We have been studying this first letter to the Thessalonians that is teaching us to how to live our lives in the light of eternity. Since we have our eyes focused on the glorious return of Christ, Paul has a concern for these Christians, which is a concern for all Christians. You will notice this concern in verse 1.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV)
We urge you and ask you to walk how you ought to walk to please God. Paul taught them how to be pleasing to God while he was with them in Thessalonica and he urges them to do so more and more. Paul states in verse 2 that these Christians know the instructions they gave to them when they were there. Notice what their instruction was: sanctification (4:3). The will of God is your holiness. God wants you to be holy. We should not be surprised by this. It is a message God gave to Israel while at Sinai (Leviticus 11:44-45). This is quoted in the New Testament and applied to Christians that we need to be holy because God is holy (1 Peter 1:15). We need to take in this idea for a moment. God’s will for you is to be holy. A lot of people want to know what God’s will is for their lives and they look in the strangest places to find God’s will and purpose for them. But here is one of those purpose statements that our Creator has given to us. This is God’s will for you: your holiness. Be holy. Holiness matters to God.
Holy Bodies (4:3)
Paul’s particular point about holiness is that we would use our bodies in ways that are holy. Notice that Paul says your holiness looks like this: to abstain from sexual immorality. Sometimes we can think that the Greco-Roman world in the first century was so different from the culture we live in today. Sometimes we think the world was more godly and less depraved. But I want to share with you some quotes from the first century to see that this is not the case at all.
Demosthenes said, “We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for our day-to-day bodily needs, but we have wives to produce legitimate children and serve as trustworthy guardians of our homes.” Young men were permitted to sexual relationships before marriage. Cicero said, “Let not pleasures always be forbidden…let desire and pleasure triumph sometimes over reason.” Cicero also said, “If anyone thinks that young men should be forbidden to have affairs even with prostitutes, he is very strict indeed… for his view is contradictory not only to the law of the present age but even with the habits of our ancestors and with what they used to consider allowable. For when’s this not a common practice? When was it blamed? When was it forbidden? When, in fact, did that which was lawful become that which was not lawful?” Antipater of Thessalonica said, “Homer said all things well, but best of all that Aphrodite (the patroness of prostitutes) is golden. For if you bring the cash, my friend, there is neither porter in your path nor dog chained at the door. But if you come otherwise, Cerberus himself (the multi-headed dog of Hades) is there.” Not only the single person but also the married man could avail himself of her services. Plutarch gave advice that a wife should not be angry if her husband sought sexual pleasure with another woman. He advised that it was better close their eyes to the philandering activities of her husbands than to complain and so jeopardize good relations with them. We have found graphic sexual frescos in the homes of Pompeii from the first century. The paintings of sexual acts were painted on the dining room walls.
What I want you to see if that what Paul is teaching is not something that the culture was already doing. It was not. The culture would have heard the teaching to abstain from sexual immorality as completely crazy and foreign to common wisdom and thinking. Paul’s teaching on this is just as radical today as it was in the first century. In fact, it appears that this teaching would have been more radical in the first century. What God commands regarding having holy bodies is not some antiquated teaching from a bygone era. People did not agree with it then just as they do not agree with it now.
The Greek word underneath our English word “sexual immorality” refers to adultery, premarital and extramarital relations, homosexuality, and all perversions beyond one man and one woman for life. Holiness is the avoidance of sexual sin. Any sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and woman is being expressly condemned here.
Control Yourself (4:4-5)
What the apostle Paul says next is considered absolutely impossible in our culture today. “Each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor.” God’s will for you is to control your own body. This is something you can do. Just because you have desires does not mean that you have to fulfill those desires. Just because you have desires does not mean those are good desires. Our culture stands in direct opposition to these words in 1 Thessalonians 4:4. Our culture says a woman has a right to choose, two people have a right to be married, and a person has a right to define its gender. What you think your rights are is not the issue. God through the apostle Paul says the will of God is for people to control their bodies in holiness and honor. You have the ability to control and channel those desires. Notice that Paul contrasts this with how the world handles their desires. We do not control our bodies like the world in the passion of lust. We are to abstain from things that are characteristic of the world, and this is one where we are called to be different.
We are to take control of our bodies. The passage literally reads that we are “possess our own vessel.” This means we have to declare war on pornography. The numbers that come out about how many people who claim to be Christians who are involved in pornography is staggering and sad. Men and women both have been captured by this sin. We have to declare war on the television shows and the movies we are watching. Those programs and movies are not only things that we are not supposed to look at, but are ignite a passion and lust in us that is not honorable or holy. These are some of the things we need to do to follow what God tells us to do.
