Continuing my work on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians
1 THESSALONIANS 4
Now finally brothers and sisters we ask you and call upon you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how to walk in the right way and to please God – as indeed you are walking- you should continue to excel. You know what orders we have given you through the Lord Jesus.
For this is what God wants: that you should be holy, and turn away from casual sex; that each of you should be able to have your own partner in purity and honour, not in the grip of lust, like the gentiles who don’t know God; that no one overstep the mark and take advantage of a brother or sister in this regard, for the Lord exacts justice in all these cases, as we have already told you and solemnly affirmed. For God did not call us towards unclean behaviour, but into holiness; consequently, if you disregard this you are disregarding not human beings but God – the God who gives you his holy spirit.
As far as love of the brothers and sisters is concerned, you don’t need anyone to write to you about that, since you yourselves learned from God to love one another, and in fact you do treat all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia in this way. Our advice is: continue to excel! make it your aim to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to earn your own living, as we instructed you; so that you may walk winsomely in the eyes of outsiders, and be dependent on no one.
For Paul, the primary focus for his converts is their turning towards God in trust, moved by the joyful message of God’s love for them in Jesus Messiah. A secondary, but far from unimportant focus, is that they should please God by their ordinary behaviour, in Jewish terms, their “walk” (Hebrew, halakhah). They should, like Israel, be a holy people, that is a people whose customs are modelled on the Holy One. Faithfulness in love being God’s primary characteristic, it is also demanded of his people. Against the Greek ethic of graceful eroticism, Paul places the Jewish ethic of marital faithfulness. Post- modern people may identify with the Greeks rather than Paul, but others may judge that any ethic of elegant eroticism privlileges the rich over the poor and men over women, as is in fact the case in Scotland now, as it was in Thessaloniki then. The heartlessness of undiluted eros was the theme of a prophetic novel of the swinging sixties, “Couples” by John Updike.
For Paul, unrestrained sexuality is first of all, “unclean”, a word taken from Jewish ritual meaning anything which should not come near the holy things of God. Paul would have learned as a Pharisee to apply these ritual commandments intended for levites to all Jews, and especially to their ordinary behaviour. His language expresses a visceral aversion to “unclean” behaviour, frequently sexual behaviour. As he sees it such things are simply foreign to the nature of God.
He warmly affirms their mutual love and encourages them towards a modest style of communal living, with no interference in the affairs of others and an honest competence in their own. The Assembly of Jesus should give no one an excuse for denouncing it. If it stands out from Greek society it should do so by its refusal of idolatry, its communal love and its sexual faithfulness.
The sober wisdom of Paul’s ethical instruction was unappreciated by those reformers who set the gospel against the law, faith against obedience. We should learn from their mistake.