1 Thessalonians 4 - Expositor's Bible Commentary (Nicoll)

Bible Comments
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 open_in_new

    Chapter 9


    1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 (R.V.)

    THE "finally" with which this chapter opens is the beginning of the end of the Epistle. The personal matter which has hitherto occupied us was the immediate cause of the Apostle's writing; he wished to open his heart to the Thessalonians, and to vindicate his conduct against the insidious accusations of his enemies; and having done so, his main purpose is fulfilled. For what remains-this is the meaning of "finally"-he has a few words to say suggested by Timothy's report upon their state.

    The previous chapter closed with a prayer for their growth in love, with a view to their establishment in holiness. The prayer of a good man avails much in its working; but his prayer of intercession cannot secure the result it seeks without the cooperation of those for whom it is made. Paul, who has besought the Lord on their behalf, now beseeches the Thessalonians themselves, and exhorts them in the Lord Jesus, to walk as they had been taught by him. The gospel, we see from this passage, contains a new law; the preacher must not only do the work of an evangelist, proclaiming the glad tidings of reconciliation to God, but the work of a catechist also, enforcing on those who receive the glad tidings the new law of Christ. This is in accordance with the final charge of the Saviour: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." The Apostle had followed this Divine order; he had made disciples in Thessalonica, and then he had taught them how to walk and to please God. We who have been born in a Christian country, and bred on the New Testament, are apt to think that we know all these things; our conscience seems to us a sufficient light. We ought to know that, though conscience is universal in the human race, and everywhere distinguishes between a right and a wrong, there is not one of our faculties which is more in need of enlightenment. No one doubts that men who have been converted from heathenism, like the Thessalonians, or the fruits of modern missions in Nyassaland or Madagascar, need to be taught what kind of life pleases God; but in some measure we all need such teaching. We have not been true to conscience; it is set in our human nature like the unprotected compass in the early iron ships: it is exposed to influences from other parts of our nature which bias and deflect it without our knowledge. It needs to be adjusted to the holy will of God, the unchangeable standard of right, and protected against disturbing forces. In Thessalonica Paul had laid down the new law, he says, through the Lord Jesus. If it had not been for Him, we should have been without the knowledge of it altogether; we should have had no adequate conception of the life with which God is well pleased. But such a life is exhibited to us in the Gospels; its spirit and requirements can be deduced from Christ's example, and are explicitly set forth in His words. He left us an example, that we should follow in His steps. "Follow Me," is the sum of His commandments; the one all-embracing law of the Christian life.

    One of the subjects of which we should gladly know more is the use of the Gospels in the early Church; and this passage gives us one of the earliest glimpses of it. The peculiar mention of the Lord Jesus in the second verse shows that the Apostle used the words and example of the Master as the basis of his moral teaching; the mind of Christ is the norm for the Christian conscience. And if it be true that we still need enlightenment as to the claims of God and the law of life, it is here we must seek it. The words of Jesus have still their old authority. They still search our hearts, and show us all things that ever we did, and their moral worth or worthlessness. They still reveal to us unsuspected ranges of life and action in which God is not yet acknowledged. They still open to us gates of righteousness, and call on us to enter in, and subdue new territories to God. The man who is most advanced in the life which pleases God, and whose conscience is most nearly identical with the mind of Christ, will be the first to confess his constant need of, and his constant dependence upon, the word and example of the Lord Jesus.

    In addressing the Thessalonians, Paul is careful to recognise their actual obedience. Ye do walk, he writes, according to this rule. In spite of sins and imperfections, the church, as a whole, had a Christian character; it was exhibiting human life in Thessalonica on the new model; and while he hints that there is room for indefinite progress, he does not fail to notice their present attainments. That is a rule of wisdom, not only for those who have to censure or to teach, but for all who wish to judge soberly the state and prospects of the Church. We know the necessity there is for abounding more and more in Christian obedience; we can see in how many directions, doctrinal and practical, that which is lacking in faith requires to be perfected; but we need not therefore be blind to the fact that it is in the Church that the Christian standard is held up, and that continuous, and not quite unsuccessful efforts, are made to reach it. The best men in a community, those whose lives come nearest to pleasing God, are to he found among those who are identified with the gospel; and if the worst men in the community are also found in the Church at times, that is because the corruption of the best is worst. If God has not cast off His Church altogether, He is teaching her to do His will.

