Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
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
It’s an unspoken, unwritten assumption that we aim for a ministry that’s excellent and exemplary. That’s what we want. We’re not interested in mediocrity or playing games. We want the real deal here at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church. We’re not interested in doing church as others might do church. We don’t care to follow in the footsteps of those who buy into the latest fad or church growth tool. Nor has it been our practice to seek the guidance of some self-proclaimed expert for anything spiritual. When it comes to matters of faith and practice, our authority is the Bible. It’s the Bible and the Bible alone that must inform and shape life and ministry. Every other authority, whether tradition, experience, or reason, must submit to the Scriptures.
So when it comes to defining an excellent ministry, the Bible is our ‘dictionary.’ How others may have defined it in the past, what we may have felt to be excellent, or what might seem to us to be excellent, if it doesn’t line up with the Bible, must be discarded. It’s simply no good. And so, as we resume our studies in Thessalonians we again ask the question regarding the excellent ministry. We do so for the simple fact that this question is itself borne out of the text before us. To the question “What marks an excellent ministry?” or “What is an excellent ministry?” we saw six things thus far.
An excellent ministry is (1) a group project, not a game of solitaire or a show of lone ranger-ism. Paul wasn’t by himself here. Silvanus and Timothy were with him. (2) It exhorts. It urgently, if not authoritatively, calls people to believe certain things and behave certain ways. (3) It gushes from the fountainhead of truth, not the cistern of sentiment or deceit. (4) It’s divinely endorsed, ‘approved’ by God. God endorses faithful men. Excellent, biblical, God-honoring, Gospel ministry requires faithful men, faithful to Christ, faithful to gospel, men who guard the gospel through thick and thin. (5) It speaks. After all, faith is by hearing and hearing the word of Christ. (6) It speaks to please God, not men. It aims at God’s pleasure. This often means bearing the disapproval and wrath of sinners; God doesn’t think as men do, not by a long shot! And that means what God says is at odds with what men say. So echoing His words often brings pushback (Not always; God has a people, after all). But more often than not, opposition meets God’s word.
Five More Marks of an Excellent Ministry
There are five more marks that can be drawn out of our verses.
(7) It’s genuine.
The seventh mark is genuineness. A ministry that’s excellent is genuine. It’s marked by an undeniable sincerity. There’s no monkey business going on. It’s free of mischief and any and all matter of deceitfulness. Verse five: “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed – God is witness.” Again, Paul explains, even defends, why his brief time with these folks was not in vain, or not empty (2:1). It wasn’t in vain because, verse three, their appeal did “not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.” In other words, it gushed from the wellhead of truth. Then in the fifth verse, he furthers upon the third. Their ministry was not in vain because it gushed forth truth, coming not with flattering speech or with pretext, both of which are deceitfulness and dishonesty to the core.
We dealt with flattery last time. So, we won’t make much of it now. But allow this: He who flatters only pretends to be a friend. Flattery is nothing more or less than deception. As another puts it, it’s “using fair words as a means of gaining one’s own ends. It is a matter of using insincerity as an instrument of policy, as a means of persuading another to do one’s will” (Leon Morris, 1991). Excellent ministry knows nothing of this. Flattery is deception. It’s a form of manipulation, an attempt to get what one wants.
Interestingly enough so is pretext. As I studied this, I discovered there’s much overlap between flattery and pretext. Flattery might be well understood to be a form of pretext. Pretext is really a cover for some other agenda. So is flattery. The cover will be believable. There’s enough truth in it to make it seem reasonable. And that’s what makes this so tricky. That’s why it’s so easy to get sucked in by this kind of deceptive ploy. There’s a whole lot of truth on display. But it’s a costume party. It’s simply a mask hiding the real motive. Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for pretext: “A reason given in justification of a course of action that is not the real reason.” It comes from a word meaning ‘outward display’ or ‘to disguise.’ Immediately hypocrisy comes to mind. Pretext is hypocrisy. It’s duplicitous. It’s saying one thing with lips while having quite another thing in the heart. It’s saying “We must reduce our carbon footprint” and then hopping on a private Lear Jet, for example.
