1 Thessalonians 4

1 Thessalonians 4  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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The dangers of former habits
The Apostle then turns to the dangers that beset the Thessalonians in consequence of their former habits (and which were still those of the persons that surrounded them), habits in direct contradiction to the holy and heavenly joy of which he spoke. He had already shown them how they were to walk and to please God. In this way he had himself walked among them (ch. 2:10). He would exhort them to a similar conduct with all the weight that his own walk gave him, even as he would desire their growth in love according to the affection he had for them (compare Acts 26:29). It is this which gives authority to the exhortation and to all the words of a servant of the Lord.
Purity: the new and high ground on which Christianity places us; despising God and His Spirit
The Apostle takes up especially the subject of purity, for the pagan morals were so corrupt that impurity was not even accounted to be sin. It appears strange to us that such an exhortation should have been needful to such lively Christians as the Thessalonians; but we do not make allowance enough for the power of those habits in which persons have been brought up, and which become, as it were, a part of our nature and of the current of our thoughts, and for the action of two distinct natures under the influence of these, though the allowance or cultivation of one soon deadens the other. But the motives given here show upon what entirely new ground, as regards the commonest morality, Christianity places us. The body was but as a vessel to be used at will for whatever service they chose. They were to possess this vessel, instead of allowing themselves to be carried away by the desires of the flesh; because they knew God. They were not to deceive their brethren in these things,1 for the Lord would take vengeance. God has called us to holiness: it is with Him that we have to do; and if anyone despised his brother, taking advantage of his feebleness of mind to encroach upon his rights in this respect, it would be to despise not man but God, who would Himself remember it, and who has given us His Spirit; and to act thus would be to despise that Spirit, both in one’s self and in one’s brother in whom He also dwells. He who was wronged in this way was not only the husband of a wife, he was the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit and ought to be respected as such. On what high ground Christianity places a man, and that in connection with our best affections!
(1. Εν τω πραγματι (en to pragmati) is a euphemism for “these things.”)
Brotherly love; glorifying the Lord in daily life
As touching brotherly love-that new mainspring of their life- it was not necessary to exhort them: God Himself had taught them, and they were an example of love to all. Only let them abound in it even more and more; walking quietly, working with their own hands, so as to be in no man’s debt, that in this respect also the Lord might be glorified.
A new revelation as to the Thessalonians’ hope: those who had died would equally have their part in the Lord’s coming; the distinction between Christ’s coming for His own and His day of judgment on the world
Such were the Apostle’s exhortations. That which follows is an absolutely new revelation for their encouragement and consolation.
We have seen that the Thessalonians were always expecting the Lord. It was their near and immediate hope in connection with their daily life. They were constantly expecting Him to take them to Himself. They had been converted to wait for the Son of God from heaven. Now (from want of instruction) it appeared to them that the saints who had recently died would not be with them to be caught up. The Apostle clears up this point and distinguishes between the coming of Christ to take up His own and His day, which was a day of judgment to the world. They were not to be troubled with regard to those who had died in Christ1 as those who had no hope were troubled. And the reason which he gives for this is a proof of the strict connection of their entire spiritual life with the expectation of Christ’s personal return to bring them into heavenly glory. The Apostle, in comforting them with regard to their brethren who had lately died, does not say a word of the survivors rejoining them in heaven. They are maintained in the thought that they were still to look for the Lord during their lifetime to transform them into His glorious image (compare 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). A special revelation was required to make them understand that those who had previously died would equally have their part in that event. Their part, so to speak, would resemble that of Christ. He has died, and He has risen again. And so will it be with them. And when He should return in glory, God would bring them-even as He would bring the others, that is, the living-with Him.
(1. It has been thought that the Apostle speaks here of those who had died for His name’s sake as martyrs. It may have been so in consequence of the persecutions, but δια του Ιησου (dia tou Jesou) would be a singular way of expressing it; δια (dia) with a genitive is used for a state of things, a condition that we are in, that characterizes us. Being in Christ, their removal was but falling asleep, not dying. They had this position by means of Jesus, not for His name’s sake. (Compare, however, 2 Corinthians 4:14.))
