The Lord's Day Morning
June 17, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Good Report of Faith and Love”
1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 3 as we continue our way through this the first letter of the apostle Paul. As you’re turning there to 1 Thessalonians chapter 3 we're going to pick up in verse 6. I want to say happy Father's Day to our fathers and say I may have a few words for you from this passage because even though we're working straight through a book of the Bible, Paul has some things that are particularly relevant to us as Christian fathers as we consider this His Word.
I want you to be on the lookout for three things as we read. First of all, outlining this portion of God's Word is pretty simple. In verses 6 to 10, Paul is giving thanks. He's giving thanks for a good report that he's received from Timothy about how the Thessalonians are doing. You remember the last several weeks we've said there are people in Thessalonica who are slandering Paul and trying to make him look bad to the Thessalonian Christians. There are people who are persecuting the Thessalonians and Paul is deeply worried about how the Thessalonians are doing spiritually. And in verses 6 to 10 he reports the report he got about the Thessalonians from Timothy and his response to it. And the whole section is characterized by rejoicing. Paul is relieved and he is joyful and he is thankful and he thanks God for the Thessalonians and he tells the Thessalonians that he's thanking God for them.
Then, in verses 11 to 13 we see a prayer. Paul tells the Thessalonians what he's praying for them. Now, in that thanksgiving and in that prayer I want you to be on the lookout for three things. First, in verse 6 and you’ll see it again in verse 8, Paul describes for us how it is that you go about standing fast in the Christian life. Have you ever wondered, “Okay, if I'm going to stand fast, what is it I have to do in the Christian life?” He actually tells you in verse 6 and verse 8 what is involved in standing fast in the Christian life. Look out for the words “faith” and “love.”
Then second, you’ll see this if you look at verses 9 and 10. Paul tells us that he wants us to grow in faith. You will see in verse 10 particularly he’ll talk about what's lacking in the Thessalonians’ faith and that he wants to come to them in order to supply what is lacking in their faith. And of course, Paul means especially by that teaching them the Word of God because it's the truth that supplies what is lacking in our faith. And so Paul wants to instruct them in the Word of God so that their faith will grow.
Third, if you look at verses 11 to 13 Paul will talk about growing in our love in order that we can be established in holiness. Now that's interesting. If love grows out of being grounded in God's Word, how is it that we need to grow in love in order to be grounded in holiness? That's an interesting thing, isn't it? I want to consider that with you today so be on the lookout for those three things as we read God's Word. Before we read it let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your inspired Word. Every word of it is profitable. Every word of it equips us as men and women who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, as men and women who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the Gospel. It equips us for every good work and it is profitable for our reproof and correction and for our training in righteousness so make this Word profitable for us and in us today. We ask in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it in 1 Thessalonians chapter 3 beginning in verse 6:
“But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you – for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
Now may our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
It's been twenty years this year since my father died and I think about him almost every day.
And one of the things that my family enjoyed most, I think, about conversation with my dad was the superlatives that he would use often associated with good food. If we had a particularly good meal we were likely going to hear superlatives from my dad. If we were at The Trawler in Charleston, South Carolina we were likely to hear these words, “I believe that that was the best she-crab soup I have ever had in my entire life!” Or if we were in Kelly's in Blacksburg and we had just had a delicious steak we were likely to hear, “I don't believe I have ever put a better piece of meat in my mouth in my entire life!” Or if we were at Jack O’Dell's Midway BBQ and yes, Midway was midway between Union and Santuck, South Carolina. Santuck named because the sand almost tucked it away before the kudzu was planted. And Jack O’Dell's Midway BBQ had sawdust on the floors and those white and red checked tablecloths that were kind of plasticy on the top because of all the spilled barbeque sauce and man, it had some great Union County hash there and if we were at Jack O’Dell's Midway BBQ we were likely to hear, “You know, I don't believe I have ever had better hash in my entire life!” We loved hearing Daddy's superlatives when we had a good meal. Well, the apostle Paul is using some overpowering superlatives in this passage. Did you catch it?
STANDING FAST IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Verse 6 – look at the first line — reads almost like, you know, he's been writing you from chapter 2 verse 17 all the way to chapter 3 verse 5 about how worried he is about the Thessalonians. He's worried that the slanderers are getting to them. He's worried that the persecution is getting to them. He's worried that they may be wavering in the faith. He's anxious to be with them so that he can encourage them and suddenly it's almost like Timothy comes in the door in the middle of him writing verse 5 and getting to verse 6 and says, “Paul, good news. They’re all trusting in Christ. They’re standing firm in the Word. They’re walking in the faith.” And there's this gigantic sigh of relief that you can hear all across two thousand years and how ever many miles that it is from Thessalonica to Jackson. You can almost hear it in verse 6 — “But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love” – and can I just pause right there and say, “Did you hear what Paul just said?” Paul called Timothy's report to him from the Thessalonians saying that they were doing well spiritually, saying that they were continuing on with the Lord, saying that they were established in faith and love, he calls it good news.
