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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Thessalonians 4

Chapter 4. A Call to Holiness and Assurance Regarding Those Who Have Died in the Light of Christ’s Second Coming.

Verse 1

‘Finally then, brothers and sisters, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, even as you do walk - that you abound more and more.’

‘Finally.’ The word is regularly used by Paul in this sense having the idea of ‘for the remainder’ (loipos means ‘the rest, the remainder’). But it is not necessarily an indication of finality, having also the meaning ‘furthermore, moreover’. Here it signifies an addition to, and connection with, what has gone before without necessarily indicating that the letter is nearly over.

‘We beseech and exhort.’ We may paraphrase ‘request and urge you strongly, calling upon you to --’. The first verb is to soften up the second verb, making it more friendly.

‘In the Lord Jesus.’ Both are ‘in Christ’, and his urgings relate to this fact. Being His what he speaks about is required of both him and them because they are His.

‘Lord Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 2:15; 1Th 2:19 ; 1 Thessalonians 3:11; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2) and ‘the Lord’ ( 1Th 1:6 ; 1 Thessalonians 3:8; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 1Th 4:6 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:15 (twice), 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (twice); 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:27) are Paul’s regular descriptions of Christ in the central part of this letter, although he opened with reference to ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:3) and closes similarly (1 Thessalonians 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:28). He also uses ‘Jesus’ ( 1Th 1:10 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:14 (twice)) and ‘in Christ Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 2:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:18). ‘Christ’ appears alone as a genitive (1 Thessalonians 2:6; 1 Thessalonians 3:2) and once as ‘in Christ’.

It seems probable that we can see ‘Lord Jesus’ and ‘Lord’ as simply abbreviations and variations of the full ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ (which he uses comparatively more often in the second letter), with the grander phrase being used to open and close, especially as ‘Lord Jesus’ is also used in parallel with God the Father (1 Thessalonians 3:11). ‘Jesus’ is twice used in connection with His death and resurrection (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:14 a), stressing His manward side, although the third use (1 Thessalonians 4:14 b) connects more with the other uses, probably affected by the previous use in the verse. ‘In Christ Jesus’ and ‘in Christ’ are again simply variations (although ‘the dead in Christ’ may have become a technical term) for he can also say ‘in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:3), ‘in the Lord’ (1 Thessalonians 3:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12) and ‘in the Lord Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

‘That as you received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, even as you do walk - that you abound more and more.’ This was what he exhorts them to do. Firstly he stresses that they had learned from him and his companions, both by example and teaching, how they should walk and thus please God, then he assures them that he does know that they are walking like this, and finally he stresses the need to abound more and more. He goes out of his way to be tactful and not cause offence, while achieving his object in stressing the need to continue to grow. It reminds us that Paul only behaved like a sergeant major when it was necessary.

‘You ought to walk.’ The phrase is strong, ‘how it is necessary for you to walk’. It was not a matter of choice or opinion. ‘Walking’ was a verb regularly used of living life in a certain way. It stressed the need for continual right behaviour and attitude, step by step, hour by hour, through life.

‘Abound more and more.’ In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 he spoke of ‘abounding in love’, now it expands to abounding more and more in everything good, although those who genuinely do the one will do the other (compare 1 Thessalonians 3:10). And he wants them to realise that they will never achieve the goal in this life, rather they are to be, and will be, changed from glory into glory as they become more like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18), ever growing, ever becoming more Christ-like.

This is especially true in that he connects this with an indictment of sexual misbehaviour (verses 3-8). Many men of God have a continual battle with their natural sexual proclivities which they have to fight at various times all their lives until death brings release, something which others know little about and therefore have little sympathy with. For the former it will be a battle to the end, even though victory is continually obtained. Becoming a Christian does not remove the cravings of the flesh, it gives strength to overcome them for those who walk wisely and prayerfully and avoid causes of temptation (2 Timothy 2:21-22).

Verse 2

‘For you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus’.

This defines what they had received. Direct commandments from the Lord Jesus, as found through the authority of the teaching of Jesus passed on through the Apostles, and through Paul, and the early church, the ‘Testimony of Jesus’ (as later found in the Gospels). The word for ‘commandment’ contains the idea of strict orders similar to military orders (Acts 16:23-24). We are under orders. It is not a matter of choice. So Paul stresses that he had not passed on his own ideas, they were the commands of the Lord.

Verses 3-7

‘For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that you abstain from fornication, that each of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honour, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. That no man transgress and wrong his brother in the matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as also we forewarned you and testified. For God called us not to uncleanness but in sanctification.’

