Under Oath: Living Holy in Light of the Lord's Coming
“I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thessalonians 5:27). These commanding words of Paul lining the final closing remarks in 1 Thessalonians should paint a clear picture for the early and modern church: The information in this letter is critical. And as Paul never closed another letter in this same manner, believers should understand that the very nature of Paul’s writing holds inexplainable value to their Christian walk today. This blog is actually an edited conversion of a recent research paper I submitted for one of my master’s classes at Oral Roberts University. It examines biblical truths outlined in 1 Thessalonians regarding holy living and exposes issues with the modern church’s behavior in light of the Lord’s coming.
The failure of the church began around the turn of the twentieth century in Christendom, where erroneous believers began trying to set dates on the return of the Lord. Like sheep following a wayward shepherd, millions joined the “88 Reason” bandwagon, and soon found themselves trapped in debt, grief, and crushed expectation. The glorious return of Christ for His bride was soon degenerated into a “cook conspiracy” and churches since then have shied from mentioning the topic from the pulpit altogether. The very nature of this apparent breakdown between ministers and their congregates regarding the Lord’s return is unscriptural at best and at worst produces not an army of saints living holy, but rather, a band of “greasy-grace” libertines who shun the coming of the Lord to evade moral accountability. While the churches look on in dismay due to the ethical decline in Christendom, the attention should not fall to creating more church programs, but rather towards reexamining the scriptural guidelines for these issues laid out in 1 Thessalonians.
The nature of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was birthed from the end of his second missionary expedition where he and his ministry companions had successfully established the Thessalonian church – made up of new believers, both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 1:9-10, Acts 17:4). Unfortunately, Paul was forced to retreat from Thessalonica after brutal persecution from its city officials. Soon after their expulsion, Timothy returned under Paul’s authority to report on the growth of the church; Timothy’s testimony resulted in Paul’s writing 1 Thessalonians. Paul’s theme is not hidden throughout the text and raises theological debates even unto this day concerning the return of the Lord for His church – known in the English translation as the “rapture” – and the moral responsibility on the part of believers prior to His coming. As the church had sprouted up within a highly paganized city, heavy persecution began assailing the fledgling community. As the oppression intensified, Paul assured the Thessalonians that God’s divine hand of justice was not delayed – as He would grant them relief and render punishment for their persecutors (Burge et al., 2009).
Moreover, since the community of new believers were seemingly abandoned by Paul (although Paul had made every effort to return) (1 Thessalonians 2:17, 3:5) questions and disputes began arising quickly. This lead many to believe that the Day of the Lord had already come and others fell into laziness, contrary to Paul’s instruction and example (Burge et al., 2009). Other issues soon found their way into Timothy’s report concerning those who dismissed Paul’s admonition regarding sexual morality (4:1-8), as well as those who held a deep concern for fellow believers who had “fallen asleep” (4:13). The detailed admonition laid out by Paul addressing and correcting these issues in 1 Thessalonians serves as the emphasized themes throughout this research: abstaining from sexual immortality, cultivating a life of holiness, and watching for the return of the Lord.
In a relativistic society, the very notion of holiness and righteousness must be championed and elucidated vigorously. If holiness is seen as merely relative to each individual person then there remains no superior standard for people to either meet or break. George Barna – who has examined national trends and statistics in faith and ethics for more than 40 years – reflects sadly on the moral shift in the Christian American life: “The consistent deterioration of the Bible as the source of moral truth has led to a nation where people have become independent judges of right and wrong, basing their choices on feelings and circumstances” (Young Adults and Liberals Struggle with Morality, 2008). However, Paul in 1 Thessalonians adamantly argues that holiness and being counted worthy to escape God’s wrath are inseparable components to a Christian’s successful spiritual walk:
“You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct towards you believer. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into His own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12, emphasis added).
This direct correlation between walking “worthy of God” and whether or not believers can enter into the Lord’s “kingdom and glory” is a vital subject needing to be broached within Christendom. Paul addresses these same issues arising in Thessalonica by admonishing them not only to “abstain from sexual immorality” (4:3), but to “be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (5:8). Paul outlines the requirements for righteous living in greater depth later on in verses 5:12-22. These obligations (that are seen at the end of the letter result in being blameless and holy at Christ’s coming) consist of: Respecting and esteeming those laboring among them (v. 12-13), maintaining peace among themselves (v. 13), admonishing the idle, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, and being patient with all (v. 14). Moreover, believers should refrain from repaying anyone evil for evil, and seek to do good to everyone (v. 15). There remains also a higher call to rejoice always (v. 16), pray without ceasing (v. 17), and to give thanks in all circumstances (v. 18), as this is the will of God for them in Christ Jesus. Paul ends his exhortation by championing the church to not quench the Spirit (v. 19), not to despise prophecies (v. 20) and to abstain from every form of evil (v. 22).
