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Bible Commentaries

Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary
1 Thessalonians

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5

Book Overview - 1 Thessalonians

by Henry Alford

CHAPTER V

THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS

SECTION I

ITS AUTHORSHIP

1. THIS Epistle has been all but universally recognized as the undoubted work of St. Paul. It is true (see below) that no reliable citations from it appear in the Apostolic Fathers: but the external evidence from early times is still far too weighty to be set aside.

2. Its authorship has in modern times been called in question (1) by Schrader, and (2) by Baur, on internal grounds. Their objections, which are entirely of a subjective and most arbitrary kind, are reviewed and answered by De Wette, Meyer, and Dr. Davidson (Introd. to N. T. vol. ii. pp. 454 ff.)(63): and have never found any acceptance, even in Germany.

There is a very good statement of Baur’s adverse arguments, and refutation of them, in Jowett’s work on the Thessalonians, Galatians, and Romans, “Genuineness of the first Epistle,” vol. i. 15–26. In referring to it, I must enter my protest against the views of Professor Jowett on points which lie at the very root of the Christian life: views as unwarranted by any data furnished in the Scriptures of which he treats, as his reckless and crude statement of them is pregnant with mischief to minds unaccustomed to biblical research. Among the various phænomena of our awakened state of apprehension of the characteristics and the difficulties of the New Testament, there is none more suggestive of saddened thought and dark foreboding, than the appearance of such a book as Professor Jowett’s. Our most serious fears for the Christian future of England, point, it seems to me, just in this direction: to persons who allow fine æsthetical and psychological appreciation, and the results of minute examination of spiritual feeling and mental progress in the Epistles, to keep out of view that other line of testimony to the fixity and consistency of great doctrines, which is equally discoverable in them. I have endeavoured below, in speaking of the matter and style of our Epistle to meet some of Professor Jowett’s assertions and inferences of this kind.

3. The external testimonies of antiquity are the following:

Irenæus adv. Hær. v. 6. 1, p. 299 f.: “Et propter hoc apostolus seipsum exponens, explanavit perfectum et spiritualem salutis hominem, in prima epistola ad Thessalonicenses dicens sic: Deus autem pacis sanctificet vos perfectos,” &c. (1 Thessalonians 5:23.)

Clem. Alex. Pædag. i. 5 (19), p. 109 P.: τοῦτό τοι σαφέστατα ὁ μακάριος παῦλος ὑπεσημῄνατο, εἰπών· δυνάμενοι ἐν βάρει εἶναι κ. τ. λ. to ἑαυτῆς τέκνα (1 Thessalonians 2:6).

Tertullian de resurr. carnis, § 24, vol. ii. p. 828: “Et ideo majostas Spiritus sancti perspicax ejusmodi sensuum et in ipsa ad Thessalonicenses epistola suggerit: De temporibus autem … quasi fur nocte, ita adveniet.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1 f.)

SECTION II

FOR WHAT READERS AND WITH WHAT OBJECT IT WAS WRITTEN

1. THESSALONICA was a city of Macedonia, and in Roman times, capital of the second district of the province of Macedonia (Liv. xlv. 29 f.), and the seat of a Roman prætor (Cic. Planc. 41). It lay on the Sinus Thermaicus, and is represented to have been built on the site of the ancient Therme ( θέρμη ἡ ἐν τῷ θερμαίῳ κόλπῳ οἰκημένη, ἀπʼ ἧς καὶ ὁ κόλπος οὗτος τὴν ἐπωνυμίην ἔχει, Herod. vii. 121), or peopled from this city (Pliny seems to distinguish the two: ‘medioque flexu littoris Thessalonica, liberæ conditionis. Ad hanc, a Dyrrhachio cxv mil. pas., Therme.’ iv. 10) by Cassander, son of Antipater, and named after his wife Thessalonice, sister of Alexander the Great (so called from a victory obtained by his father Philip on the day when he heard of her birth)(64). Under the Romans it became rich and populous ( ἣ νῦν μάλιστα τῶν ἄλλων εὐανδρεῖ, Strab. vii. 7: see also Lucian, Asin. c. 46, and Appian, Bell. Civ. iv. 118), was an ‘urbs libera’ (see Pliny, above), and in later writers bore the name of “metropolis.” “Before the founding of Constantinople it was virtually the capital of Greece and Illyricum, as well as of Macedonia: and shared the trade of the Ægean with Ephesus and Corinth” (C. and H. edn. 2, vol. i. p. 380). Its importance continued through the middle ages, and it is now the second city in European Turkey, with 70,000 inhabitants, under the slightly corrupted name of Saloniki. For further notices of its history and condition at various times, see C. and H. i. pp. 378–83: Winer, RWB. sub voce (from which mainly the above notice is taken): Dr. Holland’s Travels: Lewin, vol. i. p. 252.

