Sermon for October 29, 2017

Scripture readings: 
Deut. 34:1-12 and Ps. 90:1-6,13-17
(or Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1)
1 Thess. 2:1-8; Matt. 22:34-46

Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 
(drawing on commentary by John Stott)

Leading Well with Jesus

Introduction

Last week we began a series in 1 Thessalonians looking at the apostle Paul’s instructions concerning the important relationship between the gospel and the church. We noted in chapter 1 how Paul addresses the topic of  evangelism—the calling the church has to live and share the gospel. Now in chapter 2, we’ll see how Paul addresses the topic of Christ-like, gospel-focused church leadership.

Ideas for application of this sermon: A primary aspect of the church's  disciple-making ministry is to participate actively in what Jesus is doing to multiply shepherd-leaders to serve his body, the church. In this sermon, you can help advance this strategy by addressing some of the foundational characteristics of Christ-centered servant-leaders. In doing so you (the preacher) can be transparent in talking about your own leadership struggles and values. In doing so, you can challenge others to join with you in leading in Christ-like ways.

Introduction (2:1)

Paul’s brief mission in Thessalonica was brought to a sudden end by a public riot leading to legal charges against Paul and his companions that were so serious they had to flee the city. Paul’s critics took advantage of this sudden disappearance to try to discredit his leadership and gospel. They accused Paul of being a fraud out to enrich himself. Apparently some of the new Christians in Thessalonica were believing these accusations, which Paul must have found quite painful. Paul defends his leadership in 1 Thessalonians 2:1:

You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results.

The apostle’s point was that there was ample evidence of his genuineness as a Christian leader. He then offers evidence with respect to his motives and methods. In these we find a beautiful model for church leadership in our day that is true participation in the leadership that Jesus exerts, by the Holy Spirit, within the church—leadership that is willing to suffer, that is bold, accountable, caring, directive and gospel-proclaiming.

Paul and the Philippian jailer (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

1. Leaders must be willing to suffer (2:2a)

We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know…

Before reaching Thessalonica, Paul had suffered injury and insult in Philippi. He and Silas had been stripped, beaten and thrown into prison. It had not only been an extremely painful experience, but humiliating as well, since, despite being Roman citizens, they were stripped naked and publicly flogged, all without trial. Then in Thessalonica, Paul met “strong opposition.” Yet these afflictions did not deter the apostle. On the contrary, God gave him courage to go on proclaiming the gospel, whatever the consequences might be.

2. Leaders must be bold (2:2b)

…but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.

The verb translated dared is from a Greek word meaning “to speak boldly”—openly, with courage. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica had been exercised in the open before God and human beings, for he had nothing to hide and thus could be open and bold in living and sharing the gospel.

As an example of bold leadership, you might mention that this coming Tuesday (Oct. 31, 2017) is the 500th anniversary of the event that sparked the Protestant Regormation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a document, known as The 95 Theses, on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

3. Leaders must be accountable (2:3-4)

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. (v. 3)

Paul makes this point beginning with the negative, noting that his ministry “does not spring from error,” since his message—the gospel—was true. Nor was it due to “impure motives” such as ambition, pride, greed or popularity. Nor was it an effort to “trick” anyone (or as the RSV says, it was not “made with guile”). In short, there was nothing devious about Paul’s methods. He and his ministry team made no attempt to induce conversions by concealing the cost of discipleship or by offering fraudulent promise of blessings. He never used such underhanded tactics.

Then in v. 4, Paul moves to the positive:

On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. (v. 4)

As a leader, Paul was:

a. Tested and approved by God. God had “approved” him—the word means to be examined and found genuine—fit for ministry.

b. Trusted by God. God had “entrusted” him “with the gospel,” thus making him a steward of it.

c. Seeking to please God. God was the one he was “trying to please,” not people (see also Gal. 1:10).

Paul’s primary motive in ministry was to please and serve God. This God-centeredness in leadership is on the one hand a bit disconcerting, because God scrutinizes our hearts and his standards are high. But on the other hand, it is marvelously liberating, since God is a more knowledgeable, impartial and merciful judge than any human being can be. To be accountable to God is thus to be delivered from the tyranny of human criticism, which frees us to be accountable to both God and people.

4. Leaders must be caring (2:5-9)

You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you.

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

Before declaring what his approach to leadership is, Paul declares what it is not: he does not use flattery (2:5), pretense (putting on a “mask”), nor does he seek “praise from people” (2:6). Such tactics and motives have no place in Christian leadership, for they turn a leader from being a servant into a “burden” to those being led (2:9).

Paul carefully avoided all these traps in ministry leadership, refusing to take advantage of his authority as an apostle to be authoritarian or to enrich himself by insisting on being paid (2:9 and see 2 Thess. 3:8).

Instead of approaching leadership in these ways, Paul says in v. 7: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you.” This is a powerful contrast between a self-serving leader and the selfless tenderness of a mother.

Paul adds in v. 8 that he not only was gentle as a mother with them, but was affectionate and sacrificial, as well: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” Far from using them to minister to himself, Paul gave himself to minister to them. Unfortunately, some Christian leaders are both self-serving and autocratic. The more their authority is challenged, the more they assert it. As servant-leaders in the body of Christ, we all need to cultivate more the tender love and self-sacrifice of a mother.

5. Leaders must be directive (vv. 10-12)

You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 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.

Paul also related to the believers in Thessalonica like a father. He did this both by example and by the approach to and content of his teaching. As for his example, they, together with God, were “witnesses… how holy, righteous and blameless” he had been among them. Paul, evidently seeing his example as part of his paternal duty, continued: “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.”

Paul seems to have in mind here the educational role of fathers, who, in addition to setting their children a consistent example, should also encourage, comfort and exhort them. In Paul’s case, he found himself urging the Thessalonians to live worthily of God and his kingdom. Since it was part of his teaching that the kingdom of God has both a present reality (e.g. Col. 1:13) and a future glory (e.g. 2 Thess. 1:5; 1 Cor. 6:9), we may assume that Paul appealed to the Thessalonians to live a life worthy both of their position in Christ now and of the full glory they would have in Christ when he returns.

6. Leaders must proclaim the gospel (v. 13)

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

In the New Testament, the most common word for preaching means to act like a herald who makes a public proclamation. The verb carrying this meaning occurs in 2:9, “we preached [heralded] the gospel of God to you,” and the concept lies behind what Paul says here in v. 13 where there is a deliberate interplay between “God,” “us” and “you.” What you heard “from us” (the apostle), you accepted as the word “of God,” which is effectively at work “in you.” The message came from God through the apostle to the Thessalonians and was changing them.

For Christians, Jesus is the Living Word of God, and it is the message about Jesus that is the Word of God (the gospel). This is what Christian leaders are to proclaim from Scripture. The apostles (like Paul) used the Hebrew scriptures to make this testimony about Jesus. Today, we use the Old Testament and the writings of the apostles (the New Testament) for the same purpose. To proclaim this Word, showing its relevance and applicability to our lives, is the high calling and commanded duty of all Christian leaders.

Conclusion

Paul is a marvelous example of a Christ-centered, gospel-focused servant-leader. Though we are not called to Paul’s exact ministry, all of us who are leaders within the church should follow Paul’s example, seeking to embrace the principles of leadership so evident in his letter to the church at Thessalonica.

May we all lead well with Jesus. Amen.

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