As we move forward in Paul's letters to the Thessalonians, we see what Paul considered of utmost importance in his greeting: Expressing gratitude to the church he planted. We might be tempted to see this as a mere formality, a cultural nicety if you will. But the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the evidence throughout the books tell us differently. Paul and his team were genuinely thankful for the church at Thessalonica, and told them so in specific ways beyond this initial greeting:
- And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
- How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
- We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
- But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
We know that gratitude is a command - coming, in fact, later in this same epistle ("give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." 1 Thessalonians 5:18). What is remarkable to me about these letters is that Paul and his team modeled gratitude not through emphasizing their gratefulness in circumstances, but by expressing specific gratitude toward people - specifically, the Thessalonians. The church-planting apostle who brought them the gospel - the one whom they should be thankful to God for putting in their lives - was thankful for them!
It's certainly Biblical to honor our church leaders. Scripture tells us to "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7). We are further instructed to "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you" (Hebrews 13:17). We are to ensure they have what they need: "Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them" (Galatians 6:6). Teaching elders deserve special honor: "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages'" (1 Timothy 5:17-18). We can certainly assume that the church at Thessalonica demonstrated gratitude to Paul and his team - and this was appropriate and good.
However, despite having every reason to place these expectations on the church in Thessalonica, Paul and his team turn the concept of gratitude and honor upside down: They pour out gratitude to God for the Thessalonian believers. These expressions of thankfulness are extremely specific:
- The church's faith, hope, and love, and the effort these produced
- The church's acceptance of the word of God
- The joy Paul & his team have before God because of the church in Thessalonica
- The church's increasing faith and love
- The Thessalonians' place as "firstfruits" of what would become an abundant harvest of Gentile believers
Through their example, Paul and his team modeled what Paul later taught the church at Rome: "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:10). As with so much of the New Testament, Paul's teaching here was counter-cultural. The Middle Eastern culture of Biblical times - and even today - was very much an "honor-shame" society. Individuals interacted with each other based on how much "honor" was expected - and of course, it was the goal of most to obtain the highest place of honor possible given his life circumstances. We must understand this to grasp how significant it is that, in one of the earliest New Testament books written, Paul uses valuable papyrus space to express thankfulness to God for this church.
When we stop to think about it, this is still counter-cultural today. In the West we don't have an honor-shame society, but we certainly do know what it is like to have individuals who receive more "honor" than others. Our entertainment-driven society elevates sports heroes, entertainment figures, politicians, etc., to unrealistic pedestals. In the church, we sometimes see similar treatment of well-known authors, speakers, or mega-church leaders. Again, some level of gratitude and honor is fully appropriate for those who dedicate their lives to the church. Paul's example, though, gives a picture of someone who could have expected all that and more - but chose instead to honor his spiritual children.
Think of a special speaker you might have hosted at your church. You probably provided an honorarium or love offering, and possibly given a gift and thank you note after the lecture, perhaps in an effort to obey 3 John 6: "They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God." This is good and right. Imagine though, if upon the speaker's return home, you received a letter filled with thankfulness to God for your church. Imagine receiving the verses Paul's team wrote in a personal letter to your church from someone for whom you had the utmost gratitude and respect. What would that build in you?
When I receive a compliment, my fleshly reaction is often false humility - I want to act as if it's undeserved. If I open my hands and heart to fully receive it, though, my reaction shifts: I deeply want to live up to it. I know that it's all a work of God's grace, that apart from Him I can do nothing - and yet whenever someone thanks me for something or gives me the honor of a compliment, often as I smile and say "Thank you" I am praying, "Lord, let that be true." I am built up and encouraged to see how God has used this flawed vessel, how the treasure has been poured out through His power, and I am challenged to make that trait a reality in my life. If I received Paul's letter, I would be challenged to an increased faith, deeper love, stronger hope, and authentic joy. I would hold the word of God even more dear, and I would long to be part of bringing in the rest of the Gentile harvest.
Don't miss that our starting passage expresses gratitude for "all of you". We have no reason to believe that the church in Thessalonica was exceptionally spiritual and filled only with easy-to-love individuals. Like any church, it was likely a mixture of mature and new Christians, some more worldly and others more spiritual. Yet Paul leaves no one out. He is thankful for "all of you." I cannot escape the obvious lesson here: In a ministry situation, there is no one for whom I should not be thankful to God. Often the most difficult students serve to sharpen the teacher in ways that nobody else could.
As I seek to apply the ministry lessons I'm learning in Thessalonians, I see two principles here:
- Be cautious of those in ministry who demand or expect honor, who seek to elevate themselves by receiving praise from others. While appropriate funding and respect should certainly be granted freely and generously, if the apostle Paul can model gratitude and mutual honor, then certainly today's ministry leaders should do so.
- In situations where I am the spiritual "leader" (and most of us are, to at least someone, even if it's our children), I should intentionally recognize those things that are praiseworthy. Thank God for what I see in them, and then tell them what those things are. Sometimes it seems we fail to do this out of fear that we are going to cause the other person to become prideful. We fail to realize that by saying nothing, we are withholding a form of encouragement that God intends us to give each other. No one in the body of Christ should wonder if he or she is appreciated or valued. We don't get to spiritualize this one. Certainly we are valued by God, but these passages make it clear that we should express our gratitude to each other as well.
And to complete Paul's example, whenever we do express thankfulness, let's be sure to include that as a praise during our prayers to God!