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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

1 Thessalonians 5

Verses 1-24


The second major part of this epistle contains instructions and exhortations about Christian living in general, the Rapture, personal watchfulness, church life, and individual behavior. All of this is vital for believers who are undergoing opposition for their faith.

Verses 1-2

Paul had previously taught this church about the day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Jesus had also taught His disciples about it (cf. Matthew 24:44; Mark 13; Luke 21). They had taught about the chronological periods ("times," Gr. chronos, an extended period) and the major features of those periods ("epochs," Gr. chairos, a definite period) that lay ahead in the future. These words may describe the end times from these two perspectives (cf. Acts 1:7; Acts 3:19-21). [Note: G. G. Findlay, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians, p. 107; Morris, The First . . ., pp. 149-50.] But probably they mean virtually the same thing (cf. Daniel 2:21; Daniel 7:12; Acts 1:7). [Note: Wanamaker, p. 178.]

". . . the phrase may have been a conventional doublet, like our own ’times and seasons,’ with no particular emphasis on a difference between the two nouns." [Note: Bruce, p. 108.]

"The day of the Lord" usually refers in Scripture to a time in history characterized by God’s working in the world in direct, dramatic ways. [Note: See ibid., p. 109.] It contrasts with the day of man in which affairs appear to be proceeding without divine intervention. The eschatological day of the Lord prophesied in the Old Testament begins with the Tribulation and continues through the Millennium (cf. Isaiah 13:9-11; Joel 2:28-32; Zephaniah 1:14-18; Zephaniah 3:14-15; et al.). It contains both judgment (in the Tribulation) and blessing (in the Millennium). People living on the earth when it begins (i.e., unbelievers, since Christians will be with the Lord in heaven immediately following the Rapture) will not expect it.

"The meaning [of "like a thief"] would be not that the Day will come as unheralded as a thief, but that it will surprise people . . ." [Note: Morris, The First . . ., p. 155.]

"By using ’day of the Lord’ terminology to describe the great tribulation, Christ included the tribulation within the day of the Lord (cf. Matthew 24:21 with Jeremiah 30:7; Daniel 12:1; Joel 2:2). This time of trial at the outset of the earthly day of the Lord will thus not be brief, but comparable to a woman’s labor before giving birth to a child (Isaiah 13:8; Isaiah 26:17-19; Isaiah 66:7 ff.; Jeremiah 30:7-8; Micah 4:9-10; Matthew 24:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:3)." [Note: Thomas, p. 281. Cf. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 230; and Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, pp. 186-91.]

The phrase "the day of the Lord" also refers to the Second Coming of Christ (cf. Joel 3:9-16; Zechariah 14:1-5; Revelation 16:12-16; Revelation 19:11-21); it includes that event between the Tribulation and the Millennium. Thus Scripture uses the term in a broad sense (the Tribulation and the Millennium) and a narrow sense (the return of Christ).

"Just as the word ’day’ in Genesis 1:5 has both a broad sense (a 24-hour day-’And the evening and the morning were the first day’) and a narrow sense (the light part of a 24-hour day in contrast with the darkness part-’And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night’)-so the expression ’the Day of the Lord’ has both a broad and a narrow sense in relationship to the future." [Note: Showers, Maranatha . . ., p. 35.]

Some posttribulationists say the day of the Lord here refers only to the second coming of Christ. [Note: Ladd, pp. 92-94.] However in the context this day will be a time when God will pour out His wrath on unbelievers (1 Thessalonians 5:3-9). While this could refer to the judgments that will take place at Christ’s second coming, it seems more likely to refer to the judgments of the Tribulation (cf. Matthew 24:5-28; Revelation 6:16-17). [Note: Reese, pp. 172-73.] Gundry contended that the day of the Lord begins after the Tribulation but before Armageddon. [Note: Gundry, p. 95.] However this means that none of the judgments before Armageddon are judgments of the day of the Lord, a conclusion that few interpreters, posttribulational as well as pretribulational, have accepted. [Note: See Paul D. Feinberg, "Dispensational Theology and the Rapture," in Issues in Dispensationalism, pp. 225-45, for a critique of Gundry’s view, the views of posttribulationists Douglas J. Moo and William E. Bell, and the view of midtribulationist Gleason F. Archer.]

"The only way to hold that this meeting with Christ in the air is an imminent prospect is to see it as simultaneous with the beginning of the divine judgment against earth. Only if the rapture coincides with the beginning of the day of the Lord can both be imminent and the salvation of those in Christ coincide with the coming of wrath to the rest (1 Thessalonians 5:9) . . .

"Were either the rapture or the day of the Lord to precede the other, one or the other would cease to be an imminent prospect to which the ’thief in the night’ and related expressions (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:17) are inappropriate. That both are any-moment possibilities is why Paul can talk about these two in successive paragraphs. This is how the Lord’s personal coming as well as the ’day’s’ coming can be compared to a thief ([Matthew 24:36-43; Luke 12:35-40;] 2 Peter 3:4; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3; Revelation 3:11; Revelation 16:15)." [Note: Thomas, p. 281. Cf. Walvoord, The Thessalonian . . ., p. 54.]

Verses 1-11

C. Personal watchfulness 5:1-11

In view of the imminency of Christ’s return Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to be ready to meet the Lord at any time.

"The former [paragraph, i.e., 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18] offered instruction concerning the dead in Christ; this [paragraph] gives a word of needed exhortation to the living." [Note: Hiebert, p. 207.]

Other contrasts between these passages are the Rapture and the day of the Lord, and resurrection and judgment.

This pericope deals with the time of Christ’s return and the consequent need for watchfulness.

Verse 3

Evidently the occasion for the false sense of security felt then will be the Antichrist’s signing of a covenant with Israel (cf. Daniel 9:27). Thus the beginning of the day of the Lord and the beginning of Daniel’s seventieth week also coincide. [Note: See Showers, Maranatha . . ., pp. 58-63.] That signing will set the stage for a period of unprecedented destruction even though it will be the signing of a peace treaty. Unbelievers living on earth then will be able to anticipate this period of persecution since God has revealed it in Scripture. It will be much like a pregnant woman’s delivery which observers can anticipate by her appearance (cf. Matthew 24:8). No one living on the earth then will in any way (double negative for emphasis in the Greek text) escape the turmoil to follow. They cannot escape it any more than a pregnant woman can escape delivering her child. This seems to argue against midtribulationism. No one on earth who is living in peace and safety during the first half of the Tribulation will escape the destruction coming in the second half, except those who die.

Verses 4-6

The Thessalonians were not ignorant of these events since Jesus and Paul had revealed them (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). In both Semitic and Greek thought, to be described as a "son" of something was to be characterized by that thing. [Note: Morris, The First . . ., p. 156.] In this case what characterized the Thessalonians was the light (in contrast to darkness) and day (in contrast to night). They were not walking in wickedness either. God had removed the Thessalonians from Satan’s kingdom of darkness and placed them into God’s kingdom of light (cf. Colossians 1:13). "Darkness" was a common negative figure in antiquity. In the Old and New Testaments it describes those who are ignorant of or opposed to the Lord (cf. Job 22:9-11; Psalms 82:5; Proverbs 4:19; Isaiah 60:1-3; Romans 13:12; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 4:4-6; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Colossians 1:13; 1 Peter 2:9). Paul exhorted the Thessalonians therefore to remain alert (watchful) and sober (self-possessed), not asleep (insensible) to things that God has revealed.

If the church must pass through the Tribulation (Daniel’s seventieth week) before the Rapture, it is useless to watch for Christ daily. [Note: See James H. Brookes, "Kept Out of the Hour," Our Hope 6 (November 1899):154; Brindle, pp. 144-46.] Rather believers should be looking for Antichrist.

Verses 7-8

Behavior consistent with their position in Christ required watchful preparation in view of the future. As soldiers engaged in spiritual warfare, they needed to protect their vital parts with trust in God and love for others (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:3, 1 Thessalonians 3:5; Isaiah 59:17; Romans 13:12; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 2 Corinthians 10:4; Ephesians 6:14-17). They also needed to protect their thinking from attack by keeping their sure hope of deliverance at Christ’s appearing in mind (i.e., the Rapture). Note the recurrence of the triad of faith, hope, and love, as in 1 Thessalonians 1:3.

