So, the last time we studied this letter together we concentrated on the passage which began in verse 17 of chapter 2 and ended on verse 13 of chapter 3. And do you remember? Paul wrote about how he was worried about the Thessalonians; and so, he sent Timothy to find out how they were getting on; and Timothy had returned with an encouraging report, because he reported that they still loved Paul and had pleasant memories of him. And that was important, because it seems from what Paul had written in his letter that the unbelievers in Thessalonica were trying to turn the believers against Paul by criticising him. But perhaps even more importantly, Timothy reported that the believers were standing firm in the faith. These new believers in Thessalonica were standing firm in the faith, despite having suffered trials and troubles and persecution for the sake of Christ.
And do you remember how Paul had warned them about the persecution they would face? He said in verse 4 that when he was with them — and Paul hadn’t been with them for very long — but when he was with them, he kept telling them that we believers would be persecuted. In fact, according to verse 3, he’d taught them that we believers are destined for trials. In other words, part of God’s plan for his people is that we will face trials and troubles for the sake of Christ. And if you remember, I linked what Paul said here to the Thessalonians to what the Lord revealed through the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament when Daniel had a vision of a little horn which would arise in the world. And the little horn was a king who will speak against the Most High God; and who will oppress and wear out the saints; and who will try to stop the saints from worshipping the Lord; and who will do what he can to undermine God’s law; and the saints will be handed over to him in these, the last days in which we’re living. And that little horn symbolises every anti-Christian power which sets itself up against the Lord and his people. And behind all the opposition and persecution we face, there’s the Devil, who from the beginning has hated the Lord and his people; and who is continually coming against us with his wicked schemes; and he will do all that he can either to lead believers astray or to crush us. And so, since that’s the case, believers need to stand firm. That’s the message we learned from Daniel; and it’s the message Paul wanted to pass on to the believers in Thessalonica; and it’s a message for us and for believers in every generation: we need to stand firm in the faith in these, the last days, because part of God’s plan for us is that we will face trials.
And we must stand firm, because the day is coming when the Lord will come again. Do you remember that as well? On two occasions in the previous passage, Paul referred to Christ’s coming, when he will appear before us with glory and in power. Paul refers to it in verse 19 of chapter 2 and in verse 13 of chapter 3. When he comes, he’ll punish his enemies; and he’ll give his faithful people everlasting life in his glorious presence. And so, in the meantime, while we wait for his glorious appearing, we need to stand firm and to endure all things, by remembering that our sufferings in this present evil age are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us when Christ our Saviour comes again.
Well, as well as standing firm in the faith, we’re to live our lives in order to please God. That’s what today’s passage is about. And Paul refers to two ways we’re to please God: by living a holy and pure life; and by loving one another. And so, that’s what we’re thinking about this evening; and the passage can be divided into three parts: there’s the introduction in verses 1 and 2; then he writes about living a holy and pure life in verses 3 to 8; and then he writes about loving one another in verses 9 to 12. And, in fact, those two topics follow on from Paul’s prayer in verses 11 to 13 of chapter 3 where he prayed for the believers that God would strengthen their hearts so that they will be blameless and holy; and he prayed for the believers that the Lord would make their love increase and overflow. So, in these, the last days, we’re not only to stand firm, but we’re to please God by living a holy life and a loving life. And God has given us his Holy Spirit to enable us to live like that.
Verses 1 and 2
And so, let’s turn now to the introduction in verses 1 and 2 which begins with the word ‘finally’. However, Paul doesn’t really mean ‘finally’, because he’s still got a lot to say before the end of the letter. And so, he’s really saying to his readers:
Therefore, in view of what I’ve been saying up to now, I’m now asking and urging you to live in order to please God more and more.
