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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

1 Thessalonians

- 1 Thessalonians

by Joseph Exell

1 THESSALONIANS INTRODUCTION


I.
Thessalonica.

1. The city. When St. Paul first landed in Europe (Acts 16:11), and had preached at Philippi, he passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica, immediately to the south of which lie the snow clad slopes of Mount Olympus. This city, situated on the Thermean Gulf, and once the capital of Macedonia, had formerly the name of Thermae, a name nearly similar to our Bath, or Hotwells. Under that name we read of it as one of the camping places of Xerxes. Cassander enlarged it, and bestowed upon it a new name in honour of his wife Thessalonica, daughter of Philip of Macedon. “As a commercial port,” says a recent traveller, “Salonica must always hold a high place, and under a different government must become one of the most important centres of trade in the East, whether one regards its natural advantages as a harbour, or the richness and fertility of the back country, to which it forms the outlet.” It was the largest and most populous city in Macedonia, and enjoyed considerable commercial relations. Under the Romans it was placed in the division called Macedonia Secunda, and became the residence of a Praetor. The city appears at a later period in unhappy connection with the Emperor Theodosius. It was the scene of a defeat of Constantius by the Saracens, and was afterwards sold to the Venetians by Androuleus, but captured by the Turks. Salonica is now looked upon as the third city of the Turkish Empire, Smyrna being the second. The population is estimated at 85,000, of whom about half are Jews. (Bp. Alexander.)

2. St. Paul’s ministry here. The Acts contain little or no account of the apostle’s labours among the Gentiles. We only read of three weeks’ preaching in the synagogue, followed by the conversion of many Jews, “devout Greeks,” and “chief women.” Upon this the unbelieving Jews, enlisting the “roughs” of Thessalonica, created a riot which led to the departure of Paul and Silas by night. It is evident, however, from the Epistle, that the apostle’s work here was both more extensive and of longer duration than the history would seem to intimate. For--

(1) The bulk of the Church consisted of converts from idolatry (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

(2) There was already an organized Christian community when the Epistle was written (1 Thessalonians 5:12). It was the custom for the apostles to appoint presidents or rulers on a second visit (Acts 14:21). If the ordination was affected during the first visit, as the narrative would seem to show, Paul’s stay must have been much longer than three weeks.

(3) The apostle gives a detailed description of his life in the city, which can scarcely be supposed to apply to so brief a sojourn (1 Thessalonians 2:5-12).

(4) The same conclusion is corroborated by Philippians 4:15-16, Philippi being eighty miles away. Then we must remember--

(a) That St. Luke has necessarily omitted many things in the apostle’s history.

(b) That nothing in the narrative forbids the interposition of a considerable space between the three weeks’ ministry in the synagogue, and the assault upon the house of Jason.

(c) That “turning to the Gentiles” was so habitual with the apostle, that the history of his work in any city would be incomplete without it. (S. G. Green, D. D.)

We can draw from the Epistles in connection with the Acts a clear picture of the apostle’s manner of life. They lodged in the house of a believing Jew of the name of Joshua (Gr. 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 manual 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 besides the work of public teaching, the apostles followed their usual method of dealing with the converts’ souls (1 Thessalonians 2:11). (A. J. Mason, M. A.)

3. The Thessalonian Church. By means of maps and descriptions we can form a picture to our mind of the Bay of Thessalonica, and see the semicircle of houses rising towards the hills with something of the air of an inferior Genoa. But it is much more difficult for us to see the earliest Christians exactly as they were. We instinctively think of something like churches. In modern Salonica three of these are still found which have been turned into mosques. One of these (St. Sophia) has a very ancient pulpit of beautiful marble, from which tradition reports that Paul preached. Yet, of course, they could have had no separate buildings, and must have been content to meet in the houses of Jason (Acts 17:5), Aristarchus, Secundus (Acts 20:21), or some other believer. But there are certain lines of church life which we can fairly trace.

(1) There was an organized body addressed as a Church which implies the sacrament, at least of baptism, without which a Church could not be.

(2) This Church had a stated ministry (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

(3) The Church was gathered at convenient opportunities.

(a) The “holy kiss” (1 Thessalonians 5:26), according to Justin Martyr, was given in connection with the Holy Communion.

(b) The Christians met to be instructed by reading (1 Thessalonians 5:27) of St. Paul’s Epistles as the Law and the Prophets were in the synagogue. (Bp. Alexander.)

