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Bible Commentaries
1 Thessalonians

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes

- 1 Thessalonians

by Albert Barnes

Introduction to 1 Thessalonians

Section 1. The Situation of Thessalonica

Thessalonica was a city and sea-port of Macedonia. It was at the head of the bay Thermaicus, or the Gulf of Thessalonica, and was, therefore, favorably situated for commerce. It was on the great Egnatian Way; was possessed of an excellent harbor, and had great advantages for commerce through the Hellespont, and with Asia Minor and the adjacent countries. It was southwest of Philippi and Amphipolis, and a short distance northeast of Berea. Macedonia was an independent country until it was subdued by the Romans. The occasion of the wars which led to its conquest by the Romans was an alliance which was formed by Philip II. with Carthage, during the second Punic war. The Romans delayed their revenge for a season; but Philip having laid siege to Athens, the Athenians called the Romans to their aid, and they declared war against the Macedonians. Philip was compelled to sue for peace, to surrender his vessels, to reduce his army to 500 men, and to defray the expenses of the war.

Perseus, the successor of Philip, took up arms against the Romans, and was totally defeated at Pydna by Paulus Emilins, and the Romans took possession of the country. Indignant at their oppression, the Macedonian nobility and the whole nation rebelled under Andriscus; but after a long struggle they were overcome by Quintus Caecilius, surnamed, from his conquest, Macedonius, and the country became a Roman province, b.c. 148. It was divided into four districts, and the city of Thessalonica was made the capital of the second division, and was the station of a Roman governor and questor. At the time, therefore, that the gospel was preached there. this whole country was subject to Roman authority. The city, called, when Paul visited it, Thessalonica, was anciently called Therme, and by this name was known in the times of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Eschines. We are informed by Strabo that Cassander changed the name of Therme to Thessalonica, in honor of his wife, who was a daughter of Phil Others have said that the name was given to it by Philip himself, in memory of a victory which he obtained over the armies of Thessaly. In the time of Brutus and Cassius it was a city of so much importance that the promise of being permitted to plunder the city, as the reward of victory, infused new courage into their armies.

The city was inhabited by Greeks, Romans, and Jews. It adored many gods, but particularly Jupiter, as the father of Hercules, the alleged founder of its ancient royal family. It had a celebrated amphitheater, where gladiatorial shows were exhibited for the amusement of the citizens, and a circus for public games. The Roman part of the population was, of course, introduced after the conquest, and it is impossible now to estimate the relative number of the Greeks and the Romans in the time when the gospel was preached there. In common with most of the other cities of Greece, a considerable number of Jews resided there, who had a synagogue at the time when the city was visited by Paul; Acts 17:1. Little is known of the morals of the place, but there is reason to believe that it was somewhat distinguished for dissoluteness of manners. “The females, particularly, could claim little credit on the score of modest, retiring demeanour; for this virtue was in so low estimation in the city, that the place was selected as the scene of the wanton fancies of the satirist.” (Lucian.) See Hug. Intro. The name of the place now is Saloniki. It is a Turkish commercial town, and contains about 70,000 inhabitants.

Its situation and appearance are thus described by Dr. Clarke: “The walls of Salonica give a very remarkable appearance to the town, and cause it to be seen at a great distance, being white-washed; and what is still more extraordinary, they are painted. They extend in a semi-circular manner from the sea, enclosing the whole of the buildings within a peribolus, whose circuit is five or six miles; but a great part of the space within the walls is void. It is one of the few remaining cities which has preserved the ancient form of its fortifications; the mural turrets yet standing, and the walls that support them, being entire. Their antiquity is perhaps, unknown, for, though they have been ascribed to the Greek emperors, it is very evident they were constructed in two distinct periods of time; the old Cyclopean masonry remaining in the lower parts of them, surmounted by an upper structure of brickwork.

Like all the ancient and modern cities of Greece, its wretched aspect within is forcibly contrasted with the beauty of its external appearance. The houses are generally built of unburnt bricks, and, for the most part, they are no better than so many hovels.” It is, however, a flourishing commercial town, from which is exported the corn, cotton, wool, tobacco, bees-wax, and silk of Macedonia. It is the seat of a Pasha, and has still among its population a considerable proportion of Jews. rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, who visited it in a.d. 1160, describes it, under the name of Salunki, and says that it was built by Seleucus, one of the four Greek nobles who arose after Alexander, and that when, he visited it, it was “a large city containing about five hundred Jewish inhabitants.” “The Jews,” says he, “are much oppressed in this place, and live by the exercise of handicrafts.” Itinerary, vol. 1:49, 50, Ed. 1840. He describes it as having at that time more Jewish inhabitants than any other town in Greece, Thebes alone excepted. It is said at present to contain about 20,000 Jewish inhabitants. Its favorable situation for commerce is probably the cause of the numerous assemblage of the Jews there. See Asher’s Ed. of Benjamin of Tudela, vol. 2:p. 42.

