You are currently browsing the daily archive for May 21, 2011.

The more of the omissions I see from the standard three-year Lectionary, the more I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during these committee meetings of clergy deciding what would go in and what would stay out.

Although many denominationally-minded Christians deride Evangelicalism, the more orthodox independent churches really do preach the Bible and all of it.  So, for them, today’s selection is probably a passage with which they are familiar.

For the rest of us, however, it’s part of the Forbidden Bible Verses, which, as we read them, we discover how essential they are to our understanding of Scripture.

Today’s reading comes from the ESV (English Standard Version) with exegetical commentary from Matthew Henry.

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

A Life Pleasing to God

 1Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

 9Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

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Regular readers of this Saturday night – Sunday column will recognise that holiness and self-control have been a recurring theme throughout this year.  Most recently, Forbidden Bible Verses has featured the letters of St Peter on this subject: 1 Peter 1:10-16, 1 Peter 2:11-18, 1 Peter 3:1-7 and 2 Peter 1:1-12.  And if you have been reading the weekday posts regularly, you’ll find that many — if not all — of the biblically-oriented ones recently have contained verses from St Paul’s letters.  These are not dried-up verses from history but are still relevant to us today.  So, those churchgoers who hear these preached on a Sunday are indeed fortunate.

Paul loved all his converts but saw that the Thessalonians were exemplary in their Christianity.  They were not legalists; rather, the fruit of their faith through God’s grace existed in them to such an extent that they were even known in other regions for their holiness.  Paul recognises this in verse 1.  However, he doesn’t simply say, ‘Okay, you’ve learned the lessons from the disciples and me — well done.’  No, he encourages them to please God even further ‘through the instructions’ he and the disciples gave ‘through the Lord Jesus’ (verse 2).  Therefore, he is saying, ‘Although we’re telling you how to become holy, we’re only messengers for Christ.  It is He who told us what to do.’

Paul mentions sanctification in verse 3.  Sanctification, sometimes called ‘conversion’ by Catholics and Anglo-Catholics, is a lifetime process.  We will leave this mortal coil without ever having achieved it, because of our innate depravity as humans.  However, that should not stop us from praying for continuous grace and an increase in the gifts of the Holy Spirit to bear more godly fruit as faithful Christians.

It is difficult, because we often look back over past sins and transgressions thinking, ‘How could I have done that?’ Or, ‘Why didn’t I do such-and-such?  That was a sin of omission’.  Yet, Matthew Henry counsels us against too much introspection, especially for perfectionists (emphases mine):

The very best of us should forget those things which are behind, and reach forth unto those things which are before.

We can do this by regular prayer, even short spontaneous ones. The father of the mute boy whom Jesus healed in Mark 9 prayed: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” We, too, in the course of our daily lives can pray for added grace, discernment and a better use of the Holy Spirit’s gifts: ‘Lord, help me to be holy!’  Just a simple prayer with regular Bible reading and study will help us greatly over time.

There is no magic formula or silver bullet for holiness.  We are all at different stages of our sanctification.  Some of us were born with patience, others must try a bit harder.  Some have better resistance to sin than others.  Some indulge less in food and drink than others.  Some people work on toning down a lust for possessions; others are not as affected. Some struggle with sexual sins, others do not. So, the stages of holiness and sanctification are no doubt largely individual. This is why holiness is not a matter of ticking boxes and fulfilment of laws as laid down by legalistically-minded churches which lay down a lot of ‘musts’ and ‘must-nots’, from attire to food to entertainment.

However, Paul’s immediate focus in this passage is combatting sexual immorality in order to be pleasing to God: ‘in holiness and honor’.  Yesterday’s post covered two of the Ten Commandments — those relating to adultery and coveting someone else’s spouse.  Admonitions against sexual sin occur throughout the New Testament, including warnings from Jesus of judgment for those who commit them.  Sexual sin is a great obstacle to holiness and one of the Devil’s best tricks.  Many people rationlise sexual sin, and it is an easy habit to get into.

Matthew Henry describes the sins of which Paul speaks:

That you should abstain from fornication (v. 3), by which we are to understand all uncleanness whatsoever, either in a married or unmarried state. Adultery is of course included, though fornication is particularly mentioned. And other sorts of uncleanness are also forbidden, of which it is a shame even to speak, though they are done by too many in secret. All that is contrary to chastity in heart, speech, and behaviour, is contrary to the command of God in the decalogue, and contrary to that holiness which the gospel requires.

