I Thessalonians 4:1-8
One summer, we were enjoying ourselves at the lake. Someone said, let’s go for a walk down the beach. So we got up, headed for the shoreline and started walking down the beach. Where were we headed? No where in particular. How did we prepare for this walk, did we break in a pair of hiking boots or carefully put on socks and shoes? We didn’t, we just walked barefoot. The adventure was unplanned and aimless.
Recently, a friend of ours hiked the Pacific Rim Trail in BC. He planned and prepared. He examined the starting point and the destination on a map. He prepared footwear, clothing, food and all other gear. He knew where he was going and was careful in how he hiked the trail.
If, in your life, you are taking a walk down the beach without any destination in mind, it doesn’t really matter how you go, but if you have decided that you are going to heaven, how you walk, or live your life now is very important.
Last week, we noted the wish prayer of Paul in which he prayed for the Thessalonians that they would increase in love for each other and that they would be strengthened to be blameless and holy. To summarize, he wants them to learn, “how to live in order to please God” as he says in 4:1. He goes on to expands on the two themes mentioned in the wish prayer. In 4:3-8, he expands on the call to be holy and in verses 9-12 he expands on the call to love one another.
There is a transition that takes place in 4:1. Up to this point, he has reflected on his relationship to them, on the relationship they have to the Lord and on his concern for them. Now he becomes specific as he begins to teach so that he can fulfill what he mentioned in 3:10 and that is to “supply what is lacking in your faith.”
It isn’t that they haven’t been doing these things. He recognizes that they have been living in a way that is pleasing to the Lord, but with the teaching that is now coming up in the rest of the book, he is simply encouraging them to, as he says in 4:1, “do so more and more.”
As he instructs them, he does not demand anything, but uses two words to urgently encourage them to do what is the best thing to do. He continues his role as a parent, lovingly encouraging his children to obedience. As he does so, he assures them that his instructions are not human instructions, but they come to them, and to us, by the authority of the Lord.
I. Living To Please The Lord.
A. God’s Will
Have you ever asked yourself, “I wish I knew what God’s will was.” The implication is that if we know it, we will do it. I suspect that most of us have wished that we could have a revelation that was as clear as God’s will revealed to Moses at the burning bush or to Gideon. In this passage, we are told what God’s will is in clear and simple terms.
There is a concept in mathematics that deals with sets and subsets. It can be illustrated like this. Overhead on sets and subsets. All the people in the church building on Sunday morning during the Sunday School hour is the set. The subsets of all those people are each class. If we apply that mathematical concept to this text of scripture, we begin with the set of what is God’s will. There are a lot of things that are God’s will - it is God’s will that people accept his gift of salvation, it is God’s will that his church be built and do on. These are all subsets of the set that defines God’s will. Another subset of God’s will is that which is defined here. Verse 3 says, “it is God’s will that you should be holy.” Verse 7 reiterates, “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”
B. Be Holy
Three times in this passage, we are told to be holy. In verse 3, 4 & 7. The word holy means “set apart.” It means that we are not like other people. How did we come to be different? Because God has forgiven our sins, we are made holy. Even though that is true, we still need to put in an effort to be holy. How do we understand holiness in our lives?
Holiness means to be set apart in every part of our being. First and foremost, we need to be holy in our hearts. Holiness of heart means that we worship God alone. Holiness singleness of direction. That one direction, once we have chosen to follow God is towards God. In Exodus 20:1-5, this kind of holiness is described: “I am the LORD your God, …You shall have no other gods before me….You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” I Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” If there is anything we worship other than God, we are not holy in our hearts.
Holiness also means that we have a pure mind. Any thought which is not conformed to Christ is a thought which violates the holiness of God in us. Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Furthermore, holiness means being pure in our physical bodies. Our physical bodies are not irrelevant. Jesus was raised up physically and so will we be. To separate what happens in our bodies and think that it doesn’t matter is a violation of God’s holiness in us. To be holy in our body means that we do nothing to violate the purity of our body. This would include overindulgence in anything and harmful habits like smoking and so on.
