As we kick off 2021, we’re encouraging our members to pray for one another. This passage gives us a way to do that.

Citylight Center City | January 3, 2021 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.


1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, D.A. Carson

1 & 2 Thessalonians (The IVP New Testament Commentary), G.K. Beale

Sermon Transcript

Today is the first Sunday of the new year, so it’s often a helpful time to think about our habits. Of course God doesn’t require us to make new year’s resolutions, but many do find them helpful. This year I’ve encouraged the members of our church, at least for the month of January, to try adopting a resolution: Praying for one another using an app we have that has names, photos, and prayer requests of other members. So today we’re going to look at one of the prayers recorded for us in Scripture to learn something about how to pray for one another. It’s a prayer that Paul, a Christian, prays for the Thessalonian church, or, in other words, for the members of the church at Thessalonica. So when I say pray for one another today, I am thinking specifically of Citylight Center City members praying for other Citylight Center City members, though if you aren’t yet a part of our church, we’d love to have you join, and you can certainly still apply this passage to prayer for other Christians you know in the meantime.


It’s also a particularly fitting prayer for us to look at in our moment of history. Paul planted the church in Thessalonica, but then because of persecution, had to flee earlier than he wanted to. He writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:17, “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavor the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face,” and isn’t that how we feel today? We’ve been torn away from one another as a church because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we endeavor the more eagerly and with great desire to see one another face to face again. So Paul’s prayer is offered in that context. One of the beauties of prayer is that you can offer it even for those you are not seeing face to face, and that’s part of why we are emphasizing it right now at this stage in our church’s life. So what can we learn from this prayer? We can learn to pray for one another’s sanctification, and the text shows us three ways to do that: Give thanks for what God is already doing, ask for opportunities to minister, and ask God ot work in one another’s lives.


Give thanks for what God is already doing


In verse 9 Paul asks rhetorically what thanksgiving they can return to God for the Thessalonians, specifically for all the joy they feel for their sake before our God. He feels such an overwhelming sense of gratitude that it just seems to him like words are not enough. Why? What is it about the Thessalonians that makes him so thankful? Paul says in verse 8: “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” His great joy over the Thessalonians is that despite his inability to be with them, they are standing fast in the Lord.


It seems simple, right? What’s he really saying? He’s saying, “I heard you are still Christians, and man, words can’t even express how thankful to God I am for you.” I’m reminded of a time when a guy who was converted here at Citylight Center City a couple years later, unprompted by me, asked me how he could pray for me. I felt such joy in God’s work in his life. Might that not be the case more often for us, though? I mean, think about this: Every human being is born dead in their trespasses and sins, rejecting God and worshipping other things. Some will then make a profession of faith in Jesus, only to contradict that profession with a life of unrepentant sin, or to later renounce that profession altogether. So if you interact with someone and it’s clear to you that they have been made alive by God, and that life is still in them, that’s amazing. “This person is still a Christian” is cause for great joy.


Notice next, then, what Paul does with this great joy. He turns it into thanksgiving toward God in prayer. The joy he feels is joy he feels “before our God” he says in verse 9, and the thanksgiving he returns is thanksgiving to God. Recall that the thing that gave him joy is that the Thessalonians are standing firm in the Lord, so wouldn’t it make sense to thank the Thessalonians? “Good job standing firm; way to go guys.” No, because Paul knows the Thessalonians are not the ultimate reason the Thessalonians are standing firm. God is. So Paul thanks God for what He’s already doing in the Thessalonians’ lives.


So he doesn’t thank them, but he does tell them how he thanks God for them. There is a desire to encourage them and point out to them the ways he sees God working in their lives, and the joy he feels as a result of them. What impact would it have on our church culture if a normal conversation sounded something like, “Michael, this week I’ve been thanking God in my prayers for how faithfully and consistently you serve our church. Whether it’s the prayers you offer on the livestream, your week-by-week leadership of your Citygroup, or the time you take every time we gather to meet new people, help them feel welcome, and see how others are doing, God has given you a genuine love for Him and for others, and I thank Him for it.” Very practically then, we learn from this that when praying for one another, part of our prayer, and ordinarily the part before we ask for God to work, is to thank God for what He’s already done in one another’s lives, and then to actually tell one another in what ways we are thanking God for one another.


