I relish the opportunity to speak in the McMaster Divinity College chapel services. I do this as often as I can, usually several times a term.
This year I am continuing a series on 1 Thessalonians that I began last year. I only made it through the first three chapters of this incredible book by Paul. As I contemplated this year, I wondered whether I should select another book or continue in 1 Thessalonians, even though I was now about to begin the paraenetic section. Even though this is a tremendous letter, full of Paul’s thanks for the Thessalonians, the paraenetic section has a number of tough and controversial passages to stumble through.
After much contemplation, I felt God leading me to continue my preaching through 1 Thessalonians. I am glad that I did!
At first, I wanted merely to tackle the first two verses of 1 Thessalonians 4, and save the strong statements that follow on holiness for another day (or skip them altogether). God seemed to be leading me to preach on the whole section, so I took on all of the first eight verses of the chapter.
This chapter is so full of important and rich ideas for Christians today. Unfortunately the TNIV pretty badly messes with the first verse, so that we lose the smooth transition that Paul makes from the body to the paraenetic part. Rather than rendering it “As for other matters,” as if the things that follow are of random and lesser significance, I prefer the Common English Bible’s “So then” to emphasize the “furthermore therefore” of the Greek. This is because what follows grows directly out of Paul’s commendation and expressed joy for the Thessalonians. He wants them to continue to take their Christian walk seriously.
Paul emphasizes this with his double statement that “I ask you and urge in the Lord Jesus.” What exactly is it that he urges so strongly? He wants them to do more of what they are already doing. Even though Paul was only with the Thessalonians for a short time (see Acts 17) before leaving in a hurry, they clearly grasped the significance of what he had said and had come to exemplify what it means to walk or live as followers of Christ. They had even become models for other Christians.
The reason Paul can be so confident of this is that they know the instructions or commands that Paul has given them through the Lord Jesus. Paul is conveying what was given by God through
What is the encapsulation of this commandment? It is God’s will that they should be holy or sanctified. Ah yes, the forgotten doctrine of the church, holiness. We are often so busy parsing justification—whether it is initial salvation or descriptive of one’s entire salvation experience, individual or corporate, etc.—that we miss the importance of sanctification. God wants us to be totally and completely dedicated to him and live lives of purity.
Now comes the hard part—the specifics that Paul gives. These read like they could have been written for us today—and they were. We are to abstain from sexual immorality, treat our own bodies with honour, and not take advantage of each other. These are just representative—but poignant choices—of the kinds of things that we should not be doing. As I said last Wednesday when I preached this sermon, if there is some question in our minds whether we are doing one or more of these, then we probably are, and we need to stop. Paul does not entertain “shades of grey.” (I was told afterwards that there is a novel out that has a title something like this that illustrates my point all too well.)
Paul is not asking the Thessalonians to skate a fine line between right and wrong but simply to eradicate it from their lives. Why? He does not say because they can and will harm themselves physically, emotionally, and psychologically—though they will. No, he says it because God says don’t do it. That’s reason enough.
This is quite a shift from Paul’s thankfulness of the first part of the letter. At first it comes across as somewhat of a downer.
However, as Paul concludes, he notes that this life of holiness is made possible through God’s spirit. In other words, God does not ask us to do what he does not empower us to accomplish. Paul refers to the Holy Spirit with an unusual construction: roughly “his spirit, the holy one.” The word for “holy” is the adjective form of the same word used in its noun form for “holiness.” God’s Holy Spirit is given to us to transform us into the holy people that he calls us to be.