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Lesson 10: Pleasing, Obeying, Growing (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2)

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September 25, 2016

Some of you who are younger in your faith may be like the boy that the late pastor, Ray Stedman, asked how old he was. The boy quickly replied, “I’m twelve, going on thirteen, soon be fourteen.” He was eager to grow! It’s always refreshing to see Christians who are eager to grow spiritually. But as we grow older in the Lord, it’s easy to drift into a humdrum spiritual life, where we lose the eagerness to grow. The Christian life becomes routine, but the freshness of our first love for Christ fades (Rev. 2:1-7).

The same thing can happen in marriage. Obviously, no one can maintain the euphoria that we had when we first fell in love. But even so, we shouldn’t drift into a routine relationship, where the romance has faded away. But to keep the romance alive takes work and effort. The same is true spiritually. To keep your love for the Lord Jesus fresh requires deliberate effort.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, we move into the instructional or ethical part of the letter. Paul has shown them how much he cares for them. He was concerned for their spiritual stability under the persecution that they were enduring. Now, he addresses some concerns that Timothy had brought back after his recent visit there. He will address moral purity (4:3-8); love of the brethren and the need to work for a living (4:9-12); the Lord’s return and the events surrounding that time (4:13-5:11); and some matters concerning conduct in the church (5:12-22). In our text, he introduces all of these practical matters with an exhortation to continue growing in the Lord. Specifically, we learn:

To grow in your walk with the Lord, seek to please Him by learning and obeying His commandments.

“Finally, then” signals the transition to a new section of the letter. Paul is probably taking in the entire flow of thought from chapters 2 & 3 (Robert Thomas, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 11:269-270). But, specifically, he is expanding on 3:10-13, providing what is still lacking in their faith because of his sudden, forced removal from their midst (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic],  p. 112). He wants them to abound more in love (4:9-10; 5:12-15) and he wants their hearts to be established without blame in holiness (4:3-8) at the Lord’s coming (4:13-5:11).

John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 76) argues, “One of the great weaknesses of contemporary evangelical Christianity is our comparative neglect of Christian ethics, in both our teaching and our practice.” Clearly the apostle Paul taught these new believers, many from pagan backgrounds, many things about Christian moral behavior. He refers (1 Thess. 4:1) to how “you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God.” He adds (v. 2), “For you know what commandments we gave you.”

Regarding Christian sexual ethics, he reminds them (4:6), “just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.” Regarding the Christian responsibility to work and provide for one’s own needs, he adds (4:11), “just as we commanded you.” When he deals with the need to be alert with godly living in light of the Lord’s coming, he tells them (5:1), “You have no need of anything to be written to you.” Paul had taught them much in a short time about Christian ethics. Regarding the first two verses of chapter 4, Stott (p. 78) says that it is noteworthy both for its authoritative tone and for its emphasis on pleasing God as the foundation for Christian ethical behavior. We learn five things here about pleasing, obeying, and growing in the Lord:

1. To walk in a way that is pleasing to God, you must be “in the Lord Jesus” through believing the gospel.

Paul writes (1 Thess. 4:1), “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus ….” The fact that he calls them “brethren” (or, “brothers and sisters”) indicates that these people had experienced the new birth. The Holy Spirit had imparted new life to them (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet. 1:3), so that now they were in God’s family, brothers and sisters with all who believe in Christ. At the moment of the new birth, the Spirit places all who believe in Jesus into His body, the church (1 Cor. 12:13). Paul often refers to our new relationship with God as being “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3, 4, 6, 7, 12, 13, etc.). It is to those in that new sphere of spiritual reality that he gives this exhortation.

I find that many Christians do not understand that “praying the sinner’s prayer” or “making a decision to receive Christ” do not necessarily indicate that the person has been born again. This is especially true of Christian parents. Their teenager is living as a rebellious pagan, but the parents will say, “But he’s a Christian, because he accepted Jesus as his Savior at summer camp when he was a child.” Or, “He prayed to receive Christ and was baptized.” But, there has been very little, if any, evidence that God has imparted new life to that young person.

Believing in Jesus as your personal Savior is more than mental assent to the gospel, while you continue to live for all that the world and the flesh can offer. To truly believe in Jesus means that God has changed your heart. Your desires are different than they were before. Now, you love God, rather than being indifferent towards Him. You delight in His Word, which is food for your soul. You hate your sin, turn from it, and strive to be more like Jesus, who is holy. You seek to obey the Lord and please Him out of thankfulness for the grace that He has given to you.

Thus Paul’s instruction here applies only to those who are “in the Lord Jesus” through repenting of their sins and believing the gospel. That changes these commands from being burdensome to be a blessing from a loving Savior. It changes our motivation from striving to earn God’s favor to wanting to please Him because we are the objects of His favor. It’s the difference between a maid who cleans a man’s house and does his laundry because it’s her job and a wife who does these tasks out of love for her husband who loves her. So, to walk in a way that is pleasing to God, you must be “in the Lord Jesus” through believing the gospel.

