Topic: Expository Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12
Simple Ambitions | 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. I hope you were present last week when we studied vv. 1-8. If not, I would encourage you to go back and read that lesson online. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 is one of the most important passages in the New Testament on the topic of sexual immorality. But this week, we are going to get into a new topic which becomes a very important topic if we ever get into the book of 2 Thessalonians, and that is the topic of work, or employment. Paul mentions this issue explicitly in v. 11, where he says, “We urge you… to work with our own hands.” But interestingly enough, he frames the discussion with the word “ambition.” So I want to frame my lesson this morning using that same word. The title of my lesson this morning is “Simple Ambitions.” Let’s read the text together, and then we’ll pray.
As I said, my title this morning is “Simple Ambitions,” so I want you to see where I get that word from the text. Verse 11 starts off, “…that you also aspire to lead a quiet life….” Does anyone have the NASB or the NIV? Can you read v. 11 out of that version? Did you catch that? It says, “Make it your ambition.” So the Greek word that is translated “aspire” in the NKJV can also be translated, “Make it your ambition.”
Here’s a question that may cause you to examine yourself: what are your ambitions? I’m going to give you a minute to think about that, and if you have a piece of paper, I want you to write those ambitions down. If you’re not sure what I’m looking for, I’ll give you an example.
Some of my ambitions when I was younger were to graduate from college and get married. (I can check those off of my list.) Later, I wanted to finish seminary and become a pastor. Once I got married, I wanted to have lots of kids! In the past, I had an ambition to plant a church. I have an ambition to be a senior pastor. I want to fully fund my emergency fund, put 15% a month into retirement, and pay off our house. I’d love to write a book someday. I’d like to get a doctorate. I’d like to run a marathon, and I want to read fifty-two books this year.
So that’s my list, now you to take a minute to work on yours.
What are some of the items on your list? Does anyone have, “Mind my own business?” How about “Work with my own hands quietly?” Those aren’t items we would normally think to include on our list of ambitions, are they?
One commentator calls Paul’s use of the word “ambition” in this passage “a splendid oxymoron”; I couldn’t agree more! Paul is appealing to people who seem to be very ambitious, but they’re ambitions are carrying them in a wrong direction. So he’s using the word “ambition” to point them to pursuits that although sometimes underappreciated, are far more valuable than the pursuits that are currently on their “lists.” He’s pointing them to the kinds of things nobody has ambition for. “‘Live a quiet life’? ‘Mind my own business’? That sounds like the opposite of ambition! But in reality, which is easier–to toot your own horn and be a busybody, or to be modest and work hard? Hands down, the second option is more difficult! So Paul says, “Why don’t you aspire to do something truly difficult? I challenge you to live a quiet, godly, selfless life!”
In addition, Paul commends the Thessalonians in vv. 9-10 for the love that they have for other believers; and he challenges them to keep growing in that area.
So I have two simple points today. Simple ambition #1: abound in brotherly love.
- Abound in Brotherly Love (vv. 9-10).
As was the case in 4:1-2, Paul begins by commending the Thessalonians. Once again, he says, “You’re doing well, but I want you to abound more and more!” In this case, he commends them for their love. Paul also commended the Thessalonians for their “labor of love” in chapter 1. So what we begin to see is that this is a very outward-focused church!
The Greek word for “brotherly love” in v. 9 is what? It’s the Greek word philadelphia. In secular Greek writing, that word was used almost exclusively to refer to love between siblings. But already in the early church, this word was being used to refer to love between brothers and sisters in Christ. This goes to show the importance of the new birth in Christian theology. If you are a Christian, you have been born again into the family of God–and guess what? You’re not an only child! You are surrounded by brothers and sisters who were born into God’s family the exact same way as you were! And so now we have a natural love for one another just like physical brothers and sisters do! Our love for each other is natural, produced by the Holy Spirit in our hearts! That’s probably why Paul says in v. 9, “You have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another.”
And the Thessalonians were excelling in this area (v. 10a)! In chapter one, Paul commended the Thessalonians for being examples to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. He said that their testimony as well as the gospel message itself was sounding forth from Thessalonica to all the surrounding regions. Now we see that this church was intentionally showing love for their fellow believers throughout the whole region. This is somewhat surprising since all of the churches were young. But we know that Paul sought to inculcate in the churches that he planted an awareness of other churches and a heart of love for believers living in other places.
How do you think the Thessalonians might have expressed love for their brothers and sisters who were living in other cities? (Prayer, hospitality, fellowship when they were present together, perhaps even benevolence–remember that Thessalonica was the leading city in the region, so people would naturally have been travelling in and out of the city!) What are some practical ways that you can express love for believers outside of our church living in other places?
Now, when we get into the broader topic of cooperation with other churches, it’s important that we recognize the importance of limiting our fellowship only to churches that preach the gospel. We can’t fellowship with churches who don’t preach the gospel because we aren’t truly brothers! So for instance, if a representative from the Mormon Ward came over and invited us to attend some big event that they were hosting, we would respectfully decline. Does that make sense?
