1 Thessalonians 4: 1 - 8
There are not many things from which the Bible tells us to abstain. The word itself is used only 7 times in the NT — 3 times in the book of Acts, once in 1 Timothy and once in 1 Peter. The other 2 times are found in 1 Thessalonians.
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. End of story. We may debate the proper application, but the command itself is crystal-clear.
As I read these words, 2 things come to mind: 1. This is so obvious that I wonder why Paul mentions it. 2. 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.
Billy Graham used to comment 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. 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. 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 . . . gay churches . . . . What has happened in America and the Western world? It has happened and is happening in South Africa. 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.
1. Two Words We Need to Understand
A. 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.
B. Sexual immorality - Greek word porneia -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.
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.
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. In the Western world today, the most radical thing a person can do is to be the husband of one wife or the wife of one husband.
2. Two Commands We Must Obey
One positive and one negative. We must take each one to heart if we are going to be clean in a very dirty world.
A. Control your own body v. 4, 5
Do not be ashamed of the sexual urges you feel. 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.
It’s what you do with those urges that matters. The world tells you to indulge yourself, to go for it, 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.
Paul speaks of 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 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!
B. Don’t cheat another person v. 6a
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.
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.
3. Three Facts God Wants You to Know
A. God will punish those who practice immorality v. 6b
Sometimes we read verses like this and think, “God will send down lightning from heaven.” Well, he certainly could do that. 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 accelerator instead. Ignoring all the warnings, he plunges over the cliff at 180 kmh, hurtling to his own death, taking his passengers with him.
Sometimes God punishes the body, sometimes the mind, 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. “Porn becomes the path of least resistance in the brain.” This, too, is the judgment of God.
B. God has called us to purity 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.
C. Rejecting purity means rejecting God v. 8
To reject means to treat with utter contempt. We can’t have it both ways. 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 pastors nor the elders nor the deacons nor the members. 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!
v. 8b - “God who gives you his Holy Spirit.” 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!
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 grace fill me within, then I can forgive.
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.
I am aware that some of you 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?
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.
I can't go back - I can't stay here - I must go forward
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.”