Not in Vain
September 25, 2015 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 2:1–12
Synopsis: In ECC’s service today, we commissioned Jess Martin as the Interim Coordinator for Children’s Ministry and also prayed for all the volunteers who will be serving in Children’s Ministry and Youth Ministry in the coming ministry year. In the message, Pastor Cam then challenged the congregation on how to make sure that all the work and service should be fruitful and NOT IN VAIN. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Paul looks back on his visit and ministry in the Thessalonica and declares that it was “not in vain.” The message lays out 6 reasons, plus one on why Paul was able to say that.
We prayed a moment ago for Jess and for all who will be serving in our children’s ministry as well as in our ministry to youth as we begin this new ministry year. And of course, it isn’t only the children and youth who are beginning a new year of ministry together. Life Groups are getting under way. Bloom Women’s Ministry and their Bible studies are up and running. Men’s Ministry and Adult Bible studies are happening as well. As always at this time of year, there is a burst of new activity and new energy. We hope you are involved and will remain involved in all that God is doing here at ECC.
A church like ours functions and works because of the countless hours of work, organization, planning and preparation done by a multitude of workers. But my question this morning is this: at the end of the day, at the end of the ministry year, will we have anything to show for all the work, all the hours spent, all the activities? Will we, in fact, accomplish anything of real and lasting value?
We just read the Scripture from 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. I really like the way the passage starts. Paul looks back on his visit and his time of ministry among the Thessalonians, and he is able to say it “was not in vain.”
The New International Version translates this way: “our visit to you was not a failure.”
The root word or idea is something that is empty or futile; not fulfilling the intended purpose. I don’t know about you, but if I am going to expend a great amount of activity and energy in doing something, especially something hard, I want to be sure that those efforts are not wasted, empty or futile.
So here is what I want to do in this message. I have combed this passage of Scripture for clues about Paul’s ministry. I wanted to find out what he did and what took place in Thessalonica so that he could say about his ministry and visit there, even though it was only a few weeks long, that it was “not in vain.”
I have narrowed my discoveries down to six ingredients.
1. Faithfulness and boldness in proclaiming the Gospel.
Look at verse 2: But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.
This was especially remarkable in that Paul had come to Thessalonica from Philippi where he’d been beaten and imprisoned. I think I would have been ready for a break. I would have been looking for a less confrontive strategy. But not Paul. The first Sabbath day in Thessalonica, he was in the synagogue proclaiming the Gospel and doing it boldly and fearlessly and faithfully.
If we want to be effective here at ECC, this is key. We must be a Gospel centered ministry. The Gospel must be at the heart of everything we do. As we comb through this passage, we find that Paul specifically refers to the “Gospel” four different times in just 12 verses.
What is this Gospel? We could go numerous places in the Scripture to find brief summaries of the Gospel. One of my favorites is 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
I like that summary because the facts are there: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. The purpose of his death is clear: “Christ died for our sins.” The necessary response is spelled out: “You received it, you took your stand on it, and you are holding fast to it.” And the outcome of this response to the Gospel is crystal clear: “You are being saved.” That is the Gospel, the good news!
We also need to keep the Gospel at the center here at ECC. Whatever specific ministry you may be involved in – look for opportunities to make the Gospel known.
We sometimes think of Gospel proclamation as something we do “out there” in the world or on the “mission field.” And certainly we should be doing it “out there.” Go back to my message two weeks ago to see how passionate I am about that obligation we have as “Christ’s ambassadors.” But the fact of the matter is, it also needs to happen “in here” when we gather. Because children born into Christian families are not Christians by birth. We don’t “get” Christian faith by osmosis. One of the greatest challenges of every church is how to pass on a living faith to the next generation; to our children and grandchildren. And I mean a living faith, not a warmed over, second hand faith. That means we must make the Gospel and the plan of salvation known regularly in children’s classes, youth ministries and adult studies. Make the Gospel, the plan of salvation clear and give your class a regular opportunity to respond to the Gospel.
I love it when one of ECC’s teachers tells me: “I shared the plan of salvation with my class today, and when I gave them the chance to pray to receive Christ, several in the class responded!” That’s what it’s all about.
