to everyone and therefore some individuals cannot believe.
Scripture says, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). In other words, the very faith by which we are saved is a gift of God. One view is that if the gift is not given by God to some individuals, they cannot believe and therefore should not be held responsible for the loss of their souls. But that interpretation is unsound, for Scripture also says, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). When men give attention to the voice of God and desire to be delivered from their sins, faith springs up in their souls and they are enabled to believe in Christ and be saved. But when men deliberately spurn the Word of God and persist in their sinfulness, they are numbered among those who “have not faith.” They do not have faith because they will not give heed to the message.
3. Protection. There is a wonderful promise in 2 Thessalonians 3:3: “The Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil.” The promise is for young Christians—and old ones too— but here Paul was thinking particularly of the young believers in Thessalonica. They were very much on his heart. He knew they were exposed to all kinds of danger; he knew that Satan would do all he could to turn them away from the simplicity of the gospel of Christ. Paul had prayed for them, even as he had asked them to pray for him. He had confidence in the faithfulness of God.
God is faithful! He gives eternal life to all who believe in Him and He has promised, “They shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Nothing “shall separate us from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35). The life that the believer receives is not conditional, but eternal—therefore that life can never be lost. Those who reason otherwise show that they have never understood the meaning of salvation by pure grace. They still think of human merit as a condition for final salvation. This is the essence of Roman Catholic theology, but many Protestants have never been delivered from it.
The instructed Christian rests not on any imagined faithfulness of his own, but on the faithfulness of God, whose gifts and callings “are without repentance” (Romans 11:29). He can be depended on to establish us and to keep us from all evil as we seek to walk in obedience to his revealed will. If at times our feet slip because of self-confidence or lack of prayerfulness—like Peter in the high priest’s porch—He knows how to restore our souls and bring us back to the path of obedience.
4. Perseverance. The apostle had confidence in the saints (see 2 Thessalonians 3:4). They had believed in Christ and Paul believed in them. Paul knew that those who had trusted Christ were saved, and he counted on seeing them come out on top. We should not get into the habit of underrating and misunderstanding God’s people. I know that many of God’s dear children are enthusiastic for a time and then their keen interest seems to dissipate as they drift away from their first love. But the fact that the Spirit of God dwells in them is good reason for confidence that they will be recovered; they will come at last to the path of subjection to the will of the Lord.
5. Patience. Oh, how much we need the patience mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 3:5! A better rendering of the verse would read, “The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ.”
We see the patience of Christ illustrated in James 5:7: “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.” Likewise, the divine Husbandman sits at God’s right hand in Heaven, and He is waiting for “the precious fruit of the earth.” This means that He is waiting until the last soul is saved in order to complete the body of Christ. Then the Man of Patience, who has been tarrying for all these centuries (as we count time on earth), will rise from the throne and “descend from heaven with shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
We need patience as we wait for Him. This patience rests on our realization of the unchanging love of our heavenly Father, so Paul wrote, “The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God” (2 Thessalonians 3:5). What did he mean?
In Jude 21 we find a similar thought: “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” What did Jude mean? How can we keep ourselves in the love of God? Are we responsible to keep God loving us? No, for He says, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). Did Jude mean that we are to keep loving God? No, for 1 John 4:19 says, “We love him, because he first loved us.”
The following illustration may help to explain what Paul and Jude meant. Suppose my child has been ill and during dark and murky weather he has to be kept in the house. Then one day the sun shines brightly and the doctor says, “He can go out today for a few hours, but be sure to warn him to keep in the sunshine.” So I say to my boy, “Son, you may go out and enjoy yourself, but the doctor says you are to keep in the sunshine.” Then the boy asks, “How can I keep the sun shining?” So I explain, “I am not telling you to keep the sun shining; I am telling you to keep in the sunshine.” This story, I think, makes clear what is meant by “Keep yourselves in the love of God” and “The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God.” We are to keep in the realization of His love, in the constant enjoyment of it.
As we enjoy His love and learn to rely on it, we can wait in patience for the day when all our trials will be ended and the Lord Jesus will come to take us to be forever with Him.
Warning against Idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)
Evidently the precious truth of the second coming of our Lord had so gripped the hearts of the Thessalonians that they were fully expecting Him to return in their lifetime. I gather from this passage and the corresponding verses in the first Epistle (4:11-12) that some of the members of the church at Thessalonica who did not particularly enjoy hard work were saying, “Well, if the Lord is coming soon, what is the use of working? Why not take it easy? Let those who have enough laid up for the future divide it with us. There is no need to work.” The apostle rebuked them and reminded them, “When we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Work may be of one kind or another; it may be mental or physical. But everyone in this world is expected to do work of some kind. God said to Adam, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). God could provide for us without our working, but it might not be good for us. We benefit physically and intellectually as we use the muscles and minds that God has given us. Professor Henry Van Dyke’s lines are thoroughly apropos here: “Heaven is blest with perfect rest, but the blessing of Earth is toil.”
The idle men to whom Paul referred were simply ignoring the divine plan, for honest labor has a prominent place in Christianity. Every Christian knows that he is expected to give his best service in return for the remuneration he receives. It is God who has ordained that men should support themselves by their labor.
When men are not employed properly, there is always the danger that they will busy themselves in matters in which they ought not to interfere. They can become nuisances and be used of Satan to disturb the peace of the church or the peace of those to whom they look for their support. The tongue does not offend so seriously when the hands are kept busy.
It is only right to let the idler see that his behavior does not meet with the approval of his fellow Christians (2 Thessalonians 3:14). However, such a person is not to be treated unkindly; he is to be admonished “as a brother” (3:15).
Conclusion (2 Thessalonians 3:16-18)
The last section of three verses gives us the benediction and concluding salutation. Every authentic Epistle written by Paul closes with a similar message about grace. Here he wrote, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (3:18). Saved by grace and sustained by grace himself, the apostle ever commended that grace to others.