Exhortations (1 Thessalonians 4:1~12)
In this section the apostle set forth the walk that pleases God. During his ministry among the Thessalonians, Paul had been careful to emphasize the practical side of Christianity. Sometimes we are apt to neglect this. We are so taken up with doctrine that we do not sufficiently stress our responsibilities as believers. Both sides of Christianity are important.
There is a special warning in this passage against sins of impurity. In Paul’s day, immorality was so common among the heathen that even Christians were apt to look on it with a measure of indifference or even complacency. As Alexander Pope wrote:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Among pagan nations the vilest kind of lasciviousness was connected with the worship of their false gods. But our God is infinitely holy and we who know Him are called to be careful to avoid every tendency to uncleanness. Thus the apostle wrote, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
We often find this verse quoted in part, particularly by those who misunderstand the meaning of sanctification. They think of sanctification as a second definite work of grace that follows justification. Building on a false premise, they attempt to find Scriptural support in the first part of this verse. But what Paul was saying was that God’s will is for believers to walk in separation from all that is vile and immoral. The Thessalonians were to separate themselves from the lasciviousness and licentiousness that had characterized many of them before they were saved.
It is the will of God that believers walk in purity, looking on their bodies as devoted to Him (see Paul’s exhortation in 4:4-5). Some people might say, “We live in a civilized land where men have learned the difference between clean and unclean living; we do not need an exhortation such as this.” But anyone who is aware of actual conditions inside and outside the professing church realizes how relevant the admonition is. There is always the temptation to lower the Christian standard. We need to be constantly reminded of the importance of living pure lives.
It is impossible to sin in the manner of which Paul wrote without wronging others. The sins he mentioned here cannot be committed alone and other people are always injured by such unholy deeds. The apostle therefore gave the warning “that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter” (4:6).
The believer’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and it is to be devoted to the glory of our blessed Lord. If a man despises such an admonition, he “despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit” (4:8).
In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10 Paul referred to that love which is the evidence of the new nature given to all who are born of God. The brotherly love of the young Thessalonian converts was obvious to all, but the apostle told them that in this (as in every other grace) there should be continuous progress.
Paul went on to give another very practical word of advice: “Study to be quiet, and to do your own business” (4:11). The word translated “study” here means “to be ambitious.” We are to be ambitious to do our own business; that is, we are to mind our own business! Many people seem to have the ambition to mind any business except their own, but minding other people’s business always results in strife and dissension.
When Paul exhorted the Thessalonians “to work with your own hands,” he was saying that the Christian is not to be dependent on others. He is to earn his own living by honest work; if possible he is to be self-supporting. He is not to expect other people to maintain him in idleness.
The Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Following the exhortations in verses 1-12, the apostle turned to another matter, a question that was troubling the young Christians in Thessalonica. Timothy had informed Paul that they were concerned about some of their number who had died. Those who remained alive wondered, What will happen to the departed ones when Christ comes again?
When Paul was with the Thessalonians, he told them that Jesus was coming again to set up His kingdom on this earth, and they leaped to the conclusion that those who died before the Lord’s return might not share in His reign, that only those who were living when He returned would welcome Him and have a part in the kingdom. After all, how could people who were no longer in this world reign with Him here? The apostle wrote verses 13-18 to correct their misunderstanding and share the new revelation that the Lord had unfolded to him.
Paul started, “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep” (4:13). When he used the expression “asleep,” he meant “dead.” Later when he spoke of Jesus, he used the expression “died,” but when he spoke of believers, he used the expressions “sleep” and “asleep.” Christ died; He went into death and all that it involved when He took our place on the cross. But we who trust in Him will never see death. If we enter the realm of what we call “death,” our bodies will just be asleep until the Lord Jesus returns. Our spirits will leave our bodies and go to be with Christ: “Absent from the body… present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Paul did not rebuke believers for sorrowing when they lose their loved ones in Christ, but he did tell them not to sorrow as others do who will have no reunion at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have the hope of reunion “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)—and we do believe it! We are not Christians if we do not. The fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the foundation truth of Christianity.
First Corinthians 15:3-4 tells us “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” And Romans 4:25, referring to Christ, says, “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” The body of Jesus came up from the tomb. In that body He ascended into Heaven and in that body He now sits on the throne of God.
