The Lord's Day Morning
June 24, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Call to Christian Living”
1 Thessalonians 4:1-2
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. We’re going to be looking at the first two verses of this chapter. As we've worked through this letter together we've said repeatedly that Paul is teaching the Thessalonians and you and me how to live life in light of Jesus’ return. And as we've looked at chapters 1, 2, and 3, we've said, rather frequently, that Paul is giving an explanation for why he has done what he has done in ministry — for why he's not there, for why he stayed such a short period of time — he's defending the integrity of his ministry because there are people in Thessalonica, or Thessalonica, who are accusing him, they’re slandering him to the Thessalonians, and they’re attempting to plant seeds of doubt to whether he's a charlatan, whether he's one of these traveling teachers that proliferated the ancient Mediterranean world, that sort of showed up, made a little money, and moved on to the next town. And he's defending himself and we've seen this repeatedly in chapters 1 and 2 and 3.
Today, the focus of Paul's letter changes pretty dramatically and you can see it if you’re using the ESV and many other modern translations. The very first word of 1 Thessalonians 4:1 is “Finally.” Now you know the old joke – when a preacher says, “And now in conclusion,” what does that mean? The answer is, of course, no much. Now you may say, “Now Paul, you’re half-way through the letter, you’re about at the half-way point; we've got two full chapters to go. Why are you saying ‘Finally’?” Well, the commentators debate a little bit about how “Finally” ought to be translated here. Is Paul really saying, “Finally,” or is he saying, “So now, I wanted to get where I'd been going; I wanted to get to the exhortation. I told you about the exhortation that I'm going to give you. I told you in chapter 1, I told you in chapter 2; I even mentioned it in chapter 3. Now finally I'm getting to the exhortation that I wanted to make to you. We’re now getting to the point of the letter that I'm writing to you.” And that's what it clearly means. When you look at chapter 4, if you’ll let your eyes scan down the first eleven, twelve verses, Paul getting into the business of exhortation now.
He does this regularly, doesn't he, in letters. You’re reading this wonderful theology in Ephesians 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then suddenly you start getting all this exhortation, all this instruction in ethics, all this teaching about living the Christian life. The same thing happens in Romans. You’re reading all this wonderful theology from Romans 1 to 11 and suddenly you get to Romans 12 verse 1 and you get this, “Therefore, let us be living sacrifices.” And suddenly, Romans 12, 13, and 14 are preoccupied with exhortations about the Christian life. This is a regular pattern for Paul: doctrine then duty; faith then practice; truth then life, because for Paul, all truth serves to inform Christian living. It teaches us how we are to live. And he’ll get into specific exhortations about living the Christian life. As we study this passage over the next weeks together, he will specifically address the issue of sexual immorality, he will address vocation and how we go about our work, what our attitude is towards work. He’ll even address the issue of death. What is our response to the death of our loved ones? Do we have hope when that happens or do we lose hope? Sex, work, and death – perennial issues for Christians in every culture and in every generation. And Paul is going to give specific exhortations about how we are to live life in light of Jesus’ return in those areas.
Now what we're going to look at today in verses 1 and 2 is really just his introduction but he says something in this passage that is hugely important to get our heads around if we're going to understand properly the commands, the directions, the exhortations that he's going to give us. And I want you to be on the lookout for three things. In verse 1, in the very first phrase, you’re going to come across the word, “urge” — “I urge you brothers.” So you’re going to see, that is, an exhortation from Paul. The Gospel of grace doesn't mean that Paul doesn't have anything to exhort us to do and he's going to actually urge us to do something. So I want you to be on the lookout for the exhortation.
Then, if you’ll let your eyes look a little bit further in verse 1, in the phrase that starts with the word “that” and ends with the word “more” — there’re two “thats” which actually are indicative of a clause in that section. He then says, “Just as you are doing. I urge you, keep on doing just what you’re doing.” So the exhortation is really an encouragement. He's not saying, “You dummies are doing it all wrong! Do it right for the first time!” He's actually saying, “You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Keep on doing it! I urge you, keep on! More! Keep on going! You’re doing this right; keep on doing it and do it more.” This is an exhortation. This is an apostle not sort of saying, “You can't ever do anything right people so I'm going to have to correct you here.” He's saying, “You’re doing well! Keep on doing that and doing it more!” This is an encouragement. I want you to hear that in this passage. Paul means to encourage you in love and good deeds here.
