Desires that Please God
Topic: English Passage: 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
I don’t remember where I first heard this, but someone went around asking middle school and high school and college teachers what they taught, and the majority of them gave answers that were aligned with the subject of their classes. So, they responded with “I teach Math,” or “I teach History and Economics.”
A smaller percentage of the teachers gave an answer in which the focus was not the material, but the recipients. Those would be answers like, “I teach 7th graders,” or “I teach female students.” Both kinds of answers are appropriate; they just have a different focus.
Really effective teachers and coaches are those who understand both sides of the responses. They know their subject, but they also know their audience. They know how to effectively teach the content to that specific group.
Whenever someone forgets one of those elements, their teaching is going to suffer. For example, and I assume many of you have had this experience, there can be teachers who are experts in their field but aren’t very good at explaining it to the class. They know their subject, but they don’t really know their audience. At least they don’t know them in a way that helps them teach effectively. Or they don’t really care about the students.
The opposite extreme would be a teacher who knows and loves the class, but doesn’t really know or love the subject they teach. There might be a good relational connection to the students, but the class isn’t learning very much. That’s not good either.
This same principle applies, not just in education at school or at work or at home, but also in Christian ministry. You need to know and love the content of your instruction, and you need to know and love the people to whom you are ministering. Know and love the subject, and know and love the audience.
For us as parents, that means we aren’t just called to teach the Bible in a generic sense, we are called to teach the word of God to our children. And that instruction is supposed to be within the context of a loving family. We shouldn’t have cold teaching or detached teaching.
This is a principle we have been able to see in the life of the Apostle Paul as we have been studying his first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul was a faith minister of the gospel. As a teacher, he knew and loved the word of God, which was the subject of his instruction. But he also knew and loved his audience, which in this case was the Thessalonians. We have seen his affection for them in the first three chapters.
Back in chapter 2, Paul compared his ministry to a nursing mother and to an exhorting father. He lived among them with humility and gentleness. He thanked God for the church and for their spiritual growth, and it grieved him tremendously to be separated from them.
Besides all that we have seen already, this morning we come to the final three verses of chapter 3, and we see one important expression of Paul’s love for the people. We see his prayer. Like a loving mother or father, Paul prayed for his spiritual children.
Just so you’re prepared, we are going to have a bit of a longer introduction today, but I promise you, we will get to our text. But before we do that, I want to say some more general words about prayer.
Anytime we come to a prayer in the letters of the New Testament, not only do we have a divinely-approved example for prayer, but we also have an opportunity to pause and assess our own prayer life.
I remember a professor in seminary, telling us that we could always make our congregation feel guilty about three things: our Bible reading, our evangelism, and our prayer life. And he cautioned us against abusing those topics to belittle our congregation.
This morning, my intent is not to burden you with guilt. I don’t think that was Paul’s intent. I think his intent was to express his love and to bring comfort and encouragement.
When we pray, we are usually making some proclamation or some petition. Proclamations would be like praising God, or thanking God, or confessing our sin. Petitions would be requests. We are asking for something. And this is mainly what comes to people’s minds when they think about prayer. The prayer we are looking at today is a request. It’s not a proclamation or a doxology. It’s got some simple requests.
Now for any requests we make in prayer, there are going to be two main elements. The first element is dependency. Praying to God is an expression of dependency because we know and believe that only God has the power to make things happen. We need Him to act on our behalf. We’re not simply asking for help or permission; we are asking for grace and divine enablement. We are completely dependent on Him.
In John 15:5 Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” We need to depend on Christ.
The Apostle Paul, in thinking about his difficulties and his poverty, said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And clearly, that is a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer is an expression of dependency. When we aren’t depending on God, our prayer life is going to suffer. And if our prayer life is lacking, it's probably because we aren’t really depending on God for strength and enablement.
The second major element of request in prayer is desire. We make requests because we desire certain things. In dependency, we recognize that God must work; in desire we recognize that there are certain things we want to see, or want to continue to see.
For example, in Jesus’ famous model prayer for His disciples, also known as The Lord’s Prayer, he gives a list of requests, which means they are desires. These are the kinds of things we are supposed to desire.
We should desire God’s name to be holy and revered. We should desire God’s kingdom to come, and His will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven
It is also appropriate to desire daily provision, as long as we recognize that God is the one who provides it. It’s also good to desire forgiveness, a refreshed relationship with our heavenly Father. And we should desire holiness. That’s why the prayer asks God to keep us from temptation.
