5. Sanctification, Sex, and Love (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12)Related Media
1 Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God (as you are in fact living) that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality, 4 that each of you know how to possess his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God. 6 In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly. 7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 8 Consequently the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 10 And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you. 12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12).2
As I was preparing to preach this message to a general audience which included children, I sensed a certain apprehension about what might be said. Should children be present to hear this message? Would this message contain “adult material” that would be inappropriate for children? And so in the introduction to this sermon, I encouraged the audience to relax, calling attention to the skillful manner in which Paul dealt with this very delicate subject. Paul chose to address this very sensitive subject in terms of principles, rather than in terms of nitty-gritty particulars. I will seek to do the same, so you can relax as we proceed with this lesson.
Let’s suppose that Paul had been privileged to lead a young man to faith in the Lord Jesus. This fellow is growing in his faith, but since he grew up as an idol-worshipper in Thessalonica, he is learning that faith in the Lord Jesus impacts every aspect of his life. He is drawn to a lovely young woman in the church who has also turned to God from idols. Now, as they approach marriage, they are wondering how their faith impacts their Christian walk, their home, and their sexual relationship. Perhaps the young woman was a religious prostitute (which was not uncommon in those days), and this young man may have encountered her initially in this context. Now that they are both Christians, how should their relationship change? What does Christian faith have to do with love, sex, and marriage? They know that sex is a gift from God and that He has designed them to enjoy its pleasures in the context of their marriage. But how does faith in Jesus change the rules, so to speak? What does sanctification have to do with sex? These are the issues that Paul is addressing in our text. Since Paul has chosen to address these issues first, we should assume that this was a very important matter for these Thessalonian saints.
Why Sex is the Centerpiece of 1 Thessalonians
John R. W. Stott explains why sex is a subject that Paul cannot avoid:
It is not surprising that the apostle begins with sex, not only because it is the most imperious of all our human urges, but also because of the sexual laxity – even promiscuity – of the Graeco-Roman world. Besides, he was writing from Corinth to Thessalonica, and both cities were famed for their immorality. In Corinth Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sex and beauty, whom the Romans identified with Venus, sent her servants out as prostitutes to roam the streets by night. Thessalonica, on the other hand, was particularly associated with the worship of deities called the Cabiri, in whose rites ‘gross immorality was promoted under the name of religion’. It may be doubted, however, whether Corinth and Thessalonica were any worse than other cities of that period in which it was widely accepted that men either could not or would not limit themselves to their wife as their only sexual partner.3
In his excellent commentary of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Stott goes on to cite William Lecky’s assessment of sexual morality in the Graeco-Roman world:
In his History of European Morals William Lecky paints a lurid picture of sexual license during the early period of the Roman Empire. The cities of Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt, he writes, ‘had become centres of the wildest corruption’, and innumerable slaves from these countries had spread their immorality to Rome. Indeed, ‘there has probably never been a period when vice was more extravagant or uncontrolled’ than it was under the Caesars.4
The church was not exempt from the temptations of sexual immorality. Churches in cities like Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira (not to exclude others) were warned and rebuked regarding immorality being practiced by their members. The church at Corinth was proud of its tolerance of a man who was living with his father’s wife, something which even shocked the unbelieving Corinthians.5
The roots of sexual immorality reach back far beyond New Testament times, all the way to the beginning of creation. When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the garden, we are told that they were both naked, but they were not ashamed.6 We know that not only man, but all of creation, was negatively impacted by the fall of man in the garden.7 How this impacted the sexual relationship of Adam and Eve (and of all their offspring) is not clearly indicated, but it is safe to say that sex would never be the same.8 And so it is that from that moment on, sexual immorality became a dominant theme in the history of Israel and of mankind. In the Book of Genesis, we will soon read of the daughters of men cohabiting with the “sons of God,”9 of Noah’s nakedness,10 of Lot’s daughters having sex with their father to produce children,11 and of Judah having sex with his daughter-in-law, thinking she was a Canaanite cult prostitute.12 Then there is the sexual perversion of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (and again in Judges 19). The rest of the Old Testament testifies to the devastating consequences of sexual sin. We know such sin contributed to the downfall of men like David13 and Solomon,14 as well as nations like Israel.15
Sexual immorality remains as a pressing concern for believers in Jesus Christ today. The “sexual revolution” has greatly impacted our culture, including Christian homes and the church. Where are the lines to be drawn in a culture that is so permissive and obsessed with sex? How should faith in Jesus govern our relationships with our spouse, with our fellow-believers, and with others? Where are the lines to be drawn? Is anything that goes on between a Christian husband and wife behind closed doors permitted in Scripture? Suppose that a husband and wife come to faith in Jesus after being married for some time as unbelievers. Should this Christian husband and wife assume that so long as they enjoy sex within marriage, their sexual relationship should continue just as it was before they were saved? Are there new lines to be drawn, and new guiding principles to be discerned and put into practice? In short, what does salvation and sanctification have to do with sex?
