This chapter begins with Paul urging the brothers and sisters at Thessalonica to remain pure and to abstain from sexual immorality. Having been converted from the paganism and idolatry that the city was corrupt with, sexual immorality would have gone hand in hand (as it always had) with such practices, and they would need to be on their guard to keep each other from slipping. It is believed that Paul was writing the letter from Corinth (the patron “goddess” of which was Venus), where promiscuity abounded. D. D. Whedon said of social impurity that “heathenism had made sexual immorality trivial, jocular, rather smart, and even religious and right”. Sounds very similar to the so-called “new morality” of this day and age, does it not? But the brothers there were strong, and an inspiration to all Macedonians in the region. They just needed some extra encouragement.
Paul is continuing this admonition against sexual immorality in verse 6 with “…that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter…,” rather than beginning a new thought. The word translated “wrong” in the ESV is better translated “defraud” and “exploit” in other versions. The sexual relationship that God intended for a man and his wife, when used otherwise, often hurts someone in the here and now; and the fleeting pleasure is always at the ultimate expense of both parties.
Finally, it is implied, as Paul addresses them, that there had been several deaths of brethren at Thessalonica since he left; and those remaining seemed to be sure that Christ was going to return during their lifetimes. Their grief for their departed appears to have included the misguided notion that those who have died were going to “miss out” on Christ’s return. Paul offers some encouragement for them, saying that those who are alive when Christ returns will go with Him after He has gathered those who have “fallen asleep.”
It is Jesus’ victory over death, he reminds in verse 14, that assures us that God will, through Jesus, bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. This use of the term “asleep” occurs in several passages in Scripture, a few of which include Matthew 27:52, John 11:11, Luke 8:49-56, and 1 Corinthians 15:20. While some of Paul’s Apocalyptic description of that great and spectacular day is figurative, his assurance of the resurrection of the dead is not. One of the most beautiful reminders of that fact in Scripture is Jesus’ conversation with Martha in John 11:23-27, before he raises her brother Lazarus from the dead:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
As Paul says of Jesus’ return to us in 1 Corinthians 15:26, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
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some images © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
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