Here's my sermon from this past Sunday, May 21st. You can listen to the audio here.
Think with me for a second of someone that has influenced you. Someone who has impacted your life. Someone you aspire to become. Someone you’d call a great leader. Now what are characteristics of that person? What draws you to him or her? What makes that leader so effective? As we continue on in our series through 1 Thessalonians this morning, we see two such characteristics. Two aspects of their service. Two adjectives that should describe Christian leaders. But two things that should be characteristic of all followers of Jesus.
Paul gives them to us here in 1 Thessalonians 2. And he does it describing himself. Now hear me: he’s not doing this to boast. He is a humble dude. He’s doing it in response to critics. The gospel’s at stake. That church is at risk. If you weren’t with us our first Sunday in this series, or you just forgot, let me briefly paint the background to this passage. We see it over in Acts 17. Paul comes into this town Thessalonica. He strolls into the synagogue as he always does. He preaches. And people come to faith. And, as always happens, the Jewish leaders freak out, and they chase Paul out of town.
Apparently there are some people there - likely the Jewish leaders again - who are questioning Paul’s motives. They’re trying to lead that young, fragile congregation astray. “See, his message was a load of junk. Yeah, he was just concerned with himself. Why else would he have skipped town?”
Paul here writes back to those Thessalonian believers. He defends his time of ministry there. And in the process, he shows us what biblical servants look like. And he allows us to look into a devoted Christian leader’s heart. But again, I don’t think these are things just for those who might get labeled leaders. And, when you think about it, if leadership is influence, we’ve all got someone behind us who’s observing us, who we’re leading to Jesus or away from Jesus. Right?
Now here, in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul shows us a vision for Christian service. There are two angles, really two responsibilities for us. And here’s the first: boldly present His gospel, no matter what it costs. The apostle here reminds them that he kept his message pure. He writes, in verse 2, “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God.” As he puts it in verse 3, he made an appeal to them during his time there. He told them the good news.
That’s what gospel means. Of how we’re sinners. Of how God’s holy. Of how we deserve judgment as a result. But also of how Jesus died for our sins. He took our punishment on the cross. And He rose from the dead. And because of that, we can have hope. Here and now. And on into the future. That’s what Paul presented to them. And, again, God worked.
He reminds them of what he didn’t do while he was there. This is the first of two triads where Paul speaks out against his critics. Look at verse 3. His message isn’t based on “error.” It’s the true gospel of God. It doesn’t come from “impurity.” He isn’t after sexual immorality. He doesn’t come to “deceive.” He doesn’t try to bait and switch them.
That’s not Paul’s way. It shouldn’t be our way. But it sure is common. Satan certainly uses those who utilize those tactics. False teaching is so common. So many fall into sexual sin. People do anything they can to get conversions. Our enemy loves to use counterfeit messengers with counterfeit messages to lead whole crowds of people astray and in so doing, discredit the gospel.
And Satan no doubt wants to lure leaders in that direction. I had a pastor friend who once received a woman’s phone number in the communion line! The devil wants us to take the bait so that Jesus ends up looking bad. We have to pray Christ will lead us away from temptation and deliver us from evil.
Paul didn’t come to do any of this stuff. No. Everywhere he did ministry - and Thessalonica, included - he sought to please God. Listen verse 4: “So we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” Paul doesn’t come seeking to please people. He certainly isn’t living in fear of them. He’s standing in fear of God. He’s trying to please Him. He’s trying to be faithful. That’s because he sees himself as a steward.
I skipped over some words at the beginning of verse 4. The apostle writes, “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.” Now if you’ve heard of the concept of stewardship in the church, you’ve probably heard it talked about in relationship with money. God owns it. He lets you take care of it. You use it for His purposes. You’re the manager. You’re a steward.
I had this comical conversation with one of my kids recently. The kid was determined to spend some money in a certain way. He said, “It’s my money. You can’t tell me what to do.” I responded with, “Oh yeah? Where do you work?” It’s the same with us. It’s really not our money. He just lets us use it.