Paul says his coming to them, his gospel ministry to these folks, was no pretext for greed. In other words, his purpose was not self-seeking. He and his colleagues weren’t the least bit interested in getting from others what they did not have themselves. They didn’t use others for any deplorable, sinful, selfish ends. There’s this one undeniably loud thing here. We must understand this about Paul and all exemplary ministry. Exemplary ministry seeks not itself. It has no interest what it can get from others. Good ministers – and every New Covenant member is a minister – couldn’t care less about what’s in it for them. Amassing wealth via the truth of God is not their agenda. But that’s not exactly all there’s to this. We must be mindful here of what Paul wrote in the previous phrase – they spoke to please God, not men. To speak this way means they did not speak to impress men, to wow an audience with great elocution and oratory skill.
In Paul’s day, speakers were the rock stars of their day. They were the Justin Biebers of antiquity. Speak well and you’d be rich. Impress an audience and you’d be well off. Paul evidently wished to separate himself from that bunch, especially since he preached and ran, as it were (Remember, he stayed there only a short time). Financial, material gain was not the agenda. Proclaiming the gospel was not a smokescreen for emptying the pockets of others and lining his own. His business wasn’t ‘bean-counting.’ His business had nothing whatsoever to do with what he himself got out of it, from those who heard him.
But we mustn’t understand this greed in narrow terms. The word speaks of greed in the broadest of terms. Therefore, personal gain of any kind is to be understood here. Greed here speaks of an intense desire for what one doesn’t have, the satisfaction of what one sinfully craves. Elsewhere, in Colossians 3:5, the ESV renders the word for greed as “covetousness” which Paul calls idolatry. Greed is covetousness, which is idolatry. Do you see how horrific this is? Ministry, gospel ministry, as a pretext for personal gain, any kind of selfish gain, is nothing but an affront to God. That’s not exemplary. That’s not excellent. That’s an abomination.
(The question thus arises. Is it wrong for one to make a living from the gospel? Should churches pay pastors? No, it’s not wrong for one to make a living from the gospel. I won’t recite the entire passage – you can do that for your homework. But in 1 Corinthians 9:14, Paul writes “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.” The point Paul makes in Thessalonians is not at odds with what he says in Corinthians. In Thessalonians, his point is far different. Here he’s states greed and covetousness wasn’t covered up in the cloak of activity for God. That’s different.)
Getting back to greed – one may not be greedy for money. The word here speaks in the broadest of terms. There are other things people crave, and they hide their craving in a blanket of religious activity and/or concern. Perhaps there’s thirst for emotional fulfillment, a stroked ego, power, influence, a need to control, a need to feel safe, to be passed over, left unnoticed so as to fit in. There could be a thousand different things, needs, cravings, secret, selfish agendas clothed in the garb of that which is the highest calling God could ever give – the ministry of the gospel. Do you see how subtle this could be? It’s crafty, and even snake-like. Paul states: “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed.”
And then, to top it off, he makes this remarkably stupendous, extraordinary claim. He says “God is witness.” The people knew what they saw and heard. They knew from observing the small band of gospel men, that flattery wasn’t their way of doing things. These guys were straight shooters. They also knew greed wasn’t their motive. They saw this with their own eyes. They knew by their actions the preachers were above board. But then he also says God is witness to these things. The omniscient, all-knowing One, who sees what no man can see, who sees and weighs and knows the intentions of every man’s heart, is invoked as a witness. Could there be any greater scrutiny? Could Paul be any more serious? Surely, he could not. And yet this beckons all who profess to be serious about life and ministry and the church: Could we, should we, dare we, say our service, our commitment is no pretext for some selfish end? Could we call upon those around us, and even God Himself, to establish and give testimony to the claim? An excellent ministry is a genuine one, marked by purity of sincerity.
(8) It does not seek praise for itself.
