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Sex, Love, and Relationships -- Paul's instructions in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Sexual sin and brotherly love are two areas Christians have to get right.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Paul transitions to instructions. He affirms that they are properly avoiding sexual temptation and embracing brotherly love, but they also have to learn to keep their own affairs in order while keeping their nose out of everyone else's. The world is watching how we treat others and how we handle ourselves.

For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you keep away from sexual immorality, (4:3)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

This week, we get into Paul's answers to the church's questions. That got me thinking along two lines: what are the problems we're seeing around us (consequently the church should have on opinion about), and what are the questions we would ask an apostle if we could?

Lesson Prep Warning: There's a lot to talk about in these verses. In particular, parts 2 and 3 could be a lesson by themselves. Decide ahead of time what you think is more pressing for your group and watch the clock.

"The Biggest Problem in Society Today"

Do a straw poll of your group about what they think is the single biggest problem in America today. (You can always change this to "in your school" or "in your state" or the like to get better participation.) Gallup keeps a running survey on its website. As of February 2022, the numbers were:

  • Economy in general - 11%

  • Cost of living - 10%

  • Jobs - 2%

  • Government - 20%

  • COVID - 13%

  • Immigration - 8%

And a whole bunch more.

A group called IPSOS does a worldwide version of this (though they don't limit people to just one response). In November, they found:

  • Poverty - 32%

  • Unemployment - 30%

  • COVID - 28%

  • Corruption - 28%

  • Violence - 27%

(If you like to compare "apples to apples", Pew has a survey like the IPSOS one, and they found Health Care, Budget Deficit, and Violent Crime as the top three worries:

How does your group's list compare with these survey results? (I couldn't find a recent, credible survey that told me specifically what Christians think is the biggest problem facing the nation.)

There are two things I want you to store away:

  1. A lot of people all over the world consider money/jobs to be a big concern.

  2. Almost nobody mentioned morality as a big concern.

"Ask An Apostle"

Then, I would suggest this follow-up question: "If you could ask an apostle anything, what would it be?" (And by that, I mean one of Jesus' apostles, not one of these people today who have named themselves "apostles".)

I had fun with that question. I eventually came around to these general questions:

  • How is a church supposed to be structured?

  • How involved should churches be in government?

  • What is appropriate sexual behavior?

  • What can we expect with the end times?

(I know, I know -- I say all the time that we're not supposed to worry about what's going to happen in the end times. I'd still ask.)

Here's my transition: the biggest questions the church had for Paul give us a window into their world, and (not surprisingly) today's world:

  • Sexual morality

  • Work

  • End times

The fact that so few people today seem worried about sexual behavior says a lot about where we are as a society, don't you think?


This Week's Big Idea: Paul Cared a Lot about Sexual Morality

Sexual immorality has come up a number of times in our studies of Paul's letters.

In fact, you'll notice that Paul talks about sexual immorality to every church! Why? Because there was no real understanding of sexual morality in that world, and Paul believed that "sexual ethics" was fundamental to all Christian ethics. Look at where Paul places "sexual immorality" in these lists:

  • Let us walk with decency, as in the daytime: not in carousing and drunkenness; not in sexual impurity and promiscuity; not in quarreling and jealousy. (Rom 13:13)

  • Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions (Gal 5:19-20)

  • But sexual immorality and any impurity or greed should not even be heard of among you, as is proper for saints. (Eph 5:3)

  • Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)

  • For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you keep away from sexual immorality, (1 Thess 4:3)

Sexual immorality is either at the top or near the top of his rules for Christian behavior. Why is that? There are two primary reasons:

  1. Sexual immorality was common. "But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman should have sexual relations with her own husband." (1 Cor 7:2)

  2. Sexual sin is unique. "Flee sexual immorality! Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body." (1 Cor 6:18)

That first observation should make sense. If "everybody is doing it", and it's wrong in God's eyes, then it will be all the harder and all the more important for Christians to distinguish themselves by not doing it.