And it’s not our message either. You’re also a steward of the word of God, of the gospel. That’s how Paul the apostle sees himself. He’s been given this message. He’s been entrusted with it. He can’t squander it. He can’t drop the ball. He’s a steward. That’s humbling. But it’s also liberating.
Paul says this, over in 1 Corinthians 4:
1Cor. 4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
We’re like Paul here. We’ve been made ministers or servants of this message. And we’ve got to take care of it. We talk about blowing our money on sex, drugs, and rock and roll. About using it to try to impress other people. We can exchange the gospel for the same thing. But we can’t. We must boldly present His gospel to people. We must “be found faithful.”
Paul did this, no matter what it cost. Verse 2 reminds us of how he got to their city. He fled for his life from Philippi. But the change in scenery changes nothing. He faces the same stuff there in Thessalonica. He reminds them that he declared the gospel to them “in the midst of much conflict.”
Some of you saw that our son fell off his bike and tore up his arm this past week. And those of you that know our family, know it’s par for the course. That’s who we are. Somebody’s gonna get hurt. We’re headed to the ER sooner or later. It’s coming around the corner. That’s just the way the Larsons roll.
Friends, as believers, we have to expect the same thing. Things shouldn’t ever get too comfortable. And we have to forge ahead through pain. We have to expect flak from people. We have to let it roll off our shoulders. We have to have thick skin. We do. Telling people that they’re sinners, that there’s only one way of escape, that hell is real and forever - that’s not the way to win friends and influence people.
But it’s God’s message. And as Romans 1 puts it, His gospel is the power of God. And when we proclaim it, His Spirit gets involved and big things happen. That is, if we’re faithful.
The temptation, of course, and especially in suffering, is not to steward the word well. And we can do it from the right and the left. Those who say they believe the Bible and who affirm beliefs that sound conservative can be the worst about holding back the truths of the gospel. They can sugarcoat things. They can avoid hard things. They can manipulate people into walking aisles or getting in dunk tanks. And they do it all with a desire to please man. Either those people they “win” or those who stand back impressed at their game.
Of course, people on the left try to sand off all the rough edges. They deny the bloody cross. They deny the exclusivity of Christ. They say whatever the culture wants to hear - regardless of what God’s word says. But you’re then left with a sword that’s dull. And that sure won’t kill and then make alive.
Those temptations are strong. But God calls us to be faithful. He calls us to be stewards. He tells us to boldly present the gospel. To do it no matter the cost. And he handles the results.
United Airlines has been in the news quite a bit recently. But who remembers the music video that was everywhere back in 2009? I think it was back when viral videos were kind of a new thing. But this guy named Dave Carroll looked out the window of his plane at O’Hare airport and saw some United employees chuck his guitar across the tarmac to one other. Sure enough, when he got to his destination, his very expensive Taylor guitar was smashed in pieces. And when United didn’t seem to care, and he had waited over a year, he wrote a song, and recorded a video that was forwarded all over the web. “United Breaks Guitars.”
Folks, it’s not like we really have the power to break the gospel. But we’ve been given this message from God. And we’re meant to handle it carefully. We’re mean to present it faithfully.
There’s an important principle I want you to grasp before we move on. It’s this: fruitfulness is tied to faithfulness. There is power in the purity of the message. That’s so clearly what Paul is trying to get across here. He praises God for the fruit among the Thessalonians all throughout chapter one. But here in chapter two, the apostle shows how the fruit got there. It came about because he went about things in the right way. And that validates his ministry. Now, of course, people can produce what looks like fruit - in their own strength, with wrong methods. It happens all the time. But how long will it last?
That type of ministry is like the dreadful bradford pear. You know that tree. It’s the symbol of suburbia. And it’s terrible. Why are they so popular? Well, they bloom nicely. And they grow extremely fast. You know, we like instant gratification. We like things that are beautiful - on the outside. But the trees smell. They have cross-pollinated with other species out there and created this environmentally destructive thorn mess. And, as you may know, a third grade girl can blow on it, and it will fall down.
