(1 Thess. 4:7-8 ESV) 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.
“Impurity” refers, of course, back to fornication or sexual immorality. What God wants is “holiness.” Well, what is that?
We tend to think of “holy” in terms of ritual. That is, because the auditorium is holy (or as we say in north Alabama, it’s not holy but it can be made unholy — at which point we imposed restrictions on the assumption that God requires ritualistic holiness), we must sing at 30 beats a minutes, since very slow is very reverent and so very holy. We must not talk to our brothers and sisters since holiness requires silence in God’s presence — not that God has any special presence in the auditorium but we’re supposed to act as though he is. Coats and ties are holy. Jeans are not. Dresses are holy. Pantsuits are not. And on it goes.
But Paul has something entirely different in mind. He’s not urging the church to return to the cultural norms of the early 1950s. Rather,
We have seen that Paul solidly resisted any ‘paganization’ of the message of the one God, while also solidly insisting that the ekklēsiai [congregations] he established and served were not marked out by the symbolic universe of mainline second-Temple Judaism. Indeed, we have come to the striking conclusion that Paul’s worldview had as its central symbol the unity and holiness of the ekklēsia [church] itself, grounded in what he believed to be true about the Messiah and the spirit, and grounded beneath that again in the one God, the creator, who had now acted surprisingly and decisively to fulfil the ancient promises, while also appearing to overthrow the expectations of those who were most eagerly awaiting just that fulfilment.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:563.
That is, “holy” in the NT sense has nothing to do with ritual or ecclesiology (the theology of worship and church organization). Rather, it’s about the nature of God himself.
(Lev. 11:44a ESV) For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.
Of course, the ministry of Jesus and the NT reveal God’s holiness through Jesus. Indeed, with the shift in the nature of the Kingdom, the coming of the Messiah, the resurrection, and so many other things, “holiness” had to be rethought in Kingdom terms.
If the [Christian] world-view was to stand up, shorn of the traditional cultural symbols of Judaism and refusing to take on board the symbolic praxis [practices] of paganism, it needed to put down roots more carefully and explicitly, and those roots needed to be the roots of serious human thinking that would penetrate deep into the soil of the being and character of Israel’s God, the creator. That is the task, fuelled at every point by reflection on Israel’s scriptures, to which Paul constantly summons his hearers.
If the ekklēsia [church] of God in Jesus the Messiah, in its unity and holiness, is to constitute as it were its own worldview, to be its own central symbol, it needs to think: to be ‘transformed by the renewal of the mind’, to think as age-to-come people rather than present-age people, to understand who this God is, who this Messiah Jesus is, who this strange powerful spirit is, and what it means to be, and to live as, the renewed people of God, the renewed humanity. This is a worldview, in other words, which will only function if it is held by humans with transformed minds, and who use those transformed minds constantly to wrestle with the biggest questions of all, those of God and the world.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:567 (emphasis mine).
That is, to be holy as a Christian isn’t obeying a bunch of rules (although there are rules we should obey, of course). Nor is it inventing rules to impose on ourselves (quite the opposite, in fact). It’s understanding who God, Jesus, and the Spirit are so that we can become like them (and so we’ll obey the rules are that real and that matter to God because it’s become our new nature). Paul’s point in mentioning the Holy Spirit was that, because the Spirit is holy, we must be holy. The name matters.
We usually define “holy” in Bible class as “set apart,” but that definition just won’t do for Paul’s purposes. Set apart how? Set part to be what? to do what? Do we adopt eccentric practices just to show our differences?
In the church I grew up in, the preacher loved to quote —
(Tit. 2:14 KJV) 14 Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
His idea was the world should see us as odd, and so when he preached odd sermons asking us to do odd things, well, the very oddness of it all made it holy! But that’s a misunderstanding of how “peculiar” was used in 1611. In Jacobean English, “peculiar” meant, as the Greek means, something belonging to a particular person. We are a peculiar people because we belong to Jesus. And, of course, because we belong to Jesus, were are anxious to do good works — to be like our King and Savior.
So, yes, we’re set apart, but we’re set apart to be like Jesus. And as we’ve covered here many, many times, the NT always speaks of our being like Jesus in terms of service, sacrifice, submission, and even suffering.
And the Spirit’s work is to transform us into people who bear the image of Jesus (look like Jesus) —
(2 Cor. 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit transforms us to be like the Holy One — and this is what Paul has in mind.
I would add that our sexual fidelity remains Paul’s focus. Because we are to be like Jesus, we should emulate his faithfulness. Just as Jesus is faithful to the church, we men must be faithful to our wives.
1 Thess 4:9-10
(1 Thess. 4:9-10 ESV) 9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more,
This sounds very much like —
(1 Jn. 2:7-8, 27 ESV) 7 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. …
10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. …
27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie — just as it has taught you, abide in him.
Of course, neither John’s Gospel nor 1 John had yet been written. And yet Paul is plainly influenced by Jesus’ words recorded in John 13:34-35, indicating either the inspiring work of the Spirit or else that Paul had been taught this by the apostles themselves. Either way, those textual critics who assume that Paul developed his theology separate from the rest of the apostles would struggle to explain this.
Both Paul and John credit the Spirit or God (the “anointing” in 1 John 2:27 is an allusion to the Spirit) with teaching “love one another” directly. Paul and John both say that no human agency is needed for this lesson to be taught. It’s the work of the Spirit to teach love to followers of Jesus.
It’s not obvious what form this love took. Paul says “that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more.” More what?
We tend to think of “love” as a feeling or emotion. So is Paul saying to love more intensely. It seems improbable.
Does he mean that the Thessalonian church should support the gospel meetings of the surrounding churches? That they should pray for them? You see, in contemporary Church of Christ practice, there is precious little joint ministry, worship, or anything else. We’ve turned autonomy into isolation. Other than the occasional lectureship (largely attended by the preacher and not the elders) we do next to nothing together.
V. 10 speaks in terms of what the church did for the benefit of its sister congregations. Therefore, Paul is speaking of an active love that produces some real benefit for the person loved.
Most likely, Paul is reflecting on the way the Thessalonian church lent economic aid to needy believers in other parts of the province. He notes elsewhere that the Macedonian Christians were known for their poverty (2 Cor. 8:1–2); yet despite this, they gave! In fact, the way the author speaks about “doing this” is similar to how he describes giving economic aid for the saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:8, 10–11, 24, in light of the context of 2 Cor. 8–9; cf. 1 John 3:17–18).
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2002), 206.
I think that’s a very likely understanding of Paul’s words. Loving the saints includes acts of charity when needed — and a Jewish rabbi would especially see love in these terms (as would a follower of Jesus) because the Torah (and the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels) teach and re-teach this lesson. The fact that we don’t see this in Paul’s words shows how far removed we are from apostolic teaching.