A Commentary by John Stott

1 Thessalonians 4:3-8. 2). Paul urges us to control ourselves.

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 identifies 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. Professor F.F.Bruce sums up the situation:

A man might have a mistress (*hetaira*) who could provide him also with intellectual companionship; the institution of slavery made it easy for him to have a concubine (*pallake*), while casual gratification was readily available from a harlot (*porne*). The function of his wife was to manage his household and to be the mother of his legitimate children and heirs.

In his *History of European Morals* William Lecky paints a lurid picture of sexual licence 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.

In many cultures and countries today, even where monogamy is officially favoured, deviations from this norm are increasingly tolerated. Christians, by contrast, have a reputation for being ‘puritanical’ and ‘prudish’, and for having a generally negative attitude towards sex. These criticisms are sometimes just. But in self-defence we also claim to be realists. Although we recognize that sex is the good gift of a good Creator, we also know that it has become twisted and distorted by the fall, so that our sexual energies need to be rightly channelled and carefully controlled.

Paul develops his instruction in verses 3 and 4 in three stages. First, he makes a general and positive statement that *God’s will is that you should be sanctified* or ‘holy’ (REB). The word *hagiasmos*, which can refer either to ‘a process or, more often, its result (the state of being made holy)’ (BAGD). Paul says nothing here about who is to initiate the process, although later he ascribes the work of sanctification to ‘God himself, the God of peace’ (5:23). Next, he specifies within God’s general and positive will a particular prohibition: *that you should avoid sexual immorality [porneia]*, which includes ‘every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse’ (BAGD). ‘Avoid’, however, is too weak a word. The apostle is declaring that God’s will entails ‘a clean cut’ (JBP) with impurity, a total abstinence. As Professor Howard Marshall rightly comments, ‘where things are evil the Christian attitude is necessarily one of abstention and not of moderation’. Thirdly, Paul lays down two fundamental, practical principles to guide his readers in their sexual behaviour:

(a) Sex has a God-given context: Heterosexual marriage (4a)

(b) Sex has a God-given style: holiness and honour (4b).

Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:4a. a). Sex has a God-given context: marriage.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.