4 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 4:1-2
Here is Paul’s basic practical Christianity 101: The outward form of our faith as we are to live as we grow in Christlikeness. It has NO-THING to do with the keeping of the Law or rituals. It has everything to do with the way in which we are to navigate the dailyness of our lives and our interpersonal relationships. The same counsel shows up in other forms in the latter pages of almost all of Paul’s letters; he was not only a deep and mystic teacher but a profoundly practical pastor who demanded that his spiritual kids practice what he preached.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: (a) that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. There-fore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. 4:3–8
The word “sanctification” and the word “holiness” are essentially the same in the Greek: both mean “to be separated, specifically to exclu-sive service to a Deity”. We are “justified” (declared and pardoned to be righteous) by the work of Christ for this purpose: That we might become “sanctified” in this present mortal life. And to accomplish this God “gives his Holy Spirit”, the Spirit of sanctification, to us.
Paul’s argument here, and in all of his letters, is that we have been fully empowered to choose to live a “sanctified” life, and that we are in willful disregard of our Father’s instructions and in violation of the covenant we have made with Him in Christ if we choose to live be-neath this high standard. Philippians 2:12–13
The language here, read on its surface, implies that homosexual/ bisexual behavior was a commonplace among the male population in the society out of which the Thessalonian fellowship was drawn. The Hellenized and Romanized worlds of Paul’s day were licentious and debauched, with lustful gods and public baths and orgiastic revels. There is no other way to read Paul’s instruction to abstain other than to read this as men having sex with men. Paul makes no men-tion of womanizing or trafficking with prostitutes or adultery in this counsel. He speaks only of “brothers” wronging brothers through uncontrolled sexual lust. (He deals with other sexual issues else-where.) And he warns that such unbridled lust will be avenged by God. More likely than not this judgment took the form of STD’s and early death, just as it does today.
It seems clear from Paul’s tone in this letter that he is only reminding the Thessalonians of things he had taught them and which they were already putting into practice in their lives. There is no rebuke in this paragraph as there is a couple of years later when Paul lambasts the Corinthians for the moral decadence that they are allowing to fester in their fellowship. The Corinthian letters add significant further witness to the general depravity of the culture of the region and against which Paul was prophesying the message of the Kingdom of Christ.
No matter how we may try to slice and dice the words of our theolo-gies and sermons to justify our lifestyles and to avoid conflicts, “God is not mocked.” The churches of today who have indulged them-selves overmuch in the mindgames of spin and marketing and poli-tically correct “tolerance” need to wake up and be warned. There can be no justification for homosexual or lesbian or “transgender” life-styles as being something God-ordained or sanctified, and those who are caught up in these deep delusions and who would be deter-mined to live as disciples of Christ must be lovingly and with biblical integrity guided back to what is the original created design for the human species. God is gracious and understanding and patient, but it is not possible to both claim to be a devoted follower of Christ and to practice a lifestyle which God has from the beginning of His crea-tion condemned as an “abomination”. It is not the hand of a Master Creator who makes confusion or deliberately designs creatures that cannot “reproduce according to their kind” Genesis 1:25 etc. as they ought. It is the result of our alienation from our Creator that has caused such aberrations in humanity. Those who would dare to twist His words to us to imply that He has called such distortions “good” are fools or worse.
The thing that differentiates the sons of Adam from all animals is our spirit. That spirit was created to be eternally united with the Spirit of its Creator in a manner that no mere animal ever can be. That bond was severed for the race through the willful rebellion of Eve and A-dam against God at the beginning of the human project. Every des-cendant of Adam and Eve since then has been born spiritually “dead”. Genesis 1:26–27; Genesis 5:3 Until our fallen and alienated spiritual nature is reunited with our Creator through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, we are, as described by Jude, “brute beasts” Jude 10;cf. 2 Peter 2:12 . Beasts are driven by instinct and by hormones, by “lusts and passions”. 1 John 2:15–17 The will to live and the sex drive are perhaps the two most powerful such passions in all animals, in-cluding the “human animal”: In this observation, Darwinian science is correct. Yet in animals, these instincts are almost always regulated by set times and seasons that are as predictable as clockwork, unless some severe stress interrupts the natural cycle wired into the spe-cies.
Man, alone, is different. We are not hard-wired. We are designed to make choices and to be self-regulated through our willful decisions. We are meant to do this in union with our Creator. Hebrews 10:1-10 Apart from the higher aspirations that only come into our hearts and minds through “the Mind of Christ” through union with our Father through the Holy Spirit after we have yielded to Christ, 1 Corinthians 2:14–16 we cannot successfully overcome the “lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life”, and we inevitably fall either into the pits of our passions on the one side of the path, or into the snares set by our pride as we try to resist in our own weakness our passions on the other.
