1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

How the Church Must Live in Purity According to the Gospel

God saves a people for himself through the gospel. Those people are called the Church. The title of this sermon series in 1 Thessalonians is “The Gospel and the Church.” We have explored how the gospel impacts the church and impacts pastors, and how the church receives the gospel and suffers for the gospel. Today we will look at how the church must live a life pleasing to God according to the gospel. 

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism the purpose of our lives is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That is why God sent Christ to save us. He didn’t simply provide us a “get out of hell free” card; he wants to transform the church and make us more like himself. As the church becomes more like Christ, we bring glory to God. Christ lived his life in a manner that was completely pleasing to God. 

  • He was pure and holy, without sin. 
  • He loved other people; he was not selfish. 
  • He did everything to draw attention to his Father, not himself. 

We who are in Christ are called to live a life pleasing to God just as Christ did, as we await Christ’s return. 

This calling, however, is not in a vacuum. We are called to live a life pleasing to God in this world. But the world we live in is opposed to this calling. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, there are certain people who directly oppose our faith in Christ. But the culture at large indirectly opposes our calling to live a life pleasing to God. It is like a tractor beam that constantly draws us away from pleasing God toward a life spent pleasing ourselves. 

  • We are called to be pure and holy, but we live in a world that is saturated by sexual immorality.
  • We are called to love others, but we live in a world that values individualism and autonomy.
  • We are called to live our lives in such a way that we draw attention to God and not ourselves, but we live in a world that is infatuated by fame and prestige. 

We are called to be different from the world. Instead of being drawn away by the world, we are called to live a life pleasing to God. Paul addresses this tension in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. 

Like our situation today, the Thessalonians not only faced external threats to their faith, but a moral threat from the culture. Under the pressure it would have been easy to fold. And so Paul prays for them, that they would live lives pleasing to God (2:12). In Paul’s prayer at the end of chapter 3 he prays that they would be holy before God (3:13), loving toward one another (3:12), and to all people (3:12). Now in chapter 4 he turns to instruct them further in these three areas.

1 Thessalonians 4:1–12 (ESV)

1Finally, 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. 2For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6that 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. 7For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. 

9Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

Sermon in a Sentence: God has called the church to live lives pleasing to him in a world that is not pleasing to him. 

In verse 1, Paul urges the Thessalonians to live a life pleasing to God. Paul then points out to them they had received instruction about how to please God (1-2). But it wasn’t merely human instruction. It was “through the Lord Jesus.” Or as Paul said in chapter 2, it wasn’t the word of man, but the very word of God (2:13). 

A life pleasing to God is concrete. Do you want to know how to please God? Do you want to know what God’s will is for your life? It is not a mystery to be discerned only by the super spiritual person. God’s will is found in God’s word. A life pleasing to God is lived in conformity and obedience to God’s word.[i]

The Thessalonians were living their lives in conformity to God’s word; they were pleasing God. But Paul urges them here to do so more and more. So much of what was going on in the Thessalonian church was encouraging to Paul, but they still needed to be encouraged and exhorted to continue on. We don’t ever get past the point of needing to be encouraged and exhorted to live our lives in conformity to God’s Word, especially in a world that is opposed to what God’s word teaches. The Thessalonians needed to be reminded and challenged to continue on. We need to be reminded and challenged to continue living our lives in a manner pleasing to God.[ii]

This morning we’ll look at three ways God has called us to live lives pleasing to him: 1) through sexual purity, 2) through love for believers, and 3) through proper living before unbelievers.

Sexual Purity (3-8)

First, a life pleasing to God involves sexual purity. Instead of going straight through verses 3-8, I’d like to ask four questions that verses 3-8 answer. 1) What is sanctification, 2) What is sexual immorality, 3) Why is sexual purity important, and 4) How do we abstain from sexual immorality?

What is sanctification? Look at verse 3. “This is the will of God, your sanctification…”Sanctification is conformity or obedience to the word of God, as we have already seen. Or it is growth in Christ-likeness. As we obey God’s word we become more like Christ. This is sanctification, generally

In this passage, however, sanctification refers specifically to sexual purity. There is obviously more to sanctification than sexual purity, but here Paul focuses specifically on sexual purity and so we will do the same. 

What is sexual immorality? In this context sexual immorality probably refers to consensual sex with someone who is not your spouse (fornication). However, I wouldn’t limit the term “sex” to intercourse. I would consider any physical activity with someone other than your spouse which is sexually motivated or driven to be “sexual” immorality.  