These tenants of faith – along with the call to keep their bodies holy – are grounded in the idea that each of these components lends themselves to the final preparation of the believer’s spirit, soul, and body (v. 23) which enables them to go with Christ in the rapture when He returns. Any divergence from consistently implementing these steps leads wayward believers from the necessary sanctification that grants them the ability to stand before God without spot or blemish. This is requires discipline and the work of the Spirit to fulfill this prior to Christ’s return, but “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it” (v. 24). And while research may prove Christians hasty departure from these tenants, Paul’s inspiration for writing this passage stems from his knowledge that God is not “mercy, mercy, mercy” or “love, love, love” but that He is “holy, holy, holy” and that anything apart from that cannot stand in His presence (Sproul, 2021).
A 2016 study conducted by the Barna Research Group revealed that Christian morality is rapidly being pushed out of American social constructs. Their research highlighted a growing concern towards the moral decline of the nation, as many believers and non-believers alike are unable to differentiate between right and wrong (The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code, 2016). Statistics from Barna Research confirmed that more than nine out of ten adults – 80% – contend that they are troubled about the moral state of the nation (The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code, 2016). And as 84% of all adults in America declare themselves as practicing Christians, their concern is legitimized as many of their own views come into direct conflict with the biblical principles of their confessed faith (Morality Continues to Decay, 2003). Of the ten ethical behaviors outlined by Barna, substantial numbers of Christian Americans confessed that each of three behaviors were “morally right.” Those included betting – or gambling – (61%), unmarried co-habitation (60%), and engaging in explicit sexual fantasies (59%). Staggeringly, almost half of participants claiming loyalty to Christianity (45%) agreed with the practice of abortion while others consented that engaging in a sexual relationship with someone of opposite sex, who was not their spouse was ethically acceptable (42%) (Morality Continues to Decay, 2003). Barna went further to report one-third (38%) endorsing the use, and viewing of pornography, while another 36% stamped their approval on vulgar profanity, drunkenness (35%) and homosexual sex (30%) (Morality Continues to Decay, 2003).
And while Barna statics report the vast majority of the faith community (93%) believe that pornography usage within the church is a bigger problem than it had been nearly 2 decades ago, only 8% of pastors believe that church leaders caught using pornography should resign (The Porn Phenomenon, 2016). This disturbingly low statistic regarding behavioral accountability among church leadership should not shock readers, as further studies indicate that 57% of pastors, and 64% of youth pastors admit to engaging in pornography regularly (The Porn Phenomenon, 2016, emphasis added). This is a complete desertion from Paul’s message in 1 Thessalonians which highlighted that the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ is confirmed by the integrity of those leading the congregation and ultimately nullifies his correction towards those engaging in sexually immoral behavior (1:5, 2:1-12, 4:3-7). Furthermore, research conducted in 2015 by Lifeway Research and Care Net indicated that seven in ten (70%) of women who had an abortion claim to be followers of Christ and even more disturbing results reveal that 76% of women claim their church had no influence on their decision for terminating their pregnancy (Study of Women Who Have Had an Abortion and Their Views on Church, 2015).
Despite the Church’s “claim to notoriety” and million-count conversion figures, the younger generation holds to the same perplexing and heretical theology as the previous generation, drawing the line of separation deeper between those being raptured, and those left behind. In his book Good Faith: Being Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group sadly notes:
"There is a tremendous amount of individualism in today’s society, and that’s reflected in the church too. Millions of Christians have grafted New Age dogma onto their spiritual person. When we peel back the layers, we find that many Christians are using the way of Jesus to pursue the way of self. While we wring our hands about secularism spreading through culture, a majority of churchgoing Christians have embraced corrupt, me-centered theology."(Kinnaman & Lyons, 2017)
Examining the previously cited statistics, few Christians could deny that the body of Christ has fallen dramatically short of the mark in obtaining holiness and righteousness before God as set forth in 1 Thessalonians. The apostle’s language in this matter reveals an earnest impassioned heart-cry for the believers to remember the strict instructions that were crucial for meeting the standard of holiness that would prepare them to meet the Lord at His return:
“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. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger in all these things. As we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us to impurity, but in holiness…”
(1 Thessalonians 4:1-7, emphasis added)
Christians should have no doubt that in order to go in the rapture, a degree of holiness must be attained and practiced in every-day life. However, Christians today remain bewildered, confused, and unwilling to grasp the concept that believers are to live a holy life before God, fulfilling the dire prediction of Paul: “Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not man by God, who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8) George Barna, compiled the lack of holiness exemplified by the church in his saddening statement:
"Realize that the results portray a body of Christians who attend church and read the Bible, but do not understand the concept or significance of holiness, do not personally desire to be holy, and therefore do little, if anything to pursue it. However, the data identify a remnant that understands holiness, wants to live a holy life, and is engaged in its pursuit. The challenge to the nation’s Christian ministries is to foster a genuine hunger for holiness among the masses who claim they love God but who are ignorant about biblical teachings regarding holiness (The Concept of Holiness Baffles Most Americans, 2006).
