A Life Pleasing to God, 1-12
4:1 Finally then, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received instruction from us about how you must live and please God (as you are in fact living) that you do so more and more.
As Wright says, when Paul wants to get practical with the Thessalonian Christians, the subjects he turns to are sex, money, and death. You can’t get more basic than that!
‘There is an urgent need for us, as pluralism and relativism spread world-wide, to follow Paul’s example and give people plain, practical, ethical teaching. Christian parents must teach God’s moral law to their children at home. Sunday school and day school teachers must ensure that their pupils know at least the Ten Commandments. Pastors must not be afraid to expound biblical standards of behaviour from the pulpit, so that the congregation grasps the relationship between the gospel and the law. And right from the beginning converts must be told that the new life in Christ is a holy life, a life bent on pleasing God by obeying his commandments.’ (Stott)
How you…must please God – Wright says that many of us – especially those whose parents or teachers were impossible to please – may conclude that it is impossible to please God, even with our best efforts. But this is false: ‘God longs for us to become the sort of humans who will truly reflect his image. When he sees this happen, he is delighted, like a wise and generous parent with a child who starts to be a cheerful and responsible member of the family.’
4:2 For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 4:3 For this is God’s will: that you become holy, that you keep away from sexual immorality, 4:4 that each of you know how to possess his own body in holiness and honor, 4:5 not in lustful passion like the Gentiles who do not know God.
For this is God’s will: that you become holy – or, ‘sanctified’. Ryle (Holiness) points out that Paul never writes to believers: ‘It is God’s will that you should be justified’. The clear implication is that justification is a single completed event, whereas sanctification admits of degrees and development.
Keep away from sexual immorality – ‘Greek and Roman practice allowed for intercourse with prostitutes and slaves; premarital sex was prohibited for males under Roman law only if an aristocrat were doing it with an upper-class woman (this was called stuprum). Judaism was much stricter, reserving sex for marriage (although the literature indicates that some Jewish men did fall prey to premarital and extramarital temptations). Paul condemns all sexual immorality, although he moves to a specific example in 1 Thess 4:6. He shares the Old Testament view that premarital sex with someone other than one’s future spouse is adultery against one’s future spouse and thus as sinful as other adultery (Deut 22:13–29).’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
‘Our modern world has turned sexual desire, preference and practice into a moral free-for-all, where the only rule is that people must be allowed to express whatever desires happen to arise, or be aroused, within them…Sexuality is a good gift of the wise creator, but like all good gifts is given for a purpose; only in a world where the only purpose was self-gratification could anyone suppose that hard work was not going to be necessary to tame and train powerful desires such as the sexual one.’ (Wright)
Know how to possess his own body in holiness and honor – Or, ‘know how to control…’ (ESV), ‘learn to control…’ (NIV).
Morris says that there is a problem with the translation of part of this verse. Lit., Paul’s expression is, ‘know how to acquire his own vessel.’ This could possibly be understood as meaning, ‘know how to acquire his own wife in holiness and honour’, and this is reflected in the Good News version: ‘Each of you men should know how to live with his wife in a holy and honourable way.’ But (according to Morris) Paul most probably is calling the Thessalonians to keep their bodies pure.
The idea of ‘learning’ to do this is reflected in the NIV, but not in most of the other English translations. Even so, a learning process is probably implied. And that, of course, gives hope to those who struggle to control their bodies.
‘It would have been a learning process for the Thessalonian Christians who grew up living as heathens—which just means that they did not know or care about the living and true God. It was part of the heathen religious culture of the day to have sex with temple prostitutes; that was what dudes did as part of the church services in honour of the local idols—which is one way to make sure religion stays popular. The Thessalonians had to learn to change, to control their bodies. It was a learning process for them, and it will be for you, as you grow up surrounded not only by sexual messages and temptations, but also by the people who make those sexual messages and give themselves over to temptation. The good news is that it is actually possible to learn how to control your body. You start by reminding yourself often of who you are as a Christian: made in God’s image, a new creation in Christ Jesus, set apart for righteousness and living for his glory. And you continue by putting practical steps in place that will help you avoid temptation.’ Petty, Scott . Sex (Little Black Books). Matthias Media. Kindle Edition.