Before we get to our text in 1 Thessalonians 4, allow me to point you to a couple of other important New Testament texts which underscore the importance of our text in 1 Thessalonians:
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send men chosen from among them, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leaders among the brothers, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. 23 They sent this letter with them: “From the apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, greetings! 24 Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused you, upsetting your minds by what they said, 25 we have unanimously decided to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas who will tell you these things themselves in person. 28 For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: 29 that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:22-29, emphasis mine).
While the Jerusalem Council liberated Gentile saints from being “under the law,” among the few restrictions placed on them was the command to avoid sexual immorality. In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul made it clear that coming to faith in Jesus Christ meant a radical change in one’s thinking and lifestyle. One aspect of this (among many others) is sexual purity:
17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him, just as the truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.
1 Therefore, be imitators of God as dearly loved children 2 and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God. 3 But among you there must not be either sexual immorality, impurity of any kind, or greed, as these are not fitting for the saints. 4 Neither should there be vulgar speech, foolish talk, or coarse jesting – all of which are out of character – but rather thanksgiving. 5 For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Ephesians 4:17-24; 5:1-5, emphasis mine)
Nothing could be clearer than this: Faith in Christ is intended to bring about a complete “make-over” in one’s thinking and behavior. This “make-over” is the process known as sanctification. A vital part of our sanctification involves a transformation in our thinking and behavior in matters of sex. Faith in Jesus Christ should greatly impact a couple’s sexual relationship within marriage, just as it impacts our relationships with those outside of marriage. This is why Paul makes sanctification and sexuality a central element in his first epistle to the Thessalonians.
The Major Elements of Our Text
There are three main elements dealt with in our text:
1. Sanctification (verses 1-2)
2. Sanctification and Sexual Purity (verses 3-8)
3. Brotherly Love and Work (verses 9-12)
As we shall see, these three subjects are very much inter-related. Let us press on to the first topic, that of sanctification.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-2
1 Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God (as you are in fact living) that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2).
I know all too well that there are preachers who say, “And in conclusion …” or “Finally …” when the end is still a long way off. (I may be guilty of preaching too long, but at least I try to be honest about how far off my conclusion is.) As Stott has observed,16 “Finally” here in verse 1 does not mean that Paul is about to close. It is more like Paul has finished laying the foundation for his words of exhortation, and now he is finally getting to them.
Paul is just now getting to exhortation related to sanctification in this epistle, but this is not the first time he has dealt with the need and nature of holiness in our daily lives. In verses 6 and 11 of 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul indicates that what he is saying is not new, but something which he has taught them before. Since Paul addressed this issue while he was still with them (and before he realized that he would be forced to leave the city), then he must have regarded it as a very important matter.
I think it is safe to say that sanctification is not only a familiar topic for the Thessalonians, but it is a dominant (if not predominant) topic in this epistle. Sanctification is not a peripheral, non-essential matter. Paul says here that sanctification is the purpose for which we were saved (verse 7). The importance of sanctification is also evident by other things Paul has indicated in this passage. He has said that God is the avenger in cases where His commands here are disregarded (verses 6, 8). He also reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit was given to us to bring about our sanctification (verse 8).
Let it be very clearly understood that our sanctification is the will of God, and that sexual purity is an important aspect of sanctification:
For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Over the years, I have been asked many times about the will of God. All too often Christians agonize about whether some specific action or decision is God’s will for them without realizing that God’s will has been made known to them in more general terms. In our text, for example, a Christian is told in the clearest of terms that sexual immorality is not the will of God, no matter who the other person(s) might be, or what some of the particulars might be. Elsewhere we are told that a Christian woman is free to remarry if her husband has died (see also Romans 7:1-3), with only the condition that he must be in the Lord – saved (1 Corinthians 7:39). If an unbeliever asks her to marry him, she does not need further guidance regarding God’s will than what she has. It is not God’s will for her to marry outside the faith.
