1 Thessalonians 4:1–12

Along with jogging, walking has become a popular exercise and outdoor sport. I often see individuals and entire families enjoying a walk in the park or in the forest preserves. When driving on the highway, I sometimes wave to “walking parties” heading for some distant rendezvous.

The Christian life can be compared to a walk. In fact, this is one of Paul’s favorite pictures: “Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1); “walk not as other Gentiles walk” (Eph. 4:17); “walk in love” (Eph. 5:2); “walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8).

The Christian life begins with a step of faith. But that step leads to a walk of faith, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Walking suggests progress, and we must make progress in the Christian life (Phil. 3:13–16; Heb. 6:1). Walking also demands strength, and God has promised, “As thy days, so shall thy strength be” (Deut. 33:25).

But we must be sure to “walk in the light” for the enemy has put traps and detours to catch us (1 John 1:5–7). Of course, at the end of life’s walk, we will step into the very presence of the Lord. “And Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24).

Paul described a threefold walk for the Christian to follow.

Walk in Holiness (1 Thes. 4:1–8)

The moral climate in the Roman Empire was not healthy. Immorality was a way of life; and, thanks to slavery, people had the leisure time to indulge in the latest pleasures. The Christian message of holy living was new to that culture, and it was not easy for these young believers to fight the temptations around them. Paul gave four reasons why they should live a holy life and abstain from sensual lusts.

To please God (v. 1). Everybody lives to please somebody. Many people live to please themselves. They have no sensitivity to the needs of others. “The soul of a journey,” wrote William Hazlitt, “is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases.” That advice may work for a vacation but it could never work in the everyday affairs of life. Christians cannot go through life pleasing only themselves (Rom. 15:1).

We must also be careful when it comes to pleasing others. It is possible to both please others and honor God, but it is also possible to dishonor God. “For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). This had been Paul’s attitude when he ministered in Thessalonica. “Even so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who trieth our hearts” (1 Thes. 2:4).

Pleasing God ought to be the major motive of the Christian life. Children should live to please their father. The Holy Spirit works in our lives “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Enoch walked with God, and before God called him to heaven, Enoch “had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Heb. 11:5). Jesus said, “I do always those things that please Him” (John 8:29).

Pleasing God means much more than simply doing God’s will. It is possible to obey God and yet not please Him. Jonah is a case in point. He obeyed God and did what he was commanded, but his heart was not in it. God blessed His Word but He could not bless His servant. So Jonah sat outside the city of Nineveh angry with everybody, including the Lord! Our obedience should be “not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6).

How do we know what pleases God? How do we know what pleases an earthly father? By listening to him and living with him. As we read the Word, and as we fellowship in worship and service, we get to know the heart of God; and this opens us up to the will of God.

To obey God (vv. 2–3). When he ministered in Thessalonica, Paul gave the believers the commandments of God regarding personal purity. The word commandments is a military term. It refers to orders handed down from superior officers. We are soldiers in God’s army, and we must obey orders. “No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:4, NIV).

In 1 Thessalonians 4:3, Paul reminded these new believers that sexual immorality did not please God. God created sex, and He has the authority to govern its use. From the beginning, He established marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman. God created sex both for the continuance of the race and for the pleasure of the marriage partners. “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure” (Heb. 13:4, NIV). God’s commandments concerning sex are not for the purpose of robbing people of joy, but rather of protecting them that they might not lose their joy. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” builds a wall around marriage that makes the relationship not a prison, but a safe and beautiful garden.

We never have to seek to know the will of God in this matter; He has told us clearly. “Abstain from fornication” is His commandment, and no amount of liberal theology or modern philosophy can alter it. Throughout the Bible, God warns against sexual sin; and these warnings must be heeded. God’s purpose is our sanctification, that we might live separated lives in purity of mind and body.

To glorify God (vv. 4–5). This is the positive side of God’s commandment. Christians are supposed to be different from the unsaved. The Gentiles (unsaved) do not know God; therefore, they live ungodly lives. But we know God, and we are obligated to glorify Him in this world. “God’s plan is to make you holy, and that entails first of all a clean break with sexual immorality” (1 Thes. 4:3, PH).

“Possess his vessel” in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 probably means “control his body,” for our bodies are the vessels of God (see 2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:20–21). But it can also mean “learn to live with his own wife,” for the wife is called “the weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). I prefer the first interpretation, for Paul wrote to all Christians, not just the married ones. The Christian who commits sexual sin is sinning against his own body (1 Cor. 6:19–20), and he is robbing God of the glory He should receive through a believer’s way of life.

