From October to November of this year, Cycle A of the Revised Common Lectionary presents us with five consecutive readings from Paul’s short, first letter to the Christian church at Thessalonica. You will not find 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 among the included readings. Here is my structured translation, beginning with verse 2.
For you know what instructions we gave you
through the Lord Jesus.
For this is God’s will, your holiness --
for you to abstain from sexual immorality
for you to know how to practice self-control
in holiness and honor
not in the passion of improper desires
like the nations who don’t know God
for you not to
step over the line
and give excessive desires free rein
in this matter
against your brothers and sisters
because God is an avenger
concerning all these things
just as we
previously told you
For God did not call us
but in holiness
Consequently, the one who rejects this
is not rejecting human authority
but God who gives his Holy Spirit to you
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 is mostly about bad Greek sexual mores, and how Christians should avoid them.
A Summary in Context
The topic is important to Paul and this passage plays a central role in the letter. Paul’s “sex talk” comprises the longest single ethical teaching in the document.
Paul’s concern about the Thessalonians’ sexual practices is rooted in his proclamation of a gospel which required people to turn from idols and wait for God’s son from heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). In chapters 2 and 3 of the letter, Paul recounts the history of his dealings with the Thessalonian Christians. The benediction at the end of chapter 3 marks a return to the subject of the parousia, which Paul introduced at the end of chapter 1:
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)
At the parousia, the Lord will look for love and holiness. These are Paul’s two primary topics in 4:1-12. Holiness is the topic of 4:3-8, while love occupies 4:9-12. Together, love and holiness describe a life that pleases God (4:1) and which is based on the authority of Jesus (4:2). From the end of chapter 4 through the beginning of chapter 5, Paul discusses the significance of the parousia itself.
Holiness (or sanctification) is God’s will for Christians (4:3). And while the general definition of sanctification or holiness encompasses every aspect of a Christian’s life, in these verses Paul focuses specifically on sex.
For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality, so that each of you knows how to control his own body in sanctification and honor (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4)
To be holy is to abstain from sexual immorality (porneia) and to hold one’s own body (skeuos, vessel) in a way that is holy and honorable. Abstention from sexual immorality is the negative side of sanctification; holy and honorable self-control is the positive side.