Just before we get into the chapter today, I should tell you that there are things in this book that people are of differing opinion about. I can only tell you what I am persuaded of, and I can’t even always tell you why, but it comes down to something called hermeneutics, the science of interpreting the Scriptures. I once saw a diagram that can give you a sense of how hermeneutics will affect your understanding of the Bible presented by the late Dr. Chuck Missler. It looks like this:
The further you are to the right of the diagram, the more literal your interpretation of the Bible. There are a few schools of thought on this, and none of them agree on just what this book is saying. I feel that I owe it to you to declare my bias at the beginning. I’m more to the right of this diagram. I am in the pre-millenial camp, and I admit to being undecided about pre- or some version of mid-tribulation harpazo event (we’ll get to that in this book). I’m not asking you to agree with me. As always, I’m asking you to do your own intellectual work and draw your own conclusions. What I say here will be my own conclusions from such activities. Ready?
Then let’s dive in to chapter 4.
1: Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.
- The sense I get from the verse here is that Paul is asking the Thessalonians what they think they can do to maximize their efforts at walking before God. The “request” is an asking of, and the “exhort” part is parakaleo, that calling toward.
- Paul is NOT saying that they are not doing enough. In fact, he points out that they are walking the walk AND talking the talk, just as we are all supposed to. No wonder, since Paul tells us that they got it from his instruction.
2: For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
- Paul refers to commands [paraggelia, an instruction or command] that the apostle or his companions had previously given, and had given by the Lord Jesus. (The word “authority” is inserted by the NASB translators to attempt clarification, though I read it the same either way.)
3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality;
But in case you forgot them, here they are.
- The will of God is our sanctification [hagiasmos, consecration, that is, the act of being made holy for God’s use]. It is CRITICAL for the believer to understand that this is not the once-for-all salvation of the spirit, which is justification by faith. Sanctification is the salvation of the SOUL, our personalities, everything we are, and without that holiness, no one will see the Lord.
- Now this holiness means something in the real world as well, and Paul goes over some details beginning with our abstention from sexual immorality [porneia, fornication, or in our modern day language, sex outside of marriage].
4: that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor,
- This is a very obscure translation, and to be fair it is not just obscure in the NASB. This started with the KJV in 1611. This should be more accurately translated as, “…that each of you know how to acquire his own wife in sanctification and honour…” The “vessel” is something you put your “seed” into, and because it written from Paul’s male perspective, it refers to one’s own wife. It could just as easily mean husband for the ladies in our midst. This is trying to use euphemism to talk about a subject that was taboo, especially in the day of King James (and Elizabeth I before him).
- If you will recall our addressing of the Gnostics in Colossians, you will remember that material pleasures were considered evil. Because of this erroneous idea, sex in any context became evil, and that wrong thought was perpetuated by the Catholics and even into the reformation. Sex in its proper context is a fantastic thing, and moreover, it was created by God for men and women to enjoy with each other within the marriage relationship. It is in fact one of the most holy expressions of the intimacy found within the Godhead that there is, which is why sexual sins are treated with such seriousness, and why they seem so difficult to adhere to, in my opinion.
- Also, as Christians, we need to be able to talk about things out in the open and not be hindered by cultural ideas of taboo. Paul is talking about how we are not to have sex outside of marriage, and then he shifts gears to talk about how one can acquire a life-partner. It has two conditions to it: Sanctification (holiness, remember) and honour. He continues the thought in the next verse, in fact…
5: not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;
- NOT in lustful [epithumia, desire, passionate lust] passion [pathos, that which befalls, a passion, a suffering], like the Gentiles that do not know God. Hang of for a second – what does THAT mean? It means the same thing today – that the world’s idea of so-called romantic love is not all it’s cracked up to be. The average romantic movie these days has a guy who meets a girl (or the other way around), and they have some kind of physical attraction, shared trial, and they support each other through the hard time, and they “fall in love.” The old-style version of this actually had the guy as the hero that would “rescue” the leading lady, or vice versa. You can thank Walt Disney for that nonsense. We DO NOT MARRY BECAUSE OF OUR FEELINGS!!!! At least not primarily. If you have this romantic notion in your noggin, please disabuse yourself of the notion.
- Why does a Christian do anything? BECAUSE IT IS THE WILL OF GOD. Now, if it IS the will of God that you and your beloved marry, those feelings will accompany the relationship in my experience, but you would be surprised at how many couples I know that entered into a romantic relationship in a very guarded way at first as Christians. You would be utterly SHOCKED to know the number that relied on their feelings and are now divorced, which is something Jesus said that God hates, though He allows it because of our hard hearts.