The passage must be read as one whole, for each part defines the other. It is dealing with the major moral problem that faced Christians in the first century, and faces them in many countries today, of lax and loose sexual behaviour. Marriage for some had become a mockery. Many religions in the first century encouraged sexual misbehaviour and laxity. Sacred prostitutes were common, with whom sex was seen as a form of worship, and ‘love feasts’ (see 2 Peter 2:13-14), orgies, where anything went and was even looked on as religious activity, were a favourite pastime for many. Indeed the practise later invaded the Christian church causing major condemnation from Christ (Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:14-15; Revelation 2:20-23). This was especially prevalent in the area of the world in which the Thessalonians lived. Thus becoming Christians had faced them with a totally new way of life.

‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification.’ The will of God for His people determines, among other things (‘will’ has no article), that they should be separated to Him and therefore holy. And here we learn that this especially applies to the avoidance of wrong sexual practises. Here sanctification is the process of being made truly holy and Christ-like.

Now Paul delineates three things that the Christian must avoid, ‘that you abstain from fornication -- that each one of you know how to possess himself -- that no man transgress and wrong his brother.’

‘That you abstain from fornication.’ Fornication is a general word signifying sex engaged in outside a formal marriage relationship, and includes sex engaged in with other than one’s first wife while she is still alive, unless she herself has first committed fornication (and vice versa), and any forms of perverted sex. ‘From’, included in the verb, is emphasised by the further use of a preposition. They are to keep far from such things.

‘That each of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honour, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.’ ‘The Gentiles’ in general were ruled by their lustful passions. But that was the opposite of how Christians should behave. They should be ruled by spiritual ideals under God. Thus they are like the holy vessels set apart on the Tabernacle and must rule their bodies as ‘holy vessels’ set apart for God, dedicated to God’s service. They must do all as in the sight and presence of God. Their whole manner of life will be different, for their primary aim and responsibility will be to please and to serve God. See 2 Timothy 2:20-22 for a similar comparison of a man with a vessel (skeuos) unto honour, which must avoid ‘youthful lusts’, a good parallel to here. See also 2 Corinthians 4:7 for men as ‘earthen vessels’.

‘The passion of lust.’ Something which possesses the mind as an overriding feature and results in outward lust, making someone surrender to their passion. This was especially prevalent in a world where there were few barriers.

It should be noted that this is not saying that all Gentiles behaved openly in this way, just as not all openly live immorally today, although society in those days did not generally frown so much on such behaviour. It is rather indicating the passions that controlled the majority of them and which they followed when they could, and which many of their religions and societies encouraged them to practise openly. Similarly, many a ‘respectable’ man or woman today goes on the internet and indulges in sexual appetites in secret, hidden behind anonymity, and enjoys on television the corruptness of society. But their behaviour is known to God (and recorded secretly on their computer). What we laugh or gaze at in secret indicates what we are. For an honest and open indictment of Gentile belief and behaviour see Romans 1:18-32.

The verb translated ‘possess’ has mainly the meaning of ‘acquire’, but then went on to mean that having acquired you possessed. We might translate ‘gain and keep control over’. Control is the central idea. ‘Know to’ may indicate knowing that they are responsible to, rather than simply knowing how to (there is no specific ‘how’ in the Greek or in the verb).

So each is responsible for his own ‘vessel’. To control it and keep it as holy to God and honourable, ‘a vessel unto honour’ (2 Timothy 2:21), or to prostitute it and make it dishonourable, ‘unto dishonour’.

Some see the ‘vessel’ as indicating the wife. Wives are elsewhere called ‘the weaker vessel’ (1 Peter 3:7). But that then also makes the husband a vessel also, ‘the stronger vessel’. There is not there the suggestion, as there would be here, that the man possesses the wife like a chattel. The latter was not the Christian view (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 5:28). It is true that the verb can also be used of acquiring a wife. But there is nothing obvious in the context to support the idea here and it is a good principle in interpreting Scripture to take the obvious interpretation where two interpretations clash. If Paul meant a wife why did he not say so? Nor does it fit well with 1 Thessalonians 4:6.

‘Who do not know God.’ For if they did they would be aware that their sexual behaviour was contrary to His nature. Romans 1:18-32 links the sins of the Gentiles with the fact that they do not know God because they close their eyes to His appeal through nature and conscience and turn to idolatry. Thus they worship beasts and behave like them.

