How the Gospel Impacts the Pastor
It’s no secret to any of you that the media loves bad news. Bad news sells. Bad news titillates the public. Bad news can be used as a tool to further personal agendas, as we saw in the recent tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona. The media particularly likes bad news when it focuses on a politician they don’t like. The conviction of Tom Delay and the fall of John Edwards received a lot of attention because both men had already fallen out of favor with much of the press.
But I would like to suggest to you that the bad news the media loves to cover more than any other is bad news about the clergy, particularly Catholics and evangelicals, and especially evangelicals. Unfortunately, they don’t have to look too far to find fodder for their canons. The number of Catholic priests who have been convicted of pedophilia is stunning. And the number of evangelical clergy who have fallen morally is a scandal. In fact, the general state of the clergy throughout the world is embarrassing. Whether speaking of pastors, priests, rabbis, or imams, the reputation of the clergy has taken a huge hit over the past half century, and deservedly so. There was a time when the clergy was respected above nearly every other profession–intellectually, morally, and spiritually. That is not true today.
The fact is. one of the greatest obstacles to the spread of the gospel is the clergy. Of course, there have always been Elmer Gantry’s in the religious world, but TV and the internet have made it far easier for charlatans and opportunists. and even terrorists. to use religion effectively to further their own selfish ends.
The reason I address this issue today is that our Scripture text, 1 Thessalonians 2, tells about how a team of three pastors served a certain church. The pastors were Paul, Silas and Timothy, and church was the Church at Thessalonica. They founded the church but only served there for a few weeks (or a couple of months at most) before they were run out of town. In fact, after a public riot and a hostile hearing before the city officials, they fled the city in the dark of night for fear of their lives.
The new converts left behind were struggling because the same authorities that ran their pastors out of town continued to harass the congregation and persecute them. As often happens when things go bad, people began to point fingers. Paul’s critics took advantage of the situation and launched a malicious smear campaign against him and his team. They accused them of abandoning the church and claimed they had used and abused the congregation to get what they could out of them.
This was terribly unfair, and it hurt Paul deeply. Perhaps he drew some comfort from the fact that Jesus Himself had been misrepresented, as His enemies called Him a glutton and a winebibber and even insane. But the charges also hindered the Gospel, so Paul writes a defense of their ministry there at Thessalonica–not out of anger or vanity but because the truth of the Gospel and the future of the church were at stake.[i]
Josh Black, who opened this series last Sunday, picked up a good habit in seminary, a habit I was also taught but let slide over the years–and that is putting one’s sermon into a sentence. Here is today’s sermon in a sentence: A pastor is one who has been entrusted by God with the Gospel, with the ultimate goal of helping his people live lives worthy of God. That comes almost word-for-word from 1 Thessalonians 2, verse 4 and verse 12. The key words are “entrusted with the gospel.” Those words are on the seal of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, our Free Church seminary. It is the single most important thing that can be said about any pastor, though sadly there are many who don’t even know what the gospel is. In the rest of the passage Paul explains how he responded to that trust he was given. First, he explains what he didn’t do as a pastor, then what he did do because of being entrusted with the Gospel.
By the way, I want to put our whole series up on the screen for a moment. Josh and I both changed our sermon titles these past two weeks, and that could happen again, but here’s the tentative way we have laid out the book of 1 Thessalonians over the next two months.
1:1-10 How the Gospel Impacts the Church
2:1-12 How the Gospel Impacts the Pastor
2:13-16 How the Church Receives the Gospel
2:17-3:13 How the Church Suffers for the Gospel
4:1-12 How the Church Must Live in Purity According to the Gospel
4:13-18 How the Gospel Gives Hope to the Church
5:1-11 How the Gospel Enables the Church to Be Light in the Darkness
5:12-28 How to Be a Gospel-centered Church
The common thread in these eight sermons, as you can see, is the gospel and the church. The gospel in its simplest form is the good news that Christ died for our sins, rose from the dead, and promises abundant life to all those who receive Him by faith–now and for eternity. The church is the Body of Christ. What we need to grasp is that there is an intimate relationship between the gospel and the church. The church could not exist without the gospel. The gospel is the life-blood of the church. In fact, a church that does not preach the gospel does not even deserve to be called a church. It is a society or a club or an organization; it is not a church in the NT sense.
Now with that overview in mind, I direct your attention to the second passage in our series, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12:
For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. 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. For 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, 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. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 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.
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. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, 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.
