First Thessalonians Chapter Four:
Chapter Four Overview:
vv.1-12: Exhortation to general sanctification, honesty, and diligence in labour:
vv.1-4: The pretext (v.1), precept (v.2), practice (v.3) and perception (v.4) of piety. Beseeching Christians to greater holiness; reminder that they know the commandments; sanctification connected to obeying commandments; knowledge of how to walk; vv.5-6: How not to walk; warning of God’s vengeance; v.7: The nature of God’s calling; v.8: Unholy professors of religion hate God; rejecting God’s people, ministers, or ordinances is rejecting Him; vv.9-10: Taught of God; a great evidence of conversion, that ye love one another; ever increasing love toward each other is always warranted and desired; vv.11-12: The Christian’s duty to mind his own business, and labour in his occupation; testimony before the world, considered mundane but it is powerful;
vv.13-18: Paul’s persuasion (vv.13-17) of and pastoral purpose (v.18) for eschatological teaching.
v.13: Concerning those who have died in Christ; hopelessness of death without Christ; v.14: No difference between living and dead Christians, all guaranteed reception by Christ; vv.15-17: Order of events; no secret rapture; v.18: The neglected purpose of eschatology, to comfort one another.
“Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour;”
– Again, we notice Paul’s pastoral attitude is not of bullying his brethren into conformity. He beseeches them, which Paul does frequently in this epistle. The Greek word for beseech is a word that means to request, entreat, beg. Likewise, the word exhort is synonymous with beseech; see note on ch.2 v.11. Paul trusts these particular brethren, noting signs of their maturity throughout the epistle. He discerningly asks more so than commands his brethren. This is trust in their godliness, as well as trust in God who was evidently working in them. This approach is distinct from his dealings with the Corinthians who were plagued with iniquity, and the Galatians who had adopted heresies. Paul was much more stern in addressing those congregations than he was with the Thessalonians.
(I) The pretext, or grounds of piety: “we beseech you by the Lord Jesus” (v.1). Paul here beseeches and exhorts the brethren, holding our Lord as their great motive. As John Gill writes:
“… or for his sake, intimating, that if they had any regard to him, any value for his name, if that had any weight with them, or they had any concern for his honour and interest, then he begs their attention to the following exhortation…”
What a powerful motivator unto holiness. Consider Him who lived and died for us, the value and worth of Him being so beyond all creaturely comprehension. Consider that the smallest drop of His blood is worth more than all creation, and yet it was all poured out for us, who deserve and have only earned the eternal wrath of God. Such grace and love incarnated and given to us in the payment of a debt that cannot be fathomed. What could motivate you more unto holiness?
“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” (Hebrews 12:2-3).
If then, this motivation, the Lord Jesus Himself, has been absent from your exhortations to the brethren, that must be repented of. Once a regenerate man truly considers the glorious and gracious character of his Lord Jesus, the keeping of this command, though not easy, will be at least possible; that we abound more and more in walking before and pleasing God; though we can never in this life do so perfectly. Anyone who reckons they can be perfect in this life has a low view of God, a high view of man, and a slight view of sin. The more failure a regenerate man is aware of, the more appreciation he has for the Lord Jesus; “…to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” (Luke 7:47); see Luke 7:36-50. It is a necessary and defining characteristic of love to Christ to keep His commandments; see John 14:15; 1 John 2:3-5; 5:2-3. But we must remember: “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
(II) The precept of piety: “For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.” (v.2). Here Paul reminds the brethren that they already know the commandments, and in doing so, reminds them that this is the path of piety and the means of sanctification. He says once more “by the Lord Jesus”, again calling attention to Him as the only fit and solid grounds of true piety. We are to build our house upon the Rock, which is done by keeping His commandments; Matthew 7:21-27. Only by Him can we do this; John 15:4-6.
The free grace of God does not free one from the obligation to keep His commandments, but rather, it frees the saint from just condemnation for his transgressions, but causes also a disposition of heart to want to keep the commandments. Those who believe they have liberty to willfully transgress God’s commandments show themselves to be those who are yet dead in sin, having not yet been born of the Spirit; see 1 John 1:5-7; 2:1-6,11,29; 3:4-10,14-19,24; 4:7-8,11,20-21; 5:1-3,18. The new birth causes a new and sanctified nature in the saint, and this nature hates unrighteousness and loves righteousness, and delights in the law of God, and so we who are born again are grieved when we fail to keep God’s commandments; see Romans 7:14-25. But we know that we are not justified in God’s sight by keeping God’s commandments. Rather, we delight in the law of the Lord and see the doing of righteousness as a means of glorifying God, and the desire to glorify God is also an inevitable result of the new birth, (see Matthew 5:13-16; John 3:21) and a necessary evidence of it (1 John 3:4-10).