C. Avoid Sexual Immorality
The large set is God’s will. A subset of God’s will is that he calls his people to be holy. But this passage goes one step further in presenting a subset of holiness. It calls for the Thessalonians to “avoid sexual immorality” in 4:3.
We do not know exactly why Paul focuses specifically on this aspect of holiness. We already know that he did not have much opportunity to finish teaching them everything Jesus commanded.
Furthermore, there were values in their culture and in their background related to sexuality that needed to be reformed into the image of Christ. One writer describes the culture in which they had grown up: “The professional “friend” became a common figure in Greek society, and since intercourse was regarded as just as natural as eating and drinking, extramarital affairs were permitted for husbands. Yet excess was censured, and Plato defended intercourse with harlots only as long as it is secret and causes no offense. Demosthenes apparently 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.” This was not the view of all people in the Greek nation at that time. Stoicism condemned and resisted extramarital intercourse, even with female slaves. They believed that by unclean acts a person defiled the deity within. Chastity was extolled and adultery regarded as unlawful and infamous. Yet the view held by Plato and Demosthenes was common enough that we can surmise that sexual morals were quite loose and that may be why Paul had to teach these Gentile believers what it meant to live in holiness.
When the Jerusalem counsel, in Acts 15, dealt with how the Gentiles were to behave now that it had been demonstrated that they were also welcome in the kingdom of God, the letter they sent to the Gentile churches dealt with this issue and counseled in Acts 15:20, “…we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, and so on.” Paul was simply carrying out this instruction from the home church in Jerusalem when he called them to this aspect of holiness.
When we look at the values of our society, it is clear that we need to make comments about this aspect of holiness again today. Our society does not frown on sex before marriage and is quite tolerant of pornography. When we realize that, and understand that we are to be different, it is important to be reminded once again that we are called to holiness.
II. How Can We Be Holy?
It is God’s will that we be holy. But, the temptations to unholiness around us answer so readily to the desires of our heart, mind and body. How is it possible to be holy?
Although I Thessalonians 4:4 is translated in different ways, I believe that the NIV translation is probably best considering the context and provides us with direction in answering the question of how. Paul says, “each one should learn to control his own body”
A. Know Yourself
This statement implies two things. The first thing we need to learn in order to control our own body and mind and heart, is to learn to know ourselves. We need to know what things tempt us and when and how. All of us are different and not everything provides the same struggle for everyone. What, how, when, where are the questions we need to ask of ourselves in regards to our temptations in order to learn to know ourselves. Bruce Wilkinson teaches us to discover our “Tempt ability Quotient.” We need to ask:
1. Which day during your week are you tempted to sin the most?
2. What time of the day are you tempted to sin the most?
3. Where are you when you are tempted to sin the most?
4. Who is nearby when you are tempted to sin the most?
5. What type of sins are you tempted to commit the most?
6. How do you feel right before that sin?
7. Why does this sin give you what you want?
These are excellent questions and if we are honest in answering these questions, we will develop an understanding of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Until we know where we are weak, we will not know how to overcome those weaknesses.
B. Learn To Control Yourself
The statement implies a second thing and that is that it is not enough to know ourselves, we also need to develop strategies to control our lives so that we are not so susceptible to fall into temptation. There are several things that help us plan to control ourselves towards holiness.
Since we recognize certain times and places of weakness, it makes sense to compensate for those weaknesses. For example, if Friday evening is a common time of temptation, then planning something interesting and good for Friday evening would help us avoid the temptation. If we use a sin to compensate at times when we are discouraged, we need to substitute something else that will encourage us whenever we get those feelings.
Furthermore, if we are not filling our mind with the Word of God, we will leave it opened to all kinds of struggles. So Bible reading, meditation and study are very important as a way of focusing our understanding and strengthening our resolve.
Speaking to God by praising Him and seeking Him must form an essential communication in our life. The more securely we are related to the Holy One Himself, the more faithfully we will be able to walk in holiness.
An open relationship to other believers - participation in a church, participation in a small group and a more direct accountability to one or two brothers or sisters is very important. Those of you who are reading “The Purpose Driven Life” will come across the chapters on community and membership in church. The ideas in these chapters are excellent. If we hide from relationships with brothers and sisters and avoid accountability with other Christians, we are setting ourselves up to fall.
