Great Texts of the Bible
Prayer and Progress
Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified.—2 Thessalonians 3:1.
The main part of this Epistle is finished with the previous chapter. The Apostle has completed his teaching about the Second Advent, and the events which precede and condition it; and nothing remains to dispose of but some minor matters of personal and practical interest. He begins by asking again, as at the close of the First Epistle, the prayers of the Thessalonians for himself and his fellow-workers. It was a strength and comfort to him, as it is to every minister of Christ, to know that he was remembered, by those who loved him, in the presence of God. But it is no selfish or private interest that the Apostle has in view when he begs a place in their prayers; it is the interest of the work with which he has identified himself. “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified.” This was the one business and concern of his life; if it went well, all his desires were satisfied.
We might be ready to think that, if ever there was a minister of Jesus Christ who was raised above the need of his people’s prayers, that minister was St. Paul. He was endowed, both by nature and by grace, beyond the measure of ordinary men. Whether as a man or as a servant of the Lord Jesus, he towers above the level of the common ranks, and from our distant point of view looks nearer and liker to his Master than any of his fellows. Since this great and good Apostle did feel deeply his need of prayer, not only his own, but also the prayers of all saints on his behalf, so felt this great and constant and pressing need, that he turned with touching importunity from church to church and pleaded with them that they would pray for him and not forget him, is not this to proclaim in the most emphatic manner that, as necessity is laid on ministers to preach the gospel, even so necessity is laid upon the people to pray for their ministers—to uphold and help them daily with their prayers?
There is an almost pathetic eagerness in St. Paul’s oft-recurring entreaty, “Brethren, pray for us,” “Brethren, pray for us.” Was it that the Apostle thought of his own salvation as in one sense owing to the prayer of another? It may not be possible to determine with exactness the indebtedness of Paul to Stephen; but that the dying martyr’s prayer, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” shook to its very centre the confident Pharisaism of the youthful Saul of Tarsus it seems impossible to doubt. Perhaps St. Augustine scarcely goes too far when he says that the Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.
Si Stephanus non orasset
Ecclesia Paulum non haberet.1 [Note: G. Jackson, Memoranda Paulina, 250.]
The Practice of Intercession
“Pray for us.”
The Apostle loved to be prayed for, and in thus beseeching the Churches to remember him in intercession, he almost invested the humblest member of the household of Christ with a new function and a special ministry. The Apostle did not deign to disregard the prayers of the poorest for his own personal protection and comfort, but he specially desired the supplication of the saints on behalf of the gospel itself, that it might spread over all the world. He would have all people be, as it were, reproductions of the Thessalonians, who had provided an open door for the evangelical message, and had in their own persons so glowingly illustrated the power of the gospel that others might reproduce the Thessalonian example, and rest sure that in going in the direction of the Thessalonians they were pursuing the right way. What a tribute was this to the excellence of the Thessalonian Christians!
1. The double note (“We pray always for you … pray for us”) is heard through all St. Paul’s Epistles. He prays for others, and he entreats others to pray for him. “Making mention of you in my prayers”—this is the Apostolic token in almost every Epistle. The care of all the Churches was upon St. Paul daily, and daily he carried his care to God. Brethren in Asia Minor, brethren in Philippi, in Thessalonica and in Corinth, brethren in far-off Rome—he remembered them all when he knelt to pray. Nor was it only for Churches that he prayed; he named men and women by name before God. “Making mention of thee in my prayers,” he writes to Philemon; and to Timothy, “I thank God how unceasing is my remembrance of thee in my supplications.” And a man who prayed thus for his friends could not but desire the prayers of his friends for himself.
2. How St. Paul delighted in the practice of prayer and in enjoining it upon the Churches! “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Ephesians 6:18). “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Php 4:6). To the Thessalonians he said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Jesus Christ Himself had enjoined upon His disciples the duty of prayer. “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1). “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). The Apostle had confidence that by the prayers of the saints his ministry would be brought to the highest issues. “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Romans 15:30). In writing to the Colossians he desired a special interest in their prayers for the same purpose: “Praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). If a great man like the Apostle Paul could not dispense with the prayers of Christians, ought not every preacher of the gospel to encourage the offering of such prayers on his own account? When men pray for their ministers, they cannot undervalue their labours. They should regard such labours as an answer to their own prayers. Having sown the seed of prayer, they should expect the harvest of profitable service.
