Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Christian Discipleship Relationships

1 Thessalonians 2:1-13

Teaching t22462


Brief review of setting. In chapter 1, Paul recalled and celebrated their recent conversion. This is because biblical Christianity emphasizes the necessity of conversion. Our culture tends to view spirituality as a process of spiritual self-development—discovering and utilizing the spiritual resources that are already within you. But Christianity says that true spirituality begins as a crisis event when Jesus gives you spiritual life that you did not have before (TIMELINE WITH “X”; Jn. 3). Before you can develop spiritually, you must be born spiritually by entrusting yourself to Jesus as Savior and Lord!

But Christian conversion, although essential and wonderful, is not the end—it is the beginning of a growth process toward spiritual maturity (TRAGEDY OF ARRESTED HUMAN DEVELOPMENT). Christian spiritual maturity means becoming more Christ-like in your thinking and values and character, so that you represent Him well to others. And this is not something you can do primarily in private, as an individualist. Growth in Christian spiritual maturity requires relationships with other Christians in which we intentionally help one another in this direction. We sometimes call these relationships Christian discipleship relationships because we are helping one another to become better disciples (learners; apprentices) of Christ.

Some of these relationships will be with Christians who are much older or younger spiritually than we are—we might call these mentor discipleship relationships. Paul had this kind of discipleship relationship with the Thessalonian Christians, as we will see. But many of these relationships will be with Christians who are at a similar maturity level—we might call these peer discipleship relationships. Paul calls the Thessalonian Christians to this with one another.

What are the key elements of these relationships? That’s what Paul describes in 2:1-13. He reminds them of how he and his team-mates related to them as examples that they should follow with one another. Let’s read his recollection (read 2:1-12). There is a lot here, but it boils down to three key elements: our message, our motive, and our manner...

Our message

Note Paul’s repetitive recollection that he communicated a verbal message to them—he calls it “the gospel” (2:2-4,8,9). Note that he was very careful to pass on this message without any admixture (2:3). Note also that he communicated it to them in a variety of different ways ( “speak” [lego]; “exhortation” [paraklesis]; “impart” [metadidomi]; “proclaimed” [kerusso]; see also Acts 20 – public meetings and private appointments).

Paul was intent on helping them understand and apply this gospel to every area of their lives—not just a few “smiley face” verses on their refrigerator doors for when they felt sad.

He was intent on helping them become “convinced Christians” who really believed this gospel and relied on it for their spiritual life—not perpetual spiritual infants who were dependent on human charisma, inspiring speakers, emotional experiences, etc.

What is the “gospel?” We often use this term to refer only to the Bible’s description of how to become a Christian (e.g., 4 SPIRITUAL LAWS). It certainly does include this, and we should certainly use it this way. But it is clear from this passage that the “gospel” is not only this—it is also the revelation of all that God has given us through Christ to grow to spiritual maturity. Paul communicated the gospel to invite them come to Christ, and then he continued to communicate the gospel to them after they came to Christ.

The gospel is also called the message of God’s grace (EXPLAIN “G-R-A-C-E” ACRONYM), or our new identity in Christ. It is the main subject of the entire Bible, it comes into focus especially in the New Testament, and it is distilled in long passages like Rom.1-11 and Eph. 1-3 and Col.1,2.

“God did not give us His gospel just so we could embrace it and be converted. Actually, He offers it to us every day as a gift that keeps giving to us everything we need (to grow to spiritual maturity). The wise believer learns this truth early and becomes proficient in extracting available benefits from the gospel each day.”

This is a great quote—but it implies that we do this primarily by ourselves, whereas Paul is saying: “I did this with you; do it with one another!” Read 2:13. It was as the Thessalonian Christians received this message regularly from Paul that it kept “performing (energo) its work in you who (already) believe.”

This is what we do in discipleship relationships! We meet regularly as twosomes or threesomes, and we help one another to read and discuss and memorize and apply the gospel to our lives. And as we do this, the very power of God is unleashed to do a slow-motion miracle of transforming us from the inside-out into more Christ-like people!

So the question for us is not only: “Do I read the Bible alone?” or “Do I attend Bible studies?” but also: “Do I have Christian friendships in which we regularly read and discuss and apply the God’s word with one another?” Without this, we will remain spiritual infants. But with this, we grow slowly but surely more spiritually mature. Do you believe this? How would your life be different if you really believed this?

Our Motive

Note Paul’s references to the motives which did and did not drive his relationships with them (read 2:4-6). He did not to relate to them to please them (by flattery), but to please God. He did not relate to them to serve himself or to use them (for money or self-glory), but to serve them (refer to 2:9).

