Bible reading: 1 Thessalonians 4

1:1-8. The Will of God Is Holiness. The Thessalonians had already received instruction from the evangelists after their conversion, just as Jesus had taught to do, “teaching them to observe all things” (Matthew 28:19-20). The content of the instruction dealt with how to live and please God. The way we live determines whether or not we will please God. Pleasing God is basic to one’s salvation. Thus, this manner of life is a must. Salvation is by grace, but by no means bereft of obligation. To live is the way we “walk” (2:12), a metaphor used of the disciple’s relationship to God and his manner of life in the Kingdom. It’s origin likely goes back to Adam and Eve’s literal walk with God in the garden of Eden. Paul acknowledges that they were in fact living properly, but desires to ask and urge them to do so more and more, that is, abound more, excel more. Growth is expected in God’s kingdom. What does not grow is dead. Hence, the need to abound is both the subject of instruction, as here, the topic of prayer (3:12; Philippians 1:9), and a reason for teaching and exhortation (1 Corinthians 15:58). The For of verse 2 connects it to the previous verse. This life is an obligation, because teaching comes in the form of commands. God’s command is eternal life (John 12:50). Those that Paul gave to his converts was through the Lord Jesus. The commands came from Jesus and had his authority as Lord behind them. If Jesus is Lord, he must be obeyed.

God’s will for them and for all believers is to become holy, wholly separated for service to God and totally devoted to him. Involved in that holiness is to keep away from sexual immorality. Sex is immoral when it is engaged in outside of marriage. One can keep away from it by knowing how to possess his own body. Body translates “vessel,” or the term may refer to a wife. Either Paul means to say that by disciplining one’s body one avoids immorality, or by sharing oneself with one’s wife. The latter would have 1 Corinthians 7:2ff in common. Without this discipline or without this expression in marriage, one tends toward lustful passion that is characteristic of the Gentiles. They give rein to passion because they do not know God. Those who do know him control their passions and express them in moral ways like marriage. Even in a matter like immorality, one is affecting his brother. Sin always hurts others. Immoral people violate or take advantage of others. Christians will avoid doing such, because the Lord is the avenger, and “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). The walk must agree with the call, which came in holiness. Since this is a command of Christ, its rejection is not of human authority but God. That he gives his Holy Spirit to Christians makes the rejection all the more pointed, since his task is to make us holy like himself.

1:9-12. Taught by God to Love. Paul now moves to deal with brotherly love, actually an extension of the previous thought, a contrast to taking advantage of others, though they do not need for anyone to write them, since they already practice it, having been taught by God. This teaching may have occurred when Paul instructed them in Thessalonica, or he may have reference to God’s example in Christ teaching them how to love. Their practice of love extended to all the saints in all of Macedonia, testimony to their Christian solidarity which overcomes any tendencies toward congregational exclusivity. Christians always are aware of, and care for, their brothers and sisters in other places. But love can always be expanded and developed more, so Paul and his fellow workers urge them again to do so more and more.

Included in this increasing love are aspirations to lead a quiet life, rather than being meddlers in others’ affairs (2 Thessalonians 3:11), always involved in ruckuses and disturbances. They should also attend to their own business, perhaps an allusion to the tendency to abandon one’s livelihood in order to wait for Christ’s coming. One does not show spirituality by neglecting the affairs of this life, but by infusing them with eternal purpose. So they should work with their hands, because even something as mundane as this is also commanded. Paul’s concern broadens from the mutual love of God’s family, to outsiders. Both example and evangelism are important to win others to Christ. So they should live a decent life without being in need.

1:13-18. Those who Have Fallen Asleep. Being uninformed is a sad state for Christians. Sleep is a metaphor for death. For loved ones who have passed away Christians need not grieve like the rest who have no hope. The difference is that we believe that Jesus died and rose again. Paul’s if here holds no doubt, but expresses the implication of belief. Jesus’ resurrection makes the difference, because it means that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Paul refers to Christians, which NET understands as the meaning of the literal “through Jesus.” When Paul speaks here of the word of the Lord, he may well refer to Jesus’ teaching while on earth. Though Paul includes himself in the group, we who are alive, he is speaking generally, and does not necessarily express his expectation of being alive at Jesus’ coming, for he knows, from the Lord’s word, that no one can predict when he will come. It would be ironic for him, in the midst of truths from Jesus’ own teaching, to express an erroneous expectation such as this. The living will have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep, because the dead in Christ will rise first when the Lord himself, in his descent from heaven gives a shout of command. The meeting point will be in the air and in the clouds, the living suddenly caught up together with the dead Christians to meet the Lord. All God’s family, living and dead, will always be with the Lord. Paul does not address the fate of the wicked, because he is evidently addresses concerns of the Thessalonians about the destiny of their friends and family who have died in the Lord. The finality of the passage also leaves little room to insert ideas of a millennial reign on earth. The Thessalonians would find much in these words to encourage one another.

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