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1 Thessalonians 4:1-8



We’ve been away from 1 Thessalonians for a few weeks, but now we’re picking it back up at the beginning of chapter four. I made a change after the bulletin was printed, so rather than looking at vv.9-12 this evening, we’re going to take two sermons to look at the first eight verses. Then next Sunday we’ll be taking two sermons on verses 13-18, the well-known passage about the Lord’s second coming. Those verses in the middle, verses 9-12, I’m going to leave for a future sermon, because thematically they are closely related to a larger section in 2 Thessalonians 3.

You remember the historical setting. Silas and Timothy had preached the gospel in Thessalonica around AD 49 or 50, and a new church was formed – comprised of small group of Jews, a large number of God-fearing Greeks and several prominent women, wives of the elite men of the city. But then persecution came from both the Jewish leadership and the city authorities, and Paul had to flee in the middle of the night. A few months later, Paul was in Athens and he was worried about these new believers in Thessalonica, so he sent Timothy on a long and dangerous journey to check on them.

Timothy has come back with an excellent report. The new Christians are standing fast in the Lord, despite persecution and despite the lack of mature leadership. This letter is Paul’s response to Timothy’s report. For the better part of the first three chapters, he has been looking back to his initial visit and rejoicing in the way they had embraced the gospel, as well as defending himself against the smear campaign waged by his opponents by reminding the Thessalonians how he had conducted himself among them, and he is also explaining his prolonged absence from them.

Now in chapter four, he turns to the present and the future. Timothy’s report had been a happy report, but there was still work to be done.

Let us hear God’s Word, from 1 Thessalonians 4.1-8…I’ll be reading from the ESV…


READ vv.1-2

When Paul says “finally” he is indicating that the main section of the letter is concluded, but we should not read him to be saying that he is about to end the letter. Just as he does at the beginning of Philippians chapter 4, Paul says “finally” to mark a transition to a new subject, and that subject may be rather lengthy and important.

READ v.3

The Greek word for “sexual immorality” is “porneia,” which in Paul’s day would have referred primarily to prostitution, but also more broadly to any kind of sexual relation outside of marriage, whether it was fornication, adultery, homosexuality, incest, or prostitution. For the average first century citizen of Thessalonica, especially for the men of Thessalonica, this command would have been startling news.

As F.F. Bruce explains,

This was a strange notion in the pagan society to which the gospel was first brought; there various forms of extramarital sexual union were tolerated and some were even encouraged. A man might have a mistress who could provide him also with intellectual companionship; the institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine, while casual gratification was readily available from a harlot. The function of his wife was to manage his household and be the mother of his legitimate children and heirs. There was no body of public opinion to discourage porneia, although someone who indulged in it to excess might be satirized on the same level as a notorious glutton or drunkard.

So as the gospel came to Thessalonica, these two things were on a collision course: the standards of God’s Word, and the prevailing views on sexuality in Thessalonica.

READ v.4

Verse four presents us with the most difficult exegetical question in the entire letter, one that has been the subject of a great number of journal articles, and pages and pages in the commentaries. Most of the discussion centers on the meaning of the Greek word “skeuos” which literally means “vessel.”

The early Greek commentators understood Paul to be speaking metaphorically, so that vessel meant one’ wife. Augustine held this view. In favor of this view is the fact that the verb here normally means, “to acquire,” so it makes more sense for Paul to say that “each one should know how to acquire his own wife,” rather than “acquire his own body.” It is also argued that in 1 Peter 3, wives are described as the “weaker vessel.” If this view is correct, Paul is basically saying, “The way to avoid sexual immorality is to take a wife for yourself, so that you can enjoy God’s gift of sexuality in the context of marriage.”

Probably more compelling is the view that sees “vessel” as a metaphor for one’s own body, and that is the way that the NIV, ESV, NASB, and NKJV have translated it – so that the sense is that each one should possess or control his own body in holiness. In favor of this view is the fact that the verb can be translated as “control” or “gain mastery over,” and that “vessel” is used metaphorically for a person’s body in several other NT texts, and was a recognized euphemism in Greek culture.

What’s more, the appeal to 1 Peter 3 is not persuasive, because in that context both the husband and the wife are both seen as vessels. She is the weaker vessel, but that implies that he is the stronger vessel. As some commentators have pointed out, it also doesn’t seem to make sense for Paul to speak of the wife as a “vessel,” because here he is arguing for a high view of marriage (against a low view that sees the wife as no more than a vessel for gratifying the husband’s desires). Leon Morris also mentions that this verse is addressed to the whole congregation, women as well as men. Calvin makes the same point. So in all likelihood the point Paul is making is that each one should control his own body.

