Doing God’s Will

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

October 13, 2002 | Brian Bill

A wealthy man went up to his pastor and said, “I want you and your wife to take a three-month trip to the Holy Land at my expense.  When you come back I’ll have a surprise for you.”  Three months later they returned home and discovered that this man had built a beautiful new sanctuary for the church.  It was magnificent and no expense was spared.  

But the pastor noticed that there was just one pew, and it was at the very back of the church.  When he asked the purpose of having only one pew in the spacious sanctuary, the wealthy man told him to wait until Sunday.  When Sunday came, the early arrivals entered the church and sat in the one pew.  When it was full, it automatically began to move forward.  When it reached the front of the church, it came to a stop.  At the same time a new pew came up from below at the back of the church and more people sat down.  And so it continued, pews filling and moving forward until the church was full, from front to back.

The pastor couldn’t believe it and exclaimed, “Marvelous!  Wonderful!”  The service began, and the preacher began his sermon.  He launched into his text and when 12:00 noon came, he was still going strong, with no end in sight.  Suddenly a bell rang, and a trap door in the floor behind the pulpit dropped open, swallowing the pastor in the middle of one of his points.  The congregation responded in unison, “Marvelous!  Wonderful!”

As we come to 1 Thessalonians 4 this morning, Paul utilizes one of a preacher’s favorite words: “Finally…”  While we might think Paul is wrapping up his message, it’s 12:00 noon in Thessalonica and he’s just getting started!  We move now to a series of commands that deal with the walk of a Christian.  Paul is saying, “There are a few other things that you need to know about.”

Let’s begin by breaking down the first two verses: “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.  Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.  For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”  These words form a gentle reminder of the previous instruction they had received concerning how they should live in order to please God.  The term “brothers” is used 17 times in this letter and literally means, “to come from the same womb.”  I love how Paul urges them on by first affirming them when he says, “…as in fact you are now living.”  It’s always best to look for ways to encourage someone before we call them on the carpet.  Affirmation must always come before exhortation.

The Thessalonians have been following the instructions they had been given.  This was a military term used for orders that were handed down to the troops.  These weren’t just suggestions, but commands, and the army of believers who made up the new church faithfully followed these directives.  Paul is saying that there’s something more that they need to put into practice so he “asks and urges” them to action.  

They’ve been doing good but now need to carry out their marching orders “more and more.”  They needed to step it up a notch, by taking their faith walk to the next level.  This is both a compliment and a challenge.  We must always be open to press on, to strive for excellence, to not rest on our laurels.  Notice the two uses of the phrase, “the Lord Jesus.”  They are urged to fully obey the Lord Jesus in the commands that are given by His authority.  None of this is optional.  He is the commander and our job is to follow Him fully.  The practical matters to follow are of supreme importance.

Verses 1-2 contain a plea to please God.  Verses 3-12 provide us with an explanation of how “to live in order to please God.”  This should be the goal of every believer.  We cannot claim to know and love God if we are not seeking to please Him.  Under the authority of the Lord Jesus, we are to…

  • Be holy by living in purity (3-8)
  • Be harmonious by loving one another (9-10)
  • Be honest by lighting the outsider (11-12)

Be Holy By Living In Purity

Let’s look at the first part of verse 3: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…” Many times we make God’s will something that is elusive for us as believers.  We wonder what it is He wants us to do, and where He wants us to live, when God is more concerned with who we are.  We’re often more concerned with location and vocation, when God is committed to our transformation.  We can find the will of God in the Word of God!  I was amazed this week when I did a concordance search and discovered that the emphasis in the Bible is not so much on knowing God’s will, but on doing the will of God.  

  • Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will…”
  • Matthew 12:50: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
  • John 7:17: “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out if my teaching comes from God…”
  • Ephesians 6:6: “…doing the will of God from your heart.”
  • Hebrews 10:36: “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”
  • 1 John 2:17: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

It’s clear: when we know God’s will, we must do God’s will.  Verse 3 is a helpful verse because it spells out the will of God for us.  God’s desire is that we be sanctified.  Sanctification is the process of being made holy.  The word literally means, “to be separated or set apart.”  Sanctification begins at conversion (1 Corinthians 6:11), it continues throughout our Christian life (Hebrews 2:11), and it will be completed when Jesus returns (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Paul gets more specific in the command for us to be separated in the last part of verse 3 when he describes what sanctification looks like: “that you should avoid sexual immorality.”  You can’t get much clearer than that.  God’s will is that we abstain from sexual immorality.  To “avoid” means, “to abstain, hold oneself from, to run away and be distant from.” We’re to keep our distance, like not walking on a frozen lake because of the “Thin Ice” sign.  You are abstaining from something when you separate yourself from it completely.  The Philips translation puts it this way: “Make a clean cut with sexual immorality.”  Ephesians 5:3 defines this further: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” 

The phrase “sexual immorality” comes from the Greek word porneia, which is a very broad word encompassing every kind of sexual activity outside the circle of God’s will.  If you’re wondering where in the Bible God forbids sex outside of marriage, here it is.  It covers sins of the mind, body, eyes, ears and lips.  It includes premarital sex, extra-marital sex, homosexuality, adultery, and every form of pornography.  In fact the English “pornography” comes from this word porneia.  Paul is telling us that Christians must abstain from a pornographic lifestyle in the broadest sense of that word.  We are not to dabble in sexual sin in any of its various forms.  