So our motives matter to God! Specifically, the motives that drive us in our discipleship relationships with one another are super-important! Ask yourself these questions about your normal relational posture:

“Am I a God-pleaser or a people-pleaser? Do I relate to others mainly to please God – or to please them for their approval or status?”

“Am I a giver or a taker? Do I relate to others mainly to give to them – or to take attention, pity, inordinate security, material favors, etc. from them?”

Any honest Christian will quickly see that we have lots of room for growth in this area! It is important to know that Paul is not claiming: “I was totally void of sinful motives when I related to you.” He was acutely aware of the insidiousness of his fallen nature especially in this area (Rom.7:14-24). Rather, he is saying: “I struggle with impure motives, but I didn’t let them determine how I related to you.” Like Paul, we can be aware of the ongoing presence of selfish motives, and yet choose (with God’s help) to relate to one another with basically the right motives. You do not have to be a long-time Christian to do this!

How can we get God’s help to relate to one another with godly motives?

Focus more on God’s grace (the gospel) than on your motives. His grace can you’re your heart that He loves you so much despite your sinfulness that He humbly served you (Phil.2:5ff.). His grace will also remind you of your wealth in Him (security; identity; approval; etc.) so that you can relate to others out of that wealth to give freely to them. And His grace will free you to be honest about your sinful motives...

A God to sensitize you to bad relational motives (Ps.139:23,24). We cannot discern this by ourselves, but God can show us if we ask Him to. As God shows you directly or through others, admit what He shows you to Him and others.

We can find ways to serve “in secret” (Matt.6:4,6,18; EXAMPLES). This is more difficult than you might imagine! But it is a great way to have your motives exposed and strengthen the pleasure of serving to please God.

Our Manner

Note how Paul describes the manner in which he related to the Thessalonian Christians—like mother and like a father (2:7,8,11,12). In other words, he was both very nurturing and very challenging in his relationships with them.

Paul was not a stoic tough guy. Like a mother with her new-born child, he was tender, affectionate, and open-hearted. They didn’t have to wonder if Paul liked being with them—he told them and showed them that he liked being with them. They didn’t have to wonder if Paul begrudged serving them. He showed them and told them that he was “glad to spend and be expended for their souls” (2Cor.12:15). They didn’t have to wonder if he would write them off if they performed poorly. He told them and showed them that he was committed to them for the long haul.

On the other hand, Paul was not a mushy push-over. Like a father with his (older than new-born) children, he was straightforwardly challenging with them (“exhorting” [parakaleo]; “encouraging” [paramutheomai]; “imploring” [marturomai]). He strongly called them to keep growing toward maturity (2:12)—to keep learning what God was teaching them, to keep taking the scary steps of faith He was giving them, to keep receiving the correction He was giving them, to keep representing Him will in all of their roles and relationships, etc.

Now regardless of what you think about Paul characterizing mothers and fathers this way (I do not believe he intended a strict stereotype of these roles), his point is that relating to one another in both ways has a powerful spiritual impact in our discipleship relationships.

Why is this? Because God loves us like a mother and like a father. God’s love meets us where we are, but it doesn’t leave us there. God loves us with infinite patience, but He also keeps calling us forward to make progress. God says: “I know your frame, that you are but dust”—but He also says: “You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.”

God wants to incarnate this kind of love through us to one another in our discipleship relationships. They become truly transforming when we practice both with each other. How thankful I am that I have this in my life! I would certainly have long ago fallen victim to spiritual discouragement and/or fallen asleep in spiritual complacency long ago without these relationships! What about you?

What steps can we take toward relating in this manner in our discipleship relationships?

Confess your deficit(s) in this area to God (e.g., coldness; fear-driven softness), and ask Him to do whatever is needed for our softening or our stiffening/strengthening. He will answer this prayer!

Admit your deficit(s) to your Christian friends, and give them the “green light” to tell you when you are slipping. They can often see it when you can’t (Heb.3:13).

Observe Christians who are strong where we are weak in this area (Phil.3:17). Such observation will attract you to the beauty of such relating as well as tutor you in it.


SUMMARIZE: God wants each of us to grow to spiritual maturity—and this requires intentionally relating to some Christian friends in ways that focus on this MESSAGE with this MOTIVE in this MANNER!

What one step is God calling you to take down this path? Is it to ask someone in your home group to meet regularly to do this? Is it to take an existing discipleship relationship to the next level in the Word? Is it to repent of self-centered motives in this relationship? Is it to work at being more nurturing or challenging? When you take this step, God will powerfully get behind you toward the goal of spiritual maturity!

Paul probably also wrote 2:1-13 to defend his leadership from the slander of his enemies in Thessalonica. Therefore, this passage is also a classic description of Christian leadership.

Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (2008), p.5.