English service on November 18, 2018
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
I Thessalonians 4:1-12
“Free from the Power of Abuse, Free to Live in God’s Justice”
Greetings to everyone joining us online and those here in Sapporo, Japan, at Open Door Chapel. We’ve been learning in the last several messages how, as we come to know Christ more and more, we discover Him setting us free. In growing into deeper faith, we come to know Him as our Deliverer. He sets us free from certain things that have a damaging, corrosive effect on our lives. But He does not just leave us there. He also sets us free to live active, fulfilled lives under His guidance and care.
Today’s Bible teachings are about a part of the real world that we often prefer not to see or talk about: abuse. The Bible’s God does not just sit up in heaven in beauty and glory but actually comes into our lives in this world, where nasty things like abuse exist. He moves into our neighborhood, so to speak, and works with us just as we are. The Christmas message we will remember again next month is about how He sent His Son into this world, into the mess, to set us free from all that enslaves us.
There has always been abuse since sin came into the world. This has included physical abuse such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as psychological abuse and other types. What we call harassment may be less extreme but is in the same larger category of unfair, unacceptable treatment of people. Today we may be seeing these problems more clearly and hearing about them more constantly through the power of the Internet. Particularly social networking services have given ordinary people the power to join together and stand against abuse when it happens. The Me Too Movement, which began in the U.S., has brought into the news a long and growing list of pop culture, business, political, and other leaders—mainly men who have been sexually abusive toward women.
I wish I could tell you that the Church of Christ has not had cases of abuse, but in shame we have to admit that it has. Catholic Christians suffered terrible damage to their organization and the reputation of the Church in the early 2000s because of priests who had sexually abused people, then kept their positions when the Church covered it up. This year, just as we were hoping that the problems had been corrected, another tsunami of trouble hit when similar cases were uncovered in Pennsylvania in the U.S. And we can’t just point fingers at our Catholic friends. Recently Protestant leaders, including some well-known Baptist leaders and others in the Evangelical community, have clearly been shown to act in abusive ways that involved inappropriate sexual relationships.
What can we even say about such disgraceful things? It is deeply discouraging to see that it is necessary for Christians today to receive teaching about something so inexcusable. Yet that is the world we are in, both outside and inside the Church of Christ. So how are we to respond? When these things happen, how does God feel? What does He do? What does He say? And how does He expect us as His people to think and act? Those are the questions we bring with us as we approach today’s Bible teachings. Paul is writing to a group of new Christians in Thessalonica (today’s Greece), part of the Roman Empire. What had their lives been like before they became followers of Christ? Bible scholars tell us that in the culture of that day, married men often did not keep sex inside marriage as the Old and New Testament’s God teaches. Men who had slaves often had sexual relationships with those under their control. There were temple prostitutes who did their work in connection with the local religion. The wives of married men were often there mainly to take care of the man’s home and raise his legitimate children.
Into that cultural environment Paul brought the gospel of God’s love, with its teachings that God put men and women together in relationships of lifelong commitment to each other alone. So those who became part of the church in Thessalonica had come from radically different lifestyles into their new faith. There were no doubt many who were sexually scarred. Some had probably been abused, and some had likely abused others, at least judged by the standards we use today. But to them all, Paul gave the word of the Lord (v. 1): “. . . Live in a way that pleases God.”
Inside this teaching are words to those who have abused others and those who have been abused. Let’s focus first on people who have been abusive and then close with a word to those who have received abuse.
To all of us, Paul gives a clear call (v. 3): “God wants you to be made holy.” He wants to remake us from the inside out, including what we love, what we enjoy, and what we set our hearts on gaining and learning and achieving. This is at the heart of the Christian life, so we need to be very intentional about putting it first in the way we use our time and other resources, what we plan, what we pray for, what we hold as our dreams.
As various famous teachers have noted, many people say they want to go to heaven. But when you are in heaven, you are in God’s home, and you are there to praise and enjoy Him forever. Would you like to be in a place like that for eternity? Without becoming holy, you wouldn’t. If you have a pure heart, loving God and living for His glory will be your highest hope and greatest joy. But if you have set your heart on selfish things, it won’t. So before we get to heaven, we have a time in this life for preparing to be with God forever. There is a process of becoming holy. In fact, that is the main reason we are here. As v. 7 puts it, “God chose us to live pure lives. He wants us to be holy.” Paul seems to suggest that his readers sometimes overlook the most obvious thing (v. 8b) “God gives you his Holy Spirit.” God’s Spirit is holy and chooses to make His home in our hearts. So how could we provide for Him anything less than a holy place to be? But we still have a long way to go to make our hearts a truly clean home for Him.
