Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One
“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. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 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. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).
What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.
But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:
What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.
I’m struck by two things in this passage.
One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.
V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”
V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”
V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”
V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)
V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”
V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”
V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”
Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.
We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.
But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.
What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.
Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?
God knows that this is difficult for his people
Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”
In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.
What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.
Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:
- There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
- Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
- They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
- They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
- They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
- They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.
And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!
It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?
It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!
There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.
A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.
Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.
God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.
Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )