Read the Passage: 1 Thessalonians 4
Personal Purity (4:1–8)
While the book of 1 Thessalonians is only five chapters in length, as Paul begins chapter four, he finally starts to address questions raised by the church. Indeed, it may be helpful to view chapters one through three as a type of lengthy introduction, for Paul begins chapter four writing, “Finally then, brethren . . .” (1 Thess. 4:1). As we’ll see in this chapter, Paul writes concentrically here, from the inside out, addressing personal purity (cf. 1 Thess. 4:1–8), love for other believers (cf. 1 Thess. 4:9–10), interaction with outsiders (cf. 1 Thess. 4:11–12), and the fate of believers who have passed away (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13–18). Note that it is Paul’s discussion about deceased believers in this chapter that will lead to his teaching about the Day of the Lord in 1 Thess. 5. As he begins this chapter, in exhorting the Thessalonian believers to personal purity, Paul reminds the church that he had taught them about this issue earlier (cf. 1 Thess. 4:1).
1 Thess. 4:3 is one of the clearest verses in the Bible on God’s will for Christians, as here Paul writes, “For this is the will of God: your sanctification.” Next, in the following verses, Paul specifies three areas of sanctification that were immediately relevant in the Thessalonian context and are applicable to believers of all ages. First, Paul exhorts his readers to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3). Second, Paul notes each believer must “possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor” (1 Thess. 4:4). Third, Paul writes “that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother” (1 Thess. 4:6). Observe that the first exhortation here is negative, the second is positive, and the third one is general. Next, in this passage Paul gives four reasons why God holds believers’ accountable for holiness, which are: (1) God is an avenger, (2) the church has been warned, (3) God calls His people to sanctification, and (4) the Holy Spirit indwells believers.
Neighbor Love (4:9–12)
In describing their sanctification, Paul had already written that no one ought to “take advantage of and defraud his brother” (1 Thess. 4:6). In 1 Thess. 4:9–12 Paul expands upon this thought, as he exhorts brotherly love. When he wrote that the church was “taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9), Paul may have been referring to the natural work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who had prompted these new Christians to care for “all the brethren who are in Macedonia” (1 Thess. 4:10). Next, Paul exhorts these followers of Christ to “aspire to lead a quiet life [and] to mind your own business” (1 Thess. 4:11). Paul would later encourage Timothy to “lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Tim. 2:2) and exhort Titus “to be peaceable [and] gentle” (Titus 3:2). Similarly, in 2 Thess. 3:12, Paul instructed some in the Thessalonian church to “work in quietness.” Indeed, Christians ought to be marked by gentleness, quietness, and peaceable-ness.
Jesus’ Return (4:13–18)
As was noted earlier, in this passage Paul addresses believers’ relationships with others following a concentric pattern, from the inside out. In accord with this pattern, after mentioning “those who are on the outside” (1 Thess. 4:12), in 1 Thess. 4:13 Paul writes about “those who have fallen asleep,” which refers to believers who have died. When Christians think about this book, they often focus upon the doctrine of eschatology, for Paul writes about the end-times in 1 Thess. 4:13–5:11. Yet, it must be noted that Paul’s intent in this passage is not to give details and dates related to Jesus’ return, but to address the Thessalonians’ concerns about believers who had passed away. Given the persecution of the church in Thessalonica (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14–15; 3:3–4) some Christians had evidently died. Naturally, then, the church was wondering about the fate of these believers’ who had passed away prior to Jesus’ return.
Paul writes that his intent in this passage is to inform the church “concerning those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13)—not to provide a prophetic timeline. In the Bible, end-times teaching is always about believers’ comfort, and not about God’s calendar. Note the following four facts Paul gives in this passage related to believers who have passed away. First, when Jesus’ returns, He will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep (cf. 1 Thess. 4:14). Second, believers who are alive when Christ returns will not meet Jesus before those who have died (cf. 1 Thess. 4:15). Third, when Jesus’ returns, He will do so with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and a trumpet blast, with the dead in Christ rising first (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16). Fourth, Christians who are alive when Jesus returns will meet Him in air, with those who have died, and remain with Christ forever and ever (cf. 1 Thess. 4:17).
- In regard to sanctification, do you find it more difficult to maintain personal purity or to love your neighbors well?
- How important is it for Christians to review and to remind themselves about the doctrines they have already learned?
- Why is the will of God often viewed as a subjective extra-biblical topic, rather than an objective biblical doctrine?
- As Paul repeatedly exhorted the church, do most Christians in the modern context try to lead a quiet life?
- Why is the doctrine of eschatology, including teachings about Jesus’ return, a perennial favorite topic among Christians?