You are on page 1of 16

Living Life in Light of Jesus Return: A Call to Christian


1 Thessalonians 4:1-2

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1

Thessalonians chapter 4. Were going to be looking at the first two
verses of this chapter. As we've worked through this letter together
we've said repeatedly that Paul is teaching the Thessalonians and
you and me how to live life in light of Jesus return. And as we've
looked at chapters 1, 2, and 3, we've said, rather frequently, that
Paul is giving an explanation for why he has done what he has done
in ministry for why he's not there, for why he stayed such a short
period of time he's defending the integrity of his ministry because
there are people in Thessalonica, or Thessalonica, who are accusing
him, theyre slandering him to the Thessalonians, and theyre
attempting to plant seeds of doubt to whether he's a charlatan,
whether he's one of these traveling teachers that proliferated the
ancient Mediterranean world, that sort of showed up, made a little
money, and moved on to the next town. And he's defending himself
and we've seen this repeatedly in chapters 1 and 2 and 3.

Today, the focus of Paul's letter changes pretty dramatically and you
can see it if youre using the ESV and many other modern
translations. The very first word of 1 Thessalonians 4:1 is Finally.
Now you know the old joke - when a preacher says, And now in
conclusion, what does that mean? The answer is, of course, no
much. Now you may say, Now Paul, youre half-way through the
letter, youre about at the half-way point; we've got two full chapters
to go. Why are you saying Finally? Well, the commentators debate
a little bit about how Finally ought to be translated here. Is Paul
really saying, Finally, or is he saying, So now, I wanted to get
where I'd been going; I wanted to get to the exhortation. I told you
about the exhortation that I'm going to give you. I told you in chapter
1, I told you in chapter 2; I even mentioned it in chapter 3. Now finally
I'm getting to the exhortation that I wanted to make to you. Were
now getting to the point of the letter that I'm writing to you. And that's
what it clearly means. When you look at chapter 4, if youll let your
eyes scan down the first eleven, twelve verses, Paul getting into the
business of exhortation now.

He does this regularly, doesn't he, in letters. Youre reading this

wonderful theology in Ephesians 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then suddenly
you start getting all this exhortation, all this instruction in ethics, all
this teaching about living the Christian life. The same thing happens
in Romans. Youre reading all this wonderful theology from Romans
1 to 11 and suddenly you get to Romans 12 verse 1 and you get this,
Therefore, let us be living sacrifices. And suddenly, Romans 12, 13,
and 14 are preoccupied with exhortations about the Christian life.
This is a regular pattern for Paul: doctrine then duty; faith then
practice; truth then life, because for Paul, all truth serves to inform
Christian living. It teaches us how we are to live. And hell get into
specific exhortations about living the Christian life. As we study this
passage over the next weeks together, he will specifically address
the issue of sexual immorality, he will address vocation and how we
go about our work, what our attitude is towards work. Hell even
address the issue of death. What is our response to the death of our
loved ones? Do we have hope when that happens or do we lose
hope? Sex, work, and death - perennial issues for Christians in every
culture and in every generation. And Paul is going to give specific
exhortations about how we are to live life in light of Jesus return in
those areas.

Now what we're going to look at today in verses 1 and 2 is really just
his introduction but he says something in this passage that is hugely
important to get our heads around if we're going to understand
properly the commands, the directions, the exhortations that he's
going to give us. And I want you to be on the lookout for three things.
In verse 1, in the very first phrase, youre going to come across the
word, urge I urge you brothers. So youre going to see, that is,
an exhortation from Paul. The Gospel of grace doesn't mean that
Paul doesn't have anything to exhort us to do and he's going to
actually urge us to do something. So I want you to be on the lookout
for the exhortation.

Then, if youll let your eyes look a little bit further in verse 1, in the
phrase that starts with the word that and ends with the word more
therere two thats which actually are indicative of a clause in that
section. He then says, Just as you are doing. I urge you, keep on
doing just what youre doing. So the exhortation is really an
encouragement. He's not saying, You dummies are doing it all
wrong! Do it right for the first time! He's actually saying, Youre
doing what youre supposed to be doing. Keep on doing it! I urge
you, keep on! More! Keep on going! Youre doing this right; keep on
doing it and do it more. This is an exhortation. This is an apostle not
sort of saying, You can't ever do anything right people so I'm going
to have to correct you here. He's saying, Youre doing well! Keep on
doing that and doing it more! This is an encouragement. I want you
to hear that in this passage. Paul means to encourage you in love
and good deeds here.

