* This is a Father’s Day sermon on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Instead of selfishly using or burdening those entrusted to their care, spiritual fathers ought to imitate God’s love for the Church by nurturing them with courage, integrity, gentleness, service, and love to believe the gospel and live worthily of God’s call.
Introduction – “My father abandoned me when I needed him most. When I was younger, many people tried to be my friend or my big brother in order to get something from me. But my father seemed to be different. He would teach me about the one true God, and he seemed to genuinely love me. I thought my father was a good man, until one day he left and didn’t come back. I felt used. His sudden departure caused me to question whether he was a good man, that he loved me, or that he told me the truth about God.” Before the rumors start to spread, please know that these things are not true of my father. This is not the story of my dad and me, but it was the story of one particular church’s struggle to reconcile their feelings for their father in the faith—the apostle Paul. Was Paul a bad father? What characterizes a bad father, and what makes a good father? How is being a good father related to the gospel? This passage contains Paul’s testimony—the story of his relationship with the Thessalonian church. It instructs you today how to be a good father (or a “spiritual father”—in other words, a person who is entrusted with the spiritual nurture of others) and how the gospel of Jesus Christ relates to fatherhood.
A. Not with selfish intent, but with courage and integrity (vv. 1-6a)
1. Background of Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians
Paul, during his second missionary journey, had just come from Philippi where he had been mobbed, stripped naked and beaten by the city officials, and thrown in jail—all because his preaching the gospel caused such a stir in the city. From that experience, Paul didn’t hesitate to bring the gospel to the next city on his route: Thessalonica (cf. Acts 16:11-17:9). His custom was to go first to a city’s Jewish synagogue to proclaim the gospel. It was typical that some would believe, some would not, and some would vehemently oppose Paul and the gospel. Each time it was the unbelieving Jews in the synagogue who stirred up violent opposition against Paul. Paul’s time with his newborn spiritual infants in Thessalonica was unusually brief. The city-wide opposition to Paul was so dangerous that the new believers quickly sent him on his way.
2. Spiritual fathers have courage (vv. 1-2)
Spiritual fathers cannot afford to fear opposition or ridicule. The gospel message of God’s kingdom rule breaking into this world to save sinners and judge the unrepentant will be divisive. Jesus warned us that this would be so, even in “Christian” families (Luke 12:51-53). But you can be confident that your labors to courageously share the gospel will be fruitful (cf. Isa 55:8-13). God’s Word is a sword that penetrates sinful hearts with conviction, contrition, repentance, and faith. Do not shirk your God-given responsibility to courageously proclaim and teach the gospel to those in your path. Pray that God would grant you a “holy boldness” to overcome fears of inadequacy, ridicule, rejection, and hostility.
In our extended family we have folks who talk about my wife and I raising our children in the faith as “brainwashing” and “shoving it down their throats.” It’s true that the Word of God washes/cleanses our minds, and sometimes we have to instruct our children when they are in no mood to hear the gospel and its immediate life implications. That we are raising our children in the Reformed faith sometimes brings suspicion, misunderstanding, and confrontation. When we interact with friends, coworkers, and neighbors, we feel the strange looks that we’re religious weirdoes. Sometimes we get that because we homeschool, but often it’s because we love Jesus, and the world doesn’t like Jesus! I’m sure you know the feeling, and our temptation is to give in a little, or to be silent about the gospel, or to distance ourselves from Christians who are more strange than we perceive ourselves to be. Take courage that God uses the fearful in heart, not the bold by nature, by raising them up as humble servants of Christ.
3. Spiritual fathers have integrity (vv. 3-6a)
This was not the first time Paul was accused of being disgraceful and underhanded (cf. 2 Cor 2:17; 4:2). Spiritual fathers recognize that discipling others in the gospel is a trust, a calling, a high responsibility—it is a holy message that doesn’t belong to us. The gospel is the gospel of God. Jesus taught us to be truthful in speech, pure in heart, honest/transparent in our dealings with others, and God-pleasers rather than men-pleasers. We are to hate all sinful methods and motives that many employ in sharing truth, such as flattery, greed, popularity (“vainglory” in the KJV), and even rivalry. Paul was accused of all these things, yet he was guilty of none of them. As a spiritual father, he didn’t compromise his integrity because such motives, methods, and behaviors are inconsistent with God’s character and the gospel. You also are called by God to adorn the gospel—to clothe its teaching with integrity (cf. Tit 2:1-15, esp. vv. 1-2, 10).
