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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

1 Thessalonians 4

Verse 1

1 Thessalonians 4:1. Furthermore then. More literally, as to what remains, or for the rest: ‘marking an approach towards the conclusion of the Epistle, though not necessarily a very near approach’ (Vaughan).

In the Lord. Only as the organ of the Lord does Paul presume to exhort them; and only as believers united to Christ, and living in Him, does he expect that they will listen to his admonition.

As ye received. Paul views it as a possible thing that they may know to do good, and do it not. Many persons, like the son in the parable, seem to think that their knowledge of duty, and recognition of it in conscience, is some sort of compensation for their non-performance of it. The Thessalonians, however, were walking as Paul had directed them; but he knew the tendency there is to be content with a half-completed course, to allow some sin to remain because much has been cast out, to weary before the whole work is accomplished, and therefore be is bent upon having them ‘abound yet more.’

Verses 1-8

Exhortation to Holiness of Life.

As in all his Epistles Paul at least concludes with a strenuous and full inculcation of moral duties, so here he reiterates to the Thessalonians those precepts and warnings which he had seen to be needful while he was himself among them. Not less than in other Greek cities was there a danger in Thessalonica that sins of impurity might stain the character of the young Christian community. Very earnestly therefore does Paul entreat them to keep themselves pure from such sins, to avail themselves of the natural safeguard against unchastity, and to revert always to the consideration that it was their holiness and purity from all defilement which God intended when He called them.

Verse 2

1 Thessalonians 4:2. For ye know. I give you no new code of morals, but beseech you to live up to the instructions I formerly gave you. I refer you to my original teaching, ‘for ye know,’ etc.

By the Lord Jesus. It was the Lord Jesus who moved the apostle to deliver these commandments. Christ was the agent in the matter.

Verse 3

1 Thessalonians 4:3. For this. The reason why the precepts had been given and were to be kept, was that God desired their sanctification.

The will of God. It is this which God desires and intends when He calls you by the Gospel. What God wills and intends, He also makes provision for: hence the encouragement the Christian has in knowing that all his efforts after holiness are in accordance with that will which accomplishes all it designs.

That ye abstain from fornication. This is the particular virtue in which their sanctification was to be manifested. And here and elsewhere emphasis is laid upon purity of life, because licentiousness was bred in the bone of the converts from heathenism, and fornication was in Greece considered a venial transgression.

Verse 4

1 Thessalonians 4:4. That every one of you should know to possess himself of his own vessel. This is a positive duty in the matter of sanctification, as the preceding clause declared the negative duty. They were to abstain from fornication; and, that they might do so, each was to possess a wife of his own. As to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:2), Paul says, ‘To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife.’ The word ‘vessel’ is indeed susceptible of the meaning ‘body,’ as well as that of ‘wife;’ but that it here has the latter sense is clear 1st, from the meaning of the word translated in the Authorised Version ‘possess.’ This word does not mean simply ‘possess,’ but ‘acquire possession of,’ and could, therefore, be used only for a wife (as in point of fact it is commonly so used, as in Ecclus. 36:29, in E. V. Sir 36:24 ), and not of a man’s own body. 2d, From the emphasis which the apostle lays on the words ‘his own’ (inadequately rendered in the Authorised Version)

an emphasis which is intended to contrast ‘his own vessel’ with the public and indiscriminate concubinage referred to in the preceding clause; and also with the wrong inflicted on other men by adultery, against which he proceeds to warn them. Let every man get a wife of his own, that thus neither the public prostitute nor another man’s spouse may be a temptation to him. If we suppose the apostle to mean ‘body’ when he uses the word ‘vessel,’ it is not easy or possible to account for the emphatic words ‘his own.’

In sanctification and honour. Let every man acquire and keep his own wife with motives and in a way of which he need not be ashamed. Impurity and shame are always connected with ill-regulated appetites and lawless passions; men are therefore to marry that they may be pure and without shame. Readers of the Apocrypha will find in the marriage, and especially in the nuptial prayer of Tobit, some illustration of this passage.

Verse 5

1 Thessalonians 4:5. Not in the lost of concupiscence. Marriage is to be contracted not for mere bodily gratification, but to gratify purer feelings and yearnings. Married people are so to live that they may be mutually conscious that with them marriage is an honourable estate, with nothing in it that makes them ashamed, and that it promotes their sanctification.