And then third, look at verse 2. He reminds them of the instruction that he had already given them about how to live the Christian life. Now he's going to spell that out from verses 3 and following in those areas that we've already talked about, but he reminds us. So you've got an exhortation in verse 1, you've got an encouragement in verse 1, and you've got a reminder in verse 2. Be on the lookout for those things as we read God's Word. Before we read it, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. Every word of it is inspired, every word of it is profitable, every word of it is supremely practical. So by Your Holy Spirit, bring Your Word to bear on our hearts so that we love the right things, so that we aspire to the right things, so that we understand how we're to live this Christian life, and then grant, by the Spirit, O Lord, hearts that actually embrace in living the teaching of Your Word. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it in 1 Thessalonians 4, beginning in verse 1:
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
In this passage, Paul gives us a secret; that if we’ll understand it will change the way we go about viewing obedience in the Christian life. And the secret has to do with an attitude. I don't mean a secret in the sense that Paul won't tell you this unless you pay him some money. I mean he's telling us a principle, a vital truth about how you go about living the Christian life, about how you go about growing, that if you’ll understand that it will have a dramatic effect on your Christian experience – on the way that you look at God's commandments; on the way that you view obedience and duty in the Christian life. It will give you a joy and a delight on those things if you properly understand them. So I want to give close attention to what Paul says here.
The first thing I want you to see is his exhortation of the Thessalonians. “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus…” Paul has taught them a robust theology of grace. They are not saved by what they do; they’re saved by what Jesus has done for them, but that does not prevent Paul from urging them to do things. Now isn't that a contradiction? No. Think of it this way. Let's say you've gotten a little flabby around the middle — not like anybody I know! And you've decided, “I've got to do something about this. I'm going to go to a personal trainer who's going to help me get this off.” And you want someone who's on your side, along with you for your goals, to do what? To urge you to accomplish what you've set out to do. It does not bother you at all when your personal trainer pushes you just a little bit because you want to get where you’re going. You want to lose the weight; you want to get back in shape. And the apostle Paul is here exhorting Christians. They know how they got saved. They know that they’re saved by what Jesus has done for them. They know that they’re saved by grace. They know that they don't get saved by trying hard or doing well or being nice or being better. They get saved because of what Jesus has done and they trust on Him as He is offered in the Gospel. But they also know that one of the reasons that God has saved them is so that they will be conformed to the image of His Son. They want to be more like the Savior. They want to grow in grace. They want to be mature. And therefore, when he urges them to do that very thing, they’re not offended by it because he's urging them as their friend to get them where God wants them to do.
So don't be surprised when you see Paul urging and imploring and commanding and directing. And he does it all the way through the letters of the New Testament. Paul's not forgetting what he taught about grace at all. He's just explaining a very important principle that he sums up in a little phrase: Grace reigns in righteousness. Paul says that. Grace reigns in righteousness. That is, one of the ways that God's grace in us manifests itself is on our growing Christian maturity. And so Paul doesn't mind coming along and urging us to behave as increasingly mature Christians. So there's the first thing I want you to see, this exhortation from Paul where he urges us to live the Christian life.
Now secondly I want you to see his encouragement, and look at the second half of verse 1 to see how he puts it. “That as you received from us how you ought to walk” — he’ll repeat that again in verse 2. In other words, he's already, in the short time he was able to be with the Thessalonians, he’d already been teaching them how to live the Christian life. “Walk” in the New Testament is a metaphor for the Christian life. You know, you’re kind of making slow, unspectacular progress, just like you’re walking somewhere. It's a metaphor for the Christian life. It's not the only metaphor for the Christian life. Sometimes Paul will talk about running. Sometimes Paul will talk about the fight of faith. Sometimes he’ll talk about us offering ourselves as living sacrifices. There are all sorts of metaphors for the Christian life but the walk is one of the main metaphors for the Christian life. And so he said, “We taught you how to walk, how to live, as Christians.”
