Beloved of God

I. Again we find Paul expressing his duty to pray with gratitude for the Thessalonian Christians (13-15). He expressed gratitude to God for them.

A. In 1:3 Paul prayed in light of the expansion of faith and love in the lives of the church members. Here Paul expresses gratitude for the sovereignty of God that grants salvation to sinners (13).

    1. He identifies them as “beloved by the Lord.” Though the present experience of God’s love is unsurpassed as an existential blessing, Paul has in mind the eternal love bound up in the covenant of redemption in accordance with which Christ died for his people. Paul identifies love as the motive by which God predestined his people to be adopted as his “sons,” eligible for the full inheritance of the Father. “In love he predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4, 5). When Paul begins his chain of sovereign grace in Romans 8:29, the first phrase is “For those whom he foreknew.” This is not only pre-cognition but indicates that both mind and heart were set on these who were “predestined to be confirmed to the image of his Son” Romans 8:29). These are the ones on whom he “foreapproved” (Rotherham) or “on whom he set his heart beforehand” (Williams). Goodspeed translates “those whom he marked out from the first.” Since they were indeed marked out from the first as loved by God, “nothing shall be able to separate [them]from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). John Gill commented, “Since they had interest in the everlasting love of the three divine persons, there was no danger of their falling away and perishing.”
    2. God’s love of them led to his choosing them. This order is like that of Romans 8:29, “For whom he did foreknew, he also did predestinate.” The idea of “from the beginning” is virtually synonymous with John’s identification of the eternality of Christ in 1 John 1:1—“that which was from the beginning.” Given this connection, we see that God’s electing purpose is coterminous with the eternal existence of the Son. This purpose, therefore, was resident within the trinity as a covenantal reality expressive of the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit. We see this confirmed in phrases that follow.
    3. “For salvation” pinpoints the particular goal that God determined in this specific choice. The one who “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11), in his purpose toward them intended salvation. This intention of salvation determines that the means for its accomplishment in accord with the character of God necessarily are included in the electing purpose. The objects of this purpose to save will be fitted for the blessing.
    4. When Paul says that one of the means is “through sanctification of the Spirit,” he is speaking of the new birth spoken of by Jesus in John 3:3-8—“unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. … That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Ezekiel (36:26, 27) wrote of this by revelation, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” This is the sovereign work of the Spirit, who, like the wind, “blows wherever he desires.” His desires have been set in eternity so that, according to the electing purpose of God, the Spirit’s sovereign desire fully accords with the choice of God unto salvation.
    5. The new heart hears and believes the gospel, the word of truth (Colossians 1:5). Being removed from self-adoring or self-hating narcissism, the new-hearted person receives both the truth about himself as a sinner justly under condemnation and the infinite mercy of God in forgiving and justifying such sinners. He believes that Jesus is the Son of God, the true and only sacrifice for sin, the conqueror of death as seen in his resurrection, and the righteous intercessor who takes upon himself our plea for mercy and acceptance. This belief, having arisen from the sanctifying work of the Spirit as the beginning point of his further sanctification, is no mere historical, notional, or propositional faith, but includes mourning for sin, joy in deliverance, gratitude to Christ, delight in the worship of God, and satisfaction in being accepted only in the full righteousness of Christ,

B. He identifies the final aim of this loving favor of God toward them (14).

    1. Paul confirms that “belief of the truth” means a submission of the whole person to the gospel—that message involves and implies the whole truth about God and man. A person’s entry into the eternal purpose of God unto salvation comes at the effectual call that rides upon the gospel message. The Baptist catechism defines it this way: “a work of God’s Spirit, whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel.”
    2. The end result of all this is that we would “gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (14b).He has made statements on this earlier in the letter: the unregenerate will be excluded from “the glory of his power” (9); at Christ’s return he will “be glorified in his saints on that day” (10); the conceived end of the Christian life is that the “Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in him” (12). In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul anticipated that which is mortal being “swallowed up by life,” that is, the “heavenly dwelling” a “house not made with hands,” and then says this transfixing statement, “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” Philippians 3 ends with this striking vision, “the Lord Jesus, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” Philippians 3:21). The final chapter of all the salvific certainties recorded in Romans 8:28-30 is this, “those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” For this he elected us and called us, that we would “gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To be made like him in his glorified humanity in order that he would be the “firstborn among many brethren” cannot be transcended by any other imaginable purpose.

