Progressing in Purity

December 4, 2022 Preacher: Luis A. Cardenas Series: First Thessalonians

Topic: English Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:4-5

From the moment you were born, your life was a journey of learning self-control. Inside your mother’s womb, everything was pretty much automated. You were given oxygen and nutrients, and everything took care of itself. But the moment you came into this world, you began a journey of learning to control your own body.

As a baby, you had to learn to latch or to drink from a bottle. You learned how to lift your head and to roll over. You learned how to open and close your hand. You learned how to use that hand to bring things to your mouth. You learned to crawl, and to stand on your own, and eventually you learned to walk.

But that wasn’t the end of your journey, right? As a child you also learned many of your everyday tasks. You learned to use the bathroom instead of a diaper. You learned to brush your teeth. You learned to put on your clothes and to tie your shoes. And you learned how to eat a meal without making a mess. Some of us are still learning that.

These are all things that normally take place as a person grows up. Growing up is a process of learning to use and control your own body. Behind those skills, however, the broader goal not simply so that you can be autonomous and independent one day. The broader goal is that you would grow in becoming a person who serves others and honors God.

With that broader goal in mind, we should recognize that learning to master your body never ends. Even after the childhood years are behind you, you need to learn self-control if you want to grow in serving God and loving others.

We may have spent our childhood years learning how to walk physically, but as Christians, the rest of our life is going to be spent learning how to walk with Christ. And the dangers of falling are far worse.

When the Apostle Paul wrote this initial letter to the Thessalonian church, he told them that God’s will for them is their sanctification. And the same is true today. God’s will for your life—God’s path to an effective and blessed life for His glory—is that you be sanctified.

Our lives are supposed to reflect the holiness of God. And one key application of that principle is sexual purity. What does it mean to be holy in that regard? What does that look like in our practical lives? What does it mean to be sanctified?

Writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul gives three expressions of holiness. First, as verse 3 says, we need to abstain from sexual immorality. This means that in our own lives—in mind, in word, and in action—we stay away from anything that deviates from God’s design for sex and for romantic intimacy.

Like I’ve said already, God’s design is that sexual intimacy be only expressed between a man and his wife. Sexual activity is confined to that relationship alone for the purpose of mutual connection, mutual service, and mutual joy. Outside of that relationship and that purpose, God says stay away. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says, “Flee from sexual immorality.” To Timothy, Paul said, “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

That’s what it means to be holy and set apart. Abstain from sexual immorality. That’s the negative side of holiness and sanctification. That’s what you stay away from.

Positively, now, we come to verse 4. Here is what holiness looks like. Look at it with me—That each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor.

Before we look at that a little more closely, I just want to finish this list and give you the third application. And we are going to talk about this next week.

The first expression of sanctification is to abstain from immorality. The second is that we control our body. Those are, we could say, more personal or private expressions, but the third expression is about how we related to one another. And again, we’ll talk about that next week.

For today, our focus is going to be verses 4 and 5. In the ESV it says we should know how to control our own bodies. Your Bible, however, might have a footnote saying that another possible translation is “acquire your own wife” or something like that. I don’t want to spend too much time here, but I think it’s important to address.

The challenge in this verse is that there are two words that have multiple meanings or interpretations. The first word is a verb which could mean either “to obtain” or “to control.” The second word is the noun which simply means “vessel” or “instrument.” But, when Paul says “vessel,” he could be referring to a person’s body or to a man’s wife.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense that Paul would say that we need to know how to control a wife or how to obtain a body. So, the two remaining options are “obtain your wife” or “control your body.”

We’re not going to split a church over this kind of thing, but there are commentators and translators who believe Paul is urging that Christian men pursue sanctification by obtaining a wife and treating her with holiness and honor. This would be in line with the teaching of First Corinthians 7. Those who fall on this side can also support that view by citing First Peter, which refers to a wife as “a weaker vessel.”

In saying a wife is a weaker vessel, however, Paul would also be saying that the husband is a type of vessel as well. So, it doesn’t have to strictly mean “wife.” Also, this word is used in the New Testament to refer, in a general sense, to a person. Paul was a chosen vessel of God. In Romans 9, Paul refers to people as vessels which God created. The same thing happens in 2 Corinthians and 2 Timothy.

So, I think the best understanding of what Paul is saying is what our translations have. In order to be sanctified, you need to learn how to control your body in holiness and honor.

Holiness is the recognition that your body belongs to God. He gave it to you, and as a Christian, you have been set apart from the world.

The word “honor” speaks of value, and that includes a recognition that your body has an inherent worth. It was created by God. It’s part of who you are. What you do with your body matters, and you need to act that way. Your body is not a toy. Your body is not a meaningless appendage in your existence. Your body is a temple of the Lord.

So, again, we need to learn how to control our bodies in holiness and in honor. That is not intended to be a one-time lesson. That is supposed to be an ongoing pursuit. We’re always growing in that. Your eyes, your ears, your mouth, your hands, and the rest of you body need to stay under control.

