Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
2 For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. 2 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. 3 For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 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. 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. 6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 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.
9 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. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 11 For you know how, like a father with his children, 12 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.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Every pastor has an agenda for his church. I’m no different. I have an agenda. I make no bones about it. It’s no secret. And here it is: My agenda is to be part of an excellent ministry. I want this church to be the ground zero of not just an average ministry, but an excellent one. So, I begin today as I did last time we were here. I ask the questions:
“What precisely is an excellent ministry” “How does it look?” “How can we tell if we’re engaged in such ministry?” “How is it characterized?” “How does it manifest itself?”
The simple answer to these questions is this: Intense, selfless concern for both the truth and the church marks an excellent ministry. Zeal for the truth coupled with real spiritual concern for the church characterizes an excellent, gospel ministry.
In verses 3-12, Paul fleshes this out. He explains why his missionary visit to these folks was not in vain. He explains that his Thessalonian ministry was one of truth, substance, and full of genuine gospel ambition. In so doing, he gives at least six marks of an excellent, biblical, God-pleasing, effective, Christ-honoring ministry.
First, an excellent ministry is a group project and not a game of solitaire.
Mark the simple fact that Paul is not alone in his venture. Catch the pronouns. Verse 3: ‘For OUR appeal…” Verse 1: “For you yourselves know brothers, that OUR coming to you was not in vain.” Chapter 1 verse 2: “WE give thanks to God always….” And chapter 1 verse 1; catch the obvious. “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy…” Paul wasn’t alone. He wasn’t on some lone ranger task, as if looking to make a name for himself. Nor did he have any grand estimations of himself, that he could accomplish his ministry without the companionship and help afforded by others. It’s not that he would never be alone; we know before his life was done he would be just that. But any reading of the New Testament makes it clear that Paul was a team player.
I don’t wish to make too much of this; it’s not the point here. But I point it out as I do if only to submit to you this: In a day in which we breathe the air of rugged individualism, excellent ministry is counter-cultural. It’s also counter “ego;” there’s no “I” or “me” here. Excellent ministry is a group project.
Second, an excellent ministry exhorts.
It exhorts. Again, note verse 3. Paul makes his foundational, defining activity explicit and writes: “For our appeal…” To appeal here is to exhort. It’s to summon, to urgently, and strongly call someone to believe a certain thing and even behave a certain way. This marks not just Paul’s ministry, but also the ministries of the other apostles. Peter, for example, the man, the apostle, wrote two epistles full of exhortation. John wrote three letters; and he did not shrink from exhortation and exhorting. The writer of Hebrews, whomever it was, calls his entire epistle a ‘word of exhortation.’ In 2 Corinthians 5.21, Paul writes that he and Timothy were ambassadors for Christ, that God was making His appeal through them. We should sniff something here of the weight behind these preachers and their appeals. There’s a significant degree of authority behind them; they’re not empty appeals. Nor is their appeal a matter of counsel or mere suggestion. To appeal is not to give mere advice. Not at all! The apostle’s appeal bore the weight of divine authority. It’s authoritative. God Himself was making appeal to men through men. To ignore Paul’s preaching, to ignore his appeal, is not to merely ignore a man therefore; it’s to ignore God Himself!
Even in this very chapter, in chapter 2 and verse 12, Paul makes this whole thing abundantly clear. He says to those whom he writes that he exhorted each of them and encouraged them and charged them that they would ‘walk in a manner worthy of God.’ This is excellent ministry. This is what an excellent ministry looks like and does. It exhorts, encourages, and charges. But this triplet, this trio of words – exhorts, encourages, and charges – should not be taken as three different kinds of verbal ministries. Instead, they speak essentially of the same ministry. Here, exhorting and encouraging and charging express the same kind of verbal appeal. In other words, the encouragement here is not psychological. Biblical encouragement knows nothing of that sentimental, ‘affirm me,’ ‘make me feel better about myself’ rubbish. Just look at it in verse 12: “we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God!”
