Summary: We’re to please God, not ourselves and we’re to love one another; to seek their welfare above our own. The Christian life is always one of growth, of ongoing training, as we press on towards the goal of eternal life.
I think Christians often struggle with knowing how to respond to the pressures we feel to lower our standards of behaviour. And there are two extremes that we come across among Christians. One extreme thinks we should forget those old fashioned mores and get with the times: after all, this is a new world we live in. The other extreme is to be so strongly puritanical that all the fun’s taken out of life because they’re so worried about whether their behaviour might be tainted by sin.
Well, in this letter, Paul has been defending himself against the accusations of his opponents largely by reminding the Thessalonians of how he behaved when he was with them, calling to mind the sorts of things he taught, the way he lived among them and the way he made sure that Timothy went to them to strengthen them in their faith. And in so doing he gives us some direction as to how to find our way through the ethical dilemmas of our life.
At the end of ch 3 he prays for them: "12May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." (1 Th 3:12-13 NRSV) Paul knows that he’s done what he could for them, physically. But that’s not all he can do. Now he prays that God would continue to work in them as they grow to maturity in Christ. What’s more, there are still things that he can teach them and encourage them to do even if he can’t do it face to face. So he goes on to reinforce the teaching that he gave them while he was there.
So what was it that he taught them? Well, we see a number of references to his teaching as we go through this letter. He instructed them to live a life that’s "worthy of God" (2:12); To live lives that are pleasing to God (4:1); he points out that such a life will be one of moral uprightness and concerned love (4:3,10); that it involves things as mundane as honest work and quiet lives and minding your own business (4:11-12). He also points out that this call to uprightness even extends to our personal life, even to the privacy of the bedroom (4:3-7) and warns that God will judge those who live only for their own pleasure, ignoring the needs or rights of their brother or sister (4:6). In other words what he gives us here is a short course in Christian ethics. How do we decide what is right and what isn’t?
In my CRE class this week we were thinking about what it is that makes some things fair or just and what makes other things unfair or unjust. And of course they all knew what was fair and what wasn’t. Young people generally have a strong sense of justice, particularly when they’re the victims of injustice of course, or when they can relate to someone who’s suffering injustice. But not many of them could tell me why those things were unjust, other than they seemed to be unjust. Oh, there were lots of suggestions, most of which applied in some settings but not others, but no-one had a general basis on which to decide whether something is unjust or not. Now they’re not alone are they? There are many time when equally well-informed people disagree as to what’s fair and what isn’t. Even Christians disagree at times on what’s godly behaviour and what isn’t; even if God’s word does give us more grounds for deciding than most other people have. So it’s important that we read this passage and seek to understand what’s behind this call to live lives that are pleasing to God.