And then third, look at verse 2. He reminds them of the instruction

that he had already given them about how to live the Christian life.
Now he's going to spell that out from verses 3 and following in those
areas that we've already talked about, but he reminds us. So you've
got an exhortation in verse 1, you've got an encouragement in verse
1, and you've got a reminder in verse 2. Be on the lookout for those
things as we read God's Word. Before we read it, let's pray and ask
for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. Every word of it is inspired, every

word of it is profitable, every word of it is supremely practical. So by
Your Holy Spirit, bring Your Word to bear on our hearts so that we
love the right things, so that we aspire to the right things, so that we
understand how we're to live this Christian life, and then grant, by the
Spirit, O Lord, hearts that actually embrace in living the teaching of
Your Word. We ask this in Jesus name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it in 1 Thessalonians 4, beginning in

verse 1:

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.

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and
inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
In this passage, Paul gives us a secret; that if well understand it will
change the way we go about viewing obedience in the Christian life.
And the secret has to do with an attitude. I don't mean a secret in the
sense that Paul won't tell you this unless you pay him some money. I
mean he's telling us a principle, a vital truth about how you go about
living the Christian life, about how you go about growing, that if youll
understand that it will have a dramatic effect on your Christian
experience - on the way that you look at God's commandments; on
the way that you view obedience and duty in the Christian life. It will
give you a joy and a delight on those things if you properly
understand them. So I want to give close attention to what Paul says


The first thing I want you to see is his exhortation of the

Thessalonians. Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the
Lord Jesus Paul has taught them a robust theology of grace.
They are not saved by what they do; theyre saved by what Jesus
has done for them, but that does not prevent Paul from urging them
to do things. Now isn't that a contradiction? No. Think of it this way.
Let's say you've gotten a little flabby around the middle not like
anybody I know! And you've decided, I've got to do something about
this. I'm going to go to a personal trainer who's going to help me get
this off. And you want someone who's on your side, along with you
for your goals, to do what? To urge you to accomplish what you've
set out to do. It does not bother you at all when your personal trainer
pushes you just a little bit because you want to get where youre
going. You want to lose the weight; you want to get back in shape.
And the apostle Paul is here exhorting Christians. They know how
they got saved. They know that theyre saved by what Jesus has
done for them. They know that theyre saved by grace. They know
that they don't get saved by trying hard or doing well or being nice or
being better. They get saved because of what Jesus has done and
they trust on Him as He is offered in the Gospel. But they also know
that one of the reasons that God has saved them is so that they will
be conformed to the image of His Son. They want to be more like the
Savior. They want to grow in grace. They want to be mature. And
therefore, when he urges them to do that very thing, theyre not
offended by it because he's urging them as their friend to get them
where God wants them to do.

So don't be surprised when you see Paul urging and imploring and
commanding and directing. And he does it all the way through the
letters of the New Testament. Paul's not forgetting what he taught
about grace at all. He's just explaining a very important principle that
he sums up in a little phrase: Grace reigns in righteousness. Paul
says that. Grace reigns in righteousness. That is, one of the ways
that God's grace in us manifests itself is on our growing Christian
maturity. And so Paul doesn't mind coming along and urging us to
behave as increasingly mature Christians. So there's the first thing I
want you to see, this exhortation from Paul where he urges us to live
the Christian life.


Now secondly I want you to see his encouragement, and look at the
second half of verse 1 to see how he puts it. That as you received
from us how you ought to walk hell repeat that again in verse 2.
In other words, he's already, in the short time he was able to be with
the Thessalonians, hed already been teaching them how to live the
Christian life. Walk in the New Testament is a metaphor for the
Christian life. You know, youre kind of making slow, unspectacular
progress, just like youre walking somewhere. It's a metaphor for the
Christian life. It's not the only metaphor for the Christian life.
Sometimes Paul will talk about running. Sometimes Paul will talk
about the fight of faith. Sometimes hell talk about us offering
ourselves as living sacrifices. There are all sorts of metaphors for the
Christian life but the walk is one of the main metaphors for the
Christian life. And so he said, We taught you how to walk, how to
live, as Christians.

