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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

1 Thessalonians 4

Verse 1

1 Furthermore. This chapter contains various injunctions, by which he trains up the Thessalonians to a holy life, or confirms them in the exercise of it. They had previously learned what was the rule and method of a pious life: he calls this to their remembrance. As, says he, ye have been taught. Lest, however, he should seem to take away from them what he had previously assigned them, he does not simply exhort them to walk in such a manner, but to abound more and more. When, therefore, he urges them to make progress, he intimates that they are already in the way. The sum is this, that they should be more especially careful to make progress in the doctrine which they had received, and this Paul places in contrast with frivolous and vain pursuits, in which we see that a good part of the world very generally busy themselves, so that profitable and holy meditation as to the due regulation of life scarcely obtains a place, even the most inferior. Paul, accordingly, reminds them in what manner they had been instructed, and bids them aim at this with their whole might. Now, there is a law that is here enjoined upon us — that, forgetting the things that are behind, we always aim at farther progress, (Philippians 3:13) and pastors ought also to make this their endeavor. Now, as to his beseeching, when he might rightfully enjoin — it is a token of humanity and modesty which pastors ought to imitate, that they may, if possible, allure people to kindness, rather than violently compel them. (566)

(566) “ Que de les contraindre rudement et d’vne façon violente;” — “Rather than constrain them rudely and in a violent manner.”

Verse 3

3 For this is the will of God. This is doctrine of a general nature, from which, as from a fountain, he immediately deduces special admonitions. When he says that this is the will of God, he means that we have been called by God with this design. “For this end ye are Christians — this the gospel aims at — that ye may sanctify yourselves to God. ” The meaning of the term sanctification we have already explained elsewhere in repeated instances — that renouncing the world, and clearing ourselves from the pollutions of the flesh, we offer ourselves to God as if in sacrifice, for nothing can with propriety be offered to Him, but what is pure and holy.

That ye abstain. This is one injunction, which he derives from the fountain of which he had immediately before made mention; for nothing is more opposed to holiness than the defilement of fornication, which pollutes the whole man. On this account he assigns the lust of concupiscence to the Gentiles, who know not God. “Where the knowledge of God reigns, lusts must be subdued.”

By the lust of concupiscence, he means all base lusts of the flesh, but, at the same time, by this manner of expression, he brands with dishonor all desires that allure us to pleasure and carnal delights, as in Romans 13:14, he bids us have no care for the flesh in respect of the lust thereof. For when men give indulgence to their appetites, there are no bounds to lasciviousness. (567) Hence the only means of maintaining temperance is to bridle all lusts.

As for the expression, that every one of you may know to possess his vessel, some explain it as referring to a wife, (568) as though it had been said, “Let husbands dwell with their wives in all chastity.” As, however, he addresses husbands and wives indiscriminately, there can be no doubt that he employs the term vessel to mean body. For every one has his body as a house, as it were, in which he dwells. He would, therefore, have us keep our body pure from all uncleanness.

And honor, that is, honorably, for the man that prostitutes his body to fornication, covers it with infamy and disgrace.

(567) “ Il n’y a mesure ne fin de desbauchement et dissolution;” — “There is no measure or end of debauchery and wantonness.”

(568) “ Au regard du mari;” — “In relation to her husband.”

Verse 6

6 Let no man oppress. Here we have another exhortation, which flows, like a stream, from the doctrine of sanctification. “God,” says he, “has it in view to sanctify us, that no man may do injury to his brother. ” For as to Chrysostom’s connecting this statement with the preceding one, and explaining ὑπερβαίνειν καὶ πλεονεκτεῖν to mean — neighing after the wives of others, (Jeremiah 5:8) and eagerly desiring them, is too forced an exposition. Paul, accordingly, having adduced one instance of unchastity in respect of lasciviousness and lust, teaches that this also is a department of holiness — that we conduct ourselves righteously and harmlessly towards our neighbors. The former verb refers to violent oppressions — where the man that has more power emboldens himself to inflict injury. The latter includes in it all immoderate and unrighteous desires. As, however, mankind, for the most part, indulge themselves in lust and avarice, he reminds them of what he had formerly taught — that God would be the avenger of all such things. We must observe, however, what he says — we have solemnly testified; (569) for such is the sluggishness of mankind, that, unless they are wounded to the quick, they are touched with no apprehension of God’s judgment.

