by Ray C. Stedman
"Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit." (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, NIV)
IF WE COULD CREATE a drug that would remove pleasure from the act of sex we could change the whole moral climate of our country. We could reduce crime, bring an end to the scandal of divorce, eliminate teenage pregnancies, reduce the prison population, stop the sale of pornography, and decrease poverty.
But in doing so, we would also lose a special part of God's creation. We would forfeit some of the zest and spontaneity between the sexes, and life would become drab and dreary indeed. Since we obviously cannot make that drastic change, the only thing left for us to do is to learn how to handle our sexuality properly.
When I was a young man, nobody was teaching about sexuality. Back then, you grew up thinking that your body ended at the waist. If the word sex was ever used, especially in church, it was usually whispered. How people can read their Bibles every day and miss some of the great passages that teach openly about this subject, I don't know. But Paul had no such inhibitions in his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians. Along with instruction on the practical matters of learning how to get along with one another, how to handle the death of loved ones, and how to view God's apparent delay in the coming again of Jesus, he provided a treatise on how to handle one's sex drive.
We may think of the ancients as very different from us, but they really were not. Those people who lived in the bustling seaport city of Thessalonica felt the same kind of pressures and drives we do. New Testament Thessalonica was rather like San Francisco-filled with business and commerce and the usual hustle and bustle of a large city, along with culture and beauty and art. But there was also degradation and sin, shame and sordidness. The Thessalonians were driven by the same forces that drive us. In the realism and wisdom of the Scriptures, therefore, the apostle taught them how to handle life in many practical areas.
First, he taught them that they "ought to live and to please God" (4:1 RSV). That is the number one subject in the curriculum of the Holy Spirit. The Christian's business is to live to please God. The word ought, which is made up of an elision of the two English words owe it, reflects that priority. We owe it to God to please Him! Paul tells us why, here and in other passages. "He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Cor. 5:15).
The great truth that every Christian must learn, says the apostle, is that "you are not your own." We no longer belong to ourselves. We cannot let our own desires take priority in life. Rather, we "are bought at a price" (I Cor. 6:19-20). Jesus died on our behalf, in our place. You deserved that death; I deserved it.But He paid the penalty Himself.Now we belong to Him. He has invaded our being by the Holy Spirit, and the purpose of our lives has been dramatically transformed. We are to live no longer for ourselves but for Him who died for us and was raised again from the dead.
Every appeal to the Christian in the New Testament is made on that basis, and that is why Paul put it first here. The Christian "ought to live and to please God." As someone has well said, "The main thing is to see that the main thing remains the main thing." We ought to remind ourselves every day that our business is not to do what we want done but to please the Lord, who has redeemed us at such fearful cost.
Next, Paul taught the Thessalonians "how to live in order to please God." Notice the word how. It is significant that Paul did not merely teach these early Christians what they ought to do, but how to do it, especially in the area of handling sexuality.
Furthermore, Paul exhorted them to do these things (follow his instructions) "more and more." The Christian life is one of growth. There is progress to be made. A wider realm of application ought to be visible in our lives. All of us were disturbed about some aspect of our lives when we came to Christ. Perhaps it was our sex life. It may have been a deep sense of inferiority, or of shame and anger because we were unable to be what we ought to be. We came to Christ because we needed help. But we do not surrender just that one area of our life to Him; every aspect of our life is to be His to control.
The apostle reminds the Thessalonians of the clear instructions he gave on how to live to please God. Notice these are given "by the authority of the Lord Jesus." In other words, this is not just Paul's advice as a religious leader. These are the words and desires of our Lord-Jesus Himself. "It is God's will," says Paul, "that you should be sanctified."
Unfortunately, the word sanctification leads to confusion for many people. Some think of it as a kind of religious sheep-dip they are put through: a once-for-all experience of cleansing and commitment. Once they have been dipped, they think everything is fine.
Others see sanctification as an extraction process. God uses a kind of supernatural magnet to extract all sin, and from that moment on they will have no trouble pleasing Him. Some people actually believe they have not sinned for years. Obviously, nobody has told them the truth yet. A little deeper investigation would reveal how wrong they are.
Actually, the word sanctification is almost the same as the word that is translated holiness in this passage; it comes from the same root. But many are confused about holiness, too. Many people think of holiness as "grimness." These kind of "holy" people look like they've been soaked in embalming fluid. They are dour and dull; they frown on anything that is fun or pleasurable. But that is not holiness.
