Placing The Gospel Front and Center

Pastor Kyle McIver


1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

Last weekend my oldest daughter Ella came flying down the stairs and burst into the living room with breaking news: she’d seen an orangutan outside her bedroom window. And this is one of those moments as a parent where you just melt because your kids are the best, isn’t it? So I look at Ella and say, “Really?! What did it look like??” Ella says, “Seriously Dad! I saw one! It had a big orange bun on top of it’s head… just like mom.” At which point I burst out laughing because I happened to know that my wife Allie was just out in the driveway, which is where Ella would have been looking out of her window.

Now, before uncovering the nugget about hair being worn in a bun similar to how Allie’s hair happened to look that day, how do you think I was considering Ella’s claim about an orangutan hanging out in our front yard? I mean I love Ella! I want to take her thoughts and concerns seriously. And yet I know something about Ella - she loves to tell stories. She has a wonderful imagination and is often very engaged in games she plays with her siblings. So there are times when my knowledge of Ella shapes the way I hear what she’s telling me. And we actually have something very similar happening in our passage today as we get into 1 Thessalonians 2.

As you look over 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, it becomes apparent that Paul is making a defense of his ministry. He spends this entire section talking about himself, his team, and their gospel ministry among the Thessalonians. And the natural question we’re asking is: why? Why is he spending so much time in a short letter talking about himself and his team and their conduct? Isn’t Jesus the main point? Isn’t the gospel the message of utmost importance? Yes and yes! And as it turns out, that is exactly why Paul devotes these two paragraphs to a defense of his ministry.

In order to understand why making this defense is so important, we need to know a little bit more about the Thessalonians and what this area was like. During the time when this letter was written, Thessalonica was filled with traveling philosophers and orators who would stage public debates or give speeches to entertain crowds. These traveling philosophers however were not known as people of character. One commentator describes the situation this way:

First-century Roman cities were full of traveling philosophers, magicians, and religious enthusiasts who gained their livelihood from public teaching. Ancient literature often associates such teachers with greed and immorality. They amassed wealth and notoriety through their fine-sounding rhetoric. Some happily argued both sides of a debate, indifferent to the truth of the matter. Their teaching could shift according to audience desires. Often they behaved reprehensibly toward others—mocking their opponents, winning over the weak-willed, engaging in sexual relations with followers, and sponging off of the rich.

The default assumption for many then, would be to hear someone debating or publicly proclaiming a message, and wonder what they were after. Passersby might think to themselves: “That sounds good, but what is he really after?” And into a city engulfed in this dynamic walk Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified. Set against this backdrop, we now better understand why it matters that Paul distinguishes himself from the orators and philosophers of the day - it’s because: the gospel isn’t an optional entree on the buffet of ideas - it’s the only remedy for the human condition. And Paul wants to make sure the Thessalonians understand this. They need to know that both he and his message are utterly set apart from all other teachers and all other messages filling the city. Because this is so important, he devotes time here in this passage to articulating the distinguishing marks of his ministry amongst the Thessalonians.

So before we jump into our passage, I want to give you a quick outline of where we’re going tonight. Now that we have a better understanding of Thessalonian culture as a crucial backdrop, we’re going to walk through Paul’s line of reasoning in this text and the defense of his ministry. There are four elements, four distinguishing marks of Paul’s ministry that demonstrate how these gospel messengers are different from all others:

  • Their willingness to suffer (2:1-2)
  • Their sincere motives (2:3-6)
  • Their labor of love. (2:9-10)
  • Their familial care. (2:7-8, 11-12)

We’re going to walk through those four, then draw out a few ways in which the main point of this passage presses into our lives today.

Willingness to Suffer

When Paul, Silvanus and Timothy arrived in Thessalonica, they’d recently been exiled from Phillipi. In verse 2 we see that they were “shamefully treated” at Philippi, which is a reference to the events recorded in Acts 16. If we look there, Paul and friends were ministering in the area and after casting a demon out from a young slave girl (who made money for owners by means of fortune-telling), they are falsely accused by the upset slave owner and subsequently thrown in jail. Next comes the miraculous story of the Phillipian jailer’s conversion, following which Paul and Silas (same person as Silvanus) are released from prison. Based on their Roman citizenship however, they should not have been thrown so hastily into prison.

