What does “passion of lust” mean in I Thessalonians 4:5?

Last updated on August 18, 2020


We are doing a study of lust in our Bible class. I’m confused about I Thessalonians 4:5 where it says “passion of lust.” I looked up the words and they are two words with very similar meaning. Does this mean really, really strong desire?


For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God;  that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness” (I Thessalonians 4:2-7).

I’m glad you’re taking the time to puzzle over this passage. I consider it important because we often think that the issues we struggle with today are unique to our era. Oh, we realize that the Bible teaches about different issues, but we forget that real people living a long time ago struggled with those issues.

For example, when did homosexuality become a problem? Most remember that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of it, but many are surprised to learn that one tribe of Israel was almost totally wiped out because of the same issue (Judges 19-21). Even more people are surprised when told that it remained a problem throughout Israel’s decline (I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; II Kings 23:7. The Hebrew word qadesh refers to a male homosexual whose actions were “justified” because they were associated with idol worship). It was even a problem in the first-century church (I Corinthians 6:9-11).

Part of the difficulty is that translators, when running across embarrassing words, react much the way you and I do; they found polite ways of saying roughly the same thing without really saying what was meant. Unfortunately, we lose some of the impact and clarity when those issues come up again and again.

You correctly noted that “passions of lust” is an odd phrase because you have two words in a row that basically have the same definition. The combination refers to things depicting lustful ideas designed to generate lust within a person. In other words, things like pornography, but more than that as well because pornography is specifically defined as things recorded (“graphy”). This Greek phrase would also include “dirty dancing,” skimpy clothing, and anything else of a sexual nature that is designed to arouse sexual desire in a person. I wanted you to take note of this verse to understand that Christ’s law doesn’t just condemn pornography in a roundabout way. It specifically states that it is wrong. If you would like to learn more about why pornography is sinful, read “A Look at Pornography.”

Knowing this, let us look at the passage again.

Here is a rewording of Paul’s point. God’s will for you is that you live a life uncorrupted by the world (sanctified). Specifically, God wants you to avoid having sex outside of marriage. He wants you to know how to control your physical body so that it is used in holy and honorable ways. For example, God doesn’t want you seeking out pornography and other things that stimulate sexual desires in you. This is what non-Christians do. Paul is warning you so that no one will catch you unaware and make a profit off of your sexual desires. The Lord will deal harshly with such people. God did not call you to be one of His people to have your mind focused on worldly matters, but on spiritual matters.

Uncleanness is the opposite of sanctified or holy. Something sanctified is treasured. It is kept pure because it has a special use in the service of God. Unclean things are common everyday things that no one cares about. The world is filled with people chasing after things that make them sexually excited. They do it mostly because it feels good while they are doing it. They don’t even stop to think that it is leading their minds into the gutter.

“This matter” is referring back to the pornography and other things that are designed to get you sexually aroused. Paul is warning Christians that there are people who would use your sexual desires against you to take advantage of you and cheat you out of your money. When a person is strongly sexually aroused their ability to reason is hindered. Knowing this, there are numerous con artists who would love to get you sexually aroused for no other reason than to separate you from the money in your bank account.

This is why pornographers give out “free samples.” They get your heart racing, your blood pressure up, your manhood throbbing, then they tell you that there are more and even “better” things awaiting if you’ll just type in a credit card number. Paul was writing to warn you and I and every other Christian about this very scam.

The sad thing is that it all dirties God’s design for the world. God gave us sexual desires so that we will have fun in marriage while at the same time creating babies. It has a beautiful purpose that the wicked has sullied. “Truly, this only I have found: that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).

It is not wrong to think about sex; it is the way you were made by God. To tell you not to think about sex is about as useful as telling you to never think about food or drink again. You are supposed to think about sex. It is supposed to intrude itself into your thoughts. It is there to motivate you to want to marry and be willing to take on the burden of raising children. The thing that you need to do is keep your thoughts in the context of righteousness. Fight against the thoughts of sex outside of marriage and instead allow your mind to think about how wonderful sex will be when you do get married.

Let’s spend a moment talking about masturbation and wet dreams. These are part of being a man. You won’t have control of your wet dreams, but as you continue on your way to adulthood they will become more and more sexually explicit. If you keep your mind filled with sex in a righteous context, hopefully, your dreams will follow the same pattern. Just don’t get too upset if they don’t. The mind while dreaming is a funny thing. It takes bits and pieces of everything we are exposed to and recombines it in odd ways. It is one of the reasons every young man needs to avoid things that generate corrupted ideas about sex because those ideas have an annoying way of coming back to haunt us in our dreams.

In the same way, as far as I can tell, every man “discovers” masturbation. In and of itself it is not harmful so long as it is not done excessively. But the danger is in the thoughts. The mind naturally turns to sexual ideas when the body is sexually aroused. It is far too easy to pursue sexual thoughts dealing with unrighteous sex. It is all around us. It is a cheap, lazy way to become sexually aroused, but that is not for what God gave you a male body. Keep your thoughts pure. I won’t tell you not to play with your genitals because you will feel guilty and beat yourself up over it every time you do. I suspect that the reason our “equipment” is external is so that we have some practice with sex before the real thing happens in marriage. It is not the same, but at least we have some clue as to what is going on. Instead, I will urge you to keep your mind on proper avenues, such as thinking about how fun sex will be once you are married.