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Bible Commentaries

McGarvey's Commentaries on Selected Books

1 Thessalonians 4

Verse 1

Finally then, brethren, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as ye received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, even as ye do walk,--that ye abound more and more. [The first part of this Epistle was retrospective and historical. In it Paul fully revived the spirit of love which had existed between him and these Thessalonians. This he did that this second part, which is prospective and hortatory, might be made more effective. "Finally" is the word with which Paul customarily introduces the closing part of his Epistles (2 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 6:10; Philippians 4:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:1). The word "then" connects this chapter with the close of the third chapter, showing that what Paul now says is spoken that the Thessalonians may be blameless at the Lord’s coming. "In the Lord Jesus" shows that Paul wrote as the organ or instrument of the Lord. In the phrase "ye do walk" Paul concedes their virtue that he may water it and increase it.]

Verse 2

For ye know what charge we gave you through the Lord Jesus. [The commandments were given by Paul through the inspiration of the Spirit sent of Jesus. Throughout this chapter Paul asserts his inspiration.]

Verse 3

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

Verse 4

that each one of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honor,

Verse 5

not in the passion of lust, even as the Gentiles who know not God [By "will of God" Paul means the divine desire. Not an absolute desire, but one which human perversity may frustrate. "Sanctification" means holiness in its general sense. In all his Epistles to the Gentile churches Paul introduces exhortations to purity of life. He was at this time in Corinth, whose patron goddess was Venus, and where social impurity abounded. "Heathenism," says Whedon, "had made the crime trivial, jocular, rather smart, and even religious and right. All this must Christianity reverse, and place it among the most heinous sins, and subject to the most fearful penalties." There has been much discussion over the phrase "possess himself of his own vessel," some asserting that it means to acquire a wife, and others that it means to control the body and its desires. The problem is surely a difficult one. The verb "possess" is commonly used to indicate the winning or acquiring of a wife, and 1 Peter 3:7 is cited to prove that the word "vessel" is used to indicate a wife. One other citation is given from the Talmud, where Ahasuerus is represented as calling his wife his "vessel." But the Talmud does not prove Hebrew usage in Paul’s day, being written many centuries later, and the citation from Peter proves nothing, for the word "vessel" is there used to indicate the human body, the man’s being the stronger, and the woman’s the weaker. The human body or personality is elsewhere called a vessel in the Bible (Acts 9:15; Romans 9:21-23; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:21; 1 Samuel 21:5). This Biblical use of the word is strongly against the idea that it could mean a wife. The word "vessel," then, favors the idea that Paul is talking about the body. On the other hand, it is urged that the verb "possess" here used simply means to win or acquire, and never has that ethical use (to possess morally, to subdue, or control) which is claimed for it here. It is true that no classical or Biblical citations can be given of such a use, but that it is used so here is unquestionable, whichever interpretation we put upon "vessel"; for the full phrase is "possess in sanctification and honor," etc., introduced by the phrase "know how." Conceding that Paul is talking about a wife, he certainly does not mean to say that each man should know how to win or acquire a wife; there is nothing moral or spiritual about such knowledge. What he does say is that a man should know how to hold or possess (either his wife or his body) in sanctification and in honor; i. e., in moral cleanliness. We take it that Paul here urges bodily self-control, and that the passage is a parallel rather to Romans 6:19 than to 1 Corinthians 7:2];

Verse 6

that no man transgress [literally, overreach], and wrong his brother in the matter [Because the word "overreach" is usually associated with bargaining, trading, and other business transactions, able commentators have thought that Paul here introduced covetousness, that it might be rebuked together with lust. But Paul’s language is not to be so contorted. The thought flows smoothly on to the end of verse 8. Lust has its deceptions, its overreachings, its covetousness, as well as commercialism. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife"]: because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as also we forewarned you and testified. [God punishes all such crimes-- Romans 13:4; Ephesians 5:5-6; Colossians 3:6]

Verse 7

For God called us not for uncleanness, but in sanctification. ["God has not called us under the law that we should be impure, since, indeed, the very cause and condition of our calling is that we should cease to be what we once were."--Erasmus.]