(569) “ Nous vous auons testifié et comme adjuré;” — “We have testified to you, and, as it were, adjured.”

Verse 7

7 For God hath not called us. This appears to be the same sentiment with the preceding one — that the will of God is our sanctification. There is, however, a little difference between them. For after having discoursed as to the correcting of the vices of the flesh, he proves, from the end of our calling, that God desires this. For he sets us apart to himself as his peculiar possession. (570) Again, that God calls us to holiness, he proves by contraries, because he rescues us, and calls us back, from unchastity. From this he concludes, that all that reject this doctrine reject not men, but God, the Author of this calling, which altogether falls to the ground so soon as this principle as to newness of life is overthrown. Now, the reason why he rouses himself so vehemently is, because there are always wanton persons who, while they fearlessly despise God, treat with ridicule all threatenings of his judgment, and at the same time hold in derision all injunctions as to a holy and pious life. Such persons must not be taught, but must be beaten with severe reproofs as with the stroke of a hammer.

(570) “ Comme pour son propre heritage et particulier;” — “As for his peculiar and special inheritance.”

Verse 8

8 Who hath also given. That he may the more effectually turn away the Thessalonians from such contempt and obstinacy, he reminds them that they had been endowed with the Spirit of God, first, in order that they may distinguish what proceeds from God; secondly, that they make such a difference as is befitting between holiness and impurity; and thirdly, that, with heavenly authority, they may pronounce judgment against all manner of unchastity — such as will fall upon their own heads, unless they keep aloof from contagion. Hence, however wicked men may treat with ridicule all instructions that are given as to a holy life and the fear of God, those that are endowed with the Spirit of God have a very different testimony sealed upon their hearts. We must therefore take heed, lest we should extinguish or obliterate it. At the same time, this may refer to Paul and the other teachers, as though he had said, that it is not from human perception that they condemn unchastity, but they pronounce from the authority of God what has been suggested to them by his Spirit. I am inclined, however, to include both. Some manuscripts have the second person — you, which restricts the gift of the Spirit to the Thessalonians.

Verse 9

9 As to brotherly love. Having previously, in lofty terms, commended their love, he now speaks by way of anticipation, saying, ye need not that I write to you. He assigns a reason — because they had been divinely taught — by which he means that love was engraven upon their hearts, so that there was no need of letters written on paper. For he does not mean simply what John says in his first Canonical (571) Epistle, the anointing will teach you, (1 John 2:27) but that their hearts were framed for love; so that it appears that the Holy Spirit inwardly dictates efficaciously what is to be done, so that there is no need to give injunctions in writing. He subjoins an argument from the greater to the less; for as their love diffuses itself through the whole of Macedonia, he infers that it is not to be doubted that they love one another. Hence the particle for means likewise, or nay more, for, as I have already stated, he adds it for the sake of greater intensity.

(571) The Epistles of John, along with those of James, Peter, and Jude, “were termed Canonical by Cassiodorus in the middle of the sixth century, and by the writer of the prologue to these Epistles, which is erroneously ascribed to Jerome.... Du Pin says that some Latin writers have called these Epistles Canonical, either confounding the name with Catholic, or to denote that they are a part of the Canon of the books of the New Testament.” — Horne’s Introduction, vol. 4, p. 409. On the origin and import of the epithet General, or Catholic, usually applied to these Epistles, the reader will find some valuable observations in Brown’s Expository Discourses on Peter, vol. 1.

Verse 10

10 And we exhort you. Though he declares that they were sufficiently prepared of themselves for all offices of love, he nevertheless does not cease to exhort them to make progress, there being no perfection in men. And, unquestionably, whatever appears in us in a high state of excellence, we must still desire that it may become better. Some connect the verb φιλοτιμεῖσζαι with what follows, as if he exhorted them to strive at the maintaining of peace; but it corresponds better with the expression that goes before. For after having admonished them to increase in love, he recommends to them a sacred emulation, that they may strive among themselves in mutual affection, or at least he enjoins that each one strive to conquer himself; (572) and I rather adopt this latter interpretation. That, therefore, their love may be perfect, he requires that there be a striving among them, such as is wont to be on the part of those who eagerly (573) aspire at victory. This is the best emulation, when each one strives to overcome himself in doing good. As to my not subscribing to the opinion of those who render the words, strive to maintain peace, this single reason appears to me to be sufficiently valid — that Paul would not in a thing of less difficulty have enjoined so arduous a conflict — which suits admirably well with advancement in love, where so many hindrances present themselves. Nor would I have any objection to the other meaning of the verb — that they should exercise liberality generally towards others.

