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.’

Our chief end

‘Whether in the ancient world or today, the chief end of humanity has often been to take pleasure in this life. In contrast, our passage begins by affirming the opposite: humanity’s chief goal ought to be to take pleasure in pleasing God. Such passages in Scripture as this fueled the great confession, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Granted, Christians enjoy the material pleasures of this life, but only as a gift from the gracious God whom they serve (1 Tim 4:4). This world is not an end in itself to be enjoyed.’ (Beale)

‘Pleasing God’ as a guiding principle of Christian behaviour

‘Several points may be made in favour of ‘pleasing God’ as a guiding principle of Christian behaviour.

  1. It is a radical concept, for it strikes at the roots of our discipleship and challenges the reality of our profession. How can we claim to know and to love God if we do not seek to please him? Disobedience is ruled out.
  2. It is a flexible principle. It will rescue us from the rigidities of a Christian Pharisaism which tries to reduce morality to a list of do’s and don’ts. True, we still need to be instructed … how to live in order to please God (1), and this for us will necessitate the developing of a Christian perspective through biblical meditation. Nevertheless, our incentive will be not so much to obey the law as thereby to please the Law-giver, and this will become increasingly a matter of Christian instinct as the Holy Spirit trains Christ’s sheep to discern their Shepherd’s voice.
  3. This principle is progressive. If our goal is to be perfectly pleasing to God, we shall never be able to claim that we have arrived. Instead, we are summoned to please him more and more (2).’

(Stott, formatting added)

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.

What is ‘sanctification’?

‘It means growth in holiness towards Christlikeness as the Christian life continues. For example, I might go to a surgeon for a knee reconstruction because I’m getting old. The operation is a success and he says that my new knee is good. It’s declared right. But at the time of the operation I haven’t exercised for ages. I’m out of shape. So even though I have been declared ‘fixed’, I want my knee to be more and more like the perfect knee it was re-created to be. I want to exercise it, build the muscles around it, stretch them, see it get better and stronger the more time goes on. That’s what it means here to be sanctified; it’s an ongoing process in the Christian life towards the Jesus-like life we were created to live.’

Petty, Scott. Sex (Little Black Books) . Matthias Media. Kindle Edition.

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)

What God does, and does not, want you to avoid

You need to notice carefully that it doesn’t say avoid sex. It says avoid sexual immorality. God is not against sex. Why would he be, since he made it? And he doesn’t want Christians to avoid sex if they are married. But he does want them all—married, unmarried, divorced, going out, lonely farmers, whatever—to avoid sexual immorality in all its forms. This might sound completely bizarre in our age where every hip-hopper, gangsta rapper, music video, TV drama, billboard and ad assumes that there’s no such thing as sexual immorality, apart from unprotected sex. But avoiding sexual immorality remains God’s radical and timeless word on this subject. Do not ignore it.

Petty, Scott. Sex (Little Black Books) . Matthias Media. Kindle Edition.

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)

‘St Francis, famously, referred to his own body as ‘brother donkey’. It was a beloved part of himself, and yet it often seemed to have a mind of its own. It needed taming, bringing into obedience, as one would teach a large and headstrong animal to do as it was told. The perfect partnership of rider and mount, in which the animal knows what the rider wants and takes delight and pride in doing it, is not a bad image of the perfect partnership between the indwelling of the holy spirit in someone’s life and the body’s recognition of, and obedience to, the spirit’s desires and promptings.’ (Wright)
An ever-present temptation

‘Sexual immorality is a temptation that is always before us. Movies and TV shows present sex outside marriage as a normal, even desirable, part of life, while marriage is often pictured as confining and joyless. Those who are pure are often mocked. God does not forbid sexual sin just to be difficult. He knows its power to destroy us physically and spiritually. No one should underestimate the power of sexual immorality. It has devastated countless lives and destroyed families, churches, communities, and even nations.

