God’s Will: Your Holiness

1 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 the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 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. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV

The chapter and verse designations found in our English translations were not In the original letter sent by Paul to the Thessalonians. So, the rather abrupt break we find between the close of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter four would not have been there. And that artificially imposed structure on the letter can cause some unnecessary confusion when trying to determine Paul’s intent and meaning.

Chapter three ends with Paul expressing his strong desire that God increase the love of Thessalonian believers for one another and for those outside their fellowship. And his prayer is that God would “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). Paul’s concern is that they live loves marked by love and godliness. He longs to see their inner heart transformation manifest itself through external expressions that give evidence to their holiness.

And Paul carries that thought into the next paragraph. The word “finally” is translated from the Greek word loipon, which can have a wide range of meanings, depending upon the context. It could be translated, “in addition” or “moreover.” Paul is expanding on what he has just said. He’s adding to his thoughts by providing his readers with further counsel regarding the link between their status as believers in Jesus Christ and the behavior that marks their lives. Paul had previously provided them with instructions in how “to walk and to please God,” and he commends them for having done so. But he also encourages them to “do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). They were not to grow complacent or content. This was no time to rest on their laurels or to become satisfied with the current condition of their spiritual lives. 

And it must be noted how Paul weaves together two very important aspects regarding the Christian’s spiritual maturity. At the close of chapter three, he expressed his firm belief that it was God alone who could increase the level of their love and cause it to overflow. And only God could make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. The inner transformation of their lives was totally dependent upon divine power, not human effort. It was impossible for them to manufacture, through human means, the kind of love God demanded. There is no way that they could repair the sin-damaged condition of their own hearts through self-renovation. Man is incapable of seeing the true state of his inner life. As the prophet Jeremiah put it, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). And even if he could see how wicked his heart is, man is powerless to do anything about it. That’s the meaning behind a comment made by God regarding the people of Judah and recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

“Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” – Jeremiah 13:23 NLT

God asked two rhetorical questions that shared the same obvious answer: No. The people of God were powerless to change their behavior because they couldn’t change their hearts. Their actions were nothing more than an outer expression of their inner condition.

So, Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that it is the power of God that has transformed them and made them His children. Their newfound status as sons and daughters of God was His doing. But that didn’t mean God was finished with them. Otherwise, Paul would not have prayed for God to increase their love to make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. They were works in process. Which is what Paul meant when he wrote to the believers in Philippi:

God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NLT

But Paul’s reference to God’s work in them doesn’t mean that God expects no work from them. And he makes that point perfectly clear when he states, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). This little verse packs a punch and yet is easily overlooked or ignored by most Christians. It provides a remarkable glimpse into God’s divine will for the life of the believer, and it is all summed up in the one word, sanctification.

The Greek word Paul used is hagiasmos and, like most Greek words, it is rich in meaning. It is sometimes translated as holiness, consecration, and purification. And it can be used to signify a position (a holy nation) and a process (be holy). In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul provides them with a list that describes the unrighteous, or those outside of Christ. It includes the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. Then Paul makes an interesting statement.  

…such were some of you. 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. – 1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV

Notice that he lists the Corinthian believers as having been sanctified. In this case, he is referring to their having been set apart by God. In the process of their salvation, their sinful condition was cleansed by the righteous blood of Christ, making them pure and acceptable before God and able to be set apart for His use. Like the utensils used in temple worship, they had to be cleansed and purified before they could be deemed worthy of use for God. Which is what Peter meant when he wrote:

you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy [hagios] nation, God’s very own possession. – 1 Peter 2:9 NLT

Don’t miss what Peter is saying. He tells his readers that they are a holy nation. They have been chosen by God and set apart as His very own possession. They belong to Him. Which is exactly what Paul told the believers in Corinth.

You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

They had been declared holy by God and set apart for His use. Which meant that they were to honor God with the entirety of their lives. And that is the whole point behind Paul’s admonitions to the believers in Thessalonica and Corinth. Notice the similarities between his comments in the two letters.

He tells the Thessalonians, “stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways” (Thessalonians 4:3-5 NLT). And his words to the Corinthians were similar.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? – 1 Corinthians 18-19 NLT

In a sense, Paul is commanding both groups to live their lives in a manner that matches their calling. They have been set apart by God for His use, and their lives were to reflect it. They were not free to live according to their own desires anymore. They had been bought with a price and belonged to God. And it was His will that they live sanctified, set apart lives.

And, as it to make sure the don’t miss his point, Paul states, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7 ESV). There’s that Greek word, hagiasmos again. It is the very same word that is translated as “sanctification” in verse 3. Paul is emphasizing that the believer’s calling by God is for the purpose of holiness or sanctification, not impurity.