(572) “ En cest endroit;” — “In this matter.”

(573) “ Courageusement et d’vn grand desir;” — “Courageously and wait a great desire.”

Verse 11

11 Maintain Peace. I have already stated that this clause must be separated from what goes before, for this is a new sentence. Now, to be at peace, means in this passage — to act peacefully and without disturbance, as we also say in French — sans bruit , ( without noise.) In short, he exhorts them to be peaceable and tranquil. This is the purport of what he adds immediately afterwards — to do your own business: for we commonly see, that those who intrude themselves with forwardness into the affairs of others, make great disturbance, and give trouble to themselves and others. This, therefore, is the best means of a tranquil life, when every one, intent upon the duties of his own calling, discharges those duties which are enjoined upon him by the Lord, and devotes himself to these things: while the husbandman employs himself in rural labors, the workman carries on his occupation, and in this way every one keeps within his own limits. So soon as men turn aside from this, everything is thrown into confusion and disorder. He does not mean, however, that every one shall mind his own business in such a way as that each one should live apart, having no care for others, but has merely in view to correct an idle levity, which makes men noisy bustlers in public, who ought to lead a quiet life in their own houses.

Labor with your hands. He recommends manual labor on two accounts — that they may have a sufficiency for maintaining life, and that they may conduct themselves honorably even before unbelievers. For nothing is more unseemly than a man that is idle and good for nothing, who profits neither himself nor others, and seems born only to eat and drink. Farther, this labor or system of working extends far, for what he says as to hands is by way of synecdoche; but there can be no doubt that he includes every useful employment of human life.

Verse 13

13 But I would not have you ignorant. It is not likely that the hope of a resurrection had been torn up among the Thessalonians by profane men, as had taken place at Corinth. For we see how he chastises the Corinthians with severity, but here he speaks of it as a thing that was not doubtful. It is possible, however, that this persuasion was not sufficiently fixed in their minds, and that they accordingly, in bewailing the dead, retained something of the old superstition. For the sum of the whole is this — that we must not bewail the dead beyond due bounds, inasmuch as we are all to be raised up again. For whence comes it, that the mourning of unbelievers has no end or measure, but because they have no hope of a resurrection? It becomes not us, therefore, who have been instructed as to a resurrection, to mourn otherwise than in moderation. He is to discourse afterwards as to the manner of the resurrection; and he is also on this account to say something as to times; but in this passage he meant simply to restrain excessive grief, which would never have had such an influence among them, if they had seriously considered the resurrection, and kept it in remembrance.

He does not, however, forbid us altogether to mourn, but requires moderation in our mourning, for he says, that ye may not sorrow, as others who have no hope. He forbids them to grieve in the manner of unbelievers, who give loose reins to their grief, because they look upon death as final destruction, and imagine that everything that is taken out of the world perishes. As, on the other hand, believers know that they quit the world, that they may be at last gathered into the kingdom of God, they have not the like occasion of grief. Hence the knowledge of a resurrection is the means of moderating grief. He speaks of the dead as asleep, agreeably to the common practice of Scripture — a term by which the bitterness of death is mitigated, for there is a great difference between sleep and destruction (574) It refers, however, not to the soul, but to the body, for the dead body lies in the tomb, as in a couch, until God raise up the man. Those, therefore, act a foolish part, who infer from this that souls sleep. (575)

We are now in possession of Paul’s meaning — that he lifts up the minds of believers to a consideration of the resurrection, lest they should indulge excessive grief on occasion of the death of their relatives, for it were unseemly that there should be no difference between them and unbelievers, who put no end or measure to their grief for this reason, that in death they recognize nothing but destruction. (576) Those that abuse this testimony, so as to establish among Christians Stoical indifference, that is, an iron hardness, (577) will find nothing of this nature in Paul’s words. As to their objecting that we must not indulge grief on occasion of the death of our relatives, lest we should resist God, this would apply in all adversities; but it is one thing to bridle our grief, that it may be made subject to God, and quite another thing to harden one’s self so as to be like stones, by casting away human feelings. Let, therefore, the grief of the pious be mixed with consolation, which may train them to patience. The hope of a blessed resurrection, which is the mother of patience, will effect this.

