1 Thessalonian 4:9-12
November 16, 2016 | Ray Pritchard
Let’s begin with the words of Mark Twain:
“It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
And all God’s people said, “He’s right about that.”
We know what he meant. You can spend years studying difficult Bible passages and come away more confused than when you started. Even the great apostle Peter confessed that some things Paul wrote were hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). If Peter had trouble with Paul, we shouldn’t be surprised when we struggle to understand some parts of the Bible.
Some parts of the Bible are hard to understand
Or you can ponder these simple words of Jesus:
“Do for others what you want them to do for you” (Luke 6:31 ERV).
That’s the sort of thing Mark Twain was thinking about. There is nothing tricky about the words. There are no translation problems. This verse, which we call the Golden Rule, states a principle for conduct that is timeless in its simplicity.
But how do we put it into practice?
But how do we put the Golden Rule into practice?
We face the same challenge when we come to our text. The words are clear enough, but will we do what they say? 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 teaches us how to love others and how to live intentionally so our lives win the respect of outsiders. We need this message because the church has lost its witness to the world. Somewhere along the way, we have lost sight of what we might call “everyday Christianity.” Even though we live in a high-tech world, the needs of the heart have not changed. People still want to know, “Where is the message that can change my life, forgive my sins, and give me a fresh start?”
We need to hear what God is saying to us today. As you read these words, listen with your heart for God’s message to you. Our passage contains two exhortations we need to take seriously. We see the first one in verses 9-10 and the second in verses 11-12. Each one describes what the church owes the world.
I. An Example of Brotherly Love
Paul begins with a simple reminder: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you” (v. 9a). That’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it? “I don’t need to remind you about this, but I will anyway.” The word for “brotherly love” is philadelphia. It refers to the love of family members for one another. It comes from two Greek words that have been joined together:
Somewhere along the way, the church lost its witness to the world
philos, which means “tender affection, fondness, devotion.” It’s a word that implies an obligation to love.
adelphos, usually translated “brother,” literally means “one born of the same womb.”
So the word philadelphia literally means “tender affection owed to those born from the same womb.” It’s easy to understand why Paul chose this word to describe brotherly love. All Christians have been “born of the same womb” through the new birth. Everyone who is saved is saved the same way. God doesn’t have three different plans of salvation—Plan A for Protestants, Plan B for Catholics, and Plan C for everyone else. Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:3). To be born again means to receive new life through personal faith in Jesus Christ. It means to be “born from God’s womb.”
Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me
Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me. I owe all of them philadelphia, tender affection and true devotion.
Note three facts about this brotherly love:
1. It is taught to us by God himself
“For you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other” (v. 9b). The word translated “taught by God” appears nowhere else in the New Testament. It speaks not of a lesson learned in a classroom but of truth learned through relationship. What’s the best way to learn French? Move to France, living with a French-speaking family. Immerse yourself in French culture. Watch French TV. Read French newspapers. Soon the atmosphere of France itself will enter your bloodstream. The same is true regarding love. You learn to love by associating with loving people. Love isn’t taught; it’s caught. Because we come from the womb of God, we share his basic nature, which is love. Therefore, love ought to be the most natural thing for the believer to express.
If you are a Christian, you are “from the womb of God.”
We love because God is love. It’s a family trait. That’s why Paul doesn’t have to teach it. To be a Christian is to enter a fellowship of brotherly love.
2. It reaches out to love all God’s children
“And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia” (v. 10a). Underline that phrase—“all the brothers.” That’s not easy to do. Most of us love some of the brothers, maybe even most of the brothers. But all of them? That’s a tough assignment.
Let us be clear about this. We are to love all true believers everywhere all the time. That’s hard because most of us have some inner reservations. We don’t like this group or that denomination. Maybe we’re not comfortable being in a service where everyone prays out loud at the same time or we don’t understand why people worship using a Prayer Book. We may distrust those who have a different worship style.
Redemption does not homogenize the church!
There will always be points of difference among God’s people. Redemption in Christ does not homogenize the church. Believers have disagreed on important issues for the last 2000 years. I don’t believe we must abandon our doctrinal or cultural distinctives. But if we take Paul seriously, then we must seek to love other Christians who may see the world quite differently than we do.
The love of God is not limited—not by nation or ocean or tribe or tongue or custom or clothing or race or politics or caste or any other human condition. When the love of God captures us, our hearts will be as big as his—reaching to the ends of the earth.
3. It should always be increasing in our lives
“Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more” (v. 10b). What does it mean that our love should increase? It means that we should increase in our
Sympathy for those in need,
Patience for those who are struggling, and
Tolerance toward those with whom we disagree.
