May 27 - What Do you Mean, I Have To Be Holy?

What Do You Mean, I Have To Be Holy?

May 27, 2018

1 Thessalonians 5:19-28



May 27, 2018

1 Thessalonians 5:19-28


A three-year old boy opened the birthday gift from his grandmother and discovered a water gun.  He squealed with delight and headed for the nearest sink. 


The mother of the little boy was NOT pleased.  She turned to her mother and said, “I’m surprised with you.  Don’t you remember how we used to drive you crazy with water guns when we were small?”  The grandmother smiled and replied, “Oh I remember alright.” 


The grandmother was able to prophesy that the water pistol would aggravate her daughter.  She could predict accurately what would happen in the future, which is why she bought the thing in the first place.


We are finishing off our journey through Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica today.  In vv. 19-21 of chapter 5, we are getting to the tail end of the practical section on how the believers are to conduct themselves.  Here Paul deals with the use of the spiritual gift of prophecy in the church.


Do not extinguish the Holy Spirit.[1]  Do not despise[2] prophetic words.[3]  But examine[4] [scrutinize] everything carefully and hold on[5] to what is good.[6] 

1 Thessalonians 5:19-21


In a number of his letters, Paul lists prophecy as one of the spiritual gifts (Rom 12:6).[7]  In fact, he points out that prophecy is one of the most desirable gifts (1 Cor 14:1), when it comes to spiritual gifts that can be used during church services (1 Cor 12:10;[8] 13:2,8; 14:1-6,22).  However, Paul did NOT think of prophecy in terms of foretelling the future, something that OT prophets did, or that the grandmother did. 


Instead, Paul considered a prophet in the NT church to be someone who received a direct revelation from God and then passes it on to the rest of the congregation (1 Cor 14:26-31,37-40).  So a prophet could potentially be anyone in the church as long as they have received a message directly from God. 


Paul distinguished prophecy from the spiritual gifts of leading, pastoring, teaching, encouraging (exhortation), speaking a word of knowledge, and speaking a word of wisdom.[9] 


While all of these spiritual gifts are valuable and necessary, they usually do not pass on a divine revelation.  Pastors generally do not introduce their sermons with: “This is what the LORD is saying”, as the prophets of old would introduce their messages - at least they shouldn’t. 


The gift of prophecy should not be taken lightly.  Think about this for a moment!  If a prophecy is in fact received directly from God, it would mean that the prophecy would be infallible and beyond question. 


The prophetic word can be compared with the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra, from the chair (of the apostle Peter).  When the Pope announces that his proclamation is “from the chair,” something that has only happened once since the doctrine was introduced, then he is claiming that his message he is giving has been received directly from God.[10]


Paul termed the complete rejection of the gift of prophecy as putting out, or extinguishing, or quenching the HS (picture of someone dousing flames), and the reason he mentioned it here is probably because, for some reason, prophecy was forbidden in the church in Thessalonica. 


However, Paul makes a caveat when it comes to the use of prophecy.  Any so-called word from God needs to be closely scrutinized to see whether in fact it is from God.  Just claiming that a message is directly from God does not make it so.


The reality is that there is always a danger when someone claims to have a message from God or when someone claims to be the mouthpiece of God.  The message may not be from God at all, but from some tortured mind, from false motives, from human reasoning, or worse – potentially an evil and destructive spiritual force. 


I remember the time when someone came to me and told me that God had told him to tell me to preach from the KJV only.  Again another time, someone stood up during the sermon and told the congregation that they should be doing something I knew that he himself did not do. 


But, of course, these are pretty harmless examples.  A false prophecy accepted as a Word from God could cause much greater damage.  It could lead to division, church splits, and even death, as it did in Jonestown in Guyana (Nov 1978) where 918 people died, or The Mount Carmel Center in Waco (1993), where 86 people died. 


Because of potential false claims of having the gift of prophecy, and the damage or confusion that can result from it, Paul places limits on its use in 1 Cor:


  • At most two or three individuals should give a prophetic word in any given church service.

  • Only one prophet should speak at a time.

  • Most importantly, whatever is said should NOT be accepted out of hand as coming from God, but needs to be judged carefully.   1 Corinthians 14:29


    So in our passage, Paul says much the same by closely tying the use of prophecy to discernment.


    Examine carefully everything that is said, he wrote.   Accept and apply only what is genuinely good.  The implication is, that when a message is bad, if it is deemed heretical or unsound or unbalanced or weird or negative or destructive or divisive or damaging, it should be rejected. 


    In the book of James we are actually told what a message that is in line with God’s will and character looks like:


    The wisdom that is from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy, abounding in good results, impartial, and sincere.                                                                             James 3:17


    So if the so-called prophetic word is impure, confrontational, harsh, inflexible, lacking in mercy, one sided, insincere, resulting in evil, it is definitely not from God.


    Of course it would be difficult during a church service to confront someone and tell them their message is not from God, when they are convinced it is.  There is the potential for hurt feelings, and possibly disagreement, and conflict.


    In fact, who would have the authority to tell someone that their message is just not from God, particularly right during a worship service?  Would it have to be the pastors or elders or board members? 


    I may be wrong about this, but I personally think that in today’s church context, it would be much simpler and less painful for someone to approach the church leadership with a potential revelation from God and, if it is considered sound, the leadership can give the thumbs up for it to be shared during a service.  Mind you, it does kill the spontaneity, doesn’t it? 


    Interestingly, Paul also writes in 1 Cor, that the prophets have the choice to remain silent at any time (1 Cor 14:30-33).  In other words, it is OK not to give a word from God the very moment it has been received.     


    Paul continues with the practical section of his letter, but then adds a prayer, followed by a promise. 


    Abstain[11] from evil in all its forms.  And may the God of peace himself make you completely holy, keep your spirit, soul and body sound so that you will be blameless at the coming of Jesus Christ, our Lord. He who called you is faithful, and he will do it.

                                                    1 Thessalonians 5:22-24


    On Feb 1st, 2015, an Italian atheist and journalist[12] who frequently interviews Pope Francis, declared on Italian TV that the Pope denied the existence of hell, instead holding the view that the unrepentant will be annihilated after they are resurrected at the judgment day. 


    This is actually the view of the JW church, Seventh Day Adventism, and, more recently, the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission.  Famous theologians like the John Stott and Clark Pinnock hold to this view.  Even C.S. Lewis and F.F. Bruce noted that annihilationism (often shortened to annihilism) is an acceptable viewpoint for evangelical Christians (it may be, but it isn’t my view).  


    What caused an uproar over the journalist’s comments is that annihilism is NOT the official view of the Roman Catholic Church.


    Now, oddly enough, the journalist who claimed that Pope Francis holds to this view, never records his interviews nor does he take notes during the interview.  He recounts his conversations from memory.  This gives Pope Francis always a chance to claim that the journalist misunderstood or misrepresented his actual words or meaning.  However, there is no pressing reason why the journalist should lie, nor does it explain why Pope Francis continues to grant him interviews.


    In any case, the Pope’s alleged words points to a possible theological shift even in the RC church. 


    However, a much larger theological shift has taken place over the last 50 years within mainline (liturgical) churches, and it is growing in acceptance in evangelical churches:  The view termed moral relativism, the view that right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder and therefore are fluid categories.    


    Put another way, moral relativism among Christians focuses only on God’s mercy.  God in his mercy will forgive any and all sins at any and all times.  Therefore, personal purity and moral excellence is no longer necessary to enter God’s presence.  Repentance, forgiveness, obedience to God’s will, transformation, goodness, loving actions, none are actually required for salvation.  Therefore, in theory even an evil or unholy person will go to heaven.


    It reminds me of two men who met in the grocery store.  One said to the other, “Have you heard about Harry?  He embezzled the company he works for out of a million dollars.”

    That’s terrible.”

    Not only that, he skipped town.”

    “What, I always knew he was a bad apple.”

    “Not only that, when he skipped town he did so with Tom’s wife.”

    No way, what a no-good, rotten, person.”

    Not only that, he stole a car to make his getaway.”

    Wow, that’s truly unbelievable.  But what really worries me is who is going to teach his Sunday school class this coming Sunday.”


    In one of his homilies, Pope Francis mentioned that Satan seeks to enter the human heart through moral relativism, politely, quietly, but insidiously.  Moral relativism, once embraced, anaesthetizes the conscience, and once the conscience is anaesthetized, Satan has become the master of it.[13] 


    With his words, Pope Francis was alluding to a passage in 1 Timothy:


    The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.                               1 Timothy 4:1-2


    A seared conscience will no longer be able to discern right from wrong.  And the prophet Isaiah warns the nation of Israel that bad things would befall the person who proclaims evil to be good, and good evil.