I go into this in more detail in some of the other posts linked above. The Roman Empire was as sexist as could be. Men were utterly dominant in all things, and thus they had absolute sexual freedom (wives could be executed if they had an affair) (but you'll notice that "self-control" was still a Roman virtue). By the way, this is why Paul focuses more of his sexual instruction on men rather than women.

The second is more complicated and harder to explain. Sex inside marriage is a part of God's commission to Adam and a beautiful expression of the image of God within us. Sex outside of marriage is base and a reduction of humans to animalistic objects, a rejection of the image of God within us. When we use another person as a means to gratify our sexual desires, we reduce them to an object; we fail to understand and respect that God has made that other person in His image. If we cannot understand what humans are, it is very difficult for us to understand what salvation is, let alone explain it to someone else (like that person we've just used for sex). Here's Paul's argument:

  1. We are not a slave to our body and its perceived needs.

  2. We are more than our physical body.

  3. We are not God, but we belong to God.

See why it's so important to Paul?

Let's start with this: I've defined "sexual immorality" as any act that is intended to produce sexual gratification (of any kind) that involves someone other than your spouse. That's pretty broad. It's very restrictive. It holds Christians to a very high standard.

And that's why Paul puts it at the top of so many of his lists. When Paul gives "lists of do's and don'ts" in his letters, it's not because he's a prude; it's because he's trying to help Gentile converts (with no background in Old Testament morality) understand how to behave in a culture that rejects their new morality. (The Galatians 5 lesson goes into more detail about what was considered a virtue/vice in the Roman world.)

(And let's be honest -- the culture isn't any better today! As many as 75% of Americans consumed some sort of sexually explicit material in the past year. And yet very few Americans said that sexual immorality is a big problem in our culture.)


Where We Are in 1 Thessalonians

Hey! We made it to the instruction part of the letter! I hope you appreciate why Paul took so much time establishing his credibility to the church. One, it was important to him (personally). But two, it makes all the difference in these instructions to come. Who knows what Paul's rival evangelists were teaching! We've talked at length about the range of "Christian teachings" in churches/ministries today, and we have a New Testament. In Paul's day, anybody could claim to have a word from Jesus, and very few people would know any better.

Paul's closing prayer from last week serves as a very clever transition into the rest of the letter:

12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. 13 May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen

Love, holiness, and Christ's return. Those are the main topics of the rest of the letter.

In other letters from Paul, Paul responds to problems he has observed or has been reported to him. But in his letter, he seems to be responding primarily to questions, not observations. (One exception might be what he has to say about working/welfare, a matter that will be even more emphasized in 2 Thessalonians.)


Part 1: Pleasing (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2)

Additionally then, brothers and sisters, we ask and encourage you in the Lord Jesus, that as you have received instruction from us on how you should live and please God—as you are doing—do this even more. 2 For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

Paul mentions that while he was in Thessalonica, he instructed the church on "how to live". Clearly, Paul did this in every church he planted! Paul doesn't go into detail about all of the instructions he gave them. He just focuses on a few. This implies that the church was doing a pretty good job! The report that Timothy brought to Paul was encouraging!

Instead of going into detail, Paul just reminds them of his basic principle -- "the key to Christian living is living to please God".

What does it mean to please God?

Clearly, Paul had spent a lot of his time with the church explaining that very thing. You may want more details. If so, I encourage you to look at Paul's other letters. He includes detailed lists on "how to live" in most of his letters.

Skim through those letters. What are the rules and principles you see the most? (For example, during group time, send someone to Romans 12, to Galatians 5, to Ephesians 4-5, to Philippians 4, and to Colossians 3. How would they summarize Paul's commands? What sticks out to them?)

In my Colossians 3 post, I identified these general categories:

  • Personal holiness/purity

  • Personal righteousness

  • Forgiveness

  • Generosity

  • Respect for others

  • Respect for government

  • Humility

  • Mutual submission

  • Courage

  • Dependence on the Spirit

  • and Imitating Jesus

[Aside 1: Paul the Legalist. Unfortunately, all of these rules for living have given Paul the reputation for being a legalist. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Why do you think Paul gave so many instructions for Christian living?

