2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 (R.V.)
THE main part of this letter is now finished. The Apostle has completed his teaching about the Second Advent, and the events which precede and condition it; and nothing remains to dispose of but some minor matters of personal and practical interest.
He begins by asking again, as at the close of the First Epistle, the prayers of the Thessalonians for himself and his fellow workers. It was a strength and comfort to him, as to every minister of Christ, to know that he was remembered by those who loved him. in the presence of God. But it is no selfish or private interest that the Apostle has in view When he begs a place in their prayers; it is the interest of the work with which he has identified himself. "Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified." This was the one business and concern of his life; if it went well, all his desires were satisfied.
Hardly anything in the New Testament gives us a more characteristic look of the Apostle’s soul than his desire that the word of the Lord should run. The word of the Lord is the gospel, of which he is the principal herald to the nations; and we see in his choice of this word his sense of its urgency. It was glad tidings to all mankind; and how sorely needed wherever he turned his eyes! The constraint of Christ’s love was upon his heart, the constraint of men’s sin and misery; and he could not pass swiftly enough from city to city, to proclaim the reconciling grace of God, and call men from darkness. unto light. His eager heart fretted against barriers and restraints of every description; he saw in them the malice of the great enemy of Christ: "I was minded once and again to come unto you, but Satan hindered me." Hence it is that he asks the Thessalonians to pray for their removal, that the word of the Lord may run. The ardour of such a prayer, and of the heart which prompts it, is far enough removed from the common temper of the Church, especially where it has been long established. How many centuries there were during which Christendom, as it was called, was practically a fixed quantity, shut up within the limits of Western European civilisation, and not aspiring to advance a single step beyond it, fast or slow. It is one of the happy omens of our own time that the apostolic conception of the gospel as an ever-advancing, ever-victorious force, has begun again to take its place in the Christian heart. If it is really to us what it was to St. Paul-a revelation of God’s mercy and judgment which dwarfs everything else, a power omnipotent to save, an irresistible pressure of love on heart and will, glad tidings of great joy that the world is dying for-we shall share in this ardent, evangelical spirit, and pray for all preachers that the word of the Lord may run very swiftly. How it passed in apostolic times from land to land and from city to city-from Syria to Asia, from Asia to Macedonia, from Macedonia to Greece, from Greece to Italy, from Italy to Spain-till in one man’s lifetime, and largely by one man’s labour, it was known throughout the Roman world. It is easy, indeed, to overestimate the number of the early Christians; but we can hardly overestimate the fiery speed with which the Cross went forth conquering and to conquer. Missionary zeal is one note of the true Apostolic Church.
But Paul wishes the Thessalonians to pray that the word of the Lord may be glorified, as well as have free course. The word of the Lord is a glorious thing itself. As the Apostle calls it in another place, it is the gospel of the glory of the blessed God. All that makes the spiritual glory of God-His holiness, His love, His wisdom is concentrated and displayed in it. But its glory is acknowledged, and in that sense heightened, when its power is seen in the salvation of men. A message from God that did nothing would not be glorified: it would be discredited and shamed. It is the glory of the gospel to lay hold of men, to transfigure them, to lift them out of evil into the company and the likeness of Christ. For anything else it does, it may not fill a great space in the world’s eye; but when it actually brings the power of God to save those who receive it, it is clothed in glory. Paul did not wish to preach without seeing the fruits of his labour. He did the work of an evangelist; and he would have been ashamed of the evangel if it had not wielded a Divine power to overcome sin and bring the sinful to God. Pray that it may always have this power. Pray that when the word of the Lord is spoken it may not be an ineffective, fruitless word, but mighty through God.
There is an expression in Titus 2:10 analogous to this: "Adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things." That expression is less fervent, spoken at a lower level, than the one before us; but it more readily suggests, for that very reason, some duties of which we should be reminded here also. It comes home to all who try to bring their conduct into any kind of relation to the gospel of Christ. It is only too possible for us to disgrace the gospel; but it is in our power also, by every smallest action we do, to illustrate it, to set it off, to put its beauty in the true light before the eyes of men. The gospel comes into the world, like everything else, to be judged on its merits; that is, by the effects which it produces in the lives of those who receive it. We are its witnesses; its character, in the general mind, is as good as our character; it is as lovely as we are lovely, as strong as we are strong, as glorious as we are glorious, and no more. Let us seek to bear it a truer and worthier witness than we have yet done. To adorn it is a calling far higher than most of us have aimed at; but if it comes into our prayers, if its swift diffusion and powerful operation are near our hearts in the sight of God, grace will be given us to do this also.
