January 28, 2018
Dr. Ricky Smith
We’ve been in a study called Weird, and I am here to say (personal confession), I’m weird. Now, I realize that each one of us could share some idiosyncrasies of how each of us is strange. I’m weird, because I carry around in my pocket all the time, a bottle of hand sanitizer. Don’t make fun of me, guys; I’m weird in this way. I didn’t always have this kind of OCD about this, but I do, and just to unpack it, when I see a door, I don’t just see an access point to get outside. I see the hundreds of people who have touched the door handle, and they may have had snot on their hand. Maybe they’re getting over the flu…and in my mind, I’ve got to go through that door, and that’s a problem. How am I going to overcome this? I’ve got to get outside. So, for me, the hand sanitizer is my answer. I just power through the door, and when I get outside, I try to discreetly clean my hands, so that now in my mind, I feel like I’m safe.
Here’s why I use that illustration: Today, we’re going to talk about a way in which we are called by God to be weird. For several weeks, we’ve talked about how we’re weird because we spend our money differently. We’re weird because we invest our time differently. Today, we’re going to look at the idea that we are weird because God has called us to say no when the world says yes. This biblical concept of purity is what we want to talk about today, and the reason I give this imagery to you, is because I hope the next time you use or see a bottle of hand sanitizer, you’ll think of this.
We all have to walk in this life; we’re called to be in the world but not of the world. Let’s take that mental imagery of germs and the flu virus, and let’s replace that with the reality of sin. I’m walking through the world, and I can’t avoid the reality that I have to touch it, be near it, be around it, be exposed to it, and sometimes even expose others to it. The question is, what is the equivalency of this to purify my heart? How do I stay clean?
That’s the imagery that we want to unpack this morning as we seek to look at this idea. Let me unpack it the way a really wise man named Martin Luther King Jr. said. “In spite of this prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists.” He went on to say, “We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”
See, we as believers are challenged, mandated, to be different, to have a higher calling, and to say no when perhaps the rest of the world says yes. We are called, Scripture says, to be a peculiar people, and the question I want us to pause and ask individually is, do my actions every day portray to the world that my motive is different, that I am acting or behaving to maybe a different set of values in response to a higher calling that God has placed on my life?
I. We must walk according to God’s will
So, today we’re going to dig into 1st Thessalonians chapter 4, verses 1-8. Here’s the first thing I want us to understand from this passage- that we must walk according to God’s will. Let’s look at the text, verses 1 through the first part of 3:
1 Thessalonians 4:1-3a
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3a For this is the will of God, your sanctification:
Now, let me pause and lay a little bit of back story to this letter that we’re reading, because to do it justice and to understand what we’re reading, we need to provide a little context. Paul is writing a letter; it’s a fairly brief letter. In fact, if you’re using a paper Bible, it probably only consumes 3 to 4 pages. It’s very brief, and if you read it in its entirety, which I encourage you to do later, what you find is that Paul is writing to a church in Thessalonica (or some would say Thessaloniki) that he has deep love for. He cares for this church. He has deep relationships with this church. He has high affinity toward this church, because they’re loving God; they’re chasing after Jesus; they’re growing. He has positive things to say, and he’s even writing with this tone of apology like, “Look, I really wanted to get to you sooner, but I got distracted by some things that came up in ministry, so now I’ve sent some other people to you. They’re giving me great reports about what’s going on…”
So, it’s in that context of encouragement that’s important for us to note that he writes these words. He comes in with a sense of urgency, “I urge you, brothers.” That idea of urgency is a strong recommendation.
Now, if you’ve been around for a while, you’ve had the privilege to be a part of our church when our Pastor Emeritus, Don Wilhite, led this church. I served on staff with him for many years. It was often in meetings or conversations that he would say, “This is a suggestion with a capital S.” -and we understood that really wasn’t a suggestion at all. In fact, it was a kind way of saying, “Go get this done,” right? It was a sense of urgency.
