Preached by Ben Bechtel
As this weekend has reminded us here in Central Pennsylvania, we are directly in the middle of summer. I think my weather app said that the “real feel” temperature yesterday afternoon peaked at 109 degrees. That’s too hot. But summertime for many of us means travelling in some form of another. For those of you travelling with kids, this may conjure up all kinds of different emotions: joy, bliss, terror, dread, angst, etc. And there is one question among many that I’m sure you particularly dislike from your children: “are we there yet?” This dreaded question haunts cars all across America during these summer months. And the answer is always the same: “no, we’re not there yet. It feels like we will never arrive.”
In this passage this morning, the apostle Paul tells us like it is, that we will never arrive at perfection in our pilgrimage in this life toward Christian holiness and love. However, he will simultaneously encourage us that God desires for his children to grow more and more in holiness and love and that he will help us every step along the way until we see Jesus face to face. Read 1 Thes. 4:1-12:
1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 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.
Whenever we approach a biblical passage, there is always some type of gap we need to cross in order to begin to come to a right understanding of the passage we are reading. One large barrier between us and rightly understanding a given Bible passage is the difference in culture between us and them. We are largely in the dark about what it was like to live in the ancient near east and walk the streets of Jerusalem or Thessalonica. Most times, I think we overestimate the similarity between our situation and that of the original audience.
With all that said, I think 1 Thessalonians, and particularly this section of the letter, have some of the easiest import into our 21st century context as a church in central Pennsylvania. Let me show you what I mean by this.
This was not a church that had any radical problems that were about to tear the church apart. This was a church that heard the apostles’ commands under the authority of Jesus and did them, bringing pleasure to their God (4:1-2). This was a church whose love for others was renowned among the apostles (4:10). This was a church whose good works and Christian love were literally gospel-news, good news, to the apostle Paul (3:6). Just think about this letter to the Thessalonians in comparison to the letter to the Galatians, which contains no pleasantries but rather begins (Gal. 1:6, 9):
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Yikes. Now compare this to the letter to the Thessalonians. Just read Paul’s praise of them in chapter 1 in which he calls them an example to the churches in Macedonia and Achaia (1:6). Paul doesn’t transition to address their conduct until the beginning of chapter 4 and even then he says that they are currently following the commands handed down to them by the apostles. This church is a healthy church.
And in this way, not to toot our own horns, but this church is much like our church. There are no problems that are threatening to tear this church apart. There are works of love done in this church on a regular basis that bring pleasure to God. The Spirit is at work bringing people closer and closer to Jesus through and in this church.
But, even with this being true, notice what Paul does here. He doesn’t pat this church on the back and say they have arrived. Rather, he first prays in 3:11-13 and then directs them in this passage to continue to grow more and more in Christian love and holiness. Listen to this refrain in verse 1 and again in verse 10:
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.
But we urge you, brothers, to [love one another] more and more,
Paul knows that this healthy church has not yet reached perfection and no healthy church will reach perfection in this life. Community, no matter how healthy this church may be and no matter how healthy its individual members may be, we have not arrived. This morning, God is calling us in his Word under the authority of Jesus and the power of the Spirit to continue to grow more and more in holiness (vv. 3-8) and love (vv. 9-12) because this is what pleases him.
1. More and More Holiness (vv. 3-8)
You have to love how clear the Scriptures are on this point. I love this. Look at verse 3 with me again:
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification…
This half verse could put a whole genre of Christian books out of business! Brothers and sisters, God’s will for us as his children in one sense is not a mystery. Sanctification, which is a Bible word that means to become more and more holy, to become more and more set apart for God, is God’s will for us. It is not a mystery what God wants from you!
Now, in the context of this passage, we can define holiness and sanctification in a more detailed way. How is it that we are set apart more and more to God? How is it that we grow in holiness? I think in context it comes from following the commands of Jesus given by the apostles. Pleasing God by growing in holiness comes from obedience to the commands of God given by his apostles in the Bible. To put it simply, holiness equals true obedience. It’s not just bare obedience but true obedience that comes from a heart captivated by God and what he has done for our salvation in Christ. True obedience and growth in holiness are inseparable.
There is a specific subset of holiness that the apostle Paul desires that this church would grow in, their sexuality. This is a general exhortation for the church to grow in holiness but Paul’s specific area of concern for them is that they would continue to grow in sexual holiness. Why might the Spirit have inspired the apostle Paul to focus on this area of Christian holiness?
For starters, the Greco-Roman world of the first century was not one in which sexual chastity was a virtue. Monogamy was not the norm. Men were encouraged to use their wives for legitimate children and to use mistresses for actually fulfilling their sexual needs. So, the culture at large was incredibly different than the Christian vision of sex being reserved for a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman.
