On the Command to Holiness
Study on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2
In true Pauline fashion, the apostle “brings it all back home” for the believers in Thessalonica. See, he has spent over half of his epistle thus far praising and building up the believers, commending them for their faith and their love, for their steadfastness in the face of the endless persecution that they are facing. Now, however, having dealt with the immediate purpose of his writing, he moves on to doctrinal issues which he recognizes must always be addressed. And, in doing so, the letter begins to take a completely different tone.
See, Paul recognizes the importance of building up his beloved children in the faith. He recognizes that you can’t just constantly pound someone with doctrine and warnings. It’s unloving. Could you imagine the relationship you’d have with your child if the only time you ever spoke to them was to yell at them? And yet, in parenting, there are times when you must do exactly that and not be afraid to do so. But, to exclusively yell and warn and punish would be tantamount to child abuse, you must also encourage and build up and seek a relationship with them. And that’s kind of where Paul is at this point in his letter to this body of believers. He has taken the time to encourage them, to build them up, but he also recognizes something that I think we oftentimes forget in lifting one another up, it’s very easy in doing so to build a foundation of prideful self-reliance. It’s so easy to praise someone so much that they forget that it is God who is working through them, and they begin to think that it is their own strength and ability that allows them to do the very things that we are praising them for. In the ultimate divine irony, praising someone for their faith in God can be the very step that causes them to stumble. In doing this, we tend not only to shift our focus away from God Himself, but also away from the things of God, things like the constant demand for holiness in our lives.
Paul here “calls them back” by reminding them that, “you’ve remained steadfast in your faith, your love is evident, but let us not forsake personal conduct as well.” His actual wording is, “just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus.” See, he is reminding them that their faith is to be evident in all areas of their lives, it should be their very governing thought concerning their behavior. It should manifest itself in their lives in all aspects of their lives; not only in their worship and love, but also in their conduct amongst the unbelievers. John reminds us that “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” (1 John 1:6) and that “he who says he abides in Him ought to himself walk just as He walked.” (1 John 2:6). See, it’s this whole idea that, yes we must endure suffering; yes, we must believe in Him; and yes, we must love one another; but there’s a lot more to it than just those three things. When we’re walking with the Lord, pleasing to Him, there are a lot of other things that He commands of His followers in His word, as well as a multitude of things that we are commanded to abstain from. Jesus tells us, “he who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (John 14:21). To know Him is to love His, and to love Him is to obey Him.
There is a trend in our culture today, and by our culture, I don’t mean the world of our generation, I mean our church culture. See, for years, there was this all-encompassing focus on personal holiness and morality. There were preachers, called “fire and brimstone preachers,” who would preach exclusively on sin and punishment, wrath and judgment. And, while those teachings are important, teaching exclusively on those things yields a multitude of problems. As we saw from Paul, it’s very unloving to punish and warn and threaten without edifying and encouraging. Another huge problem with that movement was that it created a very introverted, self-absorbed church. See, when all you hear about is wrath and judgment, then all you care about is making sure that you are right with the Lord, and thus you create this atmosphere of apathy towards those outside the church. You’d find homeless beggars being forsaken by “men of God,” and ultimately, a church so focused on the spiritual that they would utterly neglect the physical needs of others. It was this mentality that “the duty of the church isn’t to feed the poor, it’s to spread the gospel.” When I think about the church that this trend had created, I think of Jesus’ letter to the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). It’s the church that’s so overwhlemed with doctrine and systematic theology that it forgets to love people. So, you can identify false teachers and apostles; can you feed the starving man outside on the street. Chrysostom said that “I assure you, if you can’t find Christ in the starving man outside the gate, you assuredly will not find Him in the chalice.”
The trend in our current culture, however, has completely shifted that paradigm. In our generation, it’s popular, trendy even, to help the homless, to feed the hungry, to fight against human trafficking; but we’ve become so steadfast and dedicated to those things that we’ve all but forsaken the Lord’s command to be holy. There are certain sinful behaviors that we’re told to abstain from, and yet we’ve fully embraced them, not in the world, but in the church. We’ve gone from Ephesus to Pergamos, compromising with the world. This is the church that says, “we accept everyone; we’re all sinners; God loves you just for who you are.” Read any contemporary Christian publication, and you’ll read about churches raising money, churches building buildings, churches collecting supplies for those in need, all of these great humanitarian causes. But you’ll also read about so many of those same churches allowing adultery, same sex marriage, drunkenness, avarice, covetousnesss, etc. See, so many times in Scripture, we see the warning to turn neither to the right nor the left, but to stay perfectly centered and focused on Christ. And yet, so much of church history is exactly that, turning from one extreme to the other. We combat legalism with antinomianism, we combat loveless doctrine with doctrineless love, we combat works without faith with faith without works. We seem to do everything but what Scripture tells us so many times to do.
This is Paul’s very warning here to the believers. He says, “you have faith, you believe; you have love; and you endure suffering. Now, you have to be mindful to remember the traditions that we have taught you concerning holiness.” See, the Church has long held to the traditions of God in terms of holiness, sin, morality, behavior, and conduct. It is only in the last few centuries that believers have turned away from these traditions, and this to our own detriment. In turning away from the traditions of Church history, we’ve created this system where, basically, anything goes. No behavior is frowned upon, in fact, to insist that the Lord commands certain behaviors has been branded heresy. Considering how many times in Scripture the people of the Lord, the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, and the Church in the New Testament, are called to holiness, it seems like something that we should consider. When we think of the warnings that in the end times there will be a great falling away from the Church, with people seeking teachers who will “tickle their ears,” it seems like the mainstream church turning away from 2000 years of tradition would be a frightening thought.
Jesus and all of the apostles taught us that, as Christians, as “little Christ’s,” we are to conduct ourselves as holy, as ones filled with the Holy Spirit, as ones walking in the light. I can’t help but wonder if we should stop decrying Jesus and His disciples as being “unbiblical legalists” and possibly start studying what each of them says about what it looks like to walk in the faith. Our Lord Christ Jesus Himself teaches us that “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, neither can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 7:18-19). When we look at our lives, what kind of fruit do we see coming forth from it? Not in human terms, but in terms of Jesus’ commands for our lives. We must be mindful to maintain the “commands given us through Christ Jesus our Lord” and the teachings of His apostles. When we look at our lives, do we see a focus on sanctification, on holiness? Do we see ourselves being conformed to the image of Jesus? Or do we see ourselves living as we wish to live, occasionally twisting a random verse to justify our actions.
We must remember, my brethern, that the enemy has been doing this a long time. He knows Scripture better than any of us ever will, and he knows what we want it to say versus what it actually says. Jesus teaches us to deny ourselves, thus any command out of Scripture that is too comfortable ought to be cause for warning. Any teaching that allows us to continue in sin is a teaching of the devil, because so much of Scripture, including the teachings of Jesus Himself, deny that right to us. But, Satan can be very subtle and very convincing, and we must be on guard against such doctrines. That’s where the fellowship of other believers and the traditions of the Church can be so useful, so that when we are tempted to twist something to mean something other than what it means, others can bring us back to the true meaning. When Scripture admonishes us that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom, it means it’s hard for the rich to nter the kingdom. When Scripture teaches us to care for the needy and feed the hungry, it means care for the needy and feed the hungry. When Scripture teaches us to remain streadfast in suffering, it means remain steadfast in suffering. And when Scripture warns us to “be holy, as I am holy,” it means, “be holy, as I am holy.” Any teaching that teaches otherwise is not of God, for God will never contradict Himself.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.