Flee from Sexual Immorality
by Jack Wald | February 9th, 2020

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

I mentioned last week that Paul finished saying what he most wanted to say to the church in Thessalonica in the first three chapters of the letter. Then, in chapter four, he wrote a two verse introduction to the rest of the letter. Timothy returned from his visit to Thessalonica and brought to Paul questions the church was asking as well as observations about the life of the church. So in the last two chapters of his letter, Paul answered some of the questions that were asked and addressed some of the concerns he had from the observations Timothy made about the church community.

Let me briefly review what I said last week about this introduction.
4 As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

What follows in the rest of Paul’s letter may be “other matters,” but Paul does not want them to think these “other matters” do not come with authority. That is the purpose of this introduction.

Paul urges them “in the Lord Jesus.” “By the authority of the Lord Jesus.” This is not Paul’s own opinion. The authority of the Lord Jesus stands behind what he writes.

In this two verse introduction to the rest of the letter, Paul is telling the Thessalonians that what he is writing to them has the highest possible authority. It is not a matter of personal choice. It is not what seems right to each person. It is not what feels right to each person. It is not a matter of whether what Paul writes is easy or difficult to do. It is not a matter of whether someone agrees or disagrees with what Paul says. It is an imperative. “This is what you must do.” Not because Paul thinks so, but because this comes through Paul with the authority of the Lord Jesus.”

John Stott writes: “Two things in particular marked off the Christians of New Testament days from contemporary society: the purity of their lives and the love that they practiced so fully.”

We talked last week about “the love that they practiced so fully.” This week we will focus on “the purity of their lives,” a discussion of sexual immorality.

When Timothy returned from his visit to the church in Thessalonica, he apparently reported to Paul that there was troubling sexual immorality in the church community. This was not surprising.

The Greco-Roman world Paul lived in was a sexually promiscuous world – for men. John Stott writes: A marked feature of life in the first-century Roman Empire, and specifically in Greece, was sexual laxity. The Thessalonian Christians lived in a world where people did not see fornication as a sin, but as part of normal life. It featured in the worship of more than one deity, and men in general found it difficult to feel deeply on the subject.

Demosthenes, a reputable citizen of Athens in the 4th century, wrote:
We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for our day-to-day bodily needs, but we have wives to produce legitimate children and serve as trustworthy guardians of our homes.

A man might have a mistress who could provide him with intellectual companionship. The institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine. Casual gratification was readily available from a prostitute. The function of a wife was to manage his household and be the mother of his legitimate children and heirs.

In addition to this, public religion involved ritual sex. The temple of Aphrodite in Corinth employed women as prostitutes as part of worship. In fact, Corinth, a harbor town with many sailors coming ashore, was such a hotbed of sex that it became a verb – “to corinthinanize” meant “to fornicate.”

In addition to heterosexual acts, homosexuality was common and sometimes considered noble. Temple prostitutes were male as well as female.

Someone who indulged in sex to excess might be satirized on the same level as a notorious glutton who could not restrain himself at the table or a drunkard. But for men, having multiple sexual partners was completely normal.

In stark contrast, in Judaism, sexual relations were restricted to a man and a woman who were married. Remember that the first followers of Jesus were Jewish and the early church used the Jewish scriptures as their own scriptures. The New Testament books of the Bible were in the process of being written in the first century but it was not until the 4th century that they were formally recognized as scripture.

So Christianity, from the beginning, recognized that sexual union within marriage was a blessing from God; outside marriage it was forbidden.

When Paul brought the gospel of Jesus to the pagan Greco-Roman world, this restrictive view of sex came as a shock to the cultural status quo.

I first became a follower of Jesus after a year in Germany as an exchange student, where I learned to drink beer. Sometime in the first weeks after I submitted to God and gave my life to Jesus, my roommate George and I went out for the night and came back drunk. When we came back to the dormitory, Julian, a Messanic Jew who had begun to mentor me in my new Christian life, saw me in the hall. He said, “Jackson (this is what my father called me and Julian learned my name when I arrived at the dorm with my father), what have you been doing?” I was a happy drunk. I just giggled. He told me, “Go to bed and we’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

The next day I met with Julian, he showed me the passages in the Bible that said we should not get drunk, and that is the last time I have ever been drunk. Going out and having fun, drinking beer, getting drunk was normal for me. I didn’t know Christians were not supposed to do that.

