I don't know if you've heard the story about Kevin from Yorkshire, who couldn't make up his mind which woman to marry. Sharon had blonde hair and blue eyes; Maria had black hair and green eyes. Sharon had a quick tongue but a good sense of humour. Maria was sweet-natured and serious. Over and over again he compared the two. Both of them liked him and he liked both of them. One day he was passing a Catholic Church, and he decided in desperation to go in and pray. "Dear God", he cried, falling on his knees. "Who should I marry? I know I 'ave to make a choice, so help me Lord. What d'yer say, Sharon or Maria?" Then the miracle occurred. He looked up and there above the altar, in gold letters, was the advice: 'AVE MARIA'. So he did!
Christians can often get worried, not just about bad jokes, but about the will of God. Who should I marry? Where should I live? What job should I do? Which school should I send my children to? And if you're Lee (of the Christian Motorcyclists Association), what motorbike should I buy and how should I ride it?! Now at least the first four are not irrelevant questions. They're big decisions some of us still have to make. But rarely does God reveal the specific answers to these questions in the Bible. Instead he asks us to trust that he's in control and to make wise choices along the way according to the principles of his word, the Bible. So, for example, in terms of who to marry, if that is God's will and gift for you, the Bible is not going to give you a name, of course, but it does say that a Christian should only marry another Christian of the opposite sex who is biblically free to marry.
You see, what's absolutely clear in God's word is that God's overall will for our lives is that we become more like Christ in attitude, character and obedience this side of heaven before becoming like him in heaven. Or to use a word that appears here in verse 3 - sanctification, meaning to become more and more holy and therefore more and more like Christ. God's will, purpose and desire for you and what he's at work at, what he's doing in you now by his Holy Spirit if you've put your faith in Christ, is to change you, is your sanctification. Verse 3:
"For this is the will of God, your sanctification…"
And we're to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in this – as verse 3 continues – by, for example, avoiding sexual immorality in Christ's strength. Have you got that? Well to be even clearer let me explain further because the Bible uses the term sanctify in two ways. First, there's the idea of being sanctified or made holy in Christ or set apart for Christ. This happens instantly when we become a Christian, when we trust Christ. When we trust Christ we're then citizens of heaven. We become children of God and he becomes our heavenly Father. In Christ we have a new status. Previously, we were dead in our sin but now as Christians we're alive in Christ – holy or set apart for him.
But another way the word or idea is used is as a process of change - sanctification. So our status is that we're holy in Christ but we're not yet perfect – so in practice we're commanded to live holy lives more and more in the power of the Holy Spirit, to walk in the Spirit. This is what pleases God and it's by his power. And we're to co-operate with his Holy Spirit in this. God works in us and we work it out in the power of his Spirit, as Paul puts it in Philippians 2. As Christians we're freed to live as we were intended to live in this world – for Christ, to please God. Day by day to be transformed to be more like Jesus. To be in the world but not of the world, making a difference for him.
Now when Paul says that God's will is your sanctification he has the second meaning in mind. We've already been set apart for Christ but now we're to actively live differently in a rebellious world in every area of our lives; but the one Paul focuses chiefly on here is our sexual conduct. Verse 3, it is God's will…
"…that you abstain from sexual immorality."
Deep down we know that there's real value and meaning to be found in a loving relationship. But if love is reduced to just sex, which is basically lust, then that lasting relationship is forever going to elude us. But according to the Bible, deep satisfying relationships are possible if love is seen not in terms of what we can get but in what we can give. Then we can start to function as we were originally designed to by God and so discover true freedom and value. And that's precisely what the Gospel offers and brings about. And we see it being worked out in the lives of believers in Thessalonica. So what do right relationships look like when God sets to work in our lives?
Well in this chapter, we come face to face with what it means to be part of a counter-culture. We're given a glimpse of a model church engaging in model behaviour in stark contrast to the sexually immoral culture of the day when all vices were accepted. For example, it was considered fine for a married man to have a mistress, a sex slave and a prostitute if he fancied a change. In fact what Paul covers here are the practical implications of what he prays in 1 Thessalonians 3.12-13:
"…may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may he establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus…"
You see Paul taught not only the essence of the gospel but the essence of the good life. Not only about the absolute necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, but also the behaviour and good works which should flow from such a faith. No amount of good works can save us from our sin – only faith in Jesus' death and resurrection can do that – but good works are in part what we're saved for. Do you see?
And if we're going to make an impact upon the surrounding sexually immoral culture of our day, so that everyone starts to talk about our Christian faith as they did the faith of these Thessalonians, then we need to take obeying Christ seriously. The world doesn't respect us when we simply go with the flow. We're more likely to get a hearing, albeit initially a reluctant one, when we start to speak and act differently. 1 Thessalonians 4.1-2:
"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. For you know what instructions we gave you through [or by the authority of] the Lord Jesus."
And then verse 8:
"Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you."
