Now called to a holy lifestyle.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 March 2021

1 Thessalonians 4.1-8.

Since Paul, Silas, and Timothy now know the Thessalonians haven’t fallen away from Christ Jesus, they wanted to encourage them: Good job. Keep it up.

And do more. Remember, God’s called us Christians to be uniquely holy. That’s more than just being good, ’cause just about anybody can be good, with effort… plus a fear of bad karma. God isn’t interested in that. He doesn’t just want us to be pagans saved by grace who happen to hold better beliefs than average. He wants us to stand out from the rest of the world. Like Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 4.1-8 KWL
1 So from now on fellow Christians, we ask you—
we wish to help, in Master Jesus’s name so,
same as you received from us information on how one has to walk and please God,
same as you already do walk—so you can abound more:
2 You know which mandates we gave you through Master Jesus:
3 This is God’s will: Your holiness.
To keep yourselves away from porn.
4 For each of you to know your own baggage.
To acquire that baggage through holiness and honor—
5 not through a desire to suffer, like a people who doesn’t know God.
6 Not through violating and exploiting the acts of your fellow Christians,
because the Master avenges everything, just as we foretold and witnessed to you.
7 For God doesn’t call us to uncleanness, but to holiness.
8 Consequently one who ignores this isn’t ignoring a mere human,
but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you all.

God’s goal for his followers, is for us to be holy like him. Lv 28.7 To be unlike everybody else. The other verses get specific about ways the Thessalonians in particular could be holier, and naturally there’s a lot of overlap between their culture and ours. Christians oughta have certain distinctives which indicate we’re following God’s expectations, not the world’s; not popular culture’s. Sadly we don’t always live up to what God wants for us.

“Same as you already do.”

Sad to say, we don’t hear a lot of sermons and messages along the lines of, “You’re doing a really great job. Keep it up!”

I hear it far, far more from my employers than my fellow Christians. And my bosses know what a screwup I can be. Not just because there are security cameras; not just because I willingly tell on myself. I got nothing to hide. Besides, when they know where I’m failing, they offer to help me—and again, and it’s sad, I get this offer far more than I do from my fellow Christians. Christians suck.

Note the apostles totally made this same offer. The Thessalonians were doing great! They were thrilled with the Thessalonians’ progress; they saw evidence how everything they taught was actually being put into practice. No doubt were little bits which needed tightening up; always are. But for the most part the Thessalonians were being good Christians, and the apostles didn’t want to discourage this, nor them, whatsoever. They only wanted to help ’em do even better. We can always improve, y’know.

Now let’s be fair: You don’t see a lot of churches today which are doing as well as the Thessalonians. Most churches estimate maybe 20 percent of the people in ’em are actively following Jesus, actively involved in the church’s ministries, and actively contributing. The rest are mere attendees. They visit the Sunday morning services… and that’s about it. They’re not growing as Christians; you look at their lifestyle outside the church building and there’s zero difference between them and pagans.

Sometimes there’s a church with a significantly higher percentage of devout, active Christians. Sometimes. I’ve been to one or two. Wish it happened more often. Usually it’s because it’s a new church, or a revival happened, or some tragic event got everybody to take Jesus seriously. In countries where they persecute Christians, I guarantee you the churches have an overwhelming percentage of serious-minded Christians: They’re not gonna risk life and limb if they’re not serious.

And in persecuted churches, there you might hear a “Keep it up!” sermon. There, the preachers understand the people need life support and encouragement. Here, in a comfortable nation full of apathetic Christians, we’re more apt to hear preachers go through the basics of Christianity yet again, because so many of ’em clearly need to step farther than Square One.

So in 1 Thessalonians the apostles didn’t need to go back to basics, nor rebuke their readers for being pathetic Christians—as they had to do with the Galatians and Corinthians. The Thessalonians were good strong Christians. So rebuke wasn’t necessary: “You know what you need to do. You’re doing it. Keep doing it. Go further!” That, and a few advanced concepts about the End—which we’ll see in the next passages.

