Abounding in Love

Dr. Brian Allison

The Christmas season is the time of year in which we have many well-wishers. We wish blessing and happiness, joy and peace, on different ones that cross our path, and on different ones with whom we rub shoulders. Perhaps you have received one or two Christmas cards on which are the words, "Best Wishes." What do you wish for yourself? What do you wish for your family? What do you wish for your friends? What do you wish for your church? I trust that you are wishing something. This past week I talked to a number of people and they have some big wishes, and that is all right because we have a big (awesome!) God. He can handle all our wishes; in fact, that is exactly what He wants to do. He wants you to bring to Him your wishes because He delights in fulfilling them. He is the God of the impossible, and not only that, He is the God of love. The apostle Paul knew this simple truth. He was a well-wisher, and when he uttered his 'best wishes' for others, he did so in the spirit of prayer. We read in 1 Thessalonians 3:11 – 13, "Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints."

Paul had some large desires (wishes); and it is all right to have large desires. There are some who say, "You must kill all your desires. It is bad to have desires." No, it is not bad to have desires, but we may have bad desires, and these must be resisted; but not all desires are bad. Paul often expressed his desires as he wrote to believers. We find it here in verses 11 – 13, but also in other places in his writings. For instance, in writing to this same Church, we read in his second epistle to the Thessalonians 3:16, "Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all!" Now, as we look at verses 11-13, there are two desires that the apostle Paul expresses. The first desire is in reference to himself. The second desire is in reference to fellow-believers. Paul's desires flowed out of his understanding of who God is, and his confidence in what the Lord could do.

As we consider these verses, keep in mind that the primary theme that underlies what Paul is teaching here is that of love. As we consider chapters 2 and 3 of this epistle, we see that the apostle Paul repeatedly touches on this particular theme. Verses 11-13 of chapter 3 is somewhat of a climax, though he returns to this theme in chapter 4. Paul is preoccupied with this theme. For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7,8, in making reference to his own heart state, he says, "But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children [an expression of love]. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives [why Paul?], because you had become very dear to us." We often refer to the apostle John as the apostle of love, but the apostle Paul was arguably as much an apostle of love.

The wish for reunion

Notice Paul's first desire, "Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you" (3:11). Prior to this point, Paul has repeatedly expressed his desire to be reunited with these believers. In chapter 2:17, 18, he writes, "But we, brethren, having been bereft of you for a short while – in person, not in spirit – were all the more eager with great desire to see your face. For we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, more than once – and yet Satan thwarted us." We also read in chapter 3:6, "But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we long to see you." Again, we read in 3:10, "As we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?" Now, as the apostle draws this line of thought to a close, he utters a wish-prayer, and he repeats this same desire – "Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you" (3:11).

Paul desperately wanted to be reunited with these believers. Have you ever had such an intense passion, such a great desire, to be reunited with believers? Does it pain you when you have to part from them? Is it indeed true: 'Blessed be the tie that binds'? You may say, "Well, Paul was an exception; he was a rather extraordinary man. He was able to love in a special way." Yet, Paul called these believers to the same kind of love that he himself was expressing, clearly suggesting that all believers may have the same kind of love as he. Paul was not 'in a class all his own'. This is normal Christianity – a desire to be with God's people because of love. If there is no desire, or if there is little desire to be with God's people, then you have little love for God's people. It does not matter how much you read your Bible, it does not matter how much you pray, it does not matter how much time you give to the church, if you have no desire to be with God's people, and you make it a point to stay away from them, then you have little love for them.

Now, in offering this wish-prayer, Paul has in view both God the Father and God the Son. He is praying to the first and second persons of the Godhead; a rather unusual address. This reference to both the Father and the Son implies the depth of love and desire on his part for reunion. And, of course, this language reminds us that God is the God of providence. Paul knew that God alone could fulfil the desire of his heart to be reunited with these believers. God would have to guide and direct; and Paul bowed to that providence. Do you have that same attitude? We often talk about the sovereignty of God; and the sovereignty of God entails the providence of God; but do we derive great comfort and peace in understanding and resting in the sovereignty and providence of God? There is absolutely nothing that happens in our lives that He, our Father, and our Lord do not direct, bring about, and bring to pass.

