Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”
Have you ever been asked to do something that was impossible to do? Maybe it involved delivering a message to someone that you absolutely could not locate. Or maybe it was to buy something that was totally beyond your financial resources. I like to watch detective shows on television and I find it annoying when a detective tells someone they will absolutely find the person who has committed some major crime. Of course, on the TV shows the detective always delivers, but in real life to make such a promise sets up a person for failure. We like to see promises kept, and commands completed, don’t we?
I’ve heard it said that God will never ask a person to do something without also supplying the necessary strength and grace to be able to do it. For example, if God calls you to be a preacher of the Gospel He will give you the graces needed to prepare one’s self and to do the job. If He calls you to give sacrificially to a particular project, He will help you to fulfill that commitment.
And God has called us to be Holy. In 1 Peter 1:15-16 we read “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” And if God has called us to “be holy,” then we must assume that He has made provisions for us so that we can truly “be holy.”
This letter of 1 Thessalonians is thought by most Bible Scholars to be one of the earliest and perhaps even the earliest of all the New Testament writings. And 1 Thessalonians is often called, “The Handbook of Holiness in the New Testament.” Our scripture today is the climax of several references to our need for holiness. And it is a reminder that the God who calls us to be holy has made a way for us to become holy.
I. PAUL’S PRAYER IS FOR CHRISTIANS TO BE SANCTIFIED.
a. The first chapter of this letter to the Thessalonians is a testimony to reality of their salvation. Listen to some of what Paul has to say about them:
i. (Verse 3- “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
ii. With much more focus on the powerful Presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, he says in verse 7, “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”
Remember: These that Paul describes in this first chapter are the people to whom this letter was initially directed. It describes an evangelistic effort that produced a great harvest of souls—Men and Women who were so powerfully transformed that they became role models for all the other believers in their part of the world.
b. Now, stop and reflect with me about the time we gave our hearts to God and received forgiveness for our sins and accepted Jesus as our personal Savior. I’ve shared my testimony with you before, so I won’t go into details about the journey leading up to my salvation experience. But this I will say—The night I bowed at the altar and gave my heart to Jesus changed my life forever. The guilt I had carried from my bad conduct was lifted and I knew that God had forgiven me. For several days after that, I felt like I was walking on air. The fall leaves were more colorful than ever. The sky was bluer. It was a joy to share my new found faith with my school mates. And I looked forward to going to church services and Bible studies and small group prayer meetings. It was real. It was personal. It was enlightening. It was wonderful. When I laid my head on the pillow at night, I knew that if I didn’t wake up, it would be okay. I was ready for heaven! Adjectives that describe that experience include Joy, Peace, Love, Excitement, and even Courage and Boldness as I set about correcting my behavior and my relationship with others. We are each one unique, so your description of the time you were first saved may be different. But sometimes it is good for us to remember what God has done as we consider our present position in Christ.
c. And Paul was reminding these Thessalonian Christians of what God had done in them.
II. AS GREAT AS THEIR SALVATION EXPERIENCE WAS, THERE WAS SOMETHING MORE THEY NEEDED.
a. In Chapter Three, Paul tells how out of his concern for their spiritual well-being he had sent Timothy to visit them and encourage them. Timothy had brought back to him a glowing report of their faith and love. Then, in 3:19, Paul writes, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
b. Please understand that no matter how wonderful your experience of getting saved may have been, that decision to follow Christ is just the beginning of the journey. Back in the late 60s and early 70s when I was in college, it was popular for Christians to go share their faith “cold turkey.” One of the methods used was called a spiritual survey. I remember going with a couple other college age Christians and going house to house knocking on doors and asking certain questions like, “Do you know who Jesus is?” “If you were to die today and found yourself at Heaven’s gate and was asked why you think you should be allowed into heaven, what would you say.” And all the questions were a lead up to asking the person to repeat the sinner’s prayer. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m sure there were lots of people who actually accepted Christ and are in heaven today because of those evangelistic efforts. But the downside of that method was that if there were not any follow-up instructions, a person who prayed that prayer may never have understood that becoming a Christian included living for God, obeying Christ’s commands, and involvement with other Christians in worship and Bible Study. And what a tragedy it would be if a person was told that because they had repeated a prayer they were right with God, and they never continued to grow spiritually. And then came face to face with God and had never truly been “converted.”
