Pastor Kyle McIver
1 Thessalonians 4:9-12
Take a moment to think about your life. When you look at your current life situation or your family or your job or where you are in your education, how do you feel? Do you like where you’re at in life?
Now consider a slightly different question: what does the good life look like? Maybe you consider your present circumstances to be pleasant, you’re very happy with where you are. And maybe others of you look around and feel very discontent, you see other people either that you know personally or follow online and wish that you were living the life that they are.
It is very easy today to be discontent with what we have and where we are in life. We have so much visibility into the lives of others through social media and news outlets, both of which tend to make life look much more glamorous than perhaps it really is for those individuals. It’s so easy to think that the good life is always “out there” somewhere you’re not.
And now one final question for you: what does it look like to live a life pleasing to God? Or another way to ask it: what does God consider to be the good life? These are important questions, and ones that we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another. Thankfully God doesn’t leave us to guess at the important questions of life! As we turn to our passage in 1 Thessalonians tonight, we’ll see a surprisingly simple, yet wonderfully life-giving answer to these questions. We are going to work through our passage tonight in three movements:
We’ll examine the Thessalonians’ love and see where it came from.
Look at three specific means by which Paul commands the Thessalonians to love their neighbors.
And then consider the implications for our love today.
So first, the Thessalonians love. Verse 9 opens with a seemingly contradictory statement from the apostle Paul. He says that: concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But after this verse he goes on to urge them to love their neighbors more and more! So there’s no need to write to them, but Paul is going to write to them anyway! What’s the deal with that, Paul?
Well, Paul is pointing out that he is not writing to them about love because he sees some great deficiency in them. They are in fact loving their neighbor as themselves - they are doing well! And yet because of the centrality of love in the life of the Christian, Paul is going to exhort them to continue in love. Loving one another is so central, so important, that he’s never going to stop talking about it.
Now within this statement about the Thessalonians’ love, we get a really interesting phrase: you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another… Paul recognizes the fruit of love in this church, and points to the fact they have been taught by God himself to love one another. But what does that mean that they have been taught by God? He’s getting at a wonderful truth about how God relates to his people.
Consider what we’ve heard so far throughout this letter concerning the Thessalonian Christians:
They received the gospel word not as the word of men, but as what it really is: the Word of God at work in them, leading to their church imitating other churches in bearing good fruit (2:13-14).
Each of these instances points to individual people, now functioning collectively as the church, who have been transformed by the gospel. God has fundamentally changed them through repentance and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ! This is what Paul is getting at when he says they have been taught by God to love one another. God’s gospel came in power. The dead were made alive, idol worshippers turned away from their sin to worship Jesus. And when God does this, he not only saves us from our sin, but he also teaches us to love one another.
Now what we’re seeing here, that God teaches us to love one another, is the fulfillment of one of the greatest promises God made to his people in the Old Testament. Listen to Jeremiah 31:33-34.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and teach his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more.
What we are seeing in 1 Thessalonians 4 is the fulfillment of exactly what God promised in Jeremiah 31. In the New Covenant, brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we receive the Holy Spirit. We are indwelled by God himself and he teaches us.
Now in one sense, the Christian life often feels very ordinary. Bible reading and prayer seems ordinary. Work is hard, school is challenging, family life is filled with complexity. And yet being a Christian is truly remarkable privilege. You are the beneficiary of enormous promises made and then delivered on by God himself. In this case, God works continually in his people to teach them his ways and write his law on their hearts. He will forgive our iniquity and remember our sins no more! So in the many mundane moments of life, pause and remember the great privilege and joy it is to have promises so great and precious as what we have inherited in Jesus.
So we see that God himself has changed the Thessalonians and taught them to love one another in fulfillment of his promises. And while Paul celebrates the genuine nature of their love for one another, now he’s going to urge them to continue walking in love in a few specific ways. Look with me at this transition in the second half of verse 10: But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more… Now if you were here last week, that sounds familiar. In last week's passage, Paul “asked and urged” the Thessalonians church to walk and to please God, just as they had been doing, and to do it more and more. This is the same refrain here in our passage tonight.
