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Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers Ellicott's Commentary
- 1 Thessalonians
by Charles John Ellicott
THE EPISTLES OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS.
The Epistle to the Thessalonians.
THE REV. A. J. MASON, M.A., D.D.,
Canon of Canterbury.
THE FIRST EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS.
IN the earlier part of the year 52, St. Paul, in the course of his second journey, arrived at Thessalonica, the modern Saloniki—then, as now, one of the largest and most important cities of the Levant. The wounds which the converted gaoler of Philippi and St. Lydia had tended (Acts 16:33; Acts 16:40) can hardly have been healed, when the Apostles Paul, Silas or Silvanus, and Timothy, journeying rapidly through Amphipolis and Apollonia, came to found their second European Church (1 Thessalonians 2:2). The Jews (who to this day form, it is believed, a moiety of the population of Saloniki) were massed there in great numbers, and had there “their synagogue, ”—a kind of metropolitan church, contrasted with the mere chapels or “prayer-houses” of Philippi and other Macedonian towns. (See Note on Acts 17:1.) To this synagogue St. Paul repaired, and for “three Sabbath-days” reasoned, as usual, with the Jews (1) on the scriptural necessity for a suffering Messiah; (2) for a resurrection of the Messiah; and (3) on the claim of Jesus to the Messiahship. We are not informed how long the missionaries stayed at Thessalonica: probably a good deal more than the three weeks during which the preaching at the synagogue continued. Their converts from among the Jews of the synagogue were few, though the proselytes and the ladies in connection with it joined them in large numbers.
 Timothy’s presence is not mentioned in the Acts, but seems implied by chaps, 16:3, 4; 17:14, and made absolutely certain by the Epistle, where the “we” always includes him. Howson, nevertheless, concludes from Philippians 2:22 that he had been left behind at Philippi.
 Several facts indicate this: The good organisation of the Thessalonian Church (though this might be partly owing to St. Timothy’s subsequent visit); the fact that St. Paul had time to get regular artisan’s work; the repeated contributions from Philippi that reached him there (Philippians 4:16); the way in which St. Paul speaks of his habitual conduct among them, and of what he “used to say” (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:5).
We can draw from the Epistles, in connection with the Acts, a clear picture of the Apostles’ manner of life and preaching at Thessalonica. They lodged in the house of a believing Jew of the name of Joshua, or (in the Græcised form) Jason (Acts 17:5; Romans 16:21), but accepted nothing from him but their lodging. To none of the Thessalonians would they be indebted (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8), but maintained themselves, partly by the contributions twice forwarded to them from Philippi (Philippians 4:16), but chiefly by hard nanual labour, which occupied not the day only but extended far into the night to make up for daylight hours devoted to preaching. They were determined to be model operatives (2 Thessalonians 3:9), and not merely eloquent preachers. And this was not all; besides the work of public preaching and teaching, the Apostles followed their usual method of dealing individually with the converts’ souls. The Thessalonian Christians—“every one” in his turn—thus received the encouragements and warnings of their ghostly fathers (1 Thessalonians 2:11). If the presbyters whom they left to carry on this work of admonition (see Notes on 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:14) continued it with the Apostles’ zeal, they might indeed well be described as “labouring among them.”
