We are going to look at 1 Thessalonians 4 in two parts because the subject change is so drastic at 4:12 that there is no real way to deal with the two parts as a whole. In 4:1 Paul does what Preachers have done throughout time, they say “Finally”, as if they were summing up and closing, when they are just getting started.
Finally, in this case, marks Paul’s transition from talking about his relationship with the the Thessalonians to the real reasons for his writing. He has finished telling them of his love and concern for the Thessalonians to giving them instruction, and in these verses he gives them instruction in three different, but interrelated areas. We can outline this part of the chapter by saying it works in concentric circles: family relations, church relations, and relationship with the world.
We should not overlook Paul’s reminder to the Thessalonians about the authority under which he issues these instructions: “You know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.’ And later: “he who rejects this instruction does not reject man, but God.” Very strong language. Paul asserts he is speaking on behalf of God and that the instructions he gives are directly from God.
And what is the first instruction given? Avoid sexual immorality because that is God’s will. The Greek word translated sexual immorality is porneia (sound and look familiar), the root is porne or prostitute. There are a great many articles discussing what the word means. I think that the reason for so much discussion is, frankly, that people are looking for a way around the word.
Traditionally the word has been translated fornication, with the implication of illicit sexual acts of all kinds. Some have said, in contrast, that Paul was discussing only sex with temple prostitutes. Some want to make a distinction between adultery and porneia. They say that the sin of adultery in Jewish life was that a married woman, not the wife of the man involved, would be impregnated, thereby messing up genealogies. They assert it was not sin for an ancient Jewish man to visit a prostitute or to have a concubine in addition to a wife (Abraham, David and Solomon are examples with regard to concubines although I question the prostitute issue).
Others point out that the Hebrew word rendered porneia by the LXX has connotations of being unfaithful in a covenant relationship and is used as much in the sense of the relation of the Jews and God as in the sexual sense. These commentaries suggest we are missing the forest for the trees in suggesting a purely sexual interpretation of porneia.
I would tend to think that there is something in all of these. Certainly Paul was addressing temple prostitution, it was a prevalent practice throughout the Graeco-Roman world with great parallels for Paul and early Christians to eating meat which had been sacrificed to idols. These women had been consecrated to the deities they served and having sex with them was seen as a way to connect with the god in question. But note that while Paul said eating meat sacrificed to idols was a matter of personal choice for Christians he said that Christians who practiced porniea were rejecting God.
As a Jewish scholar, Paul would have been aware of the parallels between fidelity in a covenant relationship between a husband and wife, God and Israel and Jesus and the church. So certainly he was speaking to that issue in this passage. And he was also aware of the legal distinctions for Jews between adultery and porneia, He was telling the Jewish Thessalonian Christians that the old ways were no longer sufficient. He was telling the Greek Christians that they could not be set aside for God and engage in their previous practices.
Paul’s message was broad rather than specific. Christ expects his followers to be sexually pure. That’s not the answer most of those who want to parse this word into such a narrow meaning that it has no impact on anyone’s life, but the evidence suggests its the truth.
Closely related to the porneia issue is Paul’s next topic: brotherly love. He exhorts the Thessalonians to continue to increase in loving each other. Perhaps part of the reason the discussion of porneia came first was to insure everybody understood what he was talking about. He was not suggesting Christianity was a sexual cult, not love in that sense. But it is also related because it continues the discussion of covenant relationships. The relationship between Christ and the Church, man and wife and between Christians.
Lastly Paul talks about the Christians’ relationship with the world. The Thessalonians are told to lead a quiet life, work with their hands and mind their own business. What do you think it means to “mind your own business”? Are we not to condemn sin in our world? Are we not to witness? Are we to have nothing to say to our world? I think what he mans is not to be busybodies, to see to our own lives with and relationship to God before we speak to others and to see that all we do comes organically out of our relationship with God and is born out of love for Him and our fellow man. If we do that then we will be respected by others.