Study on 1 Thessalonians 4:3b-6
Paul always seems to follow a similar pattern in his writing, and the more I’ve studied the more, not only the pattern itself, but the rationale behind it, becomes evident. The Holy Spirit has opened my eyes, to this pattern. See, what I’ve come to learn is that Paul knew people. It sounds kind of redundant to say, but Paul knew people well enough to recognize something about us that many of us don’t realize about ourselves, and that’s an important point in this passage especially. Paul writes the phrase, “this is the will of God for your life, your sanctification,” and everything inside of us wishes that he would stop there. It’s this really abstract idea, leaving it open to all sorts of interpretation. It frees us much more to speculate on “what is sanctification?”. See, it’s this idea that we apply all of the moral relativism that we complain about so strongly into our theology, creating this sort of theological relativism, with which we hear “do good” and question what is good, or hear “love your neighbor,” and joining with the lawyer questioning, “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
See, Paul’s pattern throughout his epistles is to teach doctrine, teach tradition, give the commandments of the Lord, and then illustrate what those things each look like in the life of a believer. And that is exactly what he does in this passage. In beautiful, elegant simplicity, he explains, much to the chagrin of the believers and even moreso to ours, what is meant by the statement, “this is God’s will, your sanctification.” He leaves no room for interpretation, neither speculation, but rather directly states what he is implying with the previous statement.
“Abstain from all fornication…” he begins this exhortation with. I love the simplicity of this statement, because rather than attempting to list every form of sexual immorality (as the NKJV translates it), he uses one general, all-encompassing term to sort of umbrella over all forms. The word translated “fornication,” or “sexual immorality,” is the term “porneia,” which literally covers any form of sexual activity which is not limited to a man and a woman sharing their marriage bed. I love that he uses such a broad statement, as then there is no room for any to argue that “he didn’t name this specific activity by name, so he must not have meant that one.” Any form of sexual intimacy between two people other than a husband and wife in their marriage bed is included, thus forbidden for the believers.
He goes on to say “that each of you possess your own vessel in sanctificaiton and honor.” This idea of a vessel speaks to the whole of a human being. In his letter to the Corinthians, he teaches that “we have these treasures in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7) and in his letter to Timothy he admonishes us that “if anyone cleanses himself…he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful to the master, prepared for every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:21). It’s this idea that if we “cleanse ourselves,” keeping ourselves “unstained from the world” (James 1:27), then we will be “useful” to the Master, implying that we are useless to Him if we are not. To “possess” this vessel means to be in control of it, to bring it into submission, which is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit, who promises to guide us and convict us of our sin if we willingly submit to Him. See, too often, we think that nothing is required of us because of the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit; no work, no effort. And yet, in Scripture, that’s not the image we see at all. We see the nation of Israel being brought to the promised land, which is to be given to them as a gift, they need only to go and claim it. We see the apostles beseeching the Church to pray for them to speak the gospel with boldness, but in order for the Spirit to offer them the boldness, they must be willing to speak. The boldness is the gift of the Spirit, the speaking of the gospel is the conscious decision that the disciples make. All throughout, it’s the gift of the Spirit to the believers willing to do the work. And that’s the allusion that Paul is giving us here, it’s this vessel that we dwell in while we are on the earth, this flesh, but we must be willing to put in the effort to take control of it, to bring it into submission and possess it in purity, in chastity, in self-control. There are two powers at work in the world, there is God and there is Satan, and when we are the children of God, when we are “walking in the Spirit,” then when are under God’s control. But, when we are walking in the flesh, then we are under Satan’s control. We become children of sin when we allow our body to rule over us. I find, in my life, that the more time I spend in fasting and prayer, the easier it is to forsake the sins which once had total dominion over my life. However, during those periods of gluttony and avarice, I find it so much easier to fall back into those sins, because I have alllowed my body to take control and bring me into submission instead of the other way around.
“Not in the passions of the lusts” Paul writes. He admonishes us to turn away from these “passions of the lusts, which the Gentiles seek after.” Consider that for a moment. See, it’s so easy to read that and think that he is referring exclusively to sexual lust, but contemplate all of the things that the world lusts after. Luxury, gluttony, acceptance, idleness; all of these things are objects which can easily lead us into sin. James teaches us that the cause of the warring amongst ourselves is that we want, and do not have. We covet something that someone else has because we are prideful and consider it “unfair” that they have that which we want, thus we become angry that we do not have it. (James 4:1-2). Better, says Paul, to remove yourself completely from those desires than to constantly war against the temptation to pride, to avarice, to murder. And, how do we do that? We bring our bodies into submission. We bring our very flesh into submission through denying it the very pleasures that it tells us that we must have. Rather than seeking to remove the “thorn in our side,” we accept that it will be there and focus on the Lord, acknowledging that He allowed us to have it to keep us humble before Him.