Some of you are like me, and thanksgiving does not come naturally. I’m better at spotting problems, noticing ways there is a need for God to work further in my own life and the lives of others, than I am at noticing what God has already done and giving Him thanks for it. I can feel justified in that, too: God is perfect, so let’s not settle for anything less than perfect, I don’t want to be fake and pretend something’s great when it’s not, etc. Maybe some truth to those things, but then why is it this prayer and frankly so many of the prayers of the Bible are filled with thanksgiving? Because there is something God is already doing in every Christian’s life, and He deserves praise for it.


We have about 100 members here at Citylight Center City, and last year I made it a point to personally check in with at least each household to see how they’re doing under the stay-at-home order. And there are a few people wandering, to be honest, and we’re pursuing them in love. But I found that 9 out of 10, like literally about that many, are still standing fast in the Lord. That’s awesome, especially after a year like 2020 when so much of what we ordinally do as a church was hindered, God still sustained and, in many cases, matured His people. So Citylight Center City, I thank God for you, because you are standing firm in the Lord. And even if that’s all God did in 2020, which by the way it isn’t, that would be cause for great joy and thanksgiving in His presence. So give thanks to God if one another are standing firm in the Lord, and if you go to pray for someone and you aren’t sure whether they are standing firm in the Lord, let that be an opportunity to shoot them a text or to get together to see how they’re doing. That brings us to the next way to pray for one another’s sanctification: Ask for opportunities to minister.


Ask for opportunities to minister


In verse 10 Paul says they pray most earnestly night and day that they may see the Thessalonians face to face and supply what is lacking in their faith. In verse 11 Paul changes the word but repeats the same essential petition, that God would direct his way to the Thessalonians. This is a prayer we can copy and paste pretty readily in COVID times, and we’ve been praying as a church for some time now that God would enable us to gather together again so we can see one another face to face. That’s in part because we simply enjoy one another’s company, and no doubt that’s part of why Paul wanted God to direct his way to the Thessalonians, but it’s bigger than that. He specifically says in verse 10 that the reason he wants to see them face to face is to supply what is lacking in their faith. We don’t get all the details of what is lacking in their faith, but we know they were a new church of new converts, and Paul’s ordinary pattern in such situations is to stay, teach the Bible to the new converts, give them an example of godly living, encourage them, appoint elders for them, and move on. Any number of those things may have been left undone in the case of the Thessalonians, but the point is that when Paul is praying for the Thessalonians’ sanctification, he also prays that he might be used by God as instrument of their sanctification.


The heart here exemplified for us is an offering of the self to God. It’s saying, “Not only do I want these people to be sanctified, but I offer myself to you to be used by you in that process.” This is, in fact, how God ordinarily works sanctification: He uses people in need of redemption to help other people in need of redemption. Paul felt that responsibility uniquely as an apostle, but it’s a responsibility all Christians have to one another, especially fellow church members to one another. I know it feels to many of you like God would never use you in these ways. You’ve got all your own flaws and sin issues; how could you be an instrument of someone else’s sanctification? Well guess what? The only instruments God uses, besides Jesus, are imperfect ones. He delights to do that actually, to demonstrate that the power for change comes from Him and not from us, so that when people do change, guess who receives thanks? God.


So as you’re praying for one another night and day, pray for opportunities to minister to one another. Offer yourself to God as His instrument in one another’s sanctification. You can’t be everything to everyone at the same time; only God is omnipresent. But you can be genuinely helpful in the lives of your fellow church members.


Ask God to work in one another’s lives


Now we come to what Paul actually prays for the Thessalonians and as I’ve been saying, he basically prays for their sanctification, meaning their devotedness to God and His glory. God is love, so Paul prays that their love would abound more and more for one another and for all. Then the reason he gives in verse 13 is so that God may establish their hearts blameless in holiness before God. Something is holy when it is entirely devoted to God and His glory. Paul’s prayer here culminates in the desire that the Thessalonians would be blameless in holiness, or in other words, that they would be completely sanctified, devoted to God and His glory alone, such that nothing in their lives could be “blamed” for being anything less than that.


He doesn’t pray for everything connected to their sanctification. When considering what it will take for the Thessalonians to be blameless in holiness before God, he probably mentions love for one another and for all in particular because he saw a particular need for this in their case. So also, it will generally help you pray better for one another if you get to praying for someone and say, “Now what would this person look like if they were blameless in holiness before God?” or “What would our church look like if we were blameless in holiness before God?” and then pray for those things that specifically come to mind. If you feel like you don’t know the people for whom you’re praying well enough to answer that question, let that be another reason to get to know them better, to learn how to pray for them. Failing that, you’re also always on safe footing to simply use a prayer like this one from the Bible and pray it for one another.


