Ethics in the Circle of Life
Updated: Aug 6, 2022
We do not know how much time Paul spent in Thessalonica. Possibly he was there only for a few days when a mob of jealous people drove him out of town. He had pointed out that the Bible everyone read in the synagogue spoke of the Messiah coming in history. The person Jesus, who had lived, taught, was crucified and raised from the dead in Israel during their own lifetime, was that Messiah. He had drawn for them a whole picture of understanding to explain what was the truth about Jesus. He used their prophecies as well as events in their own historic time to make his case.
But during those few days he had done more than this. He had also instructed them in what can be summed up as the biblical worldview. Just as Jesus was the Messiah in real history, His coming affected the way we look at all of life. The Messiah was not an idea to create positive attitudes about life. When the Messiah came, lived and taught in real history, people had better change the way they lived in their own moments of history.
The Bible does not talk about a different world than the one we live in. It does not draw us away from the context of reality into a spiritual dimension. It does not talk about believing certain things as doctrines or as part of a confession without showing the practical results which should express what we believe. We are reminded to not be hearers only, but doers also.
What we believe is not just an idea about truth summed up in statements or doctrinal positions, but is expressed by the choices we make in our lives. When we believe that certain mushrooms are poisonous we will not eat them.
The teaching of Paul always includes the instruction of how to practice the life of a Christian. Doctrine is not a set of phrases or a mark of identity. It is the summary statement about the way we understand reality: God, man and life in the real world. And therefore it is always exposed to the reality of human existence, where it can be examined to be reasonable, truthful and fitting.
For many people exposed to our intellectual and spiritual climate, it may come as a surprise to acknowledge that it is normal to find instructions in the Bible. Some Christians fear that giving instruction would control and influence the lives of others too much, it would express arrogance by those who claim to know towards those who learn. This may be from a healthy recognition of our own limits, but I suspect that often it is born out of a certain false humility coupled to an intellectual and social laziness. Who are we to teach, since we are far from perfect ourselves? Yet Paul called himself "the chief of sinners" and still taught.
Such hesitation is often a reaction against authoritarian assumptions by religious and public people who draw attention more to themselves, their experiences and their popularity. In response, we shy away from giving detailed instructions about very central realms of human life in the real world.
Our hesitation could reveal a wish to appear humble and spiritual. In response to the growing mechanization and regimentation of life, a hunger for spirituality is understandable and even desirable. We are not machines. Whenever science or government have tried to reduce people to fixed parameters, the human being turns inward to discover something genuine and free. That can be thoughts or religious experiences. It can be an idea of life and beauty or a sensation of warmth and humanity. In this sense, much of the former Soviet Union searches for spirituality in music, folk customs and religious practice. Spirituality in this vein is characterized by anti-materialism, anti-intellectualism and an embrace of feeling, traditions and community. This is not biblical spirituality but a movement away from content and certainty that embraces elements of our more recent intellectual history after the large-scale rejection of biblical Christianity as a foundation for all of life and culture.
It has become acceptable to not have a position, since all reality is only a series of personal impressions and experiences. We may show how something worked "in my life" and forget that God has said certain things quite definitely. There are Ten Commandments, not Ten Suggestions. God wrote them in stone, they are not community expectations as formulated by Moses after his mountain top experience.
Then again, our whole culture has already abandoned the notion of an objective truth. Under the idea of the 'equivalence of evil' it is assumed that nothing true can come from a person who is himself not perfect. And subject to the idea of cultural relativism, biblical text is reduced to what it might have meant to the original hearers in their cultural context only.
God has something to say to the whole human race.
The notion that God has something to say to the whole human race is largely abandoned. We are encouraged to see what the text has to say to me in my personal need. Biblical spirituality addresses the source of our wisdom and content about all of life. The Bible gives theological, intellectual, physical and metaphysical answers to some of the most urgent questions of the human race.
We often make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. The first should present the choice for salvation to the person; the second deals with the life of the Christian in sanctification. While there is a certain logical sequence or even progression in this model, it readily takes from the evangelistic effort the need to explain the full counsel of the Bible before a person becomes a Christian. It appeals on the level of emotions and personal need without considering whether a person would want to believe in a God who has specific ethical standards. This division makes much of the "love of God", while diminishing the specific character and holiness of God. This is a false distinction. There is no way to become a Christian without accepting Christ as Lord over all of life, thought and practice.
