What did Paul mean by “possess your own vessel”?

This material adapted from 1-2 Thessalonians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, from pages 161-66. The book is available from Amazon and as a discount from Amazon, and also from Logos, in Korean and also in Spanish.

1 Thess 4:4 is the most complex verse in the Thessalonian correspondence because of the difficulty of the language of the clause “control/possess one’s own body/vessel [skeuos/σκεῦος].” The NASB simply leaves it as “possess his own vessel” and leaves the interpretation to the reader. The best interpretation, which we will demonstrate below, is that all Christians, men and women, should know how to maintain control of their bodies in a way that pleases God in sexual holiness.

It is the noun “vessel” (σκεῦος) that presents the interpreter with difficulties. In other contexts, it was used literally of a container (Mark 11:16); here it is a metaphor, but of what? Two millennia of interpretation have produced the following options:

  1. “Vessel” means “a wife,” making Paul’s command that each man figure out how “possess” or “acquire a wife.” Thus the verse would be addressed only to males. (Augustine; Wesley; Witherington; Malherbe; Thayer lexicon)
  2. “Vessel” is a circumlocution for the penis, and addressed to males. Some use the Latin membrum virilis to avoid giving offense (BDAG; Donfried; Wanamaker; Fee; Yarbrough)
  3. The view here favored, “vessel” is a metaphor of the human body. According to this reading, Paul uses the generic sense of the masculine pronouns as “his or her” and speaks to all readers, men or women. (Tertullian; Chrysostom; Calvin; Rigaux; Bruce; Green; many English versions)

The interpretation of the clause in option 1 as “acquire a wife” is complicated at the outset by demographical considerations. The task of finding a wife in first-century Macedonia was not as simple as making up one’s mind to get married. Many Greeks “exposed” their female babies; that is, they abandoned them to die because of the financial burden that they caused. This led to a population tipped disproportionately toward the males, such as in China today due to its “one-child policy.” Particularly in Greece, a man might have to wait until his thirties in order to marry a girl who was scarcely in puberty. This lack of brides explains in part the prevalence of homosexual partnering as a measure against the long interim before a marriage could be consummated. For the Christian man in Macedonia, the lack of available Christian women might have been an impediment to marriage.

In favor of option 1 is the argument that “vessel” (σκεῦος) means a wife in 1 Pet 3:7, where she is called “the weaker vessel” (KJV). But besides the difficulties attached to using a Petrine metaphor to interpret Paul, this argument is easily turned on its head. If the wife is a weaker vessel, then by implication there is a corresponding stronger vessel, that is, the husband. In 1 Pet 3:7, both spouses are vessels, which, if anything, adds evidence for option 3.

With regard to option 2, isn’t it true that “vessel” (Heb. ke) was a popular euphemism for the “male member”? For example, in 1 Sam 21:5 (ESV): “And David answered the priest, ‘Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?’” But in fact, this is to interpret one unclear verse (1 Thess 4:4) with a second unclear verse (1 Sam 21:5). David could have been using ke to signify either the body in general or possibly the male sexual member in particular, but his meaning is not at all certain, whether in the Hebrew or in the LXX.

Against options 1 and 2, we should not take for granted that only the men needed a warning against sexual immorality. While it was assumed that men would be sexually adventurous, Greeks and Romans also reproached women for being insatiable. Some argued that a man might be able to better control himself by the dictates of reason. Any show of interest in sex on the part of the woman was a sign of promiscuity. Besides this cultural background, it would have been uncharacteristic for Paul to define holiness as that the males know how to control their sexual organs, or that a man know how to acquire/respect a wife, leaving no word for underage males or females or celibates (he speaks about women and sexual sin in 1 Tim 5:11; Titus 2:5; perhaps 2 Tim 3:6). This is an argument against both options 1 and 2; note how in 1 Cor 7, the one text where Paul does deal with sexuality in great detail, he speaks equally to both sexes and covers a variety of life situations.

None of these three options is an obvious victor. In this case it should be remembered that both options 1 and 2 rely on rather obscure assumptions (“vessel” means a “wife”; “vessel” is Hebrew for the male member) that have yet to be demonstrated. The simplest reading is option 3, that this is a commandment for all men and women, since all have – or better are – their own “vessel” (as in 1 Pet 3:7). Here we are on safer ground, since Paul regularly speaks of the Christian’s body in terms of a “container” when he speaks of personal holiness. For example, the body is a temple that contains the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19; cf. 1 Thess 4:8). He uses “vessel” (σκεῦος) itself in 2 Tim 2:21: “who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.”

Christians, male or female, are to exercise control over themselves “in holiness and honor”. Our translation of 4:4 is “That each one of you Christians would know how to control his or her body in holiness and honor.”

“What did Paul mean by ‘possess your own vessel’?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

2 thoughts on “What did Paul mean by “possess your own vessel”?

  1. Have you considered Jay Smith’s 2001 article in BBR, 1 Thessalonians 4:4: Breaking the Impasse? I am guessing you will find much in agreement.

    1. Hi! I may have but didn’t list it in the footnote. But I probably did, since I considered most of the secondary literature on the theme. Blessings! Gary

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