COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 4:1 Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; 2for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus." NKJV (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2)
There is a spirit to the text of Scripture that becomes more and more apparent to us as we "grow up into Christ in all things" (Eph 4:15). Jesus referred to this spirit, or nature, of the Word when He said, "the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). By this He meant His words were not mere academic information. Nor, indeed, are the Scriptures a lifeless set of rules and ordinances, although such are contained there. If men are to "live by every word of God" (Lk 4:4), something more than directions for daily living must be found there. Our text provides an example of this circumstance. It reasons with us concerning the manner of the Kingdom. In salvation, men and women are brought into accord with the Living God. They are not simply brought into a place of safety where they remain fundamentally the same, except with their sins forgiven. I am afraid this idea has been embraced by more people than we dare to estimate. Believers are all too often addressed as though they were not really reconciled to God, and were not actually participating in the Divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). You will notice a total absence of this kind of procedure in the Apostolic writings. Even if people were in a state of spiritual retrogression, they were addressed as saints of God with access to all that was required for their recovery. The Thessalonians were in a state of growth. They had maintained both faith and love while pressed on every side. Our text will urge them to extended effort in spiritual life.
EXHORTING TO ABOUND MORE AND MORE
" 4:1a Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more . . . " This is a continuation of the thought concluding the third chapter. In it, the Spirit reasons more extensively with the Thessalonians concerning the reasonableness of being ready for the coming of the Lord Jesus with all His saints. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, knows that all of life has been lived in futility if we are not prepared to meet the Lord. Consequently, he reasons with the brethren concerning that readiness- something that is rarely heard in our time.
FINALLY. The KJV reads "Furthermore," showing Paul is elaborating on being ready to stand before the glorified Christ. The idea is this: "it only remains for me to say this," or "in view of the imminent coming of Jesus, here is what must be said." It is as though the Spirit had moved them into a special room of thought. Now that they are there, what is said will make a lot of sense to them. It will appear to be as reasonable as it really is. Test for yourself and see if this is not the truth. While you are pondering the return of Jesus with all of His saints, the words that follow carry much weight, and their truth becomes more evident.
URGE AND EXHORT. Other versions read "beseech . . . and exhort," KJV "we request and exhort you," NASB "ask you and urge you," NIV "beg and exhort you," DARBYS "request you and call upon you," YLT and "earnestly ask and exhort you." NAB Here again the nature of the heavenly kingdom is revealed. Although the highest and most authoritative office in the church is that of Apostle (1 Cor 12:28), yet that office is not executed in the spirit of a boss, like the lords of the Gentiles. There is a spirit of loving service that must pervade all that is done in the name of the Lord. Jesus Himself set the tone: "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt 20:25-28). Within the framework of genuine ministry, urging and exhorting (as compared with demanding) make perfect sense. To "urge" means to entreat, beg, and make a strong appeal to. The word has a sense of interrogation in it, as though he said, "Will you not give heed to what I say?" The word "exhort" means to plead, implore, and to call for action. It is the same as saying, "Be zealous and do what I am pleading for you to do."
IN THE LORD JESUS. The admonition set before them only makes sense "in the Lord Jesus." Further, it is Jesus that is prompting Paul to give the exhortation. Additionally, life in Christ demands that this be said. To say something "in the Lord Jesus" is to speak while in fellowship with Him, and in harmony with the purpose He is fulfilling. It is the opposite of speaking "in the flesh," or according to the "wisdom of this world."
ABOUND MORE AND MORE. Other versions read, "excel still more," NASB "do this more and more," NIV "abound still more," DARBYS and "but make more progress still." NJB The very nature and demands of spiritual life are captured in these words. Stagnation and retrogression have no place in salvation. The very nature of salvation excludes them. If you have been in Christ for any length of time, you know this is virtually unknown to professed believers. Growth, particularly aggressive and consistent growth, can hardly be found at all. Satan has foisted off on the contemporary church the notion that holding to a position, or embracing a set of rules, or a lifeless creed, is sufficient. But it is not. A believer who is not growing cannot hope to survive in a society that is waxing "worse and worse" (2 Tim 3:13). If there are influences among us that "increase unto more ungodliness" (2 Tim 2:16), there must be a corresponding increase of godliness among believers to effectively resist those influences.