And look at what he says, You received from us how you ought to
walk and to please God. Now let's stop right there and camp on that
for a minute. This is really important but very easily misunderstood.
Paul does not mean that the believer has to please God in the sense
that what we do becomes the reason that He loves us. This is not
performance is pleasing. Some of you have come out of a
relationship here you felt like, The only way I can get this person to
pay attention to me, the only way I can get this person to love me, is
to perform, to do things. That's not what Paul is talking about here. I
also know that some of you are in relationships where no matter
what you do to please somebody it's never enough, and no good
deed you do goes unpunished. There's not some kindness that you
ever show that there's not some criticism of. There's no extra effort
that you make that's either overlooked of positively criticized. And
that's now what Paul is talking about here, as if God was some hard
to please ogre in the sky and youre a hamster on a wheel working
really, really hard to try to please Him. That's not the picture at all.
Paul is talking about viewing your obedience in the Christian life in
light of the pleasure of the Lord in you. Now I want you to think about
that for just a moment. Now I've told you before that I had a father
who grew up in the Great Depression who didn't have a lot. You
know, there were Christmases where they got some oranges and
apples for Christmas because that's all the family could afford during
the Great Depression. And he, as a teenager, signed up for the
United States Marine Corps and ended up in the South Pacific
seeing some hard things. He had a father who was an alcoholic who
would go off for days on drunks and show back up again and who
never ever said that he loved him. He was kind of cruel to him. When
he was ten years old his father took him downtown to buy him the
last pair of shoes that he ever owned and he mocked him because of
how big his feet were because he wore what his father considered to
be massively sized shoes. They were size nine. And yet my father,
son of the Depression, son of an alcoholic father, marine, not things
that you would think would conspire to make a man tender, my father
was an incredibly tender father. And that always blew me away. I can
remember as a boy thinking, Lord, how did you make this man so
tender because there's nothing in his experience that would lend me
to think that this man would easily show affection and express love.

And I don't mean that my father was a push-over who would let me
get by with anything. Far from it; far from it. I can remember my
father, on more than one occasion, saying, Son, we can do this the
easy way or the hard way. And I can remember him saying, This is
Alpha and this is Omega the beginning and the end. And given
that he had boxed in the Marine Corps, I never tested him on that
one, but he was a tender, affectionate father. And consequently, it
killed me to disappoint him, not because he couldn't be pleased, but
because I knew his love and pleasure and I loved that. I loved
pleasing my father because he was easy to please. And there was
nothing like the affection and affirmation that I received from him.
You understand that? There is no rush in this life like pleasing a
person who is pleased by what you do to please them because you
love them and because they love you. There's nothing in this life that
is a rush like that. There is no satisfaction or fulfillment in this life like
pleasing a person who is pleased by what you do to please them
because you love them and they love you. And Paul is saying, I
want you to set the whole of your understanding of the Christian life
in light of that reality.

The movie's thirty years old now so most of you have only seen it on
DVD, but in Chariots of Fire there is a scene by the way, it's a
fictional scene. This conversation never happened but it's such a
good illustration I'm going to tell you about it. It's a scene between
Eric Liddell and his sister, Jenny, and she is objecting to his running
in the Olympics because she's saying that it's not spiritual. Now that,
by the way, I say that scene is fictional and the reason I say that it is,
that scene is the scene that hurt Eric Liddell's sister, Jenny, most
about the movie because she was very supportive of his athletic
career actually in real life, but the screen writer had to develop some
dynamic tension in the movie and so he had her opposing his
running. And he drew out of Liddell's actual real life story an attitude
that he had about his athletics. And in the story you remember the
scene? Theyre standing on the side of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh,
it's a beautiful scene, and she's arguing with him about his running.
And he says, Jenny, Jenny, don't fret yourself. And he said, God
made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure.
Now what was he saying to his sister? That actually was his attitude
towards his running. He literally did his running in order to glorify
God and he loved the experience of knowing that he was doing what
God built him to do for God's glory. Now why When I run, I feel
His pleasure what's going on there? Exactly what Paul is
exhorting the Thessalonians about. He's saying, When you live the
Christian life, don't you realize that youre doing this for a Father who
loves you and who loves to be pleased with you in your seeking to
please Him? And think about this in Jesus life. Do you remember
the words that God the Father spoke from heaven to Jesus and the
assembled multitude when Jesus was baptized? This is My beloved
Son, in whom I am well pleased. The Father was expressing His
pleasure in His Son and Jesus, no surprise, in the Gospel says that
He loves to please His Father - not as someone who can't be
pleased. I know because you let me in on your lives. There are many
people in this room this morning who have relationships with
husbands or wives or parents who children where it doesn't matter
how hard you try, you can't please them.

