1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

October 4, 2016 | Ray Pritchard

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“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 NKJV).

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, once in 1 Timothy, and once in 1 Peter. The other two times are found in 1 Thessalonians.

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
God commands believers to abstain from sexual immorality

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 can 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.

As 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 popular doctrine. 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.

Why Don’t We Blush?

Our greatest danger 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.

Whatever happened to blushing?

But I submit that no message is more needed in the evangelical church today. Billy Graham commented that we routinely laugh at things that used to make us blush a generation ago. That’s true even inside the church. Come to think of it, whatever happened to blushing anyway? It’s almost disappeared. We have seen so much, heard so much, and experienced so much that nothing seems to surprise us anymore. The sexual revolution has liberated us from the old standards, and with the changing times blushing has almost vanished.

This is not a good thing.
But it is the way things are today.

Facing the Facts

We need to face the facts honestly.

Fact—Hardcore pornography has come out of the closet and on to main street. In the old days (not that many years ago), you had to go to the local convenience store where you could find it under the counter. Today pornography comes into our homes through TV, music, and on our computers and cellphones.

Fact—Through the Internet the vilest forms of pornography are now available to young children.

We’ve seen it all

Fact—Homosexuality is now seen as an acceptable lifestyle.

Fact—Most mainline denominations now have openly gay clergy.

Fact—We routinely see things on television that would have shocked us 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 . . . wife swapping . . . transgendered celebrities . . . transgendered pastors . . . X-rated movies on TV . . . sexting . . . hookup apps . . . easy divorce . . . multiple marriages . . . incest . . . child porn . . . bestiality . . . polyamory . . . gay churches . . . born again pornographers . . . radical sex education.

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.

With that as background, we turn to our text.

I. Two Words We Need to Understand

There 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 abstain from something when you separate yourself from it completely. Imagine a vast pit containing all the evils I mentioned in the previous section. That pit seethes and bubbles with every sort of foul sexual sin and every form of sexual perversion. It is deep and dangerous. To “abstain” means you don’t dabble in that pit. You don’t dip your toe in the pit. You don’t stand on the edge and take pictures of the pit. When you see the pit of sexual sin, abstaining means you get as far away from it as you can.

Don’t dip your toe in the pit

Second, the phrase “sexual immorality” comes from the Greek word porneia, which is a very broad word encompassing every kind of sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman. 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. 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. We are to have nothing to do with it.

In America today the most radical thing a person can do is to be the husband of one wife or the wife of one husband

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. One writer put it this way: “In America today the most radical thing a person can do is to be the husband of one wife or the wife of one husband.”

II. Two Commands We Must Obey

Verses 4-6 give us two commands—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  

Each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, 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 refers 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.

Your sex drive is a good thing

Not long ago I spoke to an audience with a large number of teenagers. They were wonderful young people who love the Lord. They have all the normal desires of teenagers everywhere. I told them not to be ashamed of the sexual urges they felt. Those urges are put there by God himself. The desire to know and love another person and to express yourself physically is not wrong, and you don’t need to be ashamed of your feelings. It’s part of being male and female made in God’s image.

Your body is good.
Your hormones are good.
Your urge for intimacy is good.
Your sex drive is good and not evil.

Fire can either warm us or destroy us!

It’s what you do with those urges that matters. The world tells you to indulge yourself, to go for the gusto, to throw off all restraints and to follow your feelings. The desire to express yourself sexually is not evil. But it is a fire that burns within. Think of it this way:

Fire in the fireplace—good! Warmth fills the room.
Fire in the living room—danger! Soon the whole house will burn down.

A God-empowered man controls his own body, and a God-empowered woman controls her own body. When God is not in control, the body controls the man or the woman.

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, check out the internet. Check out social media. Check out what people text to one another.

Note 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 and women do not know God and therefore indulge their worst impulses.

When men turn away from God, anything is possible

When people turn away from God, anything is possible. No one knows how deep we can go when we do not know God. There is no limit, no end. There are depths of shame and pollution, cesspools of life, that people live in for years because they do not know God. Because there is no check on their desires, they commit unspeakable sin.

But we know God . . . and that makes all the difference!

# 2: Don’t cheat another person             

“In this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him” (v. 6). The King James Version uses the word “defraud.” Other translations use words like “exploit” or “cheat.” Don’t take from another man or woman what is not yours to take. 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 boyfriend or girlfriend by leading them on.
*Don’t cheat your future husband or wife by giving away your purity.
*Don’t cheat your friends by playing the hypocrite.
*Don’t cheat your family by sneaking away behind their backs.\

Don’t cheat your future spouse!

Immorality is like that. It always cheats someone else, usually someone you love very much. Just ask any wife whose husband left her. Just ask any parent whose child had an affair. Just ask 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 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                                

Our 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.

“The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (v. 6b). Let me tell you the most terrifying thing I know about God’s judgment. Sometimes we read verses like this and think, “God will send down lightning from heaven.” Well, he certainly could do that. That might happen. But more often God’s judgment is simply to do nothing to stop men and women on their headlong rush to destruction. It’s as if there is a high cliff with jagged rocks far below. Near the edge are signs warning drivers of the danger. Because of frequent accidents, there are flashing lights and warning sirens. So imagine someone so drunk with pleasure and self-satisfaction that instead of turning back, when he sees the cliff, he hits the gas instead. Ignoring all the warnings, he plunges over the cliff going 125 miles per hour, hurtling to his own death, taking his passengers with him.