And so we rightfully inquire how this might be of some benefit to us. First and foremost, and once again, we’re reminded of our rightful place before Paul’s various appeals. God is exhorting us through a man. God appeals to us through a man. This book before us, these pages from which I speak, is therefore not to be ignored. This book is not some family heirloom to be stored on the top shelf. It’s to be opened daily, read reverently, and ransacked as though one’s life depended on it. Question: How often should I read my Bible, Pastor? You said more than once believers are free from law! Believers are free from the Law; but since the Spirit of Christ indwells them, believers are anything but lawless! So, how often? Answer: If you love chocolate, you want it everyday. If you love hockey, you’ll watch it everyday. If you love your baby girl, you’ll kiss her everyday. And if the Law of the Spirit of Christ indwells you, which is to say, if you are a believer, you’ll crave that which the Spirit wrote! If you are being led by the Spirit of the living God, you will starve for the Word of God.
We also need to see that this encouragement, this exhortation, this appeal, is not unto the affirmation of our sinfulness. It isn’t to affirm our pouting or rebellion or self-absorption, things which have no place in those craving Christ. And here’s the thing: All too often and all too easily, we sacrifice excellent ministry to one another on the altar of self-interest. We fear each other so we say nothing that might cause some ‘push-back’ and discomfort. Not that we aim to be unkind. That is not our aim. But all too often our stance is ‘Better to keep quiet than ‘encourage’ someone to walk a certain way, to appeal to them to change their current course, a course that’s anything but worthy of Christ. Keep quiet. Keep our noses clean. Live and let live. Tolerate. Make allowance. Ignore. Overlook.’ We may disagree with that philosophy, at least verbally and to each other. But isn’t that not how we live practically? You be the judge of that. But an excellent ministry doesn’t operate that way. An excellent ministry makes appeals. It exhorts. It doesn’t confuse Biblical encouragement with sin-enabling sentiment. Encouragement is unto walking in a manner worthy of God. Sentiment simply enables self-absorbed godlessness; sinful ways of thinking and relating to husbands and wives and pastors and God and self and the church are wrongfully excused, maybe in terms of personality conflict or indwelling sin. The excellent ministry doesn’t allow that. The excellent ministry doesn’t fear giving offense and stepping on sinful estimations of self [aka. pride]. It doesn’t confuse sentiment with encouragement, Godward encouragement. It instead appeals for repentance and holy living.
This means if you and I are serious about Biblical ministry and not just playing church, there can be no spirit of moderation or neutrality here. Moderation and neutrality on the one hand, and excellent, biblical ministry on the other, cannot co-exist. They oppose each other. There’s nothing moderate or neutral about calling for repentance, for example. And the entire Christian life is to be a life of repentance, not just the start of it. The exclusivity of Christ is anything but moderate. Christ Himself was anything but lukewarm. He was on fire. And those who follow Him are on fire, on fire for God, for truth, for holiness and obedience to the Law of Christ.
An excellent ministry is a group project. An excellent ministry exhorts. And third…
An excellent ministry gushes from the fountainhead of truth.
Paul ties three elements together here. First, he argues for the purity of his message. His appeal did not spring from error, he says. This is so basic. Truth is the well from which his appeal, his exhortation, his preaching, his encouragement, his charges sprung. Truth. Not error. Not that which is untrue, half true, and therefore false. Not that which deceives, leads astray, or misinforms. His appeals did not spring from such things. Just truth. What’s important? What’s truly important? Truth. Excellent, biblical ministry gushes from the fountainhead of truth. Nothing else. The truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth. It does not spring from anything less than truth, including a concern for biological family ties. Why not? “For you have exalted above ALL things your name and your word”! (Ps.138:2).
This truth is the gospel of God. Paul calls it the gospel of God, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of truth, and even the word of truth (Col. 1:5). This is that which must be believed and embraced and cherished and gloried in if one is to enjoy the riches of Christ. This is that which Paul charges Timothy to guard with his very life against all and any who aim to destroy it. That his appeal did not spring from falsehood owes to its source, namely God. God cannot lie. He cannot speak what is false. Therefore, every word Paul inked in the Book springs from the God of truth and is therefore absolutely true. You young people, don’t cave into the prevailing notion that the Bible isn’t true, in whole or in part. The Bible is fully true. It is dependable and reliable. You can and without hesitation bank your life on it. So trust it. All of it. It speaks truth. We must never let go of this simple but profound fact. His Word is true. It’s absolutely true.
Second, Paul argues for the integrity of the messenger. He tells his readers that his appeal did not spring from impurity. With this he jumps from the content of the message to the character of the messenger. His message was free from any falsehood. There wasn’t a shred of falsehood in what he declared. And here he says he and his associates were free from impurity, anything that calls their Christianity into question.