The next request of the Apostle has more of a personal aspect, yet it also has his work in view. He asks prayer that he and his friends may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men, he says, have not faith. The unreasonable and wicked men were no doubt the Jews in Corinth, from which place he wrote. Their malignant opposition was the great obstacle to the spread of the gospel; they were the representatives and instruments of the Satan who perpetually hindered him. The word here rendered unreasonable is a rare one in the New Testament. It occurs four times in all, and in each case is differently translated: once it is "amiss," once "harm," once "wickedness," and here "unreasonable." The margin in this place renders it "absurd." What it literally means is, "out of place"; and the Apostle signifies by it, that in the opposition of these men to the gospel there was something preposterous, something that baffled explanation; there was no reason in it, and therefore it was hopeless to reason with it. That is a disposition largely represented both in the Old Testament and the New, and familiar to everyone who in preaching the gospel has come into close contact with men. It was one of the great trials of Jesus that He had to endure the contradiction, of those who were sinners against themselves; who rejected the counsel of God in their own despite; in other words, were unreasonable men. The gospel, we must remember, is good news; it is good news to all men. It tells of God’s love to the sinful; it brings pardon, holiness, immortal hope, to everyone. Why, then, should anybody have a quarrel with it? Is it not enough to drive reason to despair, that men should wantonly, stubbornly, malignantly, hate and resist such a message? Is there anything in the world more provoking than to offer a real and indispensable service, out of a true and disinterested love, and to have it contemptuously rejected? That is the fate of the gospel in many quarters; that was the constant experience of our Lord and of St. Paul. No wonder, in the interests of his mission, the Apostle prays to be delivered from unreasonable men. Are there any of us who come under this condemnation? who are senselessly opposed to the gospel, enemies in intention of God, but in reality hurting no one so much as ourselves? The Apostle does not indicate in his prayer any mode of deliverance. He may have hoped that in God’s providence his persecutors would have their attention distracted somehow; he may have hoped that by greater wisdom, greater love, greater power of adaptation, of becoming all things to all men, he might vanquish their unreason, and gain access to their souls for the truth. In any case, his request shows us that the gospel has a battle to fight that we should hardly have anticipated-a battle with sheer perversity, with blind, wilful absurdity-and that this is one of its most dangerous foes. "Oh, that they were wise," God cries of His ancient people, "Oh, that they understood." He has the same lament to utter still.
We ought to notice the reason appended to this description of Paul’s enemies: absurd and evil men, he says; for all men have not faith. Faith, of course, means the Christian faith: all men are not believers in Christ and disciples of Christ; and therefore the moral unreason and perversity of which I have spoken actually exist. He who has the faith is morally sane; he has that in him which is inconsistent with such wickedness and irrationality. We can hardly suppose, however, that the Apostle meant to state such a superfluous truism as that all men were not Christians. What he does mean is apparently that not all men have affinity for the faith, have aptitude or liking for it; as Christ said when He stood before Pilate, the voice of truth is only heard by those who are of the truth. So it was-when the apostles preached. Among their hearers there were those who were of the truth, in whom there was, as it were, the instinct for the faith; they welcomed the message. Others, again, discovered no such natural relation to the truth; in spite of the adaptation of the message to human needs, they had no sympathy with it; there was no reaction in their hearts in its favour; it was unreasonable to them; and to God they were unreasonable. The Apostle does not explain this; he simply remarks it. It is one of the ultimate and inexplicable facts of human experience; one of the meeting points of nature and freedom, which defy our philosophies. Some are of kin to the gospel when they hear it; they have faith, and justify the counsel of God, and are saved: others are of no kin to the gospel; its wisdom and love wake no response in them; they have not faith; they reject the counsel of God to their own ruin; they are preposterous and evil men. It is from such, as hinderers of the gospel, that Paul prays to be delivered.
In the two verses which follow, he plays, as is were, with this word "faith." All men have not faith, he writes; but the Lord is faithful, and we have faith in the Lord touching you. Often the Apostle goes off thus at a word. Often, especially, he contrasts the trustworthiness of God with the faithlessness of men. Men may not take the gospel seriously; but the Lord does. He is in indubitable earnest with it; He may be depended upon to do His part in carrying it into effect. See how unselfishly, at this point, the Apostle turns from his own situation to that of his readers. The Lord is faithful who will stablish you, and keep you from the Evil One. Paul had left the Thessalonians exposed to very much the same trouble as beset himself wherever he went; but he had left them to One who, he well knew, was able to keep them from falling, and to preserve them against all that the devil and his agents could do.
And side by side with this confidence in God stood his confidence touching the Thessalonians themselves. He was sure in the Lord that they were doing, and would continue to do, the things which he commanded them; in other words, that they would lead a worthy and becoming Christian life. The point of this sentence lies in the words "in the Lord." Apart from the Lord, Paul could have had no such confidence as he here expresses. The standard of the Christian life is lofty and severe; its purity, its unworldliness, its brotherly love, its burning hope, were new things then in the world. What assurance could there be that this standard would be maintained, when the small congregation of working people in Thessalonica was cast upon its own resources in the midst of a pagan community? None at all, apart from Christ. If He had left them along with the Apostle, no one could have risked much upon their fidelity to the Christian calling. It marks the beginning of a new era when the Apostle writes, "We have confidence in the Lord touching you." Life has a new element now, a new atmosphere, new resources; and therefore we may cherish new hopes of it. When we think of them, the words include a gentle admonition to the Thessalonians, to beware of forgetting the Lord, and trusting to themselves; that is a disappointing path, which will put the Apostle’s confidence toward them to shame. But it is an admonition as hopeful as it is gentle; reminding them that, though the path of Christian obedience cannot be trodden without constant effort, it is a path on which the Lord accompanies and upholds all who trust in Him. Here there is a lesson for us all to learn. Even those who are engaged in work for Christ are too apt to forget that the only hope of such work is the Lord. "Trust no man," says the wisest of commentators, "left to himself." Or to put the same thing more in accordance with the spirit of the text, there always is room for hope and confidence when the Lord is not forgotten. In the Lord, you may depend upon those who in themselves are weak, unstable, wilful, foolish. In the Lord, you may depend on them to stand fast, to fight their temptations, to overcome the world and the Wicked One. This kind of assurance, and the actual presence and help of Christ which justified it, are very characteristic of the New Testament. They explain the joyous, open, hopeful spirit of the early Church; they are the cause, as well as the effect, of that vigorous moral health which, in the decay of ancient civilisation, gave the Church the inheritance of the future. And still we may have confidence in the Lord that all whom He has called by His gospel will be able by His spiritual presence with them to walk worthy of that calling, and to confute alike the fears of the good and the contempt of the wicked. For the Lord is faithful, who will stablish them, and preserve them from the Evil One.