The church in Thessalonica was used to the status quo where men were free to be sexually promiscuous. This was socially acceptable behavior, completely normal, and Paul needed to give them some instructions. So he wrote:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.”

What happens when we become followers of Jesus?

Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:13–14
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

When we become followers of Jesus, we are filled with the Holy Spirit. We are indwelt by the Spirit and our bodies become a temple. Followers of Jesus, together, are the temple of God.

This is what the prophet Ezekiel prophesied six hundred years before Pentecost: (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

The presence of the Spirit in us makes our bodies sacred, to be treated with respect, dignity, and honor. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16–17
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

So when Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about their sexual immorality, he reminded them about the sacredness of their bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:15, 19–20)
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Paul writes that “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified:” When we become followers of Jesus, we begin the journey and learn along the way how we can please God, how we can obey God’s instructions. When we first begin following Jesus, our bodies that make up the temple of God may not be very clean. We may have many bad habits, bad practices, bad attitudes, bad motives that have to be cleaned up. This process in which the Spirit works, along with our cooperation, to transform us into the holy person God means for us to be, is what Paul calls in his Romans letter the second stage of salvation: we are being saved – sanctification..

When we discover we are doing something that is not pleasing to God, we need to work to change that part of ourselves. I stopped getting drunk when I went out at night to have a good time. (And incidentally, I discovered the next week when my friend George and I went out, that I had a much better time than he did because I stayed sober. He behaved offensively to two girls we were talking with. He tried to push his way into their dormitory when we walked them home. And then he threw up on the sidewalk. I had a much better time that night than he did.)

Our bodies are the temple of God and we need to learn how to treat them with respect and dignity, to honor the God who dwells in us.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 

Now Paul gets specific about being sanctified. He says we should avoid sexual immorality. What is sexual immorality?

The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” is porneia. Porneia was used specifically for having sex with prostitutes but is used in the New Testament to describe any form of illicit sexual relationships. Sexual immorality in the New Testament is any sexual relationship outside of the marriage of one man and one woman. Premarital sex, adultery, homosexual relationships, prostitution, and I would add, pornography which gets is name from porneia, are sexually immoral acts.

In the Greco-Roman world of promiscuous sexuality, this required a dramatically changed life for a man who became a follower of Jesus. He needed to sever his relationship with his mistress, if he had one, with his concubines, if he had them, with prostitutes, and become a faithful husband to his wife. That is a lot to give up, a major lifestyle change.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 

Paul urges us in the Lord Jesus to learn to control our bodies in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans.

We are humans and we all have desires. In our younger years, in adolescence, before puberty, the opposite sex is more of an irritation than an object of desire. But then the hormones kick in and all of a sudden we have desires popping out of our pores. Single young adults think that when they get married they will be able to bring their desires under control, but marriage does not cut off desires. Despite a healthy sexual relationship with your spouse, desire for other women, other men will still arise.

When a dog has a desire, he goes outside, finds a female dog to have sex, goes back in the house, licks himself, and lies down to rest. Dogs do not know how to resist a desire and don’t care how they satisfy that desire. But we are not dogs. We are not slaves to our desires. We can choose not to act on our desires. Every desire we have does not need to be satisfied. It is not good or healthy for us to act on every desire we have.

We need to learn to control ourselves. We do not eat every time we are hungry. We do not go out and play every time we feel like doing that. We do not yell insults at everyone we get angry at. We do not allow our desires to control us, to make us their slave.

This is where drugs and alcohol get us into trouble. When you take drugs or drink too much, you lose the ability to control your desires.

In his first New Testament letter, Peter wrote three times “to be alert and of sober mind.”
(1 Peter 4:7)
The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.

(1 Peter 5:8)
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

There are serious, eternal consequences for our actions. We move though life making choices that lead to life or death and need to be sober minded. We need to move through life with direction and purpose, not meandering along, following our desires wherever they take us.

