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Bible Commentaries

Contending for the Faith

1 Thessalonians 4

Verse 1

Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.

Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you: This seems to be the watershed point in this letter where the apostle moves from essentially doctrinal instruction to a discussion of the relevance of that instruction upon Christian conduct. It is not a clean break because there are still doctrinal matters (i.e., the second coming of Christ) to be discussed, but the remainder of the letter will contain much hortatory material as Paul emphasizes the practical application that must be made of doctrinal truth.

Pagan society during the apostolic age was characterized by almost unimaginable debauchery. This state added to the difficulty of making disciples. Not only did conversion to this new religion invite persecution, but it also required abandonment of a life style that, in the popular mind, was perfectly acceptable and even had the sanction of current religion. It is nothing short of amazing that a gospel that was intolerant of immorality in all its forms and that called upon its converts to be prepared to suffer for their faith could ever have gotten a foothold.

by the Lord Jesus: The grammatical construction shows that Paul personally beseeches the Thessalonians and that his exhortation rests on an appeal to the authority of Christ. "What he laid on the consciences of the saints did not originate with himself but with the Lord, to Whose authority, therefore, he appealed" (Hogg and Vine 111).

that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk: Is there a standard by which Christian conduct can be measured? This is one of many verses that so affirms. Here Paul refers to the standard "as ye have received of us." What the Thessalonians have received of Paul is "the word of God" (2:13). This is obviously the standard to which he alludes. If, as some affirm, it makes no difference what we believe or practice, why is Paul so anxious to return in the face of powerful opposition to instruct the believers further about that standard? Why not allow them to go on blissfully living just as they were? Paul is about to make a strong appeal for holy living, and "the only way to holiness is along the path of obedience to the revealed will of God" (Hogg and Vine 110). "Walk" is used by Paul some thirty times to refer to the way people deport themselves.

and to please God: Jesus affirms, "I do always those things that please him" (John 8:29). Such a goal requires total self-abnegation. One cannot please both self and God at the same time, except in those instances where what pleases God pleases us as well. Paul says of Jesus, "For even Christ pleased not himself" (Romans 15:3). Whatever purpose God may have had in the creation of mankind, it is clear man is intended to please God. "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (Revelation 4:11). "Pleasing God is not a matter of personal choice, but an imperative necessity for the Christian" (Morris 79). Pleasing God is, as Stott notes, "the foundation on which Christian ethical behaviour is built" (78). In the discussion which follows, Paul deals with sex, work, and death. Stott says these "continue to be three major human preoccupations, so that Paul’s teaching on these subjects has about it a ring of relevance" (80).

so ye would abound more and more: One can never graduate from the school of Christ. Nor can one become so adept at living the Christian life that there is no further room for improvement. Neither is it possible for one to expend so much energy in Christian living that one can claim to have really done one’s best. There is always something more to learn, to be, to do; hence, Paul’s admonition to "abound more and more."

There is no finality in practical holiness while the Christian remains on the earth. Life is marked either by growth or decay (Hogg and Vine 11).

One can never be satisfied with merely being a half-hearted Christian, just doing what is convenient and easy. Commitment is required, as well as a willing devotion to duty. One cannot be passive or lazy but must actively seek to please God. In urging the Thessalonians to "abound more and more," Paul may have been thinking of the statement of Jesus, "I am come that they may have life and that more abundantly" (John 10:10).

Verse 2

For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.

For ye know what commandments we gave you: It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Paul expects the Thessalonians to heed his instructions. He is not just offering good advice they could either accept or reject as they see fit. "Commandments" is the usual word for describing military orders. The readers must have known these are authoritative commands from which no deviation is permissible.

by the Lord Jesus: As Morris notes, "The preposition ’by,’ is dia, which makes it clear the commands were not Paul’s but God’s (they came ’through’ Jesus)" (80).

