Return to Eden

I. What is the final authority for instruction? On what basis does Paul exert his authority in giving commands, instructions, and doctrinal teaching to these believers?

A. Paul uses several ideas in expressing the importance of his teaching as an apostle.

    1. “We request.” He uses this word again in 5:12 and in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 as well as Philippians 4:3. Paul does not request anything of them that is not in harmony with God’s will for his people. The request, in one sense, is a conclusion drawn from ethical principles that have been clearly displayed. The request arises from an abundance of instruction that the Thessalonians have received.
    2. “Exhort,” goes beyond the request, maintains the same content but presses the request on the conscience with a fitting degree of urgency. The teaching has set a standard, the request has pinpointed a particular application of the teaching, and the exhortation has intensified the importance of some immediate attention to the issue.
    3. “Received from us,” that is, the office of the apostle has laid down the principle for both the request and the exhortation. Paul uses a phrase—“the how—meaning specific instructions as to how something should be pursued. “The how” is a body of instruction concerning a specific issue intrinsic to gospel truth.
    4. “You ought” refers to a moral duty arising from the specific content of the authoritative instruction. “How you ought to walk” means that in carrying on one’s life from day to day general principles as well as specific rules apply. The exhortations will refer specifically to some clearly established apostolic instruction.
    5. “What charges, precepts, commands” (2) could include positive direction for productive living or strong prohibitions for conduct to be avoided or stopped. The structure of apostolic instruction was wholistic in nature—not just a set of truths to be received and believed, but also a code of conduct consistent with the principles involved in the belief system. The reality of righteousness as an absolute refers both to the doctrine of justification and the conduct that doctrine implies for the believer.

B. Paul sees each of these types of teaching as arising from divine authority and wisdom.

    1. Once he uses the phrase “in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then again he refers his teaching to “the Lord Jesus.” The first is a locative of sphere meaning that the exhortation concerns the implications of what it means for a person to follow Christ—“in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Do you know Jesus who is Lord and Messiah as Savior and do you know of his power, holiness, goodness, love, patience, compassion, longsuffering, righteousness, exaltation, his coming again in power to judge, and present intercession for his people? When you hear this exhortation, therefore, think of it not as a mere suggestion of practical living, but as vitally related to the person and saving labor of Jesus who is Lord and Christ.
    2. “Through, or on account of, the Lord Jesus” means that the source of the request and exhortation, and the reason for its moral oughtness is that its origin is the Lord himself. Paul’s commands and charges arose from Christ having taught him by virtue of Christ’s prophetic ministry: God spoke in these last days through his Son.”
    3. “How you ought to walk and please God” means that the course of life Paul is going to give is a course that he knows is pleasing to God for it has been revealed by God. False fire and the works of human imagination are not pleasing to God, but obedience to his precepts. Paul used the word in 2:4. He speaks not to please men but God who tests our hearts. Just as Paul’s message must arise from the authority of God’s revelation, so must the conduct of the Thessalonians be consistent with the precepts of God. Only this is pleasing.
    4. This authority receives strong confirmation in verse eight where Paul emphasizes, “So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” The matters on which Paul issues instruction are God’s own instructions and were, in fact built into the very nature and purpose of creation by divine instruction before the fall.

II. In what sphere do we need ongoing instruction and effort?

A. Paul identified the sphere of growth by the term “sanctification.” The particular aspect of conduct that Paul’s identifies as the “will of God” (3) is sanctification, an act of having been set apart for holy purposes.

    1. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that Jesus is made unto us “wisdom from God–righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.” Thus, sanctification is inextricably connected to the divine wisdom exhibited in the saving work of Christ. This work of being made holy is not optional but comes along with justification, and redemption.
    2. In 2 Thessalonians Paul identifies “sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2:13) as the necessary consequences of having been chosen by God. This specific work of sanctification means that the elect person is separated out from the rest of humanity by the Spirit’s focus on him or her, and that the consequent “belief of the truth” comes only because this setting apart creates a holy principle on the heart. This Spirit-induced disposition toward holiness results in belief of the truth of the gospel call, ”Repent and believe the gospel.”
    3. Peter sees the sanctifying work of the Spirit as related to the election and love of God the Father for the purpose of obedience to Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, 2). Again, sanctification at its beginning and throughout is bound up in the very nature of salvation. Like every aspect of God’s communication of his eternal decrees in time and space, sanctification has its own means of reification—the word of truth under the power of the Spirit. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). “According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.”
    4. Paul states this plainly as the foundation for every exhortation, request, charge, and command, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (3). The word “will” is without an article, so it means “a will,” not the whole of God’s will but one clearly revealed aspect of God’s whole will for his people. Verse four reiterates the necessity of sanctification, in this instance making it a matter of informed personal discipline: “That each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor.” It is repeated in verse seven as the sphere in which the purpose of God in calling us is demonstrated: “For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.”

B. Twice, in relation to this, he says, “Excel still more” (1, 10). While this important aspect of sanctification is the kind of thing that should not even once be named among God’s holy people (Ephesians 5:3), the general process of sanctification will proceed throughout life until Christ returns. Then we will be transformed into holy beings, but until then the reality of indwelling sin will make the necessity of excelling still more a constant call; we “press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

III. What are two manifestations of progress in this vital part of God’s will for his people?

A. “Abstain from sexual immorality.” Paul says in essence, “When I say sanctification, I am in this case speaking precisely of sexual immorality.”

