Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians while in Corinth on his second missionary journey. This letter is considered one of the earliest New Testament writings. We should understand a few things about the Thessalonians and Thessalonica. Thessalonica was a port city and was the biggest city in Macedonia. There were a few Romans who lived there, but the Romans did not rule its government; hence, it was Greek. When Paul arrived in the city, some scholars say there were enough Jews to need a synagogue and others say there was not. Whether there was or was not, Paul did not let this deter him. He adapted his presentation of the Gospel for whatever hearers were listening. From historical documents and from the Bible, we know that many people became Christians in Thessalonica. It seems Paul stayed there at least three weeks, but then had to flee to Berea.
Chapter 1 has Paul’s standard opening to a letter, but it also introduces us to who the Thessalonians were to Paul. Paul felt like a father to the Thessalonians believers. He heard from others of the Thessalonians love, endurance, and faith, which was guiding their actions.
In chapter 2, Paul reminded the Thessalonian believers of how he lived among them. He recalled for them his integrity and pure motives that came from not seeking to please men, but God. Paul did not speak to them with flattery to trick them to believe a false doctrine. He was gentle with them like a mother and loved them so much that he lived out the Gospel to them. He modeled for them what a Christian does and is. He stated that He lived holy, righteous, and blameless. Holy, righteous, and blameless are words used to define the “consecration” /“sanctification,” words that are used in chapter 4. This will become important. Paul brought to their attention how his being and actions modeled what he will later teach them to be – sanctified/consecrated. [Note: consecration and sanctification mean the same thing. I will use the word sanctification in this writing since it is used in the New American Standard Translation of the Bible to which I am referring.]
Paul mentioned Timothy in chapter 3 because he sent Timothy to check on and encourage the Thessalonians. What Paul heard from Timothy was a credit to the Thessalonian believers. They were loving and encouraging each other in the faith. Paul desired to be back among them to supply what was lacking in their faith (vs. 10) and encourage their love to overflow to the brethren and others [actions] “so that He (Jesus) may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” [being] (vv. 12-13). See this last part. He wanted them to be established as blameless and holy. Paul used these words of himself in chapter 2. Sanctification is being made pure, blameless, holy, and set apart for God.
Chapter 4 is the point where Paul began to explain their next step of growth in their Christian faith. Paul told them to be sanctified, which is the will of God (vs. 3). He explained that sanctification means doing and being. Paul wrote that being sanctified means doing or not doing things: abstaining from sexual immorality [action - possess their body in sanctification and honor, vs. 4], not lusting [mental], not harming the body of another or defrauding a brother (a fellow Christian), being pure, loving one another (other Christians, vs. 9) as they are doing. Paul also told them to excel still more. What is this “more”? He is referring to what he said in 3:12, “to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people.” How can you increase in love? Macedonia knew the Thessalonians for having a faith as great as the churches in Judea. What more is it they needed to learn to fill up what they were lacking? The answer lies in 3:13 and 4:3. Their love for the brethren, others, and God must increase to the level of Paul’s whose example is Jesus. This comes only through sanctification. Read 3:13. Their lives needed to exhibit the love Jesus commanded the disciples, which only comes when Jesus establishes their hearts - “so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father.” Jesus wants them to be blameless and holy, which is sanctified. This comes from Him; sanctification becomes a new part of their being, but it must be worked out [action].
