As you’re being seated, please turn with me in your Bibles to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. We’ll be studying chapter 4, verses 1 through 8, of 1 Thessalonians this evening, and that’s found on page 987 if you’re using a pew Bible. Before we read this together, let’s pray and ask the Lord’s blessing.
Our great God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, this evening we once again cry out for fresh supplies of the Spirit to help us understand the Word that He has inspired, has kept free from any errors, that we might see Jesus and love Him as the beautiful One that He is. We know that in and of ourselves this would never happen, and so we ask for the sovereign Spirit to do that this evening, all for the glory and praise of our great Savior in whose name alone we humbly pray. Amen.
1 Thessalonians chapter 4 beginning at verse 1. This is God’s inerrant Word:
“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. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”
Thus ends the reading of God’s Word. May He add His blessing to it!
One of my great memories growing up was my mom’s garden in our home in South Carolina and wherever we lived, but particularly as I was growing up she always had a garden and she would always take a lot of time working in that garden. I remember one day coming home from school when I wasn’t that old and I had come in the backyard and she was, as usual, working in the garden. And she had put up a very close fence around an area of the garden. And I asked her what she was doing? She explained to me that there was a certain kind of flower she was planting, that a certain kind of weed that grew there would get at the flower unless there was a fence around where it was growing. No idea what it was! Don’t ask me, I’m not a gardener! But I remember that. And as I was thinking about the text before us here this evening, it reminded me of what one author said about our sexuality. He said it’s a lot like a garden. And in the Word of God, especially in this passage like the one before us tonight, the Word of God acts as a fence to protect what is good and beautiful about that sexuality that we have from God, from being spoiled by what is ugly and deformed and awful in this sinful world.
So here we are in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. The title of our study is, “How To Live in the Last Days.” One of the things we’ve seen is the last days, according to Paul and the other New Testament writers, refers to that time between the two comings of Jesus, and so they’ve been going on for the past two thousand years and in this letter now we’ve come to the point where, it’s really a turning point. Paul is now going to give practical application for what he’s been teaching. I hope you notice the order of his epistle here. He never strays from it! He first of all tells you what God has done for you. What God has done for you. And now we can put it this way - he’s going to tell us what to do about it. And again, he never reverses that order, for to reverse that order would be to lose the Gospel. It’s never reversed! He doesn’t tell you what to do and then tell you what’s been done. He says, “Here’s what Jesus and God have acted to do for you. Now here’s what I call you to do about it.” And in the Thessalonians’ day and in our day, the societal problems are almost the same. In the hyper-sexualized context in which we live, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or anywhere else in the West, Paul would find that the society was just like he was writing to here in Thessalonica. Some of the same kind of sin, some of the same kind of pressing problems. And it appears that these Thessalonians had asked Paul, “Okay, if Jesus has come and is coming again, what about the rampant sexual immorality around us? How are we supposed to live in light of that?” And we can ask that same question today. “How should we live, Paul?” He gives us the answer this evening.
The main thing I want you to see from these eight verses is pretty simple. Paul calls the sexually broken to pursue holiness by His grace. Paul calls the sexually broken to pursue holiness by God’s grace. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. In verse 1 through the first part of verse 6, we’ll look at the way of grace for the sexually broken. The way of grace of the sexually broken. And then in the latter half of verse 6 to the end of the section in verse 8 - the reason for pursuing grace for sexual brokenness. The reason for pursing grace for sexual brokenness.
- The way of grace for the sexually broken.
So then first of all, the way of grace for the sexually broken. Look at 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.” Now that word there translated “finally” is a little bit misleading and it’s led to, of course, endless jokes about what preachers mean when they say, “Finally,” and then go on for another twenty minutes! And Paul goes on for another two chapters, so consider yourself lucky! What this word actually better translated means is, “as for other matters.” It’s not that he’s drawing a conclusion; he’s now turning his attention to certain questions that appear to be asked of him. And as he begins to do that, notice what he says. “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus.” And what Paul is doing here is wonderful. He’s saying, “These are not my opinions.” And he’s going to bookend this section with a very similar phrase at the end in verse 8. Did you notice that? “Whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God.” We’ll get to that in a moment! But Paul bookends these instructions about our sexuality saying, “This is not my opinion.” And one of the things that you’ll find in the apostle’s writing is an acute awareness of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit guiding and directing him as he wrote, as he’s giving these instructions to the believers, as he’s writing about God’s grace to them. It’s never his opinion! The Bible is not a book of opinions! It’s not man’s highest reaching after the divine. It’s a revelation from above coming down to us below to tell us about who God is. It’s not the opposite of that as so many want to tell us today.
