I’ve said before that in every chapter of 1 and 2 Thessalonians Paul refers to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, he ended chapter 1 of 1 Thessalonians by describing how the believers in that church had turned from idols to the true God and to wait for his Son to come from heaven. He ended chapter 2 by saying how he will glory or he will rejoice in the presence of the Lord Jesus when he comes. He ended chapter 3 with the prayer for God to strengthen their hearts so that they will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes. And in chapters 4 and 5 of 1 Thessalonians Paul wrote at length about the coming of the Lord and of the resurrection of believers when he comes.
And then, in chapter 1 of 2 Thessalonians he wrote that God will pay back those who were troubling and persecuting the believers; and he will give relief to his suffering people; and this will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven. And then, all of chapter 2, was about some of the things that must happen before the Lord comes again. It seems that some people were saying that the Lord had already come and the Thessalonians had missed it. And so, Paul wrote to explain that the Lord will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness appears. And we spent two weeks going through chapter 2, studying what Paul said about what will happen in the future and what will happen in the present. In the present, the secret power of lawlessness, or the mystery of lawlessness, is already at work to stir up persecution against the church and false teaching in the church. And in the future, this man of lawlessness, this agent of the Devil, will come to deceive those who are perishing. But then, the Lord himself will come; and he will destroy the man of lawlessness with the breath of his mouth and by the splendour of his coming. The Lord Jesus Christ — who once came in weakness and humility — is going to come again; but when he comes again, it will be in power and with glory. And he will come to destroy his enemies and to share his glory with all who have trusted in him.
And that’s why we all need to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to trust in him for the forgiveness of our sins, so that we will not be destroyed when he comes again, but will be acquitted on the day of judgment and brought into the presence of the Lord to be with him forever and ever in glory, instead of being condemned and sent away from his presence to be punished forever. We all need to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one who is able to rescue us from the coming wrath and to give us eternal life instead. And so, trusting in him, we should confess our guilt to God; and trusting in him, we should ask God to have mercy on us for the sake of Christ who gave up his life for sinners; and trusting in Christ, we should ask God to give us the free gift of eternal life.
So, in every chapter of 1 and 2 Thessalonians Paul has referred to the coming of the Lord Jesus. In every chapter, apart from this last one. In this chapter, he doesn’t refer to the coming of the Lord at all. Instead he instructs his readers on some of the things we need to do in the meantime while we wait for the Lord to come again. You know what it’s like, when you’re waiting for a visitor to come to your house. They won’t arrive for a few hours. So, what will you do in the meantime? Will you sit around, doing nothing? Or will you make the most of the time and do something useful while you wait? Well, while we’re waiting for the Lord to come again, what will we do in the meantime? That’s what Paul is addressing here.
Today’s passage can be divided into three parts: in verses 1 to 5 he asks the people to pray for the preaching of God’s word. And in verses 6 to 15 he addresses a problem in the church in Thessalonica. And then, in verses 16 to 18, Paul concludes the letter.
Verses 1 to 5
And so, in verse 1, Paul writes:
So, he’s beginning to wrap up his letter to the believers in Thessalonica. And one of the final things he must do, before he’s able to finish his letter, is to ask them to pray for him and for his companions who had been set apart by God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Pray for us, he asks.
This is not the only place where Paul asks his fellow believers to pray for him. He asked his readers to pray for him at the end of Romans that he would be rescued from unbelievers who were against him. He asked his readers to pray for him at the end of Ephesians that he would fearlessly make known the gospel. And he asked his readers to pray for him at the end of Colossians that he would be able to proclaim the mystery of Christ clearly. Paul used to ask his readers to pray for him and his companions that they would be protected and that they would be able to preach the word. And he asks for both things here in 2 Thessalonians.
First of all, he asks his readers to pray for him and for the preaching of God’s word. He depicts the message of the Lord Jesus Christ as an athlete, running from place to place. And wherever he goes, this athlete is honoured by the people he meets. Well, Paul wants the people to pray that the message about the Lord Jesus Christ will run from place to place, or will be carried from place to place. And he wants the people to pray that the message will be honoured in every place, which means people will honour it by believing it. A victorious athlete is honoured when he receives a victory wreath. Or think of a team who arrive back home after winning the cup; and they’re driven through the town on an open-top bus; and everyone is cheering them. Well, that’s the reception Paul wants for the gospel: that those who hear it will receive it with faith and with joy. And Paul adds:
just as it was with you.