Romans 10:9-10 states, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Anyone who does not believe in the death and resurrection of Christ has no right to the name Christian.
In the King James version the second part of 1 Thessalonians 4:14 reads, “Them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” A better translation might be, “Them which have been put to sleep by Jesus will God lead forth with Him.” The blessed Lord Himself takes His weary saints and puts them to sleep until that glorious resurrection morning when they will be awakened at the sound of His voice. Then God will lead them forth with Him.
How can the Lord Jesus come with all His saints to establish His kingdom if some of His saints are in Heaven and some of them are on earth? Paul explained that when the Lord comes for His own, He will raise the dead and change the living and they will “be caught up together… in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17). Then God will lead them forth with the Lord Jesus when He descends in power and glory.
It was a new revelation (“This we say unto you by the word of the Lord”) that we who are alive when the Lord returns will not precede those who are “asleep” (4:15). I cannot find one word in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) about this aspect of the Lord’s coming for His saints. In the Synoptics the coming of the Son of God with His saints to set up His kingdom on earth is always in view. The Gospel of John, however, provides a link to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. John told us that before the Lord went away, He said to the apostles in the upper room, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2-3). They knew He was coming again to set up His kingdom; He had told them that before. But now He gave them information about a secret that He had kept in His heart until this time: “I will come again, and receive you unto myself.” It is this aspect of His coming that was given by revelation to the apostle Paul and through him to us.
There will be a generation of Christians living on the earth in their natural bodies when the Lord comes again. We have no way of knowing when this blessed event will take place. It might please Him to defer His coming until we have left this world, but we are to live in daily expectation of His return.
The King James version states, “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, italics added). The meaning of the English word “prevent” has changed in the last three hundred or more years. When the Bible was translated in 1611, to prevent meant “to go before.” When David was speaking of his morning prayer in Psalm 119:147, he said, “I prevented the dawning of the morning.” He did not mean that he prevented the sun from rising; he meant that he was up and praying before the sun rose. Today to prevent means “to hinder.” But Paul meant that we who are alive when Christ returns will not enter the kingdom one moment ahead of those who have died. We will all go in together.
First Thessalonians 4:16 indicates that “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven.” I like those words: the Lord Himself! He is the One for whom I am waiting! The angels said, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). It is the Lord Himself for whom we look.
He will descend “with a shout, with the voice of the archangel.” The archangel in the Old Testament is connected with the Jewish people in a very special way. Daniel 12:1 states, “At that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.” The voice of Michael the archangel will be heard at the same time that the Lord gives His awakening shout. When Christ comes, the saints of all past ages as well as the saints of this age will be included in the fulfillment of prophecy.
When “the trump of God” sounds, “the dead in Christ shall rise first.” The last clause can be literally translated, “The dead in Christ will stand up first.” Millions whose bodies are sleeping in the earth will hear His voice. Lazarus heard it when he was in the tomb, and he immediately sprang to life. So all the saved who have died will stand up, come back to life, in the first resurrection.
Then we whose bodies are still alive will be “caught up together with them in the clouds” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The definite article before “clouds” obscures the meaning of Paul’s words. I do not think we are going to ascend to the fleecy clouds above our earth. Even our airmen go higher than that. But there will be so many millions of us that we will go up in clouds of people. This event is what we call the rapture of the church. We will be rapt (carried) away “to meet the Lord in the air.” The word translated “meet” means “to go out to meet one in order to return with him” as in Acts 28:15.
We will be “caught up together” (italics added). We have fellowship together down here. We work together here under our Lord’s authority. And when He returns we will be “caught up together.” We will know those with whom we go to meet the Lord. Sometimes people ask me, “Will we know one another in Heaven?” We will know as we have never known before! “Then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will know as God Himself has known us.
There are wonderful events to be unfolded in the ages to come. We will stand before the Lord’s judgment seat in our glorified bodies to receive rewards for the deeds done in this life. He will descend to take His kingdom; and like the armies of Revelation 19:14 following the rider on the white horse, we will come with the Lord to share in His glory on that triumphal day. This is our hope; this is the hope of the church.
But whatever events unfold, we will always be with the Lord: “So shall we ever be with the Lord.’* And the apostle said to “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). Do they bring comfort to your heart? They should if you are living for Him. If you are not, there will be no comfort in “these words” for you.