A note on the Epistle for Reminiscere, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7, particularly verses 3-7. Paul introduces these few verses with the phrase “For this is the will of God, your holiness, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (v. 3). In the next verse English translations differ. The KJV translates quite literally, “That each one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor.”
The RSV takes the noun SKEUOS (vessel) as wife, “that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor,” with the footnote, “or how to control his own body.” Peter uses SKEUOS to refer to wife in 1 Peter 3:7, “showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel (SKEUOS).”
The ESV went with the RSV footnote, “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor,” with the footnote, “or how to take a wife for himself; Greek how to possess his own vessel.” SKEUOS referring to one’s own body may have something of a precedent in 1 Timothy 2:21, “Therefore if someone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor,” though to be honest, it seems to me a rather weak precedent.
Now the ESV leaves us with the question, “What does it mean to wrong one’s brother in this matter of controlling one’s own body? If it’s about each individual controlling himself, what does this have to do with anyone else?” The ESV translation is strained further when we realize that the verb KTASTHAI>KTAOMAI does not mean “to control” or “to possess” in any other instance, but rather everywhere else means “to acquire” (cf. Mt. 10:9, Lk. 18:12, 21:19, Ac. 1:18, 8:20, 22:28).
The marriage rite in LSB preserves this proper use of the verb, “Therefore, all persons who marry shall take a spouse in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust, for God has not called us to impurity but in holiness” (LSB, pg. 275), making reference to these verses in 1 Thessalonians 4.
So it’s clear enough that Paul is talking about taking a spouse here, not controlling one’s own body. He then gives two verbs that we should avoid doing against our brother. The two verbs are HYPERBAINO and PLEONEKTEW, and in English translation, they often become rather generic. The ESV and RSV translate, “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter” (v. 6). The KJV doesn’t flatten the verbs as much, “That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter,” but still leaves one wanting further explanation.
HYPERBAINO is from HYPER “beyond” and BAINO “go.” This is the only time this compound word is used in the NT, though it’s not difficult to figure out what it means. To “go beyond” one’s brother would be to interfere in his marriage. This is further explained by the verb PLEONEKTEW, which was introduced at the top and at which we finally arrive.
PLEONEKTEW is a compound of PLEON “more” and ECHO “have” (this is ECHO with a short E, which means “to have”; ECHO with a long E means “to sound,” as in the word CATECHEO, “to sound back”). This verb PLEONEKTEW is used in 2 Cor. 2:11, 7:2, 12:17, 18, and then in 1 Thess. 4:6. In the passive in 2 Cor. 2:11 the ESV translates “outwitted.” The other three active uses in 2 Cor. are translated “take advantage.”
It’s hard to pick one word to translate the verb, but it comes with the sense of desiring “to have more.” “Defraud” (KJV 1 Thess. 4:6) or “take advantage” (ESV 1 Cor. 7:2 et al) capture the verb somewhat. “Wrong” (ESV 1 Thess. 4:6) hardly does the verb justice. I would render the verse, “that no one go beyond his brother and desire more in this matter.”
A related noun is PLEONEXIA, often translated “covetousness.” This can refer to the desire for material goods, as in Lk. 12:15, “Watch and guard against all covetousness (PLEONEXIA), for one’s life is not in the abounding of his possessions.” But this noun PLEONEXIA can also refer to sexual covetousness, as in Col. 3:5, “Therefore put to death the members that are upon the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and the PLEONEXIA, which is idolatry.”
Interestingly every single one of the nouns in the list from Col. 3:5 comes up in 1 Thess. 4:3-7: PORNEIA, PATHOS, EPITHUMIA, AKATHARSIA, and PLEONEXIA (the verb form, rather than the noun, is used in 1 Thess. 4:6).
What, then, does it mean to “go beyond” your brother by “wanting more”? Well, this is nothing else than the Tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…” (the LXX translation of the commandment uses EPITHUMEW, which gets used in close connection with PLEONEXIA, as we’ve seen).
Therefore when you read or hear the Epistle this Sunday you can remember these things, and hopefully the vagueness of the English won’t lead you to think vaguely about these verses. Paul is clearly exhorting the Thessalonians (and us) to take a spouse in holiness and honor, and neither to overstep our own marriage boundaries nor the marriage boundaries of our neighbor by wanting something that isn’t ours. “The Lord is an avenger concerning all these things,” as Paul warns. We also have the confidence that because the Lord is gracious to us in Christ, he has given us exactly what he wants us to have. What he gives is far better than anything we could obtain for ourselves.