What Makes A Godly Leader? | 1 Thessalonians 3:1-13
What makes a good leader in the church? Join Pastor Marty as he continues his series in 1 Thessalonians.
I have studied leaders and leadership since my youth to improve my leadership skills. Sometimes I studied the leaders from afar by reading their books. At other times, I’ve studied them up close and personal by getting to know them. Many names jump out to me as I reflect.
- Harold Lind. He was my pastor as a child and was instrumental in leading me to Christ in 1967. As a Navy Captain and reservist chaplain, he instilled in me a love of God and country. As a teaching pastor, he set the bar for how a pastor should preach on Sunday mornings with his flock. An overhead projector was cutting edge, replete with a roll of transparent plastic film affixed to a trusty crank.
- Jon Hartley. He received his Ph.D. in Old Testament/Hebrew from Brandeis University, and went on to chair the religion department at Azusa Pacific University for many years. From him, I learned the importance of logical thinking, analyzing the biblical text, reading material to stretch my mind, and minding the utter holiness of God.
- Bill Yaeger. He was the shepherd of Modesto First Baptist church for thirty years. During his tenure, the church grew from 169 people to 5,000. From this former tail-gunner in a B-17 during WWII, I learned firsthand how to lead and shepherd a church, handle conflict biblically, preach the Word in and out of season, and never forget to showcase the cross of our Lord to the lost.
Looking back now, I realize these godly, biblically-focused leaders, who impacted my spiritual life in untold, memorable ways, exhibited the character traits we see on display in Paul’s life, especially in 1 Thessalonians chapter 3. Oh, we need more leaders like these in the Church today: leaders who consistently reflect those traits derived from Jesus, leaders who bravely walk as He walked, and leaders who so impact people on a personal level these people are not only inspired to follow hard after Jesus, they touch lives for time and eternity.
If you are in a leadership position in the body of Christ at any level or aspire to be a leader on, you can do no better than study Paul’s candid words to the Thessalonian believers: study, apply, and impact lives for Christ. This is what excellent, godly leaders do, and Paul certainly shows us how to function until Jesus returns.
From Paul’s words here, I think the following question naturally arises from the text:
What Does A Godly Leader Look Like? (1 Thess. 3:1-13)
Three concepts arise from these divinely inspired words.
Godly Leaders Are Heartfelt & Honest (1 Thess. 3:1-5)
Watch how Paul steps aside from his analytical nature and shows his emotional side:
1 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; 2 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,
“Therefore,” or dio (Διὸ μηκέτι στέγοντες ηὐδοκήσαμεν καταλειφθῆναι ἐν Ἀθήναις μόνοι, (1 Thess. 3:1 ) in Greek is an inferential conjunction that looks back to what was just communicated. So, Paul states that in light of how much he longed to see these particular saints, it finally got to the point where he just could not wait any longer while he ministered in Athens. The word “endure,” or stego (στέγω), literally speaks of putting a roof on a building. Eventually, it came to denote keeping something in, or holding a confidence (1 Cor. 13:7). From our vernacular, we would simply say, “When it got to the point I couldn’t keep the lid on my driving desire to hear how you all were doing, we dispatched Timothy to check in and up on you.” The present participial nature of this verb merely underscores how perpetual this inner desire was for the missionary team.
So, Paul made a sacrifice to split the team up temporarily. Sacrifice formed the basis of this decision because Paul moved the adjective, “alone” (μόνοι), to the end of the sentence for emphasis. He dispatched Timothy to Thessalonica, and then we surmise he also sent Silas out, probably to the Macedonian region. This decision left Paul alone in the godless, idolatry-ridden city of Athens. Even though he was a tough shepherd, I’m sure he did not like being by himself, and he frequently had others saints with him for support. Yet, love drove him to let his missionary buddies leave for a brief season for the sake of his heart and the saints in Thessalonica and Macedonia.