By speaking of commandments that come from God through Jesus Christ, Paul affirms in the most forceful way that these are not "merely human directions," Morris says (80). The weight of divine authority rests upon every commandment conveyed by Paul. Instead of casually dismissing those parts of Paul’s teaching of which we disapprove, we should recognize our duty to obey them because they bear the stamp of approval of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Verse 3

For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:

For this is the will of God: By using such terms as commandments, through Jesus Christ, and the will of God, Paul runs the entire gamut of human language to demonstrate that "the things I write unto you are the commandments of God" (1 Corinthians 14:37). The injunction contained in this verse is not the whole will of God, but it is certainly a part of it.

even your sanctification: Long and complex dissertations have been produced on the subject of sanctification. Paul cuts right to the heart of the matter under three simple heads: (1) abstain from fornication; (2) know how to possess your vessel; and (3) do not defraud your brother in this matter. As Hogg and Vine note, "Holy character...is not vicarious, i.e., it cannot be transferred or imputed, it is an individual possession, built up, little by little, as the result of obedience to the Word of God, and of following the example of Christ" (115).

Deliverance from the guilt of sin is the blessing of a moment; deliverance from the practice of sin is the work of a lifetime.

that ye should abstain from fornication: Since it was sanctioned by both the religious and the political leaders, the practice of fornication was pervasive throughout ancient society. The following quotes from various commentators are descriptive of what the moral climate must have been in Thessalonica at the time the church was planted there.

Paul wrote from Corinth, where sensuality in the guise of religion was rife. In Thessalonica, besides the ordinary licentious customs of the Gentiles, immorality was fostered by the Cabeiric (pagan) worship. About the time of Paul, a political sanction was given to this worship by deifying the Emperor as Cabeirus (Vincent, Vol. IV 34-35).

"Pagan religion did not demand sexual purity of its devotees, the gods and goddesses being grossly immoral. Priestesses were in the temples for the service of the men who came" (Robertson 28).

The Apostle in stating the will of God for the sanctification of His people, had in mind those particular temptations to which, from their past history as idolaters, his readers were peculiarly susceptible, and to which, from their present environment, they were still exposed (Hogg and Vine 116).

Scripture, as well as secular history, confirms that sexual impurity is the great societal bane of Bible times. Fornication had become so much a part of normal life that it was not viewed as sinful. It is not surprising that so many of Paul’s writings address this evil and that his teaching is both pointed and plain. There is nothing ambiguous about the prohibition contained in this verse. Its meaning is clear and unmistakable. God is a god of moral absolutes. There are no gray areas of uncertainty with respect to acceptable behavior. The ban against fornication encompasses all forms of sexual immorality--bigamy, polygamy, homosexuality, sodomy, prostitution. Any premarital, extramarital, or nonmonogamous marital sex is clearly prohibited as not in conformity with the will of God.

Verse 4

That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour;

That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel: Scholars are divided over the meaning of the word "vessel" in this verse, some translating it body (a meaning not elsewhere found in the New Testament) and others wife. There is also difficulty in translating the verb "possess" (ktaomai), which may mean to have or to gain control. Objections can be raised to either translation; but, in any case, the apostle seems to be encouraging Christians to master the sexual urge. Morris renders it, "Keep your bodies pure" (83). It is possible that Paul’s meaning here is the same as in 1 Corinthians 7:2 : "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband." Vincent thinks "vessel" refers to a wife; and the passage means "Living honorably and decently with her, paying her the respect which was her right, and therefore avoiding illicit connections" (36).

Temperance or self control is one of the Christian graces (2 Peter 1:5-7). Some activities that are acceptable when practiced in moderation and within prescribed boundaries become sinful when carried to excess. On the other hand, some activities are totally prohibited, in which case abstinence and avoidance are the only responsible choices. Such is the case with fornication. Sanctification and fornication are antithetical, and it is no more possible to be sanctified and honorable and a fornicator than to mix oil with water.

in sanctification and honour: "Sanctification" is a process. Progress is gradual, "from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are always in a state of becoming. We can never really say that we have arrived. The one characteristic feature of the Christian life is change. We are constantly replacing bad habits with new modes of behavior that are more in keeping with our need to "walk worthy of God." Stott is undoubtedly correct in affirming: "Paul lays down two fundamental, practical principles to guide his readers in their sexual behaviour: (a) Sex has a God-given context: heterosexual marriage; (b) Sex has a God-given style: holiness and honour" (82).

