Thursday, December 29, 2016

Importance of Sexual Purity for Sanctification – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8

Why did Paul make sexual purity the focal point of sanctification in this passage? It has a lot to do with knowing God’s will and obeying or rejecting His will and therefore rejecting God.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; 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; 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. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit. (NKJV)

God’s Will

There are not many verses in the Bible that expressly say something is the will of God. Most often, we have to look at a passage and apply a narrative or some direct teaching to understand what God’s will is. Many times, the verses don’t say that one thing or another is God’s will, but uses other words. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 says, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (NIV). Other versions use the word desire. God’s desire and His will are different things. His will is something that is certain, such as everyone who comes to him will not perish (Matt 18:14). However, His desire is not certain because it is obvious that not everyone is saved but that is His desire (1 Tim 2:4). When it is His desire, He gives us freedom to align ourselves with His desire or not. When we don’t conform to His desire, it is still a sinful response because we have chosen against His desire. When it is his will, we have no choice, as He will make certain it happens. We can still sin by struggling against His will but at some point, His purpose is accomplished. 

Therefore it must be quite important when we find a passage like this that say it is God’s will and then goes on to elaborate on how that should be done. In this case, God’s will is our sanctification.

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Rom 6:22 RSV)

The word for sanctification is hagiasmos. You’ve probably heard this described as a separation from the evil things of the world and dedication or consecration to God. That is the basic definition but there is more. It is also a description of the life that we should be leading once we are separated. While we are set apart at salvation, the process of sanctification is “built up, little by little, as the result of obedience to the Word of God, and of following the example of Christ, Matt 11:29; John 13:15; Eph 4:20; Phil 2:5, in the power of the Holy Spirit, Rom 8:13; Eph 3:16.”[1]
In Romans 6:22, we can see the initial calling when we are set free from sin. We can also see that sanctification is a process because there is a beginning and an end. The end is eternal life. That sounds odd, doesn’t it, an end that is eternal. But that is the way it will be. When we eventually reach heaven, our sanctification stops. When we reach the end of the process we will be completely sanctified, we will be like Jesus. This is the promise we have in Romans 8:29 and 1 John 3:2-3:
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (NASB)

We know that now we are God’s children and that is the position we gained at salvation. What full sanctification will be like is not completely apparent to us but we only know that we will be like Jesus and we know He is completely holy or sanctified. Then our response is to work toward purity because we know that is God’s will.

The Thessalonians were still quite young in their faith and didn’t have the advantage of a long time of teaching from Paul. This may be the reason that he emphasizes the beginning of this step by step process with sexual purity. 

Sexual Purity

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:  sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5 ESV)

It just wasn’t the Thessalonians who were singled out and warned about sexual impurity, Paul also wrote essentially the same thing to the Colossians (Col 3:5), Corinthians (1 Cor 6:13), Galatians (Gal 5:19), and Ephesians (Eph 5:3). The author of Hebrews also warned his audience about sexual immorality (Heb 12:16) as did Peter (1 Peter 2:11). In fact, the warnings about avoiding sexual impurity go back to the Ten Commandments where it is stated simply, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Ex 20:14 KJV). People always look for loopholes so the Law expanded upon that to define sexual immorality in more detail. The legalists would think that as long as they are not having sex with someone else’s spouse it would be OK. So Leviticus 18 prohibits many sexual activities, most of which are incestuous but also includes homosexuality and bestiality (Lev 18:22-23). The reason Paul had to warn people about sexual immorality is also provided in this chapter:
Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Lev 18:24-25 NIV)

These nations are the Gentiles that Paul refers to in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 as well as all non-Jewish people. Sexual immorality is the common behavior of people who do not follow the Lord, they do these things; they think about them all the time; they talk about them and when they can get away with it, they practice them. You may think that is not true, but my experience in the Navy and later in the blue-collar working world before becoming a Christian tells me that the world’s attitude toward sexuality is more perverse that most Christians would ever suspect. The Hollywood portrayal of this is more accurate than we like to admit. The horrible truth is there but we are warned to stay sexually pure.