I have several emotions as I approach this text. One, frankly, is a sense of failure, because I don’t see myself as measuring up very well as a pastor to Paul and his companions. That isn’t false humility; it’s just a fact. As I near the end of my career as a Lead Pastor I think often about how I wish I had prayed more, shared my faith more, loved people better, and used my gifts more effectively. I’m sure a lot of you feel the same way about your lives, especially those who are nearing retirement or even past that age. I can’t imagine anyone saying to himself or herself, “Wow, I have really done well 100% of the time!”
But I have another reaction to this passage, and that is a sense of relief that I haven’t blown it worse than I have. I don’t measure up to Pastor Paul very well, but I also don’t believe I measure down to the kind of pastor he implicitly criticizes in this passage, or the kind the media loves to denigrate. Now I know as well as you do that God doesn’t grade on the curve. There is no such thing as righteousness by comparison, as we saw in Galatians 6–that’s not what I’m trying to say. But to the extent any of us have been able, by God’s grace, to avoid bringing disrepute on the name of Christ, I think it’s appropriate to be thankful.
But I have a third reaction to this passage–a deep desire to end well. I have six months left in my career as a lead pastor, Lord willing, but even then I won’t quit being a spiritual shepherd. I hope to have a number of years left to serve God’s church in a volunteer capacity. This passage challenges me to spend the rest of the time I have left trying to follow the example of these remarkable shepherds–Paul, Silas, and Timothy–as they are described in this passage.
Let me also add that I don’t think Paul’s testimony here is relevant only to professional pastors. A pastor is a spiritual shepherd, but in some sense so are we all. Your flock may be an ABF or a small group, or a team of employees, or your own kids. I believe the principles Paul shares with us are applicable to all these relationships.
Now let’s give attention to the defense Paul offers of his brief ministry in Thessalonica. By the way, you will notice that he uses the term “we” instead of “I” throughout this passage. It may be an editorial “we,” but more than likely Paul is including his companions, Silvanus and Timothy, mentioned in the first verse of the book. In the outline I use the singular to refer to Paul, but let’s recognize that he is probably speaking for his colleagues, too, and for all godly shepherds as well.
Paul preached the gospel boldly in Thessalonica despite significant opposition. (2:1-2)
Paul didn’t visit Thessalonica while on a cruise of the Greek isles, and he certainly wasn’t there for his health. The opposition he faced didn’t take him by surprise, because he had just come from Philippi where he had already suffered and been shamefully treated as he planted a church there. You will perhaps recall from Acts 16 that it was at Philippi that Paul and Silas were attacked by a mob, arrested, stripped, severely beaten, and thrown into prison with their feet in stocks. (Of course, that’s also where God called for a violent earthquake that destroyed the prison and released the prisoners, resulting eventually in the warden and his whole family receiving Christ and being baptized). Paul suffered similarly when he arrived in Thessalonica.
Why does he make reference here to his suffering both in Philippi and in Thessalonica? Is it to gain sympathy and make the church feel sorry for him? I don’t think so. I think it is to make this point–that people are prepared to suffer only for what they really believe in. So the fact that Paul preached in Thessalonica despite the severe opposition he faced before and during his ministry there is strong evidence of his genuine and pure motives. After all, he had been entrusted by God with the gospel, the most precious commodity in the world, and he would go anywhere God asked him to share it.
By the way, Paul isn’t telling them something they don’t already know. Again and again in our text he claims that everything he’s sharing is public knowledge: “for you yourselves know” (1), “as you know” (2), “as you know” (5), “for you remember” (9), “you are witnesses” (10). What a blessing it is when a pastor, or any Christian worker, can say, “I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of because my ministry was transparent and open.”
Now in the rest of our passage Paul reveals how his behavior was controlled by the fact he was entrusted with the gospel–regarding both what he didn’t do and what he did do.
Negatively, Paul explains what he didn’t do as a pastor because he was entrusted with the Gospel. (3-6)
1. He didn’t employ error or impurity or deception. (3) That’s his claim in verse 3: “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.” The reference to error speaks to the content of his teaching. He preached the gospel, and the gospel is the truth. There was no heresy in Paul’s ministry, no imbalanced teaching, nothing to lead people astray. The second term, impurity, speaks of his motives. He didn’t tailor his message to enhance his popularity or line his pockets or seduce women. Third, he did not use trickery or deceit. There are many clergy today promising their converts health and wealth, or hiding the cost of discipleship in order to gain more converts, or turning their worship services into entertainment venues so as to draw larger crowds. Paul didn’t do that. His message was true, his motives were pure, and his methods were open and above-board.[ii]
2. He was not a people-pleaser. (4) Verse 4: “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.” It’s easy for all of us to be people-pleasers. It’s especially a temptation in a volunteer organization where people can walk away if they get upset with you. I heard recently about a couple who were members of this church but left because they heard I was post-trib (that’s not a disease, by the way, like PTSD; it’s just a particular interpretation of one small prophetic issue). They didn’t come and talk to me about it–they just left. When pastors face situations like that it creates a temptation to soft-pedal the truth, to tell people what they want to hear, to scratch their itching ears. Paul refused to do that.
