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Future Glory | Present Trial: 1 Thess. 4:9-12

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 :: Excellent Love

For some reason, mutual love among the new Christians in Thessalonica was a problem. If it were not so, Paul would not return to the subject again for the second time. He is, however, careful to say that the church is indeed loving one another, but there is great room for excelling still more.

At the end of chapter three, in prayer form, Paul said “and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all people.” And now in 4:9 he says, “Now as to the love of the brethren… you yourselves are taught by God to love one another… but we urge you, brethren, to excel still more…

Paul is saying at least two things. First, there is no limit to how much you can love another person. There is not finish line, no bottom of the well, no filling of the cup. There is always more. “Excel still more.” Second, Paul is saying that love of one another, especially in the church of Jesus Christ, is absolutely central, vital and indispensable. There is no substitute, no way around it, no alternative and no better thing.

Furthermore, there seems to be a connection, at least in Paul’s mind or agenda, between embodied love and the leading of a quiet life, minding one’s own business and working with one’s own hands to be a good witness, provide a good life and not be in need. And if so, there is perhaps more in this connection than for just the ancient inhabitants of Thessalonica.

Paul begins with a commendation of the majority (vv. 9-10a), in which the entire matter is put in the context of believers’ having familial love for one another. This is followed by a sentence that begins with an exhortation to do so all the more (v. 10b), before he goes on to deal directly with those who are not working so as to provide for their own sustenance (v. 11). The final reason for this corrective word is twofold: so as not to bring shame on the church before outsiders, and so that the person involved would not “sponge” off others at this point (v. 12). Given Paul’s need to return to this issue as some length in the next letter (2 These 3:6-15), it seems clear that these latter two items are the real issue for Paul.”—Gordon Fee

“Following the injunction to abound in low for one another, Paul exhorts his readers to take the lowly place. That is the way love acts. Verse 11: ’We urge you… to make it your ambition to have no ambition!’ (Phillips) brings out something of Paul’s vigorous paradox, though the exact meaning of his words is not completely clear.”—Leon Morris

It seems that the young Thessalonian church was not unfamiliar with brotherly love for one another, indeed even agape love. But there were some in the church that abused this love and its expression in generosity and perhaps hospitality. This was a drag on the community of believers and a bad witness to the watching eyes of outsiders. Paul here speaks softly to the minority of people taking advantage of love. Later, he will raise his volume.

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good. If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”—2 Thessalonians 3:6-15

Group Discussion Questions:
  1. What are the different kinds or types of love? Discuss them in your group.
  2. How can you “love” homemade bread, a German Shepherd and your first grandchild? What is the difference? Why do we use the same word?
  3. Do you think you can measure someone’s love? Why or why not? If so, how would you measure it?
  4. How might 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 be a measure of love for a follower of Jesus?
  5. In this list of 1 Corinthians 13, which aspect of love is hardest for you? Identify the top three hardest for you and share with your group.
  6. What about the statement in John 13:1? Read it and ask how your love for other believers matches up to Jesus’ love. (The phrase “to the end” likely means much more than lifespan; it has to do with the full depth of need in the object of love.)
  7. How might you “excel still more” in your love of other believers?
  8. How would the three commands of verse 11, if they were lived out, affect the church in Thessalonica of Paul’s day?
  9. What application do you find for these three commands now, for you?
  10. How does this kind of life affect the perspective or understanding of those outside the church?
  11. How might love be misunderstood? Think of dating or marriage or parenting or in the church. What damage might this misunderstanding bring?
  12. Dream out loud with your group what your church family could look like if everyone was experiencing and exhibiting the kind of love that Paul (here and elsewhere) teaches?
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