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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

1 Thessalonians 4

Verses 1-18

The True End of Man

1 Thessalonians 4:3

The will of God called all things into being, and conserves all things in existence by its power. And the message to our fainting souls today, is that this Almighty will is on our side in the great battle with evil; that this will is concerned in our salvation.

I. Before we proceed to a further consideration of the text, there are two words in it which we must examine carefully. The words 'will' and 'sanctification'. To take the latter first, what precisely is meant by our sanctification? If we open our Bibles we shall find that it is applied both to things and persons. In the very second chapter of Genesis we have the word applied to the seventh day. 'And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it.' We find our Lord saying of Himself, 'For their sakes I sanctify Myself. This is the will of God, that you should be separated from the world; that instead of having the world as your master and your end, you should be consecrated to God, having Him for your Lord, belonging to Him, being children of God, walking as children of light. The other word which we must notice is the word 'will'. God wills all men to be saved. God wills your salvation, and in that will provides for each one sufficient grace to enable him to attain salvation.

II. 'This is the will of God, even your sanctification.' From this it follows that God's providence will order the circumstances of our life, with an end to our sanctification. (1) By supplying us with opportunities of grace sufficient to enable us to work out our salvation. God gives all that we need. (2) By opportunities of discipline. Consider some of the opportunities of discipline which come to us by God's will, for the purpose of sanctifying us. (a) The discipline of pain. How differently pain works in souls. (b) The discipline of sorrow. What opposite results sorrow produces in different souls! (c) The discipline of temptation. (d) The discipline of work.

III. 'This is the will of God, even your sanctification.' What courage this thought arouses in the fainting soul! I have on my side the mightiest force, the force which called this world into being. Though all things and men and the powers of evil were against me, if God were on my side I need not fear what they can do unto me.

A. G. Mortimer, Lenten Preaching, p. 14.

References. IV. 3. H. Drummond, The Ideal Life, p. 279. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 53. C. D. Bell, The Saintly Calling, p. 23. W. H. Evans, Sermons for the Church's Year, p. 252. C. Gutch, Sermons, p. 1. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. i. p. 101. IV. 7. H. W. Webb-Peploe, The Record, vol. xxvii. p. 770. IV. 8. E. W. Attwood, Sermons for Clergy and Laity, p. 107. IV. 9-18. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Thessalonians, p. 183. IV. 10. F. W. Farrar, Sin and its Conquerors, p. 74. IV. 10-12. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 202.

Religion in Business

1 Thessalonians 4:11

It is no uncommon thing to hear business men declare that they have no time to attend to religion. But such a statement reveals a complete ignorance of the very nature of religion, and especially of the peculiar traits which distinguish the Christian religion. Too busy with life to attend to the claims of religion! That is like the famous complaint of one who could not see the forest for the trees, or of that other who could not see London for the houses. The trees are the forest. The houses are London. This active, eager, business life is your religion. Too busy to be religious! God's answer would be, 'If you cannot be religious when you are busy, how could you be if you were at leisure? If you cannot make bricks of clay, how could you make them of straw?' It is a new note that is struck in the New Testament, where business, the buying and selling, the work by which the daily bread is earned, is enjoined as the means of realising the kingdom of heaven. The amazing change seems to be produced almost insensibly by the mere facts of the Incarnation. And because this was the distinctive element of the Gospel at its inception, it was also the new discovery of the Reformers at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

I. Your handicraft, or business, or profession, is before all things the service which you have to render to God, the means by which your religion is to be exercised. The biographer of Michelangelo says, in speaking of his designs: 'Incomplete as they are, they reveal Michelangelo's loftiest dreams and purest visions... there is an air of meditation and of rapt devotion. The drawings for the Passion might be called the prayers and pious thoughts of the stern Master.' Every lawful and honest calling is a service rendered to the community and to Christ. I imagine no one can be in doubt whether a calling is of this character or not. If it is, whether making or distributing, whether feeding or clothing, whether instructing or amusing or recreating, you may do it as the agent of Christ.

