A Prospering Love
and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; (3:12)
The apostle Paul knew that genuine believers would always exhibit love (cf. John 13:34–35), therefore he prayed that the Thessalonians’ growing faith would be accompanied by a prospering love. That Paul asked the Lord to cause the Thessalonians’ love to grow indicates he depended on God for the development of spiritual virtues. Whether it was the beginning of the Christian life (justification—Rom. 3:30; 8:30, 33; cf. Isa. 50:8; Jonah 2:9; John 1:12–13) or the process of spiritual growth (sanctification—John 17:17; 1 Thess. 5:23; Jude 1; cf. Ezek. 37:28; Eph. 5:26), God revealed that He ultimately deserves the credit for believers’ maturity (1 Cor. 3:6–7; cf. 2 Cor. 3:5; 9:8; Gal. 2:20).
Paul’s statements in 1:3, “constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love,” and 3:6, “good news of your faith and love,” are clear evidence of the Thessalonians’ love. Here he prayed they would increase and abound in love (agapē), in that love which is the purest and noblest (Rom. 13:8–10; 1 Cor. 13:4, 13; 16:14; Gal. 5:13–14, 22; Eph. 1:15; 4:2; 5:2, 25, 28, 33; Phil. 1:9; Col. 3:19; 1 John 3:16–17). Paul asked first that their love would increase and abound … for one another, that is, within the church (cf. Eph. 1:15; 4:16; Phil. 2:2; Col. 2:2; 3:14; 1 Thess. 4:9; 2 Thess. 1:3; 1 Peter 1:22; 4:8). There are more than thirty positive and negative “one anothers” in the New Testament, and love appears by far the most often (1 Thess. 4:9; Rom. 12:10; 13:8; 2 Thess. 1:3; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11; 2 John 5). Second, the apostle prayed that their love for all people would increase. He wanted them to have a greater love for the lost and for those who persecuted them, as Jesus commanded His disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44; cf. Deut. 10:19; Rom. 12:14, 20; 1 Tim. 2:1–4). Other New Testament injunctions concerning all people include pursuing peace (Rom. 12:18), doing good (Gal. 6:10), being patient (Eph. 4:2), praying (1 Tim. 2:1), showing consideration (Titus 3:2), and honoring (1 Peter 2:17).
To provide them a practical example to understand that love, Paul told the Thessalonians they should love just as he also loved them. He loved them when they were strangers, in the greatest spiritual need by sacrificially bringing the gospel to them (1 Thess. 1:9; 2:1–2). Then, after they received justification, he loved them by the living sacrifice of his life for their sanctification (2:10–12).
12 Paul’s second petition pertains to “what is lacking in [their] faith” (cf. v. 10), specifically the outworking of that faith in a growing love. Since “Lord” refers to Jesus in vv. 11 and 13 (likewise in all of Paul’s writings for the most part), it is best interpreted that way here. In other words, Paul offers his petition to the Lord Jesus alone as he seeks the enlargement (pleonazō, “increase,” GK 4429) and abundance (perisseuō, “overflow,” GK 4355) of the Thessalonians. Combined, these two words have the force of “increase you to overflowing.” Paul prays such for them, not because they lack love (cf. 4:1, 9–10a), but because continual increase in selfless devotion to others (cf. “do … more and more” in 4:1, 10) is always a need for Christians.
In line with a consistent NT emphasis, the prime objects of love are fellow Christians (“each other”; cf. Jn 13:34–35; Ro 13:8; 1 Th 4:9; 1 Pe 1:22; 1 Jn 3:11, 23). But love also reaches beyond the circle of Christians to all people. Jesus warned against a narrow conception of one’s “neighbor” (Mt 5:43–48; Lk 10:25–37; cf. Mt 19:19; 22:39; Mk 12:31). Daringly, Paul sets himself as a standard of love to be emulated (“just as ours does for you”), a step he could take only because of his imitation of Jesus (cf. 1:6), who is the ultimate standard (Jn 13:34; 15:12).
12 With an emphatic “but as for you,” the prayer now turns from desires regarding the apostle(s) toward the Thessalonians themselves. With Christ alone as the one to whom Paul now directs the prayer, his first concern (expressed in this verse) is that “the Lord [Jesus] make your love increase and overflow.” Thus Paul picks up on the commendation in verse 6, that Timothy’s report had included “your love.” He now prays that such love will “increase,” so as to “spill over” or “abound.” That Paul will pick up this latter verb in 4:10 seems to demonstrate the anticipatory nature of the present prayer.
But whereas in verse 6 above we were left with making an educated guess as to the direction of the love reported back to Paul, here he clearly indicates what direction he wants that love to go—“for each other and for everyone else.” The first of these seems intentionally to anticipate what comes next, especially in 4:3–8 and 9–12. That it should also be directed toward “everyone else” is both all-embracing and ambiguous in terms of immediate concerns. It may be just a natural add-on, that Christian love must not be directed only toward one’s brothers and sisters, but must reach beyond themselves as well. If so, it might also embrace their enemies in Thessalonica. But such generalities should probably not be pressed to specifics in a context like this. In any case, the final add-on, “just as ours does for you,” brings the love back into focus, as concerned primarily for their internal relationships.
May the Lord Jesus make your love increase (v. 12)
Whether or not Paul was permitted by God to return to Thessalonica, he nevertheless expresses his desire for them. He not only wants them to grow in the grace of love for other Christians, for non-believers, and even for their persecutors, but he wants that love to ‘overflow’. They should be so full of love for others that they cannot contain it. It must seep out of every part of their lives and be touching those with whom they come into contact.
