The Integrity of Gospel Ministers
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 2:9–12
The words we just heard, the passage read to us, are the truest words we will hear this morning for indeed this is the very word of God. And my hope this morning by us studying this passage and expounding it to our minds is that our love for the word of God would be increased, and that we would apply our lives to its instruction.
Our passage today comes in the middle of the 2nd chapter. In the earlier part which pastor Ben preached last week, the apostle Paul cited how despite difficulty, he and the other apostles preached the gospel to the Thessalonians, with no desire for glory or gain, but only to please God. He told them that he would have been justified in imposing authority over them (that’s what the demands in v.6 meant). But he rather approached his care for them gently as a mother would do for her own infants. The apostle’s gentleness was a key to gospel obedience and gospel transformation in this gospel community. This remains true for us today.
And in today’s passage, we will see how these gospel ministers maintained their integrity in preaching the good news through their hard labor, through the testimony of their conduct, and through their charge toward obedience. All this took place in a matter of 3 weeks, calling people to live in a manner worthy of God, by caring for them deeply and personally.
The work and provision of gospel ministers
Through this care, even in the short period Paul had spent with them, the church thrived. The gospel flourished, and where it flourished, people shared their own souls. These three men, Paul, Silas and Timothy, had full rights to claim the wages of gospel laborers as was the norm: the laborer deserves his wages. Paul himself wrote this to Timothy in 1 Tim 5:18, quoting the Law from Leviticus 19:13, and Jesus from Mathew 10:10. But Paul became known for not making use of this right. We find one of the prime examples in his writing to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 9. We will pick his argument there at v.12, then v.15-18.
Similarly here in Thessalonica, Paul did not make use of his right or authority over the Thessalonians to provide for him. We know on the other hand that the Philippian church provided for him while ministering in Thessalonica. In ch.4 of his letter to Philippi, Paul rejoices at the Lord’s provision and speaks of his own contentment, thanking the Philippians for their financial assistance for him while in Thessalonica. In 4:16 he says: Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.
Paul’s dependence on God for provision was twofold: on one hand, he worked as a tentmaker so that he can have an income for sustenance; on the other hand, he trusted God’s provision through the churches that commissioned him to support his needs during his ministry. He needed both for sustenance and God provided through both. Paul neither wanted to burden the new church by an overbearing authority, nor by imposing on them the financial provision for his living expenses. He did not want to act according to the Roman patronage system which was based on flattery. They were not his patrons; he did not need neither to flatter them nor to impose on them. And one thing that is very important to keep in mind is that his workplace itself was a venue for gospel ministry, allowing him to interact with locals, and share the gospel and his own self with them. His goal was to saturate his life with proclaiming the gospel and witnessing to Christ.
Paul had listed the believers as witnesses back in v.5 that he was not greedy nor a flatterer. As it was customary in the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15), 2 or 3 witnesses were needed to corroborate a matter. And who better to have than God himself as a witness that he was not a flatterer nor a glory-seeker? See in v.5: he tells the Thessalonians “YOU KNOW”, listing them as witnesses, after which he lists God himself as witness. And in v.10, he again enlists the witness of 2 entities, once more the Thessalonians and God himself, that the conduct of the apostles matched their preaching. The Thessalonians saw the conduct and heard the preaching; God saw the heart and examined the mind.
So how was this testimony of the conduct of these gospel ministers?
The testimony of conduct of gospel ministers
One of the biggest complaints of many people, and an often-cited reason to not attend church or believe in Christianity, is that the life and conduct of some Christians in general and some teachers in particular does not match their words. I even heard this argument this past week from one of my clinic patients with whom I was sharing the gospel. He had heard the talk but did not see the walk in many professing Christians. Now there is a degree of truth in this accusation, especially in the public failures of several high-profile pastors and TV preachers. That is something we all need to guard hard against. Not only our elders need to do that, but all of us believers because we are all priests in the new covenant.
Nonetheless, brothers and sisters: we must especially intercede for our elders and spiritual leaders that God would guard them from sin. This we should do without ceasing because God has entrusted us to the shepherding care of these men, as much as he has commanded us to submit to them, honor them, love them, and intercede for them.
