Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
“Thankful for the Working Word”
13” And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
1 Thessalonians. 2:13-16
We’ve been looking at the excellent ministry for quite some time now. We’ve unearthed some eleven marks of it. But I ask the question. Perhaps you yourself have already asked it. Why be concerned? Why spend so much time with this? Why should we care? Let me be straight with you. If we don’t care, then we have some serious issues. To not care is to say, in effect, “I don’t care about the church. And I don’t care about God.” To say this would be a terribly sad thing, to say the very least. If we love God, we will care. It’s that simple.
Second reason (We could list more I’m sure. But we’ll list two.): God is not honored by mediocrity. I just don’t get that from Scripture. Instead, I read things like “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). I don’t think a God of excellence is glorified by a mediocre ministry. The King is more than worthy of excellent service from his subjects.
So, let’s push forward and move on.
The Excellent Ministry Thanks God (2:13)
We now come to yet another mark of the excellent ministry. We must always be mindful of the simple things, obvious things, yet deeply profound things. We see here how Paul returns to where he began, to express for a second time that they give thanks to God. He first spoke of giving thanks back in the first chapter, at the very outset. And here he is once again, expressing that he gives thanks to God and does so always.
Why he does so is a matter worthy of our attention. It’s clear by this that in no way does the apostle credit himself for the success that met him at Thessalonica. Paul does not pat himself on the back. The apostles simply didn’t engage in this sort of triumphalism, in congratulating themselves. This kind of thing was utter nonsense for him. Paul knew his ministry success had very little, if anything, to do with him. All he did was preach. He uncaged the Word; he let it out, unleashing it with his tongue. That’s what he did. That’s the apostolic method. He broadcasted the gospel with full conviction, believing it to be true, speaking without apology, having no intention to back peddle. And yet we know that even this is not apart from God. Paul has already pointed it out to us. He said that his preaching was not in word only, but in power and in the Holy Spirit. This is a God thing. God was in his preaching. God was in his teaching. God was in his gospel-ing. That is why Paul’s ministry was successful. This is why it was excellent. God was in it. The Holy Spirit energized it, clothed it, attended it, and made it effectual. God is the reason. Again I say to you: the Holy Spirit is why. Ingenuity is not the cause. No amount of clever tricks, novel methods, slick organization, or even money will make a ministry excellent or successful. Do you believe this to be so? Do you see this? Paul says he gives thanks to God, why? Is it not obvious to us? He does that because God is the One responsible for it. God the Holy Spirit is causing everything to come about. He even says it this way, that his “preaching [was] not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). By his own account, Paul wasn’t much of a public speaker in his ministry. He was no stranger to “weakness and fear and … much trembling.” We think everything relies upon us, that we must be strong, that we must be fearless, and that if our knees buckle, that if we have sweaty palms, we’re somehow not suited for the task; God cannot possibly use us. Evangelism cannot possibly be our gift. But we must not think this. If the apostle knew fear, if he trembled in the face of sinners, we must not let such things deter us. It doesn’t depend on us anyway. It’s not our job to convert sinners. Paul converted no one. The Spirit converts sinners. God converts sinners. That is why the apostolic pattern is to thank God and give credit where credit is due.
But we must take great care to mark another fact here: Paul doesn’t thank himself, and neither does he thank his readers, the believers at Thessalonica. Remember this was an exemplary church. The gospel impacted their lives tremendously. There was real and profound, undeniable and visible change in their lives. They patterned themselves after the apostles. They were the talk of the entire region. This church was known for its work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in Christ Jesus. They had so broadcasted the word, and had so lived out their faith, that they paved the way for Paul’s missionary endeavors. He speaks of it back in the first chapter:
“For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything”(1.8).