I am not afraid of pleasure. I do want to live my life in a way that pleases God. I want to honor God with the way I use my body.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.

The ideal for a sexual relationship goes back to the story of Adam and Eve who knew (in the Biblical sense of the word) no one before they had a sexual relationship with each other. If someone commits adultery, they rob the spouse of the one they committed adultery with. In the case of premarital sex, the future husband or wife is robbed of the virginity of their spouse.

The sixth of the ten commandments tells us, “You shall not commit adultery.” The seventh tells us, “You shall not steal.” The tenth tells us, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” An adulterous affair violates the sixth and tenth of the ten commandments. Premarital sex and adultery violate the seventh commandment.

When I became a follower of Jesus in 1971, the US was in the midst of a sexual revolution. My generation threw away respect for institutions and authority. They threw away sexual restraints and the anti-war slogan, “Make love, not war.” was more than metaphorical. The previous generations had not been sexually pure, but my generation took sexual immorality out of the closet and brought it into the open.

In light of this, it is amazing to me that the Christian group I was part of was sexually pure – not perfect, but much closer to the purity God asks us to live. I was part of a group of about 600 young men and women and I can’t speak for every man in the group, but I and those I knew regarded the women in the group as sisters in Christ. We did not think about them as sexual objects. We dated, but we respected the women we dated. It is not that we did not think about sex, but sex was for a future time when we were married.

Paul continues:
The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.

Chastity, restraint from pre-marital sex or adultery, is not the whole of sanctification, but it is an important part of it. We are called to live a holy life and it is clear that God regards sexual immorality as an evil that must be resisted. Paul writes that sexual immorality will be punished.

Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit. 

Paul understood how radical this teaching on sexual immorality was and so he brackets it with his forceful introduction and conclusion. This is not just his own wisdom, his own thinking, his own preference. This comes from the Lord Jesus with his full authority. This teaching is not up for discussion. Paul is forceful about this in his introduction and at the conclusion of his short remarks about sexual responsibility.

Like the Greco-Roman world, our modern world is also a sexually promiscuous world in which sexual immorality is not only practiced but encouraged. If you watch movies or television shows, a couple meets, have sex, and then try to figure out their relationship afterwards. I can’t think of any movies where the couple decides to wait until they are married to have sex.

The American football championship, the Super Bowl has an extravagant show between the two halves of the game. In an article written about this year’s show, Denise McAllister writes about the normalization of porn culture:
Musical artists Jennifer Lopez and Shakira set out to model “female power” for young girls who shared their Super Bowl halftime stage. They did it by pole dancing, grinding and booty shaking like strippers in a club….
Making oneself a sex object benefits no one except the artists and their pocketbooks. Sexualizing women is a multi-billion dollar industry that doesn’t care about its negative effects on girls or women. It ignores the depression and eating disorders. It turns a blind eye to drug use and trails of broken relationships stemming from a damaged sexual identity. It doesn’t care that girls hate their bodies because they compare themselves to an ideal forced on them by pop culture.

When I watched the game, I skipped the halftime show because I know from past years that this is not healthy entertainment. Apparently this year, it took the sexuality of the show to a new level.

Those of us in the West live in a publicly explicit sexual culture. People who are considered moral are those who decide to have sex only with those they love, or to have a sexual relationship with only one person and wait until they break off that relationship before they begin a sexual relationship with someone else.

The culture of the Western world is moving quickly, but the rest of the world is not far behind. In fact I would say that the Western world has taken sexual immorality out of the closet into the open while in many other cultures, it is still hidden in the closet.

Followers of Jesus must resist this overt sexualization of culture. We must fight for innocence and purity.

Why is God opposed to sexual immorality? After all, if two people really love each other, what is wrong if they have a sexual relationship, heterosexual or homosexual. I have two friends who are homosexual. One is married to his husband and the other is living with his partner. Both of these friends are wonderful men. I love and respect them. In both cases, the man they married or are living with, is good for them. They feel supported and encouraged in their relationship. If you evaluated their relationship alongside many heterosexual relationships, theirs would be rated as healthier and more beneficial. So why not adapt to the cultural view that what matters most is whether people really love each other?

