24 April 2005

Texts: 1 Thess. 3:11-4:8; Matt. 5:8 and Psalm 24:3-6


Psa 24:3  Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place? Psa 24:4  He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, And has not sworn deceitfully. Psa 24:5  He shall receive a blessing from the LORD And righteousness from the God of his salvation. Psa 24:6  This is the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Thy face-- even Jacob.


            After Paul has prayed for the church in Thessalonica, for direction to come to them by the Lord, for a lively, increasing and abounding love towards one and all, he launches into a prayer for their hearts to be “blameless in holiness” before God at the coming of our Lord Jesus.  We have touched upon this forward, or future thrust of Paul’s ministry before.  After salvation comes discipleship and obedience, but all the work, all the perseverance of the Christian life is satisfied by the climax of all in the coming of our Lord.  We are getting ready for that event in every way, in all that we are, “blameless in holiness.”  Paul assumes that the people of Thessalonica are among those what seek God, Who seek Thy face.  He further assumes that they positively desire to ascend into the hill of the LORD to stand in His holy place.  The question then arises: do we?  Do we positively desire to ascend into the hill of the Lord, and to stand in His holy place?  What is there to desire in His presence and what does it take to be fitted for such a position?  The answer to the first is blessedness--the blessedness of holiness, the worship and contemplation of Him who is so splendid, beautiful and magnificent as to evoke awe, wonder and delight all at once and more pleasurably than anything we have ever experienced in this world, in this life!  Coming into His presence is fulfillment itself!  But, and this answers the question of our fitness for heaven, such an ascension of soul takes work--soul work, a work of refinement and purification.


            What is there in us that causes we to shrink from soul work so?  Why do we resent it so?  I have a short list of five reasons: 1. Laziness, 2. Pride, 3. Impatient ingratitude, 4. Fatigue and 5. Satanic Opposition.  It seems sometimes, beloved, that we prefer mere subsistence, or a mere vegetative existence to all this growth in holiness.  We act as if we’d rather not know, as if ignorance is bliss--but it is not!  Spiritual Peter Pan-ism, a proud refusal to grow up, or to grow anymore period sets in. That’s laziness.  And, I do fear, that there are times when, for some of us, our pride kicks in as we truculently declare: here I am.  I’ve arrived.  I am a good person.  When we demand acceptance, from God and others, on our terms, we are proud.  We say, I’m good enough for me and that’s going to be good enough for you!.    It is against such contrariness, such spiritual inertia that Paul writes passionately in 1 Thessalonians.  More and more, he says, press on, press upward in the upward call of God.  After all this is his personal drive: Phil 3:13-14  Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  I want to suggest that one key reason that people resent the challenge to grow in holiness is impatient ingratitude.  Such ingratitude may begin as forgetfulness: we simply forget, we conveniently forget what a pickle it was that the Lord redeemed us out of.  And that forgetfulness makes falling into ingratitude easier.  Yes, we can forget that we were once helpless and hopeless in our sin, our fallen-ness, that we were spiritually dead when He rescued us.  Therefore what should remind us gratefully of how far we’ve come, and of how merciful God has been to us, reminds us in an accusatory manner of how far we have yet to go in order to obtain a “blameless in holiness” condition.[1]  There is also simple spiritual fatigue.  Spiritual growth is challenging, it is hard work and sometimes we do grow weary--especially when we are near the goal, near a breakthrough,  And, last on my list, Satan actively tries to discourage us, He will, if he can, induce us to turn aside, or, if possible, to turn back.  He assails us to hinder our feeding upon Christ, from  church attendance, or the ordinances--taking real food and real drink to ourselves-- in order to discourage and to defeat us.  Spiritual resolve, humility, gratitude, regular refreshment through a healthy spiritual diet will sustain us well, see us through the refining and purifying processes geared to establish us in true religion, and at last to bring us into His holy hill.


            It is against this backdrop then that we are to hear Paul’s plea that we abound more and more, that we should gain daily in living so as to please the Lord.  Paul urges them most affectionately as “brethren,” as I do you, to excel in things that are good by obeying the express command of God to be pure.  Purity is an inescapable part of holiness; it is essential to it. Here are two scriptures enjoin purity upon us: Psa 73:1  (A Psalm of Asaph.) Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart!  And, again: Mat 5:8  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  They give us two, related reasons to attain purity: first, to experience the goodness of the Lord God; and second, to see God. 