It is honorable when we do. It honors the Lord, it honors our spouses, and it honors our children. When we are sexually immoral with another person, it wrongs or defrauds him or her because it shows no respect for that person. It shows no respect for the rest of the family. Paul emphasized this when he said that it wrongs his brother. We are simply using others to satisfy our own lusts and desires. They are no more that objects and we care nothing for their spiritual development and walk with Christ or for the damage that does to the rest of the family when it is discovered.

When we become a nation that acts in this way, the Lord promises to vomit us out of the land (Lev 18:25). Don’t be surprised when it happens to the U.S. 

Don’t Reject This

Paul began the chapter by emphasizing that his teaching carried the same weight as if Jesus had instructed them Himself. 1 Thessalonians 4:8 puts a bookend on the passage when he says that rejecting this teaching on sexual immorality is the same as rejecting God. Look at what Jesus said:
He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day (John 12:48 NASU).

Anyone who is rejecting the clear teaching of the Bible will be judged for that. Does that mean that a person will lose his salvation for rejecting this teaching on sexual immortality? No, the Bible doesn’t teach that. But just as Jesus tied receiving His Word to receiving Him or judgment, then a person who is sexually immoral and continues in that lifestyle is in fact rejecting Jesus. The concept is clearly spelled out by John, “Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:7-8 NKJV). In vs. 7, the emphasis is on practicing and practicing also applies to sin in vs. 8. So it is that the ones who reject the teaching about immorality are rejecting God. 

We can’t ignore the clear teaching of the whole Bible on sexual immorality. If we do, we are rejecting God. Thanks be to God, we can always repent and be forgiven. If we don’t, it just proves we aren’t saved in the first place.

[1] W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), s.v. “NT38”, Biblesoft.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Doing More to Please God – 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2

Do you feel like you are living a godly life? That’s great if you do, we should all be striving for that. But look at what Paul says to the Thessalonians who are living to please the Lord.

Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you. You live this way already, and we encourage you to do so even more. For you remember what we taught you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. (NLT)

Even when we are already living godly lives, there is always room for improvement. 

Urged on In the Name of Jesus

At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth. (Phil 2:10 NKJV)

Calling upon the name of Jesus to urge someone to do something is a very serious. Since every knee will at sometime in the future bow or submit to Jesus’ authority, it makes Paul’s urging more than an encouragement. If we address Jesus as Lord, then we must acknowledge His sovereign rights over us. Paul taught by the authority of Jesus so his urging is the same as Jesus Himself urging us. It is confirmed by the fact that this book of the Bible has been kept as revelation from God. Had this directive not been inspired by the Holy Spirit then it would not have survived over the years and delivered along with the rest of the Bible.
This urging is similar to the way Paul exhorted Timothy. Three times, he charged Timothy in the presences of God and Christ Jesus to live a godly life and to exercise his ministry (1 Tim 5:21; 6:13-14; 2 Tim 4:1-2). Think about that for a while. Imagine standing in the presences of God and Jesus Christ along with Paul. Paul then tells you to do something and while God and Jesus nod in agreement. That’s what is going on when Paul urges us to live a life that pleases God.

Live to Please God

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31 RSV)

Eating and drinking are two very necessary functions for us to live. The context of this verse is doing things that cause others to stumble. However, the broader application is for all aspects of life. In application, it is an extension of Matthew 22:37-38 where Jesus explained the whole Law and commandments as loving God and our neighbors. If we are living to please God, then our lives should bring glory to Him. That would be a very easy test of every aspect of our lives. All we need do is to ask ourselves is whether this would bring glory to God. When we do something, does it express or demonstrate love for God and our neighbors? 

