Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.
“And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things which we command you. And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.”
Sometimes the obvious must be stated: God’s Word is powerfully instructive.
It is a special joy to discover a large, golden nugget of instruction where you would not first look. Our text is in a transition portion of Paul’s epistle. It is between his instruction concerning Christ’s return and the instruction concerning Christian discipline. Right in the middle of this transition we find a beautiful and powerful instruction concerning a pastor’s approach to and attitude toward the people over whom God has set him.
Paul is declaring to the members of the Christian church in Thessalonica that he is confident they will do what he has commanded and will be commanding them to do. He expects them to obey, and he is telling them this. Paul’s confidence about their obedience instructs ministers, elders, and deacons (as well as parents and Christian school teachers). They are shown what attitude they are to have toward those they are leading and teaching.
How ought a pastor to approach a congregation? With what attitude should he pastor them as he teaches them to observe all the things Christ commanded?
First, officebearers are to remember that the professing believers (whose profession is accompanied by a life regulated by their profession) are “beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ.” They are the flock of Christ, purchased with His own precious blood.
Also, officebearers are to remember that they are not the real shepherds, but only undershepherds. The flock over which God has made them overseers is Christ’s (Acts 20:28). They are only caretakers or stewards of that which is really the Lord’s. The fact that the flock is the Lord’s, bought and saved by His blood and preserved by the power of His grace and mercy, determines the attitude and approach of every pastor when working with the flock. He must remember that his responsibility is not to save or to preserve them. He cannot. Nor does he have the ability to make them obedient. His responsibility is to set before them, accurately and clearly, the demand of the gospel and the commandments which flow from it. No undershepherd can make the flock obey. No undershepherd can touch or change a heart. No undershepherd can make the Word of God effective. Only the Spirit can do that. So all the pastor needs to do is bring the Word, preach the gospel with its command to repent and to believe and to do all that God commands them to do.
When the preacher of the gospel brings God’s Word to the church of Christ, he may do so with a great degree of confidence. On the one hand, his approach and attitude as he preaches and teaches are not that of unconcern and indifference, as if he does not care how or whether the flock responds. On the other hand, he is not nervous in his approach and attitude, as if he has to make the flock listen and obey. Instead, the pastor works with God’s sheep with a confidence. His confidence is not in the church members, but in their Lord. The apostle Paul was confident that God would make the Thessalonian believers active in doing what they were supposed to do.
Apart from confidence in the Lord, there is no confidence. When a shepherd deals with the sheep, he has no reason for confidence if his confidence is only in the sheep. We never know what mere man is going to do. But because of the union which exists between believers and the Lord, there can be confidence. The confidence is in the fact that the Lord is at work. He knows that when God begins a work, He will bring it to perfection (Gal. 5:10;Phil. 1:6). Consequently, Paul can have a confidence in the Thessalonians. He sees them in Christ, one with the Lord.
Specifically, the apostle’s confidence is that the Thessalonians are doing and will do the things he has commanded them to do, as well as the things he is about to command them to do. They were told, in Paul’s first epistle, to “do [their] own business and to work with [their] own hands” (I Thess. 4:11). And he will tell them again to do this (II Thess. 3:6-15). Remember that some of the Thessalonians were very shaken up by errant views of the return of Christ (I Thess. 4:13-5:6; II Thess. 2:1-12). Some of the saints at Thessalonica were so confused that they quit their day jobs and just waited around for Christ to return. This waiting was not good for them, and it got some of them into trouble. So Paul admonished them to get back to work.
Now, Paul’s approach to the Thessalonians is not only that he is confident that they will do what he has told them to do, but also that he tells them so. Paul is inspired to write this way. In writing this to them, the apostle is encouraging them to obey God’s commandments. What kindness on the part of the apostle! What wisdom! There may have been many reasons for them not to obey, but Paul presents them with a good reason to obey anyway. It is one thing to give someone a command, it is another thing to give them reason to obey the command, encouraging them. He is confident they will do what they are supposed to do. This makes them want to obey. Paul’s confidence in the Lord concerning them makes them much more ready to obey than if he had just given the command, or if he had threatened them if they dared to disobey. God’s commands do not come across harshly when they are prefaced with an expression of confidence that they will be obeyed. Paul is careful to let them know that his confidence in not in them, but in God. But the fact that Paul’s confidence is in God makes the encouragement even greater!
Paul’s confidence in the Lord that the Thessalonian believers will obey arises from his prayers. It is possible to have a confidence in the Lord that He will work obedience in a believer. But it is something else—something much greater—to have this confidence in the way of our praying to the Lord. Over and over Paul writes of his prayers for the saints. Here, too, he is praying. And he tells the Christians at Thessalonica what he is praying. No wonder he is so confident! He is looking to the only one who is able to bring about obedience.