Our Lives Demonstrate the Reality of Our Faith
And notice what he calls us to do - “that as you receive from us how you ought to walk.” And then he explains that by that next phrase, “and to please God.” For Paul, that word “walk” figures preeminently in his theology of how we are to live life. For Paul, the walk refers to “our dominant trajectory” as one theologian put it. What does that mean? What is the trajectory your life is on? That’s why he uses the metaphor of a walk. When you’re walking, you’re heading somewhere, generally speaking. We’re not walking aimlessly. He’s saying our lives are like a walk and they’re either in the direction towards more Christlikeness or in the direction away from that. And so he says, “We ask and urge you that as you walk, as you learn to please God,” and notice what he does then - not only is Paul going to instruct, but he encourages - “just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” He’s saying, “You’re doing this, but I want you to do more and more.” And this really answers what we saw a few weeks ago in chapter 3 verse 10 as he said to them then, “I want to supply what is lacking in your faith.” This is what he’s going to tell us about. This is that supply of what they needed further instruction on. He says, “It’s about your walk with God, about your life, your shared life as it were, with God.” Our lives, for the Apostle Paul, demonstrate the reality of our faith. That’s what he’s saying.
And then he goes on to say, verse 2, “For you know what instructions we gave you,” notice again, “through the Lord Jesus.” Why does he put that there again? Because of what he’s about to say. He’s telling us in so many words, “God cares deeply about what you do with your body, about what I do with my body.” It matters greatly to him! We are en-fleshed creatures! We are not those who believe there’s some radical separation between mind and body to the point that, to be really spiritual, you need to disregard the body. God made our bodies! He gave them to us. It was his idea to do the whole body thing! And so He loves them and calls us to use them in a way that it evidences that we have been redeemed by Christ.
What is God’s Will for your Life?
Then he goes on in verse 3 and here is the answer to the age old question. Countless pages of ink have been spilled on this and I have the answer for you tonight. You may not even have known this when you walked in the sanctuary but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, not 8-ball needed, no divining needing, no tarot cards needed - what is the will of God for your life? Paul tells you right here. Here’s the answer everybody’s looking for! What am I supposed to do with my life? He tells us, verse 3, “this is the will of God, your sanctification.” What does he mean by that word, “sanctification”? It really is a word that means “being set apart.” And if we kind of tweak that a little bit further, what Paul means by it is very simply, when you’re sanctified or being sanctified, you’re being continually set apart from the world to God by His grace and by His grace alone. As our catechism puts it, “Sanctification is a work of God’s free grace whereby we are enabled more and more to die unto sin and to live unto righteousness.” So we’re dying to sin, living to righteousness, being separated from the world and separated to God.
Abstain From Sexual Immorality
And then he gets very specific to us in three ways in this context. What does this mean? How are these Thessalonian believers, how are we to evidence this walk, this being set apart from the world to God? He gives three specific ways. Look at the first part of verse 3. “That you abstain from sexual immorality.” And the word that Paul uses here refers to any kind of sexual activity outside the marital bond of one man and one woman for life. Anything outside of that Paul says is sexual immorality. Interesting, the Greek word used here is where we get our word pornography from. Quite literally, if we were to take the English word, “pornography,” it means “sexually immoral writings.” Pornea is the Greek word; graphe is the Greek word for “writing.” That’s the root word Paul is using here. Sexual immorality; you abstain from that.
Control Your Own Body in Holiness and in Honor.
And then in verse 4 he gives the next instruction. He says, “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” And what Paul does now is magnify the previous verse. No sexual immorality - what does that mean then? He says that, “each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and in honor.” Did you see that contrast? Do it this way, not like you see going on all around you. Control your own body. Gain mastery over it. That’s what he’s saying, “Not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles; in holiness and in honor.” Now if you think it’s bad today, read some accounts of 1st century Rome and what was going on in Paul’s day. And the people he is writing to are people who have come out of horrible sexual immorality, all kinds of wickedness. And Paul is saying to them, “You are going to stand out like a sore thumb in the society around you when you start living for Jesus.” Is that not such a contemporary word for us today, beloved? Is this not exactly what we find in the society around us? Does that not describe it perfectly - “in passion of lust”? I mean, everything around us is calculated to arouse lust in us, in our advertising, in our movies, music. Those things are not bad, but we have to recognize what it is. They can cross over into sin. We need to be discerning. Paul says, “You’re surrounded by it and I want you to live a certain way. This is what God’s will for us is. This is how it turns out.”