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:13–14 ESV)
We live in a time when sexuality and sensuality is flaunted. We are making control over these desires and over our bodies difficult, if not impossible, if we allow ourselves to watch such things. There is just so much that is produced today that we should not be watching. Now I want to share with you an app that is really great to help with this. This is something that we use in our home and it is really great for keeping our minds and eyes pure. There is an app called VidAngel that you can stream your movies and tv shows through so that you can remove all the sinful and objectionable things that are in those programs. We have talked about blocking content on your internet. There are hundreds of different ways to block sinful content on the internet. We use OpenDNS but there are others that are free or require a small fee to keep pure. We need to put up these kinds of roadblocks to keep sin out of the home. We need to not be passive. God’s will is that you are to control your own body.
Why Holiness Is Critical (4:6-8)
God now gives us why it is so important for us to possess our bodies in holiness and honor.
First, sexual immorality is wronging and taking advantage of another person (4:6).
The Greek word adelphos is not gender specific and can refer to a man or woman in Christ. To put this another way, someone is getting hurt when there is sexual immorality. If you are married, then your spouse is being defrauded and wronged when you go to another man or another woman. This is one reason why God allowed divorce for sexual immorality. You have defrauded and wronged your spouse when you gave yourself to another person.
But if you are not married, you are defrauding your future spouse. You have allowed yourself to be with another person that you are not to be joined to. There is a gift that is to be given in marriage, giving your whole being, body and soul, to your spouse. Purity is a precious gift. This is the idea that the writer of Hebrews notes when he speaks about marriage. Marriage is to be held in high esteem and remained undefiled.
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4 ESV)
But I want to add to this idea even further. In this culture where we live with sexuality, have you noticed something? Women are being taken advantage of. Children are being taken advantage of. The news seems to be relentless in reporting how woman after woman is being defrauded and wronged. Further, I have spoken with so many women who have been hurt by men because all that men wanted was sex and the women were hoping for a relationship. Sexual immorality is wronging the person you are with. You are using that person for your own selfish desires and lusts. You are getting what you want. You are not giving anything. There is nothing holy about sexual immorality. There is nothing loving about sexual immorality. All that it brings is emotional hurt because people are being defrauded and wronged.
Second, God will judge sexual immorality (4:6).
Listen to what else God says about sexual immorality in verse 6. “The Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.” Sexual sin is often classified as a personal issue. God says that you are hurting other people and this decision has eternal consequences. The Lord is an avenger when it comes to sexual immorality. To state this another way, God does care if you commit adultery, sleep around, engage in premarital sex, divorce, remarry, and everything else that centers around sexual relations. We are deceiving ourselves if we do not think that there are eternal consequences and eternal punishment for sexual immorality. God is very clear. God is so clear that Paul says he solemnly warned them before about this. When Paul came to Thessalonica, one of his messages to them was to stop the sexual immorality that ran rampant in that society. God’s will is your holiness and God avenges sexual immorality.
Third, God has not called us for impurity, but holiness (4:7).
You have a God-given purpose. Paul highlights this truth again. You have a different calling. You are to remain pure. You are to keep your body holy. You are not called for an impure life. Do not think that being Christian includes participating in sexual immorality. Do not think adultery is acceptable. Do not think that pornography is not a sin. Do not think that you can look at whoever you want and touch whoever you want. You have not been called to impurity. You were purchased by God for the price of the precious blood of Jesus. Your calling is to be holy.
Fourth, sexual immorality is disregarding God (4:8).
You are not rejecting cultural norms. You are not rejecting tradition. You are not rejecting Puritanical values. You are not rejecting Victorian customs. You are rejecting God. You are disregarding what God has clearly taught. Adultery is rejecting what God has said. Sleeping with someone who is not your spouse is rejecting what God has said. Sensuality and touching and pictures and videos is rejecting what God has said. Homosexuality is rejecting what God has said. Pornography is rejecting what God has said. Paul makes it plain. You are disregarding God when you disregard your purpose to be holy.
This is how God teaches us to be holy. We are to be holy with our bodies. We are called to be holy. To restate what we have looked at, I want you to see that God gives us the tools we need to fight sexual temptation. Sexual purity pleases God and is God’s will (4:3). Sexual purity is honorable (4:4). Sexual purity is loving your neighbor (4:6). Sexual purity avoids God’s wrath (4:7). Sexual purity is one way we show regard and respect and love for God (4:8).