(574) “ Entre dormir, et estre du tout reduit a neant;” — “Between sleeping, and being altogether reduced to nothing.”

(575) See Calvin on the Corinthians, vol. 2, pp. 21, 22.

(576) “ Ruine et destruction;” — “Ruin and destruction.”

(577) “ Pour introduire et establir entre les Chrestiens ceste façon tant estrange, que les Stoiciens requeroyent en l’homme, ascauoir qu’il ne fust esmeu de douleur quelconque, mais qu’il fust comme de fer et stupide sans rien sentir;” — “For introducing and establishing among Christians that strange manner of acting, which the Stoics required on the part of an individual—that he should not be moved by any grief, but should be as it were of iron, and stupid, so as to be devoid of feeling.”

Verse 14

14 For if we believe. He assumes this axiom of our faith, that Christ was raised up from the dead, that we might be partakers of the same resurrection: from this he infers, that we shall live with him eternally. This doctrine, however, as has been stated in 1 Corinthians 15:13, depends on another principle — that it was not for himself, but for us that Christ died and rose again. Hence those who have doubts as to the resurrection, do great injury to Christ: nay more, they do in a manner draw him down from heaven, as is said in Romans 10:6

To sleep in Christ, is to retain in death the connection that we have with Christ, for those that are by faith ingrafted into Christ, have death in common with him, that they may be partakers with him of life. It is asked, however, whether unbelievers will not also rise again, for Paul does not affirm that there will be a resurrection, except in the case of Christ’s members. I answer, that Paul does not here touch upon anything but what suited his present design. For he did not design to terrify the wicked, but to correct (578) the immoderate grief of the pious, and to cure it, as he does, by the medicine of consolation.

(578) “ Mais seulement de corriger ou reprimer;” — “But merely to correct or repress.”

Verse 15

15 For this we say unto you. He now briefly explains the manner in which believers will be raised up from death. Now, as he speaks of a thing that is very great, and is incredible to the human mind, and also promises what is above the power and choice of men, he premises that he does not bring forward anything that is his own, or that proceeds from men, but that the Lord is the Author of it. It is probable, however, that the word of the Lord means what was taken from his discourses. (579) For though Paul had learned by revelation all the secrets of the heavenly kingdom, it was, nevertheless, more fitted to establish in the minds of believers the belief of a resurrection, when he related those things that had been uttered by Christ’s own mouth. “We are not the first witnesses of the resurrection, but instead of this the Master himself declared it.” (580)

We who live. This has been said by him with this view — that they might not think that those only would be partakers of the resurrection who would be alive at the time of Christ’s coming, and that those would have no part in it who had been previously taken away by death. “The order of the resurrection,” says he, “will begin with them: (581) we shall accordingly not rise without them.” From this it appears that the belief of a final resurrection had been, in the minds of some, slight and obscure, and involved in various errors, inasmuch as they imagined that the dead would be deprived of it; for they imagined that eternal life belonged to those alone whom Christ, at his last coming, would find still alive upon the earth. Paul, with the view of remedying these errors, assigns the first place to the dead, and afterwards teaches that those will follow who will be at that time remaining in this life.

As to the circumstance, however, that by speaking in the first person he makes himself, as it were, one of the number of those who will live until the last day, he means by this to arouse the Thessalonians to wait for it, nay more, to hold all believers in suspense, that they may not promise themselves some particular time: for, granting that it was by a special revelation that he knew that Christ would come at a somewhat later time, (582) it was nevertheless necessary that this doctrine should be delivered to the Church in common, that believers might be prepared at all times. In the mean time, it was necessary thus to cut off all pretext for the curiosity of many — as we shall find him doing afterwards at greater length. When, however, he says, we that are alive, he makes use of the present tense instead of the future, in accordance with the Hebrew idiom.

(579) “ Prins des sermons de Christ;” — “Taken from the sermons of Christ.”