‘Paul writes in 1 Thess 4:4 that he wants each man to “learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen.” The new Thessalonian Christians had for the most part come from pagan backgrounds where sexual debauchery was commonplace. Further, they were continually confronted with such practices especially during pagan feasts when almost the whole city must have taken part in some sense. The temptation must have been intense to continue in such immorality. Probably some Thessalonian Christians even saw little wrong with continued participation in immorality. Paul’s response is that the Christian is to live in holiness and honor. Something new has happened to these people. They have been called not “to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thess 4:7) and thus their old lives are left behind.’ (College Press)
‘O, let not these eyes be now defiled with sin, by which you shall see God. Those ears be inlets to vanity, which shall hear the Hallelujahs of the blessed. God hath designed honour for your bodies, O, make them not either the instruments or objects of sin. There are sins against the body, 1 Cor 6:18. Preserve your bodies from those defilements, for they are the temple of God; “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy,” 1 Cor 3:17.’ (Flavel)
Not…like the heathen, who do not know God – ‘If the heathen behave as they do because they do not know God, Christians must behave in a completely different way because we do know God, because he is a holy God, because he is our God, and because we want to please him.’ (Stott)
4:6 In this matter no one should violate the rights of his brother or take advantage of him, because the Lord is the avenger in all these cases, as we also told you earlier and warned you solemnly. 4:7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 4:8 Consequently the one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
To violate the rights of [one’s] brother or take advantage of him is (probably) to steal another man’s wife.
However, this teaching has a broader application.
‘If we are sexually immoral with a brother or sister in Christ today, then we have taken something that belonged to that person’s future husband; we have robbed that person’s future wife of the innocence and purity of that moment when they first climb into bed together and enjoy good, earthy, passionate love as God created it to be. For that matter, we have robbed our own future husbands and wives as well. Sexual immorality might feel right at the time, but it’s not. Christian young men should think of the Christian girls they know as the future wives of their Christian brothers, and treat them with purity as sisters. Christian girls should think of the Christian guys they know as the future husbands of their sisters, and treat them with respect as brothers.’ Petty, Scott . Sex (Little Black Books) . Matthias Media. Kindle Edition.
The Lord is the avenger in all these cases – ‘Jesus himself will pronounce sentence on those who flout this basic code; and we may observe that not infrequently this judgment is anticipated in the present life by the particularly exquisite misery awaiting many who ruin healthy and deep relationships through their restless pursuit of new sexual conquests and thrills.’
4:9 Now on the topic of brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 4:10a And indeed you are practicing it toward all the brothers and sisters in all of Macedonia.
4:10b But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 4:11 to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you. 4:12 In this way you will live a decent life before outsiders and not be in need.
The Lord Returns for Believers, 13-18
4:13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope.
Live in Hope, not Despair
Two sources of anxiety may be identified in Paul’s readers: (a) the problem of bereavement (what will become of those who die before the Lord’s return?). This is dealt with in 4:13-18; (b) the problem of judgement (are we ready for this great event?). This is discussed in 5:1-11.
[Note: the alliterated outline of the next section is that of John Stott.]
Cf v15, ‘According to the Lord’s own word.’
The Thessalonians maintained an eager expectation for the return of Christ in glory. However, some of their fellow-Christians had died, leaving them thinking that they might be somehow disadvantaged by not being alive to meet Christ on his return. In this verse, Paul seeks to correct their ignorance in this matter, and also to allay the excessive grief which was caused by this ignorance.
He calls them ‘Brothers’ – in addressing their anxieties, Paul does not rebuke them, but reassures them.
‘Among the problems brought to Paul’s attention by Timothy was the role of the dead believers at Christ’s second advent. In Paul’s discussions, the emphasis seems to have been on the imminence of the return. But persecution and affliction apparently took their toll of believers’ lives. What would be the lot of such? Would death have robbed them of participation in the Great Event? On the contrary, Paul says, they are to share fully in the glories of that day. Christ’s death and resurrection are the guarantee of this.’ (Wycliffe Bible Commentary)
We do not want you to be ignorant – Many have been the attempts to solve the riddle of death and the afterlife. Philosophers have debated the concept of immortality. Spiritualists have attempted to contact departed souls. Occultists have tried to gain access to the spirit world. Scientists have investigated scores of ‘near-death’ experiences But we do not need to rely on human speculation. We have God’s revelation.
Those who fall asleep – a beautiful metaphor for death: ‘ What we call death is only falling asleep in the arms of our Lord’ (PNT). A measure of grief is both natural and understandable, even in Christians with a strong faith, for ‘grief is the cost of commitment’; ‘when you love deeply, you hurt deeply’ (Leighton Ford). Moreover, bereavement raises questions about what has happened to the deceased: Where are they? Are they alright? Shall we see them again?