C. Given that expansive view of divine grace, Paul admonishes them (15).

    1. “Stand firm.” This position of immovable resolution in the face of evil we find in Ephesians 6:13, 14—“Having done all to stand firm; stand, therefore.” God has given all that is needed for resisting all the fiery darts of the evil one. Every defense and every advance is provided for in the truths of the gospel. If those are forsaken, failure and sorrow are sure.
    2. “Hold to the traditions which you were taught.” The “traditions” are the things received from the Lord by the apostles and then handed down to the churches. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered (handed over) to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). In 3:6 Paul warns against those who do not live “according to the tradition which you received from us.” Teachings can be handed down from men that pervert the revelation of God (Matthew 15:3, 6). This, however, was received from the Lord as infallible revelation and was then delivered over, handed down, to the churches.
    3. The manner is which this body of truth was delivered was either by word or by letter.
      • By word means by oral presentation, either preaching in the manner of proclamation or instruction as in a pedagogical setting. We see Paul doing this immediately after his conversion in Acts 9:19 and in Thessalonica in Acts 17:2, 3. Paul made this unmistakably clear in recalling the manner of the Thessalonians’ response to his preaching: “When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of me, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
      • His letters carried the same weight and the same immediacy of authority as his spoken word. In Colossians 4: 16, Paul was insistent that his letters be read in the churches and passed along to other churches. The end of 1 Thessalonians has a strong command that his letter be read (5:27). In this letter, Paul issued commands (3:6, 12) and warned against anyone that would not “obey our instruction in this letter” (5:14). Paul reminded the church in Corinth, “Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present” (2 Corinthians 10:11).
      • The only access we have to that which was spoken is the written word. We have only a small percentage of the words that Jesus spoke, each of which caried divine authority (John 21:25), but those that are written carry the weight of eternal life in them (John 20:30, 31). God has given to every generation since the time of the apostles access to revealed truth through the written words.

II. Then we discover a particular prayer that Paul issued for this church (16, 17).

A. Paul identifies the theocentric foundation for this prayer (16). The richness of the Christian life is reflected in this verse in that Paul, by the nature of his intercession, invokes the immediate help of “our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father” in their ministry to the chosen ones of God. He bases the legitimacy of this astounding request on the eternal interest that the triune God has revealed. He has “loved us” in the covenant of redemption as proven in the death of Jesus (Romans 5:8) and given us “eternal comfort and good hope” by the sovereign, unilateral bestowal of indelible favor, grace, on us.

B. Paul asks for particular blessings that flow from that divine disposition toward us (17). If God intends that we will “gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” then everything that advances that purpose can be an item of effectual fervent prayer. One of the gifts is having the heart comforted. There is an abundance of provocatives to despair in a fallen world and in our own incomplete sanctification. But God desires that the “eternal comfort” that has come to us by grace be spread abroad in our hearts and provide spiritual solace when sickness, approaching death, indwelling sin, and the aggressive evils of this age loom large before us. Also, when we feel almost overwhelmed by the “lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God,” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and the “fiery darts of the wicked one” (Ephesians 6:16), we may be strong in the Lord and his truth. God intends it and he will do it.

C. “Every good work and word”–Work refers to increasing holiness and sincerity in our actions and the way in which we seek to minister to those in need. Word refers to having our minds and tongues disciplined according to the truth of God so that we speak, as it were, the oracles of God. Our counsel and teaching should be saturated with divine truth.