Express revelation as to details of the Lord’s coming: those who sleep in Jesus will be with Him when He appears; the dead in Christ shall rise first, and the living shall be caught up to meet the Lord
Upon this the Apostle gives some more detailed explanation of the Lord’s coming in the form of express revelation, showing how they would be with Him so as to come with Him when He appears. The living will not take precedence of those who sleep in Jesus. The Lord Himself will come as the Head of His heavenly army, dispersed for a time, to gather them to Himself. He gives the word. The voice of the archangel passes it on, and the trumpet of God is sounded. The dead in Christ will rise first, that is to say, before the living go up. Then we who shall be alive and remain shall go with them, all together, in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. So shall we be forever with the Lord.
His people, like their Lord, to ascend in the clouds; the Christian’s heavenly association with Christ
It was thus that the Lord Himself ascended; for in all things we are to be like Him-an important circumstance here. Whether transformed or raised from the dead, we shall all go up in the clouds. It was in the clouds that He ascended, and thus we shall be ever with Him.
Caught up together; God’s power sealing the Christians’ life and His work and bringing them into the glory of Christ
In this part of the passage, where he explains the details of our ascension to the Lord in the air, nothing is said of His coming down to the earth; it is our going up (as He went up) to be with Him.1 Neither, as far as concerns us, does the Apostle go farther than our gathering together to be forever with Him. Nothing is said either of judgment or of manifestation; but only the fact of our heavenly association with Him in that we leave the earth precisely as He left it. This is very precious. There is this difference: He went up in His own full right, He ascended; as to us, His voice calls the dead, and they come forth from the grave, and, the living being changed, all are caught up together. It is a solemn act of God’s power, which seals the Christians’ life and the work of God, and brings the former into the glory of Christ as His heavenly companions. Glorious privilege! Precious grace! To lose sight of it destroys the proper character of our joy and of our hope.
(1. In order that we may all return-be brought back with Him-together.)
Other consequences follow, which are the result of His manifestation; but that is our portion, our hope. We leave the earth as He did; we shall forever be with Him.
Words of comfort if believers die
It is with these words that we are to comfort ourselves if believers die-fall asleep in Jesus. They shall return with Him when He shall be manifested; but, as regards their own portion, they will go away as He went, whether raised from the dead or transformed, to be forever with the Lord.
All the rest refers to His government of the earth: an important subject, a part of His glory; and we also take part in it. But it is not our own peculiar portion. This is, to be with Him, to be like Him, and even (when the time shall come) to quit in the same manner as Himself the world which rejected Him, and which has rejected us, and which is to be judged.
I repeat it: to lose sight of this is to lose our essential portion. All lies in the words, “So shall we ever be with the Lord.” The Apostle has here explained how this will take place.1 Remark here that verses 15-18 are a parenthesis, and that chapter 5:1 follows on chapter 4:14; chapter 5 showing what He will do when He brings the saints with Him according to chapter 4:14.
(1. Compare 2 Corinthians 5:1-4. We have already remarked as a fact that this passage is a new, distinct revelation. But the bearing of this fact appears here and proves that it has much importance. The Christian’s life is so connected with the day (that is to say, with the power of the life of light of which Christ lives), and Christ who is already in glory is so truly the believer’s life, that he has no other thought than to pass into it by this power of Christ’s, which will transform him. (See 2 Corinthians 5:4.) It required a new and accessory revelation to explain that which was wanting to the intelligence of the Thessalonians, how the dead saints should not lose their part in it. The same power would be applied to their dead bodies as to the mortal bodies of the living saints, and all would be caught up together. But the victory over death was already gained, and Christ, according to the power of resurrection, being already the believer’s life, it was but natural, according to that power, that he should pass without dying into the fullness of life with Christ. This was so much the natural thought of faith that it required an express and, as I have said, an accessory revelation to explain how the dead should have their part in it. To us now it presents no difficulty. It is the other side of this truth which we lack, which belongs to a much more lively faith and which realizes much more the power of the life of Christ and His victory over death. No doubt the Thessalonians should have considered that Christ had died and risen again, and not have allowed the abundant power of their joy in realizing their own portion in Christ to hide from them the certainty of the portion of those who slept in Him. But we see (and God allowed it that we might see) how the life which they possessed was connected with the position of the Head triumphant over death. The Apostle does not weaken this faith and hope, but he adds (that they may be comforted by the thought) that the triumph of Christ would have the same power over the sleeping as over the living saints; and that God would bring back the former as well as the latter with Jesus in glory, having caught them up together as their common portion to be forever with Him.