(III) The practice of piety: “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:” (v.3). Far from legalism, it is here expressly stated that it is God’s will that we be sanctified, which being directly connected to the previous verse, is inseparable from keeping His commandments. Keeping God’s commandments is holy conduct, and sanctification is growth in the preference and practice of holiness in heart, and from there, in word and in deed. Once justified (declared righteous) by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the final glorification of the saint is inevitable, as we are kept by the power of God to walk in holiness; see Psalm 89:24-37; Proverbs 2:8; Romans 8:28-39; Philippians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. But never let it stray from your mind that justification does not occur without sanctification following, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13), see also Hebrews 12:6-11 and John 17:17. Christ never knew those who practised lawlessness (Matthew 7:21-23), and they never knew Christ (1 John 3:4-10).
Here we are told in particular to abstain from fornication. That, of course, does not limit ungodliness to fornication. This command is worded positively, that we are to “abstain from fornication”; that is, we are told positively to do something: to abstain; but it is negatively stated in v.5.
(IV) The perception or knowledge of piety: “That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour;” (v.4). It is important to teach much on how we are to walk; that is, the specifics of walking worthy of God. It is presumptuous to attempt to please God without a knowledge of how to do so. Every one of us is to know how to possess our vessel in sanctification and honour. We are therefore to study, and then to edify one another with knowledge, and receive the truth of God’s Word meekly. Without knowing how to please God according to His Word, there is a want of the very truth which Christ says will set us free, and so there is a want of that true spiritual liberty.
To possess one’s “vessel in sanctification and honour” refers to bringing one’s body into subjection to holiness. Specifically here this points to maintaining sexual purity. It is dishonourable and unsanctified to trifle with even the very seeds of sexual immorality, or to willfully walk into, or remain in situations that will likely cause one to stumble in this area; see Romans 13:14; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20; 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Walking into situations that are likely to present temptations to which you will likely fall, is like walking willfully into a minefield that has been marked and fenced off. It is both foolish and dangerous.
“Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.”
– We are told in this chapter positively, how to walk, and negatively, how not to walk. Here we are to examine both actions and motives. Possessing one’s vessel refers to what we do with our bodies, and the words “lust of concupiscence” refer to the motions and desires of the heart. Elsewhere in the Bible, this concept is taught more fully, such as when the Lord Jesus taught on adultery and murder in the sermon on the mount; see Matthew 5:17-30. The best way to walk well is to root out the evils as they arise in the heart. This can only be done in the strength of God and must be sought in honest, sincere, and diligent prayer. The lust of the flesh is unceasingly diligent. How can we expect the victory over it without being likewise diligent, fighting it in prayer, and deliberate obedience to the commands, principles, and wisdom of God’s Word?
We are here instructed that no man “go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter”. This verse shifts the focus from sexual sin to fraud against the brethren. Go beyond means to overreach, or to overstep the mark. We are to be content with our lot, which is to be sincerely appreciative of God’s providence to us; resisting every urge to lay hold of opportunity or property that belongs to others. The word for “defraud” is very similar in meaning. Paul is here doubly emphasising his imperative that we deal justly and righteously with our brethren. But of course, this verse does not teach that it is acceptable to defraud those who know not Christ; we are to deal righteously with all men, see vv.11-12; Zechariah 8:16-17; Ephesians 4:25.
“For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness.”
– Has God called you? This can be resolutely answered by examining your life. Does uncleanness appeal to you? Or does it disgust you? If it still appeals to you and does not utterly disgust you, then you still have the stony heart with which you were born, and you have no love for God. Perhaps you love a god of your own making, but not the Holy God of Scripture. Perhaps you redefine uncleanness out of convenience for the sake of indulging your sinful heart, or deny the uncleanness you indulge in, or simply justify certain bosom sins. This is absolutely not the working which God has promised to work in everyone whom He calls unto salvation. See Jeremiah 31:33-34; 32:38-40; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 3:4-10. Christ’s sheep hear His voice, and He knows them, and they follow Him (John 10:27); and all of that is an inevitable consequence of His effectual calling. Have you been called? “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
“He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.”
