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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges

1 Thessalonians 4

Verses 1-99

Chapter 4

Section V. A Lesson in Christian Morals. Ch. 4:1 12

We now pass from the first to the second of the two main divisions of the Epistle (see Introd . Chap. VII.), from narrative to exhortation . Chaps. 1 3 are complete in themselves, and the letter might fitly have terminated with the prayer just concluded (ch. 3:11 13). For the Apostle has accomplished the chief objects with which he began to write, viz. to assure his readers of the intense interest he takes in their welfare, to express his sympathy with them under their persecutions, and to explain how it was that he had not himself returned to them. But he cannot let the occasion pass without adding counsel and exhortation on certain subjects in which the Thessalonian Church was specially in need of guidance. Chief amongst these were the misunderstandings that had arisen touching the parousia , or second advent of Christ (ch. 4:13 5:11). But before he deals with this topic, there are a few things he wishes to say to them about morals and matters of conduct toward each other , which we have before us in this Section. It is significant that the Apostle puts these things first in his exhortation, although the question of the Parousia was of such absorbing interest.

The topics embraced in this Section are (1) and chiefly, that of chastity and the sanctification of the body, vv. 3 8; (2) brotherly love, vv. 9, 10; (3) diligence in secular work, vv. 11, 12.

That chaps, 4, 5 form an addendum, supplementing the primary intention of the Epistle, is shown by the introductory phrase:

1. Furthermore then ] R. V., finally ; as the same Greek phrase is rendered by A.V. in Philippians 3:1 , Philippians 3:4 :8, &c. Lit., for the rest therefore , for what remains .

we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus ] More exactly, and in the Greek order: brethren, we beseech you, and exhort in the Lord Jesus .

The first of these verbs, “beseech” (or “ask”), frequent with St John, is only found in St Paul besides in ch. 5:12; 2 Ephesians 2:1 ; and Philippians 4:3 . The Apostle asks as in a matter touching himself and his Interest in his readers; he exhorts , as it concerns them and their own duty and relation to Christ; for it is on the basis and within the sphere of this relationship in fact, because they are Christians that such an appeal is addressed to them. Comp. note on “church in the Lord Jesus Christ,” ch. 1:1; and for the title “Lord Jesus,” on ch. 2:15, 19.

St Paul’s deep affection for the Thessalonians and his longing to see them prompted the prayer with which the last chapter concluded, that the Lord Himself would make them to be found blameless in holiness at His coming. And it is “therefore” in accordance with this prayer and these desires that he now urges them to a still more earnest pursuit of Christian virtue.

that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God ] “That” requires a comma after it, as in R. V.; for it looks forward to the final clause of the verse “that ye abound more and more.”

“Received” corresponds to the first of the two words so rendered In ch. 2:13 (see note), and signifies the reception as matter of Instruction. Beside the doctrine of the Gospel the apostles taught its practice what men should do and what should be the “work” and effect of their faith (ch. 1:3), as well as what they should believe. In their earliest lessons the Thessalonians had received the moral along with the theological elements of Christianity, “how you ought to walk .” On this last word comp. note to ch. 2:12.

“Ought to walk and please God” is not the same as “walk so as to please God,” though this Is implied; but rather “how you ought to walk, and ought to please God.” The duty of pleasing God had been a subject of St Paul’s admonitions, and he had set all other duties in this light. Similarly in ch. 2:4 he spoke of himself and Silas as governed in their work by the thought of “pleasing God,” while in ver. 15 the condemnation of the Jews was found in the fact that they were “not pleasing God.” Our conduct is always, and in everything, pleasing or displeasing to Him; and the religious man finds in this the highest sanction of right-doing. The word Sanctification (ver. 3) expresses in another way the same religious necessity attaching to moral obligation.

The clause even as ye do walk is restored to the text by the Revisers, on the best authority. Comp. vv. 9, 10, “for indeed you do it;” also ch. 5:11. The Apostle would not appear to censure his readers. He is sure that they are walking in the true path, mindful of his instructions; he wishes to keep them in it, and to urge them forward. The sum of his entreaty is (resuming the “that” left incomplete in the earlier part of tie sentence), that ye abound more and more (R. V.).

2. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord jesus ] Lit., charges through the Lord Jesus ; similarly in ver. 11, “as we charged you,” and in 2 Ephesians 3:4 , &c. The Greek word signifies an announcement , then a command or advice publicly delivered . In 1 Timothy 1:5 and 18 the whole practical teaching of Christianity is called a “charge.” Here the Apostle is referring to particular items of conduct as matter of so many “charges.” These charges were given “ through the Lord Jesus,” since His name and authority were used to support them (comp. 2 Ephesians 3:6 , “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”); while they were given “ in the Lord Jesus” (ver. 1), as they appealed to the Christian standing of the readers and their conscious relationship to Christ, Whose coming in glory they expected.

The Apostle is “writing no new commandment;” he recalls to his readers’ remembrance what he had so often urged upon them (see note on ch. 1:5). It is on one prominent subject of those well-remembered charges that he has now to dwell:

3. For this is the will of God , even your sanctification , &c.] The connection will be clearer if we render thus: For this is God’s will it is your sanctification that you abstain from fornication , &c.

