1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 – Striving for Excellence – Spiritual and Moral

1Thessalonians 4v1-8


Striving for Excellence – Spiritual and Moral



The Bible is often accused of being irrelevant and out of dated, usually by those who haven’t read it. If issues like sex, work, community care, bereavement, suffering, sickness, justice, peace and the future are outdated then we might be able to agree with these critics. However, when I read my newspapers and listen to the Radio and TV these are precisely the kind of issues that are discussed. It is about all these issues and more that the bible has much to say. Chapters 4-5 of Thessalonians deal with some of these issues – viz. sex, community care, work, bereavement and the future.


Paul has spent the first three chapters of his letter commending the Thessalonian Christians for their faith and explaining the reason why he had to leave Thessalonica and has been unable to return.

Paul’s companion and fellow-worker, Timothy, has recently visited Thessalonica and now returns to Paul in Corinth with a report. Paul is most likely responding to issues raised by Timothy.


1. Christian Faith and Christian Ethics are inextricably linked.


The thrust of this coming section is that the sole aim of a Christian’s life is to please God. Verses 1, 2 & 7 emphasise this point of pleasing God / holy living –

  • The question is, “How do we please God?”
    • The first step in pleasing God is coming to him for salvation in repentance and faith. The evidence of that faith must continue in daily living – 1 Thessalonians 2:12 12 … urging you to live lives worthy of God, …   1 Thessalonians 4:1 & 7 1 …. to live in order to please God, …. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (NIV)


Holiness is not white robes and shining halos but it is seen in the practical matters of sexual conduct, honest work, caring for people, etc…


4x in the first eleven verses Paul reminds them that the things he is telling them are not new –

4:1  …, we instructed you how to live ..

4:2  .. you know what instructions we gave you.

4:6 ….. as we have already told you and warned you.

4:11  …. just as we told you.

As evangelical Christians, esp. in the West, we are very strong on preaching the gospel but we are comparatively weak when it comes to teaching Christian ethics.

Our reasoning is that we are not longer under Law but under grace! By which we mean that we no longer need to follow the 10 commandments in order to please God because we are come to God by the gracious favour of God – based upon the death of Jesus on the cross.

This however is a misunderstanding both of the OT law and the Grace of God –

People in the OT were accepted by God on the same basis that we are – grace – they looked forward to the cross. It was only after God had called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and rescued the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt that he gave them the 10 commandments – the moral law. They were already his covenant people – the law was to instruct them on how to live as God’s covenant people.


We too come to faith in God by grace – based on the death of Christ for us – then he instructs us how to live for him.

We however are so individualistic and private that we are quite happy to believe in God BUT no one must tell me how to live my life – The church must not interfere in my private life.


Paul and the other NT writers had a lot to say about ethics. When we read Paul’s letters we see a pattern – the first section talks about doctrine [Christian belief] and the second about ethics [Christian behaviour]. Paul gave instructions about a wide range of issues ranging from the boardroom to the bedroom.


2. A Christian’s Primary Purpose is to Please God.


1 Thessalonians 4:1-2

1 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. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. (NIV)


The NIV leaves out a word – The first word is ‘THERFORE’. Paul has reinforced the gospel and commended them for their faith [Christian Belief] “now therefore …” – here comes the ethics part!


a) Paul’s instructions have divine authority.


The words that Paul uses in these verses are very forceful. – they were used to describe military commands or civil order by Magistrates.


Paul boldly claims divine authority – 1 Thessalonians 4:2         For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.


  • For Paul – the gospel he preached is God’s gospel –

– 1 Thessalonians 2:13  And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (NIV)

  • For Paul his instructions are equivalent to God’s ethics – [4v1-2]


b) Pleasing God is the key to holiness.


We see this in the life of Jesus – his over-riding motivation was to please his Father – John 8:29 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (NIV)

Paul has a similar passion both for himself and his friends – 2 Corinthians 5:9 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. (NIV)


The alternative to pleasing God is NOT pleasing God and the results of such a position with God is terrible – to be the subject of God’s displeasure is not something to relish.