This explains why God gives such demanding requirements for spiritual leadership in the church (1 Tim. 3). If spiritual leaders cannot rule in their own homes, how can they lead the church? If we glorify God in our bodies, then we can glorify Him in the body which is the church.

To escape the judgment of God (vv. 6–8). God is no respecter of persons; He must deal with His children when they sin (Col. 3:23–25). A church member criticized her pastor because he was preaching against sin in the lives of Christians. “After all,” she said, “sin in the life of a believer is different from sin in the lives of unsaved people.” “Yes,” replied the pastor, “it is worse.”

While it is true that the Christian is not under condemnation (John 5:24; Rom. 8:1), it is also true that he is not free from the harvest of sorrow that comes when we sow to the flesh (Gal. 6:7–8). When King David committed adultery, he tried to cover his sin, but God chastened him severely. (Read Pss. 32; 51 to see what he lost during those months.) When David confessed his sins, God forgave him; but God could not change the consequences. David reaped what he sowed, and it was a painful experience for him.

“But I am one of God’s elect!” a Christian may argue. “I belong to Him, and He can never cast me out.” Election is not an excuse for sin—it is an encouragement for holiness. “For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (1 Thes. 4:7). “But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy” (1 Peter 1:15). The privilege of election also involves responsibilities of obedience (Deut. 7:6, 11).

A holy walk involves a right relationship with God the Father (who called us), God the Son (who died for us), and God the Spirit (who lives within us). It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that makes our body the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Furthermore, it is by walking in the Spirit that we get victory over the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16ff). To despise God’s commandments is to invite the judgment of God and also to grieve the Spirit of God.

How does the Spirit of God help us live a clean life, free from sexual impurity? To begin with, He creates holy desires within us so that we have an appetite for God’s pure Word (1 Peter 2:1–3) and not the polluted garbage of the flesh (Rom. 13:12–14). Also, He teaches us the Word and helps us to recall God’s promises in times of temptation (John 14:26; Eph. 6:17). As we yield to the Spirit, He empowers us to walk in holiness and not be detoured into the lusts of the world and the flesh. The fruit of the Spirit overcomes the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:16–26).

Paul devoted a great deal of space to this theme of sexual purity because it was a critical problem in the church of that day. It is also a critical problem in the church today. For many people, marriage vows are no longer considered sacred, and divorce (even among believers) is no longer governed by the Word of God. There are “gay churches” where homosexuals and lesbians “love one another” and claim to be Christians. Premarital sex and “Christian pornography” are accepted parts of the religious landscape in many places. Yet God has said, “Walk in holiness.”

Walk in Harmony (1 Thes. 4:9–10)

The transition from holiness to love is not a difficult one. Paul made this transition in his prayer recorded in 1 Thessalonians 3:11–13. Just as God’s love is a holy love, so our love for God and for one another ought to motivate us to holy living. The more we live like God, the more we will love one another. If a Christian really loves his brother, he will not sin against him (1 Thes. 4:6).

There are four basic words for “love” in the Greek language. Eros refers to physical love; it gives us our English word erotic. Eros love does not have to be sinful, but in Paul’s day its main emphasis was sensual. This word is never used in the New Testament. Another word, storge (pronounced STOR-gay), refers to family love, the love of parents for their children. This word is also absent from our New Testament, although a related word is translated “kindly affectioned” in Romans 12:10.

The two words most used for love are philia (fil-E-uh) and agape (a-GA-pay). Philia love is the love of deep affection, such as in friendship or even marriage. But agape love is the love God shows toward us. It is not simply a love based on feeling; it is expressed in our wills. Agape love treats others as God would treat them, regardless of feelings or personal preferences.

The word philadelphia is translated “brotherly love.” Because Christians belong to the same family, and have the same Father, they should love one another. In fact, we are “taught of God to love one another.” God the Father taught us to love each other when He gave Christ to die for us on the cross. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV). God the Son taught us to love one another when He said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another” (John 13:34). And the Holy Spirit taught us to love one another when He poured out the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5) when we trusted Christ.

