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lessons for preachers from 1 thessalonians – mark keown

1 Thessalonians in the Bible

As I was teaching a course on the Thessalonian letters recently, I was struck by how 1 Thessalonians 1–2 is a veritable feast of insights for preachers. Paul and his team wrote 1 Thessalonians from Corinth within six months of the initial planting of the church. As they wrote, the preaching of the Pauline team was fresh in their collective memory. As we read it, the letters equally instruct concerning important aspects of sharing Christ in our contexts. 

First, there are the different ways he describes the gospel. It is “our gospel” (1 Thess 1:5), “the word” (1 Thess 1:6), “the word of the Lord” (1 Thess 1:8), “the gospel of God” (1 Thess 2:2, 8, 9), “the gospel” (1 Thess 2:4), and “the word of God” (1 Thess 2:13). Just from these appellations, we discern that our preaching is the good news. More than that, it is our good news—we are saved into it, have stewardship of it, and must preserve it as we preach. It is also God’s word or message to the world—what a thought! When we stand (or sit, as did Jesus and Paul in the synagogue) and preach, God is speaking, wow. Knowing that the genitive “of the Lord” in Thessalonians refers to Jesus, it is the good news and word that originates in God and Christ, is authored by them, is about them, is empowered by them, and leads people to them. He literally inhabits our inadequate words beckoning men and women into his love.

Secondly, the gospel is not presented just in words, but with power, in the Spirit, and with full conviction (1 Thess 1:4). We are summoned to speak well, with conviction, confident in the gospel’s content and power. Yet, this verse tells us that as good as words and delivery may be, it is God who empowers the message. As we stand before the people of God, we are merely messengers through whom God speaks. He speaks! And when God speaks, he creates. He calls. He renews. He convicts. He invites. Paul received harsh criticism as a rubbish speaker (2 Cor 10:10), yet even his words had power to convert. That is because it is about God and His Son and not us. May God speak through us.

Third, Paul recalls their suffering in Philippi in 1 Thess 2:2. Mention of affliction takes us to Acts 16, where the Roman citizens, Paul and Silas, are illegally flogged and imprisoned—doesn’t this speak to the historicity of the NT and its amazing intertextuality! Anyway, while we may not experience the kind of violence those first preachers suffered, those of us who have been at this a while know that preaching always carries with it suffering and pain. It may be just the struggle to prepare well. Or, it is just the exhaustion that comes for preaching or a critical listener who takes us on when we are most vulnerable after pouring our heart out in the pulpit. Whatever we face, rest assured, we will suffer. Paul did. Like him, those who preach need soft hearts, endurance, and hides of steel.

Third, in what is clearly a defence against detractors, Paul gives us a lesson on the ethics of preaching. He teaches us that while we all want to be more effective in our communication, we must never resort to duplicitous measures to impress our listeners. We do not use error, impurity, or deception. We refuse to be people-pleasers or use flattery. Our motive is never money, no matter how much we struggle. We do not seek glory from people. Even if we are ordained, have doctorates, or carry apostolic authority, we do not demand response. Rather, we are as gentle as a mother nursing her child (what a surprising and warm image!). Or, to keep the gender balance, like loving Dads, we exhort, encourage, and charge our people to live to please God.

Fourth, perhaps most powerfully, we do not merely share the word with people; we share our lives with them (1 Thess 2:8). We labour and toil among the people to whom we preach, being prepared to work day and night—the call of all those pastor churches across this nation. In 1 Thess 3:10, we realise that Paul did not merely labour among them day and night when among them, he prayed day and night for the Thessalonians from Athens and Corinth. Our job is not done when we say the Amen. It goes on as we pray for those who heard the word, that the implanted seed of his word would bear fruit. May it be. Amen.

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