Faithlife Sermons

1 THESSALONIANS 5:12-15 - Growing A Healthy Flock

1 Thessalonians: Real Gospel For Real People  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  45:24
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It is easy to grow a big unhealthy church in a hurry--but we are called to grow a healthy flock



So a couple of weeks ago at our annual members’ meeting we addressed the fact that our fellowship hall downstairs is beginning to fill up more and more during events—we are, in short, running out of room. And so we have begun praying and seeking God’s direction as to the best way to address this issue.
To be sure—it’s a good problem to have. As one wit put it, “When you enroll in a math class, you will encounter math problems. Likewise, when you begin growing, you will encounter growth problems...” In the past few years, we have seen several new households either joining or regularly attending Bethel—we are certainly growing as a church.
But is this growth a healthy growth? So often churches are so eager to “grow” that they never stop to think that not all growth is healthy—what is cancer, after all, but unhealthy growth? As one preacher has noted, “You can grow a big church to be ashamed of in a hurry...”
So how can we recognize growth that is healthy in a church? How do we evaluate the health of the church family that God has given us, and how do we go forward in a way that protects and nurtures that healthy growth? What I believe our text this morning demonstrates for us (and so what I want to show you this morning) is that
The health of a church is REVEALED by its RELATIONSHIPS to one another
Here at the end of 1 Thessalonians, Paul packs into the last sixteen verses of Chapter 5 an entire epistle’s worth of practical teaching for the church in Thessalonica. So we are going to slow down and take just a few verses at a time for the next few weeks, since there is so much here. Remember Paul had only been “on the ground” at Thessalonica for a few months at the most; he and Silas and Timothy had been run out of town, and he never did get back to continue discipling them.
Starting here in Verse 12 Paul is encouraging this brand new church as they continue to establish themselves. And on down through Verse 15, Paul addresses three different sets of relationships in the church. In verses 12-13, Paul addresses the relationship of

I. The SHEPHERDS toward the FLOCK (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

Verse 12 says
1 Thessalonians 5:12 (ESV)
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,
See here the three characteristics of those who are to shepherd the church—they are to labor, they are to in some sense be over the flock in the Lord, and they are to admonish. The first way that a faithful shepherd—a faithful pastor--must relate to the flock is that he
Must labor DILIGENTLY (v. 12b; cp. 2 Timothy 4:6-7)
The word labor here in this verse carries the idea of sweating, of exhaustion, of being utterly played out by the work of shepherding. John Flavel was a Puritan pastor who was stripped of his pulpit in Dartmouth, England, for not accepting government control of his church’s worship. He wrote about pastoral ministry:
The labours of the ministry will exhaust the very marrow from your bones, hasten old age and death. They are fitly compared to the toil of men in harvest, to the labours of a woman in travail, and to the agonies of soldiers in the extremity of a battle. We must watch when others sleep...
The men called to shepherd the flock of Christ’s people are called to spend themselves in that ministry. The Apostle Paul himself saw his life in those terms when he wrote to Timothy:
2 Timothy 4:6–7 (ESV)
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
The health of a church is revealed in the relationship of pastors who pour out their lives in diligent labor—lazy or selfish or weak shepherds will never grow a healthy flock. Like the worthless shepherds in Ezekiel 34 who devoured their sheep for their own gain, pastors who care more about their own comfort or success than their people’s edification in righteousness will do no good whatsoever for the flock.
Shepherds must labor diligently for their flock, and they must
Must exercise AUTHORITY (v. 12c; cp. 1 Peter 5:2; 2 Corinthians 3:5-6)
That’s the second characteristic Paul lists in verse 12:
1 Thessalonians 5:12 (ESV)
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,
Shepherds (pastors) of a healthy church nurture relationships where they exercise oversight over the flock. But it is important to understand that they don’t do it from a position of superiority; they are among the flock, not over them. The writer of Hebrews makes it plain that the only reason some men are placed into that oversight position is because they have been called there by the Lord:
Hebrews 5:4 (ESV)
4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
It’s also instructive to note that Paul’s description of the leaders of the Thessalonian church echo what the Apostle Peter writes in his first epistle—in 1 Peter 5:2, leaders are instructed to
1 Peter 5:2 (ESV)
2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;
Once again see here that pastors/shepherds are to be among, not over the flock. Peter adds two more clarifications to how pastors are to relate to their people—willingly and eagerly. Shepherds are not to avoid the exercise of authority; they are not to shy away from having to have the hard conversations with the people they must answer to God for. A healthy flock will never grow out of an atmosphere where pastors cannot (or will not) be faithful to lead.
Similarly, pastors are to be eager to lead; not only in it for the money or a paycheck or some other form of gain. It is a sad commentary on the state of the church today that so many pastors will treat their flock as their “current” church—that the people they minister to are merely a stepping stone to a bigger church or wider ministry or even a more lucrative position. (In fact, I have attended pastors’ conferences where the speakers encourage their audience that “a pastor is an executive, administrative, professional position—it should pay like a professional position...”) A healthy flock will not grow out of an atmosphere where the shepherds are focused more on their financial and career goals than on the healthy growth of their people.
The health of a church is revealed in the relationship of the shepherds to the sheep—the shepherds must labor diligently, they must exercise authority, and they
Must provide INSTRUCTION (v. 12d; cp. Colossians 1:28)
1 Thessalonians 5:12 (ESV)
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,
The word “admonish” here is used in Ephesians 6:4 to describe the role of a father with his children:
Ephesians 6:4 (ESV)
4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Paul is saying here that a healthy flock will grow out of leadership that instructs it; that admonishes it when necessary (the original word has the sense of “reminding” or even “calling them back to their senses”.) This same word is used in Colossians 1:28, where Paul writes about his role as a shepherd:
Colossians 1:28 (ESV)
28 Him we proclaim, warning [there’s our word] everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
Shepherds who never admonish, never call people back to their senses, never instruct them because they don’t want to be negative or don’t want to be disliked, or who believe that their job is only to be a cheerleader or a buddy will never grow a healthy flock. Shepherds are called—when necessary—to call their people back to their senses, to understand that their end goal, on the Day of Christ’s appearing, is to “present everyone mature in Christ!”
The health of a church is revealed in its relationships with one another—shepherds must be ready to labor diligently, exercise authority and provide instruction to their flock. And in 1 Thessalonians 5:13 we see Paul extend his instruction also to the relationship of