That's not the kind of thing that Paul's talking about. Paul is talking
about the joy of seeking the pleasure of the One who delights to be
pleased in him. Do you know what that's like in a human
relationship? Have you ever had a human relationship where, you
know, you say, What can I do for you? and the person just says, All
you need to do for me is keep breathing because I delight in you. Do
you know what it is to feel that kind of pleasure in you? Paul's saying,
That's how our heavenly Father is. He loves to delight in His
children. He's pleased with His children. And when He sees them
seeking to love and serve people who just can't be pleased and
seeking to do His will in this world, He takes pleasure in that. And
Paul's saying, Thessalonians, I want you to live so that your
constant aspiration is to please the Lord and to experience His
pleasure in your pleasing Him.

And why is that so important? It's important for a thousand reasons.

Let me just give you two. On the one hand, it's important because
you will be involved in numerous, significant human relationships in
which you are deeply hurt by people who cannot be pleased. And no
matter how hard you try and no matter how loving you are, they will
crush you over and over again. And if your goal in life is to get
pleasure and satisfaction out of that relationship in which that person
absolutely never can be pleased, please call Jan and get an
appointment this week because I'm sorry, it's not going to happen.
But if in that relationship, if in that relationship your goal is not to find
your satisfaction and your fulfillment from the pleasure that that
person is not going to take in your service but to please your
heavenly Father, then you can do anything because your Father will
take pleasure in you and Hell especially take pleasure in you when
He sees you loving and serving where youre not going to be loved or
served back. And Hell say, Behold my child who is like My Son in
whom I am well pleased.

Others of you are approval junkies. Youre what the Puritans used to
call man pleasers. You know, you get your sense of significance
and security because of other people's estimation of you and youre
constantly craving that approval. And this truth will set you free from
that. The One ultimately that we want to please is not them out there;
it's Him. We want His approval. We want His well done. His well
done is the well done that we're looking for. And that allows us to
be freed from the shackles of what other people think and of getting
up on our little gerbil mills to try and please other people. No, it's His
pleasure that we want in what we do. He is the One we want to
please. And He delights, He delights and takes pleasure in what we
do for His pleasure.

Paul's wanting to reorient the whole way we look at the commands

and the directions that He gives us in His Word because of the
Father's pleasure. And what he's doing here is, he's encouraging,
he's encouraging the Thessalonians and you and me in love and
good deeds. Just as you are doing, do so and literally reads,
more. More. Keep on doing it. Do it more. Delight in His delighting
in you. Feel His pleasure in your seeking to please Him. He will
never let you down. He will always delight in you no matter what's
happening in your life. And what is it? It allows you to have non-
circumstantial fulfillment in every relation and season of life because
we're all going to be in relationships and in seasons of life where the
fulfillment is minimal from the human beings that we're interacting
with. Paul's saying, It never has to be that way if youre a believer
because your Father takes pleasure in your seeking to please Him.

It's life changing if we understand that. You know, I know women

whose fathers never ever said, I love you. I'm proud of you. And
they spend the rest of their lives waiting for that to come. And the
apostle Paul is saying, You need to work to believe and to feel your
heavenly Father's pleasure in you. And you need to live out of that
experience of His pleasure.