It's because the people in those churches would otherwise have no idea how they were supposed to live! We have trouble today, and we have the New Testament!

It's the "flesh vs. spirit" that Paul has talked about many times. In the Galatians 5 post, I summarized it like this:

  • "The difference is that our body has different needs than our spirit. Our body needs physical things; our spirit can look beyond physical needs to the needs of others—or even to the extreme of self-sacrifice and self-denial."

But in addition, we live in a culture that feeds our fleshly desires and discourages spiritual discipline. That's a rough combination! Humans want to satisfy our flesh rather than our spirit, and we live in a culture that encourages us to live that way.

In other words, we need help knowing what it looks like to live for Jesus. That's all Paul was doing with these lists -- trying to help these new believers know what a Christian life looks like.]

[Aside 2: Human Memorization. Another thing that might be nagging at you (it did me) is this -- did Paul just expect the church members to remember everything he said to them? Well, in a word, yes. We live in a world where we aren't expected to remember anything. I've gotten three texts, two emails, and a phone call about my dentist appointment on Thursday. But in the ancient world, people had no choice but to remember what they heard. Our brain has a "virtually limitless capacity" for memory -- one estimate is 2,500,000 gigabytes (2.5 petabytes). With training, we can do pretty impressive feats of memory. One person memorized pi to 70,000 places (!!). Someone else has memorized all of the Harry Potter books (!!?).

Of course, this leads into a discussion about the importance of memorizing Scripture. I strongly encourage you to memorize verses 3-5. Not sure how? Let me point you to a wonderful little resource from a pastor who has memorized 42 books of the Bible:

We can memorize large chunks of information if we want to and train our brain to.]

Now -- back to the passage.

Paul specifically mentions instructions that he passed on from Jesus. This would be your discussion for this section: what did Jesus teach? I'll give you two go-to locations:

  • The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)

  • The Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40)

Get familiar with those, and then consider how what Paul says lines up with them (remember -- Paul's audience was Gentile, not Jewish).


Aside: what did Jesus teach about sexual morality?

The next section focuses on sexual morality, but it is set up by this comment about Jesus' teachings.

Jesus did not mince words about sex:

  • 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. (Matt 5)

  • 32 But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. (Matt 5)

In other words, God takes sexual immorality very seriously.

But Jesus also didn't say much about sex. Why? Maybe because Jesus was teaching Jews, and the Old Testament has a lot to say about sexual purity. Paul, on the other hand, was teaching Gentiles. Therefore, he was starting from scratch.


Part 2: Holy (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8)

3 For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you keep away from sexual immorality, 4 that each of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not with lustful passions, like the Gentiles, who don’t know God. 6 This means one must not transgress against and take advantage of a brother or sister in this manner, because the Lord is an avenger of all these offenses, as we also previously told and warned you. 7 For God has not called us to impurity but to live in holiness. 8 Consequently, anyone who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.

One of my very favorite things to see in the Bible is the line "this is God's will". Do you want to know God's will for your life? Here are a few absolutes:

  • 18 Give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess 5)

  • First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2)

  • 23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." (Luke 9)

  • 13 Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority 14 or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15 For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. (1 Pet 2)

These are important verses. This is how we please God.

Paul takes a step back. God's will for us is that we be sanctified. In other words, sanctification is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life. A classic definition of sanctification is

Sanctification is the work of God's free grace whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die to sin and live to righteousness.

Three things to catch from this definition (which I like):

  1. Sanctification is a lifelong process; we don't complete it in this life.

  2. Sanctification requires our effort; God enables us to cooperate in it.

  3. Sanctification is about the whole person, thoughts, actions, choices.

Paul's first comments (here) about sanctification is about avoiding sexual immorality.

Do you think avoiding sexual immorality is that important?

