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Bible Commentaries

Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT

1 Thessalonians 4

Verse 1

In these words, we have a general exhortation given to the Thessalonians, that, according to the doctrine and injunctions formerly given them for a holy conversation suitable to the gospel, they would make it their care and endeavour to abound more and more in the exercise of piety, and outstrip themselves in doing their duty toward God and one another; We beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, &c.

Where note, 1. With what great condescension and earnestness St. Paul applies himself to them; he styles them his brethren, and exhorts and beseeches them. The ministers of Christ must not only be teachers, but beseechers also, meekly and affectionately entreating persons to be kind to themselves, and comply with their present duty.

Yet observe, 2. With what authority he backs his entreaty; he beseeches and exhorts by the Lord Jesus, that is, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by his authority, and for his sake; so that he that despiseth the gentle exhortations of Christ's ministers, despiseth not men, but God; as the authority of a prince is despised, when his messages by his ambassadors are rejected.

Note, 3. The general and comprehensive duty which they are exhorted to, namely, to walk so as to please God in their daily conversation, to be found in the practice of all the duties and virtues of a good life.

Where note, that St. Paul, in the course of his ministry, did not only explain and unfold gospel mysteries but urge and enforce moral duties: Ye have received of us how ye ought to walk. This must be a minister's care, to acquaint his people, that as the privileges of Christianity are very great, so the duties it requires are strict and exact; and those which we call moral duties, are an integral part of our religion; he that is not a moral man, is no Christian; let us preach and press second-table duties, with arguments drawn from the first, namely, that they performed in humble obedience to the command of God, and with a single eye at the glory of God, and from an inward principle of love to God, and then we can never preach up morality too much, nor our people practice it too much.

Observe, lastly, the apostle exhorts them to abound more and more, that is, in grace and holiness; Christians are to be thankful for, but not satisfied with, their present measures of grace received; God allows us liberty to enlarge our desires after an abundance of his grace: and happy is it where there is found a holy covetousness going along with the grace of God, as there is an insatiable covetousness going along with the gold and treasure of this world: this, says the apostle here, will please God, when ye abound more and more.

Verse 2

Here our apostle subjoins a reason, to enforce his foregoing exhortation; what he now required of them, was nothing but what at their first conversion to Christianity he had commanded them, and that in the name, and by the authority of Jesus Christ, to be performed by them; so that they were not his commands, but Christ's by him, and, as such, to be esteemed of them.

Learn hence, that the instructions and rules for a holy life, laid down by the apostles before the churches, are to be looked upon as the commandments of Christ, as being dictated by his Spirit, and delivered by his authority, and as such to be received of them, and obeyed by them.

Verse 3

This is the will of God, even your sanctification: that is, this is the will of God, eminently and emphatically revealed in his word, that Christians should be holy and pure, chaste and clean: not indulging themselves in those impure and filthy lusts of the flesh, fornication, and all manner of uncleanness, which the Gentiles, who knew not the true God savingly, were addicted to, and, in a most beastly manner, guilty of; but that every one should know how to possess and make use of his body, and all its members, as the vessel and instrument of the soul, in holiness and honour.

Observe here, 1. How the apostle descends from general to particular duties: he exhorted the Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians 4:1, in the general, to walk so as to please God; here he exhorteth them in particular, to purity and chastity, both of heart and life, and to watch against all the violent eruptions of concupiscence in their earthly members; teaching us, that the ministers of God must not satisfy themselves with giving general exhortations to a good life, but must treat of particular sins and duties, and endeavour to put men upon the practice of the one, and to reclaim them from the other; thus doth our apostle here.

Observe, 2. The particular duty exhorted to, sanctification; a comprehensive word, and of a large extent; in the general, it consists in a conformity of our natures to the nature of God, and in a conformity of our lives to the will of God.

In particular, sanctification here stands in opposition to all bodily uncleanness, as the next words do plainly shew, that ye should abstain from fornication, that is, all filthiness and uncleanness contrary to chastity; intimating to us, that as there are no sins that human nature is more inclined to, than the lusts of the flesh; so there are no sins that a Christian should more guard against, and strive to mortify and subdue, as being contrary to that purity of nature and life which the gospel directs, and the Holy Spirit assists unto.

Observe, 3. The argument which our apostle here uses to enforce his exhortation to purity and holiness; This is the will of God; 'tis both the command of God that we should be holy, and the will of God to make us holy; now the signification of God's will ought to be a sufficient inducement to us to desire it, and endeavour after it. This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that you should abstain from fornication.

Observe, 4. The remedy prescribed against all bodily uncleanness, and that is, a careful preserving the vessel of the body free from all fleshly pollution, and in that measure of purity and chastity which is suitable to the honour put upon it by God, in being made a temple for the Holy Ghost, That every one should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour.

Where note, the title given to our body, it is called a vessel; it is, first, the Spirit's vessel, he resides in it as in his temple; and accordingly, it seems to be an allusion to the consecrated vessels of the temple, in which a more than ordinary cleanness and purity was found:

Secondly, it is the soul's vessel, 'tis its vessel or receptacle, in which, for a time, it is preserved; and it is the instrument of the soul, by which it acts and performs its office and function.

Now, it is every person's, every man and woman's duty, to possess their body, and to be masters of it, not to be possessed by it, or enslaved to it, but to keep it in subjection to, and as the instrument of, the soul; the body is God's curious workmanship, 'tis Christ's precious purchase, 'tis the soul's receptacle, 'tis the Holy Ghost's temple; therefore, to be kept holy, pure, and clean, like the consecrated vessels of the temple.

Observe, 5. Our apostle exhorts the Thessalonians, not only to abstain from the outward act of uncleanness, but to mortify and subdue the inward lust of concupiscence, 1 Thessalonians 4:5, or, as the word signifies, the feverish fit, or violent passion of burning desire, which boileth within, through all the members of the body without.

There is a divine art in the exercise of chastity, and no small skill required to keep a man's soul and body free from fleshly uncleanness; in order to which, inordinate desires must be resisted, the outward senses guarded, enticing and ensnaring objects avoided, wanton company declined, meat, drink, and sleep, soberly used, our lawful callings diligently followed, the first motions to uncleanness suppressed, prayer to God renewed; and, if these prevail not, marriage, God's special remedy, holily made use of. Thus may Christians possess their vessels in sanctification and honour, not in the lusts of concupiscence.

Verse 6

Here we have another positive duty pressed upon the Thessalonians, in which a great part of their sanctification or holiness would discover itself, namely, justice and equity in all their dealings, man with man. Thessalonica was a city of great trade and merchandise; therefore, the apostle directs them, in their traffic and commerce, neither by fraud nor force, to over-reach and go beyond one another: and the apostle saying, let none go beyond or defraud his brother, that is, his fellow Christian, doth not suppose if lawful to defraud such as were not their brethren, but only lets them see, that for Christians to defraud and cheat, to over-reach and go beyond one another, would be a very great aggravation of their crime, seeing the laws of their religion, as well as the light of nature, condemns all such injustice and dishonesty: and accordingly, the apostle adds a reason to enforce his exhortation, drawn from the dreadful effect of all such sins; namely, that it exposes and lays open the guilty person to the direful vengeance of God: The Lord is the avenger of all such.

Learn hence, 1. That the wisdom of God has variously dispensed the gifts of providence to mankind; to some more, to others less; to some in one kind, to others in another: so that men cannot live without mutual commerce one with another.

Learn, 2. That there is such a covetous and insatiable desire of wealth in the heart of man, that little regarding the measure of worldly things, which God has dispensed unto him, he lies at catch to take all advantages of his neighbour in matters of commerce, and, by defrauding and over-reaching him, seeks to increase his own worldly estate with impairing that of others; Let no man go beyond his brother: The apostle, by forbidding this evil, plainly supposes man to be very prone and ready to fall into it.

