UBBL341 - Thessalonian & Corinthian Epistles
Dr. Ken Waters
October 14, 2002
Thessalonian Exegesis: 1Thessalonians 4:3-5
and other first century missionaries, faced the looming problem that after
success was achieved in converting whole cities to Christianity; the new
converts would then try to adapt their pagan worship practices into their new
One of these practices was the use of sexuality in worship of pagan gods. In order to correct the new Gentile believers in the acceptable ways of worshiping God and living holy lives, Paul writes to his "brothers" in 1Thessalonians 4:3-8 about their misguided sexual practices. The main point that Paul is attempting to get across to the pagan town of Thessalonica is that each person needs to learn to control their sexual desires so that sexual pleasures are only shared with one body (NASB: vessel
). Sexual worship is not an acceptable form of worship and must end immediately if a believer wants to pursue "sanctification."
Most commentators (all that were found) agree that Paul's main concern in addressing the town of Thessalonica was to draw them to holiness by instructing them to abstain from sexual immorality.
genre of the passage is definitely instruction, with an emphasis on holy
living. The main difference between commentaries is why exactly Paul needed to
address this problem. Barclay thinks there are two main reasons for the
address from Paul: new Christians in pagan society, and a high divorce rate.
The emphasis on divorce separates Barclay from the rest of the commentators. He feels that, "One thing Christianity did was to lay down a completely new code in regard to the relationship of men and women." He makes the point that never in the history of Israel was it easier for a Jew male to divorce his wife. On top of that, Rome, after 520 years of absolutely no divorce, recently found themselves frivolously divorcing. Unlike Rome, Greece was somewhat different because there was no need for divorce. As long as a man provided for a wife, and a wife raised a family, extra-marital affairs were completley acceptable.
It is no wonder that Paul struggled
immensely with his churches in dealing with sexual immorality.
The interesting point Beverly Gaventa finds with the passage is, not Paul's address on divorce, but rather that, "holiness is associated not with going out of the world or observing special rituals but with the basic human business of sexual conduct."
Up until this point, holiness (lit
. being set apart) is correlated to rituals and
sacrifices. However, Paul seemingly ignores this point and focuses on how the
new believers conduct themselves with their sexuality.
A year or so before the letter Paul wrote to Thessalonica, the Christian Council in Jerusalem had ruled on what Gentiles must abide by in order to be apart of God's covenant (Acts 15:20). The NIV Commentary makes the point that it is not clear whether or not the church of Thessalonica had been committing these impurities, but concluded that since Paul felt it necessary to relay this message on to Thessalonica would imply that moral transgressions must have been taking place. This was no general warning or instruction like other passages in the Bible (i.e. Exodus 20).
flow of the passage is an interesting one. Paul starts off simply with the
obvious statement that it is the will of God for His believers to be holy and
set apart. He then proceeds to make the statement, which may or may not be
known to the believer in Thessalonica, that sexual sin is not a holy act. Paul
closes this passage with a charge not to be like the heathen (NASB: gentile). The noteworthy thing about this passage is the method Paul uses in his attempt to convince the believers to control their sexual desires. His initial statement is what advertising specialists would call a glittering generality. He makes a very broad statement about the character and will of God that no believer is going to disagree with. Once Paul has their heads "nodding along in a agreement," he throws in the point he is trying to persuade them on: abstain from sexual immorality. Finally he closes with another glittering generality by making a charge not to be like a heathen. The passage begins and ends with two statements so broad and general that no believer is going to disagree with, and sandwiched in-between is a very important rule for holy living in which probably was originally foreign to the people of Thessalonica.
There are three main words that jump out of the Thessalonian epistle that draw attention. The interesting thing is that two of them are slightly controversial and need a much broader study for them to truly be understood. Sexual immorality, body, and heathen appear to be central to this part of Paul's letter. While the Greek word for sexual immorality, porneia
, is used nine times by Paul in his writings, and all
nine times used in the reference to acts of sexuality that are inappropriate;
the words for body and heathen on the other hand are not so obvious.