The most powerful recommendation for any church is this–that the members love one another! The world pines for this and flocks where it is found. When the unchurched are asked what they want in a church, the answer is always the same: They are looking for a caring church. Not just a friendly church or a relevant church or a church with plenty of programs for the kids. And not just a church where the Bible is clearly taught. As good as those things are, they don’t touch the heart cry of this generation for a place where they can be deeply loved. When the people of the world find such a place, they stand in line to get in.
A Bitter Political Season
How does God help us grow in this area? By putting us in situations that force us to practice Christian love. Over the years I have observed God do this again in again. He allows two people to have difficulties with each other, sometimes to the point of anger and bitterness. He does it because the only way we learn to love is by dealing with unlovely people. I have seen it happen between husbands and wives, parents and children, between co-workers, neighbors, fellow students, and relatives. People who start out disliking each other sometimes end up as dearest friends.
We learn to love by being around unlovely people
C.S. Lewis pointed out that “we may talk so much about loving people in general that we love no one in particular.” One writer graphically describes the problem of loving the unlovely:
Some people are so miserably unlovable. That odorous person with the nasty cough who sat next to you in the train shoving his newspaper into your face. Those crude louts in the neighborhood with the barking dog. That smooth liar who took you in so completely last week. By what magic are you supposed to feel toward these people anything but revulsion, distrust and resentment, and a justified desire to have nothing to do with them?
I am writing these words in the aftermath of a bitter political season in America. Christians seem as deeply divided as I can remember. Some Christians can’t fathom how other Christians could have voted for “that person.” In this case, “that person” might be the winner or the loser. It depends on how you voted! Some of this comes with the territory. We shouldn’t expect Christians to always agree on how to vote. But in times like these, when feelings run deep and tempers are short, we must extend grace to each other. Even though I may not understand the way you voted, if you are my brother or sister in Christ, we share a common faith that runs deeper than who happens to occupy the White House.
In many cases, we will have to agree to disagree
We must find a way to love each other, especially in times like these. We are taught by God to love each other. May God help us to do it.
In many cases, we will simply have to agree to disagree. In some cases, we’ll find it easier to love each other from a distance, at least for a while. We can’t love everyone the same way or to the same degree. But if are Christians at all, we must find a way to love even when loving is hard to do.
It is not magic but rather the power of the Holy Spirit who causes us to love the unlovely. The church is to be a community of love. We owe it to the Lord, to each other, and to the watching world.
Let love abound more and more
Let brotherly love abound more and more.
Let Christian sympathy go out to those in need.
Let us take the banner of God’s concern around the world.
Let us pray for one another and especially for those with whom we disagree.
Let our hearts grow in brotherly love for all of God’s children everywhere.
We owe the world that kind of example.
There is a second exhortation we must take seriously.
II. A Challenge to Balanced Living
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you” (v. 11). To understand this verse, you need to know that in Thessalonica there had been great excitement about the Lord’s return. When he was with them, Paul had taught them about the imminent return of Christ. The word “imminent” means “at any moment.” It means that Jesus could return today or tomorrow or next week or next year.
We believe in the imminent return of Christ
Whenever people get excited about the Lord’s return, there are always those who take it to extremes. You may remember the worldwide commotion when a man named Harold Camping predicted the end of the world on May 21, 2011. In answer to that kind of extremism, Paul issues a strong call for balanced living. He gives three commands, each of which answers a common problem.
1. Live a quiet life
This is the answer to the problem of restlessness. The word “quiet” comes from a Greek word meaning “Sabbath rest.” It speaks of the cessation of work, of the end of conflict, of peace after warfare. Be ambitious, Paul says, to live quietly. We need this admonition because our ambition tends to be noisy, to make a splash, to make a name for ourselves, to get ahead, to rise above the crowd.
Eugene Peterson translates this phrase with two words: “Stay calm.” It means to be less frantic and more settled in your life. I ran across the following quote: “You will never be happy until you learn to enjoy what you already have.” Those are good words for us to hear. We spend thousands of dollars seeking happiness when the answer is learning to enjoy what God has already given us.
These words fit our workaholic age. We live in hurried times, with little sense of stillness and rest. We work harder to achieve less. We are a generation of hyperactive, overgrown kids who stay perpetually hyped up on caffeine, sugar, TV, and raucous music. Our motto is, “Get on the bus or get out of the way!” Somewhere I found this poem that describes contemporary life:
This is the Age of the Half-read Page
And the Quick Bash, and the Mad Dash
The Bright Night, with the Nerves Tight
The Plane Hop, with a Brief Stop
The Lamp Tan in a Short Span
The Big Shot in a Good Spot
And the Brain Strain and the Heart Pain
And the Cat-Naps, till the Spring Snaps
And the Fun’s Done!
