Any study of Paul’s letters will reveal his intense commitment to prayer. A Christian’s reliance on prayer – or lack of reliance – tells us much about his or her relationship with God. This is especially true for those engaged in Christian ministry. It also tells us much about a person to discover the contents of his or her prayers. Many of us pray primarily for ourselves and our material needs, Paul prayed almost exclusively for others and for spiritual priorities. Paul’s prayers in 1 Thessalonians condense his most fervent desires for the members of that beloved church, focusing on requests for God’s power to give strength to their faith and bring them to increasing maturity as Christians. Chapter 3 concludes its discussion of Paul’s approach to ministry by disclosing his prayer wishes in such a way as to display some of his key views, including the apostle’s view of God, ministry, and the Christian life.
What does Paul’s prayer tell us about his view of God? The first thing we should notice is Paul’s belief concerning the nature of God and the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ (v. 3:11). While not explicitly stating the doctrine of the trinity, Paul’s prayer contains the substance of the doctrine. He understands that the one God exists in multiple persons. Furthermore, it is clear that Paul prays to Jesus in just the same way that he prays to the Father, joining them together as the objects of his petition.
In addition, Paul believed not only that the Father and Son are one in nature as God but also that they are unified in purpose and will. The Father is every bit as loving toward believers as Jesus is, and the two are working in concert for the salvation of the church. That Paul should so clearly express a unity of nature and purpose between the Father and Christ at such and early point in his ministry shows that the deity of Christ was basic and foundational to Christian dogma from the very beginning.
Paul’s prayer shows not only his belief in the deity of Christ but also his certainty about the sovereignty of God. His first request if for God to “direct our way to you,” which suggests that the apostle was counting on God to intervene sovereignly in human affairs so as to permit Paul’s return to Thessalonica.
Finally, Paul understood that believers have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. “Now may our God…direct our way to you” (v. 3:11), he writes, indicating his access to the Father as a dearly beloved child. God is Father in his nature, but only those who believe on Jesus gain the right to be considered his children (see John 1:12). Thus, in Paul’s prayer we see a basic theology that is essential to Christian faith and life. There is one God in three persons (in a moment, we will see how the Spirit also figures into this prayer), God is the Sovereign to whom we may pray, and God receives believers in Jesus as dearly beloved children who may refer to Him as “our God.”
Paul’s prayer wishes reveal not only his understanding of God but also his views regarding Christian ministry and service. Paul believed in God’s sovereignty, and he knew that God’s sovereign grace was necessary for the successful ministry of the gospel.
We earlier learned that, concerned about his readers’ faith, Paul had greatly wanted to return to Thessalonica but was hindered by Satan (v. 2:18). In other words, Paul’s human attempts to serve God were overthrown by stronger spiritual opposition. Anyone who seeks to serve Christ as a pastor or a witness will find that this still happens today. So how did Paul expect to overcome obstacles and accomplish important things for the Lord? The answer is that he called on the Lord to make provision for his ministry needs. His prayer asks God to “direct our way” back to the believers (v. 3:11), essentially praying for the Lord to open up a pathway that did not then exist.
Servants of God today need to learn this same lesson. Christians who are effective in evangelism have learned to pray for God to provide them with opportunities to speak about Jesus along with the words to speak when the opportunities arrive. Churches that dynamically serve the gospel have learned to pray for the needed provision to expand their ministry. On a personal level, marriages and families who enjoy a close spiritual bond are those who pray for God to grant this very thing. Christ’s promise is above all found true of those who apply it in their service to the Lord and His gospel: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).
Paul not only prayed for openings to his own ministry, but also petitioned God to intervene directly in the lives of His people. He dearly sought to return to minister in Thessalonica, but in the meantime, he asked God to minister personally to them: “and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love” (v. 3:12). Paul full realized that their spiritual growth was not in his hands but in God’s. This is how his prayer incorporates the person of the Holy Spirit, since Paul knows that it is the Holy Spirit who will cause love to abound in God’s people.
In addition to showing the apostle’s view of God and of ministry. Paul’s prayer requests show his understanding of the Christian life. As the apostle sees it, Christians live with a focus on the future in Christ. Thus, he prays that God will “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (v. 3:13). Notice the way that Paul anchors the Christian life in the future, so that our present experience is pulled in the direction of Christ’s second coming.
Paul establishes a link between love and holiness that seasoned believers will recognize from their own experience. He prays for God’s love to fortify our hearts so that we are stimulated toward a changed life, desiring to please the Lord as a way of showing gratitude. Moreover, our love for others causes us to become serious about repenting of our sins. For this reason, one of the best ways to advance your sanctification – your progress in holiness – is to become involved in ministry toward others.
Paul prays for God to establish our hearts “blameless in holiness before our God and Father” (v. 3:13). When he says that we are to be blameless, this does not mean that we can attain a perfect state of sinlessness, since that is impossible in this life (see Phil. 3:12; 1 John 1:8). He means, rather, that our record of conduct should be that of a godly life. In 1 Thessalonians 2:10, Paul described himself and his associates as “holy and righteous and blameless” in their “conduct toward you believers.” In saying this, he did not mean that he had never sinned, but rather that his behavior had been consistent with godliness. Holiness pertains to our inward character and purity before the Lord. Christians have been made holy by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit; in an objective sense, we have been set apart for the service of God. This is why Paul would so often address the readers of his letters as “saints,” that is, “holy ones.” Having been set apart as holy, we are called to holiness in character and conduct.
Paul emphasizes that it is only God’s work in us that enables us to make progress in holiness. This is why he prays for God to “establish your hearts blameless in holiness (v. 3:13). At the same time, we are responsible to respond to God’s work in striving after holiness. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” the apostle says elsewhere, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
Looking forward to the coming of Christ, Paul states that only holiness can give us a confident expectation of salvation on the great day when Christ returns. He prays that the Lord “may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (v. 3:13). This blameless and holy life does not procure our salvation, but rather proves it.
When Paul speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints,” he is perhaps suggesting a further motivation for holiness. The context – in which Paul so often uses the idea of holiness to describe believers, and in which he will later state that Christ “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (v. 4:14) – strongly suggests that Paul at least includes the spirits of believers in heaven. If so, then he motivates his readers to increasing holiness by reminding them that in Christ they are destined for perfect holiness when they are glorified together with other Christians in the final resurrection. That resurrection will consummate our holiness, but only if there is a holiness in us to be brought to perfection! This is why the author of Hebrews frankly states the vital necessity of our possessing holiness in some real measure, referring to “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 Study Questions:
What are the elements of Paul’s beautiful prayer for the Thessalonians in verses 11-13?
In what ways is Paul’s prayer a reflection of Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians both in the present and in the future?
Paul understands how important it is to strengthen one another in the midst of suffering so that all believers can stand firm in their faith. What specific steps can you or your Christian community take to help strengthen someone who is in the midst of suffering or difficulty?
Pray the three aspects of Paul’s prayer found in verses 11-13: that you might be able to be present with them, that their love would increase and that they would be strengthened.