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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Greek Testament

1 Thessalonians 4

Verse 1

1 Thessalonians 4:1 . Resuming the thought of 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 as well as of 1 Thessalonians 3:10-13 . Cf. a pre-Christian letter in Oxyrh. Papyri, iv. 294 (13 ἐρωτῶ σε οὖν ἵνα μὴ , 6 f. ἐρωτῶ σε καὶ παρακαλῶ σε ). The ἵνα , repeated often for the sake of clearness, is sub-final (so II., 2 Thessalonians 3:12 ) = infinitive, cf. Moulton, i. 206 f. Paul meant to write οὕτως καὶ περιπατῆτε , but the parenthesis of praise ( κ . καὶ π .) leads him to assume that and to plead for fresh progress along the lines already laid down by himself.

Verse 2

1 Thessalonians 4:2 . Almost a parenthesis, as Bahnsen points out in his study of 1 12 ( Zeitschrift f. wiss. Theol. , 1904, 332 358). The injunctions ( παραγγελίαι in semimilitary sense, as 1 Timothy 1:18 ) relate to chastity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 ) and charity, (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10 ), with a postscript against excitement and idleness (11, 12). παραγγ . for the cognate use of this term ( cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:8 ) in the inscriptions of Dionysopolis ( παραγγέλλω πᾶσιν μὴ καταφρονεῖν τοῦ θεοῦ ) cf. Exp. Ti. , x. 159. διὰ κ . τ . λ ., the change from the ἐν of 1 Thessalonians 4:1 does not mean that the Thessalonians before their conversion got such injunctions from Paul on the authority of Christ, while afterwards they simply needed to be reminded of the obligations of their union ( ἐν ) with the Lord. No strict difference can be drawn between both phrases ( cf. Heitmüller’s Im Namen Jesu , 71 f.), though the διά lays rather more stress on the authority. For Jesus to command διά the apostles seems to us more natural than to say that the apostles issue commands διὰ τοῦ Κυρίου , but the sense is really the same. The apostles give their orders on the authority of their commission and revelations from the Lord whom they interpret to His followers ( cf. Romans 15:30 ; Romans 12:2 ). But this interpretation must have appealed to the sayings of Jesus which formed part of the παράδοσις ( cf. Weizsäcker’s Apostolic Age , i. 97, 120, ii. 39). Thus 8 a is an echo of the saying preserved in Luke 10:16 .

Verse 3

1 Thessalonians 4:3 . ἁγιασμός (in apposition to τοῦτο , θέλημα without the article being the predicate) = the moral issue of a life related to the Ἅγιος ( cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:8 ), viewed here in its special and negative aspect of freedom from sexual impurity. The gospel of Jesus, unlike some pagan cults, e.g. , that of the Cabiri at Thessalonica ( cf. Lightfoot’s Biblical Essays , pp. 257 f.), did not tolerate, much less foster, licentiousness among its worshippers. At Thessalonica as at Corinth Paul found his converts exposed to the penetrating taint of life in a large seaport. As the context indicates, ἁγ . ὑμῶν = “the perfecting of you in holiness” ( ἁγ . in its active sense, ὑμῶν genitive objective: so Lünemann, Ellicott, Bahnsen). The absence of any reference to δικαιοσύνη is remarkable. But Paul’s dialectic on justification was occasioned by controversies about ὁ νόμος which were not felt at Thessalonica. Besides, the “justified” standing of the believer, even in that synthesis of doctrine, amounted practically to the position assured by the possession of the Spirit to the Christian. In his uncontroversial and eschatological moments, Paul taught as here that the experience of the Spirit guaranteed the believer’s vindication at the end ( cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ) and also implied his ethical behaviour during the interval. The comparative lack of any allusion to the forgiveness of sins ( cf. e.g. , 1 Thessalonians 3:5 ; 1 Thessalonians 3:10 ; 1 Thessalonians 3:13 ) does not mean that Paul thought the Thessalonians would be kept sinless during the brief interval till the parousia (so Wernle, der Christ u. die Sünde bei Paulus , 25 32); probably no occasion had called for any explicit teaching on this commonplace of faith (1 Corinthians 15:3 ; 1 Corinthians 15:11 ).

