An Exemplary Life (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

On July 11, 1924, Scottish sprinter, Eric Liddell, competed in the 400 meter race of the Paris Olympics. Liddell’s story has been popularized by the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, which won four Oscars including Best Picture. Liddell qualified to compete in the 100 meter race, but as a devout Christian, he refused to compete in the qualifying heat because it was on the Sabbath. A compromise was reached which allowed him to compete in the 400 meter race instead. Right before the race began, while Liddell was in the starting blocks, a team member slipped him a note quoting 1 Samuel 2:30, “He who honors me, I will honor.” Liddell set a world record, winning the gold medal while holding that note in his hand. Liddell honored the Lord in how he ran, but much more importantly honored the Lord in how he lived his life.

Eric Liddell ran to please the Lord. He said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Liddell did not boast in his ability, but used his ability to please God. If you were going to fill in the blanks, when do you feel God’s pleasure? God made me (blank). And when I (blank), I feel His pleasure. We should live for God’s pleasure. What brings you pleasure? Do you view pleasure as a good thing or something to be avoided? Many Christians characterize pleasure only in negative terms, but God created pleasure. Charles Spurgeon explains how pleasing God will ultimately bring pleasure to oneself. He writes,

The [Westminster] Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and its answer is, “To glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” The answer is exceedingly correct; but it might have been equally truthful if it had been shorter. The chief end of man is “to please God,” for in so doing — we need not say it, because it is an undoubted fact — in so doing, he will please himself. The chief end of man, we believe, in this life and in the next, is to please God his Maker.

If any man pleases God, he does that which conduces most to his own temporal and eternal welfare. Man cannot please God without bringing to himself a great amount of happiness; for if any man pleases God, it is because God accepts him as his son, gives him the blessings of adoption, pours upon him the bounties of his grace, makes him a blessed man in this life, and insures him a crown of everlasting life, which he shall wear, and which shall shine with unfading luster when the wreaths of earth’s glory have all been melted away; while, on the other hand, if a man does not please God, he inevitably brings upon himself sorrow and suffering in this life; he puts a worm and a rottenness in the core of all his joys; he fills his death-pillow with thorns, and he supplies the eternal fire with fuel[1] of flame which shall for ever consume him.

He that pleases God is, through Divine grace, journeying onward to the ultimate reward of all those that love and fear God; but he who is ill-pleasing to God, must, for Scripture has declared it, be banished from the presence of God, and consequently from the enjoyment of happiness. If then, we be right in saying that to please God is to be happy, the one important question is, how can I please God? And there is something very solemn in the utterance of our text: “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” That is to say, do what you may, strive as earnestly as you can, live as excellently as you please, make what sacrifices you choose, be as eminent as you can for everything that is lovely and of good repute, yet none of these things can be pleasing to God unless they be mixed with faith.[2]

Hebrews 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” If we believe that God exists and that he is good, then we must also believe that he will reward those who seek him. In a very real sense, God desires our pleasure. For our greatest pleasure will always be found in pleasing Him. 

Live for God’s Pleasure

There is an intimate connection with our faith in God and our ability to please God. Paul and his companions labored night and day for the faith of the Thessalonians. As we have seen in the last few weeks, they were consumed with the faith of others for they knew that their faith in God brought God pleasure. John Piper writes, “Missions exist because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.[3]” Paul closes his letter with a final exhortation to live for God’s glory. He provides a general principle and then a specific application. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2,

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

Although the “finally” implies the end of the letter, there is a strong urgency in this exhortation. Paul commands the Thessalonian believers to obey the commands and instructions that he laid out for them during his stay.

Christians are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. True Christians will always show their faith through their works. I recently heard a friend say how his pastor works very hard not to preach any commands to his congregation. His pastor loves the gospel and wants his people to be saturated in the gospel. And yet to avoid preaching commands, one is breaking from the pattern in New Testament. The apostles laid down standards for the new Christian communities. The church separated itself from the world by their conduct. Christians were commanded to obey God, but their obedience was not cold and ritualistic. They delighted to please God.

Over the summer I had a father/son camp-out in my backyard. My son kept asking me to go camping and I knew that it would make him happy so I decided to put in on the calendar. I was going to go camping for the pleasure of my son. When I had to do all the necessary things to get ready for the camp-out like, cutting the grass and buying the food and fireworks, I was thinking about the future smile on my son’s face. The work was not done in drudgery, but in joy. It was done for my son’s pleasure. We obey for God’s pleasure. We work for his smile.