    "For this," the Apostle proceeds, "is the will of God, even your sanctification." It is assumed here that the will of God is the law, and ought to be the inspiration, of the Christian. God has taken him out of the world that he may be His, and live in Him and for Him. He is not his own any longer; even his will is not his own; it is to be caught up and made one with the will of God; and that is sanctification. No human will works apart from God to this end of holiness. The other influences which reach it, and bend it into accord with them, are from beneath, not from above; as long as it does not recognise the will of God as its rule and support, it is a carnal, worldly, sinful will. But the will of God, to which it is called to submit, is the saving of the human will from this degradation. For the will of God is not only a law to which we are required to conform, it is the one great and effective moral power in the universe, and it summons us to enter into alliance and cooperation with itself. It is not a dead thing; it is God Himself working in us in furtherance of His good pleasure. To tell us what the will of God is, is not to tell us what is against us, but what is on our side; not the force which we have to encounter, but that on which we can depend. If we set out on an unchristian life, on a career of falsehood, sensuality, worldliness, God is against us; if we go to perdition, we go breaking violently through the safeguards with which He has surrounded us, overpowering the forces by which He seeks to keep us in check; but if we set ourselves to the work of sanctification, He is on our side. He works in us and with us, because our sanctification is His will. Paul does not mention it here to dishearten the Thessalonians, but to stimulate them. Sanctification is the one task which we can face confident that we are not left to our own resources. God is not the taskmaster we have to satisfy out of our own poor efforts, but the holy and loving Father who inspires and sustains us from first to last. To fall in with His will is to enlist all the spiritual forces of the world in our aid; it is to pull with, instead of against, the spiritual tide. In the passage before us the Apostle contrasts our sanctification with the cardinal vice of heathenism, impurity. Above all other sins, this was characteristic of the Gentiles who knew not God. There is something striking in that description of the pagan world in this connection: ignorance of God was at once the cause and the effect of their vileness; had they retained God in their knowledge, they could never have sunk to such depths of shame; had they shrunk from pollution with instinctive horror, they would never have been abandoned to such ignorance of God. No one who is not familiar with ancient literature can have the faintest idea of the depth and breadth of the corruption. Not only in writers avowedly immoral, but in the most magnificent works of a genius as lofty and pure as Plato, there are pages that would stun with horror the most hardened profligate in Christendom. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that on the whole matter in question the heathen world was without conscience: it had sinned away its sense of the difference between right and wrong; to use the words of the Apostle in another passage, being past feeling men had given themselves up to work all manner of uncleanness. They gloried in their shame. Frequently, in his epistles, Paul combines this vice with covetousness, -the two together representing the great interests of life to the ungodly, the flesh and the world. Those who do not know God and live for Him, live, as he saw with fearful plainness, to indulge the flesh and to heap up gain. Some think that in the passage before us this combination is made, and that 1 Thessalonians 4:6 -"that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter"-is a prohibition of dishonesty in business; but that is almost certainly a mistake. As the Revised Version shows, the Apostle is speaking of the matter in hand; in the Church especially, among brethren in Christ, in the Christian home, the uncleanness of heathenism can have no place. Marriage is to be sanctified. Every Christian, marrying in the Lord, is to exhibit in his home life the Christian law of sanctification and noble self-respect.

    The Apostle adds to his warning against sensuality the terrible sanction, "The Lord is an avenger in all these things." The want of conscience in the heathen world generated a vast indifference on this point. If impurity was a sin, it was certainly not a crime. The laws did not interfere with it; public opinion was at best neutral; the unclean person might presume upon impunity. To a certain extent this is the case still. The laws are silent, and treat the deepest guilt as a civil offence. Public opinion is indeed stronger and more hostile than it once was, for the leaven of Christ's kingdom is actively at work in society; but public opinion can only touch open and notorious offenders, those who have been guilty of scandal as well as of sin; and secrecy is still tempted to count upon impunity. But here we are solemnly warned that the Divine law of purity has sanctions of its own above any cognisance taken of offences by man. "The Lord is an avenger in all these things." "Because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience."

    Is it not true? They are avenged on the bodies of the sinful. "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." The holy law of God, wrought into the very constitution of our bodies, takes care that we do not violate it without paying the penalty. If it is not at the moment, it is in the future, and with interest, -in premature old age; in the torpor which succeeds all spendthrift feats, excesses of man's prime; in the sudden breakdown under any strain put on either physical or moral courage. They are avenged in the soul. Sensual indulgence extinguishes the capacity for feeling: the profligate man would love, but cannot; all that is inspiring, elevating, redeeming in the passions is lost to him; all that remains is the dull sense of that incalculable loss. Were there ever sadder lines written than those in which Burns, with his life ruined by this very thing, writes to a young friend and warns him against it?

    "I waive the quantum o' the sin,

    The hazard o' concealing;

    But Och! it hardens a' within,

    And petrifies the feeling."

    This inward deadening is one of the most terrible consequences of immorality; it is so unexpected, so unlike the anticipations of youthful passion, so stealthy in its approach, so inevitable, so irreparable. All these sins are avenged also in the will and in the spiritual nature. Most men repent of their early excesses; some never cease to repent. Repentance, at least, is what it is habitually called; but that is not really repentance which does not separate the soul from. sin. That access of weakness which comes upon the back of indulgence, that breakdown of the soul in impotent self-pity, is no saving grace. It is a counterfeit of repentance unto life, which deludes those whom sin has blinded, and which, when often enough repeated, exhausts the soul and leaves it in despair. Is there any vengeance more terrible than that? When Christian was about to leave the Interpreter's house, "Stay," said the Interpreter, "till I have showed thee a little more, and after that thou shalt go on thy way." What was the sight without which Christian was not allowed to start upon his journey? It was the Man of Despair, sitting in the iron cage, -the man who, when Christian asked him, "How camest thou in this condition?" made answer: "I left off to watch and be sober; I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the light of the word and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and He is gone; I tempted the devil, and he is come to me; I have provoked God to anger, and He has left me; I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent." This is no fancy picture: it is drawn to the life; it is drawn from the life; it is the very voice and tone in which many a man has spoken who has lived an unclean life under the cloak of a Christian profession. They who do such things do not escape the avenging holiness of God. Even death, the refuge to which despair so often drives, holds out no hope to them. There remaineth no more a sacrifice for sin, but a fearful expectation of judgment.

