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7. The Call to Holiness (1 Thess. 4:1-12)


In many of his epistles, the Apostle begins with a doctrinal section followed by a practical and exhortational section concerned with the Christian walk or how Christians should live. In this epistle, rather than beginning with doctrine, there is a personal and historical section in which he demonstrates his thanksgiving for the Thessalonians, reviews his ministry, and shows his deep concern for them in their sufferings and present state. However, with chapter four, the Apostle moves to a series of exhortations which deal with the Christian walk.

Paul begins this section (4:1) with “finally then.” “Finally” is the Greek particle loipon, a particle of transition often found toward the end of a letter. It means “for the rest,” not necessarily implying that he was ending the letter, but marking a transition in the subject matter (see Phil. 3:1). Paul turns from their thanksgiving and prayer for the Thessalonians to the exhortations needed for this body of believers in view of Timothy’s report.

“Then” is oun, a coordinating, inferential conjunction meaning, “therefore, consequently, then.” What is now introduced is the result or an inference from the preceding. Just as the missionaries had prayed earnestly for the faith and spiritual growth of the Thessalonians, so now Paul exhorts them, in keeping with those prayers, to holiness in their daily walk.

God is deeply concerned with our daily walk, with how we live the Christian life. The Lord came not just to make us children of God and get us into heaven, but to enable us to live as the children of God ought to live in a dark and sinful world that does not know Him.

This final portion of the book, then, falls into five major sections: (1) The Call to Holiness (4:1-12); (2) The Comfort of His Coming (4:13-18); (3) The Comfort and Challenge Concerning the Day of the Lord (5:1-11); (4) The Conduct of the Assembly (5:12-22); and (5) The Concluding Remarks (5:23-28).

The immediate section, 4:1-8, was particularly necessary in view of the cultural background of the Thessalonians. In contrast to the Jews who had the Law, these Gentiles had come out of gross idolatry which had little or no restraint on their moral character especially in matters of sex. In fact, prostitution was a very prominent part of their religious life since the worship of the so called gods involved the use of temple prostitutes. The moral climate in the Roman Empire was morally decadent. “Immorality was a way of life; and, thanks to slavery, people had the leisure time to indulge in the latest pleasures. The Christian message of holy living was new to that culture, and it was not easy for these young believers to fight the temptations around them.”74

Especially in view of the moral climate that has developed in this country in the last 40 years, William Barclay has a significant comment about conditions in Rome. He writes:

In Rome, for the first five hundred and twenty years of the Republic, there had not been one single divorce; but now, under the Empire, as it has been put, divorce was a matter of caprice. As Seneca said, “Women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married.” In Rome the years were identified by the names of the consuls; but it was said that fashionable ladies identified the years by the names of their husbands. Juvenal quotes an instance of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. Morality was dead.75

Pointing to the fact that in Greece immorality had always been quite blatant, Barclay also quotes Demonsthenes who said:

We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.

… In Greece, home and family life were near to being extinct, and fidelity was completely non-existent.76

The Greek gods which the ancient world worshipped and the debauchery that accompanied such worship were simply the products of man’s own vain imaginations or their foolish and darkened hearts (see Rom. 1:8f.; Eph. 4:17f.). These gods were half human, half god, and as immoral as the hearts that hatched them, which gave them (in their debased perspective) a license to act according to their own fleshly desires. Their consciences became dull and hardened and the law of the conscience had little effect. The Psalmist declares, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 33:12a), but the opposite always occurs when nations either ignore the Lord or turn away from Him, as we see happening in our country today.

But, through the gospel of the Lord Jesus, God comes into our lives, regardless of our condition or culture, joins us into union with Him through faith in the Savior, and begins a reformation movement to transform us into the moral character of the Savior. This occurs as His life is lived out in ours by the Holy Spirit according to the Word. This is not a matter of simply changing cultural patterns like Westernizing natives, but changing the spiritual and moral fiber of men and women. God, who is holy, is deeply concerned with our walk.

As a result, a number of passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:1 address the concept of the believer’s walk. The Christian life is compared to walking. Walking becomes a visual aid to teach us how to live. By means of walking we move from one sphere to another; we seek to carry out certain responsibilities at work, at home, in the church, and in society. We do many things, some good and some not so good. But walking also means taking one step at a time, and with each step, while one foot is off the ground as we move forward, we are susceptible to being knocked off balance, to stumbling, or stepping into trouble.

In verse one, the Apostle speaks of “how you must live (literally, “walk”).” The Greek word here is peripateo, from peri, “about, around,” and pateo, “to walk.” It portrays one walking about in all the various areas or arenas of life. Because of the emphasis of this passage, an addendum is included at the end of this lesson with an overview of some of the key passages on the believer’s walk.

The General Exhortation

4:1 Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God (as you are in fact living) that you do so more and more. 4:2 For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

Verses 1 and 2 form a gentle and general reminder of the previous instruction they had received from Paul and his associates concerning how they should live and please God. In the word “live” (literally, “walk”) the emphasis is on actions, and in the words “please God” the emphasis is on motives.

The nature, strength, and emotion of this appeal is seen in the use of two terms, “we ask” and “urge.” The verb “we ask” is the Greek erotao, which is normally used between those who are of equal rank or status. It is the only word used by the Lord Jesus in His prayers to the Father (see John 14:16; 16:26; 17:9, 15, 20). Paul was appealing to them as fellow believers in the Savior. “Urge” is parakaleo, “appeal to, exhort, encourage” (see as previously discussed in 2:12). This word is somewhat more emphatic and formal, especially with the words, “in the Lord Jesus” attached. On their behalf, as a fellow believer, he makes his appeal, but he exhorts them by the Lord Jesus. This draws attention to the great importance of following both the previous instruction and that which would follow.