Once more the Apostle bursts into prayer, as he remembers the situation of these few sheep in the wilderness: "The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ." Nothing could be a better commentary than one of Paul’s own affectionate Epistles on that much-discussed text. "Pray without ceasing." Look, for instance, through this one with which we are engaged. It begins with a prayer for grace and peace. This is followed by a thanksgiving in which God is acknowledged as the Author of all their graces. The first chapter ends with a prayer-an unceasing prayer-that God would count them worthy of His calling. In the second chapter Paul renews his thanksgiving on behalf of his converts, and prays again that God may comfort their hearts and stablish them in every good work and word. And here, the moment he has touched upon a new topic, he returns, as it were by instinct, to prayer. "The Lord direct your hearts." Prayer is his very element; he lives, and moves, and has his being, in God. He can do nothing, he cannot conceive of anything being done, in which God is not as directly participant as himself, or those whom he wishes to bless. Such an intense appreciation of God’s nearness and interest in life goes far beyond the attainments of most Christians; yet here, no doubt, lies a great part of the Apostle’s power.
The prayer has two parts: he asks that the Lord may direct their hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ. The love of God here means love to God; this is the sum of all Christian virtue, or at least the source of it. The gospel proclaims that God is love; it tells us that God has proved His love by sending His Son to die for our sins; it shows us Christ on the cross, in the passion of that love with which He loved us when He gave Himself for us; and it waits for the answer of love. It comprehended the whole effect of the gospel, the whole mystery of its saving and recreating power, when the Apostle exclaimed, "The love of Christ constraineth us." It is this experience which in the passage before us he desires for the Thessalonians. There is no one without love, or at least without the power of loving, in his heart. But what is the object of it? On what is it actually directed? The very words of the prayer imply that it is easily misdirected. But surely if love itself best merits and may best claim love, none should be the object of it before Him who is its source. God has earned our love; He desires our love; let us look to the Cross where He has given us the great pledge of His own, and yield to its sweet constraint. The old law is not abolished, but to be fulfilled: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind." If the Lord fix our souls to Himself by this irresistible attraction, nothing will be able to carry us away.
Love to God is naturally joyous; but life has other experiences than those which give free scope for its joyous exercise; and so the Apostle adds, "into the patience of Jesus Christ." The Authorised Version renders, "the patient waiting for Christ," as if what the Apostle prayed for were that they might continue steadfastly to hope for the Last Advent; but although that idea is characteristic of these Epistles, it is hardly to be found in the words. Rather does he remind his readers that in the difficulties and sufferings of the path which lies before them, no strange thing is happening to them, nothing that has not already been borne by Christ in the spirit in which it ought to be borne by us. Our Saviour Himself had need of patience. He was made flesh, and all that the children of God have to suffer in this world has already been suffered by Him. This prayer is at once warning and consoling. It assures us that those who will live godly will have trials to bear: there will be untoward circumstances; feeble health; uncongenial relations; misunderstanding and malice; unreasonable and evil men; abundant calls for patience. But there will be no sense of having missed the way, or of being forgotten by God; on the contrary, there will be in Jesus Christ, ever present, a type and a fountain of patience, which will enable them to overcome all that is against them. The love of God and the patience of Christ may be called the active and the passive sides of Christian goodness, -its free, steady outgoing to Him who is the source of all blessing; and its deliberate, steady, hopeful endurance, in the spirit of Him who was made perfect through suffering. The Lord direct our hearts into both, that we may be perfect men in Christ Jesus.
THE CHRISTIAN WORTH OF LABOUR
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 (R.V.)
THIS passage is very similar in contents to one in the fourth chapter of the First Epistle. The difference between the two is in tone; the Apostle writes with much greater severity on this than on the earlier occasion. Entreaty is displaced by command; considerations of propriety, the appeal to the good name of the church, by the appeal to the authority of Christ; and good counsel by express directions for Christian discipline. Plainly the moral situation, which had caused him anxiety some months before, had become worse rather than better. What, then, was the situation to which he here addresses himself so seriously? It was marked by two bad qualities-a disorderly walk, and idleness.
