What does 1 Thessalonians 4 mean?
This chapter begins the second division of Paul's letter to the Thessalonian believers. Whereas chapters 1—3 are mainly personal, as Paul commends the Thessalonians and expresses his strong desire to see them again, chapters 4 and 5 contain instructions about personal purity and behavior. The first part of chapter 4 contains exhortations about holy living. Paul urges the Thessalonians to avoid sexual immorality by practicing self-discipline and by recognizing that God calls believers to lead a pure life and will judge those who engage in sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:1–9).
Paul exhorts his readers to practice brotherly love, to live a peaceful life, to mind their own business, and to work in order to provide for their needs instead of depending on others for assistance. By working hard the Thessalonians would maintain a good testimony. This is not only important as an act of obedience towards God. Living an exemplary life also provides evidence, to the non-believer, about the power of Christ in a person's life. This, in turn, opens the doors for those people to hear and accept the gospel themselves (1 Thessalonians 4:10–12).
The end of 1 Thessalonians, as well as much of 2 Thessalonians, is focused on the return of Jesus Christ in what we now call "the rapture." Based on these passages, we surmise the Christians of Thessalonica might have been struggling with false teachings, rumors, or fears. In response to those who wondered what happens to a believer who dies before Jesus returns, Paul exhorts his readers not to grieve as the unsaved grieve. He explains that when Jesus returns, He will resurrect the bodies of departed Christians and then catch up living Christians to be with Him forever. Paul called upon the Thessalonians to use these truths for each other's encouragement (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
First Thessalonians 4:1–8 urges the believers at Thessalonica to recall what Paul said when he was with them. He had taught them how to behave in such a way that they would please God. They were following these instructions well, but Paul challenges them to increasingly become more holy, for this was God's will for them. Each believer was obligated to avoid sexual immorality by controlling his own body, knowing the Lord avenges those who practice sin. Paul insists that to ignore this teaching about sexual immorality is tantamount to rejecting God.
First Thessalonians 4:9–12 applauds the Thessalonian believers for their love for one another. After this, Paul gives them several exhortations. He exhorts them to increase their love, to lead a peaceful life, to mind their own business, and to be industrious. By heeding these exhortations the believers would establish a good testimony before their non-Christian neighbors, and they would be self-reliant.
First Thessalonians 4:13–18 represents an important shift in the subject matter of Paul's letter. Realizing the Thessalonian believers needed further teaching about Jesus' return (the rapture) and specifically about what happens to Christians who die before Jesus returns, Paul turns to address these vital matters. He wants his readers to know that death should not cause them to grieve like unbelievers. There is a bright prospect of seeing departed believers again. When Jesus returns from heaven, He will bring deceased Christians with Him. At that time there will be a loud command, the archangel's voice will be heard, and God's trumpet will sound. Christians who have died will receive their resurrected bodies, and living Christians will be caught up to join them, to be with the Lord forever. Paul urged the Thessalonian believers to use what he wrote about the rapture to encourage one another.
Chapter 4 starts with an encouragement for the Thessalonian believers to continue their spiritual growth. Their conduct is exemplary, but they need to seek to do even more. Paul especially emphasizes the importance of sexual purity, as well as the need for believers to live peaceful, polite, and productive lives. Paul then begins to discuss the subject of Christ's return. This begins with a reassurance that believers who have died prior to the return of Christ will be the first ones raised when He comes back for His people. Next will be those still living, all of whom will meet Jesus ''in the air.'' Knowledge of our eternal destiny should be encouraging!
Chapters 1—3 had a lot to say about the good reputation of the Thessalonian church. Chapter 4 begins to address points Paul wants to clarify. First of these is the need to grow in good works, and to avoid immoral living. Paul then begins to explain ''the rapture'': the moment when Christ will retrieve believers from this earth. Paul's explanation seems to be intended to dispel rumors. In the final chapter, Paul will further explain the nature of the ''day of the Lord,'' correcting what might have been said by false teachers.
The apostle Paul's second missionary journey included a visit to the prominent Greek city of Thessalonica. This stood alongside a major land route and boasted a busy seaport. A number of individuals believed Paul's message (Acts 17:1–4), but an angry mob forced Paul to leave the city after his brief stay. Later, while in Athens, Paul received a glowing report: the believers at Thessalonica were growing spiritually and serving God fervently. However, they had questions about the Lord's return, including what happens to a believer who dies before that day. And, as all churches do, they had some areas in which they were falling short. In Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, written about AD 51, he addresses these developments. Paul expresses gratitude for the Thessalonian believers' spiritual progress, and frequently makes references to Christ's impending return.
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