When Paul went to Thessalonica, and preached the gospel, many did not believe. But there were others who did believe. They received the message about the Lord Jesus with faith and with joy. The message had come to them and they honoured it by believing it.
And so, Paul asks his readers to pray that the message will continue to be spread from place to place and that it will be honoured in every place. And will you pray for that? Will you pray that the good news will run rapidly from place to place throughout the world? From country to country? From city to city? From town to town? From village to village? From person to person? Will you pray for that? And will you pray for the message to run rapidly from home to home here in north Belfast? That it will run from place to place and from person to person; and that it will be honoured by men and women and boys and girls believing it? They dishonour the good news when they reject it. But they honour the good news when they believe it and when they receive it with joy. So, will you pray for that? And will you join us on Wednesdays to pray for that? That’s what we do on Wednesday evenings. Yes, we pray for one another and for those in the congregation who are sick or in need. But we pray most of all for the gospel to spread throughout this city and throughout the world and for men and women and children to hear it and believe it and to call out to Christ for salvation. Didn’t the Lord Jesus command us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray for this? The second request of the Lord’s Prayer is
Your kingdom come.
And our church’s Shorter Catechism explains that in the second request we’re praying that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced; and ourselves and others brought into it and kept in it. And so, will you do that? Will you pray for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom and that the good news of the gospel will run rapidly from place to place and from person to person and that those who hear it will honour it by believing it? Pray for it at home by yourself and with your family. And join with us on Wednesdays to pray for it with the church family.
And pray too for protection for those who have been called by God to preach his word. Paul goes on to ask in verse 2 for his readers to pray for him and his companions that they may be delivered from wicked and evil men. Not everyone has faith, he adds. The Thessalonians knew exactly what Paul was talking about, because when he arrived in Thessalonica and preached the gospel, many of those who heard did not believe. And they hated what Paul was doing; and stirred up trouble for Paul. Do you remember? They started a riot in the city, so that Paul was forced to leave. And from what we’ve been reading in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, it’s clear that those who did not believe continued to persecute and oppose the church even after Paul left the city. And it’s the same today. Not everyone has faith. And many of those who do not believe hate the gospel, and they hate those who preach it and they will stir up trouble for the church. Again, on Wednesday evenings, we hear each week reports from around the world of the ways the Lord’s people suffer for the gospel. Believers are beaten for the faith. They’re arrested for the faith. They’re killed for the faith. There are wicked and evil men and women who hate the Lord and his gospel and his people. And they do wicked and evil things to prevent the gospel from being proclaimed.
And, of course, behind those wicked and evil men and women who do wicked and evil things to prevent the gospel from being proclaimed lies the evil one. Do you see that at the end of verse 3? The evil one is the Devil; and he’s continually at work to stir up opposition to the preaching of the gospel. And so, will you pray, not only that the message of the Lord will run rapidly from place to place and from person to person and that those who hear it will honour it by believing it, but will you also pray for those who preach the message of the Lord, asking the Lord to deliver his servants from wicked and evil men and women who are themselves stirred up by the evil one?
Well, in verse 3, Paul begins to move away from referring to himself and his companions and he begins to talk about his readers, because they too were suffering because of their faith in the Saviour. But verse 3 is a note of encouragement from Paul to the Lord’s suffering people. Whereas not everyone has faith, the Lord is faithful. And Paul was confident that our faithful Lord will strengthen his people and protect them. And he is faithful, isn’t he? When has he ever let you down? Never. And so, no matter what troubles and trials you may face because of your faith in Christ, you can rely on him to strengthen you and to protect you from the evil one. The Devil may come at you with his wicked schemes to try to make you stumble into sin; or he may come at you with his wicked schemes to try to get you to doubt the Lord and his love for you; or he may come at you with his wicked schemes to try to confuse you or deceive you with false beliefs. There are myriad ways for him to come at us. But the Lord is faithful and he’s able to strengthen you and to protect you.
