As evidenced by his authorship of the book of Philippians, Paul was a joyful person – which is quite remarkable because he had every reason not to be joyful. God had given him a really tough assignment. He was tasked with spreading the Gospel throughout the Gentile world. This required him to travel into different areas, share the Gospel and when people believed he formed them into churches. Then when the Spirit instructed, Paul moved onto the next location and started the process all over again. Like a concerned father, Paul monitored the progress of these churches and communicated with them through letters.
Sometimes in these letters Paul comes across as being kind of intense or even gruff. But what we have to remember is that his letters are many times corrective in nature. Someone will come with a bad report about one of the churches and Paul will write a letter to correct a theological error or to settle a dispute or to give instructions to a community that’s damaging one another.
But then you get to I and II Thessalonians, and we see something a little bit different. Paul has received a good report about the Thessalonians and is writing to encourage them. But along with this word of encouragement, Paul is also going to issue a challenge. He is going to ask them to not only keep on living in a way that pleases God but to do it more and more.
The fact that this church is thriving is a remarkable thing. It was started in the middle of a city-wide riot. Paul and his partner, Silas, arrived in Thessalonica and they began to do what they have done all over the region. They go to the Jewish synagogue and begin to preach about Jesus. They open the Old Testament scriptures and they lay out a case for why Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.
Acts 17:4 tell us that after hearing Paul preach, “some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.” So, this is the good news. Some people responded to the Gospel and were saved.
But if you are Paul, there is always some bad news too. Verse 5 tells us that, “the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some ‘bad characters’ from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.” The mob heads over to the house where Paul is staying which is owned by a man named Jason. When they don’t find Paul or Silas there they drag Jason in front of the city officials. Verse 6 says that they literally shout their accusations. They accuse Paul of spreading trouble all over the world and defying Caesar’s laws by acknowledging Jesus as the King. Now the mob, the city officials and the whole crowd gathered are “thrown into turmoil”. Paul’s friends convince him to flee for his life in the middle of the night.
So, he and Silas move on to their next stop – the city of Berea. It doesn’t end there though. Verse 11 says that the Bereans, “received Paul’s message with great enthusiasm”. But word eventually gets back to Thessalonica that Paul and Silas are preaching there and they get so angry all over again that they send people to Berea to stir up another angry mob. And Paul again is forced to leave.
As I read this in Acts, I was struck with what a crazy, over-the-top response this was to a simple sharing of the Gospel. Paul didn’t go into a biker bar to share the Gospel. He went to church and taught from their own Scriptures. And the response he got was extreme – some believed and reoriented their whole lives to follow the Gospel but many others flew into a rage and created city-wide chaos.
So, I was curious and I went back to the beginning of Acts and read the whole thing through. This is the response that Paul received almost everywhere he shared the Gospel. He started lots of riots. So, when this mob broke out in Thessalonica Paul and Silas must have looked at each other and said, “here we go again…”
The Gospel stirs things up.
If we have made a choice to believe the Gospel, it must have stirred something up in us at one point, too. Something convinced us to accept our need of a Savior and decide to follow Jesus. The question is, does the Gospel message still stir something up in us? That is what Paul meant when he asked the Thessalonians to move forward towards “more and more”. We read in Revelation that lukewarm-ness is what irritates God. At least in a riot people are hearing the Gospel and responding. That’s something that he can work with. When the Gospel seeps into a new place in our lives, will we allow it to stir us up?
Jesus, let the Gospel throw my life into turmoil. Let all the things in me that rebel against your truth get angryand stomp around. Let the gospel throw your church into turmoil. Stir us up. Let us rage and argue and then in your mercy allow us to submit to your loving rule. Amen.
Circumstances had forced Paul to leave this new church before he thought they were ready, and his instinct was to get back to them as soon as possible but he keeps being prevented. So, he sends Timothy instead to visit and report back. Paul fears the worst but Timothy returns with a glowing report. The Thessalonians are doing really well. Despite all of the opposition and all of persecution they faced, they are standing firm. Paul doesn’t get a lot of good news. Which explains how excited he is as he writes in chapter 3 verses 7-9.
You can hear it in his voice, Paul is thrilled that the Thessalonians are doing so well. But, as relieved as Paul is, he also understands people and how we operate. He gets that when things are going well we can be tempted to coast and “good enough” becomes the goal. Not just spiritually but in every area. I’m tempted to stop studying when I’ve learned enough to pass the test. I’m tempted to be nice enough to keep people from being angry with me. I’m tempted to follow Jesus out of whatever mess I’m in and then declare it far enough. Why am I ok with “good enough”?
So, Paul wraps up his congratulations at the end of chapter 3 and by the beginning of chapter 4 he is back to work. Let’s look at I Thessalonians chapter 4 verses 1-3.