Verses 9-10

Deliverance from the judgments of the day of the Lord (i.e., the outpouring of God’s wrath in the Tribulation) is certain for Christians. It is certain because God has not appointed His children to wrath in any form or at any time (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:10). In the context, the wrath of the day of the Lord is in view specifically. Rather He has appointed us to full salvation (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). Whereas Christians do experience divine discipline (cf. Hebrews 12), we will not experience divine wrath (cf. Romans 8:1).

"1 Thessalonians 5:9 is not a ’both/and’ statement. The believer is not appointed to wrath and to salvation-to the Day of the Lord and the Rapture (the posttribulational view). The verse states ’not one, but the other.’ The believer is appointed not to wrath, but to salvation; not to the Day of the Lord, but to the Rapture (pretribulationalism). The believer’s hope is the Rapture. We are not watching for wrath, but for the Lord." [Note: Edgar, pp. 206-7.]

"When God vents his anger against earth dwellers (Revelation 6:16-17), the body of Christ will be in heaven as the result of the series of happenings outlined in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 (cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:13). This is God’s purpose." [Note: Thomas, p. 285.]

This deliverance is certain because Jesus Christ died as our substitute. He took all God’s wrath against us on Himself (cf. Romans 8:1). Consequently we can have confidence that we will live together with Christ after the Rapture whether we are watchful or unwatchful at the time of His coming.

The Greek word translated "asleep" in 1 Thessalonians 5:10 is from the same root as the one translated "sleep" in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 where the reference is to spiritual lethargy. It is a different one from the word translated "asleep" in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 where the reference is to physical death. [Note: Constable, p. 707.] God will snatch away all Christians whether watchful or unwatchful at the Rapture. [Note: See Thomas R. Edgar, "The Meaning of ’Sleep’ in 1 Thessalonians 5:10," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:4 (December 1979):345-49.] This statement refutes the partial rapture theory, the view that God will rapture only watchful Christians. Moreover it is another indication that the Rapture will occur before the Tribulation since the Tribulation is a time when God will pour out His wrath on those dwelling on the earth (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Revelation 3:10).

Verse 11

This sure hope is a sound basis for mutual encouragement and edification among believers. Not only can we comfort one another when believers die (1 Thessalonians 4:18), but we can also strengthen one another while we live.

"For the truth that the church is destined for rescue from the woes of the Tribulation, no passage has more to offer to exegetical scrutiny than does 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11." [Note: Zane C. Hodges, "The Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11," in Walvoord: A Tribute, pp. 67-68. For a good exegetical defense of the pretribulation rapture, see Showers, Maranatha . . ., and for refutation of the posttribulation view of this passage, see Stanton, Kept from . . ., pp. 88-91, ]

Verses 12-13

1. Attitudes toward leaders 5:12-13

The leaders in view were probably the elders in the Thessalonian church and possibly the deacons and others in positions of leadership (cf. Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 5:17). His readers were to appreciate these leaders (plural) for their labors. Their duties, as listed here, are representative, not exhaustive. He charged the believers also to esteem their leaders very highly in love. While some individuals naturally elicit more affection than others, the Thessalonians were deliberately to demonstrate self-sacrificing love to all their leaders. They were to do so, not because they were personally lovable or even admirable, but because of the contribution they made to the other believers. Even if a leader made a small contribution, those profiting from his ministry should appreciate and respect him for his service. Such an attitude would enable the Thessalonians to continue to experience peace in their church (1 Thessalonians 5:13).

"That Paul included such a command shows that relations were not all they could have been." [Note: Thomas, p. 288.]

"I have discovered that lack of respect for spiritual leadership is the main cause of church fights and splits." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 16.]

"Leaders can never do their best work when they are subject to carping criticism from those who should be their followers." [Note: Morris, The Epistles . . ., p. 99.]

