May 14, 2023
The second chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is marked by a clear picture of pastoral care: the shepherd of the flock is gentle, affectionate, and caring, much like a nursing mother. Alistair Begg underscores that the all-encompassing nature and sacrificial role of motherhood, which is a responsibility and a privilege from God, provides a helpful pattern and purpose for pastors. Although ministers of the Gospel should boldly proclaim God’s Word, in doing so, they take care to reflect Jesus, the one who bids all people come, for He is “gentle and lowly in heart.”
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, let me invite you to turn with me in the Bible to the New Testament and to 1 Thessalonians and chapter 2. And if you’re able to follow along as I read… First Thessalonians 2, and reading the first eight verses:
“For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 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.”
Father, you search us, and you know us. You know our needs—a need for lucidity, brevity, clarity, attention. We need you to be able to speak, to be able to hear, to listen, to understand, to trust the Bible and to obey it. And so to you we look. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, those of you who are around routinely know that I have been absent. I wasn’t absent last week, but I wasn’t preaching. I was absent before that. And we have left the book of Jude sitting somewhere over there, as it were. And I would imagine that some came with the expectation that this morning, we would pick it up right where we left off. I’ve chosen not to do that for a couple of reasons that I’m going to explain. One of them is that this morning, we would be coming to a text which reads immediately, “Woe to them … for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.” PS: Happy Mother’s Day!
So, as I was mulling that and thinking about it, I said, “Well, I’m not sure about that.” No, I mean, I’m very sure about what it says, and we will come to it. But it was also because of the fact that we have spent the last week or more actually thinking about and challenging and encouraging ourselves and encouraging other pastors to take seriously the role of being a pastor and being a shepherd. So those of you who say, “Well, how does your mind work? How do you come to a Sunday like this? How would you ever determine, especially if you’re stepping out of the series that you’re in?”—I’m telling you how I got to this. I got to it by thinking, “It’s Mother’s Day, and my mind and my heart is full of the challenges, privileges, and responsibilities of pastoral ministry, which have been the focus for us and some fifteen hundred others that were with us.”
And as I was mulling all of this—and I’m not talking about it, like, yesterday or something; I’m talking about, actually, in the past two weeks—as I thought about it, I was reminded of a story that had come to me through one of the participants in the event. One of the men was Eric Alexander, who in a prior year was present here speaking at our conference and who has now gone on to glory. He died in the last few months. But he told me of how when he was a young man, he was given the privilege of being the master of ceremonies; he was given the privilege of introducing a particular preacher in Britain at that time, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones—Lloyd-Jones, who had been the assistant to the physician of the king, Lord Horder, and who had left his medicine behind to become a pastor in a Methodist, Calvinistic Methodist chapel in his native Wales. And Eric, as a young Scotsman, was very delighted to even be in the company of the good doctor.
And Lloyd-Jones preached and preached for over an hour. And when he sat down at the end of it all and Eric sat beside him, Eric was very keen to find out how he responded to this. And so he said to him, “Dr. Lloyd-Jones, how do you feel?” And Lloyd-Jones said, “I feel tired.” And Eric, pressing him for more, received this response: Lloyd-Jones looked at him, and he said, “Young man, what I’ve just done is the closest that a man may come to the experience of childbirth.” Hyperbole? No, I think he had Paul’s statement in mind from Galatians chapter 4, where Paul says, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”
And so, as I was thinking about that, I said, “Here we are. This is the root that allows me to, on this particular morning, acknowledge what it means for God to have given us motherhood and to face the challenge of what is involved in being made a shepherd of God’s flock.” So, in other words, I think what it gives us the opportunity to do is together say we are thankful to God for motherhood, and it enables us in some measure to know how to pray for those who are given the responsibility of pastoral ministry. That’s really the framework.