Some time ago, I had an elderly couple come to see me through referral because they were wrestling with the pain of the death of their 21 year old daughter who was killed in a car accident. That is a heavy burden to bear. I remember sitting across from this couple and inadvertently saying, "Mrs. – – , the death of your daughter was not an accident;" and when she heard those words (empowered by the Spirit) she seemed to be set free from her turmoil of soul in trying to find the reason why her daughter had died. She had been impacted by the truth of the sovereignty of God. The Spirit used that simple statement to bring peace and comfort to her heart because she came to realize that the death of her daughter was a part of the larger scheme of the purposes and plan of God. Even though she did not understand how the death of her daughter was actually part of the outworking of God's purposes and plan, she knew nevertheless that it was; and she was set free in her spirit. My Christian brothers and sisters, when you are passing through deep waters (and we will all pass through deep waters), it will be this truth of the sovereignty and providence of God – knowing that God is on the throne, knowing that nothing happens by accident – that will keep your soul so that you may press on.

So, Paul rested in the providence of God – "Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you" (3:11). It is interesting that the verb, 'direct', in the original Greek, literally means to make a straight line. It has the idea of leveling the field so that there is no obstruction, no obstacle; and, no doubt, Paul is alluding to his comment in 2:18, "For we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, more than once – and yet Satan thwarted [obstructed] us." And now, Paul says, "May God level and remove the obstruction." God is the only one that can actually do this. Maybe your personal road ways and highways are obstructed with debris and obstacles from Satan. Remember, our God is the great leveler. He delights in removing the garbage so that we may have free passage. If you are 'spinning your wheels', and not going anywhere fast, continue to cry out to the Lord. He will remove the obstruction. He can aptly deal with Satan. Though Satan may be a problem for us, He is no problem for the Lord.

The wish for more love

Paul's second desire was in reference to believers – "And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you" (3:12). Now, you may think that this desire of Paul's is a rather strange one because he had previously acknowledged that these believers were loving people. Considering 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul says, "Constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father." So, Paul acknowledged that these believers were disciples of love; and that fact was simply a clear demonstration that they were saved. If you really have faith, you will have love. He again makes reference to this fact in chapter 3:6, "But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you."

Now, even though these believers were disciples of love, Paul, in effect, says, "Not good enough! It is great that you are evidencing this particular virtue of love, but do not rest on your spiritual laurels. You are a loving community, but there is so much more love that you can experience and express. Because God is love, and you are born of God, you should be increasingly expressing that love. There should be no end to the depth and extent of that expression." In revealing his desire that these believers love more, Paul multiplies his terms; again he says, "And may the Lord [he is referring to Jesus, the head of the Church] cause you to increase and abound [that is, to overflow] in love" (3:12a). Similarly, he says in 2 Thessalonians 3:5, "And may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ." Paul is simply teaching that you cannot love as God intended you to love, in all sincerity and genuineness, apart from the inworking of God. Now, some of you may be trying very hard to love, saying, for instance, "Oh, I should help that sister...I should assist that brother;" and you are motivated more out of a sense of duty, rather than out of a sense of true compassion and mercy; you may feel constrained to help, and perhaps respond begrudgingly, rather than from a heart-desire. God must produce real love in us. Paul desired that the Thessalonian believers abound in God-rooted, God-inspired love.

There is no higher virtue than love. To be perfected in love is to know the perfection of spirituality; it is the pinnacle of Christian maturity, and God must produce it in us. That means that we are wholly dependent upon Him and His Spirit. Do you see why prayer becomes such a necessity? Prayer is the concrete expression of our dependency on God. It is in prayer that we confess that we can do absolutely nothing apart from Him, that we are utterly helpless without Him working in and through us; and so we come in our poverty and need and we say, "God, you must do this or I am lost." The man or woman who would be a conduit of God's love must be a man or woman of prayer. How is your prayer life? How much did you pray this past week? If your prayer life is shallow, do not be surprised if your love is shallow. It is in prayer that you know the nearness of God, and have access into His very presence, and His love will then flow through you. Prayer is the faucet that opens up the divine tap to allow the flow of the Spirit in our lives. Again, you show me a Christian who loves, and I will show you a Christian who prays. You show me a person who wrestles with anger, hate, irritability, frustration, or impatience, and I will show you a person who prays little.