This is a command of God and an absolute prohibition.  This is not easy to hear and is not easy to preach about in our sex-soaked society today.  But preach it we must for it is God’s will that we abstain from sexual immorality.  Several years ago the Gallup organization released a survey in which they compared the beliefs and lifestyles of evangelical Christians with the public at large.  One finding hit me in the spiritual solar plexus: “There is little difference in ethical behavior between those who go to church and those who don’t.”

While our culture has a defiled view of sex, and we are literally drowning in a barrage of illicit iniquity, it may have been even worse in Thessalonica, which has been compared to modern day San Francisco.  Thessalonica was a seaport, which meant that sailors and visiting merchants brought with them the usual desires for sexual gratification.  More importantly, the Greek religions of that day practiced sacred prostitution, which involved hiring a prostitute at a pagan temple as part of worship.  Pleasure at any cost was the philosophy of the day.  Given that moral atmosphere, there must have been enormous pressure on these young Christians to lower their standards and conform to the world around them.  But Paul will have none of it.  He orders them to stay away from every form of sexual immorality.  

Friend, listen carefully.  God’s commandments are not meant to steal our joy, they are meant to protect us so that we don’t lose our joy.  He wants us to be set apart from sin and to the Savior.  1 Chronicles 16:29 tells us that holiness is beautiful.  To be sanctified is to be splashed with splendor and to be bathed in beauty.  God is designing beautiful people who will experience wholeness and joy.  This can only happen as we keep his commands and pursue His parameters for moral purity.  God is not a celestial killjoy.  He has set us apart in order to serve notice that we are exceedingly special to Him.  Because He prizes us with delight, He demands the best for us and the best is always to do things His way.  Warren Wiersbe writes that the commandment to not commit adultery, “Builds a wall around marriage that makes the relationship not a prison, but a safe and beautiful garden.”

If the church doesn’t stand up for sexual abstinence, who will?  Where will people hear about the sacredness of sexuality if the pulpits in America are paralyzed by what is politically correct?  We will continue to ask and urge people to do things God’s way here, regardless of what our culture deems correct.  Can you imagine how the Thessalonian believers stood out in that day when they started abstaining from immorality?  Can you imagine what would happen in our society if we lived like we’re supposed to live?

I’m thankful for the counter cultural message that Erika Harold, the new Miss America is sharing with the public.  Miss Harold is a graduate of the University of Illinois, and over the last couple years has spoken to more than 14,000 students about the virtues of virginity and the advantages of abstinence.  When she was competing for the Miss Illinois phase of the competition, abstinence education was her official platform.  She was warned to not take such an “unpopular” issue to the national level.  In fact, state pageant officials changed her Miss America focus to “teen violence prevention” calling it more “pertinent” because she also speaks out against bullying.  This past week, Harold reported that she had been ordered to stop talking publicly about sexual abstinence.  At a news conference on Tuesday, she stated strongly, I will not be bullied…many young girls desperately need to hear about sexual abstinence.  I will not be silenced.”

One of the many things I love about the Bible is that we’re not just given commands and prohibitions.  God also gives us a gameplan to follow that is best for our lives.  Verse 3 is the command.  In Verses 4-6 we see the “how” and in verses 7-8 we’re told “why.”

Let’s look at how we can abstain from immorality and maintain our sanctification.

1. Learn how to handle your body (4). 

“That each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable.”  We’re to cease doing wrong, and we’re to learn to do something good.  The word “body” here is “vessel,” signifying something fragile and in need of tender care.  We really have two choices.  We can learn to control our bodies or we can allow our sex drive to run our lives.  Genesis 4:7: “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” 

I’m afraid that some of you just allow your urges and desires to have control, as you give in to whatever you feel like doing.  Romans 6:12-13: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.  Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”  

You know what you can handle and what you can’t and some of you are skating on some pretty thin ice.  Don’t put yourself in situations where you can easily get out of control.  Watch what you watch.  In Job 31:1, we read about a decision Job made to make sure he progressed in purity: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.”  If you’re struggling with lust, why not follow Job’s example and make an agreement with God to not gaze greedily at girls?  

