How the apostles approached the Thessalonians.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 January

1 Thessalonians 2.1-12.

When a salesman shows up to pitch something, how do they usually look? Most of the time—unless they’re trying out a clever new tactic—they try to look successful. They try to give off the vibe that what they’re selling made them a success, and if you buy it you’ll be a success. They figure successful-looking people are attractive… and they’re not wrong. So they dress nice. They try to appear classy and stylish. They bring in plenty of resources, plenty of helpers. They look like a big deal.

Contrast that with how Paul and Silas first appeared in Thessaloniki, Macedon. It was right after they left Macedon’s biggest city, Philippi—right after having been been arrested, caned, jailed, then thrown out of town. Ac 16.12-40 They didn’t look successful; just the opposite. Even if they had a miraculous getting-out-of-jail story, they sure didn’t look like success stories.

That’s the condition the Thessalonians found ’em in, and how they appeared when the Thessalonians first heard the gospel. If you assume, as many Americans do, that one God’s on your side it’s Easy Street from now on, these guys were not poster children for that theology. They looked beaten and broken.

So the apostles chose a different tack: They played the sympathy card. They didn’t come to butter up the Thessalonians, or sell them a gospel of “Come to Jesus and he’ll erase all your worries.” Nor did they play the victim, and beg to be cared for, instead of doing for themselves. They were honest and frank with the Thessalonians—and won ’em over with thoughtfulness and truth.

1 Thessalonians 2.1-12 KWL
1 For you fellow Christians have known when we came to you, it wasn’t for nothing.
2 Instead we had suffered and were treated badly, as you know.
In Philippi we bluntly spoke of our God, speaking of God’s gospel with you in every meeting.
3 For our encouragement wasn’t delusional, nor unclean, nor deceptive,
4 but we speak as those who were disciplined by God to believe the gospel.
Not to please people, but to please God, who disciplines our thinking.
5 For we never once came to you with a flattering message, as you know.
Nor ever with a greedy motive, as God is our witness.
6 Nor seeking glory from people, neither from you nor from anyone.
7 We apostles of Christ are able to be such a burden,
but we became like innocent babies in your midst,
like when a nursing mother cuddles her own child.
8 Thus we were happy to long for you, to share with you, not just God’s gospel
but our own souls as well, because we fell in love with you.
9 For you remember, fellow Christians, our pains and toil:
Night and day, working at not being an expense to any of you,
we proclaimed God’s gospel to you.
10 You and God are witness to how sacredly, fairly,
and faultlessly we behaved towards you believers.
11 As you know, like every one of you, like a father to his own child,
12 we were urging you, encouraging, and testifying
for you to walk rightly with God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Sales tactics and evangelism.

Paul and Silas approached the Thessalonians as not “delusional, nor unclean, nor deceptive, but we speak as those who were disciplined by God to believe the gospel.” 1Th 2.3-4 The KJV went with “God, which trieth our hearts” to translate θεῷ τῷ δοκιμάζοντι τὰς καρδίας ἡμῶν/Theó to dokimádzonti tas kardías ymón. But you gotta remember the ancients believed they thought and reasoned with their hearts, not their brains; so this isn’t God working their emotions, but their thinking. And the way God works on our minds isn’t through making us suffer, which is the conclusion most people jump to whenever the scriptures talk about testing and trying: It’s by discipline. It’s by reminding us to stick with him despite whatever else is going on; that he really does answer when we call.

The apostles acted as apostles should. Not, by way of comparison—and you’ll notice these are ways some other would-be evangelists will behave—

DELUSIONAL (Greek, ἐκ πλάνης/ek plánis, “out of wandering”, KJV “deceit.”) Various Christians won’t teach the scriptures, or preach the gospel, because they have solid God-experiences or a sound idea of what the scriptures mean. They’re not solid, nor sound. They have wandering minds, wandering thoughts, wandering emotions. They lead themselves astray. Lead others astray right along with ’em.

I’ve heard from a lot of unsound Christians through the years. In charismatic churches, people too often let their preachers get away with not doing their homework, and they’ll improvise their entire sermon. They’ll preach off the cuff, off the top of their heads, wherever their wandering minds will take them. It’s kinda crude, but still I call this practice “pulling a sermon out of your ass.” (I realize this will offend some readers, but you should be offended; at least by the practice.) They claim they’re “following the Holy Spirit wherever he leads.” But if this were true, their sermons wouldn’t be so full of sticky manure. Sticky because people will believe that crap, and even turn it into core parts of their belief systems. Yikes.

Senile sermons make a mockery of the pulpit. We’re supposed to proclaim God’s kingdom, not fill time with semi-pious blabbering. If preachers have nothing to say, they need to go home and let someone who does study the bible take the microphone. Do your homework or dismiss church.