Mark number eight: It doesn’t seek praise for itself. Verse 6: “We did not seek glory from people, whether from you or from others…” Circle the word ‘seek.’ Understand the point Paul makes here. Giving and receiving praise, when deserved, is not at issue. The issue is motive. They did not SEEK it. They didn’t hunt for it or fish for it. It wasn’t a reason why they did what they did. Being made much of, seeking to be made much of, is just so unbecoming. It really spoils any gospel ministry. That’s because it’s so at odds with the gospel. Speaking for Christ and living for praise is like putting lipstick on the backside of a donkey! Not very attractive, is it!
But look at what Paul says further. They did not seek glory from people “though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.” You know what an apostle is. An apostle is a messenger. Here the messengers spoke on behalf of Christ. What Paul is thus saying here, is that though they did not seek praise from people, though they did not seek the high esteem of others, though they did not insist on having the red carpet rolled out for them every time they showed up, they rightfully could have done so. They could have made demands in light of who they were. And yet they did not. They did not make much of the fact that as apostles, they carried a tremendous amount of authority with regards to the mission of Christ. Does this not speak of meekness and humility to you? And isn’t it fascinating to see that the excellent ministry, the compelling ministry, even the effective ministry, is not the one clothed in pretext, but stripped of pride?
‘Humility, thou secret vale,
Unknown to proud in heart;
Where show’rs of blessing never fail,
And glories ne’er depart.’
Don’t miss this. These guys had real authority. In the grand scheme of things, in the economy and design of God, in the history of redemption, these guys were heavyweights. But they refused to throw that weight around. Who are we therefore, in light of this, to think we’re anything in the church? Not that we’re irrelevant. We each have our roles to play and so forth. But if these guys never demanded to be made much of in the work of the church, then who are we to ride a high horse?
‘Humility, thou secret vale,
Unknown to proud in heart;
(9) It nurtures newborns.
The ninth mark of the excellent ministry is that of nurture. It nurtures newborns. Verse 7: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” The picture here is very clear: A mother feeding her beloved, giving herself to them, spending herself on them, tenderly and warmly, caring for them, even protecting them. This is how they cherished these new converts, these babes in Christ. I love how another speaks of this. He says: “They nurtured and cared for the Thessalonian believers, not as hired help, as tender as such people might be, but as a nurse would do when she cares for the fruit of her own womb” (Green, G. L., 2002).
The picture suggests many implications and applications. Among them is the obvious- what the mother eats she in turn gives to her newborn. Those who feed and care for others therefore must watch what they themselves eat and drink, lest the younger believer gets sick. So, beloved, bear this in mind when you choose your reading material. If we eat junk, we pass that on. But if we eat and graze upon the good food of truth, we nourish ourselves and, in turn, are equipped to nourish our newborn brethren.
Paul further describes this maternal care in the next verse. In verse eight he describes this care as loving maternal care. He says that they were affectionately desirous of them that they yearned for them with a tender love. Do you get this? Do we know any of this? Excellent, exemplary, genuine, real deal, no nonsense ministry! Is this commonplace? Not on your life! Does it exist? Yes, it does. And when and where it does, you will discover that…
(10) It gives.
The excellent gospel ministry gives. What does it give? Again verse 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.” I hunt for the words to impress this upon you. Excellent gospel ministry gives two things the world, the unbelieving world, wouldn’t give 2 cents for. First thing it gives is the gospel of God. The good news of God? From God? The gospel from God which is God. God is good news. And He gives good news. “…by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” How much is that worth to you? Paul calls this “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). And Paul says he shares it, he gave it to those to whom he now writes.
But that’s not all, not by a long shot. He says they also gave themselves – their thoughts, feelings, hearts. They quite literally invested their hearts and souls into these people. Listen to how he expresses this very same thought elsewhere. This amazes me and sobers me and challenges me and convicts me and fascinates me: “14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less” (2 Cor. 12:14-15)?