A deadened conscience no longer cares about sin

Sometimes God 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.  Research confirms that porn “rewires” the brain by changing the neural pathways. That’s why it’s so hard for people hooked on porn to be set free. In the words of John Michael Cusick, “Porn becomes the path of least resistance in the brain.” (See This is Your Brain on Porn.) This, too, is the judgment of God.

#3: God has called us to purity                        

“For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (v. 7). Christianity is supremely the champion of purity. Our faith is utterly alien to every form of uncleanness. When Jesus comes in, he cleans house. The Christian faith spread across the Roman Empire because it offered moral purity that became a light in the prevailing darkness. The same thing happens today whenever we dare to live by God’s standards.

#3: Rejecting purity means rejecting God   

“Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit” (v. 8). To reject means to treat with utter contempt. It renders the commandment of God null and void. Brothers and sisters, you can’t have it both ways. Either be pure . . . or stop calling yourself a Christian!

Either be pure or stop calling yourself a Christian!

All of us need 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. If you think you could not fall in this area, you are wrong. This is God’s Word for all of us.

Time for Some Good News!

After all of this, you might rightfully ask, “Pastor Ray, is there any good news?” The answer is yes, and we can find it in the text. Look at the last phrase of verse 8: 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. When God commands you to abstain, he also gives you the power to obey.

There is no power but this to sanctify you.
There is no hope but this for cleansing from sin.

God gives us the power to obey his commands

You are not in this battle alone. Your weakness is his strength. Do you need help? You’ve got it!

In 1763 Augustus Toplady wrote a hymn called Rock of Ages. I want you to read the first verse because it describes an important truth. Pay close attention to the last line:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

No one has to give in.
No one has to yield to sin.
No one has to live in perpetual defeat.

“Save from wrath and make me pure”

The power to change is not in you. The power is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we try to change ourselves, we will fail because we are too weak. Our hope is in the Lord.

Imagine that you have a big jar filled with dirt, grime, manure, and every sort of filth. How will you ever get rid of that muck and mire? Well, you can roll up your sleeves and plunge your hands deep into the foul-smelling, sticky mess. As you scoop it out, the slimy stuff gets on your arms and your clothes, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get it all out. Now suppose that instead of using your hands, you grab a hose hooked up to a high-pressure stream of pure spring water. You take the hose, plunge it into the muck, and let the water do its work. Little by little the clean water forces out the filth because filth can’t stay where the clean water enters. Eventually the water does what you could never do on your own. The filth is gone and the jar is clean.

Only Christ can make us clean

This is a parable of the Christian life. All of us are like jars of muddy water when we come to Christ. Some are muddier than others, but all of us are unclean when we find the Lord. It is the work of a lifetime to replace the muddy water of our sinful inclinations with the pure water of God’s holy character. This is the answer to our entrenched bitterness, lust, greed, hate, envy, impatience, dishonesty, and unfaithfulness.

May Your love, O Lord, come into me and drive out my anger.
May Your holiness enter and drive out my greed.
May Your purity enter and drive out my lust.
May Your mercy fill my soul and wash away my envy.
When Your patience comes in, my impatience will vanish.
When Your grace fills me within, I can forgive.
All that Thou art, Lord Christ, with all Your shining
beauty, come this moment and fill me.

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 for his glory.

You were made for better things! You were not made to live in 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 the 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.

 Rise and Walk

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. Perhaps you have burning memories of recent moral failure. The truth is, we have all failed, and we have all sinned. No one has a perfect record in this area.

Do you feel defeated?
Do you think there is no hope for you?
Are you trapped by your past?

The pit is closer than we realize

Early in this sermon I spoke about the pit of moral filth that surrounds all of us. We’re all closer to that pit than we realize. Perhaps you stuck a toe in and couldn’t get it out. Or maybe you stuck your hands in and now your hands are stained and you can’t get them clean. Worse yet, perhaps you were standing by the pit, and someone grabbed you and pulled you in, and every time you try to climb out, they pull you back in.

Jesus says 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 to 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!

I can’t go back
I can’t stay here
I must go forward

Years ago I ran across this statement: “The key to a better future is to stop trying to have a better past.” That’s exactly right. Some of us need to face our past and say the truth: It is what it is. Remember the First Law of Spiritual Progress:

I can’t go back.
I can’t stay here.
I must go forward.

You can’t go back to change the past, and you can’t stay where you are because life is a river that flows ever onward, but by God’s grace you can decide to serve Jesus Christ from this day forward.

 An island of hope in a sea of despair

I believe God wants to raise up a generation of Christians who will walk in purity. Nothing will prove more convincing to the watching world than believers in Jesus who manage to be pure in this very dirty world.

He wants to create an island of hope in a sea of despair.
He has called us to be an island of light in a sea of darkness.

When we walk in purity, the world notices because people are looking for hope. When we dare to obey God, broken people will come crawling out of the darkness to join us in the light of the gospel of Christ. If we do our part, God will do the rest.

Lord Jesus, help us to be a pure generation so that broken people will know you can still change lives today. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?