It was not some counsel or wish of his own that he pressed on the Thessalonians under the authority of Christ; it was nothing less than God’s holy will : the primary ground of this charge. At the same time it was their sanctification . God’s will and their consecration to Him are the double reason for their leading a chaste life; and these two reasons are one, the latter springing out of the former. God had chosen them to be His own (comp. ch. 1:4). And He willed that their sanctification should be realised and carried into effect in the important particular about to be stated. This will of God was proclaimed in His “call,” by which the Thessalonians had been summoned to a pure and holy life (ch. 5:23, 24; comp. 2:12). In all endeavours after purity it is our best support to know that God wishes and means ms to be holy; that His almighty help is at the back of our weak resolves, Who both “puts into our minds good desires” and “brings the same to good effect.”

“Sanctification” is the act or process of making holy : then, in the second instance, it comes to denote the result of this process, the state of one who is made holy , as in Romans 6:22 , “You have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end eternal life;” similarly in Hebrews 12:14 , “Follow after sanctification.” It is synonymous with consecration , i.e. devotion to God , but to God as the Holy One.

Holy is the single word which by itself denotes the Divine character , as it is revealed to us in its moral transcendence, in the awfulness and glory of its absolute perfection, raised infinitely above all that is earthly and sinful (see 1 Samuel 2:2 , Ps. 99, 111:9, Isaiah 57:15 , &c). Now it is the character of God “thy Maker … and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel ” that constitutes His right to the consecration of those to whom He is revealed. Our “sanctification” is the acknowledgement of God’s claim upon us as the Holy One Who made us. This involves our assimilation to His nature. In Him, first the character, then the claim: in us, first the claim admitted, then the character impressed. In short, Sanctification is fulfilment of the supreme command, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15 , 1 Peter 1:16 ; Leviticus 11:44 ; Leviticus 19:2 ; Leviticus 20:7 ). See, further, notes on ver. 7, and ch. 5:23; also on ch. 2:10, for the difference between the two Greek words for holy used in this Ep.

St Paul makes chastity a part of holiness. He finds a new motive and powerful safeguard for virtue in the fact of the redemption of the body. Our physical frame belongs to God; it is a sharer in Christ’s resurrection, and in the new life received through Him. “Know you not,” he asks, “that your bodies are limbs of Christ, a temple of the Holy Ghost, which you have from God? Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:15-20 ). This is bodily sanctification . And faith in Christ effectually subdues impure and sensual passion.

The foul and heathenish vice of fornication was so prevalent in Greek cities and so little condemned by public opinion it was even fostered by some forms of pagan religion that abstinence from it on the part of the Thessalonians was a sign of devotion to a Holy God. But their purity was imperilled from the condition of society around them, and in many cases from former unchaste habits. The temptations to licentiousness assailing the first generation of Christians were fearfully strong; and all the Epistles contain urgent warnings upon this subject. The sense of purity had to be re-created in men gathered out of the midst of pagan corruption.

4. that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel ] Rather, that each one of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel (R. V.); or, freely rendered, that each be wise in the mastery of his bodily frame .

This is the positive side of what has just been expressed negatively. The “vessel” we take to be the body , regarded as the vehicle and instrument of the inner self “the vessel of himself.” What the tool is to the hand, or vase to the essence it holds, that the body is to the man’s self. Comp. 2 Corinthians 4:7 , “this treasure in earthen vessels”; similarly in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 the body is “the earthly house of our tabernacle,” the clothing without which we should be “found naked.” The victim of sensual passion ceases to be master of his own person he is possessed ; and those who formerly lived in heathen uncleanness, had now as Christians to possess themselves of their bodies, to “win” the “vessel” of their spiritual life and make it truly their own, and a fit receptacle for the redeemed and sanctified self (comp. Luke 21:19 , “In your patience ye shall win your souls,” R. V., the same Greek verb). This they must “know how” (i.e. have skill ) to do a skill for which there was continual need. The Greek expression for Temperance enkrateia , i.e. continence, self-control expresses a similar thought; so the simile of 1 Corinthians 9:27 , “I buffet my body, and make it my slave.”

in sanctification ] For it was under this idea, and within the sphere of the new, consecrated life that such mastery of the body was to be gained (see notes on vv. 3 and 7). And in honour ; for as lust dishonours and degrades the body (Romans 1:24 , Romans 1:26 ; 1 Corinthians 6:15 ), so its devotion to God in a life of purity raises it to “honour.” Self-respect and regard for the honour of one’s own person, as well as reverence for God, forbid unchastity.

5. not in the lust of concupiscence ] Far better, not in the passion of lust (R. V.). The sense of the last verb ( to possess ) is carried on, with a modified application, into this clause: not (to have it : i.e. your body) in a state of lustful passion . (For the altered meaning of the verb, comp. 1 Corinthians 3:2 : “I gave you milk to drink, not meat”). This condition the state of one immersed “in” wicked desire is the opposite of “sanctification and honour.”

