The Christian life is commonly referred to as a walk or a journey. In fact, some translations even translate the word the NIV says is “life” as “walk” in the text from Sunday’s sermon. As we walk the journey of faith, God is calling us to live lives of purity and holiness in all aspects of our lives. Yes, that includes our sex lives.
I’m working on getting an audio of the sermon online. It might have to be a “studio” version, though. Hopefully it’ll be up by mid-week. If that’s how you prefer to experience a sermon, I hope you’ll bear with me. If you’re fine with reading the manuscript, it’s after the jump…
Be Ready: Walking in Holiness
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
Tuesday night, I stayed up past my bedtime to watch the results of the 80th edition the Midsummer Classic: the All Star Game. I really don’t know why I stay up to watch these All Star games. I mean, I hold out hope every year that the good guys are going to hold onto the lead and win. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case again this year. In fact, it hasn’t been the case since Bill Clinton was President in 1996. That’s a 13-year losing streak for my beloved National League. And so, I went to bed Tuesday night echoing the words of many fans across the nation (especially in Chicago): there’s always next year.
As I watched these heroes of America’s Pastime, I couldn’t help but think about the team I helped coach in the 8 & under instructional league: the TimberRattlers. We were a ragtag bunch of players who, unfortunately, had most of our preseason practices canceled because of rain. They may not have been the most prepared team in the league, but they played their hearts out.
They played with such passion and such energy. They tried their hardest and had fun. And every time they’d get a hit or make a good play, you’d see them peek over to the bleachers that were filled with parents. They wanted to make sure Mom or Dad saw that hard hit or that good throw. They wanted to make sure they were pleasing the people they love the most.
Our season ended this year on a high note. After losing the majority of our games, the Rattlers started to peak at just the right time. We won two of the last three games of the regular season and headed into the playoffs with some momentum. Unfortunately, we lost the first game of the double-elimination tournament. If we lost another game, our season was done. The players didn’t want that to happen, so they played as hard as they could. It was a Wednesday afternoon and they won their next game. Because they won, they had to play the next game immediately after that. Amazingly enough, the Rattlers won again, which meant they had to play another game immediately after that. That’s three games in one evening. The combined playing time of their games that Wednesday night was longer than most Major League Baseball games. Unfortunately, the magical run ended that night on a squeeze play in the bottom of the final inning of a tied game. The RockHounds (?) won that game and eventually went on to win the tournament championship.
When our final game was done, the boys recounted all of their heroics to their parents. They wanted to please the people they love the most. They wanted to make sure their biggest fans saw everything they did. Watching these guys play baseball with such passion and energy is a lot like our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. God is your biggest fan. He’s cheering you on every time you’re up to bat. Followers of Jesus want to give him everything they’ve got because they want to please the One they love the most and to bring Him honor and joy. Even when we strike out or mess up a routine play, we know that God still loves us. But that doesn’t stop us from wanting to give Him our best effort because He gave His very best for us when He willingly spread out His arms and gave up His life to take on the punishment of our sins. That’s how much He loves us.
We live in a world that is totally focused on self-gratification. Most people are after only one thing: getting what they want out of life. The thought of living life to please God flies in the face of the world’s priorities. It seems totally out of step with life in this world. And, honestly, it should. Because a life that pleases God is essentially lived in opposition to the things this world values most. And although the messages that bombard us on all sides encourage us to live for ourselves, our desire should be to please our Father in Heaven and to walk in holiness.