Paul’s customary practice of joining positive with negative commandments is seen here. The negative commandment is avoid sexual immorality. The positive injunction is deport yourself in sanctification and honor.

Verse 5

Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God:

Not in the lust of concupiscence: Sin is a powerful force, and the sinner may be said to be both passive and active in the commission of evil. "Concupiscence" is, according to Findlay, "an overmastering feeling, in which the man is borne along by evil as though its passive instrument" (quote taken from Morris 83). "Lust," on the other hand, is an active yielding to a strong desire.

even as the Gentiles which know not God: "The heathen knew gods as licentious as they are themselves, but not God. One of the reasons for the revival of paganism in modern life is professedly this very thing that men wish to get rid of the inhibitions against licentiousness by God" (Robertson 29).

The mores and customs of the society in which we live have a greater impact upon our behavior than we realize. By an act of will we must decide whether we will use the atheistic "Gentiles" as role models or whether we will be guided and governed by the "will of God" (4:3). Paul contrasts the options available to us in the words "as ye have received of us" and "as the Gentiles." The Christian will always be guided by the will of God rather than by the standards of contemporary society.

which know not God: Those who do not know God are also lacking in understanding of moral behavior. As Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown put it, "Ignorance of true religion is the parent of unchastity. (Ephesians 4:18-19)" (389).

"Denial of the Creator resulted in the degradation of the creature; idolatry and immorality are closely allied" (Hogg and Vine 118).

There is more to being a Christian than merely being a believer. Knowledge also plays a significant role. Jesus says, "And this is life eternal that they might know thee the one true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3). "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:20), but faith without an experiential knowledge of God is deficient as well. The blame that attaches to a failure to know God stems from the fact that such lack of knowledge is willful. God has revealed himself to all men, but many willfully reject the revelation (Romans 1:19-21; Romans 1:28). And, as this passage shows, moral behavior is shaped by the objects of worship.

Verse 6

That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified:

That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: To "go beyond," often translated transgress, means to surpass some limit. Paul is still talking about sexual immorality. Not only is it an act of sin by the participants, but it is also an act of fraud against the spouses of the participants. "Brother" is not qualified, so it should be understood in a generic sense. Some expositors believe it refers to brothers in Adam, not just to brothers in Christ. Noting that the word "defraud" usually refers to business dealings, Coffman says, "It should not be overlooked that all sexual dishonesty and indulgence is a fraud perpetrated against another" (47).

because that the Lord is the avenger of all such: The thought of judgment is never far from the mind of the apostle. There may be many reasons for living in sanctification and honor, not the least of which is the fact that "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:10). In contrast with the gods of the heathen who engaged in vice, the God of heaven is the avenger of vice. However, it should also be noted that not all punishment is reserved for the after-a-while. Punishment for our misdeeds may begin in the here-and-now (Romans 1:24; Romans 1:26; Romans 1:28).

as we also have forewarned you and testified: Paul’s teaching is always consistent. What he says orally is in perfect harmony with what he writes. What he says when he is present with the Thessalonians does not differ one whit from what he writes to them from a distant location at a later date. "Testified" has its usual New Testament meaning, "the announcement of God’s commands with exhortation to obey them" (Coffman 47).

"Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he had already forewarned them about this matter of sexual vice. Compare Galatians 1:9. Evidently when the apostles of Christ once spoke, their teaching was not to be modified later to suit someone’s pleasure and convenience" (Fields 107). (Note: The author was probably referring to Galatians 5:19.)

Verse 7

For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.

For: Two reasons are assigned for the admonitions contained in this passage. Having discussed the judgment in the previous verse, Paul now speaks of conversion. It is in view of these two grand events, judgment and conversion, that Paul urges moral behavior on the part of his readers. In commenting on these two motivating factors, Hogg and Vine state: "the first is prospective and warns of what God will do: the second is retrospective and reminds of what He has done" (119).