Well, it’s kind of that tone that Paul writes to them with, and even notice in the text that he acknowledges the good that they’ve done. You’re serving Christ. You’re doing well, but he says, “I need you to dig a little bit deeper. I need you to do it more and more.” Perhaps because the Spirit of God speaking through him, he knew of the trials, he knew of the tribulations, he knew of the tests that they may have to endure, so he calls them to dig deeper.
I grew up playing high school sports. Basketball and football were my first loves, so when I get this idea of urgency and I get this idea of intensity, my mind comes to, I’m in a basketball game. There’s less than 30 seconds left. It’s a tied ballgame, and the coach calls a timeout. He pulls everyone to the side, and he says, “Guys, you’re doing great. You’re playing hard. You’re in this game, but I need you to dig a little bit deeper. Find another level of intensity, because if you do that, you can pull out the win.”
That’s the attitude that Paul writes to the Thessalonica church. But the call for them in digging deeper and the sense of urgency is that they will do the will of God. What in the world does that mean? I mean, we as churches use these kinds of phrases all the time, “Let’s seek God’s will. Let’s pray for God’s will…” And if I can help you understand a little more, the will of God, really, is the culmination of the things that he desires to see and that he finds delight in. -Where those two ideas merge together (God, what do you desire? What brings you great delight?). It’s when those ideas merge, that we discover what God’s will is. But unfortunately, most of our conversations about the will of God are relegated to the future when here in this context, we realize that the will and the pursuit of God’s will apply to the present.
See, so many times, we may sit with someone and they’re at a crossroads in her life or they’re a student trying to figure out, what’s next? What’s God’s will for your life? -is the spiritual way of saying, “What do you want to do when you grow up, or where do you see yourself doing in five years?” And that’s an okay conversation to have, but more important is knowing what is God’s will for you in this moment, today in the present tense? What is God’s will for you as you face the stressful situation at work, as you face this conflict and major decision in your home, as your rear your children, as you’re going through life? Where is God’s will, and where does it merge with God’s desire and what brings him delight?
Well, he even defines it further. “This is God’s will for you: your sanctification.” Well that’s helpful. Just throw another big theological word at me. What does that even mean, sanctification?
Well, this idea of sanctification, it can really kind of be taken 2 ways: It’s a decision to be committed, or consecrated, to something. It is that moment where we say, “Yeah, I’m all in.” It’s a decision, but at the same time, it is a process, theologically speaking, of us becoming more holy, or becoming more like Jesus. Some would say there is an act of sanctification that occurs in your life when you make the decision to give your life to Jesus. “I’m consecrated to you. I’m all in with you. You are the Lord of my life.”
That’s absolutely true and biblically sound, but here, speaking to the church in Thessalonica, God’s will is sanctification applying more to the process. “You have already consecrated yourself to God, but as your life, as you grow, as you pursue things, I want you to become more and more like me. In fact, I want you to become holy. I want you to become holy, because I am holy.”
Have you ever tried to nail Jell-O to a wall? It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? I think understanding the idea of holiness is like nailing Jell-O to a wall. It’s this ambiguous idea, Yes, God’s holy; I need to be holy. What does that look like?
II. Holiness is practiced through purity
I would think like this: A commitment to purity in our lives is an outward expression of our inward desire to be holy. So, let’s talk about this more then, because holiness is practiced through purity. We’re going to jump in, the second half of verse 3 through verse 6, and I think the Lord gives us some practical application of what this “hand sanitizer”, if you will, might look like in the pursuit of Christ. Let’s read together:
1 Thessalonians 4:3b-6
3b that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.
Now, when you read this, there’s a strong tone of seriousness, like this just got heavy really quick. “I’ve warned you. This is a solemn commitment we’ve made.” There’s a serious tone, and I think we need to be reminded that God takes our behavior seriously. Our conduct and everyday decisions have weight. They also have consequences, and they matter.
