Reading in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-20 the other day, I ran across at least six ministry lessons that Paul outlines that I believe are very relevant for those in ministry (vocational or laity) today.
1) Ministry must go on even after negative and unpleasant experiences (v2). Paul writes, “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…we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” I think sometimes within the Western church we get an all too corporate, glamorous and Hollywood[ish] picture of ministry. According to Paul, ministry can be tough, brutal, negative, unpleasant, and many times painful. People attack, lie, distort, and try to undermine the ministry of godly men. And while many leadership gurus will say that “everything rises and falls on leadership,” which to a large part I agree with, I would take it a step further and say that within ministry (as well as life) “everything rises and falls on the centrality (the lordship) of Christ.” I am sure there have been many people in ministry who have led according to leadership principles, yet still find themselves facing turbulent times in ministry—falling victims to those who have their own agenda and preferences. In any case, I believe Paul knows and understands that ministry has negative and unpleasant landmines that can cause much pain; yet, he understands that ministry must go on.
2) Ministry finds its fuel and boldness in who has approved and entrusted you for his great purpose (v3-4). Paul makes the point that God has approved him and has entrusted him with the gospel. Thus, he speaks, “not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (v4). The fuel for ministry is the presence and calling of God. The boldness to move forward in ministry—advancing the gospel, the good news of King Jesus—is found in the fact that God has entrusted you with such a precious and most powerful gift. It is the truth and message of the transforming power of King Jesus who has come to rescue, redeem, and restore all of Creation. As Paul writes elsewhere, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believers…” (Rom 1:16). Although one may have had a bad experience in ministry, moving forward and finding the energy to do so is only found in the understanding of who has approved, entrusted, and called you for his great purpose. The glory of God and his great purpose fuels the passion and wherewithal for ministry.
3) Ministry should not be showy, glamorous, or have an ulterior motive (v5-6). Paul expresses to the Thessalonians that when they came they did not use words of flattery, nor did they come with the pretext for greed, nor did they seek glory from people. Ministry was simple to Paul. It was about Jesus and him redeeming a people for himself. Therefore, it was not about anything else. He did not feel as though he had to package it in a way that made it about anything else other than Jesus. In addition, he was not trying to get rich off the ministry of the gospel, nor was he trying to bring glory to himself by creating a following. He simply pursued ministry for Jesus, his glory and the advancement of his gospel. Paul writes it this way in 1 Corinthians, “And I, when I came to you…[I] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5). Paul simply tried to keep ministry simple. However, the simplicity in which he approached ministry and carried it out did not negate the need to do proper contextualization (but that is a topic for another time).
4) Ministry involves functions of both a mother and a father (v7-12). In a motherly way Paul expresses that when he came to the Thessalonians he was gentle, “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (v7). We can infer a few things from Paul’s statement. First, he was personally connected to the people, as a mother is intimately connected with her nursing child. Second, he was caring and nurturing towards those whom he ministered to. As a mother gently cares for and nurtures her child, with the hopes of the child being healthy, so too Paul gently cared for and nurtured people with the aim that he may present them mature in Christ (see Paul’s aim in Col 1:28). And finally, Paul asserted that ministry to him was not only sharing the gospel of God, but also his life. In other words, just as a mother does not only give nutrients to the child in a mechanical non-detached way, but rather extends her whole life to her baby—so too Paul did not share the gospel at a distance, but extended his whole life to the Thessalonians. You say, why did he do this? Because Paul informs them that they had become very dear—very beloved—to him.
However, Paul does not stop with the mother analogy, but continues to describe how he acted also as a father. In verses 9-10, Paul describes his work ethic, and how he tirelessly labored both night and day in order that he may not be a burden to the Thessalonians as he labored among them in gospel ministry. He adds how in the midst of his labor and toil, working day and night in an effort to provide for himself and his colleagues while at the same time sharing the gospel, he conducted himself in a holy, righteous, and blameless way. I don’t know about you, it is easy to succumb to a lack of holiness when you have had a long tiring day. And speaking from experience, it seems that if not careful, tiredness can turn quickly to moodiness; and before long tiredness turns into exhaustion, which does not led to holy, righteous, and blameless behavior. Yet, what Paul was doing was conducting himself like a father with his children, exhorting, encouraging, and charging them to walk in a manner worthy of God. In other words Paul was setting the example of fatherhood by working hard to provide a living and also serving and leading the body towards the Father, all the while conducting himself with holiness, righteousness, and blamelessness.
5) Ministry is rewarded through experiencing the mighty work of God (v13-16). As Paul has informed, ministry can have its share of negative and unpleasant, even painful, experiences; in addition, it can be very challenging and tiring just like parenthood. However, Paul wants to share that there can and is great joys and rewards in ministry. Paul points out two specific ones here—both relating to one another. First, he notes how the Thessalonians received the word of God and accepted it as “what it really [was], the word of God” (v13). And this reception and acceptance of the word of God was “at work” in them. In other words, Paul was witness to the fruit of the word of God in their life. Second, Paul notes that the Thessalonians were imitating the churches that are in Judea in that they were suffering for their faith. Experiencing gospel transformation and gospel living in people brings great joy for those who minister. Paul says in verse 19, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” And Paul was thankful to God for this, that the Thessalonians had been and were constantly being transformed by the gospel in such a way “that they became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. . . . [And that] their faith in God had gone forth everywhere, so that [Paul] need not say anything” (1 Thess 1:7-8). The reward for those who serve in ministry (lay or vocational) is seeing the fruit of disciple making.
6) Ministry contains a great desire and love for people (v17-19). The last lesson Paul gives in this passage is: those who serve in ministry will have a great desire and love for people. Paul shares that although they were “torn away” from the Thessalonians in person, they were not torn away in their heart. Thus, because of Paul’s heart for them—his love for them—he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see [them] face to face…” (v17). The love of people and the longing to be with them, I think, is a great litmus test to see whether or not God is calling or has called one into ministry. Paul, in his letters, constantly communicates of his great love for people and his longing to be with them. I believe the more one gives their life to the service (ministry) of the King, in the service (ministry) to people, the greater their love grows for the glory of the King and the good of all people.