Who are you living for?
Sermon: Sunday, 14th February, 2021 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
We all need aims in our lives if we are to get on in the world. There’s a lot of truth in the old saying: ‘Most people aim at nothing in life . . . and hit it with amazing accuracy…’ However, if we really focus on certain goals, especially if we write them down, then we’re far more likely to achieve them.
Why is a laser such a powerful form of light, able to cut through even the hardest diamond? It’s because it is so focused, concentrated. Unlike light from a torch which tends to be white light, made up of all the colours in the spectrum, and then spreads out with a lens, lasers are monochromatic, light of one frequency and colour with a narrow focus. And that narrow concentration is a powerful thing.
We all benefit from having aims to focus upon. We might have aims for our career development, education, health, and family, which is all well and good. But when it comes to the one main, overarching thing in life to aim for, we don’t have to make this up, or think for very long, and that’s because God tells us what this must be. And because this aim is like an umbrella, covering all areas of our lives, it’s really crucial we think about it daily. What is this aim? ‘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.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1)
1. Who are you living for?
Everyone lives for something or someone. I guess many, truth be told live to please themselves. The kind of attitude which says: ‘if it feels good to me, then I’m going to do it’. We get up each morning, and our main aim is to enjoy ourselves, and to be healthy and happy. We re-write the catechism to: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify myself, and enjoy myself for as long as I can.’ Many are ‘people pleasers’.
Of course, it’s a great thing to be kind and helpful to other people. We are called to love one another. But if our main aim in life is to please our spouse, or best friend, or children, or parents or boss, then this can lead us into all kinds of unhealthy behaviours, and can be a sign of our own insecurities, and our lack of self-esteem.
Paul wants us to be God-pleasers. And this isn’t Paul’s idea but something, of course, coming directly from God. This is one of these crucial verses which is both simple and yet deeply profound: v1 …we instructed you how to live in order to please God. If we get up each morning praying to the Lord ‘please help me to please you today Father, at work, at home, and when I’m out with my friends’ then this will become the ‘lens’ through which we see every single area of our lives.
Let’s just see the importance of this umbrella principle from other passages of Scripture, beginning with Jesus himself: ‘And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.’ (John 8:29)
‘So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.’ (2 Corinthians 5:9)
‘Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God…’ (Colossians 1:10)
So, if you are at school or at work, and are wondering what the best thing to do is, we must first of all ask the question, which course of action will please my loving heavenly Father? This is, of course, far more important than what our friends, or boss thinks of us. Do we have God’s smile upon us?
The reason we want to please God, and obey his commands, and live his way, is because of the relationship we have with him. He is our loving father who protects us, and provides all that we need. Ultimately, it’s because he has rescued us, and died for us, and that’s why we want to live for him. This is why, friends, we always need to be returning to the cross each day, so we can be reminded of all the Lord has done for us, and it is this which will propel us to live lives seeking to please him.
Even when we look at the 10 commandments, we see that relationship is so crucial. God doesn’t just give the Israelites (and us) a bunch of rules in a vacuum. He says, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…’ (in Exodus 20:2-3) (See also Psalm 116:12)
Notice too that although Paul commends the Thessalonians for living to please God, he wants them to do it ‘more and more’ (verse2). He says the same thing about love in verse ten. More and more love please!
Christians are not called to be static, or to rest on their laurels or to ‘retire’ from service. If we are producing spiritual fruit then great, but we need to be pruned further, so we can be more fruitful.
Paul then moves from the general umbrella principle of pleasing God to look at some specifics. He looks at lust, love and then labour. And I’d like us to spend a few moments on each of these areas. Paul notes that these ethical instructions come with the authority of God- the word ‘instructions’ carries the sense of orders handed down from our superior officer, God himself. These, then, are not divine suggestions for us, a bit of advice we can take or leave. No, these are God’s commands to you.
We have another ‘big picture’ principle at the start of verse 3. What is God’s will for our lives? We’re not given a crystal ball about where to live or who to marry. But we are told that God’s will for all Christians is that we grow in holiness. Holiness, Christlikeness, is God’s plan for each one of us.