“That as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God …” This reminder of their former instruction draws our attention to several practical lessons:

(1) After these missionaries led their converts to the Lord, they also began to teach them how to live and please God. They laid a doctrinal foundation and then taught them the moral obligations of that doctrine. This was Paul’s practice and forms a precedent for us: first doctrine, then duty; precept and then practice. Doctrine should lead to godly practice, but a godly practice that is in keeping with God’s Word as to its character and the means (root to fruit). Learning to live and please God is a matter of biblical instruction. It is neither natural nor innate. Without the Word, there is simply no way any of us are going to be able to walk as we should so we are able to please the Lord (Col. 2:6). Over and over again in the Old Testament we read that God’s people are to walk in His ways, statutes, and laws, i.e., according to the Word (Lev. 26:3; Deut. 5:33; 8:6; 10:12; Josh. 22:5).

(2) Further, this is not an optional issue. Paul says “how you must live.” “Must” is dei, which refers to a logical and moral necessity, one which arises out of the divine constraint or the nature of the relationship involved, an inner compulsion that grows out of the situation. For a commentary on this principle one only needs to consider Titus 2:11-14 and 1 John 3:1-3.

(3) Living or walking as we ought to walk means pleasing the Lord. The Apostle may have in mind Genesis 5:22. There the Hebrew has “Enoch walked with God,” while the Septuagint (LXX) has “Enoch pleased God.” In Hebrews 11:5, the LXX is quoted. Here Paul seems to combine the two concepts.77 To please God, we must walk with Him in the light of His Word.78

(4) The Apostle adds, “even as you are walking” to assure them that he is not insinuating they have not been walking as they should. We all need growth and to be on guard against the temptations of world around us.

(5) Thus, the Apostle continues with, “that you do so more and more.” Literally, “that you may abound or excel more and more.” Paul uses the verb perisseuo, “to be over and above, overflow, abound, excel.” To this he adds the adverb, mallon, “to a greater degree.” The goal of Paul’s plea concerns the believer’s daily walk in the pursuit of excellence and increase, or progress in the daily life of holiness, set apart living to the Lord (cf. vss. 1 and 10). This means being stretched and that means becoming uncomfortable. Too often we are simply concerned with keeping the status quo and we shrink from commitments that might stretch us.

There are serious consequences for failure to follow God’s directions. When men and nations refuse, God turns them over to their own devices and the schemes of their own hearts (Ps. 81:12-13; Rom. 1:18f.; Eph. 4:16f.).

The emphasis in verse two on the commandments by the authority of the Lord Jesus would add a further emphasis to show that none of this is optional if we are to please God. In fact, to stress the imperative nature of our walk and pleasing God, the Apostle will later give three reasons for obedience in verses 6b-8.

It seems that far too often some Christians just want to hear new truth. Certainly, God wants us to grow in the knowledge of His Word, but we also need the exhortation to excel still more in the truth we know; our goal should be to press on to greater and greater appropriation of the truths which we already know and are already practicing, but to only a limited degree.

The Exhortation to Sexual Purity

4:3 For this is God’s will: for you to become holy, for you to keep away from sexual immorality, 4:4 for each of you to know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, 4:5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God. 4:6 In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly. 4:7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 4:8 Consequently the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

The general exhortation of verses 1-2 is now followed by specific instructions. Verse 3 begins with “for” (Greek gar, a conjunction of explanation or continuation) to introduce the needed exhortations, especially in view of the cultural background of the Thessalonians. The first has to do with sexual purity (vss. 3-8), the second with brotherly love (vss. 9-10), and the third with orderly living (vss. 11-12).

The walk that pleases God is first defined with the words, “the will of God,” and then as “your sanctification.” With the statement, “This is the will of God,” Paul brings into focus the constant battle and a key issue going on in the hearts of men. “Will” is thelema, “what is willed.” It points to the sovereign will and plan of God for the Christian. But all men by nature tend to follow the desires, thelemata, of the flesh and mind which are opposed to the will of God (see Eph. 2:3) and which can never please God (Rom. 8:8). It is not that all of those desires are evil, for many of them are God given. Sex is not evil. From the beginning God created marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman and sex was to be a part of that union for the continuance of the race and for pleasure in marriage. What makes many of man’s desires (thelemata) evil is his self-centered commitment to follow those desires contrary to God’s will (as in adultery) and at the expense or exploitation of others. The specifics of God’s will are clearly set forth in many places in Scripture, even though Christians often seem to have a great deal of difficulty applying it in everyday decision-making (cf. 5:16-18; 1 Peter 2:15). Nevertheless, Paul describes this in general terms as “your sanctification.”

“Sanctification” is the Greek hagiasmos, from hagiazo, “to set apart, consecrate, dedicate, sanctify.” Taking the New Testament as a whole, there are three aspects and phases of sanctification: (1) positional or past, a position of being set apart to God in Christ, which every believer has at the moment of his salvation (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11); (2) progressive or present, a progressive growth in holiness of life that ought to be true of every believer (1 Cor. 1:30; 1 Thess. 4:3), and (3) prospective—ultimate or future, the believer’s future condition in heaven, when believers will be “without blame” (3:13). In this passage the Apostle is clearly dealing with the issue of present or progressive sanctification.

But Paul does not leave this in just general terms. That which is the will of God, or our pursuit in present sanctification, is spelled out in three appositional infinitive clauses in the Greek text that give examples of what sanctification means.79 This is easily seen in the “that” clauses of the NIV and NASB in verses 3b, 4, and 6. The translation of the NIV is given below to illustrate.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. (NIV)

The Three Instructions (vss. 3b-6a)

      Abstain From Immorality (vs. 3b)

“… for (that) you to keep away (avoid, abstain) from sexual immorality …” The first instruction is general and is designed to produce greater holiness through avoiding sexual immorality. Paul called his readers to avoid it, pointing to the need for exercising self-discipline as enabled by God’s Spirit (as the end of this section suggest in vs. 8).

