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| 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

The Point:  Help others to practice purity.

Abstain from Sexual Immorality:  1 Thessalonians 4:1-8.

[1]  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. [2]  For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. [3]  For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; [4]  that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, [5]  not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; [6]  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. [7]  For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. [8]  Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.  [ESV]

[1-2]  “This new section of exhortations and teaching begins with Finally, which is a rhetorical marker to transition to a new theme and not to indicate that the author has reached the end of the discourse. The appeal begins with two verbs that appear frequently in the exhortations contained in personal letters of the era, we ask and urge you. The combination of these two verbs indicate that Paul is strongly urging the believers to adopt some kind of conduct [see 5:14]. What follows is more than good advice or friendly suggestions. The exhortation is that they continue to progress in their moral development (do so more and more). The way of life they have adopted is to give way to ever increasing excellence in their moral conduct. Paul recognizes and commends the Thessalonians for already living according to the moral teachings the founders had given them, just as you are doing. However, despite this praise of their conduct, the Thessalonians showed deficiencies in their moral life. The fact that the Thessalonians have already put into practice aspects of the Christian ethic and are now exhorted to progress in the same implies that they had already received the fundamentals of moral instruction: as you received from us. The content of that sacred moral tradition was that it was necessary for them to walk and to please God. Such conduct was not optional but obligatory since the source of the teaching was not simply human but divine [see 2:13]. They received the authoritative teaching concerning how to walk or conduct themselves in a way that would please God. Pleasing God points to serving Him in a way that makes His interests a person’s primary ambition. Paul reminds the Thessalonians in verse 2 of the teaching they had received. Reminders and repetition of what people had learned were considered essential for moral progress. The orientation the author had given this congregation went beyond the fundamental teaching on the nature of God and the work of Christ to embrace the ethics that were to guide the Christian’s conduct. The instructions they received were not mere guidelines that could be ignored but, more precisely, commands or orders. As such, they should not be glibly put aside or ignored according to the whims of those in the church. The authority behind the moral teaching was not that of the apostles themselves, as is clear from 4:8. Rather, Paul and his coworkers were only the messengers who had delivered the commands through the Lord Jesus. [3-8]  In this section of the letter Paul addresses the problem of sexual ethics in the Thessalonian church. Evidently, he and his fellows had instructed the new believers in the divine norms that should govern their sexuality, but certain members of the church had rejected their teaching [8]. Since they had not separated themselves from sexual immorality, Paul calls them once again to sanctification, underlining repeatedly that this is the very will of God [3,4,7,8]. God will judge all who give themselves over to their passions [6], but He is also the one who gives the Thessalonians His Holy Spirit so that they might do God’s will [8]. In verse 3 Paul explains (for) one aspect of the instructions he and his coworkers had given this church, that being: this is the will of God, your sanctification. Unlike Greek ethics, Jewish and Christians ethics were not organized around a collection of ideals or virtues but rather centered on the will of God. Here, the will of God is God’s moral plan for human beings that should be both known and put into practice. Doing this will is the counterpoint to being carried along by the passion of lust like the Gentiles [5], while positively it constitutes that which pleases God [1]. The sanctification of the Thessalonian believers is God’s principal concern [3,4,7], and here this sanctification is defined as purity in sexual relationships as opposed to being impure [7]. Here sanctification means the process of sanctification that began in their conversion and that is made a living reality in their lives through the power of the Holy Spirit [8]. Although the sanctification of their entire lives progresses only through divine agency [5:23], the Thessalonians have the responsibility of aligning their conduct with the will of God. In the present situation this means that you abstain from sexual immorality. Sexual immorality meant any kind of sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage, whether it was fornication, adultery, homosexuality, incest, prostitution, or bestiality. Paul does not call the church to partial moderation of their sexual impulses but to abstain completely from all forms of sexual immorality [Eph. 5:3]. This was God’s will for them