Wherever Paul went, as he left Thessalonica and marched on, because of the noise from Thessalonica, unbelievers knew what he was all about. They knew what had transpired in Thessalonica. They had heard about the message, about the gospel message. They heard about how it transformed lives and turned them upside down (which is right side up). But Paul doesn’t thank them. He doesn’t congratulate them for their zeal, for living out their faith, for trumpeting the truth, and thus paving the way. Why not? The answer is the same as before. These people, these believers at Thessalonica, were not the cause of these things. They neither gave themselves spiritual birth (they did not convert themselves) nor did they dig deep, finding it within themselves to do all they can to be known as they were. Not at all. These believers were simply being who they were. They were being the church. They did what they did because God caused them to do what they did. There was this great outpouring, this great working, of the Spirit of God. God was behind it all. God was at work. God showed up. And God remained. He took up residence within; He taught them. And He caused them to make lots of noise about Him. Listen to me! If God is working in a life, you know about it. If the Creator has re-created, everyone knows about it. There’s a great change. Believers are believers not because of anything they did; not because they were somehow special or had some advantage; not even because they grew up in the right environment with the right parents. These Thessalonians had nothing of the kind. And even those believers who had the so-called right parents, being Jews, this was no guarantee. It depends not on anything we do, but on God who has mercy. So, the apostle doesn’t congratulate himself, his co-workers, or those who, no doubt, were converted. Paul instead thanks God, the One who raises the spiritually dead and ‘works all things according to the counsel of His will.’
Incidentally, should one wonder about how and when this takes place, it should dawn upon him that since it happens ‘constantly,’ it’s not always, if ever, visible and known. That Paul makes it known here is a grace. It should inform and shape our prayers. Do we thank God? Or do we mostly make requests of Him, as if He were our cosmic butler or even universal remote? Paul thanks God for all things, knowing that from Him and through Him are all things.
Not as the Word of Men, but of God
For what the apostle thanked God in this case is clear. They thanked Him that these Thessalonians received God’s word as God’s word. This was something over which they had no control. That is an obvious point. But we mustn’t overlook it. We must not forget it. These gospel men, Paul and the others, did only what they could. They spoke. They gave of themselves, peaching and teaching, conveying this glorious doctrine, this word of God. They did not change it or tamper with it. No attempt was made to alter it in any way. Nor was this word stripped of any of its ‘rough edges.’ No attempt was made to control the outcome, to make this word easier to swallow. They just passed on what was given to the apostle by way of direct, divine revelation.
This revelation, this divine word they heard, was spiritual in nature. It was, and is, from the Spirit of God. We need to understand that. We need to grasp this truth, that the word of truth, the gospel, even the entire body of apostolic doctrine, isn’t merely ink in a book. It is that. But it’s not that. Apostolic doctrine is from the Spirit. It speaks of spiritual things. It’s from the Spirit. Consequently, ‘the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he’s unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14). Dead men don’t sing. They don’t hear. They don’t see. They don’t and won’t because they can’t. Preaching louder, faster, more often, or slower doesn’t matter. They will not, nor do they want, to receive God’s word.
How profound is it therefore, when one, or many receive it! Why they receive it is why Paul thanks not them, but God. Read the entire Bible and you will not find the converted being thanked for receiving the word, for making the preacher’s job successful. On the contrary, it’s always Someone else being thanked. Why they receive God’s word as God’s word is simply this: all things are from God and through God and to God.
Let’s look a bit closer at this. Verse 13:
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”
Notice first of all precisely what was received. It was a word. It was a word spoken because it was a word heard. Truth is and can be expressed in and by words. A word was received. Truth can be expressed in statements and sentences and paragraphs. I wish to emphasize this in view of current thought. It’s not uncommon to come across those who say otherwise. They try to persuade us that truth cannot be expressed in words. Truth, they say, is mysterious; and you can’t express mystery with words. This simply reflects their false notion of spirituality, that it’s some fluid, undefined, unexplainable, fuzziness that overwhelms a person. They suppose the spiritual and the physical are at odds. The Bible of course demolishes such nonsense. The incarnation of Christ, for example, flies in the face of this. In the beginning was the Word, the pre-existent, creation-transcendent, eternal Son of God who, when He came into the world, took on flesh, the physical. Truth can be, and is, expressed by words. This is why the attack on language ought to be the concern of all who embrace the Word. An attack on words is a strike against the very foundation of our faith.