– Despising God is here connected with God’s calling unto holiness. Just as it is love to Christ to keep His commandments, solemnly consider that it is hatred of Him to practice the breaking of them. His commandments are according to His nature. The law of God is not an arbitrary list of rules that God has contrived. He revealed His law, but He did not create it ex nihilo (out of nothing) a finite time ago. The law is a perfect reflection of His Holy character. Consider how many times in the law a command is given which is immediately connected with the phrase: “I am the Lord”. The law is grounded upon God’s character and person; see Exodus 20:1-11; Leviticus 18:2-6,21,30; 19; Deuteronomy 5:6-15; and many other chapters of Leviticus besides. To love to break God’s law is both to love everything that God is not, and to love what He hates; and therefore, it is to hate Him.
In saying “He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man”, we are taught that it is also hatred of God to go against a godly minister who exhorts one unto holiness, by the Word of God; or to go against the ordinances and institutions of God, such as His church and the manner in which it is to be governed; or to decline to walk in love one toward another; or to break our solemn covenants which we make in His Name. Insofar as we do these things, we love not God and we stand against Him. We must repent of all such transgressions. Examine yourself. Do you love or hate God, according to the Biblical definitions of those terms?
“But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more;”
– Here it is said that loving the brethren in a sense goes without saying, because we are “Theodidactus”, “taught of God”, to do so. This tells us that love to the brethren is a defining fruit of the true Christian. Had you no pastor, and were converted having found and read only a portion of Scripture or a tract, many miles from the nearest brother or sister in Christ, and had no saint to teach you anything more than the simple Gospel by which you were saved; you would still, because of your new nature, love those who love the Lord which quickened you. Where real faith is, love for the brethren will be also. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35). Again, brotherly love among Christians is taught by the Word of God to be a defining fruit of the true saint. To state His words in the opposite manner serves as a caution to us: “By this shall all men know that ye are not my disciples, if ye have not love one to another.” Have you any love for your brethren? In what way is that manifested? What examples are there? Have you recently served your brethren in a particular way? If so, what were the motives for your actions? If not, what were the motives for your inaction?
Paul here comments on the extent of their love: “toward all the brethren”. Notice, there is no hint of partiality; no respect of persons. Is there a brother who is difficult to love? Does this absolve you of the debt of love you owe to Christ to love that brother? Their love was also toward “all the brethren which are in all Macedonia”. The Manifestations of their love were tangible and widespread throughout an extensive region. It is shameful for those whose love barely extends throughout one small congregation!
Though their love was great, yet Paul said nothing of them having yet attained; they were not yet perfect in the final sense; see Philippians 3:12-14. No man can render to God the debt of gratitude owed unto Him, nor the level of service of which He is worthy: “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10). Increasing more and more in devotion to God and to His people is our duty; progression and growth, from strength to strength. Are you striving to grow in love to God? If not, why not? Do you feel you have reached some adequate level of worthiness? Has your love to Christ grown cold? In what ways could you serve Him more? Have you set your heart and mind at length upon the cross recently? See Titus 3:4-8; 2 Peter 1:5-9.
“And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.”
– We are told to “study” unto a particular purpose. The word in the Greek here (φιλοτιμέομαι: philotimeomai) means: “to be ambitious; to strive earnestly, make it one’s aim; to study.” We are to earnestly search out ways to diligently walk in a certain manner. In this case, we are to strive to find out ways to live a quiet life. The word for quiet (ἡσυχάζω: hesuchazo) means to not run hither and thither, not being a busy body. It also means to mind one’s own business, which thought the apostle expresses again immediately after. Gossipping, meddling, and interfering are to be avoided and rebuked, and to be dealt with as with any great sin, as these are very dangerous things, and are sure to invite the destructive influences of the enemy of our souls; see 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13.
We are also to work with our hands. This is contrary to the sluggard described in the book of Proverbs, which book should be studied earnestly so as to deal with all laziness that might be in our souls and habits. We are to be diligent both in our spiritual affairs and our ordinary daily labours. We are to be industrious for our God; see also Proverbs 31:10-31; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-13.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.”
