Hope in God's Work (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 4)
Scripture: 2 Thessalonians 2:13–3:5
Words of Hope Part 4: Hope in God’s Work
2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
2:13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first-fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
3:1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. 4 And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
“What is God’s purpose for me?”
This is an important question that we spend so much time and energy searching for the answer to. We do this partly out of reverence for God and partly out of fear of missing God’s will for our lives. So we agonize over things like, “How does God want me to serve the church? Does God want me to be a missionary, or take this job, or go to this school, or marry this person, or buy this house, or go to this place?”
We want clear and direct answers, so we take personality tests and spiritual gift inventories. (These can be helpful.) We seek prophecies. Sometimes we latch on to random individual verses of the bible and call that our guidance for the week. We pray, asking God for answers, hoping to hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is what you should do..”
The funny thing is that as much as we try to remove the mystery, we still use it when it’s convenient. When someone has lost a job, for example, or is really struggling with something in life and we don’t know what to say. We put on our best holy sympathy face and say, “Don’t worry, God has a plan for your life even if you don’t know what it is.” And we leave it at that!
Obviously, I do believe that God has a purpose for each of us, and it can be a helpful reminder to our Christian brothers and sisters who are facing trouble in their lives that God does have a plan. However, that is not all we can say.
Right now, without the aid of any tests or inventories or prophecies (apart from what is already in the bible), I know God’s purpose for your life. Yes, I do. In the course of this sermon, I’m going to tell you what that is.
Last week we left off with a quote from Isaiah in which God declared: “I will accomplish all my purpose.” Apart from simply declaring His own supremacy, God actually tells us that He is doing something. God has His purpose and He will do it. I would submit to you this morning that if you know the purpose God is accomplishing in the world, you also know His purpose for your life.
For the purpose of answering this question, I would like to suggest 2 Thessalonians 3:1 as the center of our text today. In that verse, Paul asked the Thessalonian believers for prayer concerning something that exposed his deepest desire to be right in line with God’s purpose in the world.
He said, “brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you”
The ‘word of the Lord’ here refers specifically to the gospel. The premise of our sermon today is that God’s purpose, which He will accomplish in the world, is to advance the gospel. Paul understood that since this is God’s purpose, it was also his own purpose. Simply put, our purpose as Christians is to advance the gospel in the world.
This morning, we find this truth in the context of Paul’s words of hope to a young church in Thessalonica. Up until now, Paul has encouraged this fledgling church to have hope in God because they bore the marks of God’s work among them despite heavy persecution, because Jesus would return and set all things right, and that whatever happened to them or in the world, God is still supreme.
We come now to the part of the letter where Paul draws these strands together to remind them of what is really going on. Namely, that God is at work to advance the gospel in their lives and in the world through them. Our text today begins with what God is doing, culminates with why God is doing it, and ends with what His work means for the work of His Saints.
Let’s start with chapter 2 verses 13-14 in which Paul, though speaking specifically to the Thessalonians about what God has done among them, described the universal experience of all believers:
2:13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first-fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Verse 13-14 are kind of like looking at a map of the world. You can see continents and oceans, but not individual trees or even cities. These verses also describe God’s work of salvation from an overhead, comprehensive perspective, though not in extensive detail. Also, just like a map, this serves as a guide for us.
From this vantage point we can see the relationships between election, faith, sanctification, and glorification. We can see that God is over the whole process. That is, from beginning to end, Salvation is God’s work.
1. Salvation is God’s Work
The first aspect of salvation that we see on the world map is election. The Thessalonians were saved because God chose them. In your bibles, you might find that this verse says ‘from the beginning’ instead of ‘first-fruits’ in the main text, or a footnote to that effect. I prefer the translation ‘God chose you from the beginning to be saved.’ I think that there is a strong case for that reading because it matches well with Paul’s teaching in Romans, Ephesians, and 2 Timothy. Just for a moment, let’s look at the example of 2 Timothy 1:9:
9 [God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,
Before the ages began, God gave us grace in Christ Jesus. This raises an issue that Christians have been debating for a very long time. Do people have a free will to choose God, or is God totally sovereign even over our choices? I think that the reason this debate has gone on so long is that the bible clearly says both things. The bible is clear that we are condemned because of our own sin and we are saved when we put our faith in Jesus. The bible is also clear that God ordained us to be saved even before the world was created.