    The Apostle dwells upon God's interest in purity. He is the avenger of all offences against it; but vengeance is His strange work. He has called us with a calling utterly alien to it, -not based on uncleanness or contemplating it, like some of the religions in Corinth, where Paul wrote this letter; but having sanctification, purity in body and in spirit, for its very element. The idea of "calling" is one which has been much degraded and impoverished in modern times. By a man's calling we usually understand his trade, profession, or business, whatever it may be; but our calling in Scripture is something quite different from this. It is our life considered, not as filling a certain place in the economy of society, but as satisfying a certain purpose in the mind and will of God. It is a calling in Christ Jesus; apart from Him it could not have existed. The Incarnation of the Son of God; His holy life upon the earth; His victory over all our temptations; His consecration of our weak flesh to God; His sanctification, by His own sinless experience, of our childhood, youth, and manhood, with all their unconsciousness, their bold anticipations, their sense of power, their bent to lawlessness and pride; His agony and His death upon the Cross; His glorious resurrection and ascension, -all these were necessary before we could be called with a Christian calling. Can any one imagine that the vices of heathenism, lust or covetousness, are compatible with a calling like this? Are they not excluded by the very idea of it? It would repay us, I think, to lift that noble word "calling" from the base uses to which it has descended; and to give it in our minds the place it has in the New Testament. It is God who has called us, and He has called us in Christ Jesus, and therefore called us to be saints. Flee, therefore, all that is unholy and unclean.

    In the last verse of the paragraph the Apostle urges both his appeals once more: he recalls the severity and the goodness of God.

    "Therefore he that rejecteth, rejecteth not man, but God." "Rejecteth" is a contemptuous word; in the margin of the Authorised Version it is rendered, as in some other places in Scripture, "despiseth." There are such things as sins of ignorance; there are eases in which the conscience is bewildered; even in a Christian community the vitality of conscience may be low, and sins, therefore, be prevalent, without being so deadly to the individual soul; but that is never true of the sin before us. To commit this sin is to sin against the light. It is to do what everyone in contact with the Church knows, and from the beginning has known, to be wrong. It is to be guilty of deliberate, wilful, high-handed contempt of God. It is little to be warned by an apostle or a preacher; it is little to despise him: but behind all human warnings is the voice of God: behind all human sanctions of the law is God's inevitable vengeance; and it is that which is braved by the impure. "He that rejecteth, rejecteth not man, but God."

    But God, we are reminded again in the last words, is not against us, but on our side. He is the Holy One, and an avenger in all these things; but He is also the God of Salvation, our deliverer from them all, who gives His Holy Spirit unto us. The words put in the strongest light God's interest in us and in our sanctification. It is our sanctification He desires; to this He calls us; for this He works in us. Instead of shrinking from us, because we are so unlike Him, He puts His Holy Spirit into our impure hearts, He puts His own strength within our reach that we may lay hold upon it, He offers us His hand to grasp. It is this searching, condescending, patient, omnipotent love, which is rejected by those who are immoral. They grieve the Holy Spirit of God, that Spirit which Christ won for us by His atoning death, and which is able to make us clean. There is no power which can sanctify us but this; nor is there any sin which is too deep or too black for the Holy Spirit to overcome. Hearken to the words of the Apostle in another place: "Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the Kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God."

  • 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 open_in_new

    Chapter 10


    1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (R.V.)

    WHEN the gospel first came abroad in the world, two characteristics of its adherents attracted general attention, namely, personal purity and brotherly love. Amid the gross sensuality of heathenism, the Christian stood out untainted by indulgence of the flesh; amid the utter heartlessness of pagan society, which made no provision for the poor, the sick, or the aged, the Church was conspicuous for the close union of its members and their brotherly kindness to each other. Personal purity and brotherly love were the notes of the Christian and of the Christian community in the early days; they were the new and regenerating virtues which the Spirit of Christ had called into existence in the heart of a dying world. The opening verses of this chapter enforce the first; those at present before us treat of the second.

    "Concerning love of the brethren ye have no need that one write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another." The principle, that is, of brotherly love is of the very essence of Christianity; it is not a remote consequence of it which might easily be overlooked unless it were pointed out. Every believer is taught of God to love the brother who shares his faith; such love is the best and only guarantee of his own salvation; as the Apostle John writes, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren." It is perhaps not unnecessary to remark that, in the New Testament, brethren means fellow Christians, and not fellow men. We have duties to all men, which the Bible does not fail to recognise and enforce; we are one with them in the nature God has given us, and the great alternatives life sets before us; and that natural unity is the basis of duties which all owe to each other. Honour all men. But the Church of Christ creates new relations between its members, and with these new relations mutual obligations still more strong and binding. God Himself is the Saviour of all, specially of them that believe; and Christians in like manner are bound, as they have opportunity, to do good unto all men, but specially to those who are of the household of faith. This is not sufficiently considered by most Christian people; who, if they looked into the matter, might find that few of their strongest affections were determined by the common faith. Is not love a strong and peculiar word to describe the feeling you cherish toward some members of the Church, brethren to you in Christ Jesus? yet love to the brethren is the very token of our right to a place in the Church for ourselves. "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love."

