Union Chapel Baptist Church



The Believer’s Responsibilities

By Stephen Mitchell

1 Thessalonians 4: 9-12

IV. Exhortation to the Thessalonians (4:1-5:22)

A. Exhortation Regarding Personal Needs (4:1-12)

The influence of Jesus and His followers landed upon the Roman Empire like an antibiotic upon a plague. In so many ways, as the Words of Scripture with the work of the Spirit began permeating the Empire, the hearts and lives of its citizens began to be transformed. Babies began to be seen as having intrinsic value. Girls and women began to be seen as valuable in their own right, not just for how they could be used by men. Wealth began to be seen for its true value as a way to help others, rather than having value in and of itself. All humans began to be seen as of equal value and worth, not determined by the circumstances of birth, economics, position in society, etc. The gods began to lose their force of influencing evil behavior and God’s righteousness began to become a motivating force for behavior.

Two ways society was transformed are included in these four verses here in 1Thessalonians 4:9-12.

2. Family responsibilities (4:9, 10)

A Patron and his clients. (The following four paragraphs are copied from A History of Private Life vol. 1)

“Materially free within the limits of the manumission agreement, the former slave remained symbolically under the authority of his patron, and the Romans, much given to vaguely paternalistic pronouncements, often repeated that a freedman had the duties of a son—duties of piety—toward his former master, whose family name had become his own. [Early on] freed slaves were required to appear twice a day at the home of their former master, to bid him good morning and good evening, but this duty fell into neglect [over the centuries].It seems that freedmen, unlike clients, were not required to pay the patron a protocol visit (salutatio) every morning. But they were often invited to dinner, where they found the master on his couch surrounded by those same clients. Dinnertime brawls between the two groups of loyal but unequal retainers were common. Poor clients resented having to compete with prosperous ex-slaves for the master’s attention. The [Roman] poets Juvenal and Martial, reduced to paying court to the great in order to live, hated wealthy ex-slaves as well as Greek clients, for these were their competitors.

With a “court composed of clients and toilsome, not ungrateful freedmen.” as Fronto puts it, a household made a brilliant place for itself on the public stage—a necessary and sufficient condition to be deemed worthy of membership in the ruling class. “I had many clients,” wrote one very wealthy former slave as proof of his success. What was a client? A free man who paid court to the paterfamilias and openly declared himself the client of his patron; he could be rich or poor, miserable or powerful—sometimes more powerful than the patron to whom he paid respects. There were at least four kinds of clients: 1) those who wished to make a career in public life and counted on their patron for protection; 2) men of affairs whose interests could be served by the patron’s political influence, particularly when he stood to profit from their success; 3) poor [people] such as poets and philosophers, often Greek, many of whom had nothing to live on but what their patron gave them and who, not being commoners, would have found it dishonorable to work rather than live under the protection of a powerful man; and, finally, 4) those clients who were powerful enough to move in the same circles as the patron himself and who might legitimately aspire to be remembered in the patron’s will in gratitude for their homage. This last-named group would have included leading statesmen and imperial freedmen, all-powerful administrators. A wealthy old man without heirs would have had many clients of this kind.

Such was the mixed crowd that lined up in regulation order every morning in front of the patron’s door at the hour when the cock crows and the Romans awoke. The clients numbered in the tens, sometimes even hundreds. Neighborhood notables were also besieged, but by smaller crowds. Far from Rome, in the cities of the Empire, the few powerful rural notables also had their clienteles. That a wealthy or influential man should have been surrounded by protégés and self-seeking friends is hardly surprising. But the Romans erected this unremarkable custom into an institution and a ritual. “Unimportant people,” Vitruvius wrote, “are those who make visits but receive none.” A man who was the client of another man proclaimed the fact loudly, boasting of his own importance and stressing the patron’s influence. People referred to themselves as “the client of So-and-so” or “a familiar of Such-and-such a household.” Those who were not themselves commoners would pay for the erection of a statue of their patron in a public square or even in the patron’s own home. The inscription on the base would list the patron’s public duties and spell out the name of the client.

The morning salutation was a ritual; to fail to appear was to disavow one’s bond of clientage. Clients lined up in ceremonial costume (toga), and each visitor received a symbolic gift (sportula), which enabled the poorest to eat that day; in fact this custom supplanted the earlier practice of simply distributing food. Clients were admitted into the antechamber according to an inflexible hierarchical order that duplicated the civic organization by ranks. At dinners, too, guests of different rank were served different dishes and wines of different quality, according to their respective dignities. Symbolism reinforced the sense of hierarchy. The paterfamilias did not simply receive individual greetings from certain of his friends; he admitted into his home a slice of Roman society, respecting public rank and inequalities. Over this group he exerted moral authority, and his knowledge of proper behavior always exceeded that of his clients.” A History of Private Life vol. 1, pp. 89-91.

So here is Roman society. Either you were a Patron, a free-born citizen, a freed slave, or a slave. If a slave, you were property. If a freed slave or a free-born citizen, then you were a “Client” of a “Patron” to whom you owed obsequious (fawning) attendance every morning or evening, looking for some handout. The Patron’s reputation depended on how many “Clients” he had lining up at his door every morning. Society was built upon everyone using someone else in order to get ahead in life, either through fawning over or through basking in the fawning of as many people as one could get.

