Sexolatry (I Thess. 4:1-8)
Topic: I Thessalonians Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4:1–4:8
I Thessalonians 4:1-8
(One Truth: In All Things)
October 21st, 2012
I. Idolatry by the Numbers
Just listen to these important numbers:
1800, 20, 33, 12 billion, 56, 17, 3000, 25, 33, 95, 11, 50, 6300, 50, 90.
Now, those numbers might not mean anything to you right now, but they will. You've heard of painting by numbers, haven't you? Well, I believe those numbers will paint a picture for us, a disturbing picture, a sobering picture...a picture we desperately need to see.
Turn with me this morning to I Thessalonians 4.
II. When We Look Around: “Sexual Immorality”
As most of you know, this morning we are continuing with a study I've called “American Idols”. No, these aren't the young men and women on TV who grab our attention with their amazing voices. These are the idols that the Bible speaks of, the idols that grab more than our attention. They also grab, and hold onto, our hearts.
In our first study, we saw how the Apostle Paul equated greed with idolatry in Colossians 3:5. Paul, just as Jesus has done before him, was saying that we must be careful not to make money our god. In making that connection, God was allowing us to see that idolatry is bigger than just falling down in worship before some kind of statue. No, that passage, along with many others, teaches us that when you boil it down, idolatry is when our ultimate pursuit and prize is something or someone other than God.
As we talked about last time, for many people today, technology has become an idol. Smartphones, iPads, laptops, the internet, social media, all of it can so easily become our ultimate pursuit and prize, they can rule us, OR...these things can become tools for the other idols of our heart.
But look at the other “American idol” that is mentioned here in I Thessalonians 4, an idol that is even more pervasive than technology. Look at verse 3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality...
You may remember from our previous discussions that we highlighted three biblical characteristics of idols then and now: 1) idols always promise us salvation (from our feelings, our circumstances, our problems), 2) idols always demand our service (i.e. serving them with our thoughts, our money, our time, our plans), and 3) idols always encourage our sinning (they never lead us to what God wants, only to what we want).
Now think about our definition of idolatry AND those three distinctives in terms of this issue of sexual immorality. Based on what you know, is it fair to say that sex is an “American idol”? Well, if there is any doubt in your mind about whether not Americans are making sex their ultimate pursuit and prize, let's go back and paint with those numbers:
1800--the percentage pornography has grown on the internet in the last five years.
20--the percentage of children ages 10-17 who have received unwanted sexual solicitation online.
33--the percentage of men who will commit adultery.
12 Billion--that’s how many dollars the porn industry took in last year, more than the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball combined.
56--the percentage of divorce cases that involve one party having an obsessive interest in online porn.
17--the average age at which an individual loses his or her virginity.
3000--the number of dollars the online porn industry makes every second.
25--the percentage of women who will cheat on their husbands.
33--the percentage of online porn viewers who are women.
95--the percentage of those age 15-44 who have engaged in pre-marital sex.
11--the average age at which a child first see pornography online.
50--the percentage of marriages that will be affected by adultery.
6300--the percentage increase of full-frontal nudity on primetime network television from the 2010--11 season to the 2011-12 season.
50--the percentage of worldwide online porn traffic that comes from the U.S.
90--the percentage of 500 Christian men surveyed at a men's retreat, who admitted that they were feeling disconnected from God because lust, porn, or fantasy had gained a foothold in their lives.
And those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. There can be no doubt in our minds that we live in a hyper-sexualized culture. You can't even walk through the checkout lane in the grocery store without being bombarded by a magazine or a tabloid that either has explicit references to sex or an image on the cover of an airbrushed model who is clearly being sexually objectified.
And as the stats confirm, this is not simply an issue for those out there in the world. As was so often the case in the Old Testament, the idol of sex has been brought into the house of God. From marriages ruined by pornography and our youth engaging in pre-marital sex, to pastors ruined by adulterous affairs, 'sexolatry' is alive and well in the Christian church. In his book “The Hole in Our Holiness”, author and pastor Kevin DeYoung touches on this very same reality. He writes:
“I’m afraid we – and there is an ‘I’ in that ‘we’ – don’t have the eyes to see how much the world has squeezed us into its mold. If we could transport Christians from almost any other century to any of today’s ‘Christian’ countries in the West, I believe what would surprise them most…is how at home Christians are with sexual impurity. It doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. In fact, unless it’s really bad, sexual impurity seems normal, just a way of life, and often downright entertaining.”
But what is “sexual immorality”? How does God's word help us navigate these waters? Well, one thing we could do is run through every example or every kind of sexual immorality described in the Bible and make some kind of list. But I think that would be a mistake, because I think that would leave us with a perspective that's too narrow.
