Study On The Book Of 1st & 2nd Thessalonians

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*The Material for these studies is from Reformed Expository Commentary by Richard D. Phillips, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey; and N. T. Wright For Everyone Bible Study Guides by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

1 Thessalonians 5:4-8 Victors Valiant

At the end of chapter 4, Paul gave a clear teaching about Christ’s second coming and urged, “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (4:18). In chapter 5, Paul addressed concerns about the timing of Christ’s return, concluding with a similar charge: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (5:11).

According to Paul, the Christian strategy for enduring in faith through trials is to strengthen one another with biblical truth. This is Christian teamwork in the church and home. How is the Christian family to endure against cultural attacks? By the husband’s encouraging his wife and the parents’ encouraging their children with biblical truths. How are Christians to minister to those faltering or discouraged? With the encouragement of biblical truth. We are to take the team approach in the Christian life, not tearing each other down but building each other up with the truths of God’s Word.

The truth that Paul wants to impress on the minds of his Thessalonian readers concerns their relationship with Christ. The way to be prepared for Jesus’ coming, he says, is to have our heads clear about what it means to be joined to Christ in salvation. Paul writes: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (vv. 4-5).

To describe the Christian’s situation, Paul employs the familiar biblical image of light. Believing in Jesus, the Christian no longer lives in the darkness but belongs to the realm of the light of Christ. Paul’s point is that Christians should not be unprepared for Christ’s coming, since we now belong to the light. By calling us “children of light,” he means that the blessings of God’s light have come to distinguish us and characterize our lives. Christians have gained knowledge of truth, have been warmed to God’s ways, have received spiritual life, and are guided by the light of God’s Word. Therefore, the day of the Lord should never come upon us as a “surprise,” like “a thief” (v. 4), since we have been looking forward to and preparing for that bright day.

Verses 4 and 5 present one of the Bible’s main principles for Christian living and sanctification, namely, that Christian living arises out of Christian thinking. We have seen earlier that Christians are persevere in faith by encouraging one another in biblical truth. Paul now explains how this works: God’s Word is taught to us, we begin thinking in light of God’s Word, and by God’s grace this new thinking yields a new and godly lifestyle. Jesus mandated this process of transformation by illumination when He prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

Having expressed his principle of reckoning who and what are we in Christ – children of light – Paul makes the application in terms of how we should therefore live in anticipation of Christ’s return. He focuses on three aspects of Christian readiness that will enable us to persevere in faith until the coming of Jesus to save us.

Paul’s first application is that since believers no longer belong to the darkness but are children of light, we should stay awake and not slumber: “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake” (v. 6). Being children of light, Christians should not engage in the nighttime activities of darkness. Those in the dark are asleep to God, unaware of what is happening in the world, and unresponsive to the call of the gospel. The children of light, in contrast, are to be awake to God’s plan and alive to God’s calling. Jesus warned, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41).

A second biblical example of a sleeping believer was Samson, who lost his strength as his hair was cut in the night. Samson took his rest and made his peace with the world around him, settling into the arms of a Philistine named Delilah, who betrayed him. Samson’s slumber cannot be blamed of Delilah, however: Samson put himself to sleep spiritually by violating his covenant with the Lord. Once asleep, he awoke to his danger too late, realizing only then what he had lost through his alliance with the world. How many Christians today are asleep to the influences of popular culture, as that like Samson we become prisoners of worldly thinking and acting and so lose our usefulness to the cause of Christ?

A third example was given by Jesus in His parable of the tares and the wheat. A man sowed good seed in his field, “but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away” (Matt.13:24-25). Likewise, in the tolerant spirit that grips the church today, there is little doctrinal vigilance over our churches and ministries. Christians are asleep to the threat of an active enemy who seeks to undermine and infiltrate the work of Christ’s kingdom so that we squander the gains given to us by God and lack the spiritual power to prevail in dangerous times.

In addition to staying awake, Christians maintain their readiness for Christ’s return by staying sober: “For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober” (vv. 7-8). This application is a companion to the previous one: since Christians belong to the day, they should not be characterized by practices that take place during the night. Among these nighttime practices is a lifestyle that is inebriated with earthly pleasures and sin.

We should understand Paul’s call to sober living to involve more than drunkenness on alcohol or drugs. Today, this calling extends to the whole realm of entertainments of which Christians may imbibe, including movies and music that promote a sensual, self-absorbed lifestyle and glorify values that are contrary to God’s Word. In the workplace, Christians can become drunk with academic prestige, political power, or financial success. Paul’s emphasis on sober living, repeated twice in these verses, could indicate that this was a problem among the Thessalonian new believers. Given our similarly intoxicated culture today, many young believers and new converts will likewise need to seek God’s power to start living a sober life that no longer indulges in the kinds of worldly recreations that deaden us to the things of God.

Paul’s first two applications were negative in principle: “Let us not sleep…[or] get drunk” (vv. 6-7). The third application is active and positive, calling for Christians to arm themselves with biblical virtues: “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8). Paul presents here for the first time in his writings an analogy that he will continue to develop in his later epistles, especially in Ephesians 6. He imagines Christians as preparing themselves for life in the same way that a soldier puts on his armor before heading into battle. It is not enough for Christians merely to say No to sin and worldliness; we must also actively cultivate faith, love, and hope in order to be guarded from threats that would endanger our salvation.

The two pieces of armor that Paul cites here are those that protect the vital areas of the heart and the head. The soldier’s chest was protected in battle by a breastplate, and Paul urges Christians to “put on the breastplate of faith and love” (v. 8). In Ephesians 6:14, Paul speaks of putting on “the breastplate of righteousness.” These descriptions go together – “faith and love” on the one hand and “righteousness” on the other – because faith and love are the means by which righteousness is received and then practiced. We are forgiven our sins and justified before God through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16). Having believed, we then pursue a practical righteousness by leading a life of love – love for God and love for one another as outlined in God’s holy law.

Added to the breastplate that guards the vital organs is the helmet that protects the head: “and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8). According to Paul, the Christian who possesses a biblical hope for salvation is able to think clearly and resist blows that would daze him or her into unbelief or folly. We ground our hope in God’s sovereignty over history – a history that is defined by Christ’s saving death for our sins and that will conclude in Christ’s saving return.

The helmet of salvation will deliver us not only from worldly threats but also from a misguided dread of Christ’s second coming, as many Christians have sadly been led to do. For Paul and the early believers, Christ’s return was the hope for which they fervently longed. We are to live in readiness for that day, not suspending our lives and gazing at the sky in trepidation, but awake, sober, and armed with faith, love, and Christian hope.

If we trust in the work that Christ has done for our salvation, dying on the cross for our sins; if we cultivate a love for God and for one another according to God’s Word; and if we look in hope for Christ’s coming to bring us with Him into glory, we will be guarded for salvation and crowned with grace to stand without fear before a dark and wicked world that can be awakened to the gospel only by the witness that we are emboldened to give.

Paul makes it clear that Christians should expect struggle and difficulty as we await the return of our Lord. Some may wonder whether it is worth all the effort of staying awake, keeping sober, and arming ourselves with faith, love, and hope. Can we expect to prevail? Jesus answers, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul urges believers to remind each other of such truths: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).

1 Thessalonians 5:4-8 Study Questions:

In verses 1-11, what are all the pictures or images that Paul uses to try to explain the relationship between believers and the world and the coming of the Lord?

How does Paul contrast the people of the day and the people of the night?