In addition to this, much of the idol worship of the various cities of the first-century world were tied up with prostitution and other sexual activities. The word which Paul uses, which we translate as “sexual immorality” in verse 3 can generally mean just any type of sexual immorality but it can more specifically refer to sexual practices related to idol worship.1 Let’s keep in mind as well that Gentiles who were converted to Christianity in the first century were coming out of an idol-worshipping context, the Thessalonians being no exception (1:9). If there was an area of ethics that would tempt them back toward worshipping idols rather than worshipping the true God it would be sexual in nature. This is why he says in verse 5 that not practicing self-control in sexual matters makes one like the Gentiles, the idol-worshipping peoples of the world. Paul chooses to focus on sexual immorality here in this text because sexual immorality was emblematic of the Thessalonians’ former lifestyle before turning to Jesus.2 And it is a Christian sexual ethic that would have clearly drawn a line in the sand between those who followed Jesus and those who didn’t.
Friends, in our own 21st century context, the same exact thing could be said of us. If there is one thing that delineates the difference between those who worship Jesus and those who worship idols it is sexual ethics. Even in a church that appears on the outside to be healthy, in the privacy of our own lives, our own homes, our own bedrooms, and our own phone or computer screens who we truly choose to worship becomes apparent. In an area in which we can so easily, even subconsciously, be formed into the mold of our culture’s sexual ethic, I pray that we as a church would please God by bringing our lives more and more in line with the Scripture’s teaching on sexual ethics. Church, we each don’t have to fight against this sin alone either. Brothers, get with other brothers and sisters, get with other sisters. Be honest, give one another grace, and encourage each other to pursue holiness in all of life, particularly in the area of sexuality. May we not treat this area lightly and may we who have been redeemed fight tooth and nail to have our sexuality be formed into the image of Christ.
Before we move on to our second point, I want to stop and say one more thing. In our culture today we can be so tempted to avoid Christian teaching on sex, that it is reserved for a marriage relationship between a man and a woman. Or we can be tempted, if and when we do talk about these things to be ashamed of these commands, acting as if they aren’t actually good for us. We have nothing to be ashamed of or nothing to avoid because if God has given us these commands then they are for our ultimate good and flourishing! And he has made them clear in his word so that we can know them, obey them, and be blessed by them! If there are two fathers who see that their sons are in imminent danger, and one clearly lays out boundaries for his son so that he knows the danger and can avoid it and the other just allows his son to do whatever he wants, which father is more loving? God is a good father who has clearly communicated to us his will for us and how we can please him in following his will.
Now for those in here this morning who may be struggling with same-sex attraction we acknowledge that this is hard. The cost for you in following Jesus in our culture today is immensely difficult and requires incredible sacrifice. It may not feel like these commands are truly good news for your flourishing. I can’t tell you things will necessarily get easier or better on this earth for you as you wrestle through these things but I can tell you that Jesus loves you and cares about your ultimate good. And these commands are for all of our good, all of us with broken sexualities in various different forms.
I pray that our whole church would hear in my words this morning not an invitation to beat others over the head with truth. Rather, I pray that we would all hear these words as an invitation to extend grace as we follow Jesus together and attempt to grow in holiness more and more.
2. More and More Love (vv. 9-12)
In verse 9, Paul switches over now to encourage the church to love more and more. Much like his encouragement towards holiness, Paul gives a general exhortation towards loving one another and then proceeds to spell out in more detail a specific way he wants to encourage the Thessalonians to do that. We see this in verses 10b-12:
But we urge you, brothers, t0 [love one another] 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.
These seem like odd exhortations for a pastor to give to a church, don’t they? To prove this, how many times have you gone to church in the last two years, whether here or elsewhere, and heard an application given by a preacher about minding your own business and working hard? That’s strange. But that’s precisely what Paul says.
Much like in his encouragement towards sexual holiness, Paul’s words here come out of the context of the Thessalonian church. It is debated as to exactly why, but the people in this church were facing a temptation to not work hard and handle their own affairs. Into this situation, Paul affirms the dignity and beauty of ordinary hard work. Faithfulness in boring, mundane matters of life is an intrinsically Christian virtue.
As most of you know, I received my undergrad degree from a large Christian university and everything that this university did was big. Everything was large scale. The motto of this particular university is “training champions for Christ.” Now, please don’t hear me as throwing my college under the bus, especially those of you who know what college it is. I had a great experience and am so thankful for my time there. However, this ethos of doing big things for Jesus and being a champion for Christ worked in me and others a mindset that we had to go out and do big things for Jesus or else we weren’t actually doing what we should. It painted a picture of the Christian life as one of grand accomplishments and Instagram-worthy moments.