            To experience the goodness of God, and to see Him is to live in terms of the eternal.  It is to choose to live spiritually instead of carnally.  Even those who are not saved can subsist carnally, but that is bondage to a sub-human existence.  We are made for higher living.  Still spiritual living is hard work and it therefore requires diligence and constant encouragement, exhortation.[2]  John Chrysostom, the great 4th century preacher of Antioch, urged his congregation onward and upward.  He pressed them to go beyond the commandments; this, he declared, displayed “proficiency.”  This transcendence was the way of excellence, the way of virtue.  He pointed out, preaching on this passage, that virtue consists of two things: declining from evil and, at the same time, inclining one’s heart toward good.  This is the walk of sanctification undertaken for the goals established above: the perfect joy of being in His presence, to receive His welcome, approval and love.  This blessedness is the will of God for us!  He wants us in His presence.  Therefore, be pure. 


            Paul urges us to be pure in diverse places: 2 Cor 6:4  but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 2 Cor 6:5  in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, 2 Cor 6:6  in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, 2 Cor 6:7  in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left. . .And, also in 1 Tim 5:22  Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.  Free from sin translates into purity.  Consider these heroes of our faith known for their purity: Daniel in the courts of Babylon, Joseph in the land of Egypt.  Both kept themselves pure and, as a result God spoke to them and used them mightily.  Fornication is very much to the point in Joseph’s story because it was his refusal to commit sexual sin that landed him in prison.  Chrysostom likens those who are impure to a “foul swine which raises a stench wherever he enters.”


            It is the conviction of Paul, John Chrysostom and generations of their successors that sanctification, the walk of purity is something to be taught. Heb 12:14  Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.  We must study and learn not to be wanton, that is lustful, defiled, or impure.  We must learn to possess our own vessel in purity--for only in purity do we possess it.  In impurity, it is sin that possesses our bodies.  The pure life is reasonable, rational, self-controlled--it is the only life suitable for a rational soul!  The pure life results in temperate tastes and pursuits because purity is never a matter of simply avoiding excesses (gluttony and drunkenness).  Purity is a life of abstinence when it comes to the lusts, but of free and full enjoyment of natural pleasures.  We must learn how to navigate such things as luxury, wealth and ease, or leisure so that we do not fall into the pits of greed, covetousness, idleness and sloth.[3] 


            Now the Gentiles, who do not know God, have no way to escape the sin which so easily ensnares us!  They simply do not know any better so they give themselves degradingly to all kinds of immorality.  Perhaps that helps explain why sexual immorality is emphasized by the Apostle Paul.  He sees that all sex outside of marriage is transgression, robbery--a seizing of more than one’s portion and an invasion of the sanctity of marriage.[4]  God avenges all these things because they are “insults” to His Person and when He avenges it is Himself that he avenges and not the person(s) injured.  This spiritual truth goes a long way towards explaining the necessity of the cross.  The cross is about satisfying God’s offended majesty and holiness--the insult to Himself so that His perfect justice is vindicated when He forgives.  My point is to establish that these things go way beyond simple morality, beyond standard understandings of right and wrong.  David’s affair with Bathsheba was, humanly speaking, harmful to many; but above all that David insulted God, dishonored God in committing adultery.


            The remedy?  Chrysostom urges parents to quickly bring the yoke of marriage.  He believes that a person who has not learned to fornicate will not know how to commit adultery.  He urges parents to do all, with admonitions, fears, threats and instructions to help their offspring flee youthful lusts--all the while letting your sons and daughters know that you, as their loving parents, understand their needs, drives and interests.  And because marriage was a contractual matter between families, he cautioned that love of money should not intrude here and by such greed postpone urgent matters for the hope of a better situation.  Nor should young people have impossible demands for amassed wealth, housing, or a secure situation professionally speaking defer marriage unduly.  The need for young people to regulate their souls will be front and center in all this direction and provision.  Parents should live chastely and they should enjoin chastity upon their children.  He praises the effects of the couple being chaste.  The groom will find himself ardent in desire for her and, in the fear of God, he will maintain honor in marriage.  They will have the joy of pure and undefiled bodies, imaginations unsullied by lust or sinful memories and their children will issue forth charged with these blessings.  Each will find it easier to defer to the other in affectionate mutual submission.  Wantonness is, as he writes, habituating and self-inflating growing into ever increasing dissolution and disorderliness--base deportment, vulgar, low and obscene will disfigure those who fail to take care in this business.  And such believers , then, become practically indistinguishable from unbelievers--being unclean, unholy , wretched and worldly.  A woman of free estate, a true believer, is not attracted to such defilement; she was created honorable to be blest and to be a blessing.  She is fashioned to join her husband as a valued companion in the domestic joys of procreation and decency.  She desires to keep house with all gravity, employing all the arts of gentle and profitable housewifery. 