Now I think I'm right in saying this is the only time that Paul calls anything that is not the announcement of God's Gospel “the good news.” Do you see the kind of extravagant language that Paul is using? He is so concerned about the Thessalonians that when he gets a good report that they’re doing well spiritually he calls it gospel. He says, “Timothy brought me gospel. He brought me good news about your faith and love. Now he's not saying that Timothy came and preached him a good Gospel sermon; he's saying that Timothy came and gave a good spiritual report about the Thessalonians that he uses the word that he uses everywhere else to talk about the Gospel. It's superlative language. You can see here that Paul has been so deeply concerned about the Thessalonians that he is incredibly relieved. In fact, he’ll use the language in verse 9 -“of joy, we feel joy for your sake before our God.” So Paul is relieved and he's thankful and he's joyful and he's using superlative language.
So he goes on and he says this, “When we heard that report,” verse 6, “that good news from Timothy about how well you’re doing, even though we were in distress and affliction, we were comforted about you through your faith.” You know how sometimes somebody else's faith encourages you. Have you ever had a Christian friend who was going through an incredibly hard time, a situation that makes you think, “I'm not sure how well I would handle that,” and that Christian friend goes through that hard time trusting in the Lord, not becoming bitter, believing God's promises, absolutely determined that the light at the end of the tunnel is going to come and you think, “Boy, you’re faith has really encouraged me.” Well, Paul's saying even more than that here.
Look at the next sentence that he utters. Look at verse 8. “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” Now that “if” isn't meant to put any question mark on how the Thessalonians are doing. It's meant to emphasize that what makes Paul be able to say, “I can live again,” is the report that the Thessalonians are standing firm in the faith. Now that's extravagant language. Men, you know that kind of language. You used it when you met some girl who rocked your right brain hard however many years ago. Yeah, you remember? Remember writing her notes and saying, “You make me live. I'm alive for the first time in my life.” That's the kind of language, but Paul's not using this about a girlfriend or a wife. This isn't even the language of a pastor saying, “Boy, I kind of feel like my ministry's not a failure now because you’re doing well in the Lord.” It's not even that kind of relief. There's no indication here that Paul worries about the success of his ministry. This language is much more like a father talking about his children doing spiritually well.
John Stott commenting on this passage says, “Pastoral love is parental in quality.” That is, Paul has a love for these Christians like a father and a mother have for their children. So it's the reaction is not, “Oh, I'm not a failure, thank heavens, because you’re doing well.” The reaction is as a parent, “My children are doing well in the Lord. My children are standing firm in the faith. Thank God, I rejoice. My heart is filled with thanksgiving to the Lord.”
I was on a panel a couple of years ago at a conference in Chicago with Tim Keller and the moderator was asking Tim about how young men could be better appliers of Scripture. How can you get better at applying Scripture in your sermons? And one of the things that Tim said in response to this fellow is, “Well, one thing you have to do is you have to experience a little bit of life. You know, you have to have some pain and some loss and you have to live life with fellow believers that experience pain and loss and you live bit of life and you get to be a better applier of God's Word.” But in the course of that answer he said something in passing. He said, “You know when you’re parents, when you’re parents of children that were out of the home, you are never more happy than your least happy child.” What he was saying was parents care about the children's happiness and their wellbeing and if you have four kids and three of them are doing great, but one of them is not doing so well, it weighs on you as a parent. You think about it all the time. It burdens you. You want them to be happy. You want them to be doing well and Paul's using that kind of language here. “I can live again because you’re doing well! You’re standing firm in the faith. You’re growing in faith and love. I can live!” It's the language of a parent.
One of the things I love about John Stott's commentary on this passage is that John Stott almost speaks in the first person about this. He says, “You know, we parents are so concerned for our children's wellbeing that when we see them doing well we're relieved and we rejoice and we give thanks to God.” The interesting thing about that is John Stott was never married. He's a single man. How does he know about this? Because he has spiritual children all over the world.
And that's exactly how Paul is speaking about the Thessalonians. When he sees them doing well, standing firm in the faith, growing in faith and love he says, “I can live again. I was dying inside when I thought that you weren't doing well.”
