First Thessalonians 4:3-8 forms a complete unit of thought. The will of God for each Thessalonian believer is “holiness” or “sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3, 4, 7, ESV). What Paul means by holiness here is explained by two following clauses. Each believer is expected to “avoid sexual immorality” and to “control his own body” (1 Thess. 4:3, 4, NIV). Paul concludes the unit of thought with three motivations to holy living (1 Thess. 4:6-8): (1) God is an avenger in these matters, (2) He has called us to holiness, and (3) He gives us the Spirit to help us. In today’s lesson and the next two, we will be looking at this passage in more detail.
Verse 3 builds on verse 1, where Paul reminded the Thessalonians of how they were to “walk” (NKJV)-“live” in many translations-a Hebrew concept used to describe daily moral and ethical behavior. In verse 3 he uses another Hebrew concept to describe spiritual life and growth, “holiness” or “sanctification.”
A typical definition of holiness is “set apart for sacred use.” But Paul gives the term more specific meaning in this letter. Holiness is the condition the Thessalonians will be in at the return of Jesus (1 Thess. 3:13). But in chapter 4 Paul chooses a form of the concept that emphasizes process rather than outcome. It is a noun of action: “sanctifying” more than “sanctification.” It is the will of God that we be engaged in this process (1 Thess. 4:3).
Paul clearly does not endorse a law-free gospel. There are behavioral requirements for those who are in Christ. In verse 7, the opposite of “holiness” is “uncleanness” (NKJV) or “impurity” (ESV). As Paul goes on to explain in verse 3: “you should avoid sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3, NIV). The word for “sexual immorality” is porneia in the Greek, which would today cover everything from pornography to prostitution, to any sexual activity outside of marriage.
While salvation is by God’s grace through faith, the Christian life is to be a growing life, constantly striving for the perfection that has been promised us in Christ.
The gift of sexuality is powerful evidence of God’s love for us. Yet, this gift has been so abused that, for many, it has become a curse, a cause of great suffering and sorrow. What choices can we make that will help protect us from the potential damage that abuse of this gift can bring?