Paul told his charges who God is, what He had done on our behalf and what was involved in believing: the continuous and repeated choice to do what is right in the objective world of God, of human beings, though, and because, it is a fallen world. He gave them a body of insights, not bits and pieces in pious admonitions about love, hope and faith on the one hand, nor a bundle of legalistic prescriptions on the other.
This understanding about the relationship between the truth of the Bible and the truth of the real world also characterises his work as described in the book of Acts. The apostles preached, argued, expounded, set forth, explained, refuted and discussed. A picture of open and honest communication emerges, in which people are shown the wholeness of the Gospel. A worldview comes together in opposition to other worldviews.
The Bible starts with the word, with language, with information. It does not contrast or replace these with "spiritual" knowledge. God's Spirit speaks to our trained spirit (1Cor. 2:6-16). Tragically, the trust in the Spirit's work is often not matched with the need to train our listening faculties. Much of our search for teaching is closer to magic than to biblical instruction. Paul was not so inclined. He instructed people about matters touching family relations, neighbourly attitudes, the wider civic realities and our approach to a tragic life. He understood that instruction is not a matter of personal opinion or good will, but certain expectations, of clear thinking, of courage, that serve as a foundation for a radically different worldview. This is not the vision of a different world, but the biblical view of seeing the world and us in it as informed by the Creator. It is not merely an effort by the wise to create a smoothly running society. Peace in the city was a, but not the major, goal. Against the constant exposure to sin and the tendency to chaos, the Bible calls us to constructive intervention on behalf of human beings.
Expanding Circles of Life
Paul instructed the Thessalonians (1Th. 4:1) about different aspects of their day-by-day lives, not with only general spiritual notions and encouragements. His instruction is very specific, touching on expanding circles of life. He begins with the most intimate and takes them from the centre to the periphery, where Christians make contact with their neighbours in society.
In the first circle (4:3-8) we face the innermost realities in our life. We are born into a family. One certain man is our father; we have only one real mother. Others may take care of us, but we are the child of one specific relationship. The ethic of the family goes all the way back to God creating Man, male and female, in a mutually dependent and beneficial relationship. Both are made in the image of God. There is no room for a lower view of one by the other. In that most intimate relationship, something of the relationships in the Godhead is continued. Here language, meaning, love, trust and loyalty are discovered, promised and practiced. Here is privacy, incomparable intimacy and uniqueness between two people for a lifetime. Here we can cry, without having to be ashamed or being ridiculed.
For these reasons we need to train ourselves in self-control, make wise choices and a prepare ourselves to deliberately reject often very real distractions. We have been made as sexual beings, but sexuality as passionate lust can smash the intimacy of our commitment. By making choices we confirm that we are not driven by lust, but chose to love. We are choice makers, not victims of instincts, natural possibilities and a rich imagination.
Sexual immorality must be avoided if we are to honour our neighbour and not take advantage of him or her. To become intimate with a second person breaks the commitment to the first. It also deceives the second about my freedom to make new commitment. A promise to love can never be a temporary arrangement. Where that relationship depends on likes or dislikes, on moments rather than commitment, love becomes sex, loyalty becomes a farce and trust is always violated. God had something else in mind when he made us male and female and created a dependence between man and woman.
The second circle (4:9,10) encloses those outside the marriage commitment. "Brotherly love" realizes we are not isolated. We live in a social context, where each of us is a person closer to each other in kind than to anything else in nature. We may not easily like a person for a variety of reasons. We have different sensitivities, like different music and eat different food. We are not called to like all people, but we are to love them.
We are even called to love our enemy. Fundamental to this command is the awareness of the human race. Where Darwin taught that nature practices a battle for the survival of the fittest and thus eliminates the weak genes, the Bible teaches that we must love one another, for no human being should be left to extermination. Nature is amoral. It functions according to mechanics. Nature does not shed tears and does not get upset. But people are different. We survive by our trained minds, not our biology. And we survive because we love each other more than we love an idea about each other or about mankind. Without the command to love, the beast in man will be let loose.
Love means to have deep compassion in the midst of the tragedy of human life in a fallen world. Love reaches out, builds bridges, is gracious rather than demanding. Love does not take revenge, but forgives. Love protects and corrects. Love enables us to sympathize with those in need, because we can imagine what it might feel like. Love also confronts, corrects and critiques. It does not overlook the foolishness of others, but helps them to change their ways. It does not approve or neglect merely to avoid tension. It uses the tension to resolve conflict by getting to the heart of a dividing matter.