I can’t put an end to this debate. My perspective is that this is another aspect of God that we as human beings are too limited to understand. Last week we spent a lot of time talking about God’s supremacy. I think that God’s election of believers verses our choice to believe is in that category and part of the mystery of His supremacy over all things.
However you understand it, however this actually works, it is clear in our text today that believers are chosen by God. The point for us here is not to have a debate. It is to recognize that we are not saved because of anything we have done, but because of God’s grace toward us. Neither the Thessalonians nor we earned salvation from God. He saves whom He saves and no one deserves it.
I emphasize this point because it is so easy for us to lose site of the truth that apart from the grace of God, we were just as sinful, just as rebellious, and just as deserving of the eternal destruction we read about in the first chapter as any unbeliever. You can think of it this way: God saved us from the consequences of being ourselves.
The second landmark we find on the world map is salvation itself. Paul listed sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth as the two ingredients necessary for salvation. It is interesting that Paul listed sanctification before faith on this point. I don’t think the intention here is to tell us the order things happen when we are saved, but just that both things are required. Just like you need air and fuel to start a fire. Without one or the other, you simply won’t get fire. In the same way, faith and sanctification are necessary for salvation. Without either one of those, you don’t have salvation.
Let’s briefly examine these two halves of salvation. Paul started with sanctification, so we will too. Sanctification, simply put, means to be purified. It is the process by which God makes us suitable for His Kingdom. The agent of this process is the Holy Spirit Himself. He shows us where we fall short and gives us the ability to conform to God. It is clear, therefore, that our progress toward holiness is God’s work in us.
The other half of salvation is belief in the truth. Truth here, as we see also in verse 14, refers to the gospel. The good news that God Himself became a man, fulfilled the requirements of God’s law for us, and then died to pay the penalty for our failure to do the same.
While it is not so clear from today’s text, even our belief in Jesus is a gift from God. Ephesians 2:8 says exactly that. I think the strongest statement of this truth though is Jesus’ own words in John 6:44. He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” We could not come to faith apart from God calling us to Him. I always say that the greatest miracle you will ever see is when a sinner repents and believes the gospel. It is a miracle because only God can make it happen.
Looking at election, faith, and sanctification we once again come face to face with God’s total supremacy. While we might be tempted to argue and protest this, we need to be careful. I have heard many people say, “I can’t believe in a God who…….” The problem with this statement is that we cannot make up our own imaginary God. We must believe in God as He has revealed Himself to be. Instead of protesting, we should stand in awe of this God who ordains the end from the beginning. Who is like Him?
I have put verse 14 into a separate point even though it is still part of the overall world map. I did this because I want to highlight the goal of God’s work in the world. Let’s read verse 14 again just to keep it fresh in our minds.
14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, I have to point out that in the original Greek, ‘so that you’ is not present and ‘obtain’ is a noun. In the original language this verse reads more like this: “To this he called you through our gospel, to the obtainment of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I point this out mainly because when I read it in English, I thought ‘this’ at the beginning was referring to salvation. Now, I think it refers to the obtainment of the glory of Jesus.
Therefore, the final point on the map is that God calls people, through the gospel, to glorification in the glory of Jesus.
2. Glorification is God’s Goal
In this verse, glory is primarily attributed to Jesus. To understand the glory of Jesus, we first need to understand that God’s glory is a huge theme in the bible. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Through Isaiah, God said that we were created for His glory. Jesus taught that the purpose of our good works is that God would be glorified. In the Revelation of John, we are told that God’s glory will be the source of light in the New Creation. We can distill this down to the truth that everything God has done and will do is for the purpose of making His glory known.