Paul says that part of a holy life is avoiding things such as taking advantage of someone and committing sexual sin (v. 6). Verse 3 uses the word porneia to talk about that kind of act (the English word pornography comes from it).
God tells us (v. 4) to learn to “control (our) own bodies.” That word bodies is literally containers or vessels in Greek (people in that culture thought of bodies as temporary containers of the spirit). So some translations such as the New International Readers Version (NIRV) we are using show “bodies” as those of the readers, and the message is to have self-control, use our bodies in honorable, respectable ways. But other translations such as the Shinkaiyaku and Shinkyoudouyaku have “bodies” as those of the marriage partners of the readers. So the message is to treat your spouse with honor and respect. Whichever understanding of the original text is more accurate, in light of the whole Bible’s teachings, they are both solid messages we need to hear today. They remind us that the gospel is about even the most intimate, sensitive parts of our lives. It is important to our God that married people have healthy sexual relationships with our partners. He wants to help us develop and maintain ways of relating to each other sexually so that each partner feels honored and respected. When that is the type of relationship the partners are committed to, then one partner will not try to force himself (or herself) on the other. Likewise, people in that kind of marriage will not withhold sex or use denying it as a weapon against their partner.
I heard one pastor in the U.S. recently challenge his church members to find a time sometime in that day after hearing a message like this at church and ask their marriage partners, “Do you feel honored by the way I relate to you in the bedroom?” I don’t know about asking you to do that. Japanese people sometimes tell me things like, “We don’t say things like ‘I love you’ and speak that directly to each other.” So asking a question that touches the feelings so directly may just seem like too much. Well, OK, I get that. But I say if that’s true (and I have met so many different kinds of Japanese people, including some who have no trouble speaking very directly), you still need another way of communicating with your partner. Using your way is fine, but you need a way that works for you. The clear and unchanging message from God through Paul to us is in v. 10b “But we are asking you to love each other more and more.”
So what happens when we don’t? The “sin” in v. 6 comes into our relationships. The words used here (like “bodies” in v. 4) can be read different ways. In one version the “sin” here is to transgress or go beyond, in other words to cross a line. God has set the boundaries of Christian marriage as one man and one woman together forever, so when people choose to go against His teachings, we move away from Him and His plans for us. But other translations, including the Shinkaiyaku and Shinkyoudouyaku have it as 兄弟を踏みつけたり（する）, or “walk on your brother.” And the Greek here uses the word adelphon (brother, as in Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love”), which in this male-dominated culture and language normally does not mean only a male but a person. In this context of teachings about sexual sin, it clearly includes males and females. Paul is talking about abuse, taking the beautiful gift of God that sex is and turning it into something self-centered, damaging, and ugly.
The words in v. 6 “take advantage of” are only here and in three other places in the New Testament, all in II Corinthians (2:11;7:2;12:17-18). (For example, in 2:11 “We don't want Satan to outsmart us.”) Paul’s wording is not specific here, but this is clearly not about treating people well. It’s about abuse of some type or a variety of types. Paul is writing apparently because he sees the need to mention this to these particular people at this time. His wording is pretty mild and indirect, but he is raising a very delicate matter. He is not naming names, but we have to wonder, What is going on in the church in Thessalonica? It is possible, even likely, that some of the people were facing the temptation to get into the kind of sexual behavior that they had before they met Christ.
How is it possible that such terrible things could happen in a group of people formed for the very purpose of following Jesus, whose teachings and life were holy and good from start to finish? It is possible when Christians misunderstand or fail to follow the most basic teachings of the Christian faith.
Two Bible ideas have special importance here: being made right with God and becoming holy (in other words, justification and sanctification). Let’s look quickly at their meanings and the important differences between them. In making us right, God does something to us, but in making us holy, He does something in us. We are made right with God by having our sins forgiven, but we are made holy by becoming more and more like Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions each day. We are saved by being made right with God, and saved to become holy. We are made right through the once-for-all-time work of Christ on cross, but we are made holy through the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, minds, and lives every day (the “more and more” Paul writes about in vv. 1,10). In making us right, God takes away the penalty of sin, but in making us holy, He overcomes the power of sin. God makes us right when we come to Him, but He makes us holy so that we will become like Him. In being made right, we come to know Jesus as Savior, but in being made holy, we come to know Him as Lord. To be made right, we need to believe (in the Christ of the cross), but to be made holy, we need to actively watch, fight, pray, work, and in many other ways live out our faith.
Both these important parts of the life of faith are found in Jesus, though they are different from each other in important ways. As John Calvin wrote, it is like the sun’s heat and light—they come from the same source, though they have different characteristics and roles. We need to be careful not to confuse them. But neither should we try to separate them. Or, to use another image, as someone said, “You can’t tear Christ into pieces.”
