When God sends you somewhere, love the people. Live a godly life, seek to please God and with His help your work will not be in vain.
We live in the era of social media – a fancy term for people’s opinions at your fingertips, which is becoming more and more a part of our daily life. It has its challenging aspects but some benefits as well. One of the benefits is that we see what other people like or approve of and we can use this to helps us buy a good product, subscribe for good articles from a new website, build up more trust in a new company or a business. If 5000 other people liked this online shop it must be good enough for me as well.
What if I told you that you can buy 1000 “likes” for $45 today. The payment is secure and due only once the likes appear on your website. That’s what the email from my inbox read. Yes, you can actually buy likes, product reviews and a whole lot of other so called trust ensuring numbers.
We live in an era marked by a desperate search for authenticity – another fancy term for believing in what you say, doing what you promise and actually caring when you say you care. We get burned on almost daily basis – whether online or at the local grocery store, it results in a hunger for honesty and truth.
We have been entrusted with the gospel and sent out to take it to the same people who are looking for a trustworthy relationship, a genuinely good person willing to help. How will they trust us if we do not believe in what we say? How will they become more like God if we don’t do what we have promised God to do? How will they see God’s love if we can’t display it?
In chapter 1 of 1 Thessalonians Paul encouraged the Thessalonian believers about their faith and becoming imitators of God, himself and Silas. Now that the young believers have become models to others, Paul writes to them about being exactly that – models to others, using once again his ministry to them as an example.
1 You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. 2 We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. 3 For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 4 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 hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7 Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-16, NIV
In the beginning of the passage Paul states that his and Silas’ ministry was “not without results”. The Greek used for this phrase is ου κενη which literally means “not empty”, “not in vain”. In order to see why their ministry wasn’t empty we need to look at the passage in a slightly different order. In doing so we’ll discover that a ministry that brings results, not an empty ministry, is one which is authentic, pleasing to God (and not necessarily to man), and characterized by love for the people.
Apostle Paul uses parents as a metaphor to describe the love which Silas and he had for the people in Thessalonica. They cared for them as a nursing mother cares for her children (v.7) and taught them how to live in the same way a father teaches his children (v.11-12). The love of a parent doesn’t depend on a paycheck, good behavior or unconditional acceptance on behalf of the child. Even if for a long time the love of a parent remains a one-way endeavor, it doesn’t cease to exist. In the same way, the love a minister has for his people shouldn’t depend on their response to the gospel. The love we as Christians have for the people who don’t know God shouldn’t cease to exist when they don’t respond to the gospel immediately.
The bible also has an example of what a ministry looks like if it isn’t characterized by love for the people – the work of the prophet Jonah in Nineveh. God is mighty and the book of Jonah shows that He can also work through a minister in spite of the minister. However, it’s still worth comparing the ministry of Jonah and that of Paul and Silas.
When Jonah was called by God he ran away in the opposite direction. Paul and Silas, on the other hand, stood their way in the midst of persecution and suffering so that they may proclaim the words of God. They were able to do this because by the power of God they were made capable of embracing the Thessalonians and loving them deeply. If love is missing its place is usually filled by excuses why not to do the right thing, especially in challenging or difficult times.
Jonah ultimately went to Nineveh but only invested 1/3rd of the time normally necessary to go through the entire city and ensure everyone heard him. This goes to show that you can’t fake love. It’s either there or it isn’t. Paul and Silas, on the other hand loved the Thessalonians so much that they regretted not being able to stay for longer with them (remember the persecution!), even after they had heard and accepted their message.
Lastly, without love for the people, as ambassadors of the gospel we may never find fulfillment in what we are doing. The Ninevites barely heard Jonah and repented before God. No opposition, no persecution against the prophet. But Jonah wasn’t happy that God saved them. Instead, he “was greatly displeased and became angry” (Jonah 4:1, NIV). This couldn’t be in a stronger contrast to Paul’s thanksgiving for the faith of the Thessalonians – he keeps going on and on about it, thanking God continually.
True love for the people around us, however remains a choice we need to make. Knowing God’s love and having experienced it personally allows us to make this choice and stay with it, but it’s still us that have to do the choosing. By choosing to build close and genuine relationships we will ultimately also learn to love the people we share the gospel with. In a way similar to how Paul and Silas shared their lives with the Thessalonians.
The second key aspect of a ministry that brings results is directly linked to the reason for doing it. Two times, in v.4 and v.6 Paul emphasizes that Silas and him sought to please God and didn’t look for the praise of men. God was in the center.