It is hardly possible to realize the position of this infant community. Conflicting habits of thought and life, conflicting interests and aims, must everywhere have been prevailing. Amid the grosser forms of licentiousness there was the difficulty ever felt by these Christians of keeping themselves unspotted from the world. Amid the ever-shifting subtleties of a vain philosophy there was the difficulty of holding fast the form of sound words. Amid the undisguised contempt of the Gentiles, and the ceaseless, restless enmity of the Jews, there was the difficulty of “standing fast in the Lord.” Amid the errors and disorders within their own bounds there was the difficulty of keeping “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In a word, the world was against them, and they were against the world. Perhaps the most vivid portrayal of the city life of the ancient world in its contact with Christianity is to be found in Kingsley’s Hypatia. What is there depicted of Alexandria holds to a large extent true of Thessalonica. (J. Hutchison, D. D.)

II. The epistle to the thessalonians.

1. The date and place of writing. It could not have been written after St. Paul’s abode at Corinth, for Silvanus was with him, who after that, and 2 Thessalonians 2:1, disappears from the apostle’s company. It could not have been written before; for those who had to bring St. Paul news from Macedonia found him not at Athens, but were allowed to join him at Corinth (Acts 17:15-34; Acts 18:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 3:1). It was not, then, written at Athens, according to the subscription of many MSS., misled by 1 Thessalonians 3:1, but at Corinth. Nor was it written at the beginning of St. Paul’s stay in that city. Chap. 1:7-8 proves that St. Paul must have remained at Corinth some time for the reputation of the Thessalonian Church to have acquired such currency, and for believers to have fallen asleep in Christ. (Bp. Alexander.)

The contents of the Epistle bear every sign of an early date. None of the great Pauline doctrines 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 Judaea--“as examples to his converts at Thessalonica” (1 Thessalonians 2:14). There is no Gnosticism to confront as in Colossians and 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. (A. J. Mason, M. A.)

This Epistle was penned at the close of A.D. 52, or some time in 53, or at all events not later than 54. If this last date be accepted, it is interesting to notice that it was the closing year of the Emperor Claudius’ reign--a year specially memorable throughout the Roman Empire for alarming portents which attracted universal attention, and disturbed the popular mind with gloomy forebodings. The prevalent mood produced by these portents, especially in such a city as Thessalonica, may have had its influence even on Christians, and may help to account for the excitement in the Church of which this Epistle takes so much notice. Catching the general contagion--the current belief that something very wonderful, some awful crisis was about to happen, and giving it at the same time the colouring of their own Christian faith, connecting it more particularly with part of the apostle’s teaching which they had misunderstood--they were straining their eyes to catch, as it were, the first glimpse of their risen and glorified Saviour returning with the clouds as the dust of His feet. Hence the duties which pertain to Christian fellowship and daily toil were neglected. (J. Hutchison, D. D.)

2. The occasion. Though St. Paul had quitted Thessalonica he had not forgotten his infant Church, and had not intended to be absent from it so long. Twice at least (1 Thessalonians 2:18) he had seriously endeavoured to make his way back, “but Satan hindered.” Persecution had by no means abated, as he had hoped, by the expulsion of the missionaries; and he dreaded lest the temptation should have been too fiery for the Christians so imperfectly taught and organized (1 Thessalonians 3:10). In his extreme agony of mind, unable himself to reach them, he determined at the cost of utter loneliness in a strange and unsympathetic town (Acts 17:16; 1 Thessalonians 3:1), to send Timothy to see how they fared and to help them. To St. Paul’s great relief, his friend brought back, on the whole, an excellent report. True there were several most grave faults, but the practical apostle had evidently not expected so much progress, and was overjoyed (1 Thessalonians 3:8). And this Epistle, its author’s earliest, and perhaps the earliest book of the New Testament, contains St. Paul’s comments on Timothy’s report. (A. J. Mason, M. A.)

3. Analysis.

A. Historical.

(1) Brief greeting (1 Thessalonians 1:1).

(2) Thanksgiving for their conversion and holiness (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10).

(3) Appeal to them as to the character of his ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12).

(4) Renewed expression of thankfulness for their constancy under persecutions, and bitter complaint of the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16).

(5) His personal feelings towards them and the visit of Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-10).

(6) His prayer for them (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).

B. Hortatory.

(1) Warning against impurity (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).

(2) Exhortation to brotherly love (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10), and honourable diligence.

(3) The only doctrinal portion of the Epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).

(a) Consolation about the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

(b) Duty of watchfulness since the Lord’s advent is uncertain, but will be sudden (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).

(4) Their duties to one another (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15).

