The Map to Maturity - Part 1
What does it mean to be transformed? Can God take the hurts and hangups in my life and make me a new person? Join Dr. Marty Baker as he takes us through 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 and lays out God's road map to move us to a Hope Beyond Hardship.
As he did with most of his letters, Paul told the Romans how to live as Christians in a non-Christian world:
1 I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12).
Our daily goal is clear: present our bodies for God’s holy purposes, not ours. How do we do this? The imperatives in the next verse give us the answer:
- “Do not be conformed to this world,” sunschematizo (συσχηματίζω) literally describes putting something into a mold to conform the substance to the form of the mold. Since this is a present tense command wedded to the negative me (μὴ), it forbids an action in progress. Ostensibly, Paul challenges the Roman Christians to stop letting themselves be pushed into the sinful thinking of the Roman culture. It is as if he’s saying, “Quit living like the Romans.”
- “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” contains the present imperative metamorphoo (μεταμορφόω), which, according to Danker’s Greek lexicon, denotes a complete, radical transformation. Think of what happens to a transformer car in the movies, and you know what Paul is talking about. As you focus on God’s Word, let it soak into your mind, and obey it, you are transformed in your thinking and your living. What is the result of this process? You move onward and upward toward spiritual maturity, to living a life the face of Jesus smiles on.
Paul’s concern for the Romans logically spilled over to his concern for the Thessalonians.
After addressing opening issues that needed to be addressed in the first three chapters, the wise apostle of Christ turns in chapters 4 and 5 and challenges the Thessalonian saints to continue to grow in the faith by applying the timeless Word of God to their lives. Much like his challenge to the Romans and Thessalonians, his challenge is still applicable today.
God wants us to mature in the faith by allowing the Word and the Spirit to mold our lives to His holiness, and to slowly and surely live contrary to the ways of the world. How are you faring at moving away from the wicked thinking of the world and patterning your thinking and life after the Holy Scriptures and the God of the Scriptures? Are you making progress? Have you stumbled along the way? Wherever you are on the maturity spectrum, you must remember we all stumble at times by “sin which so easily entangles us” (Heb. 12.1 ), but at the end of the day, there is grace from the Lord’s throne and power from on high to get back up and move forward.
So, if you are serious about moving from disobedience to obedience, from being conformed to being transformed, then you will want to listen carefully to Paul’s teaching in these next two chapters. Here he will answer the question at hand:
How Can Believers Move From Immaturity To Maturity (1 Thess. 4:1-5:28)
In verses 1 through 8 of chapter 4, Paul addresses the first area where spiritual transformation is needed. What is that area? Sexuality. Why did he start here? I can think of multiple answers:
- God created us as sexual beings; hence it is something we tend to think about quite often.
- Culture is historically permeated with false, erroneous, and sinful views of sexuality. The Thessalonian culture was no exception, nor was the Grecian culture from which Paul wrote this letter. The worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexuality, was woven into the thinking of everyone. The 1,000 temple prostitutes on the acropolis in Corinth are a case in point. Our culture, of course, is no exception. From websites to movies, it is hard to escape the indoctrination of false forms of sexuality. Aphrodite worship is alive and well.
- If our sexuality is compromised, the false form becomes an acid that eats away at our joy, peace, and desire to mature.
- Sexuality is a drive the Devil readily loves to tap into and exploit to get us to compromise our faith and faith walk. If you don’t believe me, just study King David’s life, or read what Solomon writes about in the Proverbs (Prov. 5:1-23; 6:20-29).
These are some of the reasons Paul started here in his quest to move the saints in Thessalonica toward a deeper maturity in their relationship with Jesus. These reasons still speak to us 2,000 years later, for we are still sexual beings who can use our sexuality in a God-honoring or sinful fashion. Which will it be in your life?
As we dig into what the Word of God says about our sexuality, and how obedience in this pivotal area can lead to spiritual maturity, permit me to offer a few opening points.
- God’s Word does not tickle your ears. It does not tell you what you want to hear in this area, but what you must hear to head to holiness.
- God’s truth about proper sexuality is timeless, meaning it does not change with time. Culture loosens what God says about sexuality, while God tightens what He says for our protection and happiness. Put differently, God’s Word is the absolute, unchanging measurement of what constitutes proper and pleasing sexuality.
- God’s truth about proper sexuality is timeless, regardless of what professors, movie stars, rock stars, your friends, and even courts say it should be.
- This section is a deep well of truth. We will only scratch the proverbial surface.
At the end of the day, believers must always ask themselves concerning this subject: Is my sexual life conforming to God’s model and mandate or not? If it is, then spiritual maturity is being realized. If not, spiritual immaturity reigns supremely. What is the situation in your life? What should it be?