            The gestures of the harlot or an adulterer are admittedly “agreeable” at first. Prov 5:3-6  For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, And smoother than oil is her speech; (Prov 5:4)  But in the end she is bitter as wormwood, Sharp as a two-edged sword. (Prov 5:5)  Her feet go down to death, Her steps lay hold of Sheol. (Prov 5:6)  She does not ponder the path of life; Her ways are unstable, she does not know it.  The man who seduces another is a worker of lawlessness, and of iniquity--enslaved by his lusts and reckless in his folly.  Chrysostom argues that we would rather go naked than to wear the soiled garments of a slave--but there are those who would use someone else’s defiled body for gratification.  He rebuffs those who claim that they can’t control themselves--many have and many do restrain themselves.  I want to share with you the concern of Chrysostom although he lived over 1600 years ago:


I said indeed to your fathers, that they ought early to lead you to marriage: but nevertheless neither are you without liability to punishment. For if there were not other young men also, more numerous than you, living in chastity, both formerly, and now, there would perhaps be some excuse for you. But if there are, how can you say, that we were not able to restrain the flame of lust? For they, who have been able, are your accusers, in that they are partakers of the same nature.

Hear Paul saying, “Follow after peace... and the sanctification, without which no man shall see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14.) Is not this threat sufficient to terrify you? Do you see others continuing altogether in chastity, and in gravity passing their lives; and cannot you command yourself even so long as the period of youth? Do you see others ten thousand times overcoming pleasure, and cannot you once refrain?

With your leave, I will tell you the cause. For youth is not the cause, since then all young men would be dissolute. But we thrust ourselves into the fire. For when you go up to the theater, and sit feasting your eyes with the naked limbs of women, for the time indeed you are delighted, but afterwards, you have nourished thence a mighty fever. When you see women exhibited as it were in the form of their bodies and spectacles and songs containing nothing else but irregular loves: such a woman, it is said, loved such a man, and not obtaining him, hanged herself; and unlawful loves having mothers for their object; when you receive these things by hearing also, and through women, and through figures, yea, and even through old men, (for many there put masks upon their faces, and play the parts of women,) tell me, how will you be able to continue chaste afterwards, these narratives, these spectacles, these songs occupying your soul, and dreams of this sort henceforth succeeding. For it is the nature of the soul for the most part to raise visions of such things, as it wishes for and desires in the daytime.

Therefore when you there both see base actions, and hear baser words, and receive indeed the wounds but do not apply the remedies, how will not the sore naturally be increased? how will not the disease become more intense; and in a much greater degree than in our bodies? For if we were willing, our will admits of correction more easily than our bodies. For there indeed drugs, and physicians, and time are required, but here it is sufficient having but the will, to become both good and bad. So that you have rather admitted the disorder. When therefore we gather to us indeed the things that injure, but pay no regard to the things that benefit, how can there ever be any health?

On this account Paul said, “even as the Gentiles who knew not God.” Let us be ashamed, let us be afraid, if the Gentiles, that know not God, are often chaste. Let us turn for shame, when we are worse than they. It is easy to achieve chastity, if we will, if we withdraw ourselves from those things that are injurious, since it is not even easy to avoid fornication, if we will not. For what is more easy than to walk in the market-place? but from the excess of laziness it is become difficult, not only in the case of women, but sometimes even in that of men. What is more easy than to sleep? But we have made even this difficult. Many however of the rich toss themselves through a whole night, from their not waiting for the need of sleep, and then sleeping. And in short nothing is difficult, when men are willing; as nothing is easy, when they are unwilling; for we are masters of all these things. On this account the Scripture says, “If ye be willing and hear me.” (Isaiah 1:19, Sept.) And again, “If ye be unwilling, and hear not.” (Ver. 20.) So that all depends upon being willing or unwilling. On this account we both are punished and are praised. But may it be ours, being of those who are praised, to obtain the promised blessings, by the grace and lovingkindness, etc.  Amen