Under Roman law, citizens were not allowed to be beaten in public as Paul and Silvanus were in this case. Not only was this unlawful, but it was also profoundly shameful for these men to suffer such public mistreatment. The word used in verse 2 for “shamefully treated” carries the idea not just of physical injury, but also mockery and shame. In essence it was a humiliating experience for them. And so, fresh off a humiliating beating and some time in prison, they move on from Philippi and as described in Acts 17, arrive in Thessalonica.

Now looking again at verse 2, after he mentions shameful treatment in Philippi, Paul states that they declared the gospel in Thessalonica “in the midst of much conflict”. We can pick up the narrative again now in Acts 17 and see the nature of that conflict: Paul has preached the gospel for a few weeks in Thessalonica and people have begun responding. But then in Acts 17:5 the Jews become jealous and raise a mob in an attempt to drag them out and beat them. Ultimately Paul and his group escape this fate, fleeing to Berea and preaching the gospel there, where they receive a much more positive reception.

But the Thessalonian Jews weren’t finished yet! When they hear that the gospel is flourishing in Berea, they make their way over and begin once again agitating and stirring up crowds to disrupt Paul’s ministry, producing the same result that Paul is in danger and is quickly sent away to Athens. In all of this Paul and his missionary group have been steadily, faithfully preaching the gospel, all the while being met with opposition and persecution. Now does Paul view his efforts as a failure because he faced such persecution and suffering? No, he doesn’t! Look at verse 1: he explicitly states that his coming to them was not in vain.

Now if you think back to last week and the passage Mike preached, we can see plainly why Paul did not feel that all his suffering had been in vain: the gospel had taken root! Despite the group of Thessalonian Jews opposing Paul and chasing him out of town, there were others who responded in repentance and faith. And no matter the amount of suffering he had to endure, that made everything worth it. His coming, his suffering, was not in vain because the gospel had taken hold in Thessalonica.

So we see very clearly that Paul was willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel and those who turn to Jesus when they hear it. And this first mark creates clear separation from the traveling teachers and philosophers, who frankly didn’t believe anything. They’d argue any side of any narrative to appease the crowds and win a following. But that’s not true of Paul and his group: they were so committed to the gospel and its spread across the world that they were willing to suffer beatings, humiliation, and shame in order to see its continued advance.

So that’s the first distinguishing mark, their willingness to suffer. Now the second mark, the sincerity of their motives.

Sincere Motives

We’re looking at verses 3-6 here. This section is a sort of back and forth - Paul tells us negatively what he was not doing among the Thessalonians, then positively reinforces what they were doing, before again switching back to asserting negatively the kind of character they did not display. Starting in verse 3, Paul writes that “our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive…” Now, you can almost hear the separation he’s creating from the rest of Thessalonica’s traveling orators. They really didn’t care for the truth. They would say whatever was necessary in order to gather a following and cultivate both influence and power, and then they’d often turn that into licentious living and take advantage of whoever followed them. That was the norm. People expected this from those who like Paul, got in front of crowds and proclaimed a message to them.

But Paul is keenly aware that the manner of the messenger matters. The manner of the messenger matters. And in saying that, what I don’t mean is that sinners are disqualified from preaching the gospel - aside from Jesus, everyone else who has ever preached the gospel is a sinner! But character and motives do matter. Not because someone who is out for personal gain can actually empty the gospel of its power - that’s impossible. The gospel is the power of God and nobody can assault its power! Yet while that is true, people can obscure the gospel. The character, motives, and manner of the messenger can be a hindrance, a stumbling block or a barrier to those who hear it. And so Paul cares very deeply to make sure he isn’t getting in the way of the gospel. He wants, he needs, the Thessalonians to know that he is not like all of those other teachers and philosophers so that they are freed to hear and respond to the gospel.

And not only does Paul take great pains not to get in the way of the gospel, throughout his ministry he strives to make sure his manner of life, his actions, his character, actually adorn and commend the gospel. He labors in all things so that his life will match his doctrine. He aims in all things for his life to be congruent with his message, to live a life that harmonizes with the gospel for all to see.