Now, to set 1 Thessalonians in context, and just very briefly, you will need to go back and read in Acts chapter 17. Because it is there in Acts chapter 17 that Luke records how Paul and Silas and Timothy with him had come to Thessalonica. Things had not gone particularly well in Philippi. They weren’t going to go particularly well in Thessalonica either. But we’re told there by Luke that for three Sabbaths, for three weeks, the story of the gospel was proclaimed by Paul. He took the opportunity to explain that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is the Prophet who has come; he is the King who reigns; he is the Priest who has offered up himself. And Luke records on that occasion that a number of people came to an understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Many of them were religious. They were trying to do various things in order to find acceptance with God, and they were brought to an amazing discovery: that it was not about what we were going to do for God, but it was what God has done for us in the person of Jesus. And some of them trusted Christ.
But simultaneously, a great number of them were immediately opposed to the messengers and opposed to the message. And if your Bible is open, you will notice that in verse 17 of the same chapter that we read, Paul refers to being “torn away”—“torn away” from Thessalonica. In other words, “We didn’t want to leave you. We had to leave you.” And when you read the story, you discover that they essentially left under the cover of darkness for fear of their own lives.
Now, as a result of that sudden departure, when you read 1 Thessalonians, you discover that those who did not like the messengers and who were opposed to the message sought, then, to damage the reputation of these men. And so they began to say to the believers in Thessalonica, “I don’t know whether you should trust those characters who were here. After all, they were just in, and they were gone.” And when you read the text, you realize that what these opponents are doing is calling in question both the motives and the message and the methodology of these particular individuals. We daren’t labor on it. We mustn’t labor on it. But the way you can discover what the allegations were is by considering the denials that Paul makes.
So, for example, in verse 3 he says, “Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive.” Why does he say that? Because people were saying, “You can’t trust them. You shouldn’t trust them. They’re fly-by-night people. They come in; they say various things.” Verse 4: “But just as we[’ve] been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” In other words, he says, “We didn’t come here to flatter the people in Thessalonica.” And in verse 5: “We never came with words of flattery, … nor with a pretext for greed …. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others,” and so on. So that is the context.
Now, the man who is writing this is by any stretch of the imagination a man’s man. I guess it’s not even politically correct to say something like that today, but there you are. You heard it here. He was a man’s man. No shrinking violet would have endured what he endured in his life: imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck. No tender office hands would have been able to handle what was involved in the work that he did moving these vast chunks of leather and canvas and so on around in order that he might strengthen them and stitch them and do all these things. No, there is no sense in which he is anything other than a tough guy—and, actually, a clever guy along with that.
Now, I mention that because that makes the terms that he uses here all the more striking. I mean, if he was… No, we’ll leave that alone. He is who he is. And what does he say? “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother.” In fact, if you go back to verse 17 that I mentioned earlier, when he says, “We were torn away,” he says, “We were torn away in person, but we weren’t torn away in heart.” “We came with our hearts to you. We spoke out of the fullness of our hearts to you, and although we were torn away, we were torn away physically, but we were never really divorced from you.”
Now, what I want to do in the time that we have is just notice, first of all, the picture that he uses, then acknowledge that it is a pattern in pastoral ministry, and then just say in closing a word or two about how the purpose of motherhood and the purpose of pastoring actually coalesce.
First of all, then, the picture is straightforward. You can see it there: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother.” It is the picture of a nursing mother taking care of her own children. Therefore, it is a picture of tenderness. It is a picture of selflessness. It is a picture which makes clear to us that the life of the infant is uniquely and literally bound up with the life of the mother. She provides milk from her own breast to nourish and to strengthen the child of her womb. There is no one who sacrifices more than a mother sacrifices for her child in both bringing her into the world and him into the world—that child—and sustaining them.
The word that is used here is one word in Greek, but it’s two words in English. You will notice it in verse 7: “like a nursing mother taking care”—“taking care of her own children.” The word there is representative—in fact, it’s used in the Septuagint in the Old Testament to describe this circumstance: “If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs…” You see that picture. You look at those tiny little chicks, you say, “She’s going to kill them the way she’s sitting on them. Is she sitting on them? She’s sitting on the eggs? What is she doing?” She’s keeping them warm. The verb here is the same verb. She’s “taking care” of them—in other words, a picture of provision, of protection.