Paul’s point about staying awake belongs not so much with the danger of burglars but with the all-important difference between the old world (of darkness, sin and death) and the new world (of light, life and hope). What aspects of living as children of light or children of the day are challenging?

1 Thessalonians 5:1-4 Like a Thief in the Night

It seems from Paul’s letter that the Thessalonian Christians were worried about what might occur to them on some dark night. Having earlier addressed their concerns about the destiny of believers who had died, Paul now responds to their concerns about the timing of Christ’s return. “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers,” he writes, “you have no need to have anything written to you” (v. 1). The Thessalonians were concerned, we may infer, about the timing of Christ’s return, lest they be unprepared when Jesus came. Paul responded that he had covered this topic thoroughly during his time among them: “You have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (v. 2).

In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul had written about “the coming of the Lord.” Now he describes the same event with the designation “the day of the Lord.” “The day of the Lord” is an expression with its origin in the prophetic writings, signifying the coming of God to judge His enemies in fiery wrath. In the Old Testament, “the day of the Lord” referred to a complex of events in which God broke into history to judge His enemies and save His people, pointing forward to the great day of the Lord when Christ returns.

The Bible’s teaching on the day of the Lord tells us that history is moving forward to a great reckoning for all the evil on the earth and to salvation for the people of God. This contrasts with the prevailing unbelief of our day, based on the theory of evolution, which holds that history has neither a goal nor any meaning. Just as history had its beginning in God’s sovereign act of creation, it will conclude in the sovereign return of the Lord, the day when man’s apparent sway is brought to an end and God’s sovereign purposes are unveiled as being fully achieved.

While both Jesus and Paul emphasized the unforeseen nature of the Lord’s coming, the Bible also displays an expectation of its nearness (Isa. 13:6; Ezek. 30:2-3; Zeph 1:14). What was said of these earlier, more limited judgments is all the more true of the great and final day of the Lord in the coming of Jesus Christ. Even if it should turn out that Christ returns at some far distant date in the future, the reality of death makes it certain that judgment is near to everyone who lives and breathes at this very moment. Hebrew 9:27 reminds us that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

As Paul and other biblical writers explain it, the result of Christ’s unforeseen coming will be sudden destruction on those who were unprepared: “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (v. 3). Here, the apostle mirrors the earlier teaching of Jesus, who compared the world at His return to the unprepared world on the brink of Noah’s flood (Matt. 24:37-39).

Jesus’ point was that the worldly will be oblivious to the demands of God and to their danger as rebels against God’s rule. They will be concerned about their own affairs: their pleasures, ambitions, and worldly pursuits. Just as worldly preoccupations keeps so many men and women from thinking about God and eternity now, the same attitude will expose the ungodly to destruction on the day of the lord when it suddenly comes, completely unforeseen, like a thief in the night.

Realizing that once the day of Lord has appeared it will be too late to get ready brings us back to the anxiety of the Thessalonians. They were concerned to be ready for Christ’s coming and therefore wondered about the “times and the seasons” of this great event. Paul answered that the way to be prepared for Christ’s coming is not to know the date – which no one can know – but to prepare ourselves in advance. The way to be ready for the day of the Lord is to act now on the offer of salvation granted to sinners through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, those who prepare for the last day by believing in Jesus not only receive forgiveness of sin and justification through faith alone, but also are regenerated so that they increasingly are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Paul therefore writes: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief” (v. 4). Unpreparedness for the day of the Lord is a feature of the life in the darkness of sin and unbelief, whereas readiness characterizes those who live in light of Christ. The believer’s readiness for Christ’s coming does not consist in additionally meritorious fervor, but through the salvation that every sinner receives when he or she turns to Christ in saving faith. In other words, while believers look with dismay on the world’s giddy blindness of coming judgment, we may be certain of our own readiness right now simply by trusting Christ for our salvation and surrendering our lives to the Savior who one day will come as Lord both to judge the wicked world and to complete the salvation of all who trust in Him.

Everything that Paul has said about the unbelieving world is reversed when it comes to Christ’s believing people. Jesus’ coming is unforeseen by the world. But far from being surprised, the believer lives every day in joyful expectation of the lord’s day. Christ will come to the unbeliever like a thief in the night, breaking into a life that the person had deemed secure and stripping away all that he or she had trusted and loved. To the believer, who has primarily sought for treasures not in this world but in heaven, the coming of the Lord unlocks our inheritance. Romans 8:17 says that believers are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

According to Paul, not only believers but also “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). The day of the Lord is the creation’s own deliverance from the curse of mankind’s sin. Therefore, Paul exclaims, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).

The example of creation on its tiptoe, groaning, waiting for the liberation of the glory of the people of God is given for us to emulate as we anticipate the coming of Christ. The day of the Lord is not unforeseen to those who have received God’s Word in faith. Christ does not come like a thief in the night, but like a long-awaited king whose triumph will inaugurate our own coming of her beloved groom, to whisk her away on a wonderful adventure. Therefore, we wait on tiptoe, casting our glance constantly on the clouds for a gleam of the glory of the Son of Man.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-4 Study Questions:

What does Paul mean when he says: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night?”

What was Paul referring to when he says: “the day of the Lord?” How is that different to when the Old Testament says: “the day of the Lord?”

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 Meeting the Lord in the Air

The term rapture comes from the Latin word rapio, which the Vulgate translation employed for the Greek word harpazo, which Paul uses in verse 17 of our Scripture. The apostle says that believers “will be caught up” to meet the Lord when He returns. Whereas allusions to the rapture may be seen in other Bible passages, the event is directly stated only in this verse, which explains that when Christ returns and “the dead in Christ” have been raised, then “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (vv. 16-17).

There is a doctrine accepted by many evangelicals today that was virtually unknown before the mid-nineteenth century. This doctrine, which is called the secret rapture, teaches that Christ’s second coming will take place in two stages, one before and one after a seven-year period of tribulation. The secret rapture removes all Christians so that they will not suffer the tribulation prophesied in the Bible. For this reason, the secret rapture is also called the pretribulation rapture, language that is a standard feature of dispensational premillennialism. This teaching holds that after the Christians are removed and a seven-year tribulation is completed, Christ will come in visible glory to judge His enemies and inaugurate a literal thousand-year reign on the earth, after which comes the final judgment and the eternal state. Advocates of this view make their case not on the direct teaching of any Bible passage but from inferences taken from Scripture on the basis of a presupposed system of doctrine.

However, just as the Bible does not separate Israel and the church, so also the two-stage return of Christ is not supported by Scripture. It is true that different versions of Christ’s return present different elements, for the simple reason that individual passages are making particular points. It is even more obvious that the coming of Christ as described by Paul is anything but a secret. In fact, it is mystifying how believers who claim a literal interpretation of the Bible, as dispensationalists do, can describe as secret an event that is announced “with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (v. 16).

Moreover, the doctrine that Christians are raptured before the great tribulation is thoroughly refuted by any number of Bible verses that warn Christians to be prepared to endure these very trials. In His teaching on His return in Matthew 24, Jesus warns believers not to be deceived by false christs and then warns that “they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9). Jesus says nothing about believers’ being removed before this tribulation, but warns them instead to endure it without falling away: “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). Furthermore, Jesus’ statement that “for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matt. 24:22) makes little sense if His people have previously been removed from earth.

It should be stressed that the secret rapture is believed almost exclusively by Christians who hold a high view of the Bible’s authority and are courageously devoted to Jesus. The point of assessing and critiquing their teaching is not to mock them but rightly to handle the Word of Truth.