Paul instructs the Thessalonians against beastliness — sexual activity borne of sheer lust — which many pagans (the Gentiles referred to here) engaged in readily.  Not too different from some unbelievers today, then. He reminds them that sexual sin is often a transgression against one’s neighbour.  Furthermore, he has warned them about the dangers of engaging in serious sin.  God knows everything that happens and anyone engaging in such sins will be called to account (verse 6).  For more of Paul’s references to this subject, read 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 1 Corinthians 6:9-201 Corinthians 7:1-16 and Ephesians 5:1-21.

Henry explains the gravity of sexual sin:

Every one should be careful in this matter, as he values his own honour and will not be contemptible on this account, that his inferior appetites and passions gain not the ascendant, tyrannizing over his reason and conscience, and enslaving the superior faculties of his soul. What can be more dishonourable than for a rational soul to be enslaved by bodily affections and brutal appetites?

Not only are fornication and other acts of uncleanness sins against his own body who commits them (1 Co. 6:18), not only are they very injurious to the sinner himself both in soul and body, but sometimes they are very injurious, and no less than defrauding, acts of injustice to others, particularly to those who are joined together in the marriage covenant and to their posterity. And, as this sin is of such a heinous nature, so it follows that God will be the avenger of it. Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge, Heb. 13:4. This the apostle had forewarned and testified by his gospel, which, as it contained exceedingly great and precious promises, so also it revealed from heaven the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness among men, Rom. 1:18.

In verse 7, St Paul reiterates the call to holiness.  In the next verse, he says that anyone who ignores this call is ultimately disregarding God, as it is His command from Leviticus 11:44, which Peter also referred to in 1 Peter 1:16:

For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground.

Paul adds that the Lord has given us help in the form of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to use His gifts to the fullest extent possible during our lives.

In verse 9, Paul commends the Thessalonians for their abundance of brotherly Christian love, to which we all aspire and they had the grace to put into practice.  He mentions that their reputation is known throughout all of Macedonia (verse 10), yet, he asks them not to rest on their laurels but to increase that love, making it even more abundant. Here, Matthew Henry distinguishes God’s grace working through the Thessalonians from what we might consider today a manmade humanistic virtue:

It was not so much their own virtue as God’s grace; yet he takes notice of the evidence they gave of the grace of God in them … Whoever does that which is good is taught of God to do it, and God must have the glory. All who are savingly taught of God are taught this lesson, to love one another. This is the livery of Christ’s family. Note also, The teaching of the Spirit exceeds the teaching of men; and, as no man should teach contrary to what God teaches, so none can teach so effectually as he teaches; and men’s teaching is fain and useless unless God teach also.

In verses 11 and 12, St Paul teaches something which we hear very little of today in our increasingly interventionist and ‘hand-out’ society.  He tells the Thessalonians to live quiet lives and mind their own business.  Now, this was something I and, no doubt, many of you were taught, too.  But, today we have the State encouraging us to turn in a neighbour for various petty crimes.  Or the health pages of the newspaper or television documentaries advise us to get more involved in each other’s lives through ‘nudging’ and peer pressure.  But Paul advises differently.  The Thessalonians are to work further on their own holiness, which can only be done through quiet reflection and an unceasing dependence on God’s grace.  Today, that is considered ‘selfish’, which is no doubt how many Christians come to be so-called.

Furthermore, Paul instructs the Thessalonians to be ‘dependent on no one’ (verse 12).  If your money is your own through your own work, you will never be ashamed to walk out of your house and greet the world.  Of course, today, many believe it is their ‘entitlement’ to live off the State not just for a year or two but for a lifetime.  And the rest of us are conditioned to be ‘compassionate’ about this state of affairs.

I shall leave the closing words to Matthew Henry on these controversial verses:

The exhortation is enforced with a double argument; namely, (1.) So we shall live creditably. Thus we shall walk honestly, or decently and creditably, towards those that are without, v. 12. This will be to act as becomes the gospel, and will gain a good report from those that are strangers, yea, enemies to it. Note, It is a great ornament to religion when the professors of it are of meek and quiet spirits, diligent to do their own business, and not busy-bodies in other men’s matters. (2.) We shall live comfortably, and have lack of nothing, v. 12. People often by their slothfulness bring themselves into narrow circumstances, and reduce themselves to great straits, and are liable to many wants, when such as are diligent in their own business live comfortably and have lack of nothing. They are not burdensome to their friends, nor scandalous to strangers. They earn their own bread, and have the greatest pleasure in so doing.

A lesson for us all these days.

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