And look at what he says, “You received from us how you ought to walk and to please God.” Now let's stop right there and camp on that for a minute. This is really important but very easily misunderstood. Paul does not mean that the believer has to please God in the sense that what we do becomes the reason that He loves us. This is not “performance is pleasing.” Some of you have come out of a relationship here you felt like, “The only way I can get this person to pay attention to me, the only way I can get this person to love me, is to perform, to do things.” That's not what Paul is talking about here. I also know that some of you are in relationships where no matter what you do to please somebody it's never enough, and no good deed you do goes unpunished. There's not some kindness that you ever show that there's not some criticism of. There's no extra effort that you make that's either overlooked of positively criticized. And that's now what Paul is talking about here, as if God was some hard to please ogre in the sky and you’re a hamster on a wheel working really, really hard to try to please Him. That's not the picture at all.
Paul is talking about viewing your obedience in the Christian life in light of the pleasure of the Lord in you. Now I want you to think about that for just a moment. Now I've told you before that I had a father who grew up in the Great Depression who didn't have a lot. You know, there were Christmases where they got some oranges and apples for Christmas because that's all the family could afford during the Great Depression. And he, as a teenager, signed up for the United States Marine Corps and ended up in the South Pacific seeing some hard things. He had a father who was an alcoholic who would go off for days on drunks and show back up again and who never ever said that he loved him. He was kind of cruel to him. When he was ten years old his father took him downtown to buy him the last pair of shoes that he ever owned and he mocked him because of how big his feet were because he wore what his father considered to be massively sized shoes. They were size nine. And yet my father, son of the Depression, son of an alcoholic father, marine, not things that you would think would conspire to make a man tender, my father was an incredibly tender father. And that always blew me away. I can remember as a boy thinking, “Lord, how did you make this man so tender because there's nothing in his experience that would lend me to think that this man would easily show affection and express love.”
And I don't mean that my father was a push-over who would let me get by with anything. Far from it; far from it. I can remember my father, on more than one occasion, saying, “Son, we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” And I can remember him saying, “This is Alpha and this is Omega — the beginning and the end.” And given that he had boxed in the Marine Corps, I never tested him on that one, but he was a tender, affectionate father. And consequently, it killed me to disappoint him, not because he couldn't be pleased, but because I knew his love and pleasure and I loved that. I loved pleasing my father because he was easy to please. And there was nothing like the affection and affirmation that I received from him. You understand that? There is no rush in this life like pleasing a person who is pleased by what you do to please them because you love them and because they love you. There's nothing in this life that is a rush like that. There is no satisfaction or fulfillment in this life like pleasing a person who is pleased by what you do to please them because you love them and they love you. And Paul is saying, “I want you to set the whole of your understanding of the Christian life in light of that reality.”
The movie's thirty years old now so most of you have only seen it on DVD, but in Chariots of Fire there is a scene — by the way, it's a fictional scene. This conversation never happened but it's such a good illustration I'm going to tell you about it. It's a scene between Eric Liddell and his sister, Jenny, and she is objecting to his running in the Olympics because she's saying that it's not spiritual. Now that, by the way, I say that scene is fictional and the reason I say that it is, that scene is the scene that hurt Eric Liddell's sister, Jenny, most about the movie because she was very supportive of his athletic career actually in real life, but the screen writer had to develop some dynamic tension in the movie and so he had her opposing his running. And he drew out of Liddell's actual real life story an attitude that he had about his athletics. And in the story — you remember the scene? They’re standing on the side of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, it's a beautiful scene, and she's arguing with him about his running. And he says, “Jenny, Jenny, don't fret yourself.” And he said, “God made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure.”