‘That no man transgress and wrong his brother in the matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as also we forewarned you and testified.’ Sexual sin not only affects us, it affects others. It defrauds and takes advantage of others. It destroys marriages, breaks up relationships, makes a mockery of genuine love, drags men and women down to a lower level of living, and dishonours God (1 Corinthians 6:15-16; 1 Corinthians 6:18-19). And when we so lead others astray or hurt them, the Lord will avenge them, either at the day of judgment, or by illness and disease (1 Corinthians 11:30).

There is no reason for considering that ‘brother’ here means any different from elsewhere. It refers to a fellow-Christian. Sexual transgression in the church was most likely to affect other Christians, especially in days when free time was limited, and that would be a great sin for it would be a sin against a brother which the Lord will avenge. And even sex outside the church community would harm fellow-Chrisitian for it would bring shame on the church and on each brother.

‘For God called us not to uncleanness but in sanctification.’ Paul finally summarises the position. Sexual purity is part of the call of God. There are two options, being involved in uncleanness or being in sanctification. God’s call is from the one to the other. If we are those who are called by God then we do not have an option, for our behaviour and attitude will reveal the genuineness of our calling. Again this sanctification is to be practical and not imputed, although resulting from having been first sanctified by God ( 1Co 1:2 ; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2).

Verse 8

‘Therefore he who rejects, rejects not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.’

This confirms the strength behind the idea of ‘call’ in 1 Thessalonians 4:7. God has not given a suggestion, He has called us out of uncleanness. Thus those who reject the necessity for purity in their sexual lives are ‘rejecting’ God and His call. That is they are treating Him of no account and as someone Who can be ignored. And this is further emphasised in that when we respond to the call of God he gives His Holy Spirit to us on a continual basis. There is an emphasis on His holiness in the way the phrase is worded, ‘the Spirit of Him, the Holy one’. The present tense emphasises the continual presence of His Holy Spirit within the Christian. How then can one who is the Temple of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the One Who is superlatively clean and pure, indulge in uncleanness? It would be a contradiction of the very idea (see 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 where this idea is expressed and connected with the fact that we are not our own but have been ‘bought with a price’).

Verse 9

‘But concerning love of brothers and sisters you have no need that one write to you, for you yourselves are taught of God to love one another.’

Note the strong contrast between the fornication of the previous verses based on sexual love and the true Christian love here. They are as far apart as black from white. ‘Love of brothers and sisters’ is ‘philadelphia’. It is a love based on the idea of love between blood brothers. It has no sexual connotations but stresses loyalty and desire for the wellbeing of the other. It now applies to all Christians because they are brothers and sisters.

‘For you yourselves are taught of God to love one another.’ It was taught in the Law (Leviticus 19:18; Galatians 5:14), it was stressed by Jesus (Mark 12:31; John 13:34-35; John 15:12-13; John 15:17), it is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is central to the Christian message. Here the word for love is agape, the higher and nobler form of love that transcends feelings (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-8), given a new content by the Christian message. To behave towards others as you would have them behave towards you (without misapplying the idea), is to reveal such love. It is the untainted love of comrades-in-arms, which true Christians engaged in spiritual warfare feel instinctively when they meet other Christians engaged in the same.

‘Taught of God.’ Literally ‘you are taught of God ones’. This links with the idea of the Holy Spirit being within them. True Christians are ‘taught of God ones’ and it will reveal itself in their lives (compare 1 Corinthians 2:12).

Verse 10

‘But we exhort you, brothers and sisters, that you abound more and more.’

While their love is so well known it has not reached perfection, and therefore he exhorts them not to be content but to let it grow and grow, by more and more self-giving. We can compare here Philippians 1:9-11 where Paul prays that love may abound yet more and more ‘in all spiritual knowledge (epignosis) and discernment’. Love to be true love must be in line with the highest ideals, and those result from spiritual knowledge and discernment.

Verses 11-12

‘And that you are ambitious to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your hands, even as we charged you. That you may walk honestly towards those who are without, and may have need of nothing.’

The general impression here is of some who were going about in an excited way, creating a great stir, criticising, chattering, gossiping, constantly passing on unrequested spiritual advice, avoiding normal work and living off others ‘by faith’, presumably in view of the near return of Christ (2 Thessalonians 3:11). This is not to condemn those who are truly called of God to a particular ministry and trust God to supply their needs through the ‘hospitality’ of faithful Christians, but it does warn about taking up such a position too lightly on one’s own initiative. All the Apostles journeyed ‘by faith’. But their call was sure and approved by the whole church.

