A little background on Crete is in order as begin our series on the book of Titus.

Most of the people there came from a mercenary background. Violence, greed and sexual corruption were everywhere. When Paul said that all Cretans were liars, he was quoting a Cretan writer named Epimenides who said that about his own people. The Greeks actually used the word ‘cretize’ as a synonymn for ‘lying’.   Look at the list of elder qualifications again and you will see that the explanation accompanying the list seems to target the stereotypical behavior of Cretan men. As you might expect, the gods the Cretans worshipped (primarily Zeus) were characterized by the same things that characterized the people. This was where the church was trying to grow.

Paul, servant of God and emissary of Jesus, the Anointed One, on behalf of the faith that is accepted by God’s chosen people and the knowledge of the undeniable truth that leads to godliness.

We rest in this hope we’ve been given—the hope that we will live forever with our God—the hope that He proclaimed ages and ages ago (even before time began). And our God is no liar; He is not even capable of uttering lies. So we can be sure that it is in His exact right time that He released His word into the world—through the preaching that God our Savior has commanded into my care.

 To you, Titus, my dear son birthed through our shared faith: may grace and peace rest upon you from God the Father and Jesus the Anointed, our Savior.

One of the first things Paul reminds Titus of is that God is not a liar. The second is that God is trustworthy, and we can confidently place our hope in Him.  God is involved with the world, and His plan and His timing are perfect. Then Paul starts to put structure in place (this will continue throughout the letter). The church community is going to need both moral and communal guidelines if they are going to move into the freedom Christ offers and establish a compelling outpost of the Kingdom in a remarkably needy place. 

 I left you on Crete so you could sort out the chaos and the unfinished business and appoint elders over communities in each and every city according to my earlier orders. Here’s what you should look for in an elder: he should be above suspicion; if he is married, he should be the husband of one wife, raise children who believe, and be a person who can’t be accused of rough and raucous living. It is necessary that any overseer you appoint be blameless, as he is entrusted with God’s mission. Look for someone who isn’t pompous or quick to anger, who is not a drunkard, violent, or chasing after seedy gain or worldly fame. Find a person who lovingly opens his home to others; who honors goodness; who is thoughtful, fair, devout, self-controlled; and who clings to the faithful word that was taught because he must be able, not only to encourage people with sound teaching, but also to challenge those who are against it.

You see antagonists everywhere; they are rebellious, loose-lipped, and deceitful (especially those who are from the circumcised lot). Their talk must be quashed—their mouths sealed up because impure teaching is flying out of their lips and overturning entire families for the sake of their own squalid gain.  I’ll tell you, even their own prophet was heard saying, “Chronic liars, foul beasts, and lazy gluttons—that’s who you’ll meet in Crete.” And he’s right! This is why we have to scold them, sometimes severely, so they will be sound in the faith  and be able to ignore Jewish myths[i] as well as any commandments given by those who turn away from the truth.

He warns about false teachers:[ii] specifically, the Judaizers ("those of the circumcision”), though there were others. These teachers insisted that keeping external rules – diet, circumcision, washing - equaled purity.  And while these weren’t in and of themselves bad things, these false teachers were saying these outward actions had the power to save or to make righteous. This didn’t address issues of the purity of someone’s heart.[iii] 

This is a problem (think of how Jesus challenged the heart in the Sermon On The Mount). People become pure from the inside out after God does a work inside.  They become "new creatures in Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:17) who are "born anew" (John 3:3). We don’t become pure by scrubbing the outside.

 Listen: to those who are pure, all things are pure. But to those who are tainted, stained, and unbelieving, nothing is pure because their minds and their consciences are polluted. They claim, “I know God,” but their actions are a slap to His face. They are wretched, disobedient, and useless to any worthwhile cause.”

* * * * *

That’s a claim that would have rattled his Jewish audience – and frankly, it's a phrase that can be easily misunderstood by our 21st century ears.[iv]

1. Christian purity is moral purity.

John Gill’s Expository On The New Testament references a Jewish commentary on the issue of pure and impure people:

`The flesh of the most holy things is forbidden to strangers, though pure; the flesh of things lightly holy is free to strangers that are pure, but forbidden to them that are defiled.''

This is one of many teaching you can find on the privileges and restrictions for pure and impure people. The more ceremonially clean you were – the more outward appearance of purity -  the more privileges you got.  When God said He was looking on the heart while people were looking on the outside (1 Samuel 16:7), I believe he was referring to situations like this.

Titus has the task of re-teaching the concept of genuine purity. Genuine purity is the internal purity of the heart and soul that only Christ can bring, and it will manifest itself in pure living.  Once again, that will be about morally pure living, not ceremonially washing your hands and not touching dead things.

2.  Morally Impure Things Don’t Become Pure Because Our Heart Is Pure.

To understand this better, let’s establish what biblical, spiritual purity is. In 1 Timothy 4:4, Paul stated that "every creature (everything?) created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected.” Barnes’ Notes On The Bible gives a good clarification on what this means:

“It is good in its place; good for the purpose for which God made it. But it should not be inferred that a thing which is poisonous in its nature is good for food because it is a creation of God. It is good only in its place, and for the ends for which he intended it.”

When something is existing in its God-given intent and purpose – when it is unmixed or unalloyed with anything else (the literal translation of the word ‘pure’) -  it is pure.  Paul insisted in his letter to the Roman church that there is nothing that, when used with the intent and purpose for which God created it, is unclean in itself (Romans 14:14, 20).

To the pure (people who live in their God-designed intent and purpose and are unalloyed with the world), all things are pure (they recognize and use everything within God’s design).

Notice this is very different from saying that even impure things become pure with our magical pure touch. Two examples should suffice.

  • Pornography  or promiscuity do not become miraculously okay because Christians think that they are pure enough to make it okay.
  • Christians can’t naively dabble in the occult and walk away unscathed. Being a Christian doesn’t change the nature of a Ouija board or a tarot card reading or seances.

There is no sense whatsoever anywhere in Scripture that suggest we can engage in sin and somehow sanctify it because we are good people deep inside.[v]  Paul is not excusing sin. He’s saying that we are pure or impure because of the state of our heart.  Our lifestyle flows from our heart; our heart provides the lenses through which we see everything. That’s why we must guard our hearts; they are the “wellspring of life” and determine the course of our lives (Proverbs 4:23).

Eating bacon and shrimp won’t make your heart impure, and eating kosher food or washing your hands just right won’t purify your soul. If you haven’t been cleansed by Jesus on the inside, you can do everything right externally and still be defiled.

3. Even Pure Things Can Become Impure To Us If Our Heart Is Impure

When I was a baby, I didn’t know what things were for or where they were supposed to be, and I left a trail of chaos behind me. I ate dirt. Seriously. It was not one of my better moments. 

I don’t eat dirt anymore (!), but I have a remarkable capacity to clutter things.  Really, I can leave a mess anywhere relatively quickly. You should see the interior of my truck, or the floor on my side of the bed. But I know I have this capacity because I know what clean is. I know what a ‘pure’ kitchen and bathroom should look like.

When you know what clean is, at least you have a frame of reference for how you are doing. If you don’t know what clean is, everything you touch becomes unclean.

If our soul is not clean (purified by God so that we know and love the intent and purpose for all things God has created), we will make everything we touch unclean because we won’t understand how God designed it.

  • If we don’t know God’s intent and purpose for money, we will use it selfishly rather than for God’s glory.
  • If we don’t know God’s intent and purpose for sex, we will use and abuse others rather than delighting in and honoring them as part of married life.
  • If we don’t know God’s intent and purpose for marriage, we will keep thinking it’s about happiness when it’s actually about holiness.
  • If we don’t know God’s intent and purpose for language, we will think we have the right to say anything we want and we will destroy people with our words.
  • If we don’t know God’s intent and purpose for education, the arts, work…

This isn’t just about things. This is relevant to what we believe as Christians; specifically, how we understand the Bible. The Judaizers were distorting God’s Law. We can do this with Scripture today as well if we aren’t careful. We can take good and true teachings and distort them.