And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Col 3:17 NASB)

I suppose it is possible for someone to do something in the name of Jesus and rationalize it as pleasing God. I’m fairly certain that all of us have done that to one degree or another. I know I have. However, hindsight reveals that I might have done something in the name of the Lord but it was only to satisfy my own desires. It’s the same problem as praying for something and not getting it because it was really a selfish request only meant to meet my wants and passions (James 4:3). Rather than getting hung up on all the possible abuses, it’s better to simply apply these verses and try to understand what the Lord really wants. Does it glorify God and demonstrate love of God and others. If we are walking with the Lord and our hearts don’t condemn us (1 John 3:21), then were can be pretty sure that we are doing things for His glory and in His name.

Fundamental Christian Teaching

I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:27 ESV)

Can you imagine having Paul as your Bible study leader? He was bold. He didn’t mince words or fear calling sin, sin. He told it like it was. However, this verse was describes a time when he talked to the elders in Ephesus. He had more than two years in Ephesus. He didn’t have that much time in Thessalonica; it was only about three weeks (Acts 17:2). Even if Paul met with believers during the week and not only on the Sabbath, this isn’t much time and they only had time to learn the fundamentals of Christianity. One of those fundamentals was how to live in a way that pleases God. 

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24 NIV)

Some people think that after becoming a Christian, pleasing the Lord is automatic because they have the Holy Spirit to lead and guide them. While we do have the ability to please God because we are new creations and we have the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17, 21), being holy and pleasing Him is something that we must also work at. Sanctification is a process as well as a onetime event. We become holy or sanctified in the sense that we’ve crossed over the line from having a dead spirit that can’t respond to God to one that now has life (John 5:24). However, that is only the start. Paul even had to write to the Ephesians and remind them of how they were taught. Remember, he had over two years to teach them and still he had to remind them to put off their old sinful habits and to put on new ways of living in righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:21-24). 

So the fundamental teaching is that we are saved by grace through faith and that is God’s work in us. We don’t earn it and our good works don’t save us. However, once saved, it is our responsibility to work at living a godly life. That is why He saved us (Eph 2:8-10). We do that in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, not just by our own efforts (Rom 8:13).

Please God Even More
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:8 NASU)

If we really want to please God even more, then we need to understand what it means to be in the flesh. The older NIV (1984) and the NLT versions use the terminology of “controlled by the sinful nature” instead of “in the flesh.” The latest version NIV (2011) says, “In the realm of the flesh.” Fausset’s Bible Dictionary defines flesh when used in this way:

"The flesh" is the natural man, including the unrenewed will and mind, moving in the world of self and sense only. Self imposed ordinances gratify the flesh (i.e. self) while seemingly mortifying it.[1]

Pleasing God more and more as opposed to not being able to please Him at all is tied to the concept of being in the flesh. Those who are not Christians are completely in the flesh. They have no desire or will to please God in the way He has ordained it. They may have a zeal for God, but it isn’t according to God’s will because they try to establish their righteousness on their own terms instead of God’s (Rom 10:2-4). On the other hand, Christians move on from being unable to please God at all to degrees of pleasing Him. Fausset’s definition and Scripture indicate that even when we are Christians, we can be more or less in the flesh. It depends on how much we are being renewed in our will and mind, or as some would say, how much we are being led by the Spirit.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (Rom 8:14 NKJV). 

This verse makes it sound very black and white. We are completely doing what the Spirit wants or we are not and therefore, not even Christians. Thankfully, Paul clarifies in other places what being led by the Spirit entails, especially when understanding what it means to have our minds renewed. 

And do not be conformed [Stop doing this! Go on refusing to do this!] to this world, but be transformed [Commitment to long term way of doing something. A command to keep on doing an action as ones’ general habit or life-style. Repeat each time this situation arises!] by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove [Constantly or repeatedly, customarily; a continuous process or habit] what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2 NASB)[2]

The Discovery Bible uses icons to indicate what the Greek grammar intended but our English grammar can’t fully reveal when translated. When using the icons to understand Romans 12:2, the meaning of being in the flesh or not comes clear. Being in the flesh is being conformed to the world, something we must stop but it is an ongoing process. We don’t just stop once, we must stop every time the world wants us to conform. Being led by the Spirit is then stopping each time a situation comes up that tries to make us conform. It doesn’t happen all at once but we must continue to refuse to do it. Obviously, we don’t always stop. Being transformed is doing the opposite. As we stop being conformed we start and continue to make being led by the Spirit a lifestyle. The implication is that we progress in this direction. It isn’t something that we suddenly are perfect at doing. The result is repeatedly pleasing God. 