A godly leader does not just teach spiritual truth, he loves the saints and is unafraid to let them know. He teaches them from his head, but his heart is always there, moving him to show and speak words of love. A leader who simply teaches is arrogant and creates disciples who are like-minded. A leader who teaches and loves people in various ways fulfills the Lord’s model for leadership. I have had both in my life, and I know the utter value of the latter. What type of leader will you be is the question. In addition to your teaching, do those under your care really know you love them? Do you tell them? Do you show it in your actions?
In addition to this wonderful trait, Paul shows the importance of honesty when he writes the following words:
2 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,
Knowing how the Jewish and Gentile pagan culture wasted no time persecuting these baby Christians, Paul honestly let these saints know Timothy’s assignment was simple: to strengthen and encourage them in the middle of a spiritual battle (Eph. 6:10ff).
How do you strengthen saints engaged in a fight with evil? Here are some ideas:
- You pray for them.
- You make sure they are in the Word daily.
- You make sure they are fellowshipping with other saints. You do not want to be cut off from your buddies when you are in a fight.
- You make sure they are grounded in sound doctrine. This is how Paul rolled (Acts 14:22).
- You remind them how, at times, God saves those who oppose you and your faith. He did this with Paul (Acts 9:31).
- You challenge them to read, study, and learn from the lives of the saints of old (Rom. 15:4). How about reading one of Charles Swindoll’s excellent character studies with them? His work on Elijah, Moses, David, and Job is fantastic.
- You help them gain mastery over a besetting sin, a sin that trips them up, so they can stand as victors (Heb. 12).
We could say more, but these concepts will get you started.
How do you encourage saints engaged in a fight with evil? First, realize the Greek word for encourage, parakaleo (παρακαλέω), means to come alongside someone or to literally call them to your side. It is to be their intimate, personal friend. It is place your arm around their shoulders and say things like . . .
- How are you really doing?
- What’s going on in your faith walk?
- What are you struggling with?
- What’s getting you down or causing you sleepless nights?
- How can I specifically pray for you? Prayer does avail much as James, our Lord’s brother, reminds us (James 5:16).
Are you asking them honest questions? Great leaders don’t play games with people, they don’t play their cards close to their chest, and they certainly don’t ignore those under their care. On the contrary, they are heartfelt and honest with them because they love them.
Paul and his missionary team had been extremely honest with these saints from the beginning. They talked honestly about the opposition they would face for being followers of Jesus, so, as Paul says, no one would be caught off-guard when it flared up:
3 so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. 4 For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.
The missionary team never candy-coated discipleship. Conversely, they constantly reminded them of the cost of bearing the cross of Christ each day, a high-cost Paul and his team had paid many times over as they showcased the gospel. That cost, of course, always comes from those who love spiritual darkness and sin and hate spiritual light and holiness. Therefore, to be forewarned is to be forearmed, as the saying goes.
Because followers of darkness waste no time attacking followers of the Light, Jesus, which is a truth Paul frequently talked about among the Thessalonians, he just had to know how they were doing.
5 For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain (1 Thess. 3).
Knowing how the tempter, the Devil, operates, Paul knew outright opposition might cause some of the saints to fold like the proverbial lawn chair. He had heard the Devil’s raspy, rude voice before in his head:
- If Christ really loved you, he’d protect you.
- If Christ really loved you, then the people who make your life miserable wouldn’t act like this.
- If you just dial back your Christian witness, life will be much easier. This is the myth of the greener grass syndrome, a syndrome old Lot fell for (Gen. 13:10).
- Don’t you want to be accepted and included instead of being ostracized and excluded? Then don’t be so passionate for Christ and what constitutes sin and holiness. Relax and live a little.
- Go ahead and tell the person causing havoc in your Christian life what you think of them. Let your language fly, and you’ll feel so much better. If you hear this word from your Adversary, remember Paul’s counsel in Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.”
Rebuke that voice, especially when it tells you that the way of Christianity is easy, as opposed to hard. Such is not the truth; an honest leader will level with you.