Now, if we take this idea of purity, I think we need to go back to the Old Testament. I’m not going to take much time on this, but the idea of purity comes from cleansing rituals in the Old Testament. If you want to humor yourself, read the book of Leviticus, and it’s constantly, “In this situation, if this happens, you have to wash this many times for this many days a week, and then you can come back into the community. Or if you come to worship, the priest had to wash their hands this way before they did this…” There are these constant outward expressions of cleanliness that seem to portray what the attitude of the heart should be.
I think although we don’t practice ritualistic cleansing here as we practice the New Testament church, I think it does establish this idea that there are some outward decisions of conduct that we can make toward purity, that should flow from an inward heart desire for holiness. That’s the imagery I think that we are given here. So, here are some practical ideas that come from this text that may help us.
– Abstain from sexual immorality
– Choose control
– Our selfish sin impacts others
The first one is this: Abstain from sexual immorality
Abstain is an interesting word that we don’t use in our modern-day language that much, but abstain literally means this: to keep a safe distance from. If you have small children and maybe you’re build a bonfire outside, you help them establish, “Hey guys, let’s don’t get any closer than this.” You’re teaching them in that moment, “Abstain, keep a safe distance.”
I had the privilege to be at a conference recently in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it was a training conference for pastors from 14 states. We had about 1100 youth pastors; it was phenomenal. So, Friday night, we were in the middle of our worship set, and the fire alarm goes off. This is not good. We’re at the convention center in Chattanooga, and I immediately run to work with the building officials and fire marshals.
Long story short: I find out there’s a small fire in the kitchen. So, I got to be that guy; I walk up on stage, totally interrupt the band. (He was in the moment; he was totally getting after it.) I was like, “Umm, sorry to interrupt, but we need to evacuate. There’s a fire. This is not a false alarm.
So, everyone calmly, as they should, they walked out the back doors, and they’re out on the sidewalk. We hadn’t been out long, though, before the firemen and the police officers and the building officials came out and said, “No, you guys, you’re out of the building, but we need you to go across the street and get farther away.”
Why do I tell you that story? We get this idea of abstaining from sexual immorality, but sometimes in our pursuit of Christ and wanting to somewhat be relevant with culture, we will step just outside the building where we’re safe, but perhaps what God is calling is, “No no, you need to create more distance. You need to create more of a buffer. You need to go across the street, to abstain from sexual morality.”
We could take that idea further, but in the interest the time, I simply want to say this: Abstain. Keep away; keep a safe distance from immorality. Immorality, the root word in the Greek is porneo. What common word in our English language do we get from that? Pornography.
Folks, listen to me. This is the elephant in the room. This is it. According to Christianity Today, the average age of a person being exposed to pornography is 10. According to that same research, 47% of men and 12% of women seek out pornography 1 to 2 times per month. According to the same research, 1 in 10 youth pastors and 1 in 20 senior pastors admit that they are in an all-out addiction, and historically, the church pretends this doesn’t even exist. We don’t talk about it. How in the world can we sincerely and genuinely pursue holiness and chase after God when there is an undertow of sin, and we’re afraid to talk about it?
Now, here’s what I’m here to say this morning: If you find yourself in the throes of that habit of sin, there is hope for you; there is freedom that can be found in Christ. It doesn’t have to be that way. But for you to get out of that spot, you’re going to have to have the courage to be transparent. You cannot do it on your own. You cannot overcome it without the power of Jesus working your life and without the body of Christ coming alongside you and providing the support and accountability that you need.
If you’ve heard my story in the past, I’ve tried to be very transparent about that and the addiction that I had in my 20’s and the celebration of freedom that God provided, so I can tell you, there is hope if you’ve got the courage to talk about it.
And I think a step toward that, if we’re going to get real practical, it requires that we establish some boundaries, like we establish a perimeter of protection to say, “Hey, in my own life, I’m not going to do that.” Do you know, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior? So guys, if it’s late at night and you get online and you just seem to always stumble, well then maybe that means at night, you don’t need to get online.
