4:1-2 Therefore, the rest: I ask you and admonish you in the Lord Jesus so that just as you received from us how it is necessary for you to walk and to please God, just as also you are walking, so that you might abound more, for you know what instructions we gave to you through the Lord Jesus.
Paul signals the beginning of the second half of the letter. The first half has largely had to do with the story of Paul's personal engagement with the Thessalonians as a community. Now he begins to give them specific teaching and admonition in relation to their thoughts and actions. He affirms that they are already "walking" or behaving in a certain way. Now he will reinforce some of that basic ethical instruction.
4:3-5 For this is the will of God: your sanctification, for you to abstain from sexual immorality, for each of you to know to control his own vessel in holiness and honor, not with the passion of desire like the Gentiles who do not know God,
Sanctification has the sense of being set apart as God's, with all the implications of being drawn on God's side of the line (as opposed to the "common," ordinary side or, further, the defiled side). Something that belongs to God is "superclean" and demands special handling.
Although Paul's theology significantly reconfigures the purity-impurity lines the Pentateuch and Jewish tradition drew around reality, sexual practice remained for Paul a principal area of potential defilement. Paul seems to nullify all the Old Testament purity legislation when it comes to the Gentiles except those relating to sexual conduct. He finds it inconceivable that a person might be the possession of the holy God, be "touching" the true God, and also be in contact with impure forms of sex.
Some have argued that porneia, "sexual immorality," has specific sexual connotations. The best argument for this position is the fact that porneia can occur in lists of vices that include other sexual sins like adultery. The argument is thus sometimes made that porneia only refers to particular types of sexual sins, like incest. The old King James translation of the word, "fornication," often misled interpreters into thinking that Paul was talking here about pre-marital sex.
In the end, however, it is not in the nature of vice lists for each item to be a discrete thing. Such vices often overlap in content. The safest conclusion would seem to be that by porneia, Paul refers to any of the types of sexual sin that are found in Leviticus 18. Because there were specific words for adultery and some probably created by Jews for certain types of homosexual sex, we might easily imagine that Paul would use those words when those actions were specifically in view. The word porneia would thus be used especially for "everything else," while also serving as a general word for the entire class of action.
In Jewish rhetoric, the classic "Gentile" sins were idolatry and sexual immorality. Paul here plays on that Jewish sense that Gentiles cannot control their sexual passions. In contrast believers are to conduct themselves with sexual purity and honor.
4:6 ... not to wrong or take advantage of your brother in a matter, because the Lord is just in relation to all things, as also we have said before to you and we have said emphatically.
This verse is sandwiched between the prior reference to sexual immorality and 4:7, which seems to continue the reference. It is thus likely also referring to sexual immorality. And when we ask about an area of sexual immorality in which a person might "take advantage" of a brother on a sexual matter, adultery must surely top the list. It is thus quite possible that in this section, Paul is warning the Thessalonian congregation about adultery within the church.
4:7-8 For God did not call you for uncleanness but in sanctification. Therefore, the one who rejects [this instruction] does not reject a mortal, but God who is giving His Holy Spirit to you.
Paul reminds the Thessalonians that God, not he, is the ultimate source of these exhortations. Paul also makes an implict connection between "being holy," "being sanctified," and the Holy Spirit within. Sexual immorality is thus all the more inappropriate, for we have God's Spirit within us. Paul will develop this line of thought in 1 Corinthians 5-6.
4:9-10a Now concerning brotherly love you do not have need [for me] to write to you, for you yourselves are God-taught so that you love one another, for you are even doing it to the brothers in all of Macedonia.
Believers are a family, and "love of brother" is a natural consequence. The Thessalonian church apparently was acting as family to others in Macedonia. Such locations would certainly include Philippi, perhaps also Berea, although Paul never mentions it. The idea of being "God-taught" reminds us of some of Philo's perspective toward the "self-taught" person who doesn't have to study about God because his thoughts (and for Philo it would be a "his") naturally contemplate absolute truth.
4:10b-12 And we admonish you, brothers, to abound more and try to live a quiet life and to mind your own business and to work with your own hands just as we have instructed [you] that you might walk honorably with those outside and might have need of nothing.
Paul does not advocate a revolutionary path toward the social structures of the day. He recommends that the Thessalonians "blend in." They should give no cause for persecution by outsiders, nor should they get themselves entangled with the strings of patronage, whereby they are supported by a gracious provider but usually were then expected to do various things in return for the favor. Paul wants them to support themselves and retreat from societal conflict.
4:13 Now I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who sleep, so that you do not grieve like the rest who do not have hope.