Now, you’ll see from what he writes in verse 1 that Paul has already spent time instructing them on this matter. So, when he was in Thessalonica, he not only warned them about persecution, but he also taught them how to live to please the Lord. The verb translated ‘to live’ is really ‘to walk’. And so, we can think of the Christian life in terms of walking in the ways of the Lord. And instead of being satisfied with how far we’ve come, and thinking we can stop now, because we’ve walked enough, instead of thinking like that, we’re to keep going. Isn’t that what happens when you go for a walk to get some exercise? After a while you get tired or it’s getting dark, and you tell yourself that you’ve walked enough and it’s time to go home. Or here’s a coffee shop; let’s stop and take a break. But in the Christian life, we’re to keep walking in the ways of the Lord all the days of our life; and none of us must think that we’ve gone far enough and can stop. Think of Bunyon’s book, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and how the pilgrim had to keep going on his journey until the very end. And that’s the way we’re to think about our life: walking in the ways of the Lord throughout our life until we reach the end. We’re to run the race set before us; and we’re to keep going until we reach the finish line. So, we’re to walk in his ways more and more, because this is how to please the Lord.
And notice how Paul refers to the Lord Jesus two times in these two verses. So, in verse 1 he asked and urged them ‘in the Lord Jesus’ to live or to walk in order to please God. And in verse 2 he refers to how he gave them instructions ‘by the authority of the Lord Jesus’. The Lord Jesus Christ appointed the apostles and he sent them out in his name and with his authority to make disciples and to teach them to obey everything he commanded. And so, the believers in Thessalonica mustn’t disregard Paul; they’re must ignore what he’s saying, because he’s teaching them with the authority of Christ the King. And it’s the same today — isn’t it? — because when a preacher stands and declares the word of the Lord, the people are to receive the message, not as the word of men, but as the word of God: a message to them from God the Almighty and from Christ the King which they’re to believe and obey.
And the word translated ‘instructions’ in verse 2 is really a military term. You could have translated it as ‘orders’. So, when Paul was with them, he gave them orders, because, of course, Christians are enlisted in the Lord’s army. We’re enlisted in the Lord’s army to fight with all our might against sin and temptation; and we’ve received our orders from the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Commanding Officer. And the way to please our Commanding Officer is to obey his orders and to do whatever he says.
Now, in case anyone is confused about the role of faith in all of this, we need to remember that when Paul talks here about living to please God more and more and obeying his instructions, he’s addressing believers. He’s addressing believers who have been justified — that is, pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in Christ, and not by anything they did. No one will be justified by what we do, because we inevitably fall short of doing everything we’re commanded to do. No, we’re justified — pardoned and accepted — through faith in Christ who has perfectly obeyed God in our place. And so we need to be clear on this: we’re justified — pardoned and accepted — by faith. But, having been justified by faith, we must live and walk in order to please the Lord who has saved us. So, good works — obedience to God’s orders — are the fruit of faith. They’re the fruit, the outcome, of our faith; and they can never replace faith, because the only way to receive God’s forgiveness is by trusting in his Son.
Verses 3 to 8
So, we’re to live or we’re to walk in order to please God who has saved us by his Son. And Paul goes on in the following verses to write about two ways for doing that. And the first way, as I’ve ready said, is by living a holy and pure life. And that’s what verses 3 to 8 are about.
And according to verse 3 Paul says that it’s God’s will that you should be sanctified. Isn’t that interesting? When I was growing up, people were always wondering about God’s will; and reading books about how to discern God’s will for their lives. Should we listen for a still, small voice? Should we put out a fleece as Gideon did? Perhaps it’s a combination of calling, circumstances, and confirmation? And so on. But then I discovered that the theologians distinguish between God’s secret will and his revealed will. There are things he has kept secret from us; and there are things that he has revealed to us. There are things he has kept secret from us: for instance, what will happen to us tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. He knows what will happen to us tomorrow, because he’s planned it; but we don’t know what it is, because he’s kept it from us. And so, do you remember what James said in his New Testament letter about boasting about tomorrow? He said that instead of boasting about what we’ll do tomorrow, we should say:
If it’s the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.
And notice he said ‘if’, because none of us knows God’s plans for us.
But then, there are things he has revealed to us. And among the things he has revealed to us is how he wants us to live our lives. And, according to Paul, God’s will for us which he has made clear is that we should be sanctified. And the word ‘sanctified’ really means ‘holy’. God’s will for his people is that we should be holy. And, in particular, his will for his people is that we should be holy in terms of sexual conduct.