Everyone is different. Paul never claims that his lists or commands are exhaustive and comprehensive. But I can see why he would say this. From my experience in churches (and reading about other churches), sexual sin tends to spiral. For example, what happens when a pastor has an affair? It tends to ruin the families involved and cripple the church. (Financial mismanagement and substance abuse are also destructive, but they rarely involve someone else in the church.) Sexual sin seems to damage a testimony in lasting ways. And as I said above, sexual sin damages our understanding of who people are in the image of God. (You can consider the relationship between David and Bathsheba as a worst-case scenario of this.)

In a world in which sexual promiscuity is encouraged, sexual purity is foundational to sanctification.

Kinda sounds like our world.

But then Paul says something we would all do well to remember: if Gentiles (non-Christians) don't control their passions but rather use one another for sexual gratification, we should not be surprised! They are behaving according to the standards imposed on them by our hedonistic society:

  • "Do what feels good"

  • "Have it your way"

  • "Just do it"

  • "Because I'm worth it"

  • What other slogans have you been bombarded with that appeal to your desire to satisfy your desires?

(The Burger King description of their slogan is pretty incredible if you read it.)

One really annoying song called "Born to Run" (by American Authors, sorry Springsteen fans) includes the line "I'm gonna spend my time like tomorrow won't come, do whatever I want like I'm born to run." It's a really dumb song, but it captures the sentiment Paul is warning us about. Everyone around us is being encouraged to live only for themselves and only to please themselves.

Now let's dive into the wording.

Verse 4 literally means "how to possess your own vessel", which in this context means "how to control your own body". Verse 6 means "not to transgress against your brother in the matter". And verse 5, the bridge, is about "lustful passions".

What Paul is doing here is shaping how they think about sexual activity. In marriage, sexual activity is an expression of the love of two people in covenant with God. Outside of marriage, sexual activity is a sin against a person for which you can't control your passions. Even if you think it's consensual, your unmarried sex is your sin against that person. That reframes things, doesn't it?

And yes, Paul is focusing on men (because they had the most "freedom" to engage in promiscuous sex), and he's talking about sins against men and women. Remember that in the Roman culture, homosexual sex was very common (and the ultimate consequence of a truly chauvinist culture -- men were better at everything, including sex). There are no loopholes in the Bible's restriction of sex to a God-sanctioned marriage.

If we are a Christian, this paragraph should make us uncomfortable. What would be the fallout if you had sex with someone in your Bible study group who isn't your spouse, even if no one ever found out about it but the two of you? Paul wants you to cringe at the thought -- to be made physically ill at the possibility.

Two very important implications:

  1. Christians have the power to resist sexual temptations. It can be done.

  2. If God punishes sexual sin, He also forgives repentant sinners.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

But we are to take our sin (in this case, sexual sin) very seriously. This is why Jesus said what He said (quoted above):

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away (Matt 5:29)

Do whatever you have to do to resist the temptation to sexual sin.

[Aside on cultural trends about sex: My sense is mostly negative about this. I saw one statistic in which 90% (!) of teens are either neutral or accepting of pornography (that's bad). And I also saw a stat in which 83% of parents say that there should be strict controls over access to pornography (that's better). Half of American Christians (and 3/4 of all Americans) say that casual sex between two consenting adults is okay (bad). But 1/4 of Americans still say that sex outside of marriage is always wrong (kinda good, I guess?).

That said, "sex addiction therapy" is now more widely available; it uses mental conditioning, behavior modification, and group accountability just like other addiction therapies. At least somebody has realized that our cultural trends are very dangerous.]

In sum, sexual purity is foundational to Christian sanctification.

And then Paul says what's probably the most important thing in this entire passage: sanctification is enabled and guided by the Holy Spirit. You have to read Paul's words carefully. God has called us to live in holiness, and if we do not, we are rejecting the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit (God's Actor in us) guides us into holy behavior. This is not the "angel/devil" image that the world has so much fun with (which is really just our mind fighting with itself). This is God -- outside of us -- guiding us through and in spite of our resistance and desire for self-gratification.