As well, it makes sense for us to work together with the churches that are most like us. However, what we must not fall into is a myopic vision or a proud attitude that fails to notice or acknowledge other believers who are serving God whether in our area or around the world! Any questions on that?
Finally, at the end of v. 10, Paul says, “Even though you’re doing well in this area, I urge you to abound more and more.” This command echoes his prayer in 3:12, and it reminds us that with Christ as our model, there is always room to grow.
So simple ambition #1: abound in love. Simple ambition #2: Be unassuming and work hard.
- Be unassuming and work hard (vv. 11-12).
Now, one of the challenges when you’re studying the epistles is that you only have one side of the conversation. For instance, in this passage, we can see the instructions that Paul gives, but we don’t know very much about the situation that called for these instructions. Now, a lot of conjectures have been made about the situation in Thessalonica, but when it comes right down to it, we just don’t know.
By the way, God chose to withhold that information from us on purpose, didn’t He? He could have inspired Paul to share more details, right? Why do you think He chose to withhold them? I wonder if part of God’s purpose in doing so was that Paul’s instructions would be worded broadly enough to apply to any number of situations down through church history. God is wise, isn’t He?
But even though we can’t know for sure what was going on, we do want to be diligent students of God’s Word, which means that we assault the text with as many questions as we can think of and see how much we can figure out without venturing too far into conjecture.
So what can we know about the situation that called for these instruction as well as Paul’s later commands in 2 Thessalonians? Well, as I mentioned earlier, Paul’s ironic use of the word “ambition” leads me to believe that the people he’s targeting in v. 11 were ambitious, at least in some sense. However, they were apparently failing to obey the three commands Paul gives in this verse, which are what? (live a quiet life, mind your own business, and work with your own hands) So let’s talk about those three commands one-by-one.
I’d like us to examine those commands by thinking about their opposites. What’s the opposite of living a quiet life? It’s being loud and showy! It’s talking a lot about your own opinions and tooting your own horn! It’s pushing yourself into the public fray. The first century Jewish writer Philo had this to say about people who failed to lead quiet lives. He said, “[T]he worthless man whose life is one long restlessness haunts market-places, theatres, law-courts, council-halls, assemblies, and every group and gathering of men; his tongue he lets loose for unmeasured, endless, indiscriminate talk, bringing chaos and confusion into everything, mixing true with false, fit with unfit, public with private, holy with profane, sensible with absurd, because he has not been trained to that silence which in season is most excellent.” This very well could be the kind of thing Paul had in mind in this verse.
Okay, so we’ve discussed living a quiet life. Now, what’s the opposite of minding your own business? Minding everyone else’s business! It’s being a gossip! When Paul addresses this problem again in 2 Thessalonians, he says that some of the Thessalonian church members are being “busybodies.” One commentator defines busybodies this way: to be a busybody is “to waste someone else’s time, impose on him socially, or distract him from his daily responsibilities.” Do you know anyone who’s a busybody? Are you a busybody? Maybe you need to mind your own business!
Now to be clear, Paul is not talking about holding one another accountable or about challenging each other over sin in our lives. The New Testament is clear that we have not only a right, but an obligation to be involved in each other’s lives! So that’s not what this phrase is talking about.
This phrase talking about the person who won’t get a job, so he’s got lots of time to kill making life miserable for other people. It reminds me of the kid who won’t listen in class, so to keep from getting bored, he shoots spit wads or passes notes and keeps the other children from listening!
We all know the saying, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Apparently, an idle hand is a big problem, too.
The third command Paul gives in v. 11 is to “work with your own hands.” What’s the opposite of working with your own hands? Depending on someone else to support you! Who was supporting these Thessalonian believers? That is the biggest question that we don’t know about this text. One thing we know for sure–they weren’t receiving government assistance! Rome’s idea of government assistance was you assist the government! So what were they receiving?
They may have been receiving help from family members. It’s also possible that they were receiving some kind of benevolence from the church, although that is probably less likely. If the issue was an abuse of church benevolence, you would have expected Paul’s advice in 2 Thessalonians to be, “Stop giving them money.” But he doesn’t say that; he says, “Avoid them, so that they will be ashamed and repent.” Also, when we put together the data from both 1 and 2 Thessalonians, it becomes obvious that this was a problem in Thessalonica before Paul ever started the church!
So the whole situation is quite puzzling, but I think the best suggestion is that some of the people in the church were trying to support themselves through the practice of patronage. We won’t get into all of the details about patronage this morning; but basically in that society, power was centralized in a small group of social elites, and it flowed out from there through a network of personal connections. Therefore, it befitted you to make connections with people who knew people who knew people, so to speak. Also, in an honor-shame society, rich aristocrats wanted to further their power and reputation. The result was the client-patron relationship. Clients would flatter and serve their rich patrons in exchange for certain benefits. A client might receive a loan, legal representation, a better marriage for his son or daughter, or support for his candidacy for public office. Meanwhile, for the patrons, the name of the game was honor. The more clients you had, the better you would look.