You may be sure that in my hermitage by the unseen brook Cherith I do not cross my arms in daily and nightly supplication without enfolding you all in them; and may I say again, like John Newton to his friend, “When you are with the King and getting good for yourself, speak a word for me.” I must quote more—the words are truly beautiful—“I have reason to think you see Him oftener and have nearer access to Him than myself. Yet I am not wholly without His notice. He supplies all my wants, and I live under His protection. My enemies see His royal arms over my door and dare not enter.”1 [Note: W. B. Robertson, in Life, by J. Brown, 212.]
One of Millais’ most powerful pictures is that in the Manchester Art Gallery, entitled “Victory, O Lord.” It represents the incident related in Exodus 17:10-12, of Moses sitting on the top of the hill, while Joshua is leading the Israelites against the Amalekites on the plains below. Moses, the great lawgiver, is represented seated upon a stone, his body bent with age and weariness. Aaron and Hur stand on either side of him supporting his upraised arms, since as long as these were held up Israel prevailed. The faces of the two supporters are ablaze with zeal. They watch the conflict below, and can hardly remain passive through agitation. Yet there they remain holding up the arms of the aged leader. The whole picture is a lesson in the practice of prayer.
The Purpose of this Intercession
“That the word of the Lord may run and be glorified.”
1. “The word of the Lord” is the gospel, of which St. Paul was the principal herald to the nations; and we see in his choice of the word “run” his sense of its urgency. It was glad tidings to all mankind; and how sorely needed wherever the Apostle turned his eyes! The constraint of Christ’s love was upon his heart, the constraint of men’s sin and misery; and he could not pass swiftly enough from city to city, to proclaim the reconciling grace of God, and call men from darkness to light. His eager heart fretted against barriers and restraints of every description; he saw in them the malice of the great enemy of Christ: “We would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered me.” Hence it is that he asks the Thessalonians to pray for their removal, that the word of the Lord may run.
The singular metaphor of the running word is probably suggested by Psalm 19:5, where the course of the sun is pictured in glowing poetic language—“rejoicing as a hero to run a race,” while the latter part of the Psalm sets “the law of the Lord” in comparison with his glorious career. St. Paul applies 2 Thessalonians 3:4 of the Psalm in Romans 10:18, with striking effect, to the progress of the gospel. Through “running” the word is “glorified,” and that is true of it which Virgil writes in his splendid lines on Fama (Aeneid, 4:175):
Mobilitate viget, viresque adquirit eundo.1 [Note: G. G. Findlay.]
It is one of the happy omens of our own time that the Apostolic conception of the gospel as an ever-advancing, ever-victorious force, has begun again to take its place in the Christian heart. If it is really to us what it was to St. Paul—a revelation of God’s mercy and judgment which dwarfs everything else, a power omnipotent to save, an irresistible pressure of love on heart and will, glad tidings of great joy that the world is dying for—we shall share in this ardent, evangelical spirit, and pray for all preachers that the word of the Lord may run very swiftly. How it passed in apostolic times from land to land and from city to city—from Syria to Asia, from Asia to Macedonia, from Macedonia to Greece, from Greece to Italy, from Italy to Spain—till in one man’s lifetime, and largely by one man’s labour, it was known throughout the Roman world! It is easy, indeed, to over-estimate the number of the early Christians; but we can hardly over-estimate the fiery speed with which the Cross went forth conquering and to conquer. Missionary zeal is one note of the true Apostolic Church.2 [Note: J. Denney.]
2. St. Paul wishes the Thessalonians to pray that the Word of the Lord may be “glorified,” as well as “run” or “have free course” as the Authorized Version puts it. The Word of the Lord is a glorious thing itself. As the Apostle calls it in another place, it is the gospel of the glory of the blessed God. All that makes the spiritual glory of God—His holiness, His love, His wisdom—is concentrated and displayed in it. But its glory is acknowledged, and in that sense heightened, when its power is seen in the salvation of men. A message from God that did nothing would not be glorified: it would be discredited and shamed. It is the glory of the gospel to lay hold of men, to transfigure them, to lift them out of evil into the company and the likeness of Christ. For anything else it does, it may not fill a great space in the world’s eye; but when it actually brings the power of God to save those who receive it, it is clothed in glory. St. Paul did not wish to preach without seeing the fruits of his labour. He did the work of an evangelist; and he would have been ashamed of the evangel if it had not wielded a Divine power to overcome sin and bring the sinful to God. Pray that it may always have this power. Pray that when the word of the Lord is spoken it may not be an ineffective, fruitless word, but mighty through God.