READ vv.5-8

John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Charles Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians
F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians & Thessalonians


The main point that I want to bring out of this text is a simple one, and an obvious one, and it is this:

A life that is pleasing to God is a life of holiness.

Paul’s purpose in writing this, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is seen there in verse 1. He is asking and urging the Thessalonians to remember the instructions he had given them, and those instructions concerned a life of holiness.

The word “holiness” appears three times in the passage. In verse 3, where it is sometimes translated “sanctification”; in verse 4, where Paul says that each one should control his own body in holiness and honor; and in verse 7, where Paul says God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Holiness is the key word in this passage.

What is holiness? Well, without going into all of the tremendously important OT background in terms of God’s holy presence in the tabernacle, in the glory-cloud, in the temple, and so on, we can say very simply that holiness is to be set apart to God. We are to offer ourselves as entirely devoted to the Lord.

William Still put this vividly in his little book, “The Work of the Pastor.” He said this:

Israel’s sheep were reared, fed, tended, retrieved, healed and restored – for the purpose of sacrifice on the altar of God. This end of all pastoral work must never be forgotten – that its ultimate aim is to lead God’s people to offer themselves up to Him in total devotion of worship and service.

In the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 12, we present our bodies to the Lord as living sacrifices. We are to offer him lives that are set apart for his purposes.

There is a moment-by-moment choice. Am I going to submit to this authoritative word, or am I going to live by my own authority? Am I going to please God, or please myself? Am I going to make the choice that is the honorable and holy choice, or am I going to do whatever feels right? Whose will am I going to follow – his, or mine?

A few weeks ago at a shoe store the sales clerk taught my almost seven year old Elizabeth a particular method of tying shoelaces, where you make two bunny rabbit ears (maybe you’re familiar with that method) and take it from there. Yesterday Elizabeth offered to tie my shoes for me. As she was tying one of those shoes, I started instinctively tying the other shoe. She said, “Do you know how to tie them the way that I tie them?” I said, “No.” She said, “Well, if you give up your way of doing it, then you can learn my way of doing it.”

That’s the choice we face in every situation – am I going to give up my way of living, so that I can learn God’s way? That is the dynamic of holiness – to give up your way of being human, and devote yourself to his will.

Obviously that is a matter that goes right into the deepest places of our hearts. The heart has to be out in front, leading the way with a desire for holiness, because out of the heart comes the behavior. If you remember to ignore the chapter divisions because they weren’t there when Paul wrote this — you see a key statement back in 3.13. Paul says that he prays for the Thessalonians, that their hearts would be established blameless in holiness. The first thing that has to happen for a life of holiness is that our hearts must be offered to God.

John Calvin, in describing a heart that is fully devoted to God, used this illustration: he said that there must be no little hidden “back shop” in which a side line of business is carried on with secret customers – think of how the movies always portray the mafia meetings in the back room of a club or restaurant. Calvin is saying that a heart fully devoted to God has no back room, no hidden part where some other god reigns, where you have a divided loyalty.

So what are the ways we can cultivate this kind of impulse in our hearts? Well, ultimately it is a work of God’s grace, but in terms of the ordinary means that God uses to accomplish it, there are many ways that the hearts of the saints come alive to holiness, but I want to suggest that the most powerful way to cultivate this is to look at the cross, to frequently meditate on the cross and to keep that vision constantly before you.

I heard an illustration from another PCA pastor. Picture this: a man in a living room a man goes over to the entertainment center, and he turns on the stereo, and some music begins to play. And the man begins to snap his fingers, tap his toes, and he begins to dance. A second man comes into the room, and this second man is deaf. He cannot hear the music. But he sees the other man tapping and swaying and it looks like fun. He thinks, “I’d like to try that.”

So he joins in. He emulates the other man’s dance moves, tries to get the same rhythm. At first it’s difficult, but eventually he gets the hang of it, and the two of them are basically dancing in sync. After a while the second man thinks to himself, “This isn’t quite as much fun as I thought it was,” but he keeps going.

Now, a third man comes into the room, and he sees the two men, and he says to himself, “They are doing the exact same thing.” But he is wrong. They are not doing the exact same thing. The second man’s dancing is different, and it probably will not last very long, because he’s not hearing the music. His dancing is just movement, and it becomes tedious. But the first man’s dancing comes from deep within him, out of his soul, as the music moves him, compels him by its rhythm and beauty.

