Although the moral philosophers discussed in lesson 3 attacked many forms of sexual excess, Gentile society as a whole had little or no sexual restraint in Paul’s day. According to the well-known pagan orator Cicero, “If there is anyone who thinks that youth should be forbidden affairs even with courtesans, he is doubtless eminently austere . . . but his view is contrary not only to the licence of this age but also to the customs and concessions of our ancestors. For when was this not a common practice? When was it blamed? When was it forbidden?”-Quoted in Abraham Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians,The Anchor Bible, vol. 32B (New York: Doubleday, 2000), pp. 235, 236.
In today’s world many find sexual restraint of any kind distasteful. They feel that passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:4, 5 were relevant mainly in some other time and place. But the ancient world was no more sexually restrained than our world is today. Paul’s message would have been no more acceptable in the wider society then than it is now.
Paul’s solution to the problem of sexual excess is that every man should “possess his vessel” (1 Thess. 4:4). The word translated as “possess” normally means “acquire” in the Greek. The meaning of “acquire his vessel” is unclear. If by “vessel” Paul means “woman” (it was a common ancient expression for woman; see 1 Pet. 3:7), he is saying that every man should seek honorable marriage in order to avoid sexual promiscuity.
But most modern translations understand that the word “vessel” refers to the man’s own body. In that case the phrase “possess his vessel” should be interpreted as “control his own body” (NIV).
In either case, Paul clearly confronts the moral laxness of his own age. Christians are not to behave as the “gentiles” do. The norm of the wider society is not to be the norm for us. Sex is holy, set apart for marriage between a man and a woman. As Paul goes on to point out in 1 Thessalonians 4:6, sex can never be a casual matter. When indulged in outside of the norms established by God, it is inevitably destructive. Who hasn’t seen in the lives of others, or in their own lives, just how destructive this gift can be when abused?