1 Thessalonians 4 is part of a letter from Paul to the Christian church in Thessalonica. The chapter begins with the kinds of subjects that make people feel condemnation hot around their necks: sexual immorality, lust, and passion right out of the gate. These are the impurities (verse 7) Paul pits against a clear expectation of holiness, honor, and sanctification.
If the early church was anything like our churches today, they would’ve met these verses ripe with potential for missing the point.
Then as now, readers of 1 Thessalonians 4 would run the risk of splitting into two camps: those who assumed they fell on the favorable side of its prescription—holy, honorable, sanctified (verses 3-4)—and those who felt they failed it: (verses 3 and 5) immoral, wrongly passionate, ruled by lust. There would be judgment and self-righteousness on one side, defensiveness and guilt on the other. Accusations would probably be hurled.
Then as now, the point both sides would be missing would be the one that appears both before and after all the sex talk. It’s a principle that goes far beyond sex and bodies, and we see it in a little phrase that’s on repeat: more and more.
The first instance of the phrase is in 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. (ESV, emphasis added)
The second instance happens in verses 9-10, with a new context, brotherly love:
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you … for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more… (emphasis added)
Let’s recap: Just as you are doing … more and more. And: What you are doing … more and more. The question at hand is not obedience versus sin or better versus worse, but obedience that could be increased. This New Testament church is being asked, in their intimate and their public behaviors, to turn up the volume on what pleases God. To put in a more solid effort. To make the showing better.
This is where the do-gooders and the cynical ones among us are inclined to get indignant.
When is good, good enough for God? Apparently never.
When is he satisfied with our sanctification? Apparently he’s not.
What does God want from us? Not just “more,” but an ever-ongoing “more” after that. Which is to say, presumably, another “more” after that one too.
So we could easily walk away from this passage thinking that God is demanding, that he’s on a power kick, that he’s impossible to please. But if we did, we’d be missing yet another point, one that we can assume the early church in Thessalonica didn’t. In our day, we can get so used to reading the words of Scripture, that we forget there is a beating Heart behind it. In their day, not too many years had yet passed, since that Heart had bled till there was no more life left in it.
A friend of mine was commenting recently on his lack of conviction for repentance, on the way he often feels lazy in his praise and apathetic about obedience. But he said he had been finding that the solution to all that is easy: “All I have to do is think, for just a few minutes, about Hell and what that must be like. Just the sheer terror of an eternally godless place. And I remind myself that Christ willingly went there and withstood all that so I wouldn’t have to.” This is the history that spurns our obedience.
God’s sacrifice, given in selfless love, is what changes the stakes. It’s what inclines our hearts toward pleasing him. Obedience becomes not simply what we should do but what we want to do, more than anything.
When we’re mindful of what God gave us (the life of his only child) and why he gave it (so he could grant us the standing that firstborn Son had earned), the natural response is captivated obedience. With the cross and the tomb in our sight, delusions of a demanding God fade to nothing. Our apathy and laziness fades just as quickly, and obedience becomes the desire that burns hotter than any other.
Because what he gave was not only more than he had to, but the most that anyone could possibly give. Because his love is more deep and more strong than any love we could imagine. And because no piddly act of Thank you could ever express gratitude enough.
This post originally appeared on PickYourPortion.com.