God hath not called us unto uncleanness: Salvation is a divine initiative. "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him" (John 6:44). The fact that God exercises his drawing power through teaching, hearing, and learning does not minimize the fact that it is still God Who does the drawing. "God hath...called."

but unto holiness: The purpose for which we are called of God is again stated in positive and negative terms--not for the purpose of uncleanness but for the purpose of holiness.

Verse 8

He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.

He therefore that despiseth: This verse speaks of the consequences of a failure to respond to God’s call. Since the call comes from God, it is a serious matter to despise it. "Despiseth" speaks of rejection, of treating the call as of no account, of regarding it as null and void.

despiseth not man, but God: It is not just the rejection of an invitation or of the messenger who brings it but also the rejection of the One Who gives it. Jesus made a similar assertion in Luke 10:16. When God sends a message by a messenger, to reject that message is to reject God himself. Those who speak disparagingly about the New Testament ought to take note of the dire warning here. As Fields says, "Note that it is in the voluntary power of a man to resist or accept truth. But it is not in man’s power to escape the consequences of that choice" (108).

who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit: Some may rationalize evil behavior by saying, "I am just too weak to resist temptation." However, as the psalmist notes: "He knoweth our frame" (Psalms 103:14). God has made provision for our inadequacies, not the least of which is that He has "given unto us his Holy Spirit." The language here suggests this is a recurring gift. Immorality thus involves the third member of the Godhead because it is a sin against His continuing presence and is contrary to His holy nature.

Verse 9

But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.

But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: Two things have marked Christians from the beginning--the purity of their lives and the warmth of their love. Brotherly love is singled out by Jesus as the hallmark of discipleship (John 13:35). Nothing about the Christians impressed the heathen more than this quality of love. Writing toward the end of the second century, Tertullian said, "The heathen often exclaimed in wonder, ’See how these Christians love one another’." Lucian, a heathen writer of that same era, writes, "It is incredible to see the fervour with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator has put it into their heads that they are all brethren" (both quotes taken from Hogg and Vine 122).

for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another: There is no need to make this some mysterious impartation of knowledge directly from God. The Thessalonians have heard the gospel from Paul. They have doubtless also received some instruction in Christian living. This is merely another claim to divine inspiration. Paul is affirming that his teaching does not originate with himself. He is God’s spokesman. Paul utters the words, but God is the teacher.

Verse 10

And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more;

And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: Love knows no limits. The requirement to love reaches beyond the local congregation, beyond the brotherhood, even to the uttermost part of the earth. It is as broad as the world itself and as wide as humanity. Paul finds no reason for censure in the Thessalonians with regard to love. He finds much reason for commendation because they are habitually and continuously practicing love on the very widest scale. "The exercise of their love was limited only by the opportunities afforded to it" (Hogg and Vine 123).

but we beseech you brethren, that ye increase more and more: Paul is encouraging magnanimity of conduct. God has never been niggardly in the bestowal of His gifts upon us. Neither should we be in using those gifts. There is always room for improvement. We can be more noble; we can love more expansively; we can obey more fully. We will never "arrive." Whatever our present state may be, we can be, know, and do "more and more."

Verse 11

And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you;

And that ye: Three classes of people are singled out for special treatment--"fanatics, busybodies, and loafers" (Coffman 49). Sometimes all three qualities are found in one person.

study to be quiet: It is paradoxical that Paul here urges us to study (strive eagerly) to be quiet (still). Many of us are good at engaging in restless activity. We are not so good at heeding the psalmist’s words: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:10). This admonition may well have been aimed at those persons, who, like the Corinthians, are primarily interested in the exercise of showy gifts such as tongue-speaking, a practice that Paul finds it necessary to regulate (see 1 Corinthians 12, 13, 14). They need to learn there is value in an unobtrusive performance of one’s assigned tasks and the use of one’s unique gifts, or as Phillips puts it in his translation of this verse, "Make it your ambition to have no ambition." Paul’s gentle admonition here apparently goes unheeded and has to be followed with a more forceful command in 2 Thessalonians 3:12.

and to do your own business: Some of the Thessalonians have become busybodies, hence the need to be admonished to "mind your own business."

