Sexual Morals

This morning we come to chapter 4 in our studies in 1 Thessalonians. This is an important section of the epistle. It deals with the subject of sexual morals. And don't we need guidance in that area? Today there is not only confusion but despair. Lesley Garner, a journalist growing up in the permissive sixties, wrote last week:

Somebody's lying. No, that's not right. Everybody's lying. In 50 years we have swung from the idea that nobody should experiment with sex outside marriage to the idea that it is so natural and inevitable that no shame or problem attaches to it - not once you've got the contraception sorted out.

But has that brought happiness? No! She says:

The great idea of sexual revolution, of sex as the fountain of all freedom and happiness, was revealed as a myth.

And now the Government is preparing a new season of decadence by its support for reducing the age of consent and then, we understand, later it will seek to remove Clause 28. That will mean homosexual sex can be promoted in schools. Do please write to your MP with a copy to the Home Secretary and Prime Minister about all this. There is a Christian Institute briefing at the back of the church. People writing recently meant that the Human Rights Bill will not be as bad as it might have been. Writing now may have a similar restraining influence. But it was no different in the time of Jesus. King Herod was immoral. John the Baptist lead a public campaign against him and was beheaded for his pains. Nor was it different when Paul was writing to the Greeks in Thessalonica. The idea of limiting sex to marriage was unbelievable to most of the Greeks. Their attitude was earlier summed up by Demosthenes:

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.

And Demosthenes was a respectable Greek. Things were often worse in the Graeco-Roman world of the 1st century, when Paul was writing. Rome itself had the scandal of the empress literally prostituting herself. That is why what Paul says here is so relevant for today. So let's look together at the text. And after some words of introduction I want to be simple. I want to talk first, about SEXUAL MORALITY, and secondly, but more briefly about BROTHERLY LOVE. Paul starts off in verse 1, literally, "finally therefore, brothers." The NIV, the edition of the bibles in the pews, misses out the word "therefore". But regularly in his epistles the first part touches on fundamental doctrinal or theoretical matters. Then the second half deals with practical Christian living and begins with "therefore". Faith has to produce works to show it is genuine. This (untranslated) "therefore" is a signal that Paul means to be eminently practical. But Paul is not talking about a new legalism. Paul is not introducing a new legal code. No! He says in verse 1:

Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.

It is not all about obeying a harsh legal code. It is about "pleasing God" - a God who loves us and wants the best for us. How important it is to see that - in this matter of sexual morality. God made us. So he knows what works best. That is why we must follow his instructions. And notice that Paul had already "instructed" these Thessalonians in ethical and sexual matters. He didn't hesitate to give his young converts this teaching. Nor was he now put off by people saying, "Oh! there goes Paul again on his hobby-horse." He knew these were serious matters. So he repeated his lessons. And he was insistent, "we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more." So why was Paul not put off? Today, very few people have the courage to speaak out about sexual morality. Lives are being destroyed, venereal disease is on the increase, marriages are on the rocks and children suffer. But this is not enough to stir up righteous anger. There is a conspiracy of silence among doctors, school teachers and worst of all, many clergy. But Paul spoke out. Why? Answer: he knew he was not giving his own views. He was speaking, as he says here in verse 1, "in the Lord Jesus". And in verse 2 he says:

For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

These were not human but divine instructions. This is not on Paul's but on Jesus' authority. So what Paul is saying is not cultural but creational. It is not something just for the 1st century, but always. What, then, does Paul say about SEXUAL MORALITY - our first heading this morning? There are two parts. First he gives us a simple rule. Secondly he gives us some lessons to learn. First, the simple rule. Verse 3:

It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.

There you have Christian sexual teaching in a nutshell - "avoid sexual immorality" and in this context the word "immorality" means all sexual intercourse outside marriage. Marriage as it evolved in the Jewish and Christian traditions was quite unique in the Ancient Near East. By putting sex into the marital bottle, so to speak, the Jews and Christians at one stroke elevated the status of women. The bible's teaching meant a man's wife, unlike a wife for Demosthenes, had great significance. She was to be a friend, a provider of sexual pleasure and the bearer of children all combined. And marriage (which is for life, as the bible shows) is a God given status and structure. It is not so much a relationship. Rather it is that within which a relationship takes place. The relationship can go up and down. But Marriage, as the Old Prayer Book puts it, is "an holy estate" and remains firm. It is not the relationship that makes the marriage as the modern world thinks. No! It is the marriage that helps make the relationship. God gives you a new framework which is cast-iron. Within that you have the security to live out the ups and downs of your relationship. How we need to re-institutionalize marriage in the West. And because God knows best, relationships worked out in water-tight marriages, on average, work best and in every respect. The Sex In America survey was an enormous survey paralleling the British Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle survey of 1994. It blew the minds of the researchers. They wanted to find out which people had the most enjoyment in bed. So who were they? Answer: Conservative Protestants - the people with biblical sexual morals! The simple rule in verse 3 says:

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

And then Paul goes on to say, verse 4:

each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable.

