Much of the Christian world rejoiced at the recent news that Pastor Saeed Abedini, incarcerated in an infamous prison in Iran since 2012, was finally released.
“This has been an answer to prayer,” Pastor Abedini’s wife, Nagmeh, said after hearing the wonderful news. “This is a critical time for me and my family. We look forward to Saeed’s return and want to thank the millions of people who have stood with us in prayer during this most difficult time.”
There was a lot going on in the natural realm that could be credited with the circumstances surrounding Abedini’s release. American as well as international pressure had been pushing for his return home to the U.S. for three years, following his arrest in Iran while helping to build a nonsectarian orphanage.
But a lot of people had been praying too, and Nagmeh Abedini specifically credited prayer for the release of her husband.
The truth is the Bible makes extraordinary claims concerning the power of prayer to accomplish amazing things in the natural world – including doing exactly what she said.
In 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2, Paul makes this request: “Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you; and that we will be rescued from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith.”
In case you feel yourself to be a lowly saint, too obscure and weak to change the world, the Apostle Paul was asking the Christians in Thessalonica to pray for him, as well as his companions, Silvanus and Timothy (1:1). In modern terms, he was asking the janitor and the guy who works behind the fast food counter and the doctor and the high school gym teacher to pray for him.
So it must matter. It was important for Paul to know that these Christians were praying for him. It was important enough for God to put it into the heart of His apostle to ask for prayer. Moreover, it was important enough for the Holy Spirit to include this request in the Canon of Scripture.
What appears next in these verses is truly startling. Paul says the prayers of God’s humble people can accomplish two things:
(1) These prayers can lead to the successful preaching and teaching of God’s word.
Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray “that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified.”
It is the “word of the Lord” because it is spoken by Him and reveals Him. This preaching ministry is assigned to the church. Paul specifically knew he was a minister of this message and a steward of the grace that accompanied the mission.
What did he want to happen? If God answered their petitions, the prayers of His people could cause two things to occur: the word would spread rapidly and it would be glorified.
This latter result refers to the word of God being exalted and triumphant, given a place of prominence far above other “words” or messages. This means we can pray for the word of God to triumph even over ideologies that rise up against the true knowledge of God.
This successful preaching and teaching effort would be similar to what happened when the gospel was proclaimed in Thessalonica: “just as it did also with you” (vs. 1). What happens with one group of people can happen in the lives of others.
(2) These prayers can protect God’s people from the wicked.
Paul asks these Christians to pray “that we will be rescued from perverse and evil men” (vs. 2). The specific form that this rescue would take is not specified. Perhaps the prayer is that Paul and his companions not fall into the hands of the wicked or that the strategies of evil men would fail. Perhaps it refers to these faithful Christians being protected from death should they be captured, or guarded from the temptation toward unfaithfulness that intense suffering can bring about.
Paul was no stranger to persecution, and from other passages in the New Testament it is clear that the great apostle did not fear suffering. More likely, Paul wanted to escape these perverse and evil men only so that he could fulfill his calling and mission.
Nevertheless, the implication for the Thessalonians is also that if the church didn’t pray for these things, then two terrible results could follow: (1) The preaching of the word might be hindered and not spread rapidly, nor triumph in the areas where it was proclaimed; and (2) the snares and attacks from Paul’s persecutors might succeed – i.e., Paul and his companions would not be rescued.
These two consequences were probably linked to one another. Their preaching would be hindered as strategies against Paul succeeded.
For us today, the promises of prayer in the Bible are just as incredible. This brief and simple passage is a stunning reminder of the power of prayer before an almighty God. We are called to pray for the successful preaching of the gospel and the deliverance of God’s people from those who would hinder the Great Commission.
It is equally a reminder that a slothful and apathetic and unbelieving people cannot depend on God doing what they were clearly called to do: win battles on their knees! While we must be careful not to box God in, it seems clear from Paul’s request for prayer that, if we don’t, God won’t.
Just ask the Abedinis.