Living to Please God: I Thessalonians 4:1-12:
Introduction: The Most Important Job in Life
The most important job in a Christian's life is allowing the Holy Spirit to produce in him or her a vital and growing relationship with the Lord; one that pleases God and brings Him glory.
A story from 'Sermons Illustrated' gives us an idea of what a growing relationship with God looks like. It states:
A brilliant young
concert pianist was performing for the first time in public. The audience sat
enthralled as beautiful music flowed from his disciplined fingers. The people
could hardly take their eyes off this young virtuoso. As the final note faded,
the audience burst into applause. Everyone was standing – except one old man
up front. The pianist walked off the stage crestfallen. The stage manager praised
the performance, but the young man said, “I was no good, it was a failure.”
The manager replied, “Look out there, everyone is on his feet except one
old man!” “Yes,” said the youth dejectedly, “but that one
old man is my teacher.”
Do we have the
same desire for God’s approval as that pianist had for his teacher’s praise?
Our Lord’s approving smile is what really matters.
And a desire like this young man's is a sign that we are on the right path in our relationship with the God of the universe. It starts with faith in Christ, for without faith it is impossible to please God. Then, as our love for Him grows, we care less and less about what others may think and more and more about Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.
In I Thessalonians 4:1-12 Paul is changing his thoughts from a doctrinal foundation to more practical issues. He does this in almost all of his letters, although there is overlap between the two.
In I Thessalonians, as we have seen, Paul is talking to his spiritual children who are undergoing persecution because of their faith in Christ. He is encouraging them to keep on following the Lord. Thankfully, they are thriving, despite Satanic and human opposition.
We see the transition of Paul's thought in verse 1 when he says the word which has been translated as 'finally' in many versions. This translation is a little misleading since it is obvious that the Apostle isn't wrapping up his letter yet and these are not his final thoughts. The King James Version captures the idea of what he is saying best when it renders this word 'furthermore.' And the New International Version gives us a sense of it when it says: "As for other matters.'
After being thrilled that the Thessalonians are doing well, Paul now concerns himself with their continued growth toward holiness or sanctification. Both of the words for holiness and sanctification come from the same Greek word which means 'to be set apart.' Once a Christian is saved, the Holy Spirit starts a process that continues the rest of their life and is completed when Jesus Christ returns for His Church. The believers in the Thessalonian church have obviously begun their journey of faith. They have spiritual fruit which shows that they have accepted Jesus as their Savior. Ultimately, this journey will lead them to be like the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Paul requests and exhorts these believers in the Lord Jesus that they continue living under the instructions that they have received on how to please God. Then he proceeds to give three of the major practices that Paul had told them earlier, when he was with them, that would give pleasure to the Lord and would help them to continue on their journey of sanctification. These practices include abstaining from sexual immorality, practicing brotherly love and leading a quiet and productive life.
I. Abstaining from Sexual Immorality (1-8)
Paul spends most of his time writing about the first of the practices: abstaining from sexual immorality. The Greco-Roman world in which Paul and the Thessalonian church lived was one that was very liberal in the area of sexual morals. The idea of having one man and one woman as husband and wife and being sexually faithful in that relationship was something utterly foreign to them.
In those days they tolerated and even encouraged several forms of extramarital sexual relations. The Greek orator Demosthenes, who lived from 384-322 B.C. once said this:
"We have mistresses for pleasure, concubines to care for our daily body's needs, and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households."
Needless to say, things hadn't changed much by the time of Jesus and Paul in this culture. Women were seen as little more than property to be bought and sold. And there was nothing in the culture of the day that discouraged sexual immorality.
A number of religions of the time involved ritual sex with temple prostitutes. Thessalonica had the cult of Cabiri and Samothrace. Ephesus was known for its temple to Artemis. And Corinth was infamous for its temple to Aphrodite. Along with that, it was notorious for extremely loose morals.
A result of this was obviously a lot of unwanted pregnancy and, although the attitudes toward abortion varied in the Ancient world, abortion and infanticide were very common in those days.
Because of these things, the writers of the Bible had a lot to say about God's view of sexuality. We can see a lot of this in Paul's writings as well. There are 4 conclusions that we can come to from this Thessalonian passage as well as other biblical passages. The Bible teaches that:
- God is in favor of sex. He was the Creator of the sexual union.
- Being in God's will is very much linked to our sex practices and our attitudes toward sexuality.
- Our Sanctification and holiness are a high priority to God.
- God judges sexual immorality harshly as rebellion against Him.
Paul tells us in verse 3-5 of this chapter:
"For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you knows how to possess his own vessel (i.e his body) in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God."
It must be noted that Paul is telling us to abstain from porneia or sexual immorality and not from sex itself. Porneia is any form of sex that is outside the bonds of marriage. Sex is like fire in that if it is used properly it is an extremely good thing. Fire in a fireplace, campfire or a stove, can do a lot of great things. But fire out of control can destroy whole forests, animals, property, and many human lives. Sex, likewise, is very good in marriage, where it leads to the bonding of the marriage partners, mutual satisfaction and pleasure and children born of the love of their parents. Or it can destroy individuals, families, and lives when in any other context.