Now what was he saying to his sister? That actually was his attitude towards his running. He literally did his running in order to glorify God and he loved the experience of knowing that he was doing what God built him to do for God's glory. Now why — “When I run, I feel His pleasure” — what's going on there? Exactly what Paul is exhorting the Thessalonians about. He's saying, “When you live the Christian life, don't you realize that you’re doing this for a Father who loves you and who loves to be pleased with you in your seeking to please Him?” And think about this in Jesus’ life. Do you remember the words that God the Father spoke from heaven to Jesus and the assembled multitude when Jesus was baptized? “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Father was expressing His pleasure in His Son and Jesus, no surprise, in the Gospel says that He loves to please His Father – not as someone who can't be pleased. I know because you let me in on your lives. There are many people in this room this morning who have relationships with husbands or wives or parents who children where it doesn't matter how hard you try, you can't please them.
That's not the kind of thing that Paul's talking about. Paul is talking about the joy of seeking the pleasure of the One who delights to be pleased in him. Do you know what that's like in a human relationship? Have you ever had a human relationship where, you know, you say, “What can I do for you?” and the person just says, “All you need to do for me is keep breathing because I delight in you.” Do you know what it is to feel that kind of pleasure in you? Paul's saying, “That's how our heavenly Father is. He loves to delight in His children. He's pleased with His children. And when He sees them seeking to love and serve people who just can't be pleased and seeking to do His will in this world, He takes pleasure in that.” And Paul's saying, “Thessalonians, I want you to live so that your constant aspiration is to please the Lord and to experience His pleasure in your pleasing Him.”
And why is that so important? It's important for a thousand reasons. Let me just give you two. On the one hand, it's important because you will be involved in numerous, significant human relationships in which you are deeply hurt by people who cannot be pleased. And no matter how hard you try and no matter how loving you are, they will crush you over and over again. And if your goal in life is to get pleasure and satisfaction out of that relationship in which that person absolutely never can be pleased, please call Jan and get an appointment this week because I'm sorry, it's not going to happen. But if in that relationship, if in that relationship your goal is not to find your satisfaction and your fulfillment from the pleasure that that person is not going to take in your service but to please your heavenly Father, then you can do anything because your Father will take pleasure in you and He’ll especially take pleasure in you when He sees you loving and serving where you’re not going to be loved or served back. And He’ll say, “Behold my child who is like My Son in whom I am well pleased.”
Others of you are approval junkies. You’re what the Puritans used to call “man pleasers.” You know, you get your sense of significance and security because of other people's estimation of you and you’re constantly craving that approval. And this truth will set you free from that. The One ultimately that we want to please is not them out there; it's Him. We want His approval. We want His “well done.” His “well done” is the “well done” that we're looking for. And that allows us to be freed from the shackles of what other people think and of getting up on our little gerbil mills to try and please other people. No, it's His pleasure that we want in what we do. He is the One we want to please. And He delights, He delights and takes pleasure in what we do for His pleasure.
Paul's wanting to reorient the whole way we look at the commands and the directions that He gives us in His Word because of the Father's pleasure. And what he's doing here is, he's encouraging, he's encouraging the Thessalonians and you and me in love and good deeds. “Just as you are doing, do so” and literally reads, “more.” More. Keep on doing it. Do it more. Delight in His delighting in you. Feel His pleasure in your seeking to please Him. He will never let you down. He will always delight in you no matter what's happening in your life. And what is it? It allows you to have non-circumstantial fulfillment in every relation and season of life because we're all going to be in relationships and in seasons of life where the fulfillment is minimal from the human beings that we're interacting with. Paul's saying, “It never has to be that way if you’re a believer because your Father takes pleasure in your seeking to please Him.”
It's life changing if we understand that. You know, I know women whose fathers never ever said, “I love you. I'm proud of you.” And they spend the rest of their lives waiting for that to come. And the apostle Paul is saying, “You need to work to believe and to feel your heavenly Father's pleasure in you. And you need to live out of that experience of His pleasure.”