With these preparatory concepts in mind, join me as we work our way through what we need to do to head to holiness and maturity in the area of our sexuality. Eight positive and divinely ordained truths show us the way we should walk daily:
Do Realize You Have An Obligation To Walk Worthy (1 Thess. 4:1-2)
1 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
The opening “then,” oun (οὖν), is a grammatical conjuction linking what Paul will say with what he just said. What did he just teach? He reminded the Thessalonians of his desire to see them live blameless lives until the appearance of Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 3:13). Now, he pivots and challenges them in areas where spotless moral living is needed. As stated, the first area is tough for us all. It concerns our sexuality and what we should and should not do with it.
Are Paul’s concepts about sexuality his own, or just his limited opinion? The answer is unequivocally, “no.” He exhorts them, and us, to godly, holy living in this area of life based first and foremost on their (our) collective relationship with Jesus. Because they (we) are saved, they (we are) were all spiritually baptized by the Spirit into a new relationship with Jesus (1 Cor. 12:13ff). In light of this newfound divine relationship as God’s sons and daughters, they (we) now have a daily obligation to walk in such a way where our sexuality is concerned that God is pleased with us. Our obligation is related to the verb “ought.” Lexically, it comes from the Greek dei (δεῖ), which speaks of compulsory, necessary, and binding activity (Friberg, Analytical Greek Lexicon). Because we are in an eternal faith relationship with Jesus as His sons and daughters, we are compelled to conform our sexuality to His view, not ours. Therefore, we are not free to pick and choose or redefine what we believe holy and acceptable sexuality looks like. What ought I to do with my sexuality in relationship to my relationship with Jesus and His teachings on the topic, should always be forefront of our thinking.
Obviously, even though the Thessalonian believers came out of and lived in (there is always a tension, isn’t there?) a sexualized culture where false and sinful versions of sexuality reigned supremely, they were making great progress in gaining victory in this tough, trying, and tempting area. I know this is true because of Paul’s parenthetical statement: “that you may excel still more” (1 Thess. 4:1). I’m sure some had stopped seeing temple prostitutes. Men who left their wives to go and find themselves came back to their wives. Young lovers who were doing things with each other they shouldn’t have, pulled back and embraced purity and control. Paul was a great shepherd for he knew when to stop and build up the sheep who were making progress and seeing victories in their sexual lives where once there was a compromise and weak rationalizations. I, too, commend many of you who’ve made great strides in this area. Our Iron Works program for men is a case in point. Many of our men had realized victory over the pull of pornography, and for that, I’m confident the Lord is well-pleased.
After a brief word of encouragement, Paul emphasized his teaching about sexuality was not his own. On the contrary, his teaching originated with the Lord. Obviously, he had communicated what the Lord required from His saints in Thessalonica in relation to sexuality, and in the ensuing verses, Paul makes that explicit one more time. And what he will say through divine command is not a suggestion, but an obligation.
Second, saints who seek maturity where their sexuality is concerned need to focus on another truth:
Do Realize The Importance Of Steering Clear Of Sinful Sexual Forms (1 Thess. 4:3-4)
Lawn signs, bumper stickers, and flags today seek to get everyone to believe that “All Love Is Love,” but such is not the case. If all love is love, then there is, by definition, no perversion . . . only love. This is the erroneous teaching of adherents of Aphrodite. Love is directly related to sexuality, and any logical thinking, moral person knows the parameters of love and sex. There is natural, God-ordained love and sex, and unnatural, man-ordained love. There is love and sex as God intended between a (real) man and a (real) woman within the confines of divinely ordained matrimony. Regardless of the reasons, emotional rhetoric, and moving personal stories, any deviation from this divine standard is unnatural and ultimately a perversion and leads a Christian, in particular, away from holiness and true happiness.
Paul develops the core of his divinely received mandate with these powerful words:
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor,
What is God’s will for your life as a Christian? Simple: that you would grow daily in holiness. No, Paul is not talking here about positional sanctification and holiness all saints enjoy (1 Cor. 1:30). He is emphasizing the importance of daily striving to stop being conformed by the world, and, on the other hand, being transformed in your thinking according to what God says is holy.
Applied directly to our sexuality, God’s will is clear: that we abstain, or get as far away as we can (which is what the Greek word, apecho, ἀπέχω, means: Matt. 14:24; Luke 7:6; 24:13) that which is sexually immoral. In Greek, the word Paul employs here is porneias (πορνεία). What does this highly important word mean? According to Danker’s Greek Lexicon, the word refers to unlawful sexual intercourse. How do we know what this is? We look to the Word of God. Lawful sexual intercourse is between a man and woman within the confines of holy matrimony. Any other combination is divinely unlawful, be it sex with a prostitute or sex with someone other than your husband or wife. D. Edmond Hiebert, a world-renowned Greek scholar, substantiates this conclusion:
Fornication is used here in its comprehensive meaning to denote every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse. A few manuscripts even insert the word all to stress the inclusiveness of the prohibition.
