1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
Sermon 8 of 14 from the I Thessalonians series
October 1996 – "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 New King James Version).
There are not many things from which the Bible tells us to abstain. The word itself is used only 7 times in the New Testament—3 times in the book of Acts referring to temporary restrictions, once in 1 Timothy referring to false doctrine, and once in 1 Peter. The other two times are found in 1 Thessalonians.
Most of us know that the word “abstain” means to “do without.” In our circles it has traditionally be used with reference to alcohol. We sometimes speak of “voluntary total abstinence,” which means a personal decision not to drink alcohol. It may interest you to know that the Bible does not use the word “abstain” with reference to alcohol. While there certainly are good reasons to be cautious about alcohol and good reasons to abstain, the Bible itself does not say, “You shall abstain from alcohol.”
Whenever we see the word “abstain” in the Bible we know two things for certain:
1. It is a command of God
2. It is an absolute prohibition
Therefore, whenever we find a command to abstain in the Bible, we ought to take it seriously. We have come to one such command in our text. It is so simple and clear that there need be no debate about it. God commands believers to abstain from sexual immorality. Period. End of story. We may debate the proper application but the command itself is crystal-clear.
Not a Popular DoctrineAs one ponders these words, several things strike the mind: First, this is so obvious that we wonder why Paul mentions it. Second, this is not a doctrine which is popular. Indeed, you will hear many more sermons on the love of God than on the dangers of sexual immorality. Such sermons are not easy to preach nor are they easy to hear.
That leads me to this suggestion. Our greatest danger this morning may simply be that we do not take these words seriously. Either we think we’ve heard all this before, or we’d rather not hear it at all, or perhaps we think these words are meant for someone else.
No Difference!But I submit that no message is more needed in the evangelical church today. Several years ago the Gallup organization released a survey in which they compared the beliefs and lifestyles of evangelical Christians with the public at large The results were quite revealing. In the first place, the survey showed that there is an enormous interest in spiritual things among the unchurched. Contrary to popular opinion, many Americans think deeply about ultimate issues and genuinely want to find meaningful answers. Second, the survey revealed a general rise in immoral behavior. In an age when more people are attending church, there is an alarming rise in crime and unethical behavior, even among those who are very religious. One quote stuck with me: “There is little difference in ethical behavior between those who go to church and those who don’t.”
Christians struggle with the same issues as everyone else. Whenever Moody Magazine publishes an article on sexual abuse, they receive a large number of responses—mostly anonymous. At one point during Chuck Swindoll’s pastorate he commented that incest was his number one counseling issue.
I do think there has been a general decline in moral standards among American believers. Just before he died in 1984 Francis Schaeffer wrote The Great Evangelical Disaster in which he target the growing accommodation to the spirit of the world. In his last published interview he singled as easy divorce, changing attitudes toward homosexuality and abortion, and the rising acceptance of pornography as signs of that accommodation.
He’s right. As proof, consider two things we’ve almost completely lost today: the word “virgin” and the ability to blush. Even in our circles we are faintly embarrassed to speak of virginity and we hardly ever blush because we’ve seen it all and heard it all.
In my own pastoral ministry stretching over the last 18 years I have talked with people struggling with homosexuality, adultery, abortion, divorce, pornography, and lust of all kinds. Almost always, the people I talk with are church members.
I am reminded of the words of Vance Havner who said that the church has become so worldly and the world so churchy that it’s hard to tell the difference.
Facing the FactsThere is a reason for all this. Our society has changed. If you think things have gotten worse, you’re right.
Fact—Hardcore pornography has come out of the closet and on to main stret.
Fact—Through the Internet the vilest forms of pornography are now available
to young children.
Fact—Homosexuality is now seen as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.
Fact—Most mainline denominations now have openly gay clergy.
Fact—We routinely see things on television that would have shocked up 25 years ago.
Fact—Nothing much surprises us anymore. We’ve seen it all … and seen it so often we’ve lost our ability to be shocked. Adultery … premarital sex … group sex … lesbianism … wife swapping … pornography in our local convenience stores … x-rated movies on TV … easy divorce … multiple marriages … quick abortions … incest … child abuse … bestiality … teen pregnancy … gay churches … born again pornographers … televangelists who visit prostitutes … herpes … AIDS … radical sex education. And on and on the list goes.
Frankly, My DearIt hasn’t always been this way. There was a day when the entire nation could be shocked by just one word. When the move “Gone With the Wind” was released in 1939, it caused an uproar because Clark Gable uttered the following line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
We’ve come a long way, baby. And not necessarily in the right direction either.