The Roman culture had this idea that your body didn’t matter. You could do whatever you wanted with it, and it wouldn’t affect your soul. That kind of mentality led to all sorts of immorality and wickedness which was also connected to their forms of religion. For example, the temple of Aphrodite had priestesses who basically functioned as prostitutes.

Paul points to that kind of mentality in verse 5. In contrast to the holiness and honor with are supposed to characterize how we control our bodies, there is the “passion of lust” of the “Gentiles who do not know God.”

Paul isn’t saying that we’re not allowed to have passions or desires. God created our bodies. He created physical intimacy, and that includes all the corresponding emotional and physical responses. What Paul is saying is that those desires and drives and impulses need to be controlled, even though, and especially since, the unbelieving world doesn’t agree.

How does the message of God compare with the message of our culture today concerning our bodies and our sexuality? We have music, we have TV and movies, and we even have government-sponsored education telling us that our sexuality defines us as a person, and we need to let it run its course. If anyone tries to stop you, they are dangerous. According to the word of Christ, that worldly message and that hedonistic philosophy is driven by an ignorance of, and a rebellion against, God and His design.

In the same way that we tell a young child not to run with scissors or that they need to patiently wait for dinner, we all need to remind ourselves that sexual desire requires restraint. Your bodily functions and your physical desires are not supposed to control you. You are supposed to control them. That’s true for anger and for hunger, and it’s true for sexual desire as well. Like a child learning to eat or to use the bathroom, you and I need to learn to control ourselves.

Like many other passages, 1 Thessalonians 4:4 isn’t difficult to understand. The difficulty is to obey. How do you and I learn to control our bodies? This is an important lesson at every stage of life. It's important in the younger years when your body starts priming up for marriage. It’s important if you have developed some kind of pattern that dishonors God with your body or your mind. And it’s important for those of you who are going to be examples to younger ones and to teach the next generation. This is an ongoing and daily struggle.

So, for the rest of our time, I want to expand on this topic, and speak a little more from my heart rather than from this specific passage. What can you and I do to learn how to control our bodies in holiness and honor? How do we make progress in that? First Thessalonians 4:4 tells us what to do, but I want to spend the rest of our time sharing some biblical and practical wisdom for how we do it.

I’d like to give you ten principles for doing that. And as you might be thinking, we aren’t going to have time to cover them all today. So, I’m only going to give you two of them today, and then, Lord willing, we’ll continue next week.

Before I start with the list, let me give you two caveats. The first is that there is going to be some overlap and some connections between the different principles, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve chosen these ten principles, though, because I think each point is important enough to stand on its own and be helpful for us.

The second caveat is that for many of you a lot of what I say isn’t going to be new. It’s just going to be a specific application of biblical principles. And in that way, it’s going to be an important reminder and encouragement for our own lives, and for what we should be teaching others, particularly our younger ones.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s start with our list. What can you do to make progress in purity?

Principle number 1 is this—Embrace the Gospel. Embrace the Gospel. This is the starting point for everything about the Christian life.

When Paul wrote these instructions, he was writing to Christians who had already received the gospel. So, if you’re listening to this and thinking that this is just some ethical instruction that makes for a good life, you’re missing something. You don’t just shoot out of here intending to obey a biblical command. You need to start with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Jesus is the message of how you can be saved. Honoring God’s commands doesn’t gain salvation. In fact, if you’ve been listening to this series, you should know that honoring God’s commands are impossible in your own strength. We have all failed because God’s commands are aimed at our hearts, not just our external bodies. God requires perfect love and perfect obedience.

And so, the starting point is to recognize that you don’t meet that standard. That’s bad news. But the good news is that Jesus did. He lived the perfect life that you could never live. And then, as God’s perfect sacrifice, He died to trade places with sinners. He bore God’s wrath on the cross, and He credits His perfect righteousness to His people.

On the third day, Jesus rose again from the dead, proving that He had victory over sin and death. And what God is calling you to do is turn away from sin and believe in Jesus Christ. If you confess your sin to Jesus, the Judge of all mankind, if you trust in Him, and if you beg Him for mercy, He will save you, and He will transform you. He will make you a new creation.

Not only will you be forgiven of your sin, you will receive the power to fight against your sin. You are no longer enslaved to it.

For those of you who have already done that, you need to keep coming back to this reality every day. The gospel is for sinners, and we still sin. We need to confess sinful thoughts and words and actions. We need to repent.

We also need to remind ourselves that we are not the same person we used to be. Jesus Christ died for our sin, and in Him we died to sin. We belong to Him. He is our Lord. He is our Master. And He has given me His Spirit so that I can honor God today. I will stand before His judgment one day, and He will bring me to eternal joy.

You need to preach that to yourself every day. You are a miserable, weak sinner, but you have a loving, gracious Redeemer who has transformed you. You need to embrace the gospel. Embrace the gospel.