    These words of John give us the key to the expression "taught of God to love one another." It is not likely that they refer to anything so external as the words of Scripture, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Even in the Old Testament, to be taught of God was something more spiritual than this; it was the same thing as to have the law written on the heart. That is what the Apostle has in view here. The Christian has been born again, born of God; he has a new nature, with new instincts, a new law, a new spontaneity; it is now native to him to love. Until the Spirit of God enters into men's hearts and recreates them, life is a war of all against all; man is a wolf to man; but in the Church that internecine strife has ended, for its members are the children of God, and "everyone that loveth Him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of Him." The selfishness of man's nature is veiled, and to some extent repressed, in other societies; but it is not, as a principle, exterminated except in the Church and by the Spirit of Christ. A family ought to be an unselfish place, ruled only by love, and fostering the spirit of love; yet if Christ be not there, what selfish passions assert themselves in spite of all restraint. Any association working for the common good-a town council even-ought to be an unselfish body; yet how often, in such places, is rivalry conspicuous, and self-seeking, and envy, and detraction, and all that is unlike Christ. In the Church which has been taught of God, or, in other words, which has learned of Christ, we find at least some manifestations of a better spirit. It does contain people who love one another because they are Christians; who are unselfish, giving way to each other, esteeming each other, helping each other; if it contained none such, it would not be a Church at all.

    The brotherly love of the early Church was not only visible to the world; it was its great recommendation in the world's eyes. It had brought a new thing into being, a thing for which the world was pining, namely, vital society. The poor people in the cities of Asia and Europe saw with wonder, joy, and hope, men and women united to one another in a spiritual union, which gave scope to all their gifts for society, and satisfied all their desires for it. The early Christian churches were little companies of people where love was at a high temperature, where outward pressure very often tightened the inward bonds, and where mutual confidence diffused continual joy. Men were drawn to them irresistibly by the desire to share this life of love. It is the very same force which at this moment draws those who are outcasts from society into the Salvation Army. Whatever the failings of that organisation may be, its members are as brothers; the sense of union, of mutual obligation, of mutual confidence, in one word, of brotherly love, is very strong; and souls that pine for that atmosphere are drawn to it with overpowering force. It is not good for man to be alone; it is vain for him to seek the satisfaction of his social instincts in any of the casual, selfish, or sinful associations by which he is often betrayed: even the natural affection of the family, pure and strong as it may be, does not answer to the width of his spiritual nature; his heart cries out for that society founded on brotherly love which only the Church of Christ provides. If there is one thing more than another which explains the Church's failure in missionary work, it is the absence of this spirit of love among her members. If men were compelled to cry still, as in the early days of the gospel, "Behold these Christians, how they love one another," they would not be able to remain outside. Their hearts would kindle at the glow, and all that hindered their incorporation would be burned up.

    The Apostle acknowledges the progress of the Thessalonians. They show this brotherly love to all the brethren that are in all Macedonia; but he beseeches them to abound more and more. Nothing is more inconsistent with the gospel than narrowness of mind or heart, however often Christians may belie their profession by such vices. Perhaps of all churches in the world, the church of our own country is as much in need of this admonition as any, and more than most. Would it not be higher praise than some of us deserve, to say that we loved with brotherly cordiality all the Christian churches in Britain, and wished them God-speed in their Christian work? And as for churches outside our native land, who knows anything about them? There was a time when all the Protestant churches in Europe were one, and lived on terms of brotherly intimacy; we sent ministers and professors to congregations and colleges in France, Germany, and Holland, and took ministers and professors from the Continent ourselves; the heart of the Church was enlarged towards brethren whom it has now completely forgotten. This change has been to the loss of all concerned; and if we would follow the Apostle's advice, and abound more and more in this supreme grace, we must wake up to take an interest in brethren beyond the British Isles. The Kingdom of Heaven has no boundaries that could be laid down on a map, and the brotherly love of the Christian is wider than all patriotism. But this truth has a special side connected with the situation of the Apostle. Paul wrote these words from Corinth, where he was busily engaged in planting a new church, and they virtually bespeak the interest of the Thessalonians in that enterprise. Christian brotherly love is the love which God Himself implants in the heart; and the love of God has no limitations. It goes out into all the earth, even to the end of the world. It is an ever advancing, ever victorious force; the territory in which it reigns becomes continually wider and wider. If that love abounds in us more and more, we shall follow with live and growing interest the work of Christian missions. Few of us have any idea of the dimensions of that work, and of the nature of its successes. Few of us have any enthusiasm for it. Few of us do anything worth mentioning to help it on. Not very long ago the whole nation was shocked by the disclosures about the Stanley expedition; and the newspapers were filled with the doings of a few profligate ruffians, who, whatever they failed to do, succeeded in covering themselves, and the country they belong to, with infamy. One would fain hope that this exhibition of inhumanity would turn men's thoughts by contrast to those who are doing the work of Christ in Africa. The national execration of fiendish wickedness is nothing unless it passes into deep and strong sympathy with those who are working among the Africans in brotherly love. What is the merit of Stanley or his associates, that their story should excite the interest of those who know nothing of Comber and Hannington and Mackay, and all the other brave men who loved not their lives to the death for Christ's sake and Africa's? Is it not a shame to some of us that we know the horrible story so much better than the gracious one? Let brotherly love abound more and more; let Christian sympathy go out with our brethren and sisters in Christ who go out themselves to dark places; let us keep ourselves instructed in the progress of their work; let us support it with prayer and liberality at home; and our minds and hearts alike will grow in the greatness of our Lord and Saviour.

