Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

3 Priorities That Please God and Fulfill You

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Teaching t22466


This is the section of the letter in which Paul gives instruction on living the Christian life (4:1-3a)—a life that aims to please God and is ultimately fulfilling because it is how as He designed us to live (“sanctification”).

GOSPEL: Don’t get the cart before the horse! Most people think that you try to live a Christian life in order to be a Christian, but this is backwards—and impossible. First, become a Christian by receiving Christ just as you are. When you do this, He takes up residence in your heart through His Spirit, and imparts both motivation and power to please God (Phil.2:13). Then, embrace this way of life and seek to make progress (“excel still more”) in it.

What does this way of life look like? Having begun with the importance of sexual purity in 4:3b-8 (LAST WEEK), Paul moves on in 4:9-12 to three more (or four, depending on how you see 4:11) priorities that please Him and fulfill you. He uses two strong words to emphasize that we should be really focused and intent on developing in these areas:

“Excel still more” (perisseuo; 4:9, same as 4:1) means to abound, to far exceed an expected number or measure. It is used of the multitude of loaves “left over” for the disciples after Jesus fed the 5000 (Jn.6:12,13).

“Make it your ambition” (philotimeomai; 4:11) means to aspire to a worthy goal. Paul uses it to describe his aspiration to preach the gospel in places where it had never been heard before (Rom.15:20).

Let’s take a look at what these priorities are...

Get immersed in Christian community

Read 4:9,10. “Love of the brethren” and “love one another” refer to both receiving and giving Christ’s love from/to other Christians. Of course, God also wants us to abound in our love for non-Christians (3:12). But this is Jesus’ great commandment for all Christians (Jn.13:34), and the demonstration of His reality to a lost world depends on this (Jn.13:35). So it is God’s will for each and every one of us to get immersed in Christian community. Paul says God teaches them to do this, he is glad that they do do it—and he urges them to do it more and more!

We’ve spent a lot of time at these CT’s this year emphasizing this and explaining how to do it. Here’s a summary of what this looks like:

Gather together frequently with other Christians (Acts2:42,46) vs. just once or twice a week. The best way to do this is to get involved in a home group, the members of which gather in several different ways during the week.

Build close Christ-centered friendships vs. remaining relationally isolated. This involves meeting together one-on-one regularly (weekly) to share your lives real-time, read and discuss the Bible, and pray together.

Get involved in the mentoring process. Like any healthy family, the parents and older siblings look after the younger ones and help them to develop. So if you are a younger Christian, ask a spiritually more mature Christian in your home group to mentor you. And take initiative to help mentor a Christian who is spiritually younger than you are.

You may be thinking: “This sounds like a lot of time!” Yes, it is a lot of time—but it is time well-spent. You get out of Christian community what you put into it. Dabble a little in Christian community (“playing church”), and it is a real drag. Jump into to Christian community, and you will find real joy (Jn.15:10-12)!

Where are you at on this priority? Are you dabbling or immersed? Is this a burdensome duty or a real source of joy? Which direction are you headed? Are you static or withdrawing, or are you moving into greater and more meaningful involvement with your brothers and sisters? What one step do you think God wants you to take in this direction? Will you take it, or will you hang back?

Cultivate quietness before God & attentiveness to your family

Read 4:11a. “Quiet” clearly doesn’t mean “inactive,” since 4:9,10 and 4:11b both call for lots of activity. Neither does “attend to your own business” mean living a solitary life, since 4:9,10 both call for lots of social activity. What then do they mean? They mean: Work hard to cultivate quietness before God and attentiveness to your family (spouse & children; extended family). We can describe this negatively and positively.

Negatively, it means having less unnecessary drama in your life. Other passages connect these phrases with meddling in other people’s affairs—gossiping about other people, or just obsessing on people in unhealthy ways. Think of all the time and energy some people spend gossiping at work, on Facebook, etc. Think of all the time and energy some people spend keeping up on celebrities (“Extra;” “National Enquirer;” etc.). Think of all the time some people spend living vicariously through other people—both celebrities “Extra;” “National Enquirer;” etc.) and “normal” people (Facebook; reality TV, etc.). How much time and energy do you spend on this?

It also means less personal stimulation time. Think about all the time and mental and emotional energy some people spend surfing the internet, watching movies and TV, playing video games, doing hobbies, etc. A little of this has its recreational place, but spending hours a day this way leads to a wasted life. How much time and energy do you spend on this?

