Biblical Church Growth I Thessalonians 3:12-4:12


By Mark Dever

How can you have a growing church? According to the advertisements in a recent issue of one prominent evangelical magazine, churches can grow by attending a seminar on effectively training church leaders in the local church; by ordering some new Sunday School literature; by buying electrical communications gear from a store in Alabama; by picking the right study Bible or Christian book, the right college or seminary. One prominent seminary, if you enroll, claims to “empower you to be a world changer.”

Church growth today is big business. Many people, from bureaucrats in declining denominations, to sociologists of religion, to earnest young evangelical pastors, would like to know what a growing church is like and how to have one.

The apostle Paul knew that fundamentally a growing church is made up of growing Christians. And so he took time to pray for and to instruct the Christians he knew. And by God’s grace, the church grew. Let’s turn now to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, beginning at 3:12.

12May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. 1Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2You know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; 6and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. 7For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit. 9Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more. 11Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, 12so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

We’ll look first at Paul’s prayers for a growing church, 3:12-13, the motive for a growing church, 4:1, and instructions for a growing church, 4:2-12.

First, just as Paul did back in chapter 1, vv. 2-3, Paul shared with the Thessalonians what it was that he prayed for them. He prayed two things for them– love and holiness.

He prayed for them, we read in verse 12, May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

Paul knows that God is the source of love. Notice that Paul doesn’t simply tell them to be more loving. Paul prays his requests to God, because he knows that what he is asking is something which God is certainly able to do, and is something which God has said that he desires. After all, it is God who has both given us the example of love and gives us the power to follow that example. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God,” (I John 4:7-8).

We Christians love then, because God first loved us–both in the sense that he has given us an example of love; but also in the sense that He empowers us to love. And so, if we need to grow in love, what should we do? Well, at least one thing we can do about it is to pray about it. The way to grow, is to pray.

Paul presumes that they are loving (that’s clear from down in 4:9), but wants their love to increase, even overflow – to overflow its banks, to break out of its bounds! Christians should always be growing. It’s good to pray for this for those we know. And for ourselves–that we would more and more have love for each other, and for everyone else.

We also read in v. 13, that Paul prayed for holiness. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Again, note the source of their strength. Paul prays that God will strengthen the very core of their beings–their personality, their will, that place where the goals and ambitions of life are stored–their hearts. And he tells them why he wants their hearts to be strengthened: so that they will be blameless and holy. Paul prays negatively that there will be no sin that can be laid against their charge, that they will be blameless. But he also prays positively that they would be holy, that their lives would reflect the purely good character of God. Paul wants them to put off the old, and put on the new. Paul emphasizes that this is not simple blamelessness in the eyes of the watching world, but rather blamelessness “in the presence of our God and Father” at that time when a final assessment will be made, as all books are opened when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. This theme of the END runs throughout this letter.

Isn’t it interesting what Paul didn’t tell them he had prayed for—their physical health & prosperity, the end of their persecutions—the very things which we probably would most naturally tell someone we were praying for them. Oh, I’m not saying that Paul never prayed these things for them. But that’s not what he shares with them here. Paul seems mainly concerned to pray not for their physical or material prosperity, but for their spiritual prosperity.

Paul not only prayed for the Thessalonians, he also motivated them with the prospect of living to pleasing God (4:1). Paul implored them. Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.

He had already reminded them of a number of things he had told them when he was with them. And now, what does he say that he had instructed them in? How to live. It wasn’t simply instruction in what they were to believe, but in how they were to live. When Paul was with these believers, he had not simply taught them words, but he had showed them how to live. When he heard that they were standing firm in the Lord, as he says up in v. 8, this doesn’t simply mean that they still held the right beliefs, but that they were still living the right lives. As Matthew Henry said, “To talk well without living well will never bring us to heaven.”

Paul reminds them of how they were to live, he says “in order to please God.” Whatever the outward forms of user-friendly churches, the heart of any true church growth will be a desire to please God. If we’re honest, we must admit that we all live to please someone. But the crucial question is, who that person is. From whom do you require applause in order to be happy & content? According to the Bible, the Christian lives to please God. It is only as the desire to please God moves into the center of the Christian’s life, of the church’s life, that growth will take place.

