William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

The Summons To Purity (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

4:1-8 Finally then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you have received instructions from us as to how you must behave to please God, even so you do behave, that you may go on from more to more. For you know what orders we gave you through the Lord Jesus; for this is God's will for you, that you should live consecrated lives, I mean, that you should keep yourselves from fornication, that each of you should know how to possess his own body in consecration and in honour, not in the passion of lustful desire, like the Gentiles who do not know God, that in this kind of thing you should not transgress against your brother or try to take advantage of him. For of all these things the Lord is the avenger, as we have already told you and testified to you. For God did not call us to impurity but to consecration. Therefore he who rejects this instruction does not reject a man, but rejects the God who gives his holy Spirit to us.

It may seem strange that Paul should go to such lengths to inculcate sexual purity in a Christian congregation; but two things have to be remembered. First, the Thessalonians had only newly come into the Christian faith and they had come from a society in which chastity was an unknown virtue; they were still in the midst of such a society and the infection of it was playing upon them all the time. It would be exceedingly difficult for them to unlearn what they had for all their lives accepted as natural. Second, there never was an age in history when marriage vows were so disregarded and divorce so disastrously easy. The phrase which we have translated "that each of you should possess his own body in consecration and in honour" could be translated, "that each of you may possess his own wife in consecration and in honour."

Amongst the Jews marriage was theoretically held in the highest esteem. It was said that a Jew must die rather than commit murder, idolatry or adultery. But, in fact, divorce was tragically easy. The Deuteronomic law laid it down that a man could divorce his wife if he found "some uncleanness" or "some matter of shame" in her. The difficulty was in defining what was a "matter of shame." The stricter Rabbis confined that to adultery alone; but there was a laxer teaching which widened its scope to include matters like spoiling the dinner by putting too much salt in the food; going about in public with her head uncovered; talking with men in the streets; speaking disrespectfully of her husband's parents in his presence; being a brawling woman (which was defined as a woman whose voice could be heard in the next house). It was only to be expected that the laxer view prevailed.

In Rome for the first five hundred and twenty years of the Republic there had not been a single divorce; but now under the Empire, as it has been put, divorce was a matter of caprice. As Seneca said, "Women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married." In Rome the years were identified by the names of the consuls; but it was said that fashionable ladies identified the years by the names of their husbands. Juvenal quotes an instance of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. Morality was dead.

In Greece immorality had always been quite blatant. Long ago Demosthenes had written: "We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day-to-day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes." So long as a man supported his wife and family there was no shame whatsoever in extra-marital relationships.

It was to men and women who had come out of a society like that that Paul wrote this paragraph. What may seem to many the merest commonplace of Christian living was to them startlingly new. One thing Christianity did was to lay down a completely new code in regard to the relationship of men and women; it is the champion of purity and the guardian of the home. This can not be affirmed too plainly in our own day which again has seen a pronounced shift in standards of sexual behaviour.

In a book entitled What I Believe, a symposium of the basic beliefs of a selection of well-known men and women, Kingsley Martin writes: "Once women are emancipated and begin to earn their own living and are able to decide for themselves whether or not they have children, marriage customs are inevitably revised. 'Contraception,' a well-known economist once said to me, 'is the most important event since the discovery of fire.' Basically he was right, for it fundamentally alters the relations of the sexes, on which family life is built. The result in our day is a new sexual code; the old 'morality' which winked at male promiscuity but punished female infidelity with a life-time of disgrace, or even, in some puritanical cultures, with a cruel death, has disappeared. The new code tends to make it the accepted thing that men and women can live together as they will, but to demand marriage of them if they decide to have children."

The new morality is only the old immorality brought up-to-date. There is a clamant necessity in Britain, as there was in Thessalonica, to place before men and women the uncompromising demands of Christian morality, "for God did not call us to impurity but to consecration."

- William Barclay's Daily Study Bible