The more and more I kept following Jesus in college and afterward as an adult this came into direct conflict with the life I lived. Immediately after I graduated, I couldn’t find a job and I was working at a Greek restaurant for 9 bucks an hour with my biblical studies degree in tow. But it was here that I began to realize much of the Christian life is not awe-inspiring by the world’s standards. The day-in, day-out Christian life is one of faithfulness in the little things: faithfulness in playing with your kids after work, faithfulness in working hard, faithfulness in sparking up conversations with your neighbor over the back fence, faithfulness in church attendance and small group meeting. The Spirit’s work of transformation happens most often in the places we would least expect it at the time we would least expect it. There is unspeakable beauty and purpose in the boring, non-Instagrammable parts of our life as a Christian.
Now, what does any of this have to do with the exhortation to love one another? Verse 12 answers this question by showing the purpose for our hard work and minding our own business. Look at it with me. We work hard in our own affairs so that we may be thought of well by those outside the church and so that we may not be dependent upon anyone. In other words, we work hard in our own affairs to fulfill the prayer of the apostle Paul for the church (1 Thes. 3:12):
may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…
There it is. We work hard so that we might love one another in the church and those outside the walls of the church. We who are able, ought to work hard as a labor of love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ so as to not provide an extra, unnecessary burden upon the finances of the people in the church. And this allows us to provide for those who genuinely are in need and cannot provide for themselves. This is a sensitive area for some, one which I wish we had more time to look into. Just know this passage should be taken alongside of other passages in the New Testament, like Acts 2:44, where Luke records that the church had everything in common and freely met one another’s needs. There is balance.
In addition, we work hard and mind our own business so as to love those outside the walls of the church. In high school, I was a lifeguard at the Friendship Community Center. Soon after I started following Jesus, in my sophomore year of high school, I started wanting to talk about Jesus with people there. One day I got in trouble for talking on the pool deck with another lifeguard about what it means to be saved by grace and not baptism (he was from a vaguely religious family). I went to my Bible teacher at school so concerned because I felt like it was my job to share the gospel with this guy and I thought it would really be a chance for me to take a stand for my faith, defy my manager, and keep talking while working. My Bible teacher gave a wise chuckle and just said, “your job is to do your job. If you’re faithful, God will give you chances to share the gospel with him.”
There is immense wisdom here we often overlook. True Christian witness happens when we have a good work ethic and are enjoyable coworkers and neighbors. We are to maintain a good reputation by working hard so that, as one commentator puts it, nonbelievers are not put off by the wrong scandal of the gospel.3 A major part of your Christian witness to nonbelievers is showing up on time, working hard, and being a great coworker. Being an awesome Christian doesn’t consist in doing big, bold things for Jesus, like defying your boss and continuing to share the gospel while ignoring your job responsibilities. It consists in faithfully loving God and loving neighbor in everything you do. And in doing this we all will abound more and more in love.
Some of you may be thinking at this point, “this is fine and all but isn’t this a bit demanding?” I mean, isn’t God like a dad who is never satisfied with his son’s performance even though he has achieved a Division 1 scholarship? “More and more” can sound like an invitation to perpetually be burdened and guilt-ridden. This is exactly opposite of how we are to hear these words (verse 8):
8 Therefore whoever disregards [these commands], disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
As those who have placed faith in Jesus, this verse assures us that the call to continue in holiness is the same in nature as the original call that set us apart to begin our life with God: it doesn’t start with us. God calls. And it is the Holy Spirit of God who is the guarantee and constant enabler of our holiness. God doesn’t leave us to accomplish “more and more” on our own. As we strive to follow Jesus because of the love he has displayed for us in dying for our sins and giving us new life, God will give us more and more of his Holy Spirit.
St. Augustine famously prayed, “God, grant what you command and command what you desire.” This is the promise of the gospel. God gives what God requires. God spoke clearly his holy commands to us and we despised them and disobeyed. Jesus was given as the perfect sacrifice that a holy God required in order that us unholy people may be made right with him. The Holy Spirit is given to each of us who have faith in Jesus to work the holiness of Christ in each of us. As we enter into another boring, ordinary week of Christian living, may we all rely on the gift of God’s Spirit more and more as we work together with him to abound more and more in holiness and love.
1 F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, WBC (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 1982), 87.
2 See G.K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, InterVarsity: 2003), 122.
3 Beale, 129.