First of all, it is not up to us to make the rules. It is not up to us to say what pleases God and what does not please God. God is the pre-existing creator of the universe and all who live in it. Who are we to argue with him?

The good question to ask is if we are misinterpreting what the Bible says about sexual relationships. The churches in the south of the US taught from scripture that slavery of black Africans was justified. We look at what they preached and see clearly that they misinterpreted the Bible. Are we doing the same thing with sexual immorality?

I don’t have time to go through the arguments, but I encourage you to read a paper written by the Vineyard church. They have an eighty page paper that presents in the first part, the Biblical argument for the ordination and marriage of practicing homosexuals. The second part of the paper presents the Vineyard’s rebuttal of those arguments. The third part of the paper offers practical advice about how churches can lovingly care for homosexuals in their churches.

I am convinced that the Bible is clear that homosexuality is not how God wants us to live, that God does not want us to have sex outside of the marriage of one woman and one man.

As the culture is moving away from Biblical truth, you have to decide if you will follow that drift or hold on to the clear teaching in the Bible. Will the culture in all its wisdom decide what is right and what is wrong, or will we obey the teaching in the Bible about how to live our lives?

Why is God opposed to sexual immorality? It is not up to us to make the rules. Second, strong marriages are the foundation block for a peaceful and prosperous world.

We pray in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. God wants us to live on earth as we will one day live in heaven. God wants us to live in a peaceful and prosperous world. But the world is only as peaceful and prosperous as the nations of the world. The nations of the world are only as peaceful and prosperous as the communities in that nation. The communities are only as peaceful and prosperous as the families in those communities. The families are only as strong as the marriages in those families.

God wants us to have strong marriages and strong marriages require one man and one woman who love each other, encourage each other, respect each other, value each other.

There are some in our church who come from families where the father had more than one wife. They have painful stories to tell, stories of rejection, stories of abuse. There are some in our church who have suffered from the divorce of their parents. Some of these divorces were caused by the husband or wife having an adulterous affair.

Marriage is not easy. It is difficult for two people to live together in an intimate relationship and sacrifice for each other, give up their rights for each other, learn to live with sometimes irritating habits. When you add to this an adulterous affair or an addiction to pornography, marriage moves toward the cliff.

Marriage is a fundamental building block for our communities and needs to be honored, respected, and protected.

One of the problems in talking about sexual immorality is that there has always been a double standard for sexual behavior.

In the time of Paul, as I mentioned earlier, a man could have a mistress, a concubine, go to a prostitute, in addition to having a wife. This was completely normal and even admirable. Women, on the other hand, did not have this freedom to be sexually promiscuous. The double standard for men and women seemed natural. There was a scandal in Rome when the Roman empress was accused of prostitution for a relationship she had that became public.

Why is there a double standard?

When I was in high school a cheerleader became pregnant and had to leave school. She lived near to me and we rode on the same bus to school. When the news broke, we talked about her in insulting terms. We called her a slut. But no one was critical of the boy who got her pregnant. In fact, to be a sexually active male was considered cool.

A primary reason for the difference is that when men and women have sex, it is the female who gets pregnant, not the male. Men can be as sexually active as they want to be and the only physical consequence might be to pick up a sexually transmitted disease. But the whole world knows when a woman’s belly begins to bulge that she has been sexually active.

There is a great novel, a short novel, by Leo Tolstoy – Resurrection. It tells the story of a young noble who stays at the country estate of his two aunts. He falls in love with one of the maids and she falls in love with him. It is a sweet, innocent love. But then, on the night before he heads off to rejoin his military unit, he urges her to have sex with him. She refuses. She is shocked that he pressures her to do something that would be shameful. But he overpowers her and leaves in the morning, giving her some money before he leaves.

He goes to join his military unit, forgets about her, becomes part of the Moscow social world, and one day finds himself called for jury duty. This is a difficult time for him because he has a mistress he must break up with so he can get married to a socialite.

When he comes to the court he finds himself judging the case of a prostitute who is accused of stealing money from a client. Who is the prostitute?