"We hear," he writes, "of some that walk among you disorderly." The metaphor in the word is a military one; the underlying idea is that every man has a post in life or in the Church, and that he ought to be found, not away from his post, but at it. A man without a post is a moral anomaly. Everyone of us is part of a whole, a member of an organic body, with functions to discharge which can be discharged by no other, and must therefore bee steadily discharged by himself. To walk disorderly means to forget this, and to act as if we were independent; now at this, now at that, according to our discretion or our whim; not rendering the community a constant service, in a place of our own-a service which is valuable, largely because it can be counted on. Everyone knows the extreme unsatisfactoriness of those men who never can keep a place when they get it. Their friends plague themselves to find new openings for them; but without any gross offence, such as drunkenness or dishonesty, they persistently fall out of them; there is something about them which seems to render them incapable of sticking to their post. It is an unfortunate constitution, perhaps; but it is a grave moral fault as well. Such men settle to nothing, and therefore they render no permanent service to others; whatever they might be worth otherwise, they are worth nothing in any general estimate, simply because they cannot be, depended upon. What is more, they are worth nothing to themselves; they never accumulate moral, any more than material, capital; they have no reserve in them of fidelity, sobriety, discipline. They are to be pitied, indeed, as all sinners are to be pitied; but they are also to be commanded, in the name of the Lord Jesus, to lay their minds to their work, and to remember that steadfastness in duty is an elementary requirement of the gospel. Among the Thessalonians it was religious excitement that unsettled men, and made them abandon the routine of duty; but whatever be the cause, the evil results are the same. And, on the other hand, when we are loyal, constant, regularly at our post, however humble it be, we render a real service to others, and grow in strength of character ourselves. It is the beginning of all discipline and of all goodness to have fixed relations and fixed duties, and a fixed determination to be faithful to them.
Besides this disorderly walk, with its moral instability, Paul heard of some who worked not at all. In other words, idleness was spreading in the church. It went to a great and shameless length. Christian men apparently thought nothing of sacrificing their independence, and eating bread for which they had not wrought. Such a state of affairs was peculiarly offensive at Thessalonica, where the Apostle had been careful to set so different an example. If any one could have been excused for declining to labour, on the ground that he was preoccupied with religious hopes and interests, it was he. His apostolic ministry was a charge which made great demands upon his strength; it used up the time and energy which he might otherwise have given to his trade: he might well have urged that other work was a physical impossibility. More than this, the Lord had ordained that they who preached the gospel should live by the gospel; and on that ground alone he was entitled to claim maintenance from those to whom he preached. But though he was always careful to safeguard this right of the Christian ministry, he was as careful, as a rule, to refrain from exercising it; and in Thessalonica, rather than prove a burden to the church, he had wrought and toiled, night and day, with his own hands. All this was an example for the Thessalonians to imitate; and we can understand the severity with which the Apostle treats that idleness which alleges in its defence the strength of its interest in religion. It was a personal insult.
Over against this shallow pretence Paul sets the Christian, virtue of industry, with its stern law, "If any man will not work, neither let him eat." If he claims to lead a superhuman angelic life, let him subsist on angels’ food. What we find in this passage is not the exaggeration which is sometimes called the gospel of work; but the soberer and truer thought that work is essential, in general, to the Christian character. The Apostle plays with the words when he writes, "That work not at all, but are busybodies"; or, as it has been reproduced in English, who are busy only with what is not their business. This is, in point of fact, the moral danger of idleness, in those who are not otherwise vicious. Where men are naturally bad, it multiplies temptations and opportunities for sin; Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do. But even where it is the good who are concerned, as in the passage before us, idleness has its perils. The busybody is a real character-a man or a woman who, having no steady work to do, which must be done whether it is liked or disliked, and which is therefore wholesome, is too apt to meddle in other people’s affairs, religious or worldly; and to meddle, too, without thinking that it is meddling; an impertinence; perhaps a piece of downright, stone-blind Pharisaism: A person who is not disciplined and made wise by regular work has no idea of its moral worth and opportunities; nor has he, as a rule, any idea of the moral worthlessness and vanity of such an existence as his own.
There seem to have been a good many fussy people in Thessalonica, anxious about their industrious neighbours, concerned for their lack of interest in the Lord’s coming, perpetually meddling with them-and living upon them. It is no wonder that the Apostle expresses himself with some peremptoriness: "If any man will not work, neither let him eat." The difficulty about the application of this rule is that it has no application except to the poor. In a society like our own, the busybody may be found among those for whom this law has no terror; they are idle, simply because they have an income which is independent of labour. Yet what the Apostle says has a lesson for such people also. One of the dangers of their situation is that they should underestimate the moral and spiritual worth of industry. A retired merchant, a military or naval officer on half pay, a lady with money in the funds and no responsibilities but her own-all these have a deal of time on their hands; and if they are good people, it is one of the temptations incident to their situation, that they should have what the Apostle calls a busybody’s interest in others. It need not be a spurious or an affected interest; but it misjudges the moral condition of others, and especially of the labouring classes, because it does not appreciate the moral content of a day full of work. If the work is done honestly at all, it is a thing of great price; there are virtues embedded in it, patience, courage, endurance, fidelity, which contribute as much to the true good of the world and the true enrichment of personal character as the pious solicitude of those who have nothing to do but be pious. Perhaps these are things that do not require to be said. It may rather be the case in our own time that mere industry is overvalued; and certainly a natural care for the spiritual interests of our brethren, not Pharisaic, but Christian, not meddlesome, but most earnest, can never be in excess. It is the busybody whose interference is resented; the brother, once he is recognised as a brother, is made welcome.