(5) Spiritual exhortation (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).

(6) Prayer for them (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

(7) Last words and blessing. (Archdeacon Farrar.)

4. Its characteristics and contents.

(1) In general. Simplicity of style, and absence of controversy and developed doctrine. Its keynote is hope, as that of the Philippians is joy. (Ibid.)

These Epistles are full of practical precepts, and in this respect they remind us of the Epistle of James; other portions approach more nearly than any other part of the New Testament to Revelation, the first vision of the Church descending out of heaven, the image of the hope and faith of the earliest believers. They breathe the spirit of the earlier chapters of the Acts where the apostles are waiting for their Lord, and watching the signs of those things that were coming to pass upon the earth. They say nothing of justification by faith, or of mystical union with Christ, or of the Church which is His body but no more does the earliest narrative of the Church, or James, or Revelation. They exhibit the revelation of Christ in one external form by such figures as recall the prophecies of Daniel. Lastly they set before us the likeness of a gospel simple, real, practical--looking to Christ as its Author and Finisher, but not yet entering into the deepest recesses of the human soul. (Prof. Jowett.)

(2) Its social revolutionary teaching. These Epistles mark an era in the formation of Scripture. The letter claims its place beside the prophecy and the history, and the first specimen of the new form of Scripture directly meets one of the deepest wants of the old society. Much might be said of the new virtue of purity--of the new and awful line drawn round the citadel of the human soul by the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:8). But there is another vein pregnant with momentous social consequences. Just before that glorious passage, which St. Paul’s unrivalled tenderness and majesty never exceeded--in which he tells of the descent of the Lord from heaven and the gathering of the redeemed--he speaks with peculiar emphasis of a class of duties, in his mind evidently connected with “brotherly love” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12). Their ambition should be to be quiet, etc. The result of this will be twofold--a peculiar dignity of aspect in the eyes of outsiders, and the honourable independence which can enable them to dispense with the contemptuous pity of any man’s alms. In the Second Epistle he assumes a severer and more sarcastic tone against those who are only busy with that which is no business of theirs; and commands them, with impassioned earnestness, to eat their own bread, not that of other people. Few have remarked how significant this style of exhortation is of a new world and a new order of ideas. For, in spite of ultra-democratic appearances, there was in Greek society an ultra-aristocratic spirit in its most evil form--that of culture as well as position. As regards the former, tradesmen and mechanics were held to be incapable of true philosophy, or spiritual religion or refined thought. As regards the latter, one of the worst influences of slavery was the discredit it threw on free labour and all the smaller forms of commerce. Aristotle treats with cold cynicism everything of the sort. The tradesman or mechanic is but a higher kind of slave--differing from him in kind, not in degree--bearing the same relation to the public as the slave bears to the individual. To do anything which marks or curves the body; to live on daily pay; to be connected with the detail of fabrics or with bales in markets--this was to degrade a freeman, and to plebeianize his spirit as well as his body. Such were the ideas of Aristotle, who knew Macedonia so well, and had lived in it so long--such were the ideas which were in the very air of Thessalonica when Paul wrote. It is full of significance that the First Epistle speaks out so boldly and earnestly upon the dignity and becomingness of industry--the nobility of working with our own hands, though they may be blackened by the work; the duty of preferring our own coarse bread won of the sweat of our brow, to the precarious food of the beggar or the ignominious luxury of the parasite. This was one great social and moral result of the message which came from a carpenter’s shop, and was published by a company of fishermen, among whom a tent maker of Tarsus had obtained admission. (Bp. Alexander.)

(3) Its teaching concerning our Lord.

A. Christ is Divine.

1. Titles. The Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:15); our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:23); the Lord Himself (1 Thessalonians 4:16); the Lord.

2. Divinely conjoined with the Father (1 Thessalonians 1:1).

3. Prayed to with the Father (1 Thessalonians 3:11).

B. Christ is in heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:16).

C. Christ coming again, the Resurrection and the Life (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18).

D. Christ the Redeemer.

1. Ever delivering us from wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

2. The medium of salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9).

3. Giving us life through His death (1 Thessalonians 5:10). No Christology or Soteriology in the New Testament can go beyond this. (Bp. Alexander.)