What has happened to America? When did we lose our collective sense of modesty? Somewhere in the last generation morality died, public opinion eroded, and the law therefore no longer interferes.
Lust in His HeartSome of you will recall the uproar when presidential candidate Jimmy Carter confessed to entertaining lustful thoughts. On July 21, 1976, in an interview with Playboy magazine, he confessed that
I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something God recognizes I will do—and I have done it—and God forgives me for it.
Without regard to the questionable theology involved in that statement, it is useful to know that the public reaction centered on two points:
1. He was crazy to admit to lust in his heart.
2. He was crazy to think it was wrong.
To most people this was a silly outdated notion, the vestige of some primitive backwoods religion. Guity? Of lust? You gotta be kidding.
I. Two Words We Need to Understand 1-3There are two words we need to understand very clearly. First, the word abstain means “to hold off from, to distance oneself from, to have nothing to do with.” You are abstaining from something when you separate yourself from it completely. Second, the phrase “sexual immorality” comes from the Greek word porneia, which is a very broad word encompassing every kind of sexual activity outside the circle of God’s will. It covers sins of the mind, body, eyes, ears and lips. It includes premarital sex, extra-marital sex, every form of homosexuality, adultery, and every form of pornography. In fact the English “pornography” comes from the Greek word porneia. Paul is telling us that Christians must abstain from a pornographic lifestyle in the broadest sense of that word.
This means there can be no “moderate immorality” and no “social adultery” and no “victimless pornography.” We are not to dabble in sexual sin in any of its various forms. To the contrary, we are to have nothing to do with it.
Please note that Paul doesn’t spell out every detail of sexual immorality. He doesn’t have to because the particular expressions of sin will change depending on time and place and cultural factors. The command stands, the application changes.
In a world of impurity Christians are to be different. That’s what the word “sanctification” means. A sanctified person is a Christian whose life is “distinctively different” because it is set apart for God. Franky Schaeffer (son of Francis Schaeffer) put it this way: “In American today the most radical thing a person can do is to be the husband of one wife or the wife of one husband.”
Sacred ProstitutionPerhaps you’re wondering if things were different in Paul’s day. The answer is, they were worse, if that is possible. In the first place Thessalonica was a seaport, which meant that people from all over the Mediterranean world stopped there in transit from one place to another. The sailors and visiting merchants brought with them the usual desires for sexual gratification. More importantly, the Greek religions of that day practiced sacred prostitution. That involved hiring a prostitute at a pagan temple as part of your acts of worship.
The famed orator Demosthenes described the moral climate of ancient Greece this way:
We keep prostitutes for pleasure, we keep mistresses for day to day needs of the body, we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guarding of the home.
Given the moral atmosphere of the day, there must have been enormous pressure on those young Christians to lower their standards to conform to the world around them. But Paul will have none of it. He orders them to abstain from every form of sexual immorality.
II. Two Commands We Must Obey 4-6Verses 4-6 flesh out that command in more detail. He gives them two instructions—one positive and one negative. We must take each one to heart if we are going to be clean in a very dirty world.
# 1: Control your own body 4-5
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 (vv. 4-5). Verse 4 literally commands each man to “possess his own vessel.” That might be a reference to his own wife, since 1 Peter 3:7 does refer to the wife as the “weaker vessel.” However, in this context it almost certainly means his own body. To possess is to control in the sense of mastering the inner impulse to sin.
A God-empowered man controls his own body. When God is not in control, the body controls the man.
Deep in the Pit
Paul explains his meaning in verse 5 where he mentions the “passionate lust” of the heathen. If you want to know what he means get on the Internet and surf the Web for yourself. Or read the Internet newsgroups that are now available to children of every age. Things that used to be found “under the counter” are now only a click of the mouse away.
Notice carefully the reason he gives. The heathen “do not know God.” That’s the cause of all the pain, misery, sin and debauchery in the world today. Men do not know God and therefore indulge their worst fantasies.
When men turn away from God, anything is possible. No one knows how deep men can go when they do not know God. There is no limit, no end. There are depths of shame and pollution, cesspools of life, that men live in for years because they do not know God. Because their is no check on their desires, they commit unspeakable sin.
But we know God … and that makes all the difference!
