The Expository Files.

What Paul Taught the Thessalonians About Sex

1 Thessalonians 4:3,4

The moral picture of the Roman Empire during the first century was indeed sordid. The cities of the empire were pockets of wild corruption. From the upper classes to the lowest slaves debauchery ruled. It has been said that there has probably never been a period when vice was more extravagant or uncontrolled than it was under the Caesars. Into this twisted context came the Gospel-calling upon men to rein in and control their sexual energies.

"For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour." (1 Thess. 4.3-4).

Note the three stages of expectation that Paul develops:

He begins by laying down the general, positive statement that God wills for us to live sexually sanctified-holy-lives. Anyone, therefore, who contends that God sanctions unholy living is at direct odds with Paul.

Next comes a specific, negative injunction that we abstain from every kind of immorality. "Abstain" is a strong word in the Greek. It means more than simple avoidance. As Phillips renders it, abstinence entails "a clean cut with sexual immorality." We must totally abstain from every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse, whether fornication, adultery, homosexuality, polygamy, or bestiality. Concerning things that are totally evil - such as sexual immorality - there can be no moderation, only total abstention.

Finally, Paul provides two fundamental, practical principles to guide our sexual behavior. First, sex has a God-given context: viz., monogamous, till death-do-us-part, heterosexual marriage (this is how I understand the phrase, "that every one of you should know how to posses his vessel," i.e., his wife; cf. 1 Pet. 3.7, "weaker vessel"). There is, I think, an unmistakable similarity between 1 Thessalonians 4.3 and 1 Corinthians 7.2, "To avoid fornication [and promote sanctification] let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband." Marriage, from one standpoint, is a Divinely-designed means of avoiding terrible sin. Second, sex has a God-given character: holiness and honor ("possess his vessel in sanctification and honour"). Even within the sphere of marriage God expects restraint rather than an "anything goes" mentality to inhere. Things condemned in God's word-e.g., selfishness (1 Cor. 7.3ff), sodomy, pornography, etc.-are as unlawful within marriage as without. Selfish lust and dishonorable sexual practices which use a partner will eventually destroy any relationship. Within marriage, true love-making that honors, cherishes and respects the other is the rule to which there is no exception.

Paul only spent three weeks in the city of Thessalonica before persecution forced him to leave under cover of darkness (Acts 17.1-10). During this time the church was comprised entirely of babes in Christ. But during the brief time He was with them, as 1 Thessalonians 4.2-3 shows, Paul thought it important to teach these new converts how the Gospel governed their sexual behavior. If Paul thought this subject important enough to include in his earliest instruction to the Thessalonians, it must indeed be an important subject.

Christian parents, elders, teachers and preachers, therefore, must not be afraid to expound Biblical standards of morality. In this age of godless relativism and worldliness, people need plain, practical, ethical teaching. Right from the beginning let's teach our children and new converts that God calls us to purity, not promiscuity. They, and we, must learn that God sees the intimacies of the bedroom. Christian husbands and wives, therefore, must honor God and each other, here as elsewhere.

 By Kenny Chumbley
From Expository Files 1.4; April, 1994