There are some who have chosen to follow an unbiblical notion regarding the will of God. They think that God’s will is for them to be happy. Thus, if something makes them happy which God’s Word has specifically forbidden (like sexual immorality), then they are tempted to set aside obedience to God’s clear teaching for what they think makes them happy.
The goal of sanctification is not man’s happiness, but man’s holiness, to the glory of God. To be holy is to be set apart, unique, not common. So, when there is a question of God’s will, one can usually discern His will by asking whether the matter in question sets us apart from this world and apart to God. Does it draw us nearer to God and away from sin? Does it bring glory to God? In short, knowing what God is like, will it please God? Most of our questions regarding God’s will can be answered by acting in accordance with general truths like these:
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith you have, keep to yourself before God. Blessed is the one who does not judge himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:21-23).
It should not be difficult to recognize that in our text, Paul speaks with authority regarding sanctification, and thus we should take his words very seriously. While Paul begins his teaching on sanctification with words that sound like a request, that isn’t the way Paul leaves it. Later in verse 1, Paul refers to his previous instruction, which dealt with how they must live and please God. In verse 2, Paul refers to this instruction as the giving of “commands.”17 It doesn’t stop here. Paul goes on to indicate that anyone who disobeys these commands is disregarding God,18 who is the avenger in such matters.19 Sanctification and sexual purity are not optional matters. Paul is not making a suggestion here, nor is he offering helpful hints to be implemented or set aside as one chooses.
Paul also makes it clear that sanctification is not something static, something that we achieve at a point in time and then merely maintain. Sanctification is progressive and ongoing. It is a process that is never completed in this life, but one in which we are to continue to grow, no matter how much we have already achieved. Twice in our text, Paul uses the expression “more and more.”
1 Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God (as you are in fact living) that you do so more and more… . 10 And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 10, emphasis mine).
We should note that Paul deals with the topic of sanctification in the context of pleasure – not the self-seeking, fleshly pleasure of immoral sexual indulgence, but rather living our lives in such a way as to please God:
Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God (as you are in fact living) that you do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:1, emphasis mine).
While it is not Paul’s emphasis here, I believe it is theologically accurate to say that our ultimate pleasure should be pleasing God (first) and then pleasing others, rather than pleasing ourselves.20
Sanctification and Sexual Purity
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8
3 For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality21, 4 that each of you know how to possess his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God. 6 In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly. 7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 8 Consequently the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
Before we look at what Paul says about sanctification and sex in this text, let’s set the stage by noting the teaching of several biblical texts on sex.
The man and his wife were both naked, but they were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25).
18 May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in your young wife –
19 a loving doe, a graceful deer;
may her breasts satisfy you at all times,
may you be captivated by her love always.
20 But why should you be captivated, my son, by an adulteress,
and embrace the bosom of a different woman?
21 For the ways of a person are in front of the Lord’s eyes,
and the Lord weighs all that person’s paths (Proverbs 5:18-21).
3 A husband should give to his wife her sexual rights, and likewise a wife to her husband. 4 It is not the wife who has the rights to her own body, but the husband. In the same way, it is not the husband who has the rights to his own body, but the wife. 5 Do not deprive each other, except by mutual agreement for a specified time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then resume your relationship, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
Marriage must be honored among all and the marriage bed kept undefiled, for God will judge sexually immoral people and adulterers (Hebrews 13:4).
These texts indicate that sex is a divinely given gift, to be enjoyed (and not withheld) within the context of marriage. If I wanted to be more explicit in demonstrating the beauty and wonder of sex, I would turn to the pages of the Song of Solomon, but that is probably not necessary. It is probably worth noting that sex within marriage is for pleasure, and not just a necessity for the bearing of children. Suffice it to say that sex is not evil, though sin has corrupted this beautiful gift in a number of ways.
With this in mind, let’s summarize what Paul tells us in these verses regarding sanctification and sex.
Sanctification involves every area of our lives, including sex. Just as total depravity impacts every dimension of our life, so sanctification must not exclude any part of our life from the transformation that begins at conversion through faith in Jesus.22 Sexual immorality was rampant in New Testament times, as it has always been, and continues to be. Quite often sexual immorality was actually a part of heathen religious worship. No wonder Paul found it necessary to deal with sex as one aspect of sanctification.
For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Sanctification involves everything we do, including those things that we do in private, behind closed doors. The principle of privacy is at the heart of some of the worst legal decisions our government has ever made. This matter of privacy is also the basis for many bad decisions made by individuals. The landmark Supreme Court Decision reached in Roe v. Wade determined that abortion was permissible because it was a private matter (“an issue between a woman and her body,” or so they claimed). The same basis has also been used to defend homosexuality, pornography, drug or alcohol abuse, and a host of other evils.
I was reminded of the story of Elijah, the king of Israel, and the king of Syria:
8 Now the king of Syria was at war with Israel. He consulted his advisers, who said, “Invade at such and such a place.” 9 But the prophet sent this message to the king of Israel, “Make sure you don’t pass through this place because Syria is invading there.” 10 So the king of Israel sent a message to the place the prophet had pointed out, warning it to be on its guard. This happened on several occasions. 11 This made the king of Syria upset. So he summoned his advisers and said to them, “One of us must be helping the king of Israel.” 12 One of his advisers said, “No, my master, O king. The prophet Elisha who lives in Israel keeps telling the king of Israel the things you say in your bedroom” (2 Kings 6:8-12, emphasis mine).
I realize that the context has nothing to do with sexual immorality practiced in private, but the thing that caught my attention here is that God knows exactly what we do in private. Nothing is kept from His eyes.23 What goes on behind closed doors should be glorifying to God.
Sanctification requires that the Christian’s thinking, attitudes, and actions related to sex must differ radically with those of the unbelieving world.
3 For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality, 4 that each of you know how to possess his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, emphasis mine).
Sanctification means that our sexual activities are to be Spirit directed and empowered, just like every other dimension of our lives as Christians.
Consequently the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (1 Thessalonians 4:8).
Just how does the Holy Spirit govern and empower the Christian in matters of sex? The Holy Spirit would convict of sin in regard to one’s thoughts and actions. Likewise, the Holy Spirit would enlighten the minds of Christians as to what the Bible teaches about sex. A comparison of the fruits of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 shows why the Holy Spirit is necessary for sanctified sex:
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:19-24).
Sanctified sex is about control, but it is not control over the other person; it is self-control.
3 For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality, 4 that each of you know how to possess his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God. 6 In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother [or sister] or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6, emphasis mine).
Pagan immorality involves the casting aside of self-control. We can see this in the chaotic “worship” of the golden calf by the Israelites,24 in the seduction of the Israelites by Moabite women in Numbers 25, as well as in Israel’s conduct in the wilderness (summarized in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). I believe we see the same thing in the moral abomination described in Genesis 19 and Judges 19. It is my personal opinion that the moral abandonment and debauchery of heathen idol worship ceremonies greatly impacted the worship of the church at Corinth, and perhaps elsewhere.25
Scholars differ as to how one should best translate verse 4. A number of translations (NASB, NET Bible, CSB, NKJV) render verse 4 in such a way as to speak of “possessing” one’s wife, the wife being the husband’s “vessel.” Some even understand this verse to refer to the acquiring of a wife. My inclination is to understand the Greek term ktaomai to mean “control.” Thus, Paul encourages every saint to control their own body as it pertains to sex (and other matters).26 This is consistent with what Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, emphasis mine).
Paul will go on in the next verses (1 Corinthians 10:1-10) to show how Israel’s self-indulgence (which included immorality) led to her downfall. The Christian is not to be dominated by the desires of the flesh, but to subject (or mortify/put to death) the flesh through the power of the Holy Spirit.27 It is the false teachers who indulge the flesh,28 and who are dominated by it. In turn, they seek to gain a following by appealing to the fleshly lusts of others.
Sanctified sex observes and honors “boundaries.”
In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly (1 Thessalonians 4:6).
I find this translation of “brother” puzzling. A number of the modern translations seek to force what readers have understood as a matter of common sense, namely that “brother” often – though not always – speaks generically, referring to males and females. Thus, the NET Bible renders the term “brother” (singular) “brother or sister” twice in Romans 14:10 and once in 1 Corinthians 8:13. In James 4:11, the same term is twice rendered “fellow believer.” Other translations do much the same thing.
