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- 1 Thessalonians
by John Dummelow
The Epistles of St. Paul fall naturally into four groups, each divided from the others by a considerable interval of time. In the earliest of these groups, written during the Second Missionary Journey, the great central thought is the coming of Christ to judge the world. The second group (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans), written during the Third Missionary Journey, has for its leading theme the reconciliation of man with God and with his fellow-man by means of the Cross of Christ. The third group (Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon), written during the first Roman captivity, dwells on the thought of Christ as the great King and Head of the Church. The fourth group (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus), written at the close of the Apostle’s life, deals with practical questions of Church organisation. The two Epistles to the Thessalonians together form the first group. In them we have the earliest of St. Paul’s writings, and, with the probable exception of the Epistle of St. James, the earliest books of the New Testament.
1. The Persons Addressed. The Thessalonians inhabited the chief city of Macedonia. Macedonia was the first European country in which St. Paul preached, and he always regarded it with peculiar affection. In Acts 16, 17 we have St. Luke’s wonderfully vivid narrative of the bringing of the Gospel to Macedonia. After some stay at Philippi the Apostle went through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica, where he stayed for some six months (Acts 17:1-9), preaching first to the Jews as usual, and afterwards winning many converts among Gentile proselytes and women as well as among the heathen. Jewish intrigue at length drove him away. This famous city of Thessalonica, originally called Therma, had been refounded by Cassander about 315 b.c., and, owing to its natural advantages, had grown and flourished. After the Roman conquest the great military road, the Via Egnatia, connected it with Italy and the East, while its fine harbour made it a great commercial centre. It was made a Free City by Augustus, with the privilege of self-government (Acts 17:6). At the present time, under the slightly altered name of Saloniki, it is the second city of the Turkish empire, with a population of 70,000. It contained (and still contains) a considerable number of Jews, and had a large native population. It was from this latter class that St. Paul’s converts were chiefly drawn (cp. 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:14, and observe the absence of OT. quotations), and it is plain that they had the characteristic virtues, as well as some of. the characteristic defects, of their race, which was brave, independent, persevering, and liberty-loving. But the Thessalonian converts sometimes allowed their independence to degenerate into undue self-assertion and disregard of authority (1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7). Yet, on the whole, St. Paul was proud and fond of them. Notwithstanding terrible persecution, they had remained firm (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:8, 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-7). Though poor they were generous (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Their influence was felt throughout Macedonia and Greece (1 Thessalonians 1:8). Their faith, hope, and love filled the Apostle’s heart with joy (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3).
2. Time and Place of Writing. The First Epistle was written towards the close of the Second Missionary Journey (? 51 a.d.), some time about the middle of the eighteen months’ stay at Corinth (Acts 18). St. Paul had not long left Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:17), but had had time to visit Athens (1 Thessalonians 3:1). Timothy had been to Macedonia and back (1 Thessalonians 3:6), and Silas (Silvanus) who is never mentioned after the Second Missionary Journey, is now the Apostle’s companion (1 Thessalonians 1:1). There had been time for the influence of the Thessalonian Church to make itself felt (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8). Some members of the Christian community had died (1 Thessalonians 4:13). The Second Epistle must have been written towards the close of the same Corinthian stay, when St. Paul had received news that the teaching of his first letter had been misrepresented and misunderstood (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Silvanus and Timothy were still with him (2 Thessalonians 1:1). Persecution was still raging (2 Thessalonians 1:4), and there was much excitement and increasing disorder on account of expectation of an immediate coming of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:2-3).
3. Reception in the Church. These Epistles are quoted or alluded to from very early times. Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenæus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian refer to them. They are included in Marcion’s Canon (circ. 140 a.d.), and are found in the early list of the books of the NT. known as the Muratorian Canon (circ. 190 a.d.). The internal evidence is also strong. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 1:5-9; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:27; 2 Thessalonians 3:8-9, and the style and language, the personal touches, the intercessions and requests for the prayers of the Thessalonians, are characteristically Pauline. The only serious objections to the genuineness of the Epistles are connected with the section about the Man of Sin (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12), which is said by some to be un-Pauline and founded on the Revelation of St. John. But when we remember the large place occupied by Apocalyptic questions in Jewish and early Christian thought, the evident interest which they had for the Thessalonians, and the great prophecy of His coming uttered by our Lord Himself, we shall have no diflficulty in coming to the conclusion that St. Paul would naturally deal with the subject quite independently of St. John or any other NT. writer.
