Let me invite the congregation please to take a Bible in hand and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians; 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, page 986 in the church Bibles if you’re using one of them. This is one of the great New Testament passages on the nature of the Christian ministry, especially the work of preaching. If you scan over the text before us you’ll see the different synonyms that Paul uses for preaching. Verse 2, look at the passage with me; 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 2. “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God.” Verse 3, “our appeal that does not spring from error.” Verse 4, “so we speak not to please men but to please God.” Verse 5, “we never came with words of flattery.” Verse 9, ‘we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Verse 12, “we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you.” So this is a pretty clear passage about the primary task of the Christian minister; it’s a text about preaching.
But we’re going to see that Paul’s emphasis as he describes the preacher’s task doesn’t actually fall on the work of Biblical exposition, in this passage at least. It doesn’t fall on the hard work of wrestling with the original languages and studying the text and producing a sermon that can be delivered to the congregation. Rather, it falls almost entirely on the character of the man who rises to preach. As our presbytery sets our brother, Cory, apart for the work of ministry among us here at First Presbyterian Church, we are being reminded in the passage before us that what we need most in our pastors, much more than great gifts, is great likeness to Jesus.
Notice that Paul is making that case, he makes that case in a series of three couplets in our passage. If you look at it with me, let me point them out to you; that will be our outline for this evening. Three couplets. The first part of each couplet makes a negative point; the second part makes a positive point. So the first couplet, in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 2 – “Our coming,” Paul says, “was not in vain.” There’s the negative point. But he says, “We had boldness to declare to you the gospel of God.” There’s the positive point. The second couplet in verses 3 and 4 – “Our appeal does not spring from error,” the negative. And then, “Just as we’ve been approved by God, so we speak,” the positive. Then the third couplet, verses 5 through 7 – “We never came with words of flattery,” and so on, the negative, “but we were gentle among you,” the positive.
So you see the pattern. Three pairs with a negative and a positive part to each pair. The first pair in verses 1 and 2 emphasizes fruitfulness. The second pair emphasizes faithfulness. And the third pair, verses 5 through 7 emphasizes family. It uses the metaphor of the Christian family; a metaphor that is extended all the way through verse 12. So there’s the outline. Fruitfulness, faithfulness, and family. Now before we read the passage together, let’s bow our heads once again as we pray.
O Lord, Your Word is spread before us and our hearts are open in Your sight. As we listen to Your voice speaking to us from Your holy Word, we pray that You would instruct and correct and rebuke and exhort and train us in righteousness that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Wield Your Word in the power of Your Spirit in all our hearts for Your glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Thessalonians chapter 2 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
Christopher Ash has been involved in preparing men for the Gospel ministry through the Cornhill Training Course in London, England. Cornhill is a product of the evangelical, the conservative evangelical, Anglican movement in the United Kingdom. But sometimes they receive applications from prospective students from unusual quarters. One candidate coming from Nigeria said he’d first learned of the Cornhill Course “at Pastor Benny Hinn’s crusade in Nigeria.” Now if you know anything about just how conservative these guys at Cornhill are, and you know anything about Benny Hinn, you will know immediately how unlikely that story really is. In answer to the question on the application form, “What do you most want to do with the rest of your life?” the applicant wrote, in all caps mind you, “TO BE A WORLD-RENOWNED PREACHER AND TEACHER OF THE WORD OF GOD.” Look, we all love to be made much of, don’t we? We all want to be somebody, but as our passage makes clear, that is not a dream that the apostle Paul shared. He has no ambition to be a world-renowned preacher. Rather, his ambition is to be fruitful and faithful as he serves the family of God. That was our outline, if you will remember – fruitfulness, faithfulness, and the family of God.
You can see his commitment to modest fruitfulness in the first couplet that we mentioned in verses 1 and 2. Would you look there with me, please? Verses 1 and 2, "For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” So Paul reminds the Thessalonians of how things were when he was serving among them. The coming of Paul and his missionary team, he says, “was not in vain.” That is the negative statement in the first couplet. The word “vain” there just means empty, fruitless. His ministry was not fruitless, he’s saying. But on the contrary, in the middle of verse 2 – now the positive statement – “we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God.” Now if you think about that, that is an odd, an interesting contrast. Isn't it? Our ministry was not in vain. It wasn't empty, it wasn't fruitless, but we expect him to say, "It was in fact full of fruit. It made a huge impact. It changed lives. It was effective." And no doubt all of that would be true, but instead, you notice how he focuses not on the effects of his preaching ministry but on the attitude with which he conducted that ministry. Do you see that in the text? "Our preaching was not in vain. We had boldness."