II. The FLOCK towards the SHEPHERDS (1 Thessalonians 5:13)

1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 (ESV)
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
The shepherds are to labor diligently in service of their people, and in turn the people are to
Appreciate their SERVICE (cp. Galatians 4:14-15)
A congregation that looks down on the faithful labor of its shepherds is not a healthy flock. The people who look down on pastors because “they only work one hour a week” don’t understand the work God has called these shepherds to. John Flavel poignantly describes the labors of a faithful pastor:
...And indeed it is not so much the expense of our labours, as the loss of them that kills us. It is not with us, as with other labourers: They find their work as they leave it, so do not we. Sin and Satan unravel almost all we do, the impressions we make on our people’s souls in one sermon, vanish before the next. How many truths have we to study! How many wiles of Satan, and mysteries of corruption, to detect! How many cases of conscience to resolve! Yes, we must fight in defense of the truths we preach, as well as study them to paleness, and preach them unto faintness. (John Flavel, 1627-1691)
The Apostle Paul—who would have responded to Flavel’s description with a hearty “Amen!” describes the warm appreciation that the church of the Galatians demonstrated towards him:
Galatians 4:14–15 (ESV)
14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel [a messenger] of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.
A healthy church is one where the faithful, ongoing labors of its shepherds is honored and appreciated. (And I cannot move forward this morning without extolling that honor and appreciation that our family has experienced from our Bethel family—from the great generosity of Pastor Appreciation Month’s picnics and gifts to the small acts of kindness and generosity of cards, treats and gifts that regularly show up in my office on Sundays—it’s a precious demonstration of a healthy church family!)
Paul goes on to make it clear here in our text in 1 Thessalonians that the respect for the faithful labors of the shepherds ought to be accompanied by
Love them for their WORK in the WORD (v. 13a; cp. 1 Timothy 5:17)
1 Thessalonians 5:13 (ESV)
13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
Paul instructs the Thessalonian believers to see the work that their faithful shepherds do for them, and then let that seeing result in compassion—that their hearts go out to them, that they love them for their faithfulness. And one of the ways that love and honor is expressed is in the way the flock supports their shepherds:
1 Timothy 5:17 (ESV)
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
Now, we said earlier that any pastor who is “in it for the money”, whose eye is cast more often towards his own career aspirations than toward the flourishing of his people—such a pastor will not lead a healthy flock.
But at the same time, a congregation that does not love or esteem the faithful shepherd who diligently labors for their spiritual good is a flock that is cutting off their own nourishment. Paul warns equally against pastors who feed themselves on their flock and churches that say about their pastor, “God, you keep him humble and we’ll keep him poor!”
The health of a church is demonstrated in their relationships with one another—a healthy flock is one that appreciates their shepherds’ service, loves them for their work in the Word, and will
Submit to their AUTHORITY (v. 13b; cp. Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 3:2-3)
When Paul writes in our text,
1 Thessalonians 5:13 (ESV)
13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
he is primarily directing his words towards the sheep and their relationship with the shepherds. A flock that is always stirring up conflict between themselves and their shepherds, that is always looking for a grievance or finding fault or dragging its feet against the shepherds’ leadership is not going to be a healthy flock. And in the same way, pastors who slip into the attitude of treating their congregations as the adversary are pastors who need to step away from pastoral ministry.
There are two brief implications that are good for us to draw out of Paul’s exhortation for pastors and sheep to “be at peace among themselves.” The first is found in Hebrews 13:17:
Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
A congregation understands that their faithful pastors have to give an account someday of how they watched over their souls. They are not being busybodies, they are not on some power trip, they are not being judgmental—they understand that they will answer to Almighty God someday for the state of your spiritual health!
And the second implication of this exhortation from Paul is to consider that the congregation’s responsibility to live at peace with their leaders rests in great measure (at least in congregational-led churches like ours) with the fact that it is the congregation that calls pastors in the first place! This is why the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy and Titus are so crucial: If a congregation ignores God’s Word that instructs them to find men who are “above reproach… sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3), then they should not be shocked when they find it impossible to “be at peace” with such a leader! One of the most important questions you can ask when calling an elder to ministry is, “Would I be willing to receive admonishment from this man? Will we be able to be at peace with one another?
The health of a church is revealed by its relationships to one another—in the relationship of the shepherds to the sheep in diligent labor, exercise of authority and faithfulness to teach the Word. It is revealed in the congregation’s relationship to the shepherds—appreciating their service, loving them for their work in the word, and living in peace together under their authority.
In verses 14-15, Paul turns his attention to one more set of relationships that demonstrate the health of a church—the relationships of

