Have you ever felt the anxiety of trying to call someone and you couldn’t get through? There was an earthquake, hurricane, car crash or an attack on a military base, and your loved one was at that location, and you tried to call him/her to confirm he/she was safe. Do you recall the mental and physical sensation? Your heart racing, your breathing shallow and rapid, the panic sign flashing in your brain while you attempted to keep yourself calm. What did you do? Did you repeatedly hit “redial?” Did you go for a walk? Play with your phone distractedly?
It appears the Apostle Paul may have faced a similar kind of anxiety during certain moments in his life. In fact, we see hints of it in his letter to the Thessalonians. According to Acts 17, Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica for about three weeks, and then barely escaped a violent riot started by those who opposed him. Since that time, the apostle Paul wanted to visit the Thessalonians but was unable to as Satan “blocked” his attempts (1 Thess. 2:18). Imagine how that felt: Paul knew they were facing opposition, threats, and persecution but received no update on their welfare. Finally, after enduring months of radio silence on their spiritual state, he finally sent his protégé Timothy to check up on them. Thankfully, Timothy gave Paul a positive report of their continued growth in Christ.
Yet here’s the key: when Paul was tempted to worry about the Thessalonians, he went to God in prayer. Repeatedly, throughout the letter, Paul prayed for them and thanked God for them. When Paul lacked information, he prayed. And when he did, he found power.
In 1 Thess. 3:10-13, the apostle teaches us about powerful prayer: the kind of prayer that dispels our anxieties, that transforms our vision, hearts, and character. It also changes our circumstances. As best we can tell, according to Acts 20:1-3, Paul visited the Thessalonians five years after he sent his famous letter. God answered Paul’s prayer, but Paul had to wait five years to see his request come to fruition. That reminds us, God works on his own timetable. You and I are in a rush—but God’s timing is perfect.
The first principle we learn about powerful prayer is that it is constant or persistent. In 1 Thess. 3:10 he states he prayed for the Thessalonians “night and day.”
Essentially, Paul is saying “I pray around the clock for you!” Paul’s prayer life was not limited to a few minutes first thing in the morning. Whenever the Thessalonians came to Paul’s mind, he prayed for them, or he praised God for them.
Second, Paul teaches us that powerful prayer is earnest. In 1 Thess. 3:10 he declares, “we pray most earnestly.” When we pray, there’s got to be passion, heat, intensity. This is the opposite of saying a perfunctory grace at the dinner table: “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” Some pastors and prayer warriors call this earnestness “pressing into God.” It’s going deeper. There’s more energy and focus in prayer. It’s like a laser boring a hole through steel.
A third principle is that powerful prayer involves spiritual warfare. In 3:11 Paul prays that God would “clear the way for us to come to you” (unfortunately, we don’t know what was inhibiting Paul. Some have speculated he was in jail or had a physical ailment). Paul prayed God would remove the satanic barrier so Paul could break free and visit his friends. This is a spiritual warfare prayer. Jesus taught about this kind of prayer. In Matt. 16:19, he asserted “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Scholar D.A. Carson explains: “Jesus’ disciples, in accordance with his gospel of the kingdom, take up the ministry of the keys and bind and loose on earth what has with the coming of the kingdom been bound and loosed in heaven.”
According to Jesus, powerful prayer involves spiritual warfare. It is embracing our authority as Jesus’ disciples and kingdom bearers, and binding and loosing whatever God has already bound and loosed in heaven.
Fourth, in 3:12, Paul makes this plea: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow.” This prayer is twofold:the apostle prays the Thessalonians’ love for other Christians will increase and overflow, and that their love for “everyone else,” meaning those outside the church, will grow and gush out. The word for love here is the word “agape,” which is the same word used in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” This refers to unconditional love. It’s NOT “I will love you IF…” but rather, “I will love you period”: “I will love you when you reject me, spurn me, upset me, disappoint me.”
For many, this is a challenging verse. Almost every believer I’ve ever met has been burned by a Christian or a church. Yet Christianity teaches the importance of humility and forgiveness. As the old saying goes, “if the church was perfect, no one could join.”
Furthermore, Paul prays the Thessalonian’s love toward those who do not yet profess Christian faith will expand and spill over. Remember, Paul was talking to people who had been maligned and mistreated, even persecuted for their faith in Jesus. That’s a bold prayer!
The final principle of powerful prayer is found in 3:13: “May God strengthen your hearts so you will be blameless and holy.” Holiness refers to one’s purity, while blamelessness means, “free from fault or defect concerning one’s public reputation.”
The takeaway is that powerful prayer is constant, earnest, involves spiritual warfare, and asks for increased love and purity. Which area of prayer are you most strong? On the other hand, what aspect of prayer are you most weak? Rest assured, we can all grow regarding this vital discipline.