Last Friday was the 75
anniversary of VE Day in the UK (V-E Day–Victory in Europe Day–here in the States). It’s the day when victory over the Germans in WW2 was fully and finally complete. A Lutheran theologian by the name of Oscar Cullman compared the time between D-Day, when the direction of the war significantly changed and we were on the road to victory, and VE Day, when it was finally over, to the time gap between the victory of Easter weekend and the realization of that reality when Jesus returns. The victory of the Cross and Resurrection will one day fully be known here on earth, Jesus will be known as Lord and all will be at peace, but for now we are living in an in-between time. As we concluded in the first of this series on 1 Thessalonians, Christ has died, Christ is risen,
Christ will come again
. Yet for now, we wait.
Read 1 Thessalonians 4:1
Paul turns in this passage to address practical and ethical issues in the life of the Thessalonian church. This is not a change of conversation from the chapters before. Paul here focuses in on the specifics of what it looks like to imitate Christ (1:6) and to “
strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
” (v. 13) In our waiting, we prepare. We get ready. For the Thessalonians, Paul addresses those areas where they are less ready than he wanted them to be. The first is sexual immorality, which covers the breadth of lustful passions (vv. 1–8), and the second is idleness, where some in the church had played on the generosity of others (vv. 9–12). While Paul is careful to affirm and encourage those who
pursuing holiness in these things, he knows some are not.
We don’t know for sure the exact details of what had warranted Paul’s reminders here. However, we do know, for Gentiles, sexual immorality was not really a thing. The emphasis was on going with your heart’s desire and enjoying whatever you wanted, with whomever you wanted. So there are various possibilities of what could have been happening. Gentile converts would have faced a bit of a shock on encountering that Paul reaffirmed–and even elevated–traditional Jewish teaching reserving sexual intimacy to the marriage bed. Therefore, it is no surprise it was a prominent issue in Thessalonica.
Contrary to popular belief, Paul’s message was probably
shocking than what it is today! Moreover, it was not actually
commandment; it was what Jesus himself instructed (v. 2), the very will of God (v. 3). At the end of the passage, we hear to reject this teaching is not to reject human authority, but
actually to reject God himself
, and his Spirit (v. 8; see also 1 Corinthians 6:18–19). Sexual ethics is not a private affair, we learn, but a question of whether we will heed God’s call on our lives, allowing Him to be Lord of all.
The second issue is vaguer than the first. We know the early church shared all things in common (Acts 2:43–47) and those with more often provided for the needs of those without. Many in Thessalonica were showing this kind of love. (v. 9–10) However, some had taken advantage of this generosity and, as far as we can tell, were relying only on these gifts and not making an effort to do their part or take responsibility for their own lives. The goal of all for Christians, Paul states, should be to “live quietly” and “be dependent on no one.” (vvv. 11–12) Yet, this isn’t quite what it seems; the word ‘quiet’ here is a little misleading. A better way of putting it would be to say “lead an unintrusive life” or “mind your
business”–a very practical application of the Alcoholics Anonymous saying to “keep your side of the street clean.”
We learn interesting things from this chapter about how to prepare for the day Jesus returns. We hear a message that tells us those things we think are
domain (sexual behavior and our work lives) are actually not just of interest to God, but are about what holiness before God really looks like. It’s not easy to honestly face these things, but we are called to do so in order we might be who Jesus has called us to be and reflect His holiness to the world.
Questions for Reflection
- Has the belief in Christ’s return made a difference to how you’ve lived your life? How? If not, why do you think this is?
- Many today would say sexual morality is an outdated and unrealistic proposition. This is sometimes a reaction to how sexual holiness has been disfigured into encouraging contempt for one’s own body, rather than to learn what truly brings life. Both messages (contempt versus indulgence) fall far short of the glory of God’s purpose for sex in creation, reaffirmed by Jesus and taught by Paul. Which of these two messages have you internalized more in your life? What would it look like for you to risk believing God’s call to holiness as he intended?
- Where have you seen godly examples of holiness in the two ethical areas Paul discusses? What lessons can you learn from their example?
- What would it mean for you to lead an “unintrusive life” and mind your own business more than worrying about others or exhausting their generosity?
- Do you think Paul would commend you for your love of others and care of those without, as he does the Thessalonians? (vv. 9–10) Why? Why not?
- What do you think God most wants you to hear from this week’s passage?
A prayer for this week
Lord Jesus, we look forward to the day you return and make all things new. We pray that you would help us, as we live in this in-between time, to press on in faith, grow in holiness and become all that you have called us to be. Where we have learned lessons that conflict with your truth, would you gently lead us back to your way that we might know more of the forgiveness, freedom and life that follows. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries