As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 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. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit. Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.
–1 Thessalonians 4:1-9 (NIV)
In today’s passage we get clear instruction from the Lord via Paul on how to live as people of faith and hope. As you read this passage, ask yourself this question: “Does this passage help me understand what it means to be truly human or does it sound more like a bunch of arbitrary rules I have to follow?” If you answer with the latter, chances are you are still harboring thoughts that you know better than God on what it takes to live a happy and fulfilling life.
Paul tells us clearly that God desires us to get control of our body with its fallen nature so that we can live as God’s called-out (holy) people. In this age of increasing sexual permissiveness, Paul’s injunctions against promiscuous sex may seem strange to our ears. But he is simply harking back to God’s original intention for sex to be a blessing reserved for marriage and for procreation (see, e.g., Genesis 1:27; Mark 10:7).
And when we think about it, this makes sense to us, even if we do not like to admit it. How many of us, for example, want our kids to become pornographers or involved in pornography? How many of us want our family members to be engaged in blatantly promiscuous or deviant lifestyles? Or how many of us who are (or have been) engaged in sexual promiscuity are anxious to share that fact with the ones we love most? I know that in my days of sexual promiscuity, that was not a fact I wanted to share with my parents or extended family. Even today, some thirty years later, I get occasional drive-by emails on Facebook from women who remind me of my checkered past and it makes me feel ashamed and embarrassed. I sacrificed God’s good intentions for sex for a series of momentary pleasure that ultimately left me feeling cheap and empty. And if I had to do it all over again with the knowledge and experience I have gained, I would work really hard to avoid sexual promiscuity and remain chaste because I know what the former does to people and it isn’t pretty.
No, sexual intimacy, which is God-given and healthy when used properly, should be reserved for the monogamous relationship of marriage because it is so intimate and leaves us so terribly vulnerable. When we give ourselves promiscuously to others, we are engaging in a dehumanizing activity and giving in to our base desires and lust, which are always selfish and self-centered. Neither behavior is welcome in the Kingdom because God is neither selfish or self-centered and he expects his children to behave likewise. This attitude will no doubt be greeted by scorn and contempt from the more “enlightened” quarters of our society. But that should not matter to us because those who heap scorn on us can neither give us life or raise us from the dead.
And of course Paul emphasizes the need to love one another as a distinctive trademark of holy living. We are to love because God loved us first (1 John 4:19) and he expects us to behave as he does. By love the Bible is not referring primarily to an emotion or feeling. It is referring to action, just as faith always manifests itself in action that is consistent with it.
Love is not some sappy sentimental feeling that gives the beloved anything he or she desires because as Scripture makes abundantly clear, not all of our desires are healthy or good for us (see above). No, biblical love means that we are to look out for one another in the light of God’s Truth and his will for us as humans. This means that not only are we to support and encourage one another when we are behaving as God intends so that we can truly enjoy being human, but also to gently warn each other when we see our beloved go astray, not because we are morally superior to others but precisely because we know our own failings and don’t want our beloved to fall victim to them the way we have. Of course, love means that we will not force others to do or believe something they refuse to do or believe–that would not be loving at all, but rather quite selfish on our part. But God help us if we see those we love going down a slippery slope and remain silent when perhaps a word of concern might be all they need to stop their present course of action. Remaining silent in those situations is not love at all. It is cowardice and that is why Jesus or Paul or any of the NT writers ever hesitated in warning us about the consequences of behavior. They loved others and were no cowards (read 1 Corinthians 5.1-5 from this lens and see how differently it reads).
Last, Paul hits us with the quite sobering notion that his commands and warnings here are not from human origin but from God himself, and so we have a fundamental choice to make. Do we think we know better than God what makes us happy or are we humble enough to acknowledge that God really does know what is best for us since he created us, has an eternal perspective, and is omniscient? As the NT writers and our Lord himself remind us continuously, if we are willing to take the plunge and lead the kind of holy lives God wants us to live, we will see that these commands are not arbitrary rules to be followed and which enslave us, preventing us from having any fun, but rather they point us to a lifestyle of holy living that will produce a joy and peace in us that no circumstance in this world can take away.
Yes, we will meet opposition because we will be behaving in ways that challenge the ways of this fallen world. But we don’t mind because we know the One who loved us and claimed us, and are pleased and eager to become like him because we are convinced that doing so constitutes real living. We are confident that in the end he will redeem us and as Paul reminds us today, we are also confident that he is alive and well in us in the Presence of the Holy Spirit. So we are relieved that we don’t have to try to live life on our own power because we have reviewed our own track record and found it to be terribly wanting. Instead of trying to live life on our own, we have God’s very Presence living in us, helping us to live truly human lives and getting us ready to be citizens of the New Creation.
“Try it,” our Lord says to us. “Give holy living an honest shot and you will like it. It’s hard and it is costly but you will win far more than it costs you. You will win life itself as I created you to live it. You have my very word on it as well as the experience of countless other Christians over time and across cultures.”