    1. In Corinth while he was writing, and having been in the pagan city of Thessalonica, Paul was aware of the virtual absence of any restraint in the Gentile world on this issue. Pagan temples had female priestesses that were in the temple for little other that offering themselves to men in an act of fornication as a matter of religious devotion to the fertility gods. The perversion of the sex-drive was deified in pagan culture so that it became virtually unquenchable and led into ever-increasing perversity and preoccupation with inventing new ways of seeking fulfillment—much like significant sections of American society today driven by the sex-enthralled entertainment industry.
    2. Not only couched in their religion, but in their normal practice of life the Gentile world had no sense of sexual expression as a matter of fidelity to marriage vows between one man and one woman for life. So, Paul emphasizes again, as he had when he was with them that the mores of society did not determine their conduct but the will of God. Knowing that one of the most obvious and devastating results of the fall was the perversion of sexuality, Paul was insistent that each of them “know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor.” This means that they see the body as now belonging to the Lord and to be used in the way that he originally intended. A man and a woman should know each other in sexuality for both pleasure and propagation only in the context of marriage. To do this they must know that sexual-perversity and fixation is a judgment of God for idolatry. “Therefore God gave them up in the lust of their hearts to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. … for this reason [false worship] God gave them up to dishonorable passions“ (Romans 1:24, 26). Now that they know God through the gospel, they are to “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” Now, instead of fornication being justified as an act of worship, Purity is to be pursued as an act of worship: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). Aware now, that the body is God’s and to be used according to God’s purpose, they may possess it, “not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God” (5).
    3. God gave one woman to the man and one man to the woman, commanded them to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), to consider themselves as one flesh (Genesis 2:24), and to be devoted to one another for life. Paul’s command on this issue addresses not only the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” but looks to a restoration of the original intent of sexuality in the relationship of marriage.
    4. Also, Paul makes the case as an apostle that in some cases celibacy might be God’s purpose for a person in order for greater concentration on perpetual work for the kingdom (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). A call to singleness, including at times the providential occasion for it, should be embraced as an opportunity for opportunities for growth in grace and service. At the same time, though stained with many perversions in this fallen world, God intended sexual expression in marriage as an expression of holy love, divinely-given capacity for pleasure, and as a type of the intimacy that Christ has with his church in its union with him in the eternal covenant of grace (Ephesians 1:3-6; 5:22-33) has its own opportunity for sanctification. The assumption of medieval monasticism that celibacy was a superior moral condition is unbiblical, and this falsehood led, and still leads, to severe difficulties in the moral tone of much so-called Christianity.

B. Be productive and unperturbed. Paul distributes the elements of their lives into three commands with two results. So important are these commands for pursuing a holy life that he tells them that this should be their ambition., their studied intent (11, 12). Their content seems unglamorous, but they carry weight in terms of self-control, humility, responsibility, and careful stewardship.

    1. Paul’s commands. These issues are raised again in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 and there intensifies the results of not following this command.
      • Lead a quiet life. Some brothers had become unruly, unoccupied with a false anticipation of the second coming of Christ. They disturbed others and failed to have sufficient knowledge of themselves and their families so as to nurture them in all that pertains to godliness. Caring for our own lives and families in quietness and dignity requires all the intellectual and moral energy available to us.
      • Attend to your own business. A quiet life does not mean an unproductive life. Every person should have plenty to do in looking to his personal sanctification, caring for the needs of his family and any brothers in need, and becoming effective and skilled in his occupation. Adam and Eve as unfallen persons were to have dominion over the rest by subduing it for their benefit.
      • Work with your hands. The need to work is not the result of the fall but was an assignment given to Adam in his state of innocence. The unfallen couple were to live from the plants in the garden and thus had a daily task of harvest (Genesis 1:35) and were to become familiar with everything in the entire created order so as to understand the way in which it could be managed for the benefit of the image-bearers (Genesis 1:26-34). To aid in this, God gave Adam the task of naming all the animals so he would have an empirical knowledge of the many ways in which he was unique n the creation and that he would desire a companion fit for him (Genesis 2:18-25).
    1. Conceived results
      • Behave properly toward outsiders. This becomes an element of witness for the redeeming power of the gospel. Its healing balm is applied to personal lives in creating productivity, nurture, and responsibility. It creates pocket of sanity and nurture in the midst of a destructive, wicked, and perverse world.
      • Not be in any need. God has given all that is needed for life and godliness if we will take on the original assignment of our created position. Even in a fallen world, responsible use of energy and gifts will be productive. A false view of the relationship between humanity and the world creates despair, poverty, unmet need, and terror.

C. These are important aspects of expressing love for the brethren, the chief end of the second table of the Ten commandments (9, 10).

    1. Behaving in this way shows love for the brethren as well as respect and exemplary conduct toward outsiders. God places a particular affection in the heart for all those who share a common faith in Christ as Lord of all and Savior of believing sinners. The common ocean of divine grace in which believers are plunged provides endless depths of fellowship and sharing. Intrinsic knowledge produces love. Fellow believers have been brought to see their sin, their need for a redeemer, that Jesus is that redeemer the only one who can bring salvation to the cursed and enslaved, and that his rule over us is a gracious and loving rule that holds the certainty of eternal life.
    2. This common ground—infinitely grand and inexhaustibly joyful common ground—should be explored together so that both conviction and comfort arise from a fellowship in truth. This is an important part of the admonition to “excel still more.” This is why we worship together under the instruction of those whom God has gifted as pastors and teachers. We hear the same truths, meditate on common revealed realities, and thus we “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior” (2 Peter 3:18) until we reach a “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” By so doing we also “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:13-16) The opportunity for increasing still more in love and unity is endless.
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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