1 Thessalonians 4 v 3 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain
We began Chapter four with Paul’s Plea to Christians in which he brings “Counsel to converts”.
1. A Call to live to please the Lord God v 1 – 2 2. A Call to Holiness and Purity v 3 – 8 3. A Call to Brotherly Love v 9 – 10 4. A Call to Work v 11 – 12
So this morning we look at the second of those calls from the Apostle
2. A Call to Holiness and Purity v 3 – 8.
The New Testament says in 2 Corinthians 5 v 17
Therefore if any man (or woman) be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
Christianity without transformation is unknown. If you haven’t changed in your heart, mind, will or lifestyle since you professed the Lord Jesus Christ as your saviour – then you should seriously question whether you have become a Christian at all! If God the Holy Spirit has not begun a process of ongoing renewal in your life then my friend, review you position!
What then is the nature of this transformation?
The Apostle outlines it in these next verses and he uses a sometimes misunderstood word – SANCTIFICATION.
3 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:
1. All believers are called to be Holy
When God saves a person, His holy will is that we should be made Holy. God’s character is expressed in His will and since He is holy, then holiness is His desire for every believer.
1 Peter 1 v 15 But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; 16 Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
By nature all of us follow the desires of our flesh and of our minds. This puts us in opposition to the will of God.
Romans 8 v 8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
So we need a new birth – a spiritual rebirth. But how does such a rebirth become evident in anyone?
The answer is – the transformation – and conformity to the acceptable and perfect will of God for our lives. It is God’s makeover in our lives. Another word for this, the theological word, is SANCTIFICATION which appears in this third verse.
Before we look at Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians in a specific area of their Christian lives let us first be clear about the meaning of this word sanctification.
One of the Bible words for Christians is saint. It is a translation of hagioi – sanctified ones, holy ones. Christians are called to be saints – not some hero of faith and good works as the Roman Catholic Church loves to make certain people – all Christians are called to be saints.
A person who is a Saint, a person who is sanctified, has not attained anything – rather it is the state into which God, in grace, calls sinful men and woman, and in which they begin their journey as Christians.
Christians relate to God in His righteousness and in His Holiness.
The effect of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the relation of the believer to the RIGHTEOUS God is to JUSTIFY him. The guilt of sin has been put away and the justified sinner stands before the throne of judgement UNCONDEMNED.
The effect of the death of Christ on the relation of the believer towards the HOLY God is to SANCTIFY him. The defilement of sin has been put away and the sanctified sinner enters into the holiest relationship with God.
This is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 1 v 30
But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:
Just as there are no degrees in Justification, neither are there any degrees in Sanctification.
Either something is set apart for God or it is not. Either a believer is sanctified – or he is not a believer at all!
Nevertheless while there are no degrees in sanctification it is very evident that we should be making progress in holiness. This is why we are urged to
“follow after sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord.” Hebrews 12 v 14.
John Gill puts it like this – “‘Sanctification’ is internal and external. Internal sanctification is the work of the Spirit of God, and is a principle of spiritual life in the soul. It is a divine and spiritual light in the understanding, a bending of the will to the will of God, and a settlement of the affections and emotions on divine things with an implanting of every grace in the heart. External sanctification arises from this, and consists of holiness of life and conduct; and is the will of God’s purpose and decree; in the same decree that he wills the salvation of anyone by the Lord Jesus Christ, he also wills their sanctification in heart and life, both now in this life and forever.”
Internal sanctification then is something which God does in us by His Holy Spirit.
External sanctification refers to the responsibility that rests upon each believer to maintain a Holy walk, in keeping with His holy calling. Whereas before we were converted, our behaviour bore witness to our standing in the world in separation from God – now our behaviour should bear witness to our standing before God in separation from the world! Sanctification from our point of view is the duty that we have to keep ourselves separate from evil things and evil ways. It is a personal possession – individual – distinct for each one of us – being built up little by little as a result of obedience to the Word of God and following the example of the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of His Holy Spirit.
