This excerpt comes from a new group study by D. A. Carson and Brian Tabb published jointly by The Gospel Coalition and LifeWay Christian Resources. The study builds on Carson’s classic work on prayer, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Baker).
2 THESSALONIANS 1:3–10: We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. (4) Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. (5) This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— (6) since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, (7) and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels (8) in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (9) They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, (10) when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
When the secular news media reports on the church, they typically highlights bad news of some sort. A prominent pastor falls into sexual sin, a Christian charity mishandles funds, an historic denomination splits apart because of theological controversy. Often Christians join in, denouncing this leader or that movement and offering sober analysis of the sins that have led to the present tragedy. But should we focus more on problems and controversy in the church or on encouraging reports of fruitful, strategic ministrie, and testimonies of believers who are overcoming sin and growing in holiness, joy, and love?
Paul was constantly on the lookout for signs of God’s saving, transforming, and equipping work in the lives of believers. The apostle labored tirelessly, proclaiming the gospel in new places and instructing converts in the Christian faith. He endured threats, persecutions, imprisonments, and various setbacks that would tempt most people to give up and find a safer, more fulfilling nine-to-five. What kept Paul going through such adversities and disappointments? Paul recognized specific ways God was at work, and he responded with thanksgiving. The unvarnished truth is that what we most frequently give thanks for betrays what we most highly value. If a large percentage of our thanksgiving is for material prosperity, it is because we value material prosperity proportionately. That is why, when we first turn to Paul’s thanksgivings, they may startle us; they may even seem alien, for they do not focus on what many of us habitually cherish. Paul gives thanks for signs of grace among Christians, among the Christians whom he is addressing.
Three Signs of Grace
Second Thessalonians 1:3–10 provides us with Paul’s framework for prayer, the foundational motivations and theological convictions that shape what the apostle prays for and why. In verse 3 we read, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” Paul here expresses gratitude to God for three particular signs of grace among the Thessalonian believers.
First, Paul thanks God that their faith is “growing abundantly” (ESV) or “flourishing” (HCSB). This refers not to their initial conversion experience but to their increasing faithful trust in God. In Paul’s former letter, he wrote that he sent his coworker Timothy “to establish and exhort” them in their faith and hoped to come to them himself to “supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:2,10). Paul thanks God because the Thessalonian believers aren’t satisfied by past successes but are striving to grow in spiritual maturity.
Second, Paul expresses gratitude to God that their love is increasing. Earlier he observes that these Christians had “been taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9), and now he celebrates that such love is increasingly apparent among the Thessalonians. It is natural for people to love, tolerate, and get along with those who are like them, who share similar interests, temperament, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. Ideally the church is different, as it is made up of people from various backgrounds and life stations, who share a more fundamental allegiance to the Lord Jesus that stems from his matchless love for them. Love is the distinguishing mark of Jesus’ followers (see John 13:34–35), and so Paul is grateful when he sees it.
Third, Paul thanks God that they are persevering through persecutions and afflictions (see v. 4). The Thessalonians’ display of steadfastness and faith in trials is so outstanding that the apostle boasts about it “in all the churches.” For believers who stand in grace and maintain a sure hope in God, “suffering produces endurance” (Rom. 5:3). Thus Paul testifies publicly that the Thessalonians are remaining faithful in suffering, so that others might be encouraged by signs of God’s grace and might join Paul in thanking God for his amazing work in these believers’ lives.
Nature and Purpose of Suffering
Paul then explains the nature and purpose of these believers’ suffering mentioned in verse 4. He writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:5, “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.” When these people believed Paul’s testimony (see v. 10), their lives were changed. They stopped worshiping pagan gods at the local temples and they began serving the living and true God. They experienced new joy and love for other people (see 1 Thess. 1:5-10; 4:9). At the same time, their family members, friends, and coworkers who didn’t believe began to marginalize, threaten, and persecute these believers. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:14, “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews.” These suffering Christians may have wondered if God was displeased with them, but Paul stresses that their perseverance during trials actually demonstrates that God has counted them worthy of his kingdom.
In verses 6–10, Paul describes God’s coming vindication of persecuted Christians and righteous judgment on their persecutors. The apostle believes that when Jesus returns, his true followers will glorify him and enter into his eternal kingdom, while those who don’t know God or obey the gospel “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (v. 9). This eternal perspective dramatically informs Paul’s perspective on the present difficulties that he and other believers experience.
The prospect of the Lord’s return in glory, the anticipation of the wrap-up of the universe as we know it, the confidence that there will be a final and irrevocable division between the just and the unjust—these have become merely creedal points for us, instead of ultimate realities that even now are life-transforming. To pray rightly about present trials, we must recover Paul’s biblical orientation toward the return of Christ and the perfect establishment of God’s kingdom in the new heaven and new earth.