Moreover, idlers, neglecting their own, easily become ’meddlers in other men’s matters’...and not infrequently indolent dependents on other men’s bounty as well (Hogg and Vine 125).

and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you: There are also idlers among them, "working not at all." These need to follow the example of Paul who "wrought with labour and travail night and day" (2 Thessalonians 3:8). "Paul gave a new dignity to manual labour by precept and example" (Robertson 30). The idleness may have stemmed in part from the expectation that the Lord’s return is imminent. "The expectation was right in so far as that the Church should be always looking for Him; but they were wrong in making it a ground for neglecting their daily work" (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown 389). "What Paul is condemning here is not unemployment as such (when people want work but cannot find it) but idleness (when work is available but people do not want it)" (Stott 90).

Verse 12

That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.

That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without: Christian responsibility does not terminate at the church house door. There is a duty that extends to "them that are without." To "walk honestly" includes honest financial transactions, but it also means to walk in a decent, becoming fashion. The Christian life is distinctive; all should be able to observe the difference between Christians and their irreligious neighbors. However, this does not permit snobbery. The Christian’s life should be distinctive, but it ought also be attractive or winsome at the same time. If we are the "only gospel this world will ever read," we must make certain the type is not blurred. In the Grecian world, manual labor was despised, being considered an occupation fit only for slaves. The way in which Christians dignified the earning of a livelihood would have gained the attention, if not the respect, of the pagans.

and that ye may have lack of nothing: Two reasons are assigned for Christians’ "working with their hands." As already noted, the first is that they might ultimately win the respect of those outside the church. The second is that useful labor brings independence. Indolence and idleness breed a parasitical reliance on others for the necessities of life. The worker will have his needs supplied and will not have to rely on the charity of others.

Verse 13

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren: Paul’s frequent use of this expression is a complete denial of the adage that "ignorance is bliss." It is his way of calling special attention to something new and/or important. If, as some affirm, it makes no difference what one believes, why would Paul be so insistent on the disciples’ knowing the truth? "He traces many problems of Christian faith and life to ignorance, and regards knowledge as the key to many blessings" (Stott 94).

concerning them which are asleep: The word cemetery (meaning a place of sleep) is derived from the word here translated "asleep." The metaphor of death being like sleep is not a uniquely Christian usage, being found in many cultures. Yet, it acquires a new emphasis among Christians inasmuch as death has been transformed. It is no longer an enemy to be feared but a friend to be welcomed. It is not a terminus but a new beginning. There is no hint that the dead are annihilated or that they cease to exist. As a sleeper awakens with the coming of a new day, even so the dead will experience resurrection at the coming of the Lord. It should be noted that this passage offers no support for the belief that the soul sleeps. It is the body, not the soul, which is under consideration here.

that ye sorrow not: This is not a blanket prohibition against manifesting those natural feelings of sorrow experienced at the passing of a loved one. Jesus himself experiences such (John 11:35). Paul is capable of such expressions as well (Philippians 2:27). What is prohibited is the kind of hopeless grief characteristic of the pagans.

even as others which have no hope: "Paul makes a sharp distinction between Christians and all others" (Vincent 39). The inscriptions on their tombs and contemporary literature both confirm there was an almost universal hopeless despair among the heathen. Paul notes this also in Ephesians 2:12, describing those who were "in time past Gentiles in the flesh" as "having no hope, and without God in the world." "The language Paul puts into their mouths, ’let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,’ 1 Corinthians 15:32, is abundantly corroborated by their literature" (Hogg and Vine 132). Typical of their hopelessness is the attitude expressed by Aeschylus, a Greek dramatist who lived some 500 years before Christ: "Once dead, there is no resurrection more" (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown 390).

