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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

1 Thessalonians

- 1 Thessalonians

by Philip Schaff

INTRODUCTION TO THE EPISTLES OF PAUL TO THE THESSALONIANS.

THESSALONICA, now known under the abbreviated name Saloniki or Salonica, was in ancient times known as Emathia, Halia, [1] and finally Therme, a name like our Bath, Wells, or Spa, common to a number of towns which possessed hot medicinal springs. It is situated at the head of the Thermaic gulf [2] which deeply indents the Macedonian shore, and it covers the irregular slope which runs, not very steeply, up from the water’s edge to the crest of the hill which ‘forms a semicircular barrier round the upper extremity’ of the gulf, With a rich district behind, and the open sea in front, Thessalonica rapidly became one of the most important Mediterranean ports. [3] Its position, being at once suitable for commerce and capable of defence, attracted the eye of Cassander, who in the year 315 B.C. rebuilt and enlarged the town, and gave it the name of his wife, Thessalonica, a sister of Alexander the Great. [4] The subsequent prosperity of the city justified the wisdom of its founder. When the Romans divided Macedonia into four governments, Thessalonica was made the chief city of the second province, and ultimately it became the metropolis of the whole. At the time of Paul’s visit it enjoyed the rights of a free city, being governed by seven politarchs, [5] who, though responsible to the Roman proconsul, were elected by the citizens themselves.

[1] So called from its situation on the sea.

[2] To which, as Herodotus (vii. 21) remarks, it gives its name

[3] Although no harbour was built till the time of Constantine.

[4] There are other accounts of the origin of the name. See Smith’s Dict. of Geog.; or Lewin’s St. Paul, i. 225.

[5] Luke (Acts 17:6) uses this official title, which is confirmed by the inscription on the arch of Augustus, giving the names of the politarchs in office when the arch was erected. Sec Davies’ St. Paul in Greece for an admirable account of Thessalonica. Comp. Thucyd. i. 61.

Into this politically and commercially important city the feet of Paul were guided by the great Roman road ( Via Egnatia), which connected the region to the north of the AEgean Sea with Rome. The Epistle affords evidence (1 Thessalonians 2:9) that he quickly found employment, and felt himself at home among the working-men and tradespeople of Thessalonica. This coincides with the fact that one of the staple manufactures of the city was and is goat’s-hair cloth. The sound that follows the ear as one walks through the streets of Saloniki today is the wheezing straining vibration of the loom and the pendulum-like click of the regular and ceaseless shuttle. Those who know anything of a weaving population will cordially concur in the remark of Mr. Davies, ‘that the sedentary and indoor occupation of a very large proportion of the inhabitants, who spent their days at the haircloth looms, or in plying the needle or the carding-bow, may have given to the working-classes of Thessalonica that particularly thoughtful and serious habit of mind which is always found associated with sedentary trades.’

Another allusion in the Epistle (1 Thessalonians 1:8) reminds us that not only must such a city have had especial attraction for Paul, as likely to give a favourable hearing to his Divine message, but that its commercial and seafaring population would rapidly diffuse what they themselves might receive. Every ship that left the harbour, and every empty wagon that returned inland, carried some account of the riot at Thessalonica, and the extraordinary man who had been the unwitting occasion of it. But though in three weeks’ time Paul founded here the second Christian church that rose on the European continent, those on whose aid he might naturally have counted, his own fellow-countrymen, made it so dangerous for him and Silas to remain, that the brethren ‘ immediately sent them by night to Berea’ (Acts 17:10). Although, therefore, the population was largely Jewish, [1] the Epistle bears evidence of being written to a church composed almost exclusively of Gentile Christians (1 Thessalonians 2:14). There are no allusions to the tenets of Judaism or to the facts of Jewish history, nor are there any references to the Old Testament either in the way of illustration or of proof. The account Paul gives of his preaching among them (1 Thessalonians 1:9-52.1.10) precisely tallies with the report given of his address to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-44.17.23); and shows that in introducing the Gospel to Gentiles, he was at that time accustomed to announce the coming judgment, to proclaim Jesus as raised from the dead to be the Judge of the world and the Saviour of all who believed in Him. [2]

[1 ] The modem population is reckoned at nearly 90,000, and is usually distributed in almost equal proportions among Jews, Greeks, and Turks. The Jews, who own upwards of 20 synagogues, use the Spanish language, and are descended from the exiles who were driven out of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Greeks are chiefly sailors and fishermen. The Bulgarians employ themselves with agriculture and the rearing and training of horses.