3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality…
Is God really interested in how we conduct ourselves behind closed doors sexually? Does he really care about how we think about these things? Paul couldn’t be clearer. God says that a part of holiness involves learning self-control in the sexual realm, in stark contrast with the passionate lust of many others. This is something almost all of us need to deal with. (Matthew 5:27-28)
F F Bruce tells us that: ‘The idea of confining sexual intercourse within marriage was foreign to Greek conventional morality of the period.’ The people often had mistresses, concubines, and visited prostitutes. So, God was telling a people who had been used to being highly promiscuous that the only context for sex is within marriage. That’s quite a shift! But it’s a crucial part of holiness. It was then, and it is now.
Fast-forward 2000 years to Scotland 2021, and Bruce’s description of the culture back then is pretty much how things are today. Many, many people think the idea that sex should only take place within a loving, heterosexual marriage is nuts. It’s prudish. It’s ridiculous. It shows how out of touch Christianity is with the way things are. That’s the accusation. All throughout history there has been widespread sexual immorality, but in the last 50 years there’s been an explosion of it in our own culture. So, what do you think? Is God just a kill-joy trying to spoil our fun. Or, is he the one who has designed sex, and who knows far better than we do, that it is meant to take place in the context of marriage, and in that context alone? God wants us to enjoy sex, but only within marriage.
In practice, this means we must be careful what films we watch and what books and magazines and blogs we read. Lustful thoughts are the beginnings of sexual immorality. What are your viewing habits like? If we are married and find ourselves being attracted to someone else, then we have to avoid them. Be like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, and run away, without looking back. Keep away from the edge. If we’re going out with someone but we’re not married, what steps can you take to ensure you don’t have sex before marriage. If you don’t stick to principles, you’ll get into trouble very quickly.
The more I go on in life, the more I see the utter chaos, pain and devastation that accompanies going against God’s plans for sex. The kill-joy is Satan and not God. God is our loving Father, and knows what is best, so we need to pay attention to him, and not our sex-saturated society. And as verse 6 reminds us, because our sexual conduct matters deeply to God, he will take action against us if we flout his instructions, perhaps in this life, and certainly in the one to come. The good news is that we are not on our own in this fight for purity (verse 8): ‘Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.’
3. Love and labour
Let’s briefly notice the Lord’s further instructions in verses 9-12. I appreciated Roger Carswell’s comments here: ‘What a contrast there is in this chapter! On the one hand there is lust (verses 1-18) and now there is love. Lust wants to get; love wants to give. Lust seeks to gratify itself; love wants to satisfy the needs of others. Lust destroys; love enlivens. Am I known as someone who genuinely loves people?’
If the church in Thessalonica were getting a mid-term report card from Paul, there would be the words: ‘A good start, but keep on going and developing.’ Note that their love isn’t just for Christians in their own church family but when it comes to their love, the river has burst its banks and their love overflows to Christians all over Macedonia. Perhaps today, we need to recapture our sense of the unity of the Christian church, and our need to love Christians far and wide, from other churches in Fife, to the persecuted church in places we’ve never been to. Once again, Paul doesn’t want them to retire or relax, but to grow in their love for others. May God give us that same sense of ‘holy discontent’, always seeking to grow in this area.
Finally, we move from love to labour. God wants us to be hard-working, and not to be lazy. Many of us spend so many hours of our lives working hard, and when we do it with the overarching aim of pleasing him, then he is pleased with our hard work. This keep us from being an unnecessary burden on others, and means we can win the respect of others, as we work hard unto the Lord. It’s interesting that those who are lazy have more time on their hands to interfere in the lives of others! Mind your own business, says Paul, and work hard. This pleases the Lord.
So, what does God want from his people? He wants us to live each day to please him, and not self, and mature in this way of living. He wants us to be sexually pure, keeping sex within his parameters. And he wants us grow in our love for his people, near and far, and to work hard, for his glory.
Bob Dylan sums it up well in his song, ‘What can I do for you?’
You have given everything to me.
What can I do for You?
You have given me eyes to see.
What can I do for You?
Pulled me out of bondage and You made me renewed inside,
Filled up a hunger that had always been denied,
Opened up a door no man can shut and You opened it up so wide
And You’ve chosen me to be among the few.
What can I do for You?
You have laid down Your life for me.
What can I do for You?
You have explained every mystery.
What can I do for You?
‘As for other matters, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1)