1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Possibly someone shook their head in doubt when you surrendered to the ministry. Did they wonder about your future? Like the English teacher in 1894 that noted on a teenager’s report card: “a conspicuous lack of success.” That teenager was Winston Churchill. Or the poetry editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1902 who returned a stack of poems with this note: “Our magazine has no room for this vigorous verse.” Robert Frost turned to others. In 1905 the University of Bern turned down a doctoral dissertation as “irrelevant and fanciful;” Albert Einstein wrote it.
With ministry hopefully stretching out in front of you it isn’t difficult to find critics and doubters. When Paul came to Thessalonica he encountered the accusations of critics who said his ministry was vain — empty. Later, writing to the church, Paul used the testimony of the Thessalonian believers to support his conviction that his time with them “was not in vain.” His ministry was not empty. It was marked by courage and faith.
It would be tragic to invest our life in work and come to the end and hear it was all in vain; it was just empty, meaningless, a worthless failure. What can we do so that our ministry will not be vain?
Let’s be sure to Ground our ministry on God (1 Thessalonians 2:1-6)
In 1 Thessalonians 1:2-6 there are five references to God and one reference to Christ. There is nothing vain or empty about the God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
You may recall the words of the Old Testament preacher, found in Ecclesiastes, following his search for meaning in philosophy, possessions, and pleasure– “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Instead, we sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
The foundation of our ministry is God revealed in Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15 declares the glory of the living Lord. “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain [empty]” (1 Corinthians 15:14). But our faith and preaching isn’t vain because it rests on the Living Lord. That glorious chapter concludes with this triumphant declaration:
“Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:57-58).
We must be able to say with the confidence expressed by Paul in these verses: Our calling, our ministry, derives from being “approved by God and trusted by God” to do his work. We are “apostles of Christ,” sent out on mission as His representatives. We do the work of ministry to please Him with the awareness that the Lord God is the one who “tests our hearts.” Church members and the non-believing community observe us but the ultimate accounting comes from “God as witness.”
The news carried the story of a family that had a Chinese bowl, purchased like a souvenir by a forbear on an overseas trip. It had been in the family for years; used on the table. If they were Baptists, they probably took it to fellowship meals. One day a family member decided to have the bowl appraised, and discovered it was an extremely rare Chinese antique, valued at millions. No more hash in that bowl.
What a contrast that is with the appraisal God makes of us. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” With the ministry and us, the gospel is priceless while the vessel is weak, subject to breaks and flaws. Don’t be offended if someone calls your ministry idea a “crackpot notion.” When God uses clay pots he runs that risk. We are dispensable, replaceable. That’s why what we do can’t be grounded on anything other than the Lord God.
The famous Chicago evangelist D.L. Moody was once greeted by a drunk: “Hey, Mr. Moody, do you remember me? Mr. Moody, I’m one of your converts.” Moody said, “That’s the problem, you’re one of my converts, not God’s”
Ministry grounded on God is never vain — never empty.
Ground your ministry on God and you’ll be able to stand the trials. Paul did (1 Thessalonians 2:2). Acts 16 gives the account of the suffering referred to here—arrested unjustly, stripped of his clothing, beaten with rods, feet fastened in the stocks, thrown in the inner prison like a dangerous criminal. All of this because he cared about a slave girl possessed by demons. All because he proclaimed “the way of salvation,” and shared the “name of Jesus Christ.”
How did he respond? In prison Paul and Silas “were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). He didn’t send a message to Rome; he talked to the Father. He didn’t whine about his lost privileges; he exercised his praise.
Grounded on the Lord God we can also stand the trails. We can be “bold in our God” while feeling inadequate in our own resources. This is the testimony we give that His grace is sufficient. This is the confidence that declares, “With Christ I can do all things.”
Sometimes we face inner trials, like Paul said in Colossians 2:1 “I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you and those in Laodicea.” Whether external persecution or inner stress, the Lord is sufficient. Grounded in Him we can stand the trails.
The trials we face in ministry are not about us. It is a selfish response to accept them as something personal. To us “it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29). Grounded on God we can also “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
A business person approaches a new endeavor wanting to know up front about the “package,” the salary, benefits, bonuses, perks. And if it doesn’t work out what’s the “parachute” that will safely let me down so I can find something else.
We who follow the call are promised neither package nor parachute. We have something better — the presence of an all powerful, providing God. He says to us as he did to Joshua, “I will be with you, I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
Grounded on God we can stand the trials, and we can also speak the truth (1 Thessalonians 2:2-6). It is possible to be “bold in our God to speak to you the gospel of God.” The word “gospel” is found four times in this text. But it is not any gospel, not any good news—the gospel of God. I received the good news that our son and his wife will have another child—our seventh grandchild. That’s good news! But in Christ we have the best good news.
The one on whom we stand gives us His word to speak. How fortunate we are to have the Book—God’s truth—as the source of Good News, the guide for the practice of ministry. We don’t have to start from scratch. The book gives us the plan for evangelism, the plan for starting churches, the content of our speaking.