[2] Many interesting details regarding the history of the church in Thessalonica, and many beautiful drawings of its ecclesiastical buildings, are given in Byzantine Architecture, by Ch. Texier and R. P. Pullan (London, 1864). Further information will be found in Tafel’s De Thessalonica ejusque agre Disserlatio geographica (Berlin, 1839).

OCCASION AND OBJECT OF THE FIRST EPISTLE.

The immediate occasion of the penning of the First Epistle was the return of Timothy from Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:6), whither he had been sent by Paul, who, when he found he could not himself return to see and encourage his young converts, did the next best thing, and sent Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:1-52.3.2). Paul had heard how severely they were being tried; how some were striving to discredit the apostle, and persuade those who had accepted his Gospel that he was a mere strolling sophist such as often turned up in Greek towns, and that money or some even meaner object was his sole aim in preaching to them; how others were adopting the rougher method of ill-treatment, inflicting social penalties on those who persisted in refusing to acknowledge the gods of Greece and do as others did. It might not have been impossible to prejudice the minds of some against Paul, and to suggest the reflection, ‘Have we not been somewhat hasty in giving in our adhesion to this Jew who has suddenly appeared among us from nobody knows where? He bore no letters of commendation, and is evidently in bad odour with his own countrymen, who ought to know most about him.’ As to the insinuation that he might find preaching a profitable mode of earning a livelihood, that was so easily refuted that no prudent enemy would have made it Timothy must have smiled when he returned from Thessalonica and reported to Paul, ‘Some of them say you are covetous, and that you find it an easy kind of life to stroll round and see foreign parts, and get kept by harder-working men.’ Such an insinuation the Thessalonian Christians could not have seriously harboured, because they themselves had seen him walking lame from the wounds he had received at Philippi in prosecuting this easy, remunerative, sauntering life of his; they had looked with shame at the unhealed cuts on his face and head, at his torn, soiled, much-mended clothes. Still Paul was anxious ‘lest by one means or other the tempter should have tempted them, and his labour be fruitless;’ and his joy on hearing from Timothy that they were standing firm is so intense, that he cannot forbear at once sitting down and telling them what deep gratification and pleasure their stedfastness gave him. ‘Now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.’ ‘What thanks can we render to God again for you for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God?’ To express this joy and thankfulness, and to encourage them in well-doing, is his object in writing.

DATE OF THE FIRST EPISTLE.

The date of the Epistle is arrived at in the following way. It was during his second missionary journey, probably in the year 52, that Paul founded the church of Thessalonica. Immediately thereafter he went to Berea, thence to Athens, and finally to Corinth, where he remained for a year and a half or two years. That the Epistle was written before he left Corinth we gather from the fact that after leaving Corinth, Silas does not appear in company with Paul; as well as from the circumstance mentioned in the Epistle itself (1 Thessalonians 3:6), that it was written immediately after the return of Timothy from Thessalonica (Acts 18:5). But as the Second Epistle was also written while Silas was yet with Paul, that is, before they had left Corinth, the First Epistle could not have been written towards the close of their residence there. Between the date of the First Epistle and the departure of Paul from Corinth, an interval must be left sufficient to admit of the growth of those fresh complications and abuses which called forth the second letter. Yet this interval need not have been more than a month or two. The other data which the letter itself furnishes are these: Paul speaks of his visit to Athens as past (1 Thessalonians 3:1); he names Athens and does not say ‘here’ or ‘in this city,’ as he would have done had he been writing from it. (The subscription, therefore, which informs us that he wrote ‘from Athens,’ is unwarranted and misleading.) Again, he had twice endeavoured to return to Thessalonica before he wrote [1] (1 Thessalonians 2:18); time had elapsed sufficient to admit of their faith being spoken of not only in their immediate neighbourhood, but in more remote places (1 Thessalonians 1:8); sufficient also to admit of some of their number having died. A few months would seem a sufficient time to allow of these events, and we shall therefore be probably not far wrong if we conclude that the First Epistle was written some time during the year 53, and probably in the early part of it.

[1] It should be observed, however, that both these attempts to revisit Thessalonica had been made while he himself was still in Athens.