‘Be ambitious to be still (quiet in the sense of at rest).’ A deliberate paradox. He was warning them against being frustrating ‘busy-bodies’ (2 Thessalonians 3:11 compare 1 Timothy 5:13) at other people’s expense. This would suggest that in view of what they saw as Christ’s near return some thought that working was futile, and that rather they should meet with fellow-Christians all the time, talking excitedly about their own opinion on Christian things, looking constantly into other people’s lives in order to advise them or put them right, advising them in accordance with their own wrong ideas, discussing other Christians behind their backs with a view to ‘helping’ them while only upsetting them, regularly backbiting, claiming to stir everyone to faithfulness, while only being annoying, and so on (this is taking the best view of them). It is a caricature of what a real pastor should be. Rather, says Paul, they should be ambitious to settle down and support themselves, and do physical or mental work and not be so ‘spiritually’ active on their own cognisance. They will do the church far more good.

‘And to do (practise, carry out) your own business, and to work with your hands, even as we charged you.’

Rather these people should spend more time looking to their own affairs and the affairs of their families, should attend to their work and business, and should get down to some honest day’s work, just as Paul had previously told them to do. Unlike the Jews (all Rabbis were expected to have a trade), the Gentiles did not look favourably on physical work. But Paul points out to them that it is not spiritual to be idle. These important words are a remedy for when we begin to worry that in the light of the Lord’s return we are spending too much time on mundane things.

It is, of course, as so often, a matter of balance. There can be no doubt that some Christians are too taken up with their own affairs, and could do to give more assistance to the church and to evangelism in their ‘leisure time’. But our efforts should be prayerfully determined and not over-hectic.

‘That you may walk honestly towards those who are without, and may have need of nothing.’ His advice is so that they might treat fairly and honestly and decently ‘those who are outside’. This may mean outside their own circle, or outside their own families, or outside the church. Those who live off others on their own cognisance cheat everybody. Those who are busybodies cause harm to others. Those who are seen as parasites are a bad witness to the world.

‘And may have need of nothing.’ By working as others do, and have to, they will then be able to provide for their own needs and not be in a state where they have to receive help from others to meet their basic physical needs.

Verse 13

‘But we would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are falling asleep, that you sorrow not, even as the rest who have no hope.’

It is clear that the Thessalonians had grasped the idea that Jesus Christ was imminently returning and were in expectation that it would be very soon. Thus when some died before that glorious event took place they were concerned lest that meant that those dying would lose out in some way. In view of the parallel they probably thought that death before Christ’s coming meant that such people had lost their hope. The majority of Gentiles saw no hope beyond the grave. They saw death as the end. The comparison with them as those who ‘have no hope’ suggests that was also how the Thessalonian Christians saw their fellow-Christians who had died.

‘Those who are falling asleep.’ The picture of death as sleep is constant in the New Testament and was here intended to stress that death was not the end, it was only a ‘sleep’. The picture comes originally from Daniel 12:2 where it applied to both believers and the condemned and is directly connected with the fact of resurrection, compare also Psalms 17:15 and Isaiah 26:19 where it is only of believers. But in each case it is connected with the resurrection. Other references to death as sleep such as Job 24:20; 1 Kings 2:10 contain rather the idea of final sleep, such as was held by many Gentiles, from which, as far as they were aware, there was no waking up. We can understand why. A dead person often looks just like someone in the repose of sleep. The thought was that they had found final rest. But for the believer ‘sleep’ indicated a state from which one day they would awake.

This idea of death as sleep carries on into the New Testament. Jesus Himself described those whom He was about to bring back from the dead as ‘asleep’ (Matthew 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52; John 11:11-13. Matthew speaks of ‘the saints who had fallen asleep’ when describing their resurrection (Matthew 27:52). Paul regularly speaks of death as sleep (1 Thessalonians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 1Co 11:30 ; 1 Corinthians 15:6; 1 Corinthians 15:18; 1 Corinthians 15:51, and only the last is directly connected with the resurrection, but with Paul we can be sure that the resurrection was always in mind, although 1 Corinthians 15:18 contains the theoretical idea that they have ‘perished’. See also Act 13:36 ; 2 Peter 3:4.

