This is a guest post of sorts from Pastor Dave Dickson at Lochee Baptist Chapel in Dundee. Below is the manuscript of his sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, entitled, “The Well-Ordered Life”.
1 Thessalonians 3 ends with Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians, a prayer that introduces the themes that Paul is about to expand in the next few sections of the letter. Paul prays for Thessalonian endurance, and so prays that they would increase in and overflow with love and that the Lord would make their hearts blameless in holiness. Holiness and love. These are the two topics that Paul goes on to address in this section of chapter 4.
These are the two topics that we as Christians should be jealous to pursue. Our holiness before God and our love for the brethren. So, let us dig in and see what Paul has for us.
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. 2For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6and 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. 7For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 8So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
9Now 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; 10for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11and 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, 12so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
These 12 verses are in two sections. First, Paul addresses the brethren in pursuit of their holiness (v. 1-8). Second, Paul pursues their love for the church (v. 9-12).
Section One: Paul’s instruction in holiness (verses 1-8).
Look back to verse 1. Paul is looking to encourage the Thessalonians, not in an empty encouragement, but in the Lord. Paul speaks with God’s authority behind him. He speaks in Jesus’ name as an Apostle. Paul is not speaking his own words. And this is said as an encouragement for the Thessalonians and equally for us.
We are not following the words of a man, even when that man has the intellect of Paul. Paul is acting as God’s herald to the church. Paul is bringing God’s instruction to the church on how they ought to live and please God, how they ought to obey the very commands of Jesus (verse 2).
The chief end of man is to glorify God and so we should be encouraged when God, through the Apostles, tells us exactly how to do that. Paul is careful and precise to take the very words of God and deliver them faithfully to the Thessalonians. Paul has no authority from himself. He takes his very authority and his words from Jesus.
Society around us is drowning in an epidemic of depression and suicidal thoughts because it does not know what the purpose of life is. We know that the chief end of man is to glorify God. “Be encouraged,” says Paul, “I speak with Jesus authority to tell you how to do just that. How you should live and please God.”
This is not news to the Thessalonians, as we see in verse 1. When Paul was with them at first, he told them how to live and please God. But Paul’s encouragement is that they continue all the more to do so. This side of heaven we should never stop pursuing a greater level of holiness. We will never get to the point where we should think, “OK, phew, I think I’m holy enough now. Time to take retirement from this pursuit and just coast for the rest.” No, God holds the future. He gets to decide when we are done. And only at that point will he take us home.
Notice that in verse 2 these instructions are a command. Paul is commanding us to please God. Paul is not suggesting this as an option. Neither is he presenting this as one of the various and equally valid ways to please God. There is one way, one truth, and Paul is commanding our obedience in it. Why? Because of the last part of the answer to the second Baptist Catechism question. What is the result of our glorifying God? Joy. Obedience to God brings joy. Like a child who obeys their parents in the Lord is a happier child, so do we find true joy when we obey our heavenly Father.
This is, verse 3, God’s will. Have you ever wondered what God’s will for your life is? God’s will is your sanctification. That is God’s plan, for you to become more like Christ. That is God’s design. That is the reason you were not immediately whisked up to heaven the moment you repented and believed. God’s will for your life isn’t the difference between this job or that job, this spouse or that spouse, this flat or that house. God’s prescriptive will for your life is that you would grow in holiness and that your job, church, spouse, house, and everything else should be chosen, in wisdom, with that end goal in mind.
So now Paul gets into the nitty-gritty. He has already taught the Thessalonians when he was with them what Jesus commands of them, that they might be holy. Think of all Christ’s teaching that we find in the Gospels, like the Sermon on the Mount, etc. The Thessalonians have that spread of teaching in mind. But what does Paul then go on to push and clarify? What are the basics that Paul needs to hammer home? What are the foundations of their progress in sanctification towards holiness? The answer is in verse 3.
…That you keep away from sexual immorality,
Of all the things that Paul wants the Thessalonians to get right for their sanctification, sexual purity is top of the list. This should make sense to us, considering the fact that the relationship between husband and wife is the basis of society. When you see marriages break down in society, society itself will soon follow. Because it was that covenant unit of husband and wife that God designed society to rest upon. It was to the first husband and wife that God gave the overarching command to be fruitful and subdue the world. When marriage breaks down mankind cannot fulfill its job. Added onto that, marriage is a picture of the unity between Christ and his church. A break down in marriage falsely portrays and blasphemes the very salvation plan of God. If we are going back to basics to get sanctification right, this is the thing we need to nail down well.
We are so far down the road to self-destruction as a society that we are even questioning gender reality. To unpick the mess of our society’s gender errors will take hard work. To protect truth will take high levels of diligence. Even as a church that recognises men as the head and women as helpers we have a long way to go to unpick assumptions and get back to the truth and true holiness in this area. Everything from gender roles, to marriage roles, to church roles, to dating roles. It is one big tangled mess.
Paul tells us that we need two things in verse 4—knowledge and control. We need to know God’s commands and then we need to put our will behind them. The alternative Paul describes is to follow the rebellious culture that has no knowledge of God’s command and is driven only by passions.
This culture preaches a continual message of, “follow your desires.” No rules, just freedom. But we know Biblically that the heart is deceitful above all things and its desires are in rebellion against God. God has given us his law and has told us that we need to apply our will against our flesh to conform our desires to His will. We need to apply our will to the constant war of killing our fleshly rebellious desires and pursuing our new heart aligned to God’s will.
Think of this simple example. My flesh is naturally lazy. This means that I naturally do not want to get out of bed in the morning. In order to get up, I do not need 3 alarms and 4 snoozes. I need to apply my will and when the alarm goes off, I simply get up. My passions and lust for sleep will fight against it but my will is perfectly capable of saying no and then I simply get up.