We do not want you…to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope – Paul does not forbid grieving altogether. But he does say that they should not, and need not, experience hopeless grief. The topic of death was causing concern to the faint-hearted in Thessalonica. They thought that only those alive at Christ’s return would be saved, and feared that those who had already died would not share in the coming glory. Hence they mourned like pagans, ‘who have no hope.’
Pagan literature does indeed convey a sense hopelessness in the face of death:-
‘I was not. I became. I am not. I care not.’ (Grave inscription) ‘Suns may set and rise again. When once our brief light has set, one unbroken night of sleep remains.’ (Catullus) ‘Hopes are among the living, but the dead are without hope.’ (Theocritus) A modern example: ‘Life has no reasons, a struggling through the gloom. And the senseless end of it is the insult of the tomb.’
On the other hand, a 2nd century letter from a Christian named Aristides, says, ‘And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another near’ (Q by Morris). A Christian inscription reads, ‘Alexander is not dead, but he lives above the stars and his body rests in this tomb.’ Cf the bold lines of Charles Wesley: ‘Rejoice for a brother deceased, our loss is his infinite gain.’
The contrast is not between grieving and not grieving, but between Christian hope and pagan sorrow. That Christians do grieve is clear from Php 2:27. However, excessive grief is likely to be due to ignorance, as taught in this verse.
4:14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians.
There is a threefold creed in this and the following verse. What we hope for rests on what we believe in. This creed relates to (a) Christ himself: he ‘died and rose again’; this is accepted as an absolutely fundamental and incontrovertible fact, and the guarantee of what follows; (b) the Christian dead: God will bring them with Jesus (this does not state, but certainly implies, their resurrection); (c) the Christian living: they ‘will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.’
We believe that Jesus died and rose again – or, ‘As surely as we believe…’ (JFB). This very doctrine had been emphasised at Thessalonica, Acts 17:3. It confirms that a resurrection of the body is taught here: the resurrection of Jesus was a flesh-and-blood affair, and so will ours be. Note that although ‘death’ is the term used for Jesus, ‘sleep’ is used for Christians: his death has removed the sting of theirs.
Christ’s return will be personal the Lord himself), physical (the same Jesus who after his resurrection said, “I’m not a ghost, touch me and see, I’ve got flesh and bone” – and then proved his point by sitting down to a hearty breakfast), and powerful (noisy! Not this time as a child in a manger, or as a suffering servant, but as King)).
God will bring – not only raise, but bring.
…those who have fallen asleep as Christians – Those who have fallen asleep in him will be brought back with him.
‘To “fall asleep in Jesus” is…to enjoy the presence of Jesus in a disembodied state, the nearest analogy of which in present experience may be found in dreaming when the awareness of the dreamer does not depend upon the functioning of any of the bodily senses.’ (Paul Helm, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. ‘Intermediate State’)
4:15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep.
According to the Lord’s own word – either (a) a revelation given directly to Paul, or (b) a teaching of Jesus handed down by oral tradition. Lit. ‘In the word of the Lord’, making (a) perhaps more probable. This is the once-hidden, now-revealed ‘mystery’ of 1 Cor 15:51-52.
We who are still alive – Paul seems here to place the parousia within his own lifetime. If so, then this creates a difficulty for our doctrine of inspiration, for it would make him mistaken at this point. Yet we know that he avoided date-setting, 1 Thess 5:1-2; cf Mt 24:36,42; Acts 1:7. Moreover, in Acts 20:29; 1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14; 1 Thess 5:10 he envisages the possibility of his own death before the Lord’s coming. We must suppose that he was simply referring to two classes of people – those alive and those asleep – and naturally placed himself in the first. ‘The “we” means “whichever of us remain alive” (JFB). Nevertheless, he underscored the importance of living in the hope that Christ might return at any time, cf Mt 25:13. Had this not been the Thessalonians’ outlook, their question to Paul would have been meaningless. This call to watchfulness does not mean that Christ’s return will take place very soon, only that it may. It is imminent; it could take place at any time. Thus is there is in Paul’s letters ‘the brilliant glow of expectation’ (Berkouwer). ‘He knew that after the death, resurrection, exaltation and Spirit-gift of Jesus there was no further saving event on God’s calendar before the Parousia.’ (Stott). ‘The Spirit designed that believers of each successive age should live in continued expectation of the Lord’s coming, not knowing but that they should be among those found alive, Mt 24:42′ (JFB)
The coming of the Lord – The word ‘parousia’ ordinarily meant simply a ‘presence’ or a ‘coming’. However, it also has a more technical sense of (a) the sudden and powerful self-revelation of a divinity; (b) the official visit of a person of high rank, such as a king or emperor. For Paul, then, the coming of Christ will be a revelation of the sovereign God and a personal, powerful visitation by the glorious Saviour. Note that it was in Thessalonica that Paul was alleged to have defied Claudius Caesar’s degrees by claiming ‘that there is another king, one called Jesus’. (Acts 17:7)
We…will certainly not precede – There is complete impartiality here. The Christian dead will not be separated either from Christ (for they will return with him), or from those who are still alive (for they will be joined by them).