So, again, two of the main components behind any request we make in prayer are dependency and desire.
Like I said, the prayer we are looking at today is a prayer of desire. Paul is making requests to God. And he makes one main request per verse.
Let’s go ahead and look at that now. First Thessalonians, chapter 3, verses 11 through 13. These are not generic requests for Paul’s Christian life; these are specific requests concerning the Thessalonians. They are an expression of His love and affection for them, and they are also an example to us of what we should desire
Like I said, we’ve got one desire, or one request, so today’s message is going to have three parts.
Number 1, starting in verse 11, we see a desire for personal connection. A desire for personal connection.
Let’s read it. Verse 11—Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you.
This is Paul’s desire for personal ministry. Back in chapter 2, Paul said that multiple times he wanted to go to Thessalonica, but Satan had hindered him. Well, Paul is not stronger than Satan, but he knows who is.
His prayer is a request that God the Father and Jesus the Son would guide them so that they can meet again. He wants God to get rid of all those obstacles Satan had put in his way.
There’s a wonderful reminder here of Christ’s deity but we don’t see it as clearly in English.
In the Greek, the verb “direct” is singular, but Paul gives two subjects. It would be like saying God the Father and Jesus the Lord guides us. It’s a plural subject with a singular verb, and it serves not just as a grammar lesson but as a reminder of the unity and equality between the Father and the Son.
You can pray to God, and you can pray to Jesus because they are One. We don’t want to blend them or confuse them as persons, but we should recognize that they are united in essence and in purpose and in power. Paul is depending on God to reunite him with the Thessalonians.
And again, what an amazing example of Paul’s love for the church. He wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He didn’t just preach and then abandon them to the world or even to the sovereignty of God. He wanted to keep ministering to them.
And even as an Apostle who was writing the eternal, authoritative, and powerful word of God, Paul recognized the value of personal ministry. He wanted to be with them.
That has to say something to our internet culture and to our Zoom culture.
We thank God for technology and what good things it can make possible. But we do not want to minimize the joy and the effectiveness of personal ministry and personal connections.
There’s a sadness in my heart to know that some people assume they can be part of a church simply by connecting online. And there’s a frustration in my heart with pastors and church leaders who promote that kind of message.
Countless people across this nation watch their pastor on a screen. And some churches even do this on purpose. They gather all the people into a room, which they usually label as a satellite campus, and then they press play to start the video.
You can’t talk to the actual preacher. You can’t see into his life. You can’t ask him questions afterward. And you definitely can’t have lunch with the pastor.
And the leaders believe that makes them more effective as teachers. They don’t recognize that it falls short of God’s desire for His people and for His shepherds.
But more important than thinking about other churches, let’s pause and look at our own hearts. Do you value personal connections? Do you look forward to gathering with God’s people for mutual encouragement and ministry? Do you take deliberate steps to connect with one another?
Halloween is coming next week. And regardless of how you feel about it, and regardless of what you will or won’t do, at least recognize that it may be the one day a year where our culture says it’s okay to knock on someone else’s door. It's okay to say hello to a random stranger.
And why do they do that? It’s all for a piece of candy. Kids and adults step out of their comfort zone, and out of their normal activity, to collect candy.
Why aren’t we willing to do that—not just on one night but as a regular part of our life—because we value something greater than candy? We value personal connections for the glory of Jesus Christ.
Go say hello to your neighbor, or your coworker, or your brother or sister in the faith. Invite them over for a meal or find some other way to connect.
You can do that with Christians, and you can do that with non-Christians. That’s part of how the world sees the love of Jesus. That part of what it means to let your light shine in a dark world.
Personal connections are how God works through you and in you. And to the degree that you cut yourself off from people, you are cutting yourself off from the work of God in your life and from the joy He intended to give you. We should all desire personal connection.
Let’s move on to the second desire. This comes from verse 12. Number 2, we see a desire for increasing love. A desire for increasing love.
Verse 12—And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.
The words Paul uses here as He makes his request to God give the idea of something that is excessive—way more than what is allowed or expected. It’s just way too much, in a good way.
I mentioned Halloween for the first point, but for this point, I’ll have you think about Thanksgiving, when your grandma or your aunt, just keeps piling food on your plate, and she says, “Just a little more. Just one more plate.” But you don’t have any room.
Paul is asking God that this church would be overflowing with the love of Jesus Christ. And that love includes affection and action.
No matter what limits this world has placed on love, Paul wants more. More love. More love. Move love. Pile it on. Go past what anyone expects.