34 years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned about this problem in American culture. He spoke of the “...forfeited right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information...hastiness and superficiality (are the) psychic diseases of the twentieth century.” What do you think American culture is like now in this area—with cable, the internet, video games, and smart phones? The average American adult now spends eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen—more than any other activity including sleep! It’s pretty difficult to be quiet before God or invest in your family with this kind How difficult it is to escape this!

Positively, it means prioritizing (scheduling) quality time alone with God. This is our great treasure—to be close to God, to hear from God, to have no controversy with or distance from God. This is what nourishes us to be able to love one another and our families. Yet it is never easy as fallen people in this world to be quiet before God. It takes both pruning away the above “noise” and discipline in communing with Him through regular times of through biblical reading and learning and meditation, prayer, etc.—and sometimes taking special extended times to be alone with Him. I find that this is often the first thing to go in my busy life, when it is the most needed for an effective life!

It also means investing regularly and personally in your spouse and children (if you have them). This involves scheduling regular times with them, giving them your full attention during these times, and prayerfully considering about how you can encourage them and help them come to know Christ and grow in Him. And when grandchildren come, we have a similar, special contribution to make to them. It also involves honoring our parents—finding appropriate ways to communicate love and appreciation, and helping to care for them as they grow older. This can be complicated and taxing, but God cares for the aged and it pleases Him to do this through His people.

You can see that the Christian life is highly relational—relating to brothers and sisters in Christ, relating to God, relating to family. This makes sense, since God is relational, and he made us to be relational beings. Our culture is increasingly lonely and alienated, and we have the opportunity to be attractive lights of God’s love as we live out these priorities!

But Paul gives one more priority that is extremely practical...

Be financially self-sufficient

Read 4:11b. “Work with your hands” means be employed, be financially productive. Virtually all work in the first-century world was physical; most of the Thessalonian Christians were no doubt laborers or slaves, so Paul is emphasizing the dignity of manual labor—not criticizing “white-collar” jobs. The point here is that we should be financially self-sufficient, supporting ourselves (unless we are unable) and contributing appropriately to our families’ (if we have one) material needs (not wants).

Why is this so important? 4:12 gives two answers to this question; it is connected directly to “work with your hands (read). This gives Christ a good reputation among non-Christians, and it enables us (and our church) to be givers to others who are in real need (Eph.4:28). John Wesley captured this in an easy-to-remember maxim: “Make all you can” (industry), save all you can (frugality) and give all you can (generosity).”

Christians make two equal-but-opposite errors in this area, and Paul speaks elsewhere to both of these errors:

Some of us are inclined to be lazyand/or feel entitled not to do tedious work. This seems to be the error some of the Thessalonian Christians were falling into, because Paul reproves them for this in his second letter (read 2Thess.3:11,12). It is good to work! It is God’s ordained means of meeting your physical needs. It enables you to have something to share with those in need. It keeps you busy and safer from temptation. God teaches us key character lessons through work. It gives us opportunities to reach out to people who do not know Christ.

Others of us are inclined to be materialists who invest inordinately into career and/or making money. We should work and support ourselves and our families—but we should be content to live a materially simple life. This is what Paul told Timothy to remind the Ephesian Christians (read 1Tim.6:6-11). It is important to be content with what you have materially! This gives you time and energy to pursue godliness, while over-work will sabotage this. This keeps you out of credit debt, which makes you a slave to your creditors. This protects you from the lie that moving up and/or making more money will make you somebody or give you security, because pursuing wealth will hurt your spiritual development, damage your marriage and children, prevent you from loving the brethren well—and ultimately lead to regret.

To which of these two errors are you most vulnerable? What step can you take to lean the other way? What brother or sister could help you answer these questions?


Repeat the priorities. In concluding, I want to make a couple of over-arching points that have been very helpful to me over the years.

The Christian life is a balanced life—but this does not mean “moderation in all things.” It means fulfilling all of God’s priorities, which often means letting go of things He does not prioritize. This is what Jesus means in Jn.15:1,2 when He refers to the need for pruning in order to be spiritually fruitful. You can’t do everything—you have to choose, and what choose to prioritize will make the difference between a fruitful or unfruitful Christian life.

The amount of time you invest in these three areas changes according to many variables—e.g., your stage of life, special needs that arise, etc. But they are always priorities, and so we must ask God recurrently for the wisdom to know how to pursue all of them in our particular life-situation.

God will help and empower you as you pursue these priorities—and the result will be abundant life as you do! I’ve been pursuing these priorities for over 40 years, and I have plenty of room to “excel still more.” But I can say with complete honesty that God has helped to do this, and that it has led to a life I would not trade for anything else! Maybe others of you would like to weigh in on this point...

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart, trans. Irina Ilovayskaya Alberti (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pp.25,27.