(4) Its eschatology. There are three principles by which to interpret the eschatological element in the New Testament generally and in these Epistles in particular. First, many of the passages are to be interpreted according to the analogy of all prophecy. Except in a few specified passages, time is not defined by the prophets. The future is projected, like a timeless picture, before the soul of the seer. Objects which are near seem to touch those which are remote. This may be illustrated by the beautiful optical illusion which causes the broad disc of the setting sun to seem as if it crushed down upon the western hills, or the moon to appear as if its white fire were actually interwoven through the sombre mass of a grove. The prophets were not historians by anticipation. They saw in juxtaposition, not in succession. A lyrical ode is sometimes connected by threads more delicate, though not less real, than those which bind together the parts of a closely-written essay. There are various kinds of method--logical, sermonic, poetical, historical; but method in the true sense is the apt disposition of a number of topics which may be referred to a common centre. Let us allow the prophets to follow a deeper order of their own. Swiftly and noiselessly from the luminous centre of some Divine principle, the prophetic spirit radiates to the furthest circumference of human events with an order which is generally real, not chronological. Then, secondly, all history is viewed as it is viewed by God, as even we can view it when we see it in plan rather than in section. That is, it is a cycle of typical judgments completed in the Last Judgment, of which each successive crisis possesses some of the general characteristics. In the history of the Jews we have an unveiling of the principles of God’s judgment. “Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” Wherever there is a body of spiritual death--a dead church, a dead state--there the carcase is. Such to a believer is the aspect of history. Still the eagles are gathering together. Still He comes with clouds. Still the saints cry, “The great day of the Lord is near.” So has it been through many cycles of history--the destruction of Jerusalem, the fall of Rome, the Reformation, the French Revolution, our own time. So shall it be until, passing through all typical judgments, the Last Judgment shall darken over the human race. Thirdly, it was the evident intention, for great moral ends, of our Lord and His apostles to use language which should place their own and each successive generation in the position of those who might be alive at His coming, at the same time adjusting the perspective of teaching that those who lived far away should be able to apprehend the precise point of view better than contemporaries. This certainly is the meaning of Matthew 24:48; Matthew 25:5; Matthew 25:19. We need not dwell upon the commission “to go into all lands,” upon the institution of a Church and of a morality adapted to a world which was destined to last. Consider, then, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12, etc. The view of the immediate coming of Christ does arise. How is it treated? As a fanaticism, a falsehood, and a delusion. But further, admit not merely that the primitive Christians looked for and expected Christ (which they did, with an excessive tension), but that they considered that “experience would belie Him cruelly if the world were obstinate enough to last on after that generation”--what would have been the result? Why this: that when the last survivor of Christ’s immediate followers died, Christianity would have died with him. Perhaps as the storm darkened the sky of Palestine, or as by the shores of the AEgean the sun went down in a dark cloud or in the burning sky, a knot of poor fanatics might have looked for the sign of the Son of Man. But if the gospel had been committed to that false hope, it must have been carried from its cradle to its grave. The gospel has survived the persecutions, the syllogism, the epigram, the scaffold, caricatures of its doctrines and abuses of its holiness; but there is one thing which it will never survive--a refutation before the face of honest reason. But just at the time when, according to M. Renan’s interpretation of the great teacher’s words, their falsity was manifested, martyrs were preparing to bleed for them, and missionaries were starting, with a lie in their right hand, to announce it to the ends of the earth. The gospel did not die, as it must have done if committed to this doctrine; therefore it was not committed to it. Then, further, St. Paul did not expect the close of the present dispensation without a great ingathering of the Jews. Could he, who knew their obstinacy so well, suppose that this would be the work of the few years which yet remained to him? (Romans 11:25-26.) And, again, there are passages in which he speaks clearly of his own death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 6:14; 2Co 4:14; 2 Corinthians 5:2; Philippians 1:23; 2 Timothy 4:6). These expressions are inconsistent with a formulated belief on the part of St. Paul that Christ would come before he died. The practical point to be perceived in regard to the eschatological element in these Epistles is this: One vision fills the souls of the Thessalonian converts--that of the Great Coming. At first it is in danger of assuming fanatical proportions, and shaking their lives to the very centre. A few calm words (2 Thessalonians 2:1) plead for the honour of the great Advent, and of the majestic gathering to the Redeemer. Then the perspective, for a while disturbed, was permanently readjusted, and remains at the same point even now, securing the perfect practical coincidence of the natural order of things with the supernatural expectation. When men seek to state the exact day, and that a near day, St. Paul, speaking through the ages, blames such fanaticism, and points us back to our Lord’s words (1 Thessalonians 5:1). He puts down the childish fingers that count the number of the days. “Of that day and hour knoweth no one” (Matthew 24:36). (Bp. Alexander.)