6: and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.
- AND that it be done uprightly. This is still relating to acquiring a spouse, friends. This is all one sentence. What does that mean, to be done uprightly? Well, you are not to have interference from family or so-called friends, no matter how well-meaning.
- NB: This is not talking about abusive situations, which should not ever happen if both spouses love Christ. However, because we are all human, I know it does, and there are other rules that Jesus gives for dealing with abusive relationships, that Paul is not talking about here.
- The word in Greek for defraud means to overreach, speaking of one’s own authority. Basically, this is a friend that tries to tell you what to do in terms of a godly, heaven-sent relationship that will lead to marriage. I had one of those once. He harassed me all the time, even spied on me through mutual friends, to try to be my “mentor,” to put it kindly. I finally spoke with the church leadership about it. The brother pulled my friend into a room, and they spoke for less than a minute. He left me alone after that. The brother must have thought he was my mentor because he took me through some bible passages about how to grow in Christ. I’m fairly certain that the leader used this verse. Why?
- Because the Lord is the AVENGER in all these things. The Greek here is ekdikos, which means the one who exacts penalty on behalf of another. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, and I WILL REPAY. He did, too, and I wouldn’t wish what that brother went through after that on anyone. It was absolutely horrible in terms of the emotional roller coaster that brother rode for a few years. We are not to use occasions like this to assert control (overreach our own authority) over others. If we do, we’re asking for a rough ride.
- But hey, Paul warned us.
7: For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.
- And why all this trouble from our Avenger, God the Father? Well, because God hasn’t called us to walk in impurity, He desires to sanctify us. If we allow ourselves or others to be cheated by so-called friends or family (even the house of Christ), we are NOT walking in sanctification. Right things like family that are done the wrong way, are STILL WRONG. And like Jonah, who went down, away from the Lord’s work for him, we will pay the fare, whenever we do wrong and thus oppose God and His purpose and work. Rather, let us be those who want to cooperate with God and be made holy!
8: So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
- Look, disagree with me if you like, that’s your right. I’m not asking you to agree. But it really isn’t me that you’re disagreeing with, is it. Don’t put yourself in the position of rejecting God. Paul here identifies God as the one that gives you His Holy Spirit as a believer. He is not threatening to take it away, but rejecting God WILL grieve that same Holy Spirit.
9: Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another;
- “Love of the brethren” is the Greek word philadelphia. In the NT church, this is the love which Christians cherish for each other as brothers and sisters. The believers in Thessalonica understood what this meant. Paul tells us that we are taught by God to love one another.
10: for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more,
- Continuing the thought, Paul first tells them that he acknowledges their excellent practice of this love of the brethren, but in the same thought, attempts to stir them to “excel still more,” or literally go even farther than they already have.
11: and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you,
Three concepts as to how we are to love our brethren – Paul tells us that we should be making this our ambition or aspiring to it as our goal:
- Lead a quiet life. This word is used in Scripture to mean a) to rest or cease from labour; b) not be running here and there but stay at home and mind their business; and c) to be silent, i.e., to say nothing and hold one’s peace.
- Mind your own business. As opposed to everybody else’s. I see this a lot in the so-called “social justice” movement. These well-meaning people seem to think it is the Church’s mission to right all the wrongs in the world – and you should know this – IT. NOT!!! It’s Christ’s job to do that, and it is our job to live out the actual Gospel that Jesus commissioned – making disciples of everyone, teaching them to do everything the Lord commanded, not these so-called Gospel issues of imagined fairness and false freedom from fictional wrongs. Brother. Sister. Don’t be busybodies. Mind your own business, literally.
- Work with your hands. This is literally “labour with your hands.” Does this mean we should all be carpenters like Jesus? Well, no! Where would policemen, firemen, EMTs, city administrators, soldiers, painters, pastors, and etcetera, come from? This is saying, again, in contradiction to so-called common sense, “Do your own work,” instead of everyone else’s. I personally have a habit of being a bit of an armchair politician, especially where financial things are concerned. I have a bit of a head for economic issues as it turns out, and I have some intelligent and cogent arguments to make about our financial system and our financial services sector. But I am not an economist. What is MY work? Well, to shepherd the flock, not run the banks in Canada. I need to do that, not everyone else’s.
This is what Paul taught them. It certainly isn’t any longer in vogue today. And yet that is what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians, and therefore to us! And WHY should we do this?