Third, Paul says – a reminder. “You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.” Two things I want you to notice. Go back to verse 1. Notice he said he urged them in the Lord Jesus; now he says he instructed them through the Lord Jesus. In other words, Paul is saying, “The exhortation I'm giving you now is an exhortation for all Jesus’ disciples, all who are in the Lord Jesus, and it in fact comes from the Lord Jesus. I'm telling you the same thing that the Lord Jesus told you.” And the end of the Sermon on the Mount, what does Jesus say? He tells the story of a man who built his house on a rock and a man who built his house on the sand and the punch line is — “the hearers and doers of My Word.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “I don't want people who just listen to Me. I want people who do what I say. I want disciples who obey what I command.” So in the Great Commission, when Jesus sends His disciples out in Matthew 28:18-20, what does He say? “Go make disciples teaching them to…” listen to what I command? “Teaching them to observe what I command.” So Paul's saying, “I'm just saying what Jesus said here. I want you to do what the Word says. I want you to do what the Lord commands. I want you to live the Christian life in accordance with God's Word, in the Lord Jesus, through the Lord Jesus.”
And then secondly, notice what he says. Verse 2 — “You know what instructions we gave you,” go back to verse 1, “that as you received from us how you ought to walk.” He's saying this again. In other words, he's saying, “You remember what we taught you about how you were to live.” Now what's important about that? That reminder is important for two reasons. One is, it shows that all Christian teaching is connected to living. All Christian teaching is connected to living. All Christian doctrine is for the living of the Christian life. All truth is practical. It's meant to change the way we live — all of it. And so Paul's reminding them that they didn't just teach the Thessalonians so that the Thessalonians were smarter than pagan Thessalonians; they taught the Thessalonians truth so that they could live the Christian life.
The second thing that reminder is important for is this. Sometimes when we do not see ourselves growing in the Christian life like we should, it's because we haven't adequately understood the truth that has been taught in God's Word and we need to go back to that truth again until we get it, with the aim of living it out. We don't – you know, one of the mottos for believers is, “You don't know the truth until you live it.” You don't know the truth until you live it. Theoretical truth is not the kind of truth that God is concerned to convey by His Word. The truth that He wants to convey is practical; it works itself out in life. So I tell seminary students, “You may understand the hypostatic union perfectly. You can still go home and be a jerk to your wife. And so if you understand the hypostatic union and you’re still a jerk to your wife, the doctrine of the hypostatic union you've not adequately understood. You need to go back and work on it some more.” So all of Christian truth is meant to impact the way that we live. And Paul reminds the Thessalonians here.
He exhorts them, he encourages them, and he reminds them. And he attempts to re-center their whole approach to living the Christian life to understanding that when they get up in the morning their attitude ought to be, “I want to please my heavenly Father because there is nothing in this world like the pleasure I receive from Him in my little feeble attempts to please Him.” Husbands, have you ever had that experience in relation to your wife? You know, this woman respects me, she takes care of me, she feeds me, she loves me when I don't deserve it. Man, when I wake up in the morning I want that woman to be happy. I want that woman to be happy. Have you ever had that feeling in life? Have you had that in other relationships? Maybe it's a friend. Maybe there's a friend in your life like that that gives you so much that you think, “Boy, I'm getting to much out of this relationship I sure hope my friend is getting something out of me because I want my friend to be happy because he means a lot to me or she means a lot to me.” Or maybe it is a wonderful parental relationship or even a relationship with a child.
Paul's saying, our aim in everything ought to be to please Him, not because He's hard to please, not because we're trying to get Him to love us, but precisely the opposite — He's not hard to please. He's so kind to accept our feeble attempts at obedience and He loves us. In fact, He loved us before we loved Him. And because of that, He is the person we want to please more than anyone else in this world. If you understand that, it changes the whole way you look at obedience in the Christian life. It's not a list of things to do, “or else.” It's, “You mean, if I do these things it's pleasing to the Lord? Are you kidding me? These are things that I ought to do anyway. You mean it's going to please Him if I do these things? Where do I sign up?”
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Work it into our hearts. Forgive our sins. Receive our thanks and praise in Jesus' name, amen.
Well take your bulletins in hand and turn to “By Faith” and we’ll sing about what it means to live by faith.
Let me remind you again that as you leave we have an opportunity to give to the Gideon work of distributing the Bible around the world. There will be ushers at the exits and there will be plates there that you can put your money in.
Receive the blessing of the Lord. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.