“Keep away from” is apecho, “to hold back, keep off, be distant.” In the middle voice as used here, it means “to hold oneself from, avoid.” The middle voice draws attention to the subject’s personal participation in the action on himself with vested interest. This stresses personal responsibility along with the benefits that will result in pleasing God and protecting ourselves from sin and avoiding its consequences (see 4:6-8).

The word porneia, translated “sexual immorality,” is broad and includes all forms of illegitimate sexual practices. Bruce writes,

While porneia means primarily traffic with harlots (pornai), … it may denote any form of illicit sexual relationship. But “immorality” is too vague a rendering. In some New Testament passages porneia appears to have a more general sense. Christianity from the outset has sanctified sexual union within marriage (as in Judaism); outside marriage it was forbidden. This was a strange notion in the pagan society to which the gospel was first brought; there various forms of extramarital sexual union were tolerated and some were even encouraged. A man might have a mistress (hetaira) who could provide him also with intellectual companionship; the institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine (pollake), while casual gratification was readily available from a harlot (porne). … There was no body of public opinion to discourage porneia, … Certain forms of public religion, indeed, involved ritual porneia. In Thessalonica it was sanctioned by the cult of Cabiri of Samothrace, …80

Thus, by calling for believers to keep away from fornication, Paul had in mind all the particular social conditions to which these believers were susceptible in Greece stemming from their past history as idolaters. The Thessalonians lived in a pagan environment in which sexual looseness was not only practiced openly but was also encouraged. As Bruce has pointed out, in Greek religion, prostitution was considered a priestly prerogative, and extramarital sex was sometimes an act of worship. But to a Christian the will of God is clear: holiness and sexual immorality are mutually exclusive. No appeal to Christian liberty can justify fornication.

Point: Christians are to avoid and abstain from any and every form of sexual practice that lies outside the circle of God’s revealed will; Christians are to avoid adultery, premarital and extramarital intercourse, homosexuality, and other perversions.

      Know How to Possess Your Vessel (vss. 4-5)

In these verses, the Apostle moves from the general to the specific and from the positive to the negative. A great deal of debate exists regarding the meaning of verse 4 with two interpretations being prominent. The debate concerns the meaning of “vessel” (skeuos). Taking “vessel” to refer figuratively to one’s own body, some interpret verse 4 to mean, “learn how to control one’s own body with its sexual passions since our own bodies are our vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:20-21). How to do this is not explained by the Apostle. “Know” is an infinitive of oida in Greek which may refer to knowledge learned from the Word or the revelation of God. This would be a command to learn and apply what God’s Word says about self-control of one’s body and sexual urges through the control of the Spirit (vs. 8) and the Word filled life.

But a second and equally prominent view (as suggested by the NET Bible’s translation) holds this clause to mean that believers are to learn how to acquire a wife or husband81 and live with one’s spouse in the sanctity of marriage. In this view, the verse is dealing with one’s approach to and maintenance of the marriage relationship according to the teaching of Scripture.

Of course, both aspects are important to believers, but perhaps there is stronger support for the second view because of the following reasons:

(1) “Possess” is the Greek ktaomai which, in every occurrence in the New Testament, is used in the sense of “acquire, purchase for oneself, or gain.” Compare Luke 18:12; 21:19; Matthew 10:9; Acts 1:18; 8:20; 22:28. In none of these passages is this word used in the sense of “get control over or mastery over.”

(2) By contrast, ktaomai was frequently used of courtship and contracting a marriage, i.e., acquiring a wife (cf. LXX uses kataomai in Ruth 4:5, 10). Because of this, Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich chose “acquire a wife” as the most probable meaning, and the NET Bible and the RSV translates it accordingly.82

(3) “Vessel,” skeuos, is used of any instrument, object or thing used for any purpose. It is used (1) of vessels in religious worship (temple vessels), (2) of men as instruments of the Lord (Acts 9:15; 2 Cor. 4:7), and (3) of husband and wife as vessels (1 Pet. 3:7). That 1 Peter 3:7 includes the husband is clear by the term “weaker.” In general, he is the stronger and she is the weaker physically speaking.

So, we do have a biblical basis for using “vessel” for a marriage partner and for using kataomai in the sense of contracting a marriage (Ruth 4). Further, it was used of women in rabbinical literature.

(4) Clearly, one way to avoid sexual impurity is through marriage and a proper understanding of sex and marriage as God designed it. This is particularly true for Paul’s audience due to the cultural climate of Greece. This does not depreciate a woman’s position in marriage as just a vessel to satisfy sexual desires as verses 4b-5 illustrate, and because, in the final analysis, the principles are applicable to both men and women in their approach to marriage.

Verse 4b then points us to positive biblical attitude that must guard and guide one’s approach into marriage, “in holiness and honor.” Then verse 5 warns against the wrong goal that must not be the objective of marriage.

With the clause, “in holiness and honor,” the preposition “in” (Greek en) points us to the sphere or controlling atmosphere that is to surround, control, and guide the process of courtship, entrance into and maintenance of the marriage relationship whether man or woman.

As mentioned previously, “holiness” or “sanctification” basically means “set apartness,” a state of “holiness.” It refers to the progressive aspect of sanctification, the process of being set apart to the Lord and His purposes and plan. Marriage must be entered and maintained by the principles of Scripture. Scripture sets marriage apart from the motives, ideas, and values of a world that “does not know God” (vs. 5).

“Honor” is time which means “a valuing, a price paid or received,” then “esteem, preciousness, respect.” Marriage must be entered and maintained in an atmosphere of respect for it is a special and holy creation and institution of God. It is not just a convenience or a means of power or position or an excuse for sex. It is a life-long commitment of two people committed to ministry and love wherein they seek to complement and complete each other.