We can hear some of this fawning in James 2:1-7

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,”

And it was into this self-serving, self-absorbed culture the Holy Spirit lobbed the grenade of “Love one another.”

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another;

To love one another.

What effect do you suppose this had upon those who basked in people fawning all over them? Who determined the size of gift by how loudly they proclaimed his greatness? How do you suppose a Patron’s attitude would change when he became a believer in Christ and the Holy Spirit began grinding into his soul every morning “Love one another?”

And how do you suppose the “Client’s” attitude would change when he stops to line up every morning with the rest of the crowd to fawn all over the Patron in hopes of gaining something from him, and the Holy Spirit begins to rasp at his soul with the command “Love one another?”

Imagine you yourself are that wealthy Patron. Some, if not many, of those at your door are there to fawn all over you with praise and honor coming from lips simply looking for food for his family. What would you do? Would you give them a finances for food and clothing and tell them not to come back until they need more? That would hurt your standing in the community if the numbers at your door began to dwindle. Would you continue to accept the words you knew in your heart were unearned? What should you do?

This is why what Paul wrote was so powerful. He did not attempt to tell them how to handle each situation. He simply reminded them that the Holy Spirit was teaching them. But they needed to do better.

for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more

How about if you were a client lined up outside the door of a wealthy Patron? What would you say? Is it loving to lie? Can you be as obsequious as the custom demands, and still be able to have a sweet devotional life with your Lord? Yet, if you are not, you may not be able to feed your family that night. What do you do?

You listen to the Holy Spirit. You act in Love. You let the Holy Spirit continue to teach you as you seek to live out your life even more loving than before.

3. Societal responsibilities (4:11, 12)

And it may be this exact situation Paul had in mind because of the way he moved into the instructions of verses 11 & 12.

and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you,

It may be this idea of living off the handouts of another that Paul has in mind because he immediately moved into instructing them to work with their own hands. It was so common for poorer people to live off a wealthy member of society by fawning and false praise rather than by laboring.

For followers of Christ, living off another’s wealth was an unbecoming life. Think of it. Being loudly effusive in false praise is not exactly leading a quiet life. Dancing attendance at another’s doorstep with many others in order to fawn and scrape is not attending to your own business.

How one’s life would be simplified if he simply began to work to earn a living.

Paul himself did exactly that. In Acts 18:1-3

After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers.

Paul could have lived off Patrons or, like itinerant orators, lived off speaking fees. Instead, he did exactly as he instructed others: he worked with his hands.

And this was another grenade lobbed into the godless culture of Rome because manual labor, working with your hands, was despised in Roman society.

“Idleness was the cornerstone of ‘private life;’ in fact, in the [Roman Empire] it was considered a virtue.” AHoPL, p. 118.

The nobility had a contempt for labor, and they had an undisguised scorn for those who worked with their hands. They exalted leisure as the indispensable quality of a worthy life. The worker was regarded as very much a social inferior, one who lived a base and ignoble life. In a society where a person’s value was determined by his wealth, to work with your hands meant you were poor and essentially worthless. “Workers were reviled not because they worked, but because they belonged to the inferior class [of those who could not life a life of leisure].

Now here comes Paul telling these new Believers to work with their hands. What a slap in the face of the old ways of thinking and valuing. If you are wealthy, what do you do? If you are free-born, your culture tells you to dance attendance on some wealthy person to provide you with a living.

What do you do? Do you follow the culture and not lose face in their eyes? Do you follow the Spirit in obedience? What do you do?

Becoming a follower of Jesus Christ impacted a Believer far more than just stopping the worship of idols and the emperor. It began to change a person’s whole manner of life. His whole manner of functioning in society.

And Paul’s rational for this transformation is so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

The culture’s attitudes between its members did not reflect righteous behavior. A Believer who followed the customs of the culture was not behaving properly towards those who were not Believers.

The word translated “properly” is a word denoting ‘with proper decorum,’ ‘in an honorable or decent fashion.’ Our behavior towards those outside of the Faith is to be behavior that reflects decently on our new identity in Christ. Lieing to another, living off their earnings, accepting unearned praise and honor, all reflect badly on who we are as followers of Christ.

As Believers, we rely on God to provide. We work and earn our own way, and depend upon God to care for us. He alone deserves our praise, our genuine praise. We are not to take praise to God and give it to the undeserving simply to get what we want.

We need to work with our own hands, attend to our own business, and lead lives that reflect the quiet the Spirit has brought to our souls.


We face similar dilemmas every day. Our culture demands we behave certain ways in order to fit in. Our culture demands certain beliefs in order to fit in.

But the Holy Spirit speaks into our souls through His Word telling us to be different.

The Apostle Peter told us, in 1Peter 1:14-16:

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.”

And then, in chapter 4:1-5:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians some very simple instructions. But, if they followed them, their lives would become radically different from the culture, even to the point of becoming despised by the cultural elites.

The only real dilemma for those Believers then, and for us today, is this:

Who do you want to please?

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