Why is sexual purity important?

1. We live in a sexually charged culture.  Like our culture, the Thessalonians lived in a sexually charged culture. Socially, it was normal for married men to have a mistress or to sleep with their slaves. In fact, a common view among men was a mistress was for pleasure and a wife for procreation. Religiously, it was normal for sexual acts to be a part of pagan worship. Their culture was completely charged with sex, and it is not unreasonable to assume that there was great pressure to succumb to the temptation to please themselves and not God in the area of sexuality.[iii]

Our culture is also sexually charged. The media parades sexual immorality. Not only that, the media has actually normalized sexual immorality. It’s everywhere. And our country seems to be embracing it. Consider these statistics. There are over 10 million Americans living with an unmarried partner. Every second $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography, every second 28,258 Internet users view pornography, and every second 372 Internet users type adult search terms into search engines. Every thirty-nine minutes a new pornographic video is created in the United States.[iv] According to Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas and writer for Christianity Today, over 90 percent of American adults have sex before marriage.[v]

Why is sexual purity important? The word of God calls us to sexual purity, but the world we live in, and our flesh, call us to sexual immorality. The pressure and opportunity to fail in this area may be as great as, or greater than, any other. 

2. Sexual immorality is not in keeping with our identity in the gospel. Verses 4 and 7 say God has called us to holiness, generally. This means we are called to sexual purity, specifically. God is holy and therefore he wants his church to be holy and pure. In verse 5 Paul says those who carry out “the passion of lust” don’t know God. The church on the other hand does know God and is called to purity. Those who don’t know God desire to serve their desires by giving in to lust. Those who belong to God should desire to serve God and control their lust. 

Who we are in the gospel informs what we do with our bodies. We have been made holy as a result of our belief in the gospel; therefore we should be holy and pure.  

3. Sexual immorality is sin against your brother. Verse 6 says, “…that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter…” Sexual immorality is a sin against one’s brother. This is a very important fact to keep in mind. Sin is never private; it not only harms those who engage in it, it harms other people as well. If you commit adultery, you are sinning against your spouse or that person’s spouse. In the case of fornication, you are sinning against the person you are involved with sexually. And you are sinning against a future spouse if you or the person you’re fooling around with eventually marry.

Sexual immorality is obviously sin against your brother, but the text wants to make it very clear that when we engage in sexual immorality it is primarily a sin against God. 

4. Sexual immorality is a sin against God and will be judged by God. Look at verse 8, “Therefore whoever disregards this [instruction concerning sexual immorality], disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit.”

Consider also David’s prayer in Psalm 51, after his sin with Bathsheba.

Psalm 51:4a (ESV)

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight… 

This sounds absurd, for David had sinned not only against God, but against Bathsheba, against Uriah, and against Israel. But we have to remember that whenever we sin, God is always the most offended party.[vi] Therefore, even though our sin does affect others, it is most emphatically against God. It is as if we have only sinned against God – we have disregarded not man, but God. 

And we should remember God will judge those who disregard him. In verse 6 we are given the final reason we are to abstain from sexual immorality; “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”

We all stand before God now and will stand before him at the final judgment. Our sin is not private. It impacts others, but even more importantly God sees all, and will judge all. Let us live in keeping with the gospel and avoid sexual immorality.

How do we abstain from sexual immorality?

1. By controlling our body. The most obvious answer to this question is found in verse 4. “…that each one of you know how to control his own body…” I would suspect that most adults, young and old, have some temptation toward sexual sin. In this verse we are being called by God to not give in to that temptation. Verse 5 tells us that those who don’t know God yield to temptation, “the passion of lust.”  The church on the other hand is called to control our bodies. 

How is the church holding up under this pressure to give in to lust? Let me give just one statistic concerning just one group of Christians – those who are dating. Mark Regnerus says that “just under 80 percent of unmarried, church-going, conservative Protestants who are currently dating someone are having sex of some sort.”[vii] This is not an encouraging report. Granted, it only speaks of Christians that are dating, not all Christians. And maybe you don’t believe the statistic is as high as Regnerus says it is. Well, if you don’t like the number, cut it in half. Even at 40 percent it would still be an indication that the Evangelical church is not as pure as we are called to be. And this is not pleasing to God. We’re called to live lives pleasing to God in a world that is not pleasing to him.   

