1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Now, Paul turns to what we would call the rules for living.  Everyone has them whether they are spoken or not. Sometimes they are good – like the Boy Scout oath but they can be harmful rules as well – like the former professional wrestler, Maurice the Magnificent who said, “My father gave me one rule for living. Win if you can. Lose if you must, But always cheat.” While some, like Paul’s fellow Jews, had been burdened with hundreds of rules that made a life of constant fear mixed with pride and arrogance there were others who had been ruined with no rules at all. Life was about survival and pleasure with no restraints. Rules were useless hindrances.

For Paul, he had not thrown off all rules as some accused him of doing. They misinterpreted grace to mean he was saying you could do what you please because there were no laws. The word his enemies used for Paul was “antinomian” or preaching that Christians are released by grace from the obligation of observing moral law. They took Paul’s teaching that the Law was a tutor but was now not binding and then twisted that to mean he was against all rules and laws. Of course, he was not but even then people would twist the beliefs of those with whom they disagreed to mean just the opposite of what they said.

Paul here is exhorting them and the word means to encourage them towards holding themselves to a high standard. When we say someone has the gift of exhortation we mean exactly that. It is not scolding or nagging.  It means to encourage people to become more mature – and you don’t do that by scolding. It includes correction for sinful behavior but not berating someone. The whole intent of exhortation is to bring out the best in the other person and help move them toward maturity. Maturity does not mean the other person being a clone or a copy of another. The measure of maturity can be different but every measure of maturity has one thing in common: it is a life that is pleasing to God.

Pleasing can mean a variety of things. For example, in Mark 6 we read that when the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. We know what that meant for John the Baptist. Herod’s momentary and drunken pleasure ended up with John’s head on a platter. That is not what Paul means by please here.

Or, in Galatians and earlier in Thessalonians Paul assures the believers that he is not living in order to please men as others might be doing. “We speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.” In other words, Paul is not, like the others, a people pleaser.

But, in other places he talks about the virtue of pleasing others. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 7 he instructs the husbands to please their wives. It means to serve them. In Romans 8 Paul tells them to please their neighbors and, as far as possible, live at peace with all men. To please is to have an attitude of service.

So, what does he mean here by pleasing God? A clue is in Romans 8. “The flesh cannot please God.” All those things we try to do to please God that are more like formulas or prohibitions or even bribes are worthless. Here he means that we are to live in such a way that we are becoming more and more mature in our genuine desire to serve God – not to avoid his anger or get some favor from him – but to become more and more living witnesses for him. Paul uses a word here for “live” that also means “walk”. In other words, as you go about your daily routines you are growing in maturity – not with lists of regulations and restrictions but with almost unconscious growth in maturity. Do we ever think of a tree straining itself to grow? No, that is its nature and that is what Paul is saying our life can be – a new nature that desires to become more mature in Christ.

Of course, that does not mean we throw off all structure and say, “Well, I will just naturally grow to maturity. I don’t need to make any adjustments in my life because it will just happen naturally. I don’t need any structure or boundaries.” Trees have natural enemies – like insects, fires, wind and drought. We need to be aware of those things that are the natural enemies of maturity.

The founder of the Benedictine Order created what we now call the rule for living. It was intended originally to apply to the monks who lived in the various orders but many people today have found it to be useful.

The Rule revolves around five practices:

​Prayer, Work, Study, Hospitality and Renewal.

Prayer is the foundation to life and calling, and can be a constant part of the life.  Benedict shows us the value of ordering our day around communal prayer as well as regular silent prayer/ meditation and prayerful reflection on Holy Scripture.

Work includes not only paid employment, but also work in our faith communities,  and the work we do to contribute to our family life.  Benedict teaches us that all work has value and brings dignity to each human being.  This is especially true as long as our work honors God by serving the community.

Study can include reading Holy Scripture, reading wisdom writings, or studying with others in order to deepen our spiritual and intellectual lives.

Hospitality can include inviting the stranger into our lives as well as being hospitable to those who are already in our lives. Having a right approach to how we treat one another, and welcoming each person as Christ himself, is key to creating a healthy sense of hospitality.

Renewal can include the discipline of keeping a sabbath, cultivating interests that remind us of the presence of God, or taking time to notice beauty and love in our daily life. Renewal is the time to remember that our lives are still centered on the Divine, and that God is the ultimate center of our Rule of Life.

Those are not exhaustive. But the Rule of Benedict can be a useful way to start if you happen not to have other disciplines. There is no need to overdo any of the practices or to get them out of balance. They are not meant to bind but to be a guide for living that pleases God.

Then Paul in verse 3 instructs them in the principles of the holy life. Of course, holy does not mean holier-than-thou nor does it mean a life detached and separated from the world. Hermits and recluses are not necessarily holy. No, it means a life that is distinct from the dark practices of the world around believers. Over time, those dark practices may change. Rampant sexual immorality as normal behavior may have been the case here but in another time it may be greed, deception or racism. It is those things that we take for granted as normal and we practice them without even thinking about it but they are unholy according to God. It could even be working to excess. They are so common that we no longer make any excuses for them. They are just general practice but God says there is a higher standard than what is all around us. For the early Church it was sexual immorality. No one tried to hide it or keep people from discovering it in their lives. It was just normal and, of course, that is when unholiness has its deepest grip on a person and a community. “It is what it is. What is there to question?”

