Week of September 25, 2005


Bible Passage:  1 Thessalonians 4:1-12.


Biblical Truth: Believers should grow in pleasing God by increasing their diligent obedience to His commands and teachings.



Determine to Please God more: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2.


[1] 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. [2] For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  [NASU]


Finally then marks the transition from doctrinal matters to the practical implications for the living of the Christian life. Paul begins this section with the general exhortation that we should walk and please God. In doing so Paul emphasizes pleasing God as the foundation on which Christian ethical behavior is built. The whole Christian life is to be God-centered. The Christian does not walk with a view to obtaining the maximum amount of satisfaction for himself, but in order to please his Lord. Our incentive to be obedient in the way we conduct ourselves is not so much to obey God’s law as it is to please the Law-giver. Certainly, if we are pleasing God, we will obey His law. But the emphasis here is on the proper motivation for obedience.


Now, how does this work out in daily living for the Lord? First, it places the focus of our attention in the right place; not on an external code but rather on a personal relationship. For example, it is possible for one to obey the command abstain from sexual immorality (verse 3) in a legalistic manner without seeking or even thinking about pleasing God with our thoughts and desires. To obey for this reason reduces morality to a list of do’s and don’ts. Then our focus or desire moves off of the Law-giver and onto the law. Instead we are urged to make it our resolve to please God in all things. (see 2 Cor. 5:9; Col. 1:10; Heb. 11:6; 13:21; 1 John 3:22). Do you see that this principal of pleasing God is a radical concept for it strikes at the root of our discipleship and challenges the reality of our profession. How can we claim to know and to love God if we do not seek to please him?


The second thing we see is that this principal is always progressive, it is always growing. Paul urges this principal on a group of people who actually do walk in this manner. But Paul desires that they excel still more, that they continue on to greater heights of pleasing God. In this life we will never reach the goal of being perfectly pleasing to God. But this is a worthy goal which ought to be the guiding principal of our Christian walk. And the reason that it is such a worthy goal is because the object of our desire to please is the God of infinite value, honor, glory, beauty, etc. As John quotes the voices of many angels: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing (Rev. 5:12). All of our obedience must flow out of our heart’s desire to please our most glorious God and for no other reason.


Here, then, is a very practical ethical guideline for our everyday Christian living. From his general exhortation to please God, Paul moves on to some specific ways in which we should do so, especially in the areas of sexual self-control (3-8), daily work (9-12) and bereavement (13-18). Sex, work and death continue to be three major human preoccupations, so that Paul’s teaching on these subjects has about it a ring of relevance.




Live in Personal Holiness: 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8.


[3] For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; [4] that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, [5] not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; [6] 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. [7] For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. [8] So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. [NASU]


Although we recognize that sex is the good gift of a good Creator, we also know that it has become twisted and distorted by the fall, so that our sexual energies need to be rightly channeled and carefully controlled. Paul develops his instruction in verses 3 and 4 in three points.


First, he makes a general and positive statement that this is the will of God, your sanctification.


Secondly, he specifies within God’s general and positive will a particular prohibition: that you abstain from sexual immorality which includes every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse. The apostle is declaring that God’s will entails a clean cut with impurity, a total abstinence. Where things are evil the Christian attitude is necessarily one of abstention and not of moderation.


Thirdly, Paul lays down two fundamental, practical principles to guide his readers in their sexual behavior.


(1) Sex has a God-given context: marriage [4a]. The first half of verse 4 contains the most difficult phrase in the whole letter. Literally translated, it reads that ‘each of you should learn to acquire his own vessel in holiness and honor’. The question is whether the vessel in mind is a metaphor for wife or for body. If wife, then Paul is urging that each one take a wife for himself; if body, then Paul is urging each one to control his own body. John Stott gives two reasons why he thinks Paul is referring to acquiring a wife here. First, from a language standpoint, the verb is better translated “acquire or possess” instead of “control”. And the word “vessel” is used metaphorically in 1 Peter 3:7 to refer to a wife when it is used in connection to “honor” as it is in this verse. Second, as it relates to the context, Paul’s instruction is the positive counterpart to avoiding porneia, which usually means “fornication” or “adultery”. Thus the natural allusion here is to marriage and not self-control. And the translation “take a wife … not in passionate lust” seems to make better sense here then “learn to control your body … not in passionate lust”. You can take a woman in passionate lust, but you cannot control your body in passionate lust. Paul’s first principle, then, is that heterosexual and monogamous marriage is the only context in which God intends sexual intercourse to be experienced, and indeed enjoyed. The corollary is that it is forbidden in every other context, whether with a heterosexual partner before marriage (fornication) or outside marriage (adultery), or in a homosexual relationship.


(2) Sex has a God-given style: honor [4b-8]. Honorable conduct in marriage Paul contrasts with lustful passion. He then adds that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. Paul is saying, then, that it is possible for sexual partners in marriage to wrong or take advantage of each other. The first verb (transgress) has the force of crossing a boundary, here of crossing a forbidden boundary, and hence trespassing (sexually) on territory which is not one’s own. While the second verb (defraud) is the desire to possess more than one should in any area of life. The fact is that there is a world of difference between lust and love, between dishonorable sexual practices which use the partner and true love-making which honors the partner, between the selfish desire to possess and the unselfish desire to love, cherish and respect. Indeed, the Lord will punish (or be the avenger of) men for all such sins.


