1 Thessalonians 4

As we open the fourth chapter of this epistle we find the Apostle turning to exhortation and instruction. The earlier chapters had been largely occupied with reminiscences both as regards the work of God, wrought in the Thessalonians, and also the behaviour and service of Paul and his fellow­workers in their midst. Now the Apostle addresses himself to the present needs of his much-loved converts.

In the first chapter he had been able to say about them much that was highly commendatory, but this did not mean that there were no dangers and difficulties confronting them, nor that they were beyond the need of further advancement in the things of God. On the contrary they were as yet but babes. There was much they had yet to learn as to the truth and much they needed to know as regards the will of God for them. A great word for them, and for all of us, is that with which verse 1 closes – “more and more.”

In the first place they were to abound more and more in all those practical details of life and behaviour which are pleasing to God. During his short stay in their midst Paul had succeeded in conveying to them an outline of the walk that pleases God though of course there was much to be filled in as to detail. It is one thing however to know and quite another to do, and we are set here to please God in all our activities and ways. The will of God is our sanctification, that is, that we should be set apart from all that defiles in order that we may be wholly for God, and the Apostle had given them definite commandments as from the Lord in keeping with this.

Do we pay sufficient attention to the commandments of the Lord Jesus and of His Apostles which we find so plentifully in the New Testament? We fear that the answer to this question is that we do not . There are indeed some believers who have a rooted objection to the idea that any commandment has application to a Christian. The very word they will have none of. It has, they feel, so exclusive a connection with the law of Moses that to bring any kind of commandment to bear upon a Christian is to at once put him under law; and we Christians are, as they rightly remind us, “not under law but under grace.”

In this however they are mistaken. Under grace we have been brought into the kingdom of God . The Divine authority has been established in our hearts, if indeed we have been truly converted; and though love is the ruling force in that blessed kingdom yet love has its commandments no less than law. The law issued its commands without furnishing either the motive or the power that would ensure obedience. Only love can furnish the compelling force that is needed. Still the commands of love are there. “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3). Under law men were given commandments on the keeping of which depended their life and position before God. Under grace the believer's life and position are assured in Christ, and the commandments he receives are to shape and direct that new life in a way that will be pleasing to God.

In the New Testament we have, thank God, many plain commandments of the Lord covering all the major matters of life and service. There are however many minor matters as to which the Lord has not issued any definite instructions. (A comparison of three verses, viz., 1 Corinthians 7:6 and 25; 14:37, might be helpful at this point.) These omissions are not by oversight but of set purpose. It is evidently the Lord's purpose to leave many things to the prayerful exercises of His saints; they must search the Scriptures to discover what pleases Him and judge by analogies drawn from His dealings of past days. This is in order that they may be spiritually developed and have “their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” As to such matters each of us must seek to ascertain God's will and be fully persuaded in our minds.

This we fully admit; but let us not therefore overlook the plain commandments of the Lord where He has spoken. Some Christians are, we fear, rather apt to practice self-deception in this matter. They seem much exercised about a certain point. They seek light. They pray very piously. Yet all the while if they opened their Bibles there would stare them in the face a plain commandment from the Lord upon the very point in question. Somehow they manage to ignore it. In that case all their prayers and exercises are of but little worth, and indeed savour of hypocrisy.

We have enlarged a little upon this point because of its importance. Turning again to our Scripture we notice that having stated that God's will for His people is, in a general way, their sanctification, the Apostle specifies one sin which is the deadly enemy of any such thing. This particular sin was exceedingly common among the Gentile nations, so common that it was thought nothing of at all, and it was only when the light of Christianity was shed upon it that the real evil of it became manifest. Amongst the Christianized nations of today it is looked upon with far less abhorrence than it was fifty years ago; a definite witness this to how far they have turned aside from even the outward profession of Christ. Verses 3 to 7 are all concerned with this particular sin. Let us each carefully read these verses and take home to our hearts the Apostle's pungent words.

The word sanctification really occurs three times in these verses, but it has been translated “holiness” in verse 7, where it is put in contrast with uncleanness. To sanctification we have been called and if we ignore this we shall find serious consequences in three directions.

In the first place we have to reckon with the Lord, who will deal with us in His righteous government of His saints. If another has been wronged He will constitute Himself the Avenger of their cause. Secondly there is God to be reckoned with. It may seem as if the wrongdoer is merely des­pising or disregarding the rights of a man, but in reality he is disregarding the rights of God. Thirdly, there is the Spirit of God to be considered, and He is the Holy Spirit – the word for holy coming from the same root as the words for sanctification in the verses above. The Spirit being given, He sets us apart for God.

With verse 9 Paul turns from this sin which so often masquerades falsely under the name of love, to brotherly love, which is the real article as found among the people of God. As to this he gladly acknowledges there was no need of his exhortations for they had been taught of God to do it. It was the very instinct of the divine life in their souls. The only thing he has to say to them is that they should “increase more and more.” Here again we meet with these words. There is to be more and more happy obedience to the commands of the Lord, and more and more brotherly love amongst the people of God. LOVE and OBEDIENCE – these are the things! And more and more of them! How happy shall we be if thus we are charac­terized!