Whatever starts you down the path that God designed to culminate in the intimacy of marriage is beyond where God wants you to go

Stay away from whatever plays with your sexual emotions.  Be careful about what you look at on the Internet and make sure you have a good filter installed.  Remember this: Whatever starts you down the path that God designed to culminate in the intimacy of marriage is beyond where God wants you to go.

2. Act like who you are (5). 

“Not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God.”  We shouldn’t be surprised when lost people lust and engage in sexual immorality but we should be shocked when believers live like pagans.  Perhaps the saddest thing about lust is that it never satisfies.  Someone has said that lust is “the craving for salt by a man dying of thirst.” It promises everything and delivers nothing.  No great release.  No lasting satisfaction.  You always have to go back for more.  It’s the law of diminishing returns.  

We’re not who we once were!  We’re to be controlled by our love for God and not by lust for someone else.  We’re different and we must act like who we are now.  We are made for better things because we know God.  And knowing God makes all the difference in the world.  2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”  Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s live like saints, not sinners!  You are saved, redeemed, justified, forgiven, regenerated, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. 

3. Don’t take advantage of others (6a). 

“And that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.”  The King James Version uses the word “defraud.”  The idea of not wronging means that we are to not cross the line or go out of bounds.  We’re not to take advantage of someone else for our own fulfillment.  John MacArthur points to Matthew 18:6 when he says, “Next time you go out with someone on a date and you become tempted to defraud, to plunder, to rob his or her purity, remember the words of Jesus, ‘You would be better off drowned than to lead one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.’”

Sexual sin always hurts somebody.  There is no such thing as safe sex outside of the majesty of marriage.  They don’t make a condom that can protect your heart.  Don’t plunder somebody’s purity.  Don’t rob their respect by marring memories that will be with them for a lifetime.  Don’t take somebody else’s wife or husband.  Don’t cheat your wife by dreaming of other women.  Don’t defraud your husband by flirting with other men.  Don’t steal what is not yours.  Your date could be the future spouse of one of your friends.  Here’s the principle: treat God as holy and people as honorable.

In verses 6-8, we’re given three reasons why we should abstain from sexual immorality.

1. To avoid God’s punishment (6b). 

“The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.” This is a tough verse for us to hear.  We know that God will “avenge” a lost person’s sins but we don’t normally think of what this means for the believer.  Remember that Paul is writing to the church here.  While it is true that the Christian is not under condemnation (Romans 8:1), the principle of reaping what we sow is also true.  

Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.”  This has a future element to it.  You may think that there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing.  It feels good and you’ve not been caught – yet.  Don’t be deceived.  God always takes action and you will not be able to escape the painful results of sinful choices.  It’s the law of inevitable consequences as spelled out in Deuteronomy 32:35, when God says: “It I mine to avenge; I will repay.  In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”  If you think this is just an Old Testament teaching, listen to Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and the sexually immoral.”

Now, what does this judgment look like?  We don’t always know in every case, but we do know that there are consequences when we live outside of God’s lines.  It could involve a venereal disease or HIV.  It could be living with guilt and shame.  There could be negative circumstances like an unplanned pregnancy.  It may be the absence of blessings; it could lead to a devastated marriage.  You may feel cheapened because of what you’ve done.  Your passions may become inflamed, which can lead to your destruction.  Whatever the case, you will reap what you sow.  Friend, if you’re involved in something sexually immoral right now, its time to repent and ask for forgiveness.  Do you want to live as a fugitive, always looking over your shoulder to see if your secret sins have caught up with you?  We cannot disregard God and get away with it.

2. To live out our purpose (7). 

“For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”  We should also avoid sexual immorality because God has called us into a live-changing sanctifying relationship with Himself.  The word “impure” literally means, “refuse” and was used of the contents of graves.  Friend, no matter what you’ve done, you are not garbage.  If you know Jesus Christ, your purpose now is to live a holy life.

3. To experience God’s power (8). 

“Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”  The word, “reject” means to treat with utter contempt.  Some of you may feel like this message is cramping your style.  You might not like what I’m saying.  Don’t get mad at me; direct your anger towards the Almighty.  Your complaint is not with the church; it’s with Christ.

God gives us the Holy Spirit to enable and empower us.  Galatians 6:16: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”  Some of you have tried to stop your sexual activity on your own and you’ve realized quickly that you can’t.  The Spirit is the Holy One, who consecrates us to holiness.  Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit; as you submit and surrender to Him daily, He will bring a harvest of righteousness into your life.