Convinced as he is that for mankind in general "no work" means "no character," Paul commands and exhorts in the Lord Jesus all such as he has been speaking of to work with quietness, and to eat their own bread. Their excitement was both unnatural and unspiritual. It was necessary for their moral health that they should escape from it, and learn how to walk orderly, and to live at their post. The quietness of which he speaks is both inward and outward. Let them compose their minds, and cease from their fussiness; the agitation within, and the distraction without, are equally fruitless. Far more beautiful, far more Christlike, than any busybody, however zealous, is he who works with quietness and eats his own bread. Probably the bulk of the Thessalonian Church was quite sound in this matter; and it is to encourage them that the Apostle writes, "But ye, brethren, be not weary in well-doing." The bad behaviour of the busybodies may have been provoking to some, infectious in the case of others; but they are to persevere, in spite of it, in the path of quiet industry and good conduct. This has not the pretentiousness of an absorbed waiting for the Lord, and a vaunted renunciation of the world; but it has the character of moral loveliness; it exercises the new man in the powers of the new life.
Along with his judgment on this moral disorder, the Apostle gives the Church directions for its treatment. It is to be met with reserve, protest, and love.
First, with reserve: "Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which they received of us; note that man, that ye have no company with him." The Christian community has a character to keep, and that character is compromised by the misconduct of any of its members. To such misconduct, therefore, it cannot be, and should not be, indifferent: indifference would be suicidal. The Church exists to maintain a moral testimony, to keep up a certain standard of conduct among men; and when that standard is visibly and defiantly departed from, there will be a reaction of the common conscience in the Church, vigorous in proportion to her vitality. A bad man may be quite at home in the world; he may find or make a circle of associates like himself; but there is something amiss, if he does not find himself alone in the Church. Every strong life closes itself against the intrusion of what is alien to it-a strong moral life most emphatically of all. A wicked person of any description ought to feel that the public sentiment of the Church is against him, and that as long as he persists in his wickedness he is virtually, if not formally, excommunicated. The element of communion in the Church is spiritual soundness; "If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another." But if anyone begins to walk in darkness, he is out of the fellowship. The only hope for him is that he may recognise the justice of his exclusion, and, as the Apostle says, be ashamed. He is shut out from the society of others that he may be driven in upon himself, and compelled, in spite of wilfulness, to judge himself by the Christian standard.
But reserve, impressive as it may be, is not enough. The erring brother is to be admonished; that is, he is to be gravely spoken to about his error. Admonition is a difficult duty. Not everyone feels at liberty, or is at liberty, to undertake it. Our own faults sometimes shut our mouths; the retort courteous, or uncourteous, to any admonition from us, is too obvious. But though such considerations should make us humble and diffident, they ought not to lead to neglect of plain duty. To think too much of one’s faults is in some circumstances a kind of perverted vanity; it is to think too much of oneself. We have all our faults, of one kind or another; but that does not prohibit us from aiding each other to overcome faults. If we avoid anger and censoriousness; if we shun, as well as disclaim, the spirit of the Pharisee, then with all our imperfections God will justify us in speaking seriously to others about their sins. We do not pretend to judge them; we only appeal to themselves to say whether they are really at ease when they stand on one side, and the word of God and the conscience of the Church on the other. In a sense, this is specially the duty of the elders of the Church. It is they who are pastors of the flock of God, and who are expressly responsible for this moral guardianship; but there is no officialism in the Christian community which limits the interest of any member in all the rest, or exempts him from the responsibility of pleading the cause of God with the erring. How many Christian duties there are which seem never to have come in the way of some Christians.
Finally, in the discipline of the erring, an essential element is love. Withdraw from him, and let him feel he is alone; admonish him, and let him be convinced he is gravely wrong; but in your admonition remember that he is not an enemy, but a brother. Judgment is a function which the natural man is prone to assume, and which he exercises without misgiving. He is so sure of himself, that instead of admonishing, he denounces; what he is bent upon is not the reclamation, but the annihilation, of the guilty. Such a spirit is totally out of place in the Church; it is a direct defiance of the spirit which created the Christian community, and which that community is designed to foster. Let the sin be never so flagrant, the sinner is a brother; he is one for whom Christ died. To the Lord who brought him he is inexpressibly valuable; and woe to the reprover of sin who forgets this. The whole power of discipline which is committed to the Church is for edification, not for destruction; for the building up of Christian character, not for pulling it down. The case of the offender is the case of a brother; if we are true Christians, it is our own. We must act toward him and his offence as Christ acted toward the world and its sin: no judgment without mercy, no mercy without judgment. Christ took the sin of the world on Himself, but He made no compromise with it; He never extenuated it; He never spoke of it or treated it but with inexorable severity. Yet though the sinful felt to the depth of their hearts His awful condemnation of their sins, they felt that in assenting to that condemnation there was hope. To them, as opposed to their sins, He was winning, condescending, loving. He received sinners, and in His company they sinned no more.
