Labouring in the Kingdom

Dr. Brian Allison

Perhaps there is no other New Testament book which touches on every aspect of the Christian faith than that of the epistle of 1 Thessalonians. Various topics are addressed in this epistle: prayer, election, the work of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the gospel, the wrath of God, Satan, the return of Christ, etc. If there is a book that provides believers with a broad foundation and understanding of the Christian faith, it is the book of 1 Thessalonians.

Kingdom work is teamwork

1 Thessalonians 1:1 reads, "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace." When I read a New Testament epistle, I often quickly read the salutation (that is, the beginning of an epistle in which the apostle expresses greetings), as if there were not really any profitable truth to be gained from studying it. Is that true of you? But the salutation in the New Testament epistles have much to teach to us. They are very important.

When the apostle Paul communicated by way of an epistle, he included in the salutation those who apparently were present with him at the time of the writing. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 1:1, he records, "Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother;" and Galatians 1:1f. reads, "Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches of Galatia." And so, in writing to the church at Thessalonica, the apostle began, "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians." Now, Silvanus and Timothy did not necessarily contribute to the actual words and teachings of the epistle (though their personal concern for, and involvement with, these particular believers are documented), but their inclusion in the salutation reveals an important aspect of Paul's thinking, as well as an important aspect of Christian life and practice. This important aspect concerns relationships – relationships with one another while labouring in the kingdom.

The inclusion of other Christian brothers with him, as Paul addressed the Thessalonica believers, implies a subtle, but cardinal, truth about labouring in the kingdom of God: the necessity of teamwork. Paul apparently did not view himself in isolation. He was not a 'lone ranger' in ministry. He did not assume a 'one-man show' in doing missions. It is clear that Paul realized the fact that kingdom work is team work.

The internal evidence of the epistle clearly indicates that Paul authored it, but his choice of language is revealing and curious. For instance, he records, "For we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, more than once – and yet Satan thwarted us" (2:18). A grammarian may be appalled by the apostle's grammar, changing from a plural pronoun to a singular one in mid-sentence, but language here is the servant, not the master, for the apostle. He is endeavouring to express truth, to which he accommodates language. He, in effect, speaks for the group, and thus there is the 'collective emphasis' of language in order to capture the 'united heart of concern'. This stylistic element runs throughout the epistle. Notice, for instance, 3:1-2, "Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith." Read through the epistle and you will find that plural pronoun, "We...we...we." The apostle was deeply conscious that he was not alone in labouring in the kingdom.

Similarly, if we are going to engage effectively in kingdom work, in serving in and through the church, we must have a sense of the collective. We must realize that we are members on a team. My brothers and sisters, you must not assume the role of a mere spectator or an observer. That cuts against the grain of the 'body concept'. The church is a spiritual body, consisting of individual members which must function together for the edification of the body and for the salvation of sinners. You cannot be one who sits on the sidelines and simply watches as the rest of God's people labour for the sake of the kingdom. That is an unbiblical position; the Word of God does not teach it.

Further, no one should live and serve in isolation. Again, this underscores the necessity of fellowship. Christ died for the Church; and we are to live and serve in the full reality of the fellowship of believers. Now, this does not mean that you cannot be a shy person, nor does it mean that you cannot be a private person. We are not talking about temperament or personality types. The kingdom, the Church, is filled with many shy and private people. That is not the issue. Again, the issue is one of labouring together in the kingdom for a common cause for the glory of Christ. Isolationism is unbiblical. Some bemoan, "Oh, I am too shy to do this; I am too shy to come out; I am too shy to serve here;" etc. Well, praise God for your shyness! You can still work and be shy, my friend. By the way, God does not like the excuses. God has put you in the body, not to sit, vegetate, and (may I say) rot, but to labour for His glory and the extension of His kingdom. You have been called to serve the King of kings; and there is no greater privilege, no greater honour, than to serve Him. How can we be idle, how can we be lazy, when we are serving Him? We are all different, but with respect to labouring in the Church, in the kingdom, we need to work together.

No one person can build the kingdom alone. A number of years ago, there was the mentality that the pastor should do everything; and many think that way today. They think that the pastor must head up the Sunday School program, and the visitation program, and the care ministry, and the children's ministry, etc. Again, that contradicts the 'body concept'; that we are placed in the spiritual body as individual members, with particular gifts for the common good. The 'one-man show' is an unbiblical concept. That was true even for the great apostle Paul. The 'one man show' approach does not work. There is too much to do. Progress requires strategic teamwork. We must all work together for the sake of the kingdom. We all have a responsibility. Some Christians are sinning because they have assumed the role of an observer. They are sitting on the sidelines. They are doing absolutely nothing; and each one will have to give an account for himself. So, kingdom work is team work. There must be the experience of community.