Christians: this is no small matter. Billy Graham once said that he prayed very hard every day so that he would not destroy with one word or one action the conduct that he had worked so long and so hard to keep upright, because he was afraid people would denounce the message if they denounce the messenger for his conduct. I charge you brothers and sisters to pray for holiness and seek holiness as if you are at war, because we truly are, and our enemy is waiting and lurking like a lion.
Back to v.10, Paul describes the conduct they kept in Thessalonica in 3 terms: holy, righteous, and blameless. The word holy we often encounter is the one which typically describes the character of God. “Holy, holy, holy” the angels proclaim in the throne room in the temple in Isaiah 6. Our God is perfect in holiness and purity. And he commands the believers again and again throughout Scripture to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 19:2).
The word holy here, coupled with the word righteous, indicates that the conduct of the apostles was in-line with the law and decrees, both of God and of men. I’m of course speaking of the just laws of man that do not oppose the law of God. The apostles led upright lives according to the commandments of God. And to be clear, they were not without any sin at all, but they had been transformed, they were being sanctified, their sins were forgiven, and the blame had been taken by Jesus on the cross. As written in 5:23-24, they trusted the faithfulness of the God of peace to sanctify them completely and keep them blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We saw a couple of weeks ago in Acts 17 that the apostles were opposed and were accused of acting unjustly, against the laws and decrees of Caesar, and proclaiming there is another king. Yet they were not usurping the law of the land, but were in fact acting in the best and most just way possible. No blame could be brought against them by unbelievers or believers. They maintained an uprightness of conduct toward both insiders and outsiders. The gospel they proclaimed would turn the world right side up. The kingdom they were proclaiming was not of this world. The kingdom is good because of the kind of King it has. The message preached was life-giving. They loved God, obeyed his commands, abided in him, and he in them. And they had witnesses to that end: God himself, and the believers who watched them.
The charge of gospel ministers
These 3 men, Paul, Silas and Timothy, earned the trust of the Thessalonians by their words and their conduct. We saw in the earlier part of this chapter that Paul’s gentleness in nurturing them was like that of a mother; this gentleness was a key to gospel obedience. Now we see how Paul also had the character of a father in commanding them to obey, which became a key to a credible gospel community. Both dispositions, the motherly and the fatherly, were loving like those of parents toward this newborn church and these young believers. They are part of growing, of becoming adults, of moving from milk to solid food, and of multiplying. Folks: this is a reminder that pastoring and shepherding are akin to parenting, sometimes gently nurturing like a mother, sometimes strongly exhorting like a father. I’m sure our elders can attest to that.
Which good father does not warn his children against evil and vices? Which righteous father does not desire for his children to do what is right and holy and blameless? A father should be an example for his children, neither a tyrant, nor a mere facilitator. A father both teaches and corrects, admonishes and exhorts; a father provides and protects; a father commands and gives moral instructions that seek the moral well-being of the soul of the child.
We may wonder: why is Paul using these 3 words? Exhortation, Encouragement, Charge? Is he simply using a literary feature? Are they just variants with the same meaning? Let’s look at each.
Encouragement is similar to what spectators do at the side of the road in the Tour De France: they cheer everyone on; they may say “come on” or “giddy up” and may run along the riders a few meters, but they may not necessarily expect who will make it to the end or if their cheering will have such results. For you and me, we may receive encouragement through listening to a podcast or attending a conference; in either case there may not be follow-up on the result of the encouragement that was given. A biblical example would be Paul giving a general counsel in one of his circulating letters that encourages people to be thankful.
Exhortation, even more than that, is an encouragement with the expectation of arriving at a goal: it is not the spectator shouting, but the team captain in the car that is behind the cyclist following him with the end goal in mind. The difference is that exhortation is a focused encouragement by one who expects results: it directs toward a clear goal. A biblical example would be Paul exhorting the Corinthians to imitate him or the Romans to submit to authorities. For us, the word exhortation should be akin to the word preach. It is not the impersonal podcast we listen to, but sitting under the teaching and preaching of our elders whose goal is for us to obey and live the word of God.
