SCRIPTURE ANNOUNCEMENT & INTRODUCTION
We continue in our series on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. We come to chapter 2, and the first 12 verses.
Remember that Paul, Silas and Timothy had taken the gospel to this city about 15-20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They stayed there for at least three weeks, and probably a few months. Over time they faced increasing hostility from both the Jewish community and the local authorities. Paul had to make a hasty departure, escaping in the middle of the night to the next town, Berea, then to Athens, where he decided to send Timothy back to check on the new church in Thessalonica. This letter is Paul’s reaction to the good report that Timothy gave him.
1 Thessalonians chapter two, verses 1-12…
SCRIPTURE READING & TEXT COMMENTS
- READ vv.1-4
- Paul’s willingness to suffer for the gospel was evidence of his genuineness as a minister of the truth. He makes that connection with the word “for” at the beginning of verse 3 – in other words, because they were the genuine article – free from error, impurity, and deceit – they boldly preached in spite of opposition and suffering. If Paul’s ministry had its origin in anything impure, anything shady or deceitful, he would never have endured the kind of suffering he did.
- READ vv.5-8
- When Paul says in 6b that he and his colleagues could have made demands as apostles of Christ, it is possible that he is speaking about the right of a minister of the gospel to receive financial support from those to whom he ministers. Even if, as some argue, he is speaking more broadly about the dignity and authority that belongs to him as an apostle, the issue of money isn’t far from his mind, as we will see in verse nine. The key point here in verse 5-8 is that Paul could have made demands, and flexed his apostolic muscles, but instead he was gentle among them.
We think of Paul as a man’s man, he worked with his hands making tents. He was a tough, courageous, bold visionary, and yet here he says, “I’ve tried to be like a gentle mother who tenderly cares for her children.” Sometimes ministers and churches and even denominations are so concerned about gentleness that they lose sight of truth and authority and courage. In these churches, people are really nice but they don’t stand for anything, nothing difficult is preached, and God’s people don’t grow in Christian maturity. In other churches, there is truth with a capital T, and an emphasis on authority, and the danger is to become domineering and harsh and critical. Paul had truth with a capital T, he was a forceful and authoritative leader, but he was also affectionate and tender towards the people of God, like a nursing mother.
- READ v.9
- We know from Philippians 4 that Paul received some support from the Philippian church during his time in Thessalonica, but not enough to enable him to devote himself entirely to preaching and teaching. We know from 1 Corinthians 4 that Paul worked with his own hands, and we know from Acts 18 that Paul was a maker of tents. According to at least one commentator, these tents were made of leather, and a leather worker generally worked from dawn to dusk, made just enough money to survive, and had very little social status (Wanamaker, p.104). Paul may have labored all day and done his preaching at night, although there are a few commentators who reverse that and say that he preached during the day and worked at night.
- READ vv.10-12
- Six times in 12 verses Paul appeals to the Thessalonians’ firsthand knowledge of his life and ministry.
Verse 1 – “you yourselves know, brothers”
Verse 2 – “we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know”
Verse 5 – “we never came with words of flattery, as you know…”
Verse 9 – “for you remember, brothers, our labor and toil”
Verse 10 – “you are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct among you…”
Verse 11 – “for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God…”
You find this kind of thing elsewhere in Paul’s letters, but nowhere with the kind of frequency that we have here in 1 Thessalonians. Against all attempts to discredit him, Paul says to the Thessalonians, “You know it wasn’t that way – just think back to how holy, righteous, and blameless our lives were among you!” That’s a pretty bold claim!
Think about it. If his life had been less than stellar, less than exemplary, he could never have said these things. Imagine the scribe writing this down as Paul dictated it – what if Paul’s example hadn’t been so great – and the scribe says to Paul, “Hey, listen, Paul, why don’t we tone that language down a bit, let’s say something like, ‘…when we were among you we tried really hard to be holy, righteous, and blameless.’” And Paul says to the scribe, “No, keep it that way; in fact, why don’t you add, ‘you are witnesses and God also!’” He wasn’t saying this to bring glory to himself. It was necessary to answer the false charges of his opponents, because as we shall see, there were precious souls at stake, real men and women in this new church – whose newfound faith was in jeopardy, so Paul had to answer these charges head on.