Learn, 3. That the sin of injustice in traffic and commerce, is so very heinous in the sight of God, that such men as are guilty of it, without repentance, must never expect to escape the vengeance of God, either here or hereafter; God is the avenger of all such.

Observe next, the reasons urged by St. Paul to enforce his foregoing exhortations to purity and justice.

The first is taken from the design of God in their vocation; when called out of their heathenish state to Christianity, they were called not to uncleanness, but out of uncleanness unto holiness.

The second is taken from the heinousness of their sin, who shall despise or reject the commands here given for holiness and sanctification; he that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God.

To despise the minister of God in a command which he delivers from God, is to despise God himself; the apostle gave these commands by the direction of the Holy Spirit, which was given him for that end; Who hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit: Therefore, says he, he that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God.

Where note, that although the reason here given, why such as despised the apostle, despised God himself, be peculiar to St. Paul, who had the Holy Spirit to guide him infallibly; yet so far as the ordinary ministers of Christ do follow the apostle's steps, and deliver nothing but what is agreeable to the word of God, the contempt of their message is a despising of God himself: He that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God.

Verse 9

Our apostle proceeds from an exhortation to chastity and justice, to press that of love, called here brotherly love, because it has all Christians, all our fellow-members in Christ for its object; and he persuades to the practice of it by a winning insinuation that he need not say much upon this argument, because they were taught of God, that is, by the gospel of God, and influenced by the Spirit of God, to love one another.

And observe we farther, the extensiveness of their love. It was not confined to a party, only to them in Thessalonica, but throughout all Macedonia; however, he desires them to extend it still farther, to abound more and more; that is, first, in the extent of it, let it reach not only the saints throughtout all Macedonia, but even to them at the ends of the earth: secondly, in the measure of it, to excel even themselves in the degrees of their love.

Learn hence, that neither brotherly love, nor any other Christian grace, doth advance to such a height in any saint here, but it is still capable of farther augmentation and increase, both intensively, by advancing to further measures and higher degrees of perfection, and extensively, reaching to more objects, who ought to be sharers in our love.

Verse 11

It is supposed by some, that the charity and bounty of these Thessalonians, mentioned in the foregoing verses, occasioned some persons to be idle and carry tales from house to house, seeking by such flatteries and insinuations to maintain themselves without working; the apostle therefore commands every man to work at some calling, that they neither be a burden to the church, nor give a scandal to the heathen.

Study to be quiet, that is, to be of a peaceable spirit and temper; and the original word imports an ambitious study; it ought to be our ambitious desire to live quietly and peaceably with all men; and to live so with some men will require study, and earnest endeavour:

If it be possible, live peaceably with all men, says St. Paul, Romans 12:18. Implying, that there are some men that it is impossible to live peaceably with; and whereas he adds, doing our own business, and working with our own hands; that apostolical injunction requires, that every person be well employed, and found in the way of an honest and industrious diligence, for no man is sent into the world to be idle; and as it is every man's duty, so it is also his privilege, to have a calling: the want of which exposes to innumerable temptations, for the devil finds an idle person always ready to run of his errand.

Verse 12

Our apostle having exhorted the Thessalonians to industry and diligence in the foregoing verse, he presses it with a double argument in this verse.

1. Hereby they should walk honestly towards them that are without, that is, in a decent and seemly manner in the eyes of unconverted Pagans, who are said to be without, because without the pale of the visible church; and,

2. Because, by God's blessing upon their industry, they would attain to such a competency of the things of this life, as to lack nothing which the wisdom of God saw fit and convenient for them; so that by industrious diligence we please God, we profit ourselves, are serviceable to the public, we silence and stop the mouths of the enemies of religion, and beautify our profession with a becoming conversation.

