1 Thessalonians 4

1 Thessalonians 4  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 7
The next portion, or second half of the epistle, opens with practical exhortation. The early part insists on purity; then follow a few words on love. It might seem strange that it should be needful to guard these saints, walking as we have seen so simply and delightfully, against unclean offenses even in the closest relations of life—that Christian men should be warned against fornication and adultery; but we know that so desperate is the evil of the flesh, that no circumstances nor position can secure, yea, even the joy of the blessing of God’s grace, without exercise of conscience and self-judgment; and hence these solemn admonitions from the Lord. It was particularly needed at that time and in Greece, because such sins were rather sanctioned than judged in the heathen world. Even mankind in later days have profited enormously by the change. They can now no doubt enrich themselves with truth, and talk largely about holiness; but how little they knew of either before they borrowed from Scripture! It is all stolen goods, every bit of real value. The men of whom they are the successors were unclean to the last degree. The Aristotles and Platos were really not fit for decent company. I admit our Grecians would scowl at such an estimate, or scorn it; but they lack the elements for forming an adequate moral appraisal, or they do not look the facts in the face, plain enough as they are. If knowingly they endorse or make light of such morals as Plato counted desirable for his republic, it cannot be doubted where they themselves are. Undoubtedly there were some fine speculations, but nothing more; for men thought that talking about morality would do as well as the thing itself. It is Christ, and Christ alone, that has brought in the very truth of God in word and deed. It was unknown to man before: still more the ultimate proof in the cross that He is love. Christ first displayed absolute purity in the very nature which had reveled in lust and passion heretofore.
But the Thessalonians in general might not have estimated its importance fully, being young in the truth. There was doubtless good reason why the Apostle in writing to them had to lay great stress on moral purity. The fact is, that it was a matter of course then for men to live just as they listed. There was no restriction, except so far as mere human vengeance or punishments of the law might deter them. Men indulged themselves in anything they could do safely. And so indeed it is to this day, except so far as Christianity or the profession of it prevents them.
After speaking of purity, the Apostle treats of loving one another, and adds that there was no need to say much about it. They themselves were taught of God; they knew what they were called to in brotherly love. But he does exhort them to be quiet and to mind their own business, working with their own hands, as he not only commanded them when in their midst, but exemplified it from day to day himself. He had it deeply at heart that they should walk reputably toward those without, and have need of no one or thing.
But we come in the next place to a main topic of the epistle. They had fallen into a serious mistake as to some of the brethren that had fallen asleep. They feared that these departed saints would miss much at the coming of the Lord—in fact, that they would lose their part in the joyful meeting between the Lord Jesus and His saints. This at once shows us that we must not estimate the Thessalonian believers according to that standard which these mistakes helped to elicit from the Holy Spirit. We have the advantage of the entire development of the truth, much of which was the inspired correction of evils and errors. The New Testament, you must remember, was not then written; a very small part—one gospel, or at most perhaps two, and not one of the epistles. Thus, except the teaching that they had received from the Apostle during his comparatively short stay in Thessalonica, they had little or no means of further instruction in the truth, and we know how easily that which is only heard passes away. We may learn from this the invaluable blessing we have, not merely in the word, but in the written Word of God—Scripture. However, at this time, for the most part, the New Testament books were not yet written.
It was that part of Scripture which most of all concerned these saints. We must not, therefore, wonder that they were ignorant of what had regard to their brethren who had fallen asleep. On the other hand, it is not meant that they entertained any fears of their being lost. This could not arise in the minds of souls grounded in what the Apostle calls our gospel; and no charge is so much as hinted of any failure in this respect. Still a delay might have been conceived before they entered into full blessedness. One can understand their perplexity for want of light on what the Lord would do with them. They did not know whether they would then enter the kingdom, or how, or when. These were questions unsolved.
The Holy Spirit meets their difficulties now, and tells them to this effect: “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.” Clearly we hear again of the Lord coming, and bringing these saints with Him. It is not the Lord, however, receiving them to Himself, but bringing them with Him. That is, we have once more the Lord coming in glory with His saints already glorified. When that moment comes, at any rate, they will be with Him. Such is the first statement of the Apostle. But this very truth, which made part of their old difficulty, raises another difficulty. How could the saints that had fallen asleep come with Him now? How could all the saints appear in glory with Christ? They seem to have understood that when the Lord came, there would be saints here below waiting for Christ; and that these would somehow be with Him in glory. But they were utterly perplexed as to the saints that had fallen asleep. They did not know what to make of the interim—if indeed they suspected an interim. They did not know the process by which the Lord would deal with those that had died; and it is now explained.
“For this we say unto you by the Word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [shall in no wise anticipate] them which are asleep.” If they had remained alive, no difficulty had been felt in the case. Some in our day seem to feel a good deal surprised at such a difficulty as this; but the truth is that the sorrow of the Thessalonians arose from the simplicity of their faith, and men’s feeling no difficulty now is partly owing to their lack of any genuine faith in it. Had they more faith, they might have their perplexities too, not at the end, but, as usual, at the beginning. It was certainly so with the Thessalonians at this time. It is always the effect of faith at first. Newly-entered light gives occasion to the perception of much which we cannot solve at once. But God comes in to the aid of the believer, and in His own grace and time solves one difficulty after another. Then the Apostle clears it up thus: “We which are alive and remain unto the coming [or presence] of the Lord,” and so forth. The word “coming” means the fact of being present in contrast with absence. “We which are alive and remain unto the presence of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep.” I take the liberty of changing the word “prevent,” which is old English, into a phrase which gives the same meaning as “prevent” when the translation was made. We “shall not precede them which are asleep.”
Thus, suppose we are waiting for Christ to come, and that He comes, we shall not be before those saints that have departed previously. How can this be? It is answered in the next verse. “For the Lord Himself,” says he, “Shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Thus it is evident that, if there be a moment of difference, it is in favor of the sleepers, and not of those which remain alive. Those that are asleep are first wakened up. Bear in mind, sleep is for the body; the soul is never said or supposed in scripture to be asleep. But those who are asleep in their graves will be wakened up by the shout (κέλευσμα) Of the Lord Jesus; for the word means the call of a commander to his men that follow, or of an admiral to his sailors. It is from one who has a relation to others under his authority; it is not a vague call to those that may not own His command, but to His own people.
It is evident, therefore, that the notion entertained by some, that this shout must be heard by men in general, is refuted by these words, as well as other facts. Men in general have no such relation to the Lord. It is a shout that is heard by those to whom it appertains. Not a word, therefore, includes—but, rather the contrary, shuts out—those to whom Christ stands in no such connection. In other words, it is the Lord’s call to His own, and accordingly—the dead in Christ rise first, as the immediate fruit of it. “Then we, the living that remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” This at once dispels the difficulty as to those who were asleep. So far from missing the moment of meeting between the Lord and His own, they rise first; we immediately join them; and thus both together are caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with Him.