A few days ago, I was in a discussion with a number of other pastors. At some point, the question was asked about how each of us came to know Christ. We went around the table, each of us briefly sharing our own personal testimony of salvation. As we listened to one another, a common thread began to weave its way through all of our stories.
That common thread was the role personal relationships had played in each of our coming to faith in Christ. Every one of us had been encouraged toward a relationship with Jesus by someone who had invested himself or herself in us, sometimes over a period of years—a parent, grandparent, Sunday school teacher, friend or neighbor.
Chances are, most Christians would have a similar story to tell. Right now you might be thinking back to those occasions in your life when certain individuals were a formative influence in your coming to faith in Christ, or in your growth in some particular area of the Christian life.
In 1 Thessalonians 2, the Apostle Paul reminded the Thessalonians of how their personal relationships with them had become channels through which God had worked. Paul emphasized that his and Silas’ work among them had not been a “failure” (v. 1)—that is, a pointless waste of time and effort. The impact of their work in Thessalonica ultimately was due to the power of the Holy Spirit working through them as they preached (1:5). But there also were some human elements in the equation which paved the way for effective ministry.
Let’s look at some of those human elements, which Paul described in 2:1-12. To give us a framework for understanding the text, let’s examine it under two broad categories or divisions.
First of all, in verses 3-6, Paul reminded the Thessalonians of some harmful behaviors he and his companions had avoided as they worked among them:
• They avoided manipulation and deception (v. 3). When Paul reviewed his accounts with the Thessalonians, he was able to say honestly, “the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you.” He had no hidden agendas or ulterior motives, but spoke the message exactly as God gave it to him.
There is a phrase we sometimes use to describe a person who is honest and above-board, and who demonstrates personal integrity. We say about such a person that he or she is a “straight arrow.” That expression comes from the fact that when you shoot an arrow from a bow and the shaft of that arrow is warped, it will fly off to who-knows-where. But an arrow that is straight will go exactly where it is aimed. Paul said, “We were straight arrows with you.”
• They avoided shallow flattery and techniques designed merely to please people (vv. 4-5). We all know that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the truth and remain popular. The truth has sharp teeth, and sometimes the truth bites. In their work in Thessalonica, Paul and his fellow workers weren’t attempting to gain a personal following; they simply were trying to be faithful to their calling to preach the gospel. They courageously faced opposition in their work and refused to dilute the message in order to be well-liked.
• They avoided greed (vv. 5-6). Although usually we think about the word “greed” in the context of money or material possessions, Paul seems rather to have had in mind a lust for power and prestige. An old saying is appropriate and bears repeating here: “It is impossible to serve God and your own reputation at the same time.”
Then secondly, in verses 7-12, the apostle reminded the Thessalonians of some helpful behaviors that he and his companions had modeled:
• They modeled gentleness and kindness (v. 7). Kindness is the opposite of being harsh or abrasive. The word picture in verse 7 is one of a nursing mother very tenderly caring for her infant son or daughter in ways that are gentle and loving.
I recall a piece of advice an older pastor gave me years ago when I was very young in the ministry. He said, “Most people will listen to anything you have to say to them if they know beforehand that you love them.” Over the years I have found that statement to be right on target.
• They modeled a genuine investment of life (v. 8). There is a huge difference between service that is just a job and is motivated by a sense of duty, and service that is an investment of life and is motivated by love. Most people are perceptive enough to know the difference when they see it.
• They modeled diligence (v. 9). In order not to be a burden to those they were serving, Paul and his companions worked “night and day.” Possibly Paul worked in Thessalonica as a tentmaker, as he would later on in the city of Corinth (Acts 18:1-3).
• They modeled encouragement (vv. 11-12). It is interesting that the two persons whom Paul used as his examples of Christian service and leadership are the leaders of the home. In verse 7, he compared their ministry to a mother’s tender care; then here in verse 11, he said, “we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children … .” With paternal love and concern Paul had encouraged the Thessalonians to be and do their very best.
That fatherly comfort and encouragement would be needed by the Thessalonians because they, just like the believers in Judea, were suffering persecution because of their commitment to Christ (vv. 14-16). But in spite of that fierce opposition, the Thessalonian believers remained faithful to Christ, and the gospel continued to bear fruit in their lives (v. 13).
As we consider the spiritual results of the relationships that Paul and his fellow workers built with the Thessalonians, let us thank God for those personal relationships which were influential in our own Christian lives. Let us also pray God will use us as agents of change in our own relationship-networks to lead others to faith in Christ, and the encouragement of growth in that life of faith. And as we pray that prayer, let us keep in mind this template Paul laid out for the kind of relationships which pave the way for effective ministry in the name of Christ.