Verse 8

Therefore he that rejecteth, rejecteth not man, but God, who giveth his Holy Spirit unto you. [The "rejecteth" of this verse refers to the forewarning and testifying of verse 6. Those who did not heed the warning and testimony were not rejecting the counsel of Paul, but the counsel of God himself (Luke 13:16; Acts 5:4), and if they were Christians they were doubly guilty, it being sin enough to reject God’s warnings even if he had not given his Holy Spirit to strengthen and encourage in heeding those warnings. The Holy Spirit makes us temples not to be defiled. Here again Paul asserts the divine authority of the teaching which came through him.]

Verse 9

But concerning love of the brethren ye have no need that one write unto you [having spoken of that false, unclean, lustful thing which the world called love, and which made them give the title "goddess of love" to Venus, Paul here turns to discuss the true love which Christians bear to Christians-- Hebrews 13:1; 1 John 3:14]: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another [Concerning this love the whole gospel had instructed the Thessalonians, for when they were born of God by it they became children of God’s household, and brethren unto each other. The very framework and structure of Christianity inculcated principles of love and affection];

Verse 10

for indeed ye do it toward all the brethren that are in all Macedonia. But we exhort you, brethren, that ye abound more and more [Though their love already reached beyond the large confines of Thessalonica, and took in all Macedonia, Paul exhorts them to extend it to even a larger compass. Christian love must embrace the world];

Verse 11

and that ye study to be quiet [The Greeks were naturally mercurial and restless. How much they needed this advice to be quiet, or steady, will be seen in Paul’s second Epistle, where he reproves them for their wild fanaticism, built upon false hopes of Christ’s immediate coming], and to do your own business [without being meddlesome], and to work with your hands, even as we charged you;

Verse 12

that ye may walk becomingly toward them that are without, and may have need of nothing. [Instead of spending their time in restless gadding about or idle meddling with other people’s affairs, Paul expected them to heed his warning, and earn their own living. These Thessalonians were mostly of the laboring class. If they were idle, they would quickly be reduced to dependence or beggary, and the unbelieving world without (Colossians 4:5) would quickly say of the new religion that it made men idle and worthless. Paul therefore counsels them to that industry that would make them independent, self-respecting and respected.]

Verse 13

But we would not have you ignorant [This is Paul’s habitual formula, used either negatively or positively, with which to start a new topic (Romans 1:13; Romans 11:25; Colossians 2:1; 1 Corinthians 10:1; 1 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Corinthians 12:1; 2 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 1:12). It shows us that what he is now about to say has no connection with what precedes. It seems that Timothy brought Paul word that many Thessalonians entertained the crude notion that only the living would participate in the joys of Christ’s coming, and that all those who were so unfortunate as to die before that event, would thereby forfeit their share in it. It is not strange that such a doctrine should spring up among those who had been so hastily instructed as the Thessalonians, especially when we may safely surmise that many new converts had been added to their number since Paul’s departure], brethren, concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest [the pagans], who have no hope. [Paul speaks of the dead as sleeping, employing the beautiful New Testament metaphor (John 11:11; Acts 7:16; 1 Corinthians 15:18; 1 Corinthians 15:51), in which the grave becomes a couch wherein the body rests until it is wakened at the resurrection. Those grossly pervert the metaphor who use it to prove that the soul also slumbers. The apostle does not forbid sorrow over our departed (Acts 8:2; John 11:35), but that despairing grief which characterized the pagan of that day who had no hope of a resurrection. Alford gives such quotations as these from pagan writers. Theocritus: "Hope goes with life; all hopeless are the dead." Æschylus: "Once dead there is no resurrection more." Cetullus: "Suns may set and may return; we, when once our brief life wanes, have eternal night to sleep." Lucretius: "None ever wake again whom the cold pause of life hath overtaken." To these might be added the pathetic lines of Moschus: "We shall sleep the long, limitless, unawakable slumber," and the citation of Jowett as to "the sad complaints of Cicero and Quintilian over the loss of their children, and the dreary hope of an immortality of fame in Tacitus and Thucydides." The Christian should stand in contrast to all this, assuaging his sorrow by a blessed hope.]