The word “passion” signifies not so much a violent feeling, as an overpowering feeling, one to which the man so yields himself that he is borne along by evil as if he were its passive instrument; he has lost the dignity of self-rule, and is the slave of his lower appetites. Comp. Romans 7:5 , “the passions of sins which wrought in our members;” and ver. 20, “It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”

In such shameful bondage lived the Gentiles which know not God (an O. T. expression, Psalms 79:6 , Isaiah 45:4 , Isaiah 45:5 ; recurring in 2 Ephesians 1:8 , see note). For impurity, often in most abandoned and revolting forms, was a prevailing feature of Pagan life at this time. In Romans 1:24 , &c., St Paul speaks of this as a punishment of the heathen world for its wilful ignorance of God: “He gave them up unto passions of dishonour.” Man first denies his Maker; then degrades himself.

The God Whom these degraded “Gentiles knew not,” is the “living and true God” of ch. 1:9, to Whom Thessalonian believers had “turned from their idols.” Coming to know Him by His gospel, they had devoted themselves to Him; and so their bodies had been redeemed from vice and dishonour, and the soul had a clean house to live in, a clean vessel to use for holy service.

6. that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter ] More exactly, that none overreach and take advantage of his brother in the matter . “The matter” is obviously that which occupies the last two verses. Acts of Impurity are social wrongs, as well as sins against the offender’s person. The warning may include any injury done to another touching the affections and engagements that belong to marriage, “the matter” concerned in the present charge which is expressly violated by “fornication.” The Apostle sets the wrong in the strongest light: it is to “cheat one’s brother,” and that in what touches most nearly the sanctities of life. Hence the stern warning that follows:

because that the Lord is the avenger of all such ] Rather, an avenger ; and concerning all these things in everything that concerns the honour of the human person and the sacredness of wedded life. Comp. Hebrews 13:4 , “Let marriage be had in honour … Fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” It is written that “Vengeance belongs to God;” and in this matter He is peculiarly bound to exercise it.

as we also have forewarned you and testified ] or, solemnly attested : the latter verb implies reference to God, as it is expressed in 2 Timothy 4:1 , “before God and Christ Jesus.” On this subject it appears as to the moral consequences of faith in Christ and the social purity that belongs to the sanctified life the apostles at Thessalonica had spoken very plainly and solemnly from the first.

7. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness ] The two prepositions alike rendered “unto” in the A.V., are quite distinct in the Greek. St Paul writes, God called us not for (with a view to) uncleanness, but in sanctification ; similarly in 2 Ephesians 2:13 , “God chose you from the beginning unto salvation in sanctification of spirit.” The call of God was from the first a sanctifying call for the Thessalonians, and was attended with holy influences that forbade all uncleanness. Certainly He never intended them to live impure lives, when He “called them to His own kingdom and glory” (ch. 2:12); the understanding on which that call was received was the opposite of this. The entire purpose and tendency of God’s message to them was “in sanctification.” For this last word, see notes to vv. 3 and 4. True believers in Christ are necessarily “saints;” so the Apostle commonly addresses all Christians to whom he writes (see Romans 1:7 , &c. “called saints,” i.e. “saints in virtue of your calling”); and their sainthood excludes impurity and wrong-doing.

Observe that God’s call is the starting-point of a Christian’s life. All the motives and aims by which that life is governed are virtually contained in this. “Walk worthily of the calling wherewith you were called” is with St Paul an exhortation that includes all others (Ephesians 4:1 ). So he comes to his last word on this matter:

8. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God ] Therefore should stand first, as in R. V.; it gathers up and re-affirms with emphasis the charge of vv. 2 7: Wherefore then .

For despiseth read rejecteth (A. V. margin , and R. V.), as this word is rendered in Luke 10:16 ; in Galatians 2:21 we read it, “I do not make void the grace of God.” It points to some authority set at nought, or engagement nullified. It was God’s call which had summoned the Thessalonians to their new life; His voice, not man’s, had reached them by the Gospel (see ch. 2:12, 13). It will be God’s authority therefore, not man’s, that they defy, if this charge is disregarded; comp. ver. 1, “how you ought to please God;” and ver. 3, “This is God’s will.”

And the God Whom they would thus set at nought, is He who gives His Holy Spirit unto you . The Greek text of this clause is doubtful in several points. The Revisers are probably right in reading giveth in place of hath also given (A. V.); and you in place of us (A. V.), this word closing the sentence with emphasis.

The preposition is strictly into you , implying beyond the mere fact of the impartation of the Holy Spirit, His entrance into the soul. There is probably a reminiscence of Ezekiel 37:6 , where the LXX represents the Lord as saying to the dry bones, “I will give (Hebrew, put ) My Spirit into you, and you shall live, and shall know that I am the Lord.” Similarly in Galatians 4:6 , “God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts;” and in Ephesians 3:16 , “strengthened through His Spirit (entering) into the inward man.” The gift of the Holy Spirit of God, bestowed to dwell within the soul of him who believes in Christ, is the peculiar distinction and the essential blessing of Christ’s religion. “I will pray the Father,” said Jesus, “and He will give you another Paraclete, that He may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth. He abideth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:16 , John 14:17 ; comp. Luke 11:13 ). The whole grace of the Gospel is summed up by St Paul in “the promise of the Spirit,” received “through faith” (Galatians 3:14 ). Through His indwelling we know the love of God, and are conscious of being sons of God and heirs of life eternal (Romans 5:5 ; Romans 8:14-17 ; Galatians 4:6 , Galatians 4:7 ; Ephesians 1:13 , Ephesians 1:14 ).