Third, Paul says - a reminder. You know what instructions we gave

you through the Lord Jesus. Two things I want you to notice. Go
back to verse 1. Notice he said he urged them in the Lord Jesus;
now he says he instructed them through the Lord Jesus. In other
words, Paul is saying, The exhortation I'm giving you now is an
exhortation for all Jesus disciples, all who are in the Lord Jesus, and
it in fact comes from the Lord Jesus. I'm telling you the same thing
that the Lord Jesus told you. And the end of the Sermon on the
Mount, what does Jesus say? He tells the story of a man who built
his house on a rock and a man who built his house on the sand and
the punch line is the hearers and doers of My Word. In other
words, Jesus is saying, I don't want people who just listen to Me. I
want people who do what I say. I want disciples who obey what I
command. So in the Great Commission, when Jesus sends His
disciples out in Matthew 28:18-20, what does He say? Go make
disciples teaching them to listen to what I command? Teaching
them to observe what I command. So Paul's saying, I'm just saying
what Jesus said here. I want you to do what the Word says. I want
you to do what the Lord commands. I want you to live the Christian
life in accordance with God's Word, in the Lord Jesus, through the
Lord Jesus.

And then secondly, notice what he says. Verse 2 You know what
instructions we gave you, go back to verse 1, that as you received
from us how you ought to walk. He's saying this again. In other
words, he's saying, You remember what we taught you about how
you were to live. Now what's important about that? That reminder is
important for two reasons. One is, it shows that all Christian teaching
is connected to living. All Christian teaching is connected to living. All
Christian doctrine is for the living of the Christian life. All truth is
practical. It's meant to change the way we live all of it. And so
Paul's reminding them that they didn't just teach the Thessalonians
so that the Thessalonians were smarter than pagan Thessalonians;
they taught the Thessalonians truth so that they could live the
Christian life.

The second thing that reminder is important for is this. Sometimes

when we do not see ourselves growing in the Christian life like we
should, it's because we haven't adequately understood the truth that
has been taught in God's Word and we need to go back to that truth
again until we get it, with the aim of living it out. We don't - you know,
one of the mottos for believers is, You don't know the truth until you
live it. You don't know the truth until you live it. Theoretical truth is
not the kind of truth that God is concerned to convey by His Word.
The truth that He wants to convey is practical; it works itself out in
life. So I tell seminary students, You may understand the hypostatic
union perfectly. You can still go home and be a jerk to your wife. And
so if you understand the hypostatic union and youre still a jerk to
your wife, the doctrine of the hypostatic union you've not adequately
understood. You need to go back and work on it some more. So all
of Christian truth is meant to impact the way that we live. And Paul
reminds the Thessalonians here.

He exhorts them, he encourages them, and he reminds them. And

he attempts to re-center their whole approach to living the Christian
life to understanding that when they get up in the morning their
attitude ought to be, I want to please my heavenly Father because
there is nothing in this world like the pleasure I receive from Him in
my little feeble attempts to please Him. Husbands, have you ever
had that experience in relation to your wife? You know, this woman
respects me, she takes care of me, she feeds me, she loves me
when I don't deserve it. Man, when I wake up in the morning I want
that woman to be happy. I want that woman to be happy. Have you
ever had that feeling in life? Have you had that in other
relationships? Maybe it's a friend. Maybe there's a friend in your life
like that that gives you so much that you think, Boy, I'm getting to
much out of this relationship I sure hope my friend is getting
something out of me because I want my friend to be happy because
he means a lot to me or she means a lot to me. Or maybe it is a
wonderful parental relationship or even a relationship with a child.

Paul's saying, our aim in everything ought to be to please Him, not

because He's hard to please, not because we're trying to get Him to
love us, but precisely the opposite He's not hard to please. He's
so kind to accept our feeble attempts at obedience and He loves us.
In fact, He loved us before we loved Him. And because of that, He is
the person we want to please more than anyone else in this world. If
you understand that, it changes the whole way you look at obedience
in the Christian life. It's not a list of things to do, or else. It's, You
mean, if I do these things it's pleasing to the Lord? Are you kidding
me? These are things that I ought to do anyway. You mean it's going
to please Him if I do these things? Where do I sign up?

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Work it into our hearts.
Forgive our sins. Receive our thanks and praise in Jesus' name,

Well take your bulletins in hand and turn to By Faith and well sing
about what it means to live by faith.
Let me remind you again that as you leave we have an opportunity to
give to the Gideon work of distributing the Bible around the world.
There will be ushers at the exits and there will be plates there that
you can put your money in.

Receive the blessing of the Lord. Grace, mercy, and peace to you
from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.