As Paul urges us to “encourage one another with these words” (v. 18), we focus on his concluding statement: “and so we will always be with the Lord” (v. 17). The souls of Christians who die go immediately to “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) in heaven. Those who have trusted Christ in this life, loved the Lord, and served His gospel “will be caught up together” (v. 17) and thus will be with the Lord forever. Death will bring no final loss to those of us who live in Christ now and reign with Him then. We will together enjoy the perfect fellowship for which we have so longed in this life, each of us joined together in love by the great love of Christ that will be our all in all.

What an encouragement Christians receive now from the knowledge of Christ’s glorious, saving return. First, we have a strong incentive to live as followers of Christ. This world, with its temptations to sin, is seen passing swiftly away. The reality that is found in Christ will soon appear forever, so that wise believers are glad to live now for His sake. Second, we are greatly emboldened to witness the gospel of Christ to a lost and dying world. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18-19). Third, Christ’s coming encourages us to labor for building up the church and advancing the kingdom of Christ. Jesus urges us to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33). “Blessed is that servant,” He says, “whom his master will find [serving] when he comes” (Luke 12:43). Fourth, we are encouraged to love one another as Jesus has loved us, realizing that we will be caught up in order to be together forever with the Lord. The relationships we forge now in Christian worship, fellowship, and service will literally last forever. And the most valuable thing that you and I will ever behold before seeing Jesus in glory is one another: precious saints purchased with the blood of Christ.

Finally, Paul’s teaching urges everyone to come to Christ in saving faith. The encouragement of which he spoke is valid only for those who have believed in Jesus. When Jesus returns, with heaven and earth passing away, those who are caught up in the air to meet Him will return with Him to the new heavens and the new earth. How many people close their hearts, fearing that they will lose the world if they put their faith in Christ! In the end, however, the very opposite will be true. Christians do, in many respects, lose this present world, especially its sinful pleasures, when they give their allegiance to Christ. But when He returns, they will be left when all others are taken away in judgment, to meet Him in the splendor of His glory. The, believers in Christ will gain the new world together with Him. Trusting in His promise, we call to Him now, together with all the rest of His adoring people, saying, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 Study questions:

Does the study of these verses encourage you to share the gospel?

How do you “seek first the kingdom of God” on a daily basis?

1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 The Resurrection of the Dead

All Christians know that Christ forgives our sin so that when we die, we go to heaven. But fewer Christians realize that “going to heaven when we die” isn’t our final blessing. For after believers have gone to heaven, the day will come when Christ returns to earth and His people will be raised in the glory of the final resurrection. According to Paul, this is the hope that sustains God’s people in the trials of this life. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” he writes. We wait now with hope for “the redemption of our bodies,” when we will finally “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:18-23).

The resurrection is absolutely necessary for our salvation. Without the resurrection of the body, Christians may be forgiven of our sins, but we are not delivered from the futility of our present mortal existence. If the dead are not raised, then despite our justification through faith in Christ, our sanctification will never be complete and we will remain eternally unfit for the glories of Christ’s kingdom. “I tell you this, brothers,” Paul wrote: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50). This is why he was so determined to inform his readers of the resurrection, the knowledge of which brings hope to our present lives of faith: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).

Paul’s teaching on Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians 4 is an eschatological treasure trove. While addressing the salvation of believers who have died, Paul gives straightforward teaching about Christ’s return, life after death, the rapture, and the resurrection of the dead. Each of these topics is worthy of study from this vital passage. In considering the resurrection, we will ask a number of questions, receiving answers that will not leave us uninformed (v. 4:13), but will encourage us with the apostle’s words (v. 18).

The first question to ask is: What is the resurrection of the dead? The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, which comes from a verb that means “to raise up.” The resurrection, then, is the raising of our bodies after we have died. It is important to note the bodily nature of the resurrection, because this truth has often been neglected or assailed. The Bible values the body as God’s good creation, and Christian salvation positively affects our bodies, both now and forever. Christians are not to be radical ascetics who harmfully deny the body (1 Tim. 4:3-5) or libertines who sinfully misuse the body. Paul reasons: “Do you not know that your body in a temple of the Holy Spirit…So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). In the future resurrection, our same bodies that lived and died will be raised. The body is not simply replaced with a new body but is changed into a glorified body suitable for the new heavens and new earth in which Christ will reign forever in glory.

Realizing that our bodies will be raised and glorified should transform how Christians think about our present lives. The resurrection conveys dignity to the most humble Christian soul and body, both of which are destined to “shine like the brightness of the sky above” (Dan. 12:3). Our bodies are holy to the Lord. Reminding us that our bodies are united with Christ “in the resurrection like his,” Paul urged, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Rom. 6:5, 12). The next time you are tempted to use your body to sin, remember that it is intended by God to be transformed for a holy eternal existence.

A second question asks: Who will be raised from the dead? The Bible’s answer is that everyone who has ever lived will be raised in the body on the last day when Jesus returns. Paul speaks of the “dead in Christ” as rising when Jesus returns (v. 16), but the Bible elsewhere informs us that all will be resurrected to stand in their bodies before the final judgment, receiving either eternal punishment or reward. The angel spoke of this to Daniel in the Old Testament: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Jesus was even more emphatic, teaching that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).

It is clear in these statements that while believers and unbelievers will alike be raised, they will experience radically different results. Jesus taught that on the day of judgment He will “separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:32). This indicates that there will be a tangible difference between the resurrection of the godly and ungodly. To His justified people, on His right hand, Jesus will declare, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). It will be exactly the opposite for the ungodly: “Then he will say to those on the left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41).

If Paul tells us what the resurrection is and who will be raised, the third question we wonder about is when the dead will be raised. His clear answer is that the resurrection of the dead will occur when Jesus returns from heaven to earth in all His glory: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).

Passage after passage in the Bible tells us that the resurrection will take place when Christ returns, as the immediate precursor to the final judgment of all mankind. Jesus combines these three events – return, resurrection, and judgment – in Matthew 25:31-32: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations.” Jesus said that “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28-29), a description echoed in Paul’s statement that Christ will return “with a cry of command” (1 Thess. 4:16).

The fourth question that we should ask about the resurrection is how the dead will be raised. This question may be approached in two ways: first, asking, “By what power does the resurrection take place?” Paul answers in verse 16 by pointing to emblems of divine authority and power: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of and archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” Here, God’s sovereign power is symbolized in Christ’s return by the call of the archangel and the trumpet blast of God. Jesus said that “the Father raises the dead and gives them life” (John 5:21). Realizing this divine cause for the resurrection should relieve any concerns over how bodies long decayed or otherwise damaged can ever be raised. Just as God created all things out of nothing, no barriers can thwart the Almighty in raising our bodies to glory on the last day.

The second way to approach the how of the resurrection concerns the nature of our transformation: How will believers be changed when our bodies are raised? This matter is most fully addressed by Paul in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians: “Someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come’” (1 Cor. 15:35). The apostle answers by outlining four dimensions to the transformation of the believer’s body in the resurrection.

First, the resurrected body is imperishable so as to partake forever in the reign of Christ: “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:42). Our bodies are prone to disease and decay, our natural beauty fades over time, and ultimately the body gives way to death. But in the resurrection “the mortal puts on immortality,” so that “death is swallowed up in victory” (v. 54). Second, the resurrection body is glorious: “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory” (1 Cor. 15:43). The term dishonor is usually used by Paul with reference to the disgrace of sin, to which our bodies have been corrupted in their present desires. But in the resurrection, our bodies will shine in the glory of perfect holiness. Third, the resurrection body is mighty: it “is sown in weakness” but “raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43). Unlike our current condition that so often falls short of what we desire, the resurrection body serves God tirelessly and powerfully in the redeemed creation. Finally, whereas we presently inhabit “a natural body,” the resurrection body is spiritual in nature: “It is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). This statement does not mean that the resurrection body lacks material substance, but rather that it is ideally designed for the spiritual life in the age of glory with Christ.