Holiness isn’t just about avoiding sexual misconduct.

I’ve found most translations and interpretations of this part of 1 Thessalonians focus on sex.

Because we humans focus on sex. We’re sexual beings. We’re fascinated by it, enjoy it, and—like most pleasures—overdo it. We’re creatures of extremes, y’know. Once humans get sex on the brain, that’s the only lens we see everything through. Christians are no different: Once the apostles mention sex, some of us gotta jump all over it, and ride it reverse cowgirl till we’re spent. (What?)

Hence commentators immediately zoom in on the word πορνείας/porneías, “porn.” I translate it literally, ’cause everybody knows what porn means: Inappropriate sexuality. Stuff you know better than to dabble in or dwell upon. The KJV translates it “fornication,” which in King James’s cultural context meant the same thing. But later generations of Christians got the idea it refers to all sexual activity, and even discouraged marital relations, which is just plain nuts. Toldja humans are creatures of extremes.

Porn only comes up in verse 3, but commentators insist on applying it to the entirety of this passage. They take the next line, in verse 4, “For each of you to know your own baggage,” and leap to the conclusion it’s also about porn. Supposedly the word σκεῦος/skéfos, “baggage” (KJV “vessel”) means “package,” i.e. the bulge in one’s loincloth, i.e. genitals. Other bibles translate skéfos as “body,” assuming the apostles are writing about the vessel of our souls… and yep, commentators treat “body” as yet another euphemism for genitals.

And in so doing they make this passage all gross and weird: Apparently the apostles want the Thessalonians to know their own genitals. And how to work those genitals with holiness and honor. Not with πάθει ἐπιθυμίας/páthei epithymías, “a suffer of desire,” whatever deviant idea that suggests (the KJV turned it into “the lust of concupiscence,” i.e. massive lust). Not by taking advantage of or defrauding fellow Christians—sexually, of course. Because God will avenge the victims. Handle your genitals, Thessalonians! Keep ’em under your robes.

I’ve also heard certain interpreters claim skéfos refers to one’s spouse—as if our spouses are little more than a vessel we have sex with. So, they teach, possess your sexual partner with holiness and honor. Phrased that way, it also sounds gross and weird. Or unholy and dishonorable. Whichever.

Interpreting this whole passage as if it’s about sex—as if the apostles needed to warn the Thessalonians lest they practice these things—makes it sound less like encouraging advice, and more like strict warnings to a church full of horny deviants. And if that’s who they were, why on earth did the apostles bother to praise them so much in the previous chapters?

Well, enough about what it doesn’t mean. Let’s get to what it does.

Porn is the opposite of chastity, sexual self-control. (I know; a lot of Christians assume chastity means celibacy. No it doesn’t… unless the best way to control yourself is with celibacy.) Porn means no sexual self-control whatsoever. Of course our culture tries to evade self-control wherever possible, and that includes sex: Our culture insists sex is a biological mandate. We gotta have it, and restricting it is unhealthy. But we Christians recognize a life without self-control is unhealthy—and if we don’t control sex, it controls us.

Porn means any out-of-control sexual activity. Adultery, promiscuity, prostitution, hyper-sexualization, and rape. Even marital activity, when one of the spouses demands sex of the other. Some Christians actually teach that once we’re married, anything goes. But not when it reduces the relationship from love to sex, and never when it doesn’t submit to our partner’s needs and feelings.

Christians must be chaste. As self-control, it’s a fruit of the Spirit. Yes he expects us to be fruitful and multiply, Ge 1.28 but we’re not to be slaves to our sex drives—nor to anything but God.

And otherwise control yourselves.

The rest of the directions likewise have to do with self-control, ’cause holiness is the product of following God instead of our own urges.

KNOW YOUR OWN BAGGAGE. I take skéfos literally: It’s a container. It’s your container. It’s for your stuff. Know what you have. Know what you can do—and what you can’t. Know your business. Know your possessions.

