Uncomplicated Relationships

| 1 Thessalonians 4:3-12

Week of October 6, 2019

The Point:  Let God’s love drive how you relate to others.

A Life Pleasing to God:  1 Thessalonians 4:3-12.

[3] For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; [4] that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, [5] not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; [6] that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. [7] For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. [8] Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. [9] Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, [10] for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, [11] and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, [12] so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.  [ESV]

“Called to a Holy Life [4:3-8]. Paul wanted to see his converts in Thessalonica more firmly established in the faith. They had made a good start, but there was still plenty of room for improvement and progress [3:10; 4:1]. This was particularly true in the area of practical Christian living. Paul’s gospel had not only summoned them to believe in the true God and His Son, but it had called them to live in a way that was pleasing to Him. Coming as many of them did from a pagan background, this meant making massive adjustments. Three issues of practical living are singled out for special treatment in these and the following verses: sexual purity [3-8], brotherly love [9-10], and daily life in the world [11-12]. Sanctification. The apostle’s relentless concern to see his converts make progress in the Christian life was no quirk of personal character. He could ask and urge the Thessalonians to press on to greater levels of obedience [1] because it was God’s will that they should be sanctified [3]. It was not Paul the perfectionist who was demanding ‘more and more’, but the pure and holy God who had called them. Paul wanted believers to be sanctified completely [5:23] because he knew that God had from the beginning chosen them to be saved through the Spirit’s sanctifying work [2 Thess. 2:13]. Sanctification, in this context, is the process of people becoming holy. Gradually and progressively we are freed from all that defiles and transformed into the image of Jesus [2 Cor. 3:18]. Sanctification in this sense is the process that leads to holiness. Every Christian experiences this all-too-often painful makeover because it is God’s purpose to change us into His own likeness. Christianity without transformation is unknown. Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord [Heb. 12:14]. Sexual Purity. Having stated God’s purpose, Paul adds immediately the specific application that the Thessalonians are to avoid sexual immorality [3]. This is not to say that sanctification is limited to achieving sexual purity, but it does mean that God’s transforming grace must be at work in this specific area. It would not have surprised Paul’s readers that sexual purity should feature so prominently in a discussion on sanctification. They lived in a culture famous for its sexual permissiveness. Every form of sexual vice was rampant in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, and its expression had freest rein in major port cities like Thessalonica. More than likely, many of the church members in that city had themselves been caught up in immoral relationships before conversion. If so, they may well have continued to feel the imperious tug of sexual attraction for past partners. Paul, aware of this and perhaps conscious that there were members of the church with a decided weakness in this area, insists that they should avoid sexual immorality. He deliberately uses a broad or inclusive term, the Greek word porneia, to indicate that he has in view a range of sexual aberrations. He urges an absolute break with such practices. The Christian life is to be marked by both radical restraint and purity in the sexual realm. This idea of restraint is taken up further in a second directive. It is God’s will that each should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable [4]. Bible students have long held different views on what these words are actually saying. (1) The