– Here begins a section of this epistle which spans from ch.4 v.13 – ch.5 v.11 concerning a very important eschatological event: The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ; wherein He will gather the wicked unto judgement, and then His saints unto glory.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren”; a frequently expressed desire of the apostle; desiring knowledge in his brethren. Note that this was a desire of Paul’s heart. What do you desire of the brethren? Do you desire that they would be less hassle? That they would leave you alone? That they would just get to your level of theological insight and sanctification so they would stop bothering you with their weaknesses? What do you desire of them and for them? The apostle’s desires for the brethren were very good desires. His longings were all for their sanctification, edification, and knowledge of the truth. In this instance, Paul was desirous that they should have knowledge concerning those “which are asleep”; that is, those who have died in the faith.
We are not to sorrow over them. The funerals of saints have seen and will see tears shed, and even our Lord Jesus wept over Lazarus whom He was about to raise from the dead. However, we are not to sorrow in an on-going way, nor are we to sorrow with a grievous morbidity. But in faith, we are to know and to believe that not only will we once again be reunited with the souls of those who have died in faith before us, but even that we shall see them bodily also. We should think upon this future reunion with them. We should also rejoice in the passing of saints as we would for the bride who is newly wed to her husband, and for the husband newly joined to his bride. Take comfort in how the Lord views the passing of His people: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15).
Those who die without knowing Christ die without hope, and go on to face God in the filth of their own righteousness; see Isaiah 64:6. This is a terrifying thought, and an unbearably common one. We are to be wholly unlike the world in every respect. At the next funeral of a beloved saint which you are to attend, for the glory of the Lord and a testimony of the faith, adorn your weeping with joy and gladness, with praise and thanksgiving; thinking upon the blessed state of your beloved brother or sister who has gone to be with the Lord. Not merely in word, but also in works are we to bear witness; see Titus 1:16, James 2:18. What a strong testimony! This is one way in which to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15); and this is one of the surest ways to provoke such an important question.
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.”
– “if”. Given the gravity of this pivotal statement, I feel it important to make some application here, because so much hinges upon what we believe concerning Christ. Do you believe that Jesus died and rose again? This is contrary to human reasoning. Has God given it unto you in the behalf of Christ to believe? This wonderful promise is of course conditional, and is therefore another means by which to examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith. If one does not believe that Jesus died and rose again, then the greatest number of the noblest works that a sinner could ever do, coupled with the fewest and slightest transgressions that could ever be committed by a fallen man, could only warrant more of God’s Holy wrath; because all of our righteousnesses (good works) are as filthy rags, according to Isaiah 64:6. You must depend the entirety of your eternal welfare upon this remarkable doctrine; that Jesus Christ suffered the debt and death of every one of His sheep (John 10:11,15,cf.26-27); being made both a curse (Galatians 3:13) and sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) for them; bearing their iniquity (Isaiah 53:11); and was raised again for their justification (Romans 4:25). Do you believe this, or do you make God a liar? See 1 John 5:10. If you truly believe this very thing in your heart, then you have been, you are, and you will be saved. This will be manifest in that your life will change from a life of unrighteousness to a life of holiness; from comfort in sin to grief over it; from self-justification to sincere confession before God; and from self-reliance to an utter dependence upon Christ alone for your salvation. Those who are heaven bound live as though they genuinely desire to dwell in heaven, where there is no sin.
This verse teaches us to rejoice for three powerful reasons: Firstly, those who believe this simple yet profound promise will God bring with Him. Secondly, those who have believed this unto death will God bring with Him. Thirdly, we will all be united together, and all with Christ in a pure, holy, and sinless fellowship of bliss and joy for all eternity. God be praised!
“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
– Most Christians today hold to dispensationalism, and the vast majority of dispensationalists hold to what is called the pre-tribulation rapture; which, as its name suggests, is the belief that the Church will be taken from the earth before the great tribulation. However, the pre-tribulation rapture theory is in serious disagreement with the Word of God. We will look at the errors of this theory as we go.
The next advent of Christ is also called “the Day of the Lord”, and that day shall come “as a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). It is also the day of the passing away of this earth wherein the whole world and everything in it will be set on fire: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10). For more on the Day of the Lord see notes on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4.
Both the timing and order of the events taught in this section of Scripture are hotly debated among Christians. For the most part, the contention is owing to dispensationalism, which system of theology is only around two hundred years old. It is because of this modern theory that this passage and many more like it have been greatly misunderstood, and therefore misapplied. The intention of Paul here is to provide consolation with this doctrine; see ch.4 v.18 and ch.5 v.11. It must therefore be understood correctly, lest our consolation prove false and disappoint many when it fails to materialise, even shaking the faith of those whose beliefs about the future are based on erroneous interpretations of Scripture. This subject deserves a much lengthier treatment than can be given here. The damage of Darby, Scofield and Moody (the three most significant early evangelical proponents of dispensationalism) will never be undone without a move of the Spirit of the God to reform the Church. May the Spirit shine His light upon our hearts that we might understand and submit to His Word.