and what distinguished them from the people around them as those whom God had separated for Himself. Verse 4 is the most problematic of this section. The question is how to control his own body should be translated. The ESV has a footnote with the alternative translation “how to take a wife for himself”. The literal Greek meaning is “how to possess his own vessel”. So the question is what does Paul mean by “his own vessel”. Is this teaching about how a man should live with or acquire a spouse or about how he should take control of his own sexual desires? Does this verse say that the Thessalonians should exercise control over their own bodies or that, in order to avoid sexual immorality, the single men should acquire wives? Or is this a teaching about how married men are to live with their wives in sanctification and honor? In the context of verses 3 and 5 which talks about abstaining from sexual immorality and not giving in to the passion of lust, it appears that the more common Christian use of vessel as a way to allude to the body is the better translation. The repetition of this teaching later in 2 Timothy 2:21-22 points strongly in this direction. Paul makes very clear that the kind of control he has in mind is that which is in accord with the will of God: in holiness and honor. Sanctification or holiness should dominate every aspect of the Christian’s character [5:23]. Sanctification should define how believers exercise their sexuality, which means abstaining from all forms of sexual immorality [3] and not being carried along in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God [5]. Honor, on the other hand, is the respect and recognition a person receives from the community because of his or her position or achievements. The concern of this passage is how the will of God should govern the sexuality of believers; thus the honor that Paul reminds the Thessalonians about is that which they will receive from God Himself. Christians should exercise control over their bodies as those who hope to receive honor from God. Paul proceeds in verse 5 to explain further what it means to exercise control over their own bodies in holiness and honor. They are to not give themselves to passion of lust which refers to the lasciviousness that arises out of sexual desire. This is the erotic passion that Paul elsewhere warns against [Rom. 1:24; Col. 3:5]. This passion is the fruit of lust or desire, a term that may be used to speak about neutral or positive desires [1 Thess. 2:17]. Most frequently in the New Testament, however, the desires spoken of are those that are sinful [Gal. 5:16-17]. The sexual conduct of the believers in Thessalonica should not be governed by the burning passions that arise out of their sexual desire, like the Gentiles who do not know God. While Gentiles or heathen is a term that most commonly identifies those who are not Jews by birth, here they are those people who are not Christians. As the new people of God, these who were converted out of idolatry should demonstrate their new community identity in their lifestyle. The apostle calls the believers not to imitate the sexual conduct of their contemporaries. They had been converted from such practices not so many months previously. The lifestyle of the heathen who were given over to sexual passions was evidence of the distance between them and God. Such people are here further described as those who do not know God. According to Paul, ignorance of God, or the absence of a relationship with Him, was understood as the prime cause of immorality among the Gentiles. The implication for the church is clear. Faith and Christian ethics are bound together in such a way that the person who knows God will not be driven by sexual passions but will rather live according to the will of God. What determines the sexual conduct of the pagans is their desire to satisfy their sexual passions, but the guide to Christian sexuality is knowing God and longing to serve Him [4:1]. Once more Paul reminds them of this teaching, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. No one in the congregation could claim that he or she was not given previous notice of the consequences of his or her actions. The disobedience of these members of the church is all the more surprising in light of the clear, emphatic, and solemn teaching they had already received condemning sexual immorality. After laying out the negative consequence of divine judgment for sexual immorality [6], Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the positive motivation for eschewing adultery and all forms of sexual immorality: For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness [7]. Their sanctification was not separated from their election to salvation, and so in the second letter to the church the apostle spoke to the Thessalonians of how God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth [2 Thess. 