A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:4b-8. b). Sex has a God-given style: honour.
The fact that marriage is the only God-given context for sexual intercourse does not mean that within marriage there is no need for restraint. We have all heard or read about, and some have experienced, the selfish sexual demands which are sometimes made by one married partner on the other, in terms of aggression, violence, cruelty and even rape. But marriage is not a form of legalized lust. So Paul proceeds at once from his first principle (each man acquiring his own wife) to his second (‘in holiness and honour’, RSV). Honourable conduct in marriage he contrasts with *passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God* (5). He then adds that *in this matter no-one should wrong his brother (or indeed his sister) or take advantage of him* (or her) (6a). Some expositors have translated the words *in this matter* either ‘in his business’ or ‘in lawsuits’ (NEB.mg.), which the Greek expression could mean. But both before and after it the subject being handled is sexual behaviour, so that the context really demands that *in this matter* is an allusion to the same topic. Paul is saying, then, that it is possible for sexual partners in marriage to *wrong* or *take advantage of* each other. The first verb (*hyperbaino*) has ‘the force…of crossing a boundary – here of crossing a forbidden boundary, and hence trespassing (sexually) on territory which is not one’s own’, while the second verb (*pleonekteo*, to covet) is ‘the desire to possess more than one should in any area of life’. Whatever precise meaning should be given to these two verbs, they are evidently incompatible with holy and honourable sexual behaviour.
The fact is that there is a world of difference between lust and love, between dishonourable sexual practices which use the partner and true love-making which honours the partner, between the selfish desire to possess and the unselfish desire to love, cherish and respect. Indeed, *the Lord will punish men for such sins, as we have already told you and warned you* (6b). For the Lord himself sees even the intimacies of the bedroom. He hates every kind of human exploitation, including what is sometimes called ‘sexploitation’. There may be no redress for such behaviour in a human law court (in most countries rape in marriage is not a criminal offence), but there will be at the bar of God (Cf. Heb.13:4). And he himself will avenge it because he *did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life (7). Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit* (8).
Here, then, is a sex ethic for ‘the weak’, namely that according to God’s purpose the context for sex is marriage and the style of sex is honour. It is elementary, no doubt. But it is also plain, frank, practical, authoritative, uninhibited – in fact, just what new converts need, especially if they are exposed to pagan standards and pressures.
What is also impressive about this paragraph is that it is from first to last an example of ‘theological ethics’, ethics arising out of the Christian doctrine of God. If the heathen behave as they do because they *do not know God* (5, Cf. Gal.4:8; Rom.1:28; Eph.4:17-19), Christians must behave in a completely different way because we do know God, because he is a holy God, because he is our God, and because we want to please him. We have already seen the God-centredness of Paul’s view of evangelism (chapter 1 of this book) and Christian ministry (chapter 2); now we note also the God-centredness of his view of morality. He brings together God’s will (3), judgment (6), call (7) and Spirit-gift (8), and makes these the ground of his appeal to us to please God. If we rearrange his four points in a theological order, the apostle is making four affirmations. First, God’s call is to holiness (7, Cf. 2 Tim.1:9). ‘Be holy’, he says, ‘because I am holy.’ Secondly, God’s will is our holiness (3). Thirdly, God’s Spirit is a Holy Spirit (8), who is given to all his people in order to make them holy (2 Thess. 2:13; Cf.1 Cor.6:19). Fourthly, God’s judgment will fall upon all unholiness (6). Therefore, without holiness it is impossible to please God.
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. 3). Paul urges us to love one another.
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.