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Preaching Articles



1 Thessalonians 4:1–8

Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, 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 unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

What I would like to do with this text is to draw out of it some guidelines for how to preach practical holiness. In other words the question that I am posing to the text is this: If a pastor wants to see his people become more holy, more pure, more pleasing to God in their kitchens and bedrooms and offices and backyards, what should he say to them? How should he preach?

We'll proceed in two steps. First we will walk through the text making some observations as we go. Then we will step back and draw out four applications for the way we should preach practical holiness.

Verses 1-2: "Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus."

In verse 1 he exhorts them "in the Lord Jesus" and in verse 2 he reminds them of commands he gave them "through the Lord Jesus." He wants very much for the Thessalonians to hear his instructions as more than the words of a mere man. He wants them to keep on hearing the way they did when he first came: "When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers" (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

They received the commandments of the Lord Jesus once as the very word of God. Now he reminds them to press on in those commandments. When Paul did his missionary work he not only won converts and baptized. He also followed the mandate of the great commission to teach them to observe whatsoever the Lord Jesus had commanded. He had delivered to them a tradition of ethical teaching that perhaps went under the title given in verse 1: "How it is necessary for you to walk and to please God."

Verse 3: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality."

When Paul delivers instructions to the believers "through the Lord Jesus," what they hear is the very will of God. God's word and God's will are in these instructions. And his will for believers is their sanctification.

Sanctification is the process of becoming holy. And what Paul has in mind by holiness was already signaled back in 3:12-13, just four verses earlier. "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men, as we do to you, so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God." If abounding in love is the means by which our hearts are established in holiness, then love must be the thing Paul has in mind when he exhorts us to make progress in holiness or sanctification.

The specific application of love in view here in our text is abstaining from sexual immorality. Abounding in love for all men is incompatible with sexual promiscuity.

Verses 4-5 apply the principle even more specifically: Paul addresses the men and admonishes "that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God."

The parallel between verse 4 and 1 Corinthians 7:2 is so close that I am persuaded the RSV is more correct here than the NIV, which says, "Each of you should learn to control his own body," instead of "Each one of you should know how to take a wife for himself." 1 Corinthians 7:2 says "Because of temptation to immorality (the same word as verse 3 in our text), each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." I think the words "each man should have his own wife" in 1 Corinthians 7:2 mean basically the same as the words "each of you should know how to take his own vessel" in verse 4 of our text.

(Other reasons are that the normal meaning of ktaomai is acquire not possess or control; the context is similar to 1 Peter 3:7 where vessel means the wife not the man's body; the emphatic "his own" seems to contrast with someone else's, but if it refers to ruling his own body that would be an odd contrast.)

So it seems to me that the meaning of verse 4 is that men should stop trying to satisfy their lusts by sexual immorality, using prostitutes or seducing other men's fiancées or wives. Instead they should take their own wives.

But he seems to be aware of the possible criticism that this advice could be construed by unspiritual, sex-hungry men as a command to go out and find the most luscious lady available and marry her for her body. For as soon as he says, "Don't be immoral, get married," he adds, "in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust."

This is remarkable, some might say contradictory: "Don't release your passions in fornication or adultery. Get married. But don't get married driven just to release your passion." But every one of us knows he is right to say it this way. Most of us have a strong sexual drive that we would like to satisfy in marriage. But we also know that marriage is vastly more than an outlet for sexual satisfaction. In fact we know that if our passions are not submitted to something much higher even sexuality itself is ruined.

So Paul goes on to tell us what that higher reality is. He says, "Don't take a wife out of lust like the gentiles do who do not know God." In other words knowing God should transform the way we fall in love and get engaged and get married and the way we relate sexually in marriage. Sexual passion is real. Marriage is God's appointed place of its consummation. But the reality of God in our life should utterly transform the way we satisfy our passions. God is a God of the bedroom or no God at all.

Verse 6 makes this issue of holiness clearly an issue of love: "That no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter." In other words not only is immorality an offense against the knowledge of God; it's also an offense against the love for our brothers. Paul evidently has in view a situation where men were taking advantage of their brothers by being sexually active with their fiancées or wives. His response: if you knew God you wouldn't do that, and if you loved your brother you wouldn't do that. (Recall this combination from Galatians 4:8 and Ephesians 4:17 and 1 John 4:7-8, "He who does not love does not know God.")