Now, it’s not my place to define what those boundaries are for you. I’m just simply saying this for the sake of conversation: There’s an elephant in the room. We have to acknowledge it. God has clearly told us to abstain, keep a safe distance from sexual immorality, so that we may be pure and pursue the will of God (what brings him delight based upon what he desires) and boundaries may be important for that to happen.
Here’s the next idea: Choose control. See, it’s a choice. He’s speaking to believers who have already committed their life to Jesus, but he’s challenging them with the reality, “Hey, your behavior needs to be set apart; you have to make a choice to act in a way that’s consistent. You have to choose to behave in a way that’s holy an honorable.” It’s a choice.
Here’s an example: I have a green piece of paper that I signed in high school. It is a green piece of paper that I sign that says, “I’m going to commit to sexual purity.” -because I made the decision that I was going to marry as a virgin. That is a commitment that I made. The desire was there, but the commitment needed to be stronger to overcome that desire, and when Hillary and I started dating, I took a picture of her and attached it to the paper, and I put it in my Bible. I used it as my bookmark, so that every day when I opened it up, I could see her and I could see this picture as a commitment of what I had told God.
See, if we’re going to establish those boundaries, we’re going to have to choose to live in and exercise control. This applies way more than just in sexual desire. We’ve got to control our diet (God help us). We’ve got to try control our spending. We have to have control in our gossip…Whatever that may be, whatever that behavior may be in your life that the Holy Spirit is working on, it’s going to require us to abstain (stay a safe distance) and a commitment for control in my body, and behaving in a way that is holy and honorable to God.
I think perhaps we then need to ask the question. Any category of conduct it may be in, we may need to begin to ask, “Okay, in this area of my life, how can I be distinctively Christian in this? How should a Christian be different in this? -and understanding that perhaps we should say no when the world says yes. That may even be something as simple as how arrogant or rude we may be in social media. Exercise a little self-control. That’s all I’m saying.
Here’s the third one. We have to realize from the text. We see this in verse 6: Our selfish sin impacts others. We know from Numbers that the sins of the father are passed on to the 3rd and 4th generation. It doesn’t take very long for you to look in your family or the families around you and see how dysfunctionality seems to pass from one generation to the next. How do we stop that?
Well, the real answer is going to come in the next point, but I think it begins with us realizing there’s a problem or there’s something that needs to change. How are you going to break the cycle? How would you break the circle of dysfunctionality? We all could tell stories if we wanted to take the time, of how one person’s sin has created pain in a kid, in a wife, in a friend. Our selfish sin does more than hurt us; it hurts other people too, and sometimes, we forget that.
III. Purity is made possible through the Holy Spirit
Moving on then. What do we say? Purity is made possible through the Holy Spirit. Here’s the beauty of it: We understand the importance of our conduct, that our behavior matters, that we need to act holy and honorable, and he’s called us so that.
Newsflash: You do not have the ability to do this, but the promise is in the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. Let’s read together what he says in verses 7 and 8:
1 Thessalonians 4:7-8
7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Jesus gave us this promise before he ascended into Heaven. -“Hey, I’m going to be with you always, until the end of the age.” And we put the page into action in verse 2. We see the Holy Spirit coming and his work evident in our lives. –“Christ in you”. It is the power of Christ, it is the work of the Holy Spirit in us that helps us to have the desire, constantly being drawn to his will. -to have the courage to say no when others say yes, to have the control and the discipline to not only establish boundaries but to live within them.
Now, I realize there’s a tone in verse 8 that could bring a bit of fear. “Oh, don’t you dare! This isn’t from man; it’s from God!” I don’t think the emphasis here needs to be motivated out of fear. Let’s look at how chapter 4 began. This is a tone of encouragement. “Hey guys, you are doing great! I’m just recommending that you dig a little deeper, work a little harder, give a little more to it, realizing that this enemy is there.” See, it is the desire to please God, to honor God that should move us because as we look to God, we should begin to look like God. The responding to this call requires a continued life. -that we begin to look and live consistent with the character and the commands of God.