5. Its relation to, and difference from, the other Epistles. There is an absence of those higher but more controverted doctrines which occupy so much space in Paul’s later Epistles. But it must be remembered that the Thessalonians had not long turned from idols to the living God. He would be an unwise missionary who should try and instil the more advanced doctrines of a matured Christianity into the minds of children in the faith. But we do find it impressed upon them that the part of the Christian life lies in the work of faith, etc. (1 Thessalonians 1:8), and in entire sanctification; and the great articles of our faith are strongly emphasized; the death and resurrection of Christ, the general resurrection, the second advent to judgment, and the eternity of future rewards and punishments (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)--the substance of all Paul’s after teaching. (F. A. Malleson, M. A.)

Reading the Epistles in chronological order, many will be tempted to trace in them a development of doctrine. Others, again, will seek to impress upon them the same fixed type of truth held from the beginning. Neither of these views is justified by an examination of the Epistles. There is a growth, it is true; but it is a growth of Christian life, not of intellectual progress--the growth, not of reflection, but of spiritual experience, enlarging as the world widens before the apostle’s eyes, passing from life to death, or from strife to peace, with the changes in the apostle’s own life, or the circumstances of his converts. There is a rest also in them, discernible not in forms of thought or in types of doctrine, but in the person of Christ Himself, who is his centre in every Epistle, however various may be his modes of expression or his treatment of controversial questions. (Prof. Jowett.)

The theology of this Epistle is very simple and, as we should say, elementary, the contents being mainly practical. With wonderful perversity this fact has been employed as indicating a change of view in St. Paul himself, as though his creed were of a simpler kind than when he addressed the Church in Rome. Rightly estimated, this very abstinence from the profounder topics of the Christian faith establishes, indirectly, the genuineness of the Epistle. The Church was young. The controversies which would hereafter lead to the scientific statement and argumentative unfolding of Christian doctrine had not as yet troubled the Churches. They needed milk rather than strong meat. To the Thessalonians the gospel was mainly a call to turn from idols, to serve the Father, to trust the Redeemer, and to honour both by faith, hope, and love. Such, to them, was the teaching which came in word, power, and the Holy Ghost. And “the present truth,” the means of uplifting from the world, and of bringing invisible realities near, was the prophecy of Christ’s second appearing, the call to await “the Son from heaven.” These primary truths, in their breadth and fulness of ethical application, are the staple of this Epistle, as they were the strength of the earlier Churches. The contents of the letter thus precisely accord with its place in the series. It is interesting, also, to trace secret links of correspondence between hints and phrases of this Epistle and the more detailed teaching of the apostle’s later productions. In the letters to Corinth especially, St. Paul follows out in a more extended form many a suggestion in those written at Corinth. In the association of faith, hope, love (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:8), the apostle had evidently in his mind the thoughts so nobly wrought out in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Compare, again, 1 Thessalonians 1:5 with 1 Corinthians 2:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:6 with 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:4 with 1 Corinthians 4:3,

4. The anxiety to revisit the Thessalonians has its counterpart in the apostle’s desire to see the Corinthians again (1 Thessalonians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 1:15; 1 Corinthians 5:3); and the arrival of Timothy with good news from Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:6) is paralleled by the “coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:6). On the whole, it is the same man who writes to Corinth and from Corinth, in no sense repeating himself, but revealing the character of his mind and heart by his very turns of phrase, while his soul is ever filled with the most earnest, tender, and jealous affection for those whom he has been the means of leading to Christ. (S. G. Green, D. D.)

6. Its genuineness. The external evidence is chiefly negative; but this is important enough. There is no trace that it was ever disputed at any age or in any section of the Church, or even by any individual, till the present century. The allusions to it in writers before the close of the second century are confessedly faint and uncertain--a circumstance easily explained when we remember the character of the Epistle itself, its comparatively simple diction, its silence on the most important doctrinal questions, and, generally speaking, the absence of any salient points to arrest the attention and provoke reference. It is more important to observe that the Epistle was included in the old Latin and Syriac versions, in the Muralorian Canon, and in Marcion. Towards the close of the second century--from Irenaeus of Lyons downwards, we find this Epistle directly quoted and ascribed to Paul. The evidence derived from the character of the Epistle itself is so strong that it may fairly be called irresistible. The fineness and delicacy of touch with which the apostle’s relations towards the Thessalonians 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. And then the writer uses language which, however it may be explained, is evidently coloured by the anticipation of the speedy advent of the Lord--language natural enough on the apostle’s 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. (Bp. Lightfoot.)