Paul was very explicit about being sanctified as Jesus is sanctified. He recognized it as a gift from Jesus, but he also modeled it for the Thessalonians. What does being sanctified mean though? For some people, this seems to be a “churchified” word. People see it as a grandiose religious word that other people pull out of their hat to show they are better than others are. That was not the intention of the word when God instituted it. Sanctified is not a new term, mentioned first in the New Testament. Yahweh God established the term and its meaning from the beginning, in Genesis 2:3, when the writer of Genesis said, “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.” What is this word “sanctified” which is used in Genesis? It is qadash. In Hebrew, it means to dedicate, separate, consecrate, be holy, or to set apart. The seventh day is to be set apart to be holy for God, to dedicate it solely for God. Sanctification means the separation of oneself from things that are unclean, especially anything that contaminates one’s relationship with the perfect God. Qadash is used 152 times in the Old Testament. Qadash is used most in Exodus and Leviticus when God told the Israelites what and who to set apart for Him and His service. God spoke of setting apart utensils, firstborn children and animals, the priests, and the temple, synagogue, and the tent of gathering. He also called Himself the sanctifier, qadash, in Exodus 31:13. God told the Israelites, “I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” In Leviticus 6:18 & 27, God told them that whoever of the priests touched the meat set apart for the Lord would be sanctified. Second Chronicles has the third largest number usages of qadash. These instances also talk about the priests sanctifying the temple and the utensils for the purposes of God and of God sanctifying the temple/house of God. Jeremiah and Ezekiel use qadash the fourth and fifth highest number of times. Jeremiah 51:27-28 shows that God will even sanctify a foreign nation for His service, like when He used them to discipline Israel. To sum up, humans sanctify things, themselves, and others for God’s service and God sanctifies people, places, things, and days to Himself. God established qadash, setting apart someone or thing as holy for God’s service.
The idea of sanctification stays the same in the New Testament, but is given the supreme example of its meaning in the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 6:17, "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." In both the Old and New Testaments, then, sanctification means the same thing. What is different is the means of being sanctified. In the Old Testament, sanctification came by following God’s commands, precepts, and statutes. In the New Testament, sanctification comes when a person becomes a believer in Jesus Christ and follows Him. Jesus is the example/model of true sanctification for humans. It is a part of His being and He lived it out in His interactions by word and deed while on earth.
Let us read Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians again. What was the word he used when he spoke of sanctification to the Thessalonians in 4:3? It is the Greek word hagiasmos, which means to sanctify or purify. It comes from the word hagiazo (to separate from profane things and dedicate to God) which comes from the root word hagios, a most holy thing or saint. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul used hagios four of the five times referring to holy God or the Holy Spirit. We can see that the word used in Greek, hagiasmos, which means to sanctify and set apart for God, has the same meaning for which the Hebrews used the word qadash. God’s intention from one covenant to another, Old Testament to New Testament, did not change. He still calls us to set aside the Sabbath day and ourselves as believers of Jesus Christ. He calls us to be sanctified.
God gave us sanctification in the beginning and continues to give it now. In 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Paul told them that God called them for the state of sanctification, not impurity. Sanctification is hagiosmos, purification of heart and life. It is something that resides in you which God gives and which you live out. It is being and acting your chosen-ness by God - your purification by God - in the world. Jesus’ acted/embodied this sanctification of God, which is given to His children upon their salvation. A person does not have sanctification apart from God because of the fall of Adam and Eve when human sin marred the perfection of God’s creation in humanity. Jesus provides and gives this to believers when they repent and follow Him as their Lord and Savior. First Peter 1:15 says, “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” Holy in this verse is hagios, a most holy thing, a saint. Hagios is the root word of hagiasmos. It is something we receive and do. We receive from God and act it out for God’s glory while we are here so that others can see and experience whom God is and what He can do for them. Being sanctified is not only being purified by God for His purposes, but is an enacting of what He put in/did within our lives so others can see and come to know Him. Paul gave specifics of what this acting out is with examples from his life in 1 Thessalonians 2 and with his charge in chapter 4:3-12.
In becoming a believer of Jesus Christ, we are renewed so that the perfection of Christ changes the “old man” living in us to the “new man,” the perfect human God intended when He created the world. We become the person God created humanity to be and we can then fulfill humanity’s purpose, to give glory to God. Jesus gives us this perfected image when we believe in Him as our Lord and Savior. He makes us holy, sanctified, and set apart for His original purpose. Jesus is the embodiment of this perfection and gives it. He showed it while He lived on earth. We are to do as Jesus did on earth and as He does now in heaven, give glory to God with our being, actions, and words. This is the working out of our salvation of which Paul spoke in Philippians 2:12-13, “…Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” [NASB]. Living out sanctification shows the world the believer’s love of God, other believers, and other people. It shows the ultimate love, which is displayed in our sanctification, our choosing to be set apart for God’s purpose, to bring Him glory, and to obey His statutes, precepts, and commands. What were the three commandments Christ left His disciples? From Matthew 22:36-39, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The other commandment Christ gave His disciples when He said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35 [NASB]). What in the Old Testament did God say would show the Israelites chose to be His chosen people? When they walk in His statutes and keep His commandments (Leviticus 26:3) He will walk among them and be their God and they will be His people (Leviticus 26:12 [NASB]).
