It is kind of funny to read Paul, in what we have labeled the fourth verse, say ‘finally’, and then go on and write almost everything anyone every quotes or teach from the letter. I think it is a good reminder that this is a real letter from a real person in history. The letter was a personal one from a pastor writing to his flock. That encourages me, that personal connection. I believe that among the many ways we fail to read the Bible, one of them is to read it for what it was. We’ve cut up this letter to be five verses, and most people skip through the first three verses and read/study verse four and the first half of five, before the salutation.
For Paul, this letter was one of encouragement and longing to be with this congregation, with then a few notes that I believe were questions raises after his first letter (which we call Second Thessalonians, see my intro for more). However, we mostly skip the first part, and then jump into the three theological issues – aspects of a Christian life, the Second Coming, and the Day of the Lord. I’m going to look at the first one today, and next week (hopefully) look at one or both of the second two.
There are there parts to the section – sexual immorality, brotherly love, and work.
He asks and ‘urges’ the Thessalonians to do what pleases God. The term here for please is one used for civic servants serving a Council.
Paul again reminds them that this is what they told them before they left them and then gets to what he has been leading up to, that the will of God (that which pleases him that he started in verse 1) and one of the things needed for their sanctification is to abstain from sexual immorality. The word for sexual immorality is porneia, and general means all forms of sex that were not between a husband and wife. In some instances, the meaning could be restricted to adultery. This word has been subject to a lot of debate, especially recently as we continue to expand the actable sexual ethic, but that is a little beyond the scope here.
This is a tricky verse to translate. The ESV says ‘each of you know how to control his own body’, with a footnote that says ‘or how to take a wife; Greek – poses his own body.’ The two words that cause issue are skeous and ktashai. The former means vessel or implement/tool and is what we see translated as body or wife. It is the same word Peter uses when referring to Husbands and Wives in 1 Peter 3:7. It appears the words most common use was a tool that was used for a purpose, but with the understand of vessel, often meant, metaphorically, a body. Apparently, it can rarely mean penis (because, what doesn’t?). I personally find this funny and somewhat compelling for no reason than we still basically have this advice in the world today – ‘keep it in your pants’.
Ktashai means to procure or acquire and in classical Greek had a meaning that ranged from proficiency (music, sports, etc.) to dominion (servants). There is not much support for something like, control/mastery of passions (that is, lust/sexual immorality). So, there comes a translation question of whether Paul is telling people to learn to control themselves (to avoid immorality) or is he saying to go get a wife (to avoid immorality). In some sense, it doesn’t much matter, if the exhortation is to avoid sexual immorality (and we know it is, because of verse 3). However, the context does matter, and gives us a maybe a little insight into what is happening among the Thessalonians.
Either sentiment would not be out of line with what Paul has said elsewhere. He tells us it is better to get married to keep sinning, and in 1 Corinthians 7:3 he says, because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have one wife and each woman her own husband. I lean towards this as Paul’s meaning here. In the culture at the time, it was perfectly acceptable for a man to have sex with another woman (even if he was married) and wasn’t even considered adultery if the other woman was married, because then no man was harmed. This is why Paul points out, Gentiles who don’t know God and why he says that no one should harm or transgress a brother. Now, that might contradict what I said earlier about favoring the translation of ‘get a wife’, because if married men are committing adultery, then maybe we should translate to mean to control your self (or keep it in your pants).
So, you can see where in the end, maybe we get to the same point, but there are some ambiguity as to how we get there. It is important to note that historically, ‘control your vessel’ was the primary understanding.
If ‘avenger’ stuck out to you a strange word because we don’t use it much today, it is a strictly legal concept. The word ekdikos meant an offical who punished those who violated the law.
God calls us to holiness, not impurity (sexual immorality) so whoever ignore that, ignores God.
I find this a strange section, he basically says, ‘now to brotherly love, I don’t have anything to say, because y’all do it; but try to do it some more.’ Apparently, the Thessalonians were doing a good job in brotherly love and caring for one another, and others. He even mentions in 2 Corinthians 8:1-2 that those in Macedonia (of which, Thessalonica was the capital), though were extremely poor, gave extremely generously.
As a quick aside, ‘taught but God’ is Theodidaktio, which would have stuck out against the Epicurean autodidaktio (self-taught), and it is another reminder that Paul is writing against very real philosophies that competed for attention and thought in the world, much as we do today.
This last little section is fascinating, but I won’t spend as much time on it now, but dive back in when I get to 2 Thessalonians 3. Paul tells up to aspire to live quietly, I like Stott’s take that this means to ‘make your ambition to have no ambition.’ He tells us to ‘mind our own affairs’ and will again point this out in 2 Thessalonians 3 when he says to not be busybodies. We read this today as probably meaning gossip, but as Wannamaker points out, these phrases has unmistakable political connotations. To keep meant to rest, which Philo contrast with the public life. Green says, ‘we can safely assume that Apostle is calling people to avoid or stay out of public/political affiars.’
This blew my mind? I always thought he were being told to work and not gossip, which is fairly straight forward. Avoid public affairs? I work for the government and speak on behalf of citizens to a city council. Maybe I got a little more hyped than you did reading, but that isn’t quite the whole story of what is going on here. However, I won’t get into that now, keep going with me as I try to make it through both letters and will pick this back up towards the end.
The Letters to the Thessalonians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC))
1 and 2 Thessalonians (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (IVP Numbered))
The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Bible Speaks Today)
Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary)
1-2 Thessalonians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
1-2 Thessalonians (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series)
The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)