He wants a love within the church, as brothers and sisters in the Lord, and he wants a love for those outside the church as well. That’s what verse 12 says—love for one another and love for all.
He wants a church that stands out because of how much love is multiplying. It can’t be contained; it’s just oozing out of them. It’s like a fruit tree that just doesn’t seem to run out. The harvest keeps increasing. It’s abounding.
Love is a natural outflow of someone who truly knows Jesus Christ, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy or automatic. That’s why Paul is praying for it. Real love—Christlike love—is an investment. It's a sacrifice. But it comes from the recognition that God has promised us a reward.
You can hold your place here for a moment, and flip back with me to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Galatians is four books back in the New Testament. Before Colossians and Philippians and Ephesians, we have Galatians.
Look with me at Galatians chapter 6, verse 7. There are many passages that talk about Christian love, but I think this is a good one for today. Galatians 6:7. It says—Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
Sowing and reaping are farming terms. You sow seeds in the ground, and you reap a harvest. The seeds you place in the ground are what you are going to collect later. That’s an obvious principle, and there is a spiritual corollary.
Verse 8—For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
So, you can either invest in the things of this world, the things of the flesh, or you can invest in the things that please God. The things of this world might bring a temporary pleasure, but they will also bring pain and ruin. The things of God, on the other hand, bring a reward. We need to be reminded of that truth so that we can persevere.
Verse 9 says—And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Well, what is one example of sowing to the Spirit? What is one example of how we can invest in the things of God for an eternal reward? Paul gives us one in the very next verse.
Verse 10—So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Paul the Apostle, speaking the words of God, says: Love the people in your church and love the people of the world. That’s how you sow to the Spirit. Like a farmer planting seed, loving others not going to be easy or automatic, but it’s going to yield a harvest of joy.
And knowing how difficult that kind of investment is, Paul prays that this would happen more and more for the Thessalonians. He prays that they would abound in love. You can go ahead and turn back to our passage in First Thessalonians 3.
Although biblical love includes emotions, it’s not just pure sentimental. This isn’t an image of a loving community that has no problems. Remember, Paul knows that this church is going through an extremely difficult trial. Satan is tempting them to abandon the faith through a severe persecution and opposition.
And because of that pain and persecution, their love is all the more necessary, and their love will be all the more visible and effective. They need one another in order to get through this time.
The Apostle Peter understood the importance of love during trials, and we know that because in his letter called First Peter, one of his main commands is to love one another. He calls the Christians—living under persecution and difficulty—to walk in holiness and fear. And then, his first, specific command is to love one another. That’s from First Peter 1:22.
Those people were suffering tremendously, and Peter understood the importance of love. Love is so necessary in times of difficulty, and it’s so effective as well. The world will see the difference.
Paul desired that kind of love, and he modeled it for the church as well. He’s not mandating something he hasn’t been doing himself. That’s why at the end of verse 12, he says he is praying that they would have an abounding love “just as we do for you.”
So, let’s take this as a reminder and as an example of a holy desire. You and I need to desire increasing love. We pray to God that His love, the love of Jesus Christ, will be evident in our own life and in the life of our church. And we need to work to let that love be shown within our church family and to the rest of the world. Paul desired an increasing love, and so should we.
Lastly, we come to the third desire. Paul had a desire for personal connection, a desire for increasing love, and number 3, there was a desire for enduring holiness. A desire for enduring holiness.
Let’s look at verse 13 now, the final verse of the chapter and of Paul’s prayer. It says—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.
Paul wasn’t interested in a temporary burst of good behavior. He wanted enduring righteousness, enduring holiness.
Paul has pointed to the coming of Christ before. Back in chapter 1, he said it was the newly formed hope for the church. It was the day of their deliverance. It was the day of God’s wrath upon the world and God’s salvation of His people.
In chapter 2, Paul says that’s the day when he will fully rejoice over God’s work in the Thessalonians’ lives. On that day, they will be his crown of joy and crown of boasting.
Paul was an “end-times guy.” And we could also say he had an “end-times ministry.” We’ll see more about that in chapters 4 and 5 as well.
But for now, at the end of chapter 3, the coming of Christ is connected to the endurance of the church. He prays that they would be blameless in holiness on the day Jesus comes and they all stand before the judgment of God.
This is a prayer for perseverance. This is a prayer that their faith and their holiness would endure. And even though we know theologically that those who truly belong to Christ will never fall away, we don’t want to ignore the means by which we endure.