Further, God's love has an universal extent – "...abound in love for one another, and for all men" (3:12b). We are to express God's love to our fellow-believers. We are to express God's love to all people. It does not matter what they look like, it does not matter what they have done, it does not matter if your personalities do not mesh; you are to love all indiscriminately. Practically speaking, if you really love your fellow-believer and your fellow person, then you will not negatively criticize or slander them; you will not gossip about them. Gossip is appalling and it is unbecoming of Christians. Gossip is sin. If you love, then you will be encouraging and supporting, trying to build up, rather than trying to tear down.

Now, Paul called these believers to love one another, and all men, according to a certain standard – "just as we also do for you" (3:12b). You may say, "Well, Paul, you are bragging here, aren't you?" Paul set himself forth as a model. He was not bragging; he was not elevating himself; he was simply being realistic. What is implied here is that you know whether you are loving or not, and to actually say that you are does not mean that you are bragging; but if you are truly loving, then you can invite others to imitate you as you imitate Christ. So, Paul presented himself as a model of love, there is some wisdom in doing this. The believers at Thessalonica knew Paul, they had seen his behaviour, they had seen his conduct, and they therefore had a concrete picture of what love looked like. Our young people need a concrete picture of what love looks like. Love needs to be concretized, incarnated, so that we can get a handle on it and express it. As Christians, we are to be models, not only in the Church, but in the home. Fathers, you are to be models of love. Mothers, you are to be models of love.

A wish for godliness

The grand purpose of this love is a godly life – "So that He may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints" (3:14). What is the connection between love and an unblamable (i.e., righteous) life? To be righteous means to conform to the law. And the Scriptures teach, "Love does no wrong to a neighbour; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law" (Rm. 13:10). Thus, the righteous person is the loving person. God, by His grace and through His powerful inworking, enables us to perform the good and to do what is right toward others. He confirms us in a blameless life.

Notice that the context of this blameless life is that of holiness. As we are consecrated to the Lord, set aside for His use, we are to demonstrate blamelessness. God wants us to live in a certain way in view of the return of Christ – "So that He may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness...at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints" (3:14). Paul refers to the theme of the return of Christ at least five times in this epistle. It is that understanding and perspective that served to motivate him. Paul lived, laboured, and ministered with an eye to the return of Christ. The question that seemed to confront him was, "Where will I stand when Christ returns? What will my life look like when Christ returns?" My friend, where will you stand when Christ returns? What will your life look like? The big question is not how well you begin, the big question is how well you finish. We all will stand before the judgement seat of Christ. Paul knew that. It was as if the veil had been removed and Paul could see the stark reality of that final day.

Paul, in ministering to these believers, was preparing them for the return of Christ, judgement day. This time of year we celebrate the first coming of Christ, and we should. Luke 2 records the account of the shepherds watching their flocks by night, and a myriad of angels appeared to them; and we read, "And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord'" (2:9-11). Our Lord came at a pivotal point in history. He came into the world as the Saviour of the world. But He is coming again, not as the Saviour of the world, but as its Judge. He came the first time with salvation; He is coming the second time with judgement. Where will you stand on that day, my friend? Are you living your life and serving the Lord with a view to the return of Christ?

My non-Christian friend, if you remain in your present state and condition until the coming of the Lord Jesus, I know exactly where you will stand. You will stand condemned, and you will be resigned to hell. You will suffer pain and torment for all eternity; and every day (if we can even use that language when it comes to eternity) you will curse the day that you were born. "Behold, now is 'THE ACCEPTED TIME', behold, now is 'THE DAY OF SALVATION'" (2 Cor. 6:2b). There can be no greater gift that you can enjoy during this Christmas season than God's salvation; and it is yours right now, if you will have it. Why don't you come and enjoy the Lord's Christmas. His unspeakable gift awaits you.