If you want to know what people really believe, the philosopher Roger Scruton once explained, listen to them pray.
It is one thing to ask a person what he believes, but it is another thing to listen to him pray. Prayers reveal the underlying theology. As the old Latin formula reminds us, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi — As we pray, so we believe.
I think we can safely take Roger Scruton’s point one step further. We learn a great deal about someone by what they ask others to pray for. That point draws me to the Apostle Paul, and to his prayer requests as found in 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5.
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”
Paul has already written to the Christians in Thessalonica, thankful that their faith was growing abundantly and that their mutual love in Christ was increasing. He has assured them of the ultimate victory of Christ and warned them to be watchful of the coming Day of the Lord.
“So then, brothers,” Paul had written, “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by spoken word or by our letter.” [2:15] Paul then prayed for these believers, for whom he had long toiled and to whom he had so faithfully preached: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” [2:16-17]
Only then did Paul ask the Thessalonians to pray for him, along with his gospel companions Timothy and Silvanus. Finally, he asks, pray for us “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.”
Paul continued by asking the church to pray that he and the other evangelists would be “delivered from wicked and evil men,” knowing that the gospel of Christ has enemies. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to pray that the gospel would go forth unhindered by opposition and unstoppable in the face of the wicked and the evil.
Paul was confident that the church would be protected from the evil one, and he expressed confidence that the Thessalonian Christians would be faithful to his instruction “and will do the things that we command.”
What strikes me most powerfully is the words that the Apostle uses to make the central thrust of his request for prayer clear — “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.”
Paul defined his ministry as the ministry of the Word. The minister is a steward of the mysteries of God, a herald of the good news, and a proclaimer of the gospel of Christ. As he instructed the church at Rome in Romans chapter ten, “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” [Romans 10:17]
Now Paul asks the Thessalonian church to pray “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.”
Speed ahead? Paul’s language underlines his hope that the gospel would spread quickly to the ends of the earth. He yearns to see the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, race across the world, knowing that the Day of the Lord is coming, when there will be no more days left to preach. Paul’s vision was driven by urgency and eschatology, knowing that the time is short and eternity is at stake. In these words from Paul we hear the echo of Jesus in John 9, verse 4: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”
With night coming, the urgency is clear. John Stott put it this way: “The Thessalonians are asked to pray that the gospel may run well, run fast, and that, wherever it goes, it may have a glorious reception.”
That points us to the second phrase of this prayer request — that the word of the Lord may be honored. Paul understood that the gospel is honored when it is recognized as God’s good news of salvation, when the sinner hears of God’s provision for our salvation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and when the sinner believes and is saved. This is what it means for the word of the Lord to be honored. The underlying word points to glory, and God is glorified when the gospel is preached, heard, and believed.
Paul was never concerned for his own glory. As a matter of fact, he was determined that he receive no glory so that the glory would be exclusively and rightly God’s alone.
His prayer is that the word of the Lord would speed ahead and be honored. And as Paul asked the believers in Thessalonica to pray for him, so we now pray for you, the May 2016 graduating class of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Our prayer is that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored in you, in your preaching, ahead of you as you go.
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