Paul clearly warns that holiness is a trademark sign of a believer’s inward preparation
to meet the Lord at His coming. However, a study conducted by the Barna Group reveals that holiness is not a concept American’s adopt as a focal point in their faith development (The Concept of Holiness Baffles Most Americans, 2006). Barna’s research proves this concretely by noting barely one-third of Americans (35%) believe that “God expects you to become holy.” And while a larger share of Christians believe God desires them to be holy (46%), this portion of statistical figures remains a minority in the Christian population (The Concept of Holiness Baffles Most Americans, 2006). Moreover, when Barna researchers pressed their participants to explain what it looks like to be “holy,” the most common answer threaded between the response of believers and non-believers alike was the simple reply, “I don’t know.” The survey results from Barna also pointed to the saddening trend that young millennials – adults under the age of 39 – are more likely to deny the claim that God demands holiness on the part of His people (The Concept of Holiness Baffles Most Americans, 2006).
The question then remains, why is this moral decline and lack of knowledge regarding Biblical expectations taking place? Should not the church – with such great numbers now filling megachurches– be experiencing an incline in morality? The answer remains hidden in the words of Paul:
“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:-9-10, emphasis added).
Paul’s connection between the believer’s Godly actions – turning from idols to serve the living God – and their apparent moral progression towards holiness is tied to one thing: their expectant waiting for return of the Lord. The Bible is clear that many self-proclaiming “believers,” observing that the Lord has not returned, would begin to fall into moral failure and debauchery. The Thessalonians were first-hand witnesses to the dangers of falling into the trap of adopting a “libertine” attitude that sounds much like the modern church today: “We can act how we want, Jesus isn’t coming back, live it up! There is grace for everything!” This erroneous belief that life will always continue the same and that Jesus will never return – 2 Peter 3:4 – leads believers into complacent, debauched, and unholy attitude before God. And while many Christian’s claim to believe that Jesus will indeed return one day, evidence of tainted biblical values in their lives reveals they are not prepared to meet the Lord at His coming.
A study conducted by Lifeway Research unearthed the root of the church’s moral reduction; the study concluded that mainline Protestant pastors (36%) claim that the rapture is not a literal event, while pastors with a master’s degree (33%) and a doctorate (29%) also are more likely to argue that the rapture cannot be a literal event, and should not be interpreted as an imminent, impending occurrence (Earls, 2016). Paul clearly foreshadows a time in which many would fall into this erroneous way of living wherein they not only deny the return of the Lord and refuse to watch for His coming, but they naively expect things to get better; the result is dire:
"For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “there is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman and they will not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, emphasis added).
However, for those who earnestly believe the Lord is at hand – much like the early Thessalonian church – and allow the Spirit’s sanctifying work within them, they will experience the great catching away and remain with the Savior forever: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (4:17). Paul explains that as believers refuse to quench the Holy Spirit (5:19), and allow for correction, the Lord is faithful to not only keep us “blameless” in our entire body, soul, and spirit (5:23), but to deliver us from the “wrath to come” (1:10). Amen, come Lord Jesus.
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Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist. (2009, April 13). Barna Group. https://www.barna.com/research/most-american-christians-do-not-believe-that-satan-or-the-holy-spirit-exist/
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Study of Women Who Have had an Abortion and Their Views on Church (13). Lifeway Research & Care Net. http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Care-Net-Final-Presentation-Report-Revised.pdf \
The Concept of Holiness Baffles Most Americans. (2006, February 20). Barna Group. https://www.barna.com/research/the-concept-of-holiness-baffles-most-americans/
The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code. (2016, May 25). Barna Group. https://www.barna.com/research/the-end-of-absolutes-americas-new-moral-code/
The Porn Phenomenon. (2016, June 20). Barna Group. https://www.barna.com/the-porn-phenomenon/#.Vp5-fzb6fNU
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