To spend and be spent for souls! You see, Paul was saying this: He wasn’t in it for himself. He wasn’t in it to get anything. He was in it to spend and be spent on others with all that he was. What is this? This is excellent, exemplary, Christ-exalting, Christ-reflecting and Christ-magnifying ministry. And to prove it even further, Paul says to them, he brings to their memory how they worked day and night so as not to be a financial burden to them. Again, we need to exercise caution when making application of this. But suffice it to say that such sacrifice, such toil and being literally spent, speaks volumes of their purity of motive and integrity of heart, right? They weren’t in the thing for what they could gain from others. They were in it for what they could give to others with no strings attached, no hidden agendas.
So, we can give a thousand good things to unbelievers and believers. But if we fail to give them the gospel, and ourselves, we fail to exercise excellent biblical ministry.
(11) It acts out of a godly father’s concern.
And finally, the exemplary ministry acts out of a godly father’s concern. Verses 10-12 speak this. We won’t belabor this. But notice how verse 10 speaks of an undeniable godly character first of all. “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.” I suppose this would have been the best place to start. The exemplary ministry is first and foremost of godly character. It’s holy and righteous and blameless (above reproach) in conduct, in behavior. Then comes the other parenting metaphor – “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.”
In antiquity, fathers were to be examples and instructors to their children. As ‘fathers’ to these new converts, Paul and his team were both godly example and teacher. They taught by example and by tongue. This is what godly fathers do. They live holy and righteous and blameless lives. And they exhort-encourage-charge their children to live their lives in a manner keeping, now get this, in a manner worthy of the highest of all standards – not the 10 commandments, but God Himself.
How do we do this?
So, how do we go about this? How does one, or a church, emulate this? Where does one even begin? Well, we begin at the beginning with the basics. We might begin by looking at the example of Christ. Although He was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave. Christ left His throne, the highest of authorities, the most powerful and exalted place in the entire universe, and became the lowest of the low. What is this?
‘Humility, thou secret vale,
Unknown to proud in heart;
We might even begin with looking at how Christ Himself spent and was spent for His sheep, how He came not to be served but to serve, how He loved and tenderly cared for and instructed and exhorted, how he did not even seek praise for Himself, but endured all things for the sake of those chosen…and on and on we could go. Christ Himself was the fountainhead of truth. He was genuine, sincere, free from all deceit and deception. His godliness defined godliness; He was the fullness of deity, righteousness of very righteousness.
We could start there. But we mustn’t start there. Rather this is where we must begin. I pray you not miss this. I pray that you not dismiss this as just some simple doctrinal mantra:
“9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
Exemplary ministry does not, in fact cannot, occur apart from Christ in you. This is spiritual. Excellent ministry is a spiritual thing. And if the Spirit of Christ doesn’t dwell in you, then it won’t happen. It’s really that simple. This is not a fleshly, self-effort, pull up our bootstraps, thing where some program makes it all happen. That’s not it. If Christ doesn’t indwell, if the Spirit of God doesn’t reside in you, you will not do this. You can’t do this. You won’t even want to spend and be spent for someone else. You’ll be far too self-absorbed.
But here’s the thing: if Christ does dwell within, then an excellent ministry will be a necessary consequence. The outworking of the indwelling Christ is a ministry much like the one we read of here. Will it be perfect and free of problems? Will it know no sin issues? No. As long as we live on earth, we will do battle with sin. There is no perfect church because there is no perfect, sinless ministry, or believer. So, beware of idealism. Idealism can destroy a church. We must be realistic about the church as a community of believers who are declared righteous but are still “working out [their] salvation.” Believers differ in their maturity in Christ. And no believer is without sin. This is how it is and will be until we see Jesus face to face. The local fellowship is a collision of sinners. But until that day when we see Jesus, can we not pursue an excellent ministry? Can we not strive by the Spirit of Christ to be excellent ministers to each other? I pray we do so. Because He indwells, we can. Indeed, we must. In humility, let’s spend and be spent for one another for His glory and our joy. Amen.
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