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. “
1 Thessalonians 2:2-6
The excellent ministry has been and remains our focus. What it looks like and what marks it is laid out for us here. And what I want us to zoom in on today is verses 5 and 6:
“For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.”
Paul is explaining what he said in verse 3. He explains why he said: “…our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.” Again, Paul is defending his character. The heart of the matter here is the matter of the heart. He’s saying their motives were pure, free from all that is false and unrighteous.
Three key things I want us to see, even though we won’t get much past the first. Number one: Flattery didn’t mark Paul’s ministry. What is flattery? Paul says it’s an “attempt to deceive.” More on that in just a minute. Number two: Pretext didn’t mark Paul’s ministry. What’s pretext? Pretext is a “storefront for the mob.” It looks legit from the street and to the naïve, but in the back rooms, it’s more than a wee bit shady. Number three: Seeking praise from others didn’t mark his ministry. Paul’s aim wasn’t to act or speak in such a way as to be a rock star or some other celebrity. So, let me sum that up simply. Three key things: (1) Paul did not praise others falsely or make much of them for selfish reason (flattery). (2) He did not present himself falsely for shady reason (pretext). And (3) he did not seek praise for himself for selfish reason. That is, he didn’t seek to be made much of.
Paul really had one eye. He was intent on one purpose. He knew real freedom from selfish ambition and self-concern. He pursued his calling untethered from a thousand possible earthly pursuits. What marked him was, not concern for self-preservation, but undistracted devotion to his Lord. That is how I would describe the apostle. He was radically devoted to Christ. He evidently couldn’t care less for what was in it for him. What was in it for him, as it turned out, was prison and ultimately death, and all because of his big, fat mouth and “narrow-minded,” “arrogant” posture. At least, that’s how the unbelieving saw, and still sees, him.
By now you’ll no doubt be struck by how much Paul mentions ‘words.’ To declare the gospel one must employ words. To make appeals, to exhort and to charge, one must use words. Chapter 1:4 says the gospel comes in word. Chapter 1:6 says that in much affliction, received was the word. Chapter 1:8 speaks of how the word sounded forth from those who received it, from those to whom Paul writes.
This, of course, is basic. Words matter. Words are consequential. God has spoken. And He’s done so by means of words. Good words. Glorious words. Redemptive words. Words that even express realities far beyond what our teeny-weeny brains can comprehend. So, it comes as no surprise that transmission of the words and the Word requires, not a paintbrush, but a tongue. Excellent gospel ministry means wagging that piece of muscular flesh caged behind the teeth. Our tongues are basic and indispensable tools for excellent gospel ministry.
The Tongue: Powerful & The Very World of Iniquity
But here’s the deal with the tongue: It’s small, but it’s powerful. The tongue is a bit in a horse’s mouth. By it we command a beast. The tongue is a rudder. By it we steer mammoth cruise ships. The tongue weighs mere ounces, but by it we push people around. Though small, the tongue can cause great damage, can’t it! The tongue is a spark that can scorch far and wide. James pulls no punches about the destructive power of the tongue. In the third chapter of his epistle, beginning with the fifth verse, he writes:
“…How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
So, what does this have to do with an excellent ministry like Paul’s? The tongue is “a world of unrighteousness,” “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” But Paul says their ministry did not spring from impurity. The fountainhead of their ministry was truth, not unrighteousness. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, that James goes on to ask the rhetorical question: “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (James 3.11-12)? Translation: The mouth pours out what’s in the heart. The tongue gushes forth whatever fills the soul. Jesus said, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit…” (Mark 7.20-22. NASB). Paul makes it clear. Their appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.
Flattery: What Scripture Says
And so, we ask the question: What is flattery? I want to dwell on this a bit. It’s a subject we need to talk about. We need to talk about it because it’s hardly talked about. Miriam-Webster defines flattery as an attempt to win favor by insincere or excessive praise. The truth is flattery is sin. Flattery is sinful. It is a sin of the tongue. We don’t think about it that way. It might even be classified as one of those respectable sins, a sin we tolerate (that is, if we don’t make jokes about it). But we shall talk about it under four different heads. First, we’ll describe it biblically. Then we’ll define it biblically. Third, we’ll look at the power of it. Then finally, we’ll look at the damage, destruction, and motivation of those who flatter.
First we look at flattery described. Psalm 41.6 describes flattery as unoccupied, vacant speech. “And when one comes to see me (i.e. when an enemy comes to see me), he utters empty words, while his heart gathers iniquity.” Flattery is nothing but empty words. There’s nothing there. There’s no value in what’s said. It’s just empty, good for nothing talk.