12: so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
Did you catch that? So that those outside the body of Christ will see a good testimony to the power of Jesus in our lives, and so that we as Christians will not have any need. Two things here.
- Testimony – “behave properly” can be translates as “walk becomingly,” that is in such a way that one’s lifestyle is attractive to those outside the Church for the purpose of winning people to Jesus! I am sometimes asked by non-believers why I’m always so focused on the Gospel. Well, it’s because the SCRIPTURES are so focused on the Gospel!
- Sufficiency – the phrase “not be in any need” is literally translated as “have need of nothing.” So what is Paul trying to say? If we will lead a quiet life, mind our own business, and do our own work, we will live attractive lives to unbelievers, and have need of nothing, in the sense of spiritual needs. This, according to Paul, is how we do it right.
13: But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.
- Okay, here is where hermeneutics is about to become important, and we must understand that Paul is addressing a concern that was for whatever reason more present in Thessalonica. That issue is about the harpazo event I have been referring to since the beginning. I must say that this passage will shed NO light on its timing, and it is not intended to – but it IS a description of a set of events that will occur sometime in the future from when this was written. If you refer to the diagram about hermeneutics, you can see that no real information about WHEN is given, just that it would happen. It cannot really even be used to exclude any points of view.
- Amillenialists believe that the Lord IS coming back, but they don’t see the event as separated into two. (I disagree, as would most people who are up on their Israelogy and Christology. The texts in Isaiah didn’t separate things into two comings either (one as the suffering servant and one as the Victorious King), but Jesus did that Himself, and it is possible that He did here as well.)
- Postmillennialists cannot be excluded by this text either. These people, as well as the Amillenialists, believe we are already living in the 1000-year reign of Christ, though the details and impetus behind those ideas are defined differently for both. The AMIL camp does not believe in a literal 1000 years, and the POST-MIL camp does but thinks we are already in it. This text says NOTHING about that, though logic may – in both cases, Satan is already bound. If that’s the case, his chain seems a little too long.
- No, Paul was writing to the Thessalonians with information to comfort them in this letter. (He talks sequence of events in another place.) The very first thing Paul tells us is that those who are dead are “asleep” [komao, to put to sleep, to fall asleep]. There was a teaching around at that time that says that if one was to die before Jesus came back physically, that one would miss out on heaven, which as we know from other passages…is a little less than accurate.
14: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
- Again, several things. First, it is possible to fall asleep in or [margin] through Jesus. Such faithful believers here will not be denied their heavenly destiny to be with Christ forever.
- Second, Paul is making an attachment of concepts. He is saying that if the Gospel is true, that is if Jesus died and rose again, then God will be bringing those that have died in or through Him WITH Him when He does return.
- Third, and it almost goes without saying – Jesus is returning someday. That Gospel that Paul mentions is a limited-time offer.
15: For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
- Paul is beginning to give an order to coming events, true, but please note what the very first part of the verse says – “we say to you by the word of the Lord…” This was something God revealed to THEM, and they were simply faithfully passing on the message.
- As to the order of events, it looks like those who are alive at Jesus’ return here will not go before the coming of the Lord. “Will not precede.”
16: For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
- So there is the actual sequence of events: First, the Lord Himself comes from heaven with a shout of command. What is that command? Well, it doesn’t say here, but I have a suspicion that it will be something like, “Come to me, now!”
- The voice of the Archangel. – Commentators disagree greatly on this, and there is a great deal of misunderstanding (no surprise, we’re dealing with eschatology) from them. Some have said that the archangel refers to Michael or Gabriel (because of the trumpet in the next phrase, though Gabriel is NOT an archangel, know your angelology). Some cults think that Jesus is an archangel, and it’s therefore His voice, because Michael is another name for Jesus – says Scripture nowhere! Michael is identified as the Angelic prince that is over Israel in Daniel. This could still be Jesus, though – it is with the VOICE of the Archangel, not the archangel himself. That’s what I choose to think as the easiest explanation. (Remember the principle of parsimony, or Occam’s razor.)
- The trumpet of God. If there is any reference at all to the overall sequence of events of the harpazo here, it MAY be here. Those who hold to a mid-tribulation or pre-wrath position on the harpazo will identify this trumpet as the last of the seven trumpets in the book of Revelation (11:5). This is still consistent with a pre-wrath view because the 7th trumpet releases the 7 bowls, or the wrath of God on earth. Those who hold a pretribulation view will identify this as another trumpet entirely. Either could be the case here, and in a moment or two, I’m going to explain why it doesn’t matter to us one bit.