The Old Testament speaks about "the beauty of holiness," the inner attractiveness that is apparent when someone begins to function inwardly as he or she was intended to function. What this says is that God is designing beautiful people! Not merely outwardly beautiful people like those we see on television, but inwardly beautiful people. People who are admirable, trustworthy, strong, loving, and compassionate-people who are whole. In fact, the word wholeness derives from the same root as holiness. And that is His will for us.
Wholeness includes moral purity. "Avoid sexual immorality" (v. 3), says the apostle in the very next sentence. You cannot be a whole person if you indulge in sexual immorality. But words like immorality do not seem to register with many people.
Let us put it plainly: Immorality means no sexual wrongdoing. It means no making out in the backseat of the car; no premarital sex (no fornication); no messing around with someone else's husband or wife (no extramarital sex); no homosexual sex (the Scripture is very clear on this issue in many places); no pornography (no standing in the newsstand at the airport and flipping through Penthouse or Playboy magazines and getting yourself turned on by looking at the pictures; that is sexual fantasy, and it is wrong). To "avoid sexual immorality" means to have none of these things going on in your life.
Why? Because such actions destroy the wholeness that both you and God want. There is nothing more beautiful than a young person who has his or her life in order. I am saddened when I see wonderful young men and women who have been reared in godly homes to reflect moral beauty in their lives gradually begin to let their standards go when they get out into the world. Watch them for a year or two, and you see the hardness in their faces as they begin to lose the beauty of holiness/wholeness God has planned for them.
You may be thinking that moral purity in our day is impossible, or that it is too late for you; you have already messed up your life. The Word does not say we must never do these things; rather, the Word says, "Do them no longer." All of us have messed up in one way or another; we have destroyed the wholeness already. But the glory of the gospel is that in coming to Jesus, through His work on the cross in our behalf and His rising again from the dead, we have been given a new start. The past is wiped out and forgiven. We are restored. "I have espoused you [I have betrothed you] as a chaste virgin unto Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2 KlV), wrote Paul. Even though the Corinthians had already messed up their lives with many sexual sins, Paul assured them that in Christ they were as chaste as virgins.
And even if as a Christian you have fouled up, the Word of God says very clearly that you can be restored. If you acknowledge that you have done wrong and accept God's forgiveness through Christ, you are "a chaste virgin" again in Christ. What glorious good news!
In his instructions to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul gave two steps toward achieving moral purity.
First, learn to control your own body. In the Greek text, the word translated body is actually vessel, though it is clear from the context that Paul was talking about our bodies. They are the vessels, the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 6:19).
But learning how to handle our bodies properly is not always easy. God gave our bodies to us; we did not design them ourselves. We would probably change a lot of things if it were up to us to recreate or even rearrange our bodies.
Included in the gift of our bodies is a remarkable capacity to churn out certain hormones that pour into the bloodstream. These hormones have a profound effect upon the way our bodies function. At puberty, new hormones pour into the bloodstream and we experience sexual changes, along with powerful drives that almost seem to compel us to certain sexual activities. Society tells us that those urges are natural and therefore ought to be satisfied whenever opportunity affords. Worldlings argue that the sexual appetite should be satisfied just like hunger, thirst, exhaustion, or any other natural need. This argument says there is nothing wrong with the fulfilling of sexual desires.
Now they are right in saying that sex is a natural function, but what they are not saying, and what the Scriptures reveal, is that all natural functions need certain degrees of control. Take hunger, for instance. You do not eat anytime you feel like eating. You learn to control your appetite. The same applies to sleep. You do not go to sleep whenever you feel like it.
Control increases the enjoyment of a natural function. For example, you enjoy your food more if you do not eat between meals. When a flooding river is controlled by banks, its intensity is increased.
Many young people are discovering that in these days when moral restraints are removed from sexual practices, the result is a kind of listless flood in which one wades continually with no enjoyment whatsoever. But God has designed sex to be stimulating and arousing. That is why marriage constitutes a kind of channeled control for sex. There is ample provision made for the stream, but the limits increase the intensity and enjoyment. That is what God has in mind as part of the process of producing a whole person. Anything that tears down those boundaries destroys the strength and beauty of wholeness.
So Paul says that we are to learn how to control our bodies in holiness-wholeness-and honor. Control contributes to that sense of wholeness. You are to be in charge of your own body. You are not to be bound to it. You are not to be a slave to it.
After Paul states the positive, he also gives the negative: Don't give way to "passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God" (v. 5).