    Woe to those who say that evil is good and good is evil.                                                                     Isaiah 5:20


    In verses 22-24 of our passage in 1 Thess, Paul strongly implies that personal holiness is in fact a prerequisite to salvation.  Elsewhere he states it outright, for example in Rom 6:22.


    Now that you have been set free from sin and have become servants of God, you have received a benefit that will lead you to holy conduct, the outcome being eternal life.                                               Romans 6:22


    In fact, the whole of Romans 6 is really making one point: baptized believers simply cannot live in sin as they formerly did.  In other words, being holy includes moral purity and ethical excellence. 


    The author of Hebrews, who was familiar with Paul’s writings, states Paul’s view about as bluntly as possible.


    Those who are not holy will not see the Lord.

                                                              Hebrews 12:14


    So Paul tells the Thessalonians to abstain from evil in any of it forms.  But then he adds a prayer - that God would make them completely holy so that they will be blameless at Jesus’ return.  This is followed by a statement that, in Paul’s opinion, God will in fact accomplish this for them. 


    For Paul, God’s unmerited favour or grace extends beyond forgiveness, the pardoning of bad words, thoughts and actions.  Being made just includes being given the necessary inner strength to renew oneself morally and ethically. 


    To put it in theological terms, justification includes sanctification.  Being made holy in standing also includes being made holy in attitudes and actions over time.


    Just to make it perfectly clear.  Paul is NOT speaking here about moral perfection.  That’s an impossibility in this life, no matter how long we live. There will always be times when we give in to temptation.  From time to time everyone purposefully will do or say something that they know to be wrong.  Pretending that we are perfect is nothing less than hypocritical.  If we do, others will just think of us as being self-righteous and holier than thou. 


    However, there is a process of sanctification, of being made holy, which speaks about the improvement of our moral standards over time ... the growing ability to live out God’s will.  


    It speaks of the process of being conformed into the image of Christ.[14]  It speaks of increasingly weeding out lying, stealing, and whatever else may be morally wrong in our lives. 


    Did you know that the whole purpose of our calling, of our salvation, is to become holy?  Holiness is the purpose and goal of God for his people


    There are numerous verses in the Bible to indicate this, one of which is found in 1 Thessalonians itself, another in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. 


    God did not call us to be impure, but to live holy lives.

    1 Thessalonians 4:7


    God chose you from the beginning to be saved by believing the truth and being made holy by the Spirit.                                                     2 Thessalonians 2:13


    Similar statements can also be found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.


    God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and (therefore) blameless before him.                                                                    Ephesians 1:4


    Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might make her holy.                        Ephesians 5:25-26


    So someone might ask themselves: “Where’s the tipping point?  At what point am I holy enough to go to heaven?  How much can I get away with and still be able to squeak into heaven?” 


    One problem lies in the question itself.  Christians should never actually ask it.  The goal should never be to skate as close to the precipice as possible without falling off.  The goal should be to stay away from the precipice altogether.


    A second problem is with the answer to the question.  Holiness cannot really be quantified, at least not exactly.  In fact, as the Scriptures indicate, the level of holiness necessary to enter God’s presence may be different for different people.  For example: 


    When someone has been given much, much will be required in return ...                           Luke 12:48



    1. In Luke 12:48, in the context of the parable of the servants, Jesus said, “to those who have been given much, much will be required in return.


    This verse seems to imply that people will be judged differently, depending on what they have received in this life. 


    Imagine a person is born in the Western world, is blessed with a loving Christian home.  He frequently hears about God’s love through Christ Jesus, has the wherewithal to attend whatever university he wants, has access to the best healthcare possible, is able to afford anything his heart desires, and experiences little suffering or pain, even in old age.  


    Compare him to the one who is born in the slums of Mumbai, is abandoned by his parents when very young, lives on the street, has no access to education, clean water, proper nutrition, or health care; never hears about God or Jesus; is permanently hungry and malnourished; constantly struggles with health issues; and dies a miserable premature death.


    Don’t you think that God may judge each person on a different scale?  To those who have received much, much will be required.


    2. The writer of James notes that individuals should be somewhat reticent to be spiritual teachers because these “will incur a stricter judgment” (Jam 3:1).


    Not many of you should become (spiritual) teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.                             James 3:1


    That’s a pretty scary verse for pastors and spiritual teachers, because it’s pretty blunt. 


    Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom!” And Jesus said to him, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:42-43                                   

    3. And do you remember the thief on the cross beside Jesus?  Jesus had promised him “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  There is not a lot of time for moral improvement in the few hours before the man died.  However, the man did acknowledge that he had committed crimes that deserved the death penalty, possibly murder or armed robbery (Luke 23:41), and he did voice his belief that Jesus would receive a kingdom (Luke 23:42).[15] 


    Wouldn’t the standard of judgment be different for individuals who had a true deathbed conversion?  And I’m not talking about an insincere last minute hail Mary, maybe I should do this just in case, thing?


    While the level of holiness necessary for salvation may vary from individual to individual, the goal for all Christians is the avoidance of evil in all its forms, and to allow God to make them completely holy and thus blameless.


    So Paul makes the point that God is committed to sanctify his people, to make them holy.    He is faithful, he will do it.


    However, just because God is committed to making his people holy, that does not mean that his people have nothing to do personally to become holy, no hard choices to make, no temptations to overcome. 


    Let’s review Paul’s admonishment with regard to how the believers in Thessalonica should live their lives in practical terms:


  • Treat your spiritual leaders properly.

  • Be at peace with each other.

  • Admonish those who live unruly lives.

  • Encourage those who are anxious and timid.

  • Help those who are weak.

  • Don’t retaliate.

  • Treat others in their best interest.


    They get the emotional and spiritual strength to treat each other that way as they ...

  • Rejoice always.

  • Pray continually.

  • Give thanks in every circumstance.


     Further, Paul writes,

  • Don’t extinguish the work of the Spirit.

  • Abstain from evil in all its forms.

    1 Thessalonians 5:12-22


    These are all things that the believers needed to do for themselves.  God wasn’t going to make the decision for them or force them into to do these things. 


    In his letter to the church in Philippi in Macedonia (one of the closest churches to the church in Thessalonica - 160 km away),[16] Paul points out that being made holy is really a combined effort:


    Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work within you to give you the determination and the ability to live a life pleasing to him.

                                                    Philippians 2:12-13


    God provides the ability to lead a life pleasing to him through the indwelling HS.  But the actual decisions still needs to be made by the believers.


    That is why Paul tells the Thessalonians that THEY needed to decide to abstain from evil in all its forms.  The statement that God, in his faithfulness, would in fact make certain that the Thessalonian believers will be made holy, is not some kind of universal promise.


    It reminds me of five Germans who were crossing the border out of Germany in an Audi Quattro.  The custom agent tells them that they need to pull over because it’s illegal to put five people in a Quattro, since Quattro means four.  The Germans were flabbergasted and protested that Quattro has to do with all-wheel drive.  The vehicle legally seats five.  When they couldn’t convince the custom official they ask to see the supervisor.  He replied, “Sorry, he can’t come right now.  He’s busy with the two guys in the Fiat Uno.”


    I am dealing here with an issue that has been understood in two ways for hundreds of years (Calvinism vs. Arminianism).  Arminius argued that God predestined people because, as a God standing outside of time and space, he already know beforehand what would happen (Calvin argues that God chose people before any of them were born and there is really no free will when it comes to choosing for or against Christ). 


    Maybe you remember that Paul had sent Timothy to Thessalonica for the very reason that he was afraid that his converts in that city had abandoned their faith due to the opposition and persecution they suffered as believers.


    What Paul was actually saying is that, the ongoing faith of the Christians despite their difficulties, is an indication that God will in fact answer Paul’s prayers in the affirmative.


    In my opinion, this does NOT mean that God will override free will.  In fact, Paul just mentioned that it is possible to put out, to extinguish, to quench the work of the Spirit.  It is equally possible to resist the work of the Spirit.


    You stubborn people!  Your hearts and ears are like the heathens.  You are just like your ancestors, always resisting the Holy Spirit.                       Acts 7:51


    When Stephen spoke to a group of Jewish people in Jerusalem, he said to them that their stubborn refusal to listen to God, is really the choice to resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51).[17] 


    So God will not override the human will, he will not take away the ability to allow or disallow the Holy Spirit to do his work of sanctification. 


    It is very similar when it comes to the assurance of salvation.  Jesus said that those who follow him (as a sheep follows a shepherd) will have salvation and no one will be able to snatch them out of his hand or the Father’s hand (John 10:27-29).


    Paul affirms this in his letter to the Romans, where he writes that no external force can separate the believer from the love of God if they are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39). 


    However, those statements do NOT negate the reality that we can chose to remove ourselves from God’s love.  While no one can pluck us out of Jesus’ hand, we can decide to crawl out of it ourselves.  We can decide to ignore the Spirit, quench him, resist him, and cauterize our conscience.  