Verse 4

1 Thessalonians 4:4 . Paul demands chastity from men; it is not simply a feminine virtue. Contemporary ethics, in the Roman and Greek world, was often disposed to condone marital unfaithfulness on the part of husbands, and to view prenuptial unchastity as ἀδιάφορον or at least as a comparatively venial offence, particularly in men ( cf. Lecky’s History of European Morals , i. 104 f., ii. 314 f.). The strict purity of Christ’s gospel had to be learnt ( εἰδέναι ). σκεῦος (lit. “vessel”) = “wife;” the rendering “body” ( cf. Barn. vii. 3) conflicts with the normal meaning of κτᾶσθαι (“get,” “acquire;” of marriage, LXX. Ruth 4:10 ; Sir. 36:29, Xen., Symp. , ii. 10). Paul views marriage on much the same level as he does in 1 Corinthians 7:2 ; 1 Corinthians 7:9 ; in its chaste and religious form, it is a remedy against sensual passion, not a gratification of that passion. Each of you (he is addressing men) must learn ( εἰδέναι = know [how] to, cf. Philippians 4:12 ) to get a wife of his own (when marriage is in question), but you must marry ἐν ἁγιασμῷ (as a Christian duty and vocation) καὶ τιμῇ (with a corresponding sense of the moral dignity of the relationship). The two latter words tend to raise the current estimate, presupposed here and in 1 Thessalonians 4:6 , of a wife as the σκεῦος of her husband; this in its turn views adultery primarily as an infringement of the husband’s rights or an attack on his personal property. Paul, however, closes by an emphatic word on the religious aspect (1 Thessalonians 4:6-8 ) of the question; besides, as Dr. Drummond remarks, “is it not part of his greatness that, in spite of his own somewhat ascetic temperament, he was not blind to social and physiological facts?” It is noticeable that his eschatology has less effect on his view of marriage here than in 1 Corinthians 7:0 . Even were κτᾶσθαι taken as = “possess,” a usage not quite impossible for later Greek ( cf. Field, 72), it would only extend the idea to the duties of a Christian husband. The alternative rendering (“acquire mastery of,” Luke 21:19 ) does not justify the “body” sense of σκεῦος .

Verse 6

1 Thessalonians 4:6 . Compare the saying of rabbi Simon ben Zoma (on Deuteronomy 23:25 ): “Look not on thy neighbour’s vineyard. If thou hast looked, enter not; if thou hast entered, regard not the fruits; if thou hast regarded them, touch them not; if thou hast touched them, eat them not. But if thou hast eaten, then thou dost eject thyself from the life of this world and of that which is to come” (quoted in Bacher’s Agada der Tannaiten , 2nd ed., 1903, i. 430). There is no change of subject, from licentiousness to dishonesty. The asyndeton and the euphemistic ἐν τῷ πράγματι (not τῳ = τινί , Win. § 6 4 d ) show that Paul is still dealing with the immorality of men, but now as a form of social dishonesty and fraud. The metaphors are drawn from trade, perhaps as appropriate to a trading community. While ὑπερβαίνειν may be intransitive (in its classical sense of “transgress”), it probably governs ἀδελφόν in the sense of “get the better of,” or “overreach;” πλεονεκτεῖν similarly = “overreach,” “defraud,” “take advantage of” (2 Corinthians 7:2 ; 2 Corinthians 12:17-18 ; Xen., Mem. , iii. 5, 2; Herod. viii. 112). Compare ἀκαθαρσίας πάσης ἐν πλεονεξίᾳ (Ephesians 4:19 ). The passage (with 1 Thessalonians 4:8 ) sounds almost like a vague reminiscence of Test. Asher, ii. 6: ὁ πλεονεκτῶν τὸν πλησίον παροργίζει τὸν Θεόν … τὸν ἐντολέα τοῦ νόμου Κύριον ἀθετεῖ . Only τὸν ἀνθ . here is not the wronged party but the apostles who convey God’s orders. διότι κ . τ . λ . = “since ( cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:8 ) the Lord is the avenger (from Deuteronomy 32:35 ; cf. Sap. 12:12; Sir 30:6 ; 1Ma 13:6 , ἐκδικήσω περὶ ; 4Ma 15:29 ) in all these matters” (of impurity). How, Paul does not explain ( cf. Colossians 3:5-6 ). By a premature death (1 Corinthians 11:30 )? Or, at the last judgment (1 Thessalonians 1:10 )? not in the sense of Sap. 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 4:6 (illegitimate children evidence at last day against their parents) at any rate.

