For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)
As I have shown in previous posts, God’s will is that you be saved and Spirit-filled. Now, what comes after those two things? The answer is sanctification.
In essence, sanctification means to be set apart from sin. In this passage, Paul focuses in on one aspect of sanctification: abstaining from sexual immorality. This command isn’t a negative one. Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t hold hands with your girlfriend; don’t kiss your boyfriend.” Instead he frames it as a positive command: “Stay away from immorality.”
How far away? Far enough away to be totally separated from sin. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” There is nothing inherently wrong with holding hands or kissing. It’s what happens inside of us that sometimes makes these things sinful. We need to avoid all things that bring us under the power of sin, and our consciences help us distinguish when there is risk of this.
Separating ourselves from sexual immorality requires controlling both our bodies and our passions, as Paul goes on to say. In 1 Thessalonians 4:4 he says that we must possess our own “vessels” in sanctification and honor. There is debate over what Paul means by “vessel,” but I believe he is talking about the believer’s physical body. And if that is the case, Paul is saying that we must know how to possess, own, and control our bodies for purposes of sanctification and honor.
Paul knows this struggle firsthand. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, “I strictly discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” The first part of this verse can also be translated, “I batter my body” or “I buffet my body.” In other words, Paul says, “I beat my body into subjection to keep it under control. I give it a black eye.”
That said, even if a person never sins with their body, they can still sin with their passions. So just as we must control what we do externally, we must also control what we do internally. And we control our passions by not letting our minds see, hear and contemplate things that lead to sin. When we fight sin at the level of passions, we also make it easier to control our bodies (James 1:15).
The stakes are very high when it comes to controlling our bodies: “The one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Corinthians 6:17). Whatever a Christian does with his body, Christ is involved. When a believer joins himself to a harlot, he is also joining Christ to the harlot (1 Corinthians 6:15). Whatever we engage in we engage Christ in because we are one with Him. So it is imperative that we control our bodies.
In addition to sinning against Christ when we engage in sexual immorality, we also sin against the other people involved in our activities. As Paul puts it, we “defraud” our neighbors with our immorality. So controlling our bodies and our passions keeps us from harming the people around us.
Paul’s instructions here run contrary to what the world says to us. Our culture encourages us to release our passions and do whatever we want with our bodies. But as believers, we understand the steep consequences that immorality has for our relationships with God and with others, and we make ourselves obedient to the rules God has given us.
Somebody might say, “I don’t know if I like these rules.” And to that person, Paul says this: “The one who rejects this is not rejecting man, but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8). If you reject these rules, you are not rejecting some man-made system; you are rejecting the God who gave you His Holy Spirit as the source of power to avoid these sins.
So far we have seen that God wills for people to be saved, Spirit-filled and sanctified. But that still leaves us with the question that began this series. How can a believer know what God wants them to do with their individual career, family and interests? The answer to that question will be our subject next time.
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