Pleasing God is the guiding principle to Christian behaviour –


RELATIONAL – How can I claim to know and to love God if I don’t seek to please him? This strikes at the very foundation of our discipleship – it tests the reality of our faith in Christ. Jesus asks us what he asked Peter “Do you love me?”


FLEXIBLE – pleasing God is not the cold duty of keeping rules and regulations – That would be the equivalent of Christian Pharisaism. The idea is that we have a relationship with our heavenly Father and through prayer and meditation on the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit within us we develop the Spiritual instinct of hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. The basis of pleasing God is not legalism but love.


PROGRESSIVE – If our goal is to perfectly please God – we can never claim to have arrived THEREFORE Paul calls us to do this “more and more”




3. Sanctification includes our Sexuality.


1 Thessalonians 4:3-6

3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, 5 not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no-one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. (NIV)


In this section the first practical matter Paul deals with is the issue of sexual morality which was an issue in Thessalonica. Isn’t it always?!


It is not surprising that Paul begins with the matter of sexuality. It is one of the strong human urges. Also he was writing from Corinth to people in Thessalonica. Both cities were famous for their immorality. In Corith the Greek goddess Aphrodite sent her servants out as prostitute to roam the streets by night. In Thessalonica Cabiri was the deity worshipped – gross immorality was promoted under the name of this god.

To the first century Greeks is would have seemed puritanical in the extreme to expect a man to limit himself to his own wife.

What was Paul getting excited about?          Was he against sex?

It is unrealistic, they would have argued, for a man to restrain himself in this way. Opportunities for extra-martial sex were widely available. It was expected that a man marry for companionship and to provide a mother for his legitimate children. BUT there was nothing stopping him having a mistress.

Opportunities for casual sexual liaisons were endless – there were the female slaves and the harlots – not to mention the fact that religion and prostitution went hand in hand.

To add to the picture homosexual relationships were condoned, even encouraged.


Britain at the end of the 20th Century seems remarkably similar.

We live in a climate where sexual experimentation before marriage is considered by many a legitimate leisure activity for teenagers – where extramarital affairs are not always considered a betrayal of sacred promises but a understandable outlet for someone trapped in an unfulfilling relationship.

The aggressive and confident Gay and Lesbian lobby has almost succeeded in making homosexual couple seen as having equal status with heterosexual marriages.


In the midst of all this Christians are often seen as puritanical and prudish – having a negative attitude to sex. Sometime this is true!!

BUT Christians are also realists – we see sex as good – it is a gift from God given to be enjoyed – it is a legitimate part of our humanness.

HOWEVER Christians also recognise that human nature was distorted by the Fall and given that our sexual urge is so powerful it needs to be rightly channelled and carefully controlled.


a)     Self-control must operate in the arena of our sexuality.


3….. that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control his own body

We are not free to satisfy our sexual appetites anywhere, anyhow, any time. Sanctification / pleasing God / holiness includes avoiding ‘porneia’ – [ a blanket term for all sexual activity / stimulation.


b)    Sex has a God-given context.


3….. that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to live with his own wife // acquire a wife


This is a legitimate alternative translation – the Greek word is ‘vessel’ which could refer to one’s own body or that of another.

I think this is the preferable translation given the context.

Paul is affirming that a heterosexual marriage in the only God-given context for sexual intercourse.


The corollary is that it is forbidden in every other context whether a heterosexual partner before marriage {fornication} or outside of marriage {adultery} or the someone of the same sex {homosexuality}.

This includes not just the actual act of intercourse but also all sexual stimulation – eg. Heavy petting / oral sex / pornography etc …


What about pre-marital sex – it is not just about gratifying the desire of the moment. It is about the feelings and memories that stay / scar long after the relationship has ended. Emotional and physical ‘baggage’ that is carried on into subsequent relationship.


What about extra-marital affairs – similar things apply but added are the broken promises that feelings of betrayal – the harm to children.


