I mean, we’re all pretty much ready for this thing to end — and I have little to say that others haven’t said many times already. And I remember all that — and so even my own writings about Trump and Clinton bore me — and make me angry — which I really don’t need.
So I’m returning to Thessalonians. Maybe something in these two epistles will address who to vote for — if either.
(1 Thess. 4:1-6 ESV) 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.
First, I learned many years ago that when a preacher says “finally,” that it’s not necessarily time to put my coat on and pick up my Bible. Just so, Paul writes two more chapters after his “finally” — and the “finally” part of the book is the most theologically substantive.
If you read this passage very carefully, you’ll see that Paul equates “abstain from sexual immorality” (or “fornication” as in the KJV and the NRSV or “unchastity” as in the RSV) with “how you ought to walk and please God” and “no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter.”
He sees the commands against sexual immorality are not only critically important, but a sin that has victims, as he sees sexual immorality as wronging a brother. This is not altogether obvious to the Western mind. We see sexual sin as a victimless sin — so long as all are consenting adults. But Paul sees things quite differently.
Certain forms of public religion, indeed, involved ritual πορνεία [porneia = fornication]. In Thessalonica it was sanctioned by the cult of the Cabiri of Samothrace … . When the gospel was introduced into pagan society, therefore, it was necessary to emphasize the complete breach with accepted mores in this area which was demanded by the new way of life in Christ. Cf 1 Cor 6:12–20, with its peremptory φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν, “shun fornication!” (v 18).
F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word BC 45; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 82.
Paul concludes with an eschatological warning — “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things.” In other words, he’s threatening the fornicators with hell. Many want to claim that Paul says that your conduct post-baptism has nothing to do with your salvation, but obviously Paul sees things differently.
It’s not that fornication is the unforgivable sin or God has no grace for those guilty of sexual immorality. Rather, there are sins that reveal a rebellious heart — a heart without faith — and Paul places fornication in that category. There are, of course, other sins that fit in this category — and Paul (and other NT writers) are fond of making lists of sins that reveal a stubborn heart in jeopardy of falling away. But here, Paul’s list is very short: sexual immorality. Why?
First, the prohibition on fornication is part of the decision made by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
Second, the Gentile world approved just about any sexual conduct by a free male. There was no expectation that the husband would be sexually faithful to his wife. And among many Greeks, homosexual pederasty (sex with children) was permitted, even encouraged.
Third, many idolatrous cults used sex as part of their “worship” practices. For example, in the worship of Pan (the goat god), Pan’s worshipers, male and female, would engage in coitus with goats in heat.
Fourth, fornication was part of the Gentile way of life. It permeated their social and business gatherings.
The Greco-Roman world had a tolerant attitude toward sexual conduct, particularly sexual activity outside marriage. Marriages were not usually love matches, but family arrangements. Typically, men in their middle twenties were paired with young women barely in their teens whom they had never met. So it was expected that married men would have sexual relations with other women, such as prostitutes, female slaves, or mistresses. This explains why Demosthenes (384–322 B.C.) could state matter-of-factly: “Mistresses we keep for our pleasure, concubines for our day-to-day physical well-being, and wives to bear us legitimate children and to serve as trustworthy guardians over our households.” That attitudes had not changed at all some three centuries later is evident from the words of the Stoic philosopher Cato (95–46 B.C.), who praised those men who satisfied their sexual desires with a prostitute rather than another man’s wife.
A tolerant view of adultery and other sexual practices can also be seen from a variety of other sources. For example, funerary inscriptions reveal that concubinage was common. Prostitution was a business like any other, and profit from prostitutes working at brothels was an important source of revenue for many respectable citizens. Innkeepers and owners of cookshops frequently kept slave girls for the sexual entertainment of their customers.
Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 3:419.
Now, why does Paul see fornication as a sin against “a brother”? Paul was likely looking at this from a male perspective, and so how does a man sin against his brother when he engages in sexual immorality?
My best guess is that he’s thinking of the husband, father, or family of the girl being taken advantage of. They are shamed by the man who uses their wife, daughter, or sister. So is her future husband. And in the case of homosexual sin, obviously the other man is among those sinned against — even if consensual, because he has been encouraged to sin against God.
Of course, in those instances of fornication involving a woman, the woman is often a victim and is always sinned against — because she’s been encouraged to sin against God. But in that world, the women usually had very little say in how their bodies were used. All the power was in the men, and the women were often prostitutes or mistresses who had little say about their station in life. A woman sold into slavery, for example, had no choice but to provide whatever sexual favors were demanded of her.
In 4:5, Paul warns his readers against “the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” Of course, many of the converts in Thessalonica were Gentiles, so why does Paul use “Gentiles” to refer to the damned? Most likely because the church saw themselves as establishing a single, third race that is neither Jewish nor Gentile.