  • “Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); God is always faithful when we are not (2 Timothy 2:13); God’s grace abounds (Romans 5:20)” can remind us that God is so, so good and motivate us to greater worship… or it can be used as an excuse to do whatever we want. 
  • “Ask and you shall receive (Matthew 7:7); God gives good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11); give and see if I won’t open up the storehouses” (Malachi 3:10) can remind us that God takes care of us and blesses our faithfulness for His glory and the sake of His Kingdom… or it can make us think God is a cosmic slot machine where if we pull the right levers we get rich.
  • “You will have none of these diseases (Exodus 15:26) and He heals our diseases” (Psalm 103:3) can be seen as a get-out-of-sick-jail free card… or it can be seen as a reminder that God cares for us and works miracles in His time and for His purposes for our good and His glory.

To those whom God has made pure, everything – the Scriptures, our bodies, the things around us - is pure; that is, they are understood, valued and used and God intended them to be. To those not made pure by God, everything becomes devalued and misused outside of God’s created design.

  • Why do our minds wander when we see someone attractive?
  • Why is the first thought after our bonus on how we can spend it on ourselves rather than how God can be glorified?
  • Why can we turn ordinary comments into, “That’s what she said”?
  • Why do we daydream about how we could have humiliated someone in that argument we had?
  • Why do we use food and entertainment to avoid life?
  • Why do we use work as an excuse to avoid resolving conflict at home?
  • Why do we twist Scripture to make it say what we want it to say?

Becaus are hearts, while undergoing ongoing purification by God, will never be perfetly pure on this side of heaven. God does a miraculaous work of purification throught the act of salvation (read 1 Timothy - Paul uses the language of purity everywhere!), and God continues this purification process through what we call sanctification. But this life is marred by sin, and even our gloriously new hearts are under attack from the sins that so easily beset us. It's part of why we mourn will all of creation (Romans 8) as we wait for the New Heaven and Earth. 

In Psalm 24:3-4, David asks who can stand in the holy presence of God. His answer? “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” The one whose entire life is characterized by purity. This is bad news in one sense: on our own, we can never purify our hearts; even after God gives us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26), we still manage to soil it. Is it any wonder that David also asked God to do what is impossible for us to do: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)?

While God has given us agency- we are called to participate in our purity by living within God's path for lifen(1 Peter 1:22) -we must have that miraculous work of God in us so that our hearts are renewed and our eyes are opened in ways that only God can do it. Then we will see the goodness of God and His creation – we will see how He designed the world to be – and we will be able to live in our God-given purity through the power and for the glory of God.

[i] After the Babylonian Captivity, many rabbis began to assign mystical meanings to numbers and apply it to the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud,  the rabbinical interpretations of Scripture. By the time Paul was writing, they were also taking ideas from Hebrew and Greek numerology and arriving at increasingly fanciful interpretations.

[ii] For previous sermons on the biblical focus on false teachers, see two sermons from our 1 Thessalonians series: Teachers Good And Bad (Part 1) https://clgonline.org/teachers-good-and-bad-part-1-2/ and Teachers Good And Bad ({Part 2) https://clgonline.org/teachers-good-and-bad-part-2-2/

[iii]  “It is sin, and that only, which takes its rise from the heart, lies in thought, and is either expressed by the mouth, or performed by some outward action, which defiles the man, and renders him loathsome, abominable, and odious in the sight of God. The heart is the source of all evil; the pollution of it is very early, and very general, reaching to all the powers and faculties of the soul; which shows the ignorance of some, and folly of others, that talk of, and trust to the goodness of their hearts; and also the necessity of new hearts and right spirits being formed and created; and that the sinful thoughts of the heart, and the lusts thereof, are defiling to men; and that they are sinful in God's account, and abominable in his sight; that they are loathsome to sensible sinners, and are to be repented of, and forsaken by them; and need the pardoning grace of God or otherwise will be brought into judgment. Sinful words, which, through the abundance of wickedness in the heart, come out of the mouth, have the same influence and effect: words are of a defiling nature; with these men pollute both themselves and others: the tongue, though a little member, defiles the whole body; and evil and corrupt communication proceeding out of the mouth, corrupts the best of manners, and renders men loathsome to God, and liable to his awful judgment. And this is the nature of all sinful actions; they are what God can take no pleasure in; they are disagreeable, to a sensible mind; they leave a stain, which can never be removed by any thing the creature can do; nothing short of the blood of Christ can cleanse from it; and inasmuch as they are frequently committed, there is need of continual application to it. These are now the things men should be concerned about, as of a defiling nature; and not about meats and drinks, and the manner of using them, whether with hands washed, or unwashed.”  (Gill’s Exposition Of The Entire Bible)

