1 Thessalonians 4:1-12: Time to Speak

As we have worked our way through 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s example shows us the importance of a spiritual mentor. Paul was, in a sense, a spiritual father to the Thessalonians. He shared the gospel with them, resulting in their conversion. He continued guiding them spiritually and demonstrated to them what it meant to be a Christian through the way he lived. He showed his vulnerability in that the Thessalonians’ spiritual state could leave him either exuberant or brokenhearted (2:19-20, 3:5 and 3:8).

As we move toward the end of 1 Thessalonians, we see another side of Paul’s role in shepherding these believers. Following Paul’s example, mentors need to encourage, to be vulnerable, and to lead by example. There came a point for Paul — as there comes a point for mentors today — where he had to tell them how to live in a way that would please God (4:1). Specifically, he spoke to them about three topics. Although the second topic was one in which they were excelling, the first topic was countercultural, and the third topic was one in which they had plenty of room to grow. Speaking truth is often not easy.

The first topic was one that would have set Christians apart in the first century as it still sets Christians apart today: sexual morality. Previous generations of Christians have used the word “chastity” to describe self-control in sexual matters. He places chastity within the concept of holiness or sanctification (which come from the same Greek word). Holiness is devotion or dedication to God. Paul used this word, or a related word, three times in this passage and several other times throughout this book (2:10, 3:13 and 5:23).

Holiness for non-Christians then, as for non-Christians today, did not necessarily imply chastity. A Gentile devoted to a pagan god could sleep with many people just like many Americans think that a person can be spiritual and sleep with whomever. Paul reminded them then, as God reminds us through these words today, that His will for Christians is for all sexual activity to occur within marriage. Although scholars debate the precise nature of some of these commands, Paul also notes that a lack of self-control hurts others (4:7) in a way that calls for God’s vengeance.

Paul spends less space on the second and third topics. After discussing chastity, Paul mentions the need for love among the members of the congregation. The Thessalonians had been an example to other churches in the way that they loved, but Paul doesn’t allow them to rest on their laurels: “We exhort you, brothers, to excel more” (4:10). The last issue Paul mentions is the need for them to live “quiet lives” of work. The context demonstrates that Paul is not calling the Thessalonians to be silent; he’s calling them not to be disturbers of the peace. While there is a place for entering the public square and opposing injustice, Christians should generally not be the first to protest or to enmesh themselves in endless and fruitless online debates. The gospel, as both Paul and the Thessalonians knew all too well, is offensive enough.

We live in a society that mocks chastity but yearns for love. Through Paul’s words, we see that God is calling us to holiness, love, and work. How will Christians learn these lessons? Mentors must be willing to speak the truth in love trusting ultimately that God is speaking through them (4:9).

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