Formations 09.18.2016: Holiness

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

They told us to find something holy.

We went up and took the Bible off the lectern in the fellowship hall and brought it back to the table. That wasn’t it, so we grabbed the Baptist Hymnal of 1991 from the piano and were wrong again. They let us try to figure it out until we gave up. Then they pointed us to the white panel of lattice separating the soundboard from the rest of the room.

Door from Chepstow Castle in Wales (Wikimedia Commons, Andy Dingley)

Door from Chepstow Castle in Wales (Wikimedia Commons, Andy Dingley)

I wonder if our moms meant to not only teach us something about homophones but also to show us that what is holey and holy sets things apart, marking the space where the sacred comes right up against the secular. I don’t want to think they meant all of this. Somehow it lessens the magic of it all. But even if they did, they didn’t have to say a word about holiness—just holeyness—to point us toward its complexity.

Paul praises the Thessalonians for how they’ve lived. Still, he encourages them to “do better in how you live and please God” (v. 1). Paul gives them strong, if nonspecific, instruction to refrain from sexual immorality. Commentators disagree about what exactly he means here as well as about what constitutes, not only sexual immorality, but immorality more generally.

We can probably agree that violence displeases God, but at other times, what pleases God isn’t as clear. Does God care about the ways we move from place to place, the foods we eat, the businesses we support, the ways we earn money, the places we live?

I don’t know. These seem to be issues where a good bit of healthy argument might help us.

But Paul’s teaching on sexuality seems to culminate with the instruction to not harm their brothers and sisters and to continue practicing the love that they show each other (vv. 6, 9). Holiness looks a lot like what we do to water the seeds of love and mercy and grace that God has planted in us.

I have, like many people, learned a lot about these seeds at church. I learned that love looks weird when people sat under the table with me that time I was embarrassed about dropping my food tray. And I learned a little bit more about joy from the man who always did the Donald Duck impressions and from the man who tried to teach me how to do that missing-finger trick. In church, I learned that holiness has something to do with treating every person as God might.

Paul tells us, however, that holiness does not only affect how we interact with those in our communities. Instead, it helps us “behave appropriately toward outsiders” (v. 12). Again we get to fight over what holiness requires of us.

Our holiness has led us to welcome people who have no other place into our congregations, homes, and families. But this same drive to include others has, at other times, inclined us to abandon our struggle for good.

Our pursuit to live distinctively in ways that please God has prevented us from following people who would dehumanize and objectify others. But in this drive, we have also shut ourselves off from those who look and act and think differently than us.

The way isn’t easy, but then again, it never has been easy to please God, who somehow shares our image but is still wholly other.


• Who are the examples of holiness that you have learned the most from? How can you be holy in a similar way? Will it look the same or different?
• What would it look like to be distinct from the society that surrounds us? What are the most pervasive messages you hear preached daily?
• How can we maintain our Christian identity while being open to the lessons of people who look and act and believe differently than us?

Reference Shelf

Pleasing God

The expression “to live and please God” underscores a fundamental character of the Pauline ethic (4:1). “Pleasing God” has already been used in the letter as a way of describing the apostles’ motivation (2:4), and now it comes as an appeal to the readers. Rather than relating human conduct to a legal code or to a particular anthropology or to an understanding of the nature of society, Paul orients human life to God.

Generally in the ancient world, morality was more in the purview of philosophy than religion. While philosophers, writing about morals, did provide a theoretical framework, it often had to do with what made for a sane or rational life. In contrast, the initial section of exhortations in 1 Thessalonians (4:1-12) lays a heavy emphasis on God as the reference point for human conduct (see Malherbe 1983, 250-251).

Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philipians, 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 218–19.


Just as the baby develops from crawling to walking, the person also grows and learns from those around her how to se appropriate ethical boundaries. Those boundaries are influenced by context, culture, and chronology, just as successful walking is conditioned by good genes, a smooth surface, a good diet, and age.

Some ethical boundaries are unchanging. For Paul and this young community, however, the boundary markers for ethical behavior need to be fixed more concretely for the sake of the well-being of the community. The ethical boundaries have become blurred or perhaps not even constructed fully. Paul needs to remind them of their transgressions. They are not controlling their sexual passions. Paul does not give multiple sets of rules for controlling sexual urges, but he gives them the basic rule of ethics that is unchangeable, even with the possibility of shifting boundary markers. Paul’s constant and consistent rule is that we are to love one another. That marker is permanent in Christian communities. And from that unchanging point, Paul provides moral directives customized for the Thessalonian community.

Linda McKinnish Bridges, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary ( Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 23–25.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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