2. The church at Thessalonica was founded by St. Paul, in company with Silas and Timotheus(65), as we learn in Acts 17:1-9. Very little is there said which can throw light on the origin or composition of the Thessalonian church. The main burden of that narrative is the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews there. It is however stated (Acts 17:4) that some of the Jews believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.

3. But some account of the Apostle’s employment and teaching at Thessalonica may be gathered from this narrative, connected with hints dropped in the two Epistles. He came to them, yet suffering from his persecution at Philippi (1 Thessalonians 2:2). But they received the word joyfully, amidst trials and persecutions (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:13), and notwithstanding the enmity of their own countrymen and of the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14 ff.). He maintained himself by his labour (1 Thessalonians 2:9), although his stay was so short(66), in the same spirit of independence which characterized all his apostolic course. He declared to them boldly and clearly the Gospel of God (1 Thessalonians 2:2). The great burden of his message to them was the approaching coming and kingdom of the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. Acts 17:7; see also § iv. below), and his chief exhortation, that they would walk worthily of this their calling to that kingdom and glory (1 Thessalonians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

4. He left them, as we know from Acts 17:5-10, on account of a tumult raised by the unbelieving Jews; and was sent away by night by the brethren to Berœa, together with Silas and Timotheus (Acts 17:10). From that place he wished to have revisited Thessalonica: but was prevented (1 Thessalonians 2:18), by the arrival, with hostile purposes, of his enemies the Thessalonian Jews (Acts 17:13), in consequence of which the brethren sent him away by sea to Athens.

5. Their state after his departure is closely allied with the enquiry as to the object of the Epistle. The Apostle appears to have felt much anxiety about them: and in consequence of his being unable to visit them in person, seems to have determined, during the hasty consultation previous to his departure from Berœa, to be left at Athens, which was the destination fixed for him by the brethren, alone, and to send Timotheus back to Thessalonica to ascertain the state of their faith(67).

6. The nature of the message brought to the Apostle at Corinth (Acts 18:5) by Timotheus on his arrival there with Silas, must be inferred from what we find in the Epistle itself. It was, in the main, favourable and consolatory (1 Thessalonians 3:6-10). They were firm in faith and love, as indeed they were reputed to be by others who had brought to him news of them (1 Thessalonians 1:7-10), full of affectionate remembrance of the Apostle, and longing to see him (1 Thessalonians 3:6). Still, however, he earnestly desired to come to them, not only from the yearnings of love, but because he wanted to fill up τὰ ὑστερήματα τῆς πίστεως αὐτῶν (1 Thessalonians 3:10). Their attention had been so much drawn to one subject—his preaching had been so full of one great matter, and from the necessity of the case, so scanty on many others which he desired to lay forth to them, that he already feared lest their Christian faith should be a distorted and unhealthy faith. And in some measure, Timotheus had found it so. They were beginning to be restless in expectation of the day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:11 ff.),—neglectful of that pure, and sober, and temperate walk, which is alone the fit preparation for that day (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ff.; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-9),—distressed about the state of the dead in Christ, who they supposed had lost the precious opportunity of standing before Him at His coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13 ff.).

7. This being so, he writes to them to build up their faith and love, and to correct these defects and misapprehensions. I reserve further consideration of the contents of the Epistle for § iv., ‘On its matter and style.’