4. Value and Importance. These earliest of St. Paul’s Epistles, short as they are, contain much of extreme interest to Bible students. They show us how St. Paul presented the gospel to heathen converts. They give us a vivid picture of Christian life in the first days before dissensions and false beliefs had vexed the peace of the Church, when teachers and taught loved each other, and faith and zeal were yet glowing. Incidentally they reveal to us much of the writer’s mind and character (1 Thessalonians 3:5-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12). But, most important of all, they tell us what were the doctrines held and taught some twenty years after the Ascension. (a) Christ is frequently called ’the Lord,’ ’our Lord.’ He is addressed in prayer (1 Thessalonians 3:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17). He died (1 Thessalonians 2:15), rose again (1 Thessalonians 1:10), is in Heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16), and shall come to judge the world (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18). He is the Redeemer and Deliverer (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). (b) The Holy Spirit is given to Christians (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:19). (c) The Church is already organised. The Apostles have authority (1 Thessalonians 5:27; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). There is a regular ministry (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Baptism may be alluded to in 1 Thessalonians 4:8. There were already meetings, probably for communion, where the ’holy kiss’ was used (1 Thessalonians 5:26-27, Justin’s ’Apology,’ I. 65). The local Church was united in bonds of brotherhood with other Churches (1 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:10), and with the faithful departed (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 1 Thessalonians 4:17). Thus, these Epistles, besides giving a picture of Church life in early days, testify to the main articles of the Creed.
5. Analysis. First Epistle. Two main divisions: (a) Personal, 1 Thessalonians 1:1 to 1 Thessalonians 3:13; (b) Hortatory, 1 Thessalonians 4:1 to 1 Thessalonians 5:28. 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Salutation and thanksgiving for their conversion and progress. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Sketch of the Apostle’s own work at Thessalonica: cp. Acts 17:1-10. 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, A second thanksgiving, with special reference to their persecutions. 1 Thessalonians 2:17 to 1 Thessalonians 3:10, His anxiety about the Thessalonians, and the joy with which he had received the good news about them brought by Timothy. 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13, A solemn prayer for them to Clurist as God. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, Exhortations to purity of life, brotherly love, quietness and industry. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 to 1 Thessalonians 5:11, The chief subject of the Epistle (alluded to in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and 1 Thessalonians 3:13), the Second Advent. The faithful departed, about whom the Thessalonians were anxious, shall rise by virtue of their union with Christ, and shall rise before those who are now alive. But the time is uncertain (’Watch, therefore, and be sober’). 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, Practical exhortation: (a) 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15, Social duties; (b) 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22, Spiritual duties (joy, prayer, thanksgiving, etc.). 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28, Concluding prayer, injunctions, and benediction.
Second Epistle. 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, Salutation and thanksgiving. 1 Thessalonians 1:5 to 1 Thessalonians 2:14, The Second Advent. ’You have suffered persecution, but God is just, and will requite both you and your enemies at the coming of Christ. I pray you may be found ready for it. But this coming will not be till after the great Apostasy and the revelation and destruction of the Man of Sin and all those whom he has deceived. I thank God you have been saved from this fate.’ 2 Thessalonians 2:15-17, ’Hold fast the Faith. I pray Christ and God the Father to comfort and strengthen you.’ 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15, Exhortation to intercessory prayer (cp. 1 Thessalonians 5:25), hopes for their progress, rebukes to the idle and disorderly. 2 Thessalonians 3:16-18, Concluding prayer and benediction.
The Second Epistle presupposes the First: cp. 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6 with 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 and there is a great similarity in structure between the two (1 Thessalonians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 3:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 2:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:16).
6. The chief subject of the Epistle is, as has been said, the Coming (or, as St. Paul calls it, the Presence) of Christ—the Second Advent. And although he nowhere speaks definitely as to the time of this Coming (which no man knows, Matthew 24:36), he certainly uses language which suggests that ’there was a reasonable expectation of the Lord’s appearing soon.’ The expectation is doubtless based on our Lord’s great prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and of Judaism found in Matthew 24 and elsewhere. In the Second Epistle especially the language used often recalls that of our Lord (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, 2 Thessalonians 2:7, 2 Thessalonians 2:9; Matthew 24:6, Matthew 24:10-13, Matthew 24:15, Matthew 24:24), and the final Coming seems to be closely connected in St. Paul’s mind with the overthrow of Judaism. In so far as he expected that these two events would happen together, or that the Final Coming would be soon after the overthrow of Judaism, he was doubtless mistaken. But it is to be observed that (a) the overthrow of Judaism by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was in very truth a Coming of Christ to Judgment. ’The destruction of Jerusalem was an event which has no parallel in history. It was the outward and visible sign of a great epoch in the divine government of the world. It marked the inauguration of a new order of things. The Messianic kingdom was now fully come. The final act of the King was to sit upon the throne of His glory and judge His people.’ (b) St. Paul’s mistake, if mistake it be, does not in the least affect the value of his ethical teaching on the subject. For he points out to the Thessalonians the true way of preparing for the Final Advent which Christ meant His Church to expect. They were to make ready for it, not by feverish excitement and restlessness, but by the quiet, steady performance of everyday duty as in His sight, with the assurance that His followers, whether living or asleep in Him, were in His safe keeping.
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