Verse 8

1 Thessalonians 4:8 . Elsewhere (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6 ) ἅγιον simply denotes the divine quality of πνεῦμα as operating in the chosen ἅγιοι of God, but here the context lends it a specific value. Impurity is a violation of the relationship established by the holy God between Himself and Christians at baptism, when the holy Spirit is bestowed upon them for the purpose of consecrating them to live His life ( cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16 ; 1 Corinthians 6:19 ). The gift of the Spirit here is not regarded as the earnest of the future kingdom (for which immorality will disquality) so much as the motive and power of the new life. διδόντα = “the giver of,” not implying continuous or successive impartation; present as in ch. 1 Thessalonians 5:24 ; Galatians 5:8 . He not only calls, but supplies the atmosphere and energy requisite for the task. ἀθετῶν κ . τ . λ . ( cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 ) = contemns by ignoring such injunctions (1 Thessalonians 4:2-6 ) in practical life, deliberately sets aside their authority. Cf. Isaiah 24:16-17 f., οὐαὶ τοῖς ἀθετοῦσιν · οἱ ἀθετοῦντες τὸν νόμον , φόβος καὶ f1βόθυνος καὶ παγὶς ἐφʼ ὑμᾶς (nor shall any escape: cf. below on 1 Thessalonians 5:3 ). In 2 Samuel 12:9 f. Nathan fixes on the selfishness of David’s adultery and charges him especially with despising the commandment of the Lord .

Verses 9-10

1 Thessalonians 4:9-10 . περὶ φιλαδελφίας . One might have expected that adultery, especially when viewed as selfish greed ( cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:6 ), would have come under φ ., but the latter bears mainly here on charity and liberality, a Christian impulse or instinct which seems to have come more naturally to the Thessalonians than ethical purity. “A new creed, like a new country, is an unhomely place of sojourn, but it makes men lean on one another and join hands” (R. L. Stevenson).

1 Thessalonians 4:10 . Their ἀγάπη was no parochial affection, but neither was it to be fussy or showy, much less to be made an excuse for neglecting their ordinary business (11, 12); this would discredit them in the eyes of the busy outside public ( πρὸς = in intercourse or relations with) and sap their own independence. Such seems the least violent way of explaining the transition in καὶ φιλοτιμεῖσθαι κ . τ . λ . The church was apparently composed, for the most part, of tradesmen and working people ( χερσὶν ὑμῶν , cf. Renan’s S. Paul , 246 f.) with their families, but there may have been some wealthier members, whose charity was in danger of being abused. Cf. Demos., Olynth. , iii. 35: οὐκ ἔστιν ὅπου μηδὲν ἐγὼ ποιοῦσιν τὰ τῶν ποιούντων εἶπον ὡς δεῖ νέμειν , οὐδʼ αὐτοὺς μὲν ἀργεῖν καὶ σχολάζειν καὶ ἀπορεῖν .

Verse 11

1 Thessalonians 4:11 . φιλοτ . ἡσυχάζειν (oxymoron). The prospect of the second advent (1 Thessalonians 4:13 f., 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10 ) seems to have made some local enthusiasts feel that it was superfluous for them to go on working, if the world was to be broken up immediately. This feverish symptom occupies Paul more in the diagnosis of his second letter, but it may have been present to his mind here. For instances of this common phase in unbalanced minds compare the story of Hippolytus ( Comm. Dan. , 4:19) about a Pontic bishop in the second century who misled his people by prophesying the advent within six months, and also a recent outburst of the same superstition in Tripoli ( Westminster Gazette , Nov., 1899) where “the report that the end of the world will come on November 13” produced “an amazing state of affairs. The Israelites are sending their wives to pray in the synagogues, and most workmen have ceased work. Debtors refuse to pay their debts, so that trade is almost paralysed.” καὶ πράσσειν τὰ ἴδια . Plato uses a similar expression in his Republic , 496 D ( ἡσυχίαν ἔχων καὶ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττων ); but of the philosopher who withdraws in despair from the lawlessness of a world which he is impotent to help (see also Thompson’s note on Gorg. , 526 c ).