Are we conscious of such growth my friends? True Christians are being sanctified, being made more like their Saviour and Master, Jesus Christ every day. And as if to underline this thought Paul includes in these verses the 7th verse –
For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.
Paul seems to have a thing about holiness doesn’t he? It is as if he has a relentless task to ensure that his children in the faith at Thessalonica make progress in the Christian life and to press on to greater levels of holiness and sanctity – sainthood. Was Paul some kind of ‘perfectionist’ demanding more and more of the converts?
No – but rather since it was the pure and Holy Lord God who had called them to holiness – it was therefore natural that Paul wanted these believers to be sanctified through and through – simply because he knew that God had chosen and called them from the beginning to be saved through the Spirit’s sanctifying work. He will say such in the next letter in 2 Thessalonians 2
13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: 14 Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So then we have some thinking to do about this process whereby we as Christians cooperate with God the Holy Spirit to grow to be like Christ – and to PROGRESS. We must not allow ourselves to stagnate. We must strive to reach new heights of devotion – new levels of obedience – and a more consistent usefulness in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul wanted to see this process at work in a particular area of Christian character in the life of the Christians at Thessalonica. The demands of real Christianity usually sets a person at odds with society – and this is no less true in the realms of sexual morality.
We too need this teaching from this letter because the ‘sexual revolution’ so called that occurred in the nineteen fifties and sixties has left its legacy of disaster into the 21st Century. Behaviour which shocked our grandparents and parents has become commonplace and accepted by the majority in society. We are living today in a culture that is closer to the Thessalonian culture and Corinthian culture than the culture of our families who lived 100 years ago. Nevertheless God’s standards have not changed. And so God the Holy Spirit says here
2. All believers are called to be Pure.
3 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: 4 That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; 5 Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: 6 That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.
The people of Thessalonica lived in a society that was famous for its sexual permissiveness. In the world of the Greeks and Romans sexual vice was rampant. Paul was writing from Corinth. In that city Aphrodite the Greek goddess of sex and beauty was said to send her servants out as prostitutes to roam the city streets by night. In Thessalonica on the other hand was particularly associated with the worship of deities called the CABIRI, in whose rites
“gross immorality was promoted under the name of religion.” According to Professor FF Bruce, “in Thessalonica a man might have a mistress who could also provide him with intellectual companionship. The institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine – a female slave – while casual gratification was readily available from a harlot. The function of the wife was to manage his household and to be the mother of his legitimate children and heirs.”
With such practices commonplace in the cities of the Roman Empire they became centres of the wildest corruption.
From such a culture the Thessalonian Christians had been saved! This was not the first time that Paul would have confronted immorality for it would have featured in his preaching and teaching while he was in the city. The evidence of such extravagant and uncontrolled vice would have been apparent. Extramarital relationships were commonplace – there was no stigma attached to taking a mistress. Fornication with prostitutes was part and parcel of the religious scene and to add to the picture homosexual relationships were condoned and even applauded.
Over against all this, Paul taught God’s way of behaviour in that he taught the highest view of marriage. A wife is not a domestic skivvy nor is she merely there for the purpose of breeding.
It need hardly be said that 21st Century Britain bears a striking resemblance to ancient Thessalonica.
Christians are called to live by the Biblical ideal in a climate where sexual experimentation before marriage is regarded as a legitimate leisure activity for teenagers; and so many other sinful acts and attitudes prevail. The aggressive and self-confident so called ‘GAY lobby’ has nearly succeeded in gaining public acceptance for its case that stable homosexual relationships should have equal status with heterosexual marriage!
God has His standards for us all. The God given context for sexual activity is one man, and one woman for life.
Paul states it here most plainly.
1. Sexual Purity Has A God Given Context.
And that context is monogamous marriage. Each man is to have his own wife and each woman her own husband. God has given marriage as the usual way to channel and control normal sexual drives and desires – aspects of our human-ness that are themselves wonderful gifts from the Lord God the creator. Marriage is a Creation ordinance intended for companionship as well as procreation. But since the fall of man when everything was spoilt, and the ideal was lost – then God has provided marriage as a Divine remedy against sin.
