I have a friend who, while in one of his more cynical moods, once said that the secret of success in life is to establish low standards for yourself. Expressed another way, one might say those goals that are most easily reached are the ones most easily reachable.
From time to time, we need to examine (or re-examine) our personal goals and see if the objectives we have set for ourselves correspond with those the Lord God has set for us. When we do that, what we might discover is that we have set the bar too low for ourselves. To borrow a phrase from author C.S. Lewis, we might be far too easily satisfied.
Our study passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 challenges us to adopt God’s standards as our own. The goal we ought to set for ourselves is stated succinctly in verse 1: “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God … .” The verses that follow make specific application of that overarching objective.
One of the first things we notice in this passage is that the Thessalonian Christians already were striving to live lives that were pleasing to God. But the Apostle Paul encouraged them not to rest on their accomplishments, but to do yet “more and more” (NASB, “excel still more”) (v. 1).
The Christian experience frequently is described as a “walk with Christ.” That particular analogy was a favorite of the Apostle John, who used it extensively in his epistles (see 1 John 1:7, 2:6; 2 John v. 6; 3 John v. 3). “Walking” is indeed a powerful metaphor for the Christian life, because the word implies continual and progressive forward movement.
Consider this: An athlete who competes on the track does not reach a certain time goal for his event and then say, “I’ve made it; I can relax now.” No, he continues to train and work even harder, always trying to shave just a few more micro-seconds off his time.
The same principle holds true in the matter of being a disciple of Jesus Christ: No matter where you are in the process, no matter what stage of growth you are at, no matter how long you have been a Christian, the goal before us is this: Excel still more!
That progressive forward movement in our relationship with Christ is explored further in verse 3: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified … .” The word “sanctified” is very closely related in meaning to the word “holiness”—that is, to be set apart to Christ. We ought always to keep in mind that when Christ called us to salvation, he called us into a life-changing relationship with himself and into a process whereby we increasingly are set apart to him.
Here Paul specifically addressed our sanctification as it relates to sexual and moral purity (vv. 3-8). Recall that many of the Christians in the city of Thessalonica had come to faith in Christ out of a background of pagan belief and behavior (1:9). Having been born and raised in a profane and immoral culture, many of the Thessalonians had lived their lives according to accepted standards of behavior which, while perfectly normal and natural in their society, were nonetheless opposed to God’s standards of holiness.
One of the challenges every new Christian faces is learning new ways of living, thinking and responding. When we begin to follow Christ, we must unlearn habits and values and actions we might have been carrying around for much of our lives. In these verses, we hear Paul saying, “Don’t live like the people of the world; and don’t keep on living like you used to live yourself before you came to know Christ.”
Paul then went on to write about the importance of love for those in the Christian family (vv. 9-10). In verse 10, the apostle commended the Thessalonians for their love of “all the brothers throughout Macedonia.”
That statement, and particularly the word “all,” particularly is instructive when viewed in the context of what the New Testament says about the Macedonian churches. For example, the church in the city of Berea included some of the prominent and influential (and, we might assume, financially well-to-do) citizens of the city (Acts 17:10-12), while other Macedonian Christians were materially poor (2 Corinthians 8:1-2). The believers in Macedonia represented a vast cross-section of society, and the Thessalonians' love wrapped itself like a blanket around them all.
Our love ought not be restricted to people who are just like us, but should be directed toward all of our brothers and sisters in Christ—those who are wealthy as well as those who are poor, those who are on the top rung of the social ladder as well as those who aren’t even on the ladder.
Our love also should be a living and growing thing, as once again in verse 10 comes the encouragement to “do so more and more.” That encouragement is a reminder that love isn’t a mere feeling, but is a way of behaving toward other people. To “do so more and more” might be interpreted to mean, “Keep finding new ways to show love to others.”
A while back I saw this bumper sticker on the back of a car: “I BRAKE FOR GARAGE SALES.” The driver of that car was telling the world, “You never can tell when I am going to stop and look for a bargain.” This passage of Scripture urges us always to be on the lookout for opportunities and ways to love people.
The study passage concludes with yet another application of the goal of living a life that is pleasing to God. Paul wrote, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands … so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (vv. 11-12).
We should take care of those things God has entrusted to us, without being lazy, a meddlesome busy-body or a self-promoting glory-seeker. Our Lord has called us to make a difference in the world, and you can do that while leading what Paul here called a “quiet life.” Jesus said we are the salt of the earth, and salt makes a big difference in whatever it touches; but one of the quietest things in the world is a salt-shaker!
What are your goals in life? Do they measure up to God’s goals for you? As you consider this passage of Scripture, what personal challenges do they place before you as you evaluate what you desire for yourself and what God desires for you?