TheChurch of the Thessalonians (6)
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
6. MORAL AND SPIRITUAL PROBLEMS
All quotations are from the Revised Version
The opening words of chapter 4 introduce the second division of this First Epistle to the Thessalonians. Here the note is practical and doctrinal. Whilst there is a transition in subject-matter, there is a very definite connection with the closing prayer of chapter 3. Paul desired there that they might be unblameable in holiness and that they might increase in love. None would deny that prayer is essential to this, but Paul does not leave it there. The teaching necessary to this end is immediately introduced even though it was far from new to them. Ministry to stir up their pure minds by way of remembrance was as needful for them as it is for us. The subject-matter under consideration now may be shown as follows:
- Conduct of the Saints. More individual in its application, 4. 1-12.
- Concord among the Saints. More corporate in its application, 5. 12-22.
Both of these subsections of the Epistle are full of practical ministry and are opened by similar words, 4. 1; 5. 12. The subsection lying between these two is of a more doctrinal nature touching upon future events, and it has been considered in the previous paper.
1. Our Conduct: Walking and Pleasing God, 4.1-12
“No error more dishonours God or damages man than the divorce of theory from practice.” Paul here urges upon them how they should walk and please God; this is the true Enoch character. The O.T. comment on his life was that he walked with God whilst the N.T. says that he was well pleasing to God„ Gen. 5. 24; Heb. 11. 5. The one is impossible without the other. It is interesting to notice also that such a character was produced during the period prior to the outpouring of divine wrath upon the earth in the flood. He was translated,, “he was not; for God took him” home to heaven. Now, the Enoch character is that to which the people of God are called in the light of their blessed hope,, ministry concerning which follows from 1 Thessalonians 4. 13 to 5. 11. Three distinct spheres in which we are to walk so as to please God are here developed.
a. sanctification; self and the flesh; physical, vv. 3-8
What clearer expression of the will of God is to be found than this, “your sanctification”. This is in such contrast to the unchaste conditions which prevail in society at large. The distorted emphasis given to “sex” in education, books, newspapers, advertising, etc., makes this as necessary today as it was to this company of saints living in a pagan community which knew not God, v. 5. Those that are Christ’s should abstain from fornication. Unchaste physical relationships with one depicted as a “strange woman”, Prov. 7, are to be eschewed. But it needs to be emphasised that any intimate associations with the opposite sex out of wedlock lies here condemned. Loose living and the general lowering of standards of morality so often propagated by the “new morality” cults and so openly practised all around us, are to be shunned completely by God’s people. Also, all in pagan and modern godless society, which would stir up ungoverned evil desires out of which lust springs, is to be avoided. Or to express this positively, each should “know how to possess himself of his own vessel” acquiring a definite mastery over his own body with its appetites, v. 4; cf. 1 Sam. 21. 5; 1 Cor. 6.18. It is here that the victory is gained or lost. With the body under absolute control, it becomes the earthen vessel used in the Master’s service, through which the power of God is displayed, 2 Cor. 4. 7. With the body in subjection we are able to lead it about, but it is awfully possible for it to lead us about, cf. 1 Cor. 9.27. Young people, by God’s grace seek the victory here and flee all youthful lusts. These things are not a matter of indifference to us. Let us all, by healthy self-discipline, run the more unfalteringly with the crown of righteousness spurring us on to the goal. Paul goes still further and warns against adultery, v. 6, another aspect of “the matter” of sex morality now in hand. Such is the utter depravity of the flesh that ministry of this nature is still needed by those who are the Lord’s; cf. Heb. 13. 4.
Thanks are due to our triune God for the adequate springs of restraint on the one hand and sanctification on the other. Note in these eight verses alone we are referred to:
- God: that we might please Him, v. 1; that we might do His will, v. 3; that we might satisfy His intention in our call, v. 7; that we might not be guilty of disregarding His claims, v. 8.
- The Lord: through whom the charge to obedience comes, v. 2; who is the One who deals in strict justice with all offenders in these matters, v. 6.
