A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 4: Living To Please God

In this Series we have seen that Paul visited Thessalonica and established a church there. These new believers were a good example for all in Greece. Paul was also a good example: he loved them, and was a bold, honest, hard worker who followed up by encouraging and supporting them. He had instructed them how to live to please God; now he tells them to avoid sexual immorality and to love one another. Many today say that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t hurt anyone. But this philosophy is wrong because it is not consistent with Scripture.

A Way Of Living
“We instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (1 Th. 4:1-2 NIV).

Living in order to please God is the theme of 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. The word translated “live” (4:1) means “walk” in Greek; it is a metaphor for our progress in life. Paul addressed their behavior when he was with them. Their top priority should be to please God. Two things hinder this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6), and “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).

Elsewhere Paul gave two reasons why Christians should live to please God. First, because of what the Lord has done for us: “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15); “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Believers are under new ownership and should live to please their divine Master, not to satisfy their sinful desires.

Second, because all believers will give an account of what they have done when they get to heaven: “We make it our goal to please Him … For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9-10). Here all our works for the Lord will be revealed. While our salvation is by faith, our reward is based on our good works for the Lord. Elsewhere he wrote that we please God by our good works (Col. 1:10).

Although the Thessalonians were pleasing God, Paul urged them to do so more and more (4:1). The Christian life is one of continual progress. Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to please God.

The Greek word translated “instructions” (4:2) means a “command” or “order.” It was used by the Sanhedrin when they commanded the apostles not to preach the gospel (Acts 5:28). These are important instructions for those who claim to follow the Lord. They show us the way to live for Him.

Self-Control And Respect
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him” (1 Th. 4:3-6).

God’s will was that the Christians in Thessalonica be sanctified. Sanctification means being set apart for God. There are three phases to sanctification – positional, progressive and perfect. Believers are positionally sanctified when they are saved (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11); they become progressively more godly in character through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:11; 1 Pet. 1:15-16); when they get to heaven they will be sanctified perfectly like the Lord (1 Th. 5:23; 1 Jn. 3:2). In this passage Paul addressed progressive sanctification in daily living – a process over time, not a single event.

Paul then gave two examples of sanctification – avoiding sexual immorality and pursuing brotherly love (4:4-10). And he gave them three steps to avoid sexual immorality: control sexual desires (4:4); respect the rights of others (4:6); and listen to God and love one another (4:7-10).

Control Sexual Desires
This passage addresses the sin of sexual immorality in the Christian community. Because sexual immorality was a problem in Corinth, Paul wrote to them: “Since there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” The marriage relationship is the right place for sexual activity. Any other sexual relationship is sinful (1 Cor. 7:2, 11).

Paul also wrote: “Flee from sexual immorality … he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:18-20). We are indwelt with the Spirit and our bodies belong to the Lord.

We live in a world where many don’t know God’s biblical guidelines. Sexual immorality is promoted in movies, television and magazines. But a Christian has a different standard: “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity … because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3). This includes our desires and thoughts (Mt. 5:27-28).

Because our natural functions need to be controlled, the Thessalonians were urged to control their sexual desires (4:4) instead of indulging in “passionate lust like the heathen” who don’t trust God. The phrase, “who do not know God” (4:5) refers to those who refuse to recognize Him (Rom. 1:28; 2 Th. 1:8; 2:10,12). Such people considered few activities as immoral. This should be one of the areas where a believer should differ, or be set apart from an unbeliever.

In Romans 1, Paul described what happens when people reject the Creator: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:22-25). All kinds of sexual immorality are the outcome of such unbelief – idolatry is mentioned before and after “sexual impurity.” In fact, sexual immorality is an act of the sinful nature and Christians should not be controlled by such desires (Gal. 5:19; Col. 3:5). Those who practice such sins are not Christians (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Respect Rights Of Others
Our behavior affects others, so there is a need for boundaries if we are to continue to be friends. Paul wrote, “No one should wrong or take advantage of a brother” (1 Th. 4:6a). Sexual sin harms others besides those who engage in it. Outside of marriage, there is no such thing as safe sex. In adultery, the spouse is wronged. Premarital sex wrongs one’s future spouse. Believers should respect others and not harm them by the consequences of sexual sin. “The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (1 Th. 4:6b).

The Bible says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). Any sexual relationship outside marriage is sin, which God will judge. This sin will affect one’s character, family life and relationship with God. Sex outside marriage ruins people’s lives. For example, adultery ruins marriages and the devastation of AIDS in Africa is largely caused by the transmission of the HIV virus via sex outside marriage. Those who commit such sins can be restored by turning from sin and accepting God’s forgiveness (1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Cor. 11:2).

Listen To God And Love One Another
“For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you His Holy Spirit. Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more” {1 Th. 4:7-10).

We need boundaries if we are to maintain a good relationship with the Lord. Paul reinforced that this instruction was given by God and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. These are not Paul’s words, but God’s. He wants us to control ourselves and not fall into sin. The Holy Spirit lives within us to help us please God. Believers should follow His instruction about sexual sin.

Paul now changes the topic to love, and mentions two types of love. The first is the affection shared by brothers and sisters in a family – a heart love (phileo). The other is a deliberate decision to act in the interests of another – a love of the mind (agape). The relationships between believers should be driven by both loves. Our care and concern for each other is a Christian obligation, but it should be expressed with affection. It holds us together and attracts others to Christ. Both types of love are also mentioned in Romans 12:9-10.

Jesus commanded us to express “agape” love to each other: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Christians are to love as Christ loved us. His unconditional, sacrificial love was shown by His death on the cross. Such love seeks what’s best for others, does not draw attention to itself, persists despite the cost and seeks to serve rather than be served.

Although the believers in Thessalonica loved one another and all believers in Macedonia, Paul urged them to do so “more and more.” The same phrase was applied to “living to please God” (4:1), where we saw that the Christian life should be one of continual improvement. Here this principle is applied to agape love. Paul had already mentioned this earlier: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (1 Th. 3:12). Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to love one another. But how can we “love one another” daily?

Love In Action
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Th. 4:11-12).

Paul gave these believers three examples of loving one another. First, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Some who misunderstood the promise of Christ’s return were restless and panic-stricken. Others retaliated against persecution. He told them not to seek the limelight, live a life of selfish ambition or clamor for recognition, but to lead a peaceful life.

Second, he said, “mind your own business.” Some idle Thessalonians were taking undue interest in other people’s lives (2 Th. 3:11). He told them not to be busybodies who interfere in the lives of others in unnecessary, unhelpful ways. Idleness and meddling in the lives of others is incompatible with love.

Third, he said “work with your hands” to provide for your families (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (1 Th. 2:9). Because of their belief in the imminent return of Christ, some in Thessalonica stopped working and relied on others for support. But Christians have dual citizenship – in earth and heaven (Rom. 13:1-7; Phil. 3:20) – and should not neglect their practical responsibilities. Two reasons were given by Paul for working: “to win the respect of outsiders” who were watching and judging Christianity and God’s Word by their behavior; to “not be dependent on anybody.” In Ephesians Paul gives a third reason: to “have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4:28). Living quiet lives, minding our own business and earning a living are all acts of love.

Lessons For Us
Because our mission is to please God, we should avoid sexual immorality as it destroys the beauty of a sanctified and holy life. Sexual purity is the key to holiness. The three steps to achieve it are: controlling sexual desires, respecting the rights of others, and loving one another.

Don’t follow your feelings; instead engage your mind and don’t give in to society’s sexual pressures.

Published, April 2009

See the next article in this series: The Rapture and the Day of the Lord
Also see summary of 1 Thessalonians: Encouragement for tough times

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