1 Thessalonians 4:13 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
13. But I would not have you to be ignorant ] True reading, we would not, consistently with the first person plural (“Paul and Silas and Timothy”) in which the Epistle commenced (ch. 1Th 1:1). This impressive phrase (“would not ignorant”) the Apostle employs, as in Rom 11:25 and elsewhere, to call attention to a new topic on which he is especially anxious to have a clear understanding with his readers.
concerning them that fall asleep (R. V.), or are falling asleep: are asleep (A.V.) represents a different and faulty Greek reading. The Greek participle is present, and denotes what is now going on. The Apostle had not been long absent from Thessalonica, and apparently this question had now arisen for the first time. There were members of the Church who were evidently dying; in some instances death had already supervened ( 1Th 4:14-15), in others it was impending. So vivid was the expectation of the Lord’s return, that this contingency had not been thought of till it arose; and it seemed as though these dying men would miss the great hope that had been so precious to them, of seeing Christ return to reign in His glory. The “brotherly love” which St Paul has just commended in the Thessalonians, would make this apprehension intensely painful.
Death is “sleep” to the Christian. Occasionally it bears this title in pagan writers, but only by way of poetical figure. Jesus Christ made it the standing name for Death in the dialect of His Church (Luk 8:52; Joh 11:11, &c.). This expression indicates the restful (and perhaps restorative) effect of death to the child of God, and at the same time its temporary nature. The use of the word by our Lord in connection with the raising of Jairus’ daughter and of Lazarus brings out strikingly this latter truth. So the early Christians called their place of burial (in Greek) koimçtçrion (cemetery), i.e. dormitory, sleeping-chamber.
that ye sorrow not, even as others ] More precisely, in order that: the Apostle corrects the ignorance of his readers “in order” to remove their sorrow; he would give them “words” with which they may “encourage one another” (1Th 4:18).
Even before Christ came and “brought life and immortality to light” (2Ti 1:10), the Church had attained hope in view of death. See the noble passage in the Apocryphal Book of Wisdom (c. 100 b.c.), ch. 1Th 3:1-4: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.… Their hope is full of immortality.” But of “the rest” the unconverted Gentiles it is sorrowfully added, which have no hope. Comp. Eph 2:12, “having no hope, and without God in the world.” Hopelessness was a prevalent feature of the world’s life at this time. The more enlightened and thoughtful a Greek or Roman citizen might be, the less belief he commonly had in any existence beyond death. See, e.g., the speeches of Cato and of Cæsar given in the Catiline of Sallust. The loss of Christian faith in modern times brings back the old Pagan despair, and throws over us again “the shadow of a starless night.” Amongst many sorrowful examples, the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff, recently published, supplies one of the most touching. Dying at 24, with her splendid gifts wasted and hungry ambition unappeased, this Russian girl writes: “O to think that we live but once, and that life is so short! When I think of it I am like one possessed, and my brain seethes with despair!” Against this great sorrow of the world the word sleep, four times in this context applied to Christian death, is an abiding protest.
The specific hope which the Thessalonian Christians had embraced and which those they had left behind in heathenism were without, was “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ,” centring in the prospect of His glorious return from heaven (ch. 1Th 1:3; 1Th 1:10). This hope, the Apostle will show, belongs to all who are “in Him;” and the circumstance of their having fallen asleep before His coming makes no difference in this relationship. “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:8; comp. ch. 1Th 5:10): to be “the Lord’s” is the essential thing.
We gather that it was not their personal resurrection, but their share in the parousia about which the Thessalonians were anxious on behalf of their departed friends. Probably they had sent enquiries to St Paul, through Timothy, upon the subject.
Section VI. The Coming of the Lord Jesus
This solemn topic, as we have already seen (note on ch. 1Th 1:10, and Introd., pp. 18 21), is the principal theme of the Epistles to the Thessalonians. It is not treated by way of argument or indoctrination, but as a matter already familiar to the readers; on which, however, further explanation and admonition were needful. The Apostle’s teaching about this event had been on some points misunderstood, while new and anxious questions had arisen respecting it. Death had visited the Christian flock at Thessalonica since St Paul left them; and this had aroused in the survivors a painful fear lest those who were thus snatched away should have lost their place and their share in the approaching advent of Christ. This apprehension the Apostle proceeds to remove; and we may entitle the remaining verses of the chapter: Concerning them that fall asleep.
St Paul (1) bids his readers be assured of the safety of their departed fellow-believers, 1Th 4:13-14; and he makes the revelation (2) that these will have the first place in the assembling of the saints at Christ’s return, 1Th 4:15-17. He goes on to remind them (3) of the uncertainty of the time of His coming, ch. 1Th 5:1-3; and (4) exhorts them to be always ready for the event, like soldiers on guard and fully armed, 1Th 4:4-9.
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".