    This is why Paul warns Timothy about those people in the church who have tossed aside their consciences and have thus shipwrecked their faith (1 Tim 1:18-20).[18]



    Timothy, my son, ... fight the good fight.  Hold on to your faith.  Keep a good conscience, which some have rejected and, as a result, have shipwrecked their faith.

                                                    1 Timothy 1:18-19


    By the way, what is the essence of human holiness?  The other day I was speaking with an atheist.  She said that her desire is to be a kind and loving person.  She got something right.  Jesus clearly said that the essence of human holiness is treating other people with love and compassion. 


    Holiness is first and foremost about abounding in loving action.  Loving action is the greatest of all moral virtues.   


    Paul then concludes his letter with two requests: for the believers in Thessalonica to pray for himself, Silas and Timothy (cf. 1:1), and that the letter would be passed around in the churches in Macedonia.


    Brothers, pray for us.  Greet all of the brothers with a holy kiss.  I adjure you by the Lord, have this letter read to all the brothers.  The grace of Jesus Christ, our Lord, be with you!                                      1 Thessalonians 5:25-28


    Paul tells the believers of different churches, the one in Rome, the one in Corinth, and the one in Thessalonica, four times to great one another with a holy kiss.[19]  They were to take a commonly used expression of endearment and use it to express their love for one another. 


    But he tells them to sanctify it, to make it holy.  In other words, it should not be used in some manipulative, offensive or hypocritical way.  The affection they have for one another should be real and pure.   


    We don’t kiss one another any longer in the church.  If all of us were from other traditions, we may give each other a kiss on the cheek, as is common among some politicians.  But it isn’t really appropriate in our North American culture. 


    So is there some kind of practical application for us?  Are there culturally appropriate ways of greeting others and expressing our affection for them in some way other than a kiss? 


    Maybe a holy handshake, a holy fist bump, a holy high five, a holy hug?


    Physical contact, whether a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back, a squeeze of the hand, whatever it may be, is important, because some people never have physical contact with any other human being. 


    I believe that the physical demonstration of affection should be accompanied by words that indicate the unity and sense of family and community that Christians have for one another.


    So maybe speak words of love, compassion, comfort, and appreciation as you greet each other today after the service. 


    Is holiness something that I long and strive for?


    Am I quenching the work of the Holy Spirit?


    Is there something I need to change in my life?


[1] Gk: me sbennute.(from sbennumi) - of fire: to quench, to extinguish, to put out; metaphorically, to suppress, to stifle.

[2] Gk: me exoutheneite (from exoutheneo) - to despise, to hold in low esteem, to contemptuously dismiss, to view with contempt, to reject.

[3] Gk: propheteias (from propheteia) - the gift of prophecy, the office of prophet.

[4] Gk: dokimazete (from dokimazo) - to test, to examine, to scrutinize, to prove genuine (through examination), to approve

[5] Gk: katechete (from katecho) - to hold back from leaving, to retain, to take possession of, to hold secure, to hold fast.

[6] Implied:  Reject what isn’t.

[7] We have gifts that differ based on how we have been blessed. Let him prophesy according to his faith.  

[8] Re. Manifestations of the Spirit for the common good, distributed as the Spirit wills): To another (is given) prophecy ...

[9] For various lists of spiritual gifts see Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:8-10,28; Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 4:11.  Other gifts include serving, giving, mercy, faith, healing, miracles, tongues, interpretation of tongues, discernment, helps, administration, evangelism,

[10] The doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope was proclaimed by Pius IX in 1870.  It is exercised rarely and explicitly.  After 1870 only once, in 1950, defining the assumption of Mary.

[11] Gk. apechesthe (from apechomai) - to abstain from, to refrain from, to keep from.

[12] Eugene Scalfari, La Repubblica.  With regard to those who die in a state of mortal sin, the pope was to have said: They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. A hell doesn’t exist, the disappearance of sinning souls exists.


[14] Those who God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.                                  Romans 8:29


[15] The other criminal rebuked the first, “Don’t you fear God, since you face the same death sentence?  We are condemned justly, receiving what we deserve for our crimes, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

[16] That’s about from here (Saanichton) to Qualicum Beach).  Imagine that there is only one church in Victoria and the next one in Qualicum Beach!

[17] This outraged them and they became extremely angry and upset.  By the way, according to Jesus, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the unpardonable sin.

[18] 18 Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, 19 holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. 20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

[19] Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26.  See also 1 Peter 5:14, the audience is to greet one another with a kiss of love.