Sleep is a time of restoration and a kind of awareness. It is not necessarily a time of total lack of consciousness. Thus Paul can look forward to sleep beyond death as being enjoyed in the conscious presence of Christ (Philippians 1:23) and Jesus could say to the dying thief, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43). Both Luke 16:19-31 and Revelation 6:9-11, although highly pictorial and not to be taken literally, indicate the consciousness of ‘sleeping’ saints in the presence of God, and in the former case the awareness of sinners of the displeasure of God prior to the judgment.

‘That you sorrow not, even as the rest who have no hope.’ Paul sees them as sorrowing with the same sorrow as Gentiles who have no hope. Certainly the vast majority of the Gentile world saw no hope beyond death. The Platonists believed in the immortality of the soul and thus an afterlife of sorts in a disembodied state, but they were comparatively few and restricted mainly to the thinking classes. For the rest death was the end. Ancient literature and tomb inscriptions were full of the awareness of the hopelessness of death. Thus the fear of the Thessalonians appears to have been that those of them who died before the second coming died without hope. Paul answers this firstly by stressing the fact of the resurrection in order that they need not sorrow. This refers to sorrow over final death not sorrow over a temporary parting.

Verses 13-18

The Coming of Christ for His Own (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ).

Paul assures the Thessalonians that those who have died in Christ will not be disadvantaged as against those who will be alive at His coming, and describes what will happen when Christ comes for His own.

Verse 14

‘For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so those also who are fallen asleep through Jesus will God bring with Him.’

Paul’s solution is simple. Jesus died and rose again. He defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:52-55). He has therefore the power to give life to the dead (John 5:25-29). Thus the dead in Christ will rise prior to His royal visit and will come with Him (see 1 Thessalonians 3:13).

The ‘if’ does not express doubt about their faith, it distinguishes between them and the unbelievers among whom they live. It is the equivalent of ‘because’ while also stirring up their faith within them.

Note that Jesus did not ‘sleep’, He ‘died’. It is because Jesus died that the saints only sleep. It was through His death that resurrection was made possible. Jesus’ death when spoken of directly is always described as death.

‘Those who are fallen asleep through Jesus will God bring with Him.’ Or more literally, ‘even so God the fallen asleep ones through Jesus will bring with Him’. To fall asleep in Christ is to be ‘safe in the arms of Jesus’. Because they are in Him they will rise again. And when He comes again God will bring them with Him. The use of the name Jesus without the accompanying Lord makes it possible to see ‘God’ as signifying the Godhead. All the Godhead were involved in the first coming of Jesus, and will be involved with this coming of the resurrected saints (people of God).

‘Through Jesus.’ This may be attached to ‘those who are fallen asleep’ or to ‘God’. In the first case it may be confirming the fact that it is through Jesus’ work on the cross that their death is only sleep. In the second it is signifying that the resurrected people of God can accompany Jesus at His coming because God was able to bring it about through what Jesus had done on the cross and by His resurrection. The former seems more probable because of the construction of the sentence, and because it is necessary to distinguish which sleeping ones are meant, but both are true.

Verse 15

‘For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and are left to the Parousia of the Lord, will in no way precede those who are asleep.’

Paul assures the Thessalonians that there is no way in which Christians living at the time of Christ’s coming and divine presence will have precedence over those who have died in Christ.

‘By the word of the Lord.’ This may be seen as signifying a literal word of the Lord of which Paul was aware, or it may be signifying that, as with the prophets of old, the word of the Lord came to Paul. Some have seen in Matthew 24:31 one ‘word’ that may have been in mind with ‘His elect’ meaning all, both dead and living. It certainly contains the idea of the trumpet and the gathering together in a miraculous way of His people.

‘We who are alive and are left.’ At this time Paul was still hopeful of being alive when Jesus came and states this position on that basis. He wanted to make the words personal and link himself with the Thessalonians in their faith, and not just make a doctrinal statement. Had Jesus come at that moment Paul would have been among those alive, and that was his earnest hope. It was only later that he learned that that was not to be and that it was to be his privilege to die for Christ (2 Timothy 4:6).

‘To the Parousia of the Lord.’ ‘Parousia’ means ‘presence’, but it was used of royal visits by which the presence of the royal person would be among them. It indicated that He was on an official visit in order to fulfil some purpose. Many see it as including the carrying out of His judgments (e.g. Matthew 24:50 to Matthew 25:46). ‘Of the Lord’. This confirms what we have just said. It was ‘the Lord’ Who was here, He Who bore the name above every name and was sovereign over the Universe, to Whom one day every knee shall bow (Philippians 2:9-11). And the Lord was coming in triumph and victory to exert His royal right.

