Strengthened with Love – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
By: Northern Seminary
(Part 4 of a study of 1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:13)
I have known some fine Christians who, at any moment, might break off from our conversation and pray there and then for whatever we were talking about. That might sound very spiritual, but that is more than my thoughts were when they prayed loudly in the middle of a restaurant or busy street.
Paul breaks off from the main text of his letter to the Thessalonians to write down his prayer for them. (As he does in several letters. A clear example is Philippians 1:9-11.)
These far off, young Christians needed prayer. Paul had led them to faith, but he has been absent from them for some time. He was worried they had fallen away from their faith under severe persecution, but now he has news they are holding fast to the truth.
So he has a prayer for them – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 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.
Paul prays for two vital things to be true in their lives.
First, Paul prays that their love will expand and spread.
He wants their love to grow in size and grow in scope – for them to love more and to love more people.
He says: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow.” Increase and overflow is what I do with soda in fast food restaurants. When I get the chance to fill my own cup at a soda machine I fill it right to the top. I’ve paid for a cupful, so I want a cup full. But of course the fuller the cup gets the more likely it is to spill. My soda overflows.
Paul prays that these Christians will have love that overflows. May God grow their love to the point it cannot be contained, and spills out to everyone.
That was a special and a very needed prayer for these Thessalonians.
More than once I’ve seen a situation like this. A football player is on the receiving end of a rough tackle. Maybe the opponent actually meant to harm him. A few minutes later what happens? The player who was shaken up puts in his own vicious tackle on the opponent. He had been hurt, he saw red, and he went all out for revenge.
These Thessalonians were hurt. Probably some had died because of persecution. Many of them had suffered other serious losses. It would not be surprising if they hated their opponents and were all out to fight back. But Paul prays: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow.” And, he said, may it increase and overflow “for each other and for everyone else.”
It’s not difficult to love the people you like. It is very hard to love those who have done you wrong. But that was Paul’s prayer. It was also Jesus’ command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). That is never easy, and many of us struggle to do it.
One Sunday in a church I listened to a really dull sermon but the preacher gave a great appeal at the end and dozens of people came forward. The appeal was not for salvation, but an invitation to those who found it hard to forgive others who had hurt them to come and receive prayer. That appeal – to seek God’s help so they could forgive others – touched a raw nerve. They were struggling with resentment and hatred against people who had abused them, opposed them, spoken against them, or cheated them.
The truth is that it is sometimes easier for any of us to nurture wrongs done against us rather than forgive the wrongdoers. Anger and resentment simmer gently all the time. For people just like that, Paul prays: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow.” It’s a hard prayer, but it’s a right prayer. And it is a prayer we need to make our own.
That leads to Paul’s second prayer – that their overflowing love would mean they are found blameless when Jesus comes.
Around the age of eleven I had to take a big test at school which would decide what courses I’d be allowed to study in the years that followed. Our teachers prepared us well for the test, but what they did not do was tell us exactly when we’d be taking the test. Probably the teachers thought that if we did not know the date it would help young students with serious exam nerves. Personally I wished they’d told us because then I could have studied hard the night before the test and therefore I’d be ready on the day. But the teachers had a different bit of logic: that every one of us should always be ready for the test, ready any day. No matter when it happened, we should be prepared.
That’s Paul’s logic about Jesus’ return. No matter when Jesus comes, Paul wants these Thessalonians to be found “blameless and holy” on that day. Not for one moment is Paul thinking that they can win salvation by being perfect; his logic is about having a track record of faithfully loving others, faithfully following God’s will, faithfully setting apart their lives for God and the gospel, and therefore being ready for his return.
I remember being given wonderful hospitality in the home of a delightful couple. I’d preached in their church that morning, and they had invited me back to their home for Sunday lunch. They had two children, a boy and a girl about ten and twelve, and they too were friendly, polite and charming. This family had a beautiful home with a fantastic view out over rolling countryside. All the furnishings in the house seemed high class. The meal was served superbly and tasted delicious. Everything in that home was so good I might have felt uncomfortable except they were such lovely people. Everything seemed perfect.
Except, as we sat around the table after lunch, conversation turned to the sermon I’d preached earlier which had included a challenge to give our lives wholly to God and wholly to others in service, no matter what that meant for our own comfort or security. “You know,” the husband said, “we’ve always felt we should go overseas and serve God as missionaries. Maybe we will one day, but right now I’m growing my business and it’s doing really well. When I’ve made enough money, and we’re all set up for the future, I think we’ll follow that call then.”
That couple’s children will be adults now, and my best guess is that the parents will still be in their lovely home, still growing the business, still getting set up for the future. There is nothing wrong with a nice house or a great business or investing for the future, providing all that fits with God’s plan for someone’s life. But those lovely folks knew God had a different plan, but they wanted to do it only on their terms. It can’t be like that. The will of God does not wait for our convenience.
Paul prays for the Thessalonians:
- “May he strengthen your hearts…” – like, in ancient times, they’d build a massive buttress (a supporting wall) to strengthen the sides of a large building.
- “May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy…” – so that your lives are lived rightly and given only to God.
- “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…” – may you be ready to be examined with nothing to embarrass you, nothing missed out from your lives, nothing undone, no part lived wrongly.
That’s a huge prayer. But God does not set a low bar for us to jump over. He is a holy God and he calls us to holy living.
So may God make your life increase and overflow. And may God strengthen your heart so that you are found blameless and holy. May he do that also for me. Together, may we be the generation that follows God’s call wherever it takes us.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.