[iv] Check out Precept Austin’s explanation of this passage. http://www.preceptaustin.org/titus_114-15

[v] The Children of Israel entered Canaan were commanded to avoid the practices of the pagan religions (Deuteronomy 12:30). Paul wrote to the Romans, "I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil"  (Romans 16:19). The Bible warns us to "flee the flesh" (2 Timothy 2:22) and to avoid things that could “entangle” us (Hebrews 12:1)

The Potter and the Clay (Part 2)

In the previous post, we looked at how the Potter pulls the clay from the ground and prepares it for His use. He "wedges" it to get rid of air holes, then throws it into the center of the wheel. After that, of course,  the shaping begins.

“Opening the form” happens after centering.  The potter puts his finger into the very center of the clay to create a well. As He pulls the clay towards him, the clay begins to respond.  Re-centering happens throughout this entire process. We are constantly in need of aligning ourselves with God and his ways. There is an interesting incident in Jeremiah18:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”
      We all get marred by others:  cruel words, physical abuse; emotional manipulation.  We call them scars.  But sometimes we mar ourselves – we make choices that catch up with us.  And it’s not that the Potter has to throw us away, but there is a re-centering, and maybe a new well, a new direction in the plan.  The Potter is not stumped, but the pot may take on a different shape on the way to fulfilling the Potter’s purpose.
    Sometimes our lives take a path we don’t expect.  We had this plan – we were going to do THIS with our life – but we got marred, and something about that marring changed the shape of our lives.  And we still have the same purpose we always did, but now we might get there a different way.  
Pulling up the wall (the sides of the pot), the Potter's hands no longer fully surround the clay.  The hands change position to one hand on the inside and one on the outside and the wheel speed slows considerably.  Gentle pressure inward forces the clay upward.  Again, pressure must be steady or the form will shift off center.  God is doing something inside us, but He’s also working on the outside.  When this happens to us, there are things happening that no one else can see – but there are also things people can see.  God doesn’t just work on what we do [external]; God doesn’t just work on who we are [internal]. He works on both.
     The Potter does not need to use much pressure to make the clay take shape.  The clay is very sensitive to the touch.  The Pot has a sure foundation; the grains are aligned with the Potter’s plan; the pot is still near to the Potter.  In the same way, the believer is grounded in the truth, aligned with the will of God, and confident that the work God is doing is making something beautiful.
Once the walls are lifted then the potter begins to apply a pressure to specific places on the wall to create a shape. The wheel is turning much slower now.  The potter is now using small nudges that make big changes to the pot.  Centering really is not needed any longer at this point; just a balancing of the form.
      This is the gentle nudge, but it is HUGE in shaping the pot.   Question: Do we believe God speaks to us?  Are we sensitive to His touch?  Are we so surrendered and submitted to God that we are living in the awareness of His presence in our lives – His purpose, His plan? If we want our lives to really take shape we must be sensitive to His nudging – prayer, the Bible, godly friends, and our conscience.
The pot is removed from the wheel and set aside to dry before it is returned to the wheel for final trimming.  Re-centering occurs before trimming the foot of the pot.  Usually, if the potter is good, a few gentle taps move the pot on center.  The potter trims a "foot" on the pot.  Another foundation for the pot to sit on. 
 It is important that there is a consistency of thickness throughout the pot, or it will crack in the drying process.  There is a balance to the Christian life. Faith or works?  Intellect or emotion?  Long-term planning or in-the-moment response?  Well, yes. For example,  if we rely only on scripture and never learn to "know" God spirit to spirit - hearing his voice, feeling conviction, becoming spiritually discerning - we will not be able to be used as the potter intended.  But if we neglect the word(truth) and only rely on what we discern we will not be used as intended. Balance is crucial in forming the life of the believer.
     The drying process is a good analogy of the times when we know we are waiting on God.  The pot remains confident that the potter will return to finish the work he began (Philippians 1:6) This is Joseph as he languished in prison…Ruth as she waited on Boaz…Jesus as he waited for his ministry…. the disciples as they waited between Jesus's ascension and the feast of Pentecost…this is us as we wait at times when all we see happening is that we are drying, when actually we are being prepared for the next step in God’s process. 
The pot is fired.  Once the heat of the kiln reaches a specific temp. the clay is transformed and is no longer able to go back to the earth as soft clay.  The actual chemical composition has changed.  In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist said: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” 
If the pot never experiences the fire, the heat, the clay will never mature.  It will never be able to be fully used for the Potter’s purpose.  Trials change us. This is a pivotal point in the life of the believer.  We have to be careful that we don’t reach a place anywhere in the pot making process where we fear the fire of refinement.  Again, it is all about surrender.  
The Glazing is the final adornment process. Glaze is actually clay that has melted to make glass. Its purpose is to enhance the look of the pot, to make it attractive. 
   There is an importance placed on having a glaze that "fits" the clay body you use.  The two need to mature together in the kiln at the right temperature  and will hopefully fuse with no imperfections.   
   This sounds a lot to me like our testimony of forgiveness, grace, and hope. .  It comes from us, the clay, but it’s made possible by the Potter.  