- The dead in Christ will rise first. Okay, there were a couple of guys that in history rose from the Grave. One was Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. One was Jesus Himself. (There are other examples in Scripture, but these are the two that most people know right away.) Now there will be a third category – those who die knowing Christ.
17: Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
- Then we who are alive and remain – simply that those of us who are living and left after the dead in Christ rise.
- Will be caught up. There it is, the word harpazo. The word literally means to be suddenly and by force seized and carried off. It can also mean to seize on, or eagerly claim for one’s own. Also to snatch out or away.
- The Latin equivalent to the Greek harpazo is raptio, where we get our English word rapture. So I will adress it gently, but for those that say that the word “rapture” does not occur in Scripture ever, I respectfully submit that you are wrong, and have not read the original Greek. Because that word occurs here in this verse. The phrase could be directly translated that we who are left after the resurrection of the dead in Christ will be RAPTURED together… Please don’t do a disservice to all who listen to you and tell me that this is MY interpretation. I’m reading from the Greek here. And if this is just MY interpretation, then what is yours, where is your biblical and hermeneutical case for it, and by all means let us discuss it as pastors and Bible scholars. If you can’t or won’t do that, then please stop speaking, you’re wearing out my ears with garbage no one wants to hear. You know who you are.
- Together with them. The “them” here is from the context of the surrounding verses, and are the dead in Christ.
- In the clouds. Well, that’s a literal thing, I think, because of the next phrase – “to meet the Lord in the air.” That literally means to have a meeting with the Kurios (Christ) in the aer, Greek for air. Clouds indicate that it will be in the sky outside.
- “…and so we shall always be with the Lord.” Well, that’s what we are working for. All the trouble, trial, pain, poverty, poor health, and other tribulations we experience are to get us ready for THAT event. And from that point, this phrase tells us that we will be with the Lord at all times from that point on. Amazing thought. Oh, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away! Our justification before God was complete when we accepted the payment Jesus made for our sins by faith and we turned from our sins. Our sanctification was completed over the remainder of our lives by the trials and troubles we endured and how we stood in Christ’s righteousness and strength that He gave to us as we walked with Him – and it all leads to this – our glorification with and in Christ, where He himself will change our bodies from the sick and temporary ones we have now into the heavenly and eternal ones that are waiting for us. Our entire salvation will be complete!
- So with all that heavenly and glorious truth in our minds, I must ask – why did Paul write this?
18: Therefore comfort one another with these words.
- Paul wrote to bring comfort to the saints at Thessalonica, and by extension us, with the knowledge that whether we live or die, as long as we do it for Christ, we will be with Him. Compared to that, what does it matter if it is pre-trib, mid-trib, pre-wrath, pre-natal for all it could matter. The reason there are so many positions on this is likely because WHEN it happens is not so important as us being READY when it happens.
- There is something I have not yet said here either. Did you notice that Paul said the dead in Christ? And we who are alive and remain? We must also be in Christ. What does that mean? It means that one’s participation in the harpazo event is conditional on our sanctification, and this is not the only place in Scripture it says that. Hebrews 12:14 says, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” See that? THE Sanctification. Without it, no one will get to see the Lord. Think about this – let’s say a man who is a Christian gives into sin and goes to see a pornographic movie. During that movie, the rapture event occurs. Do you think the brother will go and meet the Lord while he is fresh and active in his sin? Yes, Jesus cleansed him. But is he staying clean? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
- Has anyone besides me seen the movie Left Behind with Kirk Cameron? At one point, a pastor is found by Rayford Steele in his own church, moping about how he was left behind. Clarence Gilyard of Walker, Texas Ranger fame plays the pastor. He says at some point in their conversation that there is a difference between knowing the truth and walking in it. Clarence’s character apparently has some issues walking in the truth. Friends, NOW is the time we need to be doing that. NOW is the time to learn Christian responses during hard times. NOW is the time to walk in the truth that He provides us by His grace. And I would be a less-than-faithful shepherd if I did not point that out to you.
- But we need to comfort each other with the knowledge that the Lord is coming. When it gets to be too much to bear for me at times, you may even hear me say softly, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon. Please don’t let me outlive my love for You or for Your people, the Church, Your body.” What a great reminder for a Christian – no matter how hard it gets, Jesus is coming to get you. Hang on!
And that’s chapter 4!