In a break-out session at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 conference in Indianapolis, Jarod Wilson developed some of the themes in his book ‘The Gospel Driven Church’ and he did so in a way that might be helpful to us in Wales too.
In an earlier book, ‘The Prodigal Church’, he questioned the attractional model (which aims to put on an attractive, entertaining, inoffensive sort of Sunday activity). 'The Gospel Driven Church' which he discussed in Indianapolis is about how to set about transitioning from being an attractional sort of church to being a church much more centred on the Gospel.
You can listen to or read the transcript of Jared Wilson's talk in this link.
So, ‘The Gospel Driven Church’ is about how to lead a church from being a Sunday entertainment, feel-good centre towards being a church that is actually ‘Gospel centred’ ... the approach that is very much the point in our passage in 1 Thessalonians today.
The Wilson 'thesis'
In his talk Jared Wilson addresses the Gospel recovery movement of the last 15-20 years. This helped many churches back to a Biblical, Gospel focus but he argues there’s been a bit of a drift back because now he believes many Evangelical churches are on the verge of assuming the Gospel, and that sits just next door to losing the focus on the Gospel altogether.
Many appear, he says, to have a Gospel centred vocabulary … but they are making 'Gospel' into a "tribal adjective", so that it amounts to not much more than their 'tag line' ... and that opens the door (says Wilson) to Gospel confusion.
In an attempt to explain, Wilson refers to Don Carson in his little book on Philippians (‘Basics for Believers’) where Carson talks about a Mennonite friend of his called Dr. Paul Hiebert who was a distinguished missiologist.
Paul Hiebert and generational slippage
Hiebert described a situation in his Mennonite denomination where he observed that
- one generation of Evangelicals HELD TIGHT TO the Gospel, and believed that this had certain social and political implications arising from it.
- The next generation of those believers (said Hiebert) ASSUMED the Gospel, but identified with the social and political implications.
- The following generation DENIED the Gospel, as the implications became EVERYTHING to them.
Carson’s point is that large swathes of English-speaking Evangelicalism are camped in the second generation, with some of them drifting towards the third.
That is a scary thought and puts us at a point
where we need to
clearly reassert that social care is NOT ‘the Gospel’.
The Gospel is emphatically NOT anything WE do.
The Gospel is the message which,
we receive salvation as the free gift of God.
Rationalising generational slippage
Now, beneath the surface of what’s going on, the reasons for this Gospel drift across the generations often relate to the hostility, or just social ostracism, that we fear will result from Gospel clarity … the world around us cheers when we help the poor and the marginalised, but bites back when we address the application of the Gospel to the needs of EVERYONE’s soul.
Putting it a less cosy sort of way … the devil doesn’t mind us looking after people’s mortal bodies, because they’re temporary and what we’re doing won’t stop him getting hold of their souls by and by.
But he’s very displeased by our Gospel work, because that springs souls out of his grasp, and does that for eternity.
Please remember that what is happening in 1 Thessalonians 2 is that Paul is trying to encourage the new believers in Thessalonica to learn by imitating the Apostolic team. Learning by IMITATING (as we saw in the previous 1 Thessalonians post) is the purpose of the chapter we'r looking at.
In chapter 1 verse 6 they'd spoken approvingly of how:
"You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere."
What we're seeing today in 1 Thessalonians 2:2-4 is how the Apostles had been while the Thessalonians watched and the Apostles are saying: 'this then is how you should be'.
Paul & co. in Thessalonica as everywhere else, were
an absolutely gospel-centred, focused outreach outfit.
Look at v. 2, where Paul says …
We dared to tell you the Gospel of God
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
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.”
The genitive in the phrase (, “the gospel of God”) could be translated as either
- a subjective genitive (“the gospel which God brings”) or
- an objective genitive (“the gospel about God”).
Either is grammatically possible.
However, Max Zerwick (in his 'Biblical Greek' sections 36-39) along with a good number of other Greek scholars suggests this could be a plenary genitive, highlighting the fact that the gospel which God brings is in fact the gospel about Himself.
It is so easy to keep talking ABOUT the Gospel without telling or proclaiming the Gospel itself, or portraying the God Who is at the heart of the message.
It is really important to focus our efforts on getting God and His Gospel being preached, not simply being preached about.
What we did when we came there, says Paul, is
we went straight to it and TOLD you, the Gospel.