Section 2. The Establishment of the Church in Thessalonica

The gospel was first preached in Thessalonica by Paul and Silas. After their release from imprisonment at Philippi, they passed through Amphipolls and Apollonia, and came to Thessalonica. For some cause they appear not to have paused to preach in either of the first two places, but went at once to the city of Thessalonica, That was a much more important place, and they may have been attracted there particularly because many Jews resided there. It was customary for the apostle Paul, when he came to a place where there were Jews, to preach the gospel first to them; and as there was a synagogue in Thessalonica, he entered it, and, for three Sabbath days, reasoned with the Jews in regard to the Messiah. The points on which he endeavored to convince them were, that, according to the Scriptures, it was necessary that the Messiah should be put to death, and that he would rise from the dead, and that all the predictions on these points were completely fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth; Acts 17:2-3.

A few of the Jews believed, and a much larger number of the “devout Greeks,” and also a considerable number of females of the more elevated ranks. From these converts the church was organized, and the number at the organization would seem to have been large. It is not quite certain how long Paul and Silas remained at Thessalonica. It is known only that they preached in the synagogue for three sabbaths, and if that were all the time that they remained there, it could not have been more than about three weeks. But it is not certain that they did not remain in the city a longer time. It is possible that they may have been excluded from the synagogue, but still may have found some other place in which to preach. This would seem probable from one or two circumstances referred to in the history and in the Epistle. In the history Acts 17:5, it appears that Paul and Silas, for a time at least, made the house of Jason their home, and that so large numbers attended on their ministry as to give occasion to great excitement among the Jews. In the epistle 1 Thessalonians 2:9, Paul says that when he was among them, he “labored night and day, because he would not be chargeable unto any of them, and preached unto them the gospel of God” (compare 2 Thessalonians 3:8), which looks as if he had been with them a longer time than the “three sabbaths,” and as if he had labored at his usual occupation for support, before he shared the hospitality of Jason. It appears also, from Philippians 4:16, that he was there long enough to receive repeated supplies from the church at Philippi. “For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity.”

Paul and Silas were driven away from Thessalonica by the opposition of the Jews. A mob was created by them; the house of Jason was assailed; he and “certain brethren,” who were supposed to have harbored and secreted Paul and Silas, were dragged before the magistrates and accused of receiving those who “had turned the world upside down,” and who were guilty of treason against the Roman emperor; Acts 17:5-7 So great was the tumult, and such would be the danger of Paul and Silas if they remained there, that the members of the church judged it best that they should go to a place of safety, and they were conveyed by night to the neighboring city of Berea. There the gospel was received with more favor, and Paul preached without opposition, until the Jews from Thessalonica, hearing where he was, came thither and excited the people against him; Acts 17:13. It became necessary again that he should be removed to a place of safety, and he was conducted to Athens, while Silas and Timothy remained at Berea. Timothy, it appears, had accompanied Paul, and had been with him, as well as Luke, at Philippi and Thessalonica, though he is not mentioned as present with them until the arrival at Berea. When Paul went to Athens, he gave commandment to those who conducted him, that Silas and Timothy should come to him as soon as possible; and while he waited for them at Athens, he delivered the memorable speech on Mars’ hill, recorded in Acts 17:0: Their actual arrival at Athens is not mentioned by Luke (Acts xvii.), but that Timothy came to him there appears from 1 Thessalonians 3:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:2, “Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone, and sent Timotheus our brother, etc., to comfort you concerning your faith.” Timothy appears, therefore, to have been with Paul at Athens but a short time, for he sent him back to Thessalonica, and before his return, Paul had gone to Corinth, whither Timothy followed him; Acts 18:5.