Then the pot is filled. That’s the purpose of a vessel – to hold something. 

  • Romans 5:5 “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
  • Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem…”
Now, we are ready to be poured out in the service of others.  God molds us for His purpose; God fills us with the love and power of His Holy Spirit, and now God’s vessel pours God’s life and truth into the world, to the glory of God.
And through it all, we have The Potter - steady, unchanging, trustworthy, faithful, a solid rock, a firm foundation. 
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to [us] …We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6 )

What Happens in Thessalonica Stays in Thessalonica

(Part One of a Three Part Series on Sex, Purity, and Justice) 

     One of the most popular ads right now promises us a world in which we can do some incredibly stupid and maybe even fun things in Vegas, and not have them effect us at all. Unfortunately, it's just not true. Expense tabs, debt, compromises of morality, memories, and hotel towels seem to find their way back home, even in the movies.

    As much as we may want this to be true, wanting something to be true doesn't actually make it so.  I'm sure sky diving instructors don't comfort nervous jumpers by saying, "Don't worry?  This event is totally separate from the rest of your life! What happens in the air stays in the air."  For that matter, ask employers if what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.

    What we do even in Vegas matters.  The Hangover was a raunchy movie, but even it had the decency to point out that what happened in Vegas had a ripple effect. Skydivers have to land; the words we post in social media are words we say in the real world, and they stay with us.

     We can’t segment our lives. Our experiences are all connected.  TV is episodic; life is not.  What happens in Vegas become one small story in the bigger story of my life, and that narrative does not stop.  Ever.  What happens in Vegas will stay with me the rest of my life.

    We can’t separate the physical part of us from the spiritual part of us, either.  I've talked to many people who have been determined to believe that “What happens on the outside of my body stays on the outside.”  Once again, this is not the way the world works.  What we do on the outside effects the inside.
 2,000 years ago, Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica.  In the first several chapters he noted:
  • they were full of faith (they had turned from idols to the living God);
  • they loved each other and seemed to understand community well; 
  • they were enduring persecution well; 
  • their reputation had spread far and wide. 
   In spite of all these good things, there was a problem to address. Apparently, there were a number of people who were convinced that “What happens in Thessalonica stays in Thessalonica.”  
"As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.  Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  This is the will (desire, purpose) of God: your sanctification  (purity): You should avoid sexual immorality." (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3)

     For Paul's readers, the word he chose for "living"would have invoked an image of walking about in an ordinary day. Paul starts this section by saying they are pleasing God (two thumbs up!) but there is more they need to know.  In this case, they needed to focus very specifically on an area that causing them to stumble:  sexual purity.

