This morning begins a new year. Traditionally this is a time for fresh committal, for resolutions to change and promises to be better this year than last. But how should we judge such things? What does being better look like? Does better mean being lighter, thinner, wealthier, happier, nicer? Funny thing is such commitments to improvement seldom last. The work involved and the self-denial required are seldom understood when making these resolutions. Losing weight requires eating less. Being more financially secure requires earning more or spending less. I won’t even pretend to know what happier looks like. If these things were easy, there would be no need for the resolution—because they would already describe us. However, there is one improvement we can be sure of. Each moment, each day, each year, God is transforming you into the image of Christ. This means next January first you will be more like Christ than you are right now. This is not your resolution, but God’s.
In 1 Thessalonians chapters four and five Paul lays out eight elements of a life pleasing to God. He wraps these elements in a literary tool known as inclusio. This method of bracketing information tells us the elements all work together to form a single picture of this life. These eight elements are:
- (1 Thess 4:3-8) A pure life, which he defines as one avoiding sexual immorality and marked by bodily self-control. He compares the two extremes of behavior. On the Christian side there is bodily behavior that is controlled in a holy and honorable way. On the heathen side is passionate lust that knows not God and respects not the brother or sister created by God. We conduct our physical lives above reproach and separate from sexual impurity.
- (1 Thess 4:9-10) A loving life, which he doesn’t define here—though he gives illustrations of their obedient love elsewhere (their concern for him, their giving, their acceptance of his words, etc.). However, the important thing to notice is the command to “do so more and more” (verse 10b). This is a very open ended command. When have you loved enough? What defines the proper amount of love? Whatever way you love others, to whatever degree you love others, you have not exhausted the limit. You are still to love them “more and more.” We can never love enough, but should always love more tomorrow than we do today.
- (1 Thess 4:11-12) A quiet life, which he offers as a sort of paradox. He says to make it our ambition (NIV), or aspire, to lead a quiet life. An ambitious life and a quiet life are, in common usage, opposites. However, the life pleasing to God is not one constantly striving for greater and greater worldly success—though there is nothing wrong with being successful, the Christian defines success very different from the world. What matters is the aspiration. He tells us further that this quiet life we aspire to involves minding our own affairs, and working with our hands. This doesn’t mean Christians must limit themselves to craft trades, or manual labor. The intent behind this is illustrated in the reasons he gives to defend this aspiration. By taking care of our own business and working with our hands we win the respect of others (which helps in sharing the gospel) and we will not be dependent upon anyone. We should be dependent upon God. This is what we are to aspire to: a life of quiet, respectable, self-provisioning work.
- (1 Thess 4:13-18) A hopeful life, Paul defines as one that is not ignorant and hopeless about those who have died—or about our own afterlife. This is a life that knows and stands upon the promises of God. This life is one of hope for the future, even the future after our bodies have gone to the grave. Such hope only grows by studying the Word of God and through standing upon the promises during times of hardship.
- (1 Thess 5:1-11) An alert life is illustrated with the difference between night and day. He points out that most who sin are more comfortable doing so at night, under the cover of darkness. However, we recognize that we always live in the light of God’s truth. We are always to live as people in daytime, alert to God’s presence, and equipped with the understanding that God has not called us to suffer wrath but to be saved. Therefore we avoid the life that deserves wrath and encourage our fellow believers to do likewise.
- (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15) A respectful life, which is defined as respect for those in the church who labor at teaching, correcting, and admonishing. We are to hold them in loving honor. We are also to respect and live at peace with each other. This respect for each other will even include the hard work of urging the idle among us to take action.
- (1 Thess 5:16-18) A devout life is one defined by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. This life recognizes that in all situations—good or bad—there are things for which one can thank God and be grateful. When I think of such a life, I consider the story shared by Corrie ten Boom, from her life in a German concentration camp, where her family was sent for aiding Jews. She tells of her sister ministering to the women in their barracks. One day during prayer, her sister was encouraging her to thank God for everything, including the lice from which they constantly suffered. Corrie insisted that was too much. Later, they learned they had such freedom to minister undisturbed because the guards didn’t want to enter the barracks due to the lice. Corrie’s sister saw a blessing from God where Corrie herself saw nothing but vermin. The devout life is one that looks for reasons to praise and thank God. But not only does this life look for such reasons. This life finds them.
- (1 Thess 5:19-22) A spiritual life is the final one in Paul’s list. The spiritual person knows the Spirit can act, the Spirit can speak and respects the Spirit’s right to do so, but also understands there are imposters. Such phenomena must be weighed and tested. The spiritual person holds onto all things that are good and rejects evil—in any form.
After beginning chapter four by saying he had taught them how to live this sanctified life, Paul ends chapter five by telling them that God will develop this life within them. He will sanctify them. He will bring these elements of the sanctified life to being in their lives. He will bring forth the spiritual fruit of such a life. The section ends with what is arguably the most beautiful promise in all of Paul’s writings: “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (1 Thess 5:23-24 NIV, emphasis added).
In 1 Samuel 10, the Prophet tells the newly anointed King Saul of a transformation soon to come upon him. Verse six says, “The Spirit of God will come upon you powerfully, and you will prophecy. Then you will be transformed into a different person.” If you ask the average person to define themselves they will give you a list of attributes or characteristics. 1 Corinthians 5:17 assures us that we who have come to Christ have been transformed into a new creation. This transformation literally means the list of attributes once describing you has been replaced with a different list. Many of the old attributes remain, such as parenthood, your marital status, or your occupation. But where the list once included such attributes as ‘sin-stained,’ ‘unrepentant,’ ‘self-centered,’ ‘opposed to God’ and many others, it now includes cleansed, repentant, Spirit guided, friend of God. Never forget that when the Holy Spirit came upon you, you became a very different person.