III. Paul asked that they pray for him, which leads to reflections, and another prayer for them (3:1-5).

A. Paul makes specific requests (3:1, 2).

    1. He wants them to pray for him, that in his continuing ministry, the effectual work of the Spirit will accompany his preaching and teaching even as it did among them—“that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified.”. He made a similar request to the church at Colossae in writing, “that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3, 4). Though he was an apostle and under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his preaching ministry, he still called on the churches to pray for him in this awesome and daunting challenge. Should not the same intensity of desire for prayer be present in the churches today for their preachers of the gospel?
    2. Paul knew that opposition would show up wherever he went. He asked them to pray that he would be delivered “from perverse and evil men” (3:2). Plots to kill him emerged even at his initial manifestation of gospel preaching (Acts 9:23-25). Late in his ministry he warned Timothy against Alexander the coppersmith who “did me much harm.” To Timothy he warned, “Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching” (2 Timothy 4:14, 15). He had confidence that “the Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). Confidence in God’s protection and in final preservation for the heavenly kingdom does not diminish the duty and privilege of prayer for God’s guiding and protecting hand in the lives of his saints. Paul makes this clear again in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, where he speaks of being delivered from a “deadly peril” with the confidence of future deliverance from similar dangers. He asked the Corinthians to “help us by prayer.”
    3. The phrase “For not all have Faith” is given as a reason for the need of protection. Faithless persons, unbelievers who oppose the truth of God, can often be energized to assault gospel clarity in all of its individual components. Worldly philosophies frequently target Christian truth as the enemy of their worldview. Darwinian naturalism, Kantian rationalism, Marxism, Critical Race Theory, the agenda of Black Lives Matter all contradict foundational Christian doctrines.

B. Paul reflects the concern of this prayer back to the Thessalonians (3, 4).

    1. “But the Lord is faithful”–Though men oppose the faith and do not demonstrate any submission to divine truth or live in the fear of God, God himself, as the God of all truth, operates to protect and sanctify his people. He serves his own purposes in protecting them. The evil one will seek to use every device at his disposal to destroy the faith of God’s people. But God will confirm to the end those whom he has called by the Spirit to believe the truth. Christ “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:8, 9).
    2. Given the faithfulness of God to his eternal purpose (“we have confidence in the Lord concerning you”), Paul expressed his confidence that in their case they would continue to respond to the apostolic injunctions as people of faith should. He had confidence that he could command how they were to act, for his commands as directives from God were designed for their protection from deceit and indwelling sin and for promotion of true Christlikeness—that they might “gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

C. Paul again prays for the Thessalonians (5).

    1. This prayer is in the form of what grammatically is an optative of wish as in 2:16. He asks for the special operation of God in working in them for God-centered affections and thought. To the Philippians Paul wrote, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12, 13). This prayer is in accord with that truth. We pray for things that God says he will accomplish.
    2. One element of this prayer is their deeper entrance into the “Love of God.” This can be taken in an objective way—their growth in love for God—and in a subjective way—a greater knowledge of the love that God has for them. In one sense these ways are interactive. The one contributes to the other. We are to explore God’s love, his premundane love in the covenant (Ephesians 1:4, 5), his demonstrated love in sending his Son (1 John 4:10), his existential love in giving us the Spirit through whom the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts (Romans 5:5), and his post-resurrection love in which we experience the intra-trinitarian love eternally manifest in God (John 17:26). This increasing knowledge of God’s love for us in turn energizes a deepening and more profound love for God, not in the service of self but in worship of such flawless beauty and goodness. This contributes greatly to the assurance of eternal life: “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17).
    3. By the “steadfastness of Christ” we learn of the undeterred determination of Jesus to do his Father’s will. Neither the opposition of enemies, the misunderstanding and timidity of friends, nor the deceit of Satan, or even the looming reality of the wrath of his Father could stop him from consenting to the redemptive mission. We are admonished to have the “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5), to look to Jesus as the “author and finisher of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2) who did not allow the despicable character of the cross to keep him from seeing the beauty of the great ocean of joy at the right hand of his Father. Let us enter into his steadfastness.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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