Only human beings can love. Love is a choice, a creation, which does not always come naturally or easily. By loving we prove to ourselves our distinct nature as people. It is an unending effort, each day presents us with renewed choices.
The third circle of life covered in Paul's instruction is the world beyond. It is the realm of human activities, of work, of public responsibilities. It deals with us as human beings in a real world (4:11,12). Paul instructed the Thessalonians to work in order to live in the city. The specifics are in a sense incidental, but they serve to understand the biblical ethic for a normal life.
Paul admonished them to lead a quiet life. This is not a call to being indifferent or to be a pushover. Paul openly went to the synagogues or spoke in the markets. He argued, expounded, refuted, taught, reasoned and lectured in public. But his manner was orderly, his arguments factual, his sources historical and accepted. "Quiet" stands in contrast to riotous, not to public or loud.
In Thessalonica, the response to Paul had been a riot, caused by the jealousy of some Jews. They could not refute his argument, so they called a mob together (Acts 17: 5), thinking a crowd would intimidate. But Paul had shown from their text, the Scriptures, that a historic person, Jesus, must be the Christ. We should seek peace, love, truth and freedom, but we do not purchase the respect of others by being silent, compliant or indifferent.
When we struggle to live truthfully (1Th. 4:11), we do not plant or follow gossip or false accusations. We do not make pronouncements in areas where real freedom is advocated. We allow ourselves to be surprised by others, where God's word gives room for real creativity. We strive to distinguish between central issues of truth and life from peripheral issues of taste and likes. Where God has not given specific instruction, we believe He has not done so deliberately.
The admonition to work with our own hands affirms the nobility of work. It does not advocate manual over intellectual work, but encourages work as a means of earning a living to avoid becoming a burden on others through dependency. This admonition is rooted in four aspects in the Biblical view of life.
1. It reminds us that we live in a material world as image bearer of the Creator. He worked for six days, making choices and forming all there is in its original existence. We continue that activity by our work. Work is not a curse, but a means of expressing personality, choice and creativity. It continues after the Fall, even though under more difficult circumstances.
2. We should live here on earth, not somewhere else. It is not a mark of spirituality to live off other people's work. Without effort there will also be no benefit. He who does not work when and where he can should also not eat. One does not waste time by work. Paul made tents and taught. The parables of Christ have normal people working as their background.
3. Work shows us and others that we matter. Without our effort, nature would be left to its amoral and mechanical self. Only by effort do we change the abnormality of the world. By work we show what we believe. By work we show that we love in deed.
4. Our work is necessary, but does not identify us. Ideas and skill must come together to accomplish good things. Our identity in being people made in God's image, we do not receive it from the type of work we do.
The fourth circle of life acknowledges the basic tragedy of life after the Fall and the reality of living in a broken world. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope (4:13). Those who died will be raised first. After that those, who are alive when Jesus returns, will meet him in the air. The time is unknown to us, but not the certainty of the future event.
This fourth circle clarifies questions about the absurdity of death, the unfairness of normal life and about the tragedy of interrupted relationships. The Bible encourages us to see life in the fallen world as a real tragedy, over which we are free, or even obliged, to grieve, "but not as those who have no hope".
Death is the last enemy to be abolished at the return of Christ (1Cor. 15). Until then it is the common tragedy, a brutal interruption of all we strive for from birth on: life, relationships, continuity and justice. We grieve, because Christ grieved, moved with compassion and expressing anger, even though he would raise the dead Lazarus a few moments later (John 11:33-38). We grieve, because of all the sadness, which death produces in our life and in the lives others. We grieve because the effects of sin are on all components of human existence: Our health is imperfect, our relationships wounded, our soul is heavy, the world around us spoiled.
We do not grieve as those who have no hope. That hope gives a future dimension when all things will be restored. It gives a present dimension to human effort to diminish the effects of the Fall. Though there has been an historic Fall, it should not define us. The only certainty about us is not that, once conceived, we shall die. Therefore we make every effort to resist evil and the results of sin. We visit the doctor to get well. We exercise dominion to struggle for every ounce of life as an expression that God has created life, and will recreate it again. We heal patients, even only for a while, to remind ourselves that there will be a resurrection at the return of Christ. We are not failures. Our efforts are not futile.
But not as those who have no hope! We work, because Christ will come again and work righteousness. We have hope, that in history the substance of renewal will come by a work of God, of which our efforts are real shadows. Our work is like first fruit. Jesus Christ, at His coming, will bring in the harvest.