A servant attitude, in which we know that we represent Christ in our whole life and know that others are watching us and acknowledge that we are openly representing Christ wherever we go is also an important part of living in holiness.
III. Why Should We Be Holy?
So we have a strategy for holy living, but as much as a strategy, we need motivation.
A. Because of Our Call
Does it not help to remember that this is our call? Verse 7 says as much when it reminds us that God himself has called us to holy living. The call to be saved is the call of God to us to be God’s holy children.
Our life rests not on our initiative. We are under the call of God. If, by faith, we have responded to that call, we have agreed that we are a holy people who belong to a holy God.
B. Because Ungodliness Wrongs Our Brother
It seems to me that we would also be motivated when we remember the damage we do when we are not holy. Verse 6 says, “no one should wrong his brother.”
If we think about the matter of sexual immorality, it is quite clear how we wrong our brother or sister in this. In rape, a woman is wronged when a man abuses her by forcing himself on her. In adultery, at least four people are wronged. The man who commits adultery wrongs his wife above all, but also the woman with whom he commits adultery, her husband and also himself. In pre-marital sex, the people who engage in it wrong their future marriage partner by not offering a pure vessel to the marriage.
The same is true in other areas. Today we are glad that smoking is being attacked by our government. When a person smokes, they wrong their own body, their health, the life of anyone who is impacted by their illness or death and also all the people who have to breath second hand smoke because of their smoking.
Therefore, we should be holy because we do not want to wrong anyone else.
C. Because God Punishes Ungodliness
We don’t always think of it, but there is a future to consider. I Thessalonians 4:6 says, “The Lord will punish men for all such sins…”
Although God is merciful and quick to forgive, he remains a holy God who will judge those who refuse His way.
D. Because Ungodliness Is a Rejection Of God
Perhaps we can also be challenged when we realize that rejecting holiness isn’t the idea of people we are rejecting, but God’s idea. I Thessalonians 4:8 Paul says that if we are unwilling to choose the path of holiness, we are not rejecting the instruction of men, but rather, the instruction of God. It seems totally contradictory to me that once we have chosen to follow God and have put in our lot with Him, that we would then want to reject something so precious that belongs to God’s way. It seems totally out of character to say that we want to embrace God and rejoice in His acceptance, but then reject Him by our actions and lifestyle. It is clear that failing to walk in holiness is a matter that must be taken very seriously. It is no small thing to quench the way of God who has forgiven us and given us life.
E. Because God Has Given His Spirit
Have you ever watched a child knowingly disobey her parents. A young child may be in a room by herself. She is contemplating something which she has been told not to do - perhaps turn on the TV or stick a peanut butter sandwich in the VCR or play with a vase. As she contemplates her act, she looks around to see if mom is watching. She knows it is wrong, but if mom is not around she will do it. If she sees that mom is watching, she may still fight with the temptation, but she will not act on it.
If we knew that God was watching, would we walk into some of the unholy situations that we are tempted towards? Of course not! May we be motivated by the realization that God is much closer than watching. The final line of this section speaks about God, “who gives you his Holy Spirit.” God is living within us! How can we disobey Him?
Paul says a similar thing when talking about sexual immorality in another context. In I Corinthians 6:19 he says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…”
So the motivation to walk in holiness is certainly powerful. Will we walk in holiness?
I have sometimes heard about leaders who become frustrated with the slow progress of decision making and go ahead and do something with the excuse, “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.” That line of thought, although I have contemplated using it myself, is not right as a strategy for getting things done. It is even more serious as a strategy of life. If we have ever thought “I will sin and then later I can repent” we have gone into evil territory. We have not understand God’s holiness, we have not understood our salvation, we have not understood who we are in Christ, we have not understood our holiness and we have missed the point of God being in our life. God is gracious to forgive but we ought not to tempt his grace with unrighteousness. May we instead grow deeply in understanding who we are and what God has done for us so that we can walk in holiness every day.