Greek word skeous
is translated by the NIV and NRSV in this passage as body. However, the NASB, & KJV translate this word to mean vessel. Although the translation difference may not seem very large, there is an immense difference when comparing how this word is translated elsewhere in the New Testament. In Mark it is used in reference to merchandise, John uses it in references to a jar, Acts uses it as an instrument, sheet, and anchor. Peter goes on to use it in reference to a partner (wife), which may have the best relationship to Paul's passage on sexual immorality. However, the problem with this lies in the fact that they take on different inflected forms. Peter uses the word skeu/ei, where as
Paul uses skeuvo".
This fact would imply that in order to accurately interpret
this word, one would have to translate it vessel, like in the other passages.
Another problem with the skeuvo"
is that it usually is translated in relation to an object, even sometimes as generically as "thing."
However, an interesting development from the Qumran text would support the
stance that skeuvo" should
be translated with some specificity in its relation to sexual relations.
Torleif Elgvin makes the point that the word skeuvo" may actually be in
reference specifically to a male or female sexual organ.
To some degree then, it can easily be seen that what Paul may be saying in a more polite manner is, "finally brothersÉeach of you should learn to control his own penis
in a way that is holy and honorable" (emphasis my paraphrasing). It does not seem that far off that Paul might be trying to use a word that catches there attention but yet is not unreasonably crude. Either way, the NIV appears to be correct in translating (although maybe not as lit
skeuvo" as body, because it definitely implies more than just a
Greek word ethnos
is the other
interesting translation difference in this passage. The NIV translates this
word heathen, while the other four versions of the English Bible (NASB, NRSV,
NKJV, KJV) translate the word to mean Gentile. The word is used 53 times in
the New Testament and the majority of the time it is translated to mean Gentile
or nation. The word literally refers to anything that is not of the Jewish
race, but not necessarily in a term that implies evil or pagan.
Paul himself uses it even when defending the Gentiles from the Jews when they were criticized for being allowed into the covenant with God (Romans 15:11). The NIV is probably somewhat in error by translating this into heathen, although all versions of the Bible would probably been better to translate the word into nation. It makes sense giving Paul's surrounding, to make this comment not in bold reference to the absurd and immoral acts of the Gentile community, but rather show the difference in how Israel and the Christian believing Gentiles should act in comparison to the rest of the world (i.e. nations).
As mentioned before, Paul's literary context is one that primarily is to people who have recently converted to Christianity from pagan Greek religions. The book 1Thessalonians itself must have been written around 50 AD, about twenty years after Jesus' death.
This early date makes it the earliest letter Paul had written. It is evident from his writing that he had deep feelings for the Christians in Thessalonica. The book itself was written in response to Timothy's report back to Paul about the preserving faith of those in Thessalonica. His letter contained four main parts, although not necessarily in order. First he offered encouraging words for their perseverance to their faith even when strong opposition was given to them (3:6-10). Second, he wanted to respond to the criticism of his own apostleship and authority, and reassert his sincerity towards his ministry to them (2:1-12). Third, he wanted to clear up the confusion in regards to the Lord's return, and fourth, he offered advice for areas of individual and community life that needed to be improved upon.
The context itself does not imply any conflict necessarily,
and there is no indication that Timothy returned with a report of hostile
threats towards him. It even can be concluded that Timothy just observed what
was going on, and did not even feel it was his place to offer correcting advice
in regards to their sexual immorality. The issue at hand with Paul then is
simply controversy. The problem lies in the fact that up until this point
there has been no instruction on how to conduct themselves sexually, and
therefore they have been using sex as they had in the past. The message Paul
wanted his first century, Thessalonica audience to hear, was that although the
surrounding religions and cults worship their gods through sexual practices,
the worship of the Jesus movement had nothing of this. It was a command for
them to separate themselves from the rest of their pagan surroundings and
solely experience sexuality with one partner. When practiced like this, a
higher act of worship was taking place, which Paul refers to as sanctification.
Paul tackles this controversy by giving rules for holy living. It seems that
the people of Thessalonica took to it well because there is no mention of it in
his second letter to them.
significance for Paul in this situation had to be one of satisfaction and
pride. This is his first letter (at least there is record of) to a church that
was very close to his heart, and from all apparent evidence they took to his
charge well. It had to be a great confidence booster in the beginning of his
ministry. He was unaware at the time of his writings to Thessalonica about the
conflicts he would have to sustain in the church of Corinth and even in
Galatia, but at least his first attempt to correct a church was a success.
is not much debate on whether or not Paul wrote 1Thessalonians. The early
canons of Marcion, and Muratori contain this writing and attributed it to Paul.
