“That ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour” (1 Thessalonians 4:3b-4).
Our last study in Thessalonians was on sanctification, a subject we will return to as we proceed, but it must be active in our daily lives to be real. In these verses Paul mentions an area that reveals the difference between holiness and hypocrisy.
The most common sins in every society are those regarding sexual impurity. The Greek word for “fornication” is “porneia” which indicates all kinds of sexual impropriety, and where we derive the word pornography. The new believers in Thessalonica had to deal with this issue from the outset. They had become accustomed to seeing immorality openly displayed, and no doubt some of them had practiced the same before coming to Christ. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). To obey Christ there has to be a radical change to a person attitude towards sexual standards. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30) … “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). “God’s plan is to make you holy, and that entails first of all a clean cut with sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 J.B. Phillip’s paraphrase). Therefore we cannot minimize the importance of the teaching.
The vessel is obviously our body. As our nation is fast departing from Judeo-Christian standards, we see an increase in all kinds of perversion. It is said that Rome was destroyed from within for this very reason. When a nation is no longer ruled from Heaven, it immediately comes under the dictatorship of Hell. “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:17). We see exactly the same thing played out in ancient Israel. King Solomon is a good example of what happens when the heart is turned to immorality instead of God. “But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and went not fully after the LORD, as did David his father. Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods” (1 Kings 11:1-8). We remember that Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed by God because of sexual impurity [homosexuality] (Genesis 19:4-10).
In abstaining from immorality we learn how to “possess” our vessel, that is, how to conduct ourselves in a fallen world. The word “abstain” literally means “to hold oneself off”. Paul uses a similar term in 1 Thessalonians 5:22-23, “Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The story of Joseph’s resistance to the overtures of Potiphar’s wife illustrates Paul’s teaching (see Genesis 39:7-12). “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
“That ye abstain from fornication – A beautiful transition from sanctification to a single branch of the contrary; and this shows that nothing is so seemingly distant, or below our thoughts, but we have need to guard against it” (John Wesley). Every part of our lives must come under the control and guidance of Christ. We need to learn how to live holy and righteously, and we will not be led in that direction by adopting the standards of the world. “Let not thine heart decline to her ways, go not astray in her paths. For she hath cast down many wounded: yea, many strong men have been slain by her. Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death” (Proverbs 7:25-27).