This morning we continue our series in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians by looking at verses 6-13 of chapter 3. And our heading is Standing Firm - Standing Firm in the Lord. And with reference to that I want to begin with some introductory comments on Paul the pastor.
Paul the pastor In chapters 2 and 3 of 1 Thessalonians Paul reveals his pastoral heart as he both defends his visit to Thessalonica and explains his non-return. Both of which we've been hearing about over the last few weeks in this series. But what is Christian pastoral ministry? What does it mean to have a pastoral heart? What does it mean for us and our ministry, whether we're home group leaders, children's and youth leaders, music group leaders, student group leaders, mother and toddler group helpers or Monday, Tuesday and Friday group leaders? Or indeed whether we're members of those groups? What should be our chief concerns? Well what do we learn here from Paul? In a moment we'll look specifically at verses 6-13 of chapter 3 and see how concerned Paul is for the new Thessalonian Christians to stand firm in the Lord, to be built up in the faith and to grow in love and holiness and how he prays for them, writes to them and longs to meet with them face to face. But first a brief reminder about what we learn from Paul about Christian pastoral ministry from chapters 2 & 3 as a whole. Paul uses four metaphors to describe his pastoral ministry in these chapters: the steward, the mother, the father and the herald. As John Stott puts it: " Like a steward Paul was faithful in guarding the gospel; like a mother he was gentle in caring for his converts; like a father he was diligent in educating them; and like a herald he was bold in proclaiming God's Word" (p.68). And although we are not apostles of Christ like Paul our Christian pastoral ministry must share both his commitment to the Word of God and to the people of God. We are to guard and proclaim the gospel of God. We are to keep, study, expound, apply and obey the Word of God. (cf. vv. 2,8,9,13 of 1Thess.2 and 2 Tim.1&2) We are to love, nurture and teach the people of God as a mother and a father. Do we? Paul treated the new Christians at Thessalonica as his own children as he had helped them to come to know Christ. He fed and taught them and wanted them to grow into maturity. He loved them, prayed for them night and day and missed them greatly after having to leave them. He even sent a search party in the form of Timothy to find out if they were surviving when he could wait for news of them no longer. And as we shall see from vv. 6-13 when he heard the good news from Timothy that they were standing firm in the Lord he was overjoyed and full of thanks and prayer to God for them. As with a loving parent Paul's life was tightly bound up with the Thessalonians. Look at v.8 of chapter 3: "For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord". Do we recognise Paul's anxiety, concern, deep love and heart on sleeve language? Are we concerned for those we have the privilege to minister to like a loving mother and father? Do we stay in touch with those we have had the privilege of introducing to Christ whether by letter, phone, e-mail or personal contact? Not to stifle them or keep them tied to us but to pray for and to encourage them from time to time. Do we pour out our hearts in prayer for others, that they may stand firm in the Lord and grow in the faith as many Christian parents do for their offspring as they grow and leave home? Certainly Paul's depth of feeling and emotional language here can be compared with the language and feelings of parents who are separated from their children, who miss them dreadfully, and who are very anxious when they have had no news of them. I've yet to really experience that separation as a parent but I can imagine that it can be hard and the source of much prayer and anxiety. As Stott helpfully points out: "Pastoral love is parental love; that is its quality". Do we have that pastoral love for others? Are we looking out for others here on a Sunday morning who might feel a little lost in a big church? Do we offer hospitality? Many of us are very busy and under pressure but we still need to support and encourage each other, perhaps even all the more. Are we committed to the Word of God and to the people of God? Are the chief characteristics of our pastoral ministry truth and love? For those two characteristics together help to build up the church and help the people to stand firm. Ephesians 4:15 says that it is by "speaking or maintaining the truth in love that we grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ". How do we have this pastoral love and this commitment to the Word and to the people? By the power of the Holy Spirit. We need to