When we’re wealthy, we too often have too many possessions, and don’t know what we have, or what our limits are. That’s wasteful. Our surplus can help other people and grow God’s kingdom; why are we letting it lay fallow—or worse, fall apart? Why don’t we use what we’re not using anyway, practice a little generosity, and demonstrate God’s grace?

But with selfish people, they’d rather ruin, destroy, or do something filthy with their possessions, than give ’em away. You know, like restaurants which let their leftover food rot instead of donating it. Like spiteful little kids who step on their extra cookies instead of sharing them. These are definitely fruitless people. Sad to say, we see self-described Christians who’d much rather be this way. Who’d rather their tax dollars be used to bomb foreigners, than see them spent on the homeless or refugees or poor.

When we’re poor, we definitely know what we have… but we often forget to be generous with it. We look out for number one, and don’t care about number two. We impulsively grab more for ourselves, and won’t share. We hoard the things we own, and don’t use them to grow God’s kingdom; we’re just as selfish as rich people. Selfishness isn’t just a class thing, y’know.

NOT THROUGH A DESIRE TO SUFFER. People are big fans of karma, the idea good things happen to those who deserve it, and bad things happen to those who do evil. Jesus had to rebut this idea Jn 9.2-3 more than once, Lk 13.1-5 because it’s not true. Time and chance happen to us all. Ec 9.11 And since we live in a meaningless universe, it’s all the more reason we need to exhibit grace to one another.

And some karma-minded people simply cannot bring themselves to do that. They want to earn every blessing they have. They wanna justify all their blessings by insisting it’s because they’re really good people. And they wanna justify the random suffering in the world by insisting the sufferers are somehow really bad people. But mostly they just wanna justify not giving to the sufferers, and keeping their stuff.

So we have a number of Christians who want all their growth and success to come from their own merit. They want to suffer for their achievements. They want things to be difficult and hard and cost them something. They also want things for you to be difficult and hard and cost you something; it enrages them when things seem to come too easy. I can’t tell you how often my fellow students were pissed at me because I never seemed to study: I’d read a book once, and know it. (I have a very good memory.) They had to strive; they wanted me to strive too. It wasn’t fair!

No it’s not. But who says life is fair? Certainly not Ecclesiastes: You can train, and train, and some genius easily outpaces you because they were born with the very abilities you trained so hard to acquire. They didn’t have to suffer; they were gifted. Does that make you jealous? It shouldn’t. Mt 20.8-16 After all, God is generous.

And ideally we shouldn’t want to grow in Christ through our own efforts. We should grow through the Spirit’s power! He grows good fruit in us; we just obey him. Pointing to our efforts and suffering will just make us jealous and boastful, and we Christians have no business being anything but grateful and gracious.

NOT THROUGH EXPLOITING CHRISTIANS. Some Christians are generous to one another, and love our neighbors. And sometimes the neighbors take advantage of our generosity and walk all over us. Christians do it too: We take and never give back. We make demands out of our greed, not need; then rebuke their lack of generosity when they won’t meet our demands. We twist the scriptures in order to make us right, them wrong, and make ’em follow or obey.

Ignorant Christians are regularly abused by people who warp religion into a burden rather than a joy, who make it mandatory instead of voluntary. For plenty of horrible examples, see Ronald Enroth’s Churches that Abuse. For such people, the apostles remind them God will avenge the abused.

BE HOLY, NOT UNCLEAN. Lastly, and again, the apostles bookend the list by pointing out God hasn’t selected us to follow Jesus, gathered us into the church, and worked in our lives, just so we can be the very same screwed-up pagans we were before coming to Jesus. We’re called out of that.

The Christian who’s still behaving as a functional pagan is, as far as God’s concerned, still pagan. Mt 7.21-23 If God truly called us and saved us—if we’re really his—we won’t want to do that stuff anymore anyway. We’ll want to be holy. We’ll want to be clean. We’ll at least make some effort.

And, I should add, we’ll not be so hung up on unclean things. Like the Christians who are so hung up on sex, they read sex into this entire passage.