Verse 6 is a continuation of these thoughts. The Apostle says:
"and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you."
Of course, defrauding your brother here is hurting him due to your illicit sexual activity. This includes all of the destructive social and spiritual implications of sinful sexual activity outside the marriage bond. An example of this may be adultery, which obviously harms your spouse and any children that you may have. But it also includes harming your Christian brother or sister if you have relations with their spouse. All sin has victims and harms someone in some way.
Today, we are living in a culture saturated by false ideas of sex and sexuality as well. One result is that family life, which is the foundation of all societies, is becoming extremely unstable and many children are growing up without a father figure in their lives.
A lack of responsible sex has lead to an increase in abortion. Sadly, abortion is seen as a common medical procedure and as a right for women to choose, rather than seeing the child as a life to be protected in the womb.
There is also a devaluing of gender and gender roles, and boys especially are being punished for acting like boys. While, at the same time, girls are seen as 'anti-feminist' if they simply want to stay at home and rear the children that God has given them.
Venereal diseases are common in our culture, including some that have no cures like AIDS. In fact, the Center for Disease Control has said that every year there are 19.7 million new sexually transmitted infections diagnosed.
It is amazing how many major problems in our society would be solved almost overnight if we all would follow the principles of the Bible. That is especially true in the area of sexual purity. God takes this area very seriously. That is why Paul tells us:
"For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So he who rejects this is not rejecting man but God who gives us His Holy Spirit." (7-8).
II. Practicing Brotherly Love (9-10)
Besides sexual purity, another major characteristic of one who is pleasing to God is being a person who loves others, especially those fellow believers that are part of the Body of Christ. We should see each other as spiritual brothers and sisters who share both this life and who will be together into eternity when Christ returns to take us home.
Paul uses two Greek words for love in this passage. Phileo is friendship or family love and is mainly concerned with those closest to us. That is where we see the love that brothers and sisters in the Lord should have.
Agape, on the other hand, should include everyone. This is a rare type of love that seeks the good of the one loved, whether or not that love is returned. It is considered the highest form of love and is the kind that God had when He gave HIs one and only Son to die for a world that hated Him. This goes beyond emotions to unconditionally seek the highest good of the one loved.
The Thessalonians had such love, taught to them by God. But this is something that won't be completely mastered in this lifetime. However, a believer who pleases God continually cooperates with the power of the Holy Spirit working within him and continues growing in love as he gets closer to the image of Jesus Christ.
Paul, both compliments this church for their progress and encourages them to continue growing in this area. He tells them:
"Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia, but we urge you, brethren, to excel still more..." (9-10).
All individuals who claim the name of Christ should test themselves, asking if people can look at them and see the love that they have for their brothers and sisters in Christ, first of all. Then they must look further to see if there is love in their lives for the lost of this world and for the salvation of all that they meet.
And then ask these same questions of the church that they attend. A church that loves greatly is one that pleases God greatly as well. Those who come to the church from the outside world should see a difference in the way that they are treated by the world as opposed to the people of God. If there is no difference between the two, then that church has a lot of growing to do.
III. Leading a Quiet and Productive Life (11-12)
A final sign that a person is growing in their faith and is pleasing to God is that the believer in Christ is leading a quiet and productive life. A quiet life is one that does not cause social problems. He or she doesn't generate conflict among people. Instead, their soul rests easily in the midst of difficulty.
Their life is characterized by peace and orderliness. And their hands are not idle. They work with those hands to generate a living. Manual labor was frowned upon in Greek culture. Christianity exalted it.
Those who please God aren't busybodies who butt into everyone else's business with the exception of their own. Paul talks about these people in this same church in his second epistle to the Thessalonians as well. Here he says:
"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you, yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people, we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer (II Thessalonians 3:6-15).
Laziness should not be a trait of any believer in Jesus Christ. We have to provide for the needs of ourselves and our families. And we must be able to give to those who are in need both in and outside of the church. Our lives should be those which the outside world looks at and is impressed by how God has made a difference in them. Outsiders will never be inspired by seeing idle people sponging off of whomever they can. In our lives, we should always be seeking to be a demonstration of the power of Christ's Kingdom to transform a person and a community.
It was Bishop James Ussher who said:
"Sanctification is no less than for a man to be brought to an entire resignation of his own will to the will of God, and to live in the offering up of his heart continually in the flames of love, as a whole burnt-offering to Christ."
The Thessalonian church, in Paul's day, even though they were young in the faith, were well on their way to achieving this in their lives. Our churches in America need to strive to be more and more set apart from the world in which we minister. Our sanctification needs to be demonstrated in our sexual purity, in our love, and in the quiet orderly lives which we lead. Sadly, many churches are being affected by the world rather than the world being affected by them.
None of us has arrived in our sanctification and all of us has room for improvement. However, with the help of God the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can make a difference in this world that can bring many to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and can bring revival to the world in which we live.
Let us stop worrying about what others in our lives think and start seeking to please God in our actions and with our words exclusively. For, in the end, it is only His opinion that really counts. I end with this prayer:
"God, may you be pleased with my life, and with that of all who hear my words this day. Amen!"
© 2019 Jeff Shirley