Verse 14

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him. [Paul here founds an affirmation on the intimate relation which exists between Christ and his people; a relation which he elsewhere likens to the union between the head and the body (Ephesians 4:15-16); the argument being that if the head enjoys a resurrection, the body must likewise share in it. "With him" does not here mean that Jesus will bring the disembodied spirits from heaven to the resurrection, but that God, who brought Jesus from the grave, will also bring from the grave, in conjunction with Jesus, all those who entered it with their lives spiritually united with Jesus. But the bringing from heaven is taught at 1 Thessalonians 3:13]

Verse 15

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep. [The facts here set forth were revealed to the apostle by direct revelation, as at 1 Kings 20:35; and he had many such revelations (1 Corinthians 11:23; Galatians 1:11-12; Galatians 2:2; Ephesians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 12:1). Paul declares that the living shall not go before the dead to meet the coming Lord. The "we" in this verse has led many to think that Paul expected to be alive when Jesus came, but conversely the "us" at 2 Corinthians 4:14 proves that he expected to be then dead, and the schedule of events which at 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 he says must take place before the coming, favors the latter view. The truth is, Paul uses "we" as a mere word of classification, as we might do in a sentence like this: "We of the United States now number eighty odd million; a century from now we will number--" etc. This would not imply that the writer expected to be then alive.

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 ["Himself" shows that the Lord will not come by messenger, or by representative, but in person. Paul does not describe any of the convulsions of nature which accompany the advent (2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 20:11); but he mentions three sounds which will accompany it, for these have to do with the resurrection which he now has under discussion. The shout of Christ the King is the signal that the awful moment has arrived. Immediately after it the voice of the archangel is heard summoning the other angels to the performance of their duty; viz.: the gathering of the saints (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27), which are just being roused from the slumber of death by the trumpet of God. The word "archangel" is also used at Judges 1:9; where we are told that the archangel’s name is Michael. It is used nowhere else in Scripture, and there is no hint that there is an order or class of archangels. Michael is the chief or ruler of all the angels (Revelation 12:7). The trumpet is called "trump of God," because it heralds the approach of God, and summons the people to meet him (Exodus 19:16-19). There is no hint as to who blows this trumpet, though it is mentioned several times-- 1 Corinthians 15:52]: and the dead in Christ shall rise first;

Verse 17

then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. [Some, mistaking the spiritual resurrection mentioned at Revelation 20:4-5; for a literal one, have thought that there are two resurrections, one for the righteous (the first resurrection) and one for the wicked (the second resurrection). Of course such a doctrine is abhorrent to the idea of a single hour of judgment, with the saved upon the right hand and the lost upon the left, but it shall be fully discussed in its own place. Those who hold this theory appeal to this passage in proof of it, reading it thus: "The dead in Christ shall rise first, and the dead out of Christ shall rise second." But in order to make it read thus they have supplied a correlative clause which is totally foreign to the context, and which crowds out the correlative which Paul himself has given; for "shall rise first" is correlative with "then shall be caught up." The apostle has been drawing a comparison, not between the righteous dead and the unrighteous dead, but between the dead and the living at the hour of the advent. He began this comparison at verse 15, and he here completes it by showing that the supposition that the living would precede the dead is so contrary to the facts that, on the contrary, the dead will be raised before any ascension is allowed the living, and then after the resurrection of the dead, the living and the dead shall be caught up together to meet the Lord. That glorious change, wherein the mortal puts on the immortal, as indicated at 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Corinthians 15:55 ; will no doubt be simultaneous with the resurrection of the dead. The phrase "caught up" implies the sudden and irresistible power of God. We are not to understand that we are to be caught up with clouds, but that we will meet him who comes with clouds (Daniel 7:13; Revelation 1:7; Matthew 24:30). He makes the clouds his chariot (Psalms 104:3). The term "air" is used generally for the region above the earth. No doubt we will be caught up far beyond our atmosphere into the realm of pure space-- Ephesians 1:3; Ephesians 2:2]

Verse 18

Wherefore comfort one another with these words. [Thus are we commanded to tell all Christians who mourn that they will meet their lost in Christ on the day that Christ appears, and that in sweet union and communion they will ever be with him.]

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
First published online at The Restoration Movement Pages.
Bibliographical Information
McGarvey, J. W. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". "J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on Acts". Transylvania Printing and Publishing Co. Lexington, KY. 1872.