- His Holy Spirit (lit. the Spirit His, the Holy, emphasising His holiness): God has not only imparted to us the Holy Spirit but He has given Him “into us” (lit.). He has made His entrance into the temples of our bodies, 1 Cor. 6.19, which are therefore to be kept holy in keeping with the holiness of their divine Indweller.
“Thus does grace, in calling to a moral duty, rise entirely above the mere weighing of such motives as act upon men.” Here are the divine resources available to break the dominance and tyranny of the flesh.
b. LOVE OF THE BRETHREN; INSIDE; SPIRITUAL, vv. 9-10
Though there were strong reasons for writing them on moral issues, there was no need for any to write diem concerning love of the brethren. In a unique way they were taught of God, the circumstances into which they had been thrust casting them entirely upon Himself; cf. 2 Thess. 3. 5; Isa. 54. 13. Despite the absence of the aposde, God would use what truth they had, supplemented by fresh revelation (cf. 1 Thess. 5. 19f), to bring them not merely to love one another but “into the love of one another” as it is literally rendered. This was the aim of all, and the God-taught lesson was learnt, “for indeed ye do it”, 4.10. Their love was the expression of divine life and in accord with the character of One who was before them as their Object.
How expansive was their love. It was known in the assembly and then further afield, “toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia”. There seems no restriction here. Yet the apostle urges them on to “more and more”; cf. 3. 12; 4. 1. Maybe Macedonia was the limit of their opportunities for practical expression of their love of the brethren. On the other hand there may be a hint here that old nationalistic barriers had not yet been overcome, cf. 1. 7f Whatever the stage of spiritual development we may have attained by God’s grace, we are not already perfect and need the exhortation to press toward the mark. There can be closer approximation to the divine ideal yet!
c. GODLY ambition; the world outside; SECULAR, VV. 11-12
What are your ambitions? Paul encourages them and us to the pursuit of three things. Firstly, we should strive restlessly after being quiet. What a paradox! By the grace of God alone can we be kept from desires after prominence, dissatisfaction and the restlessness of the flesh. Oh! that self might be under control always that others may be impressed by our Christ-like serenity. Secondly, we should do our own business, that is attend to our own affairs. How officious we tend to be, always more concerned with other peoples’ business, cf. John 21. 2of. To be a meddler in other men’s matters stands condemned as unchristian, 1 Pet. 4. 15. Thirdly, we have to work with our hands. There is nothing to be ashamed of in manual labour despite opinions abroad in the world and, sad to say, even among God’s people today. Idleness is here condemned. This exhortation did not achieve its desired end as the second Epistle shows. There a lengthier exhortation to industry and diligence is given, and disorderliness is more strongly condemned, 2 Thess. 3. 6-13. The only business that some knew anything about was that of busybodying!, v. 11. The apostle’s example, vv. 7-9, was in complete harmony with his own teaching and leaves us condemned if we are indolent.
It is only with such ambitions that we make an impression on others who do not know Christ, v. 12. Our walk is seen to be not only honest but something more, namely, seemly and becoming. These are the things which outsiders know to be in keeping with a Christ-like walk. Of course, there is always the other incentive also. Through our diligence we have need of nothing, or possibly “of no man”. There is a sense in which we should be glad to meet our own needs and be healthily independent of others.
2. Concord: Regulations for the Community Life, 5.12-22
In this subsection the teaching concerns the corporate life of the assembly. “But” is the opening word in the R.V. indicating that the connection with the words preceding is by way of contrast. Although each of us has a responsibility to encourage and build one another up, v. 11, there must be leaders specially qualified in these and other directions. It is with these that the teaching is opened.