Now the unchaste act or thought is an affront to the Holy Ghost, Who dwells as Guest in the soul and body of the Christian. This final warning seals the Apostle’s charge. He appeals to the presence of the Holy Spirit, of Whose continued visitations and influence his readers were sensible. To “reject the God Who gives” this gift would be for the Thessalonians to sin against the light that was in them. We are reminded again of 1 Corinthians 6:19 , “Know you not that your body is a temple of the Holy Ghost Which is in you, Which you have from God?”

“Gentle, awful, holy Guest,

Make Thy temple in each breast,

There supreme to reign and rest,

Comforter Divine.”

9. But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you ] More exactly, you have no need that one write to you . “Have no need” recurs in ch. 5:1; comp. ch. 1:8 and 1 John 2:27 . There was need for the Apostle to write on the previous subject ( vv. 3 8). But in this grace the Thessalonian Church excelled (comp. note on ch. 1:3, also 2 Ephesians 1:3 ).

In this respect they were (literally, and in one word) God-taught an expression found only here in the N.T.; comp. “God-breathed,” 2 Timothy 3:16 . The separate elements of the compound appear in John 6:45 , where our Lord cites the words of Isaiah 54:13 , “They shall be all taught of God.” The former “charge” the Thessalonians had received through men from God ( vv. 2, 8): the lesson of “brotherly love” they learnt so readily and with so little need of human instruction, that they were evidently taught it by God Himself . It seemed to come to them “naturally” as we say ye are of yourselves God-taught ; or as we ought to say, more reverently, “by God’s direct endowment.

taught of God to love one another ] Lit., to the end (or effect ) that you love one another . This was the purport and issue , rather than the mere content of the Divine teaching: God taught them many lessons; this was the aim of all.

10. And indeed ] should be For indeed . Their practice of the Divine lesson, as described in this verse, showed that they were truly “taught of God” to this effect.

ye do it towards all the brethren which are in all Macedonia ] Thessalonica was a prosperous commercial city and the capital of Macedonia (see Introd . Chap. I.). It was the natural centre of the Macedonian Churches including Philippi and Berœa, with other communities which had probably sprung up around these principal towns. The Thessalonian Christians were using their position and influence for the good of their brethren around them, and thus giving proof that they had learnt the great lesson of Divine grace. Silas and Timothy, recently returned from Macedonia (Acts 18:5 ; see ch. 3:6), had doubtless told the Apostle how well they did their duty towards the neighbour Churches (comp. ch. 1:7, 8, and notes).

but we beseech you, brethren ] should be exhort (R. V.), as in ver. 1 (comp. note, also on “comfort,” ch. 3:2); same word in ver. 18, and ch. 5:11, 14.

that ye increase &c.] Better rendered, that you abound still more ; the Apostle repeats the exact phrase employed in ver. 1, which takes up the verb of ch. 3:12 (see notes).

In all Christian virtues growth is possible and desired, but “brotherly love” above others is susceptible of constant and unlimited increase. The Apostle reverts to this point once more, in ch. 5:16.

Philadelphia (brother-love) in common Greek did not go beyond its literal sense. In Christian speech it was at once applied to the “brothers” of the new life in Christ, those who are united in the acknowledgement of God as their Father (ch. 1:1, see note). Comp. 1 John 4:21 , and 5:1, “This commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.… Whosoever loveth Him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of Him.” The word recurs in Romans 12:10 ; Hebrews 13:1 ; 1 Peter 1:22 ; also in 2 Peter 1:7 , where in “brother-love” charity (or love ) is directed to he “supplied,” as its spiritual and universal principle.

From the second topic of his “charge,” which the Apostle is happily able to dismiss in a few words, he proceeds to the third:

11. and that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business ] Lit., that you be ambitions to be quiet an example of St Paul’s characteristic irony; the contrast between ambition and quiet giving a sharper point to his exhortation, as though he said, “Make it your ambition to have no ambition!” The love of personal distinction was an active influence and potent for mischief in Greek city life; possibly the Thessalonians were touched with it, and betrayed symptoms of the restless and emulous spirit that afterwards gave the Apostle so much trouble at Corinth. Comp. 1 Timothy 2:2 , where he makes it an object of prayer, “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life.” Eager and active as his own nature was, St Paul much admired this kind of life, and deemed it ordinarily the fittest for the cultivation of Christian character, and (study), he continues, to be occupied with your own affairs . This, too, was to be their aim and ambition, in contrast with the busybody, gad-about habits to which some of them were inclined (see 2 Ephesians 3:11 , and note).

Those who meddle with other people’s business, commonly neglect their own; and idleness goes hand in hand with officiousness. Accordingly St Paul adds, and to work with your hands . Most of the Thessalonian Christians were probably handicraftsmen of one kind or other. Even for the few who possessed larger means the Apostle may have thought manual labour a good discipline; comp. note on ch. 2:9, and 2 Ephesians 3:7-12 . He perceived the danger, especially marked in this Church, arising from the unsettling effect which great spiritual excitement is apt to have upon the pursuance of the ordinary duties of life. Hence this had been a subject of his warnings from the beginning even as we charged you (comp. ver. 2). The Apostle Paul combined in his teaching a lofty spirituality with a quick sense for practical necessities.

