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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
1 Thessalonians 4



Other Authors
Verses 1-18

Chapter 4

THE SUMMONS TO PURITY (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

4:1-8 Finally then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you have received instructions from us as to how you must behave to please God, even so you do behave, that you may go on from more to more. For you know what orders we gave you through the Lord Jesus; for this is God's will for you, that you should live consecrated lives, I mean, that you should keep yourselves from fornication, that each of you should know how to possess his own body in consecration and in honour, not in the passion of lustful desire, like the Gentiles who do not know God, that in this kind of thing you should not transgress against your brother or try to take advantage of him. For of all these things the Lord is the avenger, as we have already told you and testified to you. For God did not call us to impurity but to consecration. Therefore he who rejects this instruction does not reject a man, but rejects the God who gives his holy Spirit to us.

It may seem strange that Paul should go to such lengths to inculcate sexual purity in a Christian congregation; but two things have to be remembered. First, the Thessalonians had only newly come into the Christian faith and they had come from a society in which chastity was an unknown virtue; they were still in the midst of such a society and the infection of it was playing upon them all the time. It would be exceedingly difficult for them to unlearn what they had for all their lives accepted as natural. Second, there never was an age in history when marriage vows were so disregarded and divorce so disastrously easy. The phrase which we have translated "that each of you should possess his own body in consecration and in honour" could be translated, "that each of you may possess his own wife in consecration and in honour."

Amongst the Jews marriage was theoretically held in the highest esteem. It was said that a Jew must die rather than commit murder, idolatry or adultery. But, in fact, divorce was tragically easy. The Deuteronomic law laid it down that a man could divorce his wife if he found "some uncleanness" or "some matter of shame" in her. The difficulty was in defining what was a "matter of shame." The stricter Rabbis confined that to adultery alone; but there was a laxer teaching which widened its scope to include matters like spoiling the dinner by putting too much salt in the food; going about in public with her head uncovered; talking with men in the streets; speaking disrespectfully of her husband's parents in his presence; being a brawling woman (which was defined as a woman whose voice could be heard in the next house). It was only to be expected that the laxer view prevailed.

In Rome for the first five hundred and twenty years of the Republic there had not been a single divorce; but now under the Empire, as it has been put, divorce was a matter of caprice. As Seneca said, "Women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married." In Rome the years were identified by the names of the consuls; but it was said that fashionable ladies identified the years by the names of their husbands. Juvenal quotes an instance of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. Morality was dead.

In Greece immorality had always been quite blatant. Long ago Demosthenes had written: "We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day-to-day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes." So long as a man supported his wife and family there was no shame whatsoever in extra-marital relationships.

It was to men and women who had come out of a society like that that Paul wrote this paragraph. What may seem to many the merest commonplace of Christian living was to them startlingly new. One thing Christianity did was to lay down a completely new code in regard to the relationship of men and women; it is the champion of purity and the guardian of the home. This can not be affirmed too plainly in our own day which again has seen a pronounced shift in standards of sexual behaviour.

In a book entitled What I Believe, a symposium of the basic beliefs of a selection of well-known men and women, Kingsley Martin writes: "Once women are emancipated and begin to earn their own living and are able to decide for themselves whether or not they have children, marriage customs are inevitably revised. 'Contraception,' a well-known economist once said to me, 'is the most important event since the discovery of fire.' Basically he was right, for it fundamentally alters the relations of the sexes, on which family life is built. The result in our day is a new sexual code; the old 'morality' which winked at male promiscuity but punished female infidelity with a life-time of disgrace, or even, in some puritanical cultures, with a cruel death, has disappeared. The new code tends to make it the accepted thing that men and women can live together as they will, but to demand marriage of them if they decide to have children."

The new morality is only the old immorality brought up-to-date. There is a clamant necessity in Britain, as there was in Thessalonica, to place before men and women the uncompromising demands of Christian morality, "for God did not call us to impurity but to consecration."

THE NECESSITY OF THE DAY'S WORK (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12)

4:9-12 You do not need that I should write to you about brotherly love; for you yourselves are taught of God to love one another. Indeed you do this very thing to all the brothers who are in the whole of Macedonia. But we do urge you, brothers, to go on to more and more, and to aim at keeping calm and minding your own business. We urge you to work with your hands, as we instructed you to do, so that your behaviour may seem to those outside the Church a lovely thing and so that you may need no one to support you.

