A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:4a. a). Sex has a God-given context: marriage
In writing this, it will be seen that I am departing from the NIV rendering *that each of you should learn to control his own body* in favour of the RSV ‘that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself’.
The first half of verse 4 contains the most difficult phrase in the whole letter. Literally translated, it reads that ‘each of you should learn to acquire his own vessel in holiness and honour’. Throughout church history commentators have been divided as to whether the ‘vessel’ in mind (*skeuos*) is a metaphor for ‘wife’ or for ‘body’. If the former is correct Paul is urging each Thessalonian believer ‘to take a wife for himself’ (RSV); if the latter is right, he is ‘to gain mastery over his body’ (REB), or *control his own body*. There are difficulties with both renderings.
The difficulty with the translation ‘take a wife’ lies in the noun. For *skeuos* means a vessel, utensil, instrument or container, which appears to express a very derogatory concept of woman in general and of marriage in particular. Reference to woman as a ‘container’ seems in later Judaism to have been an established (and demeaning) euphemism for sexual intercourse. It is mainly for this reason that some scholars have preferred to see an allusion to the body, even though no parallel use of *skeuos* for ‘body’ has been found, and to regard the body as the ‘container’ of the soul is Greek not biblical.
The difficulty with the translation ‘control his body’ lies in the verb. For *ktaomai* normally means to ‘procure for oneself, acquire, get’ (BAGD) so it cannot appropriately be applied to our body since we already possess one, whereas it was used in LXX of acquiring a ‘wife’ (E.g. Ruth 4:10; Ecclus. 36:24). George Milligan suggests from the papyri that *ktaomai* was beginning to be used in popular language for to ‘possess’ or ‘take possession’, in the sense of to ‘use properly’ or ‘control’, but the evidence is slender.
In this exposition, along with ‘the great majority of modern commentators’, I am accepting that the reference is to acquiring a wife and that Paul is affirming heterosexual marriage as the only God-given context for sexual intercourse. There are three main arguments. The first concerns *language*. This interpretation preserves the usual meaning of *ktaomai* (‘acquire’), and recognizes that *sheuos* (‘vessel’) is used metaphorically in the New Testament of human beings (E.g. Acts 9:15 ‘my chosen instrument’ and 2 Cor. 4:7 ‘treasure in earthen vessels’. Also 2 Tim.2:21) and once of a wife (1 Peter 3:7 ‘the weaker vessel’). It occurs more often in pre-Christian Jewish texts in reference to a wife, as also does its Hebrew equivalent.
The second argument relates to *context*. Since Paul’s instruction is the positive counterpart to avoiding *porneia*, which usually means ‘fornication’ or ‘adultery’, the natural allusion is to marriage. Again, the contrast in Paul’s phrase ‘in holiness and honour, not in passionate lust’ can readily be understood as presenting alternative views of marriage; they can hardly be seen as alternative styles of self-control. Further, by his emphasis on what is ‘holy and honourable’ Paul seems deliberately to be purging *skeuos* of any dishonourable associations. Some commentators therefore suggest that *eidenai* in verse 4 should be translated not ‘should learn…’ but ‘should respect his wife’ as in 5:12.
The third argument relates to the analogy of *Scripture*. What Paul writes here is an early, embryonic statement of the more developed position which he expressed a few years later in 1 Corinthians 7: ‘Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband…for it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (verses 2-9). Marriage is thus portrayed in Scripture both as a creation ordinance, intended for companionship and procreation, and also since the fall as a divine remedy against sin.
Paul’s first principle, then, is that heterosexual and monogamous marriage is the only context in which God intends sexual intercourse to be experienced, and indeed enjoyed. The corollary it that it is forbidden in every other context, whether with a heterosexual partner before marriage (‘fornication’) or outside marriage (‘adultery’), or in a homosexual relationship.
An additional paragraph is needed for those of us who are single and therefore lack the God-given context for sexual love. What about us? We too must accept this apostolic teaching, however hard it may seem, as God’s good purpose both for us and for society. We shall not become a bundle of frustrations and inhibitions if we embrace God’s standard, but only if we rebel against it. Christ’s yoke is easy, provided that we submit to it. It is possible for human sexual energy to be redirected (‘sublimated’ would be the Freudian word) both into affectionate relationships with friends of both sexes and into the loving service of others. Multitudes of Christian singles, both men and women, can testify to this. Alongside a natural loneliness, accompanied sometimes by acute pain, we can find joyful self-fulfilment in the self-giving service of God and other people.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.