Having stressed the positive, the Apostle then turned now to the negative focus in verse 5: “not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

Such behavior is a mark of heathenism. A heathen is one who “does not know God.” Here Paul put his finger on the key to overcoming sexual temptations. A Christian can overcome because he knows God; this makes all the difference!83

Simply put, believers are never to enter into marriage, as the unbelieving world does, simply because of passionate lust (en pathei epithumias). “Passionate” is pathos and refers to what one suffers or experiences as in suffering, like the passion of Christ, or of sexual passion. “Lust” is epithumia, “desire, longing, craving.” Sexual desire is God given and is not wrong. One only has to read the Song of Solomon, a love poem of sexual love and passion within marriage, to see God’s blessing on sex in marriage. It only becomes wrong when it controls one’s life and goes beyond the limits of the marriage relationship in which there is personal commitment to each partner for life.

We should note that Paul did not say the heathen do not know about God. The reason, they behave as they do is because they do not know God personally, even though they may know about Him. When a person comes to know God by faith in Jesus Christ, not only should his attitudes toward sex and marriage drastically change, as he gains a knowledge of the Word, but he also discovers that God gives him the ability to handle sexual temptation as he couldn’t before. Knowing God intimately is fundamental to living a life in sanctification and honor. This is why both having relationship with God (through faith in Christ) and maintaining a close walk with Him (through daily intimate fellowship) is vital to having and keeping a pure walk before God.

      Do Not Trespass and Defraud a Brother (vs. 6a)

“In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, …” As mentioned previously,84 this verse begins with another infinitive which may be setting forth a third explanation of the clause, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (vs. 3a), or it might possibly be introducing the purpose or intended results of following the instruction of verses 3-5. Ryrie writes: “Verse 6 is probably to be understood as the result of obedience to the injunctions of verses 3 and 4. If fornication is abstained from, no man will go beyond his brother.”85

Whether Paul intended the two infinitives here86 introduced with “to me” to be understood as expressing purpose or result, or simply as appositional to “this is the will of God, your sanctification,” the end result is that verse 6 does give us the intended result of obedience. A biblical approach to marriage and sex according to these instructions will keep one from violating the rights and taking advantage of others in the matter of sex and marriage.

Thus, in 4:4-5, Paul made his appeal on the basis of the importance of sexual purity for the sake of obedience to God’s will (vs. 3), and for the Christian’s own spiritual benefit and that of his or her marriage. In verse 6 Paul made his appeal on the basis of the others involved in immoral behavior.

But who is “the brother”? Typically, the Apostle uses “brother” as a term for believers, but due to the context, many see “the brother” in this verse as most likely another person, not necessarily another Christian male. “This seems clear from the fact that this person is a victim of illicit sex. Sexual immorality wrongs the partner in the forbidden act by involving him or her in behavior contrary to God’s will and therefore under His judgment.”87 Ryrie agrees though he acknowledges this is not the Apostle’s normal use of “brother.” He writes, “Paul uses “brother” here not in the restricted sense of a brother in Christ but in the general sense of a brother man. There is no other instance in Paul’s writings of this use of brother.”88 Paul’s point is that just as stealing is a sin against one’s neighbor, so sexual immorality is a transgression against others.

Three Reasons for Obedience—Why Sexual Immorality Must Be Avoided (vss. 6b-8)

(1) The first reason is set forth, God is avenger of all sin (see Rom. 6:23a), and sexual fornication is sin. In the context, “in all these cases” or “in all such things (sins)” refers to all the various forms of sexual sin not specifically described here, but covered by the general term “sexual immorality” or “fornication.” Sexual sin will not go unpunished. It has its immediate consequences in the personal discipline of God on the believer who transgresses and on a society which ignores the laws of God. The tremendous effect of this can be seen on the home and in the transmission of sexually-transmitted diseases so prevalent in our world today. But there is also the future aspect of loss of rewards for those believers who ignore God’s truth.

2 Cor. 5:9-10. So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil.

With the words, “just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you,” the Apostle reminds them of their former instruction, instruction that came with a solemn warning. “Warned” is diamarturomai, “to solemnly warn, affirm solemnly, charge, warn.” This is a compound verb (dia + marturomai) and carries the idea of thoroughly.

Sexual immorality wrongs the partner in the forbidden act by involving him or her in behavior contrary to God’s will and therefore under His judgment. Two or more people practicing sex out of God’s will are calling God’s wrath down on themselves (Heb. 13:4). The initiator of the act takes advantage of his partner in sin by fanning the fire of passion till self-control is lost …

Everyone who fears the wrath of God should abstain from immorality because judgment follows such sin as surely as day follows night. That God always judges sin is a basic Christian truth which Paul had taught them and warned them about when he was in Thessalonica.89

(2) Verse 7 sets forth a second reason Christians must avoid sexual immorality. “For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.” Sexual sin clearly goes against God’s calling for believers. In the previous reason of verse 6b, the Apostle focuses us on the sure prospect of God’s judgment, but the second argument against sexual sin focuses us on the purpose and plan of God who has called each Christian into a life-changing, sanctifying relationship with Himself. This means purifying the believer’s life from the degenerating behavior of a world that lives under Satan’s dominion because it does not know God.

“Impurity” is the Greek akatharsia, “uncleanness, filthiness, impurity.” It literally meant “refuse” and was used of the contents of graves. From this it came to be used of sexual sins. This gives us some idea of God’s attitude toward such sin. “Sexual immorality frustrates the purpose of God’s call. Certain pagan cults promoted unclean ceremonies, but Christ’s plans for a Christian are to clean him up. A holy life demonstrates God’s supernatural power at work overcoming what is natural, and it glorifies God.”90

With the word, “holiness” the Apostle again called their attention to the general principle that must guide the believer’s life. The noun used here is hagiasmos (“sanctification”), which occurs here for the fourth time in this epistle (cf. 3:13; 4:3-4) and the verb hagiazo [“to sanctify”] is used in 5:23. God’s will for believers is to set them apart from the mentality (viewpoint, aspirations, beliefs) and actions of a world that does not know God.

(3) The third reason Christians must avoid sexual immorality is set forth in verse 8, which really has two parts: (a) Sexual purity is grounded in the truth of God’s revelation, and (b) God has provided the Holy Spirit as our enabler.