As we continue to look at Paul’s correspondence with the Thessalonian church, please take your Bibles and turn to 1 Thessalonians 4. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. 1 Thessalonians 4 is found on page 1030 in the red Bibles. Remember that Paul and his colleagues established the church in Thessalonica during one of their missionary journeys. Due to intense persecution, they were forced to leave Thessalonica after a very short time. Although Paul was absent from their presence, this was not a case of out of sight, out of mind. Paul was very concerned for this young church and the intense trials and temptations they were facing from their own friends, relatives, and countrymen. 1 Thessalonians was written to these believers to encourage their growth in grace and to reassure them about the positive reports he had heard about how they have stood firm in the faith and put their faith and love into action. He reminds them – and us – that we are living in the time between the two comings of Jesus Christ and during this time between the two comings, we are called to embrace a radical new way of life – leaving behind all remnants of former way of life. The dead carcass that represented our old life has now been replaced by a brand new life in Christ.
In the opening chapters of this letter to the young believers, Paul encouraged them to continue looking up, remembering that God is not done with them yet and God leaves no loose ends. And although this time between the two comings of Christ is a difficult time, he also encourages us to respond to trials, temptations, and persecutions with joy and to stand firm in the faith. He spent a good deal of this letter addressing the things the church was already doing well, which is what you’d expect to hear from someone who is trying to be an encouragement.
As we begin looking at this text this morning, we need to talk for a moment about the very first word. As I’m sure you know, the Bible wasn’t written in English. The New Testament was written in ancient Greek. And any time you translate from one language to another, there’s the potential of losing some of its meaning. That’s why there are so many different translations out there – they’re trying to take an ancient language and make it understandable to us today. If the translators have done their jobs well, they are faithful to the message found in the Scriptures, even though there may be some disagreement about some minor points. We don’t have an “official” translation that we use here at Cowan Christian Church. While I prepare for my sermon with different translations, I generally use the New International Version while preaching because it’s easier on the ears. The Bibles in the pews are the Revised Standard Version, which is another good translation.
The reason I mention this is because there’s going to be a few phrases in this section that have been translated differently by scholars over the years. I just wanted to give you a “heads up” so you didn’t think we were reading from different parts of the Bible or something.
Right here in the beginning of this section, both the New International and the Revised Standard versions translate this word as “Finally.” A word like “finally” would imply that Paul is wrapping up his letter here and there should just be a few parting thoughts that he wants the audience to remember. Here’s the problem: he continues to go on for two more chapters. It’s not exactly a parting thought. The different set of thoughts here has actually led some scholars to think that this is part of a completely different letter to the Thessalonians that was tacked on at the end of this letter. I don’t think that’s the case. I think this is the same letter, but the word “finally” is a little distracting. From what I’ve been able to discover, a better translation of this word would be “Furthermore” or “Therefore.”
With that in mind, Paul has spent the first half of the letter encouraging the Thessalonians to continue to do what they’re already doing well. And now he’s going to begin to share things that they might be struggling with a little bit.
At the moment you choose to follow Christ and to acknowledge the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord over all creation…including your own life; at that moment when you turn to Him to receive His grace that was displayed on the cross as a payment for our sins; we receive the righteousness of Christ. That means that God views us as holy because of Jesus. But that also means we are resigned to live the rest of our lives in fallen, earthly bodies, surrounded by a fallen world. And we can still gravitate toward sin. And so as we continue to live this life, we will continue to struggle with that pull back towards sin. The Holy Spirit is within us to empower us to gain control over this pull and to choose to walk in holiness. But that doesn’t mean that we are no longer capable of sinning. But as we continue the walk of faith, God wants us to draw closer to Him and allow Him to shape us more into His image. Walking in holiness is an ongoing process of growing in grace throughout our Christian life. God will never stop calling us to holiness. That’s what Paul is saying here in the first verse. While we might be doing some things well, we cannot somehow rest on those achievements. We must continue to “do this more and more.” Walking in holiness is a decision we must make every day.
Obviously, there are obstacles to our walking in holiness and growth in grace. Paul knew that and he addressed the serious issue of sexual immorality in the Thessalonian church. Thessalonica was an extremely permissive culture. They had the perspective of “almost anything goes,” especially in one’s sexual practices. And for some, sexual indulgence was an act of worship. There were several religious groups that used highly sexualized rituals as part of their worship of pagan gods. One cult, which was prominent in the city of Thessalonica, was so perverse and indulgent that even the Roman Emperor Augustus considered it pornographic.