The plural form of this term (adelphoi) is rendered “brothers and sisters” 10 times in Romans and 20 times in 1 Corinthians. So, too, we find “brothers and sisters” 15 times in 1 Thessalonians.29 Interestingly, the same term is consistently rendered “fellow Christian” (11 times) in 1 John. The point I am trying to make is this: why would the translators broaden the term “brother” to include both males and females so often elsewhere, and yet not do so in 1 Thessalonians 4:6? Most translations render it in a masculine-focused manner, except for the New Revised Standard Version:
that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you (1 Thessalonians 4:6, NRS; emphasis mine).
Gentile “lustful passion” seeks self-gratification as the primary goal, and thus the other party is “used.” One should easily see how this could be abusive. I do not believe that “lustful passion” should be limited to adultery, as some translations would seem to imply, and then speak of the husband of the woman involved in the liaison as the abused. Doesn’t this work both ways, and for both sexes? I think we need to look at sexual immorality as an offense against others, or an exploiting of others.
Let’s play this out for a moment. How might a Christian husband (for example) take advantage of his wife?30 Several ways come to mind. First, a husband can take advantage of his wife by using his authority wrongly in sexual matters. As I understand 1 Corinthians 7:4, neither the husband nor the wife is to withhold sex from their spouse. Neither the husband nor the wife has authority over their own body, but each has an equal right (so to speak) to enjoy sex. The bedroom, then, is not the place for the husband to exercise his authority in sexual matters, for there is to be mutual agreement and satisfaction.
A second – and closely related – way that a husband could abuse his authority is by overruling his wife’s personal convictions. First Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15 both deal with personal convictions and liberties. Paul is very clear in stating that one Christian should not seek to force their convictions on another, or to cause a “weaker brother” to violate their convictions by influencing them to do what they believe to be wrong. Personal convictions apply to the area of sexual intimacy, as they do to other matters. The husband’s authority as the husband should not be used to compel his wife to do that which she views as outside the boundaries of her conscience.
Third, the husband can abuse his physical strength to take advantage of his wife. I believe that Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3 apply to a husband’s sexual relationship with his wife:
Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
This text indicates that in one or more ways the husband is “stronger” than his wife, who is referred to as the “weaker vessel” (note the word “vessel” here). Rather than abusing his “strength,” the husband should honor his wife as the weaker vessel. Surely this would apply to the sexual relationship, as well as to other areas.
Verses 4-6 thus address two sides of the coin. Sanctified sex can only occur within the confines of marriage (Hebrews 13:4). Sanctified sex is not giving in to one’s bodily impulses and desires, but controls them through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctified sex not only involves having control over one’s body, or body parts (vessel), it also avoids taking advantage of others. In my opinion, this would begin with one’s spouse and would extend to any others who might be harmed by our sexual self-indulgence.
Brotherly Love and Work
1 Thessalonians 4:9-12
9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 10 And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you. 12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12).
There is a mystery here that I have not figured out as yet. In verses 3-8, Paul has spoken of sanctification as it pertains to sex. It is interesting to me that “love” is not mentioned once in this whole conversation. And now that we come to sanctification as it relates to work, we find the word “love” – brotherly love, granted (philadelphia), but love none the less. When I think through the New Testament texts pertaining to marriage, the term “love” is seldom found. I am not denying the relationship between love and sex; what I am suggesting is that our culture has made these two terms almost synonymous, so that having sex is described as “making love.” It would appear to me that while love is closely related to sex, it is also not limited to it. I think that many women might agree with me here (including my wife), that they desire for their husbands to show them “love” in many other ways than just in the bedroom. Enough on this aside.
The Thessalonians have been doing well in the area of love, just as they have in “faith” and “hope” (see 1:2-3). Paul had obviously taught them about these things when he was with them, so this is not a new subject for them. Having said this, Paul is not content with the status quo, and thus he urges these saints to press on in their love for one another, doing so “more and more.”
While love was not mentioned in verses 3-8, it is the dominant motive in Paul’s exhortation in verses 9-12. Their brotherly love is to manifest itself as they “lead a quiet life, attend to your own business, and work with your hands.” Once again Paul is dealing with matters which require self-discipline. When this same subject is taken up in greater detail in 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul will refer to self-discipline three times:
6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother31 who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us. 7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying. Instead, in toil and drudgery we worked night and day in order not to burden any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this command: “If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” 11 For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others. 12 Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat. 13 But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right. 14 But if anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, emphasis mine).