Verse 13

1 Thessalonians 4:13 . δὲ , after οὐ θέλομεν as a single expression. Affection for the living has another side, viz. , unselfish solicitude for the dead. Since Paul left, some of the Thessalonian Christians had died, and the survivors were distressed by the fear that these would have to occupy a position secondary to those who lived until the advent of the Lord, or even that they had passed beyond any such participation at all. At Corinth some of the local Christians felt this anguish so keenly, on behalf of friends and relatives who had died outside the church, that they were in the habit of being baptised as their representatives, to ensure their final bliss (1 Corinthians 15:29 ). The concern of the Thessalonians, however, was for their fellow-Christians, in the intermediate state of Hades. As the problem had not arisen during Paul’s stay at Thessalonica, he now offers the church a reasonable solution of the difficulty (13 18). οὐ θέλομεν δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν , contrast the οἴδατε of 1 Thessalonians 4:2 , 1 Thessalonians 5:2 , and compare the ordinary epistolary phrases of the papyri ( Expos. , 1908, 55) such as γεινώσκειν σε θέλω (commonly at the beginning of a letter, cf. Colossians 2:1 ; Philippians 1:12 ; 2 Corinthians 1:8 , and with ὅτι , but here, as in 1 Corinthians 12:1 , with περί ). τῶν κοιμωμένων = the dead in Christ (16), a favourite Jewish euphemism (Kennedy, St. Paul’s Conc. of Last Things , 247 f., and cf. Fries in Zeitschrift für neutest. Wiss . i. 306 f.), not unknown to Greek and Roman literature. οἱ λοιποὶ , κ . τ . λ ., cf. Butcher’s Some Aspects of the Greek Genius , pp. 153 f., 159 f. Hope is the distinguishing note of Christians here as in Ephesians 2:12 ; Colossians 1:22 , etc.

Verses 13-18

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 . περὶ τῶν κοιμωμένων .

Verse 14

1 Thessalonians 4:14 . Unlike some of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:17-18 ), the Thessalonians did not doubt the fact of Christ’s resurrection ( εἰ of course implies no uncertainty). Paul assumes their faith in it and argues from it. Their vivid and naïve belief in Christ’s advent within their own lifetime was the very source of their distress. Paul still shares that belief (17). διὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ is an unusual expression which might, so far as grammar is concerned, go either with τ . κ . (so. e.g. , Ellic., Alford, Kabisch, Lightfoot, Findlay, Milligan) or ἄξει . The latter is the preferable construction (so most editors). The phrase is not needed ( cf. 15) to limit τ . κ . to Christians (so Chrys., Calvin), for the unbelieving dead are not before the writer’s mind, and, even so, ἐν would have been the natural preposition ( cf. 16), nor does it mean martyrdom. In the light of 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ( cf. Romans 5:9 ; 1 Corinthians 15:21 ), it seems to connect less awkwardly with ἄξει , though not = “at the intercession of Jesus” (Rutherford). Jesus is God’s agent in the final act, commissioned to raise and muster the dead ( cf. Stähelin, Jahrb. f. deut. Theol. , 1874, 189 f., and Schettler, Die paul. Formel, “Durch Christus,” 1997, 57 f.). The divine mission of the Christ, which is to form the climax of things, involves the resurrection of the dead who are His (1 Thessalonians 5:10 ). Any general resurrection is out of the question (so Did., xvi. 6: ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν · οὐ πάντων δὲ , ἀλλʼ ὡς ἐρρέθη , ἥξει ὁ Κύριος καὶ πάντες οἱ ἅγιοι μετʼ αὐτοῦ ).