I want to be clear about something. Sex outside of marriage is wrong, even if you really love someone. In fact, if you really love someone you will not have sex with them outside of marriage. You see, in addition to sex being wrong outside of marriage, sex outside of marriage is also harmful. It can damage you. Sex is like fire. If you keep fire in the fireplace, it will keep your house warm. But if it gets outside of the fireplace, it will damage your house, or even burn it down. The same is true with sex. Sex is good in the context of marriage. But outside of marriage it will do lasting damage to you and the person you’re involved with. It will damage you emotionally; it can even destroy you. If you really love someone, you will not have sex with them unless you are married to them. 

I want to be clear about one other thing. Any kind of “sex” outside of marriage is wrong and damaging. I’m not limiting my definition of sex to sexual intercourse. I’m defining sexual immorality as any physical activity with someone other than your spouse that is sexually motivated or driven. Many teenagers and college students have bought into a lie that so long as you don’t have intercourse you’re okay. Maybe some of you have bought into that lie as well. That is not true. Any sexually driven physical activity outside of marriage is not pleasing to God and will do lasting damage to you and all involved. Let us control our body as Christ’s holy church. 

2. By controlling our lust. This second reason is less obvious in the text. However, if failure to control one’s body is the result of giving in to “the passion of lust” (5), I think we need to control our lust as well as our bodies. It’s as if there is a continuum between purity and sexual immorality. Lust is somewhere in between purity and sexual immorality. On a real practical level I think it is wise for us to consider how to deal with lust, as a first step in avoiding sexual immorality. 

Let me simply give three suggestions for controlling lust. These are just suggestions and I hesitate to give a list. It is not exhaustive and it is not necessarily a prioritized list, but I’ll give it anyway. 

First of all, let me suggest that you have someone in your life who will keep you accountable. If sexual immorality is one of the biggest threats to our purity, then we need help; we can’t fight the battle alone. I have a number of men in my life who pray for me and ask me how I’m doing with purity, on a regular basis. I urge you to find some people in the church who will hold you accountable and ask you what’s going on in your heart. 

Secondly, don’t play with fire. If we’re going to keep the fire out of the house, so to speak, then we shouldn’t play with matches. Keep yourself out of situations that you know will tempt you to sin. Here are some specific suggestions; I’m sure you could think of more: Beware of chat rooms; looking up old girlfriends/boyfriends on Facebook; spending too much time with someone you know you shouldn’t be spending too much time with; thinking about someone in a way you know you shouldn’t be thinking about them; beware of dating relationships you know are going nowhere; surfing the internet at times when you’re vulnerable or have nobody around. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It is better to deal with temptation on this side of the continuum (purity) than it is to deal with it on the other side (immorality). 

Thirdly, if the media is parading sexual immorality, and even normalizing it, then I think we need to limit our exposure to media and be discerning in what we do expose ourselves to. I could spend a lot of time here talking about television, movies, magazines, and pornography, but I will simply say we are foolish if we think we’re not affected by the worldview of the culture. Let’s be wise, in regard to media. 

Let’s address sexual immorality before we get to the point of no return by controlling our lust.

3. By the power of the Holy Spirit.  The most important way to abstain from sexual immorality is to not disregard the Holy Spirit God has given us (8). We need to walk in the Spirit and pray for the Spirit to give us strength and courage to control our bodies and thus please God by abstaining from sexual immorality.

Love for Believers (9-10)

In verses 3-8 we are called to live holy lives before a holy God. This is God’s will for our lives, and it is pleasing to Him. In verses 9-10 Paul gives the second way believers are to please God. A life pleasing to God involves loving other believers.

In fact the Bible continually puts love for God and love for people together, especially love for those who belong to God’s church. This is so important that it is a lifetime endeavor. 

In verse 10 Paul commends the Thessalonians for their love for one another. In verse 9 he even says they have no need for anyone to write to them on the subject. However, with all of that said Paul still urges them to love one another more and more. 

This is a reminder to us that we need to continue to grow in this area as well. If you love God you will love his people and be committed to them. We live in a culture that values individualism and autonomy. The commitment required to truly love other believers is radical compared to the world’s understanding of commitment in relationships. Lord willing, we’ll talk about this more in the fall. I’m hoping to do a series on the marks of a healthy church member, but for now let me simply say I am encouraged by the love I see displayed in this church, but let us do this more and more. This is pleasing to God. 

