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Prayer Leads to Hope -- a study of 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5

God has given us hope; let's pray that He helps us remember it.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5

Before Paul transitions to one final instruction, he encourages the church not to get dragged down by the bad things that "might" happen in the future. Rather, they should pray for God to remind them of His presence and power and then use that hope to take the gospel to the world. In fact, Paul asks them to pray that for him, too!

May the Lord direct your hearts to God’s love and Christ’s endurance. (3:5)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Prayer

This week's primary topic is prayer. As you go through this passage and think about how to discuss it in a group, be looking for ways to encourage "good prayer habits" (the spiritual discipline of prayer). Paul is going to offer some excellent model prayers, and we need a place where we "keep" these to pray regularly.

I've linked this article before; it's a helpful overview of prayer:


Doomscrolling

If you haven't heard this term before, good for you! And too bad, because I just introduced it to you. "Doomscrolling" (the term) spread with the rise of the pandemic (when people had time on their hands and nowhere to go). It means what you think it means. Here are some sample definitions:

  • Doomscrolling – sometimes also referred to as doomsurfing – is a phenomenon where you constantly scroll or surf through social media and other news sites in order to keep up with the latest news – even (and, it seems, particularly) if the news is bad.

  • Doomscrolling and doomsurfing refer to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.

  • Doomscrolling is mindlessly scrolling through negative news articles, social media posts, or other content-sharing platforms. Essentially, it's reading one negative story after another.

  • Doomscrolling or doomsurfing is the act of spending an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of negative news.

As you might imagine, doomscrolling is not good for your health, particularly if you have an underlying mental health condition. It creates stress, and because you're just reading a screen, you have no physical way to relieve that stress, so it leads to standard over-stressed responses like insomnia, headaches, high blood pressure, and the like.


It seems like everyone should want to avoid it, right? BUT! It combines two of our worst behavioral trends: our fascination with bad news ("can't turn away from a car crash") and our addiction to smartphones. And with the rise of social media, we have no lack of access to bad news in a world filled with bad news!


I Googled "Biggest problems in America" and got the expected list of fearmongering sites. But when I skimmed through them, I was reminded that we do have real issues where Americans strongly disagree on how to handle them. Here are some umbrella terms (in alphabetical order):

  • Economy

  • Education

  • Energy

  • Environment

  • Health Care

  • Immigration/Border

  • Marriage/Family

  • Politics

  • Racism

  • Religious Freedom

  • Terrorism

  • Violence

  • Voting Rights

  • Welfare

Yikes! That's enough to make you depressed. And that's not even getting into the wars, food shortages, and human rights violations facing other parts of our world.


So here's our opening discussion topic:

  • How do you deal with bad news?

There's no shortage of advice about this on the internet, and very little of it has a biblical basis. The follow-up question is a little more penetrating:

  • How does the Bible say we should handle bad news?


As you might have guessed, our passage this week in 2 Thessalonians provides a most succinct version of that answer. So let's get to it!

 

Where We Are in 2 Thessalonians

I'm sure I sound like a broken record, but let's be sure we understand this letter. It's one of Paul's "simplest" letters. In it, he addresses three concerns that were brought to him about the church:

  1. Persecution of the church has increased since his last letter.

  2. There's a fake letter making the rounds saying Jesus has already returned (because it's "signed Paul", I think this was the strongest motivation for 2 Thess).

  3. Lazy church members have just gotten lazier.

Last week, we covered the "has Jesus already returned?" question. But before Paul covers the final matter, he takes a "classic Paul sidetrack" through prayer and praise.

 

Part 1: Be Steadfast (2 Thessalonians 2:13-15)

13 But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, whether by what we said or what we wrote.

Paul's transition should make sense. Remember what we talked about last week -- the rise of the man of lawlessness (the Antichrist) empowered by Satan to fool the people of the world who will be condemned and destroyed in hell.

Let's be honest -- that makes our current "issues" seem pretty tame.