Paul’s message for the Thessalonians is this: “we told you how to live to please God and you are doing that. Yay! Now do it more and more.” As I hear “more and more” I think about two dimensions: wider and deeper.
Wider means learning to do new things that please God. For example, more and more might mean joining a small group, or finding a place to serve or walking across the street to introduce yourself to your neighbor.
Deeper has to do with layers. Maybe I’m already serving somewhere. “More and more” might mean that I need to confess the judgmental thoughts I have about the people I’m serving or the people I’m serving with. Then I might need to be honest about the fact that I’m serving to earn someone’s approval. So, I keep serving but I allow God to work through the layers that exist underneath my service.
Notice Paul gives no indication about when they’ve done enough? There is always more and more. Always more that needs to be surrendered. Always more that needs to be transformed.
The Gospel is supposed to stir things up.
What area in your life right now is being stirred up by the Gospel? I have places in my life recently that have been in full-on riot mode because Jesus has brought the Gospel to that area of my life and said, “enough! This is next.” And those habits and sinful patterns are in full revolt. Dying is no fun but God can’t raise to life what hasn’t first died.
Look again at verse 3.
My husband and I are in a season where we are thinking a lot about what’s next – what is God’s will for us for the next part of our journey. And so when I stumbled across this verse it caught my attention. It is his will that I should be sanctified. It is God’s will that I let the Gospel message work its way through every part of who I am. That’s what sanctification means. It means that as I surrender new ground, God makes it holy as I respond in obedience to his working. Then we move onto a new part. And there is no end to it. Because just when I think I’m doing pretty well, he opens up a new door and asks permission to enter. That I pursue God and surrender to his working “more and more” is God’s will for my life.
So, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and get to, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” we are praying a prayer of surrender to the sanctification process because that is his will. Sanctification is another way of saying “more and more”.
As we keep moving through chapter 4, Paul is going to mention 3 specific areas in which we can please God “more and more.”
The first is the area of our physical bodies. Let’s read verses 3-8. It’s interesting that Paul says that “we should learn to control our own bodies.” That he uses the word “learn” makes me think that it is not an automatic thing. Controlling our bodies is something we have to learn from the time we are babies – how to coordinate our limbs to crawl and walk and how to grasp things that we see. We teach toddlers how to use the potty and school age kids not to hit. But then we get older and the lessons get a bit more subtle.
In this passage, Paul specifically addresses the area of sexual immorality – which is ultimately a choice to not control our own bodies. Holiness in this area was new to the Thessalonians. They had come out of a culture of rampant promiscuity and a pagan religion that considered sex with prostitutes to be a spiritual discipline. So, it’s no wonder that Paul comes right out of the gate with this instruction. And we also need to hear it. We, too, struggle in our culture to maintain purity.
But I wonder if sexual immorality is the only way in which we choose not to control our bodies? This is going to pinch a bit. It’s been pinching me for a while now as I’ve prepared for this morning. And that’s ok because “more and more” is going to pinch a bit. Jesus is pretty honest about that.
What if “more and more” means that I learn to control what and why I eat? What if “more and more” means that I begin to treat my body well by exercising regularly? What if “more and more” means that I make sure that I am getting enough sleep at night?
I like to think that what I do with and to my own body only affects me. But verse 6 tells me this isn’t true. My inability to control my own body has ripple effects through my family, my church, my community. “More and more” means bringing my body under God’s control. My body wants to act like a two-year-old. It demands to be fed when it’s tired, cranky or bored. It says things like “I’m so tired” and “I don’t want to” when I consider exercising. It thinks a lot about what would feel good and how much it deserves to be spared the hard things.
Paul leaves us with a zinger in verse 8. He says if a part of us wants to pass this teaching off as mere suggestion, we need to remember that these instructions are coming straight from God. This isn’t a lesson in healthy living in order to avoid medical bills or increase our life spans. God’s will is that we bring our bodies under submission to his authority.
Are we willing to go more and more?
The next area that Paul urges us to consider surrendering is our relationships. Look at verses 9-10: again Paul is praising them for loving one another. But he can’t resist adding yet another call for “more and more.”
Paul has written a lot about what it looks like to love well in some of his other letters. The most famous is the Love Chapter that he wrote to the church at Corinth. But as he writes to the Thessalonians he includes a slightly different list. Look at chapter 5 verse 14.
Here Paul describes love as living well in community together. We do this when we help and encourage one another, when we slow down for those who need extra time, when we care enough to warn someone headed down a wrong path, when we are kind and patient and refuse to hold grudges. That’s what “more and more” looks like in relationships. We do a lot of “just enough” in relationships. But have we loved? We are pleasant and respectful but do we let love sink deep into the layers?