This is big. Any ministry, any ministry with any amount of effective impact, is not simply a ministry defined by orthodox doctrine alone. Sound and correct doctrine alone does not make an excellent ministry. Sound doctrine must be married to an upright, blameless, godly character. Sound doctrine divorced from sound character produces nothing. This is true regardless of context. This is true evangelistically. Any witness for Christ which is orthodox in word but suspect in life is simply no good. Why should the unbeliever listen to you if you’re no different than him, if your life looks like everybody else’s? Why should anyone change their ways if any messenger hasn’t had their ways changed? Is sovereign grace simply fire insurance? Or is sovereign grace that which saves sinners from a godless way of life unto conformity to Christ and brings them to God? ‘God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.’ ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification.’ Salvation isn’t an insurance policy against eternal damnation. Salvation is for being conformed into the image of Christ, the Biblical Christ, not the folk religion, pop theology Christ who might just reign in your mind. Just in case you’ve missed it, this is the effect the Biblical Christ has on those who truly cherish Him (their souls sing):
Jesus thou fairest, dearest one,
What beauties thee adorn
Far brighter than the noonday sun,
Or star that gilds the morn.
Here let me fix my wandering eyes,
And all thy glories trace;
Till, in the world of endless joys,
I rise to thine embrace.
Third, Paul states the purity of his method. Again in the third verse he says their appeal ‘did not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.’ In other words, they were straight shooters. Bait and switch tactics were foreign to them. No tricks were used to gain their attention or win them over. I immediately think of 2 Corinthians 4:1 and 2, in which Paul writes:
“Therefore, having this ministry [and context explicitly defines this ministry as new covenant ministry] by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Says the commentator-
The apostles had no base and wicked designs, covered with fair and specious pretences.”[i]
Scheming in secrecy, deception, dishonesty, dubiousness, duplicitous conniving and craftiness: the apostles did not operate this way. They did not resemble the career politician in their dealings, saying one thing behind close doors to one group while saying the opposite to everyone else. No. Instead, they had nothing to hide, but dealt ‘by the open statement of the truth.’
An excellent ministry is a group project. It exhorts. It gushes from the fountainhead of truth and thus its message, messengers and methods are pure, honest, and marked by integrity. Fourth…
An excellent ministry is divinely endorsed.
The fourth verse is in contrast with the third. Essentially, Paul says his ministry did not spring from any false thing, from any false doctrine or corrupt motive or cheap method. On the contrary, he says, he and those with him “have been approved by God” and so approved “to be entrusted with the gospel.”
First, they were “approved by God.” God tried them, tested them, and then endorsed them. They passed divine scrutiny, the examination of God. Paul gives clear instructions regarding the testing of those who aspire to gospel ministry. Those who desire leadership roles in a local church setting must first be tested. The church faithful to Scripture doesn’t simply fill a ‘hole’ because there’s a hole. ‘Holes’ are to be filled by what’s fitting, not by what’s available. Testing determines what’s, or who’s, fitting. But it’s one thing to be tested by the church with Bible open. It was God Himself who tested Paul and his ministry companions. There was a time of testing, a time in which they were found to be fitting for the task. And so we find Paul speaking of this in his first epistle to Timothy – ‘I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service…” (1 Timothy 1.12). God endorses faithful men. This is a character issue. Excellent, biblical, God-honoring, Gospel ministry requires faithful men, faithful to Christ, faithful to the gospel, guarding it through thick and thin. That’s who God entrusts with His gospel. No car lover gives his Maserati to just anyone; he might find it wrapped around a pole. No loving Father gives his daughter away to just anyone; he might just find her wrapped around a pole one day in some kind of life-wreck. Neither does God entrust what is precious to him to just anyone, lest it too becomes unrecognizable by neglect, or failure to safeguard it.
- An excellent ministry speaks.
You’ve heard the saying: “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” To be sure, there’s something in that saying worthy of our notice. The way we live matters. Christian character matters. If we live like pagans and no different than unbelievers, if we live and act and talk like them, then our appeals for Christ to an unbeliever will lack credibility, integrity, and substance, and thus be in vain. But make no mistake, beloved. Words are always needed. Words are never optional when it comes to excellent ministry, either evangelistic or not. I came across this great quote this week. It nails the issue to the wall:
If anyone professes Christ, and does many great works, but refuses to proclaim Him, that person is only doing goodwill. And goodwill does not save people from the wrath of God (Aaron Armstrong, Blogging Theologically).
