Introduction Preachers are notorious for saying "Finally" and then carrying on for ages longer. So it's some comfort to see the apostle Paul saying "Finally, brothers" only about two-thirds of the way through his Second Letter to the Thessalonians. Do please turn to that. You will find it on p 1190 of the Bibles that are in the pews. We've got to the beginning of chapter 3 in this morning series. We are looking at verses 1-5, which are under the heading "Request for Prayer". I remember last year hearing a bishop from South Africa telling how one night he found himself in mortal danger. A number of shots were fired at him, but he wasn't hit, and walked away unscathed. Later, he got a phone call from his mother, asking whether everything was all right. She said that she had woken in the night with a powerful urge to pray for him. The bishop asked her what time she had woken, and he realised that it had been at the precise time that he came under fire. Answers to prayer are not usually so dramatic. Often we don't directly see the result of our praying. But prayer works. At the end of chapter 2 Paul has just been praying for this young church in Thessalonica praying that God would encourage and strengthen them. Now he turns the tables, and asks them to pray for him. He may be God's chosen messenger to the Gentile world; he may be God's mouthpiece, inspired by the Holy Spirit even as he writes this letter; but he is not too proud to ask his children in the faith to pray for him. "Finally, brothers, pray for us " I wonder how good we are at asking for prayer. We won't bother, of course, if we don't really think God changes things when we pray. And we won't ask if we think we always have to be giving and never receiving from others. Paul knew his own need, and he knew that God would listen to the prayers of the Thessalonians. He knew that their praying would make a difference to his life. So he asked for prayer. We need to do the same. But what does he ask for? What is uppermost in his mind? I fear that these verses provide a salutary contrast with so much of the content of our own praying, which is too often far too self-centred and narrow in its vision. Paul's requests here can be a pattern for our own praying. There are three main emphases in these verses. So I have three headings which you can see on the back of the service sheet. First of all: PRAY FOR THE PROGRESS OF THE GOSPEL Verse 1:
Finally brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.
You can see here so clearly the way that Paul's mind works. He turns in his thinking from the needs of the Thessalonians to his own needs. But no sooner has he asked himself "What do I want them to pray for for me?" than his mind has moved away from his personal needs to the work of proclaiming the gospel in which he is engaged. His purpose in life is not to ease the pressure on him for the sake of a comfortable existence, but to see the growth and extension of the Kingdom of Christ. And how will that take place? It will happen as people have faith in the message, or the word, of the Lord. That message he has already described in 2:10-12 as "the truth" which saves those who love it and believe in it. And in 1:8 he speaks of it as "the gospel of our Lord Jesus" which we are all called upon to obey, and which enables us to know God. What does faith in this good news save us from? It saves us from being hoovered up by the Satanic powers of evil that are already at work in the world and which will become increasingly evident as the climax of history draws nearer. It saves us above all from what would otherwise by our just fate on the coming Day of Judgement, when everyone will stand before the living God and give an account of their lives. This is an unseen reality. But because Paul knows that it is real, it fills his horizon. When he wakes up in the morning, it is as if that is his first thought: "The Day of Judgement is coming. I must do something today to help rescue people from the hell towards which they are heading. I must keep preaching the gospel. For the sake of those who are perishing, I want the gospel to be believed. I must get people praying that my evangelism will be effective." That is his greatest need. So he wants the Thessalonians to pray that the Word will "spread rapidly and be honoured". He wants to see quantity and quality; growth in numbers of true believers, and in the quality of the obedience of those believers. He doesn't want a church which is a mile wide and an inch deep - big but shallow in its faith and commitment. He wants a church which is a mile wide and a mile deep, and growing all the time. He wants the gospel to be accepted, I quote, "just as it was with you" - in the same way that the Thessalonians had received it. And this has been no flash in the pan with them. Paul delights that, as he says in 1:3 :
your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.
Growth in faith and love, in quantity and in quality - that is what Paul wants them to be praying for. It is a prayer, let's remember, that God has answered and is answering in astonishing ways. We live in a country where for particular reasons, no doubt chiefly to do with Christian disobedience, we almost take it for granted that the church is in decline. Recently published figures indicate that during this Decade of Evangelism which is now drawing to a close, the Church of England has declined by about one quarter - more amongst young people. But that experience is almost the exception that proves the rule. Over 60,000 people are becoming Christians every day around the world. One little example: last week saw the celebrations of the 200th Anniversary of the founding of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), by a small group of visionary evangelicals in the Castle and Falcon Inn back in 1799. They were motivated by a deep concern to spread the knowledge of the Gospel across the world. It took five years before the first two candidates could be found to send overseas, and they were both German. It took 10 years before the first English missionaries could be found. After 14 years a total of 15 missionaries had been sent of whom 12 were German. Among the Germans, who were sent to West Africa, four of the men and four of their wives were dead. Unpromising beginnings, like so much of Paul's own gospel work! But 100 years after its founding, CMS was supporting 1000 missionaries, working with 9,000 native Christian workers. 37 theological and training colleges had been started; 2500 schools; 40 hospitals. And, for instance, in Kenya, where we have such close links, that was just the beginning of the staggering spread of the gospel and growth of the church in this century. Pray that "the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured". The gospel is "honoured" when it is received with faith and thanksgiving, as it was among the Thessalonians. And when that happens, God is glorified. Is the progress of the gospel our abiding concern? Is that one of the main burdens of our praying? Paul would have it so, for the sake of Christ. But the progress of the gospel never runs smooth. The terrain is too hostile for that. So that leads us to the second main emphasis of Paul's prayer request - and this is my second heading: PRAY FOR THE PROTECTION OF CHRISTIAN WORK Look at verses 2-3:
And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith. But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.