This text in 2 Thessalonians 3 is supplemented by a couple of other texts written by the Apostle Paul:
11 But do not accept younger widows on the list, because their passions may lead them away from Christ and they will desire to marry, 12 and so incur judgment for breaking their former pledge. 13 And besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not. 14 So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us. 15 For some have already wandered away to follow Satan (1 Timothy 5:11-15).
3 Older women likewise are to exhibit behavior fitting for those who are holy, not slandering, not slaves to excessive drinking, but teaching what is good. 4 In this way they will train the younger women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, fulfilling their duties at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the message of God may not be discredited (Titus 2:3-5).
In these supplemental texts from 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 2, we can see that women (who did not work outside the home in the same way women do today) are particularly vulnerable to wasting time by going from house to house. This seems to keep them from their duties at home, and it tempts them to become gossips and busybodies. Now we can see why Paul encourages younger widows to remarry, and why he does not want too many women “put on the support rolls of the church.” Idleness may tempt them to become busybodies. That is also why Paul instructs godly older women to instruct younger women to be (literally) “workers at home” (Titus 2:5).
When we come to Paul’s instruction in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, he is not speaking only to women; indeed, one gets the impression that he was speaking to men, perhaps even more than to women. Paul tells the Thessalonians that their desire should be to “lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands” (verse 11). The outcome of doing this will be maintaining a good witness among unbelievers and not being in need (verse 12).
What does it mean to “lead a quiet life”? Ironically (and likely not accidentally) Paul uses a term which can mean “to cease working.” Such is the case in Luke 23:56 when the women rested, ceasing their labors (in preparing Jesus’ body for burial) on the Sabbath. But this same term is also used of becoming silent:
When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18, emphasis mine).
Because he could not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:14, emphasis mine; see also 1 Peter 3:4).
Since Paul is telling some saints not to shirk, but to go to work, a “quiet life” here cannot mean the cessation of labor. I believe it refers to the cessation of excessive chatter and of gossip which results from idleness. When one is completely engaged in earning an income, there is little time for idle chatter. Those who are working hard to supply their own needs don’t have as much time to waste as those who avoid hard work and depend upon the labors and benevolence of their Christian brothers and sisters.
We can now understand why Paul would make it a point earlier in this epistle to call attention to his hard labor, day and night, so that he would not be a burden on these saints:
For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God (1 Thessalonians 2:9).
It is a lot easier for Paul to exhort others to go to work and support themselves when he had already demonstrated this in his own life. Brotherly love is not demonstrated by loafing and sponging off of others; it is demonstrated by working hard and by avoiding idle talk.
Let me be very clear about what our text is not saying. These are difficult times, economically and otherwise. There are a number of men who are either unemployed or under-employed. I don’t know of any in our church who need to be urged to stop their idle talk and go to work. The church joyfully helps those in need financially, and no one should feel guilty for accepting this help. Paul is not admonishing those who can’t find work; he is correcting those who could work, but who have chosen not to.
This happens to be the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and so I am sure that some will expect me to say something relevant to the occasion. The Fourth of July is an important date because this is the time when we celebrate our freedom from oppression. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are about a different kind of freedom. First and foremost, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that men can be freed from the power and the penalty of sin. This does not happen by our striving, but by our believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He came to this earth, adding sinless humanity to His undiminished deity. He died on the cross of Calvary, bearing the penalty for sin that we deserve. He rose from the dead so that all who trust in Him would be empowered to live a new life. If you have never trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, I would urge you to embrace the freedom that only Jesus can give.
I do not doubt that there are many who are hearing or reading these words who are slaves to sexual sin. There is hardly any addiction or slavery stronger than sexual sin. Because Paul instructs these Thessalonians to embrace a whole new way of thinking and acting in regard to sex, we are assured that there is hope for those in bondage to sexual sin. How wonderful it is to hear our Lord Jesus say to the woman who had several men in her life, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). And what encouragement we receive from these words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Perhaps you have had the misconception that it is the non-Christians of this world who have all the fun and enjoy all the pleasures of this life, while Christians are denied such pleasures and must endure life with gritted teeth. This is far from the truth! I would contend that it is Christians who can truly enjoy life and the good things God has provided. Far from missing out on the pleasures of sex, it is sanctified sex that is most satisfying. One does not forsake true pleasure by trusting in Jesus; one enters into true pleasure through faith in the Savior:
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11, ESV).
