Pleasing God

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Introduction If you are a Christian, let me ask you this: What was it about the gospel, and those who told you about it, that gave you confidence that you could stake your life on it? If you are not a Christian, let me rephrase the question for you: What kind of message, and what kind of people, are you prepared to give an open-minded hearing to, even if you are being asked to change totally the basis and direction of your whole life? Well, we return this morning to our series in Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. The particular passage that we are looking at this morning is 2:1-12, which you will see is headed in the NIV, 'Paul's Ministry in Thessalonica'. These headings in the New International Version do not belong to the Scriptures themselves, though they can be helpful signposts. This passage is indeed about Paul's ministry. But there is more to it that that. Why does he talk in this way about how he and his team went about his work of telling the Thessalonians about Jesus? It is not for his own sake. That comes out very clearly. Rather, it is for the sake of the Thessalonians themselves. There is both a positive and a negative reason for this passage. The negative reason is that Paul is being defensive. He is defending the faith of the Thessalonians by helping them to see that the message in which they believed, and on which they have staked their lives, is a message of integrity and truth. They can rely on it, and they can rely on those who told it to them. Paul's ministry and teaching is always under attack, now as then. Those of us who stake our lives on it need to be reassured that neither he nor his teaching will prove to be built on sand. So he has that negative, but necessary, defensive purpose. The climate of faith that we live in now is not unlike that of the first century. There are many competing ideologies and faiths. There is a whole load of scepticism that any of them can lay claim to ultimate truth. And there is an equally powerful scepticism about the motives and integrity of those who are seen to be peddling yet another alternative world view with its associated life-style. About 30 of us from JPC were out walking together on the Bank Holiday a couple of weeks ago, and we paused for a group photo. We asked a friendly looking stranger who happened to be loitering near by if he would take the picture for us so that we could all be in it. He looked at us, motley crew that no doubt we were, and said, "You're not a cult or a sect are you?" We laughed. He took the picture. But if even that simple action raised sceptical hackles, how much higher will they be raised when the deepest questions of life and death are on the agenda? The visible integrity of the gospel message and of those who carry that message is crucial. Paul wants to reassure that Thessalonians of the integrity of the ministry that he had among them, which had such a profound impact on their beliefs and their lives. But Paul has a positive reason for what he says here, as well. He wants the Thessalonian Christians to be like him. He is putting forward his life and ministry as a model. He wants them to shape themselves by what they have seen in him. Not that that is a new thought for them. As his converts, under God, they are inevitably already doing that. So he says in 1:6: "You became imitators of us and of the Lord" But he says that not just as a matter of fact. He is commending them for it, and he wants them to imitate him ever more faithfully. Of course he is not talking about mannerisms, or ways of walking, or turns of phrase, or dress sense. Nothing so superficial, though that kind of imitation is not uncommon in Christians circle and it is often unattractive. Rather he is talking about imitating character, and motivation, and virtue, and the message about Jesus which was at the heart of it all. So he is talking primarily about his own, in many ways unique, gospel ministry. But it is not the uniqueness of his role as an apostle that is uppermost here, as it is at other times when he speaks about his ministry. His emphasis is on what all ministers of the gospel have should have in common. Nor does that just mean people who are in paid full-time Christian work, though of course this passage is highly relevant and challenging for those of us who are. There is no Christian who is not a minister of the gospel. Every believer has a desire and a responsibility to tell others about Jesus. And every believer has opportunities for such gospel ministry. That may be through involvement in structured evangelism organised by the church as a whole, such as the parish visiting that we heard about earlier, or invitation services or Mustard Seed groups. Most of the time it will be through the influence that each one of us has on those we encounter day by day and week by week, without even having to try: colleagues at work, our children, our parents, our friends, the members of our family, those we share leisure activities with, whether sport or evening classes or any of a million other eccentricities. The issue is not whether we have influence, but what kind of influence we bring to bear. All of us who are followers of Jesus are ministers of the gospel. What Paul says to the Thessalonians here, God is saying to us. Can we depend on those whom we have believed? Will we be worthy of the trust of those whom we influence? What, then, does Paul have to say? I have tried to sum it up under my three headings. First, MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL ARE CONCERNED TO PLEASE GOD NOT MEN. That's in verses 1-6a. Secondly, MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL ARE CONCERNED FOR THOSE TO WHOM THEY MINISTER. That's verses 6b-9. And thirdly, MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL ARE CONCERNED TO MODEL AND ENCOURAGE GODLY LIVING, (verses 10-12). Let's take a close look. First, MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL ARE CONCERNED TO PLEASE GOD NOT MEN, verses 1-6a.

You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. 2 We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite 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 men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men 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 men, not from you or anyone else.