And I want to highlight something in that refrain from both of these texts that I didn’t touch on much last week. In both of these passages Paul tells them to do something “more and more”. Last week in verses 1-8 it was walking in holiness, in our text this week it is walking in love for other people. Be holy, walk in love, do this more and more.
Both holiness and love for other people are to be present in our lives, and ought to be increasing. We are meant to grow in holiness and in love toward other people. Guard yourself in the quiet corners of your mind or hidden places of your heart from thinking that you are holy enough - that you’ve loved your neighbor enough in the past. The very nature of God’s work in us is an outward, overflowing grace. God gives out of his abundance to his people. And we in turn, as we receive grace and all that we need from him, grow in holiness and in love toward other people more and more for the rest of our lives.
Now with that in mind, let’s keep moving through this passage to see three concrete ways we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The first one is that we are to aspire to live quietly. Now this doesn’t mean quiet in the sense that we don’t say much, or never leave our homes - even though that’s pretty easy to do in 2020, the year of COVID-19! Rather, aspiring to live quietly here means that we do not seek to draw attention to ourselves. In Romans times, much like our own, individual glory and honor was prized. Followers of Jesus however have abandoned the pursuit of personal glory for the much greater, more satisfying pursuit of Jesus’s glory.
And living quietly also means not bringing undue burden upon other people. Now I want to be careful here. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, meaning that at times it is going to be your burdens that a brother or sister is helping to carry. So I’m not saying that you can’t bring burdens to someone - that’s part of the Christian life!
But what I am saying is that you do not have the right to shirk responsibility and expect others to carry your load. Living quietly means that you take responsibility, you take care of yourself, and to the best of your ability, support yourself.
Consider an example from another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Timothy, in chapter 5. Here we get instructions for the church on how to handle the care of widows - and what’s interesting is that there are clear layers of responsibility. Paul’s instruction is not that the church simply take care of all the widows. He provides several different methods by which widows ought to be cared for:
If widows have children or grandchildren, those children should care for their mother or grandmother, because it is pleasing in God’s sight (1 Timothy 5:4).
Younger widows Paul says, ought to remarry and invest themselves in the lives of their husband and children (1 Timothy 5:11-15).
Paul also puts in place parameters for how to properly identify a widow - one who is 60 years old, has a reputation of good works, and has demonstrated godly service toward her family and neighbors.
And at the end of this section, in 1 Timothy 5:16, we read this: If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.
Woven throughout that section is the expectation that church members are working hard to support themselves, their families, and their relatives who may be in need. This is essential so that the church may have the resources needed to support its mission and to care for those who are truly in need of the church's help, like the widows in 1 Timothy 5.
So we see that carrying your own load, working to support yourself, is one way that you love your neighbor. And this is going to be a theme throughout the rest of this passage, which you’ll see as we work through these other two commands.
The next command is to: “mind your own affairs”. If you take the phrase in Greek very literally, another way to say this would be “do your own things”. Each of us carries certain responsibilities everyday, whether we are students, husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, employees, neighbors, or friends to others. The general thrust of this command to mind your own affairs is to do the work each day that is in front of you. Look at your family, your job, your studies, your neighbors, and give your full effort and attention to what is before you.
Now if we are to be minding our own affairs, doing the work that is in front of us, this also means that we are not being meddlesome, not gossiping or unnecessarily nosing around in someone else’s business. Throughout 1 and 2 Thessalonians we get hints that this was happening inside the church, and here Paul delivers a clear command to resist such distractions and give yourself fully to the work that God has given you to do today.
And here I want to pause and make an observation about minding our own affairs today. I believe one of the great battles in minding our own affairs, doing our own things, is distraction. Within the last generation we have gained unprecedented access into what’s happening in the world around us and the personal lives of other people. We carry around in our pockets all day these little portals into other people’s lives, whether it’s news, facebook, Instagram, or some other form of media. We pay a lot of attention to what is happening somewhere we are not! And I think this is dangerous.