All love is, therefore, not love. When the object of the “love” is forbidden per God’s revelation, it is unnatural and sinful. A man in my last church abandoned his wife and four lovely children for another woman he loved. His love for this other woman was the wrong object, and no amount of love made it all right before a holy God. A single Christian woman I knew years ago who moved in with her boyfriend for the sake of their finances, engaged not in love but in forbidden love or fornication. A high school friend of mine I used to work with enjoyed being a male prostitute in Mexicali, Mexico when we got off work at 11 p.m. His activity, before God, was nothing short of fornication, no matter how he tried to defend it.
When it comes to fornication, what are Christians to do? Run from it. We are not to flirt with or rationalize it, we are to put distance between it and us. When we do this, we fulfill the Lord’s mandate to strive for holiness.
Let me get personal for a moment. Do you have any areas of your life that deviate from God’s prescribed model for sexuality? Is there an area, a person you need to run from or steer clear from because they get you to compromise your sexuality? You say you are not doing anything with anyone the Scriptures would not condone, but you are engaged in online porn? That is fornication. Why? Christ taught that the mere look of lust, especially for a married person, is equivalent to adultery (Matt. 5:28 ). Pornography is not a harmless adult pleasure. It is an evil activity that catalyzes sexually deviant thoughts and actions. Is this a problem in our world? Unfortunately, yes. Here are some sad stats:
- 40 million U.S. adults regularly visit internet pornography websites
- 10% of U.S. adults admit to having an addiction to internet pornography
- 17% of all women struggle with porn addiction
- 20% of men and 13% of women admit to accessing porn while at work
- 70% of women admit to keeping their cyber activities secret
- 1 of 3 visitors of all adult websites is a woman
- Women favor chat rooms twice as much as men
If you are a Christian caught up in this brand of fornication, what should you? Get it off your phone, IPad, and computer. Make yourself accountable to your wife, husband, or godly friend. Purchase software to guard you against accessing the various sites. Pray for the Lord to empower you in your weakness to be strong.
What if you are a Christian high schooler who is part of the 40% statistic of students having sex before graduating high school?
- Don’t check books out at the library that would make a sailor blush.
- Make a vow of purity to the Lord. Don’t hang around “friends” who are sexually loose.
- Break off the relationship which tempts you.
- Don’t get alone with your girlfriend or boyfriend.
- Don’t watch TV alone with your boyfriend after your parents go to bed.
- Don’t drink and lower your inhibitions.
- Make a vow of purity to the Lord.
- Make yourself accountable to some godly people.
- Confess your sin (1 John 1:9), and ask the Lord to help you grow in your ability to master your body.
- Stay in the Word of God. Read it and apply it.
Fornication can be replaced by sanctification, but you must first embrace what God says constitutes this type of sin, and then you must head in the opposite direction. Will it be hard at first? Yes. Can you become a victor? Yes, but victory and maturity will probably come in stages as you wrestle with your old, sinful self (Rom. 7).
Paul’s next point about how to head to maturity where sexuality is concerned is a natural outcropping of what he has just communicated in the first four verses. We will click down through all of these in a rapid fashion.
Do Realize There Is Holy And Unholy Desire (1 Thess. 4:5)
Listen and learn from Paul:
5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;
The Greek word for passion, epithumia (ἐπιθυμία), speaks of a desire for something/someone. That desire can be good/holy (as with prophets and righteous men desiring to see what NT people saw, Matt. 13:17), or bad/unholy. Regarding this, Jesus taught most clearly:
NAS Matthew 5:28 but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust(epithumia) for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.
WHT Matthew 5:28 Ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι [αὐτὴν] ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.
The inner desire is tantamount to sinful activity when the object is forbidden, wrong, or unnatural. Paul adds the word “lustful” (pathos, πάθος, which is a craving, uncontrollable desire) to the word “passion” (epithumia) to further illuminate Christ’s teaching. When your inner craving drives your sexual passion toward an object God says is forbidden, wrong, or unnatural, you have already sinned. A maturing saint, on the other hand, will recognize the rise of this sinful drive and address it promptly as such. By so doing, he will instance by instance learn how to control his body instead of his body controlling him.
Do you have any inner sexual passions which are out of control? Today is the day to come clean at the foot of Christ’s cross. Here you will find forgiveness, mercy, and power for living a life that brings the Lord honor.
In addition . . .
Do Realize You Should Control Yourself So Others Aren’t Defrauded (1 Thess. 4:6a)
This clause is most instructive and practical:
6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter . . . (1 Thess. 4).
Is Paul all of sudden talking about being above board in your business dealings with other saints? No. He is still talking about mastering your sexuality to God’s glory. What is the apostle getting at here? When you commit a transgression, you cross over a prohibited line. It is like going hunting on private property with signs posted, No Hunting. You are not where you should be and about to do something you shouldn’t do. “Defrauding” speaks of ripping a person off or stealing from them. You have just stolen from the rightful land owner when you bag a bunch of doves on your hunting trip into the forbidden land.