Section 3. The Time and Place of Writing the Epistle

The subscription at the close of this epistle affirms that it was written at Athens. But these subscriptions are of no authority whatever (see notes at the close of 1 Corinthians), and in this case, as in several others, the subscription is false. Paul remained but a short time at Athens, and there is internal evidence that the epistle was not written there. In 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2, Paul says that, such was his anxiety for them, that he had concluded to remain at Athens alone, and that he had sent Timothy to them from that place to impart to them consolation. In the same epistle 1 Thessalonians 3:6, he speaks of Timothy’s return to him before the epistle was written. But from Acts 17:0 and Acts 18:5, it is evident that Timothy did not return to Paul at Athens, but that he and Silas came to him after he had left Athens and had gone to Corinth. To that place Paul had gone after his short visit to Athens, and there he remained a year and a half; Acts 18:11.

It is further evident that the epistle was not written to the Thessalonians so soon as it would be necessary to suppose, if it were written from Athens. In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18, the author says, “But we, brethren, being taken from you a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us.” From this it is evident that the apostle had repeatedly endeavored to visit them, but had been hindered. But it is not reasonable to suppose that he had attempted this during the short time that he was in Athens, and so soon after having been driven away from Berea. It is more probable that this had occurred during his residence at Corinth, and it would seem also from this, that the epistle was written toward the close of his residence there. At the time of writing the epistle, Silas and Timothy were with the apostle 1 Thessalonians 1:1, and we know that they were with him when he was at Corinth; Acts 18:5.

If this epistle was written at the time supposed, at Corinth, it must have been about the 13th year of the reign of Claudius, and about a.d. 52. That this was the time in which it was written, is the opinion of Mill, of Lardner, of Hug, and is indeed generally admitted. It was the first epistle written by the apostle Paul, and, in some respects, may be allowed to excite a deeper interest on that account than any others of his. The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians is supposed to have been written at the same place, and probably in the same year; see Lardner, vol. Acts 6:4-6. Grotius, indeed, supposes that the order of the epistles has been inverted, and that that which is now called the “Second Epistle to the Thessalonians” was in fact first sent. But there is no evidence of this.

Section 4. The Character of the Church at Thessalonica, and the Design of the Epistle

The church at Thessalonica, at first, was composed of the following classes of persons:

(1) Jews. To them Paul preached first, and though the mass of them opposed him, and rejected his message, yet some of them believed; Acts 17:4,

(2) Greeks who had been proselyted to the Jewish faith, and who seem to have been in attendance on the synagogue; Acts 17:4. They are called “devout Greeks” - σεβομένοι Ἑλλήνοι sebomenoi Hellēnoi - that is, religious Greeks, or those who had renounced the worship of idols, and who attended on the worship of the synagogue. They were probably what the Jews called “Proselytes of the Gate;” persons who were admitted to many privileges, but who were not proselytes in the fullest sense. There were many such persons usually where a synagogue was established among the Gentiles.

(3) Females of the more elevated rank and standing in the community; Acts 17:4. They were women of influence, and were connected with distinguished families. Possibly they also may have been of the number of the proselytes.

(4) Not a few members of the church appear to have been converted from idolatry by the preaching of the apostle, or had connected themselves with it after he had left them. Thus, in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, it is said, “For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God.

Though the apostle had been much opposed when there, and the gospel had been rejected by the great body of the inhabitants of Thessalonica, yet it had been most cordially embraced by these different classes 1 Thessalonians 2:13, and they were entirely harmonious in the belief of it. They forgot all their former differences in the cordiality with which they had embraced the gospel. The characteristics of the church there, and the circumstances existing, which gave occasion for the two epistles to the Thessalonians, appear to have been, so far as can he gathered from the history Acts 17:0, and the epistles themselves, the following:

(1) The members of the church had very cordially embraced the gospel; they were the warm friends of the apostle; they greatly desired to receive his instruction; and these things prompted him to the earnest wish which he had cherished to visit them 1 Thessalonians 2:17, and now led him to write to them; compare 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 2:8-9, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20. Paul had for them the strong affection which a nurse has for the children committed to her charge (1 Thessalonians 2:7), or a father for his children 1 Thessalonians 2:11, and hence the interest shown for them by writing these epistles.

(2) They were disposed not only to embrace the gospel, but to spread it abroad (chap 1 Thessalonians 1:8), and Paul was evidently desirous of commending them for this, and of exciting them to greater love and zeal in doing it.

(3) They had at first embraced the gospel amidst scenes of strife 1 Thessalonians 2:2; they were now opposed, as they had been there, by the Jews, and by their own countrymen 1 Thessalonians 2:14; and they appear to have been called to some peculiar trials, by the loss of some valued members of the church - friends who were peculiarly dear to their hearts; 1 Thessalonians 2:3, 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:13. To console them in view of these afflictions was one design of the first epistle, and in doing it the apostle states one of the most interesting views of the resurrection to be found in the Scriptures; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18.