And Paul knows that his readers are already worked up enough about potential bad news! So, he changes direction with "But". "But all of that terrible stuff I just said about destruction and damnation doesn't apply to you -- you've been saved by grace through faith!"

This is what I think to be the simplest answer to my question above, how does the Bible say we should handle bad news? The one-word answer is hope. I watched this CNBC video about all of the different stressors out there (think of it as doomscrolling in video form). You would be shocked at the number of times "hope" came up. Multiple people on this video talked about the importance of "hope" to making it through stressful and discouraging times. But they weren't talking as Christians, so what could they have hope in? Their serious answer: "hope that tomorrow will be better".


Christians have a much more tangible hope. We know that God loves us and won't let anything separate us from His love. That is what Paul said in Romans 8:

31 What, then, are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything? 33 Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. 34 Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. 35 Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
Because of you we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Read that closely. Paul lists some terrible things. Troubles will come, but we will face them with Jesus. This is more or less exactly what Jesus said to comfort His disciples -- and Himself (John 16)!

32 Indeed, an hour is coming, and has come, when each of you will be scattered to his own home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. 33 I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.

Now, let's talk about Paul's word choices:

  • God "chose" you from the beginning.

I can imagine a few Bible study discussions going off the rails here into a tired debate about predestination vs. free will. Don't miss the main point: Paul is using a parallel with last's week's passage.

2:12 (from last week's lesson) -- "so that all will be condemned—those who did not believe the truth but delighted in unrighteousness".

The parallel is:

  • Everyone who has not believed the truth will be condemned.

  • You who have believed the truth will be saved.

So, why bring up this "chosen" talk? Because Paul doesn't want them to take any credit for their salvation. "Those people didn't believe, but I did, so I must be pretty great!" That kind of talk is unacceptable for a Christian, and Paul fights against it throughout his letters.


The only difference between a non-Christian and a Christian is that a Christian chose to believe in Jesus. Why? Are we smarter? More astute? More lovable? No. We don't understand why, and that's why we must remain absolutely humble in our perspective to our salvation. Note that last week, we were very clear that God cannot be blamed for those unbelievers refusing to believe. All He did was enhance the unbelief they had already chosen for themselves. But salvation is and is not like that. Yes, we have a responsibility to believe, but God alone gets the "credit" for it. I simply accept that this is a mystery.


Paul does explain two elements of salvation:

  1. sanctification by the Spirit

  2. belief in the truth

The Spirit sanctifies us ("sets us apart") and we believe. Paul isn't making a causal or sequential statement; he's simply identifying two key elements of our salvation. Note that neither stop after we are saved! We are always being sanctified, and we are always believing.


There's a very cool Trinitarian arrangement here:

  1. we are loved by Jesus ("the Lord")

  2. chosen by God

  3. sanctified by the Spirit

Verse 14 then reiterates these truths:

  1. God called you

  2. you believed the gospel

  3. you will be glorified with Jesus

This should be very encouraging! Their salvation is proof of this encouragement.


Note the centrality of sharing the gospel to salvation. In Roman 10, Paul says,

17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.

This feeds the mystery. Many people in our world have not heard the good news about Jesus. But we did. Why us and not these others? We don't know. But we should be thankful.


Finally, Paul offers his conclusion in verse 15, that his readers should hold fast to what they know. This calls back to what we talked about last week, that these church members should have known better than to believe this silly fake letter about the Second Coming. Paul talked about that extensively with them when he was in Thessalonica! All they had to do was use their noggin, and they could have saved themselves a lot of heartache.


The word "traditions" might also cause your lesson to derail (especially if you're in a Baptist church; we love our traditions). Paul is not saying "hold on to your traditions at all costs" like some people claim. (The NIV translated this word "teachings" in part to clarify this.) No, he is saying to hold on to the traditions Paul has taught them (and Paul taught what he had heard/learned from Jesus and the apostles). Not just any tradition, but the apostolic tradition. For that church and for every church in history, we need to hold on to the traditions Jesus passed on to His apostles.