There is a very important truth revealed in this verse that is easily overlooked and underappreciated. Paul says that God has not called us for impurity but in holiness. Those two prepositions are critical. The first one conveys a destination or activity. The second has to do with status or position. Holiness is not to be viewed as a process, but a positional reality. Holiness or sanctification is not to be viewed as a progression towards something as much as a revelation of something. We are already holy in God’s eyes. So, we are to live as what we are. We have been set apart by God in holiness. That is our new status or condition. We have been set apart by God for His will.

But there is going to be a constant war between our will and that of God. And one of the areas of life where the battle will rage the hottest is in regards to sexual sin. It was obviously a problem among the Thessalonian believers, or Paul would not have addressed it. While they enjoyed status as sanctified saints, they were going to have to live lives that gave evidence of who there were. And Paul reminds them that they had the indwelling power of the Spirit of God available to them. This was not about will power and self-effort. But it was about a willingness to make God’s will for them their highest priority. And Paul minces no words when he tells them, “this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Children of Light.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” – Ephesians 5:3-14 ESV

Darkness is the absence of light. It is what happens when light is removed or unavailable. The term, “darkness” is used by Paul and others to describe the moral and spiritual state of mankind apart from God. Without God, they are left in a state of darkness. The apostle John explained it. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV). God brings light into the world. He illuminates and eliminates darkness wherever His presence dwells. So the spiritual darkness in which mankind finds itself is the result of an absence of God. And John goes on to say,  “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6 ESV). In other words, our relationship with God should impact our conduct. That is why Paul tells us: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11 ESV). As children of God, we have been exposed to the Light, Jesus Christ. As John wrote in his gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5 NASB). Darkness and light cannot coexist. So when Jesus, the Light, came into the world, He illuminated and exposed the darkness all around Him. John goes on to say, “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:9-13 ESV). There were those, living in darkness, who preferred darkness over the Light. John tells us the sad news: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” John 3:19 ESV).

But some turned to the Light. They received Him. Their sins were exposed by Him and their need for a Savior was made clear to them for the very first time. It is interesting to note that John says, “the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” The Greek word John used is φωτίζω (phōtizō) and it can mean to “to give light” or “to enlighten, spiritually, imbue with saving knowledge” (“G5461 – phōtizō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). Obviously, John was not indicating that every man was saved as a result of Jesus coming into the world. But His message of salvation came into the world, exposing every man and woman to the truth. Some received it, while others rejected it.

Paul’s message in today’s passage is addressed to those who have received the Light. He is calling them to live lives that reflect their new standing as “children of light” – “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8 ESV). Notice that Paul does not say, “you are in the light,” but “you are light.” They have been transformed. At one time, they were not only living in darkness, they were darkness. Their lives were characterized by the deeds of darkness. But the Light, Jesus Christ, had penetrated their lives and they had become children of light. And Paul was simply calling them to lives as who they were. This meant a change in behavior. Children of light were not meant to live like children of darkness. And Paul was very explicit in what he meant. “Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people” (Ephesians 5:3 NLT). And just in case his audience got a bit prideful and puffed up, thinking they had no problem with those particular sins, Paul dropped a bombshell on them. “Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes — these are not for you” (Ephesians 5:4 NLT). These are those “little” sins that so many Christians excuse as somehow acceptable to God. But Paul says, “these are not for you.”

It is so easy to rationalize our behavior as Christians. We can find it so tempting to justify certain behavior as somehow not so bad. But Paul lumps obscene stories, foolish talk and course jokes in with immorality, impurity, greed and idolatry. They are all deeds of darkness. And Paul says, “Don’t be fooled by those who try to excuse these sins, for the anger of God will fall on all who disobey him” (Ephesians 5:6 NLT). Those are not the characteristics of those who have become light. They mark the nature of those who are children of darkness. That is why Paul goes on to adamantly demand:

Don’t participate in the things these people do. For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. – Ephesians 5:7-9 NLT

Instead, we are to determine what brings pleasure to God and to do those things. We are to live differently than all those around us. The light within us is to produce what is good, right and true. Rather than participate in the deeds of darkness, we are to expose them. I don’t think this means that we are to walk around pointing our fingers in judgment at those who sin, but our very presence as light is to provide a dramatic contrast. Paul says, “their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible” (Ephesians 5:13-14 NLT). Our very presence among those living in darkness and death will provide a convicting influence on their lives. In essence, when children of light live as light in the darkness, our lives become a call to those in the dark to experience the grace we have received: “Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14 NLT).