We saw last week how Paul appealed to the shared faith of the believers in Thessalonika as he wrote to them and exhorted them to please God, not man. The substance of his appeal was this: that a life ‘well lived’ is one that proclaims the good news of the gospel and that makes Jesus known to others.
This week, we look at how Paul approached ministry. How exactly did he “proclaim the good news of the gospel” to the Thessalonian church?
(A) Spiritual Mothering – gentle, sacrificial, unburdensome love that proclaims the gospel
Paul was with the Thessalonians for 3 Sabbaths. That’s not a long time. But consider how verse 7a describes his approach to ministry (1 Thess 2:7a): “We were gentle among you…”
We know that gentleness is a virtue. But what does that mean practically? Is there a portrait of gentleness, or an image that Scripture / Paul gives us to help us understand what gentleness looks like? We find this in the rest of 1 Thess 2:7b: “… like a nursing mother taking care of her own children”
We can notice several things from the choice of the metaphor:
The mother is not just any mother, but a nursing mother: a mother placed in a situation where the baby is most vulnerable, and most needs tender, gentle, sensitive and loving care. Constant attention, regular breastfeeding at odd hours of the night, and patience with the baby’s many needs. That heightened state of gentleness describes some of how Paul cared and ministered for those 3 Sabbaths.
The mother is taking care of her own children: this baby is not another’s, but is her own. Likewise, Paul saw the believers as family. That’s a startling idea for those of us who struggle to ‘bond’ or ‘gel with’ our local church.
Paul paints for us a rich, intriguing image here. There is a tenderness to this picture that brings out the depth of care and deep affection that Paul felt for the church. And Paul goes further – 1 Thess 2:8b says: “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves”
Notice how this is hemmed in by 1 Thess 2:8a and 1 Thess 2:8c — “being affectionately desirous of you…” and “you had become very dear to us”
Paul’s care for them is not forced. It was genuine. They had “become” very dear to him. As we think about Paul’s call to ‘share our own selves’, we are reminded of the picture of the nursing mother: when the breast is too swollen with milk and it hurts, when the baby struggles to latch in the wee hours of the morning, when the baby latches and the surrounding flesh grows cracked and sore.
To nurse the child, to do something so normal and ordinary, is difficult. It is not without cost to the mother. It is a giving of the mother’s very self – the mother’s love leads her to spend herself so that the child can thrive and grow healthily. And as she spends herself, the child becomes very dear to her. This is a vivid picture of 2 Cor 12:15 – “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls”.
The mother spends herself for the physical health of the child. We are called to spend ourselves for the eternal health of the souls of those that we know and love.
Paul also presses us to think about why we work. He mentions his labor and toil that continued “night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” (1 Thess 2:9a). Can we know what Paul meant by ‘labor and toil’?
As it turns out, Acts 18:3 tells us that Paul learnt the trade of tent-making to secure an income. Paul taught them in the day and labored on at night because he saw himself as their spiritual parent, and he thus gladly spent himself for their souls. He sought not what they gad, but their best interests.
Where does our time go? What do we work for? Is it just to save up enough money to feel secure? Or for a holiday? To fund a lifestyle of bubble tea and café-hopping and restaurant date nights? None of these things – security, leisure, consumption – are evil or wrong in themselves. But they cannot be what this life is all about. They must not be the driving force behind our labor. Paul, and Scripture, offer us a better reason to live. To spend, and be spent, for the souls of others – just as mothers have spent themselves for us, and just as Jesus spent Himself for us.
(B) Spiritual Fathering: faithful models, demonstrating authenticity, spurring others on to spiritual maturity
Paul’s conduct among the Thessalonians was described in 1 Thess 2:10 as being “holy and righteous and blameless”.
Holiness is about God. Holy conduct is the product of real relationship with a holy God. And to be righteous and blameless is to be without fault. This is about people-to-people relationships. Paul treated the other believers rightly. Taken together, this describes a sort of inner and outer consistency – integrity – that is well received. It is not hypocritical, where Paul said A and did B. It is “obedience from the heart”.
And what was the fruit of that conduct? “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”.
The fruit of right living is that the gospel goes out powerfully. It is powerful because we see, in those who proclaim it, its life-giving and life-changing power.
It is accompanied by the Holy Spirit because the promised fruit of the Spirit is visible in Paul and his company as they proclaim Jesus, and because the Holy Spirit is always the one present when the gospel is preached, shining a bright light on Jesus and helping the eyes of the heart see.
Full conviction is the result. People believe! Hearts are changed miraculously. As we live in community, our lives are being watched. They are there for people to see. Do we dare say: imitate me, as I imitate Christ?
Paul was not timid. Like a father, he would “exhort, encourage, charge” – he called those sleeping into action and roused them from their slumber. He encouraged – he sustained the new believers with words of gentleness that were true, reminding them of progress made, speaking to their potential, cheering on every good step. He charged them – he entrusted them with a mission, a higher calling, a real purpose to live life. And he pointed them to a clear goal: “to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into His own kingdom and glory”
Paul’s call was not his own. It was an echo and a reminder of God’s own call. And Paul did not stop issuing that call because he saw himself as their spiritual father. Consider how he appealed to them as ‘dear children’ in 1 Cor 4:15 – he knew that they had many guides, but only one father. We can study this analogy as well - being a guide was a job, but being a father was for life. There are no ‘office hours’ for being a father. The commitment is intense, and the relationship intimate. Paul was likening that deep, familial, blood bond between father and son to himself and the believers in the church.
How should we feel as we read this, knowing that fatherhood is very broken?
Some fathers are absent.
They do not love like they should.
They hurt instead of protecting.
They take more than they give.
As we consider the brokenness of the world and relationships around us, let us take heart from this:
There is one Father who is there in the darkest of valleys.
We know His love in this - that while we were still sinners, unwanted, rejected, unloved, Christ died for us. While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.
Jesus was offered a crown: he took a cross instead, and hung on it bearing a crown of thorns.
To those who are hurting, who feel rebuked by this study, who are crumbling from burdens too heavy to bear. He welcomes, He gives, and He gives and He gives.
As we return to our church and communities, this passage isn’t meant to be burdensome. It is to show us what the relationship is between the shepherd and the flock, as the Shepherd calls us and offers us a hope beyond this life. Paul also speaks of this ministry in terms of partnership. It wasn’t just Paul himself, but he refers to it as “we”, as he served alongside Silvanus and Timothy. God doesn’t put the burden on just one superstar leader, but calls a group of people to serve and love His church together.
So as we go into our churches and our communities, remember Paul’s words! These are not burdensome words, but words that remind us of the nature of our relationships. We have been called by God, and given a hope beyond this life. We now live our lives in light of that hope - lives worthy of the gospel, authentic, and spurring others to spiritual maturity.
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase
To added affliction He addeth His mercy
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace
When we have exhausted our store of endurance
When our strength has failed and the day is half-done
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun
His love has no limit, His grace has no measure
His power no boundary known unto men
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth and giveth and giveth again