There is an expression in Titus 2:10 analogous to this glorifying of the Word—“adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.” It is only too possible for us to disgrace the gospel; but it is in our power also, by every smallest action we do, to illustrate it, to set it off, to put its beauty in the true light before the eyes of men. The gospel comes into the world, like everything else, to be judged on its merits; that is, by the effects which it produces in the lives of those who receive it. We are its witnesses; its character, in the general mind, is as good as our character; it is as lovely as we are lovely, as strong as we are strong, as glorious as we are glorious, and no more. Let us seek to bear it a truer and worthier witness than we have yet done. To adorn it is a calling far higher than most of us have aimed at; but if it comes into our prayers, if its swift diffusion and powerful operation are near our hearts in the sight of God, grace will be given us to do this also.1 [Note: J. Denney.]
Lull had no idea that Christianity was not a complete and sufficient religion. He did not study other religions with the purpose of providing from them ideals which Christianity was supposed to lack. Nor did he propose to reduce out of all religions a common fund of general principles more or less to be found in all and regard these as the ultimate religion. He studied other religions to find out how better to reach the hearts of their adherents with the gospel, itself perfect and complete, lacking nothing, needing nothing from any other doctrine. With him there was a difference between Christianity and other religions not in degree only, but in kind. It possesses what they lack which is desirable. It lacks what they possess which is unworthy. It alone satisfies. It alone is life. They are systems of society or politics, religions of books, methods, organizations. It and it alone is life, eternal life. Lull studied other religions, not to discover what they have to give to Christianity, for they have nothing, but to find how he might give to those who follow them the true life, which is life, and which no man shall ever find until he finds it in Christ.1 [Note: S. M. Zwemer, Raymund Lull, 17.]
3. What strikes a reader of the Acts of the Apostles is the wisdom shown in the preaching of the Word, and the important and prime place given to preaching. Beyond all question both in the service and in the ministry of Apostolic Christianity the Word had the first place as being the most efficient and best acknowledged agent in the conversion of sinners and edification of believers. If early Christian practice has any force as precedent for subsequent times, the preaching of the gospel is the most prominent and urgent duty of the Church. The practical emphasis laid by early Christians on the place of preaching should be to us an incentive and an inspiration. Why this perpetual insisting on the Word? Why this conveying of it as of seed even upon the wings of the wind of persecution by dispersed martyrs? Why this tracing of the growth of discipleship and of the Kingdom of God to the Word almost without a mention of the sacramental observances and indulgences? Why this great charter of Jesus to His folk to preach the gospel to every creature, unless the preaching of the cross is the one great, solemn, and constant call of the Lord? It may be replied that the novelty of Christianity required the accentuation of preaching because her hope of progress depended on her missionary activity; but our answer is that when a Church ceases to be missionary in spirit or in practice she thereupon ceases to be a Church.
sometimes think that a verse in one of the Psalms carries the whole pith of homiletics—“While I was musing the fire burned, then spake I with my tongue.” Patient meditation, resulting in kindled emotion and the flashing up of truth into warmth and light, and then—and not till then—the rush of speech “moved by the Holy Ghost”—these are the processes which will make sermons live things with hands and feet, as Luther’s words were said to be. “Then spake I,” not “Then sate I down at my desk and wrote it all down to be majestically read out of manuscript in a leather case.” May I add another text, which contains as complete a description of the contents of preaching as the Psalm does of its genesis? “Whom we preach”—there is the evangelistic element, which is foundation of all, and is proclamation with the loud voice, the curt force, the plain speech of a herald; and there is, too, the theme, namely, the Person, not a set of doctrines, but, on the other hand, a Person whom we can know only by doctrines, and whom, if we know, we shall surely have some doctrine concerning. “Warning every man”—there is the ethical side of preaching; “and teaching every man”—there is the educational aspect of the Christian ministry. These three must never be separated, and he is the best minister of Jesus Christ who keeps the proportion between them most clearly in his mind, and braids all the strands together in his ministry into a “threefold cord, not quickly broken.”1 [Note: Dr. McLaren of Manchester, 71.]