And it makes clear a number of things—first of all, that motherhood is not a job that has certain tasks attached to it. It’s a calling that demands affectionate commitment. It calls for a mother to actually attempt, at least, to be equal to every crisis and to learn to anticipate the unexpected.
Somewhere along the line of the second half of the twentieth century, motherhood was devalued. Motherhood was set in a category that would appear in some ways to be demeaned if the mother was “only a mother.” So I would be in company, and people would say, “Well, do you work?” And the person says, “Well, I’m a stay-at-home mom.” They said, “Well, I understand that, but do you work?” Well, apparently, they must have been going out so much that they didn’t know how much work was actually going in their absence.
I just made a note of the things that a mother has to be fairly expert in in the fulfilling of her work: Alphabetology. Agathology. (Agathos is Greek for goodness.) Bacteriology. (“Let me look at that for you.”) Chaology. (That’s right: “chaos-ology.” Chaology.) Dermatology. Dinosaurology. (“What are dinosaurs, Mom?”) Diplomatology. (“Ask your father.”) Doxology. Vaccinology. And zoology. (When you come into the house and you say, “This place is starting to look a bit like a zoo.”) And in the midst of all of that, the “taking care” is not daycare. It’s all-day care: tears, fears, floods, failures, changing, washing, repairing, comforting, caring—through the night. Never ends.
And it’s not a voluntary position. Motherhood belongs in the hands of mothers. Later on in the same text, he’s going to deal with fathers. Notice the binary nature of it. In the real world, you see, there is such a thing as a mother, and there is such a thing as a father. And the mother is not the father, and the father is not the mother. They’re engaged in the project together, but the uniqueness of roles is established by Almighty God. And that is both the responsibility, and it is the tremendous privilege. In fact, God uses the picture of himself, arguing from the lesser to the greater—Isaiah 66:13: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” He says, “You’re comforted by your mother? I’ll comfort you.” That’s why the mother’s embrace, the mother’s empathy, the mother’s encouragement is so foundational. By and large, in the best of cases, Mother is the emotional backbone of the family. And that’s why we recognize the place of motherhood. God gave us a gift in motherhood, allowing us to revere the memory of those now gone, to celebrate the presence of those still here, and to pray for those who would love to assume the role.
Well, enough said on that. That’s the picture. It’s there in the text: “We didn’t seek glory from you. We didn’t do this. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother.”
Now, of course, Paul doesn’t write this with Mother’s Day in mind. It wasn’t that somebody said to him, “You know, it’s Mother’s Day coming up. Maybe you want to put a little something in there.” No. No, what he’s doing is this: he’s writing in such a way to show how the sacrificial role of a mother should help to frame a pastor’s approach to gospel ministry. Therein lies the challenge. Therein lies the challenge. I mean, I don’t really want to say all that I’ve just said about the nature of motherhood and then realize that the application of that to pastoral ministry hits you straight on the forehead and reveals to you the great gap between what you’re supposed to be and what you actually are—that the idea of sacrifice and goodness and kindness and threatenings and punishments and all the things that go along with it are all part and parcel of it. That’s what Paul is saying. It’s not the pattern for shepherdology, or for pastoral care, but it is a pattern.
Now, the contrast that exists, of course, is that which exists between the authority and boldness of Paul and his colleagues and the sensitivity with which he recognizes he and his colleagues are supposed to bring influence to bear. He has the ability to be bold. You will notice he says that: “We could, actually, be very bold with you. We have a boldness in God”—verse 2—“to declare to you the gospel of God.” In other words, there’s a weightiness to being a servant of the Word, whether in apostolic ministry or in pastoral ministry. And what he’s saying is “Although we had that weight, if you like, we didn’t throw our weight around.”