Sexual desires and activities must be placed under Christ’s control. God created sex for procreation and pleasure and as an expression of love between a husband and wife. Sexual experience must be limited to the marriage relationship to avoid hurting ourselves, our relationship to God, and our relationships with others. God wants to protect us from damaging ourselves and others, so he offers to fill us—our loneliness, our desires— with himself.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

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.’

In summary

Verses 3-7 teach the following commands:-

  1. Avoid sexual immorality, v3
  2. Learn to control your body, v4
  3. Don’t take advantage of one another, v6

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.]

(a) Revelation

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.

(b) Return

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.

(c) Resurrection

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.
‘Once when visiting an English city I met a member of an evangelical church, and, noticing that another building labelled ‘Evangelical Church’ stood a mere two hundred metres down the road, I asked him whether there were good relations between the two churches. “Oh no,” he replied, surprised that I should even think to ask the question, “they don’t believe in the rapture!”…I came away wondering how it was that Christians could get on reasonably well with each other despite differing views about baptism or spiritual gifts or politics, and yet “the rapture” was enough to put a 50,000 volt electric fence between them.’ (Stephen Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus, 116f)

(d) Rapture

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)

A pre-tribulation rapture?

It was J.N. Darby who in 1830 first articulated the idea that in the end times the church will be secretly taken up to heaven, leading behind a sinful and godless world.

The key text is 1 Thessalonians 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.’

The Thessalonian believers had been troubled that in the time between Paul’s evangelistic activity among them (in AD 49) and the time that this letter was written (up to two years later), some of their number had died.  They appeared to know something about the Lord’s return for the living, but nothing about what would happen to those who had died ‘in the Lord’ prior to his return.  Paul seeks to reassure them by filling this gap in their knowledge.

Paul tells them that, at the time of Christ’s return from heaven (cf. Acts 1:9,11), deceased believers will be raised and living believers will be ‘caught up’ (‘raptured’) and together will meet the Lord Jesus ‘in the air’, and so be with the Lord for ever.

1 Thess 4:14 confirms that Paul is writing of a visible, and not a secret, event:

‘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.’

1 Cor 15:51f is closely parallel:

‘Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.’

The fact that in 1 Thess 4 Paul does not mention the fate of unbelievers is not significant: his purpose here is clearly to comfort and reassure believers, rather than to warn unbelievers.

The expression translated ‘caught up’ in 1 Thess 4:17 indicates a sudden and powerful snatching up of living believers by God, who at the same time will raise the faithful dead to eternal life.

The phrase ‘in the clouds’ recalls Dan 7:13 –

‘I was watching in the night visions, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him.’

In Acts 1:9, the Lord ascends to heaven, and ‘a cloud hid him from their sight’.  In verse 11, the angel says –

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.”

1 Thess 4:17, then, answers to this prediction.  This verse further confirms that the gathering of living and deceased believers is in order for them together to ‘meet the Lord.’  Schnabel (quoting Fee) explains:

‘The fact that Paul seems to leave Jesus and the “raptured” and risen believers up “in the air” should not overly concern us. There are only two passages in which Paul locates the final destiny of the believers as “in heaven” (2 Cor. 5:1; Col. 1:5). It seems that Paul has “almost no interest whatever in our final eschatological ‘geography’; rather, his interest is altogether personal, having to do with their being ‘with the Lord’.”’

Paul’s teaching does not constitute a completely new revelation.  Not only does it pick up on earlier scriptural themes (from Daniel 7, for example) but it also closely parallels our Lord’s own teaching in Matthew 24.

Schnabel compares the two passages:

As for the notion that the rapture takes place before a time of ‘tribulation’, it appears that Paul is seeking to encourage the Thessalonians in trials that are already present:

1 Thess 3:3 – ‘…so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.’

See also:

Acts 14:22 ‘They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions.”’