Lots of people can plant bradford pears. But oak trees are another story. Those take time and patience. They take commitment. But they have deep roots. They grow really big. They cast really wide shade. Let’s produce that kind of fruit, Karis. Even when things are really tough. Even when people stand against us. Boldly present His gospel, no matter what it costs. Let’s seek to be faithful. The Lord calls us to faithful service.
Here’s the second thing I want you to catch from this passage: lovingly give your life, beyond where it hurts. Paul so clearly, deeply loves these believers in Thessalonica. Right? He didn’t just coldly preach at them. He loved them. He still loves them. That’s why he sent Timothy to check on them. It’s why he’s writing them this letter. He deeply loves them.
We see again another trio of things Paul says he didn’t do. Again, he’s speaking out against those trying to turn the Thessalonian believers against him. Look at verses 5 and 6 with me. The apostle says he didn’t come with “flattery.” He wasn’t being slick, trying to trick them through smooth words. That’s not how Paul rolls. He also wasn’t motivated by “greed.” He’s not motivated by money. He isn’t trying to get instead of give.
He’s also not about the applause. Paul writes, “Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others.” He’s not about becoming a celebrity. No. We know he’s about giving God glory. He says they didn’t pursue praise, “though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.” As apostles, he and others could have commanded some respect, some honor. But they didn’t. They laid that down for those believers. And in doing that, Paul looked a lot like his Lord. Over in Philippians 2:5-7, describing how our Lord humbled himself, Paul writes this:
Phil. 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
Phil. 2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
Phil. 2:7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
His Lord didn’t cling to His privileges when they were rightfully His. Why should he? Why should we?
The rise of the megachurch, along with the prominence of podcasts, has led to this new celebrity pastor phenomenon. I would say that most of those guys don’t try to get in that position. It just happens to them. But from what I hear, it’s easy to get used to the applause, to get used to the resources, and then find yourself doing whatever it takes to maintain it all - through the kind of messed up methods Paul talks about here. You wake up and find yourself loving the stage more than the people around you.
Our enemy tries to bait men toward this. And he of courses loves it when they crash and burn. That pastor friend I mentioned earlier let it all get to him. And he went down hard. I’ve told many that I think God has spared me from that, and I’m thankful. But you know, this isn’t just pastors that are in danger of this. It’s all of us. As we try to serve Christ and do ministry, we can do it for our glory. We can do it for what we get out of it, instead of doing it out of love.
Paul is just a man, and he’s not perfect, but it’s love that is driving his ministry - in Thessalonica and everywhere else. Listen to his affection for that church. In verse 8, he says he is “affectionately desirous” of those believers. He says the Thessalonians had “become very dear” to him and his missionary brothers. There is deep affection in his heart. But there’s more than that. There’s action. There is sacrifice.
Paul doesn’t just see himself as a steward. Notice the words I skipped over. He also feels like a mother to them. Now that’s a bit odd, I know, but hear it for yourself. Verse 7: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” Now this would have been a fitting Mother’s Day sermon. But we’re not exactly the “plan things around every holiday” kinda church - if you hadn’t noticed. Previously, Paul called himself and his brothers stewards of the gospel. Here he compares them all to mothers.
He knows the relationship between a mom and her baby. The nurturing that takes place. The bonds that are made. Calling himself a dad isn’t going to suffice. He has to go beyond that and compare himself to their mother. Listen to John Stott’s comments on these words:
“Far from using them to minister to himself, he gave himself to minister to them. It is a lovely thing that a man as tough and masculine as the apostle Paul should have used this feminine metaphor.
Some Christian leaders become both self-centered and autocratic. The more their authority is challenged, the more they assert it. We all need to cultivate more, in our pastoral ministry, of the gentleness, love and self-sacrifice of a mother.” (John Stott)
Now I’m looking out this morning, and I’m seeing a sight I so often see: some very tired moms. Moms who have given up yet another night of sleep. Moms who have served until they collapsed in bed. Moms who were up last night nursing. Moms who were up early due to crying. You’ve sacrificed yourself. And you’ve done it out of love.