4:16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven – ‘One word of command, one shout from the Archangel, one blast from the trumpet of God and God in Person will come down from heaven!’ (J.B. Phillips). And it is the Lord ‘himself’, ‘in all the majesty of his personal presence, not by deputy’ (JFB). Mic 1:3. He will ‘come down’; he will descend, just as he ascended, Acts 1:11.
This is the most detailed description of Christ’s return in the NT, and therefore we should avoid undue speculation and dogmatism.
The loud command is that of a charioteer to his horses, the hunter to his hounds, to the rowers by the ship’s master, or to the soldiers by their commander. There is both urgency and authority.
The only archangel named in the NT is Michael, but the Gk here is without the article, and the meaning could even mean, ‘a voice like an archangel’s.’
The trumpet was used to convene God’s people to solemn gatherings and to war, Nu 10:2,10, and is associated with the glorious manifestation of God, Ex 19:16; Ps 47:5. It is often associated with the Parousia, 1 Cor 15:52; cf Ez 19:16; Isa 27:13; Joe 2:1; Zec 9:14; Mt 24:31.
Then the dead in Christ will rise first, before the living are ‘caught up’, v17. ‘The resurrected Christ will be accompanied at his coming by his resurrected people.’ (Stott) The emphasis is still on the inseparable relationship between Christ an his people. To many of the pagans, the body was a shell from which they longed to break free. Thus, many of the Athenians mocked Paul when he spoke of the resurrection, Acts 17:32. Such as though was foolish (why would anyone want his body to be resurrected), also impossible (how could this possibly happen?). But when Jesus returns, the dead in Christ will rise up. This is not a reconstitution of the body from its scattered elements, but a transformation of mortal flesh into into something which will live gloriously for ever.
First – It is sometimes suggested, that because there is no mention here of the resurrection of the wicked, this must occur at a different time from the resurrection of the righteous. However, Paul’s purpose here is to comfort Christians with regard to departed believers; the destiny of the unsaved is not an issue here, and so it is not mentioned. The word ‘first’ has reference not to the wicked, but to the living saints: the resurrection will precede the rapture. The dead in Christ, far from being disadvantaged at Christ’s return, will actually be the first to meet him.
All the people the Thessalonians were so worried about – those who have died by the time Jesus returns – will be brought back to life. The first thing Jesus will do is to summons them from their graves. No matter when they died. No matter how scattered their remains. Their bodies will be reconstituted and transformed.
4:17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.
We who are still alive – Paul is not committing himself here to a belief that Christ would return during his own lifetime. He always maintained that the time of that great event was unknown. But, given the imminence of the Lord’s return (i.e. he could return at any time), Paul is speaking in the only way he can do, in the only way which is consistent with the facts of the matter. ‘Each successive generation occupies the place of that generation which will witness the denouement, just as the first Christian generation so consciously did’ (F.F. Bruce).
Caught up together indicates power and suddenness. This will be a reunion, not only with Christ, but also with departed loved ones. The Latin term, ‘raptus’, is the source of the popular designation of this event as the ‘rapture’. The Gk is ‘harpazo‘ – a seizing, snatching up, or sweeping up. It will be as sudden as the blinking of an eye; the living will be ‘changed in a flash’; they undergo an immediate transformation from mortality to immortality, 1 Cor 15:51-52. There will be a double reunion: of the Christian living with the Christian dead; and of them all with Christ.
Kenneth Wuest has indicated the various shades of meaning of ‘harpazo‘ as it occurs in the NT:-
(a) ‘To catch away speedily, Acts 8:39.
