To the mid-first-century church of the Thessalonians, Paul and his colleagues write, “Each of you [is] to know [how to] possess his own vessel in holiness and honor, not in passion of lust, just as also the heathen who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:4-5).1 J. Weima considers v. 4 almost certainly “the most debated text in the whole letter” (Thessalonians 268 n. 24).2 The difficulty centers on the usage of the noun σκεῦος (“vessel”) and the infinitive κτᾶσθαι (“to possess”), discussed below.
While Christianity is very much a communal religion (1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9, 18; 5:11), inclusive of “all” [πᾶς] the redeemed (1:2, 7; 3:13; 4:10; 5:5, 26, 27), there is also the responsibility, contribution, and involvement of “each” [ἕκαστος] member of the church (cf. 2:11).3 The significance of “to know” [εἰδέναι, perfect active infinitive of οἶδα] is twofold: (a) the divine will and how it is to be applied are knowable (cf. v. 3); and (b) the Thessalonian Christians have each known (in the past) and continue to know (in the present) the Lord’s expectations.
The present infinitive κτᾶσθαι, “to possess” (from the verb κτάομαι), on the one hand means to “acquire” or “procure for oneself,” and on the other, to possess in the sense of “live with,” “control,” or “win mastery over” (see BDAG 572).4 Its meaning here depends on how the direct object σκεῦος is understood. A σκεῦος is generically a “thing” or “object,” used for any purpose at all, particularly a “vessel, jar, dish, etc.” (BAGD 754), metaphorically applying to one’s “body” or “person” (Acts 9:15; Rom. 9:22, 23; 2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:21; 1 Pet. 3:7). English renderings of this term in this particular text range from the more literal “vessel” (NASB, N/KJV) and semi-literal “himself of his own vessel” (ASV, ERV), to the interpretive “body” (CSB, ESV, ISV, NIV, NLT) and even more interpretive “wife” (RSV, ESVn., NRSVn., Weymouth).
One interpretation of this verse is “to acquire his own wife,”5 thus directed to the unmarried men of the congregation. In favor of this position is the more common usage of κτάομαι (“acquire”) in extant Greek literature with γυνή (“woman” or “wife”), although σκεῦος is never so used. While 1 Pet. 3:7 can be cited as an example of σκεῦος applied to a wife (“a weaker vessel”), the passage actually describes both marriage partners as “vessels,” one stronger and the other weaker, with the more apparent sense of “body” or “person.” In rabbinic literature similar terminology is applied to women, but these writings are in Hebrew rather than Greek and date considerably later than the Thessalonian correspondence. Often cited is what appears to be a near parallel in 1 Cor. 7:2-9, although this text concerns both husband and wife, and the broader context favors single-hood, thus not much of a parallel at all.
Another interpretation is “to live with his own wife,”6 accordingly directed to the married men of the congregation. The point here is to have an appropriate sexual relationship with one’s spouse. This would fit the immediate context better than the previous view but lacks a clear parallel with any supporting evidence, as noted above.
A third interpretation is “to control his own body,”7 thus applicable to everyone in the congregation, whether married or unmarried (the masculine ἕκαστον [“each”] and ἑαυτοῦ [“his own”] understood generically). Some would take this a step further and see a more specific (euphemistic) reference to the “sex organ.”8 Within this very letter (5:22-23), abstaining from evil and being sanctified involve the σῶμα (“body”), a significant focus in Paul’s other writings (Rom. 1:24; 6:12; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; 7:34; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 2:11, 23). Moreover, there is a solid biblical precedent for using σκεῦος as a metaphor for one’s body or person (Acts 9:15; Rom. 9:21-23; 2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:21; cf. 1 Sam. 21:4-6 LXX). The present infinitive κτᾶσθαι (“to possess”) is then understood as “control” or “win mastery over” one’s own σκεῦος (“vessel”), i.e., “body” (genitalia?). The present [ongoing, continual, habitual] tense would be applied ingressively; “to be in the process of gaining possession, i.e. control” (D. J. Williams, Thessalonians 73); cp. Acts 24:25; Gal. 5:23; 2 Pet. 1:6.
Abstaining from illicit sexual intercourse (v. 3) is the result of knowing how to possess one’s own vessel “in holiness [ἁγιασμός] …” (cf. 3:13 and 4:3). From an orthodox Jewish perspective, this was axiomatic. The ancient Israelites were to make clear distinctions between “the holy” and “the common” (Lev. 10:10) and be a “holy” people (Ex. 19:6; Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:7, 26). The Pharisees, the Jewish sect of which Paul himself had been involved (Acts 23:6; 26:5), derived their name from the Aramaic peras (“divide,” “separate”) and thus were “separated ones” or “separatists.” It is interesting that this same standard is applied here to a predominantly Gentile community of believers. The holiness that was expected of ancient Israel is now God’s purpose for his church.
Each Christian is also to know how to possess his own vessel in “honor” [τιμή]. The noun τιμή can be used in the sense of “value,”9 or to signify “honor,” “reverence,” or “respect” (BAGD 817). J. B. Lightfoot comments, “The honour due to the body as such is one of the great contrasts which Christianity offers to the loftiest systems of heathen philosophy …” (Notes 55).
These directives were particularly relevant to the hedonistic environment of mid-first-century Thessalonica, although nearly twenty centuries later the applicability has not diminished. Sexual permissiveness, perversion, and promiscuity were the norm in most Greco-Roman societies at the time, not unlike the world in which we currently live. The message for all modern-day Christians remains the same: each of you know how to possess your own vessel in holiness and honor.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 Weima notes, “it has occasioned more than twenty academic journal articles or chapters in monographs, as well as one doctoral dissertation” (Thessalonians 268 n. 24; cf. J. Weima and S. Porter, Annotated Bibliography 182-96).
3 See also Rom. 12:3-16; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:16.
4 This verb appears in the NT seven times, but here is its only occurrence in the Pauline writings: Matt. 10:9; Luke 18:12; 21:19; Acts 1:18; 8:20; 22:28; 1 Thess. 4:4.
5 H. Alford, NT for English Readers 1326-27; C. J. Ellicott, Thessalonians 53; G. G. Findlay, Thessalonians 81; W. Hendrickson, Exposition Thessalonians 102; A. J. Malherbe, Thessalonians 227-28.
6 E. Best, Thessalonians 162; R. F. Collins, Thessalonians 314; R. L. Thomas, “1-2 Thessalonians” (EBC) 271; B. Witherington, Women 141-42.
7 G. K. Beale, Thessalonians (IVP) 116-19; G. L. Green, Thessalonians 191-94; G. Milligan, Thessalonians 49; L. Morris, Thessalonians 121; E. J. Richard, Thessalonians 198; J. Weima, Thessalonians 270-73.
8 BDAG 928; F. F. Bruce, Thessalonians 83; K. P. Donfried, “Cults of Thessalonica” 337, 342; G. Fee, Thessalonians 149-50; I. H. Marshall, Thessalonians 108-109.
9 Τιμόθεος (“Timothy”), one of the co-authors of this letter (1:1), derives his name from a combination of τιμή [“value”] + θεός [“God”], thus “of value to God.” Note also φιλοτιμέομαι [φίλος + τιμή] in 4:11.