The words fit, don’t they? It’s the nature of the beast in the 21st century. We live in a hurry-up, get-it-done-now, grab-the-gusto world. We measure our success by how much we accomplish each day. No wonder we are restless, edgy, tense, nervous, and easily distracted. We talk but have nothing to say; we listen without hearing a word.
Many of you recognize the name of Peter Marshall, Chaplain of the United States Senate in the years just after World War II. He is remembered for his pithy prayers that opened each session. Here is the prayer he prayed on May 8, 1947:
Help us to do our very best this day and be content with today’s troubles, so that we shall not borrow the troubles of tomorrow. Save us from the sin of worrying, lest stomach ulcers be the badge of our lack of faith. Amen.
2. Mind Your Own Business
This is the answer to the problem of meddlesomeness. We all know people like this. They are busybodies who feel called to mind their own business–and yours too. They believe they have a right to invade your privacy. This is a perverted view of brotherly love. One writer speaks of “the busybody’s compulsive itch to set other people right.”
Feel free to have no opinion about that
Years ago a ministry leader told me that he often reminded his staff to “feel free to have no opinion about that.” That’s such good wisdom that we had that engraved on a plaque that hangs in our kitchen. I smile when I see it because it reminds me that I don’t need to have an opinion about everything.
If I take proper care of my own affairs, I won’t have the time or energy to worry too much about what others do or say.
3. Work with your own hands
This is the answer to the problem of idleness. If you’re looking for welfare reform, it begins right here. Paul isn’t being metaphorical. He literally worked with his hands as a tentmaker so he could support himself while he preached the gospel. Even though he was highly educated, he didn’t mind hard work, and he didn’t find manual labor embarrassing.
The upper classes of Greece despised manual labor. That’s why they owned so many slaves. But Christianity brought in a new ethic based on personal responsibility and hard work. Remember, Jesus was a carpenter’s son!
Religious People Can Be a Nuisance
Someone has said, “It is a terrible thing for religious people to have nothing to do but be religious.” And again, “Those who get up in the morning with nothing to do but be religious are generally a great nuisance.” Who makes a real impact for Christ in the world? The man who gets up in the morning, goes to his job and works all day, and the woman who pursues her daily tasks at home and on the job with cheerfulness.
Going to church means little if you are a lazy goldbrick
How we work is as crucial as how we pray. There is no greater testimony than the Christian mechanic at his bench, the Christian teacher in the classroom, the Christian secretary at the desk, the Christian nurse at the hospital, or the Christian accountant keeping the books.
This is true Christianity. Going to church means little if you are a lazy goldbrick on the job. Most of us don’t see our daily work as a way to worship God. But it is. What you do on Monday is just as sacred in the eyes of the Lord as what you do in church on Sunday.
III. The Difference We Will Make
“So that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (v. 12). Paul wraps up our passage with a word about the impact this kind of life makes.
1. You will win the respect of outsiders
Let me state it negatively and positively. On the negative side, “Don’t be lazy and give the church a black eye.” On the positive side, “You can make the church beautiful by the way you do your job.”
Remember, you are the only Bible someone will ever read. You are the only Christian someone will ever meet. What do people read, hear, and see when they look at your life?
You are the only Bible someone will ever read!
The lowliest occupation becomes a powerful sermon when it is done with dignity, honesty, diligence and faithfulness. The common man who does his common job with uncommon grace will never lose his self-respect and will win respect for the church of Jesus Christ.
When we show that our faith makes us better workers, truer friends, better neighbors, kinder men and women, then we are really preaching.
Our lives are sermons that daily draw others to Jesus . . . or push them away from him.
2. You will not be dependent on others
There is a good kind of independence we should all strive for. It’s the kind that comes from paying your bills on time so you don’t have to steal, borrow money, or run up a huge credit card debt. There is nothing wrong with accepting charity in the time of need. But to come to depend on it and to think it is owed you is a terrible sin.
A holy, harmonious, honest life
What does the church owe the world? If we stand back and look at the first 12 verses of 1 Thessalonians 4, we get an answer like this: Each Christian is under obligation for three things:
A holy life—free from immorality (vv. 1-8).
A harmonious life—always increasing in brotherly love (vv. 9-10).
An honest life—living quietly, minding our own business, working with our own hands (vv. 11-12).
If you want to make an impact on the world, this is where you need to begin.
Lord Jesus, help us to be “everyday Christians” whose faith shows in the way we love and the way we live. Amen.