We begin with a question of translation. Many translations place a period after the word “conviction” in 1 Thess 1:5: “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”2 Then a new sentence begins, “You know what kind of men we proved to be . . . .” But there is a conjunction in Paul’s text: “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, just as [καθω?ς] you know what kind of men we proved to be . . . .” If we overlook the logical hinge καθω?ς, we miss the force of what Paul is saying. If we include it, the whole passage opens up.
Paul is not simply juxtaposing the power of his preaching with the manner of his living. He is correlating the power of his preaching with the manner of his living. Paul is not recalling the power of his preaching and the manner of his living. He is explaining the power of his preaching in relation to the manner of his living: “Our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, just as you know what kind of men we proved to be . . . .”
The Holy Spirit did not fall on Paul’s ministry by a wonderful luck. The power of Paul’s preaching to the Thessalonians depended on the kind of man Paul was among the Thessalonians. This lies at the heart of this lecture. The divine power in what we preach to people runs concurrent with the kind of men we are with people. Paul restates himself in 1 Thess 2:10 and 13:
You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. . . . When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
The Thessalonians saw in Paul the living embodiment of what he was preaching, and that intensified the impact of his message. How could it be otherwise? But here is the lovely thing about it: Paul never meant to be impressive to them; he wanted only to get close to them. That love is what made the impression because the human love they felt in Paul made real the divine love preached by Paul. Here then is our take-away from 1 Thess 1–2: The divine power with which we preach to people is inseparable from the kind of men we are with people.
Let’s think it through by asking two questions. First, what kind of impact did God give through Paul’s preaching? Second, what kind of man was Paul in his living?
1. What Kind of Impact Did God Give Through Paul’s Preaching? (1 Thess 1:5)
1.1. The Gospel in Words
Our gospel came to you not only in word . . . (1 Thess 1:5).
Paul does not say, “We came to you.” He says, “Our gospel came to you.” He was so focused on the gospel that, when Paul came to town, the gospel came to town. Neither does Paul say, “Our gospel came to you not in word.” He says, “Our gospel came to you not only in word.” Gospel communication demands more than words, but never allows for less. The gospel has specific content calling for worthy and clear words. His words were so important to Paul that he asked the Ephesians to pray that “words may be given to me in opening my mouth” (Eph 6:19). Think of Jeremiah. God stretched out his hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth and put his words into that man’s mouth (Jer 1:9–10). Jeremiah felt so inadequate because he was. What matters for us all is not our mouths but whose word is in our mouths. As someone recently said, Billy Graham might be a better preacher than you, but his gospel is no better than yours. The gospel you preach has all the power of God to create a new human race—which is exactly what it’s doing, and you’re a part of that miracle.
Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” That notion is wrong. We want our lives to line up with what we say. That’s where Paul is going here. But even a perfect life without words is not enough. Jesus preached. It is gospel words that God empowers to bring down strongholds of falsehood in our thinking and establish new worlds of peace and joy and justice. That’s why the devil wants to silence you. It’s okay with him if you live “a good Christian life” if you’ll just keep your mouth shut. How did the Sanhedrin threaten the apostles? “They charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). And the apostles, who were shaken by that (can you imagine seeing your face on wanted posters all over town?), went back to the church and had a prayer meeting. What did they ask God to do? Not to make all the wanted posters disappear. This is what they begged God for: “And now Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). When Paul came to Thessalonica, the gospel came. It came in the form of words. But there was more.
1.2. The Gospel in Power
Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power . . . (1 Thess 1:5).
Some interpreters construe these power-descriptions with reference to Paul’s experience—that Paul was feeling the power and the Holy Spirit and full conviction as he preached. Doubtless he was. But that is not his point here. He is recalling to the Thessalonians what they were experiencing through his preaching. How do we know that? Because of the function of 1:5 in the argument. In 1:4, Paul says, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.” How does Paul know that God has chosen them? What is the evidence of their election? Verse 5: “Because our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power.” His point is the proof of their election in the power they experienced under the ministry of the gospel.
By the way, isn’t Paul also implying that the non-elect can sit in our churches and hear the gospel, but all that happens to them is the ordinary experience of human communication? It might even move them to tears. They might, like the demons, believe and shudder.3 But what sets the elect apart is the power of God making the gospel not just a message but an experience that brings God’s eternally electing love into their hearts as the blazing new center of their existence. As the non-elect hear merely an idea, even a moving idea, the elect are acted upon by a power from beyond this world. When William C. Burns preached in Perth in 1840, one man whose life was changed said, “It is surely something altogether unearthly that has come to the town.”4 That is what God can do. And there is more.