But further, notice that the 'collective emphasis', the team approach, does not exclude sustaining special relationships with certain people. Again, it reads, "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy." Timothy and Silvanus were co-workers with Paul. Silvanus was a Jewish prophet and Timothy a Jewish-Greek teacher. They traveled with Paul, and spent time with him. And yet, as you read the New Testament records, you will discover that Paul was more emotionally attached to Timothy than he was to Silas (Silas and Silvanus are the same person).

Paul was more affectionately disposed toward Timothy. Thus, we read such language as that in Philippians 2:19,20, "But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare." Recall the words of Paul in his writing personally to Timothy, "I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy" (2 Tm. 1:3,4). Paul laboured with many, but he was very close to a few; and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And so, having special relationships with some, while serving in ministry, is quite acceptable.

There are some who think that all Christians should feel the same way toward all. There are some who believe that Christian leaders should spend the same quantity and quality of time with all church members. Such teaching is not found in the Scriptures. Such a view is a matter of prejudice, opinion, and expectation. Christ Himself did not feel the same way toward all. He did not spend the same amount of time with all. He had His inner circle, didn't He? The issue is not one of favouritism, but one of friendship. Everyone is free to choose his or her close friends; it is just that simple. Now, I believe that we need to treat everyone fairly; but in terms of relationship, we must allow personal leeway and freedom. My brothers and sisters, do not judge and condemn other Christians because they are not spending the same kind of personal time with you as they do with others, or because they are not giving you the same amount of personal attention as they are giving to others. The genius of the spiritual body, which God has ordained, is this: the various members can connect with, and minister to, other members in a variety of combinations. All may enjoy special friendships, though no one can be personal friends with everyone.

Kingdom work is people-specific

We further read, " the church of the Thessalonians." Kingdom work is not only team work, but kingdom work is also people-specific. Effective ministry entails serving and reaching out to a particular defined people, rather than to everyone indiscriminately. The apostle Paul addressed particular instructions to a specific group. To be sure, these words have general relevancy, significance, and applicability; but Paul was addressing a specific situation, with specific needs, at a specific time. In addressing the Thessalonians, notice the clear personal overtones, "But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us" (2:7,8). Paul had spent time with these people; he knew these people; and he wrote to them out of the fullness of a pastor's heart.

Indeed, Paul was concerned about other groups of believers, but for effective ministry, he could only concentrate on and address one group at any given time (though that group may have included different congregations), simply because needs and problems varied. Do you see the application? Ministry must be focused and defined; we cannot be all things to all people. How do you think a church would fare if it tried to minister simultaneously to street kids downtown, and single mothers in the suburbs, and alcoholics in the west end, and unsaved teenagers in the local high school? It would be doing much, but probably accomplishing little. The goal and vision of the local church must be defined and focused.

The primary target of Unionville Baptist Church is Unionville. This is the place that God has put us by His providence. He did not put us downtown; He did not put us in Pickering, He has put us in Unionville. Thus, we are to endeavour to primarily reach out to those in Unionville. Let me ask you, as a member of Unionville Baptist Church, is that truth a part of your consciousness? Do you have a self-conscious understanding that we, as a Church, located at 243 Main Street, Unionville, have as our primary responsibility the ministering, and reaching out, to the community of Unionville? Why are you here in the church, my friend? Has it even dawned on you that you are here to fulfil a mission and ministry in the area that God has put you? I suspect that some of you will be disturbed with the answers that you give to these questions.

Now, this does not mean that the local church should not engage in missionary work or have missionary concerns and interests. I believe we need to. We need to recognize that we are part of the worldwide Christian community. Being in a particular location does not mean that we should not be concerned about the global Christian community. But I am here talking about our primary responsibility and calling. We have to be clear on that; we need to be defined on that; or we are not going to hit any target. We will simply float along, putting in time, until the Lord returns; and then we will scramble around madly to find that one talent that He had given us, and perhaps which we had buried. Remember, Christ will exact from us precisely what He has given us to do, and more. He is a gentle Master, but He will be a stern and strict Judge on that Day. He will come expecting and asking that which He has demanded; and you will pay up, my friend. One way or another, He will be satisfied.