The preaching no doubt went on, not only on the Sabbaths, but on the week-days; for though the Acts tell us nothing of evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles, except among the “devout” (i.e., the proselytes), the whole tone of the Epistles proves that the Thessalonian Church was almost wholly Gentile. Besides which, the account in the Acts of the subjects of the three sermons preached on the three successive Sabbaths does not by any means include all that we find mentioned as the staple of the Apostles’ preaching there. Thus, it is clear that they had spoken strongly of the regal aspect of our Lord’s work. The charge on which they were arraigned was the charge of proclaiming “another king” (or emperor, for the word is the same in Greek), “one Jesus.” It was, in fact, the proclamation of what is specially distinguished as the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35; Matthew 13:19; Matthew 24:14; Luke 8:1, Greek; Luke 16:16), that is, not only the good news of Jesus Christ’s complete empire over the individual soul, but the good news that He has organised us all into a well-disciplined Church (Revelation 1:6, Greek; comp. John 11:52), which was to form an imperium in imperio within the Roman dominions. And accordingly we find the Thessalonians reminded that one of the best blessings which God had bestowed upon them was His calling them into “His kingdom” (1 Thessalonians 2:12), and encouraged by the thought of God’s counting them “worthy of the kingdom of God, for which they suffered” (2 Thessalonians 1:5). The full development of this “kingdom,” at the King’s return, was indeed very probably the main subject of the preaching. On this point the Thessalonians appear to have had the most accurate information (1 Thessalonians 5:2). St. Paul assumes that they thoroughly believed the doctrine (1 Thessalonians 4:14). They not only knew the very form in which our Lord Himself had taught (see Note on 1 Thessalonians 5:2) the impossibility of forecasting the date, but they had been told again and again (2 Thessalonians 2:5) what changes must take place before the Advent of the kingdom was to be expected. At every turn in the Epistle it is mentioned. And the moral laws of the kingdom of God had been taught in the most explicit. manner (1 Thessalonians 2:11), not only with regard to sins which the Gentile world permitted freely (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2), but also with regard to strenuous industry (2 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). And as in Galatia (Acts 14:22) so here, the sufferings that fenced the entrance of that kingdom were fully prophesied (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4).
This teaching, delivered with all the tenderness of a nursing mother, and all the authority of a father, and all the devotion of a friend (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8; 1 Thessalonians 2:11), yet sternly and unflatteringly (1 Thessalonians 2:5), told upon the Thessalonians with great effect. The Apostles themselves were in the most exalted and confident frame of mind (1 Thessalonians 1:5), and their hearers, in spite of many difficulties (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:14), received with enthusiasm the instruction as proceeding from God and not from man (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The difficulties, however, soon increased. The Jews grew jealous of the work going on among the Gentiles, especially among their proselytes (Acts 17:5), and vehemently set themselves to forbid such preaching (1 Thessalonians 2:16). They stirred up the abandoned Greeks who idled in the market-place to make a riot against these disturbers of the world. The Greeks, with the passionate servility which usually marked what was called under the empire a free Greek town, took up eagerly the cry that to preach Jesus as emperor was treason to Claudius, and began a prosecution of Jason before the politarchs. The prosecution only resulted in Jason’s being bound over to keep the peace; but the irritation was so great that it was judged expedient for the Apostles to leave the city and proceed southward.
 The city of Thessalonica had been made a libera civitas because of the support it had given in the civil wars to the cause of Octavian and Anthony. Such cities were exempt from the interference of the provincial government, and had their own forms of administration. Thessalonica had her popular assembly, and for supreme officers certain magistrates called politarchs—a name elsewhere unknown. On the testimony given by this word to the truthfulness of the Acts, see Note on Acts 17:8.
From Thessalonica St. Paul travelled to Berœa, from Berœa to Athens, and from Athens to Corinth. But though he had quitted Thessalonica, he had not forgotten his infant Church, and had not intended to be absent from it long. Twice at least (1 Thessalonians 2:18) he had seriously endeavoured to make his way back, “but Satan hindered” him. The persecution of the Church had by no means been appeased (as they had hoped) by the expulsion (see Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:15) of the missionaries; and St. Paul dreaded lest the temptation should have been too fiery for Christians so imperfectly taught and organised (1 Thessalonians 3:10). In his extreme agony of mind for them, unable himself to travel north-ward, he determined, at the cost of utter loneliness in a strange and most unsympathising town (Acts 17:16; 1 Thessalonians 3:1), to send St. Timothy to see how they fared, and to help them. To St. Paul’s great relief, the younger Apostle brought back, on the whole, an excellent report. True, there were several most grave faults to be found with the Thessalonian Church, which will be best understood from the table of the Epistle’s contents, but the practical St. Paul had evidently not expected even so much progress as had been made, and was overjoyed (1 Thessalonians 3:8). And this Epistle—the earliest of all that are preserved of its author, perhaps the earliest book of the New Testament—contains St. Paul’s comments on Timothy’s report.