How do you view rules? Do you like them? Or do get angry when they are given to you? Since the Fall, there has been an assault on authority. American individualism is more a sign of the rejection of authority than it is a rejection of community. People do not want to submit to another’s authority. Everyone has experienced abuses of authority, whether through domineering over-exertion or passive abdication. Yet the church community, according to Paul, is under the authority of Jesus, for they ask and urge the church in the Lord Jesus. Jesus is not a domineering or abdicating King, but one who laid down his life for his people. He is the Just and justifier of all who have faith in Him. We spurned his authority, but he still came and rescued us from our sin. Jesus is the picture of the authority we are called to follow. We happily obey God because Jesus happily obeyed God on our behalf. We obey God because we have faith that God’s law is good for us.

Churches must view rules in the right perspective. If we believe that following rules earns us more of God’s favor, we will easily become proud legalists. If we believe that following rules is unimportant, we will easily become proud sinners. We follow God’s commands to please God in response for what He has done for us. Obedience is a privilege and a pleasure. The general principle established by Paul is that we obey commands and instructions to please God. The Thessalonians obeyed God’s Word and were urged to do so more and more, for obedience pleases God.

Live in God’s Purity

Secondly, Paul takes the general principle of pleasing God through obedience and gives a specific application. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 ESV)

You cannot get any clearer message in Scripture of God’s desire for your life. For this is the will of God, your sanctification. Sanctification is the process in which we become holy or set apart. We are justified (declared “not guilty”) by grace and we are sanctified (set apart) by grace. The good work that God begins in salvation He carries to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Both are an act of God.

The first century view of sexuality among Gentiles was very similar to our 21st century view of sexuality. Sexual freedom was encouraged by the culture at large. Many Gentiles who became Christians came into the church without an understanding of the sexual standards of Christians. Sexual immorality comes from the Greek word porneia which is where we get our English word pornography. The word has a very broad range of meaning. The Scripture uses porneia to define any sexual expression outside the covenant of marriage. This would include pornography, physical intimacy (inappropriate touching and intercourse), and lustful thoughts (fantasy/imagination). When we think of sexual expression in media and in relationships, we ask questions derived from the general principle, “Does this please God?” Asking this question (with the purpose of obeying it) will change our lives.

            When we turn from our sins and trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior we become one with Christ. Since we are one in Christ, united to Him by grace, we are called to be holy as he is holy. Paul writes to the Corinthian Church,

But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:17-20)

Christians are one with Christ and therefore must learn to control their own bodies in holiness and honor, not in passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. How you struggle to control your sexual desire is an indicator of whether you know God!! The Gentiles live in the passion of lust and they do not know God. Christians are called to live in holiness and honor because they know God.

Sex is a beautiful gift from God, but has been twisted and perverted by the sinfulness of the human heart. Last year I read an article by a headmaster of a Christian school who said that he remembers the day when he had to debate on whether it was appropriate to accept a student who had viewed pornography. He said that pornography is so rampant in our day that it is hard to find incoming students who haven’t viewed it. Technology has opened up avenues to continue to exploit and encourage sexual perversion. It is going to be rarer to find new Christians who have not experienced the pain and shame of some form of sexual immorality.

Sexual immorality will leave scars and wounds that will show themselves in a variety of painful ways. If you have experienced the shame and/or are currently living in the shame of sexual immorality, hear verse 7 again, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” God called you. God knows your impurity. He knows your shame. He knows your guilt. He does not tell you to go and get clean, but he calls you to Himself and He will make you clean. We all are dirty and only Christ can make us clean. He removes our guilt and shame by paying for our sexual immorality on the cross. Jesus knows all and He is willing to make you clean. If you are stuck in sexual immorality, “come clean” through confession and let Jesus make you fully clean.

I have heard too many stories of broken individuals who have experienced the pain of sexual abuse. God is not indifferent to their pain. He is not indifferent to justice. 1 Thessalonians 4:6, we are warned to avoid sexual immorality, “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things.” God takes the pain of his people very, very seriously. Those of you who have experienced pain of sexual abuse, please know that the Lord is your avenger. He will not allow injustice to go unpunished. God’s eternal scales of justice will always be balanced. Be patient and wait for God’s coming justice.

