I want to go back over 4:5 in a little more detail.
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.
(1 Thess. 4:3-5 ESV) 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;
“Gentiles” translates ethnos ἔθνος, from which we get “ethnic.” The meaning in Paul’s day was “nations.” For example, in the Septuagint (LXX), Psalm 2:1-3 says,
(Ps. 2:1-3 ESV) Why do the nations [ethne] rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
That is, the Jews adapted the Greek ethnos (ethne plural) to mean “nations other than us” or “nations in rebellion against God.” Hence, we often translate “Gentiles.”
As is so often the case, Paul is paraphrasing the Psalms —
(Ps. 79:6 ESV) 6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!
Paul was hardly a politically correct preacher! I mean, he alludes to a psalm calling down God’s wrath on the unconverted! And so we see in this very early epistle thoughts very similar to Paul’s condemnation of the Gentiles in Rom 1. He certainly doesn’t limit their sinfulness to sexual sin, but he sees rebellion against God — and refusal to know God — as especially marked by sexual sin.
Many often wonder why the modern church tends to focus on sexual sin to the near exclusion of other sin — some of which may be even worse, such as division, judgmentalism, and legalism. But when Paul is speaking of the world (those outside the Kingdom), he has no reason to expect unbelievers to give up legalism or such. Rather, he sees sexual sin as not the only marker of damnation, but a central marker.
Now, if Paul refers to the non-Christian world as “the nations,” what is he implying about the church/Kingdom? Well, the church is distinct from the nations. Followers of Jesus serve Jesus as King, not Caesar. Not anyone else at all! That is, we aren’t citizens of two kingdoms with distinct jurisdictions and purposes. Rather, we’ve immigrated into the Kingdom and, in so doing, left behind whatever nation we belonged to before. We are no longer a part of “the nations”!
Even though Paul held Roman citizenship and sometimes used it to further his missionary work, he was not loyal to Caesar, except insofar as necessary to live in that world in peace. He honored Caesar to the extent God so commanded. And no more. Jesus is, after all, Lord of lords and King of kings.
The phrase “the Gentiles who do not know God” also immediately places this verse in a covenant context, for “to know God” is a technical reference in the OT, especially in Jeremiah (see Jer. 31:34), to the covenant relationship (Deidun 1981: 19n61). Paul’s placement of the Thessalonian Christians, themselves Gentiles, in sharp antithesis to “the Gentiles who do not know God” is striking and incomprehensible unless the apostle views these converts no longer as Gentiles but rather now as full members of God’s covenant people. His use of this OT phrase, therefore, provides additional support to two principal claims made above. First, it shows that Paul perceives the Gentile believers at Thessalonica to be members of the renewed Israel, the covenant people of God. Second, it illustrates once again that Paul viewed holiness—here specifically holiness in sexual conduct—as the distinguishing sign or boundary marker of believers that sharply separates them from the world, from “those who do not know God.”
Jeffrey A. D. Weima, Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, 2007, 877.
Get this right and lots of other things in the Bible start to line up nicely. For example, now we understand why Paul says in Gal 3 and Rom 4 that Gentile followers of Jesus are saved by God’s covenant with Abraham to count faith as righteousness. It’s not a new promise: it’s adding Gentiles with faith to a very old promise.
When God warns Solomon that God’s blessings on Israel require that Israel honor Torah and flee idolatry, we now see that this is not a warning to the United States of America or any “Christian nation.” It’s a warning to Israel — which has now been transformed into the church/Kingdom with Jesus enthroned in authority over it. The warning is not to Clinton and Trump and Congress but to followers of Jesus across the world.
The bracketed materials are my own comments and explanation:
(1 Ki. 9:1-9 ESV) As soon as Solomon had finished building the house of the LORD [Temple] and the king’s house [the palace] and all that Solomon desired to build, 2 the LORD appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3 And the LORD said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time [God is omnipresent, but he has a special presence in the Temple, which is now the church]. 4 And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, 5 then I will establish your royal throne over Israel [the church/Kingdom] forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel [Jesus will be King of the Kingdom forever].’
6 “But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, 7 then I will cut off Israel [the church/Kingdom] from the land that I have given them [the new heavens and new earth], and the house that I have consecrated for my name [the church as temple for the Spirit] I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples [the church will be spoken of with shame]. 8 And this house [the church/Kingdom] will become a heap of ruins. Everyone passing by it will be astonished and will hiss, and they will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land and to this house [his own church]?’ 9 Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the LORD their God who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt [saved through faith] and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore the LORD has brought all this disaster on them.'”
This reading, which is not in serious dispute among theologians, changes God’s covenant from American politics to the question whether the church is doing what God has called it to do.
And the emphasis here (and throughout the Prophets) is on whether we — God’s people — “keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them.” Now, if you’ll think back to my several posts regarding God’s circumcision of our hearts by the Spirit, the OT nearly always speaks of the Spirit’s work in the believer in terms of obedience to God’s laws. Hence, we really ought to spend a little more time in the OT, especially the Torah.
So rather than using God’s covenant with Solomon to support or oppose some presidential candidate, we really ought to be looking in the mirror to see whether God’s Kingdom is honoring God’s commands.
And, of course, the Kingdom is separate from “the nations” so much so that Paul can write to a Gentile congregation and speak of the “Gentiles” as not knowing God — because Christians are no longer Jews or Gentiles. They are, as the early church liked to put it, a “third race.”
Another way in which Paul expressed division among people was by the designation of Christians as a third race. So in 1 Cor 1:22–24 he seems to write of three groups: Jews, Greeks, and those who are called from both the Jews and the Greeks, namely, the Christians. The Christians appear as the new, third audience (1 Cor 10:32). In time this incipient concept was developed by others, so that Christians were called a third race (Kerygma Petrou, in Clem. Str. 6.5.39–41; Diogn. 1; Apologia Aristidis 2.1; 16; 17; Tert. Ad Nat. 1.8, Scor. 10; Clem. Strom. 3.10.10).
In sum, Paul was neither unique in posing the problem of the unity of humanity nor naive in the solution he proposed. Constantly in dialogue with a secular and religious world which had tried many proposals for unity, Paul determined that only the universality of Christ’s cross could effect that long-desired goal.
Walter F. Jr. Taylor, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 6, 752.
Therefore, the solution to our racial disunity is Jesus — and the fact that we leave our racial and other ethnic identities behind when we’re converted. We are neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white, slave nor free. We are all Jewish carpenters, hung on a cross, confident in God’s power to resurrect us in the end.
Which means we can find a way to worship in the same building and commune at the same table — if we want it badly enough. Those who argue for continued separation of the races within the church are arguing against the gospel itself and denying that the Spirit is powerful enough to transform us so that this can happen.