The young woman who loved him and who he loved, discovered some months after he left that she was pregnant. The aunts kicked her out of their household because of her shameful behavior. She had a miscarriage and then found employment in another household where the owner took advantage of her. She moved from place to place was abused sexually again and again and eventually became a prostitute in Moscow. She was wrongly accused of stealing money from a client and put on trial, where her young love saw her again.

As the novel unfolds, the nobleman has a genuine religious conversion, he repents for his behavior, the woman is sentenced to prison in Siberia, he tries to get her to forgive him, to love him, but she has so hardened her heart to protect herself from her pain that she cannot open it to him or anyone else.

I highly recommend you read this book, but the point is that it illustrates so well the double standard of male and female sexual behavior. No one accused him of being sexually immoral. It was his young love who was shamed.

When the teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery for Jesus to judge, where was the man who was with her? This is the double standard that has stood untouched through the ages, until the last few decades.

In our modern world, the double standard has, for the first time in history, begun to disappear. The pill that prevents conception and the legalization of abortion have removed the procreational consequence of sexual intercourse from women. Women no longer have to worry about having a baby if they do not want it. Women are now free to be as sexually irresponsible as men have always been. This is why the right to choose to have an abortion is so fiercely defended. Women do not want to have to go back to the double standard that imprisoned them in the past.

It is men who have been primarily destructive to marriages and families with their sexual behavior. Now that is becoming a bit more egalitarian.

How do we live as followers of Jesus in a sexually explicit world that denies the Biblical teaching about sex?

  1. We need to love people, care for them, regardless of their sexual orientation. Christians who speak hateful words to people they disagree with are hurting the work of Jesus to rescue these people. We are called by Jesus to love as he loved.
  2. We need to stand against the sexual abuse of another person in whatever form that takes. If a sexual desire is being acted out in a consensual way, that it not our responsibility. But when a sexual desire is being acted out with someone who is not a willing participant, we have the responsibility to stand up and defend and protect that person.
  3. We need to resist fighting a cultural war. I talked about this in a sermon some weeks ago. We work and pray for a transformation of hearts that will lead to purity. If we try to force purity on someone, that will not work. So while I will preach on sexual immorality when the text demands it, I will not make it a focus of my preaching. I want to focus on the love of God for us, what Jesus has done for us to make it possible to be in intimate relationship with God, on the hope we have in a broken world that God will bring us safely through this life and after we die, into our eternal home. I want people to experience the love of Jesus and surrender to him. Then the Holy Spirit will begin his work of transforming their hearts. The Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth.
  4. We need to protect the Biblical institution of marriage by being celibate until we are married, by being faithful to our spouse when we are married, by working in our marriages to build love and trust.
  5. The way to defend a city is to build a strong wall, not to stand in front of a decaying, crumbling wall and yell at people who approach. The track record for Christian marriages is not great. Christians have affairs, get divorced. Preachers indulge in sexual immorality and their marriages suffer. It is easy for people to mock the Christian view of marriage when so many Christian marriages end in divorce. Rather than standing in front of a decaying wall and yelling at people because they are having sex outside a marriage between one man and one woman, we need to present to the world a strong wall of healthy and loving marriages. When marriages in the church are strong, then the witness of the church to a sexually promiscuous world will be more powerful.
  6. Be aware of the messages that come from movies, television shows, and other entertainment. We are being bombarded with the sexual immorality of this culture. It may be difficult to block this out. Even the best movies can carry the message of sexual freedom. But at least you can be aware of what you are watching and not let what you watch affect what you believe to be true.
  7. Sexual immorality is not the end of the road. God is in the business of bringing beauty out of ashes. There are many who can testify about how God rescued them, brought them out of a sexually immoral life into purity. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, that hotbed of sexual immorality. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
    do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

I have known men and women who were part of RIC who had a past as a male prostitute or a past of drugs and sexual promiscuity and were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. They were made pure by the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Whether you are married or not, protect the institution of marriage by being celibate outside of the bonds of marriage. If you are in an immoral sexual relationship, determine this morning that you will break off that relationship. If you are watching pornography, decide this morning to get help to break off this addiction. If you are married, decide this morning to work to build intimacy in your marriage. If you need to forgive your spouse, pray that God will help you to do this.

1 Corinthians 6:18-20
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.