Let me explain what I mean. I believe the best way to think about sexual immorality is to think about sexual morality, that is, we need to understand what is right when it comes to sex so that we can clearly identify all the wrongs that this idol wants us to accept. So let me put it this way:
According to the Bible, sexual immorality can be defined as any sexual activity that takes place outside of the God-designed safety of one man and one woman bound in the covenant of marriage.
We've already talked about the fact that in many cases idolatry today is the act of turning good things into ultimate things. Money can be a very good thing, but the idol of greed can twist it. Technology can be a very good thing, but 'digital idolatry' can twist it. Sex IS a very good thing...it's a wonderful thing...it's a gift God created, but...but the idol of lust can twist it and corrupt it, and that happens when we yank it out of the context for which it was created.
You see, God designed sex to be something that thrives in the soil of trust, commitment, and exclusiveness, because it involves not simply a physical connection, but also a heart connection. Therefore, God created marriage to be the planter, the container for that soil. And in that container, sex can truly flourish; in that planter, it can and should be enjoyed. Don't take my word for it, just read the Song of Solomon or Proverbs 5.
And that doesn't mean that all sex within the bounds of marriage is glorifying to God. You can turn sex with your spouse into an idol. And when it becomes driven by self-centeredness in either its demands or denials, it does not honor the One who calls us to self-giving love.
But when we try to remove that plant from that container, even when we think we have the right kind of soil (“but we really love each other”)...even then, that plant will not flourish. It WILL eventually die. And that's what we do every time we listen to idol of sex and not God. We are ripping the plant out of the pot. Remember what we said, sexual immorality is ANY sexual activity that takes place outside of marriage. This is why Hebrews 13:4 states:
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4)
What is sexual immorality? It is fornication, which is sex before marriage. It is adultery, which is sex with someone other than your covenant partner. It could involve homosexual acts, which violate the one MAN and one WOMAN design of God. It is bigamy and polygamy, which violate the idea of ONE man and ONE woman.
And we could go on to talk about incest and pedophilia and masturbation. And beyond all this, remember what Jesus taught:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27, 28)
And so as we see there, sexual immorality also involves sexual activity outside of marriage that takes place in our hearts. And that covers everything from fantasizing to 'sexting' to pornography and phone sex.
The question is not whether we are sexually broken. Writer and seminary president Al Mohler has put it this way: “Every one of us is a jumble of sexual brokenness left to ourselves.” He went on to say that “[the church should be a place where it is] safe to talk about this, because the question is not ‘are you misdirected sexually?’ But ‘in what way are you misdirected sexually?’
III. When We Look Up: “How You Ought to Walk” (4:1-8)
This morning, every single one of us needs to admit that we are vulnerable to the snares of this kind of idolatry. But...when we look back at our main passage, we find that God has given us guidance when it comes to this subject of sex. Let me read 4:1-8. Listen to this guidance:
Finally, 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.  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 sexual immorality;  that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor,  not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;  that 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.  For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.  Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Let me do this: Let me highlight for you six guiding principles that I believe are reflected in these verses: When it comes to sexual morality, I think we can see here that…
1. God’s word is clear on the matter. (vs. 1, 2, 6b)
None of us should play games with this topic by saying, “Well the Bible really doesn't address that issue” or by trying to twist the plain sense of Scripture in order to justify our lust. The Thessalonians had received instructions from Paul and Silas and Timothy about how to live, and that included guidance about this topic of sex. And remember, that guidance is for us as well, and it needs to be considered in light of everything God has revealed, not just the verses that explicitly mention the word sex. We also see that when it comes to sex...
2. Our ultimate motivation should be God-centered. (vs. 1, 3, 6, 8)
Our desire to live according to what the Bible reveals should not simply flow from a desire to NOT get a sexually transmitted disease or to NOT get pregnant or to NOT jeopardize our marriage. Those definitely SHOULD be realities we want to avoid. But our ultimate motivation should be God-centered. Our desire should be to “please God” (v. 1). We walk down that path because it is “the will of God” (v. 3), because we will be accountable to God (v. 6), because (v.8) these commands come from God and not man.
Who do you trust when it comes to sex: God who made you, or the world (the idol of sex) who simply wants to use you? To chew you up and spit you up? And so we also see that...
3. Sexual purity should always be part of pursuing holiness. (v. 1, 3, 7)
Again, we don't want to compartmentalize sex, we don't want to put in a separate box, either in terms of our excuses for compromise OR in terms of our daily battles. There is a popular Christian book for men about sexual purity called “Every Man's Battle”. Now, while that title is certainly accurate, we need to see that 'every man's battle' is much bigger than sex. Every man's battle every day should be the struggle to become more like Jesus.