Charging is the commission that is given to the believer by one who has a higher function, not a spectator, but a leader who has the desire to see God’s name glorified and his kingdom come. It is an urgent directive stemming from a deep moral concern with a clear path and end in mind, like Christ’s commission in Matthew 28, or Paul’s charge to Timothy to preach the word under every circumstance (2 Tim. 4:1-2) or to Philemon to take back Onesimus as a brother. A charge is akin to making one take an oath. A charge is a directive we are held accountable for. In this letter, Paul will give more charges in 4:1, 4:9-10 and 5:14.
Obedience to the gospel
Paul here uses encouragement, exhortation and charge all together to converge on the centrality of obedience to the gospel. He is emphasizing it because God does not ask holiness and sanctification of apostles only, or of pastors, or deacons. He requires it of every believer.
Paul urged the Ephesians (4:1) to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, and prayed for the Colossians (1:10) to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. In Philippians 1:27, he commands them to only let their manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ. Here he charges the Thessalonians to walk in a manner worthy of God. The gospel is the centerpoint of his urging in these passages and here. The gospel is what he proclaimed to them as he just mentioned in v.9. If you want to walk in a manner worthy of God, you walk in a manner worthy of the one and only, full and true, unchanging and glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Every believer should do that. Just as God chose every believer to receive grace, he commands every believer to be holy and perfect, because he calls every believer to his own kingdom and glory.
A glorious kingdom
Macedonia had been a famous kingdom under Alexander and his father Philip. Its largest city, Thessalonica, was still enjoying many perks of being a free city even under Roman rule. The Greeks in the city still desired a kingdom. They lived under the Romans who always desired glory. These empires are now found only in history books. But God calls the believers to a kingdom that does not perish, and a glory that is everlasting. And how does he do so? Hear these words from 2 Corinthians 4:6: God who said “Let light shine out of the darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
That’s why Paul has no need to seek glory or to boast on the Thessalonians. For God has called both him and them to a kingdom that does not perish, and a glory that is everlasting.
We are primarily citizens of the kingdom of God, citizens of the gospel rather than citizens of any empire. It does not matter who Caesar is because Jesus is our King!
Living in a manner worthy of God
Crosstown members: God is standing as a witness. We are witnesses of one another. Other believers are witnesses. And the world is watching. Are we living lives worthy of God? The word integrity means whole, undivided, one. Are we living integral, undivided lives? Are our body, soul and mind blameless in private and in public, at home and at work, in our missional families and in our worship gatherings?
Believers: this word is the word of God: the true, glorious, marvelous, worthy, living, active, sharp, unchanging gospel of God, in which we were saved, in which we stand. The means to deliver this word is the people of God. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). The commission is for the gospel of God which is the word of God to be preached by the people of God to all peoples. There is no doubt that its reception is dependent to a certain degree on the character of gospel ministers. We will see that later in this chapter.
We keep hearing of people who refuse to follow Christ or believe the gospel because of the conduct of some professing Christians they know. But brothers and sisters: those who love God love his gospel and his word, the gospel abides in them and they live lives worthy of it. They must be willing to live it, to know it, to hide it in their hearts, to proclaim it, and to share their own selves as they do so. Gospel ministers work, live and proclaim the gospel of God because it transforms their lives and empowers their charge and exhortation.
God called us to come and see; he also called us to abide and obey; he also called us to go and tell.
If we then have been truly transformed by the gospel, then it will transform our minds and our hearts to be more in conformity with Christ, so that we live in a manner worthy of God. We are all gospel ministers. The word of God has to go out from us. And its transforming work in our lives should be authenticated by integrity in living and confirmed by unity between our conduct and our witness. Our local congregation should model the heavenly congregation. When the gospel flourishes in our lives, we will give our own selves to it, regardless of any circumstance, and as we will see next week, people will receive and accept the word of God through our witness. God can save people without us, but he gives us the unique privilege of being gospel ministers; he enables us to live upright lives and preach the gospel. He is faithful, he will surely do it. Then he tells us: well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy, kingdom and glory of your Master. This the Savior we worship; this is the Master we serve.