Be Harmonious By Loving One Another

Our growing relationship with God will result in growing relationships with others

As we come to verses 9-10, we move from holiness to harmony: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.  And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia.  Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.”  The more we live like God, the more we will love one another.  Once again, Paul applauds them for yet another evidence of their faith.  As they grew in their discipleship, their love grew for one another.  They experienced this love as a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  They not only loved those in their church, they were known as lovers of people in the entire region of Macedonia.  Our growing relationship with God will result in growing relationships with others.

One of the best ways to avoid sexual immorality is to look at members of the opposite sex who know Jesus as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We can demonstrate real love by treating each other as family.  Believers are not sex objects, but objects of the Savior’s love.  We are called to do whatever we can to build believers up in their faith, by loving them as much as God loves us.  Guys, when you look at a Christian fox, you are looking at your sister in Christ.  Girls, when you gaze at a holy hunk, he is first and foremost your fellow family member

Verse 10 challenges us to not ever slow down in our love.  We might be doing OK, but it’s always short of where we should be.  In the area of love, we can never sit back and feel like we’ve done enough.

Be Honest By Lighting the Outsider

Be holy by living in purity.  Be harmonious by loving one another.  The final theme of this passage is to be honest by lighting the outsider.  Look at verses 11-12: “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, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”  Our ultimate ambition, the driving force of our life, should be to shine the light of the gospel on those who are still on the “outside.”  This is yet another motivation for practicing purity.  You and I should not do anything sexually that would harm our brother or sister in Christ, and we must make sure we don’t push lost people away by our immoral behavior.

To live a quiet life is the answer to the problem of restlessness.  The word “quiet” speaks of the end of conflict, of peace after warfare.  Be ambitious, Paul says, to live quietly.  We need these words because our ambition tends to be noisy, to make a splash, a name, to get ahead, to rise above the crowd.  Eugene Peterson translates this phrase with two words: “Stay calm.”  

To mind our own business is the answer to the problem of being meddlesome.  Almost no one appreciates a busybody.  Let me share three signs that you have crossed the line of genuine concern and have started meddling: 

  • You base your happiness on what others do or say.
  • You repeat your advice over and over hoping to convince someone.
  • You judge others on whether or not they do what you say.

There are two things wrong with this:  

  • First, busybodies violate the principle of individual liberty given to every Christian.  Each of us will stand individually before God someday.  Since you’re not God, don’t try to play God for someone else.  
  • Second, busybodies spend so much time worrying about others they neglect their own lives.  You end up losing all sense of values.  You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.  You become at expert at seeing the grain of dust in your brother’s eye while ignoring the log in your own eye.  

The best way to light the path for non-Christians is by working honestly and leading a quiet life of impeccable integrity.  We should attend to our own business as we avoid gossip and backbiting.  People will see Jesus in you through the influence of the day-to-day grind of life because your workplace habits speak volumes.  You can make Christ look beautiful by the way you do your job.  The greatest witness you will ever have is the life that you lead.


Do you want to know how to lead a life that pleases God?   

  • Set yourself apart from sexual immorality. 
  • Love your brothers and sisters in Christ.  
  • And work hard and honestly so that lost people can see your good works and glorify God in heaven.  

Sadly, too many of us are living anxious, guilt-ridden lives, with no sense of vision for what God wants us to do.  Some of you are probably thinking that it is too late for you.  Maybe you’ve been hoping a trap door would open up and swallow me in the middle of the sermon because you don’t want to hear any more.  You’ve lusted too much, you haven’t loved enough, and you could care less about the lost.  

Listen carefully.  The glory of the gospel is that we can always have a fresh start, a new beginning.  All of us have messed up our lives in one way or another.  Jesus has something He wants to say to you.  He said it to the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11 and He says it to you this morning: “Then neither do I condemn you.  Go now and leave your life of sin.”  You can’t do a thing to change the past and it’s a waste of time to try.  However, you can do something about the future.

When our daughter Lydia was two, she liked to test her boundaries.  I can remember one night when she threw her fork on the floor after I had told her not to.  I picked it up and gave it to her and she promptly dropped it again.  I turned to her and said, “Lydia, look at me.”  She kept her eyes down, staring at the floor.  

I persisted and said, “Lydia, please look into my eyes.”  She refused again, and by now tears were rolling down her cheeks.  I then gently took her face and moved her head up and asked her to look at me.  When she finally locked onto my eyes, I could see her guilt and shame.  I smiled at her and said, “Lydia, I love you.  Do not throw the fork on the floor again.”  To which she responded, “OK, daddy.  No fork floor.”

When she looked into my face, she could see that everything was going to be OK.  Likewise, God wants us to fix our eyes on Him.  

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full into His wonderful face.

And the things of this earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of his glory and grace.

  • Friend, Jesus is holding your face in his nail-scarred hands.  Will you look up?
  • As you look into His eyes, will you fess up?
  • In order to make things right, do you need to come up?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?