translation we are following suggests that they refer to the control of our natural sexual urges. Others contend, however, that they are saying that sexual desires are to be fulfilled within marriage, and that in a restrained and honorable way. (2) The two interpretations hinge on how the words ‘control’ and ‘body’ are understood. The former is more commonly translated ‘acquire’ or ‘possess’ [Luke 21:19; Acts 8:20], and the latter ‘vessel’ [Acts 9:15], sometimes understood in the sense of ‘wife’ [1 Peter 3:7]. This leads to the alternate translations in the NIV margin, ‘learn to live with his own wife’ or ‘learn to acquire a wife’. Whichever the precise meaning intended, the general message is clear. Christians are to curb their natural sexual instincts and express them in a way that is holy and honorable. They are not to live in passionate lust, gripped and borne along by their desires. They are to differ from their pagan neighbors and not share the lifestyle of those who do not know God [5]. God abandons those who reject Him to the tyranny of their corrupt passions [Rom. 1:24-27]. But as those who now know the Lord, believers are to live holy and self-controlled lives, especially in the realm of their sexual relationships. Paul has one more word on this subject. He recognizes that immorality affects other people as well as the principal offenders. A wife suffers when a husband is unfaithful, a prospective husband is robbed when his future wife’s purity is stained, and the marriage bed is horribly defiled when same-sex perversions are practiced. Knowing that sexual immorality is always a breach of love, Paul insists that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him [6]. Adultery is probably the vice that is foremost in his mind when he mentions this. He recognizes that it is still a threat within the Christian community in Thessalonica. Like a fraud in the world of commerce, an adulterer invades the right of others and plunders what is not lawfully his. This must not happen among Christians. Motives for Purity. The apostle reinforces these frank and strong directions with a stern warning. He reminds his readers that the sexually immoral will face God’s judgment [6], a truth his readers already knew, for he had already warned them about this while with them. The reality of a final judgment was part of Paul’s gospel preaching [Rom. 2:16; Acts 17:31], and the culpability of the sexually immoral at that judgment was a point of special focus. He insisted that such people would not enter the kingdom of God [1 Cor. 1:9; Eph. 5:5] and that God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient [Eph. 5:6]. But the threat of future judgment was not the only reason the Thessalonian Christians needed to avoid all forms of sexual immorality. God’s purpose for them as His people was an added motive to purity. He had not called them to be impure, but to live a holy life [7]. God’s choice and call was to shape the way they lived. He intended them to be His special possession, a people sharing His own holiness [Heb. 12:10; 1 Peter 1:16]. How could they – or their counterparts in any age – abandon themselves to immorality when they had such a destiny? An Inescapable Demand. Perhaps some members in the church were contesting Paul’s earlier teaching on this subject. If so, it is these people in particular whom he addresses when he adds that those who reject this instruction reject not man but God [8]. He has said enough about God’s will for their sanctification to make it irrefutably clear that sexual purity is not merely a human ideal but a divine demand. To contend otherwise, or to insist that acts of the body are indifferent, was to reject not only Paul’s instructions but also the God who was behind them. More than that, it was to fly in the face of His most gracious gift, the Holy Spirit, given for the very purpose of making them holy. To spurn God’s demand cannot but grieve His Spirit. These instructions on sex ethics speak just as urgently to our generation as they did to Paul’s first readers. As our culture slides ever increasingly into moral decadence, Christians need to remember that as God’s holy people [Eph. 5:3], they must aim at absolute sexual purity.