This study of Paul’s teaching on the resurrection leaves two vital questions unanswered. A fifth question is: Why will the dead be raised? The best answer for the why of salvation is always this: that God may be glorified in the mighty working of His grace. There is another reason why the dead are raised on the last day, a reason given by Paul at the end of 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “And so we will always be with the Lord.” The eternal age of glory is designed to fulfill the covenant purpose of God. God’s purpose in salvation is “to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14).

This leaves one last, vitally important question: How do we know that we will be raised? How can we be sure that there will be a resurrection of all the dead on the last day, the just into glory and the unjust into eternal death? Paul gives the answer in verse 4:15: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord.” Paul does not seem to be referring to any statement of Christ’s that is known to us, so this is probably a revelation given directly by the risen Jesus to the apostle. Where else can we learn about life beyond the grave and the end to the history of the world than from the One who is the Alpha and Omega of all things? If the Bible is true, as it can be shown to be by its many proofs, then God’s Word is the message to which we must affix our hopes and commit our hearts in faith.

1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 Study Questions:

How are you glorifying God with your body? Are you a good steward of the temple (your body) of the Holy Spirit?

What is the purpose of the resurrection body?

What happens to the body of an unbeliever?

How does this study encourage you to share the gospel?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 Grieving with Hope

In writing to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul expressed concern that they did not possess full confidence in victory of death. He therefore wrote to them: “But we do not want you to be uniformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (v. 13). The problem the young church had was not fears regarding the joy of witnessing Christ’s return, the timing of the resurrection, or the sequence of the rapture, but rather the fear that only those who were alive when Christ returned would finally be saved. Being uniformed about the situation of Christians who have died, they were tempted to grieve for them without hope.

This problem shows that the early believers expected Christ’s return at moment. Perhaps Paul’s teaching on this and other subjects had been cut short by his hasty departure, so that there were still errors and doubts. In the meantime, some of their number had died, perhaps by violent persecution, and they feared that one had to be alive when Christ returned to experience the resurrection.

Paul’s response to this problem, as with other problems of Christian experience, is instructive. He expressed his desire that “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers” (v. 13). The answer to questions of doubt, confusion, or distress is the plain teaching of God’s Word. So many problems in the experience of believers today likewise stem from ignorance of biblical truth, so that the great need of God’s people is the careful teaching of Scripture. The way for Christians to be strong in faith was given by Peter at the end of his second epistle: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

What are the biblical truths that give believers hope in the face of death? Paul provides these truths in verse 14: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring him those who have fallen asleep.” Christ performs three great works – two of which have already happened, and one for which we await – that give hope to believers in the grief of death.

The first cause for our hope is the sin-atoning death of Jesus Christ: “We believe that Jesus died” (v. 14). The source of our chief fear in death – God’s just judgment of our sin and the eternal punishment it deserves – has already been removed by Jesus, who bore that punishment in the place of all who believe in Him. Jesus taught, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me…does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). The Bible teaches that the very Lord who will return to judge the living and the dead is the Savior who died on the cross for the sins of His people. Because “we believe that Jesus died,” we know that sinners are reconciled to God by the grace that sent Jesus to the grave on our behalf.

The second cause for the Christian hope in death is the resurrection of Jesus Christ: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (v. 14). Christ has conquered death by His own resurrection, and in this way has guaranteed the resurrection of all who confess their sins and trust in Him. The resurrection proves to believers that our Savior still lives and reigns with power to complete our salvation. Paul further stated in 1 Corinthians 15:20 that Christ’s resurrection is proof that all His people will likewise be raised from the dead: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” This means that the future resurrection of all believers is the continuation of Christ’s resurrection conquest of death. His resurrection was the firstfruits, and the resurrection of all Christians will be the full harvest.

Finally, and as the conclusion of his sequence, Paul asserts that Christ, having died and risen from the grave, will return with all the souls under His care: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (v. 14). Since the souls of sleeping believers are present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), it follows that His return includes their return to earth. Therefore, when a fellow believer dies, Christians should never say, “We will never see him again!” Instead, Christians should rejoice in the certain hope that we will see beloved Christians when Christ returns, when together with Jesus all the people of God in heaven will join those on earth for the resurrection glory of the Lord.

Paul’s main point is clearly made: believers who die in Christ through faith will return with Christ, by the Father’s will, to participate in His second coming and join their resurrected bodies in the glory of the Lord. Paul urges the believers to “encourage one another with these words” (v. 4:18). This encouragement rests on the solid foundation of what God has done and will yet do: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (v. 14).

Since it is “through Jesus” that God brings souls back from heaven for a resurrection into glory, it is urgent that sinners come now to Jesus in faith to receive eternal life. To those who believe in Him – and to these only – Jesus spoke words of consolation and hope: “I am the resurrection and the life,” adding, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Paul anticipates this resurrection life when he concludes” “And so we will always be with the Lord” (v. 17). This is our hope as well, if only we come to Jesus for salvation now, humbling ourselves in faith and adoring Him as Lord, seeking the eternal life He grants to all who call on His name and believe in Him.

1Thessalonians 4:13-14 Study Questions:

Why do you think Paul was concerned about the Thessalonians possessing full confidence in victory of death?

What is the great need for believers today?

Why is it important to “encourage one another with these words” (v. 4:18)?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 The Coming of the Lord

To be a Christian is to hold a particular understanding of history. This point was made by Augustine of Hippo in his great book The City of God. The Greco-Roman world in which Augustine lived viewed history as a circular process without end. Most non-Christians in the ancient world believed that the same things would happen over and over without any ultimate meaning. Augustine pointed out that the incarnation of God’s Son and His atoning death on the cross were nonrepeatable events showing that history moved forward according to God’s redemptive plan. Today, the secular humanist believes in “progress,” trusting man’s ingenuity to solve problems and open up new horizons of opportunity. Instead, the Bible-believer holds that history is racing toward the second coming of Jesus Christ, after which the Lord will judge the world and God’s eternal purposes of salvation will be fulfilled. These differing views of history produce different kinds of lives, a point that highlights the importance of biblical eschatology to the Christian.

The Greek word eschatos means “last,” so eschatology is simply the study of the last things. According to the Bible, believers need to know where history is going, in terms of both our personal histories beyond the grave and God’s plan for the future of the world. Christians are pulled forward, Paul said, by “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

The importance of understanding Christ’s return is seen in the example of the apostle Paul. It is evident that Paul highlighted teaching about Christ’s return during his short stay in Thessalonica. When news reached Paul that the new believers were confused on this subject, he provided extensive information in both of his letters to them. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers” (v. 4:13), Paul wrote. Likewise, there is no reason for believers today to be uninformed about Christ’s second coming.

At the heart of Paul’s eschatology are his statements regarding the “coming of the Lord” (v. 15). Focusing on the event itself, Paul highlights three features of the second coming. The first feature is the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth. Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven” (v. 16). The Bible teaches a literal, bodily return of the same Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins, rose from the grave, and then ascended into heaven. Acts 1:9 relates that two angels appeared to the disciples who had watched Jesus ascend. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven,” they said, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Paul tells us that this promise will be fulfilled when Jesus physically returns on the clouds to the very world He departed.