In order to learn control, we must avoid the slavery of lust. A young man told me once: "I got into messing around sexually right out of high school, and I have been doing it ever since. In fact, I would have to say that I am nothing but a male whore!" He meant that he was a slave to lust. He had allowed his sexuality to rage out of control until it possessed his life and he was no longer a free person That is what Christians must avoid. Paul taught the Thessalonian believers not to give in to the sexual pressures of their lustful city. They were to restrain themselves and learn how to handle their bodies rightly and thus reflect the beauty, orderliness, and glory of a life that was whole.
Secondly, he said: "no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him" (v. 6). Let me put it plainly: this means no adultery; no haunting the houses of prostitution; no sexual involvement with anyone but your marriage partner; no carrying on affairs with your neighbor's wife or husband. Such behavior wrongs others. It steals their property and destroys their rights. The tenth commandment says, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Ex. 20:17). That perhaps is what some of the Thessalonians were doing, and their conduct had not only destroyed the wholeness of their own lives, but had also hurt others. In counseling, pastors hear seemingly endless stories of damaged families, of children's lives being ruined by the adulterous affairs of their parents. Enormous misery and heartache follow the passions of adultery and sexual affairs.
Paul says there is a dreadful price to pay for all this. "The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you" (v. 6). God so loves His creation and so longs to see beautiful, whole people emerging from it that He will take drastic action when people violate His will. Silently, His judgment falls. Believer and unbeliever alike cannot escape the painful results of sinful choices. That is the law of inevitable consequences. If we choose to sin, there will be evil results. We cannot avoid them. We can be forgiven, but that does not change the results. Forgiveness restores the broken relationship and gives us strength to walk on in freedom in the future, but it does not change or eliminate the hurt of the past.
Every believer must face that unalterable fact. Throughout the Old Testament God sought to impart to Israel the fact that if they violated His laws, if they refused to hear His Word, ugly and terrible things would happen to them. Listen to these words from Deuteronomy 31 where God is speaking to Israel about their disobedience: "In that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and difficulties will come upon them, and on that day they will ask, 'Have not these disasters come upon us because our God is not with us?"' (v. 17). That discipline took the form of famine, war, and disease. And the final judgment would be a breakup of families: "Your sons and your daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand" (Ex. 28:32).
Isn't that what has happened here in the United States, where one-half of all children today live with single parents? Families have been broken and children parceled out to strangers.
The final step, God said, would be "a despairing soul" (28:65), that awful depression of spirit that makes one want to commit suicide rather than to go on living. As a faithful father, Paul solemnly forewarned the Thessalonians that this would happen. God's standards cannot be violated. He has ways of bringing His judgments to pass, and nobody can evade them.
The apostle recaps this teaching in two wonderful verses: "For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness [wholeness]. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you" (l Thess. 4:7-8).
These solemn words of warning are set against the background of God's yearning for a whole person. God has called us to wholeness. That is what He can create if we obey what He says. If we disregard His instructions, says Paul, we are not only turning our backs on what He has said, but on God Himself and His supply of power to enable us to carry out His instructions.
In the campaign against drug abuse we are being told that what we need to teach children is to "just say no." But those who are already addicted to drugs tell us that is difficult to do. When the terrible passion for a drug is throbbing through every vessel of the body, it is very hard to "just say no." The will is not strong enough, and they give in again and again. Now God knows that. He knows how we function. That is why He has provided a new resource for believers, the Holy Spirit. Remember the wonderful promise of Ephesians 3:20: "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us."
If we give the excuse that we cannot do what God commands, we deny that we have been provided with an extra resource. We may need to exercise our will to "Just say no," but then we must immediately cast ourselves upon the Spirit of God within us. the Lord Jesus made available by the Spirit. Resting upon that presence, we must turn and walk away. We can do it. We have the power. Millions can testify that what they could not do by their own will they were able to do by relying on the power of God.
We live in an immoral world. Young people are under pressure I never faced as a young man. But God has told us we can live a holy life. The following words of a great hymn eloquently express the rallying call we need to hear today:
Rise up, O men of God! Have done with lesser things; Give heart and soul and mind and strength To serve the King of kings.
Lift high the cross of Christ! Tread where His feet have trod; As brothers of the Son of Man, Rise up, O men of God!
God wants a community of beautiful people whose lives are under control and maintained by the Holy Spirit. Such a people will constitute an island of refuge and resource for the drifting multitudes who are still enslaved by their own passions and desires.
From Expository Studies in I and II Thessalonians, by Ray C. Stedman,
Discovery Paper No. 4093.
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