This is a very important element to consider when we take the gospel to those who haven’t heard or accepted it. Whether people will embrace us or persecute us, honor us or make fun of us – God and His word will not change. The truth doesn’t change. There is, therefore no reason for us to tweak it, in order to make it more acceptable, nicer, more appealing. The core of our message shouldn’t change.
Paul firmly believed in what he was proclaiming. He was also confident in God’s choice to use him as an “instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15, NIV). He obviously valued the gospel and God’s choice to use him above the opinion of other people or society in general.
Teenagers often care most about the opinion of their peers and not their parents, teachers or even older siblings. So they end up acting in a way which will please the people who hold the opinion that matters to them – their friends and classmates. This is especially visible with teenagers but we rarely fully outgrow it. Even as adults in many situations we tend to be driven by the opinion we care about the most. If this isn’t God’s opinion, His will, then it can be very easy to mix up our values.
When our focus is on pleasing God our focus remains on God. It is much easier to fall for the temptation of self praise (or people praise) if our focus is elsewhere. One ought to continually remember that even with all of our gifts, skills and smart thinking, our achievements are possible only through and because of Christ. We may be quick enough to find the right words to describe the gospel but it’s God who makes this result in a changed heart. Our devotion to please God is twofold in function. In addition to keeping us close to Him it also protects us against becoming focused on ourselves or the people around us.
In a sense it’s much like a team sport. When each player in a team chooses to do his best so the team may win, you have a strong game. It becomes difficult for the spectators to pick a “best player” because everyone did so well. Sadly, quite often we see how a single player would try to get ahead of the rest of the team, so that he will be recognized, so that he will reach a greater achievement. If a player is truly determined eventually he will get noticed, he’ll get the best contract and so on. But ultimately, the team as a whole will lose. This is why we often read in the news of many great players but a lot fewer, if any at all great teams.
As long as we recognize that we do the work we have been called to do because of Christ and for Christ, we’ll keep our aim at a victory for God, together with God. If we forget that we are not doing this alone and not for ourselves, it becomes all too easy to seek personal rewards. If one is determined enough he will win personal rewards but this is no victory for God or for the people who need His salvation.
The third characteristic of a ministry that is not in vain is authenticity – the result of one’s love for others and focus on God. As such it isn’t something separate which we can achieve, gain or do. It’s basically the summary or the sum of the other two aspects and in practice the element by which people choose whether to fully trust us or not. It too is a matter of black or white. It’s either there or it isn’t.
Nowadays we tend to question matters that are claimed to be black and white. But I’m sure you yourself have already faced the presence or lack of authenticity at some point. It might have been the advertisement which promised a set price and high quality but the company didn’t deliver. Then you simply stopped buying their product or services. Or perhaps you were promised a fair payment and positive environment at your new work but your boss underpaid you while at the same time pressured you to work more and more. Sadly, we sometimes see the lack of authenticity also in our friendships, where promises are made but never fulfilled. In fewer words, it’s people not believing what they say, don’t doing what they promise and not caring when they say they do.
It’s not all negative, though. A few years ago, my wife and I were traveling by plane when our flight was delayed. We knew we were going to miss our train connection after our arrival but as we were thinking how to get home a person from the crowd of waiting passengers came along and asked us if we believed in Jesus. He didn’t have an opportunity to explain his flyer but we did have a chance to share our faith and experiences with God, as we talked about our individual journeys with Him. Eventually we went on the plane and it safely arrived at Basel airport (CH) but we were still too late for our train. As we got our bags from the belt and headed for the exit he pleaded to introduce us to his friends who were waiting to pick him up. Next thing we know, nearly two hours later and close to midnight, we’re sitting in a car with three strangers who had genuine interest in our lives, cared for our immediate need and did as they said… right at the doorstep of our home.
That’s the power of God expressed through love – it transforms us into authentic, genuine, real images of God. And it’s this being real which makes it so much easier for our message to reach its destination, for God to be reflected properly into the lives of the people we meet. It then leaves them wondering Did this really just happen to me?
There are so many things one can do to proclaim the gospel and a lot of people do a lot of things. But if what we do doesn’t spring from God and it isn’t done out of love then our effort is in vain. Or in the best case, God will minister in spite of the minister but similar to Jonah, we’ll miss out on the joy and fulfillment which apostle Paul had when he looked at the changed lives of the Thessalonians.
So all that is left for us is to “speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel…, not trying to please men but God…, delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”, because we love you so much.