Once again you can see how even though Paul is asking for prayers for himself, he seems to be more concerned for the Thessalonians than he is for his own safety. That is remarkable, not least when you consider the catalogue of narrow escapes and close shaves that Paul had experienced. He lived his life in constant danger because of the evangelistic work that he was doing. But thinking about the danger he was in makes him think immediately of the dangers they are in: "pray the we may be delivered" leads on to: " the Lord will protect you". What are the dangers? What are the obstacles to the spread of the gospel that are at the top of Paul's list of potential hazards? Not lack of money. Not ill health. Not shortage of time. Not lack of high-tech gadgets or multi-media presentation equipment. What chiefly hinders the spread of the gospel as far as Paul is concerned is the opposition to the message that he faces. That opposition comes from two connected quarters. Firstly, it comes from Satan. Evangelism is a spiritual battleground. Paul is always very aware of the devil's anti-gospel activity. So for instance in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 he says:
For we wanted to come to you but Satan stopped us.
And in this letter, in 2:9 he warns them of
the work of Satan displayed in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing.
Satan is alive and active. We should not be daunted by that fact. But are we alert to it? We need to be. Especially when we get involved in evangelism we can be confident that Satan will be looking for ways to disrupt and destroy what we are doing. He hates evangelism. He is dedicated to stopping it. And if he cannot prevent it, he tries to undo it. If the gospel is to spread rapidly and be honoured, then Paul and the Thessalonians - and we - need the protection of the all-powerful Lord himself in order to withstand the onslaught of the evil one. Secondly, opposition to evangelistic work is human. "Wicked and evil men" do the work of "the evil one", even if they have no idea who their employer really is. "For not everyone has faith", he comments. Why does he say that? No doubt he is reminding them that normal Christian experience is to get two basic reactions to talk of Jesus. One is faith. The other is no faith: Jesus is rejected, and his messengers also get it in the neck. That is what we should expect. That is the way it happened with Jesus himself, after all. There was nothing wrong with his evangelism, but still he got those two reactions. Those who reject Jesus become opponents of the gospel. And amongst those opponents are what we might call Satan's shock troops: the "wicked and evil men" who make it their aim in life to choke off Christian witness in the hope that it will die. "For not everyone has faith". There could also be a further thought in Paul's mind when he says that. After all, you might think that it is so obvious that not everyone has faith that it hardly warrants saying. So maybe Paul is thinking about opposition that comes from people who might look to some as though they do have faith, whereas the reality is that they reject Christ. If that is so, then Paul is thinking of religious people, even people within the church itself, who turn out to be destructive of the spread of the biblical gospel. These dangers are very real. But prayer is effective. Why? Because God is faithful. He delivers his servants. He shields the spreading of his work from the Devil's poison:
he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.
Paul has just prayed himself for the Thessalonians, in 2:17, that Jesus would "strengthen [them] in every good deed and word." Now he assures them that God will answer that prayer. The Lord doesn't remove us from the front line. But he gives us the strength to cope with the spiritual conflict. At the recent Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops, one of the bishops from Africa, a young man of 37 with two small children, described how in the five years since he became a bishop, his house had been burned down five times by Muslim opponents of the gospel. The issue they faced, he said, was: who has the courage to be a Christian? In this country our houses and churches don't get burned down. But in different ways the opposition is great, and we need the same courage. When we ask God for it, he will give it to us. He will strengthen and protect us. Keep asking. Then the third and final point is this: PRAY FOR THE PERSEVERANCE OF BELIEVERS In verse 4 Paul says:
We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command.
Maybe it is prayer that is uppermost in his thoughts here. Maybe when he says in v1: " pray for us", that is not so much a request after all, but an apostolic command. Do we treat praying for the progress of the gospel like an optional extra - like doing the long walk on the Blaithwaite holiday weekend? "Fine for the spiritually fit and keen, but I think I'll give it a miss this time round." Prayer is not for just for spiritual Schwarzeneggers. It is both the privilege and also the responsibility of every believer. In order to give the Thessalonians more encouragement, Paul lets them know that he is confident they are fulfilling their responsibilities. Then, in verse 5, he prays for them:
May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance.
That could mean he wants them to know how much God loves them. It could mean that he wants their love for God to keep on increasing. Both of those things are undoubtedly true. But it seems more likely that what he means here is that he wants their love to be like God's love; and he wants them to persevere in the same way that Christ persevered. Of course, Jesus is not just the pattern of love and persverance that we should follow. He is also the source. We do not have it in us to love like Jesus, who laid down his life for us. We are not steely enough to keep going faithfully in the face of persistent opposition in the way that Jesus did, even to death. That is why we have to pray for these things. They are God's gift. He directs our hearts. He moulds our character as believers. He teaches us to love like him. He trains us never to give up. If his lessons are hard, it because we are slow learners. We need to be taken firmly in hand if our lives are going to be useful in God's great work of spreading the gospel from life to life, through every nation, to the ends of the earth, and to the end of time. So are we learning these lessons? Do we take these things on board? The test is whether we do them consistently. Pray that the gospel will spread rapidly and be honoured. Pray that believers will be made strong and be protected whatever the opposition. Pray that we never lose heart. Because Jesus is faithful.