If you confuse being made right and being made holy, you will find great trouble in your Christian life. If think being made right or acceptable to God depends on your being a holy person, you will try in your own power to be holy but constantly fail. You will sooner later begin to live in frustration and be a joyless Christian.
On the other hand, if you believe in Christ and receive His gift of the forgiveness of sin, but see no particular need for constant connection with Him after that point, your way of life will never change. The spiritual and moral 7
growth you need will never begin, and you will not change into a Christ-like person, even though you say have repented and been saved. And when temptation to sexual sin or other abuse comes, you will probably not have the inner power you need to choose the right thing.
So what can we do? We go back to v. 4, where it says that God wants all of us to “learn.” That means that we haven’t gained enough understanding yet, but God knows that and still comes to us to teach and guide and empower. He thinks there is still hope for us, with His help. No matter how terrible the choices are that we have made in the past, God does not give up on us. There is grace, even for abusers, thanks to the limitless love of God. When we accept this, we can learn to live with hope.
It does not mean we have won the war with sin already. There will be battles. We will have defeats together with victories as we learn how to walk in the way of Christ. When we fail and slip back into the old bad habits we have had, we may feel like giving up and giving in. We may even wonder, “Am I even a Christian? How could I be if I continue doing things like this?” But the reality the God of the Bible shows us is this: the fact that you are in the battle is a sign that you are a Christian. God is with you, helping you notice it when you get off the track and giving you a desire to get back on it. You are in a tug of war, and looking at all the temptations lined up against you and the power they have had over you, you may think, “How could I ever win? They are just too much for me.” But God’s message is that He is with you. You do not pull on that rope alone. He is lining up on your side, ready to pull with you as long as it takes, whatever forces are at working pulling you in the wrong direction. “God wants you to be made holy” (v. 3).
And what about the people who have been abused? God is not silent in the face of evil. He speaks and acts in power and love to heal and support those who have received bad treatment from others. A public message such as this may not be the best place to talk in detail about abuse, which can be so personal, so different case-by-case, and so painful. Prayer together and counseling may be more helpful. But please let me say just a little, based on the word of God in the Bible.
First, God is with you in your suffering. That is where people find God, perhaps more than anywhere. Isaiah 53:7 shows us a picture of the Christ who knows what it is to suffer abuse. “He was beaten down and made to suffer. But he didn't open his mouth. He was led away like a sheep to be killed.” When you suffer, God suffers together with you. Your pain is an opportunity for you to encounter Him and come to know Him in a deeper way than you could in any other way.
Second, you can be honest with God. Tell Him in prayer exactly how you feel and what is on your mind. He knows it already and won’t be surprised if what comes out is angry or confused or whatever it is. People of faith for thousands of years have said things like Psalm 42:9: “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’”
Third, God will punish people who hurt others unfairly. You can leave judgment and punishment in His hands. He is able to handle it fairly, with both love and justice. As I Thessalonians 4:6b says about abuse, “The Lord will punish everyone who commits those kinds of sins.” God is kind, but He is also just. Justice is not a minor thing to our God, and it must not be to us. He is not going to give a free pass to people who abuse others, so we must join Him in standing against evil, no matter where it is. That means even when it is inside us personally or the organizations to which we belong. As Christians, we live with the promise: “The LORD does what is right and fair for all who are beaten down” (Psalm 103:6). Abuse, for example rape inside a marriage relationship, may not be punishable by courts of law, but God will judge.
Fourth, abuse you have experienced is part of your life, but it doesn’t define your life. The Bible’s God does not teach people to ignore abuse, just try to forget it, or deny its reality or importance. But He can help you to move beyond it and not continue to let it be the central aspect of your life. You are much more than anything that someone else has done to you, and God can help you to live your life in light of that truth. Psalm 129:2 says, “Many times my enemies have beaten me down . . . , but they haven't won the battle.” God continues to have good plans for you that go beyond living your life as a victim. As you learn to find His presence and power, you can move away from the control of experiences and people in your past and into the good future that God has for you.
Let’s go to Him in prayer now.
Father, we come before you today first with thanks for your great mercy to us in forgiving our many sins. But we also ask you to help us every day move beyond them and grow into people of pure hearts, minds, and actions. In this way help us to please you with our lives. Let our worship not just be words we sing and say here in the church house, but let it come from the actions of service in everyday life that grow out of hearts filled with your love.
For those who need your healing because of abuse or other injustices, we ask you to do the work of restoration and recovery as only you can through the power of your Spirit. And help us to find ways to join you in your work of healing and of justice so that we will truly live as the body of Christ. In His name we ask it. Amen.
Smith, C. (August 29, 2012). The Urgency of Personal Purity. Unlocking the Bible. Retrieved on November 8, 2018 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVZKZmElHs0&t=1912s