Now if we look at verse 4, we’re presented with an image of what that kind of life looks like (and we’ll see this more and more throughout the rest of the passage). In verse 4 he creates the contrast - he’s already stated that they refused to act from error, impurity and deception. Now he positively states that his motives are to please God. As an apostle he has been approved by God, entrusted with the gospel, and now everything he does has as its end goal to please and glorify God. That is the life that matches up with gospel doctrine. The gospel is about God! And a life transformed by the gospel is also about God.

Continuing on to verses 5-6, Paul further supports his case by once again stating the negative: they did not flatter, they were not motivated by greed for personal gain, they did not seek glory from people, and they didn’t even use their status as apostles to make demands. You can sum all of this up once again as a steadfast refusal to do anything that might create a barrier for the gospel. Paul’s life was completely oriented around God and the gospel, and because of that, he took extreme care that his life matched his doctrine in order to maximize his effectiveness in ministry.

Now we’re going to build on this theme once again, but we’re going to jump ahead to verses 9 and 10, then we’ll come back and pick up 7 and 8 and handle them together with 11 and 12.

Labor of Love

So look at verse 9 with me, this is our third mark, their labor of love. Paul calls to mind for the Thessalonians his labor and toil, how they worked night and day, in order not to burden the Thessalonians while in their midst proclaiming the gospel. Paul continues widening the gap here between himself and the other teacher/philosophers. The other guys were known for leeching money from their followers. They wanted benefits attached to their trade, and as I mentioned earlier one form that often took was money. But not Paul, not his group of missionaries. Now in saying that, we need to be careful. Would it have been wrong for Paul to be supported financially in this way? No, it would not have. We know from other passages in the Bible that some who preach the gospel have the right to make their living by it. So what is Paul getting at here?

He’s expounding the same idea as he does in 1 Corinthians 9. There he presents us with different pictures: soldiers, shepherds, and farmers, all of whom benefit and reap material reward from the work they do, and then goes on to make the point that the apostles have the same right. But then in 9:3 he says this: Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. So he has the right, but chooses not to make use of it. And really you could say that this serves as a summary of this passage: Paul would rather forgo his God given rights than put any barrier before the gospel. He worked hard to support himself - to earn his own living and be self-sufficient while laboring among them with the gospel.

And not only did Paul want to give them the gospel free of charge, he was also intentionally setting an example. He tell us this in 2 Thessalonians 3:7, where he says: for you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. Very similar language - he doesn’t want to burden them, but here he makes the explicit connection to setting an example in telling the church that in this way, they ought to imitate him. So he has two motives at work here: both removing barriers for the gospel, and living in such a way as to set an example for the church.

Now lastly, our fourth mark. And this is the one that I find most striking. Two family metaphors, one of a mother, and one of a father. Look first at verses 7-8: 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. The image here is of a nurse who now has her own children, into whom she pours both all of her skill and affection. The text shows this relationship in that the Greek word “like” in verse 7 is closely connected to the Greek word “so” at the start of verse 8. You can read it as: “Like a nursing mother taking care of her own children...so...we were ready to share with you our own selves.”

I have always been struck by the profound depth of this metaphor. It’s clear that Paul understands motherhood by this application of its imagery to his ministry. Consider it: if you’ve ever spent much time around the mother of a newborn, you know that there isn’t much else in life that is so demanding and self-sacrificial as motherhood. Infants are totally dependent upon their mothers for life. Mothers give of their time, their energy, their sleep, their very own bodies, to care for and sustain their newborn child. It’s often incredibly difficult - and it is one of the most beautiful things to behold in all the world. Little else is as wonderful, as precious, as a mother’s love for her young child. So as an aside to the main point of this text, to all of the moms here tonight: thank you. Your labor of love and self-sacrifice is beautiful and worthy and pleasing in God’s sight.

And that is what makes Paul’s use of this imagery so powerful. He and his missionary companions loved the Thessalonians so dearly that they were gladly willing to give them both the gospel and their own selves. No sacrifice was too great if it served their joy! They gave of their time, energy, sleep, and their own God-given rights to put the Thessalonians’ joy in Jesus before their own needs. With all the tenderness, skill, and love of a nursing mother, they cared for the Thessalonian church. What a beautiful metaphor.