Paul’s second emphasis regarding Christ’s return is the visible manifestation of His glory. He writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (v. 16). This description rules out any idea of a hidden or invisible return of Christ. In Paul’s clearest teaching of what is often called the rapture – a word that describes God’s people as being “caught up” – Christ’s return is anything but secret: “the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (vv. 16-17). This visible nature of this event is amplified in related descriptions of Christ’s return. Revelation 1:7 explains, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him.” And Jesus taught: They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).

Paul’s description in verse 16 emphasizes not only the visible but also the audible nature of Christ’s coming: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” It is clear in Paul’s description that when Christ comes to take His people forever (he concludes: “so we will always be with the Lord,” v. 17), this event involves the visible, audible display of Christ’s glory to all the earth. Jesus taught, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27).

It is clear from Paul’s teaching that Christ’s return will conclude and culminate all of history. In addition to being a personal, visibly glorious return, the second coming will be Christ’s history-concluding return. We should note that the coming and appearing of Christ in glory is not an event that precedes the final episode of God’s plan for history but is rather an event that brings about the end of history. This rules out, again, an idea of the rapture in which Christ returns only to depart so that more history can be played out, since the return that Paul describes actually ends history. It also rules out the premillennial view of eschatology, the view that there will be a thousand-year period after Christ returns, during which God fulfills His purpose for the people of Israel, and after which occurs the final crisis of history. Instead, the return of Christ is the final crises of history and the last day of which Scripture so frequently speaks. The return of Christ does not usher in additional phases of history, but is simultaneously the end of this present age and the consummation of the eternal age that is to come.

What are the final results of history that are brought about by the coming of the Lord? The first is the judgment of all people who have ever lived. Paul’s description of Christ’s return includes a summons to this judgment, as the Lord descends “with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God,” as Christ appears “in the clouds” (vv. 16-17).

The second result of Christ’s return may be regarded as the reverse side of the final judgment, namely, the deliverance and vindication of those made righteous in Christ. The blowing of trumpets in the Bible signals not only God’s judgment but also the gathering of God’s people for salvation. Just as Leviticus 25 called for the sounding of trumpets on the Day of Jubilee, signaling release from bondage and liberty for God’s people, so also this final trumpet-blast, the signal for the dead to arise, for the living to be changed, and for all the elect to be gathered from the four winds (Matt. 24:31) to meet the Lord…, proclaims liberty throughout the universe for all the children of God.

Third, Christ’s return culminates history by fulfilling God’s sovereign purpose in the eternal kingdom of Christ. This purpose was revealed to Daniel when he saw Christ as “a son of man” who came “with the clouds of heaven” to the “Ancient of Days” in order to receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom.” The angel told Daniel that this begins and eternal reign: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14).

The purpose of this study has been to introduce Paul’s teaching on Christ’s second coming in his letters to the Thessalonians, which we will examine in greater detail as we continue working through the apostle’s text. Paul will make his own applications to the particular situation of his readers, starting with their need to understand the death of believers in light of Christ’s coming. In concluding this introductory study, however, we can make a few applications that flow generally from Paul’s teaching on the second coming of Christ.

The first application is that we should receive and teach the second coming as a message of comfort for all who have trusted in Jesus for salvation. It is true that when our Lord returns, there will be a final judgment of all sin. But having trusted in Christ for our forgiveness and justification, we rejoice that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Christ’s return should not be taught to frighten Christians but to comfort us regarding the glorious salvation that will soon arrive in the coming of the One who loves us. It is true that the New Testament warns believers to be awake and ready, but Paul asserts that by trusting in Christ, all believers can be confident in the day of His coming (1 Thess 5:9-10).

Second, since the coming of Christ will bring us into His presence in order to share His glory, Christians should begin glorying in Jesus now. One of the chief problems with so much end-times fervor today is that attention is devoted to practically everything except to Christ Himself. Paul sums up his message of Christ’s return with these words: “and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (vv. 17-18). Encouraged with the thought of being with Christ, let us treasure our present communion with Him, the One who is near to His people in His Word, in the secret place of prayer, and at the communion table of His covenant meal. Let Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit be the glory of our church and our dearest treasure while we await the greater glory of His coming with the clouds.

Third, the return of Christ calls Christians to readiness in the midst of this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Hebrews 4:3 warns us that there is no salvation apart from following Christ, since only “we who believed [will] enter that rest.” Meanwhile, believers who might be tempted to despair because of persecution, or led astray by the temptations of sin, or distracted by the siren songs of this world, “are encouraged by the prospect of Christ’s return, when He will grant them relief from their present distress and victory over their enemies, who are also His enemies.

Finally, the coming of the Lord presents a fearful prospect of judgment and condemnation for all whose sins have not been forgiven through the blood of Christ. The Lord will return, Paul warns, “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8).

Knowing this, Christ’s people urgently pray and tell others the good news of salvation from sin through faith in Jesus Christ. We declare the return of the great Judge, whose sword is sharp and whose books document every deed. We hold forth the grace and mercy of Christ for all who repent and believe, declaring His own words that “whoever…believes him who sent me has eternal life” (John 5:24). Therefore, we appeal to all who have not believed and thus face the prospect of eternal judgment in the coming of the Lord. Paul wrote: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation…We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God…Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 5:19-6:2).

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Study Questions:

Along with sex and money, the third practical issue that Paul discusses with the young Thessalonian church is this chapter of death. What are the issues that the Thessalonians are concerned about in verses 13-18?

How is the grief of Christians still truly grief but grief with hope instead of hopelessness?

Verse 14 repeats one of the earliest Christian creeds, “Jesus died and rose.” Because we know He has defeated death and now has a new, resurrected body, we can have the same hope. How should this knowledge of the future make a difference in the way we live now?

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 Concerning Brotherly Love

In his exhortation, Paul first challenged the Thessalonians to lead holy lives, especially as it concerned sexual purity. Then he reminded them that Christian holiness is never a cold formalism but is always joined to the virtue of Christian love. To chastity, he wrote, they must add charity. Regarding the teaching on Christian love, Paul wrote: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love on another” (v. 9).

Seeing the priority that Paul places on love should prompt us to consider our own hearts. Have our hearts been “framed for love” by God? Have we felt God’s love poured into us as we believed the gospel? If not, we might still be seeking to approach God by our own works instead of relying on the finished work of Jesus Christ, God’s chief gift of love. If we think little of the cross of Christ, we are likely to feel little love from God and have little love for Him and others. But if we stand before the atoning sacrifice of God’s perfect Son, seeing how Jesus gave Himself in love so that we might be saved, it is simply impossible that we would be inmoved and unchanged by love. This is why Paul does not need to say that God taught Christians “concerning” love but has taught us “to love one another” (v. 9).

Paul is comforted to know not only that his readers have been taught to love by God, but also that they have a strong track record of brotherly love: “for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia” (v. 10). Since theirs was the leading city of a highly populated region, the Thessalonian Christians had frequent contact with merchants, farmers, and traders. They had taken advantage of opportunities to spread the gospel and had prayed for friends and acquaintances. As the gospel advanced, they had shown hospitality to fellow believers and helped to provide for their needs as they became known. In this way, God had used their fervor for Jesus Christ to set an example for other new converts and to cause the gospel message to sound forth throughout their region.

