The Character, Content, and Confidence 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
It’s one thing to know something of a man’s intellect. It’s quite another to learn of his affections. Should anyone set himself to study the epistle to the Romans, for example, he would discover something of Paul’s mind. But here in this epistle, and in chapters two and three to be precise, he would find something of the apostle’s heart. Why I speak of this in this context is for no other reason than what I’ve often said to you. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. And the matter of the heart is the matter with which these verses, at root, deal – at least regarding the issue at hand.
We’ve spent a number of weeks in the first chapter of this epistle. We saw there something of what marks an exemplary church. That being the case, if the first chapter reveals something of an exemplary church, chapter two speaks of an excellent ministry. And so, I put before you the question, if only to introduce what lays before us. Of course, it goes without saying I ask also to bend your minds to the subject. It stands to reason that the excellent ministry produces the exemplary church – the church doesn’t produce the ministry. Therefore, if the exemplary church is to exist, the question(s) must be posed and advanced without apology: “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 the truth and the church marks an excellent ministry. Find these things, and you will have found an excellent, Christian ministry. If there is no such concern, if these things are absent, and to the degree they are in fact absent, there will be no such ministry. Surely, we can evaluate where one is in relation to ministry by this. If he has no concern for the truth and the advance of the truth, if he lacks genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of the church, then neither is he fit for any kind of ministry, leadership or otherwise.
For Paul, these were the driving factors of his missionary endeavors. In preaching the gospel, persuading those with whom he came in contact, planting churches, and writing his epistles, his was an intense and even selfless concern for the truth and for the church. We find this to be true of Paul wherever we find him. And we find this concern fleshed out in the verses before us. So, to the text we look.
The Character of an Excellent Ministry: The Heart of the Matter
Note, first of all, that Paul states his missionary visit to these folks was not in vain:
“…you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain” (v.1).
It’s without question Paul and those with him had results in Thessalonica. Success met this band of preachers. Their preaching had great effect and impact. It wasn’t a failure. We saw that and made much of it back in the first chapter. It also goes without saying their visit was not without purpose. Paul and his ministry companions weren’t aimlessly running about the Macedonian countryside, stumbling across the occasional city, with no good reason. Not at all! Paul had great and narrow purpose. He had the very best of the very best of reasons to enter Thessalonica! Amen? He came to the Thessalonians to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to them that they might be delivered from the wrath to come!
We recognize these things to be true, of course. But to get at and understand what the apostle is saying here, we must not think primarily in terms of empty results or purposeless and aimless wanderings. I don’t think Paul is simply denying that his work had been in vain. Nor is the apostle negating any notion that his entrance into Thessalonica was pointless and without purpose, lacking good reason. What the apostle also denies here is that he, together with Timothy and Silvanus, were in themselves empty of truth, godly substance, and righteous character. Paul denies that he himself, and his two ministry partners, were empty of good and solid, gospel ambitions. Their “coming to them,” in other words, was genuine, honest, and sincere. It wasn’t false, destitute of truth, full of deception with less than honourable aims. On the contrary, it was serious and weighty, driven by earnest desire for gospel advance. There was a gravity about the mission. There was no fooling around or playing games. Their mission and ministry wasn’t for outward show and glitz. Their mission to Thessalonica wasn’t about a personal agenda to achieve celebrity status. Paul and his ministry associates were not in this for their own profit. Not at all! Their ministry was, rather, conducted in all seriousness, in the fear of God, in God, and for God. And for the Thessalonians! This is the heart of the matter as the verses which immediately follow show and confirm. This was no empty “coming to you.” This was a “coming” abundantly full of Christ Jesus. Because their “coming to you” was not empty and possessed real substance, their ministry was not “in vain.” It was not a failure. Nor was it ineffective. Why not? It was not because it was real. Real ministry is effective ministry.