Paul has two things to say in these verses about the nature of the gospel that he brought to Thessalonica - which is, or should be, the same gospel that we are wanting to communicate. He puts both things negatively. First, he says the gospel is not wrong. Verse 3: "For the appeal we make does not spring from error" The gospel that he preaches is God's, not his. It is the truth. He did not make it up, nor has he twisted the truth into something else. It was revealed to him by God. That is a big claim. But without it the Christain faith falls to the ground. Paul says in Galatians 1:11-12:

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

Secondly, he says that the gospel is not a deceit. "For the appeal we make does not spring from error" (verse 3) " nor are we trying to trick you." He is not pulling the wool over their eyes. He has not been persuading them to believe what he knows to be a lie. There was a fascinating TV programme the other week exposing the methods of the magicians who shoot arrows through people's stomachs and into a target, without so much as indigestion. It is all trickery - making us believe that we have seen something when in fact we have not. The gospel is not like that. It is not wrong, but true. It is not a deceit, but open for all to see. But Paul speaks not only of the gospel but also of the ministry of the gospel - the way he communicates it. He talks about what the ministry of the gospel is not, and also about what it is. The ministry of the gospel, insists Paul, is not wrongly motivated. Verse 3: "For the appeal we make does not spring from error [we've thought about that] or impure motives" What impurity of motivation does he have in mind? Literally the word here is 'uncleanness' in the sense of immorality. That would certainly include sexual immorality. Too many religious leaders have used their spiritual power to seduce. But the immorality of selfish ambition or lust for power could equally well be intended. Immoral motives, in the widest sense, have no rightful place in Christian ministry. Where we find them in our own hearts, we have to ask the Lord to purge them from us ruthlessly, lest we bring shame on the gospel and the church. The ministry of the gospel is not trying to please men. Verse 4b: "We are not trying to please men" Nor is it seeking praise. Verse 6: "We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else."How do we go about trying to please somebody? We do what they want us to do. We say what they want us to say. Why should we want to please people? In order to be liked. Or we know that if they are not pleased by us, then we will find ourselves in conflict with them - and we would much rather a quiet life. Seeking praise is perhaps a bit different. Praise boosts our ego, and raises our status with those who hear it. When our gospel ministry is tailored to please or to generate praise, then the cutting edge of the gospel is blunted or lost all altogether. Who wants to hear that they are sinners headed for hell, with Jesus the only escape route? Paul's ministry was not geared to generate praise from the Thessalonians or, he says, "from anyone else". It is quite possible to have one eye on someone other than the ones to whom we are ministering. There can easily some group with whom we want to keep on good terms, who would be offended if we do not trim the biblical gospel so as to cut out the offending portions. True gospel ministry does not accommodate itself to please, nor does it seek merely human praise. In the same way, gospel ministry is not flattering. Verse 5: "You know we never used flattery..." Flattery is the art of getting what you want by telling somebody that they are better than they really are, so they feel good about themselves. The gospel is almost the direct opposite of flattery. It tells people the awful truth about themselves so that they realise their need of a saviour. Then it offers them that saviour. And gospel ministry is not a front of religiosity and respectability behind which to hide the greed that we are trying to satisfy without anyone realising that is what we are doing. Verse 5b: "...nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed..." Paul was not trying to rob the Thessalonians through spiritual manipulation and exploitation. That is a temptation that increases in proportion to our awareness of the power that we have to manipulate spiritual sensitivities. Many an evanglists ministry has been destroyed when that kind of greed has been exposed and seen for what it is. True gospel ministry is not motivated by immorality, nor does it try to please or seek praise, nor does it flatter, nor does it mask greed. What is it like? Paul gives us four marks of true ministers of the gospel, which we can use as a benchmark for ourselves. First, his example says to us, true ministers of the gospel are prepared to take the consequences of their ministry, even if that means tough times. Verse 2: "We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know..." This is a hard lesson for softly cushioned, comfortable Western Christians. The lure of relative luxury and the easy life is seductive and strength sapping. Second, true gospel ministers are courageous and bold in sharing the gospel. Verse 2b: "...with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition." Perhaps we tend to think of the apostle Paul as a swashbuckling Errol Flynn character relishing the scrapes he got into and charging happily from riot to riot. Not so. Both the book of Acts and his letters make it clear that he lived his evangelistic life on the edge of survival. And there were times when the fear gnawed at him like a hungry dog going for a juicy bone. At such times he had to depend totally on the strength God gave him to endure. But he did not stop telling people about Jesus. That was all he needed to do for peace and quiet. Let's not think that being faithful under pressure is somehow easier for other people, and it cannot be expected of us. Courage is a neglected virtue. Telling others about Jesus requires it. Thirdly, true gospel ministers are personally selected and equipped by God himself. That was true of Paul in a very particular way. Verse 4a: "...we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel." Paul had a special calling to formulate the gospel and proclaim it throughout the first century Roman world. But the Lord's plan is that the gospel he gave to Paul will be handed down from generation to generation, and every Christian is chosen not only for eternal life but to be an Ambassador for Christ during the years of his or her earthly life. Then fourthly, gospel ministers are accountable to God, who scrutinises what they do with the blessings and the message that has been entrusted to them. Verse 4b: "We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts." And then at the end of verse 5: "... God is our witness". God sees and weighs what is going on both in private and in public. He as open access to those areas of our thought life and our motivation that no one else has - hardly even we ourselves. And he also sees every public move we make, or fail to make. He hears every word we utter. How can we possibly be worried about pleasing people, when the Lord of heaven and earth is watching over our shoulder, and we will one day give account to him for our use of the opportunities that he has given us? So that is the stuff of true gospel ministry. And the essence of it is the desire to please God rather than man, whatever the short term costs may be. My next headings I will tackle more briefly. The second relates to verses 6b-9, and it is this: MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL ARE CONCERNED FOR THOSE TO WHOM THEY MINISTER. Look at that section:

