A Commentary by John Stott

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. CHRISTIAN HOPE or How the gospel should inspire the church.

Having sought by his teaching to ‘admonish the idle’ and ‘help the weak’, Paul now sets out to ‘encourage the faint-hearted’ (5:14), RSV). If we enquire into the cause of their faint-heartedness, the context supplies the answer. Their anxiety related first to the problem of bereavement (they were apprehensive about their Christian friends who had died) and secondly to the problem of judgment (they were apprehensive about themselves and their readiness for the day of reckoning). Paul is once again clear that the solution to the church’s problems is to be found in the gospel. So, in order to embolden the faint heart of the Thessalonians, he aims to stimulate their Christian hope by developing the theology on which it rests. This hope is the confident expectation of the Parousia, and this theology is the truth that the Christ who is coming is the same Christ who died and rose again, in whom they had put their trust. Paul applies this doctrine to both their problems. And in so doing he addresses them affectionately as ‘brothers’ (4:13; 5:1, 4). He sees no need to rebuke them for their anxieties; he prefers to issue a sympathetic, fraternal exhortation.

1). The problem of bereavement (4:13-18).

Bereavement is a very poignant human experience. However firm our Christian faith may be, the loss of a close relative or friend causes a profound emotional shock. To lose a loved one is to lose a part of oneself. It calls for radical and painful adjustments, which may take many months. Dr Leighton Ford, the Canadian evangelist and mission leader, put it well when his elder son Sandy died in 1982 at the age of 21. ‘The struggle is to bring our faith and our emotions together’, he wrote.

Bereavement also occasions anguished questions about those who have died. What has happened to them? Are they all right? Shall we see them again? Such questions arise partly from a natural curiosity, partly from Christian concern for the dead, and partly because their death reminds us of our own mortality and undermines our security. In addition, the Thessalonians had a theological question to put to Paul. He had evidently taught them that the Lord Jesus was going to reappear, in order to take his people home to himself. I do not myself believe that he dogmatised about the time of the Parousia, or led them to expect that Christ would come within their lifetime. It seems to me more probable that he would teach what Jesus had taught, namely that he might come at any time, on account of which they must be ready. At all events, they seem to have been expecting him so soon that some had given up their jobs, while others were totally unprepared for the experience of bereavement. Relatives or friends of theirs had now died before Christ’s advent. They had not anticipated this; it took them by surprise and greatly disturbed them. How would the Christian dead fare when Jesus came for his own? Would they stand at a disadvantage? Would they miss the blessing of the Parousia? Were they even lost? It seems clear that the Thessalonians had addressed such questions as these to Paul, either directly or through Timothy.

Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:13. a). A negative introduction.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.