By this we are given reason for examination and warning. We who are given pastoral charge of local fellowships as overseers and undershepherds of souls do well to ask of ourselves: Are we among our people engaged in a superficial, cavalier ministry set on self-improvement? Brothers, listen to me, if we accept a pastoral charge or otherwise aspire to be elders in a local fellowship for our profit, we are surely not fit for the task! Money is the obvious target here. If a paycheque is the aim, ministry is not for you. Don’t minister for the money. Don’t be an elder for the perks. You won’t last long if you do anyway. Please do not misunderstand. It is good and biblical for a pastor to earn a paycheque. ‘The labourer is worthy of his wages.’ But if the ministry is simply a means to earn a living, don’t do it.
That’s easy. Money is an obvious target. But what about something like studying? What if something as good and needful as reading and studying the Bible and thereby growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ was the primary aim for taking on a ministry role? All ministers need to study, right? Pastoral ministry requires, and thus gives, lots of time for sermon preparation and Bible study. If that’s not the case, it should! The bulk of a pastor’s time ought to be given to two things: prayer and study. However, I say that if that study and thirst for study is one’s primary reason for full-time ministry of any kind, he ought not do it. He ought not enter pastoral ministry. He probably should consider pursuing a career as a college professor instead! Why do I say this? I say this because self-improvement is not the reason to enter ministry. Period. To the degree that self-improvement by things like money, study, or even attaining a public profile, becomes the primary drive for ministry, that ministry will be “vain,” at least to a similar degree. Integrity and credibility are so very important in life and ministry! Pastoral ministry is other-focused. Ministry is service, service to others, and not self-service. Study, yes. But let our studies ultimately be about the glory of God in the salvation and sanctification of those entrusted to our care. This is New Testament ministry. This is New Covenant ministry. And because we desire to be good and faithful, God-honouring servants, this is good for us to know!
The Content of an Excellent Ministry: The Gospel
Verse two speaks of the content of the excellent ministry. I will only speak of this in passing. But I will speak of it because it must be spoken of whenever it presents itself. Paul writes that they declared to them the gospel of God. The content of an excellent ministry is the gospel of God. We could spend hours on this alone – the phrase is so full and rich. Questions advanced and answered, which need to be answered, and asked by the professing church, even and especially, but not exclusively, a ‘church’ bent on keeping the Bible on the shelf, are numerous: What is the gospel? Who is God? Who is Christ? What did He do? Why did He do it? For whom did He do it? What did Christ achieve? What must I then do? What if I don’t? What is justification? What is sanctification? How shall live in light of the Person and Work of Christ? [Am I free? Am I a slave? And of course, the answer to both is ‘yes.’ Christians are free from sin and the power of sin, which is the Law, and at the same time a slave to righteousness – it can be no other way for one united to Christ!] The content of an excellent ministry is therefore the cross. The content of an excellent ministry is therefore that which is an abomination and offense to men. We know that. We feel the weight of that. It prevents us from speaking of it to others. Perhaps it even prevents us from speaking of it amongst ourselves. What’s needed, therefore, is what Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy had, namely boldness.
The Confidence of an Excellent Ministry: God
In v. 2, that’s exactly what Paul says. He says they had boldness. Put verse 1 and 2 together, and you end up with this great contrast. ‘Our coming to you was not in vain,’ he says, ‘but we had boldness…’ In other words, ‘we came not without good, gospel ambition and sound character. On the contrary, we had this great courage in our God to declare to you the gospel…’
Now, you will have noticed these two verses speak much of the struggles this band of preachers had. Acts 16 and 17 record those for us. And if we went there, we would find the kind of treatment delved out to them. In Philippi, en route to Macedonia and Thessalonica, as a result of their gospel activities, a crowd rose up against them. The civil authorities stripped them down to their underwear. They were then beaten with rods, thrown into prison, feet fastened in the stocks. After their arrival in Thessalonica, and over the course of three weeks, and due to preaching and teaching at the local synagogue, they were again done in. Some from among the religious establishment, the local theologians if you like, went downtown, gathered a rather rough and tumble bunch, and went about in mob fashion looking for these preachers. As it happened, those who cared for Paul, who were concerned for his safety, sent him and his band of merry men away by night. This is the precise historical background here. So, when Paul writes these first two verses, we need to see them against this canvass. “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But [or, on the contrary] 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.”