Let me explain it to you this way: It’s really easy (this is dangerous), it’s really easy for us to hear a passage of Scripture like this and to walk away thinking that we need to now emphasize this list of rules and this code of conduct, and if we live this way and we say no to the right things, then we’re doing right. If we place the emphasis on that matter conduct, we quickly become the Sadducees and the Pharisees and acting in a legalistic way. And our conduct quickly becomes the measure of holiness, when instead, God is saying, “No, I’m calling you to be holy, because I am holy. What I’m drawing you to is not a list of rules. What I’m drawing you to is what brings me delight. It’s when you look like me. What I’m drawing you to is my will. It’s that you look like, act like, share my love with others, and it be an inside out transformation that occurs in your life.”
Another way to unpack it, I encourage you to read a book. It’s an old book. Josh McDowell wrote this years ago, Right from Wrong. In the book, what he unpacks is this: There are all sorts of rules or precepts and commands in Scripture. It’s really easy to just do those rules, check them off, and from the outside look like we’re good people. But what we have to understand, every precept or command of God is directly connected to a principle that he highly values, and that principle is valued because it’s rooted in the person of God, in his character.
Let me explain it to you this way: He says in Exodus in the 10 Commandments, “Thou shalt not lie.” Now hey, Judeo-Christian ethics. If we tell the truth, we’re all doing well. Let’s just tell the truth and all will be great, right? Let’s understand this in greater detail.
Yes, “Thou shalt not lie” -that is the command; it is a precept, but it’s written because God values truth. Behind that precept is the principle: God values truth; therefore, don’t lie. But let’s go a little further. God values truth because, what do we read in John 14:6? “I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life, and nobody comes to the father but by me.” God has to tell me, “Don’t lie,” because if he gives me permission to lie, he contradicts his character. You see that?
So in this pursuit of holiness, “Be holy because I am holy.” That’s the mission, that we look like him and the encouragement here from 7 and 8 is that the Holy Spirit is with us. He’s actively involved in his creation. He is always present. He’s promised that he will always provide an escape when that temptation comes. Holiness can be exercised when we live a life of purity that’s produced by a step-by-step walk with the Holy Spirit.
Read Galatians chapter 5. “If you walk by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit and keep in rhythm with the Spirit, the natural result is that the fruit of the Spirit is evident in your life.” So maybe if we become less concerned with what actions we do or do not do and be more concerned with being consumed with the person of the of the gospel of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, the Holy Spirit in our life, when we allow him to consume us and overflow in us, it seems to work out.
Here’s the reality: We must go back to the door where we began. It’s impossible for me to get through that door without touching it. It’s impossible for me to be in this world and not be around sin. So, what do I do? John Piper says, “Ask yourself 2 questions: How do I anticipate sin in my life?” If we ask and answer the question, perhaps we’re less likely to put ourselves in positions where we frequently fail. How do I anticipate sin in my life? And then the second question, “How do I respond to sin in my life?”
I’ll tell you how we should not respond, is flippantly. What does the book of Romans tell us? Should I continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid. Instead my response to sin should be brokenness. It should be joy, because God has promised he is faithful to forgive. We’ve been made right in his sight, not because of our actions, but because of what he has done, because of his blood on the cross.
+ Choose to give your heart to God and allow Him to make you pure
– Submit your sinful habits to the Lordship of Christ
• Behave in a way that is holy and honorable
- Read 1 Peter 1:13-16. Knowing that God has called us to holiness, how do we prepare our minds for action?
- Why is it important to study the character of God, and how does that impact our understanding of who He is and who we are?
- Does your life appear to be “distinctively Christian”, and does it make a difference to others?
- Read Galatians 5:16-26. Discuss the Holy Spirit’s role in personal holiness. What does it really look like to “keep in step with the Spirit?”