Perhaps you think that Paul was a prude. If so, let me remind you that Paul was a single man living in a strange land filled with temptation. He knew all about the depth of sin. He heard the siren song, “Come on, everyone’s doing it.” He felt the desire for closeness, he longed for the thrill of intimacy.
It would have been easy for him to give in, but he didn’t. The price was too high. He was a Christian first. He knew God … and that made all the difference.
# 2: Don’t cheat another person 6
“In this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.” The King James Version uses the word “defraud.” Other translations use words like “wrong” or “cheat.” The meaning may be made clear by a few examples:
*Don’t cheat your brother by sleeping with his wife.
*Don’t cheat your wife by dreaming of other women.
*Don’t cheat your boy friend or girl friend by leading them on.
*Don’t cheat your future husband or wife by giving away that which
you can never get back—your purity.
*Don’t cheat your friends by claiming to be one thing in public and something
else in private.
*Don’t cheat your family by sneaking away behind their backs.
*Don’t cheat your loved by doing anything you would be ashamed for them
to know about.
Immorality is like that. It always cheats someone else—usually someone you love very much. Just ask any wife whose husband left. Just ask any parent who child had an affair. Just any church members who saw their pastor fall into sexual sin.
Perhaps the saddest thing about lust is that it never satisfies. Someone has said that lust is “the craving for salt by a man dying of thirst.” It promises everything and delivers nothing. No great release. No lasting satisfaction. Not even any swift punishment.
You always have to go back for more. It’s the law of diminishing returns. Lust forces you to keep coming back.
III. Three Facts God Wants You To Know 7-8Our text closes with three reasons why this command is so important. Each one applies directly to us today.
1. God will punish those who practice immorality. 6b
“The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.” Sometimes he punishes the body, sometimes the mind, sometimes our speech, our eyes, often our health, and almost always our memories. Lust produces that inward deadening that is both unexpected and inevitable.
In my opinion, the most likely judgment is that God will simply leave you alone to suffer the natural consequences of your sin. But remember this, in the future what has been done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.
2. God has called us to purity. 7
“For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” Christianity is supremely the champion of purity. Our faith is utterly alien to every form of uncleanness. When Jesus comes in, he cleans house.
3. Rejecting purity means rejecting God. 8
“Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.” To reject means to treat with utter contempt. It is to render the commandment of God null and void. This is what Nathan meant when he asked David, “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes?” (2 Samuel 12:9) By committing adultery and then ordering Uriah murdered to cover it up, he had treated God’s holy commands with utter contempt. He knew it was wrong and yet he did it anyway.
You can’t have it both ways. Either be pure … or stop calling yourself a Christian!
All of us need to hear this message. I need it personally. No one is exempt—not the pastor nor the elders nor the staff members nor the people in the pew. This is God’s Word for all of us.
He Threw the List AwayWhen I was student in a Christian college many years ago Lehman Strauss spoke at one of our Bible conferences. One day he gave a message on the topic of purity. I have forgotten everything about that message except for one illustration. He commented that some years earlier he had begun making a list of the men he had known in the ministry who had fallen through sexual sin. I think he said the list had reached to over 70 names. But recently, he said, he had heard about another good friend who had fallen. It broke his heart to the point that the tore up the list and threw it away.
I am not exempt from this temptation. Neither are you.
Practical GuidelinesLet me share some practical guidelines for dealing with sexual temptation.
1. Know your limits.
2. Stay out of questionable areas.
3. Don’t fight the battle alone.
4. Don’t make excuses.
5. Be honest about your problem.
6. Trace the cycle of lust in your life.
7. Remember who you are.
That last point is critical. You have a father and a mother, you probably have brothers and sisters. You certainly have friends who love you. You’ve got people at work or at school who depend on you. You’ve even got casual acquaintances who watch you and unbelievers who know you are a Christian. Put simply, you can’t afford to let all those people down.
Above and beyond all that, remember who you are in Christ. You are a child of God, a totally new creation, you are saved, redeemed, justified, forgiven, regenerated, and seated with Christ in heavenly places. All the promises of God now belong to you. You bear the name of your Heavenly Father. You are called to live to his glory.
You made for better things! You were not made to live in sin.
That’s why verse 8 ends with a very hopeful phrase. It mentions “God who gives you his Holy Spirit.” The word “gives” is present tense. In this case it means that God gives and keeps on giving the Spirit to you. You have the Holy Spirit always within you. Therefore, when God commands you to abstain, he also gives you the power to obey.
What a wonderful thought. You are not in this battle alone! Your weakness is his strength. Do you need help? You’ve got it!