III. The FLOCK towards ONE ANOTHER (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15)

Paul goes on to write:
1 Thessalonians 5:14–15 (ESV)
14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
Here in two verses Paul packs in at least five ways that members of a healthy church are to relate to one another. We’ll just have time to list them briefly as we make our way through, but take note of how deep and significant Paul expects the relationships between members to be in a healthy flock:
The first command is to
Admonish the WAYWARD sheep (v. 14a; cp. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7)
The word translated “idle” here comes from a military term in Greek that is used to describe a soldier who is abandoning his post, or is derelict in his duty. Sheep who are not serving the church with their gifts (cp. 1 Corinthians 12:7) or not giving of their wealth (1 Corinthians 16:2) or not loving and respecting their leaders (1 Timothy 5:7) need not only a faithful shepherd to admonish them; they need their fellow sheep to give them a smack upside the head (as it were).
Admonish the wayward sheep who need to be called back to obedience—and
Encourage the WORRIED sheep
When we see our fellow member who is anxious over the future or afraid of persecution, who is timid about sharing the Gospel or intimidated by the forces arrayed against God’s people, we are to come alongside them with the encouragement of our hope in Christ’s present reign and future return. We must lift one another up and walk alongside each other in those seasons where our courage flees from us and we need one of our brothers or sisters to come alongside and strengthen us in the hope we have in Christ and His promises.
Paul goes on in verse 14 to say that we are to
Help the WEAK sheep (cp. Romans 14:1; 20-23)
Paul goes to great lengths to remind us that we must bear with those whose faith will not allow them the same liberties of conscience that others have:
Romans 14:1 (ESV)
1 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.
We must never force another Christian to violate his or her conscience over a matter of indifference. A healthy flock is one where the Christian strong in his liberty does not become a tempter to those who are weak, and the Christian with the weak conscience does not become a Pharisee to his brother or sister who has a strong conscience. A congregation’s health is revealed in how it governs its relationships with one another according to Romans 14:23
Romans 14:23 (ESV)
23 ...For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Moving on in verse 14 Paul reminds the Thessalonians to
Be patient with WEARISOME sheep (cp. 1 Timothy 1:16)
1 Thessalonians 5:14 (ESV)
14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
As one commentator puts it:
It is easy for healthy sheep to become frustrated, angry, or discouraged with some of the chronic problem sheep. It is always disappointing in a discipling relationship when a mature believer has taught, trained, exhorted, strengthened, and encouraged a less mature believer, only to have that person manifest little commitment to Christ or evidence of spiritual growth. (MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (p. 179). Moody Press.)
Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that they must display patience with wearisome, difficult brothers and sisters—because Jesus Christ demonstrated His perfect patience towards you! As Paul would write to Timothy:
1 Timothy 1:16 (ESV)
16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
As we never tire of quoting Oswald Chambers, “I never met a man I could despair of once discerning what was in my own heart apart from the grace of God!”
Admonish wayward sheep, encourage the worried sheep, help the weak sheep, be patient with the wearisome sheep, and in verse 15 Paul exhorts the flock:
Do good to WICKED “sheep” (v. 15; cp. Romans 12:19-21; Matthew 18:15-20)
1 Thessalonians 5:15 (ESV)
15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
The worst pain and heartbreak that a believer will ever experience does not come from the enemies of the Gospel outside the church, but from other sheep within the flock. In the same way that Jesus Himself commanded us to return good for evil (Matthew 5:44), Paul reminds his readers that it is never appropriate to seek vengeance on another believer—he wrote in a very similar way in Romans 12,
Romans 12:19–21 (ESV)
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
A healthy flock does not go after one another with retaliation for grievances against one another, but returns love for animosity, peace for turmoil, kindness for bitterness.
But this is not to say that there is never a time to separate from someone claiming to be a believer but whose life and behavior is full of sin and wickedness. Some would take Paul’s words here to mean that a church is a place where there are never any lines drawn between right and wrong behavior, where anyone who claims to be a Christian can belong regardless of what kind of life they live. Such a church is essentially a body without an immune system; unable to fight off an infection of sinful behavior that will eventually destroy it.