Proverbs 5:3 likens flattery to seduction. “…the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil…” When ‘Quaker State’ gushes from the tongue, that’s flattery. If it sounds and feels like 5w30, it probably is. Proverbs 6:24 says the adulteress, the evil woman, has a smooth tongue. A smooth tongue is a flattering tongue, one that’s very complimentary. Its sweet, seductive speech gains your ear and pulls you in. Proverbs 7:21 – “With much seductive speech she (the prostitute) persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him.” Flattery is really manipulation. It’s an attempt to control the situation, or the relationship, whatever that situation/relationship might be.
Second, we look at flattery defined. It’s very simple. Flattery is deceit. It’s dishonesty. It’s lying. He who flatters is a liar. Flattery is of the flesh. The one who speaks this way is not walking by the Spirit. Flattery thus grieves the Spirit. It is an offense against Christ.
With language echoing the unrighteous of Romans 3, David writes in Psalm 5: 8 – 9:
“Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.”
There is no truth in their mouth. Their inmost self is destruction. Their throat is an open grave. They flatter with their tongue. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Deceit, dishonesty, destruction, death, depravity: this is the stuff of which we speak. This is flattery.
Psalm 12:2. “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.” Again, the psalmist makes it very explicit. Flattery is the utterance of lies. But what is it to speak with a double heart? To speak with a double heart is to speak with a deceptive heart. It’s speaking kind words, encouraging words and even words of praise. But these words are nothing but a cover for unrighteous motives. The lips and the heart simply don’t match. Psalm 28:3 illustrates this exactly. David prays “Do not drag me off with the wicked, with the workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors while evil is in their hearts.” That’s a double heart.
Psalm 36.1-3. “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated. The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit…” The very next verse tells of his secret agenda. It says “He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not reject evil.” The psalmist here links flattery with self-deception and a lack of the fear of God. He who flatters himself is very unwise; he thinks his sin and iniquity will be hidden and kept a secret! What foolishness! The apostle writes: “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Tim. 5:24). Elsewhere, he speaks of a day when God “judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:16). And before Paul, Solomon of old wrote that “…God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). So, it’s abundantly clear that every deed will not be hidden!
Psalm 78.36. Just to drive home the point: “But they [i.e. the old covenant people of God] flattered him [God] with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues.” Flattery is lying!
Flattery is deceit. It’s dishonest tongue-wagging. Liars flatter. Flattery is lies. And lying is a very serious thing in the eyes of God. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (Proverbs 12.22).
The Power of Flattery
Next, we look at the power of flattery. One Scripture verse will be enough to illustrate the power of the tongue. It’s Daniel 11:21. Daniel 11 speaks of the rise and fall of kings and their kingdoms. Alliances are made. Great armies are built up. Wars are fought. Wars are fought for kingdoms, for power, to rule over men. But in verse 21, even though there’s a change of ruler, no war is fought. Daniel 11:21 (this is amazing to me):
“In his place shall arise a contemptible person to whom royal majesty has not been given. He shall come in without warning and obtain the kingdom by flatteries.”
Not by war! Not by force! By a smooth and seductive, deceitful tongue! That’s how Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in the second century B.C. The tongue is a mighty weapon in politics! We know that. We know the politician’s weapon is a smooth tongue. Though inches, it can capture kingdoms thousands of square miles big.
The Damage, Destruction, & Motivation of the those who Flatter
Fourth: the damage, destruction, and motivation of those who flatter. After greeting and passing on greetings, Paul writes the following in Romans 16.17-18:
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.”
Paul does a number of things here. First, he warns. “Watch out,” he says. Keep your heads up, eyes wide open, and ears tuned in. Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles in opposition to the truth, i.e. the sound words of Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness; in other words, that which Paul has just expounded for 15 chapters [the gospel]. Then Paul commands his readers to avoid those who cause such divisions. He couldn’t be clearer. He doesn’t say tolerate them or “love” them. He says avoid them. Paul’s love for the Roman church doesn’t put up with nonsense. Paul loves. So, he protects. He says what he says here expressing his love for both the truth and the church. Avoiding divisive people might not seem to us to be the ‘right’ thing to do, but the apostle tells his readers that’s in fact what they’re to do.
Paul then goes on to describe these divisive characters. He says they do not serve the Lord Christ, but their own appetites, their own belly, their own desires and cravings. What are those cravings? They’re anything but the Lord Christ. They’re anything that opposes the Lord and seeks itself [like a name, fame, fortune, power, control, a following, perhaps even peace and comfort at the expense of truth].