In this verse Paul drew a conclusion based on his preceding arguments. First, sexual purity is grounded in the truth of God’s holy revelation. It is something which man normally will not arrive at on his own because of his own self-centered interest.

Greco-Roman ethics were based largely on the principles of self-interest and respect for another’s property. The individual was expected to do what was to one’s advantage, regardless of its effect on others, so long as one did not violate another person’s property. When the Romans discuss morality, they use terms such as duty, loyalty, prudence, and utility. There were certain restrictions because of class and societal obligation, but no action in itself was immoral, except for incest, cannibalism, and murder of a blood relative, things taboo in almost every society anthropologists have studied.

Whereas most Christians today would define their sexual morality as based on religious teaching, the Greeks and Romans made no such connection. In the words of R. Flaceleire, “The domains of religion and sexual morality were then regarded as completely separate.”91

“Consequently” is the translation of toigaroun, an emphatic compound particle introducing a sharp inference, “for that very reason, then, therefore.” It occurs only here and in Hebrews 12:1 in the New Testament. Bruce points out that it is as emphatic in Hellenistic Greek as it was in classical Greek.92 “Rejects” and “rejecting” is atheteo, “to declare invalid, set aside, reject, not recognize.” God has given plenty of evidence to validate the nature and uniqueness of the Bible as God’s inspired and accurate Word. The issue is not a matter of poor evidence, but of blindness and hardness of heart. The problem is that men love darkness and refuse to come into the light as the Savior points out in John 3.

John 3:19-20. Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 3:20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed.

The point is simply that God has not been silent; He has spoken and revealed His will in both the Old and New Testaments to protect man from himself and to bring him into a life-changing relationship with the living God. Sexual purity is simply a practical application of the basic truths of God’s revelation and reveal His holy will.

Paul’s attitudes toward sexual uncleanness did not arise from his background or personal preferences. They were the logical consequences of divine revelation. The Thessalonians and later readers of this epistle should realize that to reject these instructions is to reject the Person from whom they came originally, that is, God.93

The second part of this third reason against sexual immorality is seen in the words, “who gives His Holy Spirit to you.” The gift and ministry of the Holy Spirit, who is our enabler, is inseparable from the kind of holy living called for in these verses. Literally, the Greek has, “the Spirit of Him, the Holy one.” The Greek word order places special emphasis on the character of the Spirit as “holy,” the One given to enable us to be set apart to the will of God in sanctification and in honor.

Lest anyone feel that God is asking more than is reasonable of weak mortals, Paul concluded this exhortation with a reminder that God has also given believers His indwelling Spirit. This Person of the Trinity is so characterized by holiness that He is called the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Holy Spirit has power enough to enable any Christian to learn how to control his own body, even in a pagan, immoral climate. The exhortation is to avoid sexual immorality; the enablement comes from the Holy Spirit.94

Frame has an excellent comment here regarding the gift of the Spirit. He writes:

… Three points are evident in this appended characterization of God, each of them intimating a motive for obedience. (1) Not only is God the one who calls and judges, he is also the one who graciously puts into their hearts his Spirit whose presence insures their blamelessness in holiness when the Lord comes (3:13). In gratitude for this divine gift, they should be loyally obedient. (2) This indwelling Spirit is a power unto holiness, a consecrating Spirit. Devotion to God must consequently be ethical. (3) The Spirit is put not eis hemas … “into us Christians” collectively, but eis humas “into you” Thessalonians, specifically. Hence each of them is individually responsible to God who by the Spirit is resident in them. In despising, the individual despises not a man but God.95

The Exhortation to Excel in Brotherly Love

4:9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 4:10 And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more,

The phrase “now on the topic of” (peri de) is a frequent formula used by Paul to introduce a new subject (4:9; 5:1). He uses it some six times in 1 Corinthians (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12) to introduce his answers to the Corinthians’ questions. He is probably using it in response to different elements brought back by Timothy in his report (3:6) regarding the conditions at Thessalonica.

In verses 1-2, we have a general exhortation as to how we ought to walk and please God, and by the process of growth to excel. From the general, the Apostle moved to the specific area of holiness of life in the realm of sexual purity (vss. 3-8). Now the transition from sexual purity to brotherly love is a natural one. We see a similar emphasis and relationship in 3:12-13.

3:12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 3:13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Sexual sins, regardless of their nature, are self-centered and usually involve the exploitation and use of another for selfish reasons. Even though sexual sins are couched in terms of love by society, they are really acts of self love (vs. 6).

“Brotherly love” is philadelphia from philos or philia. It refers to a friendship love, a deep affection as in close friendships and in marriage. The other part is adelphos, which means “brother.” It refers to the kind of love and affection that should exist, not because of physical birth, or nationality, or secular alliances, but because of our spiritual relationship as brethren in Christ and children of God through faith in Christ.

By way of application, regardless of personality differences and conflicts, all believers should be bound together in warmth and concern for each other because of their relationship in Christ. Brothers in Christ are often closer than blood brothers because of their spiritual bond and oneness of mind in the Lord (see Phil. 2:1-5).

“You have no need … , for you are taught by God to love one another.” “Taught by God” is theodidaktoi (pl), a term found only here in the New Testament (cf. didaktoi theou in John 6:45). But what does this mean? Is the Apostle saying we don’t need biblical instruction on loving one another? Obviously not because the New Testament has so much to say on this subject and because the church is often so poor at loving.

The sense Paul has in mind seems to be that we are God-taught to love one another in two ways: (1) By the example given to us by the Father in sending His Son (1 John 4:9-11, 19), and (2) through the continuing inward ministry of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (vs. 8; Gal. 5:22; 2 Cor. 5:14). “Deeper than human language can reach, God Himself speaks to the believer’s heart.”96

The phrase, “to love one another” is an important one for two reasons. First, because it reiterates one of the primary commands of the New Testament. This command is repeated thirteen times in the New Testament97 and is to be the badge of our identity as disciples of the Lord. Our Lord said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The second reason is because this phrase takes the concept of philadelphia, brotherly love, and lifts it to new heights. Love in this phrase is agape which is a sacrificial love, a love produced by the Spirit, and a love that reaches out to the unlovable or even to one’s enemies, those who need our forgiveness just as we all need God’s forgiveness.