‘Will in no way precede those who are asleep.’ The fears of the Thessalonians had not been about precedence, however Paul here assures them that not only will the dead in Christ rise, but they will also not lose anything or any privilege by having died. They will join in the royal procession.

Verses 16-17

‘For the Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will 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.’

We will not at this point cloud the glory of these words by controversy (see excursus at the end of chapter 5). The picture is immense, but it speaks of things that we cannot fully comprehend. To press the detail too literally to conform it to a viewpoint is to overlook that here we are dealing with something beyond human comprehension. This was the moment for which creation had waited and groaned, the full redemption of God’s people both dead and living (Romans 8:19-23), and the One Who was coming was not just a king, He was the King of glory, and those who united with Him were no longer flesh and blood but spiritual beings.

‘For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven.’ Cease argument and gaze in wonder. The Lord Himself will be revealed in His glory. He will come with the clouds and every eye will see Him (Revelation 1:7). For there will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven -- and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and He will send forth His angels with the sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven (Matthew 24:30-31; Mark 13:26-27). 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 puts it, ‘we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will all be changed.’

‘With a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God.’ The picture is a military one. The sergeant major calls the troops to order (note the anonymity of the shout), the commander-in-chief gives the order to march and the trumpet sounds. But this time the commander-in-chief is the archangel, a reminder that although not mentioned here the angels are there at their stations, and the trumpet is the trumpet of God, sounded by the royal trumpeter on His behalf. And it is ‘the last trump’ (1 Corinthians 15:52), the final culmination of all trumpets that have sounded in the purposes of God (see Exodus 19:16; Isaiah 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zechariah 9:14; Matthew 24:31), for the end is here. These pictures depict heavenly events in earthly terms. We must not literalise them. Spiritual beings do not blow trumpets. Basically it refers to ‘the command to march’.

‘And the dead in Christ shall rise first.’ At the voice of the Son of God the tombs are opened, and the dead come forth, raised as incorruptible to the resurrection of life (John 5:25; John 5:28-29)

‘Then we who are alive, who remain, will together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.’ Paul numbers himself with the living because at that time he was living. He is enthusiastically picturing the whole scene as though they were all taking part in it, as indeed at that time was his hope. The ‘we’ really means ‘we Christians’, whoever are alive at the time. Without the pronoun in the first person the picture would have lost some of its emphasis and some of the sense of participation. It was essential.

Notice the clouds, a common feature of the glorious appearance of the Son of Man. The clouds have not been previously mentioned here but are assumed on the basis of well known teaching elsewhere (Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). They indicate the heavenly nature of the whole operation.

Notice also that the living will be caught up together with the resurrected dead, and will with them meet the Lord ‘in the air’, the sphere in which Satan once was active (Ephesians 2:2). But he is a defeated foe, and he cannot stand before the Lord of glory. The word ‘caught up’ is not necessarily ‘forceful’. It is used of transference by the Holy Spirit in Acts 8:39, and of someone (probably Paul himself) caught up to the third heaven for revelation in 2 Corinthians 12:2. He did not even know whether it was in or out of the body. There is not therefore necessarily the idea of rescue. (This is also true in extra-Biblical literature). It thus indicates being ‘borne by the hand of God’ (compare Ezekiel 3:14; Ezekiel 11:1; Ezekiel 11:24). Both living and resurrected are caught up together. In this we see the irresistible power of the Lord. Being caught up includes spiritual transformation which takes place in both dead and living in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:52).

The verb to ‘meet’ is regularly used of the citizens of a city going our to meet an important personage in order to bring them in triumph into the city. But there Paul stops with no further detailed explanation. Where they proceed to is unimportant here. He is dealing with the question of the resurrected dead in relation to the living at the Lord’s coming, and having dealt with the question He points to the grand conclusion, ‘so shall we ever be with the Lord’. Any other fact pales into insignificance. The final purposes of God are complete and the eternal future is with Him in His presence, wherever He may be.

The idea of the Lord so coming down, but in judgment, is found in Micah 1:3; Zechariah 14:5 which may well be seen as following immediately on this event.

Verse 18

‘Wherefore comfort one another with these words.’

The word for comfort is parakaleo, ‘comfort, strengthen, firmly assist’. The first comfort is found in that they need no longer fear at the thought of those who die in Christ missing out. They will share all the glory of His coming. The second, of course, is in that these words are a comfort and a strengthener to all Christians, especially when the going gets tough. For all the sacrifices of ‘training’ for success have the reaching of the objective firmly in mind.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.