On first reflection, it may seem a little odd that Paul is only addressing the topic of the resurrection of the dead with the Thessalonians now in this letter. Paul may not have been in Thessalonica for very long, but he was there long enough for the Philippians to send him material support more than once (Phil. 4:16). It would seem he was there over a month, long enough to have a group of converts to send this letter to.
Yet it is reasonable to assume that Timothy brought back to Paul word that they had questions about those believers who died before Christ's parousia, his arrival back from heaven. From this we might infer that teaching on the resurrection of believers was not the highest priority in Paul's evangelistic message.
Instead, we can imagine that Paul's earliest preaching focused far more on the soon arrival of Christ to judge the world. It emphasizes the fact that Paul not only at this point expected Jesus to return within his lifetime. He apparently preached as if it could happen at any moment.
The reference to "those who sleep" is unique to Paul's earliest writings, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. The majority of Pauline interpreters simply take it as a metaphor for death that implies nothing of what state Paul believed the dead to be in. We would, however, join that minority who suspect that Paul's thought underwent development or "growth" on this topic during the time he was at Ephesus.
We wonder if, particularly after his engagement with the Corinthians on the topic in 1 Corinthians 15 and a scary imprisonment at Ephesus, Paul began to think more about the intermediate state of Christian dead between death and Christ's arrival. The most natural way to take Paul's reference to sleep as a bona fide reference to an unconscious state between death and resurrection. At this point, as in 1 Corinthians 15, the state of those who die is one of hopelessness. The hope he provides is not within death, but in future resurrection.
4:14 For we have faith that Jesus died and was raised, so also God through Jesus will lead with him those who sleep.
Paul's earliest writings link Jesus' death and resurrection with the death and resurrection of those who place their faith on him. We might note that Paul's later participationist language is missing here, although we cannot prove that it is not implied. But certainly in Paul's more fully developed theological expression in Romans, we die with Christ and we rise with Christ. Here Paul only says that God will do for us what he did for Jesus.
In any case, the content of faith is the same here as in Romans 10:9: "If ... you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead." We observe that God (the Father) is the active force in resurrection rather than Jesus himself. It is God who raised Jesus, and it is God who through Jesus will lead the dead (in Christ) out of the dead.
4:15 For we say this by the word of the Lord: that we who are living, who are left at the arrival of the Lord certainly will not precede those who sleep.
Again, Paul speaks to the Thessalonians as if there is a real possibility that he and they will be alive and will remain at the parousia. In relation to the dead (in Christ), living believers will not even meet Christ before them. Those who "sleep" in the ground will meet Christ first at his return.
4:16 Because the Lord himself, with a command, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first,
This is the Day of the Lord, the day of his return and the Day of Salvation for those who have faith. It is Judgment Day, the day during which God will visit His wrath on the earth for its ungodliness. Jesus the Lord, the king, will descend from the sky, from heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God in the highest heaven. It does not seem likely that Jesus is implied to be the archangel here, but rather that the archangel and other angelic hosts accompany Jesus to the earth for the judgment.
The corpses in Christ, the dead in Christ, will rise from their graves first. We note that Paul mentions the dead in Christ. That is to say, Paul says nothing about Old Testament saints like Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. It at least is not clear that he has any doctrine of general resurrection. We might also add that general conceptions of the Pharisaic belief on this subject, which are often used to infer Paul's thought here that is unexpressed, are based on very flimsy evidence indeed and such arguments are often quite circular and anachronistic.
4:17 Then we who are living, who are left will be snatched up together with them on the clouds for a meeting of the Lord in the air, and thus we will always be with the Lord.
This verse is apparently the origination for the word rapture, given the Latin wording rapiemur, "we will be snatched." Paul here seems to picture an assembly of believers in the air with Christ and the angelic hosts. First the dead corpses of believers are resurrected, and they rise to the air. Then the living believers are snatched up to meet them. Paul does not expand on the transformation of bodies here as he will in 1 Corinthians.
Some have plausibly suggested that the picture here is of one of an embassy from a city going out to greet a dignitary outside their city before leading that person back into the city. So believers go out to meet their king and come in his company back to the earth where he will reign. The meeting would thus not be to go off to heaven but to return to earth with him.
A good case can be made that being with the Lord forever thus does refer to believers going off to heaven with Christ. Rather, this is an assembly for the final judgment. In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Paul indicates that believers will participate in the judgment of the world and of angels. In 1 Thessalonians, therefore, Paul probably pictures Christ reigning on earth after his arrival, with believers as a part of that kingdom.
4:18 So encourage one another with these words.
These are words of hope. They are words of hope for those who have lost loved ones who were believers. They are words of hope for those undergoing persecution for their faith.