Paul is praying two things. First, he prays that “the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God.”
It is only by the grace of God that any descendant of Adam will be disposed to keep any commandment God sets before him. It is only by having our minds directed to consider God and His love that we will want to obey.
To “direct” is to make straight, in the sense of removing all obstacles out of the way. In his first letter, Paul asked that God and Jesus direct his way to the Thessalonians (3:11). The idea is that a path be opened so there is no hindrance in attaining the desired object. The devil puts forth every effort to distract every believer from the knowledge of the love of God. He would love to have every Christian church filled with those who doubt or are fearful about God’s love for them. He places every obstacle he can in the way of the assurance of God’s love. So Paul prays that Christ will remove every obstacle, and make clear the path between the believer and God’s love.
Paul prays that Christ will open the way for the inner, spiritual life of the saints. His solemn wish concerns their hearts and the focus of their hearts. Paul knows that he cannot touch another’s heart. Only God can do that. So Paul prays to Him who alone is able. Paul’s concern is for their heart because out of it are all the issues of life. If the heart is correctly focused, then the mind, the will, the emotions, and the members of the body will be more inclined to do that which is right. When the heart is rightly focused, then the saints will be rightly motivated to obey. Paul’s concern is not for mere outward conduct. He desires that they obey because they want to do so. So He prays that God will direct their hearts.
That on which Paul desires their hearts to be focused is the love of God. This is not their love for God, but His love for them. It is the great love which God has for the believers in Thessalonica. It is a love which God has shed abroad in their hearts (Rom. 5:5). It is God’s love in Christ, from which nothing can separate the believer. God’s love is strong, sovereign, and unconditional. God’s love is never ending and beyond all human comprehension (Eph. 3:17-19).
When God’s great love for us becomes the motivating force in our lives, then we will do and will continue to do whatever God demands of us. When the human heart is directed to the love of God for us, then obedience results. God’s love is not only a divine attribute, nor only a favorable attitude. It is both, but it is also a dynamic force within. It is a principle of life in our inmost being which becomes evidenced in our external walk. There is no more powerful motivation to obey than to be filled with the consciousness of God’s great love in Christ. Knowledge of God’s love, which lay behind the manger and the cross, will guide the believer to do that which he must do. It will motivate the Thessalonians to get back to work and to stop meddling in each other’s affairs. It will motivate children to obey their parents. It will motivate believers to love one another, to walk antithetically in this world, to forgive as they have been forgiven.
What a beautiful and powerful instruction! There are definitely times when bare commands and demands are sufficient. But let anyone who has the responsibility to lead others (parents, teachers, elders, pastors) learn from the inspired apostle’s example. In this, too, Paul would have us to “be followers of me” (I Cor. 11:1). Let us have a confidence in God that those to whom we give commands will obey. And let us pray for them that they will obey. Let us pray specifically for their hearts to be filled with the consciousness of God’s love for them. With every command let us present God’s love for His people in Christ.
“And the Lord direct your hearts … into the patient waiting for Christ.” This is the second of the two things Paul asks of the Lord.
There are many, many things in the lives of believers which make us grow weary of obeying our God. Our flesh is easily sidetracked. Our flesh is also easily frustrated and impatient. And the devil uses the world to throw all sorts of temptations before us. In the face of the great temptation to be impatient, Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that he is asking the Lord to give them patience. One of the things God’s people realize they always need to learn is patience. That is why the Scriptures frequently admonish God’s people to trust in the Lord, rest upon Him, wait on Him, and such like.
The “patient waiting” Paul asks God to give to the Thessalonians is an endurance or perseverance. It is the grace to bear up when all things seem to be against us. It is the grace to be steadfast no matter the cost. It is the characteristic of one who does not swerve from his purpose in spite of the greatest trials and suffering. The apostle uses this word often when he speaks of the hostility which is directed against Christ and His followers. This hostility Jesus and we must endure.
The way positively to grow in patient waiting is to think on God’s promises concerning His future blessings. Jesus did this. Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame while He looked ahead to the joy of heaven. God wants the Thessalonians and us to run the same race, despising the crosses we must take up and the difficulties of every affliction and tribulation, keeping our eyes fixed on Christ and the joy He has promised to give us (Heb. 12:2-4).
With patient waiting for Christ to return (and bring the promised glory) we will persist in the callings God has given to us, and not forsake them. The Thessalonians stopped working because they were carried away with a fanaticism concerning Christ’s return. We are to pray for the grace to endure. Jesus persevered. He did not resort to idleness or loafing. He adhered to the task the Father appointed to Him to the very end. His Spirit is within us! His Spirit is the power within us to do the things commanded of us.
As we face a new year, let us be resolved to pray fervently that the Lord will direct our hearts into God’s love for us and that He will work in us the strength of endurance as we await the coming of our Savior and Lord.