You see, again here, you have the idea of growth. He says “as in fact you are living,” do this “more and more”. He doesn’t just want them to abide, but to abound. The mark of a growing Christian isn’t perfection, but it’s the desire to grow more.

Paul urges them to do this. This word “urge” in v. 1 is a word Paul used to introduce passionate exhortations, to seize the point and to drive it home. “brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.” More and more Paul urged them to grow in living-so-as-to-bring-pleasure-to-God. This is the motive of a growing church.

Paul had prayed for them to be loving and holy. He implored them to this end. Now in the final and longest part of our passage he adds to these things some specific instructions for a growing church (4:2-12).

First he instructs them about holiness, in vv. 2-8. Follow along with me.

2You know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; 6and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. 7For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

So, one way they should live more and more is in holiness. “Be holy” Paul says (v. 3). In the old versions it would say here “sanctification.” It is God’s will that we be increasingly sanctified – made holy, special, separate. The most fundamentally holy thing is God. As Hannah prayed, “There is no-one holy like the LORD I Samuel 2:2. We are therefore to reflect God’s character in our holy behavior. What shows we’re His people most clearly is a holy lifestyle. We’re not to confuse others by professing to be children of a Holy God, but then not living holy lives.

And so we have the kind of statement about holiness Paul makes here, where the moral implications are to the fore in the meaning of the word. Our bodies are to be kept clean and pure for Him. And by doing that, the wonderful, life-giving holiness of the Lord will shine out of our lives, into the dark world around us. So here, Paul says specifically, avoid sexual immorality (v. 3) – any kind of sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Why? It all comes back to pleasing the Lord. Paul gives two reasons. First, in verse 6, because of the threatened punishment–The Lord will punish men for all such sins. Paul faithfully followed the example of Jesus in teaching these young believers that the Lord might return at any time, and therefore that they were to live in readiness. And that meant that they not give themselves over to those things which will certainly merit punishment from Jesus. Secondly, he says in v. 7, because of their planned purpose–For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. As Paul said to the believers in Ephesus God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him,” (1:4). Paul prayed for the Philippian believers so that they might “be pure and blameless until the day of Christ,” (1:10). He told the Colossian believers that Christ had reconciled them to Himself “to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (1:22).

Note that this life of holiness is the life that pleases God the Father, Son & Holy Spirit. This is how He would have us live. These instructions are, “by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (v. 2). “It is God’s will,” Paul says in v.3. And in v. 8, he makes it clear that “he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.” God gives us His Spirit of holiness. He is holy. He makes those in whom He lives like Himself–holy.

It’s the fact that it’s God’s message that gives Paul such urgency. Paul clearly wanted them to know that these were not simply his ideas. No, in this, Paul was following the instruction of Jesus to his disciples to teach others those things which HE had taught them (Matt. 28:18-20).

This is the heart of good preaching. Certainly preaching is, as one has said, truth through personality. But that personality is to amplify God’s truth, not obscure it. It’s good – even necessary – for preachers to use the wit that God has given them, but always in a way that illuminates the text, more than simply illuminating the preacher’s own thoughts. Anyone who would ever preach must have his call confirmed by studying to speak God’s words, and not merely his own ideas.

And then finally, in vv. 9-12, he instructs them about love (4:9-12).

9Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more. 11Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, 12so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

They were loving each other with brotherly love. Again, note the importance of encouragement. God had taught them about this. They had responded. Paul had taken note and encouraged them. It’s no surprise then to find at the beginning of his next letter to them, these words in 1:3: “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.”

Even though God had already evidently taught them this, he says, even so, they could grow, they could increase in this, so he urges them; he beseeches them as he had just done on the previous matter of sexual holiness to do so more and more. Even though there love was extensive, going beyond the bounds of their local congregation, even still, Paul could urge them to love each other more and more. He gives the specifics down in 5:12-15: respect the leaders (5:12-13), warn the idle (5:14), encourage the timid (5:14), help the weak (5:14), be patient with everyone (5:14), pay back no one’s wrong with another wrong (5:15), be kind to each other and everyone else (5:15).