Such things as base entertainments wound us and because we do not treat them spiritually--we apply no antiseptic!--they fester.  And what is it that we might apply to these cultural wounds?  The good, the true, the honorable--the pure, seeming and right.  And we can choose not to expose ourselves to much that which is injurious, or poisonous.  If public places are lewd, and the company there all lascivious, then we are free to make our own meeting places, set our own standards, have fun in settings that elevate rather than degrade--we can attend shows that are worthwhile without being indecent, vulgar or rude.  We can refuse to rent, or buy or participate in pornography.  Walk away, turn away.  Perhaps reading a good book is preferable to live entertainment if there entertainers debase themselves for a laugh.  The point is nothing is too difficult where men are willing, and everything is where they are not!  Such things also harm us with our global neighbors who are horrified by what they “see” of us--the excesses of wickedness, the depravity of our “entertainments.”  Graft, corruption and immorality appear to them to be our chief exports.  If these are the price tag for democratic reform, for Western culture, some rightly conclude that the price is too high.  They do not see the millions of us who have chosen not to live in a worldly manner, who have not bowed the knee to the Baals of Hollywood, or Madison Avenue. 


Isa 1:18  "Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool. Isa 1:19  "If you consent and obey, You will eat the best of the land;

Isa 1:20  "But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword." Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isa 1:21  How the faithful city has become a harlot, She who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, But now murderers.

Isa 1:22  Your silver has become dross, Your drink diluted with water.

Isa 1:23  Your rulers are rebels, And companions of thieves; Everyone loves a bribe, And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow's plea come before them. Isa 1:24  Therefore the Lord GOD of hosts, The Mighty One of Israel declares, "Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries, And avenge Myself on My foes. Isa 1:25  "I will also turn My hand against you, And will smelt away your dross as with lye, And will remove all your alloy. Isa 1:26  "Then I will restore your judges as at the first, And your counselors as at the beginning; After that you will be called the city of righteousness, A faithful city."


            God is about the business of perfecting a people for the glory of His Name, for His praise.  This is the best news!  God wishes to bless us with the purity that secures His face for us!  Purity is His idea and He not only makes it possible, He rewards us for it!  Jesus, for the joy set before Him endured the cross.  We for the joy set before us should gladly suffer the loss of all things which do mar our enjoyment of Him.  Again, I evoke the awe, the wonder and the delight that He has purposed for us in His presence.  He is most glorified by our delight in Him.  Amen


[1] C. S. Lewis reminds us that we are not creatures of inordinately high expectations, rather, he writes, we are too passionless.  We spend ourselves entirely for things which do not matter in the least, temporal things like money, lusts and worldly influence when heaven’s at stake.  We are too easily satisfied. 

[2] We need to be encouraging one another not because we are so bad, but rather because the way is difficult.  2 Cor 5:20  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 2 Cor 5:21  He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Cor 6:1  And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain-- I would point out the language here of “entreating” and of “we urge you” is  used by someone who is thoroughly familiar with hardship through persecution and sufferings.

[3] I learned, in preparing this sermon, that envy was to be distinguished from covetousness by the strain of maliciousness embedded in envy--envy is primed towards thievery and violence whereas coveting is more neutral, more wanting what someone else has. This is important when you realize that the use of the word “envy” in the KJV carries this connotation.  It is not a synonym for either jealousy, or covetousness.

[4] The assault on marriage has been going on for a long, long time.  And those who oppose God’s dominion in the realm of our intimate life take two lines of attack.  First, they attack marriage by normalizing sex outside of marriage--extra-marital, pre-marital and homosexual unions are affirmed as “natural, okay and as positive ‘goods‘” in their own right.  Second, they attack the meaning of marriage itself: meaning they seek to expand marriage to be more “inclusive.”  One man, one woman is, they say, too restrictive.  They re-translate marriage to mean a “civil union” between consenting parties (not even man and woman) instead of the exclusive and God-ordained institution expressive of the union between Christ and His bride.  To be blunt, this is lawlessness and perversion united.  This is what the Scripture condemns as calling “good evil and evil good.” Isa 5:20  Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Isa 5:21  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And clever in their own sight!  Those who do such things dress them up in legitimacy but are really mutinous and rebellious; Psa 2:2  The kings of the earth take their stand, And the rulers take counsel together Against the LORD and against His Anointed: Psa 2:3  "Let us tear their fetters apart, And cast away their cords from us!"