1.3. The Gospel in the Holy Spirit
Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit . . . (1 Thess 1:5).
The experience given to the Thessalonians was mysterious, miraculous and sacred. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We don’t understand how the Holy Spirit works, but God’s people know what it means for him to draw near as a felt presence through the human ministry of the gospel. Just as our bodies are multisensory, so are our souls. In the Spirit-given miracle of regeneration, our spiritual senses come alive again to God. The ear of the soul opens up. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). Paul asked, “How are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” (Rom 10:14).5 Stated positively, “They do believe him whom they hear in the preaching of the gospel.” The eyes of our hearts are enlightened (Eph 1:18) as Christ shines upon us (Eph 5:14). We receive the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the spiritually visible face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6). The smelling salts of the gospel arouse in us an awareness of a fragrance from life to life (2 Cor 2:16). Jesus is felt to be a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2). We taste the heavenly gift and the goodness of the Lord, and we long for the pure milk of the Word (Ps 34:8; Heb 6:4–5; 1 Pet 2:2–3). The Holy Spirit works with the gospel to re-sensitize our hearts to the things of God. Jesus Christ crucified becomes more real and more wonderful than the tangible things of all this world. But there is more.
1.4. The Gospel with Full Conviction
Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction . . . (1 Thess 1:5).
Paul didn’t have to talk the Thessalonians into it, nor did they have to make themselves believe. God the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of certainty, and they had no lingering doubts, no buyer’s remorse. In your heart you have something like a light switch. Flip that switch, the lights come on, and everything changes. But that light switch is too deep inside you for you to reach it. No one can but God alone. He does it through the preaching of the gospel. God makes the truth of Christ so clear and distinct that it takes its rightful place, in people’s minds, in that position of authority by which all other ideas are adjudicated. The gospel becomes the sunlight in which believers see everything else. The gospel is not only what they see but what they see with. They appreciate evidences as encouragements, but they don’t require evidences as necessities. They no longer look for some independently available “real world” from which they can look down and assess the truthfulness and value and authority and relevance of the gospel. The gospel is seen to be the truth and their truth. This is God’s ministry of “full conviction.” And it creates heroic Christians who can face anything.
When Paul came to Thessalonica, the gospel came, and so did God. He worked gospel miracles through Paul, who himself correlates this impact with the kind of man he and his team were: “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1:5). The next question is obvious.
2. What Kind of Man Was Paul? (1 Thess 1:5; 2:1–20)
The key is the last phrase in 1:5: “for your sake.” When the message of divine love that they heard from Paul and the life of human love that they saw in Paul flowed together, the gospel got traction in their lives. Nothing selfish in Paul complicated that. The beautiful man he was embodied the beautiful truth he preached, and the Thessalonians could see it. Paul does not say here in 1:5, “just as we proved to be a certain way among you.” He says, “just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you.” Paul is appealing to what they themselves can vouch for. In 2:1 Paul says, “You yourselves know, brothers.” In 2:2 he says, “As you know.” In 2:5 he says again, “As you know.” In 2:9 he says, “You remember, brothers.” In 2:10, “You are witnesses.” In 2:11, “You know.” As Paul pulls up these memories, he isn’t worried what they might think. He can leave it up to them to draw their own conclusions, because they know how he lived among them. His proven track record of unselfish love makes the phrase “for your sake” at the end of 1:5 shine with the credibility of human loveliness, and in the rest of the passage Paul unpacks the words “for your sake.” He pulls up more and more memories of their happy experience together, and we get to listen in on the conversation, to learn what kind of preacher may properly look for power, the Holy Spirit, and full conviction in his ministry.
In chapter 2 Paul shows us four marks of the kind of man he was among the Thessalonians for their sake: boldness in response to opposition (2:1–4); gentleness in response to immaturity (2:5–8); work in response to need (2:9–12); and yearning in response to separation (2:17–20). The most obvious feature of chapter 2—and the most important—is the overflowingly emotional tone of it. The relational emotions packed inside the three simple words “for your sake” explode with color and fullness and beauty in chapter 2.
2.1. Boldness in Response to Opposition (1 Thess 2:1–4)
Some preachers are a real pain in the neck. Their boldness is fleshly bravado. The hidden motive is to use people in order to gratify their own personal ego-needs. Paul was bold, but not that way. His unselfish love is the whole point of this lecture. He did endure strife. The man we revere today as the great apostle was in his own time perceived as controversial. Why? He took the implications of the gospel to a new level in his ministry to the Gentiles. He did it boldly. The New Testament word for boldness—Paul uses the verbal form here in 2:2—is a compound of παν + ρησια,6 suggesting boldness as an “all-saying” candor and frankness. Boldness says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), though it was a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).