Verse 13

Our apostle, from this verse to the end of the chapter, exhorts the Thessalonians to moderate their grief and sorrow for their friends who died in Christ, many of which, no doubt, were martyrs for the truth in those days of persecution: he lays down many consolatory arguments, as so many sovereign antidotes against immoderate sorrow for the death of pious relations; and, first, he acquaints them, that such sorrow as is excessive, would be more like Pagans than Christians, who mourn without hope of any life after this, that is, of a resurrection from the grave, and a future state of immortality. Our apostle doth not forbid sorrow for the dead absolutely, which Christ shewed for Lazarus, and the church for Stephen, but it is excessive sorrow only that is here condemned.

Learn hence, 1. That all sorrow for the death of friends is not unlawful, or forbidden to Christians; the Christian religion doth not destroy natural affections, but teaches us to moderate them.

Learn, 2. That there is a mighty difference between the Christian's sorrow for the dead, and theirs who are strangers to Christianity: the sorrow of the heathen was extravagant and excessive in the measure, foolish, cruel, and impious in the manner; they tore their hair, beat their breasts, cut their flesh, and ran howling up and down in the most desperate manner: but the Christian's sorrow is sober, moderate, silent, free from ostentation, under the government of reason and religion.

Learn, 3. That the belief of a future state, and the hope of a joyful resurrection, is the cause of this great difference: it is the ignorance of the happiness of glorified saints in heaven, which is the cause of our immoderate sorrow for their death here on earth.

Verse 14

St. Paul having, in the foregoing verse, dissuaded from immoderate grief and sorrow for the death of relations, comes now to lay down several considerations or consolatory arguments in order to it.

The first word of comfort is this, that our relations over whom we mourn, are but fallen asleep; the grave is a bed, in which the saint is laid to rest, his body rests in a bed of dust, as in a safe and consecrated dormitory, till the morning of the resurrection: and, if the night be long, the morning will be the more joyous.

The second comfort is, they sleep in Jesus, that is, in union with Jesus, as members of his body; in the faith of Jesus, that is, in such a belief of the doctrine of Christ, as is accompanied with a holy obedience to the commands of Christ.

The third consolatory word is this, God will come, that is, to judgment, and when he cometh, will bring his sleeping saints with him, that is, he will bring their souls from heaven, their bodies from the grave. Body and soul united he shall take up to himself into the clouds, and then carry all his saints back with him into heaven.

A fourth, is this, our relations are not alone in death; Jesus died; the Captain of our salvation marched before us through the black regions of death and the grave, and has perfumed the bed of the grave, by his own lying in it.

Note here, the apostle says Jesus died, the saints sleep; a believer's death is called a sleep. I do not find that Christ's death is called a sleep; no, his death was death indeed, death with a curse in it: but the believers' death is turned by Christ into a sweet and silent sleep.

Again, Jesus died and rose again, that is a comforting consideration, he was laid, but not lost in the grave: he rose by his own power, he rose as our Head and representative, and accordingly, all his saints are risen in him, and shall rise after him. Because I live, says Christ, you shall live also.

Verse 15

In this verse St. Paul obviates an objection: Some might say, that the saints found alive at the last day might be sooner happy than the dead saints; no, says the apostle, they that are alive, shall not prevent them that sleep, they shall not prevent their rising, nor shall they get the start of them, or get to heaven before them, or have any advantage above them; the living saints shall not be made happy without them, nor one moment before them.

Learn hence, that the resurrection which the saints that sleep in Jesus shall be made partakers of, shall put them into as full a capacity of the glory of Christ's coming, as if they had remained alive in the body till that blessed hour. Nay, the dead in Christ shall rise first, that is, the saints who sleep in the grave at Christ's coming, shall be so far from being made less happy, or later happy, than the saints who shall be found alive, that they shall be first remembered. Christ's first care will be about his dead saints; they that have slept so long in their bed of dust shall be first awakened, before any thing be done about them that never slept; if there be any privilege, any joy, any triumph, greater than others, such as sleep in Jesus, and especially such as have suffered for Jesus, shall be partakers of it at that great day.