What might this look like? If you are a father, then you should be honest when your children ask difficult questions about life and faith. Don’t misrepresent people by categorizing all unbelievers as “bad people” and Christians as “good people”. Take the time to explain why sinners sometimes do good things, and why believers are capable of very bad things. Teach your children that there is a price to pay in following Christ. Following Jesus is the path of suffering and death to self, but that path leads to joy and life, while the world’s ways are pleasing for a time but lead to misery and death. Perhaps you’re not a father, but a mother, child, or adult without young children (or any children). Wear your faith on your sleeve. Don’t put on a false face, that your “happy all the time.” In other words, be real. If you are happy, show it. If not, don’t pretend that Christians can’t be sad, or lonely, or worried, or frustrated. Better to adorn your life with the truth of the gospel than with false advertising. Remember, the authenticity—the believability—of the gospel is confirmed by your integrity. Integrity stops the mouths of slanderers and buttresses the truth of the gospel (cf. Phil 1:15-17).
B. Not with burdensome authoritarian demands, but with gentleness and love (vv. 6b-8)
1. Spiritual fathers are gentle (vv. 6b-7)
Spiritual fathers, listen up! The gospel should be preached/taught with the same gentleness and love that mothers have for their own children. Before you dismiss this as feminist or egalitarian, understand that this is so because “spiritual fathers” image the heavenly Father’s gentleness and love for his son Jesus Christ, and for his brothers and sisters in Christ. God is gentle with us and even “mothers” us (cf. Deut 32:11-12; Ps 61:4; Isa 66:12-13; Luke 13:34)! Notice the contrast between apostolic authority and motherly care. Apostles of God could demand obedience for their services. Mothers who love their children would never do such a thing. Spiritual fathers are called to imitate loving mothers, not harsh authoritarians.
I know of one father who has a teenage daughter. Sexual purity is an important family value for this man. When his daughter wanted to begin seeing a Christian young man, the father made it very clear to the young man that kissing his daughter before marriage is forbidden. She had never been kissed, and that’s the way he wanted it for her until marriage. After several months of abiding by this rule, the couple kissed once, and feeling guilty for breaking his promise, he confessed to the father shortly thereafter. But instead of respecting the young man’s repentance and confession, he exploded in anger at him, calling him some of the same names that people called Paul when he left Thessalonica. He did not respond gently (which was appropriate in light of the situation), but with unmerciful harshness. Why did he react this way? I think because he desired the honor of raising a pure daughter more than he loved mercy, goodness, and gentleness. He was not deeply concerned about his daughter and the young man seeing her so much as concerned with his own honor!
2. Spiritual fathers are loving (v. 8)
Paul treated his spiritual children like a loving mother, as opposed to the many itinerant charlatans of his day who made their living by exploiting everyone in their path. Paul did not abandon his children, but was deeply concerned about them. He bore his soul to his spiritual children by demonstrating his love for them with acts of kindness and declaring his deep affection for them with words of kindness.
C. Not with burdensome material demands, but with service and encouragement (vv. 9-12)
1. Spiritual fathers serve by example (v. 9)
As an apostle, Paul had the right to be financially compensated for his labor in the gospel. Indeed the Thessalonians owed him their very lives! But he chose to serve them and give up his rights (cf. 2Th 3:7-9; 2 Cor 11:9). Spiritual fathers do not serve themselves, but are affectionate and sacrificial to their children. Asserting authority will not win the hearts of your children, but serving them with affectionate sacrifice will.
Through the use of motherly and fatherly metaphors, Paul teaches that fathers are to share in the mother’s traditional child-rearing duties but not to neglect the father’s traditional duties to his children. The implications are profound! Fathers, roll up your sleeves and dive in with your wives in raising the children. Share responsibilities, relieve each other of burdens, don’t be afraid to share your heart with your children, and model for your family sacrificial service, provision, gentleness, and love. This is not being weak or abdicating your God-given authority, but imitating the apostle Paul as he imitates the example of Jesus (cf. Luke 22:25-27; John 13:12-17).