The true nature of the kingdom

Now, in greeting the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul touched on the true nature of the church. The true nature of the church is spiritual – "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians [listen] in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." The true church is in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a gathering of believers that is spiritually united with God; that is in mystical union with Jesus Christ; and thus it experiences communion with God. The term 'church' was used in both secular and sacred Greek literature. It simply means 'an assembly'. But believers comprise an assembly of people, not defined in terms of the political or the social, but in terms of the spiritual (i.e., it is the Holy Spirit's creation).

So, every true church is in God. Let this language sink deep within. This is a staggering thought. God is the believer's personal environment. He not only sees what we are doing, but we exist and move in Him. A true church is not defined in terms of a creed or a constitution; a true church is not defined in terms of affiliation or a tradition. A true church is defined in terms of a relationship; and every true church is in a vital relationship and union with the living God. Do you really 'hear' this truth? When believers gather to worship God, they come to share in the very life of God. He is their source of spiritual life. Now, it is the Spirit Who makes this union and communion with God a reality. It is the Spirit Who actually unites us with the living God. What an incredible truth! If you are a believer, then you are in vital union with God.

It is interesting that the apostle Paul makes a distinction in the Godhead – "In God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Here he certainly implies the equality of the Father and the Son, while also underscoring the individual roles. God the Father has given birth to the creation, as well as to the church (we are His spiritual children). Jesus Christ the Lord is the sovereign Ruler over the creation, as well as the Head over the church (we are the members of His spiritual body).

The primary needs of kingdom citizens

Not only did the apostle Paul touch on the nature of the true church, but he also touched on the great need of every true church – "Grace to you and peace." Here we have Paul's heart felt wish for the Thessalonian believers. It is really a blessing. He states, in effect, "May the grace of Christ attend you; may the peace of Christ surround you." These spiritual realities are the greatest needs of the church; and, in a very real sense, these are the only spiritual requirements for the church's survival, success, and sanctification, generally speaking. We do not need anything else apart from grace and peace. So, this benediction by the apostle is really a summary statement of everything that believers need.

Grace presupposes a state of deficiency or lack. Further, the need for grace implies that God Himself must supply for our deficiencies or lack, or we are lost. Grace is simply God's undeserved favour, kindness, or love. We need this grace daily. My friend, if God does not supply it, you are lost. If God does not give you grace, then you are damned. You cannot live the Christian life on your own; it is impossible. You can produce absolutely nothing spiritually on your own that is pleasing to Him. If for one moment you believe that you can spiritually make it on your own; if for one moment you think that you can spiritually succeed in a particular aspect of your Christian life on your own, you are deluded.

Every believer must continually cry out, "Lord, more grace." You need more grace to love; you need more grace to be holy; you need more grace to persevere; you need more grace to understand truth; etc. The story is told of a Puritan believer sitting in the pew during a worship service. While the preacher was preaching, he wrote ferociously on sheets of paper. When he filled one sheet, he would crumple it up, throw it down, and start writing on another. Of course, the preacher was somewhat curious about this action; and immediately after the service, he went down and unfolded the sheets, and read the repeated line, "Lord, more light;" which is to say, "Lord, more grace," because we need grace to even have the light. You will spiritually understand nothing of this writing unless God gives you the grace to understand. It does not primarily depend on my skills of communication or on my beauty of literary style. It depends solely on His grace.

Believers need peace, as well as grace. Now, this idea of peace is not simply the absence of war or strife, but it is the state of prosperity or well-being. The Hebrew parallel is 'shalom'. And thus, in a general sense, grace and peace are somewhat synonymous. As believers are dependent upon God for grace, they are equally dependent upon God for prosperity. If you are to progress in the Christian life and know God more intimately, and grow more deeply in Him, and have more power with Him and for Him, then He has to do it; He must supply.

So, you can do absolutely nothing on your own with respect to your spiritual life and condition. Yet, you still have a responsibility. You have to seek; you have to cry out. You may say, "Well, what if God does not give me the grace and the peace even to do that?" Do not worry, my friend, about God's responsibility and job. Simply listen to His Word, hear His exhortations, and do them as if all depends on you, knowing that all must be accomplished by Him. This indeed is a great mystery. On that Day, you will not be able to point the finger at God and indict, "God, it is your fault." God will look at you, and pronounce, "It was your responsibility." And God always has the last word. Let him who has ears, hear what the Spirit says to the Church.