Sound familiar? I think we’d all agree that we live in an overly-sexed culture. We are surrounded by messages, calling to us and attempting to pull us back into a sinful life that Christ delivered us from.
It is from within a sexually-charged culture, very similar to the culture which surrounds us, that the Thessalonian Christians were called into a walk of holiness. As they continued to pursue godliness and purity, they were living a lifestyle that was counter to the prevailing lifestyle of their neighbors. The pull to be like everyone else was probably very strong. But we have been called to a lifestyle that is counter to what the world teaches.
Paul’s teaching here is quite clear: “Don’t live like the pagans. You are a follower of Jesus Christ. You’re different now because His love has changed you. So live like you’ve been changed by His grace.” Author John Stott says, “If (people who do not know Christ) behave as they do because they do not know God, Christians must behave in a completely different way because He is a holy God, and because we want to please Him.”
We live in world where sexual standards continue to change. People push the boundaries and live their lives for self-gratification…no matter how you reach that fulfillment. God’s plan is for sex to be practiced within the confines of a monogamous marriage relationship between a man and a woman. And within that context, it’s a beautiful thing that should be celebrated because it’s a gift from God. Anything outside of that context is outside of God’s standard. Even the wandering eye.
We need to remember something here. Sexual sin is not unforgivable. You’d think that by the way some Christians talk about sexual sin that it’s somehow the unforgivable sin. It’s not. If you are struggling with some type of sexual sin, whether it be a lustful heart or an adulterous relationship or some other type of lifestyle that is outside of the context of a monogamous marital relationship between a man and a woman, God still loves you. He’s radically in love with you. And His grace can cast our sins as far as the east is from the west. There’s no distance His love won’t travel to win you back. And regardless of the sins of your past, God’s grace can wipe your slate clean. God can make you pure by His grace.
Paul reminds us that we avoid sexual immorality…and other kinds of pulls into sinful choices in verse 4. If you’re reading the Red Bibles, you probably noticed that it says something completely different from what I read earlier. The NIV translates this verse: “each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable.” The Red Bibles (and other translations) say “that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor.” Those don’t sound at all similar. You might even wonder if they were reading the same text. Well, a literal translation of the verse would say “each one of you (ought) to be able to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor.” There has been much debate about what Paul means as “vessel,” which is reflected in the different translations. Within the context of the verses here, it makes the most sense that Paul is encouraging us to take control of our own bodies when facing sexual temptations. And that happens when we allow our lives to be controlled by the Holy Spirit dwelling within the believer.
Christians in the Thessalonian church were bombarded with sexual images and temptations. We’re bombarded in today’s culture in a very similar way. But our goal as Christians isn’t just to remain sexually pure. Because you can remain sexually pure and still not be a follower of Jesus Christ. While we’re living in this mean time, God wants us to draw closer to Him. And as we draw closer to Him, He wants to purify us, cleaning us from all impurities – not just the sexual sins. Every aspect of our lives should reveal our faith in Christ. Living to please God is every Christian’s priority, not in an attempt to earn His favor, but out of gratitude for what He’s done and in response to the call that He has issued – the call to holiness. More than anything else, God wants our obedience; more than our worship, more than our service, more than our money, more than our words. As we obey and draw closer to Him, we also draw others to Christ.
How can we claim to know and love God if we aren’t willing to obey Him? God’s grace is available to cover us in our failure, but we should be careful not to abuse the gift of grace through willful disobedience. Grace is something we experience through participation. By obeying God we are choosing to participate in the activity of His grace that makes us holy. Obedience is the pathway to living a life that pleases God.
God is holy. And as we draw closer to Him, He wants us to live lives of purity.
 Introduction theme and outline borrowed from Eli Dormon: The Life That Pleases God http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=82043&Page=1