Paul opens this chapter with a great word: “Additionally.” He’s linking the chapter to the one before, which is a good reminder that all of Scripture flows together, and especially one book goes as a whole book. In the modern era, we sometimes think people speak in short bursts of words, like a sentence, some spare characters, and an emoji. But down in, you don’t communicate that way: your communication is ongoing and linked to the encounters before and after it.
Scripture is fundamentally the same: each thought links to prior communication. The linking is important and outweighs our habit of memorizing single verses wrenched from their context. You need to see the whole picture, read the whole chapter. 1 Thessalonians 4 gives some great examples of this, as Paul addresses sexual immorality, living in holiness, and the impending return of the Lord Jesus to judge the earth. Each of the principles is worth understanding, but if you, for example, take 1 Thessalonians 4:3 alone, that it is “God’s will that you keep away from sexual immorality,” you might choose to live a completely self-absorbed life, trusting that as long as you keep sexual activity within the confines of marriage, you are in “God’s will.”
That would be like saying as long as the nails on one wall of the house hold, it’s a good house. You certainly need those nails, but you need a lot more as well!
Let us take 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 as our focus passage for this chapter. Here, Paul highlights that we are called not to “impurity” but to “holiness.” As you look at this, make sure you apply some important Biblical interpretative principles:
First: do not automatically apply your normal definition of a word. In this case, the word “impurity” can be a risk for us. We typically leap to “sexual impurity,” and would perhaps grab the reference to “sexual immorality” from verse 3 to make that connection. However, here is where you need to notice that it’s two different words in English because it’s two different words in Greek. Verse 3 uses the word that we get “pornography” from, a word that definitely refers to sexual activities. The word in verse 7? It has a wider range of meaning: impurity, unclean, filthy, unpruned, unpurifiable.
You always want to check what the words really are, and if you are using a good English translation, it will use different words. It also doesn’t hurt to use a pair of translations or to grab a good study aid for the words.
Second: always check the context. Look at the whole passage: impurity here is used in a summary verse that includes sexual conduct, self-control, not taking advantage of your fellow believers, not being self-absorbed. Impurity is a whole-life issue, not just some portions.
Third, take note of references and connections to other places. Here, an important note should be seen in verse 6: “as we also previously told and warned you.” Paul reminds them of what else he has said! Prior sermons, letters, discussions, all are important here. You don’t have access to these, but you know this much: Christian teaching was more than one note.
What does this look like, practically? To live in holiness rather than impurity?
First, it looks like having the right authority: Christian people answer to God, guided by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, God uses fellow believers to hold us accountable, but ultimately the Spirit of God calls us to holiness. That means no man can excuse our impurity, either, so we best not expect our smooth-talking to be worth much. Remember the first point for holiness is knowing the God you are to be like.
Second, it looks like caring for one another: looking again at the context, Paul reminds them of their responsibility for each other. All the way through to the end. The Christian life is replete with opportunities to show love to one another. We should do that.
Third, look ahead at the following verses, where Paul speaks of minding our own business, leading quiet lives, and testifying to Jesus. That’s not isolationism, but it is avoiding being unhelpful busybodies and critics. If all you’ve got is how the other people are doing it wrong, then perhaps you need to revisit this passage.
So, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is the one place in Scripture with a very clear picture of living believers being “caught up” in the air to meet the Lord Jesus. From this passage, the idea of the “Rapture,” from the Latin word for “caught up,” entered Christian theology. We have other doctrines that only have one primary passage, so it is not a problem to only have one passage. It’s just important to note that if you read Revelation front to back and back to front, you may not see the idea, because while some scholars will attempt to locate the timing between moments in Revelation, the passage needed is in 1 Thessalonians.
All that to also say this: we need to be very, very careful to realize that Paul is not working out a fully-formed explanation of the end of all things here. He is focused on encouraging one another to love and good deeds in this present age. While he writes without error, that does not mean he writes with perfect clarity. So let us not be overly dogmatic with what we think he might have meant, and focus on the plainer truths: be encouraged, the Lord Jesus will not leave you abandoned.