Paul teaches here about the negative expression of sex and how it should be avoided. Christians are called to abstain from sexual immorality. Why? We are not called to avoid sexual immorality, because God is some cosmic killjoy that wants people to live unfulfilled lives. Jesus came to give life and life abundantly. God wants Christians to have pleasure, but ultimate pleasure is found only in pursuing Him. The boundaries that God provides for sexual expression will lead to the greatest sexual fulfillment. Genesis 2:25, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” God’s will is always best. Trust Him. For this is the will of God, your sanctification. Live in God’s purity.

Live for God’s People

There are many reasons why churches are called to fight against sexual immorality. As a community of faith, we must actively pursue holiness for the sake of our brothers and sisters. The lie of sin is that it does not hurt anyone else, but always has a corporate affect. We must think about the consequences of sin and the benefits of obedience. Let me provide a brief list from this text of why we must pursue holiness for the sake of God’s people.

We honor God – Sexually pure churches please God.

We honor Marriage – Marriage is a picture of the gospel and the foundation for healthy children and strong churches. Churches that fight for sexual purity honor the marriage bed and fight for all the benefits associated with a healthy family life.

We avoid punishment – The Lord is an avenger. We will have to answer to Him when we transgress and wrong our brother or sister in this matter.

We will be exposed – No sin is private. Nothing is hidden from God’s sight. All things done in secret will eventually be brought to the light.

We reflect God’s holiness – A church that fights for sexual purity better reflects the holy character of God. God’s holiness helps the church understand more of God and helps the world see their need for God’s grace.

We will enjoy more sexual fulfillment – God is not against pleasure, but wants to maximize it for our good and His glory.

We protect the future – When individuals fight for sexual purity, there will be tangential benefits to the children who are in our community. By fighting, we are placing others before ourselves.

There are other benefits we could discuss to encourage us for sexual purity, but let me close with the how we work for sexual purity.

The path to sexual purity is by knowing God. We do not want to be like the Gentiles who live in the passion of lust, for they do not know God. We can overcome sexual immorality by knowing God. When we overcome our sin by God’s Spirit, God receives all the glory. We fight to know God so He would be pleased. John Piper provides three truths that we can hold on to as we fight for freedom for sexual immorality and for God’s pleasure. He writes that we should,

            Know the Patience of God

Look at verse 1: "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." Do you see what this says about God? It says, these Christians have room for improvement – "excel still more and more." And it says that they are pleasing God – "just as your actually do walk." In Christ, God is not an all or nothing God. He knows our shame. He covers our sin. He is pleased with our successes through faith, and patient with our failures. So know him in his patience, all you struggling saints. Let this knowledge encourage you: You are walking in the way that pleases him – do so still more and more.

Know the Power of God

In the previous chapter, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, we read Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." Notice: he asked Christ to establish them blameless in holiness at his coming. In other words, holiness is the work of Christ. Yes, we must pray for it, and yes, we must fight for it. But in the end, be encouraged! You are not left to yourself to win this war. Know God’s power on your behalf through Jesus Christ.

             Know the Preciousness of God and the Pleasure He Is to Us

I say this because that is simply what it means to be God in Christ. God is the most valuable person in the universe. He is the sum and source of all true pleasure (Psalm 16:1137:4). And knowing this in our experience is what triumphs over temptation. Knowing the preciousness of God and the pleasures of his fellowship will strip pornography of its power. We defeat the deceitful pleasures of lust with the superior pleasures of knowing God. Paul said it like this: "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:7)

Beloved, we should desire to live an exemplary life for God.

            Eric Liddell knew God. He lived his life for others. After winning Olympic gold, he counted everything as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of Jesus Christ and became a missionary in China. Japan invaded China in 1940, and shortly thereafter Liddell was put in an internment camp. After 2 years in the camp, his health was fading. Winston Churchill brokered a deal for him to be released, but he chose instead to allow a pregnant woman go in his place. He died a few months later. The last words he spoke to a fellow prisoner, “It’s complete surrender.” He was referring to how he tried to live his life for God; in complete surrender.

Beloved, the Christian life is complete surrender. We are not our own, but were bought at a price. God made us his children. And when we obey, we feel his pleasure. Surrender every area of your life to Him. It’s a life of complete surrender, but it is also a life complete pleasure. Live in God’s purity for God’s people and for God’s pleasure.


[1] Faggot was changed to fuel to make sense for contemporary audiences

[2] accessed 10.3.2015

[3] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic. Pg 15.