The Israelites were God’s chosen people. God set them apart for Himself. He sanctified/consecrated them and made a covenant with them. The Israelites could never live up to the standard of being holy no matter what they did. They acted in ways to deny their chosen-ness and had to purify/consecrate themselves repeatedly. The Israelites could not keep their side of the covenant. Holiness is a characteristic of God, an attribute. Humankind lost the ability to be set apart as wholly clean for God at the fall of humanity by Adam and Eve. God provided the means for humankind to be sanctified/holy through of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, which restores people to the original image God created on the 6th day of creation. God provided this salvation because of His love.
God, through Jesus, gave us the ability to be made new and set apart for Him. When we believe Jesus is the Son of God and accept His forgiveness, we give ourselves to God and He saves and sanctifies us. As we live each day, we can choose whether to continue to be set apart for God, His service and His glory, or not. If we choose to walk in God’s ways, our sanctification is displayed in our actions and words, which comes from the changed person into whom Jesus makes us. This changed person is a new being and brings with it new attitudes with which to face each day, person, and encounter. This is how we receive and act out sanctification. Sanctification is something we receive and be. If we are truly followers of Christ, our being in Him will result in actions that show our love for God, other Christians, and other people. We work out our salvation, as Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13 “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” [NASB]. Receiving and being consecrated/sanctified must be worked out in this world. Our living in Christ in this world means we work as He worked in this world, as servants. We become His disciples to whom He said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20, [NASB]). We do the examples He showed us, caring, loving, touching, helping, healing, preaching, teaching, and being the shining light of God to all people.
Paul closed the first letter to the Thessalonians with admonitions that reflected this understanding of sanctification. He told them to appreciate their leaders (brethren) and love them; live in peace; admonish the unruly; encourage the faint-hearted; help the weak; be patient with all; do only that which is good to all. These are actions or conduct. Next he spoke of their spiritual attitude/behavior - rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all things; do not quench the Spirit. Additionally, Paul addressed their mental capacities/judgment by telling them to examine everything and determine what is good and to abstain from evil. Finally, Paul said a prayer over them, as he outlined what their whole selves were: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 [NASB]).
Sanctification is not new to Christians. It is being holy and set apart for God and acting as He guides. Yahweh God established sanctification from the seventh day of creation. What is new for those who follow Christ is that we do not have to keep purifying ourselves, as the Old Testament Israelites did, hoping that we are clean enough to be in God’s presence. Jesus provided the purification that each of us needs. When we accept His forgiveness and His salvation, we become His children (His chosen ones) and are purified and made holy to be in God’s presence. With the acceptance of Jesus’ love gift of salvation and the resultant sanctification, our response is love (to God, believers, and other people), which shows our sanctification, being set apart for God’s purposes, glorifying Him. Our being is made new and we act from the perfectness that Christ has made us through His purity and perfectness. This is what Paul tells the Thessalonians, to excel still more, show the sanctification that Jesus put in you through your acts, words, and being.
We come to our final thought. Are we acting out of the sanctification (the calling out of us by God) to show His love? Have accepted Jesus’ free gift of salvation and resultant sanctification? If not, take the time now to ask for His gift of love to you, His forgiveness and salvation. Ask Him to show you Himself and help you to believe. Upon your belief and acceptance of His forgiveness, you will have this new life. You will be set apart for God. You will be sanctified for Him. He will be your God and you will be His child as He promised in Leviticus 26:12.