SECTION III

PLACE AND TIME OF WRITING

1. From what has been said above respecting the state of the Thessalonian Church as the occasion for writing the Epistle, it may readily be inferred that no considerable time had elapsed since the intelligence of that state had reached the Apostle. Silas and Timotheus were with him (1 Thessalonians 1:1): the latter had been the bearer of the tidings from Thessalonica.

2. Now we know (Acts 18:5) that they rejoined him at Corinth, apparently not long after his arrival there. That rejoining then forms our terminus a quo. And it would be in the highest degree unnatural to suppose that the whole time of his stay at Corinth (a year and six months, Acts 18:11) elapsed before he wrote the Epistle,—founded as it is on the intelligence which he had heard, and written with a view to meet present circumstances. CORINTH therefore may safely be assumed as the place of writing.

3. His stay at Corinth ended with his setting sail for the Pentecost at Jerusalem in the spring of 54 (see chron. table in Prolegg. to Acts, Vol. II.). It would begin then with the autumn of 52. And in the winter of that year, I should be disposed to place the writing of our Epistle.

4. It will be hardly necessary to remind the student, that this date places the Epistle first, in chronological order, of all the writings of St. Paul that remain to us.

SECTION IV

MATTER AND STYLE

1. It will be interesting to observe, wherein the first-written Epistle of St. Paul differs from his later writings. Some difference we should certainly expect to find, considering that we have to deal with a temperament so fervid, a spirit so rapidly catching the impress of circumstances, so penetrated by and resigned up to the promptings of that indwelling Spirit of God, who was ever more notably and thoroughly fitting His instrument for the expansion and advance of His work of leavening the world with the truth of Christ.

2. Nor will such observation and enquiry be spent in vain, especially if we couple it with corresponding observation of the sayings of our Lord, and the thoughts and words of his Apostles, on the various great departments of Christian belief and hope.

3. The faith, in all its main features, was delivered once for all. The facts of Redemption,—the Incarnation, and the Atonement, and the glorification of Christ,—were patent and undeniable from the first. Our Lord’s own words had asserted them: the earliest discourses of the Apostles after the day of Pentecost bore witness to them. It is true that, in God’s Providence, the whole glorious system of salvation by grace was the gradual imparting of the Spirit to the Church: by occasion here and there, various points of it were insisted on and made prominent. Even here, the freest and fullest statement did not come first. “Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” was ever the order which the apostolic proclamation took. The earliest of the Epistles are ever moral and practical, the advanced ones more doctrinal and spiritual. It was not till it appeared, in the unfolding of God’s Providence, that the bulwark of salvation by grace must be strengthened, that the building on the one foundation must be raised thus impregnable to the righteousness of works and the law, that the Epistles to the Galatians and Romans were given through the great Apostle, reaching to the full breadth and height of the great argument. Then followed the Epistles of the imprisonment, building up higher and higher the edifice thus consolidated: and the Pastoral Epistles, suited to a more developed ecclesiastical condition, and aimed at the correction of abuses, which sprung up later, or were the ripened fruit of former doctrinal errors.

4. In all these however, we trace the same great elementary truths of the faith. Witness to them is never wanting: nor can it be said that any change of ground respecting them ever took place. The work of the Spirit as regarded them, was one of expanding and deepening, of freeing from narrow views, and setting in clearer and fuller light: of ranging and grouping collateral and local circumstances, so that the great doctrines of grace became ever more and more prominent and paramount.

5. But while this was so with these ‘first principles,’ the very view which we have taken will shew, that as regarded other things which lay at a greater distance from central truths, it was otherwise. In such matters, the Apostle was taught by experience; Christ’s work brought its lessons with it: and it would be not only unnatural, but would remove from his writings the living freshness of personal reality, if we found him the same in all points of this kind, at the beginning, and at the end of his epistolary labours: if there were no characteristic differences of mode of thought and expression in 1 Thessalonians and in 2 Timotheus: if advance of years had brought with it no corresponding advance of standing-point, change of circumstances no change of counsel, trial of God’s ways no further insight into God’s designs.