    Brotherly love in the early Church, within the limits of a small congregation, often took the special form of charity. Those who were able helped the poor. A special care was taken, as we see from the Book of Acts, of widows, and no doubt of orphans. In a later epistle Paul mentions with praise a family which devoted itself to ministering to the saints. To do good and to communicate, that is, to impart of one's goods to those who had need, is the sacrifice of praise which all Christians are charged not to forget. To see a brother or a sister destitute, and to shut up the heart against them, is taken as proof positive that we have not the love of God dwelling in us. It would be difficult, one might think, to exaggerate the emphasis which the New Testament lays on the duty and the merit of charity. "Sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor," Christ said to the rich young man, "and thou shalt have treasure in heaven." "Give alms," He cried to the Pharisees, "of such things as ye have and behold, all things are clean unto you." Charity sanctifies. Nor have these strong sayings been without their due effect. Charity, both organised and private, is characteristic of Christendom, and of Christendom only. The pagan world made no provision for the destitute, the sick, the aged. It had no almshouses, no infirmaries, no orphanages, no convalescent homes. The mighty impulse of the love of Christ has created all these, and to this hour it sustains them all. Acknowledged or unacknowledged, it is the force which lies behind every effort made by man for the good of his fellows; wherever this disinterested love burns in a human bosom, it is the fire which Christ cast upon the earth, and He rejoices at its kindling. As a recent example, look at the great scheme of General Booth: it is the love of Christ which has inspired it; it is the love of Christ that must provide all the subordinate agents by whom it is to be administered, if it is ever carried into effect; it is on the public conviction that he is animated by the love of Christ, and has no by-ends of his own to secure, that General Booth depends for his funds. It is only this Christ-enkindled love which gives charity its real worth, and furnishes any sort of guarantee that it will confer a double blessing, material and spiritual, on those who receive it.

    For charity is not without its dangers, and the first and greatest of these is that men learn to depend upon it. When Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica, he spoke a great deal about the Second Advent. It was an exciting subject, and some at least of those who received his message were troubled by "ill-defined or mistaken expectations," which led to moral disorder in their lives. They were so anxious to be ready for the Lord when He came, that they neglected their ordinary duties, and became dependent upon the brethren. They ceased working themselves, and so became a burden upon those who continued to work. Here we have, in a nutshell, the argument against a monastic life of idleness, against the life of the begging friar. All men must live by labour, their own or some other's; and he who chooses a life without labour, as the more holy, really condemns some brother to a double share of that labouring life to which, as he fancies, the highest holiness is denied. That is rank selfishness; only a man without brotherly love could be guilty of it for an hour.

    Now in opposition to this selfishness, -unconscious at first, let us hope, -and in opposition to the unsettled, flighty, restless expectations of these early disciples, the Apostle propounds a very sober and humble plan of life. Make it your ambition, he says, to be quiet, and to busy yourselves with your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you. There is a grave irony in the first words-make it your ambition to be quiet; set your honour in that. The ordinary ambition seeks to make a noise in the world, to make itself visible and audible; and ambition of that type is not unknown even in the Church. But it is out of place there. No Christian ought to be ambitious of anything but to fill as unobtrusively as possible the place in life which God has given him. The less notorious we are, the better for us. The necessities of our situation, necessities imposed by God, require most of us to spend so many hours a day in making our daily bread. The bulk of most men's strength, by an ordinance of God that we cannot interfere with, is given to that humble but inevitable task. If we cannot be holy at our work, it is not worth taking any trouble to be holy at other times. If we cannot be Christians and please God in those common activities which must always absorb so much of our time and strength, the balance of life is not worth thinking about. Perhaps some of us crave leisure, that we may be more free for spiritual work; and think that if we had more time at our disposal, we should be able to render many services to Christ and His cause which are out of our power at present. But that is extremely doubtful. If experience proves anything, it proves that nothing is worse for most people than to have nothing to do but be religious. Religion is not controlled in their life by any contact with realities; in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they do not know how to be quiet, but are vain, meddlesome, impracticable, and senseless. The man who has his trade or his profession to work at, and the woman who has her household and social duties to attend to, are not to be condoled with; they are in the very place in which religion is at once necessary and possible; they can study to be quiet, and to mind their own business, and to work with their own hands, and in all this to serve and please God. But those who get up in the morning with nothing to do but to be pious or to engage in Christian works, are in a position of enormous difficulty, which very few can fill. The daily life of toil, at the bench or the desk, in the shop, the study, or the street, does not rob us of the Christian life; it really puts it within our reach. If we keep our eyes open, it is easy to see that this is so.