Have you noticed that animals do instinctively what is necessary to keep them alive and safe? Fish do not attend classes to learn how to swim (even though they swim in schools), and birds by nature put out their wings and flap them in order to fly. It is nature that determines action. Because a fish has a fish’s nature, it swims; because a hawk has a hawk’s nature, it flies. And because a Christian has God’s nature (2 Peter 1:4), he loves, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Faith, hope, and love had been the distinctive characteristics of the Thessalonican Christians from the beginning (1 Thes. 1:3). Timothy had reported the good news of their love (1 Thes. 3:6), so Paul was not exhorting them to acquire something they did not already possess. He was encouraging them to get more of what they already enjoyed. You can never have too much Christian love. Paul had prayed that their love might “increase and abound” (1 Thes. 3:12); and God answered that prayer (see 2 Thes. 1:3).

How does God cause our love to “increase more and more”? By putting us into circumstances that force us to practice Christian love. Love is the “circulatory system” of the body of Christ, but if our spiritual muscles are not exercised, the circulation is impaired. The difficulties that we believers have with one another are opportunities for us to grow in our love. This explains why Christians who have had the most problems with each other often end up loving one another deeply, much to the amazement of the world.

Walk in Honesty (1 Thes. 4:11–12)

The word in 1 Thessalonians 4:12 that is translated “honestly” in our Authorized Version,carries the meaning of “becomingly, in a seemly way.” It is translated “decently” in 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” The emphasis is on the believer’s witness to those who are outside the Christian fellowship. “Them that are without” is a familiar description of unbelievers.

Christians not only have the obligation to love one another but also to be good testimonies to the people of the world. Paul’s great concern was that the Thessalonican believers earn their own wages and not become freeloaders depending on the support of unbelievers. “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (1 Thes. 4:11, NIV) seems like a paradox; if you are ambitious, your life will probably not be quiet. But the emphasis is on quietness of mind and heart, the inner peace that enables a man to be sufficient through faith in Christ. Paul did not want the saints running around creating problems as they earned their daily bread.

For the most part, the Greeks despised manual labor. Most of the work was done by slaves. Paul, of course, was a tentmaker; and he was careful in Thessalonica to set the example of hard work (see 1 Thes. 2:6; 2 Thes. 3:6ff). Unfortunately, some of the new believers in the church misunderstood the doctrine of Christ’s return and gave up their jobs in order to wait for His coming. This meant that they were supported by other Christians, some of whom may not have had sufficient funds for their own families. It also meant that these fanatical people could not pay their bills, and therefore they lost their testimony with the unsaved merchants.

“My wife is going to have plastic surgery,” a man said to his friend. “I’m taking away all of her credit cards!” How easy it is to purchase things we do not need with money we do not have, and then lose not only our credit, but also our good Christian witness. “If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon [money] who will entrust the true riches to you?” (Luke 16:11, NASB) Churches and Christians who defend their orthodoxy but do not pay their bills have no orthodoxy to defend.

“Mind your own business and work with your hands” (1 Thes. 4:11, NIV) was what Paul commanded them. Idle people spend their time interfering with the affairs of others and getting themselves and others into trouble. “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies” (2 Thes. 3:11, NIV). “But let none of you suffer … as a busybody in other men’s matters” (1 Peter 4:15).

Believers who are about the Father’s business (Luke 2:49) do not have the time—or desire—to meddle in the affairs of others. Unfortunately, even a Bible class could become an opportunity for gossip (“so that you might pray more intelligently”) and a substitute for true Christian service.

As believers, we must be careful in our relationships with “those that are without.” It requires spiritual grace and wisdom to have contact without contamination and to be different without being judgmental and proud. “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without” (Col. 4:5). If we lack this spiritual wisdom, we will do more harm than good.

There are several good reasons why Christians should work, not the least of which is to provide for their own families (1 Tim. 5:8). If unsaved people have to work to pay their bills, why should Christians be exempt? We also work in order to be able to give to those who have need (Eph. 4:28); but “if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes. 3:10). Work is not a curse; it is a blessing. God gave Adam work to do in Paradise. It is the toil and sweat of work that belongs to the curse, and not the work itself (Gen. 2:15 and 3:17ff).

As we review this section, we see how practical the Christian walk really is. The obedient Christian will have a holy life by abstaining from sexual sin; a harmonious life by loving the brethren; and an honest life by working with his hands and not meddling in the affairs of others. When unsaved people see Christ magnified in this kind of a life, they will either oppose it with envy or desire to have it for themselves. Either way, God is glorified.

Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (1 Th 3:9–4:11). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.


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