That’s exactly it! Good works is not the gospel. Christ is the Gospel. Christ saves from wrath. It’s His works, not ours, that save from the wrath to come. And this is what must be spoken with words. Simply being with people won’t save them. Showing compassion won’t save them. Giving them a drink on a hot day won’t save them. Faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of Christ and His Person and His Work on the cross! An excellent ministry speaks! It preaches the gospel always in that it both lives the gospel and always uses words.
But notice not just that it speaks, but also how it speaks. Paul says in the fourth verse that they speak as those entrusted with the gospel. ‘Just as we’ve been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak…” This is amazing, isn’t it? The God of the universe, the authority above all authorities, entrusts, gives into the care and safekeeping of these men, his word of truth, His ‘Maserati.’ How do you suppose they will speak and make appeal? Will they first tinker with what has been entrusted and make some adjustments under the hood? Will they take it for a test drive on the freeway, pedal to the medal in rush hour? Or will they do everything they can to keep it from the slightest scratch? They will speak (1) so as not to wreck what has been entrusted, and (2) with no small amount of seriousness and authority. Gospel ministry is not anchored in the phone book. These men weren’t about the business of making appeals from the yellow pages. Gospel ministry carries a great deal of weight. God’s glory in man’s salvation is at stake. And so, gospel men so speak! There’s gravity about their appeals and preaching.
An excellent ministry speaks to please God, not man.
Paul says, “…so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (v.4). The pleasure of God drives the excellent ministry. Man-pleasing doesn’t. It’s so simple. Yet how often is this simple thing forgotten? Excellent gospel ministry, while it might, and does serve men, does not seek to please men, or women. One reason why this is so crucial is this: man pleasers seek to please men because they can’t stand not being liked. To not be liked feels yucky, doesn’t it? But here’s the deal: The desire to be liked cripples, if not altogether kills, an excellent gospel ministry. The moment we wish to be liked is the moment we render ourselves useless in gospel ministry. If you want your unbelieving neighbor to like you, you’re finished before you start. You won’t speak a word about Christ to him/her. Is this why we’re not evangelistic? Is this why we’re not seeing converts? Is this why our numbers aren’t what we’d like them to be? Is it because we want to be liked by the folks with whom we live and work and do business? If you’re a believer, you are charged with the task of evangelism. Did you know that? Not that this passage is all about evangelism; but it’s surely drips of it! Maybe what we all need is to take a good hard look at ourselves and fall on our knees, confessing to God Almighty how disobedient we are when it comes to these things! Are you so seeking yourself that you miss this? Excellent ministry doesn’t seek itself; it dies to self!
I deal with this all the time. Let me give you a personal illustration, if only by way of a simple confession: The moment I crave to be liked by you is the moment I’m no good to you. When your approval of me and even what I do and say become my delight and need and aim, that’s when I cannot serve you. Serving you doesn’t mean giving you candy for breakfast because that’s what you want. That’s not what excellent gospel ministry is about. Excellent ministry seeks and is driven by the pleasure of God. Its primary, foundational motivation is to spend and be spent in the interests of Him! The same is true for any evangelistic impact we might have individually. The moment we want person x to like us, is the moment our gospel ministry to person x is all but finished. It’s not that we set out to offend or be a pain. But neither should our aim be making a friend. Friendship isn’t the aim. Conversion is. Repentance is. Joy in Christ is. Obedience to God in evangelism is, regardless of result.
What is excellent, gospel ministry? This is it. What God has furnished for us in these verses is a picture, a pattern, something for us to emulate and follow. This is the biblical method, the way the apostle himself, and those with him, carried out the task. This is what we must therefore strive to imitate. Every pastor has an agenda. To do ministry this way is mine. I’m not interested in the latest fads or programs or ministry tools, not when the Bible is sufficient for all these things. I want to do ministry this way, Paul’s way, the old way, the proven way. How about you?
[i] Henry, M., & Scott, T. (1997). Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary (2 Co 4:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems.
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta