October 19, 2020
The Proper 25A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 22:34-46 from the Lectionary Gospel; Deuteronomy 34:1-12, from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 1 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Gospel Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 93 (Lord’s Day 34)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Back to the beginning.
That might be a good way to understand this passage in Matthew 22. Because in a couple of ways, these verses hark back to how Matthew began Jesus’ story in this Gospel.
First there is the genealogy in Matthew 1. In that “family tree” of Jesus Matthew inserts something into the otherwise regular pattern of “So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, who was the father of so-and-so . . .”. Matthew inserts what some have called “a holy irregularity” when at the very end of the genealogy he does not list Joseph as “the father of Jesus” but instead tells us that Joseph was “Mary’s husband.”
Tucked inside that little genealogical irregularity is an explosive theological truth: Matthew is telling us that although Jesus has a distinct lineage in the line of David, he was and is finally more than his ancestry could produce. Jesus may have been the grandson and the great-grandson and the great-great-great . . . –grandson of all those people but in the end he surpassed them all, too. He was more than David’s son. He was the Son of God, he was Yahweh in flesh, he was the Lord of all lords and the King of all kings.
Matthew told us this right off the bat. And now as the public ministry of Jesus comes in for its bumpy landing on the road to Golgotha, Jesus himself circles back to this. He asks the Pharisees a question as to the lineage of the Messiah. They claim the Messiah is David’s son, to which Jesus then replies that if he was only David’s son, then why would David himself have shown him the deference of calling him his very Lord?
We are told that no one could give a word of reply, but the reason for this silence was not because they did not know the answer. They just did not much like the answer. The answer is that the true Messiah is more than his ancestry could produce because the true Messiah was God himself. And as commentator Dale Bruner points out, if that is true, then that means that the answers Jesus had just given to the clever questions of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was no less than the Word of God himself and their opposition to that Word—and to the Word made flesh, while we’re at it—pointed to the fact that these folks were on the wrong side of history.
Jesus did not make many very overt claims to being divine or to being the Messiah. But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.
Second, commentator Dale Bruner thinks that Matthew 22 contributes to a kind of frame around the ministry of Jesus as Matthew has presented it. Jesus’ ministry began when he faced three temptations from Satan in the wilderness. Now, as Jesus is only a day or two away from being arrested and killed, the ministry concludes with three other tests that come in the form of three questions.
They bookend Jesus’ public ministry.
The Pharisees first ask about paying taxes to Caesar, hoping to get Jesus in trouble with the Roman IRS in case Jesus comes out and says something treasonous. They strike out with that question, and so next the Sadducees come up with a clever question about marriage in heaven. Jesus neatly sidesteps also this trap. So then it’s the Pharisees’ turn again and so they ask him about the Law of God. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?”
It’s an innocent-looking question but really it is a stealth attempt to make Jesus look like a theological liberal. If Jesus picked out any of the Bible’s commandments and elevated it to the status of #1, that would imply that he was treating everything else as second-class. If you are the father of five children and one of them asks you who your favorite kid is, a wise father says, “I love you all the same.” No good parent wants any child to feel like he or she plays second fiddle to the other siblings.
So also here: if they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite commandment, he’ll be guilty of downplaying other commandments. But since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical.
By way of analogy: Imagine your congregation’s reaction if some Sunday you informed them that although you really enjoy Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of John just doesn’t do much for you! When it comes to God’s Word, we’re not supposed to play favorites. God’s Word is God’s Word. Period!
Jesus knows what is going on. An easy way to get off this hook would have been for Jesus to say, “Every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is great. Each commandment is great.” That would have been an effective way out of this, a theological version of the “I love you all the same” answer a wise parent might give to the question of which child is the parent’s favorite. But instead Jesus begins to quote a Bible verse, and at first the Pharisees maybe thought they had him. They didn’t. Because Jesus says that love of God is the greatest of all commandments.
After all, if you don’t love God, you won’t be much inclined to keep any commandment. If, however, you do love God, then the rest follows naturally. And just to make the point, Jesus throws in the second commandment about neighbor- love. Between these two loves, Jesus manages to catch every single commandment you could ever name. Every commandment in the book has something to do with either God or neighbor.
But Jesus’ reply was actually more clever than even that. Because in Jewish circles the single most famous verse is the so-called Shema from Deuteronomy 6. “Shema” is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen” and it comes from that verse, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start of each day and at the conclusion of each day.
In other words, there was no single verse from the entire Torah that the average Jew knew better than this one.
So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ tricky question by quoting a portion of the Shema, he was throwing back in their faces something they took to be exceedingly basic, something that was second-nature to even the youngest Jewish child. It reminds you of the time Karl Barth is said to have been asked what he thought was the most profound of all theological truths. But instead of giving some jargon-laden, academic answer that used words like perichoresis, kenosis, or the insuperable transcendence of God’s prevenient grace as it comes through the vicarious supererogation of the Son, Barth simply said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That answer was charming and disarming. Barth said, “The greatest truth is the one you already know, the one all Christians know, the one a three-year old can sing about.” In Jesus’ case, he was slyly insulting the Pharisees, demonstrating to everyone there that the Pharisees were not really interested in seeing if Jesus could answer their question since even the youngest person there knew that answer already. This was not a difficult question. It was like asking Albert Einstein, “Do you know what 2+2 is?” This was basic, elementary.
And in this case Jesus makes it clear that just asking that question makes the ones posing the question look like the ignorant and foolish ones.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that some textual scholars of the Psalms have many doubts whether the various psalms attributed to David were really written by King David, including Psalm 110 that Jesus here quotes. Theologically, however, it’s probably not vital whether or not David wrote Psalm 110. In the tradition it was attributed to him and that was more than enough warrant for Jesus to make his point about the way in which the Messiah—a Son of David—was nonetheless superior to David (and/or to any other figure in the line of David or any other human leader in Israel ever).
An additional textual point: the original Hebrew of Psalm 110 does have “Yahweh” first and then adonai second in the line “The Lord (Yahweh) said to my Lord (adonai . . .). This would have been obscured in the Hebrew reading of Psalm 110 (devout Hebrews would not have spoken the word “Yahweh” but would have inserted the vocalization of adonai) but it is obscured a bit in the Greek as well where the text of Matthew 22 uses kyrios both times. But it is important to remember that this is the Great I Am of Israel elevating the Messiah to a place superior to David or anyone else on earth.
Matthew’s version of this encounter with the Pharisees shows Jesus subtly changing the original version of the Shema. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6 asks us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Jesus alters it to heart, soul, and mind, and surely the Pharisees and everyone else there noticed the change. As Neal Plantinga once observed, if some night at bedtime your child prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my brain to keep,” well, you’d notice!
It’s difficult to say why Jesus made this substitution. It may well tie in with a key theme of Matthew’s Gospel: namely, that knowledge is important. We have to UNDERSTAND that Jesus is the Messiah and even if he ends up looking different than the tradition had come to expect, he is the One. This is also why, all through Matthew, the disciples come off as more with it than they generally do in, say, Mark’s Gospel. Whereas Mark is content to leave the disciples in a befuddled state any number of times, Matthew’s versions of those same stories often throw in “Then the disciples understood that Jesus meant . . . .” So throwing in “mind” to the traditional Shema formula fits Matthew’s larger purpose.
But specifically here in Matthew 22, Jesus’ mention of “mind” was also was a none-too-subtle rebuke of the Pharisees. They were good at using their minds to do legalistic hair-splitting of all kinds. They had just now focused their mental faculties on coming up with clever questions with which to trip Jesus up. Maybe this was Jesus’ way of telling them that being tricky was not the reason God had given them brains in the first place! We are supposed to honor God in how we think and reason just as surely in how well we live in terms of other areas of morality. God, in short, has something to do with everything. Or at least God should.
Author: Stan Mast
How fitting it is that the life of Moses should end as it does! The man who spent all those days up on Mt. Sinai speaking to God face to face comes to the end of his days on Mt. Nebo speaking face to face with God. And the God who miraculously saved Moses at his birth will miraculously save Moses in his death. What a peak moment this is for Moses and for Israel!
I have stood on Mt. Nebo and I can tell you that Moses could not have seen the entire Promised Land from there. It’s physically impossible. God must have given Moses some supernatural vision, so that “on a clear day [he] could see forever,” as the old song put it. With that in mind, it strikes me that we can preach on this text in two very different ways. As Moses stood on Mt. Nebo, he could look backward and forward. God instructs him to look forward to the Promised Land, but he might have glanced back to the Exodus and those 40 years in the wilderness. Thus, your sermon could be a retrospective look at God’s actions for Israel through Moses or a prospective look at God’s actions after Moses. Or you could do both.
If we look backward with Moses, we will see God’s mysterious leading, God’s mighty deliverance, God’s miraculous provision, Israel’s monstrous rebellion, Israel’s many battles, Israel’s meek faith, and Moses’ marvelous encounters with God. I know, a little alliteration is a good thing, but that much can be nauseating. Give me a break. I had fun coming up with all that and it just might help your people remember the complex history of God and Israel (and us).
Looking back, we can see God’s mysterious leading. When God first brought Israel out of Egypt, the Promised Land lay straight ahead about a hundred miles to the north and east along the coast of the Mediterranean. Instead God led them to make a sharp right turn and travel by the desert road that ran along the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula to the Red Sea and the wilderness beyond.
Why did God lead them on the hard route? Why does God lead us in such difficult ways? Well, God explained that hard right turn in Exodus 13:17-18. Ahead of them by the more direct route lay the warlike Philistines. And God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” Which is a specific way of saying a general truth—that God’s mysterious leading always has a very good and loving reason, even if we don’t have a clue what it is.
Looking back, we can also see God’s mighty deliverance. Just down the road from the that mysterious turn into the desert, Moses saw Israel trapped like rats on the shores of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army pounding down on them. The people cried, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.” What’s the point of being saved if it leads to trouble like this?
Moses cried to the Lord in Exodus 14 and God answered. “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today….” The sea parted and Israel passed through on dry ground, then the sea crashed back and Pharaoh’s hosts were drowned. If we look back at life through the eyes of Moses, we will see God’s hand delivering us in ways we could never have imagined, and have often forgotten.
Again, looking at life through the eyes of Moses, we can see God’s miraculous provision. On the other side of the Red Sea was the terrible wilderness of Sinai where there was no water, no food, no possible way for God’s people to stay alive on their journey to the Promised Land. Once again, Israel hankered for slavery in Egypt where they at least had plenty of food and drink.
But in the wilderness, they had a God who could provide in miraculous ways—turning bitter water sweet, raining bread from heaven and blowing quails all over the camp, and providing water from a rock. We might not see that kind of miracle if we do a retrospective on our lives, but if we look through the eyes of Moses, we will see God’s provision everywhere.
Sadly, when we look back, we might see the kind of monstrous rebellion Israel staged at the foot of Sinai. While Moses was up on that mountain receiving the life-giving Law of Yahweh, the Israelites demanded that Aaron make them a god they could see and touch. Aaron complied and pointing to the Golden Calf he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.
As Moses stood on Nebo, he could vividly recall God’s terrible anger at such monstrous rebellion. With shuddering wonder at his own temerity, Moses remembered how he placed himself between his holy God and these unholy people. “Please forgive their sin,” he cried. Then, in words that anticipated Christ’s work on the cross, he said, “If not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” Which reminds us of how often God has forgiven our monstrous rebellion, when we turned away from the God who has delivered us with his mighty hand and put our faith in the products of our own hands and minds.
Further, as he looked back, Moses could see many battles—with the Amalekites, the Midianites, the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Canaanites. The first battle was the model for the rest. As long as Moses held up his arms in blessing over the battle with the Amalekites, Israel won. As long as God’s blessing was upon them, they defeated their enemies.
So it is with us, whose main battle is not with flesh and blood, but with the spiritual hosts of wickedness. Yes, we weary of the constant struggle of the Christian life. Why can’t we have peace always and everywhere? Well, as Moses looked back, he remembered that assurance from God that there is always a reason. In Exodus 23:29-30, God explained why the conquest of Canaan would take so long. Immediate victory would leave much of the land unoccupied and it would become desolate wasteland filled with prowling beasts.
Our look backward is nearly over, but we must remember our meek faith. Israel showed theirs when they stood at the border of the Promised Land after 2 years in the wilderness. Twelve spies had been sent into the Land to see what was there. Two said that it was good and ripe for conquest, while ten said it was filled with unconquerable enemies. Despite all the mighty things God had already done for them, Israel let their fear kill their faith and they wanted to return to slavery in Egypt.
Although God forgave that weak faith because of the intercession of Moses, Israel suffered the earthly consequences of their faithlessness. Israel wandered for the next 38 years until every last one of the fearful ones had died in the wilderness. As he stood on Nebo, Moses saw how confused and desperate life becomes when we refuse to move ahead because we don’t trust God.
Finally, Moses must have remembered all of his marvelous encounters with God. His meeting with God right after the Golden Calf debacle summarized all the others. Moses pleaded with God, “Let me see your face. Show me your glory.” God said, “No, because then you would die. But I will hide you in the cleft of a rock and cover you with my hand. And I will pass by you… and you will see my back.” That’s the way it is with our marvelous encounters with God. We rarely see him coming, but as we review the past, we see the back of God who has passed by in his grace. The only way we see the glory of God is in the face of Christ. As John 1 puts it, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So now Moses is looking ahead into the Land, having been reminded that he will not be allowed to go in. Instead he will die alone on Mt Nebo. It’s a sad end to a wonderful story. As we stand here, peering into our unknown future, this story of Moses lonely death reminds us of some sobering but salutary truths
First, this story reminds us of the unbreakable connection between evil done and evil suffered, the ultimate expression of which is, “the wages of sin is death.” Moses was not allowed to enter the Land because of his sin at Kadesh out in the wilderness. As Israel faced yet another waterless moment, God told Moses to speak to a rock. Instead, Moses angrily did it his way and struck the rock as he had before. For that lack of trust and obedience, God said, “you will not bring them into the land….”
That sounds harsh to us. After all, Moses had served God faithfully for years. Then he commits one little sin and God rejects him. No, not reject. God does not reject his children, no matter how they sin. God continues to walk with Moses all the way to Nebo. And though he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land over the Jordan, Moses did make it to the ultimate Promised Land that is heaven. We know that, because in the Gospels we see him and Elijah talking with Jesus on another mountain. Sin cannot break the bonds of God’s covenant love for us, but it does bring earthly consequences, even to those whose sins are forgiven. Which should make us more careful how we trust and obey.
Second, this story shows us that we might not finish what we begin. But that’s OK if we give our lives to something worthwhile. While Moses got Israel out of Egypt, he didn’t get to see them in the Promised Land. The same is true for us. We may not see the fruit of our labor until eternity.
But there is an eternity. And in eternity we will receive the reward for what we are building in life’s little day. Even if we don’t see the completion of our life work, a half-finished temple is better than a completed pigsty. As I Cor. 3:10ff puts it, “Each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any person builds on this foundation, using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay…, he will receive his reward.”
Third, Moses’ story shows us that we will not die alone, even if no one else is there. No one sees Moses die; no one buries him; no one knows where his grave is to this day. But God was there with Moses, speaking, closing his eyes, digging his grave, laying him to rest. In his last moment, Moses experienced the ultimate truth of the words he had spoken in the previous chapter. “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Finally, this story points us to Jesus Christ. It ends with the claim that “no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders….” But that changed with the coming of Jesus, who fulfilled the promise of Deut. 18:15-18 about a prophet like Moses who would come one day. According to Hebrews 3:1-6, Moses was just a servant in the house of God while Jesus was the Son who rules over the house of God.
If Moses experienced the wages of sin in his life, Jesus paid the debt for all our sin in his death. If Moses’ death was lonely because no human was there, Jesus’ death was the loneliest because even God had forsaken him. If Moses’ grave is occupied and unknown to this day, Jesus’ grave stands open and empty forever. If Moses is dead and gone, Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
We do not know what the future holds, but of this we can be sure—God is with us. Earlier I referred to those words of John 1 about Jesus and God’s glory. In that same text we read this: “The law came through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” God spoke the law to Moses. “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” God speaks grace to us. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal lie through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).”
In Deut. 32, we hear the bitter Song of Moses. But as we have pondered Moses’ life, I wonder if his life isn’t summed up better in a more recent song. “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
For a long time I never knew or recognized the fact that the Hebrew Psalter was a thoughtfully edited collection of 150 songs and poems. I am not sure if I ever actually thought this collection was random or haphazard but it did not occur to me that someone put each psalm where it appears for a reason. But that is the case and so the first psalm in this book—followed by also the second psalm—was placed at the head of the Psalter to establish a tone and to set out some basic worldview perspectives that would then be reflected in all the psalms that followed.
Specifically, a basic principle of the Psalter is set forth here in terms of dividing up the whole world into two spiritual categories: the righteous and the wicked. At least in Psalm 1 there is very little by way of nuance. Everyone is one or the other: a righteous person or a wicked person. What’s more, if you are a righteous person, you have stability, deep roots as well as unmovable and unwavering principles. But not so the wicked: they have no roots, are tossed around by the wind like wheat chaff or feathery dandelion puffs. In Psalm 1 the wicked are a blur of motion but it’s all bad motion. The righteous by contrast are well planted and we are told they will NOT stand with the wicked, will NOT run with sinners, will NOT participate in their wicked flurry of unjust actions. The righteous are settled.
Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Psalter. And yet . . . this very book will have more than a few poems that lament how well the wicked often do in this life. Sometimes they get ahead financially, they triumph over the righteous, they succeed sometimes where the righteous fail. And so not a few psalmists will cry out to God “Why? Why do the wicked prosper?”
But that’s just the Psalter. The rest of us will have our own qualms with a worldview that strikes us as very unnuanced. Yes, we too could note how sometimes rotten people get away with murder in this life. That is surely an issue. But these days we may be unsettled for a slightly different reason: we dislike sorting people in such polar terms. Many of us know people who may not self-identify as Christians but who we surely would be loath to label as “wicked.”
One of my theology professors once addressed the topic of what is known as Common Grace. In doing so he observed that the idea of a kind of divine grace that is available to all—even non-believers—stems from the dual observation that sometimes Christians are not as good of people as one would expect even as sometimes non-Christians are not as bad of people as you might think. Recently a friend of mine shared a little piece of wisdom that his father once shared with him from a business perspective: “I would rather make a business deal with a good unbeliever than with a bad Christian.”
If Psalm 1 is a tone-setting psalm—sort of like the concertmaster of an orchestra helping everyone to tune their instruments before the start of a concert—then what do we do with this seemingly overly simplistic perspective on the world and of its inhabitants? Again, the Psalter itself seems to contradict such a naïve view of people: the wicked do not always seem to be blowing away like chaff and the righteous do not always seem to be flourishing like a tree planted beside a stream. So what gives? How can we preach on this psalm without having to either buy into its black-or-white view of a world filled with shades of gray OR so deconstruct this psalm’s point of view as to come off as doing violence to God’s Word? Depending on your church context, it feels like either or both of these options could land the preacher in trouble!
I always tell my preaching students that it’s really important to ask vital questions in their sermons to catch people’s attention. But I also tell them to never ask a question in a sermon to which they can never finally give an answer. Don’t dig yourself a homiletical hole out of which you cannot successfully crawl across 20 or so minutes of preaching. In some ways, I feel like I just dug myself such a hole as I don’t have real good answers. But let me suggest an idea or two that might help me crawl out.
It might be too simple to say that what Psalm 1 reflects is one of those “in the long run” kind of scenarios. Yes, for now life is more nuanced and textured than some neat picture of everyone being good or bad, righteous or wicked but in the longest possible run and from the perspective perhaps of eternity, this is how it will all shake out. No one—not a professing believer nor a professing unbeliever—can straddle the eternal fence forever. There will ultimately be a final sorting.
That feels a little unsatisfying, however. It may be true but . . . for now it feels like a too-quick escape hatch from the potential scandals of a certain straightforward reading of Psalm 1. So maybe in an effort to nuance the psalm a little nuance of perspective can help. That is, maybe we can at least affirm that in this world, there are lifestyles, there are choices, there are patterns of being that either contribute to the life and flourishing of others or they detract from it. There are ways of living that nurture shalom and there are ways of living that vandalize shalom.
A person can live just for him- or herself, seek ever and again to feather only their own nest, do whatever is necessary to grab the brass ring no matter how many other people they have to step on, step over, or hurt to do so. And then there are those who choose service over self, sacrifice over massive acquisition of this world’s goodies. One of these kinds of people are living into the patterns God sowed (or sewed) into this Creation in the beginning and the other is tearing things up for the sake of self alone. For the short term and in the long term one lifestyle is esteemed and honored and the other is finally self-defeating and futile. One way of being is admirable the other despicable.
And it may just be that plenty of people who do not outwardly (from a religious perspective) qualify as being “righteous” are also the ones who live a life of self-sacrifice and service even as some who wear the badge of righteousness proudly are finally a little mean and self-serving after all. And so it may just be that when we observe all this, we see what the poet of Psalm 1 saw after all: patterns of flourishing and patterns of diminishing, patterns of vibrancy and patterns of decay. Even those who may not seem overly religious on the outside often have a sense as to which of these two ways of making one’s way through the world will endure and redound to glory and which is doomed to the dustbin of history.
The psalms are considered Hebrew poetry first of all. But many of them have a crossover into also the biblical genre of wisdom literature. Psalm 1 is one such example. Yes, it’s a poem but it also participates in biblical wisdom: God set up the world to work a certain way and people either go with that good flow and so contribute to shalom or they fight against God’s flow and leave in their wake carnage and mangled human spirits. At the end God can sort out who is finally righteous and who is finally wicked, who gets into the eternal kingdom and who does not (and probably there will be surprises all around when that happens) but the notion that there is such an order to the universe is surely correct.
And that may be what Psalm 1 is really telling us.
It is one of those “How can that be true?” true stories. On the day when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother, Sara, died, the weather was clear and calm with nary a breeze in Hyde Park, New York, and on the large Springwood estate where FDR had grown up along the Hudson River. Yet a few moments after Sara died at Springwood on September 7, 1941, one of the largest oak trees on the estate inexplicably crashed to the ground. Small wonder: in life, Sara Delano Roosevelt was like a well-planted oak. She was firm resolved, fierce, and utterly confident in her only son, Franklin. Sara was a force to reckon with.
But strong people are often compared to oaks or redwoods. The solidity of trees, their well-rooted nature, their strength and majesty: they all provide metaphors for certain human characteristics too. Spiritually speaking one thinks of Isaiah’s well-known image of how the day will come when God’s people would be hailed as “oaks of righteousness.”
A well-rooted and well-watered tree beside a bubbling stream is Psalm 1’s leading image for righteous people, and it’s an image we know pretty well as it turns out.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Author: Doug Bratt
All of us likely have a vision of the ideal pastor, missionary or other church leaders. Yet our visions probably also vary widely. Some, after all, think of the ideal pastor as a terrific preacher. Others believe pastors should be able to minister to a variety of people. Many think good leaders have some combination of those skills.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers a wonderful but relatively rare glimpse into Paul’s pastoral skills. That by itself, however, isn’t a sufficient reason to proclaim it. There are, after all, many people in the Bible whom we wouldn’t want to imitate.