2:13]. Paul’s aim was that divine salvation might become a present, living reality in these believers through their moral sanctification. Their election and calling not only graced them with a secure eternal hope but also effected a moral transformation in their daily lives. Holiness in their sexual conduct was part of God’s eternal plan, which was bracketed in the past by His eternal election and in the future by His eternal glory. Paul joins with the Thessalonians, therefore, as he reminds them that God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Impurity is the opposite of sanctification or holiness [Rom. 6:19] and may denote either ceremonial or moral impurity, depending on the context. In this present verse sexual impurity is in mind and it refers to all forms of sexual immorality. Sexual impurity should never characterize the conduct of those who have been called by God [Eph. 5:3] because they have been called to live a holy life. This holiness is now the goal of their lives instead of the sexual impurity that had previously dominated their existence. God is the one who sanctifies the Christian at conversion through the agency of the Holy Spirit [2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 1:30] and who continues the process of sanctification in all aspects of their lives until the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ [1 Thess. 5:23-24], and this also through the Holy Spirit [4:8]. But those who are called must, at the same time, align their conduct with their holy calling. They are summoned by God to sexual purity, and they must respond. The believers not only receive the call to salvation from the wrath of God [5:9] but are also called to abandon sexual impurity and embrace holiness. Sanctification is at the same time both a divine work and a human obligation that can only be met through the power of the Holy Spirit. Throughout this section Paul has made every effort to underscore the fact that the teaching the Thessalonians had received concerning sexuality found its source in God Himself and was therefore an expression of His will [4:3-4]. The Thessalonians were called by God to obey His commandments [7], and He is the one who will judge those who embrace sexual immorality [6]. As the proclamation of the gospel was divinely inspired as God’s message [1:5; 2:13], so, too, was the moral teaching they received. Paul introduces in verse 8 his conclusion to this section with the emphatic Therefore – in light of what has been laid out previously about the character of the moral teaching – whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God. The emphasis in this verse is not placed upon what but rather who is rejected by these disobedient Christians. Truly, the apostolic teaching was rejected, but in the end what was at issue was their relationship to God. Those who had embraced sexual immorality had rejected God by their disobedience. The Greek verb for disregards (rejects) is used in biblical literature to speak of infidelity to and rejection of authority, whether the authority was human or divine. In verse 8 the emphasis is on the rejection of the teaching on sexual immorality being not Paul’s teaching (man) but God’s teaching (God). Those who had engaged in this selective acceptance and rejection of certain points of Christian teaching are reminded that they had not rejected a man but God, and the consequence of their action was fearful [6]. At the end of this section, God is identified as the one who gives his Holy Spirit to you. Sanctification, which includes the conquest of passions that are motivated by sexual desire [5] and the embrace of conduct that conforms to the will of God [3], becomes a reality in believers’ lives only through the agency of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is antithetical to a life given over to sexual immorality [1 Cor. 6:15-20]. God, who is known here as the one who gives in contrast to whoever disregards at the beginning of this verse, supplies His Holy Spirit to His people as a sign of His acceptance of them [Acts 11:17; 15:8; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 1:22; 1 John 3:24; 4:13]. The Christian ethic has its foundation in God, who not only makes His will known but whose presence is powerful in their lives through the Holy Spirit. The message of sexual purity was a “hard sell” in Thessalonica, and, clearly, the first round of teaching on this matter was not sufficient for some members of the church. The language of this passage could not be weightier or more emphatic. Though Paul employs euphemisms in describing sexual sin, he speaks with great plainness about what God expects and the consequences of disobedience. But the passage is also filled with positive words about God’s will and calling, as well as his empowerment through the Holy Spirit. From Paul’s perspective Christians must and can lead a life that conforms to God’s and not society’s norms. The present passage speaks loudly and directly to the church of our day, which is still working through the implications of the sexual revolution. In the contemporary perspective, sexual license is viewed as “natural” and the only concern is that sex be “safe”. The Christian ethic challenges this contemporary lack of moral norms, which, unfortunately, has infiltrated the church. The situation of the Thessalonians was similar to ours, and the apostolic response to them and to us is the same.” [Green, pp. 181-202].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What guiding principle for Christian ethics does Paul give in verses 1-2?

2.         What is the guide to Christian sexuality taught in these verses?

3.         What conclusion to his teaching does Paul make in verse 8? How should this conclusion motivate you to live a life of sexual purity?

References:

The Letters to the Thessalonians, Gene Green, Eerdmans.

The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.