Who know not God. Those who know not God cannot be expected to have the same ideal of holiness and purity. They have not heard the words, ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy;’ neither have they become acquainted with perfect holiness in the incarnate God. Every Christian, therefore, must feel how much more is required of him than of the heathen. Increased knowledge is increased responsibility.

Verse 6

1 Thessalonians 4:6. In this verse Paul continues the same subject, and does not pass to the sin of covetousness. ‘Another aspect is presented to us of sins of the flesh; the wrong done to our neighbour’ (Jowett). This is at once manifest when the proper rendering is given to the words ‘in the matter.’ It is the matter of which Paul has been speaking, to which he still refers, the matter of unchastity; and as he has said of this, that they are to abstain from fornication, and chastely use its natural remedy, so now he denounces adultery

and this, not on account of its impurity, but because it is a violation of our neighbour’s rights. It was in this light also that Nathan presented to David his great sin, selecting a parable which illustrated not its impurity, but the heartless selfishness which could inflict so gross an injury on one who might naturally have looked to the king for protection.

That no man go beyond or defraud. The first of these terms denotes a contemptuous neglect of the rights of other men; the other, a greedy overreaching of others for our own pleasure or advantage, both of which elements enter into the sin of adultery. Let no man thus practise upon his brother and pique himself on befooling a credulous or easy husband, for the adulterer has to do not only with man, but with One who cannot be taken in, and from whom there is no hiding.

The Lord is the avenger of all these things. In all such matters God is the avenger. Men may not be able to vindicate their own rights, or inflict the just and righteous punishment for irreparable injury; but the Lord has an eye on every such case, and will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and cause the offender to feel that it is himself he has befooled. As nothing is more emphatically asserted in the Word of God, nothing is more legibly written on the lives of men, than that sore and sure retribution waits upon sins of the flesh.

Verse 7

1 Thessalonians 4:7. For God called us not onto uncleanness. Paul returns to the idea of the third verse, the idea that such sins were antagonistic to God’s purpose and work in Christians. If we profess to be responding to God’s call, let us clearly understand what it is; what we must abandon, and what we must seek. It is a call from one moral condition to another.

Verse 8

1 Thessalonians 4:8. He that rejecteth, i.e. he who contemptuously or negligently refuses to listen to these injunctions and warnings.

Not man. Not me, the apostle who conveys this message to you. I do not deliver these moral precepts on my own authority. They are the commandments of God. Frequently men make the human medium through which light is conveyed to their conscience, an excuse for not attending to it. It is only they persuade themselves the crotchet of an enthusiast, the pardonable anxiety of a parent, the impertinent advice of an officious person; but, rejecting what conscience endorses, they contemn not men but God.

Who also gave onto you his Holy Spirit. The fact that to all believers God gives the Holy Spirit, should both encourage them to persevere in seeking holiness, and should deter them from such sins as are specially offensive to the Spirit, whose peculiar title is ‘Holy.’ This gift should further bind Christians by the evidence it affords that, whatever they make of God’s call, God is in earnest about it, and faithfully carries out His part. Sins of the flesh are specially antagonistic to the Spirit’s work; they mock all a man’s nobler aspirations, and make indulgence the end of life, and whatever refinement and apparent susceptibility to what is good they leave on the surface, underneath the whole nature is rotten, feeble, coarse.

Verse 9

1 Thessalonians 4:9. Brotherly love is love to the ‘brethren,’ i.e. to Christians, who had received the spirit of adoption and power to become the sons of God. As the great motive of Christ’s coming was love for us, so the great object of His coming was to enable us to love God and one another; to set us right with God and men. And He effects this by first of all knitting us to Himself. By loving Him we get into sympathy with all who love Him, and we also contract His own way of looking at men. So that where religion makes men severe rather than tender, censorious rather than meek and hopeful, proud rather than lowly, uncharitable in feeling and act rather than considerate and helpful, their religion is a failure (1 John 4:20, etc.).

Ye need not that I write unto you. Paul insinuates his exhortation to further attainment, by giving them credit for what they have already achieved.

For you yourselves are taught of God. You need no one to teach you, for you yourselves are already taught

taught directly by Him whose ministers we are, taught by Him whose teaching not only enlightens conscience but animates the will, so that the result of His teaching is apparent in your conduct.