Why will we, why do we, like the Thessalonians, experience opposition to the faith? Let me count the ways:
- We believe in sin (Rom. 3).
- We believe man is born with a sinful nature (Rom. 5:12-21).
- We, as John the Baptist did with Herod, call sexual sin what it is (Mark 6:17-22).
- We identify hypocrisy when we see it. Jesus did (Matt. 23).
- We believe in absolute truth, after all, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6).
- We don’t believe in lies masquerading as truth, no matter who or how many believe in the lie.
- We believe truth always corresponds to the facts and is never based on how coherent groups think is true to them.
- We believe in virtue and not vice masquerading as virtue.
- We believe the path to heaven is narrow, as opposed to broad (Matt. 7:13-14).
- We believe we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the womb, and no changes are necessary to God’s design (Psalm 139).
- We believe marriage, as instituted by God, is always between a man and a woman.
- We believe only one gospel saves sinners, not many (Acts 4:10-12).
We could add more to the list, but this is enough to remind you that following Jesus comes with opposition, so don’t be shocked. Be courageous. Remember, it was Jesus who said, “These things I have spoken to you, so that you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). This level of honesty is what made Jesus a leaders leader. Paul learned from him, and I hope you will too, for leaders like this build strong saints who are prepared to engage evil and turn the lost into the saved as they confess Christ (Rom. 10:9-10).
So, like Paul, I must pause and tell you I love you. You all mean much to me. You have enriched my life, challenged me in the faith, and made me proud when you stand sure-footed when the wiles of the Devil batter you like a relentless storm. And speaking of a storm, may we all know we will face greater opposition in the days ahead as we stand up for Jesus and the truth of the Word of God, but in the final analysis we will be blessed by Him.
In addition to being heartfelt and honest, . . .
Godly Leaders Are Candid & Committed (1 Thess. 3:6-10)
In verses 1 through 5, Paul looked at the past. In verses 6 through 10, he looked at the present. In verses 1 through 5, he didn’t know how the saints fared in the spiritual fray because Timothy hadn’t returned yet. In verses 6 through 10, Paul joyously debriefed Timothy when he returned from his journey to Thessalonica.
6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you,
See how candid he is? In this letter, he told them how relieved he was to hear these saints hadn’t wavered in the faith for one moment. Is this not how leaders are supposed to react? A true, godly leader is excited when he learns saints under his care are courageously living out their faith in a hostile culture.
Some of our saints, who teach in the public school system, have told me stories of what they did or said to protect children from vulgarity being pushed as virtue. How can you not hear of their bravery and not commend them? Some of our military officers speak of how they have taken stances to defend decency and moral truth in the military. Some of our students tell of what they did on assignments to point people to God in a hostile environment. Some of our attorneys speak of using their positions to push back against the encroachment of wickedness disguised as holiness. Again, leadership is compelled to thank and encourage them, for they live for Christ as they should.
Obedience to Jesus despite opposition is not only an earmark of spiritual growth, but it also brings comfort to leaders. It comforts leaders insofar as they see their work is not in vain. How so? Listen and learn from Paul:
7 for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; 8 for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.
Like Paul, when you drop by my office or email me to tell me how you are flexing and not folding for the faith, I, too, get blessed. I, too, “really live” because your obedience and courage put wind in my sails. Ah, nothing is more exciting than seeing and hearing of saints living as saints among those who love sin and oppose the gospel. It’s exciting because you see it is possible to represent Jesus in tough times, and that witness always bears spiritual fruit unto eternity as people come to Christ.
Paul is so overcome with the bravery of these believers he makes this candid statement:
9 For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account,
The answer to his question is clear: He can’t offer up enough thanks to Jesus for Christians of this caliber. When I think of you, I see how much you resemble the Thessalonians. Your courage to speak up and out for Christ and the Word of God is as motivational as it is comforting. Any pastor who recognizes his sheep’s level of maturity cannot help but thank God for them. As Paul thanked this church, I thank you.