Thus it is that in the Christian religion everything comes back to Christ and to the imitation of Christ. He is the pattern of those simple and hardy virtues, industry and steadfastness. He wrought at His trade in Nazareth till the hour came for Him to enter on His supreme vocation; who can undervalue the possibilities of goodness in the lives of men who work with quietness and eat their own bread, that remembers it was over a village carpenter the heavenly voice sounded, "This is My beloved Son"? Christ is the pattern also for Christian discipline in its treatment of the erring. No sinner could feel himself, in his sin, in communion with Christ: the Holy One instinctively withdrew from him, and he felt he was alone. No offender had his offence simply condoned by Jesus: the forgiveness of sins which He bestows includes condemnation as well as remission; it is wrought in one piece out of His mercy and His judgment. But neither, again, did any offender, who bowed to Christ’s judgment, and suffered it to condemn him, find himself excluded from His mercy. The Holy One was the sinner’s friend. Those whom He at first repelled were irresistibly drawn to Him. They begun, like Peter, with "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord"; they ended, like him, with "Lord, to whom shall we go?" This, I say, is the pattern which is set before us, for the discipline of the erring. This includes reserve, admonition, love, and much more: If there be any other commandment, it is summarily comprehended in this word, "Follow Me."
2 Thessalonians 3:16-18 (R.V.)
THE first verse of this short passage is taken by some as in close connection with what goes before. In the exercise of Christian discipline, such as it has been described by the Apostle, there may be occasions of friction or even of conflict in the Church; it is this which he would obviate by the prayer, "The Lord of peace Himself give you peace always." The contrast is somewhat forced and disproportioned: and it is certainly better to take this prayer, standing as it does at the close of the letter, in the very widest sense. Not merely freedom from strife, but peace in its largest Christian meaning, is the burden of his petition.
The Lord of peace Himself is Christ. He is the Author and Originator of all that goes by that name in the Christian communion. The word "peace" was not, indeed, a new one; but it had been baptised into Christ, like many another and become a new creation. Newman said that when he passed out of the Church of England into the Church of Rome, all the Christian ideas were, so to speak, magnified; everything appeared on a vaster scale. This is a very good description, at all events, of what one sees on passing from natural morality to the New Testament, from writers so great even as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius to the Apostles. All the moral and spiritual ideas are magnified-sin, holiness, peace, repentance, love, hope, God, man, attain to new dimensions. Peace, in particular, was freighted to a Christian with a weight of meaning which no pagan could conceive. It brought to mind what Christ had done for man, He who had made peace by the blood of His Cross; it gave that assurance of God’s love, that consciousness of reconciliation, which alone goes to the bottom of the soul’s unrest. It brought to mind also what Christ had been. It recalled that life which had faced all man’s experience, and had borne through all a heart untroubled by doubts of God’s goodness. It recalled that, solemn bequest: "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you." In every sense and in every way it was connected with Christ; it could neither be conceived nor possessed apart from Him; He was Himself the Lord of the Christian peace.
The Apostle shows his sense of the comprehensiveness of this blessing by the adjuncts of his prayer. He asks the Lord to give it to the Thessalonians uninterruptedly, and in all the modes of its manifestation. Peace may be lost. There may be times at which the consciousness of reconciliation passes away, and the heart cannot assure itself before God; these are the times in which we have somehow lost Christ, and only through Him can we have our peace with God restored. "Uninterruptedly" we must count upon Him for this first and fundamental blessing; He is the Lord of Reconciling Love, whose blood cleanses from all sin, and makes peace between earth and Heaven forever. Or there may be times at which the troubles and vexations of life become too trying for us; and instead of peace within, we are full of care and fear. What resource have we then but in Christ, and in the love of God revealed to us in Him? His life is at once a pattern and an inspiration; His great sacrifice is the assurance that the love of God to man is immeasurable, and that all things work together for good to them that love Him. When the Apostle prayed this prayer, he no doubt thought of the life which lay before the Thessalonians. He remembered the persecutions they had already undergone at the hands of the Jews; the similar troubles that awaited them; the grief of those who were mourning for their dead; the deeper pain of those on whose hearts rushed suddenly, from time to time, the memory of days and years wasted in sin; the moral perplexities that were already rising among them, -he remembered all these things, and because of them he prayed, "The Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times in every way." For there are many ways in which peace may be possessed; as many ways as there are disquieting situations in man’s life. It may come as penitent trust in God’s mercy; it may come as composure in times of excitement and danger; as meekness and patience under suffering; as hope when the world would despair; it may come as unselfishness, and the power to think of others, because we know God is taking thought for us, -as "a heart at leisure from itself, to soothe and sympathise." All these are peace. Such peace as this-so deep and so comprehensive, so reassuring and so emancipating-is the gift of Christ alone. He can give it without interruption; He can give it with virtues as manifold as the trials of the life without or the life within.