The question now occurs, At what point of the narrative in the Acts is the writing of this Epistle to be placed? Was it written at Athens, or at Corinth? Almost all critics agree that it was written at Corinth. The question will be found discussed in the Notes, but it may be here stated that the difficulty consists in identifying the return of St. Timothy with his report (1 Thessalonians 3:6), with the coming of Silas and Timotheus in Acts 18:5. The narrative of the Acts seems, at first sight, to exclude the supposition that Silas or Timothy had paid a visit to St. Paul between the time of his leaving Beræa and the time for their rejoining him at Corinth; while the words of 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5 seem as urgently to require that Timothy at all events should have been with St. Paul at Athens. But on closer inspection, the Acts prove rather to favour this supposition; they tell us that St. Paul sent a peremptory and immediate summons to his two colleagues whom he had left in Macedonia (Acts 17:15), which summons they probably obeyed, and if so, would no doubt reach him long before the meeting at Corinth mentioned in Acts 18:5; besides which, the very words, “while Paul waited for them at Athens,” seem to imply that they came to that city. A few other points may be mentioned which help to fix the date. On the one hand, the letter cannot be placed later than the departure from Corinth, for we never read of St. Silas being with St. Paul after that time. For the same reason it must have been written some while before the departure from Corinth, as the Second Epistle (which equally bears Silvanus’ name) was also written thence, But on the other hand, it must not be placed too early, For (1) the Thessalonian Church had had time to extend its missionary zeal over all Macedonia, and indeed over all Greece; (2) the Jewish persecutions had had time to gain crushing force and consistency; (3) errors and disorders had had time to spoil the faith and morals of the community; (4) at any rate, a few of the believers had fallen asleep, which, considering the probable numbers and nature of the members of that young Church, requires a probable lapse of some months.
 The subscription at the end of the Epistle has no weight whatever, not representing even a tradition, but being merely an uncritical inference from 1 Thessalonians 3:1. The only way in which any case can be made out for the Athenian date is to suppose that the past tenses in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 3:5, are what is called in Greek the epistolary aorist, equivalent to our present, as e.g., where St. Jude (Jude 1:3) says, “I gave all diligence,” “it was needful,” or St. John (1 John 2:14), “I have written,” literally, I wrote. Thus it would mean that Timothy has just obeyed St. Paul’s hasty summons, and arrived at Athens by way of Thessalonica, as (from Beroea) he naturally might. “Being no longer able to forbear, I am determined to be left at Athens alone, and I send Timothy; I send to know your faith, lest through the tempter’s temptation of you our labour should prove in vain.” The following verse will then mean—“Not that I seriously distrust you; for the other day when Timotheus came.” &c.
The contents of the Epistle bear every sign of an early date. None of the great doctrines which are considered specially Pauline are touched upon in it, such as “faith,” in its special sense, or “justification.” There is no Judaic legalism to oppose, as in Galatians; St. Paul “can still point to them”—the churches of Judæa—“as examples to his converts at Thessalonica” (1 Thessalonians 2:14). There is no Gnosticism to confront, as in the Epistle to the Colossians or to St. Timothy. Again, the great prominence given to the doctrine of the Advent seems an indication of what St. Paul calls “the beginning of the gospel” (Philippians 4:15). The earliest gospel must needs consist in teaching that CHRIST was alive from the dead, and giving each Christian a vital interest in His present life, and this cannot be effected without much preaching of the Advent.