In the ancient Greek world, there were a great number of wandering philosophers, going from town to town offering the latest teaching. Some were sincere; many were deceptive; some were outright charlatans. Paul had the unfortunate experience of being lumped into this category of charlatans or peddlers. After all, he had come with a new teaching, and he had spoken eloquently like the others. His critics jumped on the fact that Paul had left town in the middle of the night. “Listen,” they said, “This Paul was just one more smooth-talking salesman; he was just after your money, and when things got too hot for him, maybe he was going to be exposed as a fraud, he got out of town.”
In the text before us, Paul answers these kinds of charges because he has a pastor’s heart. He wasn’t writing this merely to clear his good name. Paul was prepared to have his own name tarnished, to be on the receiving end of such attacks and smear tactics. In fact, if anything he rejoiced in being counted worthy to suffer for the sake of the gospel, knowing that Jesus was falsely accused, attacked, maligned, and worse. Paul was prepared to have those things come his way. But he was not prepared to let those things do harm to the newfound faith of these Thessalonian believers. He knew that if his life and ministry were discredited, if the saints somehow began to believe these lies, then real spiritual damage might be done. He couldn’t let that happen. He had to answer the false accusations.
Paul’s answer gives us an unparalleled window on his innermost thoughts and motives. Here we see into Paul’s heart. And what we find is a man with a profound sense of accountability to God, a sense of stewardship with this gospel message. Paul has been entrusted with the gospel, and has a keen sense that this is the highest, most urgent, most demanding, most rewarding thing in the world. Notice that Paul says three times – v.2, v.8, and v.9 – that his message is the gospel of God. Nowhere in the rest of the New Testament do we find such a concentration of that exact terminology – gospel of God. You do see that phrase a few times elsewhere in the NT, but not three times in a single passage as we see here.
It wasn’t something Paul came up with. It was God’s message. Paul was the emissary, the ambassador, sent to deliver the message to those God was calling. Paul was a steward of the gospel, and it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. He would therefore say, “I am under obligation to both Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” He is eager to preach the gospel! He says, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” There is a divine necessity laid upon him.
Paul was single-minded about this. When he came to Thessalonica, he knew exactly what the mission was. There was no confusion, no hesitation, no second-guessing. Amazingly, he sees absolutely no need to modify the message in light of what had just happened in Philippi.
You recall from Acts 16 that in Philippi, Paul and Silas had been attacked and unjustly condemned. They received a public beating, and were held captive in the inner prison with their feet in stocks. God intervened through an earthquake, freeing Paul and Silas from the jail and bringing salvation to the jailer and his household. You might expect Paul to say to Silas, “Well, let’s never do that again! I guess it’s time to modify the content of our preaching, as we head to the next town.” But here in verse 2 he says just the opposite! “…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.”
They came with a specific purpose in mind. They came with boldness – to do what? Verse 2 – “…to declare to you the gospel of God!” They were going to do everything in their power to let this gospel be seen in all its glory. They didn’t want anything to obscure the arrival of the gospel – so whatever it would take – working night and day so as not to be a financial burden, refusing to make full use of his apostolic rights, pouring his life into these people that he had just met—Paul’s overarching concern is to be a faithful steward of the gospel.
Everywhere you look in this text, you find everything subordinated and brought into the service of this one great goal. Whether we are talking about his work ethic or his boldness or his gentleness, it is all organized around this one controlling principle – that the gospel must go out and we dare not do anything to obscure it.
His work ethic adorns the gospel, it takes the focus off Paul and his financial needs, and puts the focus squarely on Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul’s boldness conveys that this is an authoritative message, a divine message. Paul’s gentleness conveys that this is a message that of divine love that blesses and brings spiritual health. Paul’s freedom from error, his careful accuracy, communicates that this is a message of reliable truth.