Brotherly Love [4:9-10]. Two qualities made early Christians stand out from their pagan neighbors. One was their moral purity, the other their intense love for one another. Having written about the first of these [4:3-8], nothing could be more natural for the apostle than to turn to the second [9-10]. But whereas his discussion of sexual purity has an urgency about it that suggests problems facing the church in this area, his comments on love are brief and bright with commendation. His readers were not lacking in love. Indeed, the evidence of this virtue in the church had already given Paul reason for praise and thanks [1:3; 3:6]. Nature. The love Paul has in mind is specifically brotherly love [9], the love of Christians for one another. The term is a translation of the Greek word philadelphia, a word originally used to describe the special affection family members felt for one another. Christians, recognizing that they had been born into a great spiritual family, soon applied it to the love they felt for one another. The same instinctive affection they felt toward their natural brothers and sisters, they now shared with all their fellow Christians. Brotherly love differs somewhat from the love (agape) Jesus commanded His followers to show to each other and all men [John 13:34]. Agape is a love that does not depend on the nature of the relationship between people. It is a steady, selfless, self-giving attitude born out of a genuine concern for others irrespective of who they are or what condition they are in. It is the love God showed us when we were still sinners [Rom. 5:8] and the love we are to show our enemies [Matt. 5:44]. Of course, we are to show this self-denying love toward each other as Christians. But as we do so in the context of our new family relationship, this love takes on a quality of closeness, affection and mutuality that makes it proper to call it ‘brotherly love’. Source. Paul says that he has no need to write to the Thessalonians about this subject; they have been taught by God to love each other [9]. He probably means that the Holy Spirit living in their hearts [8] had taught them to love one another. The Thessalonians had not simply been taught about the subject of brotherly love; God Himself had actually taught them to love. This suggest that God had been at work within them. The Holy Spirit is His agent in this work. He produces the fruit of love when He takes up residence in our hearts [Gal. 5:22]. Love is actually bred into us, making it evident that we are born of God and that we truly belong to Him [1 John 4:7]. The same can be said in fact for every spiritual quality we possess. Sinful human nature cannot love, or be patient, self-controlled, forgiving, or generous to those in need [Gal. 5:19ff.; Rom. 7:18]. God has to teach us to do these things through His Spirit. He uses means such as His Word, prayer, the sacraments, Christian fellowship and ministry to do so, but it is nevertheless the Spirit alone who makes these means effective in our lives. All true believers can say they have been taught by God [John 6:45], and they must look to God to carry on the work of transformation that He has begun. Scope. The brotherly love of the Thessalonian Christians showed itself not only among themselves, but toward other Christians as well [10]. Located as they were in the principal city of Macedonia, the believers in Thessalonica would have often had contact with Christians from other towns and cities in the region. In this way the church there would have come to know of the whereabouts of other groups of Christians in the province and been kept up to date with their welfare. This broad-hearted love for fellow Christians was a mark of the early church. God’s love formed in the heart is a love that reaches out and embraces all who are His children. As genuine as the love of his readers was for each other, Paul was not satisfied. In one breath he praises them for loving one another, and in the next he urges them to do so more and more [10]. Paul knows that no matter how much progress has been made in the Christian life, much more can always be made. So abundant is the new life we have in Christ that we can never contain or exhaust its fullness. The measure of knowledge or love that we possess now is only a fragment of the vast fullness there is to know.