keep on being filled with the Spirit who is the Spirit of truth and the fruit of the Spirit is love. As we've been seeing Paul was committed to the Word and to the people. He was so concerned for the Thessalonians because of the trials they were facing that although he couldn't go to them himself he sent Timothy on a nurturing and fact-finding mission (3:2). Sometimes, for whatever reason, pastoral leaders have to delegate and use other suitably gifted people in ministry. Timothy was to encourage and strengthen the Thessalonians in their faith. He was to remind them that suffering for Christ was unavoidable as Paul knew himself. And he was then to return with news of how they were doing. Paul's longing to see the Thessalonians and hear news of them reminds me of how frustrating it must be for today's missionaries when they have to leave a country or when they can't get a visa to get back in as news of those they've left behind can be hard to get. How we need to pray for those who've gone out from this church to serve God overseas and for those they're working among. Let's especially be remembering our missionary partners in South East Asia at this time of unrest and uncertainty. To Paul's great joy, excitement and encouragement Timothy (v.6) returned with good news which leads me to the first of my three brief points:
First, PAUL'S JOY AND ENCOURAGEMENT vv.6-8 Just before Paul wrote this letter Timothy had returned from Thessalonica with an encouraging report of the church's progress. Now I don't know if your school reports made encouraging reading for your parents. After a while my parents just didn't bother to look at the comments about my lack of talent at maths, physics and P.E. But this report that Timothy brought back was very encouraging to Paul. It was good news (v.6), in fact very good news. Literally the word for good news here means 'evangelized' and this is the only occasion in the NT when the word does not refer to the gospel. For Paul the anxiety of not knowing what was happening to the Thessalonian converts was over. His 'children' so to speak were maturing and developing in most aspects of the faith. they were making good progress. They were growing in faith and love, the 'sum total of godliness' (according to Calvin), and were standing firm in the Lord. Their trust in God was deepening and the outworking of their faith was developing. Timothy also brought good news about the Thessalonians relationship with Paul and his team. Look at v.6 again. Paul writes,
"Timothy has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you".
Paul was overjoyed at these pieces of good news. The Thessalonians still had a right attitude towards God, a right attitude towards others and a right attitude towards him even though he'd had to leave them suddenly when he'd been with them earlier. Paul was excited and encouraged in the midst of the suffering and persecution that he was facing. They were standing firm in the faith in the face of trials as new Christians and that encouraged Paul. As he continues in v.7,
"Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith".
And why did their faith encourage Paul so much? Because, v.8, his life was bound up in theirs.
"For now we really live (now we can breathe again, now we've been given a new lease of life, say other translations indicating Paul's relief as well as joy), since you are standing firm in the Lord."
And no doubt the faith of the Thessalonians also encouraged Paul on in his gospel ministry in Corinth where he was writing from and to endure the suffering and persecution he was facing there. Are we not encouraged and overjoyed when we hear of Christian friends and those we had the privilege of introducing to Jesus Christ going on in the faith, becoming mature in the faith and standing firm in the Lord? I'm always encouraged when I see the Tear Times magazine from Tear Fund because most of the photographs in it are taken by a former member of CYFA here. On Friday I heard that someone who'd become a Christian 15 years ago through the CU at Heaton Manor school was still standing firm in the Lord. My vicar in Stoke on Trent also phoned on Friday to say that the schools work was going from strength to strength. I felt encouraged and it led me to give thanks to God and pray for those people as Paul models here as we'll see in a moment. But also are we not deeply saddened when we hear of those who appear to have strayed or given up? How we need to pray for and keep in touch with our Christian brothers and sisters and they for us that they and we stand firm. The good news that Timothy brought back also led Paul to give thanks to God which is my next point: Secondly, PAUL'S THANKFULNESS TO GOD vv.9-10 Look at v.9
"How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?"