When studying Paul’s letters, we are frequently reminded that they were written to actual people with real problems. Therefore, while Paul’s teaching is grounded on universal truths about God and salvation, the letters apply the gospel in particular ways that fit the local needs of Paul’s readers. His exhortations in 1 and 2 Thessalonians are prime examples of this principle. In the final chapter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul highlights a concern about some who were “walking in idleness.” Either such persons had entered into the church community or else some members of the church had fallen into this vice. It is possible that this happened as a self-serving response to the generosity of Christians who possessed means, so that the very love that Paul commended was being taken advantage of.

Anticipating this problem, Paul amplifies his teaching on Christian love by urging his readers “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs” (1 Thess. 4:11). Paul sees Christian love as a quiet love that avoids meddling in and disturbing the lives of others. Christians should have a great ambition to lead steady, sober, useful lives that call attention not to themselves but to the grace of God in Christ. To be sure, there is an important place for ambition in the Christian life! We are to have “ambition to preach the gospel” (Rom. 15:20) and be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). We should be eager in service (Phil. 2:28) and in spiritual attainments (1 Cor. 14:12). Yet we can do all this within a quiet life that avoids making difficulties for others.

In calling Christians to brotherly love, Paul envisions a quiet love that is also a busy love. In addition to living quietly and minding their own affairs, the Thessalonians should “work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (vv. 11-12). This verse has played an important role in developing a Christian view of work. Most Greeks thought that manual labor was unworthy of a cultivated person. Physical work was what slaves were for! In contrast, the Bible endorses the nobility of honest work of all kinds. Paul’s example as a tentmaker underscores this point, since the hands that held the apostolic pen were calloused with the daily hard work by which Paul met his own needs.

Paul cites two reasons why it is important for Christians to work hard. The first is “so that you may walk properly before outsiders” (v. 12). For Christians to be lazy or wrongly depend on others only disgraces the gospel that we proclaim to the world. This is why Christians who run businesses should make a special point of providing high-quality goods and services and treating customers with honesty and care. By contrast, able-bodied men who are not working hard to provide for themselves and their families are a disgrace to God’s people.

Paul’s second reason for Christians to work hard is so that they can “be dependent on no one” (v. 12). Believers should provide for themselves so as not to burden other believers. This exhortation does not apply to those who are unable to work because of illness, injury, or honest unemployment. The New Testament makes it plain that Christians are to provide for fellow Christians in legitimate need. But because there will often be many such needs, Christians should do their best not to burden the church and to contribute to the assistance of others. Love does not take advantage of Christian generosity but works hard so as to contribute to those with true needs.

It is obvious that Paul considered the love of God at work in His people to be an important witness to the world. We may therefore conclude that the apostle urged the Christians to increase in a love that not only was quiet and busy but also bore witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our love is thus to be a revealing love. According to church history, this is precisely what happened. Not only did the early Christians display love for one another, but as they were sprinkled throughout society in their various workplaces, they also spread the same love to the world. Our witness to Christ in the world requires a verbal testimony to His gospel and obedience to His command: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

The mark of the Christian is not worn on our lapels or hung on chains around our necks. The mark of the Christian before the world is the love that God has spread into our hearts, starting with our Christian brothers and sisters. We know that we can never be saved by our own loving works, but are forgiven only by the love of Christ, who died for our sins on the cross. But as we tell the world about God’s love for sinners in Christ, remembering the important testimony of Christ’s love working in and through us, what an incentive we have to take up Paul’s exhortation concerning brotherly love: “we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more” (v. 10).

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 Study Questions:

How does Paul say love or charitable concern is to be expressed within the church and outside of it?

How does Paul hold together love, which is expressed through financial giving, and responsibility within the family of the Thessalonians in verses 9-12?

Think about your Christian community. What are the outsiders seeing as they witness the lives of your community?

In what concrete and practical ways can you show your love through financial giving personally and corporately?

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 Sovereignty and Sanctification

The famous first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” It is seldom appreciated that the point of the second part of that answer – “to enjoy him forever” – pertains to sanctification. In other words, we might say that our chief end is “to glorify God and to enjoy pleasing Him forever.” Paul made a similar point “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more” (v. 4:1). As Paul states it, sanctification is not aimed primarily toward our own well-being or glory. Rather, the first goal of our sanctification, as with all other things, is to give God pleasure and to manifest His glory.

Sanctification denotes the process of becoming holy. Sanctus, being the Latin word for holy, is joined to the Latin verb facare, which means “to make.” Therefore, sanctification is the process by which believers in Christ are made holy. Paul describes this process in verse 1 as a walk, by which he means an entire lifestyle: “how you ought to walk and to please God.”

God is holy in that He is utterly different from and higher than any other being. God’s holiness especially involves His moral purity. It is because of His holiness that we take pleasure in pleasing God by being holy. God’s holiness defines our method as well as our goal in sanctification. As God is separate from sin, we also separate ourselves from sin and sinfulness, having different values and desires from the nonbelieving world around us. Sanctification has not only a goal and a method, but also an attitude. Our attitude in pursuing holiness is to oppose sin and evil and to pursue godliness. The Bible describes sanctification as a process, a progressive work by which our lifestyle becomes more and more pleasing to God: “that you do so more and more” (v. 4:1).

Paul’s exhortation to purity provides an example of how sanctification involves both a negative abstention from sin and a positive exhibition of godliness. The apostle does not merely tell believers to abstain from sexual sin but also asserts that “each one of you [should] know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” (v. 4:4). This self-control extends to every area of life: our sexuality, our treatment of others, our use of money, our conduct in the workplace, and so forth. Not only are we not to fall into worldly patterns of sin, but we are also to honor God with conduct that will please and glorify Him in every aspect of life. Paul states this positive approach to sanctification in verse 7: “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”

Finally, note that sanctification is expressed physically. Holiness is rooted in our hearts, but always expressed in our actions. Notice how concrete is Paul’s view of holiness and how bodily is its fulfillment. The problem with the pagans was their sensual outlook toward everything. By contrast, Christians are to live “not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (v. 4:5). In every way, the unbelievers’ lives were idolatrous, in service of debased passions and lusts. As Christians, knowing God, we are to use our bodies in honorable ways in accordance with God’s law, with self-control and purity.

With this biblical introduction to sanctification – that its goal is to take pleasure in pleasing God, its method is to be separate from impurity and sin, its attitude is both negative toward sin and positive toward godliness, and its expression is concrete and physical – we may now consider Paul’s link between sanctification and the sovereignty of God. Some complain that a high view of God’s sovereignty stands in the way of holy living. Just as people wrongly complain that the doctrine of predestination discourages evangelism, they also argue that God’s sovereignty cuts off our motivation to holiness. “If God is sovereign and has chosen me to salvation,” they argue, “then why should I bother living a holy life?”

Verses 1-8 sets forth three responses, each of which shows that divine sovereignty in fact promotes rather than deters sanctification. The biblical view centers holiness on God’s sovereign will, which Paul explains in these words: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (v. 3). Because God has ordained our sanctification, Christians therefore know that we will and must be holy. A humble believer asks, “How can someone like me expect to be holy?” The Bible answers, “Because it is God’s sovereign will for you. In Christ, you have a new identity: you are a holy one.” Realizing God’s calling and God’s will, we are emboldened to a more active faith that is energetic in sanctification.

There is a second way in which a high view of God’s sovereignty aids in the pursuit of holiness. We tend to think of God’s sovereignty in terms of His ultimate control of all things. Yet we should also think of His complete reign as our Lord. God is sovereign over His kingdom, so that to be saved is to become His willing subject and to submit in everything to His rule. To know God as sovereign is to acknowledge His rights as King, including our duty to obey His Word. When we realize that Christ is sovereign, and that we are humble servants of His glorious kingdom, then the last thing we will seek is to transgress His royal laws. Obedience to God’s Word will then be the watchword of our ministries and our lives.