Practical Daily Living [4:11-12]. Having just spoken about Christian love in the church [9-10], Paul turns to deal with a new problem. It may well be that he considered the two matters closely related. Brotherly love in the church had generated a liberality and kindness that loafers were ready to abuse. Paul wants to make it clear that true Christianity expresses itself in a quiet and industrious manner of daily life. A Quiet Life. Addressing the congregation as a whole, the apostle stresses the importance of leading a quiet life [11]. This command has the appearance of self-contradiction. The word translated aspire literally means ‘to strive for, to press after wholeheartedly’. It is an energetic word. Paul, in effect, is telling his readers to strive energetically to be ‘quiet’, a remarkable paradox. The quietness he has in mind, however, is not lethargic passivity. Put simply, he is not saying that Christians are to strive to be lazy! When he speaks of a quiet life, he means a steady and sober life, the kind of life that contrasts with the fervid, restless excitement associated with overheated minds. He seems to be addressing the problem mentioned above created by a misapplication of the promise of the Lord Jesus’ second coming. Excitement bordering on fanaticism had created a noisy and disturbing restlessness among some church members. They could not settle and had become totally unproductive members both of society and of the Christian church. The quietness Paul commends is the complete opposite of this condition. He wants believers to wait eagerly for the coming of the Lord Jesus, but to do so in a sober and steady manner rather than in a condition of unsettled distraction [1 Peter 4:7]. Closely connected with this is the instruction to mind their own business [11]. People gripped by novel or unbalanced notions generally cannot confine their convictions to themselves. Their restlessness drives them to invade the privacy of others, often in an arrogant and strident manner. The same peril threatens when people are inactive through idleness. They are inclined to become busybodies, venturing uninvited into the affairs of others, creating hurt and disruption wherever they go [1 Tim. 5:13]. It was this plague that Paul wanted to see rooted out of the church in Thessalonica. We must continue to be on guard against it today. An Industrious Life. The antidote to a meddlesome and restless life is one of diligent labor. Paul wants his readers to make it their ambition to work with their own hands [11]. It would appear, especially from the fuller record in the second letter to the church [2 Thess. 3:6-10], that some of the congregation had abandoned their daily work. They probably thought that since the return of the Lord Jesus was so near there was really no need to provide for the future. Indeed, they may have thought that to work was to show a lack of faith. It may be, however, that some were simply sponging on the liberality of others. The promise of the Lord’s return gave them a reason for being lazy, and the kindness of the new community made it possible for them to live without working. Whatever lay behind the problem, Paul does not condone it for a moment. The most fervent expectation of the Lord’s return is no reason to abandon daily responsibilities. The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is to be faithful in the work He has given us to do [Matt. 24:45-51]. For many of Paul’s readers, that meant busying themselves with the work of their hands. In encouraging this, Paul is probably urging his readers to some form of productive manual labor. He himself engaged in tent-making to provide for his own and his helpers’ needs [2:9; Acts 20:34]. A Respectable Life. The apostle gives two reasons for pressing for this kind of lifestyle. The first is that their daily life might win the respect of outsiders [12]. Paul knew well, of course, that Christians could never please their unbelieving neighbors in every respect. The world would never accept Christ’s followers as its own [John 15:21; 1 John 3:1]. To court acceptance could only be at the cost of compromising their new life in Christ. That understood, however, Paul was insistent that believers should live in a way that wins the respect of the watching world. The gospel does not disrupt lawful occupations and social relationships. It makes people better citizens and neighbors, better parents and relatives. Unbelievers should be able to look at the way Christians work and live and go away respecting them deeply [1 Peter 2:12]. It is this relationship between daily life and the gospel that lies behind Paul’s instructions here. He wants Christians to live in a way that breeds respect, not scorn [Titus 2:10]. The second reason offered for living a quiet and industrious lifestyle is so that they would not be dependent upon anybody [12]. In one respect, the Christian gospel does encourage people to be dependent upon others. Within the body of Christ we need to rely on one another, and we must learn to receive from others as well as give to them [1 Cor. 12:14-26]. From this point of view, self-sufficiency is a sin. But Paul is not thinking of this kind of mutual dependence here. He is referring to dependence upon others for food and clothing and other daily necessities. Those refusing to work had become parasites on their hard-working but generous neighbors. This was not only a bad witness to the world, it was a burden to the church. Communal love within the church calls for people to work hard to provide for their own needs and to have extra to help the indigent and needy [Eph. 4:28]. It scarcely needs to be mentioned in closing that the problem of idleness addressed in this passage is not the same as the inactivity resulting from unemployment or disability. One is the result of sloth and self-deception; the other is the outcome of economic or health factors beyond a person’s control. The former is cause for shame, the latter calls for understanding and support.” [Young, pp. 65-77].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Human sinfulness finds expression especially in the realm of sexual promiscuity and perversion [Rom. 1:24-27]. Why do these particular sins seem to be so predominant in unregenerate man? What do the so-called ‘liberated’ views of sex in modern cultures say about their spiritual state? How would you describe a healthy biblical code for sexual conduct?
  2. Is the fear of a future judgment a reason for living a holy life [6], or is this inconsistent with experiencing God’s grace in Christ? How should the fear of displeasing God be a motivating factor for holy living?
  3. Intense interest in spiritual affairs is often accompanied by irresponsibility in everyday living. What lies at the root of this problem, and how can it be overcome? How do we balance showing brotherly love to fellow believers and holding believers accountable for their life-style?

References:

The Letters to the Thessalonians, Gene Green, Pillar, Eerdmans.

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

1-2 Thessalonians, Jeffrey Weima, BENT, Baker.

Let’s Study 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Andrew Young, Banner of Truth.