6. Nor are we left to conjecture as to those subjects on which especially such change, and ripening of view and conviction, might be expected to take place. There was one most important point on which our Lord Himself spoke with marked and solemn uncertainty. The TIME OF HIS OWN COMING was hidden from all created beings,—nay, in the mystery of his mediatorial office, from the Son Himself (Mark 13:32). Even after his Resurrection, when questioned by the Apostles as to the time of his restoring the Kingdom to Israel, his reply is still, that “it is not for them to know the times and the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power” (Acts 1:7).

7. Here then is a plain indication, which has not, I think, been sufficiently made use of in judging of the Epistles. The Spirit was to testify of Christ: to take of the things of Christ, and shew them unto them. So that however much that Spirit, in His infinite wisdom, might be pleased to impart to them of the details and accompanying circumstances of the Lord’s appearing, we may be sure, that the truth spoken by our Lord, “Of that day and hour knoweth no man,” would hold good with regard to them, and be traced in their writings. If they were true men, and their words and Epistles the genuine production of inspiration of them by that Spirit of Truth, we may expect to find in such speeches and writings tokens of this appointed uncertainty of the day and hour: expectations, true in expression and fully justified by appearances, yet corrected, as God’s purposes were manifested, by advancing experience, and larger effusions of the Spirit of prophecy.

8. If then I find in the course of St. Paul’s Epistles, that expressions which occur in the earlier ones, and seem to indicate expectation of His almost immediate coming, are gradually modified,—disappear altogether from the Epistles of the imprisonment,—and instead of them are found others speaking in a very different strain, of dissolving, and being with Christ, and passing through death and the resurrection, in the latest Epistles,—I regard it, not as a strange thing, not as a circumstance which I must explain away for fear of weakening the authority of his Epistles, but as exactly that which I should expect to find; as the very strongest testimony that these Epistles were written by one who was left in this uncertainty,—not by one who wished to make it appear that Inspiration had rendered him omniscient.

9. And in this, the earliest of those Epistles, I do find exactly that which I might expect on this head. While every word and every detail respecting the Lord’s coming is a perpetual inheritance for the Church,—while we continue to comfort one another with the glorious and heart-stirring sentences which he utters to us in the word of the Lord,—no candid eye can help seeing in the Epistle, how the uncertainty of “the day and hour” has tinged all these passages with a hue of near anticipation: how natural it was, that the Thessalonians receiving this Epistle, should have allowed that anticipation to be brought even yet closer, and have imagined the day to be actually already present.

10. It will be seen by the above remarks, how very far I am from conceding their point to those who hold that the belief, of which this Epistle is the strongest expression, was an idle fancy, or does not befit the present age as well as it did that one. It is God’s purpose respecting us, that we should ever be left in this uncertainty, looking for and hasting unto the day of the Lord, which may be upon us at any time before we are aware of it. Every expression of the ages before us, betokening close anticipation, coupled with the fact that the day has not yet arrived, teaches us much, but unteaches us nothing: does not deprive that glorious hope of its applicability to our times, nor the Christian of his power of living as in the light of his Lord’s approach and the daily realization of the day of Christ(68).

11. In style, this Epistle is thoroughly Pauline,—abounding with phrases, and lines of thought, which may be paralleled with similar ones in his other Epistles(69): not wanting also in insulated words and sentiments, such as we find in all the writings of one who was so fresh in thought and full in feeling; such also as are in no way inconsistent with St. Paul’s known character, but in every case finding analogical justification in Epistles of which no one has ever thought of disputing the genuineness.

12. As compared with other Epistles, this is written in a quiet and unimpassioned style, not being occasioned by any grievous errors of doctrine or defects in practice, but written to encourage and gently to admonish those who were, on the whole, proceeding favourably in the Christian life. To this may be attributed also the fact, that it does not deal expressly with any of the great verities of the faith, rather taking them for granted, and building on them the fabric of a holy and pure life. That this should have been done until they were disputed, was but natural: and in consequence not with these Epistles, but with that to the Galatians, among whom the whole Christian life was imperilled by Judaistic teaching, begins that great series of unfoldings of the mystery of