One great qualification for successful labour is power to get the truth home to the heart not to “deliver” it. I wish the word had never been coined in connexion with Christian work. “Deliver” it, indeed—that is not in the Bible. No, no; not deliver it; but drive it home—send it in—make it felt. That is your work; not merely to say it—not quietly and genteelly to put it before the people. Here is just the difference between a self-consuming, soul-burdened, Holy Ghost, successful ministry, and a careless, happy-go-lucky, easy sort of thing, that just rolls it out like a lesson, and goes home, holding itself in no way responsible for the consequences. Here is all the difference, either in public or individual labour. God has made you responsible, not for delivering the truth, but for getting it in—getting it home, fixing it in the conscience as a red hot iron, as a bolt, straight from His throne; and He has placed at your disposal the power to do it, and if you do not do it blood will be on your skirts.2 [Note: The Life of Catherine Booth, 1:163.]
“Do you wish to know,” continued St. Francis, “how I test the excellence and value of a preacher? It is by assuring myself that those who have been listening to him come away striking their breasts and saying: ‘I will do better’; not by their saying: ‘Oh how well he spoke, what beautiful things he said!’ For to say beautiful things in fluent and well-chosen words shows indeed the learning and eloquence of a man; but the conversion of sinners and their departing from their evil ways is the sure sign that God has spoken by the mouth of the preacher, that he possesses the true power of speech, which is inspired by the science of the Saints, and that he proclaims worthily in the name of Almighty God that perfect law which is the salvation of souls.”1 [Note: The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, 477.]
The Person in the Intercession
“Pray for us.”
St. Paul gathers up all that he has to request for himself in one crowning petition, and the petition of the Apostle in the first age is the petition of all to whom Apostolic work is committed in every age. The want which St. Paul felt, the help which St. Paul craved, the power which St. Paul knew to be accessible, remain unaltered. The ambassador of Christ now as then, baffled and perplexed by ignorance and wickedness, alone and yet not alone, looks to his brethren in other lands for the sustaining ministry of love; the distant churches, now as then, are called to share by spiritual sympathy in a work which belongs to the fulness of their life; the treasury of heaven now as then is open for all who claim their inheritance of unexhausted blessings. Not one promise made to the Church has been revoked. Not one gift has been annulled. Not one command has been withdrawn. “Make disciples of all the nations”; “Receive the Holy Ghost”; “I am with you all the days”—these are still living words of a living Saviour, spoken once and spoken always. The slackness of our own energy is alone able to hinder the progress of His triumph: the dimness of our own vision is alone able to dull the effulgence of His glory.
1. Prayer is essentially active and expansive. If we pray for the attainment of an object, we shall work for it also; and we shall even without any set purpose make our interest in it felt. At present we seem to limit in some strange way our practical interpretation of one of our commonest petitions. The coming of our Father’s Kingdom, so far as this phrase has any definite meaning for us, stands for something far less vast than those promises suggest which help us to rise to the magnificence of its hope. If we learn to say, not with the lips only but with the heart and with the understanding, “Thy kingdom come”; if we intensify our prayers by due reflection on the vastness and variety of the work for which we pray; then we shall soon speak one to another of that which burns within us. Zeal will kindle zeal where before silence chilled it, and devotion will pass into deed.
Immediately after dressing, he settled down to work at whatever his special task for the time might be, though very frequently, if one came into his room at all suddenly, the result was to make him rise hurriedly from his knees, his face reddened, and his eyes depressed by the intense pressure of his hands, the base of each of which had been driven and almost gouged into either eye-socket, the fingers and thumbs pressed down over forehead and head. The Greek Testament, open at some special point which had occupied him at the moment he kneeled down, lay on the chair before him; but as he rose the spirit seemed to have come back again into his face from the far-off region to which it had been travelling, and there was just the hint in the face of an involuntary sadness and almost of reproach that the spirit should be recalled from the intercourse it had been enjoying. Mrs. Maurice’s note-book adds to this: “Whenever he woke in the night he was always praying. And in the very early morning I have often pretended to be asleep lest I should disturb him whilst he was pouring out his heart to God. He never began any work or any book without preparing for it by prayer.”1 [Note: Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, 2:285.]