The immediate application is related to this false letter about the Second Coming, but we can apply it to every area of discouragement in our world. What is discouraging you right now? What truths/promises in the Bible will help you face it?


There are lots of "God's Promises" books (Ben gave one to our grads last Sunday), and I wouldn't be surprised if you had one. Read those promises! Take comfort from those promises! (Of course, understand those promises in context. Those books don't always explain the context very well.) Here's a page on David Jeremiah's website that lists 40 promises (if you don't have such a book):

 

Aside on The Rapture

I hope I've convinced you that Paul never proposed a "secret rapture of the church" a la Left Behind. But a lot of people still think that the church will be raptured before the Tribulation because God would never let His people suffer "all of that terrible stuff". Two things. (1) "That terrible stuff" that Paul says the Thessalonians won't suffer refers to the eternal destruction of God's enemies that results from their sin and rebellion (including "the delusion" we talked about last week). He says nothing about Christians being protected from the rebellion that takes place around them. Christians will not suffer God's wrath against sin that results in damnation, but we still live in a broken world. (2) Christians have not shunned back from hardship in years past -- we have boldly taken the Gospel and the Love of Christ to the hurting no matter the cost, in war, in plague, in famine. Why would we want to be removed from the world when the world needs us the most? Indeed, hoping to be removed from the world because things will be hard isn't a good look.

 

Part 2: Be Encouraged (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word.

Talking about encouragement always leads Paul to prayer. Isn't that a great lesson in and of itself?


I love this prayer for its simplicity and purity. I don't think I need to say much about it.


God the Father and Jesus has already given us eternal encouragement and good hope. (They did so because of grace, not merit, and by the Holy Spirit.)


Encouragement and hope is ours. Already. Now. Paul prays that God will remind us of this.


What a great prayer. Please pray this for your class members and church family. And immediate family. And yourself, for that matter!


But look at the goal and purpose. Paul doesn't ask God to remind us of our hope

  • so we will feel good about ourselves

  • so we will be well-adjusted in the world

  • so our self-esteem will be improved

No! Paul prays this so we will be strengthened in every good work and word! ("every good thing you do or say")


This hope is not for our personal benefit but so that we can make a difference in the world around us. But here's a fun tidbit -- do you know what therapists and psychiatrists say about people who help others and try to make a difference? They feel good about themselves. Coincidence?

 

Part 3: Be Prayerful (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2)

In addition, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not all have faith.

While Paul is on the subject of prayer, he takes a brief sidetrack to a more personal matter. I think it's very appropriate, and it connects very well with what's been going on in Thessalonica. Remember what we talked about at the beginning of the quarter -- Paul is so "proud" of the church for standing firm in the face of persecution and opposition and still spreading the love of Jesus far and wide (1 Thess 1 and even 2 Thess 1).


Well, Paul's situation is not so different from theirs.


Paul has also faced persecution and discouragement. He wants this church to pray for him just as he prays for them. And not for Paul's personal benefit! But so that the gospel will spread far and wide. It's the same prayer Paul has for the Thessalonians.


"The word of the Lord" -- in the Old Testament, this phrase is used of a prophetic utterance (ex: Isa 1:10, Jon 1:1). In the New Testament, it only appears in Acts (8:25, 13:44, 13:48, 13:49, 15:35, 15:36, 16:32, 19:10, 19:20) and Thessalonians (1:1:8, 1:4:15, 2:3:1).


For example, Acts 13 is about Paul and Barnabas preaching in Antioch: "44 The following Sabbath almost the whole town assembled to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what Paul was saying, insulting him. 46 Paul and Barnabas boldly replied, 'It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first. Since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles.'" The point is that this "Word" is from God, and it directly explains salvation.


