Preparing a new sermon on 2 Thessalonians last week, I carried a photocopy of the Greek text into the gym with me (as I often do). For about an hour, I couldn’t make it past the first two words of the letter:
“Paul and…”2 Thessalonians 1:1
And. Such a seemingly insignificant word. The ESV replaces it with a comma–it’s not proper English to say “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” But I couldn’t get over the meaning invested in that second word of Paul’s letter: Paul…and.
This is actually a quite common way for Paul to begin a letter. Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians begin this way: “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” In fact, of his 10 letters written to churches, 7 of them begin Paul and… They aren’t merely addressed from Paul alone, but from Paul and: Paul and a co-laborer, Paul and a partner in the gospel, Paul and a fellow minister of the gospel.
This isn’t coincidental. Beginning with his earliest letters Paul knows and wants us to know the blessing of “and.”
Perhaps you know what Paul experienced just before he planted the Thessalonian church. He and Silas and Timothy were just up the valley in a city called Philippi. After casting a demon out of a little girl, rioters attacked them, stripped them naked, beat them with nightsticks, and threw them in jail (Acts 16:22-23). Bloody and black-eyed, Paul found himself spending a sore night in a Philippian jail.
But when the midnight watchmen took their post, they heard a strange noise rising from the dungeon. A voice. Paul was singing. And then a second voice. Paul and Silas were singing. Bruised ribs heaved as fat lips formed the joyful praises of risen Savior. Hymn after hymn floated from the jail cell as Paul leaned into the blessing of “and.” He was not alone. A fellow minister of the gospel, a friend, a co-laborer was shackled to the wall next to him.
“Paul and Silas…” The opening three words of 2 Thessalonians remind us of that prison cell. It’s a beautiful illustration of the blessing of “and.”
One man can sing just fine by himself, but it took two men in that jail cell to harmonize. One eye can see just fine by itself, but it takes two eyes to see with three-dimensional depth. This is the beauty Paul is communicating in the opening words of 2 Thessalonians. It’s the beauty of men working together to lead the churches of God. The harmony, the sharing of authority, the mutual recognition, the protection, the camaraderie, the friendship of co-laborers in the gospel ministry.
From his earliest endeavors, Paul wanted fledgling churches to know that they hadn’t joined a personality cult. Paul and…indicated to the Thessalonians that Paul is one of many ambassadors and co-laborers in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.
First and 2 Thessalonians are the first letters of Paul and the earliest Christian writings in the New Testament. In them, he uses the pronoun “I” only eight times. Compare that with a whopping seventy-four occurrences (!) of the word “we.” Furthermore, consider how even in his very first epistle, he is encouraging believers to honor and respect the ministers of the gospel in their local church (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Paul was spreading the blessing of “and” to every church he planted.
Brothers and sisters, if we will receive Paul’s instruction and example, every one of us ought to be pleading:
Lord, give us the blessing of “and.” One man preaching the gospel alone is good, but we want “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” In the church, we want the most full-orbed, well-rounded, beautiful gospel proclamation possible, resounding in every prison cell in this town, finding its way into the dorm rooms and nursing homes and houses, echoing off the walls of classrooms and in the streets. We want the harmonic gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by a plurality of elders and pastors uniting their voices to sing the praises of the one Shepherd.
We are all shaped by different passions and experiences and opportunities and spiritual gifts, and the most beautiful gospel is going to be sung from the pulpit week after week by different men, not the same voice every week–as good as that voice may be. Different voices provide different emphases. Different voices demonstrate gospel plurality—that men and women from different ages and backgrounds and colors are all saved by the same Jesus and draw into the diverse body of Christ. Men old (like Paul and Silas), men young (like Timothy).
Let us pray for the blessing of “and”. The loneliness and dejection are palpable when as an old man Paul writes, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16). Brothers and sisters, if the Apostle Paul desperately needed co-laborers and fellow ministers, every pastor does. No pastor is meant to preach the gospel alone.
May each of our churches be filled with fellow prisoners of the Cross, men in chains harmonizing in beautiful plurality to the glory of Christ!
(photo by Martina Flor)