1 Thessalonians 4

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Back to 1 Thessalonians


The base for verses 1-12 come from exegesis and commentary written by Dr. George Lyons, used here with his permission.

Moral guidance was an expected feature of ancient letters; Paul's were no exception. Sometimes it was corrective, as in 1 Corinthians. At other times, as here, it was preventive. Although the Thessalonians were already living as Christians should, they were recent converts from paganism. And they lived in a culture profoundly shaped by the selfish pleasures of idolatry and immorality. In this context Paul's general instructions were simply to live to please God (4:1-2).

Originating as fertility cults, pagan worship encouraged behavior Christians considered sexually immoral. In a society where sex assumed divine status, Paul reminded them that serving the true God demanded holy living (4:3-8).

Paul's missionary preaching among the Thessalonians included the gospel story of a holy God who in love for sinful humanity sent his Son to die for their salvation (5:9-10; see Rom. 5:1-11). God had taught them by example to love one another (4:9). But love was so central in Paul's theology (e.g., Rom. 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13; Gal. 5:6, 14, 22; Col. 3:5-11) that he urged them love one another even more (4:10) and offered guidance about how love should express itself (4:11-12).

General Instructions About Pleasing God (4:1-2)

Verse 1-2: Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. (NIV)

  • Although the Greek word translated Finally may introduce a conclusion, here it simply means "Furthermore."
  • Turning from thanksgiving to advice, Paul rehearsed the general instructions he had previously given the Thessalonians: [L]ive in order to please God. Or, as he put it in 2:12 — "[L]ive lives worthy of God." Since they were already living in this way, he simply urged them to do so more and more.
    • Compliance with such general ethical guidelines presumed that the Thessalonians were familiar with the character and will of God.
    • Although Paul's time with them had been brief, he was confident that he and his missionary colleagues had adequately modeled how Christians ought to live to please God and to prefer his praise to human approval (2:4; see 1:6; 2:1-12).
    • He was certain that the Thessalonians were genuinely converted and that the Holy Spirit could be trusted to continue working in their lives (1:4-6, 9; 2:13). God was able to make believers "worthy of his calling … by his power …" (2 Thess. 1:11).
    • All this was true. But moral living was not automatic. This explains why Paul had to ask … and urge … by the authority of the Lord Jesus. Obedience is finally a choice.

Instructions About Sex and Sanctification (4:3-8)

To please a holy God required a holy people. Thus, Paul offered stringent sanctions enforcing his instructions about sexual morality. These were not merely his private Jewish opinions. Sexual purity was "God's will" (4:3). This was not the first time Paul had warned the Thessalonians that "the Lord will punish" sexual misconduct (4:6). To ignore his instructions would be to refuse God's call to be his people (4:7), to reject God himself (4:8), even to return to their pagan past (4:5).

Verse 3: It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality (NIV)

  • God's will refers to what God expects of his people. Paul defined it here as hagiasmos. This Greek word could refer to the process of making holy — "sanctification" — or to the result of that process — "holiness." The same Greek term is translated here sanctified here and "live a holy life" in 4:7.
  • Romans 6 represents Paul's most thorough treatment of sanctification / holiness: He considered Christian existence incompatible with a continuing life of sin. Thus, sanctification was the logical follow-through of conversion. But it was not inevitable.
    • Christians could cooperate with or frustrate God's holy purposes for them.
    • Nevertheless, a life of holiness was the essential prerequisite for eternal life. Was this understanding of sanctification what was "lacking in [the Thessalonians'] faith" as they anticipated Christ's return (see 3:10-13; 5:23)?
  • Here Paul focused on just one aspect of the total separation from sin and consecration to God that is sanctification — keeping away from sexual immorality (porneia).
    • This Greek term is the source of our word "pornography." Ordinary Greeks used it to refer to "prostitution."
    • In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament begun during the second century BC, it referred to any type of unlawful sexual activity.
    • First century Jews and Christians used it in this broad sense to include prostitution (temple or commercial), fornication, adultery, incest, etc.
  • We need not assume that Paul was trying to end a known sin of the Thessalonian believers.
    • But they were former idolaters (1:9); and idolatry was closely associated with illicit sexual activities (Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:3-6).
    • Paul seemed to agree with the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon that "the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication" (14:12; NRSV). As a result, pagans "no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they … grieve one another by adultery …. For the worship of idols … is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For their worshippers … thought wrongfully about God … through contempt for holiness" (14:24-30; NRSV).

Verse 4: that each of you should learn to control his own bodya in a way that is holy and honorable, (NIV)

  • The Greek word skeuos translated body (or "wife" — note) meant literally "tool" or "jar." It is an example of euphemism, an innofensive term to discuss sex. Its precise meaning here has been long debated. But Paul's point was clear enough: Christians were to control their sexual urges in a way that respected their holy God, themselves, and others (see 1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Verse 5: not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; (NIV)

  • Pagans allowed passionate lust to control them. Immorality was a predictable consequence of idolatry (Rom. 1:24-27). The character of Christians was to be fundamentally different from that of pagans because of the character of their God. Pagans behaved as they did because they did not know God.
  • The Greek word heathen here is usually translated "Gentiles." Paul's Gentile readers were no longer to live like Gentiles. But neither were they to become Jews. Paul prepared the way for Ignatius of Antioch's (a Church Father of the 2nd century) characterization of Christians as a "third race."