And so, he’s able to appeal to what they know. If you go through the text, you will find that on a number of occasions, he keeps saying, “You know this, and you know this, and you know this.” Well, he could only appeal to that if they did know it. So he says, “You know that our methodology was above board: no trickery, no impurity, no flattery.” It’s on the test: You want to be a pastor? You want to shepherd the people of God? Are you trying to trick them? Are you trying to blow smoke? Use it for an occasion of impurity? Uh-uh. No, you can’t imagine a mother operating on that basis at all.
The methods were above board. The message was absolutely clear. You’ll notice this, actually, if your text is open, that he’s able to say in 1:5, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit … with full conviction. [And] you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” The gospel that they proclaimed—a gospel that had changed Saul of Tarsus to Paul the apostle. Saul was an arrogant (by his own testimony) Jew, from the finest of backgrounds, until the day that he met Jesus. And on the day that he met Jesus, his Judaism was not forsaken. He remained a Jew to the end of his life. But the fact was that he discovered who Jesus was, and he had a whole new view of Jesus. And he discovered that the people that he was trying to persecute were actually his brothers and sisters in Jesus. So he not only had a whole new view of Jesus, but he had a whole new view of the followers of Jesus, and he had a whole new view of his standing before God. Because up until that point, he thought that his standing before God had to do with how well he’d been keeping the rules. And then he later on writes, he says, “But to me there was shown mercy, that I who was a sinner before God was shown the kindness of God.” Therefore, it would be very surprising, wouldn’t it, if when he then went to minister the gospel to other people, those aspects of the discovery of the goodness of God were not present in his message?
No, his message was clear, his methods were above board, and he was motivated not by the things that other people were saying motivated him. He tells them straight up. He said, “I wasn’t motivated by greed. I wasn’t motivated with a desire for glory”—self-glorification, at least. Some of his readers who had become believers as a result of what happened on those three Sabbaths there in Thessalonica were now in need of the pure spiritual milk of the Word. As Paul says, “Now that you have been born again, you want to desire the pure spiritual milk that you might grow up by it.” And Paul understands that. And so, in the same way as a mother provides the milk that is physically necessary for the sustaining of her child, so the responsibility, says Paul, falls to the ministers of the gospel to provide milk where it is necessary—necessary for growth. And in doing that, he says, “We didn’t talk down to you, but we got down beside you. We came alongside you.” And they knew that to be the case. “Got down beside you in order that we might share with you.”
Now, that kind of engagement, certainly even in the short haul but definitely in the long haul, is such that it was impossible for him and his colleagues to remain aloof. “We weren’t aloof from you. Actually, we shared ourselves with you.” You see that as you read on in the text. In other words, they were bold, but they didn’t scold—being bold without being scolding.
Charles Warr was the minister of St. Paul’s Greenock down the River Clyde from the city of Glasgow—a place that you can leave off your list when you go and visit. But he was there in Greenock many, many years ago. And he had in his congregation men who were alongside him in lay eldership, who were there both to watch out for him, to encourage him, to poke him in the ribs, and so on—which is part of the role that exists here.
And one particular man, Arthur Caird—C-a-i-r-d, Caird, Arthur Caird—came to him one day, and he said, “You know, things are going quite nicely here, aren’t they?” He used the picture of a garden, and he said, “The garden of ministry is developing nicely. It’s in good shape.” And then, putting his hand on the young minister’s shoulder, he said, “My boy, the garden is still waiting for the blossoming of one flower without which no minister’s garden can be fruitful.” And then he said, “I know we’re not everything we ought to be, and no doubt we need a lot of scolding. But we’d all be a great deal better than we are if only you would try sometimes, instead of lecturing us, to show us that you love us. We take all things well from one who always and wholly loves us.”
