1 Thessalonians 4:7-9
The implications of purity
If you have ever felt as though your problems and trials just got left out, then katharos is a word for you.
Most of the time the Greek word, katharos, is translated by some English word that implies purity. Christians talk a lot about purity. We are exhorted to be pure in heart, to flee from sin, to walk in the truth. But I suspect that our personal experiences with these admonitions are much more like Romans 7 than Psalms 1. We are usually caught between the right things that we want to do but cannot seem to do and the wrong things that seem so easy to do. Few of us find spontaneous proclamations of delight in God’s law.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that Christians are full of hypocrisy, leading hidden sinful lives while proclaiming virtuous living. Some of that is true, no doubt, but it is just as true of all human proclamations of virtue. Most Christians acknowledge their struggles and, at the same time, are really fairly moral people. They line up on the right hand side of the bell curve in good behavior. They are the moral majority.
But the problem is that God does not grade on the curve. He asks for purity – for holiness. That is the 100% mark. And I for one have never seen the high side of 99 and 44/100th percent pure, let alone perfection.
These last few weeks have been increasing difficult for me. My wife and I still face the fraudulent theft of all of our liquid assets. We learned that our vacation property was damaged by an earthquake (the first time in the history of that geography for a tremor). We are both physically exhausted. This year has adversely affected our health. Each day we put it all back in God’s hands – deliberately casting all these very real anxieties onto Him. Each morning before I kneel to pray, I feel true desperation before my Lord.
A few people have taken us under their wings, supporting us with prayer, fellowship and hope. They are living examples of brotherly love.
But something else is happening that parallels the other side of the Job story. I have begun to feel despair about the larger community of believers who show little community of care. I don’t mean that no one cares about us. I mean that the larger church community has taken a backseat approach to our needs. Just like Job’s three “friends”, the “church” has decided that our problems are not their problems. They would rather have God deal with us. They are quite prepared to ask God for a miracle, but they are not quite prepared to use their own means to make it happen.
“You’re problems are too big for us”, I am told. And from one perspective, that’s true. We face financial issues that most people cannot fathom. We confront loss that most people never imagine. But whether you fall from 100 feet or 1000 feet, the crash is still the same. It still breaks bones and hurts.
The truth is that most Christians rush to the aid of “spiritual” problems, are quick to offer prayers for “emotional” issues but turn a blind eye when it comes to finances. The believing community has conveniently segregated life into what’s mine and what’s God’s. If it is illness, death, divorce or something that does not require me to open my checkbook, then I am all for you. But as soon as I have to give you money, your problem is “too big for me.” No wonder Jesus talked more about money than any of topic. He knew that where we spend our money is the real evidence of whom we serve.
This is personally convicting. I think about the past when I was insensitive to the financial needs of others. Oh, I was charitable – to a point. But I always considered my wealth mine. I forgot (conveniently) that I was just a steward of God’s treasure. Now I am experiencing the other side of the coin. God does that to us. This is new territory for me. The emotional backlash is creating an increasingly difficult hurdle concerning my personal efforts for purity. Apparently God is showing me something I need to learn about these feelings. I suspect that they are common to all of us. I am sure that there have been times in the life of every Christian when personal traumas seem to be ignored or forgotten by others who claim to be following the Master. That’s when we begin to feel left out. Paul has something to say about dealing with this experience.
For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in purity. 1 Thessalonians 4:7
Purity is the Greek word katharos. It is primarily a word about religious ritual. It is associated with the rites of passage where clean and unclean create boundaries within the human community. Birth, death and sex are the principle areas where nearly every religion has ritual requiring spiritual cleanliness. In every culture, these central human events are surrounded by religious overtones. Being “clean” becomes an essential part of the approach to God.
The Old Testament reflects this same general presumption. A great deal of moral legislation found in Leviticus is directed toward moral and ritual purity. The concept of moral cleanliness is spelled out in relation to sickness, death, birth, sexual activity, foods and bodily functions. But there is more than cultic purity at stake in these rules. The presupposition behind purification rites in the Israelite culture is the moral holiness of God Himself. Purification in religion is merely symbolic of a deeper intentional purity – the purity of a heart before a holy God.