Paul paid a price for that. He had already suffered in Philippi. Then he went on to Thessalonica “in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thess 2:2). What sustained his boldness? He set his heart on God: “We speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (2:4). And the wonderful thing was that he felt God’s approval: “We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.” He wasn’t ministering for God’s approval but out of God’s approval. He ministered not out of emotional emptiness but out of emotional fullness. The felt smile of God gave him the personal objectivity to love people rather than use them.
If we need people in the wrong way, just to help us stand on our own two feet as men, we will end up manipulating them for our own needs. That would be displeasing to God and disempowering to the gospel. But if we’re standing on the emotional bedrock of God’s overflowing approval in Christ, then we can love people. That’s when we have something to give them consistent with the gospel itself—the smile of God on terms of grace through Jesus Christ crucified. Richard Lovelace nails it for us preachers when he writes,
Only a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are [sic] solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives. . . . Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude. In order for a pure and lasting work of spiritual renewal to take place within the church, multitudes within it must be led to build their lives on this foundation.7
My brothers, let that renewal begin with us. Let’s begin each day with this astonishing thought: We have God’s approval already, and on terms of grace in Christ. You do not need to become the next big name in American preaching to feel that your life is worth something. If you go that way, you will be unable to love people. Your ministry will be about you. But if you begin every day with the happy truth that you are accepted in Christ, you’ll have something to give. But watch your heart like a hawk. Every heart is capable of the reverse-alchemy by which the golden gospel is turned into leaden law. Martin Luther wrote,
It is the supreme art of the devil that he can make the law out of the gospel. If I can hold onto the distinction between law and gospel, I can say to him any and every time that he should kiss my backside. . . . Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I reply on the basis of the gospel, “The forgiveness of sins covers it all,” I have won.8
We win the battle against self-centered ministry not by debating within ourselves what we deserve but by announcing to ourselves what Christ has given us. Further, Christ has set us apart as preachers of this liberating gospel. God must love us very much. Let the happiness of it comfort your heart.
But as instructive as Paul’s boldness is, we’re still looking for a fuller explanation of the phrase, “for your sake.”
2.2. Gentleness in Response to Immaturity (1 Thess 2:5–8)
The key is 2:7: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” Paul was no babysitter, tolerating the antics of someone else’s children until the parents returned home. He cared for them as a mother does her own children. He was gentle, kind, soft, mild, soothing, not intense, not formidable, not threatening. He could see how much they didn’t understand as new converts. But their immaturity wasn’t a problem for Paul any more than the infancy of a newborn baby is a problem to its parents. The joy is in the child itself, the new life, the future. Paul loved these new Christians not just for what they were but for what God would make of them. He loved them in hope, and this love possessed him, sweeping him away to lengths of sacrifice only a parent understands: “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2:8). Contrary to the esv, Paul doesn’t say he was ready to give himself away, prepared in principle to give himself away; he is saying he actually did it: “We were delighted to share with you . . .” (niv). He didn’t resent them for what they cost him. He wasn’t sulking with the thought, “They have no idea the price I’m paying for them.” He wasn’t waiting for a huge thank-you. He was happy to give his life away. He puts “we were delighted” in the imperfect tense because it was his whole mentality. He wasn’t jealous of his boundaries. Moment by moment, the question in his mind was, “How can I right now give myself away to these dear people?”
We have come to the heart of the passage. We are seeing what that phrase “for your sake” back in 1:5 really means. We are seeing what kind of man Paul was. He desired them. He did not desire their money or their praise or power over them. He desired them—and not that they would give to him but that they would let him give to them. The word translated “being affectionately desirous” in 2:8 (?μειρ?μενοι) is used only here in the New Testament and rarely outside the New Testament. This word is found inscribed on a fourth-century grave describing the yearnings of two parents for their son buried there.9 Is there any more tender yearning?
Not only did Paul have no ulterior motives of self-seeking, he was positively filled with motherly emotion for the Thessalonians—and he wasn’t embarrassed to show it. And remember—Paul is not telling them here how he felt; he is recalling what they themselves saw in the kind of man he was. How could they not take such a man seriously? How could his message not make an impact?
George Whitefield loved people, and they felt it. He writes in his journal about such a preaching occasion:
I began to speak, as the Lord gave me utterance. At first, the people seemed unaffected, but in the midst of my discourse, the power of the Lord Jesus came upon me, and I felt such a struggling within myself for the people as I scarce ever felt before. The hearers began to be melted down immediately and to cry much; and we had good reason to hope the Lord intended good for many.10
May that loving power come upon us.
