You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
1 Thessalonians 2:1–12 —
For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. 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. 3 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. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 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. 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. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 11 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.
As always, this message is intended to lead you down paths that will deepen and strengthen and intensify and lengthen your joy. As many of you know, the biblical warrant for having that goal in preaching is 2 Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” That is my job as a pastor — to work with you for your joy. Paul called it the “joy of faith” in Philippians 1:25 (“I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy of faith”).
The way I pursue your joy is by pointing you to the word of God and the work of God and the ways of God. God sent Jesus into the world to die for our sins and to provide our perfect righteousness and to take away our guilt and deliver us from hell and secure us for his fellowship forever — all of it as a free gift to be received by faith alone. And he called this “the gospel,” which means “good news,” so that when we hear it we would be sad. Right? No. Glad! “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10).
God’s Work, Word, and Ways — For Your Joy
So I direct you to the work of God in history on your behalf so that you will be glad in the good news. And I direct you to the word of God because Jesus said in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart. . .
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:8, 10).
And I try to lead you down the ways of God — the work of God, the words of God, and the ways of God. “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Psalm 25:10). How can these paths not be a way of joy?
What Life Is About
So I will say it again: This message is intended to lead you down paths that will deepen and strengthen and intensify and lengthen your joy — by pointing you to the work of God, the word of God, and the ways of God.
And one of the ways of God that leads deeper into this kind of joy is the pathway of self-giving. I’m not talking about giving your money, though the happiest and healthiest saints are always the most generous. I’m talking about giving your self, or giving your soul. That’s what this message is about. That’s what this text (1 Thessalonians 2:1–12) is about. And I hope that God will so work in you all that you will say, That’s what life is about.
Small Groups: How Our Church Works
This message is indirectly an encouragement for you to believe in and be a part of the small-group ministry of discipleship and shepherding here at Bethlehem, if this is the church you call home. The small-group ministry at Bethlehem, across all three campuses, is not a marginal ministry. It is at the core of how the church works.
The elders are charged by God with the spiritual oversight and the equipping of the members of this church. Our calling as elders is to care for you and to help you become mature, devoted, fruitful disciples of Jesus. We do this . . .
- through various kinds of teaching (including preaching, classes, seminars, conferences),
- through calling and equipping small-group leaders and helping you get connected with them, in small groups,
- and through household discipleship where the natural family groupings that God creates are equipped as centers of life-on-life discipling.
Extending Pastoral Ministry
So the network of about 180 small groups is overseen by the elders to extend their care and equipping into your lives through the small-group leaders and the members of your group who know you best. Few things are more beautiful to me than to watch a small group respond when one of their members in is crisis. I hope you give and receive that ministry. The ministry of the saints is an extension of the ministry of your pastors.
When Paul said in Ephesians 4:11–12 that Jesus gave pastors to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” he meant that when the saints minster, it is an extension of the pastors’ ministry. Therefore our plan is that the saints at Bethlehem be cared for deeply and lovingly and fruitfully by the saints, and that means largely by the members of your small group.
A New Twist: Giving Instead of Getting
So I’ll say it again: This message is indirectly an encouragement for you believe in and be a part of the small-group ministry at Bethlehem. And the way I am approaching it today is different than usual. Usually, I come with a burden that we all realize we need people. We need relationships. We need the ministry of the saints in our lives. So wake up to your need and be a part of group where those needs can be met.
That’s not what I am saying today. All that is true, and we should be humble enough to admit those needs. But today I’m coming at it from the other side. I am not going to talk today about your need to get, but about your calling to give. And specifically, to give yourself.
And I have this path of life — this way of God — specifically in mind when I say: This message is intended to lead you down paths that will deepen and strengthen and intensify and lengthen your joy. We know from experience and from the Bible that the path of self-giving is the path of greatest joy. It’s not free from risk and pain. But it is the path of greatest joy. Paul said in Acts 20:35, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” More happy. More deeply satisfying. More rich and solid. Especially giving yourself.
You Are a Fountain
This is who you are as a Christian. The moment you become a Christian, you are a giver by nature. You may not have become fully what you are yet, but this is who you are — self-giving is part of your nature, your essence, your identity.
Listen to Jesus: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him [that’s what it means to be a Christian] will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). That is who you are. You are a spring. You don’t do a spring. You are a spring. Whoever believes in me, Jesus said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). That’s who you are. You are a spring. You are a fountain.
And what makes springs and fountains happy and healthy is when they make streams. If you stop them up, they go foul. If you let them give — if you let them become what they are — they stay clear and healthy and life-giving and happy. This message is our effort to help you be happy like that — a message to encourage you to be a self-giving part of a small group. This time not because of your need to get, but because of your calling to give. Specifically to give yourself — the new self that God has created in you, at whatever stage that new self is, infant or mature.
Paul’s Defense: He Gave Himself
Let’s turn to 1 Thessalonians 2:1–12. This paragraph is Paul’s defense of himself against the charge of flattery and covetousness and glory-seeking. And the way he defends himself is simply by reminding them of what they already know about the way he gave himself to them.
Six times in this paragraph (verses 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 11) Paul says, “you know,” or “you remember,” or “you are witness.” And in all of this reminding of what they actually experienced, he tells them how he gave himself to them.
Not Doctrine, But Deeds
And the aim of the paragraph is to establish that his coming was not in vain. Verse 1: “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.” They really had met Jesus. They had “received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). And they had “turned from idols to serve the living God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). His critics were trying to undo all this. And the way they were doing it was not by contradicting his doctrine, but attacking his person. They were accusing him of flattery and greed and glory-grubbing. If they can succeed, then Paul would have come in vain.
