9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV
Paul has just reminded the Thessalonians that they have been sanctified or set apart by God. According to His divine will, God has consecrated them for His use. And Paul added the clarification that “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7 ESV). In other words, God had set them apart to something: holiness, and from something: sexual immorality. Paul is not saying that sexual immorality was the only thing they needed to avoid, but it was obviously a problem among them. They had been raised in the Greek culture where sexuality permeated everyday life. There were few taboos regarding sex and, therefore, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage were a normal and expected part of life. There were even cases where the worship of their gods involved what Yahweh had deemed sexual immorality.
All kinds of immoralities were associated with the [Greco-Roman] gods. Not only was prostitution a recognized institution, but through the influence of the fertility cults of Asia Minor, Syria, and Phoenicia it became a part of the religious rites at certain temples. Thus there were one thousand “sacred prostitutes” at the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth.1
The Greek culture was steeped is sexuality and it was not considered immoral for one to fulfill their natural physical passions. So, the Thessalonian believers found themselves juggling God’s call to set-apartness and the siren call of society to compromise their convictions.
For Paul, God’s call to sanctification was not to be viewed as a list of things not to do. Yes, he clearly states that they were to abstain from sexual immorality. But notice the context. They were to control their own bodies and manage their passions so that they would not transgress and wrong their brother. This was really about brotherly love. Adultery is a lack of love. It is an expression of lust, envy, and greed; taking what does not belong to you. Sex outside the God-ordained boundaries of marriage is not love. It’s little more than lust, a willing surrender to physical drives with little regard for the other individual’s needs or wants.
But Paul commends the Thessalonians for their brotherly love. They had “been taught by God to love one another” and they were doing it. But that did not mean they were immune to the temptations all around them. That’s why Paul urges them to love more and more. They were to grow in their love for one another, expressing that love in tangible ways. And those expressions of love can take both positive and negative forms. They could love by caring for the needs of one another. But they could also love by not taking advantage of one another. Their love could show up in the form of an act of kindness or a decision to not spread a false rumor.
Paul provided the believers in Galatia with a sobering list of actions that emanate from a life driven by the sin nature.
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT
Look closely at this list. Every one of these characteristics are selfish in nature. They are expressions of a loveless, self-centered life where any care for anyone else is absent. These are the actions of someone who loves self more than anything else. But compare this list with the one that describes a Spirit-led, Spirit-controlled life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT).
These attributes are other-oriented, not self-centered. They are expressions of love because they are the fruit of the Spirit of God. God is love and we love because He first loved us. We have been set apart for the purpose of expressing His love to one another. And Paul provides the Thessalonians and us with three concrete expressions of what it looks like to love others.
First, he says they are “to aspire to live quietly” (1 Thessalonians 4:11 ESV). This is an interesting one, because it could be translated, “strive to live a non-frantic life.” Sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? But the Greek word translated “aspire” is philotimeomai, and it can also mean “to be fond of.” The first half of the word is philos, and it means “friend.” The second half of the word is timē, and it means “to honor.” So, Paul is telling the Thessalonians to honor their friends by living quiet, peaceful lives. It is not a call to isolationism, but an encouragement to live in a way that brings the most good to others. It is a life of selflessness, not selfishness.
Secondly, Paul says, “to mind your own affairs.” In other words, manage your own life well. Don’t attempt to fix everyone else’s life by controlling or correcting them. It is not love when you find fault in others. It is not love when you constantly criticize and complain about others. Jesus warned, “why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5 NLT).
Paul is calling them to a life of self-examination, where they are slow to judge others, but quick to assess the condition of their own hearts. Because, as Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander“ (Matthew 15:19 ESV). How easy it is to focus all our attention on the faults of others, while ignoring the condition of our own hearts. And when we do, rather than love others, we judge, envy, slander, and take advantage of them. In other words, we fail to love them.
Finally, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “to work with your hands.” This is not a call to hard work and industry. Keep it within the context. He is calling the Thessalonians to grow in their love for one another. And a big part of what they are called to do is express that love by doing the things God has called them to do. Remember what Paul wrote the believers in Ephesus:
…we are his [God’] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:10 ESV
Earlier, in the very same letter, Paul had told them: “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love…” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). Notice those last two words: in love. That’s the key. Love is to be the greatest proof of our holiness and blamelessness. And later on, he gave them further instructions “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV).
As God’s children, set apart by Him for His use, we are to emulate His character. We are to bear His image by behaving according to His will for us. And as Paul stated earlier, God’s will is our sanctification, our holiness lived out in everyday life. And the greatest expression of that holiness is our love, because God is love. This is what Jesus meant when He told His followers, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). And the apostle John so rightly states, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT).
Paul summarizes his statements, telling the Thessalonians that their adherence to these three things: to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, will allow them to “walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:12 ESV). The image Paul paints is that of brotherly interdependence that mirrors for the lost world what it means to be part of the body of Christ. There is a love that is expressed in selflessness and mutual care and concern for one another that is like nothing the world has ever seen. And it should result in a lack of need among the family of God. But not just a lack of physical need. This brotherly love should create a overflowing sense of acceptance, significance, worth, and purpose in life.
The love we express for one another as fellow believers in Christ is the greatest proof of God’s existence. When we love as He has loved us, selflessly and sacrificially, we demonstrate the depth of love with which He loved us. And in doing so, we make God known. And the apostle John calls us to lives lives marked by that kind of love:
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:11-12 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).