What’s further is the precise origin of this word both heard and received. Paul says it was “from us.” From who was this word? Where did it come from? It came from the apostle and those he endorsed, Silvanus and Timothy in this case. The word received is thus apostolic. It’s from a small group of men, even one man, Paul himself. This again is so very basic. But it must be made absolutely clear: The word received was not just any word. It came not from any philosopher or religious authority of the day. Nor did it echo the teachings of the religious establishment. There is nothing wrong with religion. There is a false religion. But there’s such a thing as true religion. I say this only for clarity. The religious establishment isn’t shady because it’s religious per se. It’s shady because it’s steeped in tradition, one that exalts itself over God’s word, supplanting the apostles’ doctrine. That’s what I’m trying to get across to you.
Every care must be taken to ensure we receive this doctrine, this true doctrine. Down through the centuries, many men, ‘good’ men, learned in religion and divinity, have inked many words. Some of them are good. Some, even tons of what they’ve written, is good and beneficial. But it’s not ‘from us.’ It’s not from the lips of the apostles. It’s not what they themselves wrote. It’s thus not what these Thessalonians received. We could read a thousand books by the finest of Christian men and women, we could even quote a million quotes by the brightest theologians of the world, but unless it all lines up with what the apostles said and wrote, it’s no good to us. It may even be harmful to us.
But then Paul makes it clear, doesn’t he. He ensures that his readers know the ultimate source, and thus nature, of the word he says was/is “from us (from them).” He calls it the word of God. The word they spoke was from God. To receive their word is to thus receive His Word.
But it isn’t that Paul gives thanks merely because they received God’s word. I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here. If that’s what Paul is in fact saying, that he gave thanks because they received the word that would be no small thing. Whenever God’s word is received it’s always a marvelous thing, worthy of much thanks. But I’m convinced Paul is saying more here. Paul is saying that he gives thanks because not only did they receive it, but when they in fact received it, they received it with a right and proper view of it. They esteemed it for what it is. They cherished it and loved it, why? God is why. God is always the why. Paul even says as much. He said back in the first chapter that they received the word ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit.’ But I want to press the point they received this word for what it truly is, the word of the Most High. This is no mere word. This is not the everyday, run of the mill, discourse. There was something different about it. It’s heavenly, not of this earth, and of tremendous weight.
What is the right view? You know it; I’ve no need to tell you. But I will since it cannot be overstated. God’s word is absolutely true. The sum of his word is truth. It changes not; it is fixed in heaven forever. It’s the throne speech of the King of kings. Whatever he says goes. Whatever he promises will happen. God has exalted it above all things. It therefore has the final and authoritative say in all things. It is therefore to be cherished above all things, even a life of ease. The Thessalonians did in fact cherish it this way. They treasured God’s word above even pain-free, conflict-less living. We know this from Paul himself. In the first chapter again, he speaks of how these believers received the word in much affliction. He’s about to take this up again in the very next verse. But for now this is the case. God’s word was so esteemed and so embraced that not even the jeers and mockeries of men made them shrink from it. These folks knew what other Christ-lovers knew. If asked if they wanted to flee, they would have replied much in the same way as Simon Peter. Where shall we go? ‘To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
The Word Received
But what is it the Thessalonians did exactly? Paul says they received/accepted the Word. What is it to receive the Word of God, this apostolic preaching? Don’t tune out here. This is vital. Many fall at this point, thinking they’ve received the Word when in fact they’ve tragically deceived themselves. What does it mean to receive the gospel of God?
First, what it doesn’t mean. Receiving the gospel the way Paul speaks of it here isn’t merely agreeing with the facts of the gospel. There are facts, gospel facts. And they must be embraced as such. To receive the Word is to receive it as truth and agree with the facts of it. Part of receiving the gospel is saying yes to Christ’s definite atonement, for example. That is part of this receiving. But that is not all there is. There’s more to it.