The word "abound" refers to unending increase. There is no roof on the house of abounding, and no ultimate end to it. It is a trait that matches the nature of Christ's Kingdom: "Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end" (Isa 9:7). That is why the Spirit employs the phrase "more and more." The saints are to abound "more and more in knowledge and all judgment" (Phil 1:9). In brotherly love, they are to "increase more and more" (1 Thess 4:10). Through the power of the Holy spirit, we can "abound in hope" (Rom 15:13). Consolations "abound by Christ" (2 Cor 1:5). There is even provision to "abound in every thing, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love" (2 Cor 8:7). The third chapter of First Thessalonians included a prayer that God would make us "to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men" (1 Thess 3:12). Peter admonished us to add to our faith virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity. He affirmed those graces were to "abound" in us (2 Pet 1:5-8). Believers are admonished to be "always abounding in the work of the Lord" (1 Cor 15:58. They are reminded to "abound" in thanksgiving (Col 2:7). The absence of this quality among the churches is cause for great concern. Nothing about God's great salvation encourages a stay-as-you-are manner of life, or degree of perception. We must "go on" (Heb 6:1).
THE OBLIGATION TO WALK AND PLEASE GOD
" 4:1b . . . just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God." Other versions read, "we instructed you how to live in order to please God," NIV "you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God," NRSV "we made clear to you what sort of behavior is pleasing to God," BBE and "live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you." NLT This is an essential view of abounding "more and more."
WALK. Here is an aspect of "teaching them to observe all things" (Matt 28:19) that is rarely heard in our time. There is a vast difference between saying, "Have I done what I should do?" and "Have I pleased my Lord?" Our "walk" involves at least three things. First, it refers to the manner in which we live. What motivates us, and what are we trying to accomplish? What kind of life do we live? Does it reflect a godly persuasion, or one that is of the world? Second, it has to do with the direction of our lives. Where are we headed in what we do? Are we looking toward self-satisfaction or dwelling forever in the house of the Lord? Third, walking implies movement-advancing toward an ultimate end. All men are either advancing to heaven or hell, salvation or condemnation. Everyone is moving forward or backward, growing in Christ or retrogressing in the flesh.
When we "walk," we are moving about in the realm in which we have chosen to live. We can "walk in the light" (1 John 1:7), "walk in the Spirit" (Gal 5:16,25), "walk in the steps of" faith (Rom 4:12), or "walk in the night" or "darkness" (John 8:12; 11:10). Our "walk" involves our thoughts, purposes, words, and deeds. It includes our perceived reason for living, and determining what is to be accomplished by our lives. Some are noted for "walking after their own lusts" (2 Pet 3:3; Jude 16), while others are "walking in the truth" (2 John 4). How are men to "walk," or live? What is it that should characterize their lives?
PLEASE GOD. The immediate aim of our lives is to "please God." I will tell you that countless church members never have a single thought like this. They do not even know that God can be "pleased" by the conduct of His people. To them, life is simply keeping a set of rules and trying to avoid being condemned or going to hell. Anyone with even a modicum of tenderheartedness will be jolted by the question, "Are you pleasing God?" Or, "Is God pleased with the way in which you are living?"
This is an elaboration of abounding "more and more." God is not pleased by a "less-and-less" life. Faith will confirm that to your heart. No believer can afford to go backward. God has spoken to this issue, and we do well to hear what He says. "But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him" NIV (Heb 10:38). We are further reminded, "they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom 8:8).
One of notables of our race was Enoch, the "seventh generation from Adam." As you know, he was translated, or taken up from this world, not experiencing death. Before he was taken, the Word tells us "he had this testimony, that he pleased God" (Heb 11:5). He walked in a godly manner during a time when it was not popular to be godly. In fact, in Enoch's day, the world was drawing close to a time when God was going to destroy it with the Noahic flood, which Enoch prophesied (Jude 15). Pleasing God, therefore, does not require a favorable earthly environment. A person can please God in the middle of a cursed generation.
Children are reminded they can be "well pleasing unto the Lord" (Col 3:20). Those who do good, using their resources for the glory of God, are told "with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Heb 13:16). There is even such a thing as walking "worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing" (Col 1:10). The sensitive soul, we are apprized, will pursue "how he may please the Lord" (1 Cor 7:32). One of the marks of the ungodly is that they "please not God" (1 Thess 2:15). The person, however, who has been called into the good fight of faith, refuses to entangle himself with "the affairs of this life," in order that he may "please Him who has chosen him to be a good soldier" (2 Tim 2:4).