Verses 9-12

Exhortation to Brotherly Love and Industry

The connection between the two subjects of this paragraph, brotherly love and quiet industry, is somewhat obscure. It may be that those who had abandoned their ordinary callings and were spending their time in idle expectation of the Lord’s coming, or in a gossiping and meddling interference with other men’s affairs, were deadening their own brotherly love, and were tempting their more industrious neighbours to abuse and recrimination. The connection of the whole paragraph with the preceding lies probably in the suggestion made by 1 Thessalonians 4:6 of the subject of brotherly love.

Verse 10

1 Thessalonians 4:10. For indeed ye do it. Proof of the preceding clause.

All the brethren who are in all Macedonia. ‘Which implies a lively intercourse with the Christians in Philippi, Berœa, and perhaps at small scattered stations, offshoots from the central churches.’

Verse 11

1 Thessalonians 4:11. Make it your ambition to be quiet. The Greeks were naturally restless and ambitious. Juvenal in a well-known passage (iii. 76) satirizes their unsteadiness, their flying from one pursuit to another, their readiness to engage in anything which promised remuneration without hard work, ‘to open schools for grammar, or rhetoric, or geometry, or drawing, or wrestling; to tell the will of heaven, or to dance upon the tight-rope; to administer medicines or charms.’ They were especially ambitious of municipal offices, in which their ready tongue might save them from hard labour, and give them an opportunity of intermeddling with other men’s affairs. This natural excitability and idleness of the Greeks had found nourishment in the expectation which the Thessalonians had apparently formed regarding the speedy approach of the end of the world; and probably also in the circumstance that they were called to a heavenly citizenship which might seem to exonerate them from earthly drudgery, and to a brotherhood from which they might expect to receive support. That some of the Thessalonians were ‘walking disorderly’ and refusing to work, and acting as ‘busybodies,’ we read in the Second Epistle. These were in all probability persons who wished to be regarded as spiritual, eager for the Lord’s coming, capable advisers and instructors of other men. To these Paul says, Let your ambition lead you not to a flighty, excited, bustling, indolent life, assuming to be superior to, but in reality dependent on, the labour of other men, but to a tranquil, steady, unostentatious engagement in your own ordinary occupations.

Work with your own hands. From this it may probably be inferred that the bulk of the Thessalonian converts were labouring men or mechanics.

As we commanded you. Even while yet with them, Paul had seen symptoms of the restlessness which afterwards developed into what he could only call disorderly conduct-symptoms so significant that the same injunctions to a quiet demeanour and industrious pursuance of their ordinary callings were even then necessary.

Verse 12

1 Thessalonians 4:12. That ye may make walk becomingly toward them that are without. This is ‘the regular designation of those who were not Christians;’ a designation which merely defines without passing any judgment on their condition. (See 1 Timothy 3:7; Colossians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 5:12-13.) It is probably derived from the expressions ‘without the camp,’ ‘without the synagogue;’ and conveys the idea of exclusion not simply from the Church, but from all that satisfies man. Comp. Revelation 22:15. As the passages just referred to show, Paul was ever solicitous (as Peter also was, 1 Peter 2:12-19) that Christians should so excel in the domestic virtues, in the common decencies and courtesies and duties of life, as to afford the heathen no occasion to upbraid, or despise, or suspect them. A decorous and irreproachable demeanour, excellence in the virtues which the world acknowledges, diligence in the public service, these things commend the religion which enjoins them.

And may have lack of nothing. Ellicott prefers to render these words ‘may have need of no man,’ that is to say, may, by working with your own hands, be independent of the support other men can afford you. This meaning suits the context very well, but the common rendering is the more natural, and equally suits the context; and the difference between the two renderings is practically inappreciable. Paul desires that they may mind their own business, and work with their own hands, so as to be independent; and to keep the reproach of uselessness and laziness from blotting their religion.

Verse 13

1 Thessalonians 4:13. we would not have you to be ignorant. ‘A phrase by which St. Paul frequently introduces a new and important topic.’ See references.

Them which are asleep. Death is called sleep by Pagan as well as by Christian writers, and it is therefore probable that the euphemism was first suggested by the stillness and repose, and cessation of intercourse with outward things, which characterize both conditions. What we know of sleep is, that it is a state in which there is no consciousness of the objects of sense; and this is a chief characteristic of death. But to the Christian the resemblance is fuller and more significant. No sleep lasts for ever, else it is not sleep; a waking follows every sleep. And so death is called a sleep, to remind us that it is not a final cessation of life, even in the case of the body, but only a transitory state out of which body and soul shall together arise. And secondly, what sleep is to our day’s work, death is to our life’s work. The frame that is worn by toil or wasted by disease lies back into the arms of death, and all its weariness is over, all its pain forgotten. Under shelter of that insensibility the man is rehabilitated and revived from all that has worn him out.