Sure, at times you’ve not wanted to do it. You’re not perfect. But you’ve been tender, gentle, and sacrificial. I’ve seen this in my wife, who’s done so much in nurturing and caring for our kids. A mother’s affection, her commitment, is beautiful. They’re willing to hurt for the health of their child.
Back in February, a Wyoming mother named Shelby Carter found herself in a house fire with her 12 day old baby. And she was in the top floor of the home. She had to think fast, and here’s what she did. She scrambled to find her daughter’s carseat. She strapped the little girl in. And she tossed her out the window. Her daughter survived. Shelby, though, died of smoke inhalation. That, friends, is a mother’s love.
That’s how Paul describes himself with the people of God. That’s what we should aspire to, as well. It’s so easy for us to just serve ourselves, to ignore the needs of others. The Lord calls us to sacrificial love for the sake of the gospel.
There are again temptations from two angles. On one hand, you have folks who may be concerned about preaching a pure gospel, but they’re not so good with the hugs. Right? They may let the truth fly, but there’s not much love there. The doctrine may be sound but there’s very little compassion.
But then you’ve got the other problem. There are ways to “love” people that aren’t really loving at all. When we’re not bold with God’s word. When we don’t say what needs to be said. Despite what some might say, that’s not loving at all. Just as truth without love isn’t really truth, love without truth certainly isn’t love.
And if you haven’t thought about it, the reason for the lack of love - from both angles - comes from love of self. Those on the right just want to be applauded for being the ones who stand for the truth. They live for those high-vies. Those on the left will compromise what they need to be accepted by the broader culture. They want to be recognized for being with the times, for having open minds. What’s missing is a concern for the people of God. We choose human approval and applause instead. We hurt others instead of helping them.
Those temptations are strong. But God calls us to be sacrificial. To share, as verse 8 puts it, not only the gospel of God but our own selves with one another. He calls us to be as mothers to those around us. He tells us to lovingly give our lives. To do it even to where it hurts. And God will use that.
There’s another important principle I want you to hear today. It’s this: instruction must spring from affection. Paul’s teaching when he was there - and his teaching in these words right here - they clearly come from a deep love for these people. That’s the type of service the Lord calls us to. That’s what Paul was engaged in - regardless of what the haters were saying. And it also happens to be the service that is most effective. There is power also in that kind of love. Let’s give our lives, church. The Lord calls us to sacrificial service.
Paul shows us a vision for Christian service here. He gives us two aspects of our service in this passage: Boldly present His gospel, no matter what it costs. Lovingly give your life, beyond where it hurts.
The Lord calls us to faithful, sacrificial service. And this isn’t just pastors and church leaders - but everyone. We’re all servants, ministers, laborers for the gospel.
Let’s go back to how I started. That person who has influenced you so well and has impacted you so much. I bet they did both of those things. I bet he or she taught you the truth - even said hard things from time to time. But I bet that person also did it in love. You could sense their affection for you. And that gets displayed in their action. I bet the brothers and sisters around you that mean so much to you exemplify those same characteristics. They’re so essential.
You may be thinking that this message sounds like it would fit better at a pastors’ conference. You may be wondering how it applies to you. Now, in the time we have remaining, I want to move from that vision to the heart behind the vision. I’ll give you two questions that I think move us toward that heart. That’s really the point of this whole passage anyhow. And they’re questions for all of us.
First, what’s your motivation as you serve? Here’s the primary thing that is going on here: Paul’s motives are being questioned. And he’s sharing his heart behind his actions.
He first says he serves out of love for God. He doesn’t fear people. He doesn’t ultimately serve them. He serves the Lord. And that’s why he keeps preaching the gospel, no matter how much trouble it brings him.
He second serves out of love for God’s people. He deeply loves these people. He’s not in it to get love. He’s not in it for fortune and glory. He’s in it because He loves the church. He loves to see people saved. He’s in it to give.
What are your motivations? Do you want to be faithful and honor your father? Is that your desire? Are you willing to sacrifice out of love for your brothers and sisters? Is that at least what you want?
