By Peter Amsterdam
March 14, 2023
Having covered the topic of sexual immorality in verses 3–8,1 Paul moved on to address another problem that had arisen in the Thessalonian church.
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia.2
Paul began by commending the Thessalonian believers for their brotherly love. Normally, brotherly love is used to describe fraternal love, the love between members of a family. It wouldn’t be used to describe those outside of the family circle. However, Paul used the word to express the relationship between Christians who have become brothers (and sisters) in the community of faith. Paul refers to the believers as brothers 17 times in 1 Thessalonians.
The New Testament term brotherly love describes the relationship the Christian believers have because of their common faith in Christ. Other examples in the New Testament include:
Love one another with brotherly affection.3
Let brotherly love continue.4
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.5
The command to love one another was a key point of Jesus’ teaching, as He called His disciples to imitate the kind of love which He had given them.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.6
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.7
These things I command you, so that you will love one another.8
Jesus’ teaching to love one another was a theme that was repeatedly taught by His disciples.
This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.9
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.10
This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.11
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.12
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.13
Because this teaching was available to the Thessalonians, Paul could rightly say you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.14
That indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more.15
The second reason that the Thessalonian Christians didn’t need to receive further instructions about brotherly love was because they were not only showing love to their fellow Thessalonians, but they also extended that love to Christians who lived throughout Macedonia. They were extending love beyond their home church to those of other churches in the area, likely those in Philippi, Berea, and possibly Amphipolis and Apollonia.16
Paul doesn’t specify the ways in which the Thessalonians have shown this mutual love for all the Macedonian believers. It may be that Paul was referring to the economic aid that the Thessalonians provided for the needy Christians in their region. In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.17
Back to chapter 4:
… and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.18
Here Paul puts the focus on those in the church who were dependent on patrons for their financial livelihood. Many of these patrons were wealthy members of the believing community who typically gave financial support to their clients, who in some cases were also members of the church. The clients affiliated themselves with the patrons in hope of receiving benefits such as food and representation in return for demonstrating public honor and support for their patrons. The more clients a patron had, the more important they were perceived to be.
Paul made the point that rather than participating in the patronage lifestyle, the Thessalonian believers should busy themselves with their own work so that they would no longer be dependent on others for their livelihood. They were to work with their own hands as they went about their own work so that they could provide their own needs.
That was exactly what Paul and his companions were doing. While Paul was a missionary, he was also a tentmaker. Although he could have lived off the donations of those he ministered to, he chose not to take advantage of this right. In the book of Acts, Paul made the point that he supported himself through his work as a tentmaker.
I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.19
So that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. Because some of the Thessalonian believers were involved in the affairs of the city and were economically dependent on their patrons, they didn’t contribute to the needs of the church and the Christian community. Paul’s solution to the problem was that they step back from participating in the affairs of the city, step out of the patron/client system, and instead take up honest labor so that they would be free from dependence on their patrons. Paul was calling the Thessalonian Christians to conduct themselves in a manner which would bring them respect rather than their being beholden to a patron. They should be seen as solid members of the local community and conduct themselves as upstanding citizens. Along with this, Paul instructed them that they should not be dependent on others for their livelihood.
Up until this point in this chapter, Paul referred to things that the believers already knew. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus;20 we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you;21 you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.22 At this point, however, Paul moved on to a different subject: the question of what will happen to “the dead in Christ.”
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.23
It seems as if the Thessalonian believers were somewhat deficient in their knowledge regarding believers who had died. Likely they hadn’t received sufficient teaching on this topic, so they asked Paul some questions regarding Christians who had passed away. Paul used the metaphor asleep for those who had died, but a few verses later he speaks of those who have passed on as the dead. The dead in Christ will rise first.24
The reason Paul didn’t want the believers to be uninformed about the Christians who had died was so they wouldn’t grieve as others do who have no hope. Paul wasn’t saying that believers couldn’t grieve when their loved ones passed on; rather, as one author wrote:
Their grief should be tempered and informed by the hope they held, based on the resurrection of Christ and the promise of his coming.25
Paul goes on to say:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.26
One of the fundamental beliefs of the church was/is that Jesus died and rose again. Paul was probably quoting from a creed which was in circulation among believers and was used in the Thessalonian church at that time. The death and resurrection of Jesus was put forward as the guarantee of the resurrection of believers.27
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.28
Paul begins this sentence by stating that this teaching was inspired by Jesus (“a word from the Lord”), and because of this it is authoritative for Christian believers. In the Old Testament, the “word of the Lord” generally referred to the prophetic oracles. Some examples are:
The word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest.29
Now the word of the LORD came to me (Jeremiah).30
The word of the LORD that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri.31
However, in the New Testament, the word of the Lord isn’t used that way. Rather it refers to the message of the gospel which is proclaimed.
This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.32
And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.33
For some reason it was important for the Thessalonians to know that when Jesus returns, the believers who were alive would not have precedence over those who had already died. Paul states that the dead in Christ will be raised first; then the living, along with the raised dead, will be taken up to meet the Lord. This would have been comforting to the Thessalonians in their grief.
