Holiness is all-encompassing.
In Leviticus 19:2, God made this pronouncement:
Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
No one else, in the world, understood holiness. There was no way to be holy in other faiths, because holiness was never a requirement. To worship any number of national or imperial gods, in the ancient world, meant to live your life as a constant appeasement, fearful that anything you did would upset and anger the gods. In turn, they would punish you.
So for God to require holiness was a big step. He included, in his ownership, the people who followed him, and he made them holy. Sanctified. They were special. They belonged to God.
Holiness was such a profound ideal that throughout Leviticus 19, there were lists of behaviors for holy people. Some of them strike us as strange.
Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. (Leviticus 19:27)
Others are incredibly familiar.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people. (Leviticus 19:26)
These moral behaviors were different from the surrounding culture of the Israelites. God needed his people to be distinct, by the way they dressed, to the way they lived.
Paul used the idea of holiness when he wrote to the Thessalonians. Like ancient Israel, they were establishing a new culture in the midst of a very pagan culture. Yet, they had sworn their allegiance to God. But holiness wasn’t a common ideal.
Here is the Word of God, in 1 Thessalonians 4:3.
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality …
Holiness, for this gathering of believers, was apparent by the avoidance of sexual immorality.
And again, we find this idea. This morning, as I read through these three chapters, my first thought was of how many times Paul speaks of this avoidance.
The ancient Greek and Roman cultures had no concept of sexual immorality. Men had mistresses, concubines, and wives. To say that these Roman men had no problem with these various sexual relationships would be an understatement. It was just their life.
So to avoid this sort of lifestyle was very different. Men, and women, who refused this lifestyle would be immediately and distinctly different in Thessalonica.
But Paul was probably speaking in a very specific manner here. One of the greatest things about the Word of God is its rawness. Most of our English translations are afraid of that. Let me show you what Paul may have actually said.
Here is how the NIV84 translates 1 Thessalonians 4:4.
… that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable …
Yet here is a good literal translation, straight from the Greek text, from the KJV:
That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor …
Maybe the NIV, and others, have the word “vessel” correctly translated as “body.” But maybe not. Maybe Paul is being very specific, and very frank here — some scholars believe Paul used the word “vessel” to refer, specifically, to a person’s sexual organs.
And if that is true, then Paul was doing some pretty amazing teaching.
Your entire body, from head to toe, including your sexual organs, belongs to God.
Holiness is a complete concept, not just reserved for your emotions or attitudes. It is all encompassing.
And sex isn’t separate from that.
It’s so powerful, that Paul finished this brief passage of teaching with this final admonishment:
For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit. (4:7, 8)
The basic call of God is to be different. Act different. See sex differently. See culture differently. See your bodies differently.
Because God sees you differently.