The first thing I would like to object to is the idea of a secret rapture, which is quite a common view among dispensationalists; though not every pre-tribulation rapturist holds to it. The secret rapture is the notion (nowhere taught in the Word of God) that Christ’s gathering of His people will be quiet; unseen and unheard by those who are not to be raptured. However, Scripture teaches the exact opposite: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God”; three perfect ways not to be discreet; and it is hard to imagine words that might convey a more obvious coming of Christ. The secret rapture theory, which is based on a misinterpretation of the fact that Christ will come as a “thief in the night” (see notes on ch.5 vv.1-2.) states that the coming of Christ to gather His elect will be invisible and inaudible to those whom He will not rapture; yet our present text labours the point that no eye shall be blind, nor any ear deaf to it. All shall see Him for He shall come in like manner as He was seen going into heaven; that is, bodily and visibly; see Acts 1:11. Nowhere in Scripture is there any hint of a coming that will in any way be unseen or unheard by anyone.
Necessary to dispensational eschatology is the notion that the return of Christ to gather His elect is a separate event from His second coming. Many say His feet will not physically touch the ground, and it is therefore not the second coming of Christ. We see this in the Ryrie Study Bible notes on 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:
“His coming here is in the air, not to the earth, and will occur just prior to the beginning of the tribulation… That period will end with His coming to the earth.”
But this two-phase coming of Christ, consisting of a rapture and then years later the second coming, is simply unscriptural. Like much of dispensationalism, it is a theory arrived at by ignoring the context and literary genres of many passages of Scripture; and by employing a strict literalist interpretation, but only insofar as it suits the theory, having no consistent hermeneutical principle for regarding one thing as figurative whilst demanding that another thing be taken literally. It is also a theory that simply disagrees with and misinterprets numerous clear statements of Scripture.
For example, the correct eschatological order is set forth in the parable of the tares among the wheat found in Matthew 13:24-30, which is explained by the Lord in vv.36-43 of that chapter. The order of events in that parable is irreconcilable with the pre-tribulation rapture theory. In the parable of the tares among the wheat we learn that the tares (the children of the wicked one; the non-elect) are gathered and burned first; and then the wheat (the children of the Kingdom; the elect) are gathered into the master’s barn. Christ spoke this parable concerning “The kingdom of heaven” (v.24), which kingdom has already come according to Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20; 17:20-21; and John 18:36; and so the phrase “children of the kingdom” spoken of in that parable is not confined to Jewish saints saved during a three and a half year tribulation, as dispensationalism teaches. That interpretation would seem to be inconsistent with the dispensationalist notion that Christ will not establish the kingdom until after the tribulation; so how can the so-called “tribulation saints” be children of the kingdom, if they are born before the kingdom is established? This is especially shown to be an unscriptural notion when we read the words of Christ which He spoke to the ethnically Jewish people of the first century in Matthew 21:43: “Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” That notion is also shown to be unscriptural because we have been grafted in with Israel, and are now one tree and not two; (Romans 11:16-24). There is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one in Christ Jesus; (Galatians 3:11,28). We “are no more aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise”; we “are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God”; and God “hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us”; (Ephesians 2:11-22). The children of Abraham are those who are of faith, and the heirs according to the promise are those who are Christ’s; (Galatians 3:7,28-29; 4:28). Even the physical children of Abraham are spiritually considered children, not of Abraham, but of the devil, if they believe not on Christ; (John 8:31-47; Romans 9:6-8). One’s spiritual lineage is infinitely more important than one’s physical lineage; yet so many Christians today practically regard physical ancestry as being of greater or at least comparable significance to the spiritual, as far as the Jews are concerned; which notion John the Baptist rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees for even considering; (Matthew 3:9). Everyone born of Adam shall die, but only those born of Christ shall live. The children of the kingdom therefore consist of every saint from the beginning until the end of time; and they grow up together with the children of the wicked one until the harvest, which is the next and final coming of Christ, and the end of the world; when the tares will first be gathered and burned, and then the wheat will be gathered to safety.