To us also God gives this truth, this revelation of His power. He has permitted thousands to fall asleep, because (blessed be His name!) He had other thousands to call in; but the life of Christ has not lost its power, nor the truth its certainty. We as living ones wait for Him because He is our life. We shall see Him in resurrection, if haply we die before He comes to seek us; and the time draws near.
Observe, also, that this revelation gives another direction to the hope of the Thessalonians, because it distinguishes with much precision between our departure hence to join the Lord in the air and our return to the earth with Him. Nor this only; but it shows the first to be the principal thing for Christians, while at the same time confirming and elucidating the other point. I question whether the Thessalonians would not better have understood this return with Christ than our departure hence all together to rejoin Him. Even at their conversion they had been brought to wait for Jesus from heaven. From the first the great and essential principle was established in their hearts-the Person of Christ was the object of their hearts’ expectation, and they were separated thereby from the world.
Perhaps they had some vague idea that they were to appear with Him in glory, but how it was to be accomplished they knew not. They were to be ready at any moment for His coming, and He and they were to be glorified together before the universe. This they knew. It is a summary of the truth.
Now the Apostle develops more than one point here in connection with this general truth. First, they would be with Christ at His coming. This, I think, is a happy application of a truth which they already possessed, giving a little more precision to one of its precious details. At the end of chapter 3 we have the truth plainly stated (although it was still indistinct in their hearts, since they thought the dead in Christ would be deprived of it) that all the saints should come with Jesus-an essential point as to the character of our relationship to Him. So that Jesus was expected-the saints should be together with Jesus at the time of His coming-all the saints should come with Him. This fixed and gave precision to their ideas on a point already more or less known. Second, that which follows is a new revelation on the occasion of their mistake with regard to those who slept. They thought indeed that the Christians who were ready should be glorified with Christ when He came back to this world; but the dead- were they ready? They were not present to share the glorious manifestation of Christ on the earth. For, I doubt not, the vague idea that possessed the mind of the Thessalonians was this: Jesus would return to this world, and they who were waiting for Him would share His glorious manifestation on the earth. Now the Apostle declares that the dead saints were in the same position as Jesus who had died. God had not left Him in the grave; nor would He those who had, like Him, been there. God would also bring them with Him when He should return in glory to this earth. But this was not all. The coming of Christ in glory to the earth was not the principal thing. The dead in Christ should be raised and then, with the living, should go to meet the Lord in the air, before His manifestation, and return with Him to the earth in glory; and thus should they be ever with the Lord. This was the principal thing, the Christian’s portion; namely, to dwell eternally with Christ and in heaven. The portion of the faithful was on high- was Christ Himself, although they would appear with Him in the glory. For this world it would then be the judgment.)
The Christian’s peculiar, essential portion: “ever with the Lord”; daily living in expectation of the Lord
In this important passage, then, we find the Christian living in an expectation of the Lord, which is connected with his daily life and which completes it. Death, then, is only an accessory which may take place, and which does not deprive the Christian of his portion when his Master shall return. The proper expectation of the Christian is entirely separated from all which follows the manifestation of Christ and which is in connection with the government of this world.
The Lord’s personal coming with full authority over death; the dead saint not losing his rights; all leaving the earth to be with Christ in heaven
The Lord comes in Person to receive us to Himself; He does not send. With full authority over death, which He has conquered, and with the trump of God, He calls together His own from the grave; and these, with the living (transformed), go to meet Him in the air. Our departure from the world exactly resembles His own: we leave the world, to which we do not belong, to go to heaven. Once there, we have attained our portion. We are like Christ, we are forever with Him, but He will bring His own with Him, when He shall appear. This then was the true comfort in the case of a Christian’s death, and by no means put aside the daily expectation of the Lord from heaven. On the contrary, this way of viewing the subject confirmed it. The dead saint did not lose his rights by dying-by sleeping in Jesus; he should be the first object of his Lord’s attention when He came to assemble His own. Nevertheless, the place from which they go forth to meet Him is the earth. The dead should be raised-this was the first thing-that they might be ready to go with the others; and then from this earth all would depart together to be with Christ in heaven. This point of view is all-important, in order to apprehend the true character of that moment when all our hopes will be consummated.