If there is any doubt about this meaning, Paul also wrote, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18 RSV). Learning to please God more and more takes one step at a time.

Taught by Jesus’ Authority.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God. (1 Peter 4:10-11 ESV)

Paul’s assertion in 1 Thessalonians 4:2 that his teaching came by way of the Lord Jesus would be rather audacious if it had come from someone else. Some translations insert “by the authority” into the text (NLT, NIV, NAS) to indicate the seriousness of what Paul was claiming. When we look at what Peter said about using our gifts, especially those who speak (and this includes write[3]), we are supposed to do so as if we are speaking the very words of God. The oracles of God in the Old Testament were often prophecies of future events. It was very serious for anyone to speak an oracle of the Lord. Judah had abused oracles of the Lord to excuse their sins. Therefore, God spoke through Jeremiah in a blistering reproof and condemnation of those who claimed to have an oracle of the Lord but were only speaking their own perverted words (Jer 23:33-40). 

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12 NIV)

Paul made the claim that what he taught was a direct revelation from Jesus. Scholars believe he wrote it either in 48 or AD 52.[4] Peter also spoke of the wisdom of Paul’s writings and equated them with Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). 2 Peter was written in AD 66-67.[5] If there had been any doubts about Paul’s authority, it would have been raised after he stated that his revelation came from Jesus. Peter had more than ten years to contradict Paul. Instead he substantiated his claim to have Jesus’ authority. 

Since Paul taught with Jesus’ authority and he unequivocally states that the Thessalonians should live in a way to please God more and more, then we have no choice but to accept that instruction for our lives. If we don’t apply this Scripture to our lives then we have no business claiming any of the promises in Scripture either. God warns those who take parts only the parts of Scripture they like and ignore the others:

But to the wicked God says, "What right have you to tell of My statutes And to take My covenant in your mouth? "For you hate discipline, And you cast My words behind you. (Ps 50:16-17 NASU)

May we all strive to please God more and more as we make the effort to let the Holy Spirit lead us and transform us more and more into the image of His Son, Jesus.

[1] Andrew Robert Fausset, Fausset's Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Flesh,” (Seattle: Biblesoft, Inc., 2006), Electronic Database.
[2] Notations in brackets inserted from icons in, New American Standard Version, The Discovery Bible: New Testament, Reference ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), Rom 12:2.
[3] S. Grimm and S. Wilke, New Testament Lexicon, Joseph Henry Thayer, ed., (Seattle: Biblesoft 2006), s.v. “NT:2980.”
[4] Merrill Frederick Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Galatians, Epistle to the,” (Chicago: Moody, 1988), Biblesoft.
[5] Unger, s.v. “Peter, Second Epistle of.”

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Benediction – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13

How do you view benedictions? I started thinking more about them as I read Paul’s benediction in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13. 

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. (NIV)

A benediction is an interesting form of prayer. I think that we often look at them from the wrong viewpoint because of traditions. The priest, pastor, or reverend at the end of a religious service raises his hand toward the congregation and invokes a benediction. It is often a rote formulation copied out of a prayer book or some verses from the Bible. Also called a blessing, it appears as though the person offering the benediction is somehow greater than the ones receiving it, which in some cases is appropriate (Heb 7:7). This viewpoint places a greater emphasis on the one doing the blessing, for he is somehow capable of making this special kind of prayer because he has a special in with God that the recipient do not have. Therefore, he pronounces this pray speaking as if God is a bystander. I don’t think this is the way benedictions should be used nor are they the way the Bible intends them to be seen.


The Lord bless you, and keep you; The Lord make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance on you, And give you peace. (Num 6:24-26 NASU)

This is a common blessing that is recited at the end of services. It is the way the Lord commanded Aaron to bless Israel. However, Aaron’s and Paul’s benedictions are in contrast with most benedictions spoken at the end of a service. While there is nothing wrong in quoting Aaron’s benediction, the context leading up to the benediction is missing. Aaron’s was at the end of a long list of rules and regulations. The meaning is clear because the Lord also said, “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord” (Lev 18:5 NKJV). The application is the blessing of that the Lord supplies when the people are obedient to the Law. The result is peace. Paul’s benediction relates back to the concerns he had for the Thessalonians. Viewed in context, the benediction then becomes a reinforcement of the message. It is telling the recipients that God would accomplish in the heart of the believers the application of the message just preached. 

As an example, if the message has been on the Ten Commandments and the minister ends the message with Aaron’s blessing. There is no connection with the message. Shouldn’t the blessing be something like, “May the Lord convict you of idolatry and using His name wrongly in your swearing and cursing.” Or, “May the Lord strengthen you to honor Him before all other things and glorify His name in all you say and then may the Lord bless and keep you …” 

One other thing, why is the benediction only at the end of the service? Paul still had two more chapters to write when he gave this benediction. Maybe there should be a benediction after each point of a sermon.
So now, let’s look at the way Paul’s benediction applied to his previous message.

Clear the Way

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:15 NLT)

Seldom do we see benedictions that include the person who is praying. Paul included himself in his benediction. He is acknowledging, as James instructed, to make sure that the Lord’s will is in mind. He asked that the Lord clear the way not just for his sake, but also so that the Thessalonians would be blessed when they were able to see each other again. A significant portion of the previous passages starting in 1 Thessalonians 2:17, was devoted to the eagerness in which he wanted to see them and after learning that they had the same desire, it was appropriate to pray in the benediction for the Lord to make that possible.

Increased Love

Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7:12 NASB)

Paul’s second point in his benediction was for an increase in love toward everyone. Who wouldn’t want this to happen? Jesus said the greatest commandments is to love God and the second is to love others (Matt 22:37-40). In His Sermon on the Mount, He explained that this is demonstrated in treating other the way we want to be treated (Matt 7:12). Of course, this is predicated on the concept that you are a person that wants to love God in the first place. John wrote much about love in 1 John and that it is first predicated on knowing God (1 John 4:8). The person who claims to love God but is not showing love to others is a liar (1 John 4:20). What better benediction would there be for those whom Paul loved and who loved him? His longing to see them and their desire to see him was rooted in love.

Strength to Be Holy  and Blameless

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to  the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord,  be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24 ESV)

Paul’s benediction also was calling upon God to give the Thessalonians the strength to be holy and blameless. Much of his concern for them was that they had fallen away because of persecution. I’ve written about our need to be solid in our faith before persecution comes, but we still need the Lord to strength us for persecution. However, surviving persecution, the testing of the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:7), like loving others, assumes that we have faith. If we have faith we also have the promises of Jesus that we won’t fall away (John 10:27-30). Jude’s benediction is worded differently than Paul’s, but take another look at it. God, through Jesus Christ receives glory because He is the one who gives the strength not to stumble and sin. We are blameless because, through Jesus, all our sins, past present and future have been wiped out, “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb 10:14 NIV). 

Other Benedictions

Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to the reapers, “May the Lord be with you.” And they said to him, “May the Lord bless you.” (Ruth 2:4 NASU)

Benedictions should fit the message preached. However, there are other benedictions that are appropriate. In the book of Ruth, Boaz the landowner blessed his hired hands. But look at the response. They turned around and asked for a blessing on their boss. This establishes the fact that we don’t need to be the one in authority, as patriarchs blessed their families before dying (Gen 27:26-29, 49:1-27), or as priests (Num 6:22-27), apostles, or pastors. We can and should bless around those us (1 Peter 3:9).

With this in mind, how do we apply it? One way is to establish a tradition to bless our families when we pray. We can send our family members off to work (at home or outside of home) or school. 

May the Lord renew the use of benedictions in your home, in your church, and even in your work. May the traditions be full of meaning and not rote renditions of formula prayers.