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The Trinity is the source and archetype of true Christian community: “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:3). We have been made alive together, and the resulting community is a glorious part of the riches of His grace (Eph. 2:5-6). But we want our fellowship to be shaped by the Bible and not whatever we (or our culture) assumes it to be.
But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.10 And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more;11 And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you;12 That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing (1 Thess. 4:9-12).
A Summary of the Text
Paul says that the Thessalonians have “brotherly love” down really well because they were taught by God Himself (1 Thess. 4:9). Apparently, Thessalonica had become something of a center of Christian community, as they had become examples in Macedonia, Achaia, and “in every place” (1 Thess. 1:6-8). They had also been granted the ability to share that brotherly love with many outside their immediate community, “toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia” (1 Thess. 4:10). Paul urges them to increase more and more while pursuing quiet lives, minding their own business, and working with their own hands, just as the apostles had commanded them (1 Thess. 4:11). He says that they need to remember this for the sake of their witness to those who are outside the Church and so no one will be in need (1 Thess. 4:12).
For many of you with vans full of kids, you wonder what Paul could have possibly meant by a “quiet” life, but I don’t think Paul is talking about word count or decibel levels so much as he is talking about joy count and peace levels (cf. Ps. 131:2). The same word is used by Peter to exhort Christian wives to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3:4). In the context of marriage, fellowship grows as each spouse draws closer to Christ. The point here is that the goal of all Christian community is winning others closer to Christ not to ourselves or our own agendas. This is Christian love. If someone else comes closer to Christ they will have necessarily come closer to others who are also in Christ, but that is a secondary blessing and not the primary goal. So a quiet spirit and a quiet life are characterized by a recognition of the presence and agenda of God and restingin Him and His plans for our community life. The verb form of the same word (quiet) is used to describe keeping Sabbath in one place (Lk. 23:56). A quiet life is a life driven by Christian Sabbath, which is why we rest on first day of the week. The finished work of Christ grounds all of our labors: we work because God has already accepted our works (Eccl. 9:7), and so we work for Christ, not as man-pleasers (Col. 3:23-24). A quiet life insists that true community is only in and through Christ. A quiet life leaves space and time for Christ to be the center.
Elsewhere, Paul instructs Timothy that the churches should pray for civil magistrates, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Tim. 2:2-4). And notice that Paul once again connects this to all men being saved and coming to a knowledge of the truth. “Better is a dry morsel with quietness, than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov. 17:1). A fair bit of striving is rooted in an idolatry of community, demanding of people or a graven-ideal what they were never designed by God to give. “Better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 4:6). We want our community to be marked by a quiet and confident exuberance in Christ, not a toiling and grasping after the wind of human intimacy (1 Cor. 13:12).
Mind Your Own Business
For some reason, this particular exhortation doesn’t make it into most of the Christian community books, but it really should be in one of the early chapters: mind your own business. This doesn’t sound very hospitable, friendly, or evangelistic. But Paul explicitly says that we must mind our own business in order that we may walk in an orderly, decent way towards those who don’t know Jesus (1 Thess. 4:11). Proverbs says something similar: “Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house, lest he become weary of you and hate you” (Prov. 25:17, cf. Prov. 27:14). “Also do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others” (Eccl. 7:21-22, cf. Prov. 19:11). Minding your own business is not a charge to be rude or self-centered or thoughtless, but it is a charge to focus on the things God has given you to do and not add your own gas to your neighbor’s grease fire (Prov. 26:17). Also, be aware that what sometimes passes for “community” is actually a form of laziness. It’s sometimes easier to be worried about other people’s problems than facing your own, easier to reach out to people you don’t know, and meanwhile God has put people in your own home for you to love, feed, serve, help, and bless: “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Hospitality and friendship should be an overflow of the fellowship you have in Christ. Be diligent in loving your people so that there is no lack in your home or anywhere else (1 Thess. 4:12). And none of this justifies being a bad neighbor or shutting your heart to a brother in need when you have the means to help (1 Jn. 3:17).
Work With Your Own Hands
Reading between the lines, the Thessalonians were so good at “brotherly love,” they attracted freeloaders and busybodies. Paul reminds the Thessalonians earlier in this letter of his example of labor and toil: “laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thess. 2:9). By the time Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians, he needed to be even more explicit: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies” (2 Thess. 3:10). Paul says Christians should not keep company with people like that (2 Thess. 3:14). Likewise, Paul warns Timothy that young widows left to themselves, often learn to be idle, going about house to house, becoming gossips and busybodies (1 Tim. 5:13) – and no doubt some did so in the name of “building Christian community.” Didn’t the early Christians in Acts have all things in common, breaking bread from house to house (Acts 2:46)? Yes, they did, but that was a temporary stopgap addressing the unexpected Pentecost vacation extensions for many out of town guests and many residents were also preparing to leave Jerusalem, and the apostles really had their hands full with the attendant difficulties and Facebook didn’t even exist yet. But the standing gospel command is clear: “Now those who are [busybodies] we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:12, cf. Eph. 4:28).
Jesus is the bread of life for the life of the world, and you are not, and neither is any other person in this world. Christ ministers His life to the world as “every part does its share” (Eph. 4:16). This means fixing your eyes on Jesus, the source of all Christian community and resting in Him, eating your bread with joy and drinking your wine with a merry heart because God has already accepted your works. This means minding the business God has assigned to you: building your house, loving your wife, serving your husband, encouraging and training your kids, being a blessing to your roommates, practicing hospitality, and looking for ways to serve and encourage others to do the same. This is brotherly love, and this is the shape of Christian community.