What’s Your Goal in Life?

Explore the Bible Series

January 4, 2009


Background Passage: I Thessalonians 4:1-12

Lesson Passage: I Thessalonians 4:1-12




Dr. Armand Nicholi, associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard medical School and professing Christian, provides a fascinating spiritual analysis of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, in Finding God at Harvard. Marx and Freud, of course, were at the forefront of the secularization of Europe and the United States and leading spokesmen for an atheistic world view. Both men, Nicholi observes, died friendless, bitter, and disillusioned.  This excellent chapter centers on the causes of the kind of depression that apparently plagued Marx and Freud.

1.      Depression often grows from “an awareness of a gap between what they think they ought to be and what they feel they are.  That is, there is a discrepancy between an ideal they hold for themselves, and at times think they measure up to, and an acute awareness of how far short they fall from the ideal.”  In light of this observation Christians must not read this section of I Thessalonians in isolation from a comprehensive understanding of the gospel.  Paul, in this chapter, set out a very elevated standard of Christian behavior, and he insisted that believers keep these standards high.  However, Christians will frequently fall short of God’s perfect precepts, and, in those moments of failure, Christians must remember their disparate need for Christ’s pardoning mercies.  As you study this practical chapter, recall how often you fall short of the high standards set forth, and meditate on the precious provision of forgiveness in Christ.

2.      Depression, Nicholi observes, sometimes surfaces as worthlessness.  He concludes that this loss of personal value stems from a sense of guilt, guilt that may produce profound despair. Contemporary American culture has blurred the contours of moral standards, and, as a result, one would expect that feelings of guilt and worthlessness would decline.  Nicholi’s studies, however, have demonstrated otherwise, and he concludes that many people feel depressed because of underlying guilt.  Again, the answer to this erosive self-reproach focuses attention on the mercies of the Lord Jesus.

3.      Depression also, according to Nicholi, grows from a sense of hopelessness. As a person struggles with guilt and worthlessness, he often feels helpless to find a way out of the darkness.  Resolutions to “do better” always end in disappointment, and the poor sufferer may spiral into a dark abyss of despair. How can sinners find hope in light of constant failure and a growing burden of guilt?  Again, we find the answer in Christ the Redeemer.


Why introduce this lesson with a psychiatrist’s observations about Marx and Freud?  Sometimes Christians may fall into a legalistic pattern of reading Scripture, especially passages that deal with the practical implications of the gospel.  Two responses may characterize many: despair or self-righteousness.  Some may read this section of I Thessalonians and feel despondent that they cannot live up to the exalted standards Paul established.  Others may judge themselves quite successful at obeying the apostle’s directives, and these folk may quickly turn their attention to the failures of other Christians.  Neither of these attitudes advance the Christian life.


How, then, should we read this chapter?  First, we should read this material humbly.  All of God’s people fail, at times, in these areas, and a contrite heart will insure that we will avoid the trap of self-righteousness.  Second, we should read this chapter through the lens of the cross. Our worth does not depend on our adherence to an objective code of conduct; rather, it is founded on the redemptive work of Jesus and our relationship with God, through the sacrifice of the cross.  We grow in holiness as we abound in gratitude and love for all that Christ has done for us, not because of servile compliance to these principles.  Third, we must consider these precepts in light of the hope within us.   Hope does not arise from our perfect adherence to perfect righteousness, but it grows from our adoration of the Righteous One who paid the redemptive price for our moral failures.  Read with joy, love, and hope.



Lesson Outline:


I.                   Introduction (vv. 1-3a): As in many of Paul’s writings, I Thessalonians includes a practical section that lays out important principles for Christian conduct.  Perhaps “practical” does not reflect the material very well.  All of Scripture is profitable and practical, but some sections, like this passage, deal with specific applications of Christian doctrine to the experience and conduct of believers.  “Finally” translates a word that marks a transition in the text, and it denotes consequence or result. These opening verses lend valuable insight into Paul’s understanding of ethics.

A.    The necessity of holiness (v. 1a): The chapter begins with a two-fold statement of urgency, “I beseech you” and “exhort you.”  These are strong verbs, and Paul clearly intended to impress his readers with the importance of holiness. He made these claims, not on his own authority, but in the name of the Lord Jesus.

B.     The importance of learning (v. 1b): The principles of conduct do not come instantaneously or instinctively; therefore, wisdom must be learned by sound teaching and good example. 

C.     The progressive nature of holiness (v. 1c): The Thessalonians had already learned much, but Paul exhorted them to abound all the more.  There is always room for progress in all who profess Christ. Again, the words “more and more” imply the ongoing, progressive nature of sanctification.  Also, the image reflected by “walk” implies this idea of progression. 


II.                Exhortation to Sexual Purity (vv. 3b-8)

A.    “that you abstain from sexual impurity”: Paul employed the word pornea (from which we get “pornography”) to describe general sexual misconduct. Illicit sexual activity permeated the Roman world, and Thessalonica had a reputation for horrible perversions that accompanied worship in pagan temples.  In the name of Christ, Paul called on these believers to stand against the prevailing sexual currents of their culture.  Note, Paul did not call these people to strident political action; instead, he urged his readers to personally live nobly and purely.

B.     “let each one of you take a wife” (vv. 4-5):  We probably would not employ this language to describe marriage, but I doubt that Paul meant to depict women as an object which a man must take (Paul uses the term “vessel” to refer to women).  This passage, properly understood, does anything but belittle and objectify women.  A wife, Paul said, must not be an object of impure passions; rather husbands should treat their wives with honor. 

C.     “that no man transgress and wrong his brother in these matters” (vv. 6-8): In particular, Paul urged the brothers in Thessalonica to respect the bonds of marriage, especially within the context of the church.  The apostle’s appeal included the reminder that God would avenge (exercise appropriate justice) toward those who disregard divine precepts. 


III.             Exhortation to Christian Love (vv. 9-12)

A.    “you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another” (vv. 9-10): God teaches his children to love one another.  As we have seen, this love is principled (not indulgent of bad behavior) and demands respect (honor), but the command to love is universal among the Lord’s people.  Not only did the Thessalonians love one another, but they extended their compassion to other Christians in Macedonia, perhaps to people they did not know well. 

B.     “aspire to live quietly” (vv. 11-12): Leon Morris concludes that some of the Thessalonians struggled with uncertainty and restlessness.  Perhaps their perplexity about the Second Coming has produced some unrest, and Paul, therefore, encouraged his friends to live quietly. 

1.      “mind your own affairs”: Some of the Thessalonians may have eroded Christian fellowship by becoming busybodies, inappropriately intrusive in the concerns of others.  As we would say in Texas, “Mind ya’ own bidness.”

2.      “work with your hands”: Greek culture did not esteem manual labor highly, and Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to value honorable, hard work.  Believers must mind their own affairs and work hard to support themselves, in part, because in doing so, they would maintain a good witness before outsiders (people who had not professed faith in Christ).