(b) ‘To seize by force’, Jn 6:15.
(c) ‘To move to a new place’, 2 Cor 12:1-4.
(d) ‘To rescue from danger’, Acts 23:10.
In the clouds emphasises the majesty of the scene, cf. Dan 7:13; Mt 24:30; 26:64; Acts 1:9; Rev 1:7. Or, take it to mean ‘in clouds’ – in vasts numbers, as Heb 12:1.
‘It is not clear how literally we are to understand our being caught up…in the clouds. We now from Jesus himself that his coming will be personal, visible and glorious, but we also know from him that it will not be local (“There he is!” “Here he is!”) but universal (“like the lightning, which flashes and light up the sky from one end to the other”; Lk 17:23f). Presumably, therefore, our going to meet him will also transcend space. As for the clouds, they are to every reader a familiar and easily recognised symbol of the immediate presence of God – at the Exodus, on Mount Sinai, filing the tabernacle, during the wilderness wanderings, at the transfiguration of Jesus, at his ascension, and at his glorious appearing.’ (Stott)
To meet the Lord – The Gk ‘apantesis‘ was used to refer to the official visit (parousia) of a dignitary, when the leading citizens would go out and meet him and escort him on the final stages of his journey. This meeting was called the ‘apantesis‘. The underlying word is used on three other occasions in the NT, and in each case the party met continues after the meeting in the direction he was previously moving, Mt 25:1,6 Acts 28:15.
In the air reminds us that the air was thought of as the abode of the evil spirits, cf Eph 2:2, but is now the meeting-place for the Lord with his people. They will not, of course, stay there. The movement seems to be back to the earth, in order to instigate Christ’s reign of earth with the saints, (1 Cor 6:2,3) the final judgement, and the eternal glory of the new heaven and earth. In connection with the first of these, Chrysostom says that when a king enters his city the loyal go forth to meet him, but the criminals remain in confinement to meet their judge. But these things Paul does not define here, since they are not necessary to his main point, which concerns the equality of the Christian living and the Christian dead at Christ’s return.
Some argue that believers, having been reunited with the Lord, proceed to the earth with him, 1 Cor 6:2. Others assert that the immediate destination is heaven, Jn 14:2-2..
But the destination is of secondary importance. So we will be with the Lord for ever: This eternal reunion with the Lord is what really counts. Curiosity asks for further details; faith rests in this promise as all it needs. This meeting with the Lord should be more important to us than any other meeting that takes place, whether here in this life or in the life to come.
‘Blessed is he who shall be counted worthy to see that hour, in which all that loved the immortal Bridegroom are taken up into the clouds, to meet him.’ (Ephraim the Syrian, AD 310-379)
‘Augustine reckons up 288 opinions among philosophers about happiness, but all were short of the mark. The highest elevation of a reasonable soul is to enjoy God for ever. It is the enjoyment of God that makes heaven. 1 Thess 4:17. ‘Then shall we ever be with the Lord.’ The soul trembles as the needle in the compass, and is never at rest till it comes to God.’ (Thomas Watson)
R.A. Torrey, author, evangelist, and former president of the Los Angeles Bible Institute, wrote, ‘Time and again in writing to those who have lost for a time those whom they love, I have obeyed God’s commandment and used the truth of our Lord’s return to comfort them, and many have told me afterwards how full of comfort this truth has proven when everything else had failed.’ (The Return of the Lord Jesus Christ, 15)
No longer need the mourners weep,
Nor call departed Christians dead;
For death is hallowed into sleep,
And every grave becomes a bed.
(Naismith, 1200 Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes)
Compare with the following:-
My dearest sister,
I offer you no consolation, for I know of none. There are things which each must bear as best he may with the strength that has been allotted to him
(Huxley, writing to his sister on the death of their mother)
Facing his own mortality, Bertrand Russell said, ‘There is a darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then, nothing.’
And so we will be with the Lord for ever – Wonderful will be this great reunion of raptured believers with resurrected believers from ages past. More wonderful by far, however, and the thrust of Paul’s teaching here, will be the meeting of both these groups with their Saviour.
4:18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Therefore encourage each other with these words – Especially, encourage and comfort the bereaved. Let them know that the same love which should unite believers in this life, v9, will unite them when Christ returns. ‘The encouragement or comfort of the Christian’s hope in resurrection is in sharp contrast to the hopelessness of the heathen in the face of death.’ (Ryrie)