But here’s the question we have to soberly consider: Is sanctification really at the forefront of our minds in our prayers for one another, and even in our prayers for ourselves? In all of Paul’s prayers recorded for us in Scripture, it seems to be about the only thing for which he prays. We have no record of him praying for financial prosperity, physical safety, bodily health, or job success. Now Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, James taught us to pray for healing, so praying for our material needs and sustenance is certainly something we should do. We have multiple members with hospitalized parents right now; I’m praying for healing for them. But the question here is ordinarily, what are our priorities? Author D.A. Carson, in his book on Paul’s prayers, puts it this way: “Suppose, for example, that 80 or 90 percent of our petitions ask God for good health, recovery from illness, safety on the road, a good job, success in exams, the emotional needs of our children, success in our mortgage application, and much more of the same. How much of Paul’s praying revolves around equivalent items?”


We could certainly ask why we don’t pray like Paul prays here more often, but perhaps it would be better to ask why he does, and that brings us to the end of our passage. He doesn’t just pray they would be blameless in holiness before God in general. He has a specific time in mind. He prays they would be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. When I say, “Hey, I have a minor water leak in my house; pray it gets fixed,” which by the way I have said and feel fine about saying, how far into the future am I thinking? Maybe a few months, right? I’m thinking if this continues for a few months that’ll be bad, and again, fair enough. But we can’t stop there. When Paul prays, he’s thinking of no less than the day our Lord Jesus comes with all the saints.


It is a day described throughout the Bible as a day of judgment and salvation, when every human being will be fixed forever in one of two conditions: Eternal conscious joy with the Lord forever, or eternal conscious torment apart from His presence. Think about that. That has to be a bigger deal than how I do on my next test, right? That has to be a bigger deal than money, right? And even a bigger deal than good health, healing from disease, and physical safety. I’m not saying these things don’t matter; I’m saying there are things that matter more. When you pray for one another, think about the fact that the person for whom you’re praying will one day appear before God at the coming of the Lord Jesus and be fixed in a condition that from that point on can never change, those who are blameless in holiness before Him into eternal joy, those who are not, into eternal torment.


Now how could anyone really be blameless in holiness before Him on that day? It will only be because God did it. All of us are naturally full of blame and unholy in His presence, but when we were far from Him, He came to us, face to face, in Jesus Christ. Paul wanted to go to the Thessalonians to supply what was lacking in their faith, but when Jesus came to us, all we had was lack. We lacked the righteousness necessary to appear blameless in holiness before God. We lacked the power to change ourselves, pay for our sins, or overcome death. But Jesus supplied what was lacking. His love abounded for us. He was the one truly blameless one, perfect in holiness, who appeared before God in our place to first receive our judgment in death, and then rise again to new life before God.


Repent and believe in Him, and the moment you do, you will be declared blameless in holiness before God. Repent and believe in Him, and God will finish the good work He’s begun in you, so that you will appear before Him blameless in holiness at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. He is who your fellow church members need more than anyone or anything else, more of Him, so that their love abounds more and more for one another and for all, so that their hearts are strengthened to be blameless in holiness before God at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. If that’s what’s possible, don’t stoop to merely pray for health, wealth, and safety. When people ask you how they can pray for you, give them specific ways to pray for your sanctification. And pray for one another. I know the time is going to come when you’re going to not feel like doing it; it’s already come to me and we’re only on day 3 of 2021. When that happens, can I encourage you to just stop and seriously consider, “How long will it take me to pull up this app and pray for someone? 5 minutes tops? Do I really not have those 5 minutes? And if I use them to pray for this person, will I really regret it later?”


And when you pray for one another, give thanks for what God has already done to make us holy in His sight, give thanks for the things you already see Him doing in one another’s lives, even if it’s the simple, yet profound joy of knowing that someone else is still standing firm in the Lord. Pray for an opportunity to be an instrument in God’s hands for one another’s sanctification, and then pray for God to do the sanctifying work, so that on that final day when Jesus comes, your fellow church members will appear blameless in holiness before our God and Father.