Verse 15

1 Thessalonians 4:15 . κυρίου . On the tendency of the N.T. writers to reserve κύριος , with its O.T. predicates of divine authority, for Jesus, cf. Kattenbusch, op. cit. , ii. 522. Paul’s use of the term goes back to Christ’s own claim to κύριος in the higher sense of Mark 12:35 f. λέγομεν . Contrast the οἴδατε of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:1 . Evidently Paul had not had time or occasion to speak of such a contingency, when he was with them. ἐν λόγῳ κυρίου may mean either ( a ) a quotation (like Acts 20:35 ) from the sayings of Jesus, or ( b ) a prophetic revelation vouchsafed to Paul himself, or to Silvanus ( cf. Acts 15:32 ). In the former case (so, among modern editors, Schott, Ewald, Drummond, Wohl.), an ἄγραφον is cited (Calvin, Koch, Weizsäcker, Resch, Paulinismus , 238 f.; Ropes, die Sprüche Jesu , 153 f.; M. Goguel; van der Vies, 15 17; O. Holtzmann, Life of Jesus , 10; von Soden) but it is evidently given in a free form, and the precise words cannot (even in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 ) be disentangled. Besides we should expect τινι to be added. Unless, therefore, we are to think of a primitive collection (Lake, Amer. Journ. Theol. , 1906, 108 f.) or of some oral tradition, ( b ) is preferable. The contents of Matthew 24:31 (part of the small apocalypse) are too dissimilar to favour the conjecture (Pelt, Zimmer, Weiss) that Paul was thinking of this saying as current perhaps in oral tradition, and the O.T. analogy of λόγος Κυρίου (= God’s prophetic word), together with the internal probabilities of the case (Paul does not remind them of it, as elsewhere in the epistle) make it on the whole more likely that Paul is repeating words heard in a vision ( cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9 ; so Chryst., Theod., etc., followed by Alford, de Wette, Ellicott, Dods, Lünemann, Godet, Paret: Paulus und Jesus , 53 f., Simon: die Psychologie des Ap. Paulus , 100, Findlay, Lightfoot, Milligan, Lueken). Cf. the discussion in Knowling’s Witness of the Epistles , 408 f., and Feine’s Jesus Christus u. Paulus , 178, 179. Later in the century a similar difficulty vexed the pious Jew who wrote Fourth Esdras (5:41, 42: I said, But lo, O Lord, thou hast made the promise to those who shall be in the end: and what shall they do that have been before us …? And He said to me, I will liken my judgment to a ring; as there is no slackness of those who are last, so shall there be no swiftness of those who are first ). His theory is that the previous generations of Israel will be as well off as their posterity in the latter days. Further on (13:14 f.) he raises and answers the question whether it was better to die before the last days or to live until they came (the phrase, those that are left , “qui relicti sunt,” 7:28 = Paul’s οἱ περιλειπόμενοι ). His solution (which Steck, in Jahrb. für prot. Theol. , 1883, 509 524, oddly regards as the λόγος κ . of 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ; see Schmidt’s refutation, pp. 107 110) is the opposite of Paul’s: those who are left are more blessed than those who have died . If this difficulty was felt in Jewish circles during the first half of the century, it may have affected those of the Thessalonian Christians who had been formerly connected with the synagogue, but the likelihood is that Paul’s language is coloured by his own Jewish training ( cf. Charles on Asc. Isa. , iv. 15). The misunderstanding of the Thessalonians, which had led to their sorrow and perplexity, was evidently due to the fact that, for some reason or another, Paul had not mentioned the possibility of any Christians dying before the second advent (so sure was he that all would soon survive it), coupled with the fact that Greeks found it hard to grasp what exactly resurrection meant ( cf. Acts 17:32 ) for Christians.

