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Lesson 11: Sexual Purity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8)

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October 9, 2016

Most of us have had trouble at times discerning the will of God. At those times, we’ve wished that God would just speak audibly, “My will is that you take the job that you’ve been offered.” Or, “My will is that you marry Suzy.” “Okay, God, I’ve got it!”

In our text, God plainly states His will for each of us in one important matter (1 Thess. 4:3): “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality.” There is no ambiguity in that: God wants you to be morally pure. He doesn’t command moral purity to deprive you of fun, but rather to increase your ultimate pleasure in Him. At His right hand are pleasures forever (Ps. 16:11). He designed the sexual relationship in marriage for our pleasure in Him. So, any violation of moral purity goes against God’s good and perfect will for your life. Any form of sexual immorality will hurt God’s name, hurt you, and hurt others. As the one who created sex, God tells us in His word both how sex can bless us and how it can harm us. His clearly stated will is that we abstain from sexual immorality.

But it’s safe to say that we live in a world where sexual temptation is more readily accessible than at any other time in history. When I was a young man, it wasn’t nearly as easy to view pornography as it is now. Then, you had to deliberately search it out, often in sleazy stores where you wouldn’t want to be caught dead. Now, it just takes a few clicks on your smartphone.

In 1988, before the internet or smartphones existed, Leadership journal (Winter, 1988, p. 24) did a survey on sex and the American clergy. Of the pastors responding to the survey, 20 percent said that they looked at sexually oriented print, video, or movies at least once a month! And 38 percent of these pastors said they find themselves fantasizing about sex with someone other than their spouse at least once a month.

The same survey found that 12 percent of pastors admitted to committing adultery since entering local church ministry! Leadership asked the same questions of readers of Christianity Today magazine who were not pastors. The incidences of immorality were nearly double, with 23 percent admitting to extramarital sex (p. 12)!

More than a decade ago, Al Mohler wrote (cited without reference by Ligon Duncan in a sermon on Eph. 5:3, June 4, 2006, at: fpcjackson.org/resources/sermons/Ephesians):

The statistics are truly frightening. According to industry studies, 70% percent of 18-24 year old men visit pornographic sites in a typical month. These young men represent something like one-fourth of all visitors to pornographic sites on the internet. The next largest group of users are young men in their 20’s and 30’s, 66% of whom report being regular users of pornography….

Today the average teenage boy is likely to have seen thousands of explicit sexual images, ranging across the spectrum of sexualities and perversions. Many of these boys and young men are driven by sexual fantasies that previous generations of young men would not have even known existed…. Today Americans rent more than 800 million pornographic videos and DVD’s every year. About 20% of all video rentals are pornographic. At least 11,000 pornographic videos are produced annually, amounting to revenue for the adult film industry estimated at between 5 and 10 billion dollars a year.

Of course, with the invention of the smartphone, those statistics are probably not nearly as high as they would be now. And if you think that Christian men are exempt from this temptation, you’re not in touch with reality. It is a huge problem in the evangelical church! And I’ve read that the problem exists among Christian women, also. So, as the Apollo 13 astronauts famously said, “Houston, we’ve got a problem!”

But, so did the Thessalonians. Granted, they didn’t have cell phones and the internet to tempt them. But they did live in a sexually promiscuous culture, where the goddess Aphrodite, who was among the most popular deities in Thessalonica, was the symbol of sexual license and the patroness of prostitutes (Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 35). Men could go to pagan temples and commit immorality with priestesses as an act of religious devotion. Various forms of extramarital sex were tolerated and even encouraged. F. F. Bruce (Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 82) writes,

A man might have a mistress who could provide him also with intellectual companionship; the institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine, while casual gratification was readily available from a harlot. The function of his wife was to manage his household and be the mother of his legitimate children and heirs.

So Paul’s commandments for sexual purity were as countercultural in that day as they are in ours. His message is crystal clear:

God’s will is for His people to be sexually pure by knowing Him and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

1. God’s will is for His people to be sexually pure or holy.

We saw in verses 1 & 2 that as believers, we are under obligation to walk and please God by obeying His commandments. Now, Paul specifically zeroes in on the need for sexual purity or holiness:

A. Holiness means to be set apart unto God, who called us out of darkness into His light.

“Sanctification” (NASB) means “holiness.” To be holy is to be set apart from this evil world unto God. Paul repeats the word three times in our text for emphasis (verses 3, 4, & 7). In verse 7, Paul links sanctification with our salvation: “For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.” God’s calling refers to His effectual call to salvation. He took the initiative to rescue us from His judgment and wrath by sending His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserve. But now, having been bought by the precious blood of Jesus, God commands us to be holy, even as He is holy (1 Pet. 1:14-16).

The Bible uses “sanctification” or “sanctify” in three senses: First, there is positional sanctification. Every believer is set apart in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11; Heb. 10:14). Second, there is progressive sanctification, the process by which we become holy in all our behavior (1 Pet. 1:14-15). Third, someday we all will achieve perfect sanctification, when Jesus returns and we will be like Him, with all traces of sin removed (1 John 3:1-3).