“More and more” means developing and committing to deep and intimate relationships. “More and more”
means venturing out of groups that look like us and feel comfortable to find community with those who need
to be included. “More and more” means allowing others to love and serve you.
My Daily Life
Finally, Paul gets very practical. He urges the Thessalonians to order their everyday lives in a way that pleases God. Look at verse 11 and 12.
If you have a chance to read through Thessalonians you will quickly find a theme running through it about the value of hard work. Paul talks about how hard he worked when he was with them. He tells the church how to deal with people who refuse to work. And he includes an instruction to work hard here in chapter 4. All this talk about work makes you wonder what’s going on in Thessalonica that’s keeping everyone from working. Well, apparently when Paul was with them, he talked so much and so enthusiastically about the “the Day of the Lord” or the time when Jesus would return that a group of people decided they would quit their jobs and sit around waiting for it to happen. In the meantime though, the rest of the community is having to finance their waiting.
These men and women are having a hard time living in the “in-between.” They’ve been rescued from sin and given new life and are now suffering for their choice – that’s their present reality. They’ve been promised that Jesus will return and right all of the mess they are living in the middle of and swoop them away to safety – that’s their future reality. The trick is to live “in-between” these two realities well. Paul seems to address that by telling them to work while they wait.
That’s a good reminder for me too. I’m not tempted to quit working, sell everything I own and sit on a mountain somewhere waiting for the Lord to return. But I am sometimes tempted to ignore a sin issue figuring God will deal with it when he returns. Or I’m tempted to overlook an injustice in the world knowing that God will right it someday. But God seems to be saying to us, work while you wait. “More and more” speaks of action not ignoring.
The Day of the Lord will be the grand finale of God’s work on the earth. But, in the meantime, the Day of the Lord also comes every time the Gospel is allowed to stir in a new area and when we invite him to work more and more in our world.
So, our daily lives are to be spent engaging with the world around us. Not retreating into ourselves while we wait for some future event. Our daily lives are also to be marked not by surface actions but by attitudes that are the result of the Gospel burrowing deep within us.
Look at chapter 5 verse 16…Be joyful. Be prayerful. Be grateful. These are not three keys to successful living. These are God’s will for our lives. And they cannot be faked. When we get serious about “more and more” we begin to make the choice to be joyful, prayerful and grateful and the effects of that choice are felt in more and more areas of our lives.
“More and more” means allowing God to sanctify all of us – spirit, soul and body. God is concerned with every part of you. “Through and through”. Every part. It is God’s will that we hold nothing back.
I like to watch those home makeover shows on HGTV? Usually they start with homeowners who don’t like something about their home. So, they hire designers and contractors to help them figure out how to fix a problem or how to improve something. I am always amazed at how skilled some people are at looking at one thing and being able to imagine what it could be and then outline a step-by-step plan to make the transformation happen. I’m ok at arranging pictures and knick-knacks to make a room look cozy but these people can look at a room and make it into something totally new.
This is what God wants to do with us. He isn’t concerned with how the knick-knacks are arranged. He wants to transform me in a process that goes down to the studs. That’s “more and more”! But I don’t want to go through the hassle and mess of a demolition. I just want to look and function better – Just enough!
Have you noticed what always happens in the middle of those shows? The homeowners get halfway into a project and the contractor comes to them and says, “We found a big problem with the foundation or wiring or we found termites.” Do the people ever say, Oh thank you, “How fortunate that you found it and that it can be corrected. That could have caused a lot of damage later on!”? No, the people always look really pouty and ask if they are still going to be able to get their granite counter tops. That’s me too. God in his mercy points out a place in my life that’s in need of a clean-up or repair and I say, “Oh man! That sounds like it’s going to cost a lot to fix. I just wanted to be a nicer person or stay out of trouble….” I have no patience for the process. Which is a problem because I will always be at some stage of the process if I am committed to “more and more”.
We should be begging God to do “more and more” in us and begging for the grace to be “more and more” obedient. But that kind of “down to the studs” project terrifies us. I know it does me. But be assured. Our contractor is a good, good God.
We often sing a song at our church called Ten Thousand Reasons. The second verse says,
You’re rich in love
And You’re slow to anger
Your name is great
And Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness
I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons
For my heart to find.
He is powerful enough to transform us and kind enough to not destroy us in the process.
What is your desire? Do you feel the Gospel stirring something in you? Can you feel a riot starting? “More and more” sounds scary doesn’t it? And “just enough” sounds safe. But that’s not true. In verse 23, Paul calls God the God of Peace. As you allow God to work “more and more” in you he is able to bring “more and more” of his peace. If we want peace in the core of who we are, we must allow God to go there.
I invite you to respond to this question, “Am I willing to let God have more and more of me?”