I read of a young pastor who drove into the church parking lot one day in a borrowed pickup truck. He backed the truck across the lawn to his study door. Refusing assistance and without making a comment he began to empty his office onto the truck, first the desk drawers, then the files and last his library of books which he tossed carelessly into a heap. Once he was finished, he got into the truck and drove to the city garbage disposal where he dumped it all. It was his way of putting behind him the overwhelming sense of failure he had experienced in ministry. This young, gifted pastor was determined never to return to full-time ministry, and he never did.
You don’t have to have served as a pastor to have feelings of failure in Christian service. You can serve in a Sunday School, a youth group, a home group, a support area of the church, give money, and wonder whether your ministry has been a failure. Do you ever wonder whether your ministry or service is actually achieving anything, do you ever wonder whether it’s a waste of time?
As Paul writes to this young Thessalonian church, some may have considered his visit there to be a failure. He was only there for a short time, the young church that was started while he was there suffered some strong persecution from both the Jews, and the Gentiles in the region, Paul and his companions had to leave and many times since Paul had wanted to come back, but so far he’d been unable to. Was his time there a failure, was it in vain?
In v1 Paul says – you know brothers and sisters that our visit to you was not without results (Not in vain (ESV), not a failure (NIV, 1984). Definitely there were hardships, many of them ongoing, but by God’s grace his visit was not in vain, it was effective.
It’s not easy to measure success or effectiveness in Christian ministry is it? Something can look outwardly successful but in spiritual terms be dead, or something can look to be struggling yet in the long term produce great spiritual fruit, how can you tell if something’s being effective? As we look at this passage, where Paul tells us his ministry was not a failure, let’s notice three things about Effective Christian Ministry. 1. Motive for effective ministry, 2. Character of effective ministry, 3. Basis for effective ministry
1. Motive: desire to please God
This is one of the most personal chapters in Paul’s writings as he shares his heart with the Thessalonians. As he makes his appeal, he calls on two witnesses – the first witness is the Thessalonians themselves. He keeps using the phrase ‘you know’ v1. You know our visit was not without results, v2, we’d previously suffered as you know, v5 you know we never used flattery, v11 you know we dealt with each of you, then in v10 he says – you are witnesses. As he talks about his life and actions, he calls on the Thessalonians as witnesses to what he’s saying, they saw how he lived there, they know. He also calls on a second witness – look at the second half of v10 You are witnesses, and so is God. He says the same thing at the end of v5 God is our witness.
As Paul speaks here, he shares not just what he did what they saw, but also his motives, he’s sharing his heart. What is his motive? It’s very clear what it’s not, v3 not impure motives, v5 not greed, it’s not money, v6 they weren’t looking for praise from people. So what was his motive? Look at v4 On the contrary we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people, but God who tests our heart.
Paul’s motive above all else, was to please God. He can say that with a clear conscience, with God as his witness. He recognised that he’d been entrusted with God’s gospel, and his goal was to give that message in a way that honoured God. His goal was to please God.
I don’t know about you, but I need to hear this message today. I know how easy it is, even when you’re giving God’s message, to start to be more concerned about what people think about you, than about pleasing God, so it’s challenging to see Paul showing that his goal, his focus was to please God.
Notice that what Paul does here, he does not in his own strength, but with God’s v2 in the face of hardship, or strong opposition he has boldness to share the gospel. How can he do it? V2 says, with the help of our God. God gives him the boldness, God enables him to endure hardship, God enables him to live a with a motive of pleasing God.
Marlene Dietrich was a famous actress from last century. She was one of the highest paid actresses of her time, she went on to be a singer and performer. She’d play to audiences, get a big ovation at the end, and she loved the applause. So much so that she even issued recordings of her audience’s ovations. Two sides of an album that had nothing but applause. Her biographer says she often gathered friends to listen to these recordings of her applauses. She insisted on playing both sides to actress Judy Garland, and would say after each one “That was Rio”, and “That was Cologne” and “That was Chicago”. She loved the applause so much she wanted to hear it again and share it with others.
You probably don’t keep recordings of applauses, but it’s so easy to live with a concern for what other people think of us, pleasing people, rather than with a focus on pleasing God. John describes some of the Jewish leaders this way: for they loved human praise more than praise from God. (John 12:43)
In contrast: I live before the Audience of One. Before others I have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, nothing to lose (Os Guinness). You could play for other audiences, live to please other people, but in the end, only one audience really counts. The audience of our Heavenly Father.