Nor is it the kind of thing that happens in some hotel lobby. You walk in, request a room, and all is well. You’re received, and received well. There’s an undeniable hospitality to the whole thing, a real ‘niceness,’ without any suggestion of animosity or hint of rejection. The staff is excellent and off you go to your room. That’s not it either. Receiving the gospel goes beyond giving it a nice welcome.
Nor is it the kind of thing when, on your birthday or anniversary, you receive a gift only to place it on a shelf somewhere for safekeeping. Not at all! The kind of receiving descriptive of these believers in relationship with God’s Word (God’s WORD!) is the kind of thing which happens when, on a hot day, you pour Coke or Pepsi over ice, sit back on the deck, and all too quickly that glass of delight disappears deep inside you, deep into the core of your existence. It’s hot and you thirst and so you drink it all in. That’s what it is to receive God’s Word.
Have you received it so? Do you receive it so? If not, you must. It’s imperative you do so. You remain outside of Christ otherwise. Regardless of what you may or may not think yourself to be, if you have not so received the gospel of God, you are in a perilous position. Beloved, I tell you as a father would warn his children: Drink the Word. Crave the Word of Christ. If you’ve never received the Word this way, then you’ve never received it. The wrath of God remains on you. Cry for mercy that you receive His Word. Delay no longer.
The Word Received and at Work in You
The second thing Paul says concerning the Word is in the very last phrase of the 13th verse. He says the word of God “is at work in you believers.” Mark this and mark it well. The word of God works in believers. There is no such thing as a believer, one who has received the word, in whom the word does not work. The word of God works in believers. This is not a past tense thing. This isn’t something which can be explained by ‘decision’ categories, as in some ‘been there, done that’ walked up the aisle, “I’m safe now. I can do as I please” kind of thing. God doesn’t invade someone’s life only to let him alone. No Sir! He who receives the word is he in whom the word works. This is a continuous, ongoing, supernatural thing. And it’s a sure thing. When has God’s Word ever failed? God said ‘Let there be…’ and it was. Jesus said, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ And he did. God’s word never fails. It’s effectual. It always achieves what it sets out to achieve.
We must therefore understand this very crucial and basic thing: believers, by definition, by this internal reality, this divine word working in the very core of their being, manifest the things of God. God drives them. He compels them; they will in fact act in ways that are in sync with His written, external word. Listen, if you profess to be a believer, but know nothing of this divine compelling, you’re not a believer. Plain and simple. It need not stay that way. But to know the truth of one’s present condition is a grace of inestimable worth. Fix it today. Receive the word. Delay no longer. One thing’s for certain: We must not lean on our profession of faith as proof of the truth of our faith. To do so is the height of folly. Nowhere in all of Scripture is the notion that mere profession equals actual possession.
But here’s the thing: Since God’s word works in believers, striving for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord is anything but burdensome. God’s word works! It calls into being that which does not exist. He calls into being things like the work of faith and labor of love and a steadfast hope in Christ. He creates love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, and things like these. We don’t manufacture these things. These aren’t the products of the believer. We don’t keep in step with the gospel by the equation “God + Me (or even God + the ten commandments) = a life pleasing to God!” It’s all God! It is the Word of God at work in you who believe. This is one of the great, foundational truths of the gospel. God is no cosmic watchmaker who winds us up and lets us go until we stop. He instead is active within us, working His good pleasure, ensuring that all who receive the word, manifest that word.
It seems then that the exemplary ministry is not one given to self-help methods, building large crowds, seeking to make things ‘better’ by any number of means. Nor is it one that views the gospel as a secondary matter. The exemplary ministry is one that is Word-centered, and is thankful to God when His Word is truly received. This may not be the most exciting thing for some. It might actually be quite boring to them. But this is apostolic ministry, according to the New Testament pattern, and the pattern the church is called to follow. Let us therefore follow it for gospel advance and God’s glory. 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