Paul’s third reason why God’s sovereignty promotes rather than deters sanctification is: “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (v. 8). This mention of the Holy Spirit as a divine gift assures us that God’s sovereignty provides us with the resources we need for sanctification. It is because of God’s sovereign resource that Paul warns that to disregard God’s call to holiness is to disregard “not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (v. 8). Since God has made such rich provision for our sanctification, what an affront it is to Him when we refuse His mighty aid, relying on earthly techniques and continuing to serve our sinful desires.

Do we live with a commitment for God to be pleased through our holy lives? Have we committed ourselves to Christ’s sovereign reign, as our Master and Lord? Do we rely, with expectant faith, on the sovereign power of the Spirit of holiness? By regaining not mere doctrinal assent to God’s sovereignty but an actual vision of glorifying and pleasing our sovereign God, we may learn anew His will for our lives. For, as Paul declared, “this is the will of God, you sanctification” (v. 3).

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 Study Questions:

Paul urges the Thessalonians to behave in a manner that pleases God. What kind of a life do verses 1-8 say is pleasing to God?

What is the connection in verses 1-8 between pleasing God and being sanctified or holy, which is mentioned three times?

The first practical area of a holy life that Paul discusses is sexual sin. In verses 3-8 what are the instructions that Paul gives to the Thessalonians regarding this area of life?

1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 An Apostolic Pastoral Prayer

Any study of Paul’s letters will reveal his intense commitment to prayer. A Christian’s reliance on prayer – or lack of reliance – tells us much about his or her relationship with God. This is especially true for those engaged in Christian ministry. It also tells us much about a person to discover the contents of his or her prayers. Many of us pray primarily for ourselves and our material needs, Paul prayed almost exclusively for others and for spiritual priorities. Paul’s prayers in 1 Thessalonians condense his most fervent desires for the members of that beloved church, focusing on requests for God’s power to give strength to their faith and bring them to increasing maturity as Christians. Chapter 3 concludes its discussion of Paul’s approach to ministry by disclosing his prayer wishes in such a way as to display some of his key views, including the apostle’s view of God, ministry, and the Christian life.

What does Paul’s prayer tell us about his view of God? The first thing we should notice is Paul’s belief concerning the nature of God and the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ (v. 3:11). While not explicitly stating the doctrine of the trinity, Paul’s prayer contains the substance of the doctrine. He understands that the one God exists in multiple persons. Furthermore, it is clear that Paul prays to Jesus in just the same way that he prays to the Father, joining them together as the objects of his petition.

In addition, Paul believed not only that the Father and Son are one in nature as God but also that they are unified in purpose and will. The Father is every bit as loving toward believers as Jesus is, and the two are working in concert for the salvation of the church. That Paul should so clearly express a unity of nature and purpose between the Father and Christ at such and early point in his ministry shows that the deity of Christ was basic and foundational to Christian dogma from the very beginning.

Paul’s prayer shows not only his belief in the deity of Christ but also his certainty about the sovereignty of God. His first request if for God to “direct our way to you,” which suggests that the apostle was counting on God to intervene sovereignly in human affairs so as to permit Paul’s return to Thessalonica.

Finally, Paul understood that believers have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. “Now may our God…direct our way to you” (v. 3:11), he writes, indicating his access to the Father as a dearly beloved child. God is Father in his nature, but only those who believe on Jesus gain the right to be considered his children (see John 1:12). Thus, in Paul’s prayer we see a basic theology that is essential to Christian faith and life. There is one God in three persons (in a moment, we will see how the Spirit also figures into this prayer), God is the Sovereign to whom we may pray, and God receives believers in Jesus as dearly beloved children who may refer to Him as “our God.”

Paul’s prayer wishes reveal not only his understanding of God but also his views regarding Christian ministry and service. Paul believed in God’s sovereignty, and he knew that God’s sovereign grace was necessary for the successful ministry of the gospel.

We earlier learned that, concerned about his readers’ faith, Paul had greatly wanted to return to Thessalonica but was hindered by Satan (v. 2:18). In other words, Paul’s human attempts to serve God were overthrown by stronger spiritual opposition. Anyone who seeks to serve Christ as a pastor or a witness will find that this still happens today. So how did Paul expect to overcome obstacles and accomplish important things for the Lord? The answer is that he called on the Lord to make provision for his ministry needs. His prayer asks God to “direct our way” back to the believers (v. 3:11), essentially praying for the Lord to open up a pathway that did not then exist.

Servants of God today need to learn this same lesson. Christians who are effective in evangelism have learned to pray for God to provide them with opportunities to speak about Jesus along with the words to speak when the opportunities arrive. Churches that dynamically serve the gospel have learned to pray for the needed provision to expand their ministry. On a personal level, marriages and families who enjoy a close spiritual bond are those who pray for God to grant this very thing. Christ’s promise is above all found true of those who apply it in their service to the Lord and His gospel: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).

Paul not only prayed for openings to his own ministry, but also petitioned God to intervene directly in the lives of His people. He dearly sought to return to minister in Thessalonica, but in the meantime, he asked God to minister personally to them: “and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love” (v. 3:12). Paul full realized that their spiritual growth was not in his hands but in God’s. This is how his prayer incorporates the person of the Holy Spirit, since Paul knows that it is the Holy Spirit who will cause love to abound in God’s people.

In addition to showing the apostle’s view of God and of ministry. Paul’s prayer requests show his understanding of the Christian life. As the apostle sees it, Christians live with a focus on the future in Christ. Thus, he prays that God will “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (v. 3:13). Notice the way that Paul anchors the Christian life in the future, so that our present experience is pulled in the direction of Christ’s second coming.

Paul establishes a link between love and holiness that seasoned believers will recognize from their own experience. He prays for God’s love to fortify our hearts so that we are stimulated toward a changed life, desiring to please the Lord as a way of showing gratitude. Moreover, our love for others causes us to become serious about repenting of our sins. For this reason, one of the best ways to advance your sanctification – your progress in holiness – is to become involved in ministry toward others.

Paul prays for God to establish our hearts “blameless in holiness before our God and Father” (v. 3:13). When he says that we are to be blameless, this does not mean that we can attain a perfect state of sinlessness, since that is impossible in this life (see Phil. 3:12; 1 John 1:8). He means, rather, that our record of conduct should be that of a godly life. In 1 Thessalonians 2:10, Paul described himself and his associates as “holy and righteous and blameless” in their “conduct toward you believers.” In saying this, he did not mean that he had never sinned, but rather that his behavior had been consistent with godliness. Holiness pertains to our inward character and purity before the Lord. Christians have been made holy by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit; in an objective sense, we have been set apart for the service of God. This is why Paul would so often address the readers of his letters as “saints,” that is, “holy ones.” Having been set apart as holy, we are called to holiness in character and conduct.

Paul emphasizes that it is only God’s work in us that enables us to make progress in holiness. This is why he prays for God to “establish your hearts blameless in holiness (v. 3:13). At the same time, we are responsible to respond to God’s work in striving after holiness. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” the apostle says elsewhere, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Looking forward to the coming of Christ, Paul states that only holiness can give us a confident expectation of salvation on the great day when Christ returns. He prays that the Lord “may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (v. 3:13). This blameless and holy life does not procure our salvation, but rather proves it.