     The word translated as “sexual immorality” provides an umbrella under which a lot of sexual activity fits: promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, pornography… The list goes on.  Basically, their sex lives needed the purity of sanctification.

     At the time Paul wrote this, the Gentiles in Thessolonica lived in a culture saturated with distorted views of marriage, sex, and family. Historians recorded upper class Roman ladies identifying years not by chronological numbers, but by the names of their ever-changing husbands. One Greek writer noted: ”We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”

     Paul was writing to a church with people who had this lifestyle embedded in them. They had to learn a new way of viewing sex.
    “ The most crucial theological truth about sexuality is that God loves sex and evil hates it.  God made us sexual, and He glories in his plan for our union and joy.  Evil hates what God loves, and it has found that more harm can be done through sex then perhaps any other means.  Often the chief battleground for the human soul is the terrain of sexuality.”                                    - Dan Allender


  Here in an important biblical truth:  sex is holy and sacred, and act of self-sacrifice, intimacy, commitment and trust.

    That's why Christians make such a big deal about it. Sex is not just another thing we do, like shopping.  Sex effects our souls. And because it's such a big deal, God has provided pretty clear instructions about how we are supposed to live in this area.

   First, he sets a boundary: sex is to be experienced only within marriage.  This may seem restrictive, but because of God's purposes for sex, that boundary is necessary.  Rivers need banks; cars need roads; stock markets need regulation; my blood needs veins and arteries.  In every area of life, we see how boundaries maximize the ability of things to flourish. Sex is no exception.
     Second, God intends sex to fulfill at least four key purposes: procreation, unity, personal formation, and pleasure.  While some of these can clearly be experienced out of marriage, understating how all four work together to fulfill God's purpose is important.

    Procreation: Sex brings babies.  This is not a secret. That fact that we can avoid the consequence of children does not negate that this is a key reason we have sex.  Children are a blessing, a gift from God. Not only do we ensure the continuation of humanity, but we have an opportunity to experience a glimpse of the kind of love God has toward us. God is our Father in a spiritual sense; how important is it, then, that earthly fathers embody that type of fatherhood God gives us - loving, committed, just, pure, holy?
     Unity: Sex is meant to seal bonds of trust, love and commitment.  That's one reason God sets marriage as a boundary line: during sex, we communicate with our bodies that we have made a covenant; we can now give each other everything, baring body in soul in mutual trust and self-sacrifice. It's no secret that sex within marriage might not fully fulfill this design.  Sex outside of marriage simply cannot.
     Personal formation: Sex refines us. Two very different people, with different levels of desire, different schedules, different libidos, different love languages, different personalities. different....everything.... must make this funny, embarrassing, awkward, intimate and beautiful act become good and meaningful for both people.  That's not necessarily easy. It will require patience and selflessness.  Within the safety of covenant, we have the freedom to explore sex without worrying that our marriage partner will leave because we don't do everything just right. Over time, we become better people as we learn to understand, appreciate, and whole-heartedly embrace our spouse completely.
     Pleasure:  Some may argue this is a very nice side effect, and it may well be simply a nice perk.  But if pleasure is one of the characteristics of life in eternity with God, I'm not sure why He wouldn't purposefully give us glimpses now.    

 “And ‘control your own vessel’ in a way that is holy and honorable, not overpowered by lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (1 Thessalonians  4:4-5)