Jesus is glorious because He is God and he rose from the dead. He is also glorious because he is a man as men were meant to be. You see, humanity was created in the image of God, but that image in us has been corrupted by our sin. Jesus, since he was born uncorrupted by sin and lived perfectly in conformity to the will of God, actually exemplifies what the glory of God’s image in man should be.
It is to this glory that God has called us through the gospel: The restoration of God’s image in us. We will obtain that in Christ. In the end, God will re-make us able to fulfill our created purpose of glorifying Him. This is the goal of God in the world and it is the goal that the Thessalonians needed to keep in sight.
Having the goal in sight can be a powerful motivation to strive toward it. When I was in the Army, it was required for us to be able to run 2 miles (3.2km) within a certain amount of time. For my age group, the slowest we could run and still pass was 15:54. I won’t tell you what my run time usually was, except that I was not the fastest.
On the base where I was stationed, our running course was only one mile long and snaked around a corner. We would run down one street, turn the corner and run down the next street to the end of the course, then turn right around and run back along the same path. In this way we used the one mile course to run two miles.
For me, the most difficult part of the run was just after turning around on the half-way point. By that time, I always had a stomach cramp, my legs and lungs were hurting, and the goal was nowhere in sight. However, something would happen as soon as I came back around the corner and was able to see the goal. As soon as I could see the goal, hope for the end of the run would fill me with motivation. Suddenly, I would find strength to abandon myself to the effort and I would sprint to the finish.
We have to keep in mind that life was a struggle for everyone connected to the gospel at the time this letter was written. The Thessalonians were enduring persecution and Paul had his problems with wicked people too. By reminding them of the goal, putting it back in their sight, Paul renewed the hope they needed to carry on with God’s purpose for their lives. There is glory at the end!
God’s purpose in the world is choosing and calling people to salvation in Christ so that they would obtain his glory. If you know God’s purpose in the world, you also know His purpose each of His people. You see, even though God surely could come and announce the gospel to the whole world in every language at once, He has chosen not to do that. Instead, God has commissioned His people to proclaim the gospel throughout the world. God’s purpose for the lives of all Christians is to advance the gospel.
Jesus spelled this out for his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
What is there to be confused about? Advancing the gospel is God’s purpose for us. Now that this is clear, how might we begin to fulfill this purpose? I would like to offer three suggestions of things we should change in order to fulfill our purpose in the world. There is much more to be said, but these are the things I see arising from 2 Thessalonians today.
I believe that the first step for us to take toward the goal is to change the way we pray. Let’s look quickly at chapter 3 verses 1-2
1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith.
The heart of prayer in the New Testament is prayer for the advancement of the gospel. In this passage, Paul asked for prayer that the gospel would speed ahead and be glorified, and that the evangelists themselves would be delivered from those who would try to hinder it.
The question this raises for us is what do we pray for as a church? Well, like most churches we spend a lot of time praying for each other, for jobs, for healing, and many other important things. That’s great, we need to keep doing that. However, the heart of our prayer should always be for the advancement of the gospel. As a church, we need to be asking God to use us for this purpose and to deliver us from those who would hinder this work. Whatever else we pray for, that should be the center.
Another step we can take is to change what we do. Sometimes we get caught in the idea that the church has pastors and missionaries to fulfill the great commission and the rest only need to attend church. That is not the picture we find in the New Testament. In the New Testament, we find individuals and churches totally ordering their lives around the advancement of the gospel.
Gospel advancement is a job for the many, not for the few. While I do love my job of explaining God’s word to you as well as I can, I also realize that the reach of my influence is limited. All of you, however, live and work among all the people of Abu Dhabi! Your influence stretches much further than mine. The great commission is a job for the entire church.
On ordering our lives around the gospel, you may have noticed that neither 2 Thessalonians of the great commission give us a lot of specifics. They don’t tell us what job we should choose or who whether or not we should live in that house. But consider for a moment what you might do differently if you accepted God’s mission as your mission; if you put all your major decisions in the context of gospel advancement.