2.3. Work in Response to Need (1 Thess 2:9–12)
Now Paul changes his simile from a mother to a father as he strains at the leash of language to describe the relational and emotional experience they all shared together: “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (2:11–12). That’s what good fathers do. They inspire their kids. Mom nurtures. Dad challenges. Kids need both, and Paul did both. In one-on-one conversations, Paul looked them right in the eye and urged them strongly toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. He had the moral authority to do that because as their spiritual father he worked hard to provide for them: “We worked night and day that we might not be a burden to any of you” (2:9).
In 2:13–16, Paul builds a sidebar. He returns to the point he made in 1:5—the powerful impact of the gospel—with fuller details about the price the Thessalonians have paid for their newfound faith. In this paragraph his focus shifts from what kind of man Paul was to what kind of converts the Thessalonians have become. He shows that he understands the struggle they are facing, but he doesn’t let the thought of backing off even enter their minds. He shows them the nobility of their cause and the eternal consequences at stake. But their crisis does open the door for Paul to reassure them yet further of his feelings for them, now in an intensely climactic outpouring of love.
2.4. Yearning in Response to Separation (1 Thess 2:17–20)
“We were torn away from you, brothers” (2:17). Or, as BDAG translates it, “we were made orphans by separation from you.”11 Paul felt like a mother to them, like a father to them, and now like an orphan from them. What emotional depth is this man not capable of? We might think, “Paul, aren’t you overreacting? You yourself say here it’s only ‘for a short time.’” But our emotional stinginess is the very weakness the Holy Spirit gently brings to the surface by showing us the generous heart of Paul. There are many “one anothers” in the New Testament. Where among them does the Bible say, “Love one another moderately”?
Heaping terms upon terms, Paul describes his feelings as “great desire” here in 2:17, even as he was “affectionately desirous” of them in 2:8. But he uses a different word here in 2:17—the noun often used elsewhere in the New Testament for “lust.” What does Paul desire so ardently? Just this: “to see you face to face.” There is something irreplaceable, almost mystical, about a human face-to-face encounter. Email might be the crudest form of communication ever invented. Here’s a better way: “to see you face to face.” It’s so simple, so effective. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Revolution is seeing each other a lot.”12 Getting together makes everything good more powerful. Paul the preacher said, “We endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.” He was writing this letter to say that. This letter itself could not accomplish all that he wants. A letter is good, but face-to-face is better. Satan knows it. The greatest strategist against the cause of Christ in all the universe bends his terrible designs again and again to this end, as we see in 2:18, that we would not see one another.
Finally, with language that might seem reckless, even borderline idolatrous, Paul opens his heart without holding back: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (2:19–20). What is the crowning glory, the pride and joy, of Paul’s life mission? Is it not the Thessalonians? That is how unguardedly, if I may put it that way, Paul identifies with his people. And wearing the crown that they are to him and feeling the joy that they are to him “before our Lord Jesus at his coming” means it is permanent. It is recognized by the Lord Jesus himself as authentic and worthy. The special love between pastor and people begins in time but never ends throughout eternity. Even if Satan hinders Paul’s reunion with his friends in this life, they will meet again as pastor and people, and it will be immeasurably happy forever.
When the risen Lord of the church sends you to a people as their pastor, he is not sending you to them as their critic but as their friend. They may be immature. They may be bogged down in tradition or dazzled by neomania. But they are yours by the gracious appointment of Christ, and you will know them forever. If you hope for the gospel to work in their hearts with power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, as of course you do, then don’t just preach to them; desire them. Desire not what they can do for you but what you can do for them. Love them, enjoy them, delight in them, honor them. When other pastors gripe about their churches, you set another tone. Lift your people up. Be their champion and defender. They are your glory and joy at the Second Coming. I close with Spurgeon:
A man who is to do much with men must love them and feel at home with them. An individual who has no geniality about him had better be an undertaker and bury the dead, for he will never succeed in influencing the living. . . . A man must have a great heart, if he would have a great congregation. His heart should be as capacious as those noble harbors along our coast, which contain sea-room for a fleet. When a man has a large, loving heart, men go to him as ships to a haven and feel at peace when they have anchored under the lee of his friendship. Such a man is hearty in private as well as in public; his blood is not cold and fishy but he is warm as your own fireside. No pride and selfishness chill you when you approach him; he has his doors all open to receive you, and you are home with him at once. Such men I would persuade you to be, every one of you.13