2. We do not indeed care to inquire how prayer affects the will of God. It is enough for us to know that our God is a God who, seen under the conditions of human life, answers prayer. It is not for us to prescribe, it is not for us to know, the seasons which answer to the fitting accomplishment of the Father’s purpose. We pray according to our most imperfect sight. We trust our prayers to the absolute love of God, sure at least of this that no effort will be lost which is consecrated to Him, sure that the good seed which is watered with tears will hereafter bring gladness to the reaper’s heart, sure that, if we pray to Him and as we pray to Him, the Lord of the harvest will send forth His labourers, some, as it must be, for the toil of patient waiting, and some for the toil of thankful ingathering, but all alike sobered and strengthened by the burden of His cross, all alike crowned with the undying wreath of His victory.
It is said that the way-worn labourers of Iona found their burdens grow lighter when they reached the most difficult part of their journey because the secret prayers of their aged master Columba met them there. I can well believe the story; and such comfort of unspoken sympathy the Church at home can give to the isolated missionary. If when he is saddened by the spectacle of evil which has been accumulated and grown hard through countless generations; if when his words find no entrance because the very power of understanding them is wanting; if when he watches his life ebb and his work remain undone and almost unattempted, he can turn homeward with the certain knowledge that in England unnumbered fellow-labourers are striving from day to day to lighten his sorrows and to cheer his loneliness; I can well believe that he too will find that refreshment and joy in the consciousness of deep human fellowship, in our Lord and Saviour, which will nerve him for new and greater toils: that he will be strong again with the strength of holy companionship and courageous with the solace of hope.1 [Note: B. F. Westcott, Lessons from Work, 208.]
3. We have to-day—let us in most humble reverence face the fact—a Divine gospel to proclaim and a Divine force to use. No temporary disappointments, no apparent failure, no deferred hope can alter this truth. For the way in which God’s counsel is fulfilled must necessarily vary according to the varying circumstances of the world. It is not given to us to foresee how Christ will show Himself, or by what advances and after what delays this end towards which we aspire will be reached. We cannot even tell of ourselves what is the right fulfilment of our own desire. We all know how St. Paul’s prayer was answered. He was opposed, rejected, imprisoned, martyred. The unreasonable and evil men from whom he sought protection finally triumphed over him. He asked for deliverance and he found death. But what then? His message was not lost. It was for a time hidden; and few things in the history of the Church are more striking. But after a dark, cold season of waiting the harvest was matured. Where he had sown, others reaped; and through manifold discouragements and checks and antagonisms the gospel of the cross within three centuries conquered the family, the schools, the state. The lesson is written for our learning. Let us do our work. Let the harvest, if God so will, be for those that come after us; there will be joy then for the sower.
Perhaps in the modern mission-field the prayer of the text has had no better fulfilment than in the kingdom of Toro, near the Albert Nyanza and adjacent to Uganda, the king of which, David Kasagama, wrote in an interesting letter some years ago: “I want my country to be a strong lantern, that is not put out in this land of darkness.” The queen-mother is also a Christian, and in a letter of hers wrote these words: “Friends, I thank God that we are one with you although we are black and you are white, because now we are one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore, my masters, persevere in praying to God to give us strength every day.” Such words echo the Apostolic precept to pray for the success of God’s Word, while they encourage us, from the triumph of the gospel in Toro, to believe the prophetic word that it shall not return to God void, but shall accomplish that which He pleases, and shall prosper in the thing whereto He hath sent it.1 [Note: J. Silvester.]
Prayer and Progress
Denney (J.), The Epistles to the Thessalonians (Expositor’s Bible), 309.
Fairbairn (R. B.), College Sermons, 330.
Findlay (G. G.), The Epistles to the Thessalonians, 159.
Garrod (G. W.), The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, 127.
Jackson (G.), Memoranda Paulina, 250.
Parker (J.), Colossians, Philemon, and Thessalonians, 289.
Purves (P. C.), The Divine Cure for Heart Trouble, 76.
Westcott (B. F.), Lessons from Work, 199.
Christian World Pulpit, xlvii. 329 (J. B. Meharry); liii. 298 (J. B. Cabrera); lv. 368 (B. F. Westcott); lxiii. 298 (C. Brown); lxxiii. 219 (A. Lamont).
Church of England Pulpit, xlviii. 97 (B. F. Westcott); lxii. 585 (J. Silvester).
Church Pulpit Year Book, 1906, p. 300.