Verbal communication of propositional truth is how God plans for people to come to saving faith in Christ.
Now, telling our experience can incline people to give the Gospel a good hearing, but it is Gospel truth verbally communicated that brings faith to the heart.
That is the case 100% all across the face of the Scriptures.
The infinitive here λαλῆσαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ ('we spoke to you the Gospel of God') can ONLY denote the oral communication of Paul and his team.
1) to utter a voice or emit a sound 2) to speak 2a) to use the tongue or the faculty of speech 2b) to utter articulate sounds 3) to talk 4) to utter, tell 5) to use words in order to declare one's mind and disclose one's thoughts 5a) to speak
No great fanfare, rostrum, pulpit or fandango is indicated. (A big pulpit can be an excellent place to hide ... what's the saying: 'five feet above criticism?'
No. In spite of everything that counselled against the idea, the apostles DARED to tell the Thessalonians the Gospel of God.
We’ve seen already that what this took was daring … and it does to our very own day.
Around the world, more than 340 million Christians … on these figures one in eight believers … experience high levels of persecution for following Jesus.
For the past 29 years the Open Doors World Watch List has provided a global indicator of countries where human and religious rights were being violated.
David Curry, the President of Open Doors USA, “The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a bad situation into an unbearable one … this public health crisis created an opportunity to expand faith-based discrimination and violence in regions where religious persecution had already reached alarming rates.”
And the number one reason believers in our time and our culture don’t tell people the Gospel is that for fear of some consequence or another, we do not DARE to tell people the Gospel.
It is easy to meet people’s needs, to do Good Samaritan works that help people in this life.
It requires faithful godly daring to tell people the Good News of God because the devil and his adherents kick up a stink about it.
It’s a spiritual battle and warfare is scary and it’s a mortal spiritual fight for lost souls.
‘We dared to tell you the Gospel of God’.
And as always it was ‘in spite of everything’.
What is the ‘everything’ that Paul & co. have in mind here?
They took the
Gospel of God across to Thessalonica and they preached it in spite firstly of
everything that had just happened in Philippi
They had ‘suffered’ and been ‘badly treated’ in Philippi.
- They’d stepped in to spiritually liberate an exploited slave girl from the demons that afflicted her and then been hauled up by a violent mob before the magistrates.
- They were subjected there to racial abuse (Acts 16:20-21).
- They were stripped of their clothing in public, then they were flogged and thrown into the high security inner gaol for their service in the Gospel.
- And all this was an affront to the dignity of Paul and Silas who BOTH were Roman citizens this should never have happened to (Acts 16:37-39).
Paul and Silas lived in and were surrounded by what sociologists would describe as a shame culture. I’ve been reading about this recently in an interesting book by a couple of returned missionaries called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.
There’s a lot in there about the differences between the Collectivist shame culture of the New Testament world and how we see things through our eyes in the individualistic guilt culture of the modern West.
Public shaming doesn’t have the same impact here today as it did in the Thessalonica or the Philippi of Paul’s day.
In that culture, the degradation of the Apostles could not have been more complete.
It would affect all their social relationships henceforth in Philippi.
Brian Rapske writes “There would be no honour for them or their message.”
It is totally counter-cultural that the apostolic team did not seek to hide their beating.
Calvin, of all people, makes the point: “It was therefore an evidence of a Divine work that Paul, after having been subjected to evils of all kinds and to ignominy did … shew no hesitation in making an attempt upon a large and opulent city, with the view of subjecting the inhabitants of it to Christ.”
The Apostles DARED to tell the Gospel to the Thessalonians in spite of everything at Philippi and in spite of where doing so also got them at Thessalonica
Gary Shogren in his commentary translates v. 2 for us “Still we found courage in our God o communicate to you the Gospel of God in the face of [even more] opposition.”
What happened at Thessalonica was that God’s gospel came with power and Jews and Gentiles alike started believing it, finding faith and being saved.
But as is often the case, human nature reared up in those who didn’t chose to believe it.
Without counter-arguments to offer the opponents raised a violent rabble to drag new believers to the magistrates and the rest is all ecclesiastical history … but the church nonetheless stood up on its own feet at Thessalonica, because the Apostles dared to tell them the Gospel.
In spite of everything, the example to be learned from was "in spite of everything, we dared to tell you the Gospel of God".