So, we should avoid sexual immorality. And the word Paul uses for ‘sexual immorality’ is a general term which covers all kinds of sexual immorality. So, he’s saying we should avoid any sexual activity which the Lord does not permit. And since the Lord only permits sex between a man and a woman who are married, then every other form of sexual activity is forbidden.
But then Paul goes on to say that each of us should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable. So, unlike unbelievers — who do not know God and who are controlled by passionate lust — believers should bring their bodies under control. We’re to use our bodies as instruments of righteousness: using our bodies for what is right and good and holy and honourable, so that we never have to be ashamed because of what we’ve done with our bodies.
And then, thirdly, Paul instructs God’s people not to wrong a fellow believer in this matter or to take advantage of him or her. And, of course, this is very interesting, because the boy who sleeps with his girlfriend has not only sinned against the Lord, but he’s wronged her; and he’s wronged the man she’ll eventually marry. And the woman who sleeps with a married man, has not only sinned against the Lord, but she’s wronged that man and his wife and her own husband. People sometimes excuse their sins by saying that they’re not harming anyone; but that’s rarely the case; and normally there are other people who are affected by our sins.
Now, what Paul said here was vitally important for believers in Thessalonica, because there existed in the Roman world of Paul’s day a very tolerant view towards sexual activity outside of marriage. It was normal for married men to have many sexual partners. Prostitution was common. And sexual activity was very often connected with pagan worship, so that pagan temples were renowned for being places of immorality. It was normal for people to live immoral lives. But Paul made clear that the believers in Thessalonica were to have nothing to do with that kind of immoral life. And it’s the same today: whereas those who do not know God will do whatever they want and will live to please themselves, our Commanding Officer calls on us to avoid all forms of immorality and to live a holy and pure life. It may seem normal to those who don’t know God to have as many sexual partners as they want, but the Lord calls on his people to live differently and to avoid sexual immorality; and to control our own bodies; and to wrong no one.
And in verses 6 to 8 Paul gives his readers three reasons for living differently: Firstly, because the Lord will punish men and women for all such sins. He will punish those who continue to sin like this, without ever repenting and seeking his forgiveness. Secondly, because God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. When he called us to Christ, he called on us to leave behind our sinful ways and to begin a new kind of life, one that is marked by holiness. Thirdly, because whoever rejects this instruction, does not reject man, but God. So, this is God’s will for you: that you should avoid sexuality immorality in all its forms; and live a holy and pure life. This is God’s will for you. And that means whoever disregards this instruction is disregarding God, who is able to save and to destroy: and he will destroy all who disregard him and who do not pay attention to his warning; but he will pardon and give eternal life to all who pay heed to what he says and who repent of their sins and who trust in his Son who died for sinners.
Verses 9 to 12
So, we’re to live and we’re to walk in order to please God. And we do that by living a holy and pure life. So, will you live in order to please God? Will you live a holy and pure life? Will you commit to living like that? — because this is the way to please God, the God who sent his Son to lay down his life so that you may have eternal life?
And will you commit to loving one another? That’s the second way we can please the Lord. According to verses 9 and 10, Paul was satisfied that the believers in Thessalonica already knew that they were to love one another; and he was satisfied that they were already doing so. But, of course, he wanted to urge them to do so more and more. We can never love one another enough; and there’s always more for us to do; there’s always another way for us to love and serve each other.
But how are we to do that? Well, the NIV starts a new paragraph after verse 10 which makes us think that what follows has nothing to do with his command to love one another more and more. But that’s misleading, because what follows in verse 11 is connected to what he’s said in verse 10 about loving one another more and more. Paul, you see, was urging his readers to love one another more and more by making it their ambition to lead a quiet life and by minding their own business and by working with their own hands.
So, instead of getting on quietly with the job of loving and serving one another, perhaps some of the members of the church in Thessalonica were interfering in each other’s lives. In a similar way, in 2 Thessalonians, Paul says that some of them had become busybodies. So, perhaps they were poking their noses into other people’s business. Perhaps they were becoming meddlesome and intrusive. We’ve all met people like this, who always want to know what’s happening and who are always interfering. But you’re not to be like that, says Paul. And it seems that some of them had become idle. It’s not clear why, though some of the commentators believe they had given up their work because they expected the Lord to return very soon; and if the Lord is coming, what’s the point in working? And instead of earning a living to support themselves and their family, they began to sponge off the generosity of their fellow believers. Don’t do that, says Paul. Work hard with your hands so that you’ll gain the respect of outsiders who will be impressed by your quiet, industrious life; and so that you won’t become dependent on others.