Tertullian of Clement acknowledges that it was from Paul, and Irenaeus quotes
it by name.
The initial authorship is not in
question, which only leaves theories that maybe it was written in more than one
piece and then compiled later. However, the problem with this theory is that
it is relatively a short book, which flows smoothly from one point to the next.
To argue that it was written in more than one segment would be a tough
Paul addresses the issue of sexual immorality a couple of times. With the exception of this passage, 1Corinthians 6:18 and Ephesians 5:17 are the two other main passages in which Paul address the issue. It is very evident that Paul has had sometime to develop his thoughts on the issue of sex and worship, and he expounds on this in his letter to the church in Corinth. Although it is not as easily observed from the text, the same problems Paul faced in addressing the church in Thessalonica are most likely the same problems in Corinth. He goes on to explain that sexual sin is a sin that comes from within the body and that is where the new temple of God is because it dwells the Holy Spirit. Although this text is often taken out of context to explain that we should abstain from fatty foods, and exercise, what Paul is really trying to develop is the contrast of pagan worship and Christian worship. Corinth (and Thessalonica for that matter) is only perverting themselves and their worship if they continue to "seek" God through sexual immorality. This is why Paul pulls the correlation between the temple and the body.
5:17 has less to do with sexual worship, but rather sexual conduct in
relationships. However, it still is interesting to note the context in which
Paul had to deal with his churches. It is known for a fact that he addressed
some issue of sexual immorality to the church of Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and
Thessalonica. The fact that it was mentioned in all those letters would
indicate that this was a major problem Paul had to address, although it also
appears that he was not afraid to address it.
The modern reader would not have too much of a problem with this passage if they understood the background. Paul in no way shape or form is saying that sexual relations are a negative thing. He is simply addressing the fact that sexual acts are not a form of worship. Most religions of today, even the "new age" (which are actually very old), do not usually practice sexuality as a form of worship. The problem the modern reader, or skeptic, may have with this passage, though, is what it implies. Taken with the context of the rest of the New Testament, a simple truth of this passage is that sex is for marriage and it is only to be shared with one person in your lifetime. Skeptics of today do not feel like abiding by this "rule of holy living" because it does not seem like it is necessary do so. Most relationships today are centered on the sexual pleasure that can be attained, and most desire to achieve this pleasure as quickly as possible. The objective that the modern reader must grasp is that God does not condemn sexuality whatsoever, but like all good things, there is a certain time and place in which these are allowed. Once the realization of this concept is understood, understanding 1Thessalonians 4:3-5 is not quite as difficult to accept.
Paul had a lot of interesting struggles to deal with in his ministry. If it wasn't trying to bridge the gap between Gentiles and Jews, it was something to the effect of earthly desires in a pagan world. 1Corinthians 4:3-5 addresses a serious issue that the church of Thessalonica was mishandling, and because of it, today's reader have a better understanding of sexuality and holiness.
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Thessalonians, rev. ed. Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press, 1975.
Barker, Kenneth L and John R Kohlenberger, Zondervan
NIV Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Corp, 1994. CD-ROM. Available from OakTree Software, Inc, 2000.
Elgvin, Torleif. "1Thessalonians 4:4 In Light of New Qumran Evidence." New
Testament Studies 43 (1997): 604-619.
Gaveta, Beverly Roberts. First and Second Thessalonians
Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox
Goodrick, Edward W, John R Kohlenberger III, and James A Swanson. Zondervan
NIV Exhaustive e-Concordance. Grand
Rapids: Zondervan Corp, 1999. CD-ROM. Available from OakTree Software, Inc,
Louw, Johannes P and Eugene A Nida, ed. Greek-English Lexicon of the
New Testament Based on Semantic Domains.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan Corp, 1989. CD-ROM. Available from OakTree Software,
Morris, Leon, ed. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 13, The Epistle of Paul to the
Thessalonians. Grand Rapids: William B
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984.
Thomas, Robert L, Th.D., ed. New American Standard Exhaustive
Concordance of the Bible. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Corp, 1981. CD-ROM. Available from OakTree Software, Inc., 2000.