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Once accepted, salvation is a finished work so far as the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life in the presence of God is concerned. But our text informs us that salvation is also the commencement of the life-long process of sanctification, the process brought about through the power of God’s Spirit by which sinners are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. The Christian never “arrives” in this life, and God requires us to grow more and more in faith, love, and hope. If you are coasting in your spiritual life, our text should be a wake-up call, prompting you to pursue godliness as that which God purposed when He called you to salvation.
Our text should underscore the fact that sanctification deals with every aspect of our lives. Just as depravity has defiled and corrupted every part of our being, sanctification is the process by which we are restored and conformed to Christ’s likeness. One very significant area of our lives where sanctification must take place is in our sexuality. I seriously doubt that many of us have seriously contemplated the ways that sanctification impacts our sex life. Likewise, I doubt that many of us have given much thought to how the Holy Spirit should guide us and empower us to enjoy sex in a way that is to God’s glory and our good. I challenge you to give this matter much further thought and prayer.
While my emphasis in this message has been mainly focused toward those who are married, I need to remind those who are single that the same standards and principles apply to you. In a society that has experienced the sexual revolution, you may think you are missing out on a great deal by limiting your sexual pleasure to marriage, but I assure you that you will never regret it. Not only will you please God by waiting until marriage, you will also experience the pleasure of pleasing God.
I would like to end this message by asking you a couple of questions regarding sanctification.
First, if Paul were writing to you about God’s work of sanctifying you, what area of your life first comes to your mind that needs attention? Where are the weak points in your life which have not undergone much sanctifying?
Second, I ask this simple question of you: What are you going to do about it?
1 Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 5 in the series Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on July 4, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), p. 81. If I were to recommend any commentary to purchase on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Stott’s excellent work would be first on my list.
4 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians, p. 81, citing William Lecky, History of European Morals, from Augustus to Charlemagne; 2 volumes in one (Longmans, 1911), vol. 1, p. 263.
5 1 Corinthians 5.
6 Genesis 2:25.
7 See, for example, Romans 5:12-21; 8:18-25.
8 It is interesting to me that in heaven, things will be restored to their pre-fall state, or even better, as we see in Revelation 21 and 22 (especially 21:1-4, 22-27; 22:1-5). But the one thing which is apparently not “fixed” is sex, for Jesus seems to say that men and women will not live as husband and wife in heaven (see Matthew 22:23-33, especially verses 29-30).
9 See Genesis 6:1-4.
10 See Genesis 9:20-27.
11 See Genesis 19:30-38.
12 See Genesis 38:12-30.
13 See 2 Samuel 11-12.
14 See 1 Kings 11.
15 See Exodus 32; Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.
16 Stott, p. 75.
17 As we see in 1 Corinthians 7 (see verses 6, 10, 12), Paul is very careful to distinguish between his personal opinion or conviction and the Lord’s command.
18 Verse 8.
19 Verse 6.
20 See Romans 15:1-2.
21 The word here is porneia. This is not the term that is generally rendered “adultery”; instead, it is the more general term for sexual immorality in various forms. I believe that it includes such things as pornography and various forms of perversion, as well as adultery.
22 See Ephesians 4:17ff.
23 See Hebrews 4:13.
24 Exodus 32:5-6, 17-29 (especially verse 25).
25 I believe that the disgusting self-indulgence which took place at the gathering of the church (as described in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34) was the result of Christians partaking of the Lord’s Table and the “table of demons” (see 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:17-34). See also Revelation 2:14, 20.
26 Sanctified sex is not the casting aside of self control, but the practice of self-control. In so doing, each spouse seeks to bring pleasure to the other.
27 See Romans 8:12-13; 13:14; Galatians 5:13, 24; 1 Peter 4:1-2.
28 See 2 Peter 2:10.
29 Specifically, I am referring to the NET Bible, although the same could be said for several other translations. The translators of the NASB chose to stay with the more literal “brethren.”
30 I have no doubt that this also works in reverse. A Christian wife may exercise illicit control over her husband by using sex as a tool to gain control. By withholding sex, for example, a wife can subtly control her husband.
31 Notice once again that the word “brother” is left as a masculine term, rather than to include “sisters,” as we would find elsewhere. The sin Paul addresses in not merely a masculine sin; it has its feminine manifestations as we see from Titus 2 and 1 Timothy 5.