c. Jesus told a parable about a Sower who broadcast seeds, some which fell on rocky paths and never germinated, some fell on shallow ground and could not develop a root system; others that germinated were eventually choked out by weeds, and others which fell on good soil and produced a great crop.
d. Paul wanted to make sure these Thessalonians did not allow the shallow soil or the weeds of life to destroy their spiritual life.
e. Let me say this: As long as we are in this life, we need to be growing spiritually. I am convinced that the holy life is in effect the life of continually pursuing holiness. In Philippians 3: 12-14 Paul wrote, “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.”
f. Let me ask you a personal question. Don’t answer it out loud, but ask the Holy Spirit to help you answer it for yourself: “What is it in your spiritual life that can be improved?” It could be your struggle with anger, or the need to forgive someone who has hurt you. Or it could be that you have allowed the material things of this life—clothes, furniture, retirement money—to become obstacles to your commitment to Christ. Or it could be that you have a tendency to be judgmental towards others and see faults in others instead of the good. I believe we each have our Achilles Heel—an area where we a particularly vulnerable. Each of us has our own areas that are in need of improvement. I know I certainly do.
g. Thank God for people like Paul who took responsibility to nurture those new Thessalonian Christians towards maturity. I pray that I can be successful in allowing the Holy Spirit to work in and through me to help you in your spiritual journey.
III. THEIR NEED WAS FOR SANCTIFICATION.
a. In the 1 Thessalonians 4:3 Paul explicitly states what it is that God has for us: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified; 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 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.”
b. Understand that the word “Sanctified” means “to be made holy.” In this particular verse, Paul points out that “being holy” means making sure that you refrain from immoral and unethical behavior. In the 1st century world with its pagan gods and pagan temples, prostitution and homosexuality were practiced as ways to appease the gods. But the Judeo-Christian religion recognized that such behavior was a sin against God and was detrimental to society in general and to family life in particular. In such a culture the standard for holiness was high. It was imperative that moral behavior be recognized as the standard with which Go d is honored. I wish I could say we are an enlightened society but even though the worship of pagan gods in pagan temples is not so much evidenced, the 21st century is still obsessed with immorality. And just as Paul had to openly proclaim moral behavior as a condition of holiness, we too must not allow that standard to be lowered.
c. But while Paul in chapter 4 warns against sexual immorality, the scope of Sanctification goes much further. And so we come to Paul’s prayer as he concludes this letter:
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5: 23-24).
d. “Through and through” means that not only are our actions sanctified, but our thoughts and habits must be made holy. And we are to treat our bodies as God intended—“Temples of the Holy Spirit.”
Please understand that “Sanctification,” which is the process of being made holy,” is a lifetime process. It begins when we accept Christ as our Savior and have our sins forgiven. John Wesley called this “Initial Sanctification.” It continues as we live for God. The moment we totally consecrate our entire person to God and invite the Holy Spirit to take complete control is the crisis we call “Entire Sanctification.” It is “Entire” in the sense that we totally grant the Holy Spirit permission to purify our very nature. But the Sanctification continues in what Wesleyans call “Progressive Sanctification.” That is a maturing and growing relationship that continues our entire life—like Paul, we “press on …straining for what is ahead…” (See Philippians 3: 12-14). And the third crisis comes when we are finally ushered into God’s Presence and are giving a new body and eternal life in heaven. We call that crisis “Glorification.”
My prayer for you is that you will not neglect the spiritual journey, that you will continue always in your “pursuit of holiness.” And that you will allow “…God himself, the God of peace, [to] sanctify you through and through.” May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We are called to be a holy people because He is a holy God. And with God’s call, He has made a way through faith in Jesus Christ, full surrender to His Lordship and the working of the Holy Spirit in your life.