Author: The Apostle Paul
Date of Writing: AD 51 (Paul's earliest epistle)
Target Audience: Jewish and Greek believers who gather as a “church” in Thessalonica.
Theme: Living in view of the coming of Christ
INTO THE WORD (STUDY):
- What three areas of lifestyle, discussed in vv. 1-12, most effect a Christian's ministry?
- What is the guiding principle behind Paul's commands and warnings? What does this passage say to someone who has already made sexual mistakes?
- When urged to love "more and more," how do you suppose the Thessalonians felt about Paul's admonition?
Think Q.U.E.S.T.: Do you still have a lingering QUESTION? What is particularly UNEASY for you or catches your attention? Is there an EXHORTATION or command in this passage? What is the SETTING (historical/cultural/linguistic context)? Is there a TRUTH to grasp?
INTO MY LIFE (APPLICATION):
1. How will a lifestyle that bears witness to God affect sexual morality? Work relationships? Time priorities? Life group dynamics?
2. What do you say to someone who believes you can do anything you want, as long as you mind your own business (v. 11) and no one gets hurt (v. 6)? Would you say anything different to a Christian who believes the same thing about sexual freedom? If so, what?
As a result of my conversational study in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, I choose to pursue the following transformative life action:
- Work to avoid any and all forms of sexual immorality.
- Increase my "love" for my brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Commit to my work and "lead a quiet life."
HISTORICAL/CULTURAL BACKGROUND AND COMMENTARY
A Summons to Purity (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8):
One of Paul's moral themes is sexual purity and, in this early letter to the Thessalonians, we see his convictions rather clearly. He knows the Thessalonian believers are young in their faith and transitioning into a new Christian lifestyle. The Thessalonica culture--as well as wider Greco-Roman culture--was far from sexually pure. In fact, it was rather pornographic. The Romans were proud of their sexual lifestyles and abstinence was no virtue.
For these Thessalonians a sexually pure lifestyle was counter cultural.
This was also a historical period where marriage was a rather loose commitment and divorce was common--even more common than what we know today. The Greek phrase in our text that states "each of you should possess his own body in consecration and honor" can also be translated "each of you should possess his own wife in consecration and honor." In other words, Paul was holding up fidelity--not just of your own body but of your spouse's too--in the marital relationship. This was a new sexual ethic.
Among the Jewish believers, marriage was held in higher regards but divorce, nonetheless, was fairly easy and common. A simple statement before a rabbi that "I divorce you" (repeated three times) would legally severe a marriage. The grounds for divorce could be any type of "uncleanness." Stricter rabbis taught only adultery was grounds for divorce but others allowed dissolution of a marriage for such trivial offenses as adding too much salt in the food, failing to cover the head in public, speaking disrespectfully or even raising the voice. Ironically, none of these "grounds" (except adultery) applied to the man. He was exempt. A wife could not divorce her husband except under the most dire of circumstances (such as abandonment). A husband could divorce, depending on the rabbi, for the most insignificant grievance.
In Rome's first 520 years, there had not been a single divorce! But by Paul's time it was very common. The philosopher Seneca wrote: "Women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married." Roman history was demarcated by the names of the consuls (and later emperors). However, it was said that more "fashionable" women marked the years by the names of their husbands. One Roman historian named Juvenal noted that a particular Roman woman had eight husbands in five years (thanks to divorce).
It wasn't much better in Greece where the Thessalonians lived. The Greek philosopher Demosthenes penned: "We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day-to-day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and the faithful guardianship of our homes." A man's job was to bring home the bacon and keep the house financially secure. His wife was but furniture. A cultured Greek man enjoyed and pursued non-marital sexual relationships.
One of the most important things that Christianity introduced to Greco-Roman culture was a new chaste sexual ethic. Sexuality was heterosexual and monogamous, confined to the marital relationship. All other deviances were forbidden, including adultery, homosexuality, polygamy, polyamorous and casual relationships. The word porneia (from which we get the term "pornography" actually refers to any sexual behavior guided by lust (rather than love). To be more clear, porneia is "animal lust" or "heat" where sexual activity is engaged for selfish pleasure alone. It's having sex just for sex sake...really your own sake. It's why the word porneia is often translated "sexual immorality." After all, God's design for the sexual relationship--uniquely designed to be between a man and a woman--was for mutual pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. It is rooted to LOVE not just lust, its intercourse (relationship), not just sex.
The Necessity of the Day's Work (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12)
Paul begins with praise for the Thessalonians but finishes his thoughts with a warning. In general, he wanted the Thessalonians to get to work, mind their own business and settle down. Evidently the teaching of Jesus' "soon" coming had caused many Thessalonians to quit their day job and wait for the big event. It was something that Paul needed to address.
First, Paul instructed them to "quiet" down and get back to work. He also encouraged them to be a good witness to outsiders in their work relationships. When we are lazy, it doesn't look good to other people, particularly those who might use that laziness as a tool to accuse us. As Christians, we should be the finest workers and the best citizens. We should be the better friend, co-worker and person.
Finally, Paul told the Thessalonians to be independent and not to rely upon charity. Don't sponge off other people. Don't make others support you, unless you are incapable of working. If you can do something (to make money) then do something!
Again, a lot of the Thessalonian issues funneled back to their eagerness to participate in the second coming of Christ Jesus. They were caught up in "end-times fever."
I attended a church several years ago that spent money like it was going out of style. They had no budget and every staff member could spend all they wanted. The church was constantly asking for "more money" to pay their bills. They built a bigger building and went deep into debt. One day, I asked an elder about their fiscal irresponsibility. The elder surprised me with his response. He said the church leadership or staff and elders believed that Jesus was coming back "any day now" and that they wanted to be as "deep in debt as possible when He arrived!" I wonder how these leaders feel today? It's been 25 years since that elder made that comment!
The bottom line of Paul's teaching in the first part of chapter four is to focus the Thessalonians upon what's true, right and best. Our sexual appetites can quickly create sexual behaviors that forge sexual lifestyles. It can happen so fast because it often feels so good. But sexual sin--regardless of how it feels--is an affront to God's purpose and design for human sexuality. Paul is saying that if you can get this part of your life right, the rest of our humanity (and spirituality) tends to work together rather well.
He also needs to settle the Thessalonian believers down. They're hyped up on a single strand of Christian doctrine (the second coming of Christ). They needed to calm down and get back to work. Paul also realized, no doubt, this young church needed further teaching about Christ's return, the resurrection and the "day of the Lord." This will form the context of the rest of 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians.
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They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...
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Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.