Verse 16

These words give us the assurance of the certaninty of Christ's second coming, and of the solemn manner of it, and of the consequence of it.

Observe, 1. The certainty of our Lord's coming; the Lord himself shall descend from heaven; that is, the Lord Jesus, the Mediator; he will not depute an angel, but descend himself to finish that last part of his mediatorial office. Christ will come personally, for the judgment will be managed visibly; and for the recompense of his abasement, it is requisite that he that was judged by the world, should come and judge the world. Reason says, he may come and judge the world, for he made it; faith says, he must and shall come to judge the world, for he has promised it, John 14:2. Let us then keep up our faith, and our faith will keep up our hearts.

Observe, 2. The awful and solemn manner of our Lord's coming, and that is threefold:

1. He shall descend with a shout; the original word signifies such a shout as is heard among seamen when they descry the haven, and with united voices cry out, "A shore, a shore."

2. With the voice of an archangel; probable it is, that Christ himself shall give the word of command, both to the quick and dead, to appear before him, and that this command shall be proclaimed by an archangel.

3. With the trump of God: the angel's proclamation shall be confirmed by sound of a trumpet, which will be heard far and near, even by those who are in the graves, and in the depth of the sea.

Learn hence, that our Lord's second coming at the great day, to judge the quick and the dead, shall be attended with such solemnity, that all the terror, majesty, and dreadful reverence, which has been ever seen upon the earth, shall fall infinitely short of it. Great was the terror on Mount Sinai, at the giving of the law, but far greater will the terror be at the day of judgment; when Christ comes to punish the transgressors of that law, and the disobeyers of his gospel.

Observe, 3. The blessed consequence of his coming, namely, the resurrection of his saints: the dead in Christ shall rise first; the saints shall rise with the very same bodies which they laid down in the grave; and they shall rise first, that is, before those who are alive shall be changed: though it is very probable that there will be no considerable difference of time between the glorification of the raised saints, and those that are alive at Christ's coming, yet it seems evident that the dead saints shall be raised, and in their bodies be glorified, before them that are alive shall be changed.

Verse 17

Observe here, 1. The triumphant ascension both of the living and sleeping saints, together into the clouds; We which are alive shall be caught up together with them in the clouds. This ascension shall be effected by the power of Christ, by the ministry of angels, and by the spirituality of the saints' own bodies.

Learn hence, that the descent of the saints of God into the grave, is not with so much weakness, ignominy, and abasement, as their ascent after the resurrection, to meet their Lord in the air, shall be with power, triumph, and glory: Christ shall draw them, clouds shall carry them, angels shall conduct them.

Observe, 2. The blessed meeting of all the saints together in one body, to take their flight together to meet the Lord Jesus, who comes from the third heaven to meet them in the lower region of the air, when Christ will own them in their persons, own them in their services, own them in their sufferings, and they shall receive their full and final benediction from the mouth of Christ, and take an everlasting possession of the heavenly kingdom, together with Christ.

Observe, 3. The saints' cohabitation and fellowship with Christ, together with its extent and duration, they shall ever be with the Lord. This implies the saints' presence with Christ, their vision and sight of him, their fruition and enjoyment of him, their delectation of him, their conformity to him.

Learn hence, that the top and height of the saints' blessedness in heaven consists in this, that they shall for ever be there with Christ.

Verse 18

That is, draw matter of consolation to yourselves from the foregoing considerations, against the loss of your deceased friends; intimating, that the best and choicest of comforts, for supporting the spirits of men under afflictions in general, and the loss of dear relations in particular, are drawn from the holy scriptures; comfort one another with these words, that is, with such scriptural words as he had now written.

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Bibliographical Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. 1700-1703.