How do you know when the Holy Spirit is guiding you?

One thing everyone in your group should agree on -- your sexual urgings for another person are not from the Holy Spirit (unless your spouse).


Par 3: Daily (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12)

9 About brotherly love: You don’t need me to write you because you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 10 In fact, you are doing this toward all the brothers and sisters in the entire region of Macedonia. But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more, 11 to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, 12 so that you may behave properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.

I get the clear impression that Paul wasn't writing about sexual purity or brotherly love because the church had problems in those areas. My guess is that someone may have asked a question (because Christian sexual ethics was so different from their upbringing), or Paul just found it an important topic.

Verse 9 might seem like an abrupt change, but it flows out of verse 8. In verse 8, the Holy Spirit nudges them toward properly sexual behavior. In verse 9, God (again by the Holy Spirit) has already been budging them toward proper brotherly love.

Two things to catch here:

  1. Treating someone right (showing brotherly love) means a lot more than not viewing someone as an object for sexual gratification.

  2. Their showing proper brotherly love to others was part of the proof to Paul that these church members were indeed saved.

The word used is philadelphia, literally "brotherly love". Paul doesn't dwell on it because the church was doing it right. We could probably benefit from spending some time on the topic, though!

What's the difference between agape (sacrificial) love and brotherly love?

My favorite summary of this is the wife saying to the husband, "I'm glad you would take a bullet for me, but right now I just want you to take out the garbage."

What does brotherly love look like for a Christian?

To help you out, I recommend looking up all of the "one another" passages in the New Testament letters. Here's a search you can use. Things like:

  • welcome one another

  • serve one another

  • speak the truth to one another

  • forgive one another

And so on. All of those are ways we show brotherly love. Note that Paul is focusing on showing brotherly love to other Christians. However, we are clearly told in the Bible that we are to treat all people, not just Christians, with that kind of love.

Paul ends this section with three interesting instructions. These seem to be motivated by something Paul heard about in the church:

  • lead a quiet life

  • mind your own business

  • work with your own hands

You could easily spend an entire lesson just on those three topics.

First, let me ask you to punt that third one. It's going to come up multiple times in the next month. At least part of the problem in the church was that some church members had taken Christ's imminent return to mean that they may as well quit their jobs. By all means, address it when you come to it, but let everyone know that the topic will come up again very soon. You have plenty else to talk about in this lesson!

We can only speculate on the specifics of what was going on in the church (Paul was being generic -- nor airing the church's dirty laundry). Here's a guess for part of the situation:

  • Some church members had stopped working, relying on the generosity of other Christians in Macedonia.

  • This gave them a lot of time and energy but nothing good to do with it, so they became "busybodies".

  • As busybodies, they were quite meddlesome in everyone else's affairs, and they weren't keeping their own affairs in order.

  • All of that was attracting negative attention from the rest of the city. (There is no "magic barrier" preventing gossip from leaving the church.)

I don't think I need to explain why these instructions are important. Speaking from experience, there are few things more valuable to a church than church members who give their time and energy to help the church function, and there are few things more destructive to a church than church members who use their time and energy to complain and gossip about the church.

"Lead a quiet life" means not attracting negative attention from the outside -- i.e., keeping your affairs in order. It doesn't mean being quiet about Jesus. Conversely, "mind your own business" means not sticking your nose into other's private matters. It doesn't mean not holding your Christian brethren accountable for sin. Those are fine distinctions, and it is important to get them right.

Paul finally clarifies what we should all know: the world is watching us, looking for hypocrisy.

Why do you think those three instructions are particularly important to a church's reputation in the community? (Remember, we will talk about the work part in the weeks to come.)

I'm sure that all of us read these verses and felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit as ways we are falling short, either in the area of sexual ethics or brotherly love or minding our own business. Pray that God would help you overcome them and then act on what you have prayed. Cooperate with God in His work of sanctification in you.


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