Let us consider some of the words in the text.
Abstain from Fornication verse 4.
The Greek word PORNEIA is a broad term that indicates a range of sexual aberrations including fornication which is sexual relations before marriage; adultery – relations outside of the marriage bond, incest and homosexuality. Abstain in the English language is not a strong enough word. Abstain indicates some voluntary act that implies choice – to choose not to do something or to seek merely to avoid something.
But Paul’s intention is to say that sexual immoralities of every kind are to be absolutely broken with. It should be a clean break with impurity – a total abstinence from the old ways. Keep yourselves from it at all costs is the sense here. And my friends this is God’s standard for us all. The Christian life is to be marked by both radical restraint and utter purity in this area.
This restraint is taken up further by Paul in the next directive to the believers.
2. Control your own bodies in a holy and honourable way.
4 That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; 5 Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God:
‘Possessing one’s own vessel.’ What a strange sounding expression – but it is not really that strange when we give it some thought.
Possess means to acquire and then keep to yourself. It is a translation of the word KTAOMAI which usually means to acquire as in acquiring money, land or political liberty.
A man must get a wife with a view to keeping her and her alone for himself. Paul used his words carefully.
But what about the word for vessel? Vessel is SKEUOS which generally means a vessel or container of any kind. Is a wife a vessel? Why are ships called SHE? Human beings both men and women are referred to in other New Testament scriptures – for instance 2 Corinthians 4
6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
‘Earthen vessels’ is a term used for clay pots. Human beings are just like clay pots containing a vast treasure – namely the light of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ placed there spiritually in the heart – inside the vessel. It is merely a metaphor – Peter uses it also in 1 Peter 3 v 7
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
Here Peter does not mean that one gender is strong and the other weak – rather he means that in certain respects one is weak and the other is weaker!
Husbands need to know, and to learn, how to keep their wives in love, honour and purity. That is the positive. Men should know how to make their wives love them and not want anyone else – and they best do this by loving their wives to death, as we saw when thinking about Ephesians chapter 5. Paul is principally addressing the men in this 4th verse – because the culture was a male orientated culture. Paul brings equality based on monogamy – one man and one wife – to the fore – this is God’s standard and plan.
My friends these are serious considerations with regard to marriage – but I would like to say a word to those in our fellowship who are single and therefore in God’s sovereignty lack the God given context for sexual love.
Is this passage of scripture for married people only? By no means – all scripture is profitable for all believers. This apostolic teaching is for all of us and incidentally is God’s word for all society whether Christian or not.
Single people do not need to become a bundle of frustrations and inhibitions if they embrace God’s standard – that will only happen if they rebel against it. Christ’s yoke is easy when a believer submits to it. It is possible for human sexual energy to be redirected both into affectionate relationships with friends of both sexes and into the loving service of others. Multitudes of single men and women who love the Lord Jesus Christ can testify to this. Alongside a natural loneliness, sometimes accompanied by acute pain, God will lead single people into joyful self fulfilment in the self giving service of God and of others. Those of us who are married must pray for our single brothers and sisters – they need our prayers and understanding of God’s purposes for them. Let us be sensitive to each others needs my friends.
Then Paul brings a Negative – in verse 5
Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God:
Some Bible words seem strange to us belonging as they do to other languages that have brought a richness to our own language – that sadly we are losing.
The Latin word CONCUSPICIENTA means intense desire, particularly sexual desire or lust. Why did our translators use this word concupiscence from the Latin?
Because the same Greek word, EPITHEMIA for intense desire was used in Chapter 2 v 17 of this letter when Paul said this
But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.