He concludes this exhortation by stating that we should never take advantage of, or defraud one another in such a way, for the Lord Himself is the avenger of such people. Jesus tells us that to grow angry with someone, to hate them, is to commit murder in our hearts. Jesus tells us that to gaze upon a person with lust is to commit adultery with them in our hearts. He alone knows the intention of our hearts, and will judge us based on that, not necessarily our physical actions. Thus, when we covet something that belongs to someone; whether it be riches, husband/wife, relationships, etc, then we have become a thief in our heart. When I see someone’s car and covet it, wishing that I had it rather than them, then I have stolen it from them in my heart, and thus am guilty of the sin of theft. And Paul tells us that the victims of our crimes have the Lord Himself as their avenger. Consider again for a moment that this letter is being written to the church whose faith, whose belief, whose perseverance is spoken of and praised throughout the land, and yet, he still offers them the warning of judgment should they cease from their sanctification. This is huge considering the current feeling in our culture that we can do whatever we want and the Lord will never punish nor judge anyone. Peter tells us that not only is He willing to judge, but that He is “ready to judge both the living and the dead.” (1 Peter 4:5) and that “judgment begins with the house of God.” (1 Peter 4:17).
We must be very careful about the influence of our generation on our faith. Terms like “self-denial” are immediately shunned. Take something like fasting. Fasting is an expectation throughout all of Scripture. Jesus, when speaking to the disciples, says “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16). Notice, He doesn’t say “if you fast…” or “should you fast…” but rather WHEN you fast. He teaches us to “deny yourself.” Now, I want you to understand, none of these things are given to detract from grace. Many Eastern religions fast without being in the faith, and the act itself will never allow entrance into heaven. But, Scripture offers it as a tool to aid in our sanctification, to help bring the flesh into submission, to help us to grow in holiness.
When we consider our holiness, our sanctification, we must remember what it truly is, and perhaps that will help us to keep things in perspective. It is our daily putting to death the “old man.” It is a daily struggle to fight against the flesh, to fight against who we were before we were in Christ. It’s never going to be easy, everything within us and without us will be fighting against it, because it’s walking away from the infulences of the world over our lives. And the world, our own hearts, and Satan himself will use whatever means and whatever tricks they can to convince us that it is not necessary, that it is “wrong.” And there will be pain and suffering associated with it. Peter tells us that “whoever suffers in the flesh has ceased from sin.” (1 Peter 4:1). Much as a child submitting to his parents, oftentimes we will have to stand up and fight against our own flesh to grow in the Spirit. As the Baptist said, “I must decrease, the He may increase.”
We must always be mindful not to seek the things of the world. It’s been so oft repeated that we often forget the meaning behind it, or the struggle that doing such will truly be. We must be mindful not to seek the things of the world, with the goals fo the world, using the ways of the world. We are but sojourners here, visitors, temporary guests, but it becomes so easy for us to seek to make this our home. And even more, the world will try to do the same thing. It will offer us endles temporary pleasures, but ultimately, at what cost? That’s why the Lord admonishes us not to lay up treasures for ourselves here, because wherever we lay our treasure is where our heart will be. And if Christ is our treasure, then our heart will be with Him. But, if we allow our treasure to be things of gold or silver, cars, houses, bank accounts, then our heart will remain here and our goal will be to seek those things, not “the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
Most importantly, there is a war that we wage everyday, a war that the apostle Paul wrote of. He writes of this “law of sin within his members warring against his will to obey God.” We must choose a side, for “that which is born of flesh is of the flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is of the Spirit.” (John 3:6) and “as many as are led by the Spirit, these are the sons of God.” (Romans 8:14). We must choose for ourselves this day, will we walk in the flesh, or in the Spirit. If the Spirit, then we must constantly wage war on the flesh, to bring it into submission. Disciplines like fasting were given to us for that very purpose, to bring the desires of the flesh into submission that we might “keep our minds on things that are above, not on the things of the earth.” (Colossians 3:2).
Our sanctification, our personal holiness, will never be easy. If it were, then it couldn’t be true holiness, for holiness is accomplished only through our reliance on the Lord, and if we were able to acquire it in our own strength, then it would not be holiness. It is not the means through which we are allowed entrance into the kingdom, but rather the fruit of the faith that shall. To walk in faith, to walk in the Spirit, means putting to death the things of the flesh, and that can only be done through constant reliance on the Spirit. No, our holiness will not be easy, but according to the Holy Scripture it is necessary to achieve the kingdom, and according to the apostle Paul, it is God’s will for our life. It will require a lifetime of spiritual discipline and studying the ways of God, a lifetime of submission to the Holy Traditions passed down through the generations, a lifetime of being true disciples.
May the grace of the Lord be with you all, my beloved family.