If you want to know what people really believe, the philosopher Roger Scruton once explained, listen to them pray. It is one thing to ask a person what he believes, but it is another thing to listen to him pray. Prayers reveal the underlying theology. As the old Latin formula reminds us, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi — As we pray, so we believe.
I think we can safely take Roger Scruton’s point one step further. We learn a great deal about someone by what they ask others to pray for. That point draws me to the Apostle Paul, and to his prayer requests as found in 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5.
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”
Paul has already written to the Christians in Thessalonica, thankful that their faith was growing abundantly and that their mutual love in Christ was increasing. He has assured them of the ultimate victory of Christ and warned them to be watchful of the coming Day of the Lord.
“So then, brothers,” Paul had written, “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by spoken word or by our letter.” [2:15] Paul then prayed for these believers, for whom he had long toiled and to whom he had so faithfully preached: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” [2:16-17]
Only then did Paul ask the Thessalonians to pray for him, along with his gospel companions Timothy and Silvanus. Finally, he asks, pray for us “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.”
Paul continued by asking the church to pray that he and the other evangelists would be “delivered from wicked and evil men,” knowing that the gospel of Christ has enemies. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to pray that the gospel would go forth unhindered by opposition and unstoppable in the face of the wicked and the evil.
Paul was confident that the church would be protected from the evil one, and he expressed confidence that the Thessalonian Christians would be faithful to his instruction “and will do the things that we command.”
What strikes me most powerfully is the words that the Apostle uses to make the central thrust of his request for prayer clear — “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.”
Paul defined his ministry as the ministry of the Word. The minister is a steward of the mysteries of God, a herald of the good news, and a proclaimer of the gospel of Christ. As he instructed the church at Rome in Romans chapter ten, “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” [Romans 10:17]
Now Paul asks the Thessalonian church to pray “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.”
Speed ahead? Paul’s language underlines his hope that the gospel would spread quickly to the ends of the earth. He yearns to see the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, race across the world, knowing that the Day of the Lord is coming, when there will be no more days left to preach. Paul’s vision was driven by urgency and eschatology, knowing that the time is short and eternity is at stake. In these words from Paul we hear the echo of Jesus in John 9, verse 4: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”
With night coming, the urgency is clear. John Stott put it this way: “The Thessalonians are asked to pray that the gospel may run well, run fast, and that, wherever it goes, it may have a glorious reception.”
That points us to the second phrase of this prayer request — that the word of the Lord may be honored. Paul understood that the gospel is honored when it is recognized as God’s good news of salvation, when the sinner hears of God’s provision for our salvation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and when the sinner believes and is saved. This is what it means for the word of the Lord to be honored. The underlying word points to glory, and God is glorified when the gospel is preached, heard, and believed.
Paul was never concerned for his own glory. As a matter of fact, he was determined that he receive no glory so that the glory would be exclusively and rightly God’s alone.
His prayer is that the word of the Lord would speed ahead and be honored. And as Paul asked the believers in Thessalonica to pray for him, so we now pray for you, the May 2016 graduating class of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Our prayer is that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored in you, in your preaching, ahead of you as you go.
We do pray for you, knowing that He who began a good work in you will complete that work, and that He who called you into the ministry and service of his church will send you forth and never forsake you. You represent the hopes and dreams of Christians down through the ages, from the time of the apostles and martyrs until now. You have been encouraged by the saints, loved by Christ’s church, and taught by a faculty of consecrated Christian scholars.
You have received a stellar theological education that would be the envy of the faithful through two millennia of Christian witness. You have learned and become learned, you have loved and been loved, you have prepared and you have received preparation. This faculty has strengthened you and been strengthened by you. You carry our hopes for the spread of the gospel and the upbuilding of Christ’s church.
The Christian ministry is not a career. It is a calling that originates in the sovereign majesty of God and is concluded only by the coming of the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ.
In the church age, ministry is handed from generation to generation. Our humble determination and our heart’s desire must be to receive this charge and to serve faithfully — planting and watering in the fields of ministry and taking care how we build upon the foundation laid before us.
The Lord God spoke through his prophet Joel to promise that older men will dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Powerful, faithful, and compelling dreams and visions animate these graduates. They were brought here to this seminary as they were called to ministry, these visions and dreams have kept them here through years of dedicated study, and these dreams and visions propel them onward as they go out into a world of ministry and mission.
But as they go, they join a line of faithfulness that reaches back to Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John the Baptist and John the evangelist, Peter and Philip, Paul and Apollos. It extends through generations punctuated by names such as Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Whitfield and Wesley, Owen and Edwards, Spurgeon and Moody . . . and so it goes.
A commencement day comes with a flood of reflection and the splendor of hope. The Spring 2016 graduating class of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is gathered here in space and time for one great moment. Right before our eyes, they are about to be flung to the four corners of the earth, sent into the churches and into the nations. On this great day and on this historic lawn we see them in their graduating gowns and regalia. We rightly feel that they are ours, but they are not ours to keep.
Graduates, you have no earthly idea how loved you are and how many hopes are invested in you. The hopes and prayers of a host of Christ’s people go before you, with you, and after you. Go serve the children of the day, and minister so that Christ’s glory will be more evident in his church. Take the gospel to the nations and look together with all God’s people to that great marriage supper of the Lamb.
Take your place in line and fulfill your ministry with eyes wide open, knowing your destiny in Christ. May the word of the Lord speed ahead and be honored.
A commencement address delivered by Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Friday, May 20, 2016. The entire service will be live streamed at www.sbts.edu/live at 10:00 a.m.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.