II. There is then no distinction between our religion and our daily business. The one is the Spirit, the other is the body which the Spirit is to animate. I will hazard one suggestion on the mode of breathing the Spirit into the body. See that you begin the busy day by definitely commending it to Christ, and committing yourself to His care and direction. But you say, The very nature of my employment is contrary to my conscience. I cannot ask God's blessing on the things I have to do. But if you cannot ask God's blessing on your business, you can ask Him to deliver you from it. Have faith in God. It is a question of a right will and of a simple faith. Tennyson beautifully described a living poet as 'a reed through which all things blow into music'. You, as a Christian, in the world, busy with its duties and even to all appearance submerged beneath its concerns, become 'a reed through which all things blow into religion'.

R. F. Horton, Brief Sermons for Busy Men, p. 1.

The Ambition of Quietness

1 Thessalonians 4:11

The Church at Thessalonica, to which Paul wrote the letter, was in an unsettled and distracted state. The Gospel had come to it in such reality that it was tempted to be untrue to duty. Paul was not speaking to philosophic students. He was speaking to handicraftsmen, many of them weavers. And he said: 'Make it your ambition to be quiet, and to do your own work as we commanded you, that you may walk honourably towards them who are without'.

I. Now the truth which unites the clauses of our text is that quietness is needed for true work. Study to be quiet and to do your business; you will never do the one without the other. In a measure that is true of outward quiet, at least when we reach the higher kinds of labour. Every man who is earnest about the highest work makes it his ambition to be quiet Of course there is a certain type of man that is largely impervious to outward tumult. Mr. Gladstone could read and write in Downing Street in total oblivion of the marching of the Horse Guards. But that does not mean that he did not require quietude; it means that he could command an inward quietude, and that he was master of such concentration as visits most of us only in rare moments.

II. But the words of our text have a far deeper meaning than can ever be exhausted by quietness of circumstances. They tell us that the best work is never possible unless there be a quietness of the heart. It is one of the legends of our Saviour's childhood that in Joseph's workshop He was a perfect worker. It is only a legend, and yet, like every legend, it leans for its secret of beauty on a truth, and the truth is that here was perfect peace, and perfect peace produced the perfect work. (1) Think, for example, of the disquiet of despondency; does not that tangle all that we put our hand to? (2) The same is true of the unrest of the passions; work becomes drudgery in their disquiet. (3) Again, the need of inward quiet for toil is seen in the working of an uneasy conscience. There is not a thing you do, not a task or duty you can set your hand to, which is not adversely and evilly affected if at the back of all there be an unquiet conscience. Study to be quiet, then, and do your business. Make it your ambition to have the rest of Christ.

G. H. Morrison, The Wings of the Morning, p. 310.

Asleep in Jesus ( for All Saints' Day )

1 Thessalonians 4:13

I. The Communion of Saints. All Saints' Day is a day on which we show whether those words that some of us say every day have any meaning at all. 'I believe in the Communion of Saints.' I cannot conceive that anyone in this Church is not interested in the worship, the praise, and the prayer that the Church offers on All Saints' Day, because there is probably not one of us who has not somebody beyond the veil, some one in Paradise, some one we strive, though but with a feeble longing, to get into closer communion with, some we have 'loved long since and lost awhile'. Surely there is no person with any feeling of sympathy in his or her soul who can think at all about All Saints' Day and be as if he or she had not thought.

II. Life After Death. Where is the soul? Where shall I go when I die? I know I shall not merely sleep. I have heard the text 'where the tree falls there shall it lie,' but God has spoken louder than that: He has said He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And my Lord and Master, when He came down to earth to reveal my Father's mind to me, knew I should want to know something of the life after death. He did not tell me much, but He told that little very clearly. You remember the parable of Dives and Lazarus, you remember the conversation which Jesus represented as taking place between two men. There is not only a conversation, which of course means life, but there is an appeal to memory of the things in this world. And then we know that our Lord did not go to heaven on His death, 'but to preach to the spirits in prison' in a place of safe keeping. You do not preach to people who are incapable of hearing who are asleep. So you see our Lord would have us clearly understand that those loved ones whom we think of individually and collectively on All Saints' Day are alive in the full sense of the word.

