Future Glory | Present Trial: 1 Thess. 4:1-8
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 :: Non-theoretical Holiness
After a very long introduction, indeed the longest in all of Paul’s letters, the Apostle finally gets to the main body and subject matter of instruction in his letter to the young church at Thessalonica. His first subject is sanctification and spiritual growth. As he makes clear in the first verses of chapter four. From there, the pressing specifics of sanctification for the young Thessalonian church include sex, sexual immorality, adultery and promiscuity.
The next paragraphs, in our succeeding weeks, continue subjects under the theme of sanctification. These ongoing subjects include loving one another, eschatological (theology of the end times) matters of the death of believers, the Day of the Lord and a miscellaneous selection of church order matters. Paul’s second letter to the church seems to take up these same matters at greater detail.
If I were to choose only two theological concepts, which are indeed biblical words themselves, that believers should focus on to clearly and accurately understand, they would be justification and sanctification. Justification is the judicial act of God whereby He declares someone to be righteous, or in right standing, right relationship to Him. He chooses to do this in response to a person’s faith in Jesus His Son. This act of trust, based on a knowledge of Jesus’ identify as God and substitutionary work on the cross - and empty tomb - forgives the sinner and welcomes them into a secure, eternal relationship with God. This is justification. By faith in Jesus you are made new. You have a new identity. You are declared righteous. All of this is a free gift of God’s grace.
Sanctification is different. It is the lifelong process of embodied holiness. This is the progressive experience of actually becoming holy in practical life, thought, actions and character. Sanctification is the point of Christian discipleship, which itself is the lifelong process of nearness and submission to Jesus our Master, appropriating in ourselves Jesus’ character, values and mission. In other words, sanctification is working to catch up your old attitude to your new identity. And it is indeed a whole lot of work. Hard work.
From Paul’s letter, we can safely assume that his audience, the Thessalonian church family, had already been justified by faith in Jesus. They were believers. They were saved and secure by God’s free grace. Yet, like all believers of all time, they struggled in their “walk,” their sanctification, their discipleship. It is to these matters that Paul turns his attention. His first sanctification topic is sexual immorality, the Greek work from which we get the word porn.
Included in this general topic seems to be promiscuity, fornication (a work of yesteryear that means sex between two unmarried people) adultery and lust. Its likely because of the Greco-Roman culture of the time, Paul also included homosexual behaviors in his thinking here.
It seems this young church were experiencing some significant problems and sin. Because Paul says that he is reminding them of commands previously given, it does not seem that the young church was the victim of ignorance, but rather willful negligence on the part of sexual immorality.
Paul does a masterful job speaking to the subject, linking it to the major role of sanctification, and being specific enough for the church to take action. Instead of popular change agents (which typically include fear, shame and control), Paul employs biblical change agents (a change of heart or values, an understanding of consequences, and an appeal to intimacy and relationship). In so doing, he clears the path for our personal sanctification in this same area.
Group Discussion Questions:
1. Briefly review the first three chapters of First Thessalonians and discuss what Paul has already written and why.
2. In 4:1, why do you think Paul begins with “finally, brethren”? (The word finally can also refer to “remaining matters,” or “what is left behind.”)
3. How would you define the biblical word justification? (Leaders: be careful and precise with this question. See the notes above and see Romans 3:19-26)
4. How would you define the biblical word sanctification? How is it different and distinct from justification? (Leaders: again, work for precision in the distinction between these two ideas. See Romans 5:1-5)
5. In earthly relationships, how do people usually try to change other people? Think of parents and kids, married spouses, or even bosses and employees.
6. What are the limitations and repercussions with these popular change agents?
7. How does God change people as revealed in the Scriptures? How is this different than popular human change agents?
8. Where do you see these biblical change agents in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8?
9. How would you define sexual immorality? What is the reference point for your definition?
10. How has our contemporary culture defined sexual immorality? What is its reference point?
11. Look closely at 1 Thessalonians 4:7. Discuss with your group what this verse means.
12. From this passage, identify specific prayer requests from your group, for our church family at large, for our city, nation and world. Close with a time of bold prayer in the name of Jesus.
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