Dr. Ryrie used to illustrate this by a little girl with a lollipop. She wants it all for herself, but she sees her friend coming and is afraid that she will have to give it to her. So, she licks it all over. Now it is “positionally sanctified.” It belongs totally to her. Then she begins appropriating that lollipop for herself as she progressively licks it. Finally, it will be totally “conformed” to her, when she finishes it. In our text, verse 7 may be referring to our positional sanctification. God has called us in the sphere of sanctification, or holiness. But in verses 3 & 4, Paul is referring to our growth in holiness, which as we saw last time, comes from walking daily with the Lord. Specifically, here Paul focuses on sexual purity:

B. Holiness means abstaining from sexual immorality.

The Greek word (porneia) refers to any kind of sexual relation outside of heterosexual marriage. This includes sex before marriage, adultery, homosexuality, incest, prostitution, or bestiality (Green, p. 190; cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:9-11). Paul is not calling us to moderation of our sexual impulses, but to total abstinence outside of the marriage bond. As he wrote (Eph. 5:3-5):

But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

As Jesus made clear, sexual immorality begins on the heart or thought level. To look on a woman with lust is to commit adultery with her in your heart (Matt. 5:27). He also said (Mark 7:21-23),

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.

So to win the battle for sexual purity, you must control your thought life, which requires controlling what goes into your mind. You cannot look at sensuous movies or TV shows or internet content and be morally pure. You can’t avoid looking at all the sensuously dressed women who parade around in our culture, but you can avoid the second look. And, you can immediately redirect your thoughts by following Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” But, to do that requires control:

C. Holiness in the sexual realm requires self-control.

In verses 4 & 5, Paul explains what he means by abstaining from sexual immorality: “that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.” The problem is, Paul’s explanation is not exactly clear! There are two main views:

Some argue that “possess his own vessel” should be translated, “acquire his own vessel,” where “vessel” refers to a wife. Many godly Bible scholars hold to this view. The Greek verb as used elsewhere in the New Testament means “to acquire,” not to “possess” or “control.” This would line up with 1 Corinthians 7:9, where Paul teaches that if you lack self-control, you should marry rather than burn with lust. When Paul says that a Christian should “possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion,” he means that rather than basing marriage primarily on sexual attraction, as we often see in the Hollywood crowd, there should be a sanctity about the married relationship. It portrays the exclusive love that exists between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:22-33). Thus marriage should be held in honor and the marriage bed should be undefiled (Heb. 13:4; 1 Pet. 3:7).

The second view is that “vessel” refers to a person’s body and that “possess” has the meaning of “controlling, gaining mastery over, or keeping.” The verb can have that nuance (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 117). Paul’s other uses of “vessel” refer to persons or their bodies (e.g. Rom. 9:21-22; 2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:21). So Paul was exhorting not only the men (as the first view would imply), but both men and women to control their bodies by restricting sexual activity to one’s marriage partner (1 Cor. 6:15-7:9). I lean toward this view.

But both views require self-control in the sexual realm and Paul taught both views elsewhere. God gave heterosexual marriage as the legitimate place for sexual relations. And, whether single or married, both men and women need to control sexual lust, beginning on the thought level. We must guard our thought life and put a huge fence around our marriages as sacred. You may think that no one knows what you’re thinking or looking at, and that as long as you don’t get physically involved with a woman or man who is not your spouse, no one will get hurt. But that’s fallacious on two counts: First, God knows your heart and you can’t be close to Him while you’re entertaining sinful lust. Second, looking at porn or looking lustfully at women is like tolerating cracks in a dam beneath the water level. No one can see them but if they’re not fixed, eventually the dam will collapse and there will be a lot of damage. That leads to the second point:

2. Sexual sin among God’s people always causes damage.

A. Sexual sin hurts God’s name.

God is holy and He is identified with His people. When pro­fessing Christians engage in sexual immorality, it drags God’s holy name through the mud in the eyes of the watching world. This is especially true when Christian leaders are caught in sin. The world mocks and shrugs off the claims of the gospel as a joke. It gives occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme (2 Sam. 12:14).

B. Sexual sin hurts the sinner himself.

Contrary to what is often said, all sin is not the same. Paul says that the immoral man sins against his own body (1 Cor. 6:18). Those who engage in homosexual sin, whether men or women, dishonor their bodies and “receive in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom. 1:24-27). God’s moral laws are like the traffic laws: you can disobey them for a while and perhaps get where you want to go faster. But sooner or later, you’ll come around a curve too fast, hit a pole, and suffer the consequences. God’s laws are designed by the wise Creator to protect us.