I think we are often more engaged in what is happening somewhere else than we are with the people who are right in front of us. How many husbands and fathers effectively disappear on Sunday’s because they’ve been virtually transported to a football game? How many parents hardly see their children because their eyes are glued to their phones? Football and phones are not bad in and of themselves, but they pull us in much further than we realize.
One more observation here, this one specifically for the stay at home moms. It seems like there is more pressure on you today than ever before. Not only are you expected to care for your children, but you also need to keep your home in a way that is worthy of a filtered Instagram photo to share with the world. And not only that, but you also need to keep up with all the other moms on Instagram who manage to love their kids, keep their homes, run a small business, bake homemade bread, exercise and read their art journaling bibles with a hand-crafted coffee drink all before lunchtime every day! Social media has placed you on an exhausting treadmill that inevitably wears you down and burdens you with feelings of failure.
So moms, if that’s you - get off the treadmill. Do your own things. Don’t let the outside world exert all kinds of pressure on you to be all things to all people all at the same time all day long. It is enough to live a quiet life, minding your own affairs, free from the pressure of the watching world. Doing so is pleasing in God’s sight - even if the rest of the world never sees it. You are free to set that burden aside and rest in God’s approval of you in Christ.
Now to the third command: “work with your hands”. Where the first two commands here are related to your work, this third command lands directly on it. Working with your own hands here is, I believe, connected to Paul’s exhortation in chapter 5 to “admonish the idle”, and also to the passage in 2 Thessalonians 3 devoted to idleness, work, and earning your own living.
Now before we go further into this command and those passages, it is important for us to understand the significance of work in our lives. Work is not a result of the fall, work is not something that we are merely to tolerate in this life. In Genesis 2, we see that right after God creates Adam, he then places him in the Garden of Eden “to work it and keep it”. Adam was in turn to share this instruction with his wife Eve, and they were to undertake it together.
Work is such a significant piece of what God created us to do! It is sad to see in our day such a negative attitude toward work. Those of you who have jobs in a workplace right now know how often people complain about work, how they seem to live for the weekend when they can escape the drudgery of labor. But this is a profoundly un-Biblical view of work. Work is in fact one of the most concrete ways that we get to love our neighbor - whether you’re working a job, working at home, or working at school - work is fundamentally about caring, cultivating, and serving.
God intended that we would work for most of the week, and then enjoy a day of rest. This is good for us! Work is not something we should seek to escape - rather it is a good gift which we ought to receive with thanksgiving while also putting forth our best effort to love and serve those around us.
So now as we return to Paul’s command to “work with our hands”, we see how he is calling Christians to fulfill one of their fundamental, God-given duties all the way back to creation. And apparently, one of the problems within this church is that people were idle - they weren’t working. As I looked at the background and the context for the Thessalonians around idleness, there seems near unanimous consensus that this idleness was not the result of work being unavailable, but rather that people were not taking up the work before them.
And this is supported when you hold up the passage here in 1 Thessalonians 4, along with Paul’s direction to “admonish the idle” in 1 Thessalonians 5, and the more substantive section devoted to this issue in 2 Thessalonians 3. Adding all of those up, we hear Paul admonishing those who are not working that they need to get to work. He even goes so far in 2 Thessalonians 3 to remind them that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” which Paul says was a command he gave them when he was physically with them in Thessalonica.
So here we see Paul stating emphatically that Christians are called to work. We are to support ourselves to the best of our ability and strive to be independent by earning our own living and providing for the needs of our family and loved ones by means of honest labor. Paul himself modeled this and pointed to it over and over again in his ministry, like we saw back in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2.
Now in all of this, I want to make sure we are properly grounded in how we take Paul’s instruction regarding work and apply it to our own lives. Don’t forget where we are within the book of 1 Thessalonians. These commands come to those who have turned from idols to serve the living and true God. Walking in holiness and love is not something we are left to ourselves to figure out and accomplish on our own - rather, we’ve been united to Jesus by faith and he is working in us that which is pleasing to him. He is sharing his holiness with us and is himself teaching us, so that we in turn bear the fruit of the Spirit.