Because of the lack of persecution, Christians today in the developed world are some of the first saints in all of church history that could possibly wonder when the tribulation will begin. Could you imagine anticipating the great tribulation during the era when Christians were being thrown to lions in droves for affirming the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ, refusing to say Caesar is lord? Could you imagine contemplating when the great tribulation will begin whilst countless saints are being commanded to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation (and other heresies) under pain of being burned or buried alive; stretched on the rack; beheaded (if they were fortunate); or suffer all manner of cruel, evil, and disgusting tortures for the sake of Christ; dying in countless multitudes in shame and agony? This is unthinkable, and yet this is what dispensationalism demands.
According to the Word of God in Acts 2:16-17, Hebrews 1:1-2, and 1 John 2:18, we are already in the last days, also called the last time; and we have been since the time of Christ. This means that there is no other age or distinct period of history to come in which the order of the world will be fundamentally different to what it is now. To put it another way; there is no age, epoch, or particular era; no distinct period of time, after the last time; because it is the last time. Christians were exhorted even during the time of the apostles to endure tribulation with patience, and yet many of us wonder, when shall it begin? But the tribulation which has been endured by Church, from the ascension of Christ unto this day, has been so cruel, bloodthirsty, malicious, and constant, that it can hardly be made more severe. What then would be so terrible about a mere three and a half, or perhaps seven years of what the Church has endured since the time of Apostles? Dispensationalists most often hold that the great tribulation is three and a half years in duration. When one surveys what the Church has always endured, it becomes ridiculous to contemplate a tribulation worse in so short a time than what the Church has endured for almost two thousand years.
Dispensationalists would object: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (Matthew 24:21). To which I answer: “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (v.34), reminding them that these words of Jesus were addressed to the disciples to whom He spoke in private; and then I would encourage them to read Luke 21, which is a parallel passage of Matthew 24, which more obviously than Matthew 24 concerns the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70. Christ’s disciples ask Him two questions: “when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (v.3). Christ focused His answer mainly on the first question: “when shall these things be?”, which was asked of Christ when He told them concerning the temple that “There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (v.2). And so, the most intense of tribulations has already happened, and history records that the sacking of Jerusalem was a particularly horrific slaughter. Therefore, to await a tribulation worse than what was suffered by the saints since the time of the apostles based on Matthew 24 is wrong, for the tribulation mentioned there has already passed.
All this said and heeded, we are better equipped to appreciate and understand the inspired words of our present text. We can draw nothing but a false consolation from a false interpretation of Scripture. If it was true that the Church is to be raptured before the great tribulation, this passage would have been an ideal place to spell that out in unambiguous terms, for that indeed would have been a most comforting thing; and yet the consolation that Paul seeks to give the saints is simply but beautifully “that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
Paul simply states that we will all be taken, whether we are alive in Christ, or sleep in Jesus, to be with Christ at His coming, and shall ever be with Him. That is the only consolation given here. But that is more than enough.
“Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
– Remind yourself and others often of this truth; we shall ever be with the Lord, and we shall ever be with our beloved brethren. Remember also that because when we shall see our Lord we shall all be made like Him, we shall finally then be granted one of the foremost desires of every true saint, which is to be made sinlessly perfect; see 1 John 3:2; cf. Romans 7:14-25. All of the wickedness and sin that grieve us in ourselves, and in our brethren, will be gone forever; never once to return even to the slightest degree, or for the briefest of moments; and every single moment of fellowship with them will be better and infinitely more pleasant than the most perfect moment of Christian fellowship you have ever known on this earth; and that will be constant, every second of every day, from the moment we arrive in glory, unto everlasting; it shall never end, and shall be ever blessed, ever joyous, and completely satisfying and fulfilling.
And better still; the source of the Christian’s joy and blessedness, peace and comfort, the Lord Himself, shall be there; with a countenance that makes the sun seem as dark as night, whose face we shall behold forever, enjoying blissful fellowship with the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Such a wonderful thought as that is hard to rival for its consoling power and humbling majesty. What doctrines do you bring to those who are suffering the trials of their pilgrimage? How long has it been since you have comforted another saint, or your own soul, with these words? Praise be to God for such a glorious hope of consolation which we have in Him. I pray that God will give us such a foretaste of that blessedness here, that we might sing His praises with cheerful voice, and bear a glad and glorious testimony of how great things the Lord has done for us. God be praised!