Now jump ahead to verses 11-12 with me, where we have the other family metaphor, that of a father with his children. During this era, fathers were the ones who looked after the education and moral instruction of their children. In the same way, Paul was like a father to the Thessalonians - he exhorted, encouraged, and charged them to walk in a manner worthy of God. He taught them the Scriptures. He counseled and corrected. Like the best kind of father he was there, he cared deeply, and he poured himself into teaching and instructing them so that they might grow up into maturity.

So there we have it, four marks of a genuine ministry: willingness to suffer, sincere motives, labor of love, and affectionate, familial care. Paul has very logically and persuasively made his case as to why he, his team, and their ministry stand apart from any other teachers, philosophers, and orators the Thessalonians have ever encountered. Now I want to pull these together and make sure we don’t miss the main point in all of this, then give a few implications/applications.

The main point in these marks of ministry is that the gospel must be made clear, and made available. When we read a passage like this however, initially at least we might wonder why Paul talks about himself and his ministry. He does this extensively with the Corinthian church as well. I’ve already given you the cultural background as to why it was important to make this kind of defense. But it’s important to make clear that Paul doesn’t do this for Paul. It is not his reputation or his name or his quality of life that he has in view here. Rather, his ambition is gospel advance - and if it’s necessary for him to defend his ministry and his integrity so that he can actually get out of the way and not serve as a distraction to the gospel, he’ll do it. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not: Paul defends himself and his ministry in order that he might get out of the way and place the gospel - the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - front and center.

That’s really the heart of this passage: because God’s glory and the gospel and the salvation of sinners is ultimate, clear all of the obstacles. Get out of the way! Work hard and live with integrity so that you do not distract from the singularly important gospel message. And the same goes for us. Your character, your manner of life, your integrity in the way you work and interact with other people matters. Profoundly. The gospel is the power of God for salvation - we cannot by our sin empty it of its power, but we can obscure it. We can get it the way, become a distraction or a hindrance to others when the gospel message we profess is contradicted by our lives.

Taking God and the gospel seriously means we, with Paul and his missionary team, go to great lengths to live amongst our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow students, as verse 10 in our text puts in, in a manner that is holy and righteous and blameless.

In light of this, I want us to consider the example that Paul sets here and draw out one more implication. Remember that he explicitly states in his second letter to this church that his work and the way in which he supported himself was meant to be an example. I remember back from our Philippians series when Paul called the church to imitate him and those who walk in the same manner he does. With that in mind, look back at the opening verses of this passage. Paul recounts the shameful treatment and suffering he endured in Philippi. Remember also Acts 17 and the opposition, suffering, and persecution he endured from within Thessalonica itself! And in spite of all that he has suffered, Paul opens this letter giving thanks for the church. He is full of gratitude! Now look at 1:6, where he says that the Thessalonians have become imitators of us in that through their affliction, they were filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. The Thessalonians are imitating his joy, meaning Paul too is full of joy! He has suffered greatly and yet is marked by gratitude and gladness.

And here’s why I think Paul was so resiliently grateful and glad: his life is completely oriented around God, the gospel, and other people. Look at the thread running through our entire passage - we see:

  • Boldness in our God (2:2)
  • Gospel of God (2:2)
  • Approved by God (2:4)
  • To please God, who tests our hearts (2:4)
  • God is witness (2:5)
  • Gospel of God (2:8-9)
  • God is witness (2:10)
  • Exhorts the Thessalonians to walk in a manner worthy of God (2:12)

Who or what is central? God is! The driving motivation in Paul’s life and ministry is God’s glory in the proclamation of God’s gospel to God’s people.

And this driving motivation in the life of Paul is what the good fruit of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit looks like. When we go all in with Jesus, casting aside our idols and turning to him as the great delight of our souls, we are changed. We are freed from pride’s prison and liberated to live for the glory of God and the good of other people. This is what produces profound gratitude and resilient joy.

Do you want to be happy? Filled with gratitude? Steadfast in the face of suffering, persecution, and hardship? Turn to Jesus. Orient your life around God, the gospel, and other people. Be changed as you behold the glory of Jesus and walk in a manner worthy of God who calls you and your fellow believers into his own kingdom and glory.