Love in action is the outward evidence and expression of a living faith. James asks, ‘What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
‘But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
‘Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do’ (James 2:14–18).
Jesus made it abundantly clear that we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. In our own strength such commands are impossible to obey, but Paul and his colleagues knew that the Lord is the source of love, which is why they pointed to themselves as a demonstration of divine love. The Thessalonians had seen the love that the Lord produces in action in the lives of the three missionaries, and therefore they had personal examples to follow.
Many years ago the Princess Alice collided with another boat in dense fog on the River Thames and about 600 people drowned in the dark waters. Nearby two ferrymen were mooring their boats for the night. Both heard the noise of the collision and the screams of the stranded but they reacted differently. The first ferryman said to himself, ‘I am tired after a long hard day and I am going home; no one will see me in the fog. It will be an impossible task to save anyone.’ At the coroner’s inquest the ferryman was asked, ‘Did you hear the cries?’
‘What did you do?’
‘Are you an Englishman? Aren’t you ashamed?’
‘Sir, the shame will never leave me till I die.’
The second ferryman, as soon as he heard the cries for help, jumped back into his boat and rowed as hard as he could towards the wreck. He found numerous survivors floundering in the water, and crammed as many women and children as he could into his boat. When it became too dangerous for him to take anyone else he rowed to shore with the cry, ‘O God, for a bigger boat!’
Are we more like the first or second ferryman? When we hear cries for help, do we make excuses as to why we cannot assist, or do we jump into our boat and row to the rescue? Love is very practical, and yet it is so easy to find reasons not to exercise practical love when others are in need.
There are times when we must stop and examine our lives in the light of the Scriptures and ask ourselves some poignant questions. Is our faith expressed in our love for others? Do we love with actions and in truth as the apostle John commands? In what ways do we love our fellow believers? Would our non-Christian neighbours or work colleagues say that our lives are characterized by love? How do we respond if someone criticizes our faith? How do we demonstrate the love of God to those people who are openly antagonistic towards us? It is possible to march on in the Christian life without ever closely inspecting our lives to see if they measure up to the word of God.
3:12 / The second petition, for the Thessalonians, is as follows: May the Lord make your love increase and overflow. The two petitions of verses 11 and 12 are united by “but” (de), and the Greek word order in the second has “you” (the direct object of the verbs) at the beginning for emphasis. This shows that whatever God has in store for the missionaries—whether to clear the way for them or not (cf. “not what I will, but what you will,” Mark 14:36)—the Thessalonians are foremost in their mind, and this remains their prayer for them. Because Jesus is called “Lord” in verse 11, we must assume that he is the Lord of this verse (see note on 1:1). Thus the prayer is now addressed to him alone. It is for the enlargement of the Thessalonians’ love, love being the hallmark of true Christianity (pleonazō, “to abound,” or “to make to abound,” cf. 2 Thess. 1:3; perisseuō, “to abound,” “to excel,” or “to make to excel,” cf. 1 Thess. 4:1, 10, also 2 Cor. 6:11, 13). The prayer is that it might extend beyond the love that they have for each other (church members) to everyone else (those outside the church; jb, “the whole human race”; cf. 5:15 and Luke 6:32–36, Gal. 6:10, etc. for the same universality). That Paul so prays reminds us that love is a gift of God: he gives both the motive and the model in his own love for us, and he provides the means—the ability to love—by his Spirit. Since God loves everyone (John 3:16), his gift of love to us is to the same end. That end (in some measure at least) had been realized in Paul’s own and his colleagues’ lives, for he adds, just as ours i.e., our love, overflows for you. Paul not only practiced what he preached, but he practiced what he prayed!
12. Paul, however, also realizes that the spiritual progress of the Thessalonians can be considered even apart from any visit which he (or he and his companions) might make. Hence, there follows: and as for you, may the Lord cause you to abound and overflow in love toward one another and toward all, just as also we (do) toward you.
“As for ourselves, we ardently hope that God may direct our way to you; and (or but) as for you, whether or not God permits us to revisit you, may the Lord (that is, the Lord Jesus in closest possible connection with our God and Father; see on verse 11) cause you to abound and overflow in love.” That expresses the sense of the passage in the light of its preceding context. Note the emphatic position of “as for you” at the very beginning of the sentence. The verbs to abound and (to)overflow are close synonyms. Together they express one idea, namely, that the Thessalonian believers may not merely increase in that most eminent virtue, namely, love—as the outward evidence of their living faith—, but may actually abound (also used by Paul in 2 Thess. 1:3; then Rom. 5:20; 6:1; 2 Cor. 4:15; 8:15; Phil. 4:17); yes, that they may abound in such a manner that this ocean of love, being full, reaches to the top edge of its borders round about (περισσεύσαι, a very descriptive verb of which Paul is fond, using it also in 4:1, 10; and frequently elsewhere), and even overflows (for the sense of περισσεύω is probably not far removed from that of ὑπερπερισσεύω, as in Rom. 5:20; 2 Cor. 7:4), so that it reaches not only fellow-Christians, in fulfilment of Christ’s “new commandment” (see N.T.C. on John 13:34), but even outsiders (5:15; cf. Gal. 6:10; cf. Matt. 5:43–48), being a love “toward one another and toward all.”
For the meaning of the noun love and of the verb to love see N.T.C. on John 13:35 and 21:15–17. The addition “just as we also (do) toward you” (that is, “just as we also abound and overflow in love toward you”) finds its commentary in preceding passages (see on 2:7–12; 2:17–3:1; 3:7–11; see also on 1:6).
 Thomas, R. L. (2006). 1 Thessalonians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 405). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.