Verses 12-15

D. Church life 5:12-15

Paul also reminded his readers of their present duties. In doing so, he balanced his previous emphasis on their present hope in view of future blessings. He moved from dealing with hope to the subject of love (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:8). Paul’s exhortation to the Romans is quite similar to what we begin to read here (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:13 b and Romans 12:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:15 and Romans 12:17 a; 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and Romans 12:12 a; 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and Romans 12:12 c; 1 Thessalonians 5:19 and Romans 12:11 b; 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 and Romans 12:11 b). [Note: Wanamaker, p. 191.]

Verses 14-15

2. Relationships among themselves 5:14-15

Paul now gave stronger commands (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12). Not only the leaders but all the believers were responsible to minister to one another. Those who neglected their daily duties needed stirring up to action. Those who were timid or tended to become discouraged and despondent more easily than most needed cheering up, stimulation to press on, and extra help. Those who had not yet learned to lean on the Lord for their needs as they should were worthy of special support. Above all, the Thessalonians were to be patient with one another and with all people. They were not to retaliate but to do positive good to all others (cf. Proverbs 25:21; Matthew 5:38-42; Matthew 5:44-48; Luke 6:27-36; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Peter 2:19-23; 1 Peter 3:9).

"Nonretaliation for personal wrongs is perhaps the best evidence of personal Christian maturity." [Note: Thomas, p. 290.]

1 Thessalonians 5:14 focuses on those who are hurting, and 1 Thessalonians 5:15 on those who hurt others.

Verse 16

This is one of approximately 70 New Testament commands to rejoice. This volitional choice is extremely important for the Christian. We can always rejoice if we remember what God has given us in Christ.

Verses 16-18

1. Personal actions and attitudes 5:16-18

Verses 16-24

E. Individual behavior 5:16-24

The preceding exhortations led Paul naturally to focus on other individual responsibilities to enable his readers to perceive their personal Christian duty clearly (cf. Galatians 6). However all these things are the duties of Christians corporately (the church assembled) as well as individually.

Verse 17

Greek writers used the adverb translated "without ceasing" to describe a hacking cough. Paul did not expect his readers to be in prayer every minute but to continue praying frequently.

"Not surprisingly Paul wished his converts to be people of prayer. He himself was devoted to prayer as a fundamental activity in his life (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:2 b; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Romans 1:10; Colossians 1:3; Colossians 1:9). In several of his letters he instructs his readers to devote themselves to prayer (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1; Romans 12:12; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 4:2-3)." [Note: Wanamaker, p. 200.]

"If we live in this way, conscious continually of our dependence on God, conscious of His presence with us always, conscious of His will to bless, then our general spirit of prayerfulness will in the most natural way overflow into uttered prayer. It is instructive to read again and again in Paul’s letters the many prayers that he interjects. Prayer was as natural to Paul as breathing. At any time he was likely to break off his argument or to sum it up by some prayer of greater or less length. In the same way our lives can be lived in such an attitude of dependence on God that we will easily and naturally move into the words of prayer on all sorts of occasions, great and small, grave and gay. Prayer is to be constant." [Note: Morris, The First . . ., p. 173.]

Verse 18

We need to give thanks about everything knowing that God is working all things together for good for His people who love Him (Romans 8:28). Paul said all of these commands are definitely God’s will for every believer.

Verse 19

Quenching the Spirit is a figurative expression used to illustrate the possibility of hindering the Spirit’s work in and through the believer. The image is that of water thrown on a fire. The proper response is to follow the Spirit’s direction and control without resistance (1 Thessalonians 5:18; cf. Galatians 5:16; Galatians 5:25). The next verse gives one way in which believers can quench the Spirit.

Verses 19-22

2. Actions and attitudes in corporate living 5:19-22

Verses 20-21

There appears to have been a tendency in the Thessalonian church to despise prophetic utterances (i.e., the announcing of some word from God; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1). Paul warned against regarding these words from God as only words from men. However, he also counseled that his readers should test these utterances. They could do this by comparing what the speaker said with the standard of previously given divine revelation (cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Deuteronomy 18:20; 1 John 4:1-3). Their neighbors, the Bereans, set them a good example in this respect (cf. Acts 17:11). They should retain everything that passed the test. What did not they should reject along with all other kinds of evil. The problem was discerning true prophecies and true prophets from false prophecies and false prophets (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 2:15), not discerning the true elements from the false elements in a true prophet’s prophecy. [Note: See R. Fowler White, "Does God Speak Today Apart from the Bible? in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, p. 85.]

