“Our Great Duties”
1 May 2005
Texts: 1 Thess. 4:9-12
Last week we touched upon our duty to live lives of purity, of holiness. Paul’s exhortation continues, adding, as it were, in the setting of purity two further duties. Shall we call them the obligations of the saved? Duties sound too much like foul tasting medicine. We have obligations to perform as new creatures, things that are native to our renewed nature: brotherly love and quiet industry. We should take to these things as fish to water, or birds to the air--they are marvels to perform and to behold. They possess both the power to move observers and to generate awe within our own hearts. First, the text:
1 Th 4:9 Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; 1 Th 4:10 for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 1 Th 4:11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; 1 Th 4:12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
I propose to show that these obligations are indeed expressive of a changed nature, a converted soul. By converted soul, I do not merely mean a heart that has been touched with an emotional experience--for the emotions are fleeting and temporal. What I have in view is the heart that by grace has been touched by God and turned toward God like a sunflower that towards the sun from which it draws that energy its life . When we come to quiet industry, we must not imagine that the larger theme and outward focus of brotherly love has been entirely abandoned. No, the quiet instruction of the believer by God is paralleled by quietness, peace-able-ness in how one’s whole life is led. So I intend to show, secondly, that in being possessed by God, which is nothing more than another way to describe the converted soul, we do come into possession of our own souls. This is a mighty act of divine deliverance, for the unconverted man is a sea of turmoil, a man of disquietude and striving. It is Satan’s desire to so disquiet us that we come to be first, dispossessed of our peace, then troubled and, finally, impoverished.
For the first, that love of the brethren is expressive of a converted soul. We read and understand v. 9 to say, “for your yourselves are taught by God to love one another.’ The Greek here is unique in the New Testament, theodidaktoi, is properly translated “taught by God” signifying the agency through which this instruction comes to the believer. Some of the lessons taught by God come through providence--through divine management of circumstances and the lessons derived there-from. Other lessons arise from the operation of our conscience which, no longer distorted by the power of sin, has been quickened to give direction of right and wrong again. The clear conscience signals the permissive will of God in our decision-making at the least. It may also signify that we are actually pleasing Him! This business of being taught by God is spoken of in John 6:45: "It is written in the prophets, 'AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT OF GOD.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. Jesus is alluding to a prophetic tradition found in several places: Isa 54:13 "And all your sons will be taught of the LORD; And the well-being of your sons will be great. and Micah 4:2 And many nations will come and say, "Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD And to the house of the God of Jacob, That He may teach us about His ways And that we may walk in His paths." For from Zion will go forth the law, Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.--and Heb 8:10 "FOR THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS INTO THEIR MINDS, AND I WILL WRITE THEM UPON THEIR HEARTS. AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. and, most explicitly in Jer 31:33 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Jer 31:34 "And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." So in three passages this business of being taught of God is prophetically declared. The reference in Hebrews is corroboration of the Jeremiah passage which details specifically what God intends to do in the days of the new covenant, that is the days of the Messiah which are the days in which Paul has written to the Thessalonians.
Now the portion of the Law in view in Thessalonians 4 relates to the second tablet of the Law, the love of one’s neighbor. This is the very love for which Paul commends his flock. Your love of the brethren, of all who bear the renewed image of God--a result of genuine conversion--is well-known. It is an outward, extensive love which leaps over the walls of their city, or precinct and is experienced regionally--throughout Macedonia. It may be said of the Thessalonians that they, by virtue of this love, wear the livery of their Lord and Savior--His love. Livery was historically a gift of clothing, a uniform if you will, which a master might make to his servants so that they wore purple--and others could at first sight know who their master was. Just so, Christians are to be clad in the purple of brotherly love. As to how they might have learned to love so freely, so widely and so well, we need look no further than their instructor: God Himself. The Spirit instructs and God confirms that teaching which is true whether by a man, such as by Paul, as pastor, or even by the Spirit Himself! Their love then has the mark of divinity upon it. It is plain to all that this love isn’t something pumped up by human enthusiasm; it is an expression of divine love working on the human heart to the point of overflowing compassion--a love that flows despite unworthiness, or even rejection. The Thessalonians were possessed by God’s love first, and then they possessed that love which, wonderfully, reached over differences of opinion, and even church practices which were deemed of less importance than brotherly love itself. We can always improve on, or perfect our brotherly love this side of heaven and so Paul stresses growth, or, more specifically, the more and more aspect to our growth in Christian character.