Timothy's report confirmed that the missionaries work had been well done and that much had been achieved. Paul's part in the evangelising of Thessalonica had been effective. This news could have become a source of pride for Paul. But he did not congratulate himself, rather he thanked God for the joy he had from what God had done. He knew that whatever he and his colleagues had done, it was God who had opened the hearts of the Thessalonians. It is to God, therefore, that thanks must be returned. The Greek reads literally, "What thanks can we pay back to God?" It is thanks to God that they have something to rejoice in. The same is true when we hear of encouraging reports about the parish visiting or about Christian friends who are standing firm. The thanks goes to God. Their thankfulness to God and their awareness of God's presence and work leads them naturally to prayer both now as we'll see in vv.11-13 and throughout the day (v.10). Indeed Paul and the others express their joy in the context of prayer (v.10). The Greek says,
"we rejoice…praying night and day most earnestly".
Paul and the others poured out their hearts in prayer most earnestly for the Thessalonian Christians. And the word used here for to pray indicates Paul's deep sense of dependence on God. Only by the will and power of God would it be possible for him to see the Thessalonians again. Paul writes that he was praying night and day for two things. First, that he may see the Thessalonians again and secondly that they may supply what is lacking in the Thessalonians' faith. He wanted to visit them in order to make up their spiritual deficiencies. He longed to see them as equipped and complete, mature and whole Christians. He desired to fill in the gaps of their doctrinal and ethical understanding. And he knew that face to face fellowship was and is so important for mutual encouragement as well as the profound importance of prayer and the support of letter writing. It is still true today and today our modern communications systems should make it easier even though pressure of time often defeats us. You could today, for example, keep in touch face to face with missionaries and others far away by video camera on your computer so long as they had one too and were linked to the net. But however we do choose to keep in touch the main thing is to do it! It is mutually encouraging and edifying. We see here that Paul has a pastoral as well as a personal interest in his prayer. "Notice how Paul understands ministry as a mutual act between pastor and people. It is giving and receiving on both sides, a ministering and a being ministered to. What comfort and joy they had given him; what new strength he wants to give them." (Saunders) Then Paul in vv.11-13 turned to pray, which brings me to my third and final point: Thirdly, PAUL'S PRAYER vv.11-13 He prayed for three things, namely that God would make it possible for him to go and see the Thessalonians and that God would increase both the love and the holiness of the Thessalonians. First, he prayed that God would enable him to visit the Thessalonians. Look at v.11.
"Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you."
He prayed that God would remove the obstacles which Satan had placed in their way, by which Satan had stopped them (2:18). Five years later Paul's prayer was answered. Sometimes answers to prayer do not come straight away. Secondly (v.12) Paul prayed,
"May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other in the Christian community, and for everyone else - the whole human race - just as ours does for you".
Paul both practised what he preached and practised what he prayed! He prayed for the enlargement of the Thessalonians love, that it might extend beyond the love they had for each other to those outside the church. Do we need to pray the same for ourselves as individuals and as a church? That the Lord will increase our love for each other. It is important that we love each other as Jesus' disciples. That's what Jesus commanded us to do and the love that we have for each other does speak to the outside world. In a large church we should pray that our love for each other will increase and overflow and even be felt by those on the mission field, just as Paul's love increased and overflowed for the Thessalonians. But we are to love everyone else too just as God does (John 3:16). How we need to pray for the Lord to increase our love for those outside the church and for it to overflow. That our love for those we live, work, study and play amongst will grow and translate into spending time with them to be able to build friendships and share the gospel. Thirdly (v.13), Paul prayed:
"May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones" (meaning his saints and possibly his angels).
As John Stott comments, "There is no greater stimulus to holiness than the vision of the second coming of Christ, when Jesus comes in glory with his holy ones. In order that we may be blameless and holy then, Paul prays that we may be inwardly strengthened now by the Lord. For sanctification or growing in holiness is a present, continuing process; perfection awaits the Parousia or second coming of Christ". Of course in Christ believers are already holy in terms of status. God accepts them as blameless (cf. 1Cor.1:30). But this prayer has to do with practice. The practice of unselfishness, of self sacrificial love agape love, the basis of holiness. Our practice as Christians should match our status as Christians - that we might be who we are in Christ - that we might be blameless in holiness when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. Does our practice match our status? Are we growing in holiness? Are we living in the light of Christ's return? Then let's pray that God will strengthen our hearts.