12. that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without ] Honestly is rather honourably , honestè (Vulgate) in decent, comely fashion , in such manner as to “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour” (Titus 2:10 ), and to win for Christian faith respect even from those who did not embrace it. in 1 Timothy 3:7 this is laid down as a condition specially important hi the case of men appointed to office in the Church, that they should “have a good testimony from them that are without.”

Those without “outsiders,” as we say is an established phrase, used by contrast with “those within” the fold of Christ, or the walls of the city of God; see 1 Corinthians 5:12 , 1 Corinthians 5:13 ; Colossians 4:5 , “Walk in wisdom toward those outside;” also Mark 4:11 . In a thriving commercial town like Thessalonica, indolence or unfitness for the common work of life would bring great discredit on the new society.

and that ye may have lack of nothing] Better, need of nothing (R. V.), or of no one ( no man , A.V. margin). As much as to say: “That every one, inside or outside the Church, may respect you, and you may be no man’s dependents.”

The sense of honourable independence was strong in St Paul (see ch. 2:6, 9, and again 2 Ephesians 3:8 ): he desires to see it in all his people. The Church was already in danger of having its charities abused by the indolent, so as to foster a spirit of pauperism. In Ephesians 4:28 the Apostle enlists on the side of diligent secular work the spirit of charity, in addition to that of self-respect “that he may have to give to him that needeth;” comp. Acts 20:34 , Acts 20:35 , “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And in 1 Timothy 5:8 he includes under the necessities to be met by honest labour those of the man’s household, condemning the neglecter of these claims as “denying the faith” and “worse than an unbeliever.”

Section VI. The Coming of the Lord Jesus

Ch. 4:13 5:11

This solemn topic, as we have already seen (note on ch. 1:10, and Introd ., pp. 18 21), is the principal theme of the Epistles to the Thessalonians. It is not treated by way of argument or indoctrination, but as a matter already familiar to the readers; on which, however, further explanation and admonition were needful. The Apostle’s teaching about this event had been on some points misunderstood, while new and anxious questions had arisen respecting it. Death had visited the Christian flock at Thessalonica since St Paul left them; and this had aroused in the survivors a painful fear lest those who were thus snatched away should have lost their place and their share in the approaching advent of Christ. This apprehension the Apostle proceeds to remove; and we may entitle the remaining verses of the chapter: Concerning them that fall asleep .

St Paul (1) bids his readers be assured of the safety of their departed fellow-believers, vv. 13, 14; and he makes the revelation (2) that these will have the first place in the assembling of the saints at Christ’s return, vv. 15 17. He goes on to remind them (3) of the uncertainty of the time of His coming, ch. 5:1 3; and (4) exhorts them to be always ready for the event, like soldiers on guard and fully armed, vv. 4 9.

13. But I would not have you to be ignorant ] True reading, we would not , consistently with the first person plural (“Paul and Silas and Timothy”) in which the Epistle commenced (ch. 1:1). This impressive phrase (“would not ignorant”) the Apostle employs, as in Romans 11:25 and elsewhere, to call attention to a new topic on which he is especially anxious to have a clear understanding with his readers.

concerning them that fall asleep (R. V.), or are falling asleep : are asleep (A.V.) represents a different and faulty Greek reading. The Greek participle is present , and denotes what is now going on. The Apostle had not been long absent from Thessalonica, and apparently this question had now arisen for the first time. There were members of the Church who were evidently dying ; in some instances death had already supervened ( vv. 14, 15), in others it was impending. So vivid was the expectation of the Lord’s return, that this contingency had not been thought of till it arose; and it seemed as though these dying men would miss the great hope that had been so precious to them, of seeing Christ return to reign in His glory. The “brotherly love” which St Paul has just commended in the Thessalonians, would make this apprehension intensely painful.

Death is “sleep” to the Christian. Occasionally it bears this title in pagan writers, but only by way of poetical figure. Jesus Christ made it the standing name for Death in the dialect of His Church (Luke 8:52 ; John 11:11 , &c.). This expression indicates the restful (and perhaps restorative ) effect of death to the child of God, and at the same time its temporary nature . The use of the word by our Lord in connection with the raising of Jairus’ daughter and of Lazarus brings out strikingly this latter truth. So the early Christians called their place of burial (in Greek) koimētērion (cemetery), i.e. dormitory, sleeping-chamber .

that ye sorrow not, even as others ] More precisely, in order that : the Apostle corrects the ignorance of his readers “in order” to remove their sorrow; he would give them “words” with which they may “encourage one another” (ver. 18).

Lit., as the rest : synonymous with “those without” (ver. 12), and occurring in the same sense in Ephesians 2:3 ; the expression has a note of sadness, as of those who are left to sorrow and darkness.