With verse 10, the Apostle confirms his comments in verse 9. Note the “and indeed” (kai gar). They were already living examples of loving one another; they had been showing love toward all the brethren in Macedonia. How, he does not say, but probably through hospitality as an expression of love frequently urged in Scripture (Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). Furthermore, this verse shows the extent of love. Love is to extend to all the brethren and not just to a few with whom one might have special rapport. It should be limited only by the opportunities afforded to express it.

Once again in keeping with the need for continued growth, he urged them to excel. As before, “to excel still more” is literally, “to abound more.” For comments on this, see verse 1. No matter how much we love, due to the very nature of love and the difficulties with loving, there is always room for improvement in our capacity to love both in quantity and quality.

We don’t need anyone to tell us to love since we are taught of God, but because of the devastating effects of the fall, even as regenerated people, we do need reminders and biblical instruction on how to deal with the forces in our own hearts that are so debilitating to our ability to love—our fears, our self-protective strategies for dealing with our hurts, our lack of maturity, and our failure to reckon with our own sinfulness. Because of this, we often simply do not love as we should.

We might compare Paul’s prayer for the Philippians (Phil. 1:9). Here the Apostle prays that love may abound still more and more, but the additional clause, “in real knowledge and all discernment,” is tremendously instructive. “Real knowledge” is epignosis, a word which often refers specifically to biblical truth or the knowledge of God and the spiritual things of God. “Discernment” is aisthesis, which refers to spiritual insight, perception denoting moral and spiritual understanding of the issues involved (cf. Phil. 1:10-11). Love needs the wisdom of the Word along with a personal relationship with the Lord, the fruit of righteousness by Jesus Christ, so we can make loving and wise choices and not simply sentimental choices which are so often simply selfish.

See Addendum 2 at the end of this lesson for some principles on “love” and “loving the brethren.”

The Exhortation to Walk in an Orderly Manner

4:11 and to aspire to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, as we commanded you. 4:12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need.

If you will notice, verse 11 is connected to the preceding section and the exhortation to excel in love with a simple connective, “and,” (the Greek kai, a coordinating conjunction, “and, even, also”). These verses stand in close grammatical and logical connection with the preceding. While there is a change in emphasis, what we have in these next two verses is actually a further application of the responsibility to excel in love through walking in a biblical and orderly fashion. Hard work and individual accountability to responsibly care for one’s own life and needs is not unrelated to the subject of Christian love.

The two are not completely unrelated. Nothing disrupts the peace of a Christian community more than the unwillingness of members to shoulder their part of the responsibility for it (Hiebert, p. 180). To disturb tranquillity violates the love that permeates a truly Christian community. More specifically, some members of the Thessalonian church appear to have taken advantage of the liberality of other Macedonian Christians (cf. 2 Cor 8:1-5) in accepting financial help while making no effort at self-support (Lightfoot, p. 60).98

It is important for us to note that our daily habits of living, the very way we conduct our own business, can manifest love of the brethren just as much as special demonstrations or actions of Christian love. In other words, love touches our lives in many ways which we often fail to recognize. So, the Apostle challenged the Thessalonians to reflect on some of their everyday patterns as it might affect them in their ability to show brotherly love. Undisciplined living very often results in pain to others and disturbs the peace of the body of Christ and can cause believers to fall into disrepute with outsiders.

Paul’s exhortations here demonstrate that while this was a loving and growing body of believers, it was not a perfect church (as no church is), and there were conditions that needed changing. Are you looking for a perfect church, or are you willing to be a part of the change process?

Three Exhortations (vs. 11)

      To Lead a Quiet or Restful Life

Each of the verbs in verses 11 and 12 employ the present tense. This, along with the nature of the verbs used, (“aspire,” “lead a quiet life,” and “work”) suggest Paul has in mind patterns of life which are to be regular and consistent goals for believers. “To aspire” introduces the responsibility to lead a quiet life. The Greek has one word here, philotimeomai, literally, “to love honor,” but certainly, for emphasis, there is a kind of play on the word philadelphia. When our conduct is not biblical, it will affect the lives of others in negative ways. The idea is “consider it an honor” or “strive eagerly for.” Having “a quiet life” is to be something Christians are to strive for or have as their ambition. But what does it mean “to lead a quiet life”?

The word translated quiet (hesuchazein) means quiet in the sense of restfulness (cf. Acts 22:2; 2 Thes. 3:12; 1 Tim. 2:2, 11), rather than quiet as opposed to talkativeness (sigao; cf. Acts 21:40; 1 Cor. 14:34). The former means “undisturbed, settled, not noisy,” while the latter means “silent.” Paul was telling the Thessalonians to be less frantic, not less exuberant. A person who is constantly on the move is frequently a bother to other people as well as somewhat distracted from his own walk with God. The latter can lead to the former. But a Christian who strives to be at peace with himself and God will be a source of peace to his brethren. Such quietude constitutes a practical demonstration of love for others.99

The Apostle does not tell us here precisely what was causing some to be restless and busybodies within the church. Second Thessalonians 3:6-15 gives part of the picture, but the problem could have been from several causes:

(1) Anticipation of the coming of the Lord was causing an imbalanced excitement in their expectation of the Lord’s return. This was evidently causing idleness. Ignoring the fact that no one knows the precise day nor hour of the Lord’s return (Matt. 24:36), some of the believers at Thessalonica had evidently stopped working and were instead going about from house to house as busybodies.