But what does it mean to repay evil for good at that point? Jesus gives us the answer in Matthew 18—we are to lovingly confront that person, calling them to repent. If they will not listen, we go again with a few friends and pastors. If they still will not listen, the whole church family pleads with them to turn away from their wickedness. And if they still will not repent, then Jesus says that we are to “treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
Does that mean that we have abandoned Christ’s call to love them? Does that mean Paul’s injunction against returning evil for evil is set aside? Not a bit of it—when we obey Christ’s commands to make clear distinctions between faithful Christians and those who dishonor His Name by unrepentant sin—when we say, “I am sorry, but your refusal to repent of this sin against God’s holy standards means that we can no longer relate to you as a believer”, we go from treating them as someone to fellowship with to someone to share the Gospel with! It is still their good—their eternal good that we have in view!
The health of a church is revealed in its relationships to one another. We cannot measure our health only in terms of how quickly we are running out of parking spaces or how crammed our fellowship hall is, can we? Which would we rather have—a church of 500 that is constantly at each other’s throats, full of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, or a church of 50 full of diligent labor, faithful instruction and admonishment, encouragement and patient love as we grow together into the fulness of Christ?
And so if that is the church we want to be, then we must never forget that a healthy church is a community—you cannot obey any of these commands or follow any of these exhortations if you just blink in and out of this church. We are very deliberate in the opportunities that we create for people to form these relationships with one another, centered around God’s Word (Bible studies, Sunday School, prayer breakfasts, psalm sings), ministry opportunities (Backpack giveaway, coat closet) as well as fellowship events to spend time together (bowling, skating, camping). This is not just because we think we need to have the doors open every day, but because without real connections with one another, we cannot obey what God calls us to do in these verses. So be intentional about building relationships here at Bethel.
And as you look back through the exhortations Paul has for the church, understand that these relationships are deep. When you become a member of Bethel Baptist Church, you are giving the other members here permission to speak this way into your life! That you are willing for a fellow believer here to come alongside you and challenge you when you become wayward, that you are willing to come alongside another member when they are worried and comfort them with the hope that we have in Christ. That you will love and esteem and submit to the leaders who have been given charge over you for the sake of your spiritual growth.
But before you can belong to a church, you must belong to Christ. None of the exhortations Paul gives in these verses are possible apart from the work of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in you. If you are here today and you’re not exactly sure what it means to come to a saving faith in Christ; if you are drawn to the fellowship and love here but have no understanding of what it means to have forgiveness for your sins by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, then we want to do as much good to you this morning as we can: We want you to be reconciled to Christ. We want you to be forgiven of all of your sin and rebellion against God; we want you to know that you have been born again by His Spirit and have a place here at Bethel among those who are being sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ. Come and talk to me, talk to one of the other elders here, talk to one of the members of the church. We want you to belong to us at Bethel—but more than that we want you to belong to your Savior, Jesus Christ!
Hebrews 13:20–21 (ESV)
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.


What kinds of indications do people often look for to determine if a church is “healthy”? What does Paul indicate here in our text about discovering the health of a church?
What does a faithful pastor look like, according to this text? A faithful congregation?
Why do you think people in churches often are reluctant to develop meaningful relationships with one another? What can you do this week to strengthen your relationships with other believers here at Bethel?
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