Conflict followed Paul. Wherever he went, there it was. It met him in Philippi. It chased him to Thessalonica. It’s almost as if excellent ministry and suffering, even physical suffering and pain, go hand in hand. Where there’s one, you find the other. But notice what he writes. He says that this opposition didn’t stop him. He continued preaching. He declared to them the gospel of God despite the antagonism. He, they, preached despite being beat up.
Why he did so was because he had boldness. He had boldness in our God. He had great confidence, but not in himself. Their boldness came from their relationship with God, from the Author and Source of that which they proclaimed. What is it to have this kind of boldness? If we don’t have it, we will not speak truth when called upon to do so. This is a very crucial thing. Excellent ministries, biblical ministries, depend on this. To have boldness in God is to be empowered by him. It’s to be moved by him to do that which you would not do naturally, in and of yourself. It’s to be so confident in God, to be so full of him, and so mindful of him that all you want to do is speak for him, having no concern for yourself. That is the best way I can explain it. You are just so energized and emboldened because He is God that you speak things people hate…or don’t like ordinarily. It gets you in trouble. But you say it anyway, even if your wife rathers you didn’t.
The Bible records the lives of many faithful preachers. Their earthly reward was not ease, health, and prosperity, but suffering and pain. Read Jeremiah or Isaiah, for example. Read about John the Baptist who was beheaded for speaking the truth. In fact, if one reads much of church history, he will discover men like John Bunyan. Bunyan was a Baptist pastor. He spent twelve years in prison for refusing to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ! If there was one portion of Holy Scripture that spoke of them all as men of faith, it would be this:
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:32-38).
What prevented men and women like these from giving up on God? In the face of physical danger and in harm’s way, why did the apostle and his companions not turn and run? Why did they keep on keeping on? They had boldness in our God! They had great courage because of God! Pray for this boldness, brothers! An excellent ministry is a bold ministry! It declares God’s Word even when it might bring personal pain. O that we would so love Jesus that we would consider it a privilege to suffer for Him! O that our boldness in Him would define our ministries when things get difficult and our backs are against the wall! In peaceful times and troubled times, in times when people are for the Bible and against the Bible, whether in season or out of season, let us be bold!
The text (let’s always keep it before us):
“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.”
If Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were questioned regarding their motives, if part of their opposition had to do with anything undermining their character, and thus give credence to the emptiness of their ministry endeavors, does it make sense they would endure so much nonsense? Integrity is manifested here by the willingness to suffer for the truth. There was nothing vain about Paul’s ministry in this regard. There’s no insincerity or hypocrisy. People don’t suffer and endure conflict without good reason. There’s no indication here that these men were in it for their self-interests, whether that be power, to make a name for themselves, to feather their nests, or whatever. Of concern for Paul was the truth, not himself. Truth mattered to him. Truth drove him; it was to be defended and declared at all costs! Even his own comfort! He suffered for what he knew to be true. He SUFFERED for it. And he says to the Thessalonians that they knew this. Once in each of these two verses, appeal is made to what the Thessalonians themselves knew. They knew this about these men. Therefore any notion, any criticism that may have come their way, that might have been an attempt to discredit their ministry as anything less than excellent, you see, is called into the public court of all men, as it were. Leon Morris, the commentator writes:
Paul’s emphatic calling of the Thessalonians to witness did two things. In the first place it showed his confidence in them. He had no fear that they would succumb to the propaganda being put before them. In the second place it demonstrated that all the facts required for his vindication were facts of common knowledge. Neither Paul nor the Thessalonians had any need to search for material to prove his bona fides. An accusation of insincerity could scarcely stand in the light of such public knowledge of the man and his work.[i]
Paul had nothing to hide. These folks knew him. They knew his heart. They knew his character. They witnessed him endure much opposition, and with much confident boldness.
“What precisely is an excellent ministry” “How does it look?” “How can we tell if we’re engaged in such ministry?” These are the questions we’ve begun to answer. My hope is that as we answer them more fully in the weeks ahead, our ministry will be shaped by what we discover. Whether ministry amongst ourselves or to an unbelieving world, there is much for us to glean in these verses. As for now, let us concern ourselves with having a selfless, intense concern for truth, having boldness into our God to speak it even when it might hurt. Amen.
[i] Morris, L. (1991). The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (58). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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