a. RECOGNITION AND REGARD FOR THE GUIDES, VV. 12-13
The “unofficial” tone of these verses is striking. They are not even spoken of as elders, bishops, shepherds or guides. They are detected among the saints because firstly they “labour among you”. This characterised the whole community in one sense, 1. 3, and this was possibly a response to this positive lead given to them. No doubt it is somewhat more specialist labour that is in mind here. Their labour was not only prompted and energised by love but was a labour in the word and doctrine; cf. 1 Tim. 5. 17. Consecutive teaching and the spiritual feeding of the flock was their special work. Secondly, these men could be seen as those “over you in the Lord”. This means that they stood before the saints and gave them a lead in spiritual matters. They were responsible to the Lord and had, been obviously equipped of Him for the work. Thirdly, they “admonish you”. They did not merely teach nor remonstrate. They trained the believers for a way of living based on sound scriptural instruction. It has been pointed out that it was just here that Eli failed so miserably with his own sons. He may have expostulated but he did not admonish them, 1 Sam. 2. 24; 3. 13. This side of the ministry of the guides is an absolute necessity when there is evil or departure or even a tendency detected toward this. It is not difficult therefore to appreciate who the guides are but “to know them” means so much more than this: we should have them in regard, appreciate and value them. Further to this we should “esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work’s sake”. Here, then, the flock are encouraged to know their shepherds, and to “be at peace among yourselves”. Discord among the saints is often the result either of desires after leadership and prominence or of a party spirit developed out of preferences for one guide rather than another. What need there is for grace to maintain the unity of the Spirit.
b. RESPONSIBILITY OF THE GUIDES, V. 14
Most that aspire after eldership little realise the demands which that work makes upon a brother. Firstly, there are problems which arise in a local church because some are disorderly. They are insubordinate, not keeping in rank. The assembly is intended to present a united and well-disciplined front to the world. Individualism, so often an expression of indiscipline, springs out of a desire for display. The special character of the disorderliness at Thessalonica, however, manifested itself in idleness, officiousness and excitability, 2 Thess. 3. 6-7, 11. Such must not go unreproved.
Although the disorderly may be few, there are more who are fainthearted. These lack energy and drive and all too easily become despondent. There are many causes of faintness of heart but the guide must quickly diagnose and apply the remedy, namely, the particular encouragement and constraint that dispel dread.
But there are yet more problems. There are “the weak” to deal with. Is it lack of knowledge or overscrupulousness which is resulting in their lack of strength? The guide must be near at hand so as to support them. Can any imagine a more demanding and onerous task? The faithful discharge of such ministry does not bring popularity and the lack of response or conversely the heated reaction will call for “longsuffering toward all”.
c, A VITAL PRINCIPLE FOR ALL, V. 15
How very prone we are to retaliate. Hence Paul’s emphatic “See that none render unto any one evil for evil”. It has been said that to render bad for good is devil-like, bad for bad is beast-like, good for good is man-like whilst to render good for bad is Christ-like; cf. 1 Pet. 2. 23; 3. 9. Maliciousness should be unnamed among Christians. But Paul presents the positive side of the subject in saying “alway follow after that which is good”. Earnest pursuit of that which is beneficial in its effects whether to fellow-saints or all men is the bright characteristic of the believer.
Principles are broad and operate in the tremendously varying circumstances of life. Precepts are very specific and come down to the details of everyday practice. Next follow
d. A VARIETY OF PRECEPTS FOR ALL, W. 16-22
Here are “little arrow flights of sentences, unique in their originality and pregnant in their meaning”. The will of God is that our joy, prayer and thanksgiving should be persistent and all-embracing in character. We are to desist from quenching (present continuous tense) the free action of the Spirit in the assembly. He it is who divides to each man “severally even as he will”, 1 Cor. 12. 11. “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal”, v. 7, and whilst there is ever the possibility of abuse, He must be given His rightful place in the gathering. How prone we are categorically to dismiss all out of hand whereas God would teach us to discriminate. We are to try all things by the Word of God and only “hold fast that which is good”. The many presentations of that which is good are here seen in their oneness. All things that are good or fine in quality are of one genus and spring from the one Spirit, producing oneness among the saints. Conversely what a complex variety of evil there is to be seen and from “every form” of that which is harmful we are to abstain. What a delightful assembly it would be if that concord for which the apostle pleads was manifest to all. May God grant that it may be increasingly true of the local churches to which we belong. “And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it”, 1 Thess 5. 23, 24.
End of the series