Through the Holy Spirit we are given “all things pertaining to life and godliness in order that we may escape these passions”. 2 Peter 1:3–11 The bending of the knee before Christ ought to provide an intro-duction to a path of humility and personal understanding of our place in our Father’s plans. This should begin to teach us how to a-void the snares of pride and presumption while we are learning to exercise the immense power offered to us through the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God Himself to exercise self-discipline and to grow to the maturity required to master and harness the vitality of our God-given passions and motivations and turn them to produc-tive and creative purposes.
We are always wondering “What is God’s will?”. Paul says here “This is the will of God”. Can a statement be clearer? And Jesus, Himself, summed up the will of the Father in His instructions that we love each other with holy love and live together according to Kingdom principles and standards John 13-17 The will of God is not so mys-terious a thing: We are to live by the Spirit of God and to show the world around us that such a life means something more and of bet-ter quality than the best it has to offer. Is that so difficult a concept to comprehend?
Here Paul describes “God’s Will” internalized in three specific areas: The control of sexual passions, the outworking of Divine love in re-lationships, and self-discipline and personal integrity.
(b)Now concerning brotherly love (gr: philadelphia) you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love (gr: agape) one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 4:9–10
Brotherly love (Greek: philadelphia – biblically “a benevolent affection for one’s fellow believer”) is the New Covenant word for a proper love relationship between Christians, in contrast to the de-viant lustful behavior Paul rebukes immediately above. This love may be “emotional” but does not have to become “physical”: There are two other words available in biblical Greek for physical (erotic) “love”, if Paul wanted to speak about it.
This warm relational love between Christians is the outworking of the imparted deeper agape of the Father, Himself. Agape is the profound “love of God”, (1 John 4:8,16) that “love with which He first loved us” 1 John 4:19 Agape, as biblically defined and expanded be-yond its classical Greek boundaries, is not a merely human love, because it is essentially altruistic: It is born of the Spirit of God with-in us after we are reunited with our Creator through the work of Jesus Christ 2 Corinthians 5:14 and is “taught by God” to us.
Agape is a love of the will. It is a love of decision, not of emotion… not of feelings… a choice to be loving. Passions may rise from its decisions, but they are not the source of them. Agape is a love that chooses what is best for another’s well-being and ultimate success without thought of personal reward or gain. Paul writes at some depth of this in his soliloquy in 1 Corinthians 13. The more deeply we grow in our understanding of this love of God toward us, in us, and through us, the better we will be able to understand the revelation He has given to us in His written Word of the Living Word. Ephesians 3:14–4:1 And until we understand this love of God, we do not understand Him, or ourselves, as we ought. 1 Corinthians 8:2–3
(c) and to (1) aspire to live quietly, and (2) to mind your own affairs, and (3) to work with your hands, as we instructed you, (4) so that you may walk properly (decently and honestly) before outsiders and be dependent (indebted and beholden to) on no one. 4:11–12
The outward appearance of our faith, here at least, is straight-forward enough. Paul transitions from “the brotherhood” (the fel-lowship of believers) to “outsiders” (the world that is watching the church) and among whom we must live. He reminds his disciples to live discreet and enterprising lives that are circumspect and upright and which avoid entanglements with unbelievers. In other places he, as well as the other New Covenant writers, speaks more at length about being “unequally yoked” 2 Corinthians 6:14 and about the snares and the other traps that the “natural mind” 1 Corinthians 2:14,15 can and will lay, especially any affairs that involve money, which tends to be the outward form most often first assumed by the “god of this world”. Matthew 6:24 It is simply a bad idea for a Christ-ian to allow him or herself to become an obligated servant bound to a “master” who does not have his or her best interest in heart, but rather is motivated either by personal self-interest and a desire for gain, or by an antipathy toward God and the Gospel, or often by both.
I also want to note here that Paul does not instruct the Thessalon-ians to spend their time boldly “evangelizing” their community by “witnessing” or holding crusades or any such “Christian” outreaches. There is relatively little support in the scripture for such an offensive and aggressive approach to our faith, with most of such a strategy being extrapolated from Christ’s parable of the feast where the rich master tells his servants to “compel” folks to come in from the hills and highways Luke 14:15-24, and from there being read into many other portions of scripture.
Of course, such tactics work, but they tend to produce “converts”, not disciples, and converts are not what biblical faith is all about. Converts are little more than statistical results, a flash in the pan, and converts are much of the reason why the modern church in America is as weak and compromised and ineffective as it is.