From an earthly perspective, we endure because of the ministry of God’s word and God’s people in our lives. But from a heavenly perspective, we endure because Christ sustains us as our High Priests. Christ intercedes for us, and He holds us in His hand. He teaches us by His Spirit. And Paul prays that Christ would continue working and bearing fruit in these brothers’ lives all the way until Jesus returns for His people. He wants to see them make it all the way to the finish line.
I think we all understand that desire. We can’t be perfectly confident about anyone’s faith, right? We can see fruit in someone’s life. We can make an earthly judgment in the church, but only God knows who truly belongs to Him. And any one of us can fall into the allure of this world and fall away from the faith we profess. Any one of us could one day demonstrate that we never had real faith to begin with.
And so, Paul prays that their holiness would endure. He prays that Christ would guard them and grow them until His Second Coming.
Now, as we come to a close, I want you to notice something. Look at the opening words of verse 13. It says, “so that.” So that.
Some translations skip over that little phrase, and they lose the impact of what Paul is saying here. Paul is not starting a new sentence. And he is not simply giving another request. He is connecting his final request to the previous one. This final desire of verse 13 is the outcome of what Paul prays for in verse 12.
In other words, Paul wants the church to be abounding in love so that they would be blameless before the Lord. What’s the connection between those two things? How does our love right now connect to our future holiness when Christ comes.
In a generic way, they are connected because love is evidence of genuine salvation. So, if we have abounding and increasing love in our lives, that is evidence that we belong to Christ, and we will be saved when He comes.
Another connection between our present love and our eternal salvation is that love right now is a preview of the eternal love we will have for one another. It’s a glimpse of the joy and love of heaven.
But there’s more to it than that. Love is more than just evidence that we’ll be in heaven. And it’s more than a preview of heaven. More significantly, love is how we make progress toward our final state.
Picture your Christian life as an Olympic rowing race. You’re in the rowboat. You’re working hard. You’re working against the current to keep making progress.
On the one hand, love is like the uniform. It proves you belong to Christ. But on the other hand, love is also the oar. It’s the paddle you’re using to pull the water behind you. It’s the driving force of your progress.
Your effort in loving others, whether in the church or outside the church, is how God works to sanctify you. It's the work that strengthens your spiritual life. It’s how God matures you in your faith.
One of the theological synonyms for salvation is sanctification. It means to be made holy or set apart.
Theologically, our sanctification has three components. At the moment of our new birth, when we repent of sin and trust in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf, we receive what is called a positional sanctification. We are saved from the penalty of sin, and we’re set apart for God. That’s positional sanctification.
At that moment, there begins a second phase of sanctification which is called progressive sanctification. That is the daily progress of being saved from the practice and the power of sin. We are becoming more like Jesus Christ. That’s progressive sanctification.
The third phase of our sanctification is final sanctification which is when we see Jesus and become like Him, without sin.
So, there’s positional sanctification, progressive sanctification, and final sanctification. Verse 12 is talking about love in terms of progressive sanctification. Paul wants the church to grow in love. Verse 13 is talking about our final sanctification. Paul wants the church to be perfect on the day they see Jesus.
And what Paul is teaching us is progressive sanctification and final sanctification are connected. Right now, we are growing in the direction of our final state. We’re rowing the boat. And if we keep rowing the boat, we will make it to the finish line.
If you stop rowing—if you stop pressing on toward the goal—you’re not going to make it to the end. Because the true saints of God will persevere. They will not walk away. They will not make s shipwreck of their faith.
That’s why in Colossians 1:23, when Paul says the church will be blameless before the Lord, he says it’ll only happen “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.”
Our work and our effort in love move us toward the finish line of standing blameless before our God and Father.
So, I hope you see how important Paul’s prayer is. He wants increasing love because that’s what leads to enduring and eternal holiness.
Don’t you want eternal salvation for yourself and for those around you? Don’t you want to be able to look around when Christ comes, and see your brothers and sisters, and say, “We made it! By the grace of God we made it!”?
If that’s the case, then we need to let our desire for final sanctification be a driving force for our progressive sanctification. Let’s pursue love for one another as evidence of our salvation, as a preview of heaven, and most of all, as the way in which we make progress toward that final goal.
Let’s fight the sin and the laziness and the excuses of a sinful heart, and let’s pursue increasing love so that we can have our hearts made blameless on the day we see Jesus Christ. Love is how we move in that direction, and it’s how we move one another as well.
What earthly desire can compare with that?