Living in Moral Purity
1 Thessalonians 4:1–8
Some people find it difficult to live for Christ. But God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us, and we need to learn how to yield our lives to His control.
In the final two chapters of 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul instructed the church in four major areas that require dependence on the Holy Spirit: how to (1) live in moral purity, (2) maintain a testimony of harmony and honesty before believers and unbelievers alike, (3) live in anticipation of the Lord’s coming for His church, and (4) live in light of the Day of the Lord.
Counsel on Purity
The phrase we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus introduces the seriousness of what Paul was about to say: “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God” (4:1).
The word finally is not meant to conclude the epistle but, rather, to introduce Paul’s teaching of the last two chapters dealing with holy living. By using the words urge and exhort, Paul implored believers to continue living holy lives in view of their union with Christ.
Earlier, he taught these Christians how they “ought to [must] walk” and exhorted them to “abound more and more” in holy living and never be satisfied with the level they had already achieved because only a pure life will “please God.” Holiness was Paul’s ongoing prayer for the Thessalonian church (3:13).
Paul reminded the Thessalonians of his past instruction to them: “For you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (4:2). The source and authority of his instruction came from Jesus Christ, who commissioned him as a missionary.
Command on Purity
God’s will is that we all practice holy living: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality” (v. 3; cf. Lev. 11:44–45; 1 Pet. 1:15–16).
Holy living begins with our “sanctification.” But what does it mean to be sanctified? The word sanctification means to be set apart, both spiritually and physically, for Christ. The process involves the Holy Spirit, who cleanses us by washing us with the “water” of God’s Word (Eph. 5:26).
Scripture teaches that we are sanctified in three stages:
- Positionally. We were eternally set apart for God when we were redeemed by receiving Jesus Christ as our personal Savior (Heb. 10:10, 14; 13:12).
- Progressively. We are being sanctified daily through an ongoing process as we obey the teachings of God’s Word.
- Perfectly. We will be perfected when we receive ultimate, or complete, sanctification upon receiving our resurrected bodies when the Lord comes for His church (Eph. 5:27). Then every believer will be perfectly sanctified.
Paul gave three illustrations of how progressive sanctification works. Each begins with the word that:
1) “That you should abstain from sexual immorality [Greek, porneias]” (1 Th. 4:3). The Greek word means “fornication,” which encompasses all forms of sexual practices that lie outside God’s revealed will: adultery, premarital and extramarital relations, homosexuality, and various perversions. This was one of the three admonitions the Holy Spirit-led first church council decreed to the churches (Acts 15:29).
2) “That each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Th. 4:4–5). Paul was not implying there was immorality within the Thessalonians’ church. Rather, he was speaking of sexual temptations they would face as Christians because many had participated in a morally degrading pagan religion before they gave their lives to Christ. Paul reminded them to live pure lives that would glorify Christ. Christianity is incompatible with sexual immorality (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15–20).
Paul further stated, “not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Th. 4:5). The word passion conveys a strong desire, craving, or longing (that could be good or bad). In this context, it refers to an inordinate craving for something sinful. Lust also can refer to something good or bad. Here it refers to an inordinate desire that dominates or controls us and craves fulfillment, moving us to sin. People who give in to such desire become slaves to their uncontrollable passions and do not glorify Christ.
The word Gentile usually means anyone who is not Jewish. But in this context it signifies a non-Christian. It should be noted that Paul divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. Although there are exceptions, the Gentiles outside of Christ are characterized as ignorant of the true and living God. Thus they “do not know God” (v. 5).
In Romans 1:18–32, Paul explained how people have suppressed the knowledge of God from the inception of creation. Turning their backs on the natural revelation that God provided, they became depraved and began worshiping images of man, birds, four-footed animals, and creeping things. Therefore, God gave them over to their lustful passions and perverted sexual practices.
These Thessalonians once fell into this category, but they turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God. Now they were being delivered by Christ from ungodliness, and their regression to idolatry would be despicable and disgrace the name of Christ.
3) “That no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified” (1 Th. 4:6). Here the discussion shifts to how our immorality would affect our Christian brethren.
The phrase take advantage of means to wrong, “defraud,” or cheat someone by sinning against him. The context refers specifically to wronging another Christian, but it also applies to wronging a non-Christian.
Scholars disagree on the meaning of the words in this matter. Some believe matter refers to impurity and dishonesty in business too. Others believe only sexual impurity is referenced. The context would indicate sexual impurity alone because verses 3–8 constitute a single paragraph dealing with abstaining from sexual immorality. Thus the sins of fornication and adultery violate the rights of the other party involved. In fact, any unbiblical sexual relationship, such as homosexuality (Rom. 1:26–27), which was rampant in Paul’s day, should be viewed as sexual impurity.
Commitment to Purity
Paul provided three reasons why we are not to commit sexual sins against other Christians.
First, “because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified” (v. 6). The Lord refers to Jesus Christ, who God has said will judge the world (Jn. 5:22). The word avenger also refers to Christ, who will judge all sexually impure people.
We need to understand that God is not vindictive or spiteful, getting even with people for what they’ve done. He acts out of His moral holiness to acquire justice for the person offended and to maintain society’s moral order. Scripture emphasizes that a just and righteous God will judge all who commit such sins.
Paul reminded the Thessalonian church that this teaching was not new. Believers were “forewarned” when Paul and his missionary team were establishing the church. He had “testified,” or affirmed, the teaching of God’s judgment while preaching the gospel.
Second, “For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness” (1 Th. 4:7). Paul reminded the Thessalonians of their calling. The word call refers to the time when Paul and his team were in Thessalonica and God divinely called the Thessalonians to receive salvation, thus making them new creations in union with Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). At that time, God also called them to put away their pagan “uncleanness” and live righteously.
Third, “Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God” (1 Th. 4:8). The word therefore is better translated “truly,” “consequently,” or “for this reason.” Thus someone “who rejects” this message on sexual purity openly rejects God, not man. Such disobedience constitutes an outright act of rebellion against God Himself.
God, who demands moral purity of each believer, is the One “who has also given us His Holy Spirit” (v. 8). God gave us the Holy Spirit at the time of our conversion to empower us to shun moral impurity and live holy lives that please Him. Since God’s Spirit lives in us, we have a responsibility to yield our lives to the Holy Spirit’s control. To continue in sexual impurity is a sin against God, the Holy Spirit, our Christian brethren, and ourselves. We will one day give an account before God for our attitudes and actions.
This is a powerful message from God through the apostle Paul and a most necessary one today.