"Spread rapidly and be honored" -- this phrase literally translates as "run and be glorified". It's a very fun image, as if the gospel is the victorious runner in a race who receives the prize. As the gospel messages receives "glory" in the world, more people will hear it and (hopefully) listen. That's how the church members in Thessalonica received this message.


But the truth is that not everyone has faith. Not everyone welcomes the gospel message with fanfare and joy. You don't need me to tell you that.


Scroll back up and reread Romans 8 and John 16. The reason we need hope is because we will experience all kinds of opposition and danger.


Because the lesson breaks between verses 2 and 3, we miss the wordplay Paul gives:

  • Not everyone has faith, and so we need to be protected from evil people

  • But the Lord is faithful, and He will protect us from the evil one

Jesus is faithful where everyone else breaks faith. That's how we know that we will ultimately be delivered from Satan's schemes. But Paul prays for deliverance from all of this opposition. ("Wicked" emphasizes acts, and "evil" emphasizes character.)


We know from Acts 18 that Paul faced a lot of opposition in Corinth (which is where he was when writing this letter):

5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself to preaching the word and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. 6 When they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his clothes and told them, “Your blood is on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 So he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, along with his whole household. Many of the Corinthians, when they heard, believed and were baptized. 9 The Lord said to Paul in a night vision, “Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city.” 11 He stayed there a year and a half, teaching the word of God among them.

I don't think that bold text is a coincidence. We don't know if Paul received that vision before or after he wrote this letter. If after, then how cool is it that perhaps God gave this vision as a result of their prayers! If before, then how helpful is it to know that even Paul needed to be reminded of the promises he knew he had in Jesus!

 

Part 4: Be Confident (2 Thessalonians 3:3-5)

3 But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. 4 We have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will continue to do what we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to God’s love and Christ’s endurance.

This final prayer is very encouraging, but it's not without a point. Next week, we're going to talk about one specific command Paul had for the church members -- a command not all of them were heeding.


I mentioned verse 3 in the previous section, particularly how it mirrors verse 2. Note that "the evil one" is masculine in the Greek, so we are confident it is a reference to Satan. Paul uses the verbs "strengthen" and "guard/protect" here, in parallel with "deliver" from verse 2. Don't miss that Paul isn't praying that God prevent trials from coming! Rather, he prays that God takes them through the trial/opposition/persecution. This calls to mind the Lord's Prayer, particularly 6:13, "But deliver us from the evil one" -- i.e., protect us when the evil one attacks. (It's not "deliver us from evil" as in the King James, as if we could somehow avoid every consequence of sin in the world. No, Jesus is praying for our protection from God's greatest enemy, Satan, who wants nothing more than to "devour" one of God's children.)


Verse 4, then, points back to 2:16-17. Remember how the purpose of God's encouragement and hope was not their self-esteem but rather their obedience in good works and words? Same here -- the purpose of God's strengthening and guarding is to help them do what Paul (we) commanded.


Your initial reaction may be something like "That's rather conceited on Paul's part!" Well, remember that the Thessalonians don't have a Bible. They don't even have any other trustworthy missionaries. Paul (and Timothy and Silas) were the only immediate sources of God's truth the Thessalonians had (to that point), so Paul had no other way of saying this. There were plenty of false prophets/apostles out there trying to steer the Thessalonians away from God (and Paul has talked about this at length), so Paul wanted to keep them focused on him. (And again, I think this is mainly foreshadowing what coming in next week's lesson.)


But Paul very quickly puts the focus back on God and Christ, particularly "God's love" and "Christ's endurance".


This prayer recalls what Paul said in his first letter:

We recall, in the presence of our God and Father, your work produced by faith, your labor motivated by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1:3)

They have already demonstrated their affinity with God's love. "Christ's endurance" specifically calls to mind His willingness to endure persecution. But Paul reminds that all of that demands God's supply -- they can't "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" to have more love and/or endurance. A very simple prayer, but one we should pray for ourselves and everyone around us.


Closing exercise: what are the prayers in this passage? How might you word them to be easy for you to remember and pray for each other?

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