That ye sorrow not. These words do not merely forbid such sorrowing as the hopeless indulge in, but all sorrowing. They who look for no resurrection sorrow for the dead, but ye are not to do so. To bewail their condition is wholly out of place, though to utter our own grief and bewail our own loss is natural and fit.

No hope. Here and there an individual among the heathen speaks of death as the ‘interruption, not the extinction of life’ (Seneca), or is driven by the death of a noble friend to hope for a life beyond (Horace, Odes, i. 24), but at the best that future life is shadowy, colourless, cold, and unattractive (Propertius, El. 1 Thessalonians 4:7). The fact is, that without the knowledge of the resurrection of the body, the hope of immortality and the notions of a future life must be dim, perplexed, and vacillating.

Verses 13-18

Comfort for the Bereaved concerning the Prospects of the Departed.

Paul had preached to the Thessalonians the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ, and they had apparently taken up the impression that the Lord was very soon to return. When, therefore, one and another of the Christians who were looking for Christ’s coming, died, their friends became perplexed and anxious about their condition and prospects. They seem to have been afraid that the dead would not witness nor partake in the glory of Christ’s appearing. It is to remove these misapprehensions that Paul writes this paragraph of instruction and comfort.

Verse 14

1 Thessalonians 4:14. For if we believe. Paul goes on to explain the reason of the hope which should be entertained regarding departed Christians. It is founded on the universal and fundamental Christian belief that Jesus died but rose again. The argument is more fully drawn out in 1 Corinthians 15:0, in which passage, as here, Paul proceeds upon the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and from it infers the certainty of that of His people. In this argument is involved the important principle that Jesus Christ is the Head and Representative of His people, in such a sense that in His human history we see the history and experience of each Christian acted out in all its essential parts. The members cannot be separated from the Head in any important part of His destiny. In His triumphant return they must share.

Who sleep through Jesus, i.e. they who by the intervention of Christ are now peacefully awaiting resurrection. It will be observed that while Paul uses the consolatory word ‘sleep’ when he speaks of believers, he uses the word ‘died’ when speaking of Christ. He does so because between the death of Christ and that of His people there was an essential difference; the one being an endurance of the curse, the other being exempt from this sting. Christ ‘tasted death for every man’ and by the infallible chemistry of His love drew out of each man’s cup the poison, so that it became a sleeping draught.

Will God bring with him, i.e. with Jesus.

Verse 15

1 Thessalonians 4:15. By the word of the Lord. The account of the Lord’s Second Advent which follows is one of those revelations which human reasoning could not even help the apostle to predict. It must be revealed directly. Some spiritual truths Paul reached by the growth of his own experience; the Spirit worked imperceptibly along with and sustained his own inquiry and knowledge; but there were also some matters which could not be so discovered or discerned, and these could only be revealed by a wholly and directly supernatural enlightenment. Among these was the Lord’s Epiphany. The occurrence of this expression here, reminds us that the possibility of mistake is precluded in what follows.

We who are living, who are being left over, i.e. we, whoever we may be, who are alive at the coming of the Lord. ‘Is St. Paul speaking here of his own generation only? or are the living at a particular time put for the living in general, these being spoken of in the first person by way of contrast with the dead from whom they are parted? We may consider “ we who are living” as a figure of the living in genera], just as “ they that are asleep,” though primarily referring to the dead in the Thessalonian Church, is also put for the dead in general’ (Jowett). The ‘we embraces along with the apostle all the Christian Thessalonian’ at that time alive; if, therefore, the expression implies that Paul expected that he would live till the reappearance of Christ, it equally implies that he expected that all the Thessalonians would survive till that time; which no one is hardy enough to maintain. That the words Paul uses are susceptible of a meaning which would imply that he expected to live till the Lord came, is evident from the circumstance that some of the Thessalonians, with whom Greek was the mother tongue, did so understand his words. But that Paul himself did not mean them to be so understood is evident from his distinct affirmation to this effect in the Second Epistle; which apparently was written chiefly for the purpose of correcting this false impression, and the disorders occasioned by it. What the words do imply is the possibility, but not the expectation, that some or all of them might see the day of the Son of man before dying. The beginning of the following chapter shows that Paul was unwilling to speak definitely of the times and seasons; and the Second Epistle shows that the one point on which he was confident was that other events must occur before the second coming. ‘A living man naturally classes himself with the living, in contradistinction to those who are dead. We do not read it as an express assertion that St. Paul himself would certainly be among the living at the Advent of Christ. At present he belonged to that division of the human race; he knew not but that he might still be so at that great epoch, of which the day and hour are known only to the Father, but which each generation of the Church ought to be constantly expecting. The Second Epistle expressly corrects the false inference that St. Paul here predicts an immediate return of Christ; and, by implication at least, the idea that he himself presumes upon living to behold it’ (Vaughan).

