The verbs translated “ask” and “urge” (ἐρωτάω and παρακαλέω) in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 are commonly used to encourage a reader to a particular action. They appear in personal letters between people of the same social status rather than a “superior” giving orders to his underlings. Paul’s view that the church is a family and that he is a “brother” within that family is implied by the use of these verbs (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 183). Potentially Paul could have “pulled rank” and told the church what needs to change – but he offers these commands a social equal.
But Paul includes a prepositional phrase, he asks them “in the Lord Jesus.” The commands in this section are not from Paul, but rather from the true authority, Jesus. Verse 8 will make this point again, if you reject this command you are rejecting the Holy Spirit!
“To please” can mean simply to make another happy, proud, etc. But the word was used for citizens who had performed some civic duty and had “pleased” the government enough to inscribe their names on monuments. This is the nuance of meaning which would have been familiar to the original audience: live in a way that gets you a statue in the local park! Most contemporary Christians would not hear this meaning, but for a person living in the Roman world, this would be a clear image of what kind of virtuous life the Lord requires.
In the context of the “ask in the Lord Jesus,” Paul is saying that these moral guidelines are ways to please the Lord, who is Jesus. Any citizen of Thessalonica would like to please their government and be honored with an inscription, therefore Paul says you ought to live your life the way the ultimate authority wants you to!
The Thessalonian church is already living to please God, but they can improve, they can do this “all the more.” Anyone that thinks they cannot improve is in trouble, not only have they ceased to grow, but they are probably moving backwards. Paul says keep moving ahead! Keep on pleasing God all the more.
In this case Paul says that they ought to live, in order to please. Living and pleasing God are coupled elsewhere in scripture, Enoch, for example, was said to have walked with God and pleased him. The verbs in this section are in the plural. He is talking to the whole church, even though some of the issues that follow only concern some individuals within the church. There is a corporate dimension in Paul’s ethical thinking.
Surprisingly, Paul’s commands here apply to whole church, not just a small part of it. The rest of the church that is not immoral is responsible for holding everyone accountable to the same standard. Contemporary Christianity tends to individualize these sorts of commands so that they apply to a single person rather than a whole church.
If this is right, then Paul is saying to the whole congregation, “live out your faith in in a way that pleases God.” How would this change the way we think about moral and ethical problems in a church? If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers; does this mean if one part of the body sins, the whole body sins?