Text: 1 Thessalonians 4
We live in a day and age where the existence of moral absolutes is questioned if not outright rejected. According to the Barna Research Group, less than 3 out of 10 people under the age of forty believe in moral absolutes. Even among Christians who do not deny the existence of absolutes, some subtly make a distinction between theological absolutes and moral absolutes. So that yes, I believe Jesus is God and the only way to heaven, that’s absolute, a theological absolute. But no one can tell me how to live my life or what is right or wrong to do in any situation, because “there are no moral absolutes.” For many Christians, the tie that binds their faith to their ethics – how they live -- has been if not severed, then severely strained. This is more and more true of our younger generation:
For example, just 33% of born again pre-Busters believe that cohabitation is morally acceptable. However, among born again Busters nearly twice as many (59%) agreed, representing a majority of young Christian adults. Among non-Christian older adults, 65% concurred, while 80% of non-Christian Busters felt cohabitation was acceptable. This same response pattern was evident when it came to gambling, sexual fantasies, abortion, sex outside of marriage, profanity, pornography, same-sex marriage, and the use of illegal drugs.
This is where you get Christians who treat the Bible like it is supposed to be chicken soup for the soul. I like how it gives me assurances and encouragements, but don’t appreciate how it places moral demands upon me, and so I skip those parts. And we wonder why our testimony and our faith is becoming so powerless in our culture. We wonder why it seems that so many so-called Christians are not living a cut above anyone else in our society – they don’t stand out. We wonder why we lose our young people when they get to the age in which they start questioning whether simply “because the Bible says so” is an appropriate ethic to build their lives upon. It’s because we are not practicing Biblical Christianity. Do your beliefs about Jesus mean anything to you in how you live your life? If not, you are not practicing Biblical Christianity – you in fact are a hypocrite.
Biblical Christianity is an ethical religion. I know – we are not supposed to talk about religion – Christianity is supposed to be a relationship – we’ll get back to the relationship stuff later. But Christianity is an ethical religion “in the specific sense that it recognizes no ultimate separation between the service of God and social behavior.” The early Christians presented Christianity as an ethical religion “in which ethics are directly related to a certain set of convictions about God, man, and the world, a set of convictions religious in their subject matter and theological in their expression.” Christian morality arises out of the proclamation that God has acted in history to create and redeem humanity.
Before you were a Christian you held to certain values and beliefs, which you derived primarily from you parents, peers and broader culture. As your beliefs worked themselves out in day to day life, you acted on them in ways either consistent with them, which gave you confidence in them, or inconsistent with them, which probably led you to feel unsure of yourself or guilty.
Yet when you respond to the Gospel, you repent (that is turn from) the beliefs and values you used to hold to, and turn to new beliefs and values about Christ in the Gospel. Your worldview has drastically changed. You no longer think like you used to and no longer believe what you used to believe about truth, about God, about humanity, about fate, about the meaning of life. And, just like a new car gets a new operating manual, you begin to reorganize your life in ways that express the convictions you’ve come to hold. That is Christian discipleship, going through and reordering your life and priorities based upon the gospel.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2, Paul is reminding the Thessalonians about this new life manual and the ethical ramifications of the Gospel that he preached to them.
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.
1) Notice the Tone: Paul expects the Thessalonians to remember and be living by the instructions he had laid out for them. The word translated “instructions” was a military term (“he gave orders”). Paul did not give the church merely advice or opinions, but laid out detailed instructions for how they were to live and please God. This is how they made Paul happy – they accepted these instructions as the word of God (2:13). Now this doesn’t mean that you blindly follow everything your pastor tells you (for the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians for they tested what Paul said against the scriptures (Acts 17:11) – that’s the key point! Against the Scriptures!
2) Notice the Teaching: The new believers had received in a short period of time seemingly complete instructions as to how to live and to please God. These instructions were both broad (covering many different areas of life) and detailed. Paul writes in 2:12, “we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God.” For example, in 2 Thess. 3:10, “When we were with you, we gave orders that if a man was unwilling to work he should not eat.” Paul is pointing the believers back to the body of instruction in the faith that they had received from the missionary team.
3) Notice the Tradition: In both letters to the Thessalonians, Paul refers to this body of instruction as the “traditions”. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “so then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by spoken word or by letter.” In 1st Corinthians 11:2, Paul commends the believers for preserving the traditions which he passed on to them regarding worship in the church. Paul seems to assume that such teaching was given even in churches which he did not found, expressing thankfulness that the Roman Christians were obeying “the pattern of teaching” which they ad received (6:17). C.H. Dunn argues that there was a traditional body of ethical teaching given to converts from paganism to Christianity. That is, once a person had responded to the Gospel by faith and had received new life, he or she was quickly instructed in the ethics connected to the new life. This teaching was authoritative in the Christian community so everyone knew what was expected of them.