It has already been remarked that the Thessalonian Church consisted almost wholly of Gentiles. This may be easily seen from the Epistle. There are no quotations from the Old Testament, nor arguments founded upon it. The name of Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:18) is the only approach to a reference to Scriptural knowledge. The earliest revelation with which the Church is supposed to be acquainted, and which forms the canonical standard of reference, is the tradition which the Thessalonians have received from their founders by word of mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:5). The Thessalonians are never credited with any experience like “turning from dead works,” but, on the contrary, they had “turned to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The fierce and bitter invective against the Jews is far different in its language from what it would have been had any large proportion of the Church been but neophytes from Judaism; and, indeed, the Jews are clearly distinguished from “your own countrymen” (1 Thessalonians 2:14). The difficulty with which the young Church accepted the doctrine of the resurrection also points in that direction, as well as the dulness of conscience with regard to the sinfulness of fornication (1 Thessalonians 4:5).
The Epistle, which is entirely practical throughout, divides itself more clearly into its component sections than perhaps any other of St. Paul’s Epistles. There are two main portions. The first (1 Thessalonians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:3) is narrative and personal, designed to attach the Thessalonians more closely to the writers’ persons by the ties of common memories, of imparted information, and of sympathy over the news which had been brought from Thessalonica. Attention having been thus secured, the two remaining chapters are occupied with instructions upon special points in which the Church was deficient. The contents (after the salutation) may be tabulated thus:—
I. THE NARRATIVE PORTION (1 Thessalonians 1:2 to 1 Thessalonians 3:13).
Containing reminiscences of the apostolic sojourn at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:2 to 1 Thessalonians 2:16).
Thanksgiving for the display of God’s power and love both in the missionaries and in the converts (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10).
Reminder of the missionaries’ conduct there (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
Acknowledgment of the Thessalonians’ hearty response (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16).
Containing an account of the Apostles’ (especially St. Paul’s) anxieties and efforts for the Thessalonians since they left them (1 Thessalonians 2:17 to 1 Thessalonians 3:10).
Then follows a prayer for them, which connects the first portion naturally with the first subject of instruction in—
THE EDUCATIONAL PORTION (1 Thessalonians 4:1 to 1 Thessalonians 5:28.)
The necessity of abstaining from fornication (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
The extension of sober church feeling (1 Thessalonians 4:8-12).
Discussion of certain points connected with the Advent:—
The respective part therein of the quick and the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
The uncertainty of its date, and consequent need of vigilance (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
Duty to the Presbyters (1 Thessalonians 5:11-13), who are charged to see that orderly discipline is enforced (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15).
Various spiritual directions, chiefly with regard to public worship (1 Thessalonians 5:16-28).
The genuineness of the Epistle can scarcely be said to have been ever seriously doubted. Though there are no certain patristic quotations from it, or allusions to it, earlier than the end of the second century, it has passed unchallenged (even by Marcion) until the nineteenth century. Schrader and Baur in that century argued against its Pauline authorship, alleging the absence of “Pauline” theology, contradictions to the account in Acts, marks of date which they suppose to be subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem, &c. But the internal evidence is so convincing that even such a sceptical critic as M. Renan has no hesitation in admitting both Epistles to the Thessalonians into his second class of Epistles, which he calls “Undoubted Epistles, although some objections have been made to them,” and his words are as follows:—“The difficulties which certain moderns have raised against them are but those light suspicions which it is the duty of criticism to express freely, but without being stopped by them when there are more powerful reasons to draw one on. And these three Epistles (i.e., 1 and 2 Thess. and Phil.) have a character of authenticity which overbears every other consideration.” The attack upon the Epistles was renewed in the summer of 1877 by Holsten, in the German Annual of Protestant Theology, but the present writer has not seen the critique.
[The principal works which have been made use of in commenting upon these two Epistles are the Commentaries of Lunemann and his English follower Ellicott, of Hammond, and of Wordsworth, together with such works as Renan’s and Howsoa’s accounts of St. Paul, and MS. notes from lectures of Professor Lightfoot.]