Now what’s remarkable, an interesting fact about this verse is, scholars have looked at ethical writers during Paul’s time of life, different ethicists of the 1st century in the Greek and Roman worlds, and there’s no record of any of them teaching things like holiness and sanctification. That concept is functionally absent from Roman and Greek writing. They’ll speak about the good life; they’ll speak about the highest virtue. They never speak about sanctification, holiness, and pursing these things in holiness and in honor. It’s unique to what Paul and his Jewish forbearers were speaking of. So Paul is telling them to do something radical in this society and he’s telling us the same thing. Better, the Lord Jesus, through Paul, is telling us that!
If you’re in the younger category tonight, so often there’s that rebellious stage, right? We want to be radical. Let me say this! If you want to be truly radical, be a Christian! If you want to find out what being radical means, it’s not going to be the length of your hair, how many tattoos you have, or what you music you listen to, because that’s all going to change and go in and out of style. If you want to be truly revolutionary, follow what Paul is telling us by the Holy Spirit here to do. That’s what it means to be a true radical! It is radical in its teaching then, and now. You want to be set apart and be somebody who gives a protest to the world? Follow Paul’s guidelines for sexuality here by the power of the Holy Spirit. You see, everything around us says this. It says, “Do what you want with your body!” Isn’t that the message to us today? “Your body is your own; do with it as you please!” But the Gospel says to us, “Do what Christ calls you to do with your body because His was broken for yours. That’s the difference between the Gospel and everything else. Do what you want versus do what Christ calls you to do because His body was broken for yours.
Do not Take Another Person’s Spouse
Then there’s that last “that” phrase there in verse 6. “That no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.” That word he uses here literally means, “to defraud.” That verb, “wrong,” literally means, “to defraud.” Paul says if we’re involved in any kind of sexual immorality outside the bonds of marriage, we are quite literally stealing from the other person, defrauding that other person. Human sexuality is a precious gift from God, and Paul says that when we act outside of His wise, loving, and good restraint, we are stealing from another human being that which can never be replaced. And that’s why it’s such a serious matter for God. He says, “Don’t be spousal thieves! Don’t be stealing from other human beings!”
Now what in general is Paul giving us this instruction for before we look at the second point? Remember what he prayed for us as we looked at that last week? “That we may abound in love for one another and for all.” Paul’s now applying that! What does it mean to abound for one another and for all? Right here: Don’t defraud! Don’t do things to other people that God has not called you to do with your sexuality. Follow what He says! That’s one of the best ways to show love today, and we have such a twisted view of intimacy and love because of the rampant over-sexualization and pagan immorality running amuck in our society that we have lost what it means to love Biblically. And Paul wants to restore that. The Spirit speaking through Paul says you and I are to love one another well by protecting and gaining mastery over our bodies and using them the way God has intended.
- The Reasons for Pursuing Grace for Sexual Brokenness.
And then in the second place, Paul gives us a reason to do this. Look at the latter part of verse 6. These are the reasons for pursuing grace for sexual brokenness. “Because the Lord is an avenger in all these things as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” Here’s the first reason Paul says to pursue grace. We’ll talk about that here in a moment, what we mean by “pursuing grace.” Why does he tell us to do it? Because the Lord is an avenger for those who violate His commands in this regard. From Genesis to Revelation, when you read the Bible, God singles out sexual sin as one of the key evidences of who we belong to - Satan or Jesus. Put more simply, eternity is at stake in your bedroom! That’s what Paul is saying! That’s why this is such a serious matter for us to consider here this evening. And think about our society today. If we have any doubt that we are living in one of the most sexual immoral times in the history of the world, 1% of this country self-identifies as homosexual and this past summer 1% influenced how the law will be applied to the other 99%. It’s a watershed moment!
But you see, the rise of the homosexual lobby is really just the outgrowth of the sexual immorality of the 1960s, isn’t it? Because once we get to the 60s with all kinds of rampant heterosexual immorality that paved the way for Roe vs. Wade in 1973, when we have “unintended consequences” called human beings. When we violate these commands and we get “the right,” the despicable, blood on all of our hands, “right,” to kill those unintended consequences called people, image-bearers, which further paves the way for one year later after Roe vs. Wade for No-Fault Divorce, when we get to divorce people we are tired of having sex with, and go get to do it with whoever we want. Do you see what’s happening all around us, the absolute breakdown of any kind of Christian understanding of how we are to use our bodies? And it has one theme, and one theme in common across the board, any kind of sexual sin - it is a direct overturning of what Paul is saying here. It is seeking to pursue self-gratification instead of glorifying God with our bodies. Instead of loving others well, it turns inward and loves itself, the very opposite of Biblical love, the very opposite of what God designed marriage for.