Parents, do you understand that? Those of you who have kids who are out of the home now, you ever seen your adult children and their making some decisions that are not good and you’re at that relationship now where there's only so much you can say and do and you just hold your breath and you say, “Lord, all those prayers that I prayed, all that teaching that I did, all preaching they heard, all the example that I shared, Lord, just use that.” And when they come through those trying times you go, “Yes, I can live again. My children are standing firm in Christ. They’re growing in faith and love. That's exactly the experience that Paul is having and that's why you get all these superlatives in this passage. In other words, Paul is saying that he can live again because he has heard of the Thessalonians faith and love.
Look specifically at verse 6 again. “Timothy has brought us the good news of your faith and love.” Then verse 8 – “Now we live for you are standing fast in the Lord.” That superlative language is that Paul is so thankful that the most important things are in place in their life.
Notice it's not that the Thessalonians aren't experiencing hard times because, in fact, they’re being persecuted. He's not, “Whew! Now I can live again because you’re not going through hard times.” It's that, “Now I can live again because you’re standing firm in Christ. You’re growing in faith and love.” And now here's an application, fathers. You know, as fathers and mothers you want your children to marry a nice person, be a good husband and wife, have a nice life, no major illnesses, no big problems, have a good job, be respected in the community. All of those things are good things, but far more important than that is that they stand firm in Christ and that they grow in faith and love.
At the door after the early service a young man came and met me. He's a PhD student in engineering. He's been married for ten years. Three years into his marriage he and his wife were just not, they were not going to make it and he was reading a book by John McArthur and he came to faith in Christ. Their marriage was hanging by a thread and God turned it all around by bringing him to faith in Christ and then leading them into a Bible believing church where they heard the Gospel preached every week and the Bible faithfully taught and they began to work through their issues in marriage and then they had a child who was just diagnosed with autism. Now, no parent would say, “Okay, it will be good for you to struggle in your marriage and have a child with autism. You just – that's not what you’d be wishing for your child. But you know what? That young man is preaching the Gospel at a rescue mission in downtown Birmingham every week and he wants to be a church planter and he wants to be involved in the work of the kingdom. He's standing firm in the faith. He's growing in faith and love through all of those circumstances.
Dads, is that what you pray for your sons and for your daughters that they’d stand firm in Christ, that they’d grow in faith and love, not just that circumstances would be easy? And you know, we can all want the circumstances to be the best for you, but that no matter what the circumstances are, you’re standing firm in Christ and you’re growing in faith and love. Are those the kinds of spiritual desires that we have for our children, not just that they’d be accepted and prominent and have a great job and an easy marriage and all of those things, that they’d be firm in Christ, growing in faith and love? Well, here Paul, you see, what's he relieved about?
He's relieved, he's thankful, he's joyful, he's overwhelmed that the Thessalonians are manifesting faith and love.
And I love what John Calvin says about those two words. “In faith and love,” Calvin says, “Paul gives a brief summary of all godliness. All godliness can be summed up in faith and love; believing God's promises and His Word, trusting in Jesus as He is offered in the gospel – faith, love, loving God, loving one another, loving our neighbors.” He just sums up the whole of the Christian life — faith and love. They’re living the Christian life. They’re believing God's promises; they’re believing His Word; they’re trusting in Christ as He's offered in the Gospel; they’re loving God; they’re loving one another; they’re loving their neighbor; they’re loving all in this passage.
Notice how it says not only are they loving one another, but all. Look at verse 12. “Abound in love for one another and for all.” And Paul says they’re doing well. And he's thankful and he uses this extravagant language. Doesn't that teach us that one thing we want to aspire to if we want to stand fast in the Christian life, if we want to live life in light of Jesus’ return the way Christians ought to? How do we do that? By being established in faith and love; by growing in faith and in love. That sums it all up, doesn't it?
CHRISTIANS GROW IN FAITH AND LOVE BY THE TRUTH
Here's the second thing I want you to see. Look at verses 9 and 10. Paul, having given thanksgiving for their faith and for their love goes on to say, “What thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before God, we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face?” Why? “And supply what is lacking in your faith.” Now, what's that about? Well Paul had only been able to be with them and teach them for a few weeks and then he had to go away and he wants to come back to supply what is lacking in their faith. How's he going to do that? By teaching them the Word of God. That's how he's going to supply what's lacking in their faith. He can't create faith; he can't grow faith. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But how does faith grow? Faith comes by hearing what? The Word of God.
And Paul tells you that, doesn't he, in 1 Timothy chapter 1 verse 5. Take a look at it. Paul says, “The goal of our instruction,” 1 Timothy chapter 1 verse 5, “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” In other words, his aim, he's received a charge from Jesus to do Gospel ministry. His aim in that ministry, the goal in his teaching and in his instruction is that there would be disciples who love. They love God, they love one another, they love their neighbor from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. And so his teaching is going to be designed to what? To grow them in love. So when he says he want to come and supply what is lacking in your faith, what he is saying is he wants their faith to be grown by truth, the truth of the Word. He wants to come supply them what is lacking by teaching the truth of the Word.