Which, in reading this—which is in part painful—but which, in reading this, reminds me of a story from William Barclay, the old Scottish New Testament scholar. And he describes a situation in the home of—I think it’s Barrie, the writer. And the mother had been out, and one of the children decided to paint on the walls of the living room. And she returned, and she looked at what was going on, and she said, “Who did this?” And one little guy put up his hand, and she said, “You have painted a lovely picture of your sister.” And Barclay says, “And that comment made my friend a painter.” There was every reason to react in a different way. But in reacting in that way…
Now, I hope you see this. I hope so. I can’t tell, ’cause I’m looking at you. I don’t know. But the picture here that is given us of femininity is actually ultimately a picture of divinity. Because the full embodiment of that which is mirrored in the mother’s role is seen ultimately and entirely in Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, the one who is “gentle and lowly in heart,” the one who says, “Come to me, even though you’re a mess. Come to me. You’ll find rest for your souls. I’ll help you. I’ll take care of you.”
So, the picture is absolutely clear, and the pattern that it draws, against which our lives are then gauged, both humbles and challenges us, as it should. And some of you will understand when I tell you that having reflected on these things, the title I gave to this talk was “Another Kind Word.” The majority of you say, “Well, that makes no sense to me at all.”
I was driving in the car, doing my usual job of commentating on the driving of the entire community apart from myself. We had been at one particular intersection where I needed to, you know, just direct proceedings, and I must have said things like, “Oh, come on, clown. That’s why it goes to green. Let’s move the thing. Where… Come on! Where did you come from?” And I was just, like, calling the game, as it were. And when we had moved off and there was silence, there was just a word from one of the children in the back seat, and my son said, “And that’s another kind word from your pastor.” It’s funny, but only up to a point.
The picture’s clear. The pattern’s a challenge. And the purpose: to declare the gospel of God—verse 2, verse 9. To challenge them to walk in a manner worthy of God. In other words, just to come full circle to the story of Lloyd-Jones: “I am again in … anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” He says, “Our only objective was to help you live lives worthy of God, who has called you to share the splendor of his own kingdom. We’re continually thankful that when you heard us preach the word of God, you accepted it not as a mere human message but as it really is: God’s Word, a power in the lives of those who believe.”
“Well,” you say to a mom, “what are you trying to do with these children? Are you trying to see them nurtured, cared for, trying to see them grow to maturity?” You can’t really be around a young mom or a middle-aged mom or an old mom or a grandmother very long before they say, “Would you like to see a picture? Would you like to see a picture?” Well, that’s what Paul says. He says to the Thessalonians, “When I move around and I say to people, ‘Would you like to see of picture of what this looks like?’ do you know who I show them?” He says, “I show them you. You’re my picture. You’re my story.”
And in some tiny measure, that’s what I was trying to say to you earlier. The guys who were here were as much, if not more, impacted by your ministry to them than anything I or my colleagues had to say to them. And in fact, I said to one such person, I said, “You know, here’s the deal: it’s possible—it’s not happening, but it’s possible—to fake it from up here. But you can’t fake it through there, with fifteen hundred men: serving them food, responding to their needs.” And so I was able to say, “Well, it’s a privilege for me to be here.” What a wonderful picture this is. What a wonderful picture you are.
Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank you that Paul, in all of his manliness, is prepared to compare himself in such feminine terms. Thank you that it allows us to say thank you for the joy of motherhood. It also enables us to know how to pray for certainly those that pastor us and care for us. And it reminds us, too, that ultimately, what we’re doing is seeking to see unbelieving people become the committed followers of Jesus Christ and to become mature in him. Help us to this end, we pray, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
 Jude 11, 13 (ESV).
 Galatians 4:19 (ESV).
 See Acts 17:2.
 See Acts 17:4.
 1 Thessalonians 2:17 (ESV).
 See Acts 17:10.
 1 Thessalonians 2:17 (paraphrased).
 Deuteronomy 22:6 (ESV).
 1 Thessalonians 2:2 (paraphrased).
 1 Timothy 1:16 (paraphrased).
 1 Cor. 3:1–3 (paraphrased). See also 1 Peter 2:2.
 Matthew 11:29 (ESV).
 Matthew 11:28–29 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.