Purpose in Life
Sunday School Lesson for October 7, 2001
I Thessalonians 4:1-12
Focal Teaching Section: 4:1-8
The Call to Excellence (4:1-2)
With the word "Finally," Paul indicates a point of transition in the epistle, marking an emphasis upon the outward conduct of the Thessalonians. He addresses his readers as "brethren," the highest Christian title and a term of endearment meant to communicate the familial nature of the body of Christ. To these, his very own kinsmen in the gospel, he advances both a "request" and exhortation ("exhort") for the purpose of spurring them on to a Christian "walk" which "please[s] God." While acknowledging that the Thessalonian Christians are, in fact, living lives which do bring pleasure and glory to God, Paul boldly calls them "in the Lord"ówith full apostolic authorityó to "excel still more." Far from being content with their current level of devotion to God and to one another, they are challenged to move forward in ever increasing measures of holiness and Christ-like love.
This verse adds additional emphasis to Paulís initial call to excellence in Christian living. What he enjoins them to do rests squarely upon "the commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus." These "commandments" are the marching orders of the Christian "soldier" whose sworn duty is to fully carry out the instructions of his Superior. As F. F. Bruce reminds us, "the apostolic tradition does not derive from the apostles themselves" but from the Lord (79). For Paul, then, the exhortation to press on in greater faith, commitment, and moral excellence has its origin in the instructions of Christ himself.
Excellence in Sexual Purity (4:3-8)
As the chapter develops, Paul lays out two specific areas of Christian excellence that should be pursued by the believers in Thessalonica. The first has reference to the practice of sexual purity while the second relates to the believerís practice of brotherly love. The focus of our lesson today will be upon this first area of emphasis.
Emphatically, Paul declares to his readers that a component of Godís revealed "will" for each believer is their "sanctification." This word indicates the process by which the believer is brought to greater spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness over the course of their natural lives. In this process, which is initiated at conversion, the "old ways and the old habits are increasingly done away and replaced with new ways which fit in with the service of God" (Leon Morris, 74-5). Though there are many dimensions of sanctification, Paul, for reasons unstated in the text, specifically targets the subject of sexuality as the special arena of Godís transforming work in the lives of his Thessalonian brethren. Note how this is communicated both negatively and positively:
According to this verse, sexual immorality must be avoided not only because it violates Godís will, but also due to the effects this devastating sin has on other people. By means of sexual licentiousness, a "brother" in the church could be "transgress[ed] and defraud[ed]." These terms indicate the taking advantage of another by overstepping proper boundaries. Consequently, the relationships which Christian brothers and sisters share may be seriously damaged or even destroyed by sexual immorality. This is a sin of deeply serious significance since "the Lord is the avenger in all these things." Sexual sins are not inconsequentialóthey will be brought under the judgment of God.
The final point made in regard to the practice of moral excellence relates to the "purpose" for which believers have been "called" by God. The Lordís gracious and sovereign summons to salvation is not for the purpose of "impurity," or moral uncleanness, but for "holiness." Godís determinate will and plan for each believer is that they should become more and more conformed to Christís moral character. Essentially, this repeats the theme of 4:3 and echoes such passages as Romans 6:4, Ephesians 2:10, and 1 Peter 1:1-2. Paulís point does not come without a solemn warning however. Verse 8 informs the reader that the rejection of this exhortation to moral excellence is literally the rejection of "the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you." Since the call to sexual purity and sanctification finds its origin in the will of God, its rejection represents the disregarding of God Himself. As Leon Morris candidly observes, the one who "regards sexual sin so lightly, as something which does not matter greatly, is, in effect, treating God as One who can be disregarded, for the prohibition we are considering is of divine and not human origin" (79). Note that the apostle seems to indicate that sexual sins are a particular affront to the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Sexual immorality, in some way distinct from other acts of rebellion against Godís will, are "tantamount to a rejection of the Spirit who [is] a gift from God to bring holiness into the lives of believers" (Wanamaker, 158). Note how Paul expresses a similar point in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 where he argues that the believerís body is the very "temple of the Holy Spirit." Since the Spirit whom believers have been made to receive is the Spirit of holiness, it follows that "nothing unholy can be tolerated in one whom He indwells" (Bruce, 88).
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: The pursuit of excellence in Christian discipleshipóPaul presents a picture of the Christian life that resembles a long climb up a mountain as opposed to a lazy trip down a river. Can you think of some of the other images of the Christian life found in the New Testament? Hint: Check out terms such as "race," "athletic games," "prize," "warfare." To what degree can a believer be content with his or her life? What are the dangers of relaxing?
Two: The will of GodóPerhaps the question most often posed by Christians is "What is the will of God for my life?" In the light of this passage, how may we answer? Is the will of God always something mysterious, difficult, and hard to find? How does one go about discovering the will of God? Is there more than one aspect to Godís will? Hint: Think about His will that is revealed (in Scripture) and that which is not revealed (a part of His secret counsel).
Three: Sexual purity in a decadent cultureó How can believers remain morally pure in a world so obsessed and saturated with sexuality? Is retreat from the world or isolation from the culture the answer? Is it reasonable to expect modern-day Christians to remain sexually chaste both before and after marriage? What are some practical ways that believers can safeguard their minds and bodies against sexual temptation and sins? How can Christian marriages be made stronger and mutually fulfilling?
Four: Trivializing Godís WordóNote Paulís focus upon the commandments of God (vv.1-2). If Godís Word provides the pattern for our sanctification, its significance is firmly established. What happens, however, when believers neglect or trivialize Godís Word?