    "Control your own vessel" is not really bumper sticker material.  It's a phrase that seems archaic, but seeing how writers use it other places in the Bible can be helpful. Based on its placement elsewhere, "vessel" can be read two possible ways:
  • "Control yourself sexually in a way that is holy and honorable." (See a comparable example in 2 Corinthians 4:7)
  • "Relate to your spouse sexually in a way that is holy and honorable. (See a comparable example in 1 Peter 3:7)
   It's a brilliant word choice.  No one in the Thessalonican church could honestly read the letter, then look around the room and say, “The rest of you should really listen up!!!”  Married or single, there is a holy and honorable way to handle your sex drive.
    Then Paul makes an important distinction: those who know God are supposed to know the purpose of sex; those who do not know God don't have the same advantage.  Those who know God are supposed to know why sex matters; those who do not know God have fun but ultimately aimless sex, unhooked from deeper notions of design and purpose. "Just do it!" would have been a relevant slogan 2,000 years ago.
     Here's an analogy: If someone gave you a car and taught you to drive safely, but didn’t tell you why you should drive, would that be enough?  Sure, driving is fun; the GPS is really cool; the leather seats are nice; learning safe driving tips is helpful.  
    But at some point wouldn't you say, “What’s the point?  This is great as far as road trips go, but where am I going exactly?  My GPS shows me where I AM, but not where I’m going or where I should be - or why I'm even on this road heading to that place. I might be having a lot of fun going somewhere bad. Wait - is this Michigan Stadium?  Ahhhhh!”
  In Thessalonica they had nice, shiny cars, and they knew how to drive, but they didn’t know the purpose. They didn't know where they were going, or why.  
     Following our desires for sex is not necessarily wrong any more than having a car and driving somewhere is bad.  The vehicle and the road are not the problem; problems arise when we follow our God-given sexual desires in a way that the roads we take break God’s will and take us to the wrong destinations.  
     We can engage in sex just for fun, or just to ease loneliness, or just because we feel like it, or because we truly love someone.  We drive the car for a lot of reasons, and the journey is nice, but we separate the act from the purpose at our peril.  God has a purpose for everything we do.  What we do with our skin effects our soul. When we have sex (or do anything, really) something is happening to our character, priorities, view of pleasure, view of people, and relationship with God.
    What we do forms us into a people of increasing or decreasing holiness and honor.
    Paul phrases the verse in a negative sense: "They don't know God so they don't understand the purpose of sex."  There is an assumed message here that is far more positive: “You understand the purpose because you DO know God.”
   But how many Christians who claim to know God actually know the purpose of sex?

 “And that in this matter no one should exploit or violate a brother or sister.” Thessalonians 4:6) 
In Paul's time, Thessalonica was the hub of a lot of commerce.  The Thessalonians understood in economic terms what it meant to exploit or violate people:
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (a merchant who knows what ought to be done and constantly pushes the boundaries of the law)
  • Cheating and defrauding in trade and business (merchants who used weighted scales – taking more than they should at the expense of others)
  • Increasing or lessening the value and prices of goods by the buyer and seller (they would cheapen something valuable in order to profit at the expense of the seller)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they didn't understand - or didn't care about - the importance of commitment)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they could spot those easily manipulated and take what they wanted from them)
   To an audience that understood exploitation and fraud, Paul explains that sex outside of God’s design and purpose does the same thing.  The stakes are higher, though, because now they are trading in dignity, respect, honor, and people, not merely things. Like the merchants, they are: 
  • Transgressing the bounds of justice (they know what kind of respect ought to be shown,  yet they constantly push the boundaries)
  • Cheating and defrauding (they take more than they should at the expense of the other person)
  • Lessening the value of sex (they cheapen purity, sex, intimacy and trust)
  • Not keeping to the bargain, contract, covenant (they you don’t understand the importance of covenant)
  • Taking advantage of the weakness and ignorance of people (they spot those easily manipulated and take what they want from them)
     On the one hand, this is a depressing list that reveals a treatment of people that not only damages others but damages society as well.  On the other hand, treating people with honor and holiness brings about the opposite effect: a society in which both individuals and communities flourish as honor, dignity, and value are returned to one of the most intimate acts we can do.  How is this accomplished?
  • Enforcing the bounds of justice (we know what proper sexual boundaries are,  and we protect them.)
  • Helping others flourish (if the scales are going to tip on question of sex and purity, it will be in favor of purity.  The question is not "How far can I go?" but "How pure can I stay?")
  • Attaching the proper value to people and sex (increasing the value of sex and intimacy by treating it like the precious gift it is, and helping others guard their purity) 
  • Keeping and honoring covenants (understanding that every relationship trains people how to flourish or flounder in an eventual or existing covenant. This involves treating someone else’s future or present spouse like they want others to treat their future or present spouse.)
  • Protecting the weak and vulnerable (in a world where so many people are vulnerable in this area for a lot of different reasons, honorable people stand out because they protect those most in need of a hero). 
That the kind of world purity and self-control offer.