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1 Thessalonians

Astonishing Doctrine

1st Thessalonians 4:1-12

Don Quixote had it easy. All he had to do was engage windmills in combat. The Bible teacher must teach against adultery.

Paul’s Appeal

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

(1Th 4:1-2 NASB)

In happier days the teacher could skip over this. But I find it necessary to begin this section by bringing to your attention the way in which Paul makes his appeal to the Thessalonians – who are, by the way, well spoken of as Christians. Pretend that you don’t know what’s coming, and see how Paul prepares these people for the command he is to give.

How he asks

There are three things I would point out regarding the method by which Paul is to make his point:

  • He “requests” them. The word in the Greek can also be translated “beseech”. Note that he does not command them; he asks.
  • He “exhorts” them. The word in the original carries a picture of someone coming along side you, encouraging you to what is good.
  • He does not command them, as an Apostle – rather he places the matter under the authority of the Lord Jesus. We do not often consider that word, authority – but they understood it.
What he asks

He will be specific in verse 3; but here he sets forth the general idea before mentioning the specific item.

  • He asks them in accordance with the command (and example) they have already seen – so this is no new thing.
  • Indeed, he asks them in accordance with the example they themselves have set for others.
  • To do what? To walk (take action) in such a way as to please God. How could they possibly object to that?
  • Indeed, he asks them for nothing new – just that they excel at what they are already doing (or, in our case, should be.)

Indeed, the entire matter is something he has taught them before; he is simply reminding them. What comes out most strongly is this: it is not an opinion, nor is it (as we would have it today) a case of “God knows best, even if you don’t understand it.” It is the command of the Lord, given by the one who holds all authority in heaven and on earth.

Drum roll, please. Just what is he asking them to do?

The Will of God

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 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. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.

(1Th 4:3-8 NASB)

He wants you to do what God wills. Which is, specifically?

  • Your sanctification. It means being set apart, being holy, being pure. We want purity in our foods but not in ourselves; how could we possibly be holy and pure?
  • By abstaining from sexual immorality. That’s how.

Now the legal minded will begin to ask, “Just what do you mean, sexual immorality?” To put this in the masculine sense, it means any sexual behavior with someone other than your wife. Which, just to be specific, includes:

  • Ordinary sex with any other woman. Yes, that includes someone who is not married to anyone. It includes the divorcee, the woman who’s having trouble in her marriage, the one who asks you for it.
  • Any form of homosexual behavior.

Yes, I know this is an unenlightened definition, as far as the world is concerned. But just by way of comparison, 1600 years ago, when Chrysostom preached on the subject in Constantinople, he had to spell it out to them too. We are so modern and up to date, aren’t we?

“Possess your vessel”

There is a peculiar choice of words in this passage. The phrase “possess your vessel” can have two different meanings, either of which would be allowed by the context:

  • It could mean self-control of your own body. Paul would be saying, keep your own body pure; do not let it become impure by sexual contact outside of marriage.
  • It could also mean taking care of your wife (the expression is a common one in Greek, I’m told). This may be a command to concentrate your sexual efforts on pleasing and caring for your wife.

It’s just possible, of course, that Paul saw both possibilities – and deliberately intended them both. But in either translation, it means bodily purity – one man, one woman, for life. That’s the personal side of it.

There is also a corporate, or body, side to it. We’re fond of saying that it’s OK as long as “no one gets hurt.” But as you do this, is it really possible that no one gets hurt? Doesn’t her husband, or his wife, suffer from this? Adultery changes the marriage relationship. It is the only sure ground of divorce in the church – and one reason for this is the pain it causes. Even in our day it is still referred to as “cheating.” Paul calls it defrauding your brother; when you convince your brother in Christ of a lie so that you might take advantage of him, it is fraud. If you really think no one gets hurt, ask his permission first – and see if you see any signs of pain.

Finally, there is one last reason. This is one way the world should be able to tell who are the followers of God, and who are the followers of evil. While most of our society will consider any form of sex to be completely acceptable, you’ll note please that they have their standards for “real Christians.” One of them is marital faithfulness.

What’s God going to do about it?

Of all the ideas that permeate the modern church, one of the most malicious is this: God is never seen as commanding anyone in the church – he’s always pointing out how wise his path might be. So if we find his wisdom inconvenient (He just doesn’t understand the circumstances) we fear no punishment.

Paul points out the danger of this particular delusion:

  • We were called to be holy, pure and righteous – and not just when convenient.
  • To reject this call is to reject the God who made that call upon us.
  • This, indeed, is to quench the Holy Spirit – whose task it is to convict the world (including us) of sin and judgment to come.

OK, but does this mean that God would actually do something? Yes indeed. Having just pointed out to you that adultery defrauds your Christian brother, Paul now mentions one other detail: vengeance belongs to God. Let’s suppose you are wonderfully successful in concealing your relationship from her husband. You have failed to deceive God; vengeance is his, and he will be both swift and sure about it.

Why don’t we fear this? Because we love the God of good advice (“the Bible is your owner’s manual”) – and don’t know the living God of vengeance and justice.

How then shall we live?

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, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

(1Th 4:9-12 NASB)

The love of the brethren

Paul does not ask us to stop one form of behavior as much as he does ask us to continue in another. How can you say that you love your Christian brother if you’re having sex with his wife?

Having disposed of that point, Paul now moves on to the behavior which God wants: for us to love one another. Indeed, we are “taught by God” to love one another. How? It’s his universe; do things right, and they work. These Christians already had such brotherly love for each other; they knew the results. Paul simply is telling that they should continue to excel in this department – always room for improvement.

The Quiet Life

When we hear the word “ambition” we think immediately of some hard charging, no nonsense young executive type working his way up the corporate ladder. Paul gives us a different example here: we are to have as our ambition the quiet life. Permit me the three obvious points:

  • First, we are to mind our own business. We can concern ourselves with others in their need – but not in our curiosity.
  • Next, we are to work with our hands to obtain our material requirements. (What this says about our common desire for retirement could be an interesting discussion).
  • We are to do these things because they are commanded from God.
The view from the outside

One very good reason we are to behave in this way is simply this: The world sees the church (as portrayed in our totally unbiased press) as a collection of wild eyed weirdoes. The best counter to that is to show them Christians who are not seen as pious beggars, but as hard working, quiet citizens, ready to give in time of need.

Is the Christian life a dull one?

It is the oldest lie in creation: virtue is dull and boring, evil is exciting and intellectually stimulating. Those who have chosen the ways of sin are quick to sneer at those living the dull, virtuous life. But may I offer you a more accurate comparison? In any third world country, you will see houses built out of whatever materials are available. Flattened gas cans, wood scraps, old car bumpers – to look at them they are much less interesting that a typical American suburban home. What dull construction techniques we have! How highly regulated our building contractors have become! Surely things would be more exciting if we adopted the “no standards required” method of house construction! Those houses are colorful; ours are dull and boring.

But ask the people who live in those houses: would they like to exchange lifestyles with someone who has a boring house? So why would you want to make such an exchange?

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