Now, this telling the Gospel is all very valiant action … but the
key to getting it to happen in Paul & co.’s minds was not a pep talk, nor sympathy for the
Thessalonians, nor concern for their reputations as industry-leading
It all lay in the inner motivations of their hearts and
if we wish we were
more daring to tell people the Gospel,
it’s the strings of our hearts that need to be tuned.
The key to it all, says Paul, is who you are focused on pleasing.
It means 1) to please 2) to strive to please 2a) to accommodate one's self to the opinions desires and interests of others
Jayson Georges has written an excellent book for Christian cross-cultural workers called ‘Ministering in Patronage Cultures’.
Fundamentally the way the world of the New Testament worked was that patron-client relationships made the world go round … these were reciprocal relationships between a patron and a client where patron’s used their influence and their wealth to ensure other people’s security and survival.
Clients on the other hand attach themselves to a patron to secure protection and resources, and repay not with money but with social capital, respect, honour and gratitude.
It was all about - honourably - PLEASING people. It was honourable for both sides of this relationship to play their part. According to Seneca, it was the moral course of action to take ... paying in social capital.
Or as this Greek verb Paul uses here has it, “to accommodate one's self to the opinions desires and interests of others”.
It’s who we live to PLEASE that makes this telling the Gospel daringly to be possible.
Pleasing GOD is a fundamental rule for the Christian life.
He is, as it were, our Patron (although so much more) and we are His loyal 'clients' in this life, so we consider it our gratitude-driven purpose to please Him.
It is the RIGHT course of action in a first century cultural context ... and nobody would have thought otherwise.
Now this is very important because the Apostles were preaching free salvation but the way they were doing it was like this … they were NOT asking for nothing, but for something.
How do you preach a free salvation when you’re actually asking for something? By referencing a freely entered into but dependent relationship that Paul's hearers lived in and which they saw as not only moral but far from onerous.
I’ve heard the Gospel preached so often as if it were the classic con-man’s bait and switch! That is NOT how a first century Thessalonian would have seen this at all.
What does this verse say?
v. 3“For the appeal we make does not spring from …”
Wow! Stop there … it’s an appeal, so Paul you are DEFINITELY asking us for something there!
Well, you could translate this phrase: “For our exhortation.”
Paul here uses () to speak in broad terms about his preaching of the gospel, in which he urges or appeals to people to respond to God’s salvation with loyal faith.
But we know that faith comes to us as the gift, and all we need to do is turn to Him for it.
That is what the Apostles called for.
There's the difference between telling someone the Gospel and actually only telling them ABOUT it!
And the difference is in the passionate appeal to get HOLD of it!
You know the Health service doesn’t cost you nothing, but it’s free at the point of delivery?
That’s probably not the best real-world analogy, but salvation is free at the point of delivery … and yet there is an obligation because with this free salvation (totally paid for by Someone else already) you need to respond and to stick out your hand for it by turning from every other empty way of salvation on offer to take hold of it with both of your hands.
And then there’s a spontaneous response of gratitude, honour and whatever else it's in your power to dispose which is the response made to the benefit you’ve received.
And the apostolic way to communicate this is to APPEAL, to exhort, to urge people to do just that and get HOLD of it.
That is the central Christian focus that we are HONEST about, as we interact at the interface with our world.
Can you see how that point there is relevant to what we were saying with Professors Carson and Hiebert’s help in our introduction just now? The response God looks for is to tell OTHERS how great he's been to us and to tell them the Gospel.
Our motivations and methods were crystal clear say the team, and YES we made a strong Gospel appeal to you all.
What enabled and motivated us?
HOW were we not afraid but BOLD to tell you the Gospel of
Paul makes that clear with two negatives then one positive
A. Not self-pleasers
We weren’t coming there for the sake of
our health … we were not seeking any benefit for ourselves
1. Not error
“the appeal we make does not spring from error “
Those guys were there serving another cause entirely … the TRUTH.
Truth was their great big motivation … and living as we do in such a heavily post-truth era, that has got to be our unique point of distinction!
This is the SURPRISING thing that marks us out and sets us
We tell the Gospel because we’re wedded to the truth.
They weren’t there to assert things that make THEM happy and that THEY could be comfortable with … their commitment was to the uncomfortable truth … truth that also makes US squirm at OUR failures and OUR faults.