This is the background for the New Testament usage of katharos. Today we are more likely to think of purity in terms of filters, cleaners and soap than we are of religious symbolic rituals. But our misperception does not alter the facts. Purity is first and foremost an issue about the holiness of God and the unworthiness of Man.
When Jesus speaks of purity, he dismisses the inadequate external actions of moral behavior. He takes direct aim on motivation and intention, not on outward display. He reminds us that God looks first at the heart and judges motive above action. No external religious purification liturgy will ever suffice to remove a defiled heart. It took death to remove the impure nature of the human heart and replace it with a heart of holiness. At the same time, Jesus recognizes that truly loving acts must flow from a pure heart. Purity is not isolation. I cannot have pure motives before God and never display the consequences in my actions. If I really understand purity before God, I will automatically become a person of compassion, kindness and sacrificial acts. Inner katharos necessarily produces outer agape.
even as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, that you abound more (verse 1)
In this passage from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the opening exhortation pleads for us to go to excesses in maintaining our walk with God. Verse 1 uses the verb perisseuo, which means, “to exceed in measure or number, to be in excess”. Paul adds further emphasis with the word mallon (more, even more). Paul reminds his readers that he has instructed them in the paths of righteousness. He has given them the spiritual education they need to walk in God’s way. Now, he says, put everything you have into the task, and even more than that, make it the overriding purpose of your living, your number one goal.
Paul never provides instruction without justification. He tells us that this full-fledged effort is the direct reflection on God’s wholehearted desire that we be sanctified. This word (hagiasmos) has been completely diluted by the modern religious world. If we are going to understand its real importance for living, we will have to reemploy the older images it portrays.
Almost all the uses of the word “holy” in the New Testament are related to the Hebrew word qadosh. In the Hebrew culture, this is much more than a man’s humble subservience in front of an all-powerful God. Holiness requires separation. It demands that I set apart those things that are offered in service to God. In the context, the opposite of holy is profane. Holy is separation for sacred use. Profane is common use. If I am going to make an all out effort for purity, I will set apart whatever is required for sacred use. Nothing profane can be a part of my offering before God. Hagios demands ritual separation.
But the New Testament vision of deliberate and voluntary purity is not limited to the “first fruits” or the “best of the flock”. The New Testament vision of this offering is my body as a living sacrifice. Everything about me is included in the voluntary separation before God. There is no one thing in my life that is profane. Because I have been completely renewed through the power of Christ’s redemption, I have a new katharos heart – a heart that is totally given to God.
Verse 8 gives us the practical application of this call to purity.
Therefore, the one who despises does not despise man, but God, even the One giving His Holy Spirit to us.
The NIV translates this phrase, “therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God,”. The Greek word for “despises” or “rejects” is atheton. Its use in the LXX shows us that the word carries a strong sense of personal unfaithfulness. Maurer points out that in the 60 instances, 32 of them are related to apostasy or unfaithful acts. Paul attaches this sense to the word when he claims that setting aside the implications of purity or disregarding those implications is equivalent to rejecting God Himself. It is not simply disregarding some element of spiritual teaching as though we could close the book on this paragraph and pretend it had no relevance to us. This is not about moral prescriptions. It is about personal interaction and commitment to God.
If we are called to purity, if God intends that we be separated to Him and dedicated to sacred use alone, then whenever we act otherwise, we are slapping God in the face. We are acting as unfaithful spouses. We are turning our backs on His love and attention.
Paul completes the thought with this comment:
But concerning brotherly love, you have no need for me to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another Verse 9
Now the bond of the new commandment, to “love one another as I have love you”, takes on its proper significance. This is not a call to part-time convenience. There is no hint of a life partitioned between sacred and profane. The call is to sacrifice regardless of expense or result.
How long will the people who claim to belong to the body of believers continue to despise God’s direction to make living an act of sacred purification in sacrificial service to others? No wonder observers inside and outside the walls of the church often rightfully point to the hypocrisy of our lives. We claim an allegiance to a fellowship that we do not exhibit. We are caught in the tension of the pattern of this world – what’s mine is mine and I have the right to chose how I will use it.
God says something entirely different. “What is presently under your stewardship is consumed in the ritual of purity, separated for My use entirely. Your decision is not about ownership but rather about distribution. Are you willing to do whatever I want you to do with it?”