A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:1-2. 1). Paul urges us to please God.
This general exhortation by Paul, which precedes his later specific instructions, is particularly noteworthy in two respects: first, for its authoritative tone, and secondly for its emphasis on pleasing God as the foundation on which Christian ethical behaviour is built.
First, we note the authority with which Paul teaches. We have already had occasion to comment on his self-conscious apostolic authority in relation to the gospel (2:13); now we observe it also in relation to his ethical directions (cf. 2 Thess.3:4-15). True, he begins with two quite gentle words (NIV is misleading because it has reversed the order of the sentences): *we ask you and urge you*. The verb *erotao* means to make a request, while *parakaleo* means to beseech or exhort. Yet what he asks and urges relates to how Christians ‘must’ (REB; *dei*) live, and in verse 2 he reminds them of the *instructions* he had given them. This is a much more forceful word. *Parangelia* was often used either for a military command or for a civil order, for example by a court or by magistrates (Acts 5:28; 16:24). Moreover, whether Paul is ‘urging’ or ‘instructing’, in both cases he boldly associates himself with the Lord Jesus in what he teaches. Thus, his exhortation is made *in the Lord Jesus* (1; cf. 2 Thess. 3:12) and his instruction *by the authority of (literally, ‘through’) the Lord Jesus* (2; cf. ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’, 2 Thess.3:6). It is clear, then, that when Paul is preaching the gospel and when he is teaching ethics, he claims to be speaking with the same divine authority. His gospel is God’s word (2:13); his instructions are Christ’s commandments (4:1-2).
Secondly, the foundation of Paul’s ethical instruction is the necessity of living *in order to please God* (1). Jesus himself had been able to say ‘I always do what pleases him [sc. the Father]’ (Jn.8:29), and this is to be the goal of his disciples. Paul has already affirmed his own resolve to please God not men (2:4; cf. Gal.1:10), and in his later letters pleasing God becomes both his ambition for himself and his prayer for his friends (2 Cor.5:9; Col.1:10). Other New Testament authors say the same thing (E.g. Heb.11:6; 13:21; 1 Jn.3:22). The terrible alternative is to ‘displease God’ (2:15; cf. 2 Sam.11:27; Rom.8:8) or to ‘grieve the Holy Spirit’ (Eph.4:30).
Several points may be made in favour of ‘pleasing God’ as a guiding principle of Christian behaviour. First, it is a radical concept, for it strikes at the roots of our discipleship and challenges the reality of our profession. How can we claim to know and to love God if we do not seek to please him? Disobedience is ruled out. Secondly, it is a flexible principle. It will rescue us from the rigidities of a Christian Pharisaism which tries to reduce morality to a list of do’s and don’ts. True, we still need to be *instructed…how to live in order to please God* (1), and this for us will necessitate the developing of a Christian perspective through biblical meditation. Nevertheless, our incentive will be not so much to obey the law as thereby to please the Law-giver, and this will become increasingly a matter of Christian instinct as the Holy Spirit trains Christ’s sheep to discern their Shepherd’s voice (Jn.10:4-5). Thirdly this principle is progressive. If our goal is to be perfectly pleasing to God, we shall never be able to claim that we have arrived. Instead, we are summoned to please him *more and more* (2).
Here then is a very practical ethical guideline for our everyday Christian living. The disciples of Jesus took it much more seriously in earlier centuries than we do today. For example, near the beginning of the seventeenth century a fascinating compendium of the Christian life appeared, which had been written by Lewis Baily, Bishop of Bangor in North Wales. It was immensely popular and went through seventy-two editions, the last being published in 1842. Its title was *The Practice of Piety*, but its sub-title explained that it was ‘directing a Christian how to walk, that he may please God’, especially by a disciplined use of the means of grace which he has given us.
From his general exhortation to please God, Paul moves on to some specific ways in which we should do so, especially in the areas of sexual self-control (3-8), daily work (9-12) and bereavement (13-18). It was J.E.Frame who made the attractive suggestion that these were the topics which Paul had in mind when he issued his threefold exhortation in 5:14 to ‘warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak’. For these seem to have been the three groups in the Thessalonian church who needed special help. So Paul urged ‘the idlers’, who were neglecting their daily work, that if they loved each other they would earn their own living. He reminded ‘the timid’ or ‘faint-hearted’ (RSV, REB), who were anxious in their bereavement about their friends and relatives who had died, of the Christian hope of Christ’s return. And to ‘the weak’, who lacked the strength to resist sexual temptation, he spoke of God’s call to purity and honour.
Sex, work and death continue to be the three major human preoccupations, so that Paul’s teaching on these subjects has about it a ring of relevance.
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8. 2). Paul urges us to control ourselves.
|The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.|