That has a huge impact on the way we tell folks the Good News of God.
“or impure motives”
Now this is REALLY relevant to our contemporary church context.
1) uncleanness 1a) physical 1b) in a moral sense: the impurity of lustful, luxurious, profligate living 1b1) of impure motives
It is possible to set out, or to pursue, Christian ministry and leadership to further yourself in such things … and Paul and co. repudiate that here.
I saw an article recently on just how mega-rich being mega-pastors had made some Americans whose names are well-known as Evangelical super-stars.
I have no way of checking on that article so I won’t go into it, but let’s signpost that Ezekiel has harsh things to say about shepherds who are in it for themselves and use their position to tear at the flock.
You can read about it in Ezekiel 34:10 ff.
How different the example of godliness we’ve seen recently in the Anglican church in Uganda:
“It is with a very heavy heart that I inform you that my predecessor, retired Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, has been involved in an extra-marital affair with a married woman, which he has acknowledged.
This adultery is a grievous betrayal on many levels. Retired Archbishop Ntagali has betrayed his Lord and Saviour, his wife and their marriage vows, as well as the faith of many Ugandans and global Christians who looked to him to live the faith he proclaimed.
He betrayed the office of Archbishop, his ordination vows, and the moral commitments he championed.
The Church of Uganda has approximately 13 million members, all of whom have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” as the Bible says in Romans 3.23. At the same time, the Church holds its leaders more accountable to the same standards we are all called to uphold.
… We are committed to transparency as well as pastoral care for those who have been affected by this situation.
This is not a time for us to gossip. This is a time for repentance; a time for prayer; a time to examine our own sin and failings in humility; and a time to make all our relationships right before God.
Please pray for the spouses in both relationships, for repentance and healing in those who have committed adultery, and for justice and forgiveness to flow throughout our land.
Finally, I want to make it very clear that the Church of Uganda continues to uphold marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union between one man and one woman. Adultery is as immoral as homosexuality and we will not shy away from our commitment to this moral standard.
Likewise, if there are any church structures that have enabled such behaviour to be covered up, we are committed to identifying them and repenting of systems that protect abusers and harm victims. No one is above God’s law.”
THAT is the sort of commitment to clarity and the sort of Gospel centredness that Paul & co. are reflecting to us in this passage. Repudiating (in this verse) ἀκαθαρσία, and doing it with the grace the Gospel gives.
That is how, v. 4, you “ speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.”
So here the Apostles model repudiating trickery - δόλος
1) craft, deceit, guile - in the way that we deal with other people. (But we've basically covered this elsewhere already).
The Apostles repudiated pleasing themselves ... whilst our culture outspokenly makes 'self actualisation' a moral value and portrays that as good.
v. 4b “We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.”
It’s GOD’s approval they are seeking, with integrity.
This is what’s making them fearless in telling people the Gospel of God, remember!
Secure in the favour of God, they have no desire to curry the favour of mankind.
They don’t MIND if people think badly of them!
But they VALUE the thought of being please to God.
The message they’re bringing to the gentile world is viewed by them as a sacred trust … and certainly must not be adulterated.
F.F. Bruce: “Not only could the Gospel be neutralised by inadequacies or distortions in the language in which it was communicated; it could be neutralised by conduct on the preachers’ part which was inconsistent with its character or unworthy of the God Whose Gospel it was.” (p.28)
These Apostles are conscious that the Gospel of Grace has been placed in their hands but they hold it on trust … trust explained for example by the parable of the talents, unfolded in the Lord’s words to Paul on the Damascus Road commissioning him to go far away to the Gentiles, the performance of that trust motivated by the grace of God in the Gospel which lead them to live sacrificially Gospel-centred lives.
a. Approved by God
We’re on trust, Paul & co. to seek ultimately ONLY the approval of God.
God is the judge of all the earth, and He shall be the only judge of me.
Now, make no mistake, we care for His people and we want to foster warm, loving fellowship with all of them.
We’ll strive to maintain such a unity.
And the opinions they hold to DO touch us … you can hear it in the tone of both first and second Corinthians where Paul has clearly been cut to the heart.
We do not ride roughshod over others opinions, we are accountable to fellow believers and our local churches … Paul and Silas happily reported to the church at Antioch that sent them out on their mission …
But we don’t hanker for fulfilling approval from our unbelieving hearers, nor even from God’s servants.
