1 Thess 4:1-7
You don’t have to read the apostle Paul’s letter for very long before you realize two things that are seen very clearly in this morning’s text. The first is that he talks about how Christians are to live all the time. Paul teaches what the Christian life should look like. Frequently this takes the form of exhortation and encouragement, just as we find this morning.
The second thing is that Paul speaks about the subject of sex quite often. The topic appears repeatedly in his letters, and when he talks about it he usually does so in weighty and serious terms. And sure enough, this also is what we find in the epistle lesson this morning.
Our text launches into both of these, and that’s really all it does. Yet to do the same in our discussion of what Paul says would be to put the cart before the horse. This is true because what Paul says here is based upon some critical assumptions – some key presuppositions of the apostle’s thought. And this is, of course, chapter four. Paul has said things in getting to this point that must frame the way we hear and understand his words.
First Thessalonians is probably the earliest letter of Paul that we possess. Paul had preached the Gospel in the Greek city of Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. Sadly, intense resistance from the Jews forced Paul to leave, and the other Christians took him to the province of Achaia in southern Greece. Paul was concerned about them, and eventually Timothy brought word about how things were going.
The apostle began this letter by saying, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
Paul describes the Thessalonians as those whom God had chosen – he had called them through the Gospel, and now their lives were characterized by faith in Jesus Christ. They had heard the word of God proclaimed. Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”
The word of the Gospel had given them faith. Through this word God had called them. And this was no small matter. Paul says in the first chapter that all the Christians in Greece knew about what had happened. He wrote, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
Jesus had died on the cross. He had been raised from the dead. Because he has done this, Paul says that the Lord Jesus will rescue the Thessalonians and us from the wrath to come – from the judgment of God against sin. The Thessalonians believed in Jesus, and so as Gentiles they had turned away the idols of Greco-Roman paganism that were to be found everywhere they looked. Instead, they had turned to the living and true God – the One who had acted in Jesus to rescue them from his wrath against sin on the Last Day.
Paul was thankful to receive the word that they were standing firm in this faith. But he was still concerned. It seems likely that Timothy had brought word that there was reason to be concerned about the Thessalonians. So in our text, Paul draws out a conclusion from what he has just been saying. He writes, “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.”
It is possible that when Paul says “just as you are doing” this is part of the ancient rhetorical convention in which a speaker says something positive to encourage the hearer – but he says it because the behavior is not happening. What is clear is that Paul is reminding the Thessalonians about what they had been taught, and is urging them to do it more and more.
Now as I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, Paul does this all the time. Hopefully, it is something that you recognize as being in your pastor’s preaching on a regular basis. But why does Paul do it, and why does the Church continue to follow his example?
The reason is that while Jesus will rescue you from God’s wrath against sin on the Last Day, and the Holy Spirit is at work in you so that you can engage in the work of faith and labor of love with steadfast hope in our Lord Jesus, sin continues to be present too. We live in the “now and the not yet.” We have the Spirit so that all of these things are possible and do happen. And yet until our death or the Last Day sin continue to be present in us. The old Adam is still there and he fights against the new man created by the Spirit.
There is an ongoing struggle against sin in all areas of life. In our text, Paul is not telling the Thessalonians something they don’t know. He says, “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.” They same thing is true for us.
But the apostle shows that we need to continue to hear it. We do because the Spirit uses this word to beat down, suppress and restrain the old Adam in us. The same Spirit who supports the new man in the struggle, hinders the old Adam through this word of God, so that the new man determines our actions. Don’t forget: God actually cares about what you do. He wants you to walk according to his will. As Paul says in our text, it pleases him. And so we need to continue to hear the word of God that exhorts and encourages us to live in these ways.
This is the task of the preacher. But it’s not just my job. It’s your job too to make sure that you are receiving this word daily. You need to be in God’s word so that you continue to hear the Gospel. You need to be in God’s word that you continue to hear about how you are to live because of the Gospel – the ways the reflect God’s will and are pleasing to him.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, in our text Paul talks about a topic that appears over and over in his letters: sex. He says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: 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.”
Paul talks about sex so much because it is a fundamental reality of human life. God created man in his own image as male and female. He created woman from man to be complementary to one another. He created us to be sexually complementary so that in intercourse husband and wife become one flesh. He created this one flesh union to beget life and gave the command, “Be fruitful and multiply.” This command is hardwired into us as men and women. We have a sexual drive that is a basic physiological need. This drive unites husband and wife, and science has taught us that the physical act creates emotional bonding. It produces children which God says are a gift and blessing. Sex is a powerful and good part of the way God created us.
The problem is not sex. The problem is sin. And because sex is such a fundamental and powerful part of the way God created us, when sin warped and twisted us there arose a great problem; a great challenge. Paul could see this on display in the first century world. We can see it in our twenty-first century world as well.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that they had received from him how we ought to walk and please God. He taught them that sexual intercourse was only to occur between a husband and wife. Sex between anyone else is sin. This is true if the man and woman are not married. It is true if the act involves two men or two women. It is sin, and Pauls says the “Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”
Paul had to remind the Thessalonians about this because it was the complete opposite of what the Greco-Roman world believed. In the world of Thessalonica sex by a husband with a prostitute was not considered to be adultery. It was perfectly acceptable. In fact, the Roman government provided brothels for poor men to use. Men of any means didn’t need this because they owned slaves and it was assumed that they used their slaves for sex. The culture was suffused with sex – explicit pornographic images could be found painted everywhere.
It’s not hard to perceive how similar world is to that of Thessalonica. Sex between two unmarried people is considered normal – no matter what the living arrangement is; no matter what sex they are. Our culture is suffused with sex in music, television, movies, and of course, the internet which has become the electronic conduit of pornography which is destructive to individuals in ways that had never been seen before.
As we think about the way our world presents sex and tells us to use it, we need to listen carefully to Paul’s words in our text. Twice he describes the abuse of God’s gift of sex as a denial and rejection of God. First he urges, “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.” Notice that to use sex in this way is to act like pagans who don’t know God at all. And then later he adds, “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” Paul says that to ignore his instruction is not to ignore him. Instead, it is to ignore God who gives the Holy Spirit.
Paul tells us this morning that this is not how we are to live. He says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” Our starting point is the recognition that God has called us. He has given his Son on the cross and raised him from the dead to rescue us from his wrath against sin. He has called us to faith through the word of the Gospel. He has given us his Holy Spirit. All of this now directs the way we live. By his Spirit God enables us to see sex as the blessing he created it to be.
And because the old Adam is still present, he keeps reminding us through his word. What the apostle wrote to the Thessalonians speaks directly to us today as well: “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. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: 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.”