On 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

1 Thessalonians 4:1‑12  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The knowledge of Christ is inseparable from faith; yet is it pre-eminently a life of holiness and love, and not a mere creed, as the human mind tends to make it. We have seen how it wrought in the practical ways of those who first preached the gospel to the Thessalonians, in unselfish goodness and exposure to suffering (chaps. 1-2), as well as in deep feeling afterward for the young converts, so soon called to bear the brunt of affliction. For their abounding in love in order to holiness the apostle prayed the Lord (chap. 3). Now he proceeds to appeal to themselves:—
“Further, then, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as ye received from us how ye ought to walk and please God, even as also ye do walk,1 ye abound still more. For ye know what charges we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is [the] will of God2, your sanctification, that ye abstain from fornication; that each of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, even as also the Gentiles that know not God; that he should not over-reach and wrong his brother in the matter; because the Lord is an avenger in respect of all these things, even as we told you before and fully testified. For God called us not for uncleanness but in sanctification. Wherefore then he that disregardeth disregardeth not man but God that [also] gave3 His Holy Spirit unto you” (4:1-8).
It is an immense thing for those who were once mere men on earth, severed from God and in spirit from each other by sin, only united when united for objects of human will or glory, now as His children with one purpose of heart to walk so as to please God. Yet such is Christianity practically viewed; and it is worthless if not practical. It is true that there is in the light and truth which Christ has revealed by the Holy Ghost the richest material and the fullest scope for the renewed mind and heart. But there is in “the mystery” no breadth nor length, no height nor depth which does not bear on the state of the affections or the character of the walk and work; and no error more dishonors God or damages man than the divorce of theory from practice. Scripture binds them together indissolubly, warning us solemnly against those who would part them as evil, the sure enemies of God and man. No! truth is not merely to inform but to sanctify; and what we received from those divinely given to communicate it is “how we ought to walk and please God.” In that path the youngest believer walks from the first, slave or free, Greek or Scythian, learned or unlearned; from that path none can slip save into sin and shame. It is not, however, a mere defined direction, as in a law or ordinance. As a life is in question, the life of Christ, there is exercise and growth by the knowledge of God. On the state of the soul depends the discernment of God's will in His word, which is overlooked where levity marks the inner condition, or the will is active and unjudged. “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Then only is there surefootedness spiritually; and a deepening sense of the word in the intelligence issues in a fuller obedience. One knows God's mind better, and the heart is earnest in pleasing Him. We abound more and more.
This was no new solicitude of the apostle. They knew what charges he gave them through the Lord Jesus. Is not His will, His honor, concerned in a walk pleasing to God? He on earth could say, “I do always those things that please Him;” in heaven He is now occupied with those who are following in the same path here below. We may fail; but is this our aim? He does not fail to help us by His word, as He would also by His grace if we looked to Him and leaned on Him. Do we hear His voice?
On one thing especially was the apostle urgent, the personal purity of those who bore the name of Jesus; and the more so as the Greeks utterly failed in it. Their habits and their literature, their statesmen and their philosophers, all helped on the evil; their very religion conduced to aggravate the defilement by consecrating that to which depraved nature is itself prone. Few can have any adequate notion of the moral horrors of the heathen world, or of the insensibility of men generally to pollutions so shameless. Christ changed all for those who believe in Him, leaving an example that they should follow His steps. “For this is God's will, your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication; that each of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, even as also the Gentiles that know not God; that no man over-reach and wrong his brother in the matter; because the Lord is an avenger of all these things, even as we told you before and fully testified.” Holiness, of course, goes far beyond freedom from sensuality. Still to stand clear of that which was everywhere sanctioned in ordinary life was no small thing. Nor is the apostle satisfied with the negative duty of abstinence, but calls on “each of them to know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor,” instead of letting it drift loosely into sin and shame, not in passion of lust, even as the Gentiles also that know not God.” Acts 15 is proof positive on scripture testimony of that day, painfully confirmed by the disclosures of Pompeii and Herculaneum, to the moral degradation that pervaded even the most civilized portion of the heathen world. When God is dishonored, man is reprobate; and God, in forgiving and rescuing from the wrath to come through Christ's death and resurrection, gives also a new life in Christ on which the Holy Spirit acts by the word so as to produce fruits of righteousness by Him to God's glory.
Hence the exhortation further, “that he should not over-reach and wrong his brother in the matter, because the Lord is an avenger in respect of all these things, even as we told you before and fully testified.” There is no real ground to introduce a new topic here, confounding with Calvin and others τῷ πρ. with τοῖς πρ., still less to suppose with Koppe τῳ, enclitic = τινι, “any,” like our own Authorized Version (compare 2 Cor. 7:1111For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:11)). It is the apostle's delicate way of referring to the same uncleanness, especially in married circumstances where the rights of a brother were infringed. This demanded and receives special notice. For as the brotherhood of Christians casts them into free and happy and intimate intercourse, there would be peculiar danger in these very circumstances lest Satan should tempt where flesh was not kept by faith in the place of death, that love only should act in holy ways with Christ before their eyes. There is perhaps no danger more gravely pressed. They are the ways which bring wrath on the sons of disobedience, and all words which make light of the evil are vain; the Lord avenges all these things, and God will judge the guilty. It is not the true grace of God which spares the strongest and repeated warnings; for God called us not for uncleanness, but in sanctification. It is plain that there is no branching off to commercial dealings, or to dishonesty in the affairs of every-day life. Impurity in the social relations of the saints is the evil still in view; and the conclusion is, “Wherefore then he that disregardeth disregardeth not man but God, that also gave His Holy Spirit unto you.” Thus does grace, in calling to a moral duty, rise entirely above the mere weighing of such motives as act on men. It is not that delicate consideration of man is omitted: the apostle begins with the slighting of man in the matter, but he forthwith brings in also the immense yet solemn privilege of the Christian, God's gift of the Holy Spirit. How would impurity affect Him who dwells in the saints, and makes the body God's temple?
Next follows a call to abound in brotherly love, in which the apostle does glide into the connected proprieties of daily labor animated by care for others. “Now concerning brotherly love ye have no need that we write to you; for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another; for, indeed, ye do it toward all the brethren that are in the whole of Macedonia. But we exhort you, brethren, that ye abound still more, and that ye make it your aim to be quiet and mind your own affairs and work with your own hands, even as we charged you, that ye may walk honorably toward those without, and may have need of nothing” (ver. 9-12). The possession of Christ does wonderfully bind hearts together; and as affection one toward another is a spiritual instinct, so all that is learned of Christ deepens it intelligently. Intercourse may test its reality sometimes, but as a whole develops it actively, and the more as sharing the same hostility from the world. Here, too, the apostle looks that it should abound more and more, and along with it the studious aim to be quiet and to mind their own affairs, which brotherly love would surely promote, the very reverse of that meddling disposition which flows from the assumption of superiority in knowledge or spirituality or faithfulness. Farther, he calls on them to work with their own hands, even as we charged you (and who could do it with so good a grace?), that they may walk honorably toward those without, and may have need of nothing [or none]. There is not such a thought as encouraging the needy to draw on the generosity of others. Let it be the ambition of those who love, and would keep the love of others, to spare themselves in nothing and avoid encroaching on the help of any, so as to cut off all suspicion from those without. Brotherly love would be questioned if heed were not paid to propriety; it flourishes and abounds where there is also self-denial.