- Thank you for not being just hearers of the Word, but doers.
- Thank you for letting the Word transform you into Christlikeness.
- Thank you for standing with your spiritual leaders.
- Thank you for boldly sharing your faith in tough, demanding settings.
- Thank you for meeting the needs of the less fortunate.
- Thank you for following Christ’s steps by serving others.
- Thank you for living sacrificially to advance the church and the gospel.
- Thank you for being people of prayer.
- Thank you for being concerned about souls to the point you will bravely tell them what they need to hear to be saved.
Like the times of the Thessalonians, it does seem like the culture is arrayed against the local church, and in many ways, it is. But thanks be to God for saints who are stepping up so they can stand sure-footed as they speak up and out for the person and work of Jesus the Christ.
I addition to being candid about how they feel the saints under their care are doing, a godly leader is always committed to seeing those saints grow even more. Paul says this much in verse 10:
10 as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thess. 3)
Paul prayed for these saints in the crucible of opposition and couldn’t wait to get back with them to “complete what” was “lacking.” What does this mean? After he led them to a saving relationship with Jesus, he only spent a little time with them. You know, you can only cover so much theology in a few weeks, and then the folks run into brain overload. Did they understand they were sinners? Check. Did they know there was a Trinity? Check. Did they know Jesus was the God-man who died for their sins and rose victorious over sin and death on the third day? Check. Did they know a little of what God expected of them? Check. But from Paul's wealth of biblical and spiritual knowledge, he knew what they didn’t know yet.
Just in the theological area of Christology, they hadn’t done a deep dive, but eventually, they would need to.
- Was Jesus pre-existent and pre-incarnate in the Old Testament before His birth?
- Did Jesus have a time when he, like us, did not exist?
- How do we know Jesus was, and is, the eternal God?
- What was Christ’s activity before His incarnation?
- Why was it important for Him to be born of a virgin?
- What is so important about His genealogies as listed in Matthew and Luke?
- What are the purposes of the incarnation? According to Charles Ryrie in his Basic Theology (pp. 244-245), the answer is clear: to reveal God to us, to provide an example for our lives, to provide an effective sacrifice for sin, to be able to fulfill the Davidic covenant, to destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8), to become our High Priest (Heb. 4:16-16).
- Did Jesus possess all of the attributes of God when He was born?
- Since Jesus was a man, did He have the ability to sin?
- Why is it important for Jesus to be the prophet, the priest, and the king?
- When Paul says Jesus emptied Himself when He became the God-man, did He give up some of His divine characteristics?
- What are the various proofs for His resurrection?
- What are the post-ascension ministries of Christ in heaven?
See what I mean; this is just one area of systematic theology. As their spiritual father, Paul couldn’t wait to get back with them to deepen their knowledge of the faith so they would grow even more. Once more, this should be on the mind of all spiritual and godly leaders. They should always consider what else their sheep need to know, so their roots descend deeper into the faith (Psalm 1). You know, the older I get, the more I realize there is not much time to get to the depths of God’s Word, but I, like Paul, am still as passionate as ever to get on with it until God has other plans. I’m sure every leader on our fantastic team feels the same way, and they are committed to always digging deeper, so you grow deeper. Thank you for being desirous of digging.
In the last three verses, we encounter Paul’s final point.
Godly Leaders Are Prayerful & Precise (1 Thess. 3:11-13)
A leader who doesn’t pray for his people isn’t leading as he should. Additionally, a leader who is not praying specific things for his people is not leading effectively. I know these two things are true because of what Paul said as he wrapped up this tremendous passage:
11 Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; 12 and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; 13 so that He may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints (1 Thess. 3).
Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians is my prayer for you. May your love for each other be something the world around us can’t help but notice. May you live such a blameless, morally clean life that when Jesus appears, you will hear those honorable words:
21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master’ (Matt. 25).