Christians can Glorify God in Their Marriages
And one of the things that we are called to do as we live in a society like this as Christians is to celebrate the goodness of marital love between one man and one woman for life. If you’re married here tonight, that’s what God has called you to. It’s what glorifies Him in this world around us. If you aspire to be married, settle for nothing less than the real thing. That’s what Paul is saying - a marriage that brings glory to God in every facet and resists the hyper-sexualized society around us. Only the Spirit can do this beloved, only the Spirit can produce this in our lives. That is what we are called to do. And so what we do with our bodies matters more than we can possibly fathom. Have you considered that? We tend to think, “No big deal. Everybody else is doing these kinds of things,” and Paul calls us back to reality tonight. That’s how he finishes there in verse 8. If we decide and say to God, “I don’t care what your Word says. I’m going to do whatever feels right.” That’s the motto today - “Do whatever feels right.”
The Spirit’s Power to Overcome Sexual Brokeness
Look at what verse 8 says. “Therefore” - here’s the conclusion to this section on teaching - “whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” You turn away from this, you’re putting your fingers in your ears when God is speaking to you about how you’re supposed to live with your body. And then did you notice the note of grace Paul finishes on there? Isn’t that marvelous and hopeful? “Who gives his Holy Spirit to you?” God gives this! He gives us the power to change, He alone! It’s only the Holy Spirit that can do that. It’s not pulling ourselves up by our bootstrap kind of religion here. It’s the Spirit working in and through us by His Word to change, to bring glory to God in all of these things Paul has just given us. That’s what we mean by pursuing grace for sexual brokenness.
Jesus Helps the Sexually Broken
Now then, what do we say to these things? Does Jesus help the sexually broken? That’s a big question. I haven’t been in pastoral ministry too terribly long, but long enough to tell you one of the biggest things, biggest struggles, without exception - age range, race, class - that people struggle with, is shame. Shame leads to covering up that shame, whether through addictions, through any kind of self-medication, whatever it is! And so much shame that we experience in this life comes from how we have used our bodies, whether for the glory of God or in sexual immorality. And so the question is, “Does Jesus help the sexually broken?” Do you know that the best news in the world is, “Yes!” a resounding, “Yes!” How? He lived a perfectly pure life every day He was alive. We need to meditate on that often. It needs to fill us with joy that every moment of His life when “He was tempted, as we are, in every way” - that’s what the author of Hebrews says, “in every way.” Our Savior was a healthy man! He was tempted in ways that include these kind of temptations that we see in this text before us tonight, and He obeyed perfectly at every point for your sake and for mine to cover that shame. As Paul put it elsewhere, “obeyed to the point of death” to cover that shame. That shame, if it’s brought to the cross, is atoned for; it’s gone. It’s covered by the blood of Jesus, never to be brought up again, no matter how much the tempter, no matter how much the accuser of the brethren brings it up to your conscience, we have the blood of Jesus, we have the life of Jesus, we have the perfect obedience of Jesus to cover where our sin brings shame. That is amazing! That alone, that great fact, that historical fact, my friends, that is the resource for change, by God’s grace, by the power of the Spirit.
And that’s the other way He helps us. God gives His holy Spirit to us. And elsewhere He’d tell the Romans, what that means in such rich terms, “it is the Spirit of adoption by which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” This same Holy Spirit who is working in us to obey these instructions to glorify God with our bodies that we don’t come into judgment like Paul is warning about is the Spirit that assures us we are His beloved, adopted children, no longer exiles, no longer left out of the wedding feast, no longer cast away by our sin. Brought into the family, given the Holy Spirit to begin to bear the family resemblance - that’s what sanctification is! It is beginning daily, day by day, moment by moment, to bear the resemblance of Jesus our older brother, as His younger brothers, as it were, adopted into the family of God. Adoption that will never be changed by our past, our present, or our future. Adoption that continues on through eternity. Adoption that says to us, “I love you too much to leave you where you are tonight. I am at work in you,” God says, “to change you.” That is why He gave the Holy Spirit. That is good news for us! The most horrific thing I can think of doing would be to preach this passage and not say anything about that because you would walk out of here and I would walk out of here very discouraged. The power is available through the blood of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit.
