Sermon: Sunday, 24th January, 2021 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Have you ever been falsely accused of something? It’s a serious business and can damage lives. Jesus himself knows what it is like to be falsely accused, as do many of the Lord’s people down through the ages, from Joseph at the hands of Potiphar’s wife, to the first martyr Stephen. Today, all over the world Christians are falsely accused of blasphemy, and crimes against the state, simply because of their love for Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul was no stranger to false accusations. He often had to pay a heavy price for this, including being beaten, imprisoned, maligned, as well as the loss of respect and friendships. Paul’s gospel work in Thessalonica is no exception. He finds himself falsely accused there. They say that he is more interested in making money out of people than he is teaching Christian truth. They portray him as a self-seeking, money loving deceiver, full of his own ideas, rather than God’s. These are the classic dirty tactics of those who want to attack Christianity: discredit the messenger and you discredit the message.
In one sense, I’m glad that Paul has been falsely accused here, because it means that Paul is going to defend his ministry in Thessalonica, and outline what he was really doing and why. And as he does so, we are given a beautiful picture of what true Christian ministry ought to look like. This not only helpful for Christian ministers and elders and deacons today, but also for each one of us, as the principles extend beyond that of church leaders, but are truths each one of us should live by, as we seek to be God’s servants in this world.
Paul gives us four pictures which help us to see what Christian ministry is all about.
1. A steward
For many of us, a steward is a guy in a high viz jacket down at the links market, or at a football match. But it’s better to think of someone like Joseph in the Old Testamant, who was a steward for his master, Potiphar. He was entrusted with all of his master’s affairs, which was a huge responsibility as there was much of great worth. The word ‘steward’ isn’t in these verses explicitly, but the picture is here, as Paul says: ‘We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
In other words, at its heart, Christian ministry entails passing on something precious which God has given us to look after, and to pass on to the next generation and to share with those around us. That precious thing is nothing other than the gospel – the news that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and Lord, and that we must respond to him in repentance and faith if we are to be saved from our sins.
What I love about this is that it underlines that the message we are called to share with unbelievers is not something we have just invented or made up. It’s not man-made. It’s not a fairy story. It’s not my gospel and it’s not yours – it is God’s message which he has passed on to us though the Bible, and it is our job to pass it on unaltered and unchanged. We can make no improvements on God’s message!
Sarah has an old book of recipes from her father’s mother. Perhaps her gran got them from her mother. We’re not sure how far back these recipes go. But what’s special about them is that they are unchanged. If Sarah started mucking about with the recipe and passed that on to our children, then it would no longer be her gran’s recipe. The gospel is more important than scones. And so, it is vital that we do not change the message.
How can we apply this to 2021? Well, for a start, Christian ministry both then and now takes courage. Because there is so much in our culture which is hostile to God’s gospel message. For example, generally speaking, people don’t appreciate thinking about the fact of their personal sin. Many are offended by how exclusive God’s message is, not claiming to one way among many, but claiming to be the only way to heaven, the only truth and the only way to receive eternal life.
Christians often have a different stance on all kinds of ethical issues, including obvious areas such as gender, abortion, sex outside of marriage and the equal value of all human life. Christians believe in truth, in a culture which often rejects the whole idea that anything is true, or right and wrong.
This means it takes courage for ministers to continue to preach an unaltered message. It would be easier to cave into pressure, and just tell people what they want to hear. In fact, God tells us this will happen in many cases: ‘For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.’ (2 Timothy 4:3)
And it will take courage for you to share the gospel which the Lord has also entrusted to you. To share it at work and with your friends and neighbours. Will you be a faithful steward? It all depends on who you are trying to please. If you are a people-pleaser, then you will change the message, and it will no longer be the gospel of God, but your made-up version, unable to help anyone. We’re not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.
We’re not here to try and win popularity contents. We’re here to please God. Driven by that. And besides, we can’t go tampering with God’s recipe of salvation, because the message must remain the same. Why? Because God does not change, and the sinful condition of human beings has not changed, which is borne out over history. So, the message must remain the same. Before moving on to the next picture, let’s think about all we do in the church and in Christian work and ask the crucial question: am I trying to please myself, please others, or am I trying to please God?
2. A mother
As many of you know, being a mother involves a great deal of gentleness, self-sacrificial love, and care. The relationship between a mother and her baby is an everyday one of course. But it is also a beautiful and nurturing one. Paul is saying to the church, when I was with you, I was like a mother! I was caring and gentle among you, full of self-sacrificial love.
What should church leaders be like? Not harsh, or cold or detached. But serving the flock with gentleness, care and love. What a challenge for all church leaders, including myself. And again, by extension, this is a challenge for all Christians. As we pass on God’s truth to others, we must do so in love. There is such a wonderful balance in these verses. Yes, it’s crucial for us to tell others the truth, because it is God’s truth; however, we must only do so in love. ‘Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…’ (Ephesians 4:15)
Perhaps you have the perfect balance! But for most of us, we will fall down on one side or the other.
What is Christian ministry like? It’s like being a mother. ‘Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:8) You can’t care and minister to people while standing aloof. We must be willing to open up to one another, as appropriate. We must build community.
3. A father
Paul says he was like a mother amongst them, but then he says he was also like a father! In that culture, mothers would have been the more caring and nurturing ones and fathers were more responsible for teaching, discipline and encouragement: ‘For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)
The best fathers are examples to their children in both what they say and how we live. None of us are perfect in this, but it is what we strive for. What is church ministry about? Being a father. We must never underestimate the importance of consistent Christian living. This goes for church leaders and for each one of us in a general sense. ‘You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:10) Our actions must match our words, or we lose credibility.
Paul’s fatherly care was also shown in the way he encouraged them, comforted and urged them to live for God, and not for themselves. Remember, the Thessalonians were brand new Christians, not mature men and women of the faith. They would make mistakes and misunderstand many things. They were vulnerable to false teaching. And so, Paul is both a mother and a father to them, with this wonderful combination of truth and love.
“Truth is hard if it isn’t softened by love. And love is soft if it isn’t strengthened by truth.” John Stott
Let’s be Christians who speak the truth in love.
4. A herald
Again, in 2021 we’re not so used to the role heralds had back in Paul’s day. A herald’s job was to announce the message of the King. It could be a royal birth, or news of a great military victory.
It might not be obvious where we get the picture of the herald from. In the second half of verse 9 we read: ‘We worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.’ The word ‘preached’ in Greek means ‘heralded’ or ‘proclaimed’.
This ties in with the first picture, that of a steward, because again there’s the idea of guarding the message. It’s not the job of a herald to make up a random message and then tell everyone it’s actually the message of the king. You wouldn’t keep your job, and you might not keep your head.
What exactly is heralded? What is proclaimed? It’s the gospel of God. This is a wonderful phrase, reminding us again that the task of ministry is not to spout our opinions or repeat our hobby-horses to people, but to stick to the message we have been given.
If you aren’t a Christian yet, and you are listening today, know this: the King has good news for you, but he expects you to respond positively to his offer to be set free.
Will you respond positively?
Will you come to God in prayer, saying sorry for living your own way, asking him for help to go his way, and thanking him that Jesus died for sinners, to pay their unpayable debt.
Will you thank Jesus for that?
Or, will you ignore the King’s invitation?
Why not pray right now, and ask God to forgive you, and break into your life in a saving way?