And so, will you pray, not only that the message of the Lord will run rapidly from place to place and from person to person and that those who hear it will honour it by believing it; and not only for those who preach the message of the Lord, asking the Lord to deliver his servants from wicked and evil men and women, but will you pray for yourself and for your fellow believers, asking the Lord to strengthen each one of us and to protect us from the evil one?
Well, Paul expresses his confidence in the Lord: the Lord is faithful, he says. He will strengthen and protect you. And because of his confidence in the Lord, Paul was confident that the believers in Thessalonica would do and would continue to do the things he commanded them. And he therefore prays to the Lord for them, asking the Lord to direct their hearts into God’s love and into Christ’s perseverance. Do you see that in verse 5? He’s praying that the Lord will lead them directly and without being sidetracked in any way into a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for God’s love for them. When we suffer, when we face trials, we need to be assured of God’s love for us, don’t we? If we doubt that, then we’ll start thinking that God is against us and is punishing us. And we’ll begin to resent him, instead of trusting in him. And so, we need to be assured of God’s love, which is an everlasting love and does not change. And Paul also prays that the Lord will lead them into a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for Christ’s perseverance. When we suffer, when we face trials, we need to remember that Christ persevered through suffering. He endured it all. And therefore he’s able to help us to endure all things.
Well, I said at the beginning, that Paul is addressing what we’re to do in the meantime, while we wait for Christ to come again. And so, what are you to do in the meantime? Well, you’re to pray that the message of the Lord Jesus Christ will run rapidly from place to place and from person to person; and that those who hear it will honour it by believing it. Will you do that? And you’re to pray for those who preach the gospel, asking God to deliver them from wicked and evil men. Will you do that? And you’re to pray for the Lord to strengthen and protect you, so that you’re able to stand firm and remain obedient to the Lord our God. Will you do that?
Verses 6 to 12
And, of course, while we wait for the Lord to come again, we’re to honour the Lord by the way we live our lives. And that’s what the next section is about. In verse 6 Paul commands his readers to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching they received from Paul and his companions.
Now, the word ‘command’ here is a strong one. Paul doesn’t often use it in his letters. Normally he ‘appeals’ to his readers. But the word ‘command’ is a military term and refers to the way an officer would issue a command to one of his men. It’s a sign of how serious Paul viewed this problem that he was prepared to issue a command, an order, to the believers in Thessalonica. And the reason why he used the word ‘command’ may be that they had disregarded him when he addressed this topic before. Back in chapter 5 of 1 Thessalonians, Paul instructed the believers to warn those who were idle. Well, either they didn’t warn the idle, or the idle ignored the warning. Whichever it was, Paul addressed this topic once again.
He refers to those who were idle as being brothers. That tells us that they were members of the church, people who had made a profession of faith. But for some reason, these Christian brothers and sisters refused to work. The commentators discuss the reason for their refusal. Some suggest they may have regarded work as being beneath them. Some suggest they may have believed there was no point working if the Lord was about to come again at any moment. Some suggest they may have been plain lazy; and instead of working, they were prepared to live off the generosity and kindness of their fellow believers.
Whatever the reason for their refusal to work, Paul’s response was to command the others in the church to keep away from the idle believers. Instead of treating them normally, as they would with any other member of the church, distance yourself from them in order to make clear that what they’re doing and how they’re living is unacceptable.
And Paul follows up his command by referring to his own example and to his own teaching on this matter. And so, we have his example in verses 7 to 9. Whenever Paul was with them, he wasn’t idle, but he worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that he was not a burden on any of them. Nor did he sponge off the people, because he paid for whatever food he received. Now, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he had a right to require the church of Jesus Christ to provide for him. After all, hadn’t the Lord himself said that the worker is worth his keep? However, Paul and his companions worked hard among the Thessalonians, and did not rely on them to support them, because Paul wanted to provide them with a model to follow. He wanted to show them by the way he lived and worked that the Lord’s people ought to work hard and be self-supporting.
And so, Paul provided them with a model to emulate. And then in verse 10, we have the things he taught. When he was with them, he taught them that if a man does not work, he should not eat. Now, the NIV translation is a little misleading, because it’s left out the word ‘willing’. Paul said:
If a man is not willing to work, he should not eat.