I know it’s easy to be skeptical about how much a child understands, and whether they can really know what they’re doing. Well, I stand before you as one who traces my own conversion back to age 5 at my mother’s knee. I’ll tell you something else. At my mother’s memorial service back in 2007 each one of us 5 sons shared memories of Mom, and every one of us remembered Mom leading us to Christ in early childhood. All five of us have spent our lives in different facets of Christian ministry. Don’t sell the Holy Spirit short. I think our tendency is underestimate what children are capable of understanding. It was a Sunday School teacher who led the evangelist D.L. Moody to the Lord as a boy. What if that teacher hadn’t been faithful to his task of telling the Gospel faithfully and boldly?
Of course we don’t want to limit our evangelism to child evangelism, or to what we do when we gather on a Friday or a Sunday. Both in the church and outside the church, in our community and in our workplaces, let us look for opportunities to make the Gospel known. If we’re not doing that, what are we doing that really matters for eternity?
2. Pure motivation.
One of the clear messages of Scripture is that God not only cares what we do, but he cares why we do it. We can do lots of good things, but if we do them for the wrong reasons, we will find that we have done them in vain.
Consider what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6:
For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. 6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.
These verses describe the basic distinction between pure motivation and impure motivation. Simply put: Impure motivation tries to please people: we speak, not to please man… (verse 4) and again in verse 6: Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others…
Instead, pure motivation seeks to please God. “…we speak…to please God who tests our hearts.”
So as we approach any task of service for the Lord, we need to examine our motives. Why am I taking on this task? Only one motivation will really stand the test – the desire to please God. And at the end of the day, his approval is the only true measure of success. Only one question really matters. Was God pleased?
3. A combination of a mother’s gentleness and a father’s guidance.
What do I mean by a mother’s gentleness and a father’s guidance? Let us allow the text itself to spell this out.
First of all from verse 7: But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.
The original text here paints a rather intricate picture. The word “mother” here is actually the Greek word for a nurse or a nanny. In fact the word was frequently used to describe a wet-nurse. A woman – oftentimes a slave – who nursed the baby of her owners at her own breast.
But the picture becomes even more specific. This is a nanny with her own child. As conscientious and caring as this nurse might be when she is caring for her owner’s child, there is still an added degree of caring and nurture when she gathers her own child into her arms. It is a beautiful picture of cherishing and nurturing those to whom we minister.
But this mother’s gentle nurture is to be combined with a father’s guidance as described in verses 11-12:
For you know how, like a father with his children, 12 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.
In many cultures, including the Greek culture in which Paul was ministering, there is seen to be a distinction between a mother’s gentle, nurturing, unconditional love and a father’s type of love. When we speak of a mother’s love, we have the expression: “He had a face only a mother could love.” But in its extremes, this kind of unconditional love can become sentimental and even permissive. The father’s love described in v. 11-12, while it is also gentle, is also firm and purposeful. There is a direction in mind – and that direction is spiritual growth; to see believers living lives worthy of God. There is a direction in mind, and then there is the effort to provide the necessary guidance. Exhorted…encouraged…charged you.
It is interesting that Paul applies both pictures to himself. I was as gentle as a mother and as purposeful as a loving father. Both ingredients must be blended in an effective ministry.
We need to be gentle – but let’s keep the goal in mind: To produce believers, children, youth and adult alike, who are living lives worthy of their identity as members of God’s family.
4. A loving, life-s¬haring spirit.
We find this in verse 8:
So, 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.
It’s hard to know how to expand on that verse or to overemphasize how important this ingredient is. It’s easy to become professional in our approach to ministry – doing jobs that are technically proficient. We can begin dispensing Christian teaching, even the Gospel itself, like a product. But that doesn’t work. People sense that attitude immediately. Paul says – we not only shared with you the Gospel. We shared our own selves and our very lives. Are we willing to do the same? There is an old saying about teachers and teaching that emphasizes this point: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Paul cared and it showed.
5. Hard work.
This is in verse 9: For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
There is nothing very romantic here: toil, hardship, work. The bottom line, friends, is that Christian work is work. And it is often hard work.