Not so for Paul. Not so for the elders of the early church. In fact, of the three commands the Council at Jerusalem gave Paul to pass on to the Greek believers this was one of them. Stay away from sexual immorality.

Acts 15: The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

Why only those three rules? Why not five or ten more? Why not Sabbath or tithing? Why not insist they obey the whole Law or at least the ten commandments? There were hundreds of rules from which to choose and they specifically chose these three: abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood and meat of strangled animals (kosher) and from sexual immorality. There must have been good reason to be so specific.

What were the concerns of the Council? They were concerned that the Gentiles would get unhooked from Judaism and lose themselves in the spirit of the age, that they would be absorbed back into the culture from which they came. On their own, there was nothing to separate them and these three would do that. It would not require them to become Jews but it would, if obeyed, make them distinct.

I don’t think they were men clutching at the past. Had they been, they would have required far more of the Gentile believers. Instead, I think they were looking ahead from a particular tradition realizing they were becoming larger and more diverse than a small sect of Jewish believers. They were figuring out how to deal with growth and change as best they could. They did not want to lose their traditions but they did not want to send the Gentiles off with no link to their roots.

It was not unlike parents wanting to let go, knowing they could not follow but wanting to give some final wisdom and connection that would keep the new believers on the right path.

Think of it this way. They were giving the new believers luggage for the journey. They were not loading them down with a burden. They were giving them some basic things they would need for the future.

Yet, if you get away from those few things you inevitably drift toward legalism. If you do not focus on the fewest core principles you will begin to add rules and regulations to make sure people obey. You end up with what we have now. No one can be trusted to believe in the basic principles so we have to implement thousands of pages of rules.

A positive way of putting staying away from sexual immorality would be to say, “Practice fidelity” because infidelity will eventually lead to a rotting of the foundations. Infidelity will lead to the breakdown of the family and in time the society. Infidelity will put everyone at risk. No healthy relationship can survive continued infidelity. But practicing fidelity leads to commitment, trust and respect.

Paul is often charged with being especially hard on women in the church. I think women actually found Paul to be an ally and not an enemy. Yes, he did say that women were to be silent in church and that their heads were to be covered. I’m comfortable with chalking those up to cultural practices at the time. However, it is the women of the church that Paul is looking after the most when he talks about immorality and infidelity. In several places we read that a number of women, especially influential women, were converted by Paul’s teaching and they had significant roles in the church. I’ve thought about who typically pays the highest price for sexual immorality and infidelity. It is almost always the woman. I think Paul is showing his concern here not only for holiness but for protection of women. It is the security of women – especially in those times of easy divorce and accepted immorality – that was most at risk. Women had a friend in Paul – then and now.

Finally, Paul talks about healthy ambition. Brennan Manning said to a retreat of evangelical pastors, “The greatest idol I find in leaders is ambition.” There is enormous pressure to expand your influence and followers. Building a brand becomes the most important part of the work. Being visible and noticed is more important than being loyal and committed through good and bad times.

Brennan said something else about the idol of ambition: “Do the truth quietly without display.” How difficult that is when everything in the world is asking you to trumpet your successes and digitally display everything you are doing to change or fix the world.

The world does not reward obscurity, does it?

These are not temptations reserved for the young. Even now for the older leaders, the attraction of great places, platforms, and recognition is strongly tempting. In some ways even more so. We feel we have less time remaining to make an impact or leave a legacy. I understand that completely.

Still, I return more often now to this passage where Paul says we are to make it our ambition to lead a quiet life and to be more interested in winning the respect of others than winning their following. Paul does not tell them to work on strategies to win the world or change the culture or put Christians in power. Sadly, too often we actually lose the respect of outsiders by doing those very things. Our desire to exercise the tools of the world instead of living to please God has not worked out the way we thought. Those who now represent us have made us look unworthy of respect. Do you know the amount Tesla spent on advertising and marketing to create sales of 500,000 vehicles in 2020? Nothing at all. No promotion budget. Quality, word of mouth and respect for the product are priceless. I saw the announcement of a $100 million campaign of 15 second television spots to convince people who are skeptical of Christianity that Jesus “gets them” by showing the human side of Jesus. He had anxiety. He had fear. He had obstacles and was misunderstood. But then those same skeptics turn to the news and what do they see? I know and respect the people funding this and their hearts are right but…

What does Paul say? Let your daily life and work win the respect of outsiders.

Doing the truth quietly without display will take you in a different direction from the idolatry of unhealthy ambition and expensive commercials. Practicing fidelity. Walking toward maturity. Doing good work. Discovering and following a rule of life that pleases God. These are the things on which we are to focus.These are the things the world must see.


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