True Churches

After having laid out the necessary credentials for recognizing true ministers of the gospel, Paul does the same for true churches.
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Let's review what we've learned so far:

  1. The Thessalonian letters were written by Paul to a young church that he had established in just a few weeks while on his second missionary journey through Macedonia.
  2. This church had been faithful and growing despite the attacks on Paul by Jewish leaders and persecutions by the pagan society in which they lived.
  3. As you recall, the first epistle begins with Paul:
    • Expressing his thanksgiving for the Thessalonian's faith and perseverance.
    • Next he defends his conduct among them by describing how true ministers are supposed to act and how this was the way he and his associates acted around them:
      • Trusting in God
      • Pure lifestyle
      • Hard working
      • Lovers of the church
  4. In the last chapter I said that Paul shows us that true conversion begins with sincere ministers who preach the truth in love to people who receive the message as God's word and respond to it in faith and obedience.

Until this point Paul has discussed the nature of true conversion and true ministers. At this point we will look at some characteristics associated with the true church that belongs to Christ.

The Church Continually Purifies its Conduct I Thessalonians 4:1-12

The key word here is continually. Many churches begin well but lack the desire to continue to purify and improve their conduct.

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
- I Thessalonians 4:1-2

Note that Paul tells the church that he knows that they are living in a way that pleases God; he now encourages them by the authority of Christ to continue to purify that lifestyle according to what he has, and will teach them. Question: Why give them this instruction? Answer: They live among great temptation and the only way to remain strong is to keep the commitment to continually strive to please God.

Some people grow tired of sermons and lessons encouraging the church to be careful and to work hard at improving. These are necessary however, because only a firm commitment to continued growth and purity will keep the church pure. Impure and uncommitted churches have no power to win souls to Christ and risk losing their own spiritual health. Paul did not want this to happen to the Thessalonians so he mentions three areas where they needed to purify their lives.

Sexual Purity – vs. 3-5

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality.
- I Thessalonians 4:3

The word "sanctification" means to set something aside for a godly purpose. When we become Christians, our physical bodies are sanctified, are set aside for God's use. Bodies that belong to God are to be used for His glory. Sexual immorality (adultery, homosexuality, pornography, lewdness, evil desires) does not glorify God. If you extend this thought further you will see that God wants total sanctification for His church. Of course sanctification doesn't mean that we are to have no sex life; it means that even our sex life is under His control and for His glory.

When a husband and wife are expressing their love and desire within the intimacy and boundaries of marriage – God is glorified. Activities outside this blessed state dishonor God and the individuals.

That each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.
- I Thessalonians 4:4-5

Paul goes on to say that the way to achieve this is to continually struggle for the ownership of our bodies. Controlling our sexual impulses so they can be expressed in meaningful and acceptable ways – this honors God. Behaving like those who do not know God and allow their bodies to be used by every devilish passion they feel – this dishonors God. We can and should marry, but Paul says that there is a way to do it that is right and pleasing to God.

Sexuality was given by God to mankind, but God also gave laws to guide our natural sexuality in such a way that this powerful force will bless men and women, not destroy them.

There also needs to be a purification in regards to:

Integrity in Business – vs. 6

And that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.
- I Thessalonians 4:6

The pagan world of the first century was notable for two vices: sexual immorality and unchecked greed. Thessalonica was a large trading and business center so many of the members of the church were involved in trade. Without the type of laws and the checks and balances of our system today, unsavory and unscrupulous business practices were the norm at that time. Paul doesn't go into details or examples here, he simply warns them of the consequences of violating another person in these matters. ("Brother" in the sense of neighbor and not member of the church.)

Some individuals interpret this verse in another way, saying that Paul continues his warning about sexual sins warning that men in the church not commit adultery with each other's wives.

This is a true and biblical idea but doesn't fit well with what and how Paul is expressing himself here. The word "matter" is a commercial term which literally means a business matter or in matters of commerce. This was an evident problem in pagan society and Paul makes reference to it.

Apparently Paul has warned them of this before and repeats his warning that even these violations will not go unpunished.

For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the god who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
- I Thessalonians 4:7-8

Paul summarizes the two first admonitions (a greater effort at purifying their sexual and business lives). He explains the reasons why they must continue to purify themselves in these areas:

1. They are new creatures

In Christian baptism we bury the old pagan, unclean, impure, greedy, dishonest person and we resurrect a completely new person – sanctified – or set apart for a new purpose.

This new life has a new focus, a new purpose, a new set of guidelines. This new life is about purity in thought and deed, a continual effort to strain out what is impure and ungodly.