III. In God's Safe Keeping. How then shall we deal with those who are dead? You know that a family never gets smaller. It has some of its members behind the veil, but all are to be joined together again. Scripture does not reveal very much, but we have very sound ground to go on. Surely we may understand this: the very word life means progress, development in one direction or another. Those in Paradise gain a clearer knowledge, a closer communion with God. I love to think and my Lord has given me a right to think it that it I strive after Him here, hindered by all that is summed up in the word 'flesh,' I shall gain Him more closely there. We do not know what the saints are doing, we know nothing about Paradise, but we know that God has them in safe keeping. And one day we hope to join them, and what are you and I doing to prepare for the fuller life beyond the veil?

"Them That Sleep in Him"

1 Thessalonians 4:13 is quoted in these words from the last Collect in the Burial Service: 'Who also hath taught us, by His holy Apostle St. Paul, not to be sorry, as men without hope, for them that sleep in Him'.

J. H. Newman writes:

'There are, who have not the comfort of a peaceful burial. They die in battle, or on the sea, or in strange lands, or, as the early believers, under the hands of persecutors. Horrible tortures, or the mouths of wild beasts, have ere now dishonoured the sacred bodies of those who had fed upon Christ; and diseases corrupt them still. This is Satan's work, the expiring efforts of his fury, after his overthrow by Christ. Still, as far as we can, we repair these insults of our Enemy, and tend honourably and piously those tabernacles in which Christ has dwelt. And in this view, what a venerable and fearful place is a Church, in and around which the dead are deposited! Truly it is chiefly sacred, as being the spot where God has for ages manifested Himself to His servants; but add to this the thought, that it is the actual resting-place of those very servants, through successive times, who still live unto Him. The dust around us will one day become animate. We may ourselves be dead long before, and not see it. We ourselves may elsewhere be buried, and, should it be our exceeding blessedness to rise to life eternal, we may rise in other places, far in the east or west. But, as God's word is sure, what is sown is raised; the earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, shall become glory to glory, and life to the living God, and a true incorruptible image of the spirit made perfect. Here the saints sleep, here they shall rise. A great sight will a Christian country then be, if earth remains what it is; when holy places pour out the worshippers who have for generations kept vigil therein, waiting through the long night for the bright coming of Christ! And if this be so, what pious composed thoughts should be ours when we enter churches! God indeed is everywhere, and His angels go to and fro; yet can they be more worthily employed in their condescending care of man, than where good men sleep?'

Sermon on the Resurrection of the Body.

References. IV. 13. C. D. Bell, The Name Above Every Nome, p. 220. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 304. IV. 13, 14. T. H. Ball, Persuasions, p. 166. IV. 13-17. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 148.

Sleeping Through Jesus

1 Thessalonians 4:14

Accurately rendered the words run, 'them which sleep through Jesus'. There are two thoughts that I wish to dwell upon as suggested by these words.

I. The Softened Aspect of Death, and of the State of the Christian Dead. It is to Jesus primarily that the New Testament writers owe their use of this gracious emblem of sleep. But Jesus was not the originator of the expression. You find it in the Old Testament, where the Prophet Daniel, speaking of the end of the days and the bodily resurrection, designates those who share in it as 'them that sleep in the dust of the earth'. And the Old Testament was not the sole origin of the phrase. Many an inscription of Greek and Roman date speaks of death under this figure: but almost always it is with the added, deepened note of despair, that it is a sleep which knows no waking, but lasts through eternal night. Now, the Christian thought associated with this emblem is the precise opposite of the pagan one. It is profoundly significant that throughout the whole of the New Testament the plain, naked word 'death' is usually applied, not to the physical fact which we ordinarily designate by the name, but to the grim thing of which that physical fact is only the emblem and the parable viz , the true death which lies in the separation of the soul from God; whilst predominantly the New Testament usage calls the physical fact by some other gentler form of expression, because the gentleness has passed over the thing to be designated. What, then, does this metaphor say to us? (1) It speaks first of rest. But let us remember that this repose, deep and blessed as it is, is not, as some would say, the repose of unconsciousness. However limited and imperfect may be the present connection of the disembodied dead, who sleep in Christ, with eternal things, they know themselves, they know their home and their Companion, and they know the blessedness in which they are lapped. (2) But another thought which is suggested by this emblem is most certainly the idea of awaking. The pagans said, as indeed one of their poets has it: 'Suns can sink and return, but for us, when our brief light sinks, there is but one perpetual night of slumber'. The Christian idea of death is that it is transitory as a sleep in the morning, and sure to end. As St Augustine says somewhere: 'Wherefore are they called sleepers, but because in the day of the Lord they will be re-awakened'.