Paul lives to draw attention to the gospel message, which is to say, to exalt and magnify and present Jesus Christ in his glory and grace. That is Paul’s lifeblood. That is his boast. That is his mission. Acts 20.24 – “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
Why is Paul so fixated on the way that the gospel gets presented and adorned? It’s because he knows what is at stake. The eternal destiny of every human being is at stake! When the gospel announcement goes out and people hear it and believe it, it isn’t just some religious experience. It isn’t just the addition of a spiritual tip that will enhance your life, or make you a better spouse or a better parent, or help you manage your life more efficiently.
Would you be willing to subordinate everything in your life – your work schedule, your attitude, your manner of speech, your use of time—for a message that promises only to make your life a little bit better? No one endures persecution for that! No one makes radical sacrifices for a gospel that merely enhances this present life, offers you your same life only with a little more stability or a little more peace.
The true gospel, the gospel of God, is the only message in the world that will make the difference between heaven and hell. It is the only way to be reconciled to God, the only way that a person can be fully and finally welcomed into the glorious presence of the living God.
As Paul says in verse 12, God is calling people into his own kingdom and glory.
If a person misses out on that one thing – the gracious welcome of God into that final kingdom – then they have missed everything! In this life you can gain everything and find out in the next life that you have lost everything.
I checked out from the library a biography of the late 19th-early 20th century novelist Thomas Hardy, author of Jude the Obscure, among many other novels. Hardy grew up in a Christian home, and was close friends with the Moule family – you may be familiar with the name Handley Moule, who was a boyhood friend of Hardy’s, and grew up to be the Bishop of Durham. One of his later descendants was Charles Moule, a prominent NT scholar. Unfortunately, one of the older Moule sons, Horace, embraced German liberalism, and began to pass literature to young Thomas Hardy – books like David Strauss’ Life of Jesus, and Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity – both books that presented the Christian religion as nothing more than a human invention, with the supernatural completely ripped out of it.
Thomas Hardy turned away from the faith of his youth because of the influence of Horace Moule, who himself would later commit suicide. But the part of the story that bears on our purpose tonight is this – I want to put before you the difference that the gospel makes when a person is on death’s door. Listen to part of the account of Thomas Hardy’s final hours:
Contrast the bleakness and emptiness of Thomas Hardy’s final hours with the assurance and gladness of the final hours of Robert Bruce, the 17th century Scottish theologian:
A little after breakfast on the twenty-seventh of July, 1631, he told his daughter Martha that his Master was calling him. He asked for the Bible, but, finding that he was unable to read, he said, “Turn me up the eight chapter of Romans, thirty-eighth verse”: “For I am persuaded that neither life nor death shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus my Lord.” Then, putting his finger on the word in front of him, he said, “God be with you my children. I have breakfasted with you, and shall sup with my Lord Jesus Christ this night,” and immediately gave up his spirit to God. “Thus,” says one later biographer, “this great champion for the truth, and the crown and interest of his Master, who knew not what it was to be afraid of the face of men, was taken off the field as more than a conqueror, and had an abundant entrance into the everlasting Kingdom of his Lord and Savior.” (from Torrance’s preface to Robert Bruce’s Mystery of the Lord’s Supper)
What a contrast! That one difference in a person’s life – is the gospel. That’s why Paul has a sense of urgency. That’s why he says in Romans 10…
For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10.13-15)
And that is to be our mission as well. We are to subordinate everything else in life to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not apostles, we are not all called to preaching, but each one of us has this shared calling, in the partnership of the gospel – that whatever specific calling we have, we are do to it in a way that adorns the gospel, that lends credibility to the gospel, that keeps the focus on the gospel. The gospel is the instrument of God to determine men’s eternal destinies. Our lives are to be offered up to the Lord, that the truth of this gospel would be highlighted and magnified by the way we live our lives. Amen.