Then in the latter half of verse 6 Paul shoots his rifle over their heads—as if to say, brothers, I'm not kidding, this is serious. "The Lord is an avenger in all these things as I solemnly forewarned you." Paul is not speaking here of a fatherly swat on the behind. He is saying that if these professing Christians continue to act as those who do not know God or love the brothers, the Lord will condemn them along with the unbelievers.

The parallel with 2 Thessalonians 1:8 is clear. There Paul says that the Lord is going to come with his angels in flaming fire "inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." Paul repeatedly warns professing Christians that if they live according to the flesh they will be condemned. The reason I say "repeatedly" is not only because you can read it again and again in his letters, but because he says right here in verse 6 that he has warned them like this before. He repeatedly warns the same church of God's vengeance.

Finally in verses 7-8 Paul explains why God's vengeance would not be an overreaction to their immorality. "For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you." God's word and Spirit call us to holiness. If we reject this word and the promptings of the Spirit we reject God. And when God is rejected he becomes an avenger. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows he will also reap. If he sows to the flesh in immorality he will reap corruption. But if he sows to the Spirit in holiness he will reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).

Now let's see what we can learn from this text about the way a pastor should preach in order to help his people make progress in practical holiness. I'll only mention four things briefly. These are not the only way to preach practical holiness. Nor must every sermon include them all. But in your overall ministry of the word I believe these should have a large place.

1. Teach Your People to Know God

Brothers and sisters, our people do not know God very well. If you asked them to talk for five minutes about the character of God most couldn't do it. Preachers shy away from the doctrine of God because it seems abstracted from what immediately moves people. But Paul implies in verse 5 that the key to conquering sexual temptation is to know God. "Don't give reign to your passions like Gentiles who don't know God."

If our people could only get a taste of the majesty of God it would have more practical consequences in their lives than many messages about human relationships—and I believe in such messages. I am only pleading for a new emphasis and focus on God.

Charles Colson hit a dry spell in his Christian life a few years ago and one of his friends suggested he listen to some lectures by R. C. Sproul on the holiness of God. He said, "All I knew about Sproul was that he was a theologian, so I wasn't enthusiastic. After all, I reasoned, theology was for people who had time to study, locked in ivory towers far from the battlefields of human need. However, at my friend's urging I finally agreed … By the end of the sixth lecture I was on my knees, deep in prayer, in awe of God's absolute holiness. It was a life-changing experience as I gained a completely new understanding of the holy God I believe in and worship."

Teach your people to know God and you will touch every area of their lives with the practical holiness of God.

2. Exhort Your People to Practical Holiness

We need to be specific and earnest in urging our people to change their behavior. Practical holiness is a gift of God not a merely human achievement. That is clear from 3:12 ("May the Lord make you increase and abound in love") and from 5:23 ("May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly"). But how does God produce practical holiness in the lives of his people? He does not do it apart from the apostolic word of exhortation. Right after praying that God would make the Thessalonians abound in love (3:12), Paul himself commands them not to transgress and wrong a brother (4:6). Our word of exhortation is essential. It is the means of grace which the Lord uses to do his sanctifying work. "Father, sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth!" (John 17:17)

3. Put One and Two Together and Help Your People See All Their Life in Relation to God

Drive home verse 8. If you reject the exhortation to sexual purity you reject God. It is amazing how many professing Christians think that their day-to-day choices have no bearing on their relation to God. We must tirelessly remind them that a sharp word at the breakfast table is rebellion against the Holy Spirit. Breaking the speed limit is probably a failure to trust God to take care of your schedule. Lust is an insult to the all-satisfying fellowship of God. Holding a grudge cuts one off from the forgiveness of God. And all the joys of life can either be exalted by a spirit of gratitude and worship toward God, or debased to idolatry by ignoring their relation to God.

Our great aim must be to give our people a God-saturated experience of life.

4. Warn the People of God's Vengeance

Thousands of pastors do not believe this because they cannot make it square with their view of eternal security. How can you warn the saints on Sunday morning of God's vengeance if their faith in Christ delivers them from the wrath to come?

Zane Hodges of Dallas Seminary says in a recent book, "It may be safely said that no man in Christian history—with the exception of our Lord Himself—ever motivated believers more or threatened them less than did [Paul]." Hodges must say this because he concludes three pages earlier that "works have nothing to do with determining a Christian's basic relationship to God." If the way you behave—say, in your sex life—has nothing to do with your basic relationship to God, then warnings of God's vengeance make no sense.