Now I think there’s an important lesson here for both preachers and church members alike. We tend to want measurable results. Don’t we? When we talk about fruit, we want to see growth in the three “Bs.” You remember the three “Bs”? Bodies, buildings, and budgets. A measurable metric. That’s how you know you’re bearing fruit. Growth in the three “Bs.” But that is not Paul’s metric; not at all. For Paul, fruit is not always so easy to discern. But he has confidence in the Word itself; boldness in the Word. And he knows that whether it can be seen or not, measured or not, the Gospel he preaches is always, it’s always productive. God is always at work by His Word. As His Word is proclaimed, His Spirit wields His Word. His Word never returns to Him void. And so instead of empty, vain, fruitless ministry he has every confidence, that’s what the word means, he has every confidence in the Word of God. He spoke the Word, he says, “with boldness.” He’s not talking about effects, but he’s talking about confidence in the Word and he leaves the effects to God.
So let’s not judge the fruitfulness of a ministry by the marketing tools the world proposes. Instead, let’s pray, shall we, let’s pray as Cory takes up his ministry among us that the Lord would give him every confidence in the Gospel itself, give him boldness to make the Word of God fully known so that whether we see measurable growth or not, according to the three “Bs,” we can be sure that the real fruit of the work of God in our hearts by His Word will ripen in the lives of the people of God nevertheless.
And before we move on from this, do notice the context within which Paul exercises his preaching ministry. He was fruitful, he says, bold to preach the gospel of God, verse 2, “though he had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi.” So he came from suffering to Thessalonica to preach and he came, he says, “to suffering.” Suffering was waiting for him when he arrived. Look at the other half of verse 2. “We had boldness in our God to preach to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” So he left suffering, came to Thessalonica, and low and behold there’s more suffering, conflict, as he ministers the Word.
I grew up eating rhubarb in Scotland. You don’t get rhubarb here very often. Every now and again I’ll find it in Kroger, but it doesn’t really like hot climates. It grows really well in Scotland, however, and so as a kid I grew up eating rhubarb; we grew it in our garden. Do you know how they produce rhubarb commercially? In order to ensure a good harvest of rhubarb for the market, they plunge the plants into darkness and so they shoot up as they quest for light. That’s how you ensure there’s a good harvest of rhubarb; you plunge them into darkness. Sometimes, especially with Gospel ministers, when He wants to make us fruitful He brings us into a season of darkness and suffering and trial and conflict and pain. Cory and Heather, do not be surprised as the Lord leads you into ministry here, do not be surprised as you take up this work if you are plunged into darkness – the darkness of unexpected suffering from time to time. That’s often God’s instrument to make you fruitful. He has a design in your trials that He might make great use of you for the good of others, not least so that “with the comfort with which you are comforted” in your trials, as you proclaim the Gospel, “you might be enabled to comfort others also.” So fruitfulness.
Then look at the next couplet; verses 3 and 4, focusing now on faithfulness. Fruitfulness, now faithfulness. "Our appeal," he says, "does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive" – that's the negative statement. "But just as we've been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak not to please men but to please God who tests our hearts." First, the negative statement – "Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive." His emphasis here is on character, isn't it, on godliness. Notice that he says his preaching, his message, his appeal is not sourced in error. It's not a theological oddity. There’s no doctrinal innovation. It is orthodox, faithful truth. And neither does it come from impurity.
Sometimes the worst errors taught from pulpits have arisen because the man preaching them has fallen into secret immorality and impurity in his life. I’ve seen in quite often; too often now to really be surprised by it any more. Once sound and orthodox Bible teachers begin to waver in their commitment to the old paths. And when you begin to probe – “What’s going on?” – you soon discover that their lives have already shifted to accommodate sin. And having made the faithful accommodation in their lives, it’s not long before their teaching follows suit. But not so with the apostle Paul. His teaching and his life are constrained by the Word of God. Neither, he says, is there any attempt to deceive. He’s not faking it. There’s no insincerity. This is a picture, isn’t it a picture of a life and a message that fit together perfectly.
You remember the exhortation of the apostle Paul to "watch your life and doctrine closely." We need to guard our hearts, those of us entrusted with the work of preaching the Word. It's easy to become a professional, to become a public person, and your private life drifts far from a path of faithfulness. We are to ensure and work to ensure, and we are to seek the prayers of the people of God that the Lord would enable us to ensure that our message and our characters are consistent. So instead of error and impurity or deception, verse 4, Paul says he's "been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel."