4) Notice the Purpose: They were given for the purpose of sanctifying the believers. This was part of the attempt “to present every man mature in Christ.”
So what was the content of this instruction that new believers were to be tried in? Theologian C.H. Dunn identified for us a basic outline from the epistles of Paul, Peter and John that young Christians were taught.
1) First the new convert was ordered to set aside certain destructive actions or attitudes, some of which were common and condoned in their pagan environment.
2) Then he was instructed as to some of the virtues of the new life he was to cultivate. This is sometimes expressed in the terms “to put off the old man and put on the new.”
3) Next, he is given instruction concerning various social relationships.
a. He learns how to order his home,
b. then also how to relate within the family of families, the church.
c. He also is given instruction on how to behave toward outsiders (neighbors)
d. And how to relate to civil authorities.
4) Finally, he is reminded of the shortness of the times and how to live in view of Jesus’ return.
This is the body of teachings that Christian converts were expected to master and conducts themselves by: and do so more and more. Of course, every situation was different and so in each church certain values and vices were emphasized more than others. Thankfully this is the case, so as we study the New Testament, we get full-well rounded instruction as how we are to live. Let’s look at some of God’s specific instructions to us through the Thessalonian church.
1) Set Aside Vices: Sexual Immorality (1 Thess 4:3-8)
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. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
This is a moral absolute: Christian you are to abstain from sexual immorality. The command is negative (don’t do it) and positive (learn to control your own body in holiness and honor). The command is broad, encompassing all sorts of sexual immorality, even those that your culture deems ok (sexting, friends with benefits, pornography, etc.) In verse 5, we find the theological reason behind this order: because you know God. Here we get back to the relationship. You know God – you know his holiness – how he cannot tolerate sin, you know his handiwork – that he created you, you know his heart – that he wants you to be enamored with him and nothing clouding your relationship with him. A second theological reason is the family of God. Interestingly, one of the reasons is so that you don’t wrong your brother – because you may be dishonoring his future wife or daughter of your brother! The third theological reason is that God is the ultimate judge of sin – he is an avenger in these things. You cannot hide your sin from God. The fourth theological reason is that you were called to holiness – a new life. The fifth theological reason is that you have been given the Holy Spirit, who is not to be disregarded.
2) Cultivate Virtue: Brotherly Love (1 Thess. 4:9-10)
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love 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.
This is another moral absolute – to care for each other and express the love of Christ. Notice that it is God who teaches you to love – and that is through Christ. Again here is relationship and the theological connection. I know Christ. I have accepted his love. I have heard his call and so I love you as well. Notice also that this love was expressed practically. Verse 10 indicates that they were caring for the Macedonian believers, even though they themselves were suffering. Gospel love is a selfless love, for the love of Christ is a selfless love. Christ’s love s a well that over flows so you find yourself asking, who can I bless? But you have to tap that well or you will run dry.
3) Prescribe Social Relationships: Before Outsiders (1 Thess. 4:11-12)
In Thessalonica, the most pressing social relationship that Paul saw need of addressing was not family, or church, but how to live in view of their neighbors in a society that was antagonistic to Christianity. As we are going to see next week, this is immanent practical for us today as our society turns more and more antagonistic to our Christian beliefs. Paul writes that we must:
and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
So the answer to losing ground in the culture wars is to speak up, form a political self-interest group, lobby, protest, sue and be an all-around nuisance. Now there may a time for some of those things, but I think we should hear the wisdom here of what to do when society turns on us – lay low, live humbly, work hard and be a blessing rather than a drain on society. We should note the emphasis placed on work in these letters. It is a moral absolute that you work like a Christian. Can your co-workers identify you as a hard-worker who contributes to the team? Or are you one who shows up late for meetings, sneaks out early, does shoddy work, expects others to cover for you. Don’t be that guy. You are presenting the name of Christ to them. I do shoddy work, come to meet my Jesus – that’s not gonna cut it.
4) Reminder of the Times:
This section of the teaching takes up most of the remainder of the letters that we will be looking at over the next two weeks. Jesus’ return. I just want to stress here, that the return of Christ is presented as an absolute fact that is to be part of our Christian discipleship. Jesus is returning and we are to live in light of that reality. It could be today. This afternoon. Be ready
2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (ESV).