Verse 14

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again: The Christian hope is based entirely on the historical fact that Jesus was raised to life again on the third day following his death. In contrast with those who are said to be sleeping, Christ is said to have died. This underscores a central doctrine of scripture that Christ faced all the horrors of death in order to make expiation for our sins. "He made him to be sin for us who knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Death heaped every penalty upon him that rightfully belonged to the wayward and wicked of earth. His death was both vicarious and voluntary. He paid it all that we might not have to pay. He died that death that is the wages of sin that we might be free from liability and might not have to "see death" (John 8:51). According to Wuest, this passage means that death’s sting has been extracted. Death no longer holds any interest to the people of God. It will be an insignificant event, a mere harmless shadow (Psalms 23:4).

even so them also which sleep in Jesus: The promise of resurrection to blessedness is not universal in its scope, being extended only to those "which sleep in Jesus." The prospect of sleeping in (literally, through) Jesus takes all the terror out of death for death has been transformed into sleep. The resurrection of Christ is recorded as historical fact. The resurrection of the saints at His coming is recorded as a promise. Both are recorded in the same book, His resurrection being the guarantee of theirs.

will God bring with him: At the time of death, the spirit returns to God while the body returns to the dust (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This teaching may be an indication that the spirits of the redeemed will return with the Lord to be reunited with resurrected bodies (verse 16) and thus "this corruptible shall have put on incorruption" (1 Corinthians 15:54).

The Christian hope...is more than the expectation that the King is coming; it is also the belief that when he comes, the Christian dead will come with him and the Christian living will join them (Stott 97).

Verse 15

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord: Lest Paul’s words should be considered too good to be true and lest some should question the source of his information, Paul says he speaks "by the word of the Lord." It is evident that no such words are attributed to Jesus in any of the four gospel narratives, but that is not surprising because the gospels do not purport to be a complete record of our Lord’s actions or words on earth. This could have been an unrecorded saying of Jesus. However, much of Paul’s knowledge of divine things came to him by direct revelation (Galatians 1:11-12). The truths herein set forth may very well have come to him in that way. As Hogg and Vine note, "He is apparently transmitting a revelation given directly to himself" (137).

that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord: These words are seized on by those skeptics who like to charge Paul with error concerning the coming of Christ as evidence that he expected that event to occur within his lifetime. One could argue on the basis of 2 Corinthians 4:14 that Paul expected to be dead and in need of resurrection at the coming of Jesus. The fact is that Paul did not know, nor did he profess to tell others, the exact time when Jesus would come (5:1-2). As Morris notes, "Paul consistently refused to commit himself to dates" (92). His own practice, and the practice he inculcated to others, was to so live "that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him" (5:10).

Longing for the Parousia of Christ, which is certain to come, yet not afraid of death, which may possibly come first, is, then, the characteristic attitude of each generation of Christians (Hogg and Vine 138).

As to the charge that Paul is mistaken about his teaching in this verse, we must remember his claim that it is a revelation from the Lord himself: "this I say by the word of the Lord!" To charge Paul with error would be to charge the Lord with error, as well.

shall not prevent them which are asleep: The old English word "prevent" means precede, and it is so rendered in the New International Version. The concern of the Thessalonians is that the sleeping saints might be at some sort of disadvantage when the Lord returns. Paul dispels that notion by affirming that the resurrection of the dead will occur before any good thing happens to the living.

There is no possibility that the Christian dead (about whom the Thessalonians were anxious) will be separated either from Christ (for they will come with him) or from the Christian living (for they will be joined by them) (Stott 98).