There is no power but this to sanctify you.
There is no hope but this for cleansing from sin.
Let me now draw a very simple conclusion. How can you please God? What is his will for your life? Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder about answer to those questions God’s Word makes it clear. You are to abstain from sexual immorality. That is his will for your life. Do that and you will please him.
Give that Man a CrownHere are two people. A man married to a woman. He is a Christian. He struggles in many ways. He faces many temptations. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. He is not perfect. Sometimes he is unkind and says things he regrets. Sometimes he wishes he was not married. Sometimes he ignores his wife, sometimes he loses his temper. But down deep in his heart–so deep he can hardly speak of it–he has a goal. To be faithful to his wife to the very end. His wife has no idea how hard it is … or how much he means it.
In a thousand ways he fails but he never gives up. He lives with her for 50 years. And when his life is over, he can truly say, “By God’s grace I did it. I was faithful to the end.”
Give that man a crown. Put him on a throne. Everybody on their feet, let the throngs clap and cheer. Give him a scepter and a robe. Let the band play. Let the people shout his name. He failed in so many ways. But he was faithful to his wife until the end. He fought the good fight, he kept the faith, he finished his course. Stand back and give that man room. He is a genuine hero.
Give That Woman a Thousand Roses
Over here is a woman married to a man. She is a Christian. She struggles in so many ways. Often she feels forgotten and neglected. She rarely gets the attention she deserves. Sometimes she thinks nobody cares. In desperate moments she wishes she had never gotten married. She is sometimes angry, sometimes depressed, and sometimes she just wants to give up. She is not a Total Woman. But in her heart there is a goal. It is the bottom line of her life. She wants to live with one man and only one. She wants to be faithful to him to the end.
In a thousand ways, she fails. But she never gives up. She lives with her husband for over 50 years. Through good times and bad, through laughter and tears, through poverty and riches, through great victories and bitter defeats, she stands by her man. And when her life is over she can say, “By God’s grace I did it. I stuck with him all the way.”
Give that woman a thousand roses. Put a crown on her head. All rise as Her Majesty enters the room. Gaze at her beauty. Let the choir sing, let the band play. See her husband smiling by her side. She failed so many times … but in the end she was a winner. She was faithful to her husband. A one-man woman. In a world where anything goes, she stood against the tide. She is more beautiful in the end than in the beginning.
And from the distance a mighty voice rolls like thunder, the sound fills the sky … “Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of the Lord!”
That’s what I want to hear someday. That’s what’s ahead for you and me if we will stay faithful.
Who is the true hero? It is the man or woman who stays faithful to the end, who by God’s grace stays clean in a very dirty world.
Rise and Walk
As I type these words I am keenly aware that some people reading my words feel totally defeated. Perhaps you have already blown it so badly that you feel there is no hope for you. Perhaps you have not been faithful to your husband or wife and you wonder, “What’s the use?” Maybe you were promiscuous in your younger days or possibly before you came to Christ. It may be you have burning memories of recent moral failure.
Is there any hope for you or must you remained stained and soiled for life? There are two answers to that question. The first is that sin always brings negative consequences. Nothing I can say will change that fact. And some sins bring large consequences that last for a lifetime.
However, I have some better news for you. Jesus has something he wants to say to you. “Rise and walk,” our Lord proclaims to every broken sinner. “Go and sin no more.” You can’t do a thing to change the past and it’s a waste of time to try. However, you can do something about the future. By God’s grace you can be clean and pure from this day forward. You don’t have live in guilt or fear or shame any longer. Rise and walk, O child of God. Get up out of the muck and mire of shameful defeat. In the name of Jesus, rise and walk!
A New Commitment
Many of us need to make a new commitment to moral purity. I need that need myself today. We need a new commitment to faithfulness and holiness. We need to commit ourselves to following God’s command no matter what it costs, starting this very moment.
Will you join me in that commitment?
I close my message with a personal appeal for you to look inside your heart. You may need to take the first step of coming to Jesus Christ by faith. Perhaps you have lived in the grip of lust for a long time. It’s been too long. It’s time you got God’s help. It’s time for Jesus to come in and make a radical change in your life.
Do you want that? If you do, then run to the cross of Christ. Lay hold of Jesus by faith. Open your heart to the Son of God. Embrace him as your Lord and Savior. Trust him for your complete forgiveness.
If you truly want to be clean from the inside out, you need Jesus in your heart. Trust him right now and you will never be the same again.
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