He was convinced that a gospel preacher must fundamentally be God-centered. The responsibility of the pastor is ultimately to please God, not the denomination, not the elder board, not even the congregation. Now the point is not that pleasing God and pleasing elders is always incompatible. In fact, I think that is rarely true in an evangelical church. But if there is conflict, God is the one who must be pleased. That’s pretty scary, actually, for He is the one “who tests our hearts,” according to verse 4. We can’t pull a fast one on Him. His standards are infinitely higher than those of the elders. Yet there is something freeing about being responsible to Him alone–it releases one from the tyranny of human expectations and criticism.[iii]
3. He didn’t use flattery or greed. (5) Verse 5: “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed–God is witness.” These are two more frequent temptations for spiritual shepherds. Flattery is a very tricky thing. We all appreciate encouragement and praise when we do something well; it is probably almost essential to good emotional health. But when encouragement is offered from false motives (say, to promote the selfish ends of the person offering it), it is no longer encouragement but insincere flattery.
Greed, the second issue he raises in verse 5, is a huge problem in our world, and a huge problem even in the ministry. We tend to think of greed as a temptation for the rich, but in fact it has almost nothing to do with how much wealth a person has; it has everything to do with how much he wants and what he will do to get what he wants. I have seen greed destroy the lives of pastors and destroy their ministries. The Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy this past fall. A relative of ours in L.A. sent us newspaper articles that exposed the financial irregularities that have left creditors holding the bag for $50 million dollars. The economy was blamed, but there were a number of Schuller relatives and in-laws on the payroll of the organization–some who didn’t even live in California, yet were drawing huge salaries. Paul called God as his witness that he had refused to wear a mask (the term for hypocrisy) to cover up greed.
4. He didn’t seek the praise of people. (6) Verse 6: “Nor did we seek glory from people.” This is a little different from the people-pleasing of verse 4. People-pleasing happens when the pastor tries to keep people happy at any cost. Seeking their praise happens when he says or does things purposely to draw attention to himself and to enhance his own standing. Such behavior is fundamentally idolatrous, frankly, because we are commanded to give glory and praise to God alone.
OK, these are the things Paul avoided as a pastor entrusted with the gospel. Important–every one of them. But a person can never be adequately defined merely by what he avoids. The question is, “What did Paul do in addition to avoiding these traps?” And curiously he answers that with two metaphors, really similes. He claims he responded to his people the way a godly mother responds to her children and the way a godly father responds to his children.
Positively, Paul explains what he did as a pastor because he was entrusted with the Gospel. (6b-12)
1. He responded to them the way a godly mother cares for her own children. (6b-9) I see three actions typical of godly mothers that are highlighted by Paul.
He served them gently instead of demanding his own rights. (6b-7) Gentleness, you will recall, is a fruit of the Spirit. Frank Martin comes to mind, but not as a good example. I like to watch K-State basketball, but their coach scares me, even in the comfort and safety of my own home! Have you seen that stare!?! Not very motherly! Likewise, pastors who get up and rant and rave and criticize their people are not good shepherds. Sheep thrive on gentleness.
Interestingly, Paul acknowledges that he had the right to be demanding. After all, he was an apostle of Christ, an official ambassador of the king. But he declined the prerogative of his position and chose instead to treat his people the way a good mother treats her children–gently, thinking of their needs rather her own. By the way, the Greek speaks here of little children, the most vulnerable.
He loved them dearly. (8) A mother provides whatever her child needs–food, comfort, meaningful touch, baths, etc. But the most important thing she offers is love. Look at Paul’s claim in verse 8: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” The signal evidence of his love was that he not only preached the gospel but also shared himself as well. Now preaching the gospel is itself an indication of love. In fact, I would say that any pastor who doesn’t preach the gospel has failed at his greatest responsibility and has actually shown contempt for his people, no matter how much else he might do for them. But how much better when the Gospel is shared through a life of love and compassion!
When Jan and I lived in Kansas City in the early 70’s we attended a church for a short time whose pastor was a master teacher–one of the best I have ever heard at exegeting a passage of Scripture and explaining it in a clear and interesting manner. But when he finished his sermon, he would exit out the side of the church near the pulpit, get in his car, and leave without greeting anyone. Furthermore, he bragged about the fact that he never did hospital visitation because, as he put it, “the pastor’s job was to study and teach, not be a nurse maid.” Not surprisingly, that was not a well-balanced church, and the sheep who attended there were not very healthy.
