Pleasing to God
Topic: English Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2
Chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians marks an important transition. For the first three chapters, the focus was on Paul’s relationship with the church. We got to see his affection for them and his motivation in ministry.
You might remember that Timothy had come back to Paul from Thessalonica with an update. His report would likely have included areas in which the Thessalonians were doing good, along with some issues that were a challenge for them, and maybe even some areas about which they had questions. And those would have been the kinds of topics that Paul addresses in his letter.
Coming into chapter 4, we are still going to see Paul’s heart, but we are now coming to some more specific instruction, and these are going to be very important and applicable areas in the Christian life. The first specific topic Paul addresses is sexual purity.
Sexual purity is a critical issue in our church, and I say that because it has been a critical issue for every generation. Every generation and culture since the Fall has strayed from God’s design for sexual intimacy, and ours is no different. So, we all need this kind of reminder and exhortation.
Sexual purity is not an obscure topic in the Bible, although there are some who would like us to think otherwise. God is abundantly clear about what His design is for romance and sex, and it’s not hidden. We can see it all throughout the Bible. This matters to God, and it should matter to His people.
So, because of how important of an issue sexuality is to God, and because of how assaulted we are in our world with false messages about sex, we are going to take our time in this subject. We will probably keep referring to Thessalonians along the way, but in the next few weeks, I want to help equip us as individual and as a church to pursue God’s design for sexual expression.
In preparation for that, today’s study is going to be less about sexual expression itself, and more like a foundation for it. In doing that, today is going to be doing like a Bible than a traditional sermon. I’m not going to have a formal outline, but you can still pull out what’s helpful to you, or significant, and write that down.
To start, you and I need to realize that sexual purity is really a subset of a larger category which is holiness, or righteousness. Sexual purity is one expression or one facet of a righteous or a holy life.
Go back with me to the final verse of chapter 3. Remember, this was Paul’s prayer for the church, and it is also a reminder about Paul’s overarching goal for the church. Look at First Thessalonians, chapter 3, verse 13.
This was the final part of Paul’s request for the church. It says—that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Paul ministered with the end in mind. He knew where all this was heading. In the end, those who belong to Christ will be blameless before Him. And in thinking about the end of this life, I think it’s also important to think about the beginning. That will help us have a bigger picture in mind.
Though we see so much perversion in the world today, that is not how God created it. The world God made was without sin. At the end of six days of creation, Genesis 1 tells us—God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
God made male and female; He made two distinct sexes, and He made them in His image. That doesn’t just mean there would be some similarity between Him and mankind; it means that man was responsible to represent God on the earth. Adam and Eve were given dominion and a mandate to fill the earth as God’s representatives. Mankind was created as an earthly expression of who God is.
But we know that’s not how things stayed. Satan tempted the man and the woman, and sin came into the world. There came upon mankind a spirit of rebellion and wickedness against God’s design and character. In response to man’s repeated evil, God sent a flood to destroy the earth, but He mercifully preserved one man and his family. Noah was saved because He was a righteous man. He wasn’t perfect, but he refused to follow the path of the world.
In the years and generations that came after Noah, wickedness endured, but God’s plan was that in the darkness of this world, He would provide a light. That light would be the nation of Israel, the descendants of Abraham. That was God’s promise in Genesis.
In the book of Exodus, after God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He gave them His law. They had been exposed to all the paganism and immorality of the Egyptians, and they were going to be exposed to the paganism and immorality of the Canaanites, so they needed God’s law to keep them walking in the truth.
I’d like you to turn with me to the book of Leviticus. It’s the third book of the Bible. Leviticus chapter 11. This is not a very common book we turn to, but it’s an important book. And I think I’m going to be coming back to it as we go through this series on sexual sin and sexual purity.
In the book of Exodus, God started to give Israel the law, but Leviticus is where it gets more specific. One year after being freed from Egypt, God spent a month giving Moses the law for his people. That is what is recorded in the book of Leviticus. If the people rejected the ways of the outside world, and if they honored God’s commands for life and worship, He would bless them, and they would enjoy fellowship with Him.
What I’d like you to see is the driving motivation of the book.
Look with me at Leviticus chapter 11, verse 44. Leviticus 11:44. Here we have the reasoning behind the commands God gives to His people. Leviticus 11:44—For I am Yahweh your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.
The purpose of the people’s holiness was to reflect the holiness of God. And that gets repeated in verse 45—For I am Yahweh who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.