Although the Thessalonians were doing well in their love for one another, it seems as though they needed a little instruction in regard to their behavior in the marketplace.

Proper Living before Unbelievers (11-12)

The third way we live a life pleasing to God is through proper living before unbelievers.

There are three areas of exhortation in verses 11-12. “To live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands…” And the reason is so they would “live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

When Paul urges the Thessalonians to work with their hands, he is not addressing unemployment for those who want to work and can’t find a job. Paul is addressing those who are idle and unwilling to work (cf. 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6-12). The Greeks despised manual labor. They felt it was not fit for free men, but fit only for slaves.[viii] Paul also says, we’re to live quiet lives and mind our own business. 

The reason Paul wanted the Thessalonians to live quiet lives and work hard is not entirely plain to me. However, I see a connection between these three commands which seem to be good principles for us to consider. We shouldn’t try to draw attention to ourselves in anything. We should aim to draw attention to the Lord. And that includes our work. We should work hard, but we don’t need to get glory or status for what we do – all the glory belongs to God. When we approach life like this, it is pleasing to God.   

When I talk to some people, especially young people, I find there are a fair amount of people who are discontent with the job they have or are unwilling to take a job that is below their “pay grade”. I’m not surprised by this, for we live in a culture that is infatuated with fame and prestige. And what one does for a living determines their status in our society. But it doesn’t determine our status before God. 

When there is an opportunity to do work that is within our giftedness and passions, I think we should pursue it. But we should also work hard no matter what our job is. We should work as unto the Lord, not man, and especially not for our own glory or reputation. The infatuation with fame goes against our calling as Christians. We are to concern ourselves primarily with the glory of God. 

I can relate to this tension. When I was fresh out of college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I had a degree in Family Studies, but really wanted to be in ministry. At the time I was cleaning toilets here at the church and working as a paraprofessional in the math department at Southeast HS – both of which are good jobs. However, I wasn’t very content with my situation. I wanted to do something more meaningful; frankly, I wanted to be in the spotlight more.

I’ll never forget what my doctor, Paul Davis, said to me one day in his office as I was complaining about my situation. He said, “Josh, God has given you two hands for a reason, use them!” I understood this concept, because my mom taught me early on the importance of working hard, but my perspective changed that day. I not only needed to work hard, I needed to work with joy, as unto the Lord and not for my own glory. Hopefully I have done that to some degree. I had to swallow my pride on many occasions, but Dr. Davis’ words motivated me. I worked hard at those jobs and had a good attitude about them. And I waited for the Lord to show me what else he might have for me. 

Mark Dever has summarized what I’m trying to say well: “We shouldn’t seek to be well known, but known for doing things well.”[ix] The way we live in the marketplace matters to God and it has an impact on the way unbelievers view the church. We need to work hard at our jobs as a way to please God and be a witness to the world. We are called to bring glory to God with our work, not to ourselves. Let this church be known as a church that lives quietly, not bringing undue attention to ourselves, and as a church that works hard as unto the Lord. And when that happens may God be glorified and may he be pleased. 

What pleases God? His church pleases him when we live our lives in holiness, when we love other believers, and when we live properly before unbelievers. However, we must always remember that these actions are not what make us a part of God’s church. Only faith in Christ will bring us into God’s church. Only Christ has lived a perfectly holy life. Only Christ has loved others perfectly. And only Christ has perfectly lived his life in such a way that he brought glory only to God and not himself. We fail to do these things perfectly. We are sinners. But Christ also offered his perfect life on the cross to pay the price for our sins. If we believe this good news (this gospel) we belong to God’s church.

We live in a world now that doesn’t please God. That will change when Christ returns. But until then we are called to live our lives pleasing to God in a world that doesn’t please him. That was Paul’s prayer and charge to the Thessalonians. That is my prayer and charge for us as a congregation.


Sexual purity

Sexual immorality


Holy Spirit

[i] Chapell, Bryan. “Between the Fences.”

[ii] Piper, John. “A Model of Covenant Exhortation.”

[iii] Green, Gene. The Letters to the Thessalonians.

[iv] Patrick, Darrin. Church Planter.

[v] Regnerus, Mark. “The Case for Early Marriage.”

[vi] Carson, D. A. Class Notes, ID 5000 Biblical Theology and Interpretation.

[vii] Regnerus, Mark. “The Case for Early Marriage.”

[viii] Stott, John. The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians.

[ix] Dever, Mark. “What You Won’t Hear on Oprah.”