So negatively you have to avoid immorality; but positively you have to "learn to control your own body." There needs to be learning. And the lessons Paul spells out in verses 5-8. So my second sub-heading is lessons to learn. There are six. And I shall go through them quickly. First, (verse 5) he says, "not in passionate lust". The feel of the original words is that you should not allow yourself to get enticed; and you should not give in to wrong desires, if you are enticed. This is something you have to learn with your mind. The mind is so important. Jesus taught that sexual sin starts in the mind. Adultery can start with a lustful look. So you take action, and drastic action, if necessary. Matthew 5.29-30:

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. {30} And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

You may have to be ruthless about what you see or do. Jesus says eternity is at stake. So learn not to be enticed. But you say, "there are enticements all around, today. It is easier said than done." That is why you must learn not to follow your desires or "lust" as Paul puts it. How do you do that? You learn to say, "No!" in a ruthless way. That is why Jesus uses those gruesome metaphors about "gouging out eyes" and "cutting off hands". And firm action is taken by your will. That is why in the clear light of day, you must fix in your mind that sex is for marriage alone; and that homosexual sex is wrong; and that marriage is for life. Your will can then follow. But if you start to say, "I'm no longer sure. I've read that some church people are speaking favourably about people who co-habit. And they say that gay-sex isn't always wrong if there is fidelity. And I've heard people say that extra-marital relationships can allow a breathing space in a hard pressed marriage," - if you start to say that kind of thing, you will find it very hard to say "No!" when you are being enticed or your emotions are like a raging inferno. "Not," says Paul, "in passionate lust." The second lesson is also in verse 5, "not ... like the heathen, who do not know God." Paul is referring to all those outside the Christian fellowship. He is arguing that one defining mark of Christian people is sexual morality. Conversely, sexual immorality is a defining mark of people "who do not know God." That means that if you uphold Christian sexual morals in your school, college, clinic, hospital, office, factory, court, home or wherever, you will be different from those "who do not know God." So don't be surprised at opposition. The third lesson is that sexual immorality involves wrong doing and injustice. Verse 6:

in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.

Call a spade a spade. Adultery is sin; it is the violation of the rights of someone else (the other married partner). Intercourse before marriage is sin. It robs a person of a virginity that ought to be brought into a marriage at the start. A future partner has been deprived. It is a denial of that unique start to a marriage. Of course, there is forgiveness but only if you admit or confess your sin. The fourth lesson is in verse 6b; and it is a solemn warning. Sexual immorality will incur God's judgment:

The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.

And punishment can be in the near future as well as being in the distant future at the judgment day, as it will be. Sadly you don't have to be a believer to recognise that there is punishment in the near future. There is misery, disease, increasing youth crime and disorder as marriages break up and immorality increases. These, sadly, are eloquent testimony to the truth of God's word that sin leads to judgment. Yes, the gospel is that there is forgiveness at the cross of Christ. We must say that again and again. The consequences tragically may still be there. But if you repent and change, you can be forgiven and have the power of God's Holy Spirit to help you overcome those consequences. Who needs to seek forgiveness and new life this morning? Remember no one is too bad to be saved and no one is too good to need saving. And Jesus alone is the Saviour. Many of those Thessalonian Christians would have had very sordid pasts. But they were now ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven. The fifth lesson to learn is about God's calling. Verse 7:

For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.

Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they are called by God. God has a great plan for each Thessalonian Christian and, equally, for every one of us here this morning. Eph 2.10:

we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Do you believe that? Do you believe God has got a good plan for your life? But what if you are called to be single? Isn't "sex-only-for-marriage" a bit hard for the single (or the homosexual)? Listen to this Christian bachelor, now quite an old man and speaking for those not married:

What about us? We too must accept this apostolic teaching, however hard it may seem, as God's good purpose both for us and for society. We shall not become a bundle of frustrations and inhibitions if we embrace God's standard, but only if we rebel against it. Christ's yoke is easy, provided that we submit to it. It is possible for human sexual energy to be redirected ('sublimated' would be the Freudian word) both into affectionate relationships with friends of both sexes and into the loving service of others. Multitudes of Christian singles, both men and women, can testify to this. Alongside a natural loneliness, accompanied sometimes by acute pain, we can find joyful self-fulfilment in the self-giving service of God and other people.

So writes John Stott. And the sixth lesson to learn summarizes the others. It is this. To be sexually immoral is not just rejecting conventional mores - human ideas of what is nice. No! it is to reject almighty God himself. Verse 8:

Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Finally, and briefly we come to that other main heading this morning BROTHERLY LOVE. In the ancient world, two things marked off the Christian church from the pagan world - one, sexual purity and, the other, the love Christians had for one another. So Paul says, in verses 9-10:

Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. {10} And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.

There is an almost instinctive understanding that love is necessary for Christians. You ask some of the most untaught of Christian people, what is the essence of Christianity? Many will say, "love". And that is true. But it is not any old love. That is where people go so wrong. It is love as the bible defines it - supremely at the cross of Jesus, where with self-sacrifical love he died to bear the punishment you and I deserve. But it is also defined in other ways. And here it is defined as "not sentimentality". Christian love is not to tolerate anything. Look at verses 11 and 12:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, {12} so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

There were some Christian people in Thessalonica who were busybodies and going round causing trouble. It looks as though they had given up work. Perhaps they thought the Lord would soon return. They probably were sponging off other hard-working Christians and trading on their "brotherly love". But Paul says "No!". This is giving the church a bad name for gullibility and for Christians being idle. I must conclude - and with a question. These verses this morning, as Paul says in verse 1, are about "how to live in order to please God." So the question is, how are you "living" as a Christian? The word for "live" literally means "walk". The Christian life is here seen as a "walk" not a "sprint" - a "walk". The picture is of steady, continual, if unspectacular advance. It is growth in holiness that matters. After conversion it is not a sequence of sudden transformations that is needed, but steady growing in Christ - in terms of sexual behaviour, brotherly love and all sorts of other things? So how are you living - or walking? Are you going forwards? Or are you going backwards?

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