    There are two reasons assigned by the Apostle for this life of quiet industry, both of which are noticeable. First, "That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without." Honestly is too colourless a word in modern English; the corresponding adjective in different places is translated honourable and comely. What the Apostle signifies is, that the Church has a great character to sustain in the world, and that the individual Christian has that character, to some extent, in his charge. Idleness, fussiness, excitability, want of common sense, these are discreditable qualities inconsistent with the dignity of Christianity, and to be guarded against by the believer. The Church is really a spectacle to the World; those who are without have their eye upon it; and the Apostle would have it a worthy and impressive spectacle. But what is there so undignified as an idle busybody, a man or woman neglecting duty on the pretence of piety, so excited by an uncertain future as to disregard the most crying necessities of the present? Perhaps there is none of us who does anything so bad as this; but there are some in every church who are not careful of Christian dignity. Remember that there is something great in true Christianity, something which should command the veneration of those who are without; and do nothing inconsistent with that. As the sun breaks through the darkest cloud, so honour peereth in the meanest habit; and the lowliest occupation, discharged with diligence, earnestness, and fidelity, gives scope enough for the exhibition of true Christian dignity. The man who does his common duties as they ought to be done will never lose his self-respect, and will never discredit the Church of Christ.

    The second reason for the life of quiet industry is, "That ye may have lack of nothing." Probably the truer interpretation would be, That ye may have lack of no one. In other words, independence is a Christian duty. This is not inconsistent with what has been said of charity, but is its necessary supplement. Christ commands us to be charitable; He tells us plainly that the need for charity will not disappear; but He tells us as plainly that to count upon charity, except in the case of necessity, is both sinful and shameful. This contains, of course, a warning to the charitable. Those of us who wish to help the poor, and who try to do so, must take care to do it in such a way as not to teach them to depend on help; that is to do them a serious wrong. We are all familiar with the charges brought against charity; it demoralises, it fosters idleness and improvidence, it robs those who receive it of self-respect. These charges have been current from the beginning; they were freely brought against the Church in the days of the Roman Empire. If they could be made good, they would condemn what passes for charity as unchristian. The one-sided enforcement of charity, in the sense of almsgiving, in the Romish Church, has occasionally led to something like a glorification of pauperism; the saint is usually a beggar. One would hope that in our own country, where the independence of the national character has been reinforced by the most pronounced types of Protestant religion, such a deformed conception of Christianity would be impossible; yet even among us the caution of this verse may not be unnecessary. It is a sign of grace to be charitable; but though one would not speak an unkind word of those in need, it is not a sign of grace to require charity. The gospel bids us aim not only at brotherly love, but at independence. Remember the poor, it says; but it says also, Work with your hands, that you may preserve a Christian dignity in relation to the world, and have need of no one.

  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 open_in_new

    Chapter 11


    1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (R.V.)

    THE restlessness of the Thessalonians, which caused some of them to neglect their daily work, was the result of strained expectations of Christ's second coming. The Apostle had taught them that the Saviour and Judge of all might appear no one knew when; and they were consumed with a feverish anxiety to be found ready when He came. How terrible it would be to be found unready, and to lose one's place in the heavenly kingdom! The Thessalonians were dominated by such thoughts as these when death visited the church, and gave rise to new perplexities. What of the brethren who had been taken away so soon, and of their part in the glory to be revealed? Had they been robbed, by death, of the Christian hope? Had the inheritance which is incorruptible, undefiled, and imperishable, passed forever beyond their grasp, because they had died before Christ came to take His people to Himself?

    This was what some of the survivors feared; and it is to correct their mistaken ideas, and to comfort them in their sorrow, that the Apostle writes the words we are now to study. "We would not have you ignorant," he says, "concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, which have no hope." The last words refer to those who are away from Christ, and without God in the world. It is a frightful thing to say of any man, and still more of the mass of men, that they have no hope; yet it is not only the Apostle who says it; it is the confession, by a thousand voices, of the heathen world itself. To that world the future was a blank, or a place of unreality and shades. If there were great exceptions, men who, like Plato, could not give up faith in immortality and in the righteousness of God, even in the face of death, these were no more than exceptions; and even for them the future had no substance compared with the present. Life was here, and not there. Wherever we can hear the pagan soul speak of the future, it is in this blank, heartless tone. "Do not," says Achilles in the Odyssey, "make light of death to me. Rather would I on earth be a serf to another, a man of little land and little substance, than be prince over all the dead that have come to nought." "Suns," says Catullus, "may set and rise again. When once our brief light has set, one unbroken night of sleep remains." These are fair specimens of the pagan outlook; are they not fair enough specimens of the non-Christian outlook at the present day? The secular life is quite avowedly a life without hope. It resolutely fixes its attention on the present, and avoids the distraction of the future. But there are few whom death does not compel, at some time or other, to deal seriously with the questions the future involves. If we love the departed, our hearts cannot but go with them to the unseen; and there are few who can assure themselves that death ends all. For those who can, what a sorrow remains! Their loved ones have lost everything. All that makes life is here, and they have gone. How miserable is their lot, to have been deprived, by cruel and untimely death, of all the blessings man can ever enjoy! How hopelessly must those who are left behind lament them!

    This is exactly the situation with which the Apostle deals. The Christians in Thessalonica feared that their brethren who had died would be shut out of the Messiah's kingdom; they mourned for them as those mourn who have no hope. The Apostle corrects their error, and comforts them. His words do not mean that the Christian may lawfully sorrow for his dead, provided he does not go to a pagan extreme; they mean that the hopeless pagan sorrow is not to be indulged by the Christian at all. We give their proper force if we imagine him saying: "Weep for yourselves, if you will; that is natural, and God does not wish us to be insensible to the losses and sorrows which are part of His providential government of our lives; but do not weep for them; the believer who has fallen asleep in Christ is not to be lamented; he has lost nothing; the hope of immortality is as sure for him as for those who may live to welcome the Lord at His coming; he has gone to be with Christ, which is far, far better."