UNCLEAN (ἐξ ἀκαθαρσίας/ex akartharsías/“out of impurity.”) We’re probably more familiar with selfish preachers: Leaders who want an impressive crowd so they can feel successful. Maybe write a best-selling book on how to duplicate their success… or justify a larger salary. Wanna be famous—ostensibly to spread the gospel, but really because they wanna be worshiped. Want political pull, ostensibly to push for Christian values, but really because they want their values enforced. Et cetera, ad nauseam.

It’s the selfish ulterior motives which make ’em unclean. We’re supposed to want what Jesus wants. God’s kingdom come, remember?—not ours. But too many of us are hoping to become Jesus’s vice-presidents, wield a little of his power for ourselves, and get a little something for ourselves. Get some wealth. Get some reverence. Get worshiped. Even plot a little murder, mayhem, and terrorism to get it.

None of these are new ideas. Power has warped many good people into evil cult leaders. Power has likewise attracted evil people, and made them worse.

Jesus spoke about certain Pharisees who coveted honor more than anything else, Mt 23.1-12 and the apostles could’ve easily adopted some of that bad attitude. They were right about Jesus, weren’t they? Coulda demanded the Thessalonians unquestioningly obey them—kinda like Paul used to demand, back when he persecuted Christians. But because of the way God shaped Paul’s faith by making him powerless, it forced Paul to recognize the gospel only spreads through God’s power. He had to be humble, and let God be great.

DECEPTIVE (ἐν δόλῳ/en dólo, “as a decoy”, KJV “in guile.”) The Greek word refers to the tricks hunters use to catch prey, and when it comes to religion it refers to con artists who bait us with something we want, then fleece us. We have way too many of those in Christianity.

Not just the skeevy televangelists who get rich from old ladies’ donations, nor the traveling preachers who go from conference to conference, get fat honorariums, and tell audiences what we wanna hear. Most con artists don’t even have to travel. Lots o tiny churches spend every last cent on the pastor’s salary and perquisites, and the only thing the pastor does for ’em is preach a weekly sermon. There’s no ministry, no discipleship, no counseling, no benevolence, no charity, no missions, nothing else. “We don’t have the money.” Somehow, writing that sermon consumes all 40 hours of the pastor’s work week.

In contrast, Paul and Silas had day jobs. They weren’t in Thessaloniki trying to fleece anyone; they were only there to preach the gospel, start churches, find leaders, set things up, then leave—and if they ever asked for money, it was for other churches. They had long-term goals, but none of them were for their own profit.

All these types of people are the people-pleasers the apostles bring up verse 4. The apostles didn’t come with that in mind, and everything about them showed it: Their unimpressive appearance. Their challenging message. Their lack of “success,” as human cultures define success. Their fruit of the Spirit.

Christianity really doesn’t please a lot of people. It tells us our self-reliance and independence isn’t love, our wealth and achievements count for nothing, our selfishness offends God, our “harmless” activities are in fact destructive. That’s why we water Christianity down so much. We want to turn it into something which does please people, and in so doing wins ’em over. (And lets us get away with stuff.) But we aren’t Christian because it’s fun; we’re Christian because it’s true. In the long run, it produces infinite joy. In the short term, sometimes we struggle and suffer. It’s not popular to say so. But it’s true. And lies are no basis for a relationship with God.

Like babies, not bosses.

I once had friends who were missionaries to Russia in the 1990s. They were amazed how the Russians would quickly follow their every little suggestion. It spoiled ’em: Once they came back to the States, they were disgusted how we Americans didn’t jump at the chance to do everything they asked. I reminded ’em more than once: We Americans aren’t used to dictators. The Russians, at that point in history, were.

Similar deal in Thessaloniki. Judea was a province under Roman occupation, where nobody but the rich were citizens, so if you didn’t do as any petty Roman soldier commanded, they could put a sword through you, or if they had the time, crucify you. In contrast, Macedon was fully Roman, and the Thessalonians were Roman citizens who answered to no one. Had Paul and Silas come to that city with an authoritarian mindset, he’d have got the same response as Americans give any bossy person: “Who put you in charge?”

Well… some Americans. Some of us are in really cultlike churches where everybody does as Pastor commands. Some of us grew up with that mindset, so they’re eager to obey Pastor even when he’s only floating an idea; he’s still not sure about it, still wants feedback, but they treat it as if he’s gonna defenestrate them if they don’t. Those people function on fear, not love, and they’re never gonna develop self-control when someone else does all the controlling.

