Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 8: “Avoid Porneia, Love One Another, and Live Quietly”

INTRODUCTION 

To open this episode of Amateur Exegesis, let’s begin with my translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. 

4 [1] Finally then,[1] brothers and sisters, we ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that just as you received from us how you should walk and please God (as you are doing) that you should abound all the more. [2] For you know what directives[2] we gave to you through the Lord Jesus.[3]

[3] For this is the will of God, your sanctification: to stay far from sexual immorality, [4] to know each of you to control your own body[4] in holiness and honor, [5] not with passionate desire as the pagans[5]who do not know God, [6] to not wrong and take advantage in this matter your brother or sister, because an avenger is the Lord concerning all of this, as we warned you and emphatically testified. [7] For God did not call us for impurity but rather in sanctification. [8] Thus, the one who rejects this rejects not a human but instead God who gives his holy spirit to you.

[9] Now concerning the love for brothers and sisters, you have no need for us to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another, [10] for indeed you are doing this for all the brothers and sisters in the whole of Macedonia. We exhort you, brothers and sisters, to abound all the more, [11] and to endeavor to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, [12] in order that you may walk respectably towards those without and may have need of nothing.

As I noted in the last episode, ch. 4 marks the beginning of the letter body. What we find here is something scholars refer to as paraenesis, a word that means instruction or exhortation, often on topics related to moral behavior. These first twelve verses of the letter body can be broken down with this in mind. First, in vv. 1-2 we find the introduction to the entirety of the letter body.[6] Second, in vv. 3-8 we read exhortations on sexual behavior. Third, in vv. 9-12 we see exhortation on proper behavior toward both those within the community and those without. 

This section and what follows may feel like this is Paul finally getting down to business, but I would venture to say that this is a misread. As Abraham Malherbe points out, the apostle uses a paraenetic style throughout the letter, not only here in chs. 4-5.[7] Prior to the letter body, Paul has reminded the Thessalonians of their status as imitators and examples, the nature of the founding mission undertaken by Paul and his companions, the reality of socio-religious ostracism, the supernatural struggle preventing Paul’s return, and the value of good news for Paul’s soul in the form of a report from Timothy about the Thessalonians. Thus, Paul has been building and laying the groundwork all along for what we read in chs. 4-5. 

Verses 1-2

Paul begins in the introduction by encouraging them to continue and abound in walking and pleasing God. Twice he appeals to what they already know: in v. 1 he speaks of that which they “received” from the missionary band and in v. 2 he mentions the “directives” given to them “through the Lord Jesus.” This is the Pauline kerygma, a topic we covered in episode four. In the epistle of 1 Thessalonians, we only encounter a few of the elements of that kerygma: turning from idolatry to the worship of the god of Israel and to expect the soon return of this god’s son Jesus, a man killed and raised back to life. This was surely only the ground floor of Paul’s teachings to them. There was undoubtedly much more to it and in what follows in chs. 4-5 we will no doubt discover some of it. 

Verses 3-6

In v. 3, Paul opens up by explaining what God’s will entails: “your sanctification.” As its root, sanctification conveys the idea of holiness which itself suggests a kind of identity that is separate from others. But here it isn’t holiness as a state of being so much as it is an action.[8] In other words, sanctification for Paul is proactive rather than passive; it is something you do and not simply something you are or become. This is made abundantly clear in what follows: Paul employs five infinitives to explain what this sanctification entails.[9]

First, “to stay far from sexual immorality.” Some of you have may know the Greek word that underlies my translation of “sexual immorality” – porneia. It is the word from which we get the term “pornography.” Defining porneia is no easy task but at its root is the idea of sexual activity considered deviant by this or that ethical standard.[10] Because Paul was a Jew, his standard would have been that set forth in the Torah. But what about the Thessalonians? What would they have thought about porneia?

Florence Gillman notes that in the city of Thessalonica there were among the various cults two that “incorporated a strong phallic and sexual character” – the cults of Cabirus and Dionysus.[11] Dionysus, known to the Romans as Bacchus, was the son of Zeus and his cult was associated with ecstasy (i.e., personal transcendence), enthusiasm (i.e., being filled by the god), and mania (i.e., an “intoxicating madness”).[12] The playwright Euripides portrayed the cult to Dionysus in orgiastic terms,[13] claiming through the mouth of the Thebian king Pentheus that during meetings of the cult “women drink wine from full tankards, and then one after the other they all slink off into quiet corners in the arms of their sexual partners.”[14] And while there was some resistance to the proliferation of the cult by conservative Romans, it nevertheless remained popular among many in the Greco-Roman world.[15] Monya Stubbs notes that “Greco-Roman male privilege allowed sexual freedom for married men that was out of the question for married women.”[16] It is possible that prior to their conversion, some of the men in the Thessalonian community had enjoyed this privilege in the context of cults like that of Dionysus. “Porneia hardly raised an eyebrow,” writes Eugene Boring, “there was no ethos of public or peer pressure to discourage casual sex for men.”[17]

Porneia did, however, raise Paul’s eyebrow and in his view of things sex outside of the sanctity of marriage was forbidden. When a Corinthian believer began sleeping with his father’s wife, Paul was flabbergasted at both the boldness of the offending party but also the tolerance of the Corinthian community: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 5:11 (NRSV). So grievous was sexual sin to Paul, his converts were instructed to not even sit down to eat a meal with those who participated in it. 

In v. 4, Paul continues on this theme of sexual sanctity, using the second infinitive: “to know each of you how to control your own body in holiness and honor.” There is some difficulty in this verse: first, the word I have translated as “body” could refer to a wife and the word I have rendered “how to control” could mean “acquire.” Abraham Malherbe translates v. 4 as, “that each of you learn how to acquire his own wife in holiness and honor.”[18] Time does not permit an explanation as to why I don’t think this is the best way to understand what Paul is saying. Instead, I concur with the conclusion of Earl Richard when he writes that the idea is one of “sexual self-control, expressed especially as mastery of one’s body, for such a reading agrees with attested Greek idiom.”[19] What Paul seems to be calling for is self-restraint. Could they go back to the sexual behavior that once characterized their pagan lives? Sure. But back in 3:13, Paul told these believers of his veritable prayer that God would “strengthen [their hearts], blameless in holiness, in the presence of God and our father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” Thus, if Paul’s worldview is right and Jesus’ parousia was right around the corner, these Thessalonians had everything to lose and nothing to gain by abandoning Pauline kerygma. Their only option was self-restraint, to control their bodies “in holiness and honor.” 

Juxtaposed holy and honorable self-restraint is, per v. 5, pathei epithymias, or “passionate desire,” a trait connected to “the pagans who do not know God.” The first word of this phrase, pathos, is a rarity not only in the Pauline corpus but in the New Testament generally. In fact, it only appears in three places: here in 1 Thessalonians 4:5, in Romans 1:26, and in Colossians 3:5 (a Deutero-Pauline letter). Pathos is where we get words like “pathology” and “pathetic.” In the New Testament it is invariably connected with something negative. For example, in speaking of the failure of pagans to worship the god of Israel, the Creator, God paredōken autous…eis pathē atimias – “handed them over to shameful passions” (Romans 1:26, my translation). What does he mean by “shameful passions”? As the rest of vv. 26-27 suggest, Paul has in mind some kind of sexual activity, most likely homosexual behavior.[20] Thus, in the apostle’s mind, the rejection of the one true God led to sexual impropriety. 

This seems to be what is going on here in 1 Thessalonians 4:5. The will of God is, per Paul, that the Thessalonians abstain from porneia or sexual immorality. To that end, they are to control their bodies “in holiness and honor” as becoming gentile followers of the god of Israel and “not with passionate desire” as gentiles who do not follow God. In reasoning this way, Paul is following Jewish precedents. Maria Pascuzzi writes, 

Throughout Jewish literature, among the most popular topoi, or themes, used to slander non-Jews…were those related to sexual vice, which was associated with idolatry…. Jews profiled gentiles as hyper-sexualized, sexually deviant people, given to every manner of sexual excess and depravity. This was an effective strategy that functioned to underscore the distinction between Israel and all others and to showcase Jewish moral superiority.[21]

As I already noted, Paul’s worldview is thoroughly Jewish. Consequently, his morality is Jewish as well. Since sexual deviance was connected to pagan worship in the Jewish mind, Paul’s call to abandon porneia should be viewed in the light of Paul’s Jewish worldview in which, Pamela Eisenbaum observes, “idolatry is the sin that leads to all other sins.”[22]

Given the socio-religious context of the Thessalonians, in a city replete with idols and the potential for sexual immorality, and Paul’s apocalyptic worldview, complete with a Satan who tempts, Paul’s call to faithfulness makes good sense. At the end of the letter, he implores them to “be awake and sober” in light of the coming return of Jesus and the wrath upon the unbelieving world that will no doubt accompany it (5:7). He doesn’t want to see all the work that he and his missionary team did among the Thessalonians to become, in the words of 3:5, “unproductive.” As a further barrier to return to idolatry, Paul employs kinship language and instructs them “to not wrong and take advantage in this matter your brother and sister.” To what matter does he refer? In context, it is surely porneia.[23]Abraham Malherbe points out that the command to “not wrong and take advantage” of a fellow believer “fits well with ancient discussions of adultery” found in the works of authors like Dio Chrysostom and Epictetus.[24] Their sexuality should not be used “as a tool of power or exploitation.”[25]

To bolster his rhetoric, Paul adds a warning: “because an avenger is the Lord concerning all of this, as we warned you and emphatically testified.” The idea of the Lord as an avenger is influenced by the Jewish scriptures where the Lord is seen as the judge of the wicked. But the idea of divine recompense on iniquity is also in view in ch. 2 where Paul says in v. 16 that upon the Judeans who killed Jesus “has come the wrath of God to the end” which, as we discussed in episode six, may either be an example of a proleptic aorist or an allusion to recent events viewed through an apocalyptic worldview. Whatever the case may be, the phrase “wrath of God” conveys the idea of wrath from God and is in response to the perceived sins of the Judeans. If they cannot escape God’s anger despite being part of God’s covenant people, what makes these Thessalonians think that they could do so? Again, the exhortation to “stay away from sexual immorality” is about more than just stay away from sexual immorality; it’s about what happens if you don’t

In v. 7, Paul offers the grounds for his instruction on porneia: “For God did not call us for impurity but rather in sanctification.” “The reason…why Paul had spoken so emphatically about God’s vengeance is found in the nature of their call,” Malherbe writes.[26] God did not call the Thessalonians to live in debauchery. Instead, he called them to live a life of holiness. To that end, v. 8 reports that God had given them his holy spirit and, therefore, the one who rejects the words of Paul isn’t rejecting Paul so much as they are rejecting God. This is what he argued in ch. 2 where he says, in v. 13, that he was thankful that they had “received the word of God through hearing us” and “accepted it not as the word of people but rather as what it truly is – the word of God, which is working in you believers.” And since, according to 1:4-5, their election as part of God’s family was demonstrated by the efficacy of the message among them, if the Thessalonians acted in a way contrary to Paul’s kerygma it would be a sign not of the failure of God but proof that God had not chosen them. There was a lot at stake for the Thessalonians if they returned to a life of idolatry and porneia

Verses 9-12 

Having urged them to flee sexual immorality and to live a life pleasing to God, Paul now turns in vv. 9-12 to how the Thessalonians should behave both toward one another and to those on the outside of the community.[27] In vv. 9-10, the apostle describes them as a community characterized by love, having been “taught by God” to do so. The word rendered “taught by God” is theodidaktoi, a word found only here in all of the New Testament and otherwise unattested before this epistle. In other words, this may have been a term that Paul coined.[28] Whatever the source of the term, it coheres with what Paul has been saying all along: his message isn’t his message but God’s. This also gives us another subject to add to the content of Pauline kerygma: the call to philadelphia – love of the brothers. This is something they have not only done well but have done for those even outside of the immediate vicinity of Thessalonica stretching to the larger region of Macedonia. Recall that in ch. 1 of the letter, Paul expressed his gratitude that the Thessalonians had become “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (v. 7). As I noted in episode four, one of the reasons Paul likely chose large cities like Thessalonica in which to spread the gospel was their value as launching pads into neighboring areas. It’s possible, then, that the Thessalonians had begun their own mission endeavors.[29]

If love for one another is to be the behavior characteristic of believers toward those within the community, quietness is to be the behavior of believers towards those without. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly in the last few episodes, the Thessalonian likely faced socio-religious ostracism for their conversion from paganism to following Jesus. They had already rocked the boat, so-to-speak. Lest they draw any more unwanted attention, Paul urges them to “live quietly” and “mind [their] own affairs,” working “with [their] hands” as he had instructed. “Keep your heads down,” he tells them. Remember, according to 2:9 Paul had worked “night and day” so as not to burden the Thessalonians while he lived and preached among them. This was his way of showing the pagan Thessalonians that he cared for them. Now, he urges the same kind of behavior for the now converted Thessalonians but in this case it is in their native context as ex-pagans living among idol worshippers. By living quietly and working with their own hands, they appear to be self-sufficient. 

NEXT TIME

In the next episode we will turn our gaze toward one of the most misunderstood passages in all of the Pauline corpus: 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11. This section is no doubt familiar to virtually anyone who has spent time in an evangelical church since many believe it is a text that speaks of that mysterious event referred to as the Rapture. That is a topic we will explore next time on Amateur Exegesis.


[1] The Greek phrase translated “finally then” is loipon oun” and is a rare construction, appearing in the NT only here. Scholars are divided over whether loipon oun has a temporal meaning (i.e., we are approach the end of the material Paul wishes to cover) or should be understood inferentially (i.e. this next section flows necessarily from what has been said previously). 

[2] The choice of “directives” to render parangelias is influenced by Earl Richard’s translation of the word in his commentary (First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007], 180-181). As he points out, parangelia suggests orders given by a superior to a subordinate. 

[3] That is, using the authority of the Lord Jesus. 

[4] The Greek word skeuos, here rendered “body,” is commonly used to refer to a vessel of some kind, e.g., storage containers, luggage, military equipment, etc. (LSJ, s.v. “σκεῦος”). Some scholars understand skeuos to refer to one’s wife (e.g., Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000], 226-228) but this seems to be highly interpretive. It is certainly possible that Paul is referring to controlling (or, alternatively, acquiring) a wife but he could have easily said so using gynē instead. 

[5] My choice of “pagan” instead of “gentile” (NRSV) is influenced by Paula Fredriksen’s view that the word “pagan,” for all its trouble,” better renders ta ethne than does “gentile” due to the latter’s religiously “neutral” connotations (Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017], 34). While “gentile” denotes a non-Jew, ta ethne emphasizes religious commitments of non-Jews, the primary one being that they worship deities other than the god of Israel. 

[6] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 217.

[7] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 84-85.

[8] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 225.

[9] M. Eugene Boring, I & II Thessalonians, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 141.

[10] For an overview of porneia in classical Greek and New Testament usage, see Kyle Harper, “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 131, no. 2 (2011), 366-379.

[11] Florence M. Gillman, Mary Ann Beavis, and Hye-Ran Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, Wisdom Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016), 69.

[12] Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions, Brian McNeil, translator (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 107. 

[13] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 261.

[14] Euripides, The Bacchae, 221-224, quoted in Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 111.

[15] Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 261-262.

[16] Monya Stubbs, “1 Thessalonians,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, third edition (Louisville, KY: The Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 590.

[17] Boring, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 145.

[18] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 224.

[19] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 198. 

[20] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1988), 73-74.

[21] Maria Pascuzzi, “The Rhetorical Function of Invective, or Negative-Stereotyping,” in Gillman, Beavis, and Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, 71.

[22] Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 152. 

[23] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 147; cf. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 188.

[24] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 232.

[25] Edward Pillar, “1 Thessalonians,” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez, editors (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 579.

[26] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 233.

[27] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 242.

[28] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 149.

[29] Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2001), 221.

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