It seems, however, that there were some problems in this church. A misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching of Christ’s return had perhaps led some of them to a state which was marked by a disturbing combination of fanaticism & laziness, as they neglected the normal course of life, in order to wait for the Lord’s imminent return. Thus, Paul told them that they should be ambitious to lead a quiet life; that is, not a life that’s agitated and agitating, but a life at peace, with God, others & ourselves (cf. live in peace 5:13). That’s a remarkable idea isn’t it–to be ambitious to lead a quiet life. In one of my favorite films–A Man for All Seasons–Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas More is approached by a young Cambridge graduate who is asking his assistance in getting employment. More offers to recommend him for a teaching post in a school. But Rich, the young man, refuses this, instead desiring a position at court. More responds, warning him of the temptations of power and privilege, and concludes by again recommending the teaching post to him: “A man should go where he won’t be tempted… Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.” Rich responds, “And if I was who would know it?” More: “You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public that. . . . Oh, and a quiet life.” It was the Lord Jesus who taught his followers to pray, lead us not into temptation. And it is Paul who tells us here to be ambitious “for a quiet life.”

Paul goes on to instruct them one way they can foster such a life – by simply minding their own business. Now at first glance, this might seem to be a different emphasis than the brotherly love that Paul was just commending; but of course, really minding your own business, as you should, is loving to those around you. There is a big difference between the selflessness which is behind putting others’ needs ahead of your own, and the selfishness which is behind your always needing to be the first one to hear, or the first one to tell something; or taking offense if you haven’t heard, and taking offense if you have. Before you seek or offer a piece of information about someone else, it wouldn’t hurt sometimes simply to ask yourself the question, “Do I need to know this? Does this person need to know this?” Don’t misunderstand me, as Christians, we should be concerned about each others lives, but we should do that by talking to each other directly out of a humble love and concern, and not by talking critically about each other out of a smug self-righteousness that always knows better.

Another part of this love was to work with their own hands. Note Paul also told them to warn the idle (5:14). This was evidently a real, and growing problem in the church at Thessalonica. That’s why Paul had to warn them again, in the next letter, to keep away from the idle (2Thess. 3:6-12).

You see, Paul’s concerns are, according to v.12, to win the respect of others–and so bring no extra stumbling block to people hearing the gospel — so they would owe no man anything (cf. Romans 13:8). To become dependent on someone else could not only be a bad witness, but it could also unnecessarily inhibit their freedom of witness to outsiders, and disturb the peace of relationships between those inside the church (thus Paul in II Th. 3:11 connects being idle and being a busybody).

Do you see the relationship between brotherly love & a quiet life? Quite simply, it is the loving thing to do, not to be burdensome to brothers, or scandalous to others.

In all of this Paul instructed them how to live as growing disciples, as a growing church, growing in holiness and growing in love.

Conclusion

This is the apostle Paul’s example to us for what to do in order to help a church grow. Did you take note of what Paul did, when he wanted to see this church grow? He did what you should do if you want to see your church grow, or any other church, for that matter–He interceded for them to be holy and loving, he implored them to be holy and loving, and he instructed them in how to be holy and loving.

It’s no accident that Paul was so concerned for these Christians to be holy and loving. Because God has called the church together, in order to be a picture, a reflection of His character. So in being holy and loving, these Christians would reflect the character of their Father, who has shown Himself to be, perhaps more than anything else, holy and loving.

The way to be a growing church then, is by reflecting the character of the one who called us to be a church in the first place. After all, if we’re not going to do that, we’re not growing anyway, however many people may be coming along.

If we grow as Christians, or as churches, we grow for His glory–not our own. And I think that is the way we will see real growth. Listen to Paul’s closing prayer for the Thessalonians at the end of this letter (5:23-24): “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” At the end of the day, then, our growth in holiness is a promise.