God’s kingdom is about freedom, not burdening people. Christians are to submit to one another, not make others submit to us. And the apostles demonstrated this to the Thessalonians, moving them to care for one another. Mutual love, mutual service, fellowship, relationship, and the sharing of Jesus. Sometimes we call this “friendship evangelism,” but it’s really just evangelism. It’s not telling everyone how things oughta be: It’s being how things oughta be, and inviting others to join in. It’s getting off our pedestal and becoming as little children.

The apostles could’ve shown up in town as the special guest speakers, with all the trappings of a visiting celebrity. They didn’t want that. Oh, they could have got it. They point out, “We apostles of Christ are able to be such a burden.” 1Th 2.7 But they didn’t take the role of royal guests. They took the role of kids.

Children are the sort of guests we need to look out for, and provide for, and take care of. Children also aren’t in charge, and aren’t permitted to take charge. (Well, shouldn’t be. I won’t discuss awful parenting right now.) Like children, the apostles didn’t make demands, but requests. They didn’t tell everybody how things were gonna be: They asked. They didn’t insist on their own way. They went with the flow.

Now stop and compare the guest preachers our churches tend to get. How many of ’em show up and made demands on our churches? How many of ’em insist things be rearranged to accommodate them? How many of ’em show up at the very last minute, instead of early enough to greet the people of the church and join us in pre-service prayer? How many of ’em disappear soon afterward, and the only way you get ’em to stick around is to treat ’em to lunch? How many, if they’re “acting like children,” are acting far more like spoiled children?

The stumbling block of bossy ministers.

Whenever I share Jesus with pagans, their biggest beef is with “organized religion”—by which they mean a religion which tells ’em what to do. They don’t wanna be told what to do. Sometimes because they wanna be free to sin, but more often because they know God may be kind and benevolent, but ministers suck. And by approaching the Thessalonians in humility, the apostles made sure to buck this trend.

’Cause you find it in Greco-Roman pagans as well. Their religion was all about appeasing the petty, mercurial gods. Keep ’em happy lest they turn against you on a whim, and the myths said they turned on a whim all the time. Do everything their priests tell you. But because the gods were so unpredictable, the result was a lot of superstitious pagans who were terrified of any bad omen. Thus the priests kept these people in fearful slavery to dead gods. In contrast gnostics kept their adherents enslaved to them and their secret teachings… and Pharisee rabbis had rules for this but loopholes for that.

It’s this domineering attitude, this vast distance these ministers put between us and God, that really grates on pagans nowadays. Makes ’em want to have nothing to do with organized religion. And you know what? They’re right. We have no business setting ourselves above one another, and making God appear distant.

Jesus taught us Christians we don’t have masters—other than God and his Messiah. But we aren’t masters, aren’t rabbis, aren’t spiritual fathers; we aren’t in charge. Mt 23.8-12 And the apostles put this teaching into practice. They loved the Thessalonians like fathers, but they didn’t boss them around like fathers. They asked, encouraged, and testified. They led by example.

Sad truth is, many Christians have adopted both the Pharisee and gnostic behavior. They don’t self-sacrifice; they sacrifice nothing. They start churches with other people’s money. They demand titles, positions, salaries, assistants, and gatekeepers; they order others to perform, and berate and judge us when we don’t or can’t. They start ministries so they can expand their brand and their name, not God’s kingdom. They write books so they can make extra cash and spread their reputation, not God’s kingdom. They bleed Christians dry, for ultimately Christians are serving them and their projects; not God, nor his people, nor their neighbors.

Whenever I share Jesus with pagans, this is inevitably what they point to as their stumbling block: Those who seem to be profiting quite well off religion. Pagans rightly recognize it as grievous evil. True, some celebrity pastors are giving a great deal of their proceeds to charity; Rick Warren of Saddleback Church famously gives away 90 percent of his income. But while such behavior oughta be commonplace, how many do you know who’s doing likewise?

True, many pagans use the excuse of wealthy ministers as a cop-out: It doesn't really offend them, but any excuse to reject Christ will do. Regardless, they’re right. Christ’s ministers shouldn’t profit off the needy. Nobody should be. No charity should pay their CEOs six figures to run the organization; no ministry should do it either. Either you’re working for Christ or Mammon, and as we’ve all too frequently seen, those working for Mammon suck at working for Christ.

Tue Christians are to follow the apostles’ example. Treat believers sacredly, fairly, and non-judgmentally. Disciple them as if they’re our little kids, not as if they’re our cadets. Ask, encourage, and share. And don’t demand they financially support us and our schemes: Let it be everybody’s ministry, everybody’s goal, which they contribute to. We’re not to be one another’s burden. We’re to be their joy.