Aren’t you tempted to hide parts of the message? Aren’t you tempted to run after human approval? When someone asks you what you believe? When someone mocks aspects of your faith? Are you tempted to mishandle the message?
In verse 4, the apostle speaks of not pleasing man, but rather “God who tests our hearts.” In verse 5, he calls God as his witness - that his motivations are not wrong. Ask the Lord to test you, to check your motives, so you can look at those around you and say, “I’m trying to honor Him. I am. Just ask Him.”
But how do we change our motivations? There’s only one hope for that. You have to soak in the gospel. You’ve got to drink up God’s love for you in Christ Jesus. Then you’ll want to pour it out to others. You’ll want to say or do anything your Father asks. If you love your Master. If you’re full of joy in what He’s done for you. You’ll want to please Him.
Second, are you open to this kind of ministry? This letter is written to church members in Thessalonica. Paul is making an appeal to them. He’s fighting for their trust. He’s reminding them of what he did while with them, and he’s clearly reminding them of why he did it.
Are you willing to be ministered to in this way? Paul first gives people the truth of the gospel. He serves them, but he doesn’t live to serve them. Ultimately, he is God’s servant, and that frees him up to say what needs to be said. He doesn’t hold back. He’s faithful.
Paul second gives his very lives for these people. He deeply loves them. He truly serves them. He’s sacrificial. And that gives his words even more power. He loves them like a mother loves her children. He gives us all.
Now let’s thinking about the stewarding part. And I dare you to examine your heart. Do you want people preaching to you that care about you but aren’t slaves to what you want and think? I think you do. But in the moment, it can be really hard. Generally, we say we want that until we’re in a hard place. Until they give us hard words. We say we don’t want man-pleasers around us, but so often we get mad when what’s said displeases us.
Will you trust your leaders God has placed over you? Will you trust your brothers and sisters He has put around you? When they’re trying to be faithful to God? Ask God to make your ready for that kind of love.
Let’s take the mothering part. We don’t like coming off as needy. We don’t like being treated as kids. But you’ve been brought into a body where people will care deeply for you, where people will pour themselves out for you. It sounds like a great concept when things are fine. But when things are hard, what then? We say we want a church where we’ll be loved. And I think we do. But often when it comes time for us to receive that love, we’re resistant.
Will you accept this from your leaders? Will you take it from your brothers and sisters? That’s God’s intention for you.
There’s another theme that we see in this passage and elsewhere in 1 Thessalonians. Paul calls those believers as witnesses to his service there. In verse 1, he writes, “For you yourselves know, brothers.” In verse 5, he says, “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know.”
He does this numerous times in the letter. Do you see and understand this kind of service? Do you recognize and value the ministry of those over you, of those around you? Are you welcoming it? Cherishing it? Counting on it? Their gospel-filled words. Their gospel-driven actions. Are you open to this kind of ministry? Demand it, church. But also embrace it when it comes. It sometimes takes a different form than you expect.
Do you want to better open yourself up to this? Ask God to humble you, to show you your need. Ask Him to help you believe the best about those around you. Get in His word. Immerse yourself in community. And ask the Lord to give you faith - faith that He can use those around you to strengthen you and grow you.
Never in Vain
I skipped over some words at the beginning that are really encouraging. Paul says to the Thessalonians: “our coming to you was not in vain.” The word “vain” there means “empty.” Their ministry in Thessalonica was in no way empty. If you read your ESV Study Bible notes, it says it either means “empty of results or empty of substance and character.” People disagree over those two angles.
But here’s the good news. If we are faithful to the gospel of God and we are sacrificial in our service to the people of God, our ministry will be full of substance and full of character. It won’t be hollow. And it also won’t lack results. God will work. Yes, maybe we won’t see them immediately. It may take time. But the Lord will be faithful as we do His work in His way.
Here these words from Isaiah 55 as we close:
Is. 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
Is. 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Is. 55:10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
Is. 55:11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Karis, faithful, sacrificial service is never in vain. Let’s trust and obey, church.