1 Thessalonians: 4:1-6

1-thessaloniansI’ve been working on a series of posts dealing with the election and who to vote for. And no matter how I wrote and rewrote the series, it was boring.

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.

map of greeceNow, 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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to 1 Thessalonians: 4:1-6

  1. Dwight says:

    Well the Jews knew God, but then again the saints knew God, but the Gentiles did not. Both the Jews and Christians would have and did have laws against fornication as sin, and Christianity came through the Jews, so it was easy to generalize the Gentiles out as a segment, even when many of the saints were gentiles. They were Gentile Christians (hybrids) and not Gentile proper.
    To the Jews adultery and fornication wasn’t a closet sin left alone to the two fornicators, but one that affected the whole of the nation, thus the tribe had the responsibility to punish the sinners.

  2. Alabama John says:

    This is speaking of one part of the known world, the part chosen to be written about in our bible.
    All Gentiles were not like those at Rome, just like all Jews were not like those at Bethlehem and Jerusalem..
    There were many other places and times in this world where the women were the leaders and heads of households. They had their one chosen man and taught there was one man for one woman. Even had a ceremony tying them together. What many even today would call marriage.
    Those believed in a higher power somewhere up in the sky or what we call the heavens.
    These civilizations are not part of our bible story as what we have brings us to the faith in Jesus and God having a people we can read about.
    God has had good Gentile people worshiping Him long before Abraham and the Jewish/Gentile mankind split. Many in unheard of places were calling the one God by many different names and worshiping Him in many different ways.
    All were not lost and went to hell for not believing and practicing religion just as it was outlined by Paul. Their worship was welcomed by God since they were doing the best the could out of ignorance since much of Gods wants were not revealed to them and their heart was right.
    God judges the heart!

  3. Alabama John says:

    In 4:5 Paul is warning against the lust of the Gentiles that “do not know God”, that warning also excludes all the ones that did know God. It can be read and has been interpreted and debated both ways for many years.
    Since Adam, many worshiped God before Abraham and the Jewish race began. many all over the world have done so since that were not Jews and many had never heard of a Jew.

  4. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Jay,
    I am looking forward to both the continuation of the Thess. series as well as the Election series.

    I have been very discouraged with the election season, but not for the reason that you might think. Yes, the election is ugly, but it’s not the ugliest in our history. Yes, the candidates are subpar, but our country has witnessed that before too…more than once. I am more concerned with the current state of American Christendom, which seems to have conflated the church and America. Many of our preachers and Elders have written and spoken in terms that would elevate the Nation above the Kingdom. They don’t even realize that they are doing it. It’s sad that our patriotic fervor for Country significantly outpaces our fervor for the Kingdom and for fellow Christians that have different political views.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Kevin,

    I’ve written several posts on the election and none them quite work. Or maybe the subject is so revolting, I can’t figure out how to write about it without being revolting. I find discussion of either candidate repulsive. And I can’t imagine why the church feels compelled to pick a side. I mean, do we pick NFL teams? or sumo wrestling favorites? Then why presidential candidates? Because they so incredibly important? Well, I don’t see it because the last several presidents have been dreadful — from both parties. The definition of insanity is … And the church’s involvement in politics — even when we get “our” candidate elected — has accomplished next to nothing for the church. I mean, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, church-state and sexual morality court decisions are trending against the church, the culture is clearly less Christian than it was 20 years ago. And so I see no evidence that political involvement does the church one whit of good.

    Hence, I’m far more interested in separating the church from the ugliness of politics. As the saying goes, we can’t play in the manure without smelling like manure.

  6. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Jay,
    Concur completely. I can’t find anything in the NT about Christians fighting Rome through political or military means. You change Rome (America) by being better Christians and by being better Ambassadors of the Kingdom. We have abused the political process, and it has made us lazy.

    A good friend of mine, a preacher, wrote an anti-Colin Paepernick diatribe on FB because of the anthem…calling him a thug and telling him to leave the country. I was very disappointed. Colin is a brother in Christ (to my knowledge). It just reminds me that, too often, we are Americans first and Christians second. If we are conscious of the Kingdom and doing Kingdom-work, the politics of the National Anthem shouldn’t stir us to such animosity.

  7. dwight says:

    I like Joan Rivers quote” The problem with winning the rat race is that at the end of the day you are still a rat.”

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