(Even in the above parable there is clear reference to a “by-catch”. In several of the Kingdom parables the Lord very clearly speaks about those who are rejected after having “accepted” the message. Mat-thew 22:11–14; Matthew 13:47–50; Matthew 25:1–14; Matthew 25: 14–30; Matthew 24:36–51)
Rather than convincing people to “convert” to Christianity, we are to demonstrate a quality of life so compelling and spiritually vital that those who do not share it are drawn to it, persuaded by their own hearts that they lack something that is truly worth having; worth living and dying for. John 12:27–32, Matthew 13:44–46, Matthew 5:13–16, John 13:34–35; John 17:20–23 There is a good reason that the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Matthew 7:14 It keeps the body healthy and strong, and it prevents those who are not prepared to commit them-selves to its disciplines from making promises that they will not keep before a God who will hold them accountable for their words. Eccle-siastes 5:1–7; Hebrews 6:4–8; Matthew 12:36–37
Paul now shifts gears and addresses a question that had become very disturbing to the young fellowship since he and his team had been forced to leave by the arrival of the troublemakers from Phil-ippi. Why this issue had arisen, we do not know. One possibility may be that there were elements of the thinking of the Sadducees at work in Thessalonica: This sect of Judaism did not believe in a resur-rection. Matthew 22:23 etc. We do not know the full “doctrine” of the Judaizers who were seeking to undermine Paul’s efforts, nor how far some of its proponents had deviated even from the very Jewish Gos-pel that had been originally formulated by the apostles in Jerusalem as the Church was born and before the inclusion of the Gentile world was more clearly understood.
We do know that there were a number of strong Jews in Thessalon-ica according to Acts 17, by some of whom the ideas of the Saddu-cee’s may have been held. Though Paul does not mention it directly, perhaps there had been a death among the believers since he and his team had left, and this may have catalyzed the issues of death and resurrection in the young church. Paul’s words about grief seem to indicate that some event had happened of which he had received word when Timothy had returned. It is from Paul’s counsel that we can infer that some serious confusion about whether or not there was to be a resurrection of the dead had arisen among the saints and was threatening to divide the fellowship.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 4:13–14
Ours is a rational and logical belief system. It is not merely a belief in a set of precepts or a philosophy. Its foundation is an historical event … a fact: The life and death and physical resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the God-Man. Paul’s entire gospel rises and falls on this fact, and he states this over and over again in his letters Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:12–21; Romans 14:7–9; 2 Corinthians 5:14–21 etc. Once we settle in our hearts the question of whether or not we be-lieve that Jesus in fact did live and die and does live again now, as the record of scripture (and of corroborating non-biblical accounts) attests, then the rest of the promise of the New Covenant logically and inexorably follows. Until we settle this question, a shadow of doubt remains in us and we try to live in two worlds and are miser-able and unstable and tormented.
For if Jesus did rise from the dead and was so proven to be the Son of God, as He claimed to be and as Paul declares in Romans chapter one, then everything that Jesus taught and commanded is verified, and the witness of the Son of God to the truth of the word of scrip-ture in its entirety is also verified.
And if the testimony of the scriptures is verified then its prophetic revelation to us as the word of His God and Father is true. It follows that if its prophetic revelation to us as the voice of God is true, then we are as individuals and as a race accountable to an Almighty sove-reign Creator God who has an intimate interest in us, and who has given us detailed guidelines about how we are to live, about our relationship to Him, about what He has been and is willing and able to offer to us to improve and sustain that relationship, and about the consequences of failing to do so.
There is no escaping this logic. Either God is who he says He is, and we must deal with this, or He is not and we who have claimed the name of Christ are wasting our time chasing after “a form of godli-ness but denying its power” 2 Timothy 3:5. There is no real point in being “Christian” unless we determine to make the full commitment to what following the Lord really means: We could just as well be a Zen Buddhist, or an atheist practitioner of Tai Chi, or “whatever” we decide might be “true” for us.
It was Jesus, Himself, who said He would puke out anyone who was less than committed. Revelation 3:14–18; Matthew 7:21–23; Luke 9:62; Matthew 25:1–13; Matthew 22:7–14 As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, “If Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, then we of all men, are most miserable.” 1 Corinthians 15:19 , because we who claim to believe this stuff are missing out on the fun and games of what the world calls life for a pie-in-the-sky fantasy based upon an ancient myth. If we are only following the “teachings” of Christ and not Christ Himself, then we will get much more out of this life if we “eat, drink, and be merry”, for it really may be true that “he who dies with the most toys, wins”.
But if we are satisfied by our thorough examination of the facts, the honest testing of the evidence, and by our experience of our ongoing moment-by-moment encounter with the Holy Spirit that this Faith of ours is true, then ALL of its promise is ours to be embraced. 1 Corinthians 3:21–23
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archan-gel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.4:15–5:1