    The 14th verse (1 Thessalonians 4:14) gives the Christian proof of this consoling doctrine. "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with Him." It is quite plain that something is wanting here to complete the argument. Jesus did die and rise again, there is no dispute about that; but how is the Apostle justified in inferring from this that God will bring the Christian dead again to meet the living? What is the missing link in this reasoning? Clearly it is the truth, so characteristic of the New Testament, that there is a union between Christ and those who trust Him so close that their destiny can be read in His. All that He has experienced will be experienced by them. They are united to Him as indissolubly as the members of the body to the head, and being planted together in the likeness of His death, they shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection. Death, the Apostle would have us understand, does not break the bond between the believing soul and the Saviour. Even human love is stronger than the grave; it goes beyond it with the departed; it follows them with strong yearnings, with wistful hopes, sometimes with earnest prayers. But there is an impotence, at which death mocks, in earthly love; the last enemy does put a great gulf between souls, which cannot be bridged over; and there is no such impotence in the love of Christ. He is never separated from those who love Him. He is one with them in death, and in the life to come, as in this life. Through Him God will bring the departed again to meet their friends. There is something very expressive in the word "bring." "Sweet word," says Bengel: "it is spoken of living persons." The dead for whom we mourn are not dead; they all live to God; and when the great day comes, God will bring those who have gone before, and unite them to those who have been left behind. When we see Christ at His coming, we shall see also those that have fallen asleep in Him.

    This argument, drawn from the relation of the Christian to the Saviour, is confirmed by an appeal to the authority of the Saviour Himself. "For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord": as if he said, "It is not merely a conclusion of our own; it is supported by the express word of Christ." Many have tried to find in the Gospels the word of the Lord referred to, but, as I think, without success. The passage usually quoted: Matthew 24:31 "He shall send forth His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other," though it covers generally the subject with which the Apostle is dealing, does not touch upon the essential point, the equality of those who die before the Second Advent with those who live to see it. We must suppose that the word of the Lord referred to was one which failed to find a place in the written Gospels, like that other which the Apostle preserved, "It is more blessed to give than to receive": or that it was a word which Christ spoke to him in one of the many revelations which he received in his apostolic work. In any case, what the Apostle is going to say is not his own word, but the word of Christ, and as such its authority is final for all Christians. What, then, does Christ say on this great concern?

    He says that "we that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep." The natural impression one takes from these words is that Paul expected himself to be alive when Christ came; but whether that impression is justifiable or not, it is no part of the truth which can claim the authority of the Lord. Christ's word only assures.us that those who are alive at that day shall have no precedency over those that have fallen asleep; it does not tell us who shall be in the one class, and who in the other. Paul did not know when the day of the Lord would be; but as it was the duty of all Christians to look for and hasten it, he naturally included himself among those who would live to see it. Later in life, the hope of surviving till the Lord came alternated in his mind with the expectation of death. In one and the same epistle, the Epistle to the Philippians, we find him writing, Philippians 4:5 "The Lord is at hand"; and only a little earlier, Philippians 1:23 "I have the desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better." Better, certainly, than a life of toil and suffering; but not better than the Lord's coming. Paul could not but shrink with a natural horror from death and its nakedness; he would have preferred to escape that dread necessity, the putting off of the body; not to be unclothed, was his desire, but to be clothed upon, and to have mortality swallowed up of life. When he wrote this letter to the Thessalonians, I do not doubt that this was his hope; and it does not impugn his authority in the least that it was a hope destined not to be fulfilled. With the Lord, a thousand years are as one day; and even those who are partakers in the kingdom seldom partake to an eminent degree in the patience of Jesus Christ. Only in the teaching of the Lord Himself does the New Testament put strongly before us the duration of the Christian era, and the delays of the Second Advent. How many of His parables, e.g., represent the kingdom as subject to the law of growth-the Sower, the Wheat and the Tares which have both to ripen, the Mustard Seed, and the Seed Growing Gradually. All these imply a natural law and goal of progress, not to be interrupted at random. How many, again, like the parable of the Unjust Judge, or the Ten Virgins, imply that the delay will be so great as to beget utter disbelief or forgetfulness of His coming. Even the expression, "The times of the Gentiles," suggests epochs which must intervene before men see Him again. But over against this deep insight and wondrous patience of Christ, we must not be surprised to find something of impatient ardour in the Apostles. The world was so cruel to them, their love to Christ was so fervent, their desire for reunion so strong, that they could not but hope and pray, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus." Is it not better to recognise the obvious fact that Paul was mistaken as to the nearness of the Second Advent, than to torture his words to secure his infallibility? Two great commentators-the Roman Catholic Cornelius a Lapide, and the Protestant John Calvin-save Paul's infallibility at a greater cost than violating the rules of grammar. They admit that his words mean that he expected to survive till Christ came again; but, they say, an infallible apostle could not really have had such an expectation; and therefore we must believe that Paul practised a pious fraud in writing as he did, a fraud with the good intention of keeping the Thessalonians on the alert. But I hope, if we had the choice, we would all choose rather to tell the truth, and be mistaken, than to be infallible, and tell lies.