Here, properly speaking, the letter ends. The Apostle has communicated his mind to the Thessalonians as fully as their situation required; and might end, as he did in the First Epistle, with his benediction. But he remembers the unpleasant incident, mentioned in the beginning of chap. 2, of a letter purporting to be from him, though not really his; and he takes care to prevent such a mistake for the future. This Epistle, like almost all the rest, had been written by some one to the Apostle’s dictation; but as a guarantee of genuineness, he closes it with a line or two in his own hand. "The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write." What does "so I write" mean? Apparently, "You see the character of my writing; it is a hand quite recognisable as mine; a few lines in this hand will authenticate every letter that comes from me."
Perhaps "every letter" only means everyone which he would afterwards write to Thessalonica; certainly attention is not called in all the Epistles to this autographic close. It is found in only two others-1st Corinthians [1 Corinthians 16:21] and Colossians [Colossians 4:18] -exactly as it stands here, "The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand"; in others it may have been thought unnecessary, either because, like Galatians, they were written throughout in his own hand; or, like 2d Corinthians and Philemon, were conveyed by persons equally known and trusted by the Apostle and the recipients. The great Epistle to the Romans, to judge from. its various conclusions, seems to have been from the very beginning a sort of circular letter; and the personal character, made prominent by the autograph signature, was less in place then. The same remark applies to the Epistle to the Ephesians. As for the pastoral Epistles, to Timothy and Titus, they may have been autographic throughout; in any case, neither Timothy nor Titus was likely to be imposed upon by a letter falsely claiming to be Paul’s. They knew their master too well.
If it was possible to make a mistake in the Apostle’s lifetime, and to take as his an Epistle which he never wrote, is it impossible to be similarly imposed upon now? Have we reasonable grounds for believing that the thirteen Epistles in the New Testament, which bear his name upon their front, really came from his hand? That is a question which in the last hundred years, and especially in the last fifty, has been examined with the amplest learning and the most minute and searching care. Nothing that could possibly be alleged against the authenticity of any of these Epistles, however destitute of plausibility, has been kept back. The references to them in early Christian writers, their reception in the early Church, the character of their contents, their style, their vocabulary, their temper, their mutual relations, have been the subject of the most thorough investigation. Nothing has ever been more carefully tested than the historical judgment of the Church in receiving them; and though it would be far from true to say that there were no difficulties, or no divergence of opinion, it is the simple truth that the consent of historical critics in the great ecclesiastical tradition becomes more simple and decided. The Church did not act at random in forming the apostolic canon. It exercised a sound mind in embodying in the New Testament of our Lord and Saviour the books which it did embody, and no other. Speaking of Paul in particular, one ought to say that the only writings ascribed to him, in regard to which there is any body of doubtful opinion, are the Epistles to Timothy and Titus. Many seem to feel, in regard to these, that they are on a lower key than the undoubtedly Pauline letters; there is less spirit in them, less of the native originality of the gospel, a nearer approach to moral commonplace; they are not unlike a half-way house between the apostolic and the post-apostolic age. These are very dubious grounds to go upon; they will impress different minds very differently; and when we come to look at the outward evidence for these letters, they are almost better attested, in early Christian writers, than anything else in the New Testament. Their semi-legal character, and the positive rules with which they abound, inferior as they make them in intellectual and spiritual interest to high works of inspiration like Romans and Colossians, seem to have enabled simple Christian people to get hold of them, and to work them out in their congregations and their homes. All that Paul wrote need not have been on one level; and it is almost impossible to understand the authority which these Epistles immediately and universally obtained, if they were not what they claimed to be. Only a very accomplished scholar could appreciate the historical arguments for and against them; yet I do not think it is unfair to say that even here the traditional opinion is in the way, not of being reversed, but of being confirmed.
The very existence of such questions, however, warns us against mistaken estimates of Scripture. People sometimes say, if there be one point uncertain, our Bible is gone. Well, there are points uncertain; there are points, too, in regard to which an ordinary Christian can only have a kind of second-hand assurance; and this of the genuineness of the pastoral Epistles is one. There is no doubt a very good case to be made out for them by a scholar; but not a case which makes doubt impossible. Yet our Bible is not taken away. The uncertainty touches, at most, the merest fringe of apostolic teaching; nothing that Paul thought of any consequence, or that is of any consequence to us, but is abundantly unfolded in documents which are beyond the reach of doubt. It is not the letter, even of the New Testament, which quickens, but the Spirit; and the Spirit exerts its power through these Christian documents as a whole, as it does through no other documents in the world. When we are perplexed as to whether an apostle wrote this or that, let us consider that the most important books in the Bible-the Gospels and the Psalms-do not name their authors at all. What in the Old Testament can compare with the Psalter? Yet these sweet songs are practically anonymous. What can be more certain than that the Gospels bring us into contact with a real character-the Son of Man, the Saviour of sinners? Yet we know their authors only through a tradition, a tradition indeed of weight and unanimity that can hardly be over-estimated; but simply a tradition, and not an inward mark such as Paul here sets on his letter for the Thessalonians. "The Church’s one Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord"; as long as we are actually brought into connection with Him through Scripture, we must be content to put up with the minor uncertainties which are inseparable from a religion which has had a birth and a history.