Well, this is not the only place where the Bible refers to living a quiet life. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul urged Timothy to pray for everyone, including kings and all those in authority, so that believers may live quiet and peaceful lives. In 1 Peter 3, Peter commanded wives to be submissive to their husbands so that an unbelieving husband will be won over to the faith by the purity and reverence of his wife’s life. And he spoke about the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Often Christian think we have to do something big and out of the ordinary and fantastic for the Lord. They think we need to make some big impact on the world around us in the name of Christ. However, it’s important to note that here’s Paul, commanding the believers in Thessalonica to live a quiet life and to mind their own business and to work hard for a living. Though it may not seem to make sense to us, nevertheless Paul — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — tells us that this is the way to please the Lord. And this is the way to win the respect of outsiders. We win the respect of outsiders by living a quiet life and by working hard. And so, when you go to work tomorrow, get on with your work quietly. When you go to school tomorrow, or college, get on with your studies quietly. Make it your ambition to live a quiet life and to mind your own business and to work hard. In that way, you’ll gain the respect of outsiders and please the Lord.
And so there you have it. In these, the last days, while we wait for Christ to come again, we’re to live in order to please God by living a holy and pure life and by loving one another which means living a quiet and industrious life.
Well, before we finish go back to verse 8 where Paul said that whoever rejects this instruction about living a holy life does not reject man but God. Notice how he then adds:
who gives you his Holy Spirit.
Well, back in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, the Lord was addressing his rebellious people who had gone into exile because of their unbelief and sin. Instead of worshipping the Lord only, they bowed down to idols to worship them. And instead of living holy lives — which is what God had called them to do — they followed their own sinful desires. And so, the Lord sent them into exile, away from the Promised Land. And yet the Lord is gracious and merciful and he does not treat his people as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. And so, the Lord promised his people that a new age was coming when he would sprinkle clean water on his people so that they would be cleansed of all their guilt and their idols. And he would take from them their heart of stone and give them a new heart and a new spirit so that they would be able to love him like never before. And what else? He said he would put his Spirit in them and cause them to walk in his statutes and to be careful to obey his rules.
Now, when the Lord said those things to his people in the days of Ezekiel, he was referring to something he would do for them in the future. So, he said:
So, not now, but later. I won’t do this now, but in the future, in this new age that is coming.
Well, that new age has now arrived; and the Lord now does for his believing people what he said he would do: he cleanses us from the guilt of our sin; he gives us a new heart to love him; he puts his Spirit in us to cause us to walk in his ways and to obey his rules. And he’s able to do this for us, because after the Lord Jesus died for our sins, he was raised to new life and exalted to the highest place, where he received from the Father the Holy Spirit, whom he now pours out on all his people to enable us to repent and believe the good news and to love the Lord our God and to walk in his ways and to do his will.
Those who don’t believe belong to what the Bible calls ‘this present evil age’, which is dominated by sin and death; and those who belong to it sin continually against the Lord, and follow their own sinful passions which leads ultimately to death and condemnation. But Christ the Saviour gave up his life on the cross to rescue his people from this present evil age, so that those who are united with him by faith are rescued from this present evil age to belong to heaven above, which is characterised by righteousness and goodness and purity and holiness. That’s where we now belong. We don’t belong among those who give themselves over to sexual immorality. We don’t belong among those who hate one another and who hurt one another. We belong in heaven with Christ our Saviour who calls on us to be holy as he is holy. And he fills us with his Spirit to enable us more and more to say ‘no’ to sin and to live a life that is pleasing to God. And so, just as we can rely on the Lord to help us in these, the last days to stand firm and faithful, we can rely on the Lord to help us to live a life that is pleasing to him, while we wait for our Saviour to come again.