Many people are unable to work, because they’re only children, or because of illness or infirmity or because they’re retired or because they can’t get work. Paul isn’t referring to such people who cannot work. When it comes to people who cannot work and who are in need, the church should be willing to provide whatever support it can. Just think of the early church in the book of Acts who provided food for widows who were in need. But Paul isn’t addressing those who are unable to work. He’s addressing those who can work, but who are unwilling to work. They shouldn’t be given food to eat, he says. The church and the members of the church shouldn’t give them free food.
Now, up to now, Paul has really been addressing the church: the church should not encourage those members who are idle. Keep away from them. But in verses 11 and 12, Paul addresses the lazy believers. He says that instead of being busy, they’re busy-bodies. Since they’ve got too much time on their hands, they’re beginning to meddle and to interfere in things that are not their business. Well, says Paul, we command and urge such people in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and to earn the bread they eat. There’s the word ‘command’ again: just as a military officer issues an order to his men, so Paul is issuing the idle believers with an order. The words translated ‘settle down’ should really be translated ‘do your work quietly.’ So, get to work. Get to work. And in your work, don’t cause any unrest or disturbance. Don’t cause a fuss. Just get on with your work; and make a living for yourself.
And as for everyone else in the church: never tire of doing what’s right. Or don’t be discouraged to do what’s right. Perhaps they were discouraged from offering assistance to anyone because of these idlers who were taking advantage of their kindness. People today talk about ‘donor fatigue’: we’re asked for help so often, we get fed up with it; and stop offering any assistance. Well, while we mustn’t encourage those who are idle to remain idle, we must still love and support people in the church who are genuinely in need. Think of what we read in Acts 4 how there were no needy persons in the early church. But it wasn’t because they were all well-off; it was because those who could afford it sold some of their property and shared the proceeds with those in need. The members of the early church loved and cared for one another in practical ways: they helped widows and orphans and the weak and the vulnerable; and Paul encouraged the believers in Corinth to send financial assistance to believers far away. And so, we must not tire or be discouraged from doing what is right. We must continue to help those who are genuinely in need.
Well, this passage about work is an important passage for our young people, because it teaches you that you need to get ready and prepare yourself now, so that in the future you’ll be able to work hard and earn a living. Don’t expect to live off your parents or even the government, but be willing — after your studies are over — to get a job and to support yourself, for this is the will of the Lord.
And this is an important passage for those who are already working. We’re often tempted to despise our work — whether we work in a job or whether we work in the home — and treat it as something unimportant, because it’s not spiritual work. But those who work hard and provide for themselves and their families are honouring the Lord and doing his will. Here’s the Apostle of the Lord Jesus, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is making clear that the will of the Lord for his people is that we should be willing to work quietly and earn a living and help one another.
Well, John Stott summaries this chapter by saying that in it Paul wants God’s word to be honoured in the world and in the church.
The word is honoured in the world when men and women and boys and girls hear it and believe it and call out to Christ for salvation. And so, Paul asks the church to pray for that. Pray for the preaching of God’s word; pray for those who preach it.
And the word is honoured in the church when believers obey it. In verse 14, Paul says that if anyone in the church does not obey their instructions — and, of course, their instructions have come to them from the Lord — take special note of that person. And don’t associate with a believer who steadfastly refuses to obey God’s word. Don’t associate with him in order that he may be ashamed. You see, it’s a shameful thing for the Lord’s people to disregard the word of the Lord. And so, Paul wants God’s word to be honoured in the church. And we honour God’s word when we obey it. And so, will you obey the word of the Lord?
And we get the strength to obey and the power to obey from the Lord himself, don’t we? The Lord himself helps the Lord’s people to obey the word of the Lord. Look back to verses 3 and 4. Paul says that the Lord is faithful; and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one, who wants to keep you from obeying the Lord. And ‘we have confidence’ says Paul. Confidence in what? In the Thessalonians? No, he doesn’t say that. He says that we have confidence ‘in the Lord’. Paul’s confidence is grounded, not in the Thessalonians, but in the Lord Jesus, who was at work in the Thessalonians to enable them to do the things commanded. And so, you too should look to the Lord and you should rely on him for the help you need and for the strength you need to obey the Lord and to do his will more and more. He’s the one who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure. He has promised never to leave you or to forsake you, and to be always with you to give you the grace you need to be obedient to him. And so, look to him. Look to the Lord Jesus, who is able to keep you and to make you blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.