Even before Christ came and “brought life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10 ), the Church had attained hope in view of death. See the noble passage in the Apocryphal Book of Wisdom (c. 100 b.c.), ch. 3:1 4: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.… Their hope is full of immortality.” But of “the rest” the unconverted Gentiles it is sorrowfully added, which have no hope . Comp. Ephesians 2:12 , “having no hope, and without God in the world.” Hopelessness was a prevalent feature of the world’s life at this time. The more enlightened and thoughtful a Greek or Roman citizen might be, the less belief he commonly had in any existence beyond death. See, e.g., the speeches of Cato and of Cæsar given in the Catiline of Sallust. The loss of Christian faith in modern times brings back the old Pagan despair, and throws over us again “the shadow of a starless night.” Amongst many sorrowful examples, the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff , recently published, supplies one of the most touching. Dying at 24, with her splendid gifts wasted and hungry ambition unappeased, this Russian girl writes: “O to think that we live but once , and that life is so short! When I think of it I am like one possessed, and my brain seethes with despair!” Against this great sorrow of the world the word sleep , four times in this context applied to Christian death, is an abiding protest.

The specific hope which the Thessalonian Christians had embraced and which those they had left behind in heathenism were without, was “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ,” centring in the prospect of His glorious return from heaven (ch. 1:3, 10). This hope, the Apostle will show, belongs to all who are “in Him;” and the circumstance of their having fallen asleep before His coming makes no difference in this relationship. “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8 ; comp. ch. 5:10): to be “the Lord’s” is the essential thing.

We gather that it was not their personal resurrection, but their share in the parousia about which the Thessalonians were anxious on behalf of their departed friends. Probably they had sent enquiries to St Paul, through Timothy, upon the subject.

14. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again ] The faith of a Christian man in its briefest and simplest form. So in Romans 10:9 the Apostle declares the faith that “saves” to be the belief of the heart that “God raised Jesus from the dead.” This involves everything else; it carries with it the conviction that Christ is Divine (Romans 1:4 ), and that His death brings “justification of life” for men (Romans 4:25 ). Such faith St Paul assumes, for himself and his readers, as a fundamental fact. He speaks of “Jesus,” thinking of Him in His human Person and in the analogy of His experience to our own. He is “Firstborn of many brethren, Firstborn out of the dead” (Romans 8:29 ; Colossians 1:18 ); and what we believe of Jesus , we may expect to see fulfilled in His brethren.

even so them also which sleep in Jesus ] Rather, which fell asleep . The verb is past (historical) in tense. The Apostle is looking back with his readers to the sorrowful event of their friends’ decease, that he may give them comfort; comp. ver. 15.

in Jesus is in the Greek through Jesus , or more strictly, that fell asleep (possibly, were laid to sleep ) through the Jesus just spoken of, Him “Who died and rose again.” For the force of the preposition, comp. ver. 2 and note. The departed Thessalonian Christians had “fallen asleep;” for them Death was robbed of his terrors and transformed to Sleep. “Through Jesus” this came to pass the Jesus of their faith, the dying, risen Saviour! Trusting in His Name, remembering and realising what it meant, they had met the last enemy, and conquering their fears they “laid them down and slept.” Such is the power of this Name in the last conflict:

“Jesus! my only hope Thou art,

Strength of my failing flesh and heart!”

(Chas. Wesley’s Dying Hymn.)

them that fell asleep through Jesus, God will bring with Him . God (expressed with emphasis) is the Agent in their restoration, as in ch. 1:10 in the “raising” of “His Son from the dead.” He “Who raised up the Lord Jesus, will raise up us also with Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:14 ; comp. Ephesians 1:19 , Ephesians 1:20 ). But the Apostle does not say here “will raise them with Jesus,” it is not the resurrection of the dead that is in question, but their relation to the Parousia, their place in Christ’s approaching kingdom. Therefore he says: “God will bring them with Him,” they will not be forgotten or left behind when Jesus comes in triumph.

The argument of this verse is condensed and somewhat subtle. When the Apostle begins, “If we believe” &c., we expect him to continue, “so we believe that those who died will, by the power of Christ’s resurrection, be raised to life, and will return to share His glory.” But in the eagerness of his inference St Paul passes from the certainty of conviction in the first member of the sentence (“If we believe ”) to the certainty of the fact itself (“ God will bring them”) in the second. In the same eagerness of anticipation he blends the final with the intermediate stage of restoration, making the resurrection of Jesus the pledge not of the believer’s resurrection simply (as in 2 Corinthians 4:14 ), but of his participation in Christ’s glorious advent , of which His resurrection is the prelude (comp. ch. 1:10, “to wait for His Son from the heavens, Whom He raised from the dead,” and note). The union between Christ and the Christian, as St Paul conceives it, is such that in whatever Christ the Head does or experiences, He carries the members of His body with Him. The Christian dead are “the dead in Christ ” (ver. 16); they will therefore be in due course the risen and the glorified in Christ (2 Ephesians 1:12 ); comp. 2 Timothy 2:11 , “If we died with Him, we shall also live with Him.” The point of the Apostle’s reasoning lies in the connection of the words “ died and rose again.” Jesus has made a pathway through the grave, and by this passage His faithful, fallen asleep, still one with the dying, risen Jesus, will be conducted, to appear with Him at His return.

15. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord ] Lit., in a word of the Lord , in the character of a message coming from “the mouth of the Lord;” comp. 1 Corinthians 7:10 , “I give charge, not I, but the Lord;” and ch. 2:13 above, “not men’s word, but God’s.” The “word” that follows ( vv. 15 17) can hardly be explained as a traditional saying of Christ, unrecorded in the Gospels, like Acts 20:35 ; nor as an inference from the teaching of Jesus on the subject of His return. St Paul claims to have received this communication directly from Christ, “the Lord” of His Church, as a revelation to himself (comp. Galatians 2:2 , Ephesians 3:3 for similar instances), given to him expressly in order to allay the fears of his readers. The Lord is manifestly Christ, as it is four times in the immediate sequel. St Paul applies to Christ’s word the same august phrase that in the O. T. denotes “the word of God” Himself; comp. note on ch. 1:8.

that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord ] This should be: we that are alive, that remain (or survive ) unto the coming of the Lord . The second designation qualifies the first, “those (I mean) who survive till the Lord comes.” St Paul did not count on any very near approach of the second Advent: comp. 2 Ephesians 2:1 , Ephesians 2:2 . At the same time, his language implies the possibility of the great event taking place within his lifetime, or that of the present generation. This remained an open question, or rather a matter on which questioning was forbidden (see Acts 1:7 ; Matthew 24:36 ). “Concerning the times and seasons” nothing was definitely known (ch. 5:1, see note). The Apostles “knew in part” and “prophesied in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ); and until further light came, it was natural for the Church, ever sighing “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly!” to speak as St Paul does here. The same “we” occurs in this connection in 1 Corinthians 15:51 , 1 Corinthians 15:52 . But from the time of the dangerous illness recorded in 2 Corinthians 1:8 , 2 Corinthians 1:9 , the prospect of death occupied the foreground in the Apostle’s thoughts of his own future, and he never afterwards writes “ we that remain.”

shall not prevent ] “Prevent” is obsolete in this sense: comp. the Collect, “ Prevent us in all our doings with Thy most gracious favour.” Better, shall in no wise precede (or anticipate ) those that fell asleep . The shadow which the event of their premature death had cast over the fate of the sleeping Thessalonian believers was wholly imaginary, and should be dismissed at once from the minds of their sorrowing friends. Instead of their having no place, they will have, as Christ now reveals to His Apostle, the foremost place in His triumphant return. Though dead, they are “dead in Christ” (ver. 16), departed to “be with Christ” “absent from the body” but “at home with the Lord,” as St Paul subsequently teaches (2 Corinthians 5:6-8 ; Philippians 1:23 ). So it cannot be that those who are found in the flesh when He comes again, will be beforehand with them in this reunion. “God will bring them with Him,” for they are with Him already.

The Apostle proceeds to support this assurance by a description of Christ’s coming, derived from the revelation, or “word of the Lord,” to which he has just appealed. This was one of the most remarkable of the many “visions and revelations” which St Paul experienced (comp. 2 Corinthians 12:1-5 ).

16. For the Lord Himself ] “In His personal august presence” (Ellicott). Comp. 2 Ephesians 2:16 , Ephesians 3:16 , for this kind of emphasis; also Ch. 3:11, 5:23, “God Himself:” in each case we feel the majesty with which God (or “the Lord”) rises above all human doings and desires.

with a shout ] Strictly, word of command , or signal , the shout with which the general gives the order to his troops, or the captain to his crew. Such “command” might be given either by voice, his own or another’s; or through a trumpet: both are added here, to complete the Impressive picture, With the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God .

We must not look for literal exactness where things are depicted beyond the reach of sense. These three may form but one idea, that of “the voice of the Son of God,” by which the dead will be called forth (John 5:28 ), Christ’s “command” being expressed by an “archangel’s voice,” and that again constituting the “trumpet of God.” Christ predicted His return attended by angels (Matthew 24:31 ; Matthew 25:31 ; comp. 2 Ephesians 1:7 ); and the Divine voice of the Book of Revelation is constantly uttered by an “angel,” or “mighty angel” (Revelation 5:2 ; Revelation 7:2 ; &c.). In the same Book voice and trumpet are identified, where St John describing the glorified Son of Man says, “I heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet talking with me” (Revelation 1:10 , Revelation 1:12 ; Revelation 4:1 ). This verse, like the above passages of the Apocalypse, echoes the words of Christ in Matthew 24:31 : “He shall send forth His angels with a trumpet of great voice.” In 1 Corinthians 15:52 the whole is described in one word: “The- trumpet -shall-sound, and the dead shall be raised.”

This is the military trumpet, like “word of command” above, by which the Lord of Hosts musters and marshals His array. Comp. ch. 5:8, with its “breastplate” and “helmet;” see note. “As a Commander rouses his sleeping soldiers, so the Lord calls up His dead, and bids them shake off the fetters of the grave and rise anew to waking life” (Hofmann).