I need to apply my will in all of life to fight my natural passions of lusts in the areas of laziness, gluttony, pride, envy, control…the list goes on. But Paul is clear that the controlling of sexual immorality is vital, first and foremost, to our sanctification and pursuit of holiness. We need to know the commands of God in this area and apply our will to those commands for God’s glory and our joy.
The alternative, Paul says in verse 6, is to sin against our brother or sister; and God will be the avenger of such offences.
Let me just make this totally clear, Paul says in verse 7. You have been called to holiness. In your Christian life, this is not an optional extra. You don’t get to reach a certain level and then call it a day. You don’t get to say, “Listen I’m totally down with the don’t commit adultery thing.” Or, “I’m totally down with the not getting a divorce thing.” We don’t get to set the top limit of holiness and then graduate the class on good behaviour. We are called to continually higher levels of holiness in this area until God calls us home. Not even a hint of sexual immorality. Every thought, every look, every action, every fantasy needs to be taken captive to Christ.
And if you reject this teaching, says Paul, don’t think you are rejecting me as a man. You are rejecting God Himself, the same God who gave you His Spirit for the very purpose of knowing his commands and empowering you with the control needed to overcome your rebellious desires.
Section Two: Paul’s instruction on brotherly love (verses 9-12).
Paul starts off in a very odd way. He tells the Thessalonians that he doesn’t need to write to them about love. Why? Because they have already been taught by God how to love. Back in Chapter 1, Paul is surprised to find that, as he travels around Macedonia, the Thessalonians have gotten there before him and already begun planting churches. What greater love has a man for the world than the planting of churches? And this is not something Paul says he had to teach them. They observed Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy and then replicated what they had seen. It is only the Holy Spirit working in the life of a believer that produces this kind of love. And so, Paul comments that God himself has taught the believers in Thessalonian to love. He is confident, therefore, that they are loving one another well.
This gives us a good check for a church’s spiritual health. Are they discipling believers and planting churches? Are they producing disciple-making disciples? If they are then we can conclude they are loving well. But, as with the striving for holiness, Paul is not satisfied to tell the Thessalonians to just keep up the good work. Instead, he tells them to push on all the more in their love for one another. As Christians, we are to never settle in the work God has given us.
How are we to practically achieve this? Paul gives us three things in verse 11.
1. Seek to lead a quiet life.
2. Mind our own business.
3. Work with our own hands.
A quiet life is to be filled with minding of our own business and working with our own hands. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
What is the opposite of a quiet life? The opposite is a chaotic life. Perhaps a clearer way to think about it is a disordered life, which links back to Paul’s comments on holiness. We live and please God by ordering our lives according to his commands. So, to live a quiet life does not mean we live without noise, behind closed doors, being careful to keep peace with everyone by withdrawing. No,to live a quiet life is to live a well-ordered life.
What is the opposite of minding our own business? The opposite is to be busy-bodies that look to do jobs that someone else should be doing. The state, the church, families, governors, elders, husbands, citizens, church members, wives, and children, we all have roles, we all have places and jobs, and we need to work within them. For the state to take on what the church or the family should be doing is to for the state to be a busy-body. For men to try and be homemakers and nurturers, or for women to try and lead is for them to be busy-bodies. For children to try and rule in the home and for parents to give up their authority is for children to be busy-bodies.
What is the opposite of working with your own hands? For men, it means an idleness where they rely on others to provide for them. We have a benefits system that means it is easy for men to be idle; they can eat without working. God does not look favourably on this and Paul’s command is that men in this situation should not eat, 2 Thessalonians 3. For women, it means an idleness either of handing off the responsibilities of raising their children or of homemaking to someone else. In Titus 2, Paul says this leaves space for gossip and much wine.
All of these things lead to a disordered life. So how do we order life?
Husbands, as the head of the family, are to lead courageously and love their wives, bringing the world under the dominion of God’s kingdom. Wives are to respect their husbands and be their helpers whilst being industrious in the raising of children. Children are to honour their parents in obedience. Husbands are to raise their children in the instruction of the Lord by providing the children with a stable Christian culture in which to grow. Sons are to be raised to be men, to lead and conquer and carry the theological load. When they become men, they leave the family to be joined to a wife and start a new family unit. Daughters are to be raised to be women, to be nurturers and homemakers. When they get married, they leave the care of the family home and the theological oversight of the father and come under the direct leadership and provision of their husband.
Each family is to be joined in membership to a local church, under the oversight of elders, under the head who is Jesus. The community as a whole is to submit to the ministry of the government, whose job is to restrain and punish evil. This is a very quick overview of a quiet life in God’s world, well-ordered world, a world that does not presently exist in Scotland, similar to, and in some ways worse than, the world in which the church was birthed.
But Paul gives these orders to the Thessalonians and to us. We are to reform ourselves into conformity to God’s given ordering for family, church, and state. This is our witness to the watching world (verse 12). We walk in correct behaviour, not dependent on the world and its rebellious systems for our existence and conduct. In this obedience, we will have the strongest possible witness.
As we grow in obedience in the areas of holiness and love, the fruit of this righteousness will be more righteousness. We grow in obedience by obeying.
We have a long way to go. We have many things to consider, many areas of life that are disordered and need to be ordered. We need the grace of God and courage, for the more we reorder our lives to be conformed to Scripture, the more we will stand out like a sore thumb in a disordered world. This will inevitably mean more persecution to be faced. But this is God’s design for us. It is on this road that we please him. This is where true joy lies.