As apostles of Christ, we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, 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.

Paul puts what he says here in the context of the right of an apostle to respect, obedience, and not least financial support in the itinerant work that they were doing. Paul is always very careful to insist on the existence of this right, and not just for the apostles but for all pastors and teachers of the word of God who are precluded from earning a living because of the gospel work that they do. But that just goes to highlight the fact that he himself never availed himself of that right. He wanted to ensure that in his pioneering evangelism he could never be accused of making money out of his preaching. He wanted to be sure that the gospel was perceived as a free gift in every way. Why? Because he was desperate for his hearers to understand it properly. Why? Because he loved them desperately. True ministers of the gospel have in their hearts a tender care and compassion for those with whom they live and work that is best likened to the practical, self-sacrificial and heart-felt love of a mother for her young children. Whatever hard words they may have to speak at times, their hearts go out to those to whom they minister. In fact, if called upon to do so, they would lay down their lives for them, just as the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us all. That is the nature of the love that Christ puts into the hearts of his servants. And that kind of love makes for someone who is willing in their witness, self-giving in their relationships both with outsiders and with brothers and sisters in Christ, and hard-working out of concern to be a blessing and not a burden, whether socially, or emotionally, or financially. Verse 8 could be a great mission statement for everyone engaged in personal evangelism, which is every Christian. Let's ponder it again, and let it mould our own hearts, as we imitate Paul:

We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.

What are servants of the gospel like? They are gentle, loving, willing, self-giving, hard-working, and a blessing rather than a burden. Finally, my third summary heading, relating to verses 10-12: MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL ARE CONCERNED TO MODEL AND ENCOURAGE GODLY LIVING. From verse 10:

You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

I was fascinated the other day to hear David Frost talking about Billy Graham, who he has interviewed on numerous occasions over the last thirty years. One thing shone out from what David Frost was saying, and that was his profound respect for the man and the message, not least because of the consistent integrity that he had seen in Billy Graham's life over such a long period. Such integrity must be present, and must be seen to be present, if our message is to earn a hearing. The non-Christian world is very cynical, and not without reason. They only people who have a lower assessment of the depths to which human nature can fall are Christians who know their own hearts and who have seen the price that Jesus had to pay for the sin of the world. But a Holy Spirit driven blamelessness cannot be gainsaid. The opposite is also true. I was reading an article about Jimmy Swaggart, the US televangelist who was publically disgraced ten years ago. He is a gifted and powerful preacher. Ten years on he continues to preach. But his effectiveness was destroyed because he was not "holy, righteous and blameless" among his hearers. The principle applies on our own small scale, in every one of our lives. Those who live close to us, watch us closely and know us well. They will detect hypocrisy. They will know if we mean what we say. They will see if we live what we say. Whether they listen to the gospel will depend not a little on the conclusions they draw about our lives. So for the sake of the gospel, we need to keep one another up to the mark. Paul not only lived a life of integrity, he did all he could to ensure that the Thessalonians Christians did the same. He encouraged when they were discouraged. He comforted them when they were weak and hurting. He urged them on when they were complacent and inclined to flag. Encouragement, comfort, and exhortation. We all need them. And we all need to learn how to give them, in imitation of the apostle Paul. Because ministers of the gospel (and that's us if we are Christians) are concerned to model and encourage Godly living. Conclusion There, then, are Paul's three main concerns as he considers gospel ministry, his own and others. Ministers of the gospel are deeply concerned to please God not men; they are passionately concerned for those to whom they minister; and they have a heart-felt concern to model and encourage Godly living. And one final thought. All that may seem like a tall order. But what makes all the difference is tucked in their at the end of verse 12. Paul speaks of living lives worthy of the God "who calls you into his kingdom and glory". Gospel ministers keep their eyes on the end of the journey. We are heading for glory, and we want to bring as many others as possible along with us. The end of the journey is in sight. The task is infinitely worthwhile. Keep going.

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