Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 25, 2020
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Commentary
All of us likely have a vision of the ideal pastor, missionary or other church leaders. Yet our visions probably also vary widely. Some, after all, think of the ideal pastor as a terrific preacher. Others believe pastors should be able to minister to a variety of people. Many think good leaders have some combination of those skills.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers a wonderful but relatively rare glimpse into Paul’s pastoral skills. That by itself, however, isn’t a sufficient reason to proclaim it. There are, after all, many people in the Bible whom we wouldn’t want to imitate.
With the Spirit’s help, however, 1 Thessalonians 2 rewards those who study it carefully. After all, Paul’s pastoral concern and care for the Thessalonian Christians that it reveals imitate God’s pastoral concern and care for God’s adopted children. So proclamation of this text can both bless and challenge both its proclaimers and hearers.
However, although he had a pastoral heart for the Thessalonians, fierce opposition brought Paul’s mission to them to a rather abrupt and secretive end. The unrest and legal charges against the missionaries chased them out of Thessalonica at night. Paul’s opponents tried to take full advantage of his sudden disappearance by launching a malicious smear campaign against him, apparently charging him with cowardice.
Paul’s enemies claimed that he was in the missionary business just for the money, prestige or power it might bring him. Otherwise, they wondered, why, when the apostle found himself endangered, did he just run away?
1 Thessalonians 2 at least implies that some Thessalonian Christians agreed with Paul’s critics. Some even seemed to deduce that Paul’s visit to Thessalonica had been a “failure.” This apparently stung Paul deeply. So in our text he defends his actions in Thessalonica.
Paul’s defense reveals his heart for those with whom he’d shared the gospel. It also invites his adopted brothers and sisters in the faith to ask what it might say to those who stand, in a very real sense, “behind” Paul in the apostolic line. What might this Lesson say not just about what we expect not just from pastors and missionaries, but also from all Christians?
“Our visit to you was not a failure,” the apostle insists to the Thessalonians in verse 1. Literally he means that his visit wasn’t “empty” of purpose. Paul’s visit instead had the purpose of spreading the gospel to the Thessalonians.
The Thessalonians certainly “knew” about this purpose, as he reminds them in verse 1. Though Paul’s Thessalonian ministry was both brief and controversial, it was also visible. After all, “as was his custom,” we read in Acts 17:2, “Paul went into the synagogue [where on] three Sabbath days he reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures . . .”
Because he had nothing to hide, the apostle did all of this out in the open before God and all people. Paul could, in fact, publicly tell people in the synagogue that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures precisely because he knew that he had nothing to hide.
Accusations against them of misconduct suggest that some Christian pastors and other leaders do act secretively, as though they have something to cover up. Our ministries aren’t always as transparent as they should be, translucent to all who are interested in them. 1 Thessalonians 2 invites both its proclaimers and hearers to a transparent life and ministry.
Yet, as Paul also notes in verse 2, the public nature of his ministry gave people opportunities to hurt and insult him, even before he reached Thessalonica. In Philippi, for instance, authorities stripped, beat and imprisoned Silas and him.
However, the missionaries’ treatment there had not only been painful, but also humiliating. For the authorities had been publicly beaten them, without trial and in spite of their Roman citizenship.
Through Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica, Acts 17:4 reports, the Holy Spirit converted some “Jews” and “prominent women,” as well as many “God-fearing Greeks.” This, however, made some Thessalonican Jews jealous. So, we read in Acts 17:5, “they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.”
Yet such hostility didn’t deter Paul. God gave him the courage to continue to preach the gospel. So with Silas, he simply slipped out of Thessalonica and went to minister in Berea. And when hooligans stirred up crowds against him in that nobler place, Paul simply slipped away to minister in Athens.
When I read stories like those, I’m sometimes ashamed by how little it takes to discourage me from sharing my faith. I, after all, worry about how people will react to my meager testimony. I wonder how I’ll answer any hard questions they may pose.
My fearfulness stands in bold contrast to that of Paul throughout his missionary journeys. It’s also completely unlike the remarkable fearlessness we often see in Christians whom others persecute for their faith.