Verse 16

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven: On the occasion of our Lord’s departure from the earth, the angel says, He "shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Just as the Old Testament foretells His first coming as a babe in Bethlehem, the New Testament emphasizes His return as a conquering king (1 Corinthians 15:23-26). That he shall "descend from heaven" is also worthy of note. The heavens are mentioned frequently in connection with his ascension. He passed into them (Hebrews 4:14). He "ascended up far above all heavens" (Ephesians 4:10), being "made higher than the heavens" (Hebrews 7:26). This ascension, of course, gave Him superiority over "all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come" (Ephesians 1:21). Having "entered...into heaven itself" (Hebrews 9:24), He "is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens" (Hebrews 8:1).

with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: The Lord’s return will be visible--"every eye shall see him" (Revelation 1:7). It will also be audible. The word translated "shout" means a command. Phillips captures the imagery graphically in his rendering of this verse: "One word of command, one shout from the archangel, one blast from the trumpet of God and the Lord himself will come down from Heaven!" It is unfortunate that interpreters have not been content to let this unadorned description of the end time stand without embellishment. This, the fullest description of these events to be found in scripture, has become the special province of those who wish to engage in speculative theorizing about the future. Not content with the words of inspiration, they have sought to fill in the blanks, to "go beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6 NIV). It is nothing short of amazing to observe the way some wrest these passages in order to squeeze in theories about two resurrections, one for the righteous, another a thousand years later for the wicked, and intervening between the two, a reign of Christ in an earthly kingdom. That the good and the evil, the just and the unjust, will be raised in a single resurrection is emphasized in several unambiguous statements of scripture. Note the following:

The hour is coming in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:28-29).

There shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust (Acts 24:15).

and the dead in Christ shall rise first: It must be noted that there is not one word in this whole context about the dead outside of Christ.

Any one can see that the apostle is not drawing a contrast between believers and unbelievers, as if, for example, believers would rise first, and unbelievers a thousand years later! (Hendriksen 115).

Paul’s use of the word "first" is not intended to convey the idea that the righteous dead will be raised prior to the wicked dead. What he says is that the righteous dead will be raised before anyone rises to meet the Lord in the air. "We who are still alive, and who are left til the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep" (4:15 NIV). It is also consoling to note that nothing in death can diminish or destroy the in Christ relationship established during our lifetime.

Verse 17

Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them: "Caught up" comes from a word that combines the ideas of force and suddenness. Many use the word rapture, a word of Latin origin which conveys the same notion. There will be a rapture of the saints, but not the fanciful sort of rapture envisioned by many modern speculators. There is no support in this word or this passage for the notion that the wicked will simply wake up some morning and find the saints gone, leaving not a trace. The cataclysmic events of the end time (2 Peter 3:10-11) will be clearly visible and will leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to where the saints are or as to what is in store for themselves.

Note the use of the words "together" and "with him." These speak of reunion. In heaven we not only will be with the Lord but also, as the song writer expresses it, "And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I have loved long since and lost a while."

in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: The place of meeting is in the clouds and in the air. The saints will leave this old world behind. "So shall we ever be with the Lord."

and so shall we ever be with the Lord: This is the denouement, the final outcome of this remarkable series of events. The Bible does not answer all our questions or satisfy all our curiosity about the future. We might like additional information, but we have been given all God wants us to know (Deuteronomy 29:29). "When Paul comes to that great fact that makes everything else unimportant, he stops. There is no need (and no more) to add to that" (Morris 94).

Verse 18

Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

Wherefore comfort one another: This is another instance of the use of the reciprocal pronoun "one another." "Comfort" is not just provided by the preacher who delivers a funeral oration. It is a mutual responsibility among all the saints. Each can strengthen the others and should do so. Many find comfort in music, in poetry, or in the words of the philosophers. The child of God always derives his greatest comfort from the word of the Lord.

with these words: The time-setters are legion. Over and over again the gullible have been taken in by religious charlatans who confidently affirm that they, contrary to the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 24:36), know the day and the hour when the Lord will come. One after another the predictions have proved false, leaving in their wake the dashed hopes and shattered faith of the believers. Irresponsible speculation and prophetic fanaticism can never provide lasting spiritual strength. Only the word can do that, hence, Paul’s admonition: "comfort (strengthen) one another with these words."

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Contending for the Faith reproduced by permission of Contending for the Faith Publications, 4216 Abigale Drive, Yukon, OK 73099. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". "Contending for the Faith". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/1-thessalonians-4.html. 1993-2022.