3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.
We live in a society that exudes sexuality. And it’s not something one has to go looking for. It’s on TV, in movies, the pages of magazines, and billboards. We stumble across it on the internet and see it on the computer screen sidebar asking us if we “want to meet men/women in your area?” At one time I thought that this was evidence of how bad things had gotten over the last two millennia if the not the last century. Blatant sexuality was not celebrated in the 1940s and 50s like it is today. In the Victorian era some people considered it imprudent to say “leg” in mixed company and table and piano legs were covered as a sign of modesty. But then my wife and I travelled to Pompeii. I was taken aback by the Frescos in that first century Roman city. Sexuality was blatant and celebrated. Not only did the frescos in the public brothels feature people naked and in various sexual acts, so did the walls of the dining rooms in some of the finest homes. As I became more acquainted with the ancient world I began to realize that in many ways our society was beginning to look like the one the apostle Paul knew. Not only is it a world of multiple faiths, it is also a world where Christian standards of sexuality are not the norm.
One could not be faulted for thinking that Paul was a bit preoccupied with other people’s sexuality. It seems to surface in just about every one of his letters. In fact, he has more to say about it than Jesus. But this is symptomatic of Paul’s realization of just how powerful of a force sexuality can be and how quickly it can destroy the life of individuals and communities when it is not controlled. Paul’s language in 4:3-8 might seem somewhat coercive in the way that he tries to propel them towards proper sexual conduct. But it also underlines how important it is to him and the life of the community that he has worked so hard to foster in Thessalonica. And sexual sin in particular effects the community on at least two levels.
First, it is a sin against the believer’s body, which may be why Paul emphasizes that they get control of their body (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). Paul contrasts the type of control he expects believers to exert over their bodies with the “passionate lusts” of “those who don’t know God” (1:4-5). This is one of the things that made the believers distinctive as they sought to walk out their call to live holy lives. If, however, it is allowed to continue, their identity as a holy, separate people breaks down.
Second, sexual immorality has the potential for destroying a community. When this kind of behavior is practiced and/or tolerated it undermines what makes the Christian community different. Paul has worked hard to create a new family out of this group. The Thessalonian believers constitute a new family based on God’s love and choice of them. They had been given a new identity and sense of belonging at a time when previous social and family ties were probably dissolving because of the gospel. If members are acting in ways that are less than holy and honorable, if they are taking advantage of other members of the community, then the family structure is in danger of collapsing.
In order to apply Paul’s sexual ethics to our modern setting it is important to underline the importance of a theological framework for sex in the life of the Christian. It’s not unusual for the church to have a discussion of what is and is not sexually moral. And these are important discussions. But too often they focus on symptoms rather than the cause. We can’t talk about sex if we are not asking the very thing that Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to do in this chapter; to live to please God (4:1). We need to start by asking ourselves: What is pleasing to God? Certainly the discussion will and should move to particular ways in which we act out and express our sexuality. But first we need to determine what does it mean to live out our sexuality in “holiness” and “honor”? And our understanding of what the means will develop out of our realization that God has called us; called us to be his people; called us to be different.
The Bible has a lot to say about sex and it is mostly about why those who are called by God are to be different. And if the Bible makes anything clear, God’s ultimate reason for giving us the gift of sex is so that it could be enjoyed within marriage. From Genesis 1:28 where God blesses humanity and tells them to be fruitful and multiply, to the Song of Solomon where we discover that God wants us to express our sexuality to our spouses, to 1 Corinthians 7:3-7 where Paul exhorts us not to deprive our spouses of physical intimacy, we see that God wants us to have sex, to enjoy it, on a regular basis, but within the confines of marriage. This means, as they sometimes say in marriage vows, “forsaking all others, keeping only unto him/her for as long as you both shall live.” This is a principle in scripture that encompasses all of sexuality. In Gen 2:23 the first couple is introduced and we are told that they become “one flesh.” In Ex. 20:14 the seventh commandment is “you shall not commit adultery.” Jesus later affirms the seventh commandment (Matt 5:27) and connects the prohibitions against divorce and adultery based on Gen 2:23. As I suggested above, it seems that Paul’s admonition that “no one take advantage of a brother or sister” in 4:6 is taking aim at a possible case of adultery in the church. The witness of scripture, therefore, is consistently that God’s gift of sex was meant to be enjoyed in the context of marriage.
But there is another aspect that should be touched on here even if Paul doesn’t specifically highlight it. Not all forms of adultery are acts that are physically consummated with another person. There are those that are nurtured and hidden within the heart and mind. Jesus highlights this in the Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Not an easy thing to hear and if we are honest most, if not all, are guilty of adultery. I remember when Jimmy Carter was honest about it. In a 1976 interview with Playboy Magazine, the then presidential candidate had this to say.
The Bible says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times . . . This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it.
Some people derided Carter for saying this, but he has it right. The irony of giving an interview to Playboy Magazine in which he admitted to committing adultery in his heart was not lost on Jimmy Carter and he later said that, in retrospect, if he could do it over he would not give the interview.
But this leads to an important aspect of this discussion, the problem of pornography. With the debut of cable television and the internet pornography has become more and more visible in our society and more acceptable. It is easy for men and women to commit adultery in their hearts in the privacy of their home. This is not the place to outline all of the destructive elements in the modern day porn epidemic. But we must keep in mind Jesus and Paul’s warnings. It is not harmless “fanaticizing” that hurts no one. It is an activity that stands in direct contrast to God’s will for us connected to his call on our life to live pure, holy and honorable in order to please him. If we are ever in doubt about any sexual activity we should ask ourselves: is this pleasing to God?