Verse 22

They should also avoid every form of evil (Gr. pantos eidous ponerou). This seems to be the best meaning in view of the contrast with 1 Thessalonians 5:21. The alternative interpretation is that Paul wanted his readers not only to avoid evil itself but what others might perceive as involving evil (cf. Romans 14). It is not always possible, of course, to abstain from what appears to extremely narrow-minded people to be evil.

Verse 23

Peace in the assembly was very important to Paul. The "spirit" is the part of us that enables us to communicate with God. The "soul" makes us conscious of ourselves. The "body" is the physical part that expresses the inner person. These are not the only elements that constitute humanity (cf. heart, mind, conscience, etc.), but they are the ones Paul chose here.

"It is precarious to try to construct a tripartite doctrine of human nature on the juxtaposition of the three nouns, pneuma, psyche and soma. . . . The distinction between the bodily and spiritual aspects of human nature is easily made, but to make a comparable distinction between ’spirit’ and ’soul’ is forced." [Note: Bruce, p. 130.]

Paul may have mentioned "spirit and soul and body" because these three aspects point to the believer’s relationships to God, himself or herself, and other people. Together they picture wholeness. Paul’s desire for his readers was that every part of them, involving all their relationships, would remain without fault and that they would continue to mature and live free from legitimate grounds for accusation until Christ’s return. Note again that he believed the Lord’s return could precede their deaths.

Since the Lord did not return before Paul died was he wrong to view the Lord’s return as he did, namely, as imminent? No, because imminent means that He could return at any moment, not that He will return very soon.

"In a prayer expressing Paul’s wishes for the congregation, two of the basic themes of the letter are again highlighted. The prayer utilizes two optative verbs, asking that God ’may . . . sanctify’ the Thessalonians and that they ’may . . . be kept blameless.’ The prayer for sanctification reminds the readers of the exhortations in chaps. 4-5. In fact, the call for sanctification brackets these final two chapters. Chapter 4 begins with an exhortation to the people to lead sanctified lives (1 Thessalonians 5:3-8), and chap. 5 ends with a prayer that God would sanctify his people (1 Thessalonians 5:23 a). The prayer for the preservation of the saints until the coming of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:23 b) reflects back on encouragements to persist in hope despite affliction (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:10-11)." [Note: Martin, p. 188.]

Verses 23-24

3. Divine enablement 5:23-24

Verse 24

Paul was confident God would do this work in the Thessalonians through the Holy Spirit, assuming their proper response to Him (1 Thessalonians 5:19). The antecedent of "it" seems to be the sanctification and preservation of the Thessalonians, not the return of Christ. [Note: Lightfoot, p. 90.]

Verse 25

Paul believed that intercessory prayer would move God to do things that He would not do otherwise (cf. James 4:2).

"The ministry of prayer is the most important service that the Church of Christ can engage in." [Note: D. Edmond Hiebert, Working with God: Scriptural Studies in Intercession, p. 44.]

Verses 25-28


Paul added this final postscript to encourage three more loving actions and to stress one basic attitude.

Verse 26

The holy kiss of brotherly affection and unity in Christ was and is a customary greeting in many parts of the world. In North American culture an embrace or handshake often communicates the same sentiments.

Verse 27

Paul recognized the edifying value of this letter and perhaps its divine inspiration, so he firmly charged that someone read it aloud to all the congregation of saints.

"The sudden switch from the plural to the singular of the first person is significant; the most probable explanation is that Paul took over the pen at this point and added the adjuration and the concluding benediction with his own hand . . ." [Note: Bruce, p. 135. See also E. H. Askwith, "’I’ and ’We’ in the Thessalonian Epistles," Expositor, series 8:1 (1911):149-59.]

Verse 28

Finally, he expressed his longing that the unmerited favor of God would continue to be his readers’ experience and source of joy. Paul typically mentioned God’s grace in his farewells. It was one of his favorite themes. This benediction is identical to the ones in Romans 16:20 and 1 Corinthians 16:23.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.