(2) Self-seeking ambition within the church—seeking to play ‘spiritual king of the mountain,’ zealousness for position and recognition by others—could have been another cause. Such ambition often leads people to run from one person in the church to another to gain influence in an attempt to promote their own agenda. And of course, such behavior often results in spreading rumors and tearing others down in an attempt at self promotion.

(3) Self-appointed confronters, people who see it as their God-appointed role to go about straightening out everybody else. Some people seem to think they have the ‘gift of criticism.’ There is a place for brotherly rebuke or bold love that reaches out to help a brother with an obvious weakness (cf. 5:14; Rom. 15:14; 2 Thess. 3:15). But most often such people have hidden agendas behind their actions. It’s not really love at all, but a way to promote their ideas or opinions, or to prove they are right on some point. The point is, people bashers, as we might call them, are often restless and nervous. They fail to seek and find their significance in the Lord, and so, as a human mechanism to meet their needs to control or dominate, they run about tending to everyone else’s business, interfere in other’s lives, and create havoc in the body of Christ.

Paul’s solution as given here is found in our next exhortation.

      To Tend to Your Own Business (vs. 11b)

“Attend to your own business” is simply and literally, “and practice your own.” “Attend” is prasso, “to do, practice, be engaged in” or “achieve, affect, accomplish, perform.” “Own” is idios and means “private, distinct, one’s own.” It refers to what is private and personal and is used of friends, property, home, country, and personal affairs. It has the article and is neuter and means, “your own things” in the sense of “affairs, business.”

Obviously, one of the solutions for restlessness is to tend to your own life and affairs which of course would involve getting one’s spiritual life in order, getting the planks out of one’s own eye that one might have the ability to really help others in their failures. When our first priority is taking care of our own lives, not in a selfish, self-centered way, but in a truly biblical way, we are less likely to become nosy people who go around bashing others in the name of loving confrontation.

However, we must balance this with our responsibility to be involved with and caring for others. Our tendency is to go from one extreme—nosiness, to the other extreme—isolationism.

      To Work With Your Own Hands (vs. 11c)

“Although the Greek generally looked down on manual labor as the work of slaves and others, the Jews did not have this attitude. The emphasis here, however, is not on manual labor as opposed to some other form but upon working as opposed to idling.”100 Paul deals with this problem in more detail in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-11. Some evidently did not respond to this word, so he not only dealt with it again, but (1) defined the refusal to work as being “unruly” and “undisciplined” (2 Thess. 3:6, 11), (2) again pointed to the results, “acting like busybodies,” or “meddlers” in the words of 1 Peter 4:15, and (3) gave directions for church discipline showing how the church is to handle such people in the body.

While we all have a responsibility to help those in need, we also have a responsibility not to help them if they refuse to work or look for a job. Part of the help that people in this condition need is help in finding work, and if needed, the admonition and instruction to prompt them to look for work. They must understand God wants them to be self-supporting and productive in society rather than dependent on society. See also 1 Timothy 5:8.

Two Motivations or Reasons (vs. 12)

      Testimony to the Outside World (vs. 12a)

“In this way” translates the Greek, hina, a conjunction of purpose or intended result. “Live” is peripateo, “to walk” and refers to one’s conduct in all the various areas of life. “A decent life” is an adverb, euschemonos, which means “in a way that is fitting, decently, becomingly.” It consists of eu, “good, well” plus schema, “form, figure, fashion.” It is used in 1 Corinthians 14:40 of doing all things properly and in order (cf. Rom. 13:13). It refers to a pattern or form of life that is becoming and attractive rather than derogatory to those without the faith (cf. 1 Pet. 4:14-16).

The unbelieving world is watching and we should always be concerned about how our lives look to those outside the body of Christ. They cannot see our hearts nor the justifying work of God imputing the righteousness of Christ to our account. What they need and want to see is authenticity—lives that back up our profession with works and a walk consistent with our talk.

      Provision for One’s Own Needs (vs. 12b)

The final purpose is the ability to meet one’s own needs. “Need” is chreia, “need, necessity.” It refers to an actual need (not wants), something needed for a situation or condition for it to be right. Here it would include food, clothing, shelter and the basics necessities of life. If the unsaved have to work to pay their bills, why should Christians not have to work as well? Work is not a curse. Work is a blessing and a gift.

There are a number of reasons why work is a blessing and is to be promoted by the Christian community and supported in society:

(1) To provide for our needs and our family’s needs (1 Thess. 4:12; 1 Tim. 5:8).

(2) To keep us from being a burden on others (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Cor. 11:9).

(3) To give to those who have need within the guidelines of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (see also Eph. 4:28).

(4) To be productive in society. God has ordained work to meet the needs of others by providing goods and services. Work is not a curse. It is a way to use the gifts and talents God gives us in productive ways.

  • As the creator and sustainer of the universe, God is a worker (Isa. 40:28; Col. 1:16-17).
  • As created in God’s image, man has been given creativity and abilities, and needs to work to experience true meaning in life. Scripture even calls work a gift of God (Eccl. 3:13) and declares that man has been given responsibility to care for creation, the works of His hands (Ps. 8:6).
  • Work is not the product of sin. God gave Adam and Eve things to do in the Garden before the fall (Gen. 2:15).
  • God uses our work to serve others in dozens of ways through goods and services that supply the needs of one another.

(5) To avoid idleness which leads to temptation and meddling (cf. our passage and 2 Thes. 3:6f.).

Addendum 1:
The Believer’s Walk

(1) The Model for Our Walk: To walk after the example of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 2:6; 1 Pet. 2:21).

(2) The Means of Our Walk:

  • By abiding in Christ (1 Jn. 2:6).
  • By walking in the Light (1 Jn. 1:7). This means all known sin confessed with no sin unconfessed or hidden (1 Jn. 1:6-9).
  • By grace resting in our union with Christ (Ga. 6:15-16).
  • By the Spirit (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 5:16, 25).
  • According to the Word, the truth received in Scripture (Ps. 86:11; 119:1, 35, 45, 59; Pr. 6:22; Col. 2:6-7; 2 Jn. 1:4-6; 3 Jn. 1:3-4).
  • By faith (2 Cor. 5:7).
  • To walk in the pursuit of growth (Phil. 3:6; 1 Thess. 4:1).

