Paul and the Thessalonians give us a biblical model we can follow today as we seek to partner with nationals as if they were family. Missions partnerships, as we know them with Live Global, are less like acquaintances and more like family. North Americans serving alongside global Christians are spiritual siblings, born again into the same body, purchased with the same blood, adopted by the same Father, and commissioned with the same task. As we seek to establish relationships with cross-cultural believers for the sake of reaching the nations, we understand that what we have in common with them outweighs our differences. We are like extended family members. The apostle Paul’s two New Testament letters to the Thessalonians demonstrate this reality.
God Establishes the Relationship Between Paul & the Thessalonians
Paul’s affection for the Thessalonian believers is evident from the beginning of his first letter to them. He expresses thanks to God as he remembers in prayer their faith, love, and hope in Christ (1 Thess 1:2-3). The church is loved not just by Paul, but also by God who chose them for himself and allowed the gospel to come to them through Paul’s missionary efforts (1 Thess 1:4-5). What were those efforts?
- Preaching in the Synagogue. Acts 17 describes Paul’s initial visit to Thessalonica and his customary pattern of first visiting the Jewish synagogue, where for three consecutive weeks “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2-3).
- Responding to Persecution after God Saved Jews and Non-Jews. As a result, some Jews came to Christ, “as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:4). These non-Jewish conversions led to the Jews becoming jealous and recruiting enough protesters to attack certain new believers, forcing Paul and Silas to leave the city (Acts 17:5-10).
- Paul Writes to the Thessalonians with Encouragement for Suffering. Notice the similarities between the experiences of the believers in Thessalonica and of Paul himself. Both were converted because Jesus was revealed to them, and both immediately faced persecution because of their acceptance of Christ and his gospel (see Acts 9:20-30). Therefore Paul was able to write to them, “[Y]ou became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6). And their suffering was patterned after the Lord Jesus and after the believing Jews, who suffered at the hands of their own people (1 Thess 2:14-16).
Paul & the Thessalonians Share Salvation & Suffering
This shared experience of suffering for the faith bound Paul with the Thessalonian church in an intimate way. It is common for Paul to refer to his readers as “brothers,” and the Thessalonian letters are no exception (see 1 Thess 1:4; 2:1, 9, 14, 17; 3:7; 4:1, 10, 13; 5:1, 4, 12, 14, 25-27; 2 Thess 1:3; 2:1, 13, 15; 3:1, 6, 13). This title emphasizes the closeness of their fellowship. But Paul goes further with this church by describing his team’s work among them as that of a mother.
“For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thess 2:5-8)
Instead of lording their apostolic authority over the church, Paul and his team chose not to be served but to serve (see Matt 20:25-28). Just as Jesus desired to gather his children and protect them as a mother hen does for her chicks (see Matt 23:37-39), so Paul had a motherly disposition towards this partnering church, seeking to nourish them even at great cost to himself. But he also goes on to explain that his care for them was fatherly.
“You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (1 Thess 2:10-12)
Paul “parented” these believers as he cared for them, provided for them, instructed them, and encouraged them. And yet it is clear that he did not view these disciples as beneath him. They were ministry partners with him as they imitated not just his suffering (see 1 Thess 3:1-7), but also his life and doctrine (see 1 Thess 2:13; 3:8-10).
Paul Teaches the Thessalonians the Will of God
The Christian life is rightfully consumed with the will of God. But rather than God’s will primarily having to do with vocation or marital status, Paul teaches the Thessalonians that God’s will is about two things: holiness and thankfulness.
He commends them for the way they are walking in the Lord and urges them to continue in doing so (1 Thess 4:1-2). Then he narrows down on the primary way they are to pursue the Lord and his will: sanctification (1 Thess 4:3). Believers must exercise control over their bodies in holiness, not impurity, through the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 4:4-8). God’s will is for his people to be holy.
And it is his will that they give thanks (1 Thess 5:18). Thankfulness helps to ensure that we are content and not quick to pursue what is not ours. Thus, thankfulness is essential for holiness because it guards us against lust and greed. Holy thankfulness among Paul and his gospel partners keeps them on mission together.
Together, Paul & the Thessalonians Wait for the Coming of the Lord
The doctrine of Christ’s return is prominent throughout the letters to the Thessalonians in a way that is unique among Paul’s writings. It is as though Paul is anticipating with them the reunion that is to come with the Lord and his people. We can relate to this. Even now, many in my own family are eagerly anticipating a forthcoming family reunion. How much greater is the anticipation of Christ’s church for her bridegroom to come for her? There are several features of this throughout these letters.
- God drew us to himself in salvation to serve him and to wait for his Son (1 Thess 1:9-10).
- Our joy before Christ at his coming will be those who served the Lord alongside us (1 Thess 2:19-20).
- God causes us to love one another and sanctifies us so that we might be blameless in holiness before God at the coming of Christ (1 Thess 3:11-13; 5:23).
- We grieve the death of believers, but do so hopefully, knowing that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our resurrection when he comes again (1 Thess 4:13-17).
- The details and instructions regarding Christ’s coming are given so that believers might encourage one another in them (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11).
- We are enabled to endure through persecution and afflictions knowing that God will judge in righteousness those who oppose him when Christ comes in glory (2 Thess 1:4-10).
- True and biblical teaching regarding the coming of Christ will not alarm his people (2 Thess 2:1-2), but rather will comfort them (2 Thess 2:16-17).
- Our waiting for the return of Christ will be characterized not by idleness, but by faithfulness and good works (2 Thess 3:6-13).
How Paul & the Thessalonians Model Global Partnerships for Us Today
Based on these scriptural factors, how might we seek to apply such things to our missions strategy? Why do these truths in 1 and 2 Thessalonians matter for global partnerships? Consider three things.
- See the biblical precedent for missions partnerships. As we survey Paul’s New Testament letters, it is clear that he prioritized relationships with the members of churches in his ministry locations so that he could work alongside them for the advancement of the gospel. There was no sense of competition with neighboring churches and believers. Even when there were differences in preference and style, he rejoiced in the proclamation of Christ and the gospel (see Phil 1:15-18). In the same way, let us seek to model this biblical pattern of serving national partners for their good and God’s glory.
- Establish partnerships based on connections, not contracts. Familial bonds cannot be forced. They develop naturally over time as we engage in meaningful work and conversations with likeminded people. I do not have equally deep relationships with all the partners I serve, nor do I feel obligated to manufacture a friendship with a partner just because we are on the same team. My closest ties are generally with the partners with whom I share similar interests, giftedness, and personality, just as it is with my dearest friends in any other realm. Figure out who you connect with and serve them well.
- Prioritize learning, service, and encouragement. Paul did not see his role in the Thessalonian church as one of authority over the believers in Thessalonica. Rather, he humbly allowed God to sanctify and grow them. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul was able to offer them the teaching and encouragement they actually needed and desired.
Pray knowledgeably and scripturally about partnership opportunities. Once connections are established, keep in regular contact with them so that you know how to pray well with them and for them. As you pray, do so according to the patterns given to us in the Bible. Pray for partners to stand firm in the faith, to cling to sound doctrine, to continue in good works, to hold fast to their confession of Christ as Lord, to follow his will, and to wait expectantly for his return. And pray for the Lord to bring along new partners so that the gospel can reach where it has not yet gone.
Earthly families are not perfect. This side of heaven, neither are spiritual families. But families can help us know where we belong and what our roles and responsibilities are. They give us a shared identity. They can be excellent models for what love and trust look like within communities. God has so designed his church to function this way, so that even when we cross cultures for the sake of partnering with indigenous believers to advance the gospel, we can be at home.