The second principle for purity is this: Elevate God’s Design. Elevate God’s Design. What I mean by that is you need to do more than simply understand God’s design; you need to prize it. You need to hold it up and esteem it. You need to value it for what it is.

Many times, when people talk about Christian morals and ethics, the assumption is that we are a people who are anti-sexuality. We’re anti-excitement, and anti-romance. But that is not what the Bible teaches.

The Bible gives us God’s design so that we would know it, and embrace it, and prize it. God created male and female. He made their bodies, and He brought the woman to the man so that he would delight in his new wife. Sex was God’s idea. He designed it.

He's the one that said that a man should leave his father and his mother and be joined to a wife. And the end of Genesis 2 says the man and the woman were both naked, and they were not ashamed. And God said that it was very good.

We know that God’s design included boundaries, but the intent was not to stifle or to repress. God’s intent was to protect us, and to preserve the purity and the purpose of the gift. It’s the same reason famous paintings and historical documents get put behind glass. It’s not because there’s something bad there. It’s to preserve it. It’s so that it can be enjoyed and effective for years and decades.

God designed for a man and his wife to be joyfully united. And we need to embrace that design. We need to prize it. When the rest of this world, especially now at the Christmas season, says that the height of romance is a boyfriend and a girlfriend frolicking in the snow and kissing by the fireplace, we need to respond by saying, “No! That’s not God’s intention for romance! That’s a bad imitation of the original. That’s a counterfeit!”

God’s picture is a husband and a wife, not bored with one another, but connecting physically and emotionally and spiritually in a relationship of submission and service and love. So, whenever you see sexuality ripped out of the context of marriage, you need to say, “That’s wrong.” And we need to do the same thing whenever marriage is presented as a second-rate option, as if marriage s a way of settling for something inferior. It’s not! Marriage, and the physical intimacy that accompanies it, is God’s beautiful design.

That’s why, in the Old Testament, a newlywed man was excused for one year from serving in the army or any other public duty. There was one year dedicated to the happiness of that new relationship. That’s God’s design. He wants a husband and a wife to enjoy one another.

There’s a story in Genesis 26 of Isaac travelling to the land of the Philistines. At this time, Isaac was already married to Rebekah, and the Bible says she was a very attractive woman. Well, because of her beauty, Isaac lied and said she was his sister, because he didn’t want anyone to kill him trying to take Rebekah.

Well, one day, the king of Philistines looks out his window, and he sees Isaac and Rebekah playing around. The Hebrew word means to laugh, or maybe to giggle. Some translations say he was caressing her, but that’s not the best translation. Isaac was having some kind of fun with his wife, and it led to the king of Philistines calling Isaac and saying, “She’s not your sister. She’s your wife!” He knew that because of the way he saw them laughing and giggling.

God didn’t intend that stuff for junior high kids. He intended it for a man and his wife. Being married is no supposed to the end of romance. It’s supposed to be the beginning of it.

The joy of marriage is also why the father of Proverbs tells his son to find a wife and to delight in her. In Proverbs 5, the father says, “Stay away from the one who is not your wife. Drink from your own well. Rejoice in your own wife. Delight in her. Be intoxicated in her love.”

Isn’t that an interesting picture? He doesn’t want his son to have a boring life. He wants his son to be captivated and exhilarated with his bride.

If you want to expand on that theme, there is the entire book of Song of Solomon, which is a love song for a young couple before and after the wedding. The couple delights in one another’s company and in one another’s bodies. They compare their joy in one another to the joy of nature and of satisfying foods. The man compares his bride to a private, secluded garden, filled with delights that are just for him. That is God’s design.

When you elevate that beautiful design, you help rip yourself away from the cheap imitations that this world offers.

For those of you who really enjoy a good steak or a good brisket, how do you feel about the fake meat substitutes? They make it with vegetables, or with insects, or in a lab. It’s not even appetizing because it’s fake.

Or if you like real sugar or real cream or milk, you’re going to choose that over the artificial stuff. It’s not the same. Artificial sweeteners, artificial creamers, soy milk, almond milk—they just don’t have the same appeal for those of you who enjoy the real thing.

In a similar way, we need to elevate God’s true, original design, so that when the opportunity is there for something else, we can say, “No.” And we don’t even have to say, “Thank you.” We just say, “No. That’s not God’s design. That’s not for me. God gave me these desires so that I would be drawn to my wife or my husband.

And for you young men who aren’t married yet, God gave you those desires in order to move you to marriage. Get a job. Be responsible. Learn to serve others. And get married. That’s what men should be aiming for who have a physical desire. Find a wife and love her the way Christ loves the church. Marriage is not settling. Marriage is a gift.

As Hebrews 13 says—Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled. We need to elevate God’s design.

Like I said, we are only going to be covering two of the principles today, but Lord willing, we’ll continue this list next time and continue growing in how we can progress in purity and learn self-control.

We’re all growing, and we’re all fighting. But we should be thankful to God that He is on our side.

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