When Paul speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints,” he is perhaps suggesting a further motivation for holiness. The context – in which Paul so often uses the idea of holiness to describe believers, and in which he will later state that Christ “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (v. 4:14) – strongly suggests that Paul at least includes the spirits of believers in heaven. If so, then he motivates his readers to increasing holiness by reminding them that in Christ they are destined for perfect holiness when they are glorified together with other Christians in the final resurrection. That resurrection will consummate our holiness, but only if there is a holiness in us to be brought to perfection! This is why the author of Hebrews frankly states the vital necessity of our possessing holiness in some real measure, referring to “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 Study Questions:

What are the elements of Paul’s beautiful prayer for the Thessalonians in verses 11-13?

In what ways is Paul’s prayer a reflection of Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians both in the present and in the future?

Paul understands how important it is to strengthen one another in the midst of suffering so that all believers can stand firm in their faith. What specific steps can you or your Christian community take to help strengthen someone who is in the midst of suffering or difficulty?

Pray the three aspects of Paul’s prayer found in verses 11-13: that you might be able to be present with them, that their love would increase and that they would be strengthened.

1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 Now We Live

This long section from 1 Thessalonians 2:1 to 3:10 is exceedingly valuable in developing a biblical approach to gospel ministry. The final section of this material, 3:6-10, is especially valuable as Paul sums up his thoughts about a true ministry as he has sought to offer it to his dearly loved friends in Thessalonica. In these verses, we see what according to the apostle are the true goals and biblical methods of gospel ministry, as well as the causes of rejoicing for those ministering in Christ’s name.

The background for this material is the report recently given to Paul by his young protégé Timothy. Paul had sent him to Thessalonica to check on the believers whom they had been forced to leave behind (vv. 3:1-2). In verse 6, Paul added that now “Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you.” It seems that Timothy had just arrived and delivered his news to Paul, and the apostle was so excited that he fired off this letter to express his joy and thanksgiving.

A Study of Paul’s letters will show that the graces of faith and love were not just his desire for this particular church, but also his consistent goal in all the other places where he ministered. We know this because of the frequency with which Paul wrote of faith and love in his other letters.

According to Paul, then, what should we aim for in the Christian nurture of our children? The answer: growth in faith in God and love for others. What should our goal in the discipleship of new believers? According to Paul, it is faith and love. How should we evaluate our own growth in grace? These two graces – faith and love – are the two issues on which my entire life depends. What is my life about? Is my life as a Christian defined by outward achievements, success in ministry, or the opinion of others about me? All these goals involve factors largely outside my control. Instead, my life is about faith and love: the goal of my growth in Christ is to learn to trust God more fully and to love others more genuinely. This is the true measure of a Christian man or woman: his or her faith toward Christ and love toward others. The same dynamics provide the apostolic measure of a healthy church.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul has repeatedly stressed the priority of God’s Word, having rejoiced that “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (v. 1:6). In verse 3:10, Paul relates his intense desire to “see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith,” by which he evidently means that he longs to resume his teaching of God’s Word so as to bring the Thessalonians into a sounder grasp of saving faith. Since Paul was hindered from going to Thessalonica, one purpose of this letter was to give an advance installment of his teaching, much of which focused on the biblical doctrine of the return of Christ and the day of the Lord. It is obvious that believers today need instruction from the Bible on these and all other doctrinal topics.

In verses 3:9-10 Paul also shows his typical commitment to the ministry of prayer. He asks, “What thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day…?” Responding to Timothy’s good news by giving thanks to God in prayer, Paul shows that he credits God for the Thessalonians’ growing faith and love, relying not on any earthly device but on the power of God through the Word and prayer. In order to fulfill his ministry, Paul needs God’s help; here he asks God to remove obstacles in the way of his return to the Thessalonians, “that we may see you face to face” (v. 9).

Moreover, Paul’s expression “and supply what is lacking in your faith” may apply as much to his ministry of prayer as to his ministry of the Word. Paul’s point was simply that he was aware that as new believers in a difficult situation, the Thessalonians had weaknesses to be shored up, vulnerabilities to be protected, and areas of ignorance that needed instruction. Unable at present to meet these needs personally, Paul did the best thing possible: he prayed for his Christian friends with respect to their spiritual needs. We should likewise pray for the church and for our Christian comrades, asking God to supply what is lacking for growth in faith and love.

Paul speaks throughout this passage about the value of Christian fellowship. Indeed, the reason he had sent Timothy to Thessalonica was to ensure that fellowship was not broken between Paul’s band of ministers and the congregation that they had left behind. Part of the normal fellowship that Christians should enjoy is shared communion in the Lord’s Supper. Paul saw this sacrament as fostering and protecting the fellowship of the church.

If we possess an approach to ministry that aims for the proper biblical goals of faith and love and employs the biblical methods of God’s Word, prayer, and stimulating Christian fellowship, it is very likely that we will be blessed with reasons to rejoice, despite the many inevitable hardships. In this, Paul is our example as he followed the example of Christ. His ministry in Corinth endured great “distress and affliction,” to such an extent that Acts 18:9-10 records that the exalted Jesus encouraged Paul with a special vision. Yet in the midst of these loses, Paul was compensated in ministry by the joy of the Lord’s blessing. Paul is able to rejoice, exclaiming, “For now we live” because of what the Lord had done and was continuing to do through his ministry (v. 3:8).

The first and primary blessing that Paul mentions is the joy of learning that fellow believers are persevering in faith toward salvation. Paul’s concern over this reminds us that any professing believer’s continuance in faith is far from automatic. Today’s practice of assuring a new convert that he or she possess the certainty of eternal life, without stressing the need for a costly perseverance in following Jesus, is totally at odds with the biblical pattern.

A second cause for rejoicing takes place whenever the bonds of Christian love and fellowship are kept strong. It is obvious how important this was to the apostle. Along with his great relief over the continuing faith of the Thessalonians was the report that “you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you” (v. 3:6).

Third, Paul rejoices at the inestimable privilege of his access in the presence of God for worship and prayer. He writes of “all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God” (v. 3:9). Do you realize the enormous blessing of having access to the presence of God? When you come to worship, do you thank God that He receives you, together with all the church, into His holy and loving presence, where a fountain of eternal life is found, so that you might praise and commune with Him? Do you realize, as Paul did, what an overwhelming privilege it is to be able to come before the throne of grace with petitions that will be received into the loving hands of God Himself? How foolish we are to take this privilege lightly – a privilege secured for us by the pains of God’s Son on the cross. And we are equally foolish if we neglect the gathering of God’s people for worship and the blessing of corporate and private prayer, through which God’s mighty power is secured for our salvation and the salvation of those we love!

There are fellow Christians who need your ministry, encouragement, and prayers, and in the lost multitudes of unbelievers who perish without a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you offer yourself to be used by Christ for the blessing and salvation of others? If you do, you will really live, both in this world and in the age to come when the glory of a true Christian ministry will be fully seen.

1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 Study Questions:

In the face of the difficulties of the world today, what might compromise look like for the church?

In verses 6-10, Paul expresses great joy and thankfulness because of the Thessalonians. What has Timothy reported about the church that has given Paul this deep joy?

What expressions of faith and love within your own life or the life of your Christian community today would prompt the same kind of joy and thankfulness that Paul felt?

In verse 10, Paul does not say that there is anything wrong with the Thessalonians’ faith at present; he only implies that faith needs to grow with every day, with each new trial or test, and that maybe his own further teaching and encouragement will be needed to help that to happen. In what ways can the content, passion and pattern of Paul’s prayer be a model for us?