Verse 6: and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. (NIV)

  • Sexual immorality was not a sin against God alone. To treat others as a means of satisfying one's passionate lust was to wrong and take advantage of them, directly or indirectly.
    • Such sins against fellow believers — one's brother or sister (see also 4:1) — were violations of mutual love and trust.
    • As such they threatened the very existence of the church family.
  • Paul offered no license to sexual misconduct involving consenting adults. He was persuaded that the Lord would punish the wrongdoers, whether they got caught or not.

Verse 7: For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (NIV)

  • The threat of punishment for moral uncleanness alone was not enough to empower a Christian to live a holy life. Holiness was a possibility for believers in this life because it was the very purpose of God's call of idolaters to become his people.

Verse 8: Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit. (NIV)

  • God gave his Holy Spirit to empower believers to fulfill their high and holy calling to live in obedience to him (see Ezek. 36:27). The underlying Greek expression might even be translated, "his Spirit who sanctifies."
    • Because God made holy living possible, he expected them it.
    • Sanctification was not optional, but essential.

Instructions About Love and Everyday Life (4:9-12)

The shift in Paul's instructions from a concern for sexual purity to a reminder of the necessity of mutual love was not as abrupt as it might seem. If Christians were not to wrong fellow believers (4:6), would treating them with indifference be an acceptable alternative? And what about outsiders, those who were not a part of the Christian community? How were Christians "to live in order to please God" (4:1) in relation to non-Christians? Should they be treated with contempt? Of course not.

Verse 9: Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. (NIV)

  • By telling the Thessalonians that he did not need to write them about brotherly love, Paul subtly did just that. We are all familiar with the clever rhetorical device of paralipsis from personal experience, even if we have never heard the term before. We have used it ourselves, or been its intended target. "I don't need to tell you to bring your Bibles to Sunday school!" Oops! I just did. Reminders to do the right thing are not wasted on those who are already doing so.
  • "Brotherly love" translates the compound term philadelphia.
    • The first part of the compound is from the Greek word philia, which means "love" or "friendship."
    • The second part is from a word that means literally "from the same womb," referring to full siblings, whether brothers or sisters.
    • Of course, Paul followed Jewish practice, using the term metaphorically to refer to members of the same religious community.
      • Thus, his concern was with loving fellow Christians. They were no longer Gentiles, but not Jews either.
      • Thus, the church served as a surrogate family. Kinship-like solidarity was particularly important in the face of persecution from their fellow citizens (2:14).
  • The expression love each other employs a verb from a different Greek word for love — agapē.
    • Most attempts to make fine distinctions between the terms philia and agapē, although well intended, are misguided.
    • It is true that Christians preferred the term agapē, which was used fairly infrequently outside the Church. But non-Christian writings survive that also used the term.
    • And Christians did not always use agapē in a favorable sense. For example, in 2 Tim. 4:10, Demas was charged with deserting Paul "because he loved this world."
  • The word "loved" is merely a past tense of the same verb used here from agapē. Whether "love" is good or bad and what specific behaviors and attitudes "love" involves depends on its use within its context, regardless of the specific Greek term used.

Verse 10: And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more (NIV)

  • That the terms used for love (see verse 9) were used interchangeably becomes obvious in the expression in fact, you do love all the brothers. Here, neither Greek term for love was used. Paul wrote literally, "And indeed you do this to all the brothers and sisters," clearly presuming the preceding context.
  • When Paul wrote this letter, all of the Christians in the province of Macedonia where Thessalonica was located may have numbered fewer than 100. So his claim that his readers loved all of them may have been intended quite literally. We know that one practical expression of love among early Christians was the extending of hospitality to otherwise unknown believers traveling throughout the Mediterranean world.
  • Once again, Paul appealed to the Thessalonians to continue what they were already doing — here, loving one another. But they were to do so more and more (see 4:1 and 5:11). There was always room for love to improve, whether in its quality (Phil. 1:9) or quantity of expression (Eph. 3:14-20).

Verse 11: Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, (NIV)

  • In Greek this verse clearly continued Paul's appeal. Four Greek infinitives depend on the main verb, "we urge you" (4:10).
    • The first, "to do so more and more" appears in v. 10; the others, in v. 11. Second, to [m]ake it your ambition to lead a quiet life. Third, to mind your own business. And fourth, to work with your hands.
    • This Greek construction gives each of the infinitives the force of a command. The phrase, just as we told you, suggests that these too were reminders of Paul's earlier "instructions" (4:2) on what pleasing God involved (4:1).
  • The Greek terms "living quietly" and "minding one's own business" had political connotations in the first century. Paul urged the church to maintain a low profile to avoid unnecessary persecution. His prediction that they would be persecuted had proven correct (3:3-4).

Verse 12: so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody (NIV)

  • But early Christians took no masochistic delight in suffering and martyrdom. They were willing to accept hardships because of their faith. But they did not deliberately antagonize outsiders so as to deserve persecution.
    • Paul urged the Thessalonians to live for quite different purposes (so that). By living lives of holiness and hard work, they were to attempt to win the respect of outsiders and not [to] be dependent on anybody. They needed this encouragement.
    • Unfortunately, some modern Christians seem to have made respectability and self-reliance higher aspirations than the more fundamental pursuit of holiness.

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