2. The Christian life is a walk.

If you don’t have a translation that uses the word “walk,” at least in a marginal note, you need a more literal translation. Paul often uses this metaphor to describe the Christian life, and it’s helpful to think about it. In the first place, it’s not a leap, although we may wish it were. We don’t get where we need to be in one quick, sudden flash. It takes time to walk somewhere and it takes time to grow in the Lord.

Also, the Christian life is not an effortless flight, where you soar above all the problems below. Sometimes it is presented this way: When you learn the “secret” of “letting go and letting God,” your striving ceases. Like a bird at the Grand Canyon, you glide above the rugged terrain below, riding effortlessly on the currents. If you’re struggling against sin or wrestling with discouragement, there must be something wrong. If you’re exerting effort, you must not be trusting or resting in God.

One time over 40 years ago, I heard a man whose teaching was along these lines. In his message, he indicated that his times in God’s Word were always rich and profitable. I went up to him after his message and asked, “Don’t you ever have times when you don’t get anything out of the verses that you read that day?” He wagged his finger at me and said, “Young man, if you expect nothing from God, you’ll get it every time!”

But the picture of walking with God implies some effort. Last Monday, Marla and I walked from the Snow Bowl at 9,500 feet elevation almost five miles to the top of Mount Humphries at 12,633 feet. I assure you that that required a lot of effort! From the top, I watched the ravens soaring on the currents and wished I had their ability to fly. That walk was hard and there were many places where we could have twisted an ankle on rocks. But a step by step walk was the only way to get to that mountaintop.

If you’re walking closely with someone, it provides an opportunity for getting to know that person better. You can talk about many things. You can ask advice for problems that you’re going through. As believers, we get to know God through His Word. We share our hearts with Him through prayer. We walk with Him daily by spending time alone with Him.

The destination or goal of our walk is not a mountaintop, but rather, conformity to Jesus Christ. We move steadily toward becoming holy, as He is holy. We grow to become more like Him in His character qualities. We are to “walk by the Spirit” so that we do “not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16), but rather develop the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23): “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Paul says (Col. 2:6), “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.”

In Ephesians, Paul repeatedly uses the “walk” metaphor to show different aspects of the Christian life. He says (Eph. 2:10), that we are to walk in the good works which God prepared for us beforehand. He adds (Eph. 4:1) that we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which [we] have been called.” We are not to walk (Eph. 4:17-18) “as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” Rather (Eph. 5:2), we are to “walk in love, just as Christ also loved you.” This means (Eph. 5:8-10) that we are to “walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” And (Eph. 5:15-16), “Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.”

Occasionally, Paul uses the analogy of the Christian life as a race that we run (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Gal. 2:2; Phil. 2:16; implied in 2 Tim. 4:7; cf. Heb. 12:1), which has some useful lessons. But more often, it’s a walk: a steady, step-by-step, somewhat unspectacular journey toward a chosen destination, which is holiness. There are occasional setbacks, but if you get back up and keep going, you’ll make progress. The question is, “Are you walking with God?”

3. If you are in the Lord Jesus, it is necessary to walk in a manner pleasing to Him.

Paul says (1 Thess. 4:1), “You received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God.” “Ought” comes from a Greek word meaning, “it is necessary” or “one must.” It refers to inner necessity or the compulsion of duty (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [University of Chicago Press], by William Arndt and Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd ed., p. 172). It means that we’re not free to decide how we want to live as Christians. We have been bought with the blood of Christ. We’re his slaves, not our own bosses. We are under obligation to live in a way that glorifies and pleases Him (1 Cor. 6:18-20).

A popular book on the Christian life pits pleasing God against trusting God, saying that we must choose one or the other as the primary and ultimate motive of our hearts (TrueFaced [NavPress], by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNichol, & John Lynch, p. 37). It portrays pleasing God as a life of striving to earn His approval, whereas trusting Him means acting on the basis of His complete acceptance of us in Christ. But that’s a false and misleading dichotomy. In fact, it is God’s gracious, undeserved acceptance of us in Christ that motivates us to live in a manner that is pleasing to Him. Trusting God and pleasing Him are complementary, not in competition.

Picture a child living in the squalor of a poorly funded third world orphanage. He’s dirty and malnourished, with several health issues. He’s not a squeaky clean Gerber baby! A wealthy couple from America who aren’t able to have children, but who desperately want them, visit that orphanage and pick out that baby to be their child. They bring him to their home, provide the necessary food and medical care to nurture him to health, and shower him with their love. As he grows up and learns about the horrible situation that his parents rescued him from, that child should be motivated to please them, not to earn their love, but because they have already abundantly bestowed their love upon him.

Pleasing God begins on the heart or thought level. Jesus constantly hit the Pharisees because they put on a good show outwardly and honored God with their rituals, but their hearts were far from Him (Mark. 7:6-23; Matt. 23:1-36). He emphasized the need for inner purity when He said that if we lust after a woman in our hearts, in God’s sight we have committed adultery with her (Matt. 5:27-30). Paul says (Rom. 8:8), “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Thus to please God, we must have experienced the new birth (as I said earlier), where God changes our hearts.

