First, Paul’s statements of thanks to God for those to whom he is writing is a reminder to us that we ought to regularly and specifically give thanks to God for other believers. It’s easy to fall into the trap of a prayerless life. Only marginally second to prayerlessness is routine, rote prayers that typically focus on self or attempt to turn God into a cosmic genie that bends His will to our every demand. Contrasted with this is the convicting example of Paul in regularly praying and not only that, but regularly focusing his prayers to God in giving thanks to Him for the work that He has done or is doing in His people. One needn’t go far to find the pattern for Paul’s own prayers than in the witness and example of our Lord Jesus Christ as read in Matthew 14:23; 26:36-46, but even more so in John 17:1-26. Here, specifically in John 17:6-19 we find our Lord giving thanks to God the Father for those among whom He had ministered on earth. In a very real way, our Lord becomes the prototype for prayer, specifically intercessory prayer, and in giving thanks to God for one another. Paul follows this pattern continuing to set the example for believers to imitate.
But there is a second application that is broader than just praying for those whom the Lord surrounds us with. One of the more lamentable aspects of modern evangelicalism is just how divided and distanced genuine believers are from each other. I’ve lamented this before, and even recently. It is a tragedy that any mention of cooperation or any kind of unity among believers is met with shouts of ecumenicity. I’m reminded of a incident from about four years ago and a discussion I was having with a local church elder. I had expressed a desire to begin a small group study of Scripture that would be opened up to several folks that I knew from neighboring churches, including those that weren’t necessarily reformed in their soteriology. The response of this elder was, “Oh, then it would be truly an ecumenical study.” These folks didn’t hold to a different gospel, or a different way of salvation apart from grace through faith in Christ. It was going to be ecumenical, according to this elder, because it was opened up beyond our four walls and would include those who may not have heard or been exposed to passages of Scripture on God’s sovereignty in salvation. Again, doctrine matters, indeed it is foundational, but the strict limitation of fellowship to only those we see on Sunday mornings within a particular set of four walls is quite literally shocking.
Contrary to this, we observe Paul praying for those in Rome, who he may not have even met yet (Romans 1:10), Corinth, among whom he likely spent most of his time, second only to Ephesus, along with Philippi and Colossae, who he may not have personally visited (Colossians 2:1), as well as the Thessalonians. It would be easy to dismiss Paul’s broad prayers as the product of his missionary endeavors, yet turning again to our Lord and we find Him also praying for not only those among whom He had ministered, but even those who had not come to faith in Him. John 17:20-21
Is not every believer we’ve encountered or among whom we have ministered worthy of our prayers? Do you ever find God bringing ‘random’ believers to mind who have previously been in your life or perhaps those to whom you have found yourself especially bonded? Pray for them. More than that, reach out to them and let them know you are thinking and praying about them. If you are on the receiving end of that note, be gracious and humbled that God would bring you to the mind of another (Phil. 1:3).
Third, while there is certainly much that is gained from Paul’s statements of thanksgiving for brothers and sisters scattered around the world, there is also much said by his silence concerning the lack of thanksgiving in 2 Corinthians and Galatians, both letters which are occasioned by reprimands. Given the overwhelming evidence that when Paul wrote his letters, his typical pattern was giving thanks to God for them, it is therefore striking when the absence of thanksgiving occurs.
What are we to make of this?
First, it may be a reminder to us that just because there are gatherings of believers, perhaps in a particular geographic area, it does not mean that all is well. Surely that is the case for both Corinth and Galatia, but especially the latter, as Paul clearly gives thanks to God for the Corinthians in his first letter. But Galatia is different. Galatia is running counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and is in grave danger, therefore deserving of a different tone. Which leads to our second observation. While we may be sure to give thanks to God for those whom He has either given us fellowship with or influence among, there are those who at times may require a firmer hand. This doesn’t mean unloving, and certainly doesn’t mean uncaring – as Paul would not have taken the time to write to Galatia if either of those were lacking. Rather, it is speaking the truth in love; it is Paul’s dilemma of whether to come with a rod of discipline or in love and a gentle spirit. Finally, in observing Paul’s pattern of giving thanks and noticing his withholding of thanks in at least two examples, we are reminded of the disappointments that come in ministry. Part of Paul’s expressions of thanksgiving to God was the joy that he had in seeing those among whom he had ministered and to whom he was writing, grow in their faith. In this way, his giving thanks to God is similar to John’s ‘no greater joy’ statements, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” However, after the opening salutation and mention of the Gospel, the letter to Galatia is quite different than an expression of thanksgiving or joy. Instead, Paul offers an expression of bewilderment that they could so easily and quickly desert Christ and turn to another gospel, as though there was one.
By observing the opening of the epistles and the special note of thanksgiving that Paul regularly offered to God for other Christians we ought to be encouraged to offer regular thanksgiving to God for those among whom He has allowed us to minister, and even for those whom we do not have regular contact. Further, it should encourage us to regularly let other believers know that we are praying for them, especially in giving thanks to God for them. Finally, we ought also be reminded that all that glitters is not gold, as the Galatian’s confession of faith and practice was indeed in danger of being fools gold. In this final observation we ought to be on guard that our own confession and practice must always be measured against the standard of the Gospel. Further, we ought to be on alert that disappointments in ministry happen. Though we may plant or water, it is God that gives growth (1 Cor. 3:6). As much as we might pray or devote ourselves to the discipleship of others, ultimately it is left up to God. No one has ever been saved on the basis of another, apart from that another being our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we sow, plant, water, and rest knowing that the sovereign God remains in control (Mark 4:1-20).
Soli Deo Gloria Examples for Paul’s thanksgiving include the following:
- Romans 1:8
- 1 Corinthians 1:4-9
- Ephesians 1:15-23
- Philippians 1:3-11
- Colossians 1:3
- 1 Thess. 1:2-3
- 2 Thess. 1:3
- Notably absent is Galatians (and 2 Cor.)