I move to the possession of our own souls now--as an extension of brotherly love as I noted above. Paul here urges the brothers to lead a quiet and industrious life because such diligence not only blesses the one who is quiet and productive, but it also blesses others. All Christians should strive for a quiet and calm temper--the peaceable behavior of Father Tim that Jan Karon portrays in the Mitford series. We should possess a calmness that comes from acquaintance with the Lord of the universe. If we know Him, we can trust Him and trusting Him, we can foil the attempts of Satan to disquiet us, to stir up and trouble us. Isa 30:15 For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, "In repentance and rest you shall be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength." The meekness of Christ becomes our possession by His indwelling and instructive presence and therefore we find ourselves, as we study to be quiet, no longer given to strife, or contention, or division. The unconverted heart tends in the direction of disorder and disarray, disobedience and rebellion for unless something happens we are in the thrall of the prince of this world. The converted Christian is happy to mind his own business. He is not a meddler. Why? Because being at peace in his own mind, spirit, being, he finds enough to do being diligent in his work. Paul wisely targets idleness as a problem area and so he exhorts believers to work with their own hands--that is, to be productive. Those who tend the store, get things done, live a hardworking life, they are those who earn credibility. That is they walk both honestly and decently for both senses are carried by the same word rendered “properly.” The Christian life is joyous to be sure, but it is also a matter of purity, holiness and gravity--a casual glance at the stakes will encourage spiritual sobriety. Even strangers and enemies to the gospel have a hard time faulting those who work hard, serve others and strive to owe no man anything but love. (They may resent the decency though because any standards are an offense to those who reject all standards as oppressive!) Good habits of economy produce people who are competent, socially valuable and, in large measure, more likely to be successful in securing both the necessities of life and the ability to meet the needs of others--again, we see the outward perspective, the extensive love that Paul praises in the Thessalonians. Whether men, or women, we should take to heart the example of the Proverbs 31 woman:.
Prov 31:23 Her husband is known in the gates, When he sits among the elders of the land. Prov 31:24 She makes linen garments and sells them, And supplies belts to the tradesmen. Prov 31:25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, And she smiles at the future. Prov 31:26 She opens her mouth in wisdom, And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. Prov 31:27 She looks well to the ways of her household, And does not eat the bread of idleness. Prov 31:28 Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her, saying: Prov 31:29 "Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all."
So, it is our great, sacred duty to be ambitious to live a quiet, loving and productive life for as long as we can in this world. We should avoid agitation and, at the other extreme inactivity. Not only is it a disgrace for a Christian to be involved in mob violence, riots and looting, but it also important for him to avoid “retirement.” Retirement is, for too many, sanctified idleness. It’s not scriptural. Indeed a life that aims at retirement is fundamentally misdirected. Dominion and accumulating wealth to serve others--these are positive, spiritual life goals. When we have accomplished and accumulated enough for our own, there’s always the neediness of others to be considered--and then there are public works of godly benevolence to be undertaken: new schools and colleges to founded, more hospitals to be built, libraries to established, asylums and hospices and shelters--all places where the gospel might be advanced and the lost reached in each generation, in each cultural setting and social circumstance. “Well done, my good and faithful servant” will be praise directed at those who never tired of well-doing, not perhaps to those who have reached their goals and gone to shell collecting in the Bahamas.. If the idle were more generally known to be pious, perhaps idleness would not labor under such plain strictures and limitation as Paul invokes in 1 Thess. 4. The work of the church--the visiting of the sick, the infirm and the aged and especially the imprisoned--is vast enough to keep all who are willing busy for the duration of their lives! But sloth, which in a braver day was openly condemned as a deadly sin, has the adverse effects of narrowing peoples’ circumstances--reducing some to dire straits and death. Those who work to be diligent and productive are never seen as a burden by their friends--and those who live to be generous to those in need are widely esteemed as friends of mankind. It is pleasurable to earn one’s own bread, to cancel debt and to have enough left over the serve God effectually here, there and everywhere as the Spirit directs. It is a good thing to earn a godly reputation for quietness, love and industry.
So, to make application, why should we take up these great duties, framed in purity and characterized by the possession of our soul? Is it merely because they are good things to do? Not at all. My Puritan forebears would have said that these duties do prove that we are sanctified--kind of home kit, or litmus test for the saved. If that’s compelling for you as a converted person, that’s truly fine. But much more persuasive for me is taking to water like a fish, or soaring the wind currents as an eagle. We are talking about soul-satisfying activities. Love for the brethren is pleasurable, delightful. It produced joy in the hearts of both the initiator and the recipient! It is a fulfillment. The possession of our souls in quietness and industry are both happy virtues; they put a smile of satisfaction on our faces. They put a winsomeness in us: we look different. It draws the lost to our example, but more critically to Christ! All around us people are discontent, unhappy and we are smiling--they are agitated but we are calm. They want to know what makes the difference: men who are strong but tender, women who are honored and served but who in turn serve others--civility, decency, honor, stability and, typically, prosperity. We, as Christians, are always in the public eye so it behooves us to be quiet, loving and industrious. All that is pleasing to God; we find it is also pleasing to us. He rejoices in our joy and we rejoice in His rejoicing. This is the life . . . the best life, the blest life.