This passage begins with praise but it ends in warning; and with the warning we come to the immediate situation behind the letter. Paul urged the Thessalonians to keep calm, to mind their own business and to go on working with their hands. The preaching of the Second Coming had produced an odd and awkward situation in Thessalonica. Many of the Thessalonians had given up their daily work and were standing about in excited groups, upsetting themselves and everybody else, while they waited for the Second Coming to arrive. Ordinary life had been disrupted; the problem of making a living had been abandoned; and Paul's advice was preeminently practical.

(i) He told them, in effect, that the best way in which Jesus Christ could come upon them was that he should find them quietly, efficiently and diligently doing their daily job. Principal Rainy used to say, "Today I must lecture; tomorrow I must attend a committee meeting; on Sunday I must preach; some day I must die. Well then, let us do as well as we can each thing as it comes to us." The thought that Christ will some day come, that life as we know it will end, is not a reason for stopping work; it is a reason for working all the harder and more faithfully. It is not hysterical and useless waiting but quiet and useful work which will be a man's passport to the Kingdom.

(ii) He told them that, whatever happened, they must commend Christianity to the outsider by the diligence and the beauty of their lives. To go on as they were doing, to allow their so-called Christianity to turn them into useless citizens, was simply to bring Christianity into discredit. Paul here touched on a tremendous truth. A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of men it produces. The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men. When we Christians show that our Christianity makes us better workmen, truer friends, kinder men and women, then we are really preaching. The outside world may never come into church to hear a sermon but it sees us every day outside church; and it is our lives which must be the sermons to win men for Christ.

(iii) He told them that they must aim at independence and never become spongers on charity. The effect of the conduct of the Thessalonians was that others had to support them. There is a certain paradox in Christianity. It is the Christian's duty to help others, for many, through no fault of their own, cannot attain that independence; but it is also the Christian's duty to help himself. There will be in the Christian a lovely charity which delights to give and a proud independence which seems to take so long as his own two hands can supply his needs.

CONCERNING THOSE WHO ARE ASLEEP (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

4:13-18 We do not wish you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who are asleep, because we do not wish you to sorrow as the rest of people do because they have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we can be sure that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For we tell you this, not by our own authority but by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who survive until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not take precedence over those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God; and the dead who are in Christ will rise first, and then we who are alive, who survive, will be caught up by the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall be always with the Lord. So then encourage one another with these words.

The idea of the Second Coming had brought another problem to the people of Thessalonica. They were expecting it very soon; they fully expected to be themselves alive when it came but they were worried about those Christians who had died. They could not be sure that those who had already died would share the glory of that day which was so soon to come. Paul's answer is that there will be one glory for those who have died and those who survive.

He tells them that they must not sorrow as those who have no hope. In face of death the pagan world stood in despair. They met it with grim resignation and bleak hopelessness. Aeschylus wrote, "Once a man dies there is no resurrection." Theocritus wrote, "There is hope for those who are alive, but those who have died are without hope." Catullus wrote, "When once our brief light sets, there is one perpetual night through which we must sleep." On their tombstones grim epitaphs were carved. "I was not; I became; I am not; I care not." One of the most pathetic papyrus letters that has come down to us is a letter of sympathy which runs like this. "Irene to Taonnophris and Philo, good comfort. I was as sorry and wept over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. And all things whatsoever were fitting, I did, and all mine, Epaphroditus and Thermouthion and Philion and Apollonius and Plantas. But nevertheless against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort ye one another."

Paul lays down a great principle. The man who has lived and died in Christ is still in Christ even in death and will rise in him. Between Christ and the man who loves him there is a relationship which nothing can break, a relationship which overpasses death. Because Christ died and rose again, so the man who is one with Christ will rise again.

The picture Paul draws of the day when Christ will come is poetry, an attempt to describe what is indescribable. At the Second Coming Christ will descend from heaven to earth. He will utter the word of command and thereupon the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God will waken the dead, then the dead and the living alike will be caught up in the chariots of the clouds to meet Christ; and thereafter they will be forever with their Lord. We are not meant to take with crude and insensitive literalism what is a seer's vision. It is not the details which are important. What is important is that in life and in death the Christian is in Christ and that is a union which nothing can break.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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Wednesday, October 21st, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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