So, with Jesus clearly in view, celebrating our union with him, knowing that we are dependent upon his grace, and remembering that God supplies what he demands for our obedience, I want to make a few points of application for us from this text. Each of these will flow directly from our passage in the way that Paul here has connected love of neighbor to diligent labor.
First point: get to work. Plain and simple, work is part of life, and is inherent to God’s good design for us as his people. We should be working and keeping, cultivating and creating, laboring and serving. Idleness, as God makes clear in the passages we’ve looked at, is not an option. Remember 2 Thessalonians 3:10, where Paul said that anyone who does not work should not eat. Earlier in that passage Paul writes in verse 6: Now we command you, brothers, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition you received from us.
Idleness is not a small sin. Living off the charity of other people is not an option if you are able to work. Last week saw the weightiness of sexual immorality and the urgency of holiness in our lives, and I don’t think that Paul is any less urgent, any less serious in addressing idleness here than he was sexual immorality in the previous passage.
As an observation, it’s interesting that two topics which are so private, even taboo for us today - sex and finances - are right next to each other in this book under the banners of holiness and love. Yes, there is a private element to both topics. But I think we also need to take caution, lest two aspects of our lives as important as sex and finances become so private that we reject the grace of receiving help from other people when we need it. Healthy relationships with others in the church are essential to walking in a way that pleases God in both of these areas.
Now back specifically to work. I believe we need to let our text speak directly to us in the midst of a culture which is increasingly embracing ideas about work and personal responsibility that are opposed to God’s word.
As Christians, we must reject the idea that we have a right to all of the goods and services available around us. Inherent to working hard to provide for our own needs is the assumption that we might not get everything that we want. Self-control and personal responsibility apply to your finances as much as they do to every other area of your life. A good income alone doesn’t mean you’ll be self-sufficient - you also need the wisdom and restraint necessary to be a good steward of the money God entrusts to you by means of your job.
Second point of application: don’t forget who you work for. Colossians 3:23 says: Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. Whoever you report to at work isn’t ultimately your boss. As a Christian, in the truest sense, you work for Jesus. He is Lord over all of your life, including your work. God’s creation mandate to work and keep still applies, though the shape it takes as time and technology progress looks different from one generation to the next.
It is also worth noting here that you do not work where you work by accident. Rather, you have been commissioned by your king to work in a way that glorifies him, whatever it is that you do! This doesn’t mean you can’t ever look for a new job, or that you have to absolutely love every job that you’ve ever had. But we need to guard ourselves against complaining about our work, against making excuses for lack of effort on our part because circumstances are less than ideal, or co-workers are frustrating, or the work itself isn’t what we’d prefer.
Our work is so closely connected to our love of neighbor here in 1 Thessalonians 4, that there is a direct connection between work and witness - and not just in our sharing the gospel. Here’s how this works.
Jesus said that the world will know us by our love... and as we’ve seen in this text, work is part of the way we love others... Therefore, the world should also know us by our work. Christians ought to be counted amongst the most honest, hard-working, productive people in the workforce. You’re not always going to be the best at everything you do, but you can always give your best effort. You can work with integrity and give your full attention to do whatever it is that you do so that you do it with excellence. And frankly, that will set you apart in many workplaces today.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the significance of work in your discipleship as a follower of Jesus. Many of us will spend thousands upon thousands of hours working throughout the course of our lives. Oftentimes in a workplace of some sort, or maybe working at home to manage your household and raise children. Whichever the case might be for you, much of your life is spent working. And this is not throwaway time! God is working in you while you work.
He is shaping your character. He is working through hard circumstances to make you more like himself. The workplace provides ample opportunities to love and serve other people, to share the gospel, to invest in meaningful work that produces a good which serves many people you might not ever even meet. Work is a joyful endeavor when situated within God’s grace at work in your life and the opportunity to serve others for the glory of God.
And this brings us to the table. Jesus himself worked - the second person of the Trinity was not above work while he walked the earth. He labored in anonymity for most of his life, both to support himself and his family, but also working to fulfill all righteousness on our behalf so that he could be our perfect sacrifice when he laid down his life on the cross. And so as we eat and drink together tonight, we celebrate and rest in Jesus’s all-sufficient work.