Those are major verses in Leviticus. You can mark them in there if you want. Holiness is the major theme of this book. God, who is perfectly holy, wants His people to be holy. He wants them set apart from the rest of the world. He wants them to be different.
Jump over to Leviticus chapter 19. I want to show you how important this is for God and for His people. Leviticus chapter 19, verse 1. It says this—And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I Yahweh your God am holy.
Now look at chapter 20, verse 7. Leviticus 20:7. Here’s what Gd says to His people—Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Yahweh your God.
And then we have verse 26. Chapter 20, verse 26—You shall be holy to me, for I Yahweh am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
In chapter 21, there are instructions for the priests, and we see the same principle. God is holy, therefore His people are to be holy. Look at chapter 21, verse 8. Leviticus 21:8—You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I, Yahweh, who sanctify you, am holy.
So, you see the same principle for the priests as for the people. Be holy because God is holy.
Now, when we consider ourselves, we understand that we are not Israelites. We are not Jews. But we are part of the New Testament church. And while a lot of the Law of Moses no longer applies, like the dietary restrictions, for example, the general principle for us as God’s people still applies. God wants us to be holy.
Turn with me to First Peter chapter 1, near the end of your Bible. I know I’m belaboring the point, but it’s a point I need to bring to mind over and over again. God is holy, and His people are to be holy too. Look with me at First Peter, chapter 1, verse 14. If you were with us back in 2020, this might sound familiar. But this was not long after everything shut down, so maybe you don’t remember. That’s okay. First Peter 1:14.
It says—As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
We are on the other side of the cross. We know the sacrifice God has provided in His Son to rescue us. So even more so, we are to showcase the holiness of our heavenly Father. Since God is holy, we who confess Jesus Christ must be holy.
And this is what is critical for us as Christians to understand: one the one hand, we need good doctrine, but we also need good lives. We need to study and learn things intellectually, but those truths are also supposed to flow into a holy life. To say it in a more technical way, we need orthodoxy, which means good doctrine, and we need orthopraxy, which means good practice. You need both.
Intellectually, you need to understand the holiness of God, and practically you need to demonstrate His holiness in your life.
Some people like to focus on the doctrine side, and maybe you’re one of them. Some people like to understand theology, but they aren’t focused on how the truth is supposed to affect their life. If your focus on doctrine and theology far outweighs your focus on personal holiness, that can lead to lawlessness.
Paul addresses that in Romans 6. There were people saying, “Jesus died for my sins. I’m forgiven; therefore I can just go on sinning. His grace covers my sin.” There are people who claim to be Christians and live like that. They assume that just because they know the facts about Christianity, they’re good. That’s a dangerous place to be. If your faith in God has produced no real change at the level of your heart, that’s not true Christianity.
On the other side of the spectrum, you can have people who focus on holiness and morality and ethics, but they don’t care about theology. All they care about is doing things “the right way,” either with regard to religious rituals or with regard to everyday life.
And maybe you’re more on that side. Maybe you place a greater emphasis on biblical morality and ethics, but what’s missing is a connection to from God’s truth. You don’t have the doctrine, which should come first, that leads to the righteousness. You don’t really understand why we should live a certain way.
At its worst, some people are so detached from God’s truth, that they even begin to advocate rules for living that aren’t rooted in the Scripture but are more rooted in their tradition.
You and I need to be very careful about that. We do not want to pursue doctrine in a way that is detached from a holy life. And we do not want to pursue a holy life in a way that is detached from doctrine.
So, having said all that, how is it then that we are supposed to live? How can you and I make progress in demonstrating the holiness of God in our everyday lives?
For that, let’s finally turn to our passage in First Thessalonians. First Thessalonians chapter 4. Before getting to some specifics regarding sexual purity, here is Paul’s introduction. First Thessalonians chapter 4, 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.
That first word there might seem a little confusing to us because “finally” sounds like he’s coming to a close. But the Greek word Paul uses has the idea of furthermore. And the second word, which the ESV translates as “then” simply means “therefore.”
So, it’s like Paul is saying, “Furthermore, therefore.” There’s a transition here but there’s also a connection to something Paul has just said. The connection is simply going back to the final verse in chapter 3, which we already looked at the beginning of our message. In praying for and thinking about the church’s holiness, Paul has some instructions.
And again, we see Paul’s heart for the church because he takes a very humble tone with them, but not in such a way that erases the significance of what he’s saying. He’s asking them and he’s encouraging them to do something, but his requests are coming in the Lord Jesus.
In other words, Paul is speaking on behalf of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t have an inherent authority, but since he’s coming with a message which Jesus has already taught, he comes with the authority of Jesus the Lord, Jesus the Master of all creation.
He repeats that idea in verse 2—For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.
Paul’s message, or request, is not something new. When Paul was first with them, for as few weeks as that might have been, he taught these things. He gave them doctrinal instruction, and he gave them practical instruction . That is what the church had received from him, and that is what all church leaders should be providing for their people.
We need doctrinal instruction, and we need practical instruction. We need to be taught the truth of Christ, and we need to be taught the ways of Christ.
Those of us who are parents needs to make sure we’re doing the same thing for our kids. We need to give them the truth and the practical expressions of that truth. We can’t just do one.
For all of us who belong to, and have trusted in, Jesus Christ, we are free from the law of Moses, but we are not free from the law of Jesus Christ. We need to learn how to walk. That’s the word Paul uses here. Walking is simply a synonym for your daily life. It’s talking about your conduct, your everyday thoughts, decisions, and actions.
That’s what we all need help with, isn’t it? How do we get our life to match up with the holiness of God? We want that in every area of life, but it’s especially important when it comes to sexuality. How do we make progress here?
I think we get a wonderful starting point here in verse 1 of chapter 4. And we get it in the form of three words: “to please God.” To please God.
This is how God moved in Paul to describe the teaching he had given the Thessalonians. He didn’t say he taught them how to be good Christians. He doesn’t even say he taught them how to be holy. He says he taught them how to please God. He taught them how to please God.
This is the foundation of a life that honors God and expresses His holiness; it’s a desire to please God. If you take anything away from our time today, just take those three little words: to please God.
If your primary motivation is to please God, the rest is going to take care of itself. And what an important reminder this is because we have so many other motivations, don’t we. We are motivated to impress someone. We are motivated to please our spouses. We are motivated to make life easy. We are motivated to not feel guilty.
But instead of all those things and anything else, our motivation as a Christian is supposed to be to please God. This is something our culture has completely fallen away from. But that is to be the driving force in the life of God’s people. We are here to please God.
Why do you get out of bed in the morning? To please God. Why do you come to church? To please God. Why do you avoid some activity? To please God. Why do you reach out to someone in love? To please God.
Psalm 19 was written by David to exalt the word of God, but it ends by saying—Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Yahweh, my rock and my redeemer.
What did David want most of all? He wanted to please God.
In Psalm 51, when David is confessing his sin to the Lord and seeking forgiveness, he says—You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
David wanted to give God whatever would please Him most. That’s what you and I are supposed to want too. And that is the starting point for a life of holiness and a life of purity. Let’s do what pleases God. Let’s make that our constant motivation.
Speaking of unbelievers, Romans 8:8 says: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Apart from Jesus Christ, you don’t even have a capacity to please God. You are dead in your sins. You are on Satan’s side, whether you know it or not. Hebrews 11:6 says: without faith it is impossible to please him.
So, the first step in pleasing God is coming in humility to repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ. Believe that He lived a perfect life. Only Jesus could say, “I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
But despite Jesus’ perfection, He was put to death. He died so that He could pay the penalty for sinners. He died as the sacrifice for sin, and on the third day, He rose from the dead in victory over sin and death. And then He ascended to the Father, promising to come back one day to judge the world.
So, if you want to please God, the starting point is to trust in Jesus Christ. Call out for forgiveness and beg Him for mercy. This is what pleases God.
And God’s saving work in a person’s life produces a growing desire to continue pleasing God.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says: we make it our aim to please him. In 2 Timothy 2:4, he compares the Christian life to a solider who wants to please his commander. That’s what we’re supposed to want—to please God who has saved us.
Ephesians 5:10 says we should be trying to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
Paul’s prayer for the Colossians was that they would walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.
I know I’m throwing a lot of verses at you, but I just wanted you to see that this is not an isolated concept in the New Testament. We are here to please God. And that’s the foundation for a holy life.
Do you want to start making more and more progress in personal holiness? Do you want to see your life more and more reflect the holiness of God? Then this is the starting point. There might be all kinds of practical tips and suggestions for fighting sin, but this is the starting point. Realize that you are here to please God. Start right there every morning. Start there in your marriage and in your parenting and in your job. I want to please God.