C. Sexual sin hurts many others.

This is probably what Paul means when he says (1 Thess. 4:6), “and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter….” To have sexual relations with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband is to transgress against the innocent spouse and defraud him or her. To violate an unmarried woman is to hurt her and to defraud her future husband of her virginity. Implicit in the word “defraud” (related to the word for “greed”) is that sexual sin is inherently selfish. You’re taking advantage of the other person for your own pleasure or benefit. You may rationalize it by saying that it was by mutual agreement and for mutual pleasure. But you’re deceiving yourself. If you have children or grandchildren, your sexual sin hurts them by robbing them of your godly example. It hurts other church members by damaging the reputation of Christians in the community. As David’s sin with Bathsheba shows, he paid an awful price with his family and with his kingdom for a night of sinful pleasure. But Paul ups the ante:

3. God will bring judgment on those who are sexually impure.

Paul adds (1 Thess. 4:6b), “because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.” Then in verse 8, he adds the warning, “So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.” This reminds me of the severe warning in Hebrews 10:26-31:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 13:4 also warns, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” Perhaps you’re wondering, “I thought that Christians were totally forgiven. I thought that we were under grace. But that doesn’t sound very gracious!”

If a genuine Christian falls into these sins and repents, God will forgive his sin, but He may not remove the consequences (as with David’s sin). But if someone professes to be a Christian, but habitually engages in sexual immorality, he may be deceived in calling himself a Christian. The Bible repeatedly warns that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-6). These strong warnings show that true Christians are susceptible to sexual immorality. But, true Christians will be miserable when they sin and cannot continue in sin (1 John 3:9). To reject God’s clear warnings indicates that the person does not truly know Him. So, how, then can a Christian be sexually pure?

4. To be sexually pure, you must know God and walk by the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit.

More could be added for a comprehensive strategy against sexual sin, but here Paul mentions these two things:

A. To be sexually pure, you must know God.

Paul contrasts Christian sexual purity with “the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:5). To be a true Christian means that you have come to know God through Jesus Christ (John 17:3; Gal. 4:9). In 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Paul says that when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven, He will deal “out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” In Romans 1, those whom God gives over to suffer the consequences of their sin knew about God, since His attributes are evident through creation, but they suppress the truth in unrighteousness and do not honor God as God or give thanks. He goes on to add (Rom. 3:18), “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” If we truly know God, we fear Him, hate evil, and turn away from sin (Job 28:28; Ps. 97:10; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10).

B. To be sexually pure, you must walk by the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit.

Paul mentions (v. 8) in passing (indicating that he also taught them this truth) that God “gives His Holy Spirit to you.” He uses a Greek construction that emphasizes “Holy” (literally, “His Spirit, the Holy One”). In Galatians 5:16, Paul writes, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” He goes on to enumerate some of those sinful desires, which include immorality, impurity, and sensuality. He adds that one fruit of the Holy Spirit is self-control. So a daily step-by-step walk of dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit is the key to resisting sexual temptation and developing sexual purity.

There are several aspects of this to keep in mind: First, the Holy Spirit is a gracious, undeserved gift. When you think about the fact that you deserved God’s judgment, but He chose you and called you to salvation and gave you His Holy Spirit to live in you, it will make you hate your sin and turn from it.

Second, the Holy Spirit is holy! As the eternal third person of the trinity, He is the one of whom the angels cover their faces in His presence as they say (Isa. 6:3), “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” He is light and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). His eyes are too pure to approve evil (Hab. 1:13). Peter exhorts (1 Pet. 1:14-16), “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”

Third, this Holy Spirit dwells in you. If you think about that when you’re tempted to click on that porn site or entertain lustful thoughts about a woman, you would immediately cut off your hand or pluck out your eye (Matt. 5:27-30). As David Powlison wrote (Sex and the Supremacy of Christ [Crossway], ed. by John Piper & Justin Taylor, p. 105), “The only way you ever sin is by suppressing God, by forgetting, by tuning out his voice, switching channels, and listening to other voices.”

Fourth, remember that your sin grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). “Grieve” is an emotional love-word. When you sin against someone who loves you, that person grieves. To sin against the Holy Spirit who sealed you for the day of redemption is to grieve the God who gave His Son to save you.

Conclusion

So if you know the Lord, His clearly stated will is for you to be sexually pure by the power of His Holy Spirit. If you are defeated by sexual sin, take whatever radical measures are necessary to get on the path to sexual purity. As John Owen put it (The Works of John Owen, Vol. 6, “Temptation and Sin” [Banner of Truth], p. 9), “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

Application Questions

  1. Some professing Christians argue that the Bible permits committed, loving homosexual relationships. To deny them this would mean that they cannot fulfill their sexual desires. How would you counter this with Scripture?
  2. Some Christians justify going to R-rated movies by saying, “I need to understand where our culture is at.” Your response?
  3. Some argue that genuine Christians may fall into habitual immorality and that the consequence is, they lose their rewards, but they’re still saved. How would you counter this biblically?
  4. How would you counsel a professing Christian who said, “Help, I’m addicted to pornography?”

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Sexual Purity, Sexuality

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