What is also impressive about this paragraph is that it is from first to last an example of theological ethics, ethics arising out of the Christian doctrine of God. If the heathen behave as they do because they do not know God [5], Christians must behave in a completely different way because we do know God, because he is a holy God, because he is our God, and because we want to please him. We note here the God-centeredness of Paul’s view of morality. He brings together God’s will [3], judgment [6], call [7] and Spirit-gift [8], and makes these the ground of his appeal to us to please God. If we rearrange his four points in a theological order, the apostle is making four affirmations. First, God’s call is to holiness [7]. Secondly, God’s will is our holiness [3]. Thirdly, God’s Spirit is a holy Spirit [8], who is given to all his people in order to make them holy [2 Thess. 2.13]. Fourthly, God’s judgment will fall upon all unholiness [6]. Therefore, without holiness it is impossible to please God.


Demonstrate Exemplary Character: 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12.


[9] 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; [10] for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, [11] 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, [12] so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need. [NASU]


Paul moves on in this section from chastity to charity, from the control of sex to the importance of work. Why had some Thessalonian Christians abandoned their jobs? It seems probably that the idle had misunderstood Paul’s teaching about the Parousia and had stopped working in the mistaken belief that it was imminent. Paul frames his appeal to them in terms of brotherly love. His argument is that to work for one’s own living is a mark of love, because then we do not need to depend on the support of fellow Christians. Deliberately to give up work is a breach of love because then we become parasites on the body of Christ. Underlying this reasoning is the fact that a special kind of love binds the members of God’s family together. The word for this brotherly love is philadelphia. It is natural that those who know God as their Father should love one another as sisters and brothers in his family. Paul makes their well-known love for one another the basis of an appeal that they would go on to ever new heights of love [10]. Paul wants his friends to excel in the practice of brotherly love. it is interesting that three times within such a short space Paul should have thought of the Christian life in terms of abounding (3:12; 4:1,10). It illustrates something of the exuberant quality of a right Christian faith.


From this general teaching about brotherly love, Paul goes on to the particular manifestation of it which he sees to be missing in the idle, who have given up working. He evidently has them in mind when he addresses three admonitions to the whole church. The first is this: make it your ambition to lead a quiet life [11a]. The idleness of the Thessalonians was apparently accompanied by a feverish excitement, which Paul wanted to calm down. As their second ambition they were to attend to your own business [11b]. They had become busy-bodies, meddling in other people’s matters. Thirdly, they were to work with your hands, just as Paul had told them when he was with them [11c]. In a Greek culture that degraded manual labor, Christianity joined with Judaism in viewing it as an honorable pursuit. Most of the Thessalonian believers earned their living with their hands. Paul tells them to continue supporting themselves and thus avoid the pitfalls of idleness.


The apostle had two particular reasons for this threefold appeal to the Thessalonians to be quiet, non-interfering and hard-working. The first was that their daily life might win the respect of outsiders [12a], and the second that they might not be dependent on anybody [12b], but rather enjoy an honorable independence. He wants them to command the respect of unbelievers and not to be a burden on their fellow-believers. What Paul is condemning here is not unemployment as such (when people want work but cannot find it) but idleness (when work is available but people do not want it). He is emphasizing that we should be keen to earn our own living, in order to support ourselves and our family, and so not need to rely on others.


SUMMARY. In 4:1-12 Paul has addressed himself to the two areas of sex/marriage and work. Two aspects of this perspective are particularly noteworthy. The first is the call to unselfishness. We are to please God [1] and to love one another [9]. To these fundamental simplicities the apostle reduces our ethical obligation. Christian morality is not primarily rules and regulations, but relationships. On the one hand, the more we know and love God, the more we shall want to please him. We are to develop a spiritual sensitivity towards God, through his Word and Spirit, until in every dilemma it becomes safe and practical to ask ourselves ‘Would it please him?’ On the other hand, love for others leads us to serve them. It is a wonderfully liberating experience when the desire to please God overtakes the desire to please ourselves, and when love for others displaces self-love. Secondly, Paul issues a call to growth. We are to please God ‘more and more’ [1], and we are to love one another ‘more and more’ [10]. We have constantly to be on our guard against vanity and apathy. In this life we never finally arrive. We only press on towards the goal [Phi. 3:14].


Questions for Discussion:


1.         In verses 1-2, what guiding principle does Paul set before us, and what are its implications? How can we make the command to “please God” the guiding principal in all of our behavior?


2.         What clues does 4:3-7 give as to how Paul would define sexual immorality? How does sexual immorality “transgress and defraud” our brother? Who is included in “his brother”?


3.         Paul implies in verse 5 that the key to conquering sexual temptation is to know God. What is the relationship between an intimate knowledge of God and practical holiness?


4.         What threefold instruction does Paul give in 11-12 and what motives does Paul set before the idle? Why is idleness an example of not showing brotherly love in the Church?




Exposition of I and II Thessalonians, William Hendriksen, Baker Book House.

The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, Leon Morris, Eerdmans Publishing.

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, John R.W. Stott, Inter-Varsity Press.