Mike Raiter is a former overseas missionary. I remember him sharing once how easy it would have been in his missionary situation to take it easy. In his position he didn’t really have anyone monitoring his day-to-day activities, he could have spent his time playing on the computer instead of working. Yet he wanted to please God. He wrote these words above the door in his office – judgement day integrity. He wanted to keep reminding himself that he was accountable to God. A day was coming when he would have to account to God who sees and knows everything.
There’s an old joke you might have heard about an older gentleman, let’s call him George, walking down the road one day with his wife when he ran into an old friend. The friend says, how are you George? George says not bad for an old bloke, the doctors given me some pills, and trying to make me eat better, and exercise, so I’m doing all right. One good thing is my wife and I just recently did a memory course, it’s one of those courses where you match a word or a name with a picture, I’ve found it really helpful. His friend said, wow that sounds great I’d like to do something like that, what’s the name of the course? George said…oh…then he said, I know, what do you call that flower, it smells nice but it has thorns? and his friend said a rose. That’s right, George said, and turning to his wife said – hey Rose, what’s the name of that memory course we just did?!
It’s easy to forget even what is most important to us, unless we are intentional about it. What is most important to you? What’s your goal in life, what drives you, what motivates you? The motivation for effective ministry is an intentional focus, a desire to please God. If our desire is to please God most of all, we can put up with all sorts of bad circumstances and opinions, because only one opinion really matters to us.
2. Character: sacrificial love
The affection Paul has for the Thessalonians is obvious here. Four times in chapter 2 he refers to them as brothers and sisters, an affectionate family term. He uses other family terms too:
In v7-8 he describes how he cared for them like a nursing mother. We’ve had at least 10 babies born here in the last year, so we have a few nursing mothers, we know how hard nursing mothers work, how much they sacrifice in caring for their children, it’s tiring, it’s draining, you’d love to be able to get more sleep but you just keep giving yourself in caring for your baby, Paul says just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you, then in v11-12 he says he dealt with them as a father deals with his own children. In v17-18 he says being separated from them was like being orphaned, that’s how strongly he felt it, then in v19-20 he describes them as his hope and glory and joy.
It’s obvious Paul loves these Thessalonians, he has a strong affection for them, but what does it actually mean to love them.?
Look at his nursing mother illustration. He says v8, because we loved you so much we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well. You see two things there about Christian love: Love is sharing the gospel of God – sharing God’s word, and sacrificing your life to share it with others. You see the same thing in v9, they worked hard, night and day, not to be a burden, they sacrificed themselves while they preached the gospel. In both of those verses we see Christian love involves both sharing the gospel in word, and sacrificing your life for the good of others.
Look at v12 to see how a father should deal with his children: – a father encourages, a father comforts, a father urges you to live lives worthy of God. To love others, is to want what is best for them, to want them to live a life worthy of God.
If we’re Christian parents, there’s some great things to think about here in our dealings with our children, do we share with them the gospel with them in words as well as sacrificing our lives to care for them? Do we encourage, comfort and urge them to live a life worthy of God?
Love is sacrificing yourself for others, so they can grow more like Jesus, sharing the gospel, encouraging, urging people to grow in godliness.
In chapter 3:12 which we’ll look at next week, Paul says: May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. In other words, we can’t look at this chapter and think all this affection that Paul has for this church, his sacrificial loving, that’s just him he’s an apostle, it’s not what God expects of me. Actually it is what he wants and God wants of all of us.
God wants all of us to love others, starting with the people at MEC the church he has placed us in. Is there a growing love in you for the people of our church? I’m not talking about just the people you like and get on with easily. Jesus says: If you love those who love you…. And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:46-47). Is there a growing love in you even for those at MEC that are different to you? Can you see a growing willingness to sacrifice yourself in serving others for their good?
God wants all his people to love, because God himself is love: God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Father, Son, and Spirit live in perfect unity as one God. Love is intrinsic to God’s nature … each person of the Godhead lovingly empties himself so that he might fill the others in the Godhead and, in turn, be filled by them. There is complete and perfect mutual love. (George Athas)
God is love, and humans are made in God’s image, made to reflect his character in some way. God has not created us as generic individuals designed to live in selfish autonomy from each other, but as persons made for relationship with each other. God’s made us to love each other.