That’s the language of stewardship – approved to be entrusted with the Gospel. God is the master in the great house of His church and Paul is His household slave, to whom a particular stewardship has been entrusted in service of His master. The stewardship is to faithfully proclaim the Word. You’re not being faithful as a steward if you’re not speaking out the Gospel of God. “Just as we’ve been approved by God, so we speak not to please men but to please God who tests our hearts.” Cory has been given the Gospel to steward. He’s to speak it to us. We are meekly to receive it from him. And his agenda in doing so is not to please you, but to please God, the master of the house who tests his heart.
That introduces a certain solemnity to what Paul is saying. God tests his heart as he fulfills his calling. Gospel ministers have an accountability to God to be faithful stewards of the message entrusted to us. He tests our hearts. It’s James 3:1, isn’t it? “Not many of you, my brothers, should presume to be teachers, for those who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Brothers and sisters, we need to pray for Cory that the Lord would keep him and keep all your pastors mindful that God is our master and we work for Him. Not for the praise of men, not for the flattery of our hearers, but for the glory of the name of our God before whom we will all one day give an account.
Fruitfulness then faithfulness then finally, family. Look at verses 5 through 7. Notice the negative part of the couplet first. Verse 5 and 6, “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed. God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.” The avoidance of all flattery, all pretext for greed, the attempt to garner glory from people we might sum up as the determination on Paul’s part in all his preaching never to manipulate his hearers or to speak for personal gain. He doesn’t want to be made much of. He’s not like the young man from Nigeria who wanted to become a world-famous preacher and teacher of the Word of God. He knows that ministry isn’t about him at all. He doesn’t want the spotlight. He isn’t looking to be the center of attention. He’s not in ministry for what he can get out of it. Instead, verse 7, positively, “we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” Verse 8 amplifies the point. “So being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves because you had become very dear to us.” He loves them. He gives them both the Gospel and himself.
Be Like Family
That’s what mothers do with their children. In verse 9, he calls them “brothers,” among whom he works hard. In verse 11, he speaks of himself as a “father, exhorting, encouraging and challenging them.” You see the family metaphor? These are the bonds of affection and love, of intimacy and trust, of familiarity and care. As a mother, he is tender and self-giving toward them. As a brother, he is diligent to work hard in a way they can clearly see. As a father, he challenges them and calls them to press on toward maturity and godliness. Gospel ministry is a family ministry. The church is the family of God, the household of faith. And your pastors are mothers and fathers and brothers to you. Cory, like a mother you are to care for these dear ones and give yourself for them and to them. Like a brother among brothers, you are to work transparently and diligently so that they can see your laboring hard for their good. And like a father, you are to lead and challenge and exhort and encourage them.
Be Like Christ
And in all of this, you are to be like Christ Himself. It's not hard to hear in verses 7 and 8 an echo of the life and ministry of Jesus. Is it? He loved us and gave Himself for us. You remember, He wept over Jerusalem longing to gather her like a mother hen does her chicks under her wings. Paul loves the Thessalonians. Cory, fellow pastors and elders, we are to love the people of First Presbyterian Church and share not only the good news but ourselves with them because they have become very dear to us. And in that way, we will put people in mind of Christ because that's what He does in a way surpassing all of us and all our self-giving, of course. And yet, we are to be dim but real reflections of Him, giving our very lives for the good of those entrusted to us. We are to point people even in the way we serve away from ourselves toward Jesus. Because, after all, it's Jesus they really need. They don't need us. You don't need us; not really. You need Him, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so Cory, may the Lord make you a constant reminder of Christ to us all in your faithfulness, in your fruitfulness, and as you serve as a mother and a father and a brother in the family of God.
And people of God at First Presbyterian Church, let’s resolve to pray. Let’s resolve to hear the Word with gladness. Let’s resolve as we watch Cory pour himself out for us and put us in mind of Christ to join him in striving to be like Christ ourselves so that the Word of God might bear much fruit under His ministry in our lives, to His glory. Let’s pray.
God our Father, we praise You for Your holy Word and we pray for one another as a congregation as we hear and see and watch our brother take vows and take up a role among us as a pastor. We pray that Your Word would bear fruit in His life and in ours that Christ might be made much of. For we ask it in His name, amen.