So I ask a question – did Paul ‘lust’ after going back to Thessalonica to see the faces of the believers? Was it a sexual desire that he had? Of course not – that is foolish! But our translators in the Authorised Version wanted to write in our language a word that means intense desire which was specifically sexual – and they borrowed a word from the Latin! It distinguished between the 2 kinds of intense desire. There was nothing wrong with Paul’s great desire to go to Thessalonica. There was everything wrong with ungodly lustful desire practised by pagan unbelieving heathen.
My friends never be put off by words in our translation that you don’t understand or that you have never heard of except in scripture! Rather make it an opportunity to see why that word is used and what it is meant to convey.
The New King James Version has a very weak rendering of ‘lust of concupiscence’ – ‘passion of lust’. But as we saw on Tuesday night the primary meaning of ‘Passion’ is suffering – and it is clear that lust is not something that is suffered rather it is enjoyed! It might make it easier for someone to read the text of verse 5 – but it loses the deep serious sense of Paul’s message – that intense ungodly, dishonouring sexual activity of a lustful kind must never, ever be engaged in by believers in the Lord Jesus Christ!
3. Sexual Purity has a God-given style – holiness and honour.
Having stated what is the Godly standard for all; Paul now says that there is a need for restraint even within marriage. The Bible does say that marriage is special and that God approves of it.
Hebrews 13 v 4 Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.
But marriage is not a form of legalised lust. Paul is teaching honourable conduct in marriage in this passage. Marriage should be in the Lord. Christian standards of marriage should be of the highest order. The Apostle uses the word HONOUR at the end of verse 4 which is contrasted with lustful desire. The expression of love within a marriage should be guided by the demeanour outlined in 1 Corinthians 13 – which is not a love that seeks its own advantage; is patient, kind, and does not think evil thoughts. These aspects apply to physical relations within marriage too. May husbands and wives here know God’s desire for honour in their marriages!
Paul next goes on to speak out for God about the scourge of adultery – in verse 6 –
That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.
To go beyond here means to take advantage and to defraud means to cheat. The 10th Commandment deals with covetousness – wanting what belongs to someone else. Adultery breaks more than the 7th commandment – it actually starts with a breakage of the 10th – coveting another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. Adultery is about broken promises and ruthless self-assertion. An adulterer is nothing more than a cheat. He invades the rights of others and plunders what is not lawfully his. Society has ceased to condemn this cheating – but the Lord who sees everything will not let any adulterer get away with it
6 because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.
What a warning this is! Sexual immorality of every kind will be judged by the Lord God – the Thessalonians already knew this. Such people would not enter the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6 v 9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind… shall inherit the kingdom of God.
Ephesians 5 v 5 For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.
People today do not know this about the future judgement. It could be that this is the first time that you have heard that all forms of sexual immorality incur God’s wrath. And those who go to their graves without the pardon and forgiveness afforded to those who come in repentance and remorse for such deeds, will suffer eternally for their crimes.
The Christian however can be glad that, no matter how immoral he or she had been in life before becoming a Christian, Jesus Christ forgives sinners. There is no one too bad – no one who has broken any of God’s laws whom He cannot save. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of every kind – including the sexually immoral. Are you trusting in the forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ this morning my friend? Do you believe in His power to save you? He has promised to forgive all those who earnestly come to Him for pardon and He will save all who truly repent. And the Saviour forgives those who have fallen into sin even after conversion when they truly repent and leave their sin behind.
As we close it is important to underline again that sexual purity is not merely a human ideal but a divine demand – for all men and women.
These instructions on sexual ethics speak to all our generation urgently. As believers in the Saviour who bore our sins on the cross we need to remember that as God’s holy people, saints, sanctified ones, we must aim at absolute sexual purity. If we despise these instructions – if we resist them and choose to compromise with the world then verse 8 will settle the question -
8 He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.
May we all regard these frank and strong directions, with their stern warnings, as God’s spur to us to be holy and pure in all our dealings and contacts with others whether in church, in business or with neighbours. And may we as Christian people show this world of men and women that purity and holiness of living, with God’s help, is possible and fulfilling.