As we see in verse 1, that's the battle Paul wants them to fight “more and more”, or as the NASB puts it, that you “excel still more” in a life that is pleasing to God. That's what “sanctification” is, as Paul describes it in verse 3. It's the very thing to which God has called us (v. 7). We should desire to replace lust, not simply with freedom from lust, but with Christlike love for all people. Sexual purity is not the measure of godliness. Jesus Christ is the measure of godliness. Another aspect of this is that, when it comes to sexual morality...
4. We should be distinct from the world. (v. 5)
I think it’s fair to say that in our American culture, there is absolutely no reason to consider what the world has to say in regard to sex. A number of decades ago, you still might find advice out there that reflected biblical wisdom. But not now. Our culture has almost completely abandoned everything that even somewhat resembles a biblical sexual ethic. And if you accept that fact, then you have to be vigilant. You have to be skeptical. How distinct should we be? Listen to Paul in Ephesians 5:
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.  For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure…has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience…take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. (Ephesians 5:3-6, 11, 12)
We shouldn't want to live in (v. 5) “the passion of lust like [those] who do not know God”. If you know God, you will be distinct. And if you are, you WILL seem like an oddball to the world. We WILL be labeled “prudes” and “puritanical” and “prejudice” and “repressed” and “narrow-minded”. We should expect that. Jesus told us that. Does your sex life, do your sexual attitudes and actions reflect more of the world or more of the word? We also see...
5. Abstinence is the war and self-control the weapon. (vs. 3, 4)
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality;  that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor... The word translated here “abstain” literally means “to hold oneself back” or “to keep oneself from”. The reason this concept is important is because the world wants you to ask, “How far can I go?” not “How pure can I stay?”.
Our flesh is always tempted to rationalize 'setting the bar low'. We say, “That’s not pornography. She’s wearing a bikini.” Or we say, “Well oral sex is not intercourse.” Or we say, “We just watch that to get us in the mood.” Or we say, “We haven’t done anything. It’s just talking.” But God’s word says:
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make NO provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14)
If you want the ravenous lion of lust to die in you, you can’t throw it ANY food…not even a crouton…not even a raisin. NO PROVISION. And that requires self-control, doesn’t it? The world makes a disastrous error when it concludes that because sexual desires are natural, we should be free to act on them, whenever and however and with whomever. But God calls us to self-control. Why? Because the bent of our heart is not toward what is good, toward what is of God. The reality that we are riddled with sin requires us to have self-control.
And self-control is more than strength in the moment of temptation. It also means a willingness to deal with chronic sin with absolute ferocity: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:29, 30)
Self-control also means being humble enough to know when you need help. When you hide your struggles, when you keep things secret, it gives to such things a power over you from which it is hard to break free. Find a trustworthy and compassionate brother or sister and confess your sin. Ask for help. Be willing to make your sexual struggles an ongoing topic of discussion with those you know will point you to Christ and His word. Finally…
6. We should always consider the other. (v. 6)
In verse 6, Paul tells them to make sure that no one transgress and wrong [defraud, exploit, cheat] his brother in this matter. While Paul may have adultery specifically in mind here, the underlying principle is still clear: our sexual immorality always affects others. Whether it’s wronging the one who is a partner in our sin, or our spouse, or our future spouse, or someone else’s spouse, or even a woman or man in a photograph, a woman or man who has sadly given themselves to something so shameful…
…Whoever it is, our sexual sin is never a private thing. The idol of lust always shapes our heart, but it can never make us more like Christ. It always makes us more selfish and more impulsive and more insensitive to the things of God. And so we wrong others, not only because of what we do, but because of what we will fail to do; what we ought to do.
IV. The Pleasures of Grace
Brothers and sisters, friends, we’ve talked a lot this morning about the bad news of sexual idolatry. And in the midst of our struggles, this battle can, at times, seem unwinnable. So much so, we simply give up or try to accommodate these passions.
But this morning I want to leave you with good news; with THE Good News: Jesus Christ died and rose again in order to bring sexual wholeness to the sexually broken. There is no sexual sin beyond the cleansing work of Christ’s sacrifice. There is complete and eternal forgiveness for our “whenever and however and with whomever”. No matter how broken you feel, Jesus can make you whole.
And you don’t have to remain a slave to the idol of lust. Jesus Christ came to smash that idol. He came to set us free and transform our sexual desires. The Spirit He gives us can bring our desires into line with God’s desires. God wants you to live, not for earthly, sensual pleasures, but for the pleasures of grace. Listen to how Paul expresses this...savor this...
How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life... We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin... So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:2b-4, 6, 7, 11-14)
You see, the grace of God frees us to live to please God and not ourselves, AND to see that what pleases God is always what is BEST for us.
When we trust Him, our sexuality can flourish in the place He designed. Don’t settle for counterfeits that can never satisfy. Idols always lie. Let’s trust God instead. Let’s trust the God who gave His pure Son to suffer for our impurity. Turn. Confess. Trust. Be set free. Be healed.