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For most readers of the New Testament, Philadelphia was the city that housed one of the two faithful churches in Revelation 2–3. Philadelphia, however, is also a Greek word translated on six occasions in the New Testament by some form of the words “brotherly love.” The text before us this morning (1 Thessalonians 4:9–12) is a case in point. Paul writes these words to address the primacy of brotherly love in the church.

Paul commended this church for showing philadelphia, not only within its own membership, but also to fellow Macedonian churches. Nevertheless, he urged them to continue showing this love, and to do so in three ways: “to aspire to live life quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands.” Such philadelphiawould enable them to “walk properly before outsiders and [to] be dependent on no one.”

As we seek to understand this text and what it means for us today, it will help us to ask what Paul meant by this threefold exhortation.

It is possible that these exhortations are logically connected to his explanation of the Lord’s return in vv. 13–18. We know from his second letter that some of the Thessalonians were so focused on the Lord’s return that they had left their jobs and had made themselves a financial burden to the church (see 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3; 3: 6–15). Perhaps there were seeds of that problem growing beneath the surface here so that Paul was here exhorting them to not allow eschatological predictions to distract them from working with their own hands.

The connection is not explicit, however, as it is in the second letter to this church. There is also no direct connection in vv. 13–18 to the preceding verses. It is likely, therefore, that the exhortations are rooted in another concern. The key may lie in his reference to “walk[ing] properly before outsiders.”

The early Christians were under immense pressure from the unbelieving world (“outsiders”). Paul alluded to this in Thessalonica already (2:17–3:8). In a society in which Christians were already under pressure, they needed to be careful of creating deeper problems for themselves than already existed. They would be well served by obeying Paul’s threefold exhortation.

The first two exhortations are closely related. To “live quietly” and to “mind your own affairs” were crucial steps toward achieving the goal of minimising problems for the church. As far as possible, they should avoid strife, undue social pressure, and unrest in the public arena. They needed to steer clear of any public behaviour that would bring unfavourable attention to the church and to instead focus on building the body.

We always face this temptation in the society in which we live. Because we live in a country in which our constitution guarantees freedom of religion and worship, it is easy for us to get so distracted by perceived threats to our religious freedom that we spend far more energy fighting supposed “tyranny” than we do in building up the church. The result is often that the world looks on bemused and possibly even intensifies its efforts, thus distracting the church even more from doing what it is called to do. The priority of philadelphiashould guard us against so fighting the culture wars that we neglect the edification of the church.

The third exhortation was another means of guarding the priority of philadelphia. The distraction of fighting outsiders was harming church insiders. Paul exhorted the church “to work with your own hands” so that members would not be dependent on each other for provision. As members quietly worked to meet their own needs, thus freeing the church of benevolence burdens, it would provide a good testimony to a watching world.

Even if this is not quite an accurate assessment of the circumstances in Thessalonica, the priority of philadelphia must not be missed. It was brotherly love that should drive them to “live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands.” The testimony “before outsiders” was the by-product of philadelphia, not the driving force behind everything the church did. Brotherly love was the priority and the church must make every effort to prioritise building the church.

As you meditate on 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12 this morning, examine whether philadelphia is your priority as a church member. Does brotherly love drive the way you act toward insiders and outsiders alike?