It is very significant how we pass from brotherly love to the very homely instructions of verses 11 and 12. Before now brotherly love has been known to degenerate into unbrotherly interference with one's brethren. Well, here we have the wholesome corrective. “Seek earnestly to be quiet, and mind your own affairs and work with your own hands,” as one translation renders it.

The Apostle now (verse 13) approaches the matter which was apparently the main reason for the writing of the epistle. They were at that moment in a good deal of sorrow and difficulty as to certain of their number who had died. They were well aware that the Lord Jesus was coming again, indeed they were expecting Him very soon, and this made these unexpected deaths very mysterious to their minds. They felt that in some way or other these dear brethren of theirs would be losers. The Saviour would come and the glory would shine without them ! It was a very real grief to them, but it was a grief founded upon ignorance and it only needed the light of the truth to dispel it for ever.

“I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren,” says the Apostle, and he forthwith instructs them in the very details which they needed to know, perfecting in that particular matter that which was lacking in their faith.

The first thing he assures them is that God will bring these departed saints with Jesus when He comes again. In the last verse of chapter 3, he had spoken of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with ALL His saints” and here he fortifies this assurance. The “ all ” includes those who “sleep in Jesus” for it is as certain that such will be brought with Christ as that Jesus Himself died and rose again. The death and resurrection of Christ are to faith the standard of absolute truth and reality and certainty. All parts of the truth are equally certain and the Apostle desired them to realize this.

This most definite assurance, comforting as it must have been, would not solve the difficulty existing to their minds as to how it was to be accomplished. How were these departed saints to be found in Christ's glory so as to come with Him at His advent? In what way would this great change be accomplished? This question is answered in the succeeding verses, and the Apostle prefaces his explanation with the words, “This we say unto you by the word of the Lord.” By this he indicated that he was conveying to them something as a direct and fresh revelation from the Lord, and not merely restating something that had been previously revealed. The item of truth which he makes known to them was just that which they needed to complete their understanding of the coming of the Lord.

When the Lord comes the saints will be divided into two classes – (1) “we which are alive and remain” (2) “them which are asleep.” Evidently the Thessalonians to begin with had not contemplated the possibility of there being this second class at all. Even later they probably imagined that the first class would form the majority and the second the minority; and hence there would be the tendency to treat the second class as a negligible factor. Verse 15 corrects this tendency. The fact was, as the Apostle assures them, that the saints in class one would not “prevent” – that is, “go before” or “have precedence over” – those in class two. If there was to be any precedence given at all it would be accorded to class two as verse 16 shows, for there it is stated that “the dead in Christ shall rise first .”

Verses 16 and 17 then speak of the coming of the Lord Jesus for His saints. They reveal to us just how He is going to gather them to Himself so that subsequently He may come with all of them as the last verse of chapter 3 stated. Unless the distinction between the coming for and the coming with is seen no clear view of the Lord's coming is possible.

How emphatic is that statement: – “The Lord Himself shall descend.” In that supreme hour He will not act by proxy but come Himself! He will descend with an assembling shout. Myriads of angels will serve, for the archangel's voice will be heard. The hosts of God will be on the move, for the trumpets of God shall sound. Yet all these will be subsidiary to the mighty action of the Lord Himself. Verse 16 gives us His sudden descent from heaven into the air, and the exertion of His power, the utterance of the voice that wakes the dead.

The last clause of verse 16 and verse 17 give us the response that will be at once found in the saints. The first effect of His power will be seen in the resurrection of the dead saints. Then they, with those of us who are alive and remain until that hour, will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air and so be for ever with Him. How simple it all is; and, thank God, as certain of accomplishment as simple.

We notice of course that this Scripture does not give us all the details connected with this blessed hope. We might wish to enquire for instance in just what condition the dead in Christ are raised? This we find answered very fully in 1 Corinthians 15. That chapter also informs us of the change that must take place as to the bodies of all saints who are alive when He comes. We must be changed into a spiritual and incorruptible condition ere we are “caught up.” That chapter also tells us that all will take place “in a moment in the twinkling of an eye,” which assures us that though the dead in Christ shall rise first , the precedence they are granted will be a matter of but just a moment.

In verse 17 observe the word “together.” The Thessalonians sorrowed and so often do we. Being taught of God to love one another their hearts were torn when death snatched some from their midst. We too know what these wrenches are. We do not sorrow as those who have no hope, nor did they. The life-giving voice of the Son of God is going to reunite us. We shall meet Him, but not in ones or twos or in isolated detachments. We shall be caught up TOGETHER.

“What a chorus, what a meeting,
With the family complete!”

Notice also that we are going to meet the Lord. The word used here only occurs thrice elsewhere in the New Testament, viz., in Matthew 25:1 and 6, and Acts 28:15. In each case it has the meaning of “going forth and returning with.” When the brethren from Rome “met” Paul that was exactly what happened. They went forth as far as Appii Forum and having met him they joined his company and returned with him to Rome . Just so shall we all meet our Lord in the air. Joining His company – never to part from Him – we shall subsequently return with Him when He is manifested to the world in His glory.

Are not “these words” enough to comfort all our hearts; enough indeed to fill them with abiding joy?