Shall in no wise precede, i.e. shall not anticipate or be beforehand with; ‘shall not arrive into the presence of the Lord, and share the blessings and glories of His advent, before others’ (Ellicott).

Verse 16

1 Thessalonians 4:16. For. Things shall not happen as you fear, because the following is the order in which the last things are to take place.

The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven. The emphatic ‘Himself’ seems intended to dismiss from the minds of the Thessalonians the idea that the living could of themselves make any use of their apparent superiority to the dead, and so, while yet their friends slept, enter the joy of the Lord. On the contrary, it is not they who are to hasten to the Lord, but the Lord Himself who is to come to them; and, as he goes on to say, the first intimation of His coming shall be the signals given not to the living but to the dead. The shout which the dead hear shall be the first note of warning to the living. The wider meaning is, however, not to be overlooked. ‘It shall not be a mere amelioration, gradual or sudden, of the condition of the Church or of the world; not a mere displacement of evil or triumph of good, not a mere crisis of human affairs, issuing in times of universal blessing and happiness; it shall be a personal coming’ (Vaughan).

With a shout, with voice of archangel, and with trumpet of God. The word here rendered ‘shout’ is literally ‘word of command,’ being the common and technical term for the military word of command, or for the loud cry of the boatswain giving time to the rowers. The word of command here referred to is to be given by the archangel, summoning, in a form of words which it is idle to conjecture, the dead to awake out of sleep and to arise; or rather, the expression ‘with the trumpet of God,’ seems to indicate that the summons or signal is to be given not in a form of words but as by a military bugle, the various calls of which are understood by the army. The whole representation, the angelic host with their archangelic leader, the trumpet ‘sounding louder and louder,’ the descent of the Lord Himself, finds its original in the descent of God upon Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16).

The dead in Christ, i.e. those who died believing in Christ, and thus in true spiritual union with Him.

Shall rise first. Before anything else transpires, and especially before the living are gathered to the Lord. ‘The first act of the last drama is the resurrection of the dead, who are to meet Christ; the second, the gathering to them of the inhabitants of the earth’ (Jowett).

Verse 17

1 Thessalonians 4:17. Then. Immediately after the dead in Christ have risen.

Shall be caught up together with them in the clouds. This Ascension of the Church to her Lord presupposes the ‘change’ spoken of by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:52. The bodily ascent will be a token of the new conditions into which the body has passed, and will serve to identify the glorified body of the believer with that of Christ. But, as Luther remarks, this passage is of a symbolical kind, and we most not press each expression to its exact literal significance. The general idea of a gathering to the Lord is conveyed, but a literal representation of all the details here mentioned would fail to furnish us with an accurate picture of what will actually take place. ‘Such an attempt is like painting a picture of the scenes in the Apocalypse, which, the moment they are brought together, are seen to have a prophetic and symbolical meaning, not an artistic unity’ (Jowett).

Ever with the Lord. It is this which fills the Christian’s future and makes heaven for him. The restoration to lost friends is much, but is enhanced by the introduction to Christ and everlasting residence with Him, Whatever may be the physical relations and conditions by means of which these words shall be accomplished, they beget the hope that we shall be sensible that the influence of Christ pervades all we have to do with, and especially our own soul.

Verse 18

1 Thessalonians 4:18. Wherefore. There being no ground for your supposing that your dead friends will suffer any disadvantage from dying before Christ comes.

Comfort one another with these words. Paul scarcely expects that mourners will themselves remember in their grief that which should alleviate it; but he calls upon their fellow-Christians to assume the office of comforter. And that no one may excuse himself on the score of having no consolation to offer, he gives them wherewithal they may mitigate the bitterness of bereavement.

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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". 1879-90.