Most people are looking for a life that pleases them. Who wouldn't? In 1 Thessalonians, the first book of the New Testament to be written, the apostle Paul talks about a life that pleases God. Actually, the life that pleases God also pleases us. Our experiences and Scripture teachings demonstrate that we can never find a life that pleases us until we find the life that pleases God.
First Thessalonians 4:1-12 is a classic holiness text. But this passage is not just the private preaching ground of "holiness preachers." The fact that Paul declared in verse 3, "This is the will of God," makes these verses important for all believers. The pleasing life that the apostle envisions is a holy life. "This is the will of God, your sanctification." The word "sanctification" refers to the process by which persons-or things-are made holy. It should be no surprise that Paul declares it to be God's will that we should be made holy. This theme sounds over and over in Scripture (see Leviticus 19:2, Matthew 5:48, and 1 Peter 1:16 for a few examples).
The apostle first defined holiness as sexual purity. That subject deserved attention then and requires attention today. Verse 3 reads, "This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you should abstain from sexual immorality."
The Greek word translated "sexual immorality" was a general term referring to all kinds of sexual misconduct. The Thessalonians' world was marked by sexual looseness at every level of society, and unbelievable perversion. The philosophers of Paul's time decried the sexual degeneracy of the day, but had no way of changing things.
In contrast, Paul and the early Christian church marked the boundaries of sexual purity and declared everything else off limits to the followers of Jesus Christ. Off limits, but not because God was a prude or because Christian faith was sexually repressive. No, off limits because everything else fell short of God's will that His people model His holiness.
In verse 4 Paul described sexual purity in terms of each believer controlling his or her own body in holiness and honor. This bracing call for personal responsibility sounded a new and rare note in the ancient world.
This is also a note we need to hear in our world. We live in an age in which everybody's problem is somebody else's fault, but Paul's words don't offer us any scapegoat for failure to live sexually pure lives. We are responsible to control our own bodies in holiness and honor. The church must constantly remind itself of this basic truth. Christian people are responsible to control their bodies and live sexually pure lives. As the apostle put it in verse 7, "God did not call us to impurity, but to holiness."
A second critical issue in Paul's definition of holiness involves our relationships with each other. Verse 6 commands that we don't "wrong or exploit a brother or sister." The Greek word translated "wrong" speaks of overstepping our bounds in relationship with each other. In some contexts it clearly refers to sin but its range of meaning includes trampling others' feelings. The word "exploit" has to do with outwitting people to take advantage of them.
The life that pleases God flourishes in a community where everyone is safe, even the vulnerable, unsuspecting, and weak. Paul's call was not simply to avoid mistreating people. He called for a place where we are known and can let down our guard without fear of criticism or being hurt. Our holiness tradition has correctly emphasized the importance of sexual purity. But we have often failed to recognize the holiness call to create communities of mutual respect and care--communities where we can be transparent and vulnerable. The holiness that is God's will requires more than sexual and doctrinal purity. Pleasing God requires a life that cares for and protects others.
Once we open ourselves to such a life, Paul said in verse 9 that God will teach us how to love each other. We can't make ourselves love someone we don't love. Only by the work of the Holy Spirit in us can we genuinely love one another. But the Holy Spirit's work is not enough by itself. That work of the Spirit must be joined with our faithful commitment to obey the Spirit's prompting and to do what we know is right and best for each other-whether we feel like it or not. To love each other more and more is the will of God. That is our sanctification.
The will of God that is our sanctification calls us to a life free from sexual immorality, backstabbing, and lovelessness. That is why the Thessalonians received this message with such joy. They, like too many people today, had concluded that sexual immorality, backstabbing, and loveless communities were inevitable circumstances of their lives. Paul declared that it didn't have to be so. The holy life pleases God. The good news we often forget is that such a life pleases us also.
Roger L. Hahn is dean of the faculty and the Willard H. Taylor Chair of Biblical Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
Holiness Today March/April 2007