What might you do differently if the next time you have a choice of jobs you base that decision on which one will give you better opportunities to fulfill God’s purpose? What might you do differently if your next decision of where to live and how to use your resources if your total life goal was advancing the gospel? On an individual level, in our homes, workplaces, and among our peers, we should each arrange our lives around God’s call to make disciples.
On a church wide level, we also need organize and mobilize ourselves for this task. That is what Paul did when he went to Thessalonica in the first place. Even the Thessalonian church had begun to organize and mobilize for the gospel.
If you read the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, you will see that they had started proclaiming the gospel throughout Macedonia and Achaia. Think about that for a moment. This church was planted in only four weeks, they were enduring persecution, and their only knowledge of scripture came from what Paul and Timothy taught them in person and from two letters. They likely didn’t even have the Old Testament. There was a synagogue in their city, but their copy of the Old Testament was so precious (no printing press..) that it was not likely available for just anyone to read.
What does that say about us today? Our church has been a stable institution for a long time. We have the great blessing of all 66 books of the bible to build us up and equip us. We have freedom to worship God and great resources. We have people in our church with a wide range of skills and a wide range of access to Abu Dhabi society. Are we doing all we can do? While we do a lot of good, I think ECC is capable of a lot more.
The issue as I see it is that many of us here this morning are not committed to the mission of this church. This is a problem because the advance of the gospel requires teamwork. Anyone who has a job that requires team work knows what happens when not all members of the team are on board with the mission. You don’t accomplish much.
At ECC, our mission is spelled out in our purpose statement: Our purpose is to introduce people to the Lord Jesus Christ, help them grow in their faith and equip them for ministry both here and around the world. Can you imagine how the gospel would advance in Abu Dhabi if all 1000 of us who attend this church every Friday were to organize and mobilize ourselves around this purpose? I want to challenge everyone here to get on board with the mission of ECC in Abu Dhabi. As a church, we can do more.
A third step we can take toward fulfilling God’s purpose for us is to change our focus. I think one of the big problems with Christians today is that we are more focused on worldly things than the things of God. We base many of our decisions on the same things as non-believers. We need to wake up and see what is really important, what has short term consequence and what has eternal consequences.
Let’s read what Paul said in chapter 3 verses 3-5:
3 But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. 4 And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
Verse 5 expresses a truth about the Christian life that it is not really possible for us to shift our focus away from the world and toward the things of God unless the Lord directs our hearts. Instead of being burdened by the work, if you let God rule your focus, you will find great freedom and joy in fulfilling His purpose for your life. Advancing the gospel will be the focus of your life and a source of great joy.
You are not in Abu Dhabi for the money or a good job. You are here to do God’s work. With that new focus, you can look with God directed eyes at Abu Dhabi. There are people from almost 200 nations. Many of them are from places that have had little or no access to the gospel. Many of them are actively hostile to the gospel. On one hand this presents a unique opportunity, on the other hand it presents unique challenges and risks.
We should not be scared away by these challenges because God is in control and He is guarding us from the evil one. As long as we live here, we need to be finding ways around the barriers, meeting the challenges in creative ways, and to using the opportunity God has given us here to the uttermost limits for His glory.
Another part of having the right focus is bearing in mind that the gospel is God’s work. We might have the best purpose statement, the best programs, the most joyful fellowship, the best music, or even the best preaching. These are all good things, but it is God who chooses, saves, gives faith, sanctifies, and glorifies. This should give us confidence because it is God who establishes the work of our hands as we work for the advancement of His gospel.
I would like to close by looking back at the encouraging words of chapter 2:16-17
16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
Focus your life on God’s work in your life which gave you hope. His purpose for you is to introduce that same hope to Abu Dhabi and to the world.
More in Words of Hope from 2 Thessalonians
August 1, 2014Hope Applied in the Church (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 5)
July 18, 2014Hope in God's Supremacy (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 3)
July 11, 2014Hope in God's Justice (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 2)