The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians
Chapter 4 (Contd.)
1- St. Paul urges Thessalonica’s believers to conduct themselves in a manner pleasing to God, especially with respect to purity (4:1-8)
St. Paul starts with some personal remarks expressing his love, his joy at what he heard concerning their faith, his prayers that their love for one another grows, and his prayers that God confirm their hearts in holiness, throughout their blessed anticipation of the Lord’s coming with all his saints. He then proceeds to offer instructions and spiritual direction to the novices who need to struggle as they attempt to rid themselves of what they inherited from their former lifestyles. In so doing, he reminds them of, and urges them to follow, the process he had previously handed to them, namely, to maintain their growth along the course which pleases the Lord by applying their faith conscientiously, while internalizing and obeying the commandments of Christ’s gospel, walking and advancing in its light.
+ St. Paul appreciated the hazardous environment surrounding the Gentile converts, being constantly surrounded with the pagan culture and traditions which they had once practiced. He therefore sincerely exhorts them to refrain from adultery (Exodus 20:14), pointing out that “… this is the will of God, your sanctification …” Believers’ goal is obedience to God’s commandments and holy will.
This was no easy task since, in the pagan Gentiles’ view, adultery was neither a behavioral nor a societal transgression – at least not for the males; in fact, adultery was an integral part of some of the pagan gods’ worship, and was practiced by priestesses as a principal rite during the religious service. St. Paul was thus particularly attentive and mindful in his urging them to abstain from this sin which “… has cast down many wounded, and all who were slain by her were strong men.” (Proverbs 7:26) Also to “Flee sexual immorality …” (1 Corinthians 6:18) In order for them to eradicate this sin completely from their lives, St. Paul calls on them to repent, seek God’s help, and avoid evil company.
St. Paul persists in warning the Gentile converts against this curse, cautioning that, “… neither fornicators, … nor adulterers, … will inherit the kingdom of God.” Also, “… the body is not for sexual immorality …” and “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! … therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:9,10,13,15 and 20).
+ Expounding his message in the same vein, he emphasizes that the will of God lies in their sanctification, “… that each one of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, …” The word “vessel” as translated from the original Greek, refers, in this context, to the “body,” since the body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19). The intended implication here is that believers must preserve their bodies in honor and purity, without succumbing to voracious and misguided sinful lusts.
+ A second possible implication, of the expression “vessel,” could be reference to the soul, hence, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) Here, a parallel is drawn between the power of the gospel of Christ’s glory and the action of His saving grace on the one hand, and the simplicity, limitations and weaknesses of the evangelists, on the other. He likened the latter unto earthen vessels containing a precious treasure, thus eliminating the likelihood that someone attribute to them the power of the work of God – all credit belongs to God the Creator of salvation, Whose bounties overflow on His talentless, weak, ignorant, wretched, servants. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28) This also corresponds to his epistle to the Romans (Romans 9:20-24) where he highlights God’s absolute power and authority versus man who was created from dust. In principle, God is analogous to a Potter Who forms man from a lump of clay; He has “power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor …” (Romans 9:21) Nevertheless, our philanthropic God has shown the richness of His glory through a vessel of mercy which He had predestined for glory “… whom He foreknew …” (Romans 8:29)
+ Finally, “vessel” could refer, specifically, to a man’s wife; St. Peter used it in this context in his first epistle, when he addressed instructions to various members of a Christian family, telling the husbands: “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7)
Not only does he exhort them to change their traditional mindset, which discriminated against women and classified them as second-class citizens, but he also calls for the reversal of this attitude, and for the treatment of women with respect and honor since, like men, they are vessels in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit. It should be noted here that referring to women as the “weaker vessel” should not be interpreted in a sexual context, since this would demean the concept of holy matrimony, and reduce it to mere satisfaction of the sexual instinct.
+ A believer’s lifestyle should differ radically from that of a non-believer; St. Paul thus portrays the sin of adultery in a repulsive light, by attributing it to non-believing Gentiles. The commandment started in a negative sense, simply by saying, “Flee sexual immorality …” (1 Corinthians 6:18) It continues in the positive direction by saying that believers should preserve their purity, and maintain their bodies in holiness and honor, in order to avoid joining the Gentiles who “… do not know God” in their pursuit of enslaving, unclean, lusts.
+ St. Paul proceeds to extrapolate his instructions concerning purity and refraining from perversions of the previous lifestyle, by urging believers to conduct themselves in all chastity and honesty towards their brothers, sisters and neighbors: a believer’s eye or thoughts must not wander to infringe on others’ belongings, and “no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter …;” he thus implicitly invokes the last of the ten commandments, hence, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife … nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)
St. Paul furthermore points out the importance of obeying God’s commandment which condemns sin and repays the sinner, hence, “… because the Lord is the avenger of all such, …” thus corroborating what he had commanded earlier, namely, “… God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness,” (without which no one will see the Lord – Hebrews 12:14).
Disregarding or disobeying God’s commandment is not a trivial matter, since we are not rejecting a human being, rather, “God, Who has also given us His Holy Spirit” Who sanctifies the body, soul and spirit. Let us, therefore, be alert.
2- St. Paul also urges them to increase in brotherly love (4:9 – 12)
Here the apostle assures them that he is in no need to direct them to love one another, as though this were a new commandment, since they, “… are taught by God to love one another,” and they do, indeed, offer their love not only to their Thessalonian brethren, but also to “… all the brethren who are in all Macedonia [in other words, Philippi, Amphipolis, Berea and other cities].” He asks them to maintain their growth in that direction.
Subsequent verses though, reveal St. Paul’s principal preoccupation in this regard. While many Thessalonian believers’ hearts embraced those coming from other Macedonian cities, they manifested some undesirable behavioral aspects which called for criticism, such as inciting unruliness, meddling in others’ affairs1, laziness, social parasitism, and the dependence on church subsidies without working to earn their living; the reason could have been their belief that the imminence of Christ’s second coming obviated the need to work.
The Jews’ and Gentiles’ viewpoints with respect to the value of work might also have been different: while, on the one hand, Greeks despised manual labor and restricted it to slaves, Jews, on the other hand, respected manual labor and insisted that every Jewish boy learn, however rich he may be, a manual craft or trade. Examples are Christ, Who learned carpentry (Matthew 13:55), and St. Paul, who was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). Here, St. Paul emphasizes an important principle in Christian behavior: each believer must contribute his share towards the collective benefit. The Bible associates laziness with evil, hence, “… you wicked and lazy servant …” (Matthew 25:26) Everyone capable of working should glorify God through his job, and give from his income to him who is incapable of working. This also points in the same direction of Paul’s instruction to those who had been saddled with the sin of theft, hence, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” (Ephesians 4:28) St. Paul is thus appealing to a thief’s natural pride and honor – he is exhorting thieves to work and earn an honorable livelihood, leading them to give the needy, and to change from unlawful acquisition to blessed giving.
He encourages them to work – as long as they are able; their independence thus achieved would result in their not being a burden to anyone needlessly, which behavior he finds especially offensive and unbefitting towards “those who are outside [meaning the unbelievers];” furthermore, such unbecoming behavior would attract gossip and criticism of the believing community, as well as harm to their belief.
- St. Paul gives the same message in his second epistle to the Thessalonians: “But we command you brethren in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly … we commanded you this: if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6,10 and 11) ↩