A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 2:1-3:13. 2). Christian ministry or How pastors serve both the gospel and the church.
Part of the abiding value of 1 Thessalonians 2 and 3 is the insight it gives into Paul’s pastoral heart. In these chapters, more perhaps than anywhere else in his letters, he discloses his mind, expresses his emotions and bares his soul. No-one who is engaged in any form of pastoral ministry (ordained or lay) can fail to be touched and challenged by what Paul writes here.
True, he was an apostle and we are not. That is, we have neither seen the risen Lord, nor been commissioned to be his eye-witnesses, nor received a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit to teach with authority or contribute to the New Testament – which were some of the distinctive privileges of the apostles of Christ, especially the Twelve and Paul. Nevertheless, other aspects of the apostles’ ministry were not unique to them, for example their pastoral concern and care, of which they provide an excellent model for us to copy, not least in these two chapters of 1 Thessalonians.
Before we consider their contemporary application, we need to recall their historical background. The brief mission in Thessalonica had been brought to an ignominious end. The public riot and the legal charges against the missionaries were so serious that they were persuaded to make a humiliating night flight from the city. Paul’s critics took full advantage of his sudden disappearance. In order to undermine his authority and his gospel, they determined to discredit him. So they launched a malicious smear campaign. By studying Paul’s self-defence it is possible for us to reconstruct their slanders. ‘He ran away’, they sneered, ‘and hasn’t been seen or heard of since. Obviously he’s insincere, impelled by the basest motives. He’s just one more of those many phoney teachers who tramp up and down the Egnatian Way. In a word, he’s a charlatan. He’s in the job only for what he can get out of it in terms of sex, money, prestige or power. So when opposition arose, and he found himself in personal danger, he took to his heels and ran! He doesn’t care about you Thessalonian disciples of his; he has abandoned you! He’s much more concerned about his own skin than your welfare.’
It seems likely that some of the Thessalonians were being carried away by this torrent of abuse. The facts of Paul’s abrupt departure and failure to return seemed to fit the accusations being made against him. His critics’ case sounded pretty plausible. So Paul must have found this personal attack extremely painful. Perhaps he drew comfort from his knowledge that Jesus had himself been misrepresented as being a glutton and a wine-bibber, a law-breaker, seditious, in league with the devil, and even mad. Paul also determined to reply to the charges which were being levelled at him, not out of pique or vanity, but because the truth of the gospel and the future of the church were at stake. Chapters two and three of 1 Thessalonians are, in fact, his *apologia pro vita sua*. First, he defends his conduct when he was in Thessalonica (2:1-16). Secondly, he explains his involuntary departure from the city, his subsequent inability to go back and his determination to visit them again as soon as he can (2:17-3:13).
Before we are ready to consider his case, however, we need to note two general and preliminary points which he makes, namely the openness of his ministry and his willingness to suffer.
*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.*
According to the Greek sentence, Paul is making a clear-cut contrast between verses 1 and 2, for verse 1 contains a ‘not’ and verse 2 begins with the strong adversative *alla*, ‘but’, which NIV omits. He is saying that his visit to Thessalonica was not one thing but another. It was not *kenos*, ‘empty’. That much is clear. But empty of what? Most commentators translate it ‘empty of results’ (as in 3:5), ‘a failure (NIV), ‘fruitless’ (REB), ‘ineffectual’ (JB). The problem with this interpretation, however, is that verse 2 does not contrast with it. To say that Paul’s visit was not a failure, but that he dared to preach does not really make sense, since the result of the preaching is not mentioned in verse 2. The alternative is to render *kenos* ‘empty of purpose’ not ‘empty of result’, ‘aimless’ not ‘fruitless’. Lightfoot explained *kenos* in this way, namely ‘hollow, empty, wanting in purpose and earnestness’. Then verses 1 and 2 hold together. Far from being empty-handed on arrival at Thessalonica, with nothing to say or bring, Paul had had the courage to preach the gospel and risk the persecution.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.