It makes no sense when Paul says to Christians in Rome (8:13), "If you live according to the flesh you will die." It makes no sense when he says to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:9), "We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of the Israelites did and were destroyed by the serpents." It doesn't make sense when he says to the Galatian churches (5:21), "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not enter the kingdom of God." And it doesn't make sense here in 1 Thessalonians 4:6 when Paul says, "Let no man transgress and wrong his brother … because God is an avenger in these things as we solemnly forewarned you."

That is, it doesn't make sense unless your premise is wrong that the behavior of man has nothing to do with his salvation. And it is surely wrong. For the tree is known by its fruit.

Therefore, I urge you all to immerse yourselves more and more in the Scriptures and learn for yourselves how to preach practical holiness. And from this one very typical passage in 1 Thessalonians I believe you will find at least that you should:

  1. Teach your people to know God
  2. Exhort your people to practical holiness
  3. Help your people see all their life in relation to God
  4.  And warn the people of God's vengeance

 



John Piper is founder and teacher of DesiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For over 30 years, he served as senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. John is the author of more than 30 books, and more than 25 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at DesiringGod.org. John and his wife, Noel, have four sons, one daughter, and an increasing number of grandchildren.

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Ephrem Hagos

commented on Aug 7, 2012

Getting a taste of the majesty of God is right! Although theologically incorrect, the right emphasis and focus can lead to God?s characteristic and final self-revelation in Christ?s Spirit-active, perfect and diacritical death on the cross according to the Scriptures. There is no other way.

Stan Roam

commented on Aug 7, 2012

Ephrem, you still did not deal with his points in regard to one's personal responsibility in salvation. He is right, if the wrath is removed upon salvation, there is no reason for such verses of not only physical judgment but spiritual judgment as well. He was not just dealing with "professing Christians" who pretended to be of the faith. If you believe in eternal security these are very hard verses to explain. I have to admit, I still am not convinced either security theology has all the answers. I do believe, those that endure until the end will be saved!

Charles Hargenrader

commented on Aug 7, 2012

I find it interesting every time I read an article on the subject of Holiness written by those who embrace Calvin's theology. I am sitting here wondering How can I preach Sanctification (holy living) and embrace a doctrine that teaches everyone has to sin? If I am taught that upon my receiving Christ as Savior I now have my eternal life insurance policy with no strings attached. Why would I need to live a Holy life? Seems a fair question. I'm in no way confessing my theological stand is flawless. Believe me I have my concerns. however I have never regretted preaching to others as well as myself I need to live a holy life because of scriptures like these. These words are not written in anger but out of concern for my friends who are teaching daily that sin will be a very real part of our life and you have no choice in the matter. Be careful in taking this scripture serious as quoted above. God may be calling all of us to a personal life of Holiness, then what? And yes I am unashamed to say that I embrace wesleyan arminian theology. I know it would be much easier to join the ranks of Calvin especially in the south but I am committed that Holiness of life is what I need as well as those who hear me preach.

Pollie Marabe

commented on Aug 8, 2012

4.Warn the People of God's Vengeance. If the audience were Christians it should be "Warn God's people of God's chastisement.Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:) But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:4-29)

Michael Smith

commented on Aug 8, 2012

"Finally, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God..." Yeshua taught and lived according to the Torah and so did Shaul. It is the Torah that defines righteous, set apart living.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Aug 10, 2012

Just an observation: it is fascinating to me that a video by Mr. Piper dealing with women reading and preaching Scripture from the pulpit gets over 100 comments, while an article by the same author dealing with practical holiness gets five! You know, maybe if we focused more on becoming holy, being transformed more and more into the image of God, maybe then the issue of whether or not God calls women to leadership in the church would be easier to discern!

Pastor Sandy .

commented on Aug 12, 2012

Fernando - I appreciate your comment - my DSL was down for 8 days, and I'm behind on all. Will comment as soon as I get caught up! Peace and blessings!

Fernando Villegas

commented on Aug 13, 2012

Sandy C, welcome back! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to come across as critical that people weren't commenting. It's just that the disparity between the number of comments elicited by these two different topics seemed to me to be significant. I guess I was just wondering out loud whether perhaps our priorities aren't sometimes flipped!

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