But to return to the text. The Epistle closes, as the Apostle’s custom is, with a benediction: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all." Grace is pre-eminently a Pauline word; it is found alike in the salutations with which Paul addresses his churches, and in the benedictions with which he bids them farewell; it is the beginning and the end of his gospel; the element in which Christians live, and move, and have their being. He excludes no one from his blessing; not even those who had been walking disorderly, and setting at naught the tradition they had received from him; their need is the greatest of all. If we had imagination enough to bring vividly before us the condition of one of these early churches, we would see how much is involved in a blessing like this, and what sublime confidence it displays in the goodness and faithfulness of our Lord. The Thessalonians, a few months ago, had been heathens; they had known nothing of God and His Son; they were living still in the midst of a heathen population, under the pressure of heathen influences both on thought and conduct, beset by numberless temptations; and if they were mindful of the country from which they had come forth, not without opportunity to return. Paul would willingly have stayed with them to be their pastor and teacher, their guide and their defender, but his missionary calling made this impossible. After the merest introduction to the gospel, and to the new life to which it calls those who receive it, they had to be left to themselves. Who should keep them from falling? Who should open their eyes to understand the ideal which the Christian is summoned to work out in his life? Amid their many enemies, where could they look for a sufficient and ever-present ally? The Apostle answers these questions when he writes, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all." Although he has left them, they are not really alone. The free love of God, which visited them at first uncalled, will be with them still, to perfect the work it has begun. It will beset them behind and before; it will be a sun and a shield to them, a light and a defence. In all their temptations, in all their sufferings, in all their moral perplexities, in all their despondencies, it will be sufficient for them.
There is not any kind of succour which a Christian needs which is not to be found in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here, then, we bring to a close our study of the two earliest Epistles of St. Paul. They have given us a picture of the primitive apostolic preaching, and of the primitive Christian Church. That preaching embodied revelations, and it was the acceptance of these revelations that created the new society. The Apostle and his fellow evangelists came to Thessalonica telling of Jesus, who had died and risen again, and who was about to return to judge the living and the dead. They told of the impending wrath of God, that wrath which was revealed already against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, and was to he revealed in all its terrors when the Lord cam They preached Jesus as the Deliverer from the coming wrath, and gathered, through faith in Him, a Church living in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. To an uninterested spectator, the work of Paul and his companions would have seemed a very little thing; he would not have discovered its originality and promise; he would hardly have counted, upon its permanence. In reality, it was the greatest and most original thing ever seen in the world. That handful of men and women in Thessalonica was a new phenomenon in history; life had attained to new dimensions in them; it had heights and depths in it, a glory and a gloom, of which the world had never dreamed before; all moral ideas were magnified, as it were, a thousandfold; an intensity of moral life was called into being, an ardent passion for goodness, a spiritual fear and hope, which made them capable of all things. The immediate effects, indeed, were not unmixed; in some minds not only was the centre of gravity shifted, but the balance utterly upset; the future and unseen became so real to them, or were asserted to be so real, that the present and its duties were totally neglected. But with all misapprehensions and moral disorders, there was a new experience; a change so complete and profound that it can only be described as new creation. Possessed by Christian faith, the soul discovered new powers and capacities; it could combine "much affliction" with "joy of the Holy Ghost"; it could believe in inexorable judgment and in infinite mercy; it could see into the depths of death and life; it could endure suffering for Christ’s sake with brave patience; it had been lost, but had found itself again. The life that had once been low, dull, vile, hopeless, uninteresting, became lofty, vast, intense. Old things had passed away; behold, all things had become new.
The Church is much older now than when this Epistle was written; time has taught her many things; Christian men have learned to compose their minds and to curb their imaginations; we do not lose our heads nowadays, and neglect our common duties, in dreaming on the world to come. Let us say that this is gain; and can we say further that we have lost nothing which goes some way to counterbalance it? Are the new things of the gospel as real to us, and as commanding in their originality, as they were at the first? Do the revelations which are the sum and substance of the gospel message, the warp and woof of apostolic preaching, bulk in our minds as they bulk in this letter? Do they enlarge our thoughts, widen our spiritual horizon, lift to their own high level, and expand to their own scale, our ideas about God and man, life and death, sin and holiness, things visible and invisible? Are we deeply impressed by the coming wrath and by the glory of Christ? Have we entered into the liberty of those whom the revelation of the world to come enabled to emancipate themselves from this? These are the questions that rise in our minds as we try to reproduce the experience of an early Christian church. In those days, everything was of inspiration; now, so much is of routine. The words that thrilled the soul then have become trite and inexpressive; the ideas that gave near life to thought appear worn and commonplace. But that is only because we dwell on the surface of them, and keep their real import at a distance from the mind. Let us accept the apostolic message in all its simplicity and compass; let us believe, and not merely say or imagine we believe, that there is a life beyond death, revealed in the Resurrection, a judgment to come, a wrath of God, a heavenly glory; let us believe in the infinite significance, and in the infinite difference, of right and wrong, of holiness and sin; let us realise the love of Christ, who died for our sins, who calls us to fellowship with God, who is our Deliverer from the coming wrath; let these truths fill, inspire, and dominate our minds, and for us, too, faith in Christ will be a passing from death unto life.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany