Over the past several years I’ve thought more and more about the kinds of prayers I pray for other people. Many of my prayers are concerned with the urgent (recovery from sickness or illness, or the selling of a home) or for direction in life (the will of God over a particular matter). However, when I look more closely at the kind of prayers found in Scripture, particularly the Paul’s of prayer in the New Testament, I’m struck at how often he doesn’t pray for these kinds of things. Not that it’s wrong to be concerned with the health of another or for the selling of a home or what have you. But several of Paul’s prayers are concerned with what is lasting, those spiritual matters that carry on into eternity. 1 Thessalonians 3:11–13 is one such prayer. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians may be divided in to two petitions and a concluding purpose or goal of why he prays for them.
First Petition: Lord, Clear Our Way. “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you” (1 Thess 3:11).
Chapter three closes with Paul petitioning the Lord to move and work among him and the Thessalonians. First, he asks for God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ to “direct our way to you” (1 Thess 3:11). It’s important to note how Paul views the Father and Jesus here. He refers to them as “our” Father and Lord Jesus Christ. This speaks to the very personal nature of Christianity. God is relational. He speaks of his people as his children, his sons and daughters (Rom 8:15; cf. Jer 31:9), and he as their Father (cf. Matt 6:9; 1 Thess 1:1, 3; 3:13; 2 Thess 1:1–2; 2:16).
Not only this, but he has revealed himself ultimately and most gloriously through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Lord, master, and sovereign to be obeyed, worshiped, and adored. He is also Christ, the promised Messiah come to lay down his life for the sins of humanity so that it might be reconciled to God. It is this Father and this Jesus that Paul and his coworkers know intimately, such that they speak of them as “our.”
The pronoun “our” also speaks to the unity that exists between Paul, his coworkers, and the church. All of them are united to Jesus. All of them serve one God and Father. All of them are in the family of God. Therefore, there ought to be genuine expressions of this unseen reality. There should be evidence of the unity they have with one another.
Paul has already mentioned how Satan has hindered them from seeing one another (1 Thess 2:18). He knows the physical limitations they face. However, he also knows that only God the Father and the Lord Jesus can make it possible for he and his coworkers to make the trip to Thessalonica. In his perfect timing, God will make it possible for Paul to see this church and the others scattered throughout the region of Macedonia (cf. Acts 19:21–22; 20:1–6; 1 Cor 16:5; 2 Cor 1:16; 1 Tim 1:3).
Paul’s example reminds us of a simple and important point: our prayers are being heard by someone, someone who is able to do something about them. Prayer is not a time for wishful thinking, for hoping against hope that something will take place. Prayer is how we communicate with the God of the universe, the same God who flung the planets in their orbit. He not only hears us, but he is capable of meeting our every need.
Second Petition: Lord, Make Their Love Increase and Abound. “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you” (1 Thess 3:12).
Second, Paul asks for the Lord to make them “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess 3:12). Paul knows full well that apart from Jesus doing this through the power of the Holy Spirit, such a prayer will not and cannot be answered. Paul heard from Timothy of the love they had for one another (3:6), and yet he desired that it would “increase and abound,” that is “abound beyond limits, being exceedingly great and overflowing.” As they continued to grow in grace, their love would grow, and manifest itself in tangible ways. He wished it to not only be so in the church (cf. John 13:34–35; 15:12, 17; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11–12), but also “for all,” for everyone else (cf. Matt 5:43–48; Gal 6:10). This love toward others must at least include a gospel witness, both in word and conduct (cf. 1 Thess 4:9–12). In case the Thessalonians don’t know how they are to respond to one another and all person in love, Paul gives himself and his coworkers as their example: “as we do for you.” Their selflessness, love, and uprightness in ministering to the Thessalonians were well known (2:1–12). The young church could recall their display of sacrificial love for them, and set their hearts to love others in like manner (2:10).
When someone is doing well is not the time to back off and leave them on their own. They need our encouragement. They need to know we’re rooting for them. They need to know we’re their for them should they need us. Paul does this with the Thessalonians. They love well, but Paul desires for their love to increase and abound, and he lets them know it. He will continue to encourage them to grow in their love for one another and for others.
The Purpose for the Second Petition: So That They May Be Blameless. “So that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13).
Chapter three concludes with the purpose for Paul’s second petition: “so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13). Paul’s desire is that “at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” the Thessalonians hearts will be pure before God. Notice, he does not call on the Thessalonians to establish their own hearts, rather, it is the Lord Jesus himself who is called on to do this work.
I think this too serves as an example of the kind of things the Thessalonians can do to abound in love for one another and for others (cf. 3:12). We may not think seriously about praying for others as an act of love. I think we sometimes think about praying for others as the least I can do for someone. But, if we take to heart who we are praying to (God the Father), and what we are praying for (perseverance and holiness), then I think we will begin to understand just how important our prayers for others actually are.
By looking ahead to Christ’s second coming, Paul sets the scene as one of future judgment (cf. Matt 27:11; Luke 21:36; 2 Cor 5:10). God will indeed one day judge the hearts of all persons (cf. 1 Thess 4:6; 1 Pet 1:17). However, it is only those who are his, saved by his grace, and clothed in the righteousness of his Son, whose hearts will be found blameless (cf. 1 Thess 5:9; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:13–14).
The standard (Greek, en haiōsynē) by which their hearts will be judged is the holiness of God. Throughout Scripture, God is declared to be holy (cf. Pss 71:22; 89:18; Isa 1:4; Jer 50:9; Ezek 39:7; 1 Pet 1:15–16; John 17:11; Rev 4:8), and he commands that his people be holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44). This process begins when one is saved and continues throughout one’s life, only to be completed in glorification. Although it is right to say, with Paul, that this is something God must do in the believer, this does not exclude the believer from working out their salvation (Phil 2:12). Paul summarizes this process elsewhere: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his [the Father’s] sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant” (Col 1:21–23, NIV, emphasis added).
It is possible to fall into the trap of thinking of Christian growth in holiness as an end to itself. We are to grow so that we become better people; people who more and more reflect the image of Christ. While that is all true, it is not the end for which we pursue growth in godliness. Rather, according to Paul we strive to be more like Christ so that when Christ appears our hearts may be blameless in holiness before our God (1 Thess 3:13). It is so that we might be prepared to spend an eternity in the presence of a good and perfect and holy God.
So what do your prayers look like? What do you find yourself praying for? Who do you find yourself praying for? Do your prayers include petitions to be holy and for others to be holy? Are you asking the Father to prepare you and others to stand before him with blameless and holy hearts? Do you pray such prayers with the assurance that the God to whom you offer your requests is big enough to answer these prayers? Do you love others enough to pray for them?
 Gene L. Green, The Letter to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 177.