Have you tried to challenge a young adult to live a holy life? Not easy in a culture where texting turns to sexting. A girl at college asked one of my sons she had just met in class, “Are you into sex?” What I grew up learning as an activity for married people had morphed into a form of cheap entertainment.
The cities where Paul planted churches lived by one rule: anything goes. And it went. Even the gods messed around. Sin is not a new invention.
The newly born-again in thoroughly pagan Thessalonica encountered the shock of their lives. With the Holy Spirit now making their bodies a temple rather than a garbage dump, they were called to a completely different style of living. The only temples they knew about housed patrons who served as prostitutes. Now their new faith called them higher, and nothing from their past, even ancient past, prepared them for this massive paradigm shift.
So they asked the most basic questions, like, “What is the will of this holy God for our lives?” The apostle, who was whisked out of town after forming a Christian community because of hostile Jews, longed to return and give them an answer face to face. He had to settle for a written communication. Here’s what he told them: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (I Thessalonians 4:3-6).
What they had grown up giving into they were now told to avoid. To be sanctified means to be set apart for special use. Their bodies were given a new purpose. Rather than indulging in whatever the body demanded, they were told to take command over the body because of the holy God who now lived in it. God actually had a plan for their bodies, and it was a different one than they had ever experienced. They needed to learn the word “no,” and practice it in relation to sexual immorality, the English phrase for the Greek word “porneia,” from which we get pornography.
God has a plan for me, and it includes a new way of living. Instead of the axiom, “Do as you please,” we now do as God’s pleases, because the Creator of the universe and of my body knows best. So I am in charge of my body, not my body in charge of me. I am not led along by the desires of my body. I don’t give in to any and every urge that my body demands, any more than I satisfy every urge for food. So the correct answer to that college girl is simply, “No, I’m not into sex, but I will be when I get married. How about you?”
One can serve in the military in a way that is called honorable. But one can also be given a dishonorable discharge. In the same way, one can live in one’s body in a dishonorable way. Paul was calling his new friends in Thessalonica to a different place. He said that his God was different from the Greek gods. He was holy. And His children would take after Him. To be godly means to be like God.
Lust and love are close in the dictionary but miles apart in life. Lust takes; love gives. Lust says, “I want what you can give me. Love says, “I want to give, not just get.” Taking advantage of other people demonstrates lust, not love, self-love, not love for others. Amnon, King David’s oldest son, wanted Tamar, so he took her against her will. Then he hated her after getting what he wanted.
Paul gives the positive, then the negative in the word to his Thessalonian friends, and his negative is a strong one. We might expect him to tell them, “The Lord will forgive men for all such sins.” Instead he writes, “The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (v. 6b). So Paul had addressed this with them before, but they would need plenty of reminders—and warnings. Rather than teach them how to play the forgiveness card, he lets them know that his God treats immorality much differently than Greek gods. And getting disciplined by God was more severe than a slap on the wrist.
We remember Solomon’s words, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Our Greek friends were learning wisdom in relation to their bodies. May we do the same!