Paul said (2 Cor. 5:9), “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” In the context, he means that in this life and in view of standing before the Lord at the judgment, his constant aim was to please the Lord. That should be our aim as well.

Thus, to walk in a way that is pleasing to the Lord, you first must be in Him through believing the gospel. Then you must walk with Him in a manner pleasing to Him.

4. Even when you are walking in a manner pleasing to the Lord, there is always room for growth.

Paul acknowledges that the Thessalonians are actually walking so as to please God, but then he encourages them (4:1), to “excel still more.” We never get to a place where we can say, “I’ve arrived! Now I’m fully conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. I don’t need to grow anymore!” The prophet Hosea (6:3) exhorted, “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.” Paul applies this verse to himself (Phil. 3:12-14):

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul wrote that about 25 years after he had become a Christian! If he still felt the need to press on in the Lord, how much more do we all need to keep growing! If you’re stagnant or in a rut in your walk with the Lord, do whatever it takes to start growing again! Root out any secret sins. Seek to get right in all your relationships. Make a commitment to get up a little earlier in the morning to meet with the Lord. Get a good book on the spiritual life and read it prayerfully. Change whatever you must to grow in the Lord!

5. The way that we excel still more in our walk with God is to learn and obey His commandments.

After exhorting the Thessalonians to excel still more, Paul adds (1 Thess. 4:2), “For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” Paul emphasizes that he wasn’t the one making up these commandments. Rather, they came (literally), “through the Lord Jesus.” As he repeats (1 Thess. 4:8), “So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.” Briefly, note four things:

A. To obey God’s commandments, we first must know them.

Paul had already told them many of these commands. We have God’s commands written in His Word. We’re not under all of the Old Testament commands, since the old covenant was superseded by the new covenant (Heb. 8:6-13). But nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament. Some Christians argue that we are still under the Sabbath commandment, with Sunday becoming the Christian Sabbath. My understanding is that the Old Testament Sabbath was fulfilled by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4). We are instructed not to neglect gathering together as believers (Heb. 10:25), but Paul makes it clear that we are free to observe or not observe one day above another (Rom. 14:5-6; cf. Gal. 4:10-11; Col. 2:16-17).

All of God’s commandments are summed up in the two great commandments, to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). But you need to study God’s Word to learn specifically how those two commandments are to be obeyed in every situation.

B. To obey God’s commandments is not legalism; it is the response to His grace.

When I teach the necessity of obedience to God’s commandments, invariably someone either thinks or tells me, “That’s legalism! But we’re under grace!” If you’re thinking that, you don’t understand either legalism or grace. Paul wrote (Titus 2:11-12), “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” God’s grace teaches us to be obedient! It motivates us to be obedient. Freedom in Christ is not freedom to follow the lusts of the flesh, but rather, freedom from sin (John 8:31-36).

C. God’s commandments aren’t helpful hints for happy living—they’re orders that must be obeyed.

Paul has already said that he was exhorting them “through the Lord Jesus,” implying the Lord’s authority. The Greek noun (v. 2, “commandments”) refers especially to the transmitted orders of a military commander (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Geek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 156). Although soldiers don’t always understand orders, they must obey them, trusting that the commander knows things that they don’t know. The Bible’s commandments have the wisdom of the omniscient Creator behind them and are given so that we can win the battle against the enemy of our souls. They aren’t optional suggestions. They’re God’s authoritative commands that we must obey.

D. God’s commandments come from Him and are not culturally relative.

Paul didn’t make them up himself. They come to us from the Lord Jesus, who is the only source of absolute moral truth. Our culture does not believe in absolute moral truth, and that error has infiltrated the church. Fifty years ago, no Christian would have thought that homosexual behavior was morally acceptable. But today many who profess to be Christians, especially those under 30, think that as long as the partners love each other, homosexual relations are okay. They also think that it’s okay to have sex outside of marriage as long as you are in love. There are other areas where Christians have compromised God’s absolute standards because they have drifted with our culture rather than obeyed God’s word.

Jesus claimed to be the truth and to be the source of truth (John 8:31-32; 14:6). He prayed (John 17:17), “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” If we start bending God’s word to make it fit with our godless culture, we will not grow in our walk with God. We will not please Him or help to further His kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33). We must obey His commands, even when they are counter-cultural.

Conclusion

My main concern in this message is for you if you’ve become spiritually apathetic and you’re not growing. The longer you’re a Christian, the easier it is to become routine in your relationship with the Lord and lose the freshness of walking daily with Him. I encourage you to do whatever it takes to get back on the path of pleasing God, obeying God, and growing in Him. As you get into His word each day, ask Him to apply it to your heart. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

Application Questions

  1. Why is “making a decision to accept Christ” not necessarily the same as being born again? Why is this distinction important?
  2. What are the essential ingredients in a walk with God?
  3. Why is pleasing God not a matter of earning His favor? Look up all the references to pleasing God to study this concept.
  4. Why is obedience to God’s commandments not legalism? What is legalism? What does it mean to live by God’s grace?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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