At the root of our lives, faith is the appointed means of walking "to please God." We are solemnly told, "for without faith, it is impossible to please God, for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him" (Heb 11:6). A life that is pleasing to God, therefore, is lived in faith. It is a life of trust in the Lord, persuaded of His presence and power. A life that is lived in a diligent quest for God, and in anxious anticipation of receiving a reward from Him, is a life that pleases Him. The ultimate approval for such a person is hearing the Lord Himself say, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matt 25:21). Receiving "praise from Him" becomes ones driving compulsion (1 Cor 3:5).
Faithful preachers and teachers are to impress this upon the hearts of their hearers: to walk and to please God! All of the spiritual resources provided to us are in order to the accomplishment of this objective. The flesh, the world, and the devil, seek to turn us from this.
THERE ARE COMMANDMENTS TO BE GIVEN
" 2 . . . for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus." Other versions read, "For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus," NASB "For ye know what charge we gave you through the Lord Jesus," ASV and "For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus." NIV This verse provides a further reason to abound more and more, and to please God in our manner of life. The "commandments" given to the Thessalonians were in perfect agreement with this exhortation. In other words, from the very beginning of their life in Christ, they were taught things that urged a growing and abounding life that brought good pleasure to God Himself.
NOT A LIST OF RULES. The "commandments" to which the Spirit refers are not like those which were uttered from Sinai (Ex 24:12; 34:28). To be sure, they are no less commandments than those which thundered upon the ears of wayward Israel. However, they are commandments of another order. Israel heard commands that revealed their alienation from God. They chaffed against their spirits, for their hearts were corrupt, and the laws they heard had not been written upon them.
It is quite different for those who are in Christ Jesus. The laws of God have been written upon their hearts and put into their minds (Heb 10:16). There is an accord between the people of God and the commands of God. When early Gentiles turned to the Lord, the Apostles and elders were directed to send them letters concerning their conduct. They listed only four commandments to be kept: "abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." They added, "if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well"(Acts 15:20,29). You can only imagine what kind of list would be developed by the zealots of our time!
Why didn't they provide more commandments? Why not tell them how and when to worship, how to select elders, and what type of customs they should observe in their gatherings? It is not that these things were never addressed in the Apostolic writings, but they were never at the core of their teaching. New spiritual life cannot be furthered by extensive rules. That is simply not the manner of the Kingdom. Mind you, the government of Jesus is not one without laws or rules. God forbid that anyone should arrive at such a notion! We have not been freed from sin to do as the ancient Israelites, everyone doing "what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6; 21:25). In fact, some specific moral direction follows (vs 3-7).
The "commandments" to which Paul refers relate to walking and pleasing God. Some examples of such commandments will suffice to clarify this marvelous truth. It will be very apparent how these instructions differ from those issued at Sinai. "Present your bodies a living sacrifice" (Rom 12:1). "Let love be without dissimulation" (Rom 12:9). "Put on the armor of light" (Rom 13:12). "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh" (Rom 13:14). "Let no one seek his own, but each other's welfare" (1 Cor 10:24). "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free" (Gal 5:1). "Walk in the Spirit" (Gal 5:16). "Walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called" (Eph 4:1). "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth" (Eph 4:29). "Therefore, be imitators of God as dear children" (Eph 5:1). "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). "Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5). "Set you affection on things above, not on things on the earth" (Col 3:2). "Go on to perfection" (Heb 6:1). To be sure, there are commandments against stealing (Eph 4:28), lying (Col 3:9), immorality (1 Thess 4:3), and conduct in the assembly (1 Cor 14:40). But these do not represent the thrust of God's word to believers.
What is the difference in the general tone of the commandments to saints? They all are areas in which progress can be made-where they can "abound more and more." Men do not grow in abstaining from fornication. Advancement is not made in not stealing or lying. None of these things are allowed in any measure. The commandments concerning them are not an admonition to steal less, lie less, or be less immoral. They are a call to stop such involvements altogether. But the primary commandments deal with areas of spiritual life where progress and increase are unending. They deal with a level of life where there is no pinnacle or terminal point. Commandments to "watch," "stand firm," and "be strong" cannot be fulfilled at a given point in time. "Believing" and "rejoicing in hope" do not refer to accomplishments reached and put to the side (1 Pet 1:8). These are all areas where growth continues as long as we are in this world. True preaching and teaching will leave people with a sense of the necessity of abounding more and more, moving closer, and being more well pleasing to the Lord. Where these impressions are not found, either the Gospel has not been heard, or hearts have been made hard through the deceitfulness of sin. Purported spiritual life that does not grow and advance is really no life at all!