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.34
In the previous verse, Paul referred to Jesus’ coming. The Greek word for such a coming was parousia. This is a term which generally meant the glorious “coming” of a sovereign (a supreme ruler) or ruler visiting a city. Such visits were cause for great celebrations including banquets, speeches praising the visitors, religious activities, competitions, sacrifices, and dedications of statues, as well as the construction of arches and new buildings. On such occasions, the city officials and the people of the city would wear special clothing and would head out of the city to meet the sovereign and to escort him into the city.
Paul used this concept of parousia to describe Jesus’ coming and the glory and pomp which will accompany His return, as well as to reassure the Thessalonians that all Christians, both those living and those who have died, would take part in this wonderful event. Jesus’ return will not be a secret. First, there will be a cry of command. We’re not told who issues the cry of command, but it may refer to God the Father, who issues the order for the dead in Christ to rise.
Jesus’ return is accompanied by the voice of an archangel. We’re not told the name of this archangel. However, within the New Testament there is only one archangel named, the archangel Michael in Jude 1:9.
When the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”35
There is only one other angel named in the New Testament, the angel Gabriel, who was sent to Mary, the mother of Jesus.36 However, angels are referred to 83 times in the New Testament.
The third great sound is the sound of the trumpet of God. Trumpets in Paul’s time were not used primarily as musical instruments; rather, they were used in military exercises and events such as funeral processions. In this case, the dead will hear the great sound of the trumpet call of God and they will respond to the command to rise. Both here and in 1 Corinthians 15:52, the trumpet of God is the call for the resurrection of the dead. In Matthew 24:31, the trumpet of God is what calls together the dispersed people of God.
When the sound of the trumpet of God is heard, the dead in Christ will rise first. Not all the dead are raised at this time; only those who have received salvation through Christ before they died. Paul wanted to make it clear to the Thessalonians that the believers who had died will rise and will participate in the Lord’s return. They will not miss the opportunity to be present when Jesus returns.
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, and so we will always be with the Lord.37
After the dead have risen, then the living Christians will be joined together with those who are raised, and together they all will go out to meet the Lord, at the time of His parousia. This glorious event is also often referred to as the “rapture.” Paul’s reference to we who are alive likely indicates that Paul and his partners expected to be alive at the parousia. From Paul’s perspective, the primary group is those who are resurrected, who are then followed by the living. When the two groups are joined together, they all will be caught up together. Hearing that both the dead and living would be caught up in the clouds would have been a revelation to the Thessalonians. As one author says:
Never had such a glorious event been contemplated.38
To meet the Lord in the air reflects the custom of sending a delegation from the city to receive dignitaries who were coming. An example of this is found in the book of Acts, when Luke describes how the delegation of Christians from Rome went out to receive Paul and his companions as they approached the city.
The brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.39
In writing about meeting the Lord in the air, Paul makes the point that it is the bodies of the resurrected believers and the living believers, and not just their souls, who will meet the Lord in the air. He doesn’t explain how this will happen, but from this and his other writings he makes it clear that he expects a transformation of the human body to a state of immortality.
Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.40
Someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.41
The end of this process, the resurrection and being caught up in the clouds, is stated in the final sentence, and so we will always be with the Lord. Scripture tells us that believers’ souls are united with the Lord at the time of death.
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.42
We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.43
Therefore encourage one another with these words.44
The Thessalonians grieved over the death of some members of their community. Added to that grief was their concern that the dead might be excluded from meeting the Lord when He returns. Paul shared a revelation in this letter that they could use to comfort each other. At Christ’s return, all believers, whether dead or alive, will be united with Jesus, our King and Savior, where we will always be with the Lord. How wonderful!
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 See 1 Thessalonians: Chapter 4 (Part 1).
2 1 Thessalonians 4:9–10.
3 Romans 12:10.
4 Hebrews 13:1.
5 1 Peter 1:22. See also 2 Peter 1:7.
6 John 13:34–35.
7 John 15:12.
8 John 15:17.
9 1 John 3:11.
10 Galatians 6:2.
11 1 John 3:23.
12 1 John 4:7.
13 1 John 4:11.
14 1 Thessalonians 4:9.
15 1 Thessalonians 4:10.
16 Acts 17:1.
17 2 Corinthians 8:1–4.
18 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12.
19 Acts 20:33–34.
20 1 Thessalonians 4:2.
21 1 Thessalonians 4:6.
22 1 Thessalonians 4:9.
23 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
24 1 Thessalonians 4:16.
25 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 219.
26 1 Thessalonians 4:14.
27 Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14.
28 1 Thessalonians 4:15.
29 Ezekiel 1:3.
30 Jeremiah 1:4.
31 Hosea 1:1.
32 Acts 19:10.
33 Acts 13:49.
34 1 Thessalonians 4:16.
35 Jude 1:9.
36 Luke 1:26–27.
37 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
38 Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 226.
39 Acts 28:15.
40 Philippians 3:20–21.
41 1 Corinthians 15:35–37.
42 Philippians 1:23.
43 2 Corinthians 5:6–9.
44 1 Thessalonians 4:18.