(580) “ L’a affermee et testifiee assureement par ses propos;” — “Has affirmed and testified it with certainty in his discourses.”

(581) “ Commencera par ceux qui seront decedez auparauant;” — “Will commence with those who shall have previously departed.”

(582) “ Ne viendroit si tost;” — “Would not come so soon.”

Verse 16

16 For the Lord himself. He employs the term κελεύσματος, ( shout,) and afterwards adds, the voice of the archangel, by way of exposition, intimating what is to be the nature of that arousing shout — that the archangel will discharge the office of a herald to summon the living and the dead to the tribunal of Christ. For though this will be common to all the angels, yet, as is customary among different ranks, he appoints one in the foremost place to take the lead of the others. As to the trumpet, however, I leave to others to dispute with greater subtlety, for I have nothing to say in addition to what I briefly noticed in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. (583) The Apostle unquestionably had nothing farther in view here than to give some taste of the magnificence and venerable appearance of the Judge, until we shall behold it fully. With this taste it becomes us in the mean time to rest satisfied.

The dead who are in Christ. He again says that the dead who are in Christ, that is, who are included in Christ’s body, will rise first, that we may know that the hope of life is laid up in heaven for them no less than for the living. He says nothing as to the reprobate, because this did not tend to the consolation of the pious, of which he is now treating.

He says that those that survive will be carried up together with them. As to these, he makes no mention of death: hence it appears as if he meant to say that they would be exempted from death. Here Augustine gives himself much distress, both in the twentieth book on the City of God and in his Answer to Dulcitius, because Paul seems to contradict himself, inasmuch as he says elsewhere, that seed cannot spring up again unless it die. (1 Corinthians 15:36) The solution, however, is easy, inasmuch as a sudden change will be like death. Ordinary death, it is true, is the separation of the soul from the body; but this does not hinder that the Lord may in a moment destroy this corruptible nature, so as to create it anew by his power, for thus is accomplished what Paul himself teaches must take place — that mortality shall be swallowed up of life. (2 Corinthians 5:4) What is stated in our Confession, (584) that “Christ will be the Judge of the dead and of the living,” (585) Augustine acknowledges to be true without a figure. (586) He is only at a loss as to this — how those that have not died will rise again. But, as I have said, that is a kind of death, when this flesh is reduced to nothing, as it is now liable to corruption. The only difference is this — that those who sleep (587) put off the substance of the body for some space of time, but those that will be suddenly changed will put off nothing but the quality

(583) See Calvin on the Corinthians, vol. 2, pp. 59, 60.

(584) “ En la confession de nostre foy;” — “In the confession of our faith.”

(585) Our author manifestly refers here to the Formula of Confession, commonly called the “Apostles’ Creed,” which the reader will find explained at considerable length by Calvin in the “Catechism of the Church of Geneva.” See Calvin’s Tracts, vol. 2.

(586) “ Sans aucune figure;” — “Without any figure.” Our author, in his French translation, appends the following marginal note: — “ C’est a dire sans le prendre comme ceux qui entendent par ces mots les bons et les mauuais;” — “That is to say, without taking it as those do, who understand by the words the good and the bad.”

(587) “ Ceux qui dorment, c’est a dire qui seront morts auant le dernier iour;” — “Those who sleep, that is to say, who will have died before the last day.”

Verse 17

17 And so we shall be ever. To those who have been once gathered to Christ he promises eternal life with him, by which statements the reveries of Origen and of the Chiliasts (588) are abundantly refuted. For the life of believers, when they have once been gathered into one kingdom, will have no end any more than Christ’s. Now, to assign to Christ a thousand years, so that he would afterwards cease to reign, were too horrible to be made mention of. Those, however, fall into this absurdity who limit the life of believers to a thousand years, for they must live with Christ as long as Christ himself will exist. We must observe also what he says — we shall be, for he means that we profitably entertain a hope of eternal life, only when we hope that it has been expressly appointed for us.

(588) See Calvin’s Institutes, vol. 2.

Verse 18

18 Comfort. He now shews more openly what I have previously stated — that in the faith of the resurrection we have good ground of consolation, provided we are members of Christ, and are truly united to him as our Head. At the same time, the Apostle would not have each one to seek for himself assuagement of grief, but also to administer it to others.

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Calvin, John. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.