Sexually speaking, the same is true. When you cross over a sexual line God clearly says don’t cross over, you ultimately steal from others. Here’s an illustration. Prior to the arrival at my first church, the married choir director had a sexual relationship in his church office (go figure) with a married woman in the choir. They were eventually found out (how embarrassing) and the man rightfully lost his job. Spiritually speaking what had he done? He had transgressed a line God said not to, and by so doing he had stolen from the woman’s husband.
The same applies if you are a single person of any age who is having a sexual relationship with someone who is not your husband or wife. Your sin is heinous because you are essentially stealing from the future mate of the person in question who will marry this person. You might think taking the virginity from a young lady is a cool thing, a right of male passage, but in reality, you are nothing short of a robber.
What should you do if this is you? Confess your sin, and commit to living a Christian life where your sexuality is controlled, so you are not guilty of taking what is not yours.
Believers who are maturing in the area of sexuality, also completely understand Paul’s next point:
Do Realize The Lord Deals With Saints Who Test Him (1 Thess. 4:6b)
If you want to live exploiting your sexuality as a saint, then understand God is holy and will not sit idly by while you enjoy sin for a season. He holiness is never static, but is always dynamic. Like a loving father will discipline a son for stepping out of line, God will discipline you to show you the error of your way so you can return to a vibrant walk with Him.
. . . because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you (1 Thess. 4).
What are “all these things”? Sexual fornication in its various forms. What does Paul mean when he likens the Lord to “the avenger”? The word in Greek is ekdikos (ἔκδικος), and it means to exact a penalty for an infraction. What will the Lord do exactly? Paul does not say. He leaves it open for the Lord to do what He deems is best to awaken the sinning saint to his/her sin. David’s promiscuous tryst with the beautiful Bathsheba gives us insight into this matter. Because God loved David, He did not turn a blind eye when His servant willingly went off the sexual reservation. On the contrary, a study of the entire historical episode as detailed in 2 Samuel 11:1 through 24:25 illustrates that God actively brings various forms of calamity to awaken the sleeping saint to his/her sin. Be not deceived. God has not changed in the NT period in which we live. He is still holy and demands that we pursue holiness; if not, He says He will discipline us because He loves us (Heb. 12:7-11).
Along these lines, Paul’s next word of counsel is most motivational for those who desire maturity:
Do Realize The Lord Has Called You To Purity, Not Impurity (1 Thess. 4:7)
Paul’s counsel is short and to the point:
7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.
What is “impurity”? It is doing anything sexually that God does not approve of. Anymore, the world approves of just about any and all kinds of sexual activity, and the younger the person is engaged in the perversion masquerading as purity, the better. So, get real and stop and ask yourself a probing question. Better yet, offer this as a prayer to the Lord: Lord, show me right now where my sexual life is impure as opposed to pure. Stand ready for Him to answer that question quickly. Why? Becusae He wants more than anything else for you to live a sanctified, clean sexual life instead of one sullied by prohibited behavior.
Paul was so wise. He realized that at this point in the letter some sinning saints would be arguing with him in a bid to hold onto their sexual deviancy. To those sin-hardened saints, Paul gives a word of additional warning:
Do Realize That To Reject This Teaching Is To Reject Christ’s Lordship (1 Thess. 4:8a)
Sit up and pay attention.
8 Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you (1 Thess. 4).
To argue with and reject this teaching about purity where sexuality is concerned is an open affront to the God who created your sexuality with its all-important parameters. Instead of arguing and debating with me, Paul, or God, you should humble yourself before the Lord and head to maturity by doing one last thing:
Do Realize You Have God’s Resident Power For Victory (1 Thess. 4:8b)
8 Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you (1 Thess. 4).
You have the power to be victorious. That power is the Holy Spirit who resides in you (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:25-32). Imagine losing all your drag races because you never threw the nitrous switch to push your engine to unbelievable speeds? Imagine having the power to win, to be a victor and you never availed yourself of the power? Sitting in your chair right now, you have the power of the Spirit of Almighty God at your disposal to live a victorious Christian walk where your sexuality is concerned. If sexual defeat has been the order of the day for you, then today is the day to unleash the Power to empower you to overcome your sexual sin, be what it may.
May the unleashing of the power of the Spirit start when you come to the front of this place of worship while we sing Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone.
 D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 166).
 Jonathan Strum, Pornography Statistics and Facts, The Recovery Village, (September 13, 2022), accessed March 2, 2023, https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/process-addiction/porn-addiction/pornography-statistics/#:~:text=40%20million%20U.S.%20adults%20regularly,accessing%20porn%20while%20at%20work