We are saved because God loves us. We are sanctified because God has a purpose for our lives (which Paul will explain in the next section).

2. They will be judged

The "this" that Paul refers to is God Himself. The one who rejects (sets aside, annuls), puts aside not just a lifestyle, but also the very God who gives this lifestyle of sanctification; of on-going purification powered by and made possible by the Holy Spirit, who is given for this very purpose.

In Chapter 5:19 Paul will say, "Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances." Here he cautions that to deny or ignore God's word has the effect of extinguishing or suffocating the power of the Spirit within Christians.

In this chapter Paul is saying the same thing except that the extinguishing of the Spirit and His effect on us is done by not pursuing purity and by rejecting the sanctified life God offers us in favor of our old life of sin. He doesn't spell it out but the end of the matter is plain. Woe to the one who rejects God and the Spirit empowered life He offers in order to pursue the old life of sexual impurity and worldly greed and dishonesty.

We know that these things can bring very real physical consequences:

  • Sexual diseases
  • Unwanted pregnancies / guilt / depression
  • Enslavement to depraved habits
  • Revenge from those we cheat and steal or take advantage of

Yes there are physical consequences, but Paul adds to these that there is also a spiritual consequence to these things and warns those who have been saved from the terrible spiritual consequences not to go back or they will be subject to judgment.

So let's remember what's going on in this chapter: Paul tells them that there are three things that they need to work on in order to continue purifying themselves: purify their sexual lives, purify their business dealings, and…

Purify Their Public Witness – vs. 9-12

Usually our sexual sins are done in secret, most people can't tell if we are sexually pure or not. Most folks assume we are and are shocked if they find out any different. Our greed is also something we try to cover up or justify in various ways. Christians can hide these kinds of sins from other people, but the ability to hide our sins from others does not give us power in affecting other people for Christ. It only fools others into thinking we're sincere when we're not.

What affects people for Christ, however, is a Christian living a purified life and doing it consciously and openly. If others don't see this, they will not be impacted by our message. This is the reason I don't use tobacco. Aside from the health and addiction hazards, I know that non-Christians are not very impressed with a Christian who is a moderate or social tobacco user – they expect better from us and so should we.

And so, in this final section we see Paul establishing new goals for them to strive for in addition to the faithfulness and perseverance that they've already demonstrated.

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; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more.
- I Thessalonians 4:9-10

He has already taught them the basic lesson of Jesus, which is to love one another. They've already demonstrated faith, perseverance, hospitality and helped the brethren throughout the province so they are known as a loving church. Paul wants them to continue doing these things. Their witness within the church was excellent, but now the Apostle deals with what their witness of daily living should be in order to affect those outside the church.

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.
- I Thessalonians 4:11

Paul now gives them 3 things that are essential in order to lead a balanced life that provides a good witness to others outside the church:

Lead a quiet life. This doesn't mean that there is to be no excitement or no action. It refers to a quiet spirit, a calm heart as opposed to a worrisome attitude. Some people love drama and everything in their lives is a "big deal," they draw everyone else into their whirlwind. A quiet life is one where it is evident that God is in control.

Attend to your own business. A quiet heart usually minds its own business. I think we call this virtue discretion. Someone whose life is not always spilling over into everyone else's.

Work with your hands. This expression doesn't refer to manual labor exclusively. It means that your own hands/work supports you. If you're worried and minding everyone else's business, you don't have time to take care of your own. Christians should earn their own living, quietly mind their own affairs and live with security and peace of mind.

So that you will behave properly toward outsides and not be in any need.
- I Thessalonians 4:12

Here Paul explains why we should do these things.

  1. Christians need to model a balanced, quiet, fruitful life as an alternative to the fretful existence of many non-believers.
  2. Live this way so they don't become a burden on society. There's nothing worse than Christians who are supported by a non-Christian society because the Christian refuses to work.


Paul recognizes the progress of this young church and commends them for their growth. He encourages them to continually purify their lives by:

  • Maintaining sexual purity
  • Being upright and honest in their business affairs
  • Establishing quiet, balanced and productive lives

In doing these things they will cooperate with the purifying work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and they will avoid judgment. They will also provide an example of what the true church looks and acts like in providing a powerful witness for Christ to the world. Doing these things prepares us and the world for the second coming of Jesus, which is our ultimate task.

Discussion Questions

  1. What comes to mind when you hear the expression, "true churches"?
  2. Why would Paul focus on sexual and business integrity as he writes to the Thessalonians?
  3. Summarize each of the following elements related to the church continually purifying its conduct (I Thessalonians 4:1-12).
    1. Sexual purity
    2. Integrity in business
    3. Purity in our public witness
  4. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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