GENUINENESS OF THE FIRST EPISTLE.

That this Epistle is genuine, there can be no reasonable doubt. It is mentioned as Paul’s as early as the middle of the second century; and towards the close of that century it is frequently quoted. In itself also, in its tone and style, it bears the well-known marks of the apostle, easy to discern but difficult to imitate. The affectionateness, the delicacy of rebuke and exhortation, the personal though not egotistic allusions, the heaping up of word upon word and clause upon clause, identify it as from the dictation of Paul. It may be difficult to define what an author’s key or tone is; but this, even more than the substance of his utterances, often serves to identify a production as his; and in this letter it is the tone of Paul we hear throughout. ‘The fineness and delicacy of touch with which the apostle’s relations towards his Thessalonian converts are drawn his yearning to see them, his anxiety in the absence of Timothy, and his heartfelt rejoicing at the good news are quite beyond the reach of the clumsy forgeries of the early Church. In the second place, the writer uses language which, however it may be explained, is certainly coloured by the anticipation of the speedy advent of the Lord language natural enough in the apostle’s own lips, but quite inconceivable in a forgery written after his death, when time had disappointed these anticipations, and when the revival or mention of them would serve no purpose, and might seem to discredit the apostle. Such a position would be an anachronism in a writer of the second century.’ Lightfoot in Smith’s Dictionary.

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EPISTLES.

These Epistles being, so far as we know, the first written by Paul, and probably the earliest of extant Christian writings, have some peculiarities, which should be noticed. In the first place, there is little of what is known as distinctively Pauline doctrine. Five years elapsed between the writing of these letters and the composition of the great doctrinal and ecclesiastical Epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Corinthians. Accordingly, we here find matters of a somewhat different kind treated. Emphasis is laid on the Christian graces of purity, quietness, and industry, because by their very acceptance of the Gospel (see notes) the Thessalonians were unsettled and rendered liable to the characteristic Greek vices of indolence and excitability, if not of licentiousness. The difficulties about circumcision and the law had no place in the minds of the Thessalonians, and as yet Paul had not been driven by these difficulties to elaborate his doctrine of justification, and develope all that was from the first involved in his conception of faith. The fulness of doctrinal statement and explanation which we find in the later Epistles of Paul we owe, proximately, to the Judaizing Christians, who found it difficult to rid their minds of the ideas to which they had become habituated by the use of the Mosaic law and ceremonial. But as yet these difficulties had not found any such expression as endangered the Church’s welfare, although Paul had already encountered manifestations of the Judaizing spirit which must have seemed to him ominous of evil. Among the Gentiles of Thessalonica, however, he preached the broad and fundamental doctrine of a final judgment, and of the Lord’s resurrection and second coming in connection with this judgment. And to these topics, with their necessary corollaries of faith in Christ and His coming, and a holy life, he still confines himself in writing to the Church he had thus founded. ‘There are many reasons why the subject of the second advent should occupy a larger space in the earliest stage of the apostolical teaching than afterwards. It was closely bound up with the fundamental fact of the Gospel, the resurrection of Christ, and thus it formed a natural starting-point of Christian doctrine. It afforded the true satisfaction to those Messianic hopes which had drawn the Jewish converts to the fold of Christ. It was the best consolation and support of the infant Church under persecution, which must have been most keenly felt in the first abandonment of worldly pleasures and interests. More especially, as telling of a righteous Judge who would not overlook iniquity, it was essential to that call to repentance which must everywhere precede the direct and positive teaching of the Gospel. “Now He commandeth all men everywhere to repent, for He hath appointed a day, in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He raised Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-44.17.31).’ Lightfoot in Smith’s Dictionary.

As a safeguard, however, against our making too much of the difference between these Epistles and the later ones, we should bear in mind that these are written to a very young Gentile church, whose difficulties were as yet more of a moral than a doctrinal kind. Further, we do not know what Paul had taught them by word of mouth, and can only gather that at least in some directions his instructions had been of a nature to preclude the necessity of further teaching on these points. And thirdly, whether he had communicated to the Thessalonians the distinctively Pauline doctrines or not, there is evidence in these Epistles that they already had a place in his own mind. E.g., the compact statement in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-53.2.14, could only have proceeded from a mind which held the whole Pauline scheme of salvation, and had been much occupied in considering its various parts.