He worked 24/7 so as not to become a burden to them while meeting their needs. (9) You who are mothers of small children understand what it’s like to be on call night and day. You do that because you love your children and because they need it. Well, that’s what Paul says he did in verse 9. Please note, however, that Paul isn’t just talking about being on call night and day as a pastor–he’s talking about the fact that he held two jobs. He worked as a pastor and he worked as a tentmaker. “Night and day” probably means he got up before dawn and worked late into the night. In between stints in the sweatshop (and tentmaking in those days was known as very hard labor), he would teach the Scriptures, disciple converts, and encourage the saints. His secular work paid his bills and enabled him to serve the church without charge so that he would not become a burden to them.
But please note what the need was in the church that caused him to work night and day. Not setting up food pantries, not organizing church suppers, certainly not bingo parties, not any of a number of other good things churches do. It was proclaiming the gospel!
I have some pastor friends who are tentmakers. We use that term today, not of literal tent-making but of a pastor who holds down a secular job. Jim Sugars pastors our Mound Ridge Church. He works full-time at a secular job and pastors a thriving church on the side. I’ll tell you something–I take my hat off to tentmakers in the ministry. I am grateful I have never had to do that, at least not since seminary days, but I hope I would be willing to if it ever became necessary. The privilege of proclaiming the gospel is so great that we should be willing to do it without any financial remuneration.
But Paul wasn’t only like a godly mother in respect to his flock; he was also like a godly father.
2. He responded to them the way a godly father treats his own children. (10-12) That’s what he says in verse 11. The first evidence that he acted like a godly father comes in verse 10, which is tied to verse 11 by the word “for” at the beginning of verse 11.
He behaved in a holy, righteous and blameless way toward them. (10) Fathers have as their first and foremost duty the setting of a proper example for their children, and I believe that’s what Paul is referring to here. The term “holy” speaks of one’s relationship to God. “Righteous” has to do with our dealings with our neighbor. “Blameless” refers to our reputation out in the world. Paul saw all three of these as part of his paternal duty.
But a father’s responsibility is more than setting a good example; he also has an educational role in the lives of his children. Thankfully many fathers seem to be recovering that responsibility after a generation that largely neglected that role, believing the education of children was up to mothers, school, and church.
He exhorted them, encouraged them, and directed their steps. (12) The three participles used here in verse 12 are translated differently in different versions, but the focus of the first seems to be on exhortation, the second on encouragement, and the third on providing clear direction for a certain course of behavior. There has been a movement in recent years toward encouraging fathers to be best friends with their kids, especially their sons–to spend quality and quantity time with them, go to all their games, and, more than anything else, tell them how great they are. Now I agree with most of that; especially do I agree that kids need their father’s approval when they have earned it. All these emphases are a big improvement over the experience of many boomers today whose fathers were essentially absent from their lives.
But being best friends with your kid is not the most important duty of a Christian father. Fathers must exhort their children, encourage them on the right path, and even direct their steps, which includes discipline when they wander. And the same principle applies to a pastor. The goal of the godly pastor is clearly not to be best buds with 500 people, not just to get people saved, not just to provide an alternative to hell. He needs to exhort his flock, encourage them, and provide clear direction so they can become fully devoted followers of Christ. Paul speaks of this latter responsibility at the end of verse 12 as “charging you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
Later in this letter Paul is going to give some specifics about what a worthy walk looks like–including abstaining from sexual immorality, loving one another, leading a quiet life, minding one’s own business, and working with one’s own hands. But in reality, the whole NT–from the Sermon on the Mount to the epistles of Peter, is a commentary on how to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls us into His kingdom and glory.
Conclusion: Friends, the kingdom into which we have been called is not just a future kingdom; it is here now. The kingdom of God speaks of His authoritative rule. Yes, someday that rule will be recognized by all creation, for every knee will bow, whether in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Someday every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God in the Father.
In the meantime, however, we are called upon to acknowledge His authoritative rule over our lives now, to bow our knee to Him now, to confess with our tongues now that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. If we wait until the Judgment, our bowing and our confessing will be forced, and the end result will be condemnation. If we do it voluntarily now, the Bible tells us there will be no condemnation but only an eternal enjoyment of His presence.
And how is it we can count on such a promise? Because the gospel is the good news that Jesus died for us, paid the penalty for our sin, and promises abundant life to all those who receive Him by faith–now and for eternity.
[i]. John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 46.
[ii]. Stott, 50.
[iii]. Stott, 51.