So his aim was to remind them not of his doctrine, but his deeds — specifically, his open and sacrificial self-giving.
Watch Paul and Walk this Path
Look first at 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.” This is the phrase that years ago made a huge impression on me. Paul and Silvanus and Timothy were [literally] “pleased to share their own souls.” Not just the message, but the messenger. Not just the words, but lives. Not just doctrines, but hearts. This is what I mean when I encourage you to be part of a small group, not because of your need to get, but because of your calling to give. To give your selves. Paul is a model for us here.
Walk with me through this paragraph and watch Paul do this. Let yourself be amazed and inspired to walk this path of joy. A hard road, but a joyful one.
Nothing to Hide
And keep in mind, Paul is powerful. Paul is an apostle. He was in the most powerful group in the early church. This is what has moved me about this text over the years. God has given me significant influence. Influence is power. Power is dangerous. Very dangerous. And what this text has done for me — and I hope it does this for you — is to say over and over again, year after year: Don’t you ever think, John Piper, that you can live a hidden, isolated, unaccountable, unknown life. That you can share your message and not yourself. Be authentic. Be real. Be what you are. Hide nothing. No posing. No posturing. No affectation or pretense. Share with your people not only the gospel, but your very soul. God will be the final judge in this. But I commend myself to every man’s conscience. I have nothing to hide from you.
Seven Ways Paul Gave Himself
Now listen to Paul as he tells us seven ways that he gave them himself. Please, don’t think of this as for someone else. Be encouraged to become what you are in Christ, a fountain, a spring, a giver of your self.
1. First, Paul took a risk in sharing himself and the gospel at Thessalonica.
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.” He had adversaries from the start. He knew that sharing himself and the gospel was risky. But he did it. Will we? It is risky to share our own selves. May the Lord make our small groups safe places to give ourselves — our true selves.
2. He did not mislead them, or get sexually involved with anyone, or try to deceive them in any way.
Verse 3: “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.” He gave them the truth and kept himself pure (that word for “impurity” is regularly used by Paul for sexual sin).
3. He did not try to please men, but God.
Verse 4: “We speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” Verse 6: “Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others.”
Man-pleasing makes people into phony second-handers. It’s really sad when you see it, because it usually means they are deeply insecure. What they want most is your approval. And so they are not real. They are not giving themselves. They are giving poses — angles on themselves that they hope will get your approval. You never really know them. Paul will have nothing to do with that. I hope you won’t either. Relax in Jesus, and be who you are — warts, wrinkles, scratches, and all.
4. Paul did not flatter or position himself for money.
Verse 5: “For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness.” Flattery is using language not for the sake of truth, but for the sake of manipulation. You want something. In this case, Paul was being accused of buttering them up as a cloak to cover greed. They say he wanted their money, not their souls. And he says, you and God know that is not true.
Look at 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.” He was not after their money. He was after their souls for their good. He was there to give them himself — early and late, with real practical proof. When you give yourself, you don’t flatter, and you don’t position yourself for money, and you don’t expect to be served. You are there to give. That’s who you are in Christ — a giver.
5. Paul put aside his position of power, and let himself feel mother-like, tender affection for the Thessalonians, and opened his heart to them.
Verse 6–8: “We could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 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.”
He exchanged a relationship of power for a relationship of affection. This is a very vulnerable thing for a leader to do, or anyone. But it is what I mean when I say that we are called to give our selves to each other. There are structures of authority in the church, but they are all in the service of this kind of self-giving. Don’t ever think you are above this. Don’t ever think you are too sophisticated or too self-sufficient, or too cool to give yourself like this — showing tender affection like a mother with her children.
6. Paul was holy and righteous and blameless among them.
Verse 10: “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.” Don’t balk at this, as though he was saying he was sinless. What this means is: We honored God, we treated people right, and we gave no one a legitimate reason to blame us for our behavior. He was above reproach. What a beautiful thing — what a compelling thing — when we can be real and be good.
7. Paul felt a father-like desire to encourage them and to leave them a glorious legacy.
Verses 11–12: “For you know how, like a father with his children, 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.” And the legacy was not the memory of himself, but the kingdom and the glory of God.
Seven Ways We Give Ourselves
In summary, Paul said in verse 8, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” This is what I think God is calling us to in our life together at Bethlehem — especially in our small groups. God is calling us into these relationships not only because of your need to get, but because of your calling to give. To give yourselves.
- To take a risk of sharing your soul,
- to put away all deceit and exploitation,
- to renounce man-pleasing,
- to be done with flattery and covetousness,
- to feel tender, mother-like affections for people,
- to be holy, righteous, and blameless in our conduct,
- and to feel father-like desires to encourage and lead others into God-centered legacy.
You Have Something to Give
I know many of you feel like you have little or nothing to give. I am bold to say on the authority of God’s word: If you are a Christian, that is not true. You have Christ (Romans 8:10), you have the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), you have the word of God (1 Corinthians 2:13), you have spiritual gifts (1 Peter 4:10), you are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), and you are a fountain (John 4:14; 7:38). This is not a matter of personality. This is a matter of faith. Trust him, and give yourself.
I tell you this because it is the path of deepest, strongest, longest joys. “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). And Paul gave not only the gospel, but himself (1 Thessalonians 2:8).