What about Homosexuality – READ “Thought for Today” Anne Atkins 10/10/96 on BBC Radio 4


What about the ‘not-marrieds’-  You may say to me “Well it is alright for you – you are happily married you don’t know what it is like!” An you are right I don’t!! Although I did until is got married when I was 24!!

But listen to someone who has never married – John Stott – READ BST commentry on 1 Thess. pp. 84-85


What about the ‘marrieds’ –

Paul lays down instructions as to how sexual relations within marriage are to be practised. Being married is not a licence for anyone to be sexually immoral. There needs to be sexual restraint within marriage too.

We have all heard about / some have sadly experienced the selfish sexual demands which are sometimes made by one marriage partner on another – aggression, violence cruelty and even rape. Marriage is not to be a form of legalised lust. Generally men who need to hear this.

NOR is withholding sex from a partner as a means of punishing or manipulating them emotionally acceptable either. Generally women who need to hear this!


If this is how we behave, says Paul, involved in sexual immorality / outside of marriage or within marriage / then we are just like the heathen who don’t know God

The principle is “Don’t take advantage of another” – “Don’t use someone else to satisfy your own selfish appetites”


Even within marriage sexual relations need to be ‘holy and honourable’ – Remember that God sees into the bedroom as well as all the other rooms!! And he hates exploitation in any form!


Sex was given by God to be enjoyed BUT “the fact is that there is a world of difference

  • between lust and love,
  • between dishonourable sexual practices which use the partner and true love-making which honours the partner,
  • between selfish desire to possess and the unselfish desire to love, cherish and respect”. [Stott]


What about our sexual baggage?  – It would be foolish and naïve to think that in this day and age // or any day and age for that matter // that we come to the Lord as sexual puritans AND having come that we never offend in this area again.

If some may be tempted to be proud that they have never engaged in pre-marital / extra-marital / gay / sexual activity REMEMBER Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:28 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (NIV)


Let me also remind you that sexual sin is no more sinful than other sin – When the Bible list sins that God abhors it includes many things. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)

Hebrews 13:4-5

4 Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, ….


God does not give us the freedom to pick and choose the sins we think are more acceptable than others – “All have sinned” ALL!!

Let us with sober warning Jesus words to the Jews not to look for specks in the eyes of others IF there are logs in our own eyes.


So in this area of sexuality are there are things we need to ask God’s forgiveness for; Remember the woman caught in the act of adultery – Jesus forgave her and also instructed her to “go and sin no more”. With God there is always a new beginning no matter what our past IF we come to him in repentance and faith.


4. Make holiness your passion.


1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, …. God, … gives you his Holy Spirit. (NIV)


  • 1st – God’s call is to holiness – For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life —– {be holy for I am holy}
  • 2nd – God’s will is our holiness – 3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: {holy}
  • 3rd – God’s Spirit is a Holy Spirit – given as a gift to all believrs
  • 4th – God’s judgement will fall on all unholiness – The Lord will punish men for all such sins.

THEREFORE without holiness it is impossible to please God.


Closing Hymn: ‘Take time to be holy’



Striving for Excellence – Spiritual and Moral


1Thessalonians 4v1-8



1. Faith and Ethics are inextricably linked.


2. A Christian’s Primary Purpose is to Please God.


a)  Paul’s instructions have divine authority.

b)  Pleasing God is the key to holiness.

– Relational

– Flexible

– Progressive


3. Sanctification includes our Sexuality.


a)  Self-control must operate in the arena of our sexuality.

b)  Sex has a God-given context – heterosexual marriage.


What about …

              … pre-marital sex?

              … extra-marital affairs?

              … homosexuality?

              … the ‘Not-Marrieds’?

              … the ‘Marrieds’?

              … our sexual baggage?



4. Make holiness your passion.


1st – God’s call is to holiness

2nd – God’s will is our holiness

3rd – God’s Spirit is a Holy Spirit – given as a gift to all believrs

4th – God’s judgement will fall on all unholiness

THEREFORE without holiness it is impossible to please God.


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