(4) They had been instructed in reference to the future coming of the Saviour; the day of judgment, and the fact that the appearing of the “day of the Lord” would be like a thief in the night; 1 Thessalonians 5:2. But they seem to have inferred that that day was near, and they were looking for the immediate advent of the Redeemer, and the close of the world. To this view they seem to have been led by two things. One was, a misinterpretation of what the apostle says, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, about the advent of the Redeemer, which they seem to have understood as if it meant that it would be “soon;” and the other was, probably, the fact that certain letters had been forged in the name of Paul which maintained this doctrine; 2 Thessalonians 2:2. To correct this view was one of the leading objects of the second epistle, and accordingly the apostle in that shows them that events must occur preceding the coming of the Lord Jesus which would occupy a long time, and that the end of the world, therefore, could not be near; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12.

(5) An error seems also to have prevailed among them in regard to the resurrection, which was the cause of great uneasiness to those who had lost Christian friends by death; 1 Thessalonians 4:13, They seem to have supposed that when the Lord Jesus appeared, they who were alive would have great advantages over those who were deceased; that the living would be allowed to behold his glory, and to participate in the splendors of his personal reign, while those who were in their graves would slumber through these magnificent scenes. To correct these views, appears to have been one design of the first epistle. The apostle shows them that at the coming of the Saviour, all the redeemed, whether living or dead, would participate alike in his glory. They who were alive would not anticipate those who were in their graves. In fact, he says, those who were dead would rise before the change would take place in the living that was to fit them to dwell with the Lord, and then all would he taken up to be forever with him; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18.

(6) It would appear to be not improbable that after the departure of the apostle from Thessalonica, he had been accused by the enemies of the gospel there, of a lack of courage, and that they had urged this as proof that he was conscious that the gospel was an imposture. Besides, his leaving the church there without any instructors in a time when they greatly needed them, may have been urged as a proof that he had no real affection for them, or concern for their welfare. To meet this charge, the apostle urges several things, vindicating his conduct, and showing the strength of his attachment for them. He says, (1) That, as they knew; so far from being deterred by persecution from preaching, after a violent persecution at Philippi, he and his fellow laborers had at once preached the same gospel at Thessalonica, and they had done it there amidst the same kind of opposition; 1 Thessalonians 2:2. (2) That they themselves were witnesses that it had been done without any appearance of fraud or of guile. They had given them all possible proofs of sincerity; 1 Thessalonians 2:3-5; (3) That they had given every proof possible that they did not seek glory from men, and that their aims were not selfish. They were willing to have imparted, not the gospel only, but also their own lives; and to show that they had had no selfish aim while with them, they had supported themselves by the labor of their own hands; 1 Thessalonians 2:6-9. (4) That so far from not feeling any interest in them, he had repeatedly sought to visit them, but had in every instance been prevented 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18; and (5) That, since he was prevented from going to them, he had submitted to the personal sacrifice of parting with Timothy at Athens, and of being left alone there, in order that he might go to them and comfort their hearts; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2.

(7) In common with other churches, gathered in part or in whole from the pagan, they were in danger of falling into the sins to which they had been addicted before their conversion, and one object of the first epistle is to put them on their guard against the leading vices to which they were exposed; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7.

(8) It would seem, also, that there were some in the church who had a spirit of insubordination toward their religious teachers, and who, under pretence of edifying others, were guilty of disorder. To correct this was also one object of the epistle; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14.

From these views, the design of this epistle, and also of the second epistle to the same church, which seems to have been written soon-after this, will be apparent. They were the effusions of warm attachment toward a church which the apostle had founded, but from which he had been soon driven away, and which he had been prevented from revisiting when be had earnestly desired it. They are filled with expressions of tender regard; they remind the members of the church of the ardor with which they had at first embraced the gospel; caution them against the dangers to which they were exposed; commend them for their fidelity hitherto, and encourage them in their trials and persecutions. They present some most interesting views of the nature of the gospel, and especially contain statements about the resurrection of the saints which are not found elsewhere in the New Testament, and views in relation to the great apostasy, and the “man of sin,” which demonstrate that the writer was inspired, and which are of inestimable importance in guarding the true church from the power of Antichrist. No one could have drawn the picture of the Papacy in the second chapter of the second epistle who was not under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; and no true Christian can be sufficiently grateful that the apostle was thus inspired to reveal the features of that great apostasy, to put the church on its guard against the wiles and the power of him who “exalteth himself above all that is called God.”

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