Now this is hugely important. If we don't understand how truth functions we’ll miss the whole point of why we gather Lord's Day after Lord's Day, why we teach all week long, why we have seminaries, why we have schools that teach the Word of God. God's just is not in the business of simply information transfer; He's not trying to cram your minds full with little facts so that you know more than the people around you; that truth is designed to transform your life. You know, we often say to seminary students, “You can learn about the hypostatic static union of the natures of Jesus Christ and still go home and be a jerk to your wife.” So the important thing is to understand that everything that God says in His Word is designed to change how we live in relation to Him and in relation to one another. And Paul is saying, “I want to supply what's lacking in your faith.” How's he going to do that? By teaching him the Word and then by their lives being conformed to God's will by His Word. Isn't that what he talks about in Romans chapter 12 verses 1 and 2? That we're transformed by the renewing of our minds according to the Word of God. That's what Paul is saying here, that we grow in faith and in love by truth.
INCREASE IN CHRISTIAN LOVE IS NECESSARY FOR GODLINESS
And then third, if you’d look at verses 11 to 13, this is very interesting. Then Paul says – look at verse 12 – “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all so that,” verse 13, “so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness.” Now that's interesting. “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness.” That strike you as interesting? He's just said in 1 Timothy 1:5 that he's going to teach them the truth so that they love. Now he's saying that he wants them to increase and abound in love so that they may be established in holiness. Hmmm? How's that work? I'm not sure that I know the whole answer, but I think that I do know this. Paul is saying her that it is impossible for us to grow in holiness apart from the context of really Christian loving relationships with one another and in attitudes towards all people. That is, Christian godliness is not just a matter of you sitting down and saying, “I'm going to cultivate this particular virtue in my life because virtues” — let's say you decide you’re going to open up Galatians and you’re going to work through the fruit of the Spirit and you've decided you’re going to be a more faithful person or you’re going to be a more kind person. Well, guess what?
You can't do that by yourself. There has to be somebody else around before you can be more faithful because you have to be more faithful to somebody or there has to be somebody else around if you’re going to be more kind because you have to have somebody else if you’re going to be kind. And so the virtues of the Christian life cannot be cultivated in isolation from one another. We need to be in community and we need to be in accountability in order to cultivate the virtues of the Christian life.
And so Paul is saying, “I want your love to increase and abound in order that you might grow in holiness because it's in the context of those loving relationships that your godliness will be established.” Do we realize that? It means that if we're going to be established in godliness in our relationships we're going to have to learn to forgive one another and forbear with one another. Love is often going to have to cover a multitude of sins. Love is going to have to think the best of others when we're tempted to think the worst. And all of that's going to be necessary to our growing in godliness and our godliness is that thing that makes the world look at the church and say, “You know what? They’re not like us. Because if we're like that world, the world says, “You don't have anything to teach us.” But when our priorities are different, when our behavior is different, when our aspirations are different the world says, “Well, they’re a little weird, but there might be something I need to listen to from them.” But that godliness won't manifest itself that witnesses to the world that the Holy Spirit is at work in us if we are not increasing and abounding in love. And so increase in love is necessary for establishment in godliness. That's what Paul is saying here.
It's a glorious passage and it sets before us aspirations. Don't you want to grow in faith and love? And don't you want to grow in the truth so that you can grow in faith and love? And don't you desire to be more godly and because you desire to be more godly you realize, “You know, this is going to require me deliberately committing myself and asking the Holy Spirit to increase and abound in love and love is going to mean me thinking about other people before myself. It's going to be about me seeking their best interest before my own. It's going to entail me overlooking offenses.” That's the way that we live life in light of Jesus’ return.
And by the way did you notice how Paul mentions that in verse 13? “That He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus.”
He's still thinking about the coming of our Lord Jesus. How do you live life in light of Jesus’ return? You long for godliness, you pursue love, you grow in faith and in love. That's how you stand fast in Christ, in faith and in love. And don't you love the combination of that? You know, if you look out in the church today and there are people that are strong in love and weak in faith, strong in faith and weak in love and here's Paul saying, “No. Those things go together.”
Increasing in faith and love, faith and love are there. It's what we want to be. That's the kind of congregation we want to be. May the Lord bless His Word.
Heavenly Father, work Your truth into our lives so that we love from pure hearts, good consciences and sincere faith. In Jesus' name, amen.
Well, in this passage it's very evident that Paul loves the church. Let's sing about that love using number 353, “I Love Thy Kingdom Lord”.
Receive God's blessing. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.