It’s interesting to note the context in which we find all this. The verse immediately before, the apostle gives the instruction “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Cranfield writes:
the injunction to greet one another with a holy kiss, pointing as it does to the need and the obligation to maintain the peace of the church, contains within itself an implicit warning against those things which are able to destroy that peace and against the unholy kisses of those who would attach themselves to the church’s fellowship insincerely, remaining all the time alien from it in doctrine or life…[i]
That last phrase is rather interesting, isn’t it? Is it at all possible there are those somehow attached to a local church, but alien from its doctrine or life? I think it’s more than possible. That seems to be implicit here in Romans 16. And you will have noticed both their manner of operations and its effect: “by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.” The untaught, unsuspecting person, given to unquestioning trust and foolish loyalties are sitting ducks for this kind of divisive tactic. That’s why Paul says what he says and warns as he warns. And if he were alive today, he would write and warn of the very same thing. There must be no disconnect between what the Bible teaches and what we, the church, do. We must feel a connection with the apostles, as if what they say they say to us. When they warn, they warn us. When they exhort, they exhort us. When they speak of glorious things, they do so for us.
Proverbs 26:28. “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” The thing about flattery is, the one who’s flattered doesn’t feel hated, at least not at first. That’s why it’s such a twisted and hard thing to deal with. It appeals to our ‘ego.’ We like to hear certain things from people, like how awesome we are. It makes us feel good about ourselves. But it could have nothing whatsoever to do with giving a compliment. It might have everything to do with gaining power over you. A lying tongue hates its victims. A flattering mouth works ruin. So, let us keep alert!
“Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 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. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know…”
How was it that Paul ministered this way? How was it that he did not seek to please men and flatter and manipulate people for his own agenda, even if that agenda was in fact God’s? I don’t think this is too hard to figure out. The answer is quite simple. Paul had a right view of himself. First, he knew and believed and lived out of a very simple, yet profound truth: Paul was bought with a price. Christ purchased him with his blood. He knew he was not his own. Excellent ministry cannot happen apart from this most basic, fundamental truth. He writes of this very thing in his first epistle to the Corinthians. What he taught others, he himself believed, you see. “You were bought with a price,” he tells the Corinthians. And then he adds an exhortation, an implication of being purchased. “Do not become slaves of men.” Paul was not his own. Nor was he the property of others. This freed him up, you see. He was Christ’s. Christ owned him. He desired to please Him and Him alone. He had no need to please others. He had no need to be built up by others, to seek their applause and esteem and ego-strokes and all the rest of it. Christ owned him. Christ loved him. And that satisfied him; and it freed him from the need to flatter. It freed him from the shackles of the sinful expectations of men. If we understand and grasp who we are in Christ, who we are in relation to Christ, that He bought us and thus owns us and loves us, attempts to deceive by way of flattery become unthinkable.
Second, Paul had a right view of himself, the cross, and the world. Paul gloried in the cross. He just didn’t believe in it, he gloried in it. He basked in it. Therefore, he had a right view of himself in relation to the world. The cross is that by which he says the world was crucified to him. The cross, the cross of Calvary killed the world to him. The world’s attractions and pleasures and views and hopes and dreams and pursuits were, by the cross, dealt a deathblow to him. He didn’t care for the things of earth like he once did. The things of earth did grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. Why then flatter? For what purpose? To gain what? What on earth could he gain that he did not have in Christ? Paul viewed the world as a Jew viewed a crucified Christ – with utter disdain. It held no attraction for him. He was crucified to it. And he was crucified to the world; the world wasn’t attracted to him at all. Repulsed actually. And he knew it. In other words, Paul really was an oddball. But he was an oddball satisfied in Christ, aiming for the glory of Christ, and being conformed to the image of Christ.
How are we to be excellent ministers one to another? I mean, this is for us! This is for the priesthood of all believers! This is for the body of Christ and every member of it! We must connect with this. Two verses and I’m done. I’m sure you’ll get the connection. First verse:
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:21-22).
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
How are we to be excellent ministers to each other? We must individually behold Christ. We must fix our gaze upon Christ and behold Him and His glory, even that glory in which no deceit was found in His mouth. He came not to flatter you, but to suffer for you without complaint. Let Jesus be our example! Let us follow in His steps and in love, speak truth to each other.
[i] Cranfield, C. E. B. (2004). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (797). London; New York: T&T Clark International.
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