    After the general statement, on Christ's authority, that the living shall have no precedency of the departed, Paul goes on to explain the circumstances of the Advent by which it is justified. "The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven." In that emphatic Himself we have the argument of 1 Thessalonians 4:14 practically repeated: the Lord, it signifies, who knows all that are His. Who can look at Christ as He comes again in glory, and not remember His words in the Gospel, "Because I live, ye shall live also"; "where I am, there shall also My servant be"? It is not another who comes, but He to whom all Christian souls have been united forever. "The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God." The last two of these expressions are in all probability the explanation of the first; the voice of the archangel, or the trumpet of God, is the signal shout, or as the hymn expresses it, "the great commanding word," with which the drama of the last things is ushered in. The archangel is the herald of the Messianic King. We cannot tell how much is figure in these expressions, which all rest on Old Testament associations, and on popular beliefs amongst the Jews of the time; neither can we tell what precisely underlies the figure. But this much is clearly meant, that a Divine summons, audible and effective everywhere, goes forth from Christ's presence; that ancient utterance, of hope or of despair, is fulfilled: "Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee." When the signal is given, the dead in Christ rise first. Paul says nothing here of the resurrection body, spiritual and incorruptible; but when Christ comes, the Christian dead are raised in that body, prepared for eternal blessedness, before anything else is done. That is the meaning of "the dead in Christ shall rise first." It does not contrast the resurrection of the Christian dead with a second resurrection of all men, either immediately afterwards, or after a thousand years; it contrasts it as the first scene in this drama with the second, namely, the rapture of the living. The first thing will be that the dead rise; the next, that those that are alive, that are left, shall at the same time, and in company with them, be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. The Apostle does not look beyond this; so, he says, shall we-that is, we all, those that live and those that are fallen asleep-be ever with the Lord.

    A thousand questions rise to our lips as we look at this wonderful picture; but the closer we look, the more plainly do we see the parsimony of the revelation, and the strictness with which it is measured out to meet the necessities of the case. There is nothing in it, for instance, about the non-Christian. It tells us the blessed destiny of those who have fallen asleep in Christ, and of those who wait for Christ's appearing. Much of the curiosity about those who die without Christ is not disinterested. People would like to know what their destiny is, because they would like to know whether there is not a tolerable alternative to accepting the gospel. But the Bible does not encourage us to look for such an alternative. "Blessed," it says, "are the dead who die in the Lord"; and blessed also are the living who live in the Lord; if there are those who reject this blessedness, and raise questions about what a life without Christ may lead to, they do it at their peril.

    There is nothing, again, about the nature of the life beyond the Advent, except this, that it is a life in which the Christian is in close and unbroken union with Christ-ever with the Lord. Some have been very anxious to answer the question, Where? but the revelation gives us no help. It does not say that those who meet the Lord in the air ascend with Him to heaven, or descend, as some have supposed, to reign with Him on earth. There is absolutely nothing in it for curiosity, though everything that is necessary for comfort. For men who had conceived the terrible thought that the Christian dead had lost the Christian hope, the veil was withdrawn from the future, and living and dead alike revealed united, in eternal life, to Christ. That is all, but surely it is enough. That is the hope which the gospel puts before us, and no accident of time, like death, can rob us of it. Jesus died and rose again; He is Lord both of the dead and the living; and all will, at the great day, be gathered together to Him. Are they to be lamented, who have this future to look forward to? Are we to sorrow over those who pass into the world unseen, as if they had no hope, or as if we had none? No; in the sorrow of death itself we may comfort one another with these words.

    Is it not a striking proof of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we have, on the express authority of His word, a special revelation, the exclusive aim of which is to comfort? Jesus knew the terrible sorrow of bereavement; He had stood by the bedside of Jairus' daughter, by the young man's bier at Nain, by Lazarus' tomb. He knew how inconsolable it was, how subtle, how passionate; He knew the dead weight at the heart which never passes away, and the sudden rush of feeling which overpowers the strongest. And that all this sorrow might not rest upon His Church unrelieved, He lifted the curtain that we might see with our eyes the strong consolation beyond. I have spoken of it as if it consisted simply in union to Christ; but it is as much a part of the revelation that Christians whom death has separated are reunited to each other. The Thessalonians feared they would never see their departed friends again; but the word of the Lord says, You will be caught up, in company with them, to meet Me; and you and they shall dwell with Me forever. What congregation is there in which there is not need of this consolation? Comfort one another, the Apostle says. One needs the comfort today, and another tomorrow; in proportion as we bear each other's burdens, we all need it continually. The unseen world is perpetually opening to receive those whom we love; but though they pass out of sight and out of reach, it is not forever. They are still united to Christ; and when He comes in His glory He will bring them to us again. Is it not strange to balance the greatest sorrow of life against words? Words, we often feel, are vain and worthless; they do not lift the burden from the heart; they make no difference to the pressure of grief. Of our own words that is true; but what we have been considering are not our own words, but the word of the Lord. His words are alive and powerful: heaven and earth may pass away, but they cannot pass; let us comfort one another with that.