Our hearts are both motivated for and swayed by only the approval of the Saviour Himself, who has privileged us to be placed on trust with this precious Gospel.
b. On trust - entrusted with the Gospel
v.4 “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel”.
We’re on trust to be faithful with the Gospel committed to us.
We’ve been commissioned and are committed to the service of the absolute treasure of the Good News that’s been given to us.
We’ve been trusted to take the Gospel that brings salvation … not to hide it away in a library, in a college, in a MONASTERY?!
The Gospel isn’t going to fulfil its’ purpose very widely in there!
And neither will we fulfil our trust if we confine ourselves to what may well feel like such safe spaces.
They’re approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel … and so they DARED to speak it out to the potentially quite threatening and dangerous people of Thessalonica.
And they weren’t swayed by that potential opposition and criticism and hostility … because they thought only of the judgement of the ‘God, Who tests our hearts.’
There's OUR example to you says Paul, trying to please God because we see ourselves as people on trust, eager to be approved by God by the way we fulfil that trust, and answering for it only to the One Who gave it to us, answering only to Him.
v. 4b “God, who tests our hearts.”
The verb is δοκιμάζω
1) to test, examine, prove, scrutinise (to see whether a thing is genuine or not), as metals 2) to recognise as genuine after examination, to approve, deem worthy
The idea that it is really only God Who knows and can therefore test our hearts is one rooted in the OT literature.
(Pss. 7:9, 139:23, Prov. 17:3, Jer. 11:20, 12:3, 17:10, 1 Chron. 28:9, 29:7)
And that flows over into NT theology too, so for example we read in Romans 8:27 “And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
The concept crops up in Acts then you read it again in Revelation 2:23 where the Risen Lord speaks to the church at Thyatira as “he who searches hearts and minds”.
Here Paul appeals to the God Who is the only One Who knows human hearts and minds to judge and vindicate the motives of the Apostles’ hearts, because that’s the key to where being pleasing TO GOD will be found, and that is what has motivated these Apostles daring to tell you the Good News about and from God.
That's the extent and the reason for the Gospel Centred-ness of the Apostolic team.
And THAT is the model for you to imitate.
Now, there you have it.
When the Apostles came to Thessalonica, in spite of every knock back they’d had at Philippi and in spite of the fact that they were still nursing the wounds that had been inflicted on them there, they DARED to tell the Thessalonians the Gospel.
And they dared to on the basis of the three letter word that starts off v. 3.It's the explanation word that gets used there: ‘for’.
It was for THESE reasons they dared to tell the Gospel to the Philippians … not a better, or more seeker-sensitive, or more socially sensitive, or more toned down, acculturated gospel (a more popular one) to try to get over the vigorous negative response they’d got at Philippi …
And here again at Thessalonica, motivated by compassion, by care and by the overwhelming desire not to please mankind but to please GOD … Who had ENTRUSTED them with His Gospel of grace … they “dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.”
They were to be calling together the flock of God’s sheep, not entertaining a larger herd of well-pleased and pacified goats.
That is NOT to say that in Thessalonica, Paul was offensive.
You go back to Acts 17:2-4 and read about what he did there!
He went into the synagogue as a rabbi was entitled to, and there in what was a much more open forum than you get in a church service he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, he explained to them and he proved to them, that the Messiah they were looking for had to die and be raised from the dead.
And what was his point?
What … that you’ve all got to go out and eat ham sandwiches now?
He didn’t stamp all over their heritage or their culture and put it all in terms of their history and traditions:
Acts 17:3 “ ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said.”
And then we read: “ But other Jews were jealous” … and that’s where the trouble began.
You cannot please God and sinful humanity, the Scriptures of the New Testament are FULL of that, when are we going to get our heads around it?
Remember, this passage is all about learning from imitating - the lost art of mimesis - 'being imitators of us and of the Lord'.
Must it only be when that third generation Professor Hiebert talks about have emptied the chapels and enervated their Christian witness to the point where desperation drives a remnant of God’s people back to the Book?
Or are we able to commit to constant Reformation of our attitudes, ideals and practices to the Scripture … and the set of mind that the Apostles in 1 Thessalonians 2:2-4 are MODELLING for us to learn from today?
"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. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 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."