2 Timothy 3:12 ‘Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’

Schnabel notes that the theory of a pretribulation rapture leads to ‘major complications’, for it

‘has to assume three comings of Jesus, three resurrections, and two judgments. In this view, Jesus’ first coming is his coming as Jesus of Nazareth, the second coming is in the secret rapture, and the third coming is in glory after the tribulation. It follows that three resurrections have to be assumed: the resurrection of the righteous dead who are raised at the time of the rapture, the resurrection of the righteous who were converted during the tribulation and who consequently died during the tribulation, and the resurrection of the wicked after the millennium. And there are two judgments: the judgment of the righteous at the time of the rapture for the purpose of rewarding the faithful, and the judgment of the unrighteous after the millennium. As the New Testament speaks only of Jesus’ first coming and his coming again from heaven, the theory of a secret rapture before the tribulation is an interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 that leads to major complications with a whole host of passages.’

The theory of a ‘secret rapture’ also relies on a certain interpretation of described in Mt 24:40–41 (and its parallel in Luke 17:34–35) –

Matthew 24:40f ‘Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left.  There will be two women grinding grain with a mill; one will be taken and one left.’

But, in context, the one who is ‘taken’ is taken in judgement, not in ‘rapture’.

Consider also Rev 4:1 –

‘After these things I looked, and there was a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said: “Come up here so that I can show you what must happen after these things.”’

This is sometimes understood to be a invitation to the church to leave earth and go to heaven.  But it is, rather, an invitation to receive the visions John is about to the shown.

Rev 11:12 is also considered by some to refer to the rapture of the church –

‘Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them: “Come up here!” So the two prophets went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies stared at them.’

But, even if the ‘two prophets’ represent the church (rather than two individuals), the terminology of going up to heaven ‘in a cloud’ suggests what happens at the time of Jesus’ second coming (see above), rather than some pre-tribulation rapture.

We conclude, then, with Schnabel, that

‘the “rapture” of the believers, as described by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, refers to the meeting of the believers who are alive on earth with Jesus who comes from heaven to earth, an event that unites them with the believers who had died and who will be raised from the dead. There is no evidence in the New Testament for a separation between believers and unbelievers in which the believers are taken to heaven before the day of the Lord while the unbelievers are left behind on earth to face unprecedented tribulations.’

Based on E. Schnabel, 40 Questions About the End Times, pp93-102.

(e) Reunion

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.

(f) Reassurance

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)

‘Because Jesus Christ came back to life, so will all believers’

‘All Christians, including those living when Christ returns, will live with Christ for ever. Therefore, we need not despair when loved ones die or world events take a tragic turn. God will turn our tragedies to triumphs, our poverty to riches, our pain to glory, and our defeat to victory. All believers throughout history will stand reunited in God’s very presence, safe and secure. As Paul comforted the Thessalonians with the promise of the resurrection, so we should comfort and reassure each other with this great hope.’

(Life Application Bible)

Who can derive comfort from this?

‘What! comfort a man by telling him he is going to appear before the judgment-seat of God! Who can feel comfort from those words? That man alone with whose spirit the Spirit of God bears witness that his sins are blotted out, and the thoughts of whose heart are purified by the Holy Spirit, so that he can love God, and worthily magnify his name. We are not in a safe state unless it is thus with us, or we are desiring to be so.’ (M. Henry)

With hope, not despair

Not: Do not grieve; but Do not grieve like those who have no hope.  Their sadness should not be the hopeless despair that pervades paganism old and new.  ‘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 expression: ‘Life has no reasons, a struggling through the gloom.  And the senseless end of it is the insult of the tomb.’

Christians who have lost loved ones grieve with hope, and not despair.  An ancient 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.’  No wonder Paul refers to death for the Christian as ‘sleep’.  Death for the believers is falling asleep in the arms of Jesus.

Encourage one another

Paul does not say, ‘be encouraged’, but, ‘encourage one another.’  The tears of the bereaved can cloud their sight for a while.  But those whose faith is stronger, who have perhaps come through similar grief themselves, can remind the sorrowful that God has revealed that Christ will return, and there will be a resurrection of the dead in Christ, a rapturing of living believers, and both groups will be reunited with each other and with him for ever.