St Paul does not write “ the Archangel,” as though pointing to some known Angelic Chief who is to blow this trumpet; his words are, with an archangel’s voice , indicating the majesty and power of the heavenly summons. This is the earliest example of the title archangel . In Jude 1:9 we read of “ Michael the archangel” an expression probably based on Daniel 12:1 , “Michael the great prince” (LXX: “the great angel;” comp. Revelation 12:7 , where “Michael and his angels” are arrayed against “the Dragon and his angels”). Of equal rank with Michael is Gabriel , the angel of comfort and good tidings in Daniel 8:16 , Daniel 9:21 , and Luke 1:19 , Luke 1:26 . The military style of this passage suits rather the character of Michael. Amongst the seven chief angels recognised at this time in Jewish teaching, Raphael stood nearest to the two that appear in the New Testament (Tobit 12:15). St Paul probably ranged the Archangels amongst the Principalities (Greek Archai ) to which he refers in Romans 8:38 ( angels and principalities ), Ephesians 1:21 , Ephesians 3:10 , Colossians 1:6 , Colossians 1:2 :10, Colossians 1:15 . See the Article on Angels in Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Antiquities .

the Lord Himself , &c.… will descend from heaven . See note on ch. 1:10. These words close the sentence, the accompaniments of the descent being first described, and then the descent itself , with solemn brevity and an effect of peculiar grandeur.

and the dead in Christ ] This gives us the key to the Apostle’s meaning throughout. Being “in Christ,” having died as they lived in Him , nothing can part them from Him, “neither death nor life” (Romans 8:38 ). And when He returns in bodily presence, their bodies must rise to meet Him and do Him homage.

shall rise first ] Not before the other dead , as though theirs were a select and separate resurrection (comp. John 5:28 , John 5:29 ); the antithesis is plainly given in the next verse, “first,” i.e. before the living saints : “we shall not take precedence of them, but rather they of us.”

17. then we which are alive and remain ] Better, we that are alive, that remain (or survive ). The phrase of ver. 15 repeated; see note. The Apostle distinguishes, as in 1 Corinthians 15:51 , 1 Corinthians 15:52 , between those “living” and those “dead in Christ” at the time of His advent, marking the different position in which these two divisions of the saints will then be found.

shall be caught up together with them in the clouds ] In the Greek order: together with them will be caught up in the clouds , emphasis being thrown on the precedence of the dead : “we the living shall join their company, who are already with the Lord.” Together with implies full association.

“Caught” in the original implies a sudden, irresistible force, seized , snatched up ! In Matthew 11:12 it is rendered, “The violent take it by force ;” in 2 Corinthians 12:2 , 2 Corinthians 12:4 St Paul applies it to his rapture into the third heaven.

“In” signifies not into , but “ amid clouds,” surrounding and upbearing us “like a triumphal chariot” (Grotius). So Christ Himself, and the angels at His Ascension, promised He should come (Matthew 26:68 ; Acts 1:9-11 ); comp. the “bright overshadowing cloud” at the Transfiguration, and the “voice out of the cloud” (Matthew 17:5 ). There is something wonderful and mystical about the clouds, half of heaven and half of earth, that fits them to be the medium of such events. They lend their ethereal drapery to form the curtain and canopy of this glorious meeting. “What belongs to cloudland is no less real than if set down on the solid ground.”

Such a raising of the living bodies of the saints, along with the risen dead, implies the physical transformation of the former to which the Apostle afterwards alludes in 1 Corinthians 15:51 : “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (comp. 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 ; Philippians 3:21 ). Some change had taken place in the sacred body of Jesus after His resurrection, for it was emancipated from the ordinary laws of matter. And this transformation the Apostle conceived to be possible without dissolution.

to meet the Lord in the air ] Lit., into (raised into) the air . “The air,” like the “clouds,” belongs to the interspace between the heaven from which Christ comes and the earth to which He returns. Here He will meet His Church. She will not need to wait until He sets foot on earth; but those who are ready, “looking for their Lord when He shall return” (Luke 12:35-40 ), will hear His trumpet call and “go forth to meet the Bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1 , Matthew 25:6 ). St Paul employs the same, somewhat rare Hebraistic idiom which is found in this passage of St Matthew, as though the words of Christ lingered in his ear.

and so shall we ever be with the Lord ] Where the Apostle does not say; whether still on earth for some longer space, or in heaven. The one and all-sufficing comfort is in the thought of being always with the Lord . This, too, was the promise of Christ, “Where I am, there shall also My servant be” (John 12:26 ; John 14:3 ). Those living in the flesh cannot be so in any complete sense; “at home in the body,” we are “absent from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6 ).

18. Wherefore comfort one another with these words ] Lit., in these words , in the revelation just communicated the readers are to find comfort for each other under their recent bereavement, and in all such seasons. Observe how wishful the Apostle is that his flock should minister to each other . Comp. ch. 5:12, 14, and notes.

Comfort or encourage : same as the “exhort” of vv. 1, 10; it denotes any kind of animating and cheering address. See notes on “exhortation,” ch. 2:3, 3:2.

“Listen! it is no dream: the Apostles’ trump

Gives earnest of the Archangel’s; calmly now,

Our hearts yet beating high

To that victorious lay,

(Most like a warrior’s, to the martial dirge

Of a true comrade,) in the grave we trust

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/1-thessalonians-4.html. 1896.