II. Note the Ground of this Softened Aspect. They 'sleep through Him'. In order to grasp the full meaning of such words as these of the Apostle, we must draw a broad distinction between the physical fact of the ending of corporeal life, and the mental condition which is associated with it by us. What we call death is a complex thing a bodily phenomenon plus conscience, the sense of sin, the certainty of retribution in the dim beyond. The mere physical fact is a trifle. Jesus Christ has abolished death, leaving the mere shell, but taking all the substance out of it. It has become a different thing to men, because in that death of His He has exhausted the bitterness, and has made it possible that we should pass into the shadow, and not fear either conscience or sin or judgment.

A. Maclaren, Triumphant Certainties, p. 232.

References. IV. 14. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 137; ibid. (5th Series), vol. iv. p. 362. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Thessalonians, p. 190. IV. 15. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. x. pp. 105, 449; ibid. (6th Series), vol. x. p. 153. IV. 16. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxii. No. 1900. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 99; ibid. (6th Series), vol. x. p. 184. IV. 16, 17. J. M. Whiton, Beyond the Shadow, p. 195.

A Funeral Service

1 Thessalonians 4:17

These words come to us as words of comfort, words of hope, in our hours of bereavement. They emphasise one of the great lessons taught us by the Resurrection, that because Christ rose from the dead the future of the believer is assured. We are often puzzled about the state of our blessed dead, but God's Holy Word tells us all we need to know about them. No doubt it leaves much to be revealed at that great day when all secrets shall be disclosed; but the Apostle tells us clearly (verses 13 and 14) that the soul which has passed away in the faith of Christ is with Jesus. 'Them also which sleep in Jesus' is the phrase used, and there could not be a more beautiful description of the faithful departed. Truly St. Paul had ground for rebuking unseemly grief. We are not to sorrow as those who have no hope; we have a sure and certain hope, and it is fixed upon the risen Saviour. It was this great doctrine of Jesus and the Resurrection that St. Paul first preached to the Thessalonians (Acts 17:3 ); and now, when he is writing to them calling them to sanctification, he reminds them again that it is Jesus and the Resurrection which is their one hope for this world, the world to come, and through all eternity.

Let us learn some practical lessons for our own comfort from these words of the Apostle.

I. The Chief Joy of Heaven. To us the chief joy of heaven will be that we shall be in the presence of Jesus. 'Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am' (John 17:24 ). To be with Christ, that is the deepest aspiration of the Christian heart.

And when we think of that supreme joy of heaven we cannot wish our friend back again in this troublesome world. We cannot doubt but that he has already seen the King in His beauty.

II. The Union of Christ and the Believer. Do not these words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians emphasise the closeness of the union which exists between Christ and the believer? 'In Jesus' (ver. 14), 'In Christ' (ver. 16) could anything be closer? This beautiful idea sends us back to the words of the Master Himself. 'I go to prepare a place for you.... I will come again and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, there ye may be also.' No separation; absolute identity; and, 'for ever with the Lord'. And as the believer is, and will be, one with Christ, so in that great Resurrection Day shall we be one with each other. That will be the great reunion

Father, sister, child, and mother

Meet once more.

We are looking forward to that day. At every Eucharist when we thank God for His servants departed this life in His faith and fear, we pray that 'with them we may be partakers of the heavenly Kingdom'.

III. Do we find Comfort in these Words? St. Paul, having spoken to the Thessalonians of this glorious hope, bade them 'comfort one another with these words'. Do they bring comfort to us? They may heal the sorrow caused by the departure of our loved one, but is it a source of comfort to us to know that the chief joy of heaven is the presence of Jesus?

References. IV. 17. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiii. No. 1374. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iv. p. 33. IV. 18. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. i. p. 451. V. 1-8. Ibid. vol. ii. p. 73. V. 2. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. v. p. 243; ibid. (6th Series), vol. xii. p. 102. V. 3. Ibid. vol. ii. p. 259.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/1-thessalonians-4.html. 1910.