1 Thessalonians 4:3-5:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God. (NIV)
God’s will is for you to be holy, so 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. (NLT)
Becoming “holy” involves a process called “sanctification.” It does not happen all a once. In fact, when you have accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, you have been chosen by the Lord for continued sanctification. This process continues throughout every believer’s lifetime on earth, preparing him or her for Heaven. God takes the old patterns and behaviors and transforms them to his standards and will. Like Paul wrote to the Corinthians, you become a “new creation in Christ Jesus” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Those who are being sanctified have accepted Christ as Savior and are allowing, through surrender, the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, making them more and more like Christ.
Because God wants his people to become holy, believers need to uphold certain standards due to the fact that we are living in the world. Remember, as new lives, reborn spiritually, we are in the world, but no longer OF the world, or world system of doing things (see John 17:14-16).
Christianity is not a list of dos and don’ts however, but a relationship in which believers desire to please their heavenly Father (see 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 4:1). To please him requires obedience to HIS standards. Apparently the area of sexual sin (Greek, porneia) was plaguing the church in Thessalonica, as it was plaguing the Roman Empire as a whole. The many idols worshiped in the regions across the empire often had an emphasis on sex, even to the point that some temples employed prostitutes for the pleasure of “worshipers.” In general, people regarded any kind of sexual activity as acceptable. It was quite common for a man not to limit his sexual relationship to his wife. Homosexuality was common. Incest was overlooked. Slaves were kept and used for sex.
God’s standards are the extremely opposite of the worlds. Paul taught abstinence from sexual immorality. This included any kind of illegitimate sexual intercourse or relationship outside of marriage. He forbade any homosexual activity. In Corinth some of the new Christians had been prostitutes, adulterers, or homosexuals. When they came to Christ out of such sinful perversion, they had to alter their attitude toward this particular area of life. They had to accept God’s standards; standards which had to be taught to them, as Paul was teaching them here.
Today sadly, we live in a society similar to the one in which Paul lived and taught. Every kind of sexual activity, including violence and abuse of children, has become commonplace. Unbridled expression of all desires has become the norm. As Christians, we must uphold the sanctity of sexual expression within the loving commitment of the marriage relationship as it was established by God, Who is the Creator of man and woman.
“If the heathen behave as they do because they do not know God, Christians must behave in a completely different way because we do know God, because he is a holy God, because he is our God, and because we want to please him.” – John Stott
These believers were not being exhorted to keep clear of (literally, “abstain from”) ALL sex but of ALL sexual sin and immorality. God created sex to be a beautiful and essential ingredient of marriage, but sex outside the marriage relationship is sin. That is where God drew the line. These believers had to keep clear of all forms of sexual sin; they had to stay away or even run away if need be (see 1 Corinthians 6:13–20). Therefore, Paul taught that believers must CONTROL their bodies “and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways.” Sex should be kept within the context of marriage between a man and woman; sex should be done in “holiness and honor—not in lustful passion.” Honorable conduct is contrasted with an evil, lustful attitude that can contaminate even a marriage. People who live by “lustful passion” are ignorant of God because they have chosen to ignore the knowledge of him that they have been given (see Romans 1:19–20, 24–27) and to ignore his messengers who bring the Good News to them.
Allowing the Holy Spirit to sanctify us on our journey and to make us “holy as God is holy,” (1 Peter 1:15-16) is on par with “taking up our cross daily” to follow after Christ Jesus. And it isn’t just sexual immorality, for the world is full of one temptation or another. But as we do mature in the Lord and become more and more like the image of Christ, the true evidence of sanctification will be manifest.
In closing remember the words of the Apostle Paul and do not be discouraged pressing forward:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12-14 (NIV)