Verse 16

1 Thessalonians 4:16 . κελεύσματι = the loud summons which was to muster the saints (so in Philo, De praem. et poen. , 19: καθάπερ οὖν ἀνθρώπους ἐν ἐσχατιαῖς ἀπῳκισμένους ῥᾳδίως ἑνὶ κελεύσματι συναγάγοι ὁ θεὸς ἀπὸ περάτων εἰς ὅ τι ἂν θελήσῃ χωρίον ), forms, as its lack of any genitive shows, one conception with the φ . α . and the σ . θ . ( cf. DC [33] , ii. 766). The archangel is Michael, who in Jewish tradition not only summoned the angels but sounded a trumpet to herald God’s approach for judgment ( e.g. , in Apoc. Mosis , xxii.). With such scenic and realistic details, drawn from the heterogeneous eschatology of the later Judaism, Paul seeks to make intelligible to his own mind and to that of his readers, in quite an original fashion ( cf. Stähelin, Jahrb. f. deut. Theol. , 1874, pp. 199 218), the profound truth that neither death nor any cosmic, crisis in the future will make any essential difference to the close relation between the Christian and his Lord. Οὕτω πάντοτε σὺν κυρίῳ ἐσόμεθα ( cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ; 2 Corinthians 5:8 ; Philippians 1:20 ): this is all that remains to us, in our truer view of the universe, from the naïve λόγος κυρίου of the apostle, but it is everything. Note that Paul says nothing here about any change of the body (Teichmann, 35 f.), or about the embodiment of the risen life in its celestial δόξα . See Asc. Isa. , iv. 14 15: “And the Lord will come with His holy angels and with the armies of the holy ones from the seventh heaven … and He will give rest to the godly whom He shall find in the body in this world.”

[33] CG Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (1907 1908)

Verse 17

1 Thessalonians 4:17 . ἐν νεφέλαις , the ordinary method of sudden rapture or ascension to heaven (Acts 1:9 ; Acts 1:11 ; Revelation 11:12 ; Slav. En. iii. 1, 2). ἁρπαγησόμεθα . So in Sap. 1 Thessalonians 4:11 , the righteous man, εὐάρεστος τῷ θεῷ (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ) γενόμενος ἠγαπήθη (1 Thessalonians 1:4 ), is caught up ( ἡρπάγη ). ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς … σὺν Κυρίῳ , the future bliss is a re-union of Christians not only with Christ but with one another. εἰς ἀπάντησιν , a pre-Christian phrase of the koinê ( cf. e.g., Tebtunis Papyri , 1902, pt. i., n. 43, 7, παρεγενήθημεν εἰς ἀπάντησιν , κ . τ . λ ., and Moulton, i. 14), implying welcome of a great person on his arrival. What further functions are assigned to the saints, thus incorporated in the retinue of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 3:13 ; cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:10 ), whether, e.g. , they are to sit as assessors at the judgment (Sap. 1 Thessalonians 3:8 ; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 ; Luke 22:30 ) Paul does not stop to state here. His aim is to reassure the Thessalonians about the prospects of their dead in relation to the Lord, not to give any complete programme of the future (so Matthew 24:31 ; Did. x., xvi.). Plainly, however, the saints do not rise at once to heaven, but return with the Lord to the scene of his final manifestation on earth (so Chrysost., Aug., etc.). They simply meet the Lord in the air, on his way to judgment a trait for which no Jewish parallel can be found. καὶ οὕτως πάντοτε σὺν κυρίῳ ἐσόμεθα (no more sleeping in him or waiting for him).

Verse 18

1 Thessalonians 4:18 . ἐν τοῖς λόγοις τούτοις . Paul had an intelligible word upon the future, unlike the Hellenic mysteries which usually made religion a matter of feeling rather than of definite teaching (Hardie’s Lect. on Classical Subjects , pp. 53 f.). A pagan letter of consolation has been preserved from the second century ( Oxyrh. Papyri , i. 115): “Eirene to Taonnophris and Philon good cheer! I was as grieved and wept as much over Eumoiros as over Didymas, and I did all that was fitting, as did all my family.… But still we can do nothing in such a case. So comfort yourselves. Goodbye.” One of Cicero’s pathetic letters ( ad. Fam. , xiv. 2), written from Thessalonica, speaks doubtfully of any re-union after death (“haec non sunt in manu nostra”).

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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". The Expositor's Greek Testament. 1897-1910.