Frankly, my natural timidity about sharing the gospel is also the opposite of the kind of courage we see in many missionaries who work in potentially hostile settings. Perhaps, then, I Thessalonians’ proclaimers should pray for the courage to share our faith like Paul did, in spite of any opposition.
As Paul remembers his public ministry in Thessalonica that provoked violent opposition, he describes himself with four metaphors. They tell us much about both the skills and pastoral heart that God gave him.
Paul understood, first, that God entrusted him with the gospel, much like an absentee landlord entrusts his property to a caretaker. So he implies that God gives with the gospel a sense of responsibility to be faithful to it. Christians don’t just receive that gospel. We also both share it and let it shape us, by God’s Spirit.
In verse 3 Paul insists that there was nothing devious about Silas, Timothy and his stewardship of the gospel. That’s why Paul could claim that he was genuine in what he said, as well as why and how he said the gospel to which God had entrusted him.
He goes on to write in verse 4, “we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.” Paul understood that he, as well as all of his adopted siblings in Christ, is primarily responsible to God. So his ultimate aim was to try to please God in his ministry.
Here, writes John Stott, to whom I’m indebted for much of this Commentary’s structure, is the heart of Christian ministry. Christians are ultimately responsible neither to churches, nor our boards or associations, but to God himself.
Of course, this responsibility may rattle us. After all, we know that God tests our hearts and their secrets, and God’s standards are very high. On the other hand Christians’ realization that we’re primarily responsible to God for the way we handle God’s gospel also frees us. We realize that God’s far more knowledgeable, impartial and merciful than any human or organization.
Because he knew he was primarily responsible to God, Paul also knew that he had to behave in some ways like a “mother” to which he compares himself in verses 5-8. How does Paul’s mothering care evidence itself in Thessalonica?
In what the apostle calls in verse 7 his “gentleness.” He ministered among the Thessalonian Christians not harshly, but tenderly, kindly. In his motherly care for the Thessalonians, Paul never used what he calls “flattery” or deception. Nor were he and the others looking for people’s praise. The apostles had no desire to use things or people to build themselves up. They only wanted to build up the Thessalonians with the great news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
As the Thessalonian Christians’ spiritual parents, the missionaries could, as Paul goes on to write, have been “a burden” to them. The Thessalonian Christians, after all, owed them much. So Paul might have, for instance, insisted on giving orders to them or on them paying him, as other spiritual “parents” sometimes did.
Instead, however, as the apostle writes to the Thessalonians in verse 8, “we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.” Rather than demanding their own way, Paul, Silas and Timothy tenderly cared for the Thessalonians.
So instead of demanding that the Thessalonians minister to him, Paul ministered to them. He shared not only the gospel, but also his very heart and soul with them. Because God had given him such a deep love for them, Paul was tender enough to open his whole life to the Thessalonians.
Yet doesn’t that make Paul different from some Christian leaders? We’re tempted toward selfishness and authoritarianism. The more people challenge our authority, the more we insist on it. So all Christian leaders, as well as all Christians, seek to cultivate more of the gentleness, love and self-sacrifice of a mother.
Christians have many standards for evaluating pastors, missionaries and church leaders, as well as ourselves. Not many, however, are better than this: are we stewards of the gospel who gently teach, preach and share God’s Word?
In his book, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, Gary Wills tells a remarkable story about American president Jimmy Carter’s apparent “failure” (cf. I Thess. 2:1). Carter was already politically dead in his last year as president. Inflation, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. had defeated him.
Wills writes of how Paul Volker of the Federal Reserve summed up the Carter presidency as follows: “As Jerry Ford left the White House, he handed Jimmy Carter three envelopes, instructing him to open them one at a time as problems became overwhelming.
“After a year, Carter opened the first envelope. It said, ‘Attack Jerry Ford.’ He did. A year later, Carter opened the second envelope. It said, ‘Attack the Federal Reserve.’ He did.
“Three years into his term, and even more overwhelmed by the economy, Iran, Afghanistan, and so forth, Carter opened the third envelope. It said, ‘Prepare three envelopes.’” Of course, Carter went on after his presidency to become a beloved and appreciated humanitarian. He remains very successful at that.
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