Three Steps Towards Healing: Confession and Repentance
So what are some concrete ways that this happens in our lives? Let me give three. First, how do we heal from sexual brokenness? What are the steps, what are some of the steps to a pathway towards healing? First, confession. Confession and repentance. We live in a time where it’s so easy to cover it up - smartphones, tablets, whatever it is. Take radical steps. Here’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Cut off your right hand if it makes you sin or pluck out your right eye.” He meant, get away from the internet if you have to for a little bit. It’s better to not have wi-fi and go into heaven with your body whole than to watch things through wi-fi on the smartphone and be cast into hell. That may not be for everybody here, but if this is an area where you struggle and you’re looking at things you’re not supposed to be looking at, take radical steps. Confession and repentance are cleansing! Read Psalm 51, speaking of horrific sexual sin which led to murder and led to manipulation and brought the downfall of the Davidic dynasty. What gave David release, but he said, “I came to you, God, and you healed and restored me.” That’s the promise of the Gospel for all of us - healing, restoration by confession and repentance and it’s all brought about by God’s sweet, sweet grace.
Second thing. We need to have help from other Christians. That’s what we talked about last week. We need each other! We need each other! Isn’t it amazing! I was talking to a friend about this text this week, wrestling with how to preach it, and he said to me, he said, “Isn’t it amazing that we will sit in movie theaters or watching Netflix, and watch perfect strangers be intimate with one another, often, and we have a hard time talking about our own struggles with fellow believers who we will spend eternity with?” That hit me like a lightning bolt! We’ve got to be the kind of place where we can talk about these things because it’s going to eat up our children. As a dad of three daughters, one of the hardest things I pray, and one of the things I pray often, is I hope they don’t meet a man like me before I met Jesus. I hope they don’t meet someone like me before I met the Lord Christ! And I pray daily that they would marry a man who is not addicted to pornography because it’s epidemic, and there’s all kinds of other sexual sin that’s running rampant. And it is our children’s heritage that is at stake here, my friends. And the only way that we’re going to see this change is as Holy Spirit power comes on the Gospel and makes people love Jesus more than sexual sin. As we heard about this morning so marvelously, when Christ becomes more beautiful than the most beautiful body on earth, that’s when we’re going to see a reversal, and that only happens as the Spirit is outpoured and works in our lives.
Receive the Grace of Jesus
Third thing. Receive the grace of Jesus. Walk with Him through the pages of the gospels and notice who He loves to spend time with, loves. I remember Dr. Duncan saying once, “Isn’t it fascinating that the most intense and longest conversation Jesus ever had on worship was not with a rabbi, but with a serial adulteress?” John 4 - the woman at the well. Your Savior, my Savior, spent more time with sexually broken people than just about anybody else and He’s still doing it today. He’s still holding out that same hope He held out two thousand years ago in that society that was as broken, as devastated by these kind of sins as ours is, if not more so. The same grace is available, the same Savior looks at us tonight and says to you, “I have grace plenty for you, no matter where you are.” And you may feel trapped and enslaved tonight in the passion of lust, but the cross is good news for you.
It reminds me of a movie. Some of you may have seen it; it’s older now. It was in the 80s, late 70s, 80s - The Killing Fields. Horrific story about a New York Times reporter and his Cambodian assistant who went to the time of the Cambodian revolution and were taking photographs. And the Cambodian assistant of this New York Times reporter who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize is captured by the Marxist revolutionaries and from there, it’s horrific. He’s beaten, he tries to escape, he’s beaten even worse. He finally gets out of the death camp and he’s making his way through the jungle. He’s got two friends with him, they both are killed, and he’s scratching out in existence, hiding from these revolutionaries. And there’s this wonderful scene in that movie where the music comes to a climax and he emerges from the jungle into a clearing and he goes out into the clearing and looks down I think, if I remember correctly, and he sees a camp and he realizes that he’s come out of the Cambodian border. And the music shows his face as he sees a Red Cross flag. He knows he’s safe. He knows he’s free now. And everything on his face - it’s a masterpiece of acting - screams, “Freedom!” as he looks and sees that he is finally out of the nightmare that he has been living. And when it comes to being in bondage to this kind of sin, my friends, don’t give up. We’re just almost to that clearing and we don’t just simply see a red cross on a flag, we come to the true Red Cross with the blood of Jesus that covers all our sin so that every one of us can walk out of here tonight with that glorious word on our lips, “Freedom! Freedom!” in Christ alone. Let us pray.
Father, our hearts yearn to breathe the free air of grace that releases us from what we have already been saved from, for what Your Son hung on the cross for. We ask now that You would give us the Holy Spirit to live what we have heard and what Your Word calls us to do, always remembering that great verse from the Old Testament that You rejoice over us with loud shouts of joy and with singing. Thank You for that great reality tonight. We ask this all in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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