by J. Randal Matheny, editor
Although 1 and 2 Thessalonians are famous for their emphasis on the end times, in his Theological Introduction to the NT, theologian Eduard Schweizer wrote that the “actual thrust” and “theological center” of 1 Thessalonians is the sanctification of the community/1. He finds the first part of chapter 4 to be the main section of the letter.
The purpose of the letter is obviously “thanksgiving and encouragement”/2, thanksgiving that the Christians in that city have remained faithful in the face of persecutions, and encouragement to continued faithfulness and growth in their life in Christ. He is “euphoric with the good news that he finally received”/3.
“The only thing he recommends to them is that they persevere in this way and make new progress in it” /4. So, with all due respect to Schweizer, perhaps we ought to widen the scope of its purpose, considering the language of progress and growth used by Paul (3.12-13; 4.1, 10).
In 1 Thessalonians 4.1-12, Paul identifies at least three areas in which to encourage greater progress among new Christians.
#1. Sanctification (1-8). We often use the idea of the will of God in a permissive sense: “if God wills” (see James 4.15). That is right and proper. But the Bible uses it more often in the determinative sense: “For this is God’s will.” Paul follows that statement with specifics. It is God’s will, not only for the Thessalonians, or for someone in a specific place and time, but for all God’s people.
Paul feels no embarrassment in talking about the specific “commands” which they had given them “through the Lord Jesus” (v. 2). Nor does he flinch at stating that rejecting this command is a rejection of God’s authority (v. 8). Progress is this area is non-negotiable.
Sanctification is the act of separating oneself for God’s service and here in chapter 4, Paul calls forth the moral and sexual focus of the term. Those who devote themselves exclusively to God will obey him by respecting the limits of sex, in a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman.
Sex outside of marriage (between two people who have the right to marry) constitutes “sexual immorality” (v. 3). It must be refused by God’s people, because they are not like pagans who deliver themselves up to “lustful passions” (v. 5).
The translation of “vessel” has been understood to refer either to the obtaining of a wife or the control of one’s one body. However it may be understood, Paul’s point is that they should do whatever is necessary within the will of God in order to avoid sexual immorality.
Paul reminds us that no sin is without consequences. Just as there is no victimless crime, there is no sin that does not hurt others (v. 6).
#2. Love (9-10). The Thessalonians were already a cause for thanksgiving because of their “labor of love” (1.3). But they could not rest on their laurels. To be themselves “taught by God” may mean that they perceived the true meaning of the Cross as the ultimate act of divine live. Or it may refer to the inspired teaching of the messengers, or even their example.
Paul’s repeated reference to the love of the brothers and sisters “in all of Macedonia” reminds us that congregations are not “isolated enclaves” but rather “a network of communities bound together by the faith and love they shared”/5. Thus the “brotherly love” is not contained within the city or congregation, but is equivalent to Peter’s love for the brotherhood (1 Peter 2.17).
#3. Example (11-12). With three recommendations of behavior and two purposeful results in view, Paul concludes the encouragement to spiritual progress. Life should be lived simply, especially with a view to reinforcing the message to those outside of Christ. “[T]he character of a Christian’s life has an effect on the reputation of the gospel itself”/6.
A good example is essential, though not sufficient, to the conversion of the pagans. Receiving the benefits of Christian love or devoting oneself to the work of God/7 should not make us dependent on the saints.
No matter how long we have been Christians nor what progress we have made in the Way, we always have opportunity to continue to make progress in holiness, love, and the quiet life that will adorn the message of Christ.
1/ Eduard Schweizer, Theological Introduction to the NT (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991) 62.
2/ Vincent M. Smiles, “The First Letter to the Thessalonians,” in Daniel Durken, ed., New Collegeville Bible Commentary: New Testament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008) 652.
3/ Bíblia — Tradução Ecumênica (São Paulo, Brazil: Edições Loyola, 1994) 2301.
5/ Victor Paul Furnish, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Abingdon NT Commentaries (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007) 96.
6/ Leander E. Keck, “The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians,” in Charles M. Laymon, Interpreter’s One-volume Commentary on the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1971) 870.
7/ Furnish, 98.