1 Thessalonians: Chapter 4 (Part 1)
February 28, 2023
by Peter Amsterdam
1 Thessalonians: Chapter 4 (Part 1)
In the fourth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he begins the first sentence with the word “finally”—an indicator that he’s transitioning to a different subject.
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.1
He used the phrase we ask and urge you. Often this phrase was used to make a request; however, when it was used in exhortations such as this one, the meaning was much stronger—a closer translation might be “beseech” or “entreat.” The form in which Paul addressed the Thessalonians wasn’t particularly familiar or personal, but was somewhat diplomatic, with personal notes added in. He made the point that the authority behind his teaching was given through the Lord Jesus. Throughout this and the following chapters of this epistle, Jesus’ divine authority is put forward as the basis of Paul’s teaching.
Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to make continual progress in their spiritual growth. They had already applied some aspects of the instructions they had received from Paul and his companions, and now Paul was exhorting them to progress even further, that you do so more and more. The message Paul had given them was God’s call to salvation (2:13), but it also included the teaching that was to be a guide for their moral conduct. They were to continue to walk and please God, just as they were already doing, but even more and more.
Paul reminded the Thessalonian believers what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus (v. 2). Throughout the first part of this letter, Paul urged the Thessalonians to recall what they already knew (2:5, 11; 3:4; 4:2, 4) and to practice it. The instructions they had received were not just vague guidelines; they were “commands” or “orders.” When the Thessalonians accepted Paul’s teaching as the word of God,4 they were obligated to obey it. They knew that the instruction he gave was through the Lord Jesus.
At this point in the letter, Paul was focused on the sexual ethics of the Thessalonian believers and the instructions that he was giving them.
This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.5
Paul began by saying that the believers’ sanctification was the will of God. At a number of points in the New Testament, the “will of God” signifies God’s moral plan which should be put into practice. Doing His will is the counterpoint to being carried along in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. The moral will of God for the believers was put forth by Paul in the teaching the Thessalonians had received from him. As Christians today, we face the same moral choices of following God’s moral plan or succumbing to the popular culture of our day.
Paul made the point that the believers should be sanctified, as an important part of God’s plan. The apostle Peter made the same point when he wrote:
As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”6
The sanctification of the Thessalonian believers is Paul’s main concern, as seen in the phrases this is the will of God, your sanctification (4:3); that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness (4:4); and God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness (4:7).
Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonians echo the decree of the Jerusalem council, where James said, My judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality.7 The believers were to avoid sexual immorality, which meant any kind of sexual relation outside of heterosexual marriage, whether it was fornication, adultery, homosexuality, incest, prostitution, or bestiality.8 In verse 4, Paul states that each Thessalonian believer was to control his own body in holiness and honor. To do this, they were to abstain from sexual immorality (v. 3).
In speaking about passionate lust, Paul referred to the wantonness and lack of restraint of the Thessalonian nonbelievers. Paul also referred to such lust elsewhere in his writings.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.9
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.10
As new Christians, they had come out of idolatry through belief in Jesus, and they were called to show their new faith and their new community by their changed lifestyle. They were no longer to engage in the sexual conduct of their contemporaries.
In verses 3–5, Paul covered the general problem of “sexual immorality”; however, in verse 6 he addressed the specific issue that caused him to write this section. Members of the Thessalonian church were committing adultery amongst the believers. Paul’s instruction was that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.11
Sexual excesses were common in Greek society, including married men committing adultery. Believers were not “to wrong” or transgress against other believers by having sexual relations with their spouses. Paul reminded the Thessalonians that this wasn’t the first time he had addressed this issue. The members of the Thessalonian church could not claim ignorance, as they had been warned about these matters.
The Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.12
Having written of the negative consequence of judgment for sexual immorality, Paul reminded the Thessalonians of the positive benefits of not indulging in adultery and other sexual sins.
God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.13
Impurity is the opposite of holiness or sanctification. It can mean either ceremonial or moral impurity, depending on the context. Here, sexual impurity is the context. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, he writes against sexual impurity.
Sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.14
Rather than the sexual impurity that the Thessalonians previously practiced, they now were meant to pursue holiness in their lives. Paul makes this point again later in this epistle when he writes:
May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.15
God called them to His service, and as believers, they were to align their conduct with His calling.
Whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.16
Paul strongly makes the point that his teaching on sexuality came from God and expressed God’s will. He states that if someone ignored or treated this message as unimportant, they were not just rejecting Paul and his teachings, but were rejecting God Himself. It may be that some of the Thessalonian believers questioned Paul’s authority and therefore questioned some of his teachings. Some may have distinguished between his teaching of the gospel, which they considered divine teaching, and his moral teaching on sexuality, which they rejected as coming from a man. Paul, however, reminded those who were selectively choosing what to believe and what to reject that they were disregarding God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
This brings us to the end of the first topic Paul wrote about in chapter 4. As the chapter continues, Paul moves on to another topic, which will be covered in the next article.
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 1 Thessalonians 4:1–2.
2 KJV, NAS, NAU.
3 NIV, NLT, TNIV.
4 1 Thessalonians 2:13.
5 1 Thessalonians 4:3–6.
6 1 Peter 1:15–16.
7 Acts 15:19–20.
8 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 190.
9 Romans 1:24.
10 Colossians 3:5.
11 1 Thessalonians 4:6
12 1 Thessalonians 4:6.
13 1 Thessalonians 4:7.
14 Ephesians 5:3.
15 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
16 1 Thessalonians 4:8.