How are we to speak the truth? 1 Thessalonians 2:2-6 tell us some elements: with boldness (2), honestly and void of any deceit (3), accountable to God (4), unselfishly (5). We speak without the flattery that manipulates others for what they will do for us. We speak the truth seeking God’s glory (6).
Our ministry will never be vain—hollow, empty, meaningless—when it is grounded on God in Jesus Christ. With that grounding we can stand the trails and speak the truth.
What’s a second way we can help keep our ministry from being vain? Give your ministry to people (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). This passage breathes with the life of interpersonal relationships. Nothing here of an “I’m in the study, I don’t have time for people” attitude. Notice the phrases: “among you” in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-10 and “every one of you” in 1 Thessalonians 2:11. Ministry unconcerned for and uninvolved with people isn’t a Christian ministry.
However, we can spend much time with people and still end up with a hollow, vain work. The Apostle cites his example and the Thessalonians’ observance of his approach as a vindication of his missionary character and ministry. These verses reflect key characteristics of ministry to people. I see them as a spiritual pyramid that the Holy Spirit uses to influence our world with the gospel and make a lasting difference.
Love the people you serve. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-11) Jesus said others will know we are his disciples if we have love for one another. I recently heard a faithful church member share his grief over seeing Christians mistreat other Christians. Henry Blackaby at the Kentucky Baptist Shepherding the Shepherd conference, reminded shepherds to care for the sheep — even the sheep who disagree with you. In his years as pastor in Canada, he said the church never lost a member. He was quick to go and show love, especially in times of disagreement.
I’ve seen too much of this “my way or the highway” leadership style. In a section on spiritual gifts, I Corinthians declares the “more excellent way ” is love. Love like Christ — it flows from being grounded in Him.
See the balanced love in this ministry example: 1 Thessalonians 2:7 — like a nursing mother and 1 Thessalonians 2:11 — like a caring father. See how love manifests itself in ministry relationships: gentle, cherishes, affectionately longing. A similar word is used of Jesus in Ephesians 5:29: the Lord “nourishes and cherishes the church.” Would we have as many leaving the church if we drew them closer when they came into the church? A ministry given to people nourishes and cares for them, especially in those days when they are most open and receptive for growth.
And Paul lets us know it didn’t happen overnight; it was the result of deepening relationships. You became dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Love grows through knowing people, being there when they hurt, sharing in their joys–listening, learning, growing to love.
It is, as James Dobson and others say, a tough love—exhorts or admonishes, comforts, and urges (1 Thessalonians 2:11). This kind of love is no cozy sentimentality. It is tough and truthful but flowing from a heart of cultivated love.
I remember sitting in a church service where a new pastor’s hard, condemning sermon from the previous week brought a public backlash. In the discussion a wise member said, “Pastor, if you had preached that sermon after you had been with us a year, it properly would have been heard differently.” Most people have to know we really love them before they fully hear us.
Love is the first characteristic of a ministry given to people; labor is the second. Labor with the people you serve (1 Thessalonians 2:9). The word here is difficult labor; sweat on the brow kind of work. In Paul’s context he refers to his tent making work, “that we might not be a burden to any of you.” But it also refers to intense spiritual labor — 1 Thessalonians 3:10 “night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face and perfect what is lacking in your faith.”
Ministry is hard work. Forget this 40-hour workweek. The minister is on call 24/7. If anyone tells you the ministry is easy, you know they are lying. If you don’t think so you haven’t done much ministry. 2 Corinthians 11:27 is Paul’s testimony of the labor he knew: “in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness — besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.”
I saw an example of love and work in a visit with our son, a youth minister. He got up at 4 a.m. to take a man to work. That wasn’t in his job description; that isn’t something a youth minister does. He’d already put in an extra workweek taking the youth on a ski trip. The pastor doesn’t risk breaking a leg — that’s the youth minister’s job. But ministry responds to need, and works hard to help meet a need so that the gospel can have an entrance and a life can be changed. Determine to work hard in loving people and building the church and your ministry will never be in vain.
Give your ministry to people; love them, and labor with them. The third panel of this spiritual pyramid: Live among the people you serve (1 Thessalonians 2:10). What a life! The full life is holy toward God, righteous and without blame toward believers and the world. We must live so that our life will bear close inspection. Any of you remember your mother or dad saying when you left the house, “Now you behave yourself.” Our Father asks us to behave ourselves. We must “walk worthy of God who calls us into His own kingdom and glory,” so that no one can use our life as an excuse to walk unworthily.
Love, labor and life linked together and given to people, grounded on the powerful presence of God will help us have a ministry that is not vain. Instead of it will be full, influential, eternally valuable, penetrating the darkness of a sinful world.
Two gas company employees stopped their truck in a suburban neighborhood to check the meters on a row of houses. They parked at one end and worked their way from house to house. At the last house a woman inside watched them. When they finished checking the meter the older supervisor challenged his young colleague to a foot race back to truck, declaring he was more physically fit. They ran down the street and as they approached the truck, the woman from the last house was huffing and puffing right behind them. She said, “When I saw you check my gas meter and start running, I decided I better run also.”
Bill D. Whittaker is President of Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville, KY.