You can't get any plainer than that. Christian morals are as absolute and universal as the Gospel itself, that is, they are for all people for all time. So how does all this work out? Well, first we must begin by having:
1. A Right View of Ourselves (v3)
"For this is the will of God, your sanctification…"
As I've said, in one sense Christians are already sanctified by believing the good news of Jesus. You now belong to God. But you're now to be caught up in the process whereby you become more and more the people God wants you to be. To put it simply, if you're a Christian, start acting like one. And so secondly, have:
2. A Right View of Sex (v3-8)
The second half of verse 3 is better translated: 'Make a total break with all forms of sexual immorality.' It rules out sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage and all forms of homosexual sex. It also calls us to be wise in avoiding temptation - such as pornography and putting ourselves in compromising situations with members of the opposite sex. Verse 5 says that's the way the unbeliever behaves, not the Christian.
Positively, Paul makes it clear that sex properly understood and practised has a God-given context - marriage between one man and one woman for life and a God-given style - holiness and honour. So first, sex has a God-given context: marriage as we see in verses 4-5. The word body should be translated 'wife'. The word 'control' means to take for oneself. In other words, this is about how Christian husbands should treat their wives, namely that lust should not be confused with love. And that it's only in love, with its proper sexual expression only within marriage, that a husband and wife honour one another and so remain holy. It's when lust becomes the dominant driving force either before marriage, or outside marriage or even within marriage in abuse, that we act as if we don't know God and so deny our faith.
How many a young Christian girl's life has been damaged because a young Christian man decided to forget that he 'knew God' and act like one of the lads? How many a Christian wife's heart has been broken and family shattered because a Christian husband mistook infatuation with another woman for 'real love' while persuading himself that the wife of his youth no longer cared? How many Christian women have felt cheapened and used because they feel they're only valued for two things - sex and cooking? The woman finds herself locked into a marriage in which the husband shows no tenderness, no sensitivity, no meaningful communication and sharing throughout the day, just demand at night. Do you realise that its 'wrong to take advantage' of a fellow Christian (v6)? And I think 'brother' should be taken to include 'sister'. In other words, such attitudes and actions go beyond the boundaries set by God - venturing into forbidden territory and taking what is not yours by right. And the Lord, says Paul, will punish men for behaving like this. And to underscore the seriousness of it all he adds "as we told you and solemnly warned you."
Now this doesn't mean those who've fallen into sexual sin can't be forgiven and restored; of course that's made possible by the Gospel. There's forgiveness for all sexual sin at the cross as we turn to and trust Christ. But the emphasis here is on living a life which brings delight to our heavenly Father and blessings to his people. Is that what you're seeking to do? Christians often ask: what is God's will for my life? Well here it is - be holy. And Paul goes on to spell out what a holy life looks like in forming:
3. Right Relationships with All (v9-12)
Look at verses 9 and 10:
"Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more."
Do you know the two great commandments which summarise the Ten? 'Love God with all your being' - or (v1) live in order to please God, and 'Love your neighbour as yourself' - brotherly love. They're the basis for this passage and the work of the Holy Spirit within us as he leads us to the Bible to see what such love involves. And notice there's no point at which we can say 'I've arrived' and 'got the T-shirt'. These Thessalonians are outstripping everyone else in terms of practical Christian love - showing care for people in Macedonia - miles away. But Paul still says, 'Yes, but let's have more, and more and more.' So in verses 11-12 we're given three down-to-earth ways of showing brotherly love, a love which enriches the congregation.
- Aspire to or make it your business to do what? To lead a quiet life. That's a life which is the opposite of frantic activity - rushing from one thing to the next and never taking time to be quiet before God, drawing on the spiritual resources he provides, cultivating a calm manner which can be an example and a help to others. So, can I ask: do you take time out to be with God? Or are you forever running around?
- Then, "mind your own affairs" or business. To be busy is one thing, to be busybodies is another. How many Christians all but ruin the smooth running of a church by interfering in other people's business instead of getting their own lives sorted out? Yes with the best intentions, but often with disastrous results - confidences being betrayed and gossip set alight. Are you a peacemaker or a trouble maker?
- Finally, don't trade on the good will of others thinking, 'Oh, I'll be all right, I don't have to work, the church will look after me.' No says Paul, "work with your own hands" whether paid or not. Now Paul's not attacking someone who's unemployed but wants to work if they're able, but he is saying that a lazy and idle Christian is a contradiction in terms. And the aim and result of all of this? "So that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no-one". You see a church like this, which loves each other and supports one another in finding work, etc. such as through Christians Against Poverty (CAP), will impress a selfish world which asks: what power can produce this? The answer is the Gospel of Christ.
How will our culture be changed for the good? How will the incessant greed and living only for the now be reversed? Not by government policy. It'll be changed by people like us showing what real community, real relationships are: God centred and full of the love which Christ alone can give.
I need to conclude. Let me do so by asking this question. What do you think are the top two Christian ministry wreckers? Well, it's sex and money. The third is the misuse of power. But they're not just wreckers of Christian ministries. They're also wreckers of Christian lives. Right from the start, sex and money have always been an issue for God's people. All through the Old Testament, God's people struggled with getting a right view of sex and a right view of money. Even Bible giants like King David messed up in this area and no doubt many of us have too whether in thought or deed. So be warned and instead be sanctified through trusting and obeying Christ in the power of the Spirit.