Ian and Larissa Murphy have a wedding video that has gone viral in the last couple of years. They are a Christian couple who go to a church in Pennsylvania. They had planned to get married at the end of college, but just under three months before they graduated, Ian was in a car accident that left him with a brain injury. Larissa helped Ian’s family to care for him over the next four years. She said “I still don’t think Ian would have ever left me if the role had been reversed. And walking away from my best friend was never truly an option.”
As Ian’s condition slowly improved, and he regained some speech, the wedding plans that had been put aside became a possibility again. Yet there were still many difficulties, Ian wasn’t fully recovered and may never fully recover though he has recently begun walking. Larissa said. “Marrying Ian meant that I was signing on to things that I don’t think I ever would’ve chosen for myself … But in the light of all the practicals, and emotionals, it was so very simple: We love each other. And we love God. And we believe He is a sovereign and loving God who rules all things.”
Because of Ian’s condition, the courts had to decide that it was in his best interest to be married. The judge who approved their marriage license said: “You two exemplify what love is all about.” This couple’s story has been told in both Christian and non-Christian publications, and it’s interesting to see even non-Christians saying what the judge said – you two exemplify what love is all about. Even many non-Christians long for this sort of love. Love that is sacrificial, committed, wanting the best for the other person. Ian and Larissa say, it’s Jesus that enables them to show such love.
We look at Paul’s love in this chapter, and think, is it even possible for us to grow in this sort of love? Paul’s own life shows us what great change is possible by God’s grace. This man who used to hate Jesus’ church and persecute it, came to love Jesus’ church, and serve it sacrificially. We’re not apostles like Paul was, but he writes this letter chapter 1v1 says: to those who are in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’re Christians we’ve been united with Jesus, in him we find the power to love in the same way Jesus loved us, by sacrificing himself for us.
3. Basis: confident hope
Notice two things that bring Paul hope here:
a) God’s word
v13 is a rich verse, we could preach a whole sermon from there. Notice three things it tells us about God’s word:
i) Accessible – word of God…which you heard from us. God’s word can be heard, he has spoken in Jesus and his apostles, we can know God even today we can hear God as he speaks through his word.
ii) Powerful – accepted it, not as a human word, but as it actually is the word of God. God’s word came through humans, through apostles like Paul, but God is powerful enough that he can even imperfect humans to communicate his perfect and powerful word.
iii) Active – which is indeed at work in you who believe. God’s word by his Spirit produces change, and helps us grow more like Jesus.
Despite the very real difficulties the Thessalonian church is facing, Paul writes with great hope, because they’ve accepted God’s word as it really is. That word is at work in them.
b) Jesus’ return
When you first read v19-20 you wonder, is Paul going too far, when he says the Thessalonians are his hope, and joy, and the crown in which he will glory? We think, hang on, isn’t Jesus our hope and joy, haven’t you taken this a bit too far? But notice the basis of this hope, they will glory in the Thessalonians v19 says in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes. Paul has hope about the Thessalonians, because he knows with certainty, Jesus is coming again.
I saw a story recently of a bowl that someone had bought at a garage sale for $2 or $3. They put it in their lounge room, then one day they decided to get it valued. It turned to be a rare Chinese bowl, one of only two in the world, it went for over $2 million dollars at an auction.
Another person bought a chest for $165. They used it in their lounge room as a TV stand and drinks cabinet, then they got it valued and it turned out to be a 1640 Japanese chest which sold for $10.4 million.
These owners didn’t realise the value of their items until someone else helped him to see their value. Paul loves the Thessalonians, he seems them as valuable, but only because Jesus has helped him to see their value. Paul sees them as valuable because they are God’s church, that Jesus gave his blood for. They are in Jesus he sees them in light of what Jesus has done for them, and what they will be when Jesus returns.
The word Paul uses at the start of this chapter when he says our visit to you was not a failure, or not in vain, (κενὴ) he uses again in 1 Corinthians 15, where he talks about the certainty of Jesus resurrection, and his return, he finishes the chapter with these words: Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
Serving Jesus, living for Jesus will never be in vain, it will never be a waste of time, it will never be without results. It will be difficult, there will be opposition, but by God’s grace, in the long-term it will be effective.
Let’s give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because like Paul we know that our labour in the Lord, is not in vain.
Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 3 November 2013. Audio here
Kent Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, 9
 Cited in Os Guinness, the Call.