With the Spirit’s help, however, 1 Thessalonians 2 rewards those who study it carefully. After all, Paul’s pastoral concern and care for the Thessalonian Christians that it reveals imitate God’s pastoral concern and care for God’s adopted children. So proclamation of this text can both bless and challenge both its proclaimers and hearers.
However, although he had a pastoral heart for the Thessalonians, fierce opposition brought Paul’s mission to them to a rather abrupt and secretive end. The unrest and legal charges against the missionaries chased them out of Thessalonica at night. Paul’s opponents tried to take full advantage of his sudden disappearance by launching a malicious smear campaign against him, apparently charging him with cowardice.
Paul’s enemies claimed that he was in the missionary business just for the money, prestige or power it might bring him. Otherwise, they wondered, why, when the apostle found himself endangered, did he just run away?
1 Thessalonians 2 at least implies that some Thessalonian Christians agreed with Paul’s critics. Some even seemed to deduce that Paul’s visit to Thessalonica had been a “failure.” This apparently stung Paul deeply. So in our text he defends his actions in Thessalonica.
Paul’s defense reveals his heart for those with whom he’d shared the gospel. It also invites his adopted brothers and sisters in the faith to ask what it might say to those who stand, in a very real sense, “behind” Paul in the apostolic line. What might this Lesson say not just about what we expect not just from pastors and missionaries, but also from all Christians?
“Our visit to you was not a failure,” the apostle insists to the Thessalonians in verse 1. Literally he means that his visit wasn’t “empty” of purpose. Paul’s visit instead had the purpose of spreading the gospel to the Thessalonians.
The Thessalonians certainly “knew” about this purpose, as he reminds them in verse 1. Though Paul’s Thessalonian ministry was both brief and controversial, it was also visible. After all, “as was his custom,” we read in Acts 17:2, “Paul went into the synagogue [where on] three Sabbath days he reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures . . .”
Because he had nothing to hide, the apostle did all of this out in the open before God and all people. Paul could, in fact, publicly tell people in the synagogue that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures precisely because he knew that he had nothing to hide.
Accusations against them of misconduct suggest that some Christian pastors and other leaders do act secretively, as though they have something to cover up. Our ministries aren’t always as transparent as they should be, translucent to all who are interested in them. 1 Thessalonians 2 invites both its proclaimers and hearers to a transparent life and ministry.
Yet, as Paul also notes in verse 2, the public nature of his ministry gave people opportunities to hurt and insult him, even before he reached Thessalonica. In Philippi, for instance, authorities stripped, beat and imprisoned Silas and him.
However, the missionaries’ treatment there had not only been painful, but also humiliating. For the authorities had been publicly beaten them, without trial and in spite of their Roman citizenship.
Through Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica, Acts 17:4 reports, the Holy Spirit converted some “Jews” and “prominent women,” as well as many “God-fearing Greeks.” This, however, made some Thessalonican Jews jealous. So, we read in Acts 17:5, “they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.”
Yet such hostility didn’t deter Paul. God gave him the courage to continue to preach the gospel. So with Silas, he simply slipped out of Thessalonica and went to minister in Berea. And when hooligans stirred up crowds against him in that nobler place, Paul simply slipped away to minister in Athens.
When I read stories like those, I’m sometimes ashamed by how little it takes to discourage me from sharing my faith. I, after all, worry about how people will react to my meager testimony. I wonder how I’ll answer any hard questions they may pose.
My fearfulness stands in bold contrast to that of Paul throughout his missionary journeys. It’s also completely unlike the remarkable fearlessness we often see in Christians whom others persecute for their faith.
Frankly, my natural timidity about sharing the gospel is also the opposite of the kind of courage we see in many missionaries who work in potentially hostile settings. Perhaps, then, I Thessalonians’ proclaimers should pray for the courage to share our faith like Paul did, in spite of any opposition.
As Paul remembers his public ministry in Thessalonica that provoked violent opposition, he describes himself with four metaphors. They tell us much about both the skills and pastoral heart that God gave him.
Paul understood, first, that God entrusted him with the gospel, much like an absentee landlord entrusts his property to a caretaker. So he implies that God gives with the gospel a sense of responsibility to be faithful to it. Christians don’t just receive that gospel. We also both share it and let it shape us, by God’s Spirit.
In verse 3 Paul insists that there was nothing devious about Silas, Timothy and his stewardship of the gospel. That’s why Paul could claim that he was genuine in what he said, as well as why and how he said the gospel to which God had entrusted him.
He goes on to write in verse 4, “we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.” Paul understood that he, as well as all of his adopted siblings in Christ, is primarily responsible to God. So his ultimate aim was to try to please God in his ministry.
Here, writes John Stott, to whom I’m indebted for much of this Starter’s structure, is the heart of Christian ministry. Christians are ultimately responsible neither to churches, nor our boards or associations, but to God himself.
Of course, this responsibility may rattle us. After all, we know that God tests our hearts and their secrets, and God’s standards are very high. On the other hand Christians’ realization that we’re primarily responsible to God for the way we handle God’s gospel also frees us. We realize that God’s far more knowledgeable, impartial and merciful than any human or organization.
Because he knew he was primarily responsible to God, Paul also knew that he had to behave in some ways like a “mother” to which he compares himself in verses 5-8. How does Paul’s mothering care evidence itself in Thessalonica?
In what the apostle calls in verse 7 his “gentleness.” He ministered among the Thessalonian Christians not harshly, but tenderly, kindly. In his motherly care for the Thessalonians, Paul never used what he calls “flattery” or deception. Nor were he and the others looking for people’s praise. The apostles had no desire to use things or people to build themselves up. They only wanted to build up the Thessalonians with the great news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
As the Thessalonian Christians’ spiritual parents, the missionaries could, as Paul goes on to write, have been “a burden” to them. The Thessalonian Christians, after all, owed them much. So Paul might have, for instance, insisted on giving orders to them or on them paying him, as other spiritual “parents” sometimes did.
Instead, however, as the apostle writes to the Thessalonians in verse 8, “we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.” Rather than demanding their own way, Paul, Silas and Timothy tenderly cared for the Thessalonians.
So instead of demanding that the Thessalonians minister to him, Paul ministered to them. He shared not only the gospel, but also his very heart and soul with them. Because God had given him such a deep love for them, Paul was tender enough to open his whole life to the Thessalonians.
Yet doesn’t that make Paul different from some Christian leaders? We’re tempted toward selfishness and authoritarianism. The more people challenge our authority, the more we insist on it. So all Christian leaders, as well as all Christians, seek to cultivate more of the gentleness, love and self-sacrifice of a mother.
Christians have many standards for evaluating pastors, missionaries and church leaders, as well as ourselves. Not many, however, are better than this: are we stewards of the gospel who gently teach, preach and share God’s Word?
In his book, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, Gary Wills tells a remarkable story about American president Jimmy Carter’s apparent “failure” (cf. I Thess. 2:1). Carter was already politically dead in his last year as president. Inflation, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. had defeated him.
Wills writes of how Paul Volker of the Federal Reserve summed up the Carter presidency as follows: “As Jerry Ford left the White House, he handed Jimmy Carter three envelopes, instructing him to open them one at a time as problems became overwhelming.
“After a year, Carter opened the first envelope. It said, ‘Attack Jerry Ford.’ He did. A year later, Carter opened the second envelope. It said, ‘Attack the Federal Reserve.’ He did.
“Three years into his term, and even more overwhelmed by the economy, Iran, Afghanistan, and so forth, Carter opened the third envelope. It said, ‘Prepare three envelopes.’” Of course, Carter went on after his presidency to become a beloved and appreciated humanitarian. He remains very successful at that.