2. Spiritual fathers encourage by example (vv. 10-12)
Paul did not write such things to the Thessalonians because he wanted to shame them, but because he loved them as his own children (cf. 1 Cor 4:14; Eph 4:1-6). Spiritual fathers take Christian educational responsibility for their children.
I mentioned earlier that my wife and I homeschool our children. But I don’t mean to suggest that taking responsibility to disciple those God has given us means we must homeschool. Actually Paul is addressing something different—that spiritual fathers are more than instructors, they are coaches. Yes, we are to teach God’s will for our children’s lives, but don’t forget to root for them too! Being a spiritual father means comforting the weak, discouraged, and defeated, encouraging the timid, shy, and doubtful, and exhorting all to press on in faith, hope, and love. Allow your children to live life along side you. Don’t just tell them, show them too!
Just as it is not solely the mother’s role to be gentle and love the children, it is also not solely the mother’s role to bring up the children to know the Lord. Fathers are to encourage, comfort, and exhort their children to believe the gospel, obey God, and live lives worthy of the kingdom of God. If you are not a father, you are not off the hook! As a member of God’s family, you are called to encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ. Everything that I’ve said so far to fathers and “spiritual fathers” applies directly to you as well. Children, young people, single adults, marrieds without children, single moms, grandparents, seniors, everyone is called to these same tasks in your various relationships in the Church. Courage, integrity, gentleness, love, service, encouragement—these are the fruit of the Spirit for every believer, not just fathers.
D. Not with flesh-power, but with Spirit-power imitate God’s example
From one perspective, the Bible is the story of God the Father’s love for his spiritual children. Here is how the story goes…
God has always been a father. He is eternally father to his Son. They have forever shared family fellowship together with the Holy Spirit as one Triune God.
God choose to become a new father when he created Adam and Eve, the first humans. He made them in his own likeness and image, much like parents have children who are the “spittin’ image” of them.
God had grand plans for his children, but his children sinfully betrayed him and disowned their own father. But God didn’t give up on loving his children. He would plan to atone for their betrayal and bring them back into full family fellowship by raising up a son of Adam who would be his family’s savior.
But most of Adam’s descendants preferred rebellion over family reunion, so God began working his plan of family restoration through choice sons and daughters—leaders who God brought back from sin themselves who would call their estranged brothers and sisters back to their father. Leaders like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and many Israelite prophets, priests, and kings.
But each of those chosen leaders ultimately proved inadequate (because they were still sinners themselves) to reconcile God with his family. They failed to be spiritual fathers to their brothers and sisters by not remaining totally loyal to God. They sinned against God and his family, disqualifying themselves from being the true son of Adam, the true “spiritual father” of his family members.
At last, in the fullness of time, God sent his first-born eternal Son to be the family savior. This eternal Son, born in the flesh as the man Jesus Christ, never betrayed his Father or his family, and accomplished the long-awaited reconciliation between his Father and his family by atoning for all their betrayal through his death on the cross. The true son of Adam rose again to new life, thereby ensuring that while all will die once for the sin of family betrayal, death cannot keep his family apart forever because God’s spiritual children will rise again to new life in restored family fellowship.
This good news (gospel) of God forgiving our family betrayal releases God’s children from the guilt of estrangement, and frees us to love God our Father, and our brothers and sisters (all members of God’s family) with the same love that brought us back into the family fellowship for which we were created.
Conclusion – Without the whole-Bible context of God loving his sinful people enough to pursue them until finally the death of his Son restored family relationship with them, you might be tempted to despair of God’s seemingly impossible calling of fathers. But the story of the gospel arrests us with awe and wonder. Because of the finished work of God—the work of the Father perfectly loving his Son Jesus Christ and his people the Church—you are spiritually enabled to love those entrusted to your spiritual care. Scripture teaches us that spiritual fathers ought to imitate God’s love for the Church by nurturing their children with courage, integrity, gentleness, service, and love to believe the gospel and live worthily of God’s call. Dare to believe that because God so loved his children and continues to love his children (you and I) in Christ, you are free to be the spiritual father God has called you to be. The living God pursues you—his child—in courage, integrity, gentleness, service, and love. He calls you to the same. Go therefore in the grace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, to live worthy of such grace through faith.
Download sermon outline here.