(3) The Manner of Our Walk:

  • In God’s plan of good works (Eph. 2:10).
  • Not like the unbelieving world in the futility of its mind (Eph. 4:16f.).
  • In love (Eph. 5:2).
  • As children of the light (Eph. 5:8).
  • Carefully, watching our step (Eph. 5:16).
  • In wisdom as a testimony to others (Col. 4:5; 1 Thess. 4:12).
  • In a manner worthy of our calling (Rom. 13:13; Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10).

Addendum 2:
Principles on Love and Loving the Brethren

(1) Love is described in 1 Corinthians 13, illustrated in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and commanded throughout the Bible. Indeed, it is declared to be the preeminent virtue, the summary of the whole of Scripture (Mark 12:30-31). Paul exclaims, “The entire law is summed up in a single command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). Compare also Romans 13:8-10.

(2) The standard and impelling motivation for our love for one another is Christ’s love for us (John 15:34; 1 John 4:11). Allender writes, “I will not live with purpose and joy unless I love; I will not be able to love unless I forgive; and I will not forgive unless my hatred is continually melted by the searing truth and grace of the gospel.”101 Our hearts need to be melted by God’s forgiveness of our sin and sins (cf. Eph. 4:31-32).

(3) Love for one another is fortified by other Christian virtues or Christ-like attributes (1 Pet. 3:8; 2 Pet. 1:7; Rom. 12:10; Eph. 6:23). From the standpoint of its foundation, love is a matter of having a purified inner heart or soul (1 Pet. 1:22).

(4) Love is to be a continuous, abiding virtue regardless of the problems or the behavior of the one being loved (Heb. 13:1). Agape love is the ability to love our enemies.

(5) Love is the measuring rod of character, the index by which our lives will be assessed. This is the message of 1 Corinthians 13. “Talent without love is deafening; spiritual discernment and power without love is debasing; and sacrifice of possession or body without love is defrauding.”102

Some of the responsibilities of love include:

  • It involves serving and doing, not just talking (Gal. 5:13; 1 John 3:18).
  • It means a mutual affection and respect which places others above oneself (Rom. 12:10, cf. Phil. 2:3-4).
  • It means showing hospitality to one another and to all men as we are able (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2; Heb. 13:1-2).
  • It means showing sympathy to those in suffering (Heb. 13:3).
  • It means praying for one another (Eph. 4:18; Rom. 15:30).
  • It means not seeking your own advantage, but the well being or advantage of others (1 Cor. 10:24; Phil. 2:3-4).

(6) As the summary of the whole of Scripture, love must be the motive behind anything we do as we minister to others in their need whether encouraging, exhorting, teaching, helping, or comforting.

74 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Ready, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1979, p. 72.

75 William Barclay, The Letters to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, The Westminister Press, Philadelphia, First Edition, 1957, p.231.

76 Barclay, p. 231.

77 C. F. Hogg and W. E. Vine, The Epistles to the Thessalonians With Notes Exegetical and Expository, Pickering Inglis LTD, London, 1914, p. 111.

78 For a brief overview on key passages and principles dealing with pleasing the Lord, see the study entitled, Pleasing the Lord, on our web site in the “Bible Studies / Spiritual life” section.

79 In verse 6, the construction to mh %uperbainein has caused some discussion and disagreement about how we should understand this infinitive because of the article with the negative particle (to mh). Some (F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Vol. 45, Word, Waco, 1982, p. 81; James Everett Frame, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1912, pp. 151-152) believe this should be seen as a purpose clause in the sense of the infinitive used with tou mh or %wste, but others like Blass and Debrunner (F. Blass and A Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961, pp. 205-206) consider it as a substantivized infinitive used loosely with mh. A. T. Robertson likewise sees it as the substantival/apositional use of the infinitive (pp. 1059, 1078).

80 Bruce, p. 82.

81 Since Peter uses “vessel” (skeuos) of the wife as “the weaker vessel,” this means the husband is also a vessel, though generally the stronger one physically. With this in mind, perhaps vessel should not be limited to the wife. However, because of the cultural conditions described earlier in this lesson with men having hetairai, mistresses or courtesans, and their slaves as pallakai, concubines, Paul undoubtedly had men in mind, primarily unmarried, but this is certainly applicable to married men as well. The apostle was writing to a specific cultural problem, but certainly the principles are applicable for both men and women in any society.

82 Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, electronic media.

83 John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, Editors, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1983, 1985, electronic media.

84 See the discussion in verse 3 and especially the quote by Barkley regarding Demonsthenes’ statement.

85 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians, Moody Press, Chicago, 1959, p. 6.

86 The two infinitives are huperbainein, “go beyond, transgress, violate the rights,” and pleonektein, “defraud, overreach, take advantage of.”

87 Walvoord and Zuck, electronic media.

88 Ryrie, p. 56.

89 Walvoord and Zuck, electronic media.

90 Walvoord and Zuck, electronic media.

91 Albert A. Bell, Jr., A Guide to the New Testament World, Herald Press, Scottdale, Penn., 1994, p. 222.

92 Bruce, p. 86.

93 Walvoord and Zuck, electronic media.

94 Walvoord and Zuck, electronic media.

95 Frame, p. 156.

96 Hogg and Vine, p. 122.

97 John 13:34; 15:12, 17; Romans 13:8; 1 Thess. 4; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 5.

98 Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1976-1992, electronic media.

99 Walvoord and Zuck, electronic media.

100 Fritz Rienecker, edited by Cleon L. Rogers, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Regency, Grand Rapids, 1982, p. 598.

101 Dan B. Allender, Tremper Longman III, Bold Love, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 1992, p. 30.

102 Allender and Longman, p. 33.

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