Do you see the analogy? The dance moves are the conduct of the life of holiness. The dance is the outward obedience, the things that we are called to do with our minds and bodies as a holy offering to the Lord. But there has to be something compelling our hearts, inspiring us, captivating us, giving us the power to joyfully offer ourselves to God. Unless your heart is captivated by the Lord Jesus Christ, and he becomes your highest and deepest love and your ultimate loyalty, you might try to live a life of holiness but it will probably end up being a frustrating, tedious, joyless effort. You need to hear the music.

I believe the best way to hear the music is to fix your attention on the wonder of the cross. Paul doesn’t explicitly mention the cross here in chapter four, but everything is premised on the work of Christ, as he had said in chapter one – that we are waiting for God’s Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

Listen to these lyrics from Steve & Vikki Cook, a song entitled, “The Glories of Calvary”
which is found on the album “The Cross-Centered Life” put out by Sovereign Grace Music:

Lord, you’re calling me to come and behold the wondrous cross.
To explore the depths of grace that came to me at such a cost.
Where your boundless love conquered my boundless sin,
And mercy’s arms were opened wide.

My heart is filled with a thousand songs, proclaiming the glories of Calvary.
With every breath, Lord, how I long to sing of Jesus who died for me.
Lord, take me deeper into the glories of Calvary.

The great Puritan pastor John Owen put it this way, “Fill your affections with the cross of Christ, that there may be no room for sin.” The joy of knowing what Jesus did for you on the cross is the antidote for sin, because the essence of sin is when you are treasuring something more than your joy in Christ, you are seeking your satisfaction and fulfillment in something or someone other than your relationship with the Lord.

I saw an ad in the Minneapolis airport a couple of days ago. It was an ad for a consulting company, and it featured Tiger Woods in the middle of his swing, and a graphic showing the path or the arc of the golf ball as it took off down the fairway. Along that path were the words “80 percent improving yourself” and “20 percent proving yourself.” (REPEAT) At the bottom of the ad it had the following statement, “We know what it takes to be a Tiger.” You see the idea – that Tiger got to be the best by 80% working on his game – his driving, his putting, and so on, and then, according to the ad, he needed that extra boost, that extra 20%, and he got that extra boost from his desire to prove to himself and to the world that he could be the greatest.

In the Christian life, when it comes to “being a Tiger,” that is, when it comes to developing Christian maturity and being a man or a woman of true holiness, we know better but we sometimes live as though our progress in holiness is 80% self-improvement, and 20% of some extra good works to prove ourselves to God or to others.

But the Bible teaches a different equation.

The equation for true holiness is 100% and 100%. It is 100% the case that the thing that needed to be done has already been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ. He has done everything necessary to cover your sins, and to give you access into the Father’s holy presence. You have been declared by God to be holy in his sight because of your union with Christ. In that sense you were made holy in a definitive way. But there is also an ongoing process of being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. We call that sanctification, and it involves 100 percent effort. That effort is fueled by the power of the cross, and the power of the resurrection, the power of the Spirit of Christ who has given you a heart that wants to please God.

This evening we’ll talk about some of that 100% effort. We’ll talk about some battle tactics, some on the ground strategies for fighting sin. For now, let me go back to our earlier illustration and ask you:

Are you actively engaged in the dance steps – pursuing a life of holiness, putting sin to death, being alive to God’s will, earnestly seeking to please him? And are you hearing the music? When you dance, do your feet move in response to the music of God’s grace? Is the wonder and the mystery and beauty and power of the cross making its way into your soul on a regular basis? If it is not, I suggest that your obedience will at some point become joyless, tedious, a burden rather than a delight.

I realize there may be some of you facing a different problem. Maybe you do hear the music and it’s so liberating and so moving that you think, “The dance moves don’t really matter. I really don’t need to be so careful about the particulars of my conduct.” Let me warn you as Paul does, that God’s wrath comes upon those who disregard his commands. Without holiness no one will see the Lord.

For all of us, just as Paul reminded the Thessalonians of the instructions he had given them, so also the Lord speaks to us this morning, and he calls us to the pursuit of holiness. Let me ask you and urge you with the authority of Jesus Christ himself to get serious about a life of holiness. It is the way of deep joy. It is your great calling in life. See his love for you. Give yourself wholeheartedly to his commands. Amen.