When I was a boy, I once told my parents that I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. They were pleased, and asked me why I’d decided that. I answered; “Because preachers only have to work one day a week!” Well, I’ve since found out otherwise. Serving the Lord is hard work.
I must admit I often battle with a rather contradictory attitude in recruiting people for a job in the church. My tendency is to try to emphasize that the job I’m asking them to do is not that difficult, it won’t take that much time, it won’t inconvenience them unduly. But then I look at the Bible, and I realize that’s the wrong approach. What I need to be saying is: The job I’m asking you to do is tough! It is going to take hard work. But it is an important job, and the rewards will be worth all your effort. Whatever you are asked to do in the church, or whatever you volunteer to do, keep this in mind. Children’s Ministry workers, youth leaders, Life Group leaders, worship leaders, Board members, you name it…the jobs you’ve been asked to do are not easy jobs. They can be very difficult. There will be nights when you won’t feel like preparing your lesson. There will be days in the classroom when the kids won’t pay attention. It will all seem like just too much! I am not here to tell you it will be easy. I am here to tell you that it will be tough, but it’s worth it.
6. A consistent life.
Look at verse 10: You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.
The clear message of Scripture is that you can’t be effective if you teach one thing and live another. Our lives must illustrate the truths we are teaching. If they don’t, our labor will be in vain.
Now, I’m not saying you have to be perfect to serve the Lord, or work in Children’s Ministry or volunteer in our youth ministries or lead a Life Group, or even be preacher, or this preacher for one would have no right to stand in the pulpit. But we do need to be growing Christians whose lives are being transformed by the power of God. And we need to be honest about our failures, and seek forgiveness when we sin against others. We must be able to say to our students and those we work with: “Come along. Follow me as I follow Christ. I haven’t arrived yet, but I’m on the way and I’m headed in the right direction. Let’s make that journey together.” That kind of authentic life-style is absolutely essential if we are not to serve in vain.
Well, that’s what I found in this paragraph: the marks of Paul’s relatively short ministry in Thessalonica which led him to be able to say, “Our coming to you was not in vain.” Boldness and faithfulness in proclaiming the Gospel, pure motivation, a combination of a mother’s gentleness and a father’s guidance, a loving, life-sharing spirit, hard work and a consistent life.
But as I looked at that list, it seemed to me that there was something missing. Then it struck me. The missing ingredient was prayer. I believe that prayer is implicit in much of what Paul says in this paragraph in front of us, but he also makes it very explicit in his very first words in this letter, as we look back at chapter 1, verses 2 and 3:
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Both before, during and after his short ministry in Thessalonica, Paul’s ministry was bathed in prayer. He makes reference to the importance of prayer again in the closing verses of the chapter, in chapter 5, verse 17: Pray without ceasing.
Prayer is essential to life and to ministry. It is the means by which we “abide in Christ” and allow him to abide in us. It is the essential recognition of what Jesus said to his disciples in John 15:5: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
So, to the six ingredients we have already looked at, I would add this Plus One: Pray without ceasing. In a very real sense, it is this one that will make the other six possible, as well as effective. So as we embark on another year of ministry, let us be prepared to bathe our ministries and one another in constant prayer. Then with these six ingredients, plus one, I am absolutely confident that when the year is over, we will be able to look back and say, “Our labor was not in vain.”
1. Read Acts 16:37-17:10 for background.
2. Now read 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
3. In verse 1, Paul looks back at his visit to Thessalonica and says that it was “not in vain.” Share an experience you have had when you did something in the church or for the Lord and afterward felt that it was “in vain.” Then share an experience when you felt it was “not in vain.” What do you think made the difference?
4. In this message, Pastor Cam explores the passage for clues as to why Paul was able to say that his visit/ministry in Thessalonica was not in vain. He presents 6 plus 1. Discuss each one in turn and how it relates to the ministries of ECC and in Abu Dhabi:
• Faithfulness and boldness in presenting the Gospel
• Pure motivation
• A combination of a mother’s gentleness and a father’s guidance
• A loving, life-sharing spirit
• Hard work
• A consistent life
• Plus One! Pray without ceasing!
5. Close with a time of prayer for one another and your various ministries of service within ECC.