So it could be that some members of the church at Thessalonica were relying on their patrons for financial support rather than just getting manual labor jobs, which would have been looked down upon in that culture. They were throwing themselves into the political fray, so to speak, and spending their time trying to develop social connections rather than just settling down and getting a job. This would have been very appealing in that society, because like I said, manual labor jobs were often looked down upon. But remember, Paul worked with his hands! And he is encouraging these Thessalonian believers to do the same.
Paul concludes v. 11 by reminding the Thessalonians that they had he had already commanded them about this. He, Silas, and Timothy had also set for them a personal example. So when the issue fails to get resolved before the writing of 2 Thessalonians, Paul gets much sterner and to-the-point.
However, in this passage, Paul is still fairly positive. He says that the church as a whole is doing a great job, and he just gives them a gentle reminder about this issue.
However, before closing, Paul does mention what is at stake here. If this issue doesn’t get resolved, the church’s testimony is potentially at stake. It would be a shame for this church, which had developed such a good testimony among churches in the surrounding area, to lose its testimony with unbelievers locally because of the actions of some of its members. So Paul wants the believers to walk properly toward those who are outside.
Also, he mentions that if they follow his instructions, they will “lack nothing.” This phrase could also be translated, “be dependent on no one.”
Maybe some of you need to get a vision for what it would be like to support yourself and your own family and not to rely on anyone else financially. Now, I recognize that some people can’t do this, either because of an injury or whatever. Also, Paul isn’t talking about one-time needs that arise. He’s talking about people who could get a job, but instead, are falling into consistent patterns of dependence that are unhealthy and unnecessary.
Also, remember, it’s not necessarily that these people don’t work hard. These people had ambition to work the system. But they also wanted to be cool and important, and they may have thought manual labor was beneath them. So besides just working hard, we need to have humility to accept God’s plan for our lives and to recognize the importance of simple things like holding down a job, providing for our families, and being good husbands, wives, fathers, and church members.
As I meditated on this passage this week, I was struck by how pertinent it is to my generation. Millennials tends to be very ambitious. We are proud of our ideas and eager to make our mark on the world. We have no inhibitions about spouting our opinions or even matching wits with people who are older and much more experienced. In addition, we have a huge entitlement complex. In many ways, v. 11 seems to be describing the opposite of my generation!
We would do well to learn from our grandparents. When I read vv. 11-12, I think of my Grandpa Schaal. My grandpa grew up on a farm in Iowa, and he is the youngest of twelve siblings. You would never pick him out of a crowd. He’s quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t dress flashy or talk loud. But if you’re looking for the picture of a godly husband–if you’re looking for the picture of a godly father, look no further than my Grandpa Schaal! I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone as patient. When our girls were babies, he would sit and play with them forever without growing tired.
My grandpa is very smart and was a successful engineer. But he and my grandma were also very frugal. They live in a modest house in a very middle-class neighborhood in Phoenix. I’m sure they could afford more, but they prefer to spend their money elsewhere.
My grandpa has no formal theological training and was never a pastor. However, God gave him and my grandma the opportunity to be involved with two church plants. They were charter members first at Tri-City Baptist and then at Northwest Valley Baptist in the greater Phoenix area. Fifty years later, those two churches have an average combined weekly attendance of well over a thousand. As well, both churches have Christian schools, and Tri-City also hosts a college, a seminary, and a mission board.
My grandparents were always heavily involved in church. My grandpa was a deacon many times and served on several building committees. He will be eighty in May, and he still sings in choir, works in the Wednesday night children’s ministry, and helps in Good News Club.
In all likelihood, no one will ever write a book about my grandpa. But as you can see, he’s had a massive impact! One thing I didn’t tell you about those two churches in Phoenix is that my dad pastors one of them, and the other one has been pastored by my dad’s best friend, who spent countless hours at the Schaal home growing up. My grandparents played a significant role in discipling both of those little boys who grew up to be future pastors! Not only that, but both of those pastors have also had a big impact on others beyond their local church! My dad is currently the president of a national pastor’s fellowship, and his friend Mike Sproul (who is also an Air Force chaplain) just announced last month that he will be resigning his church to take a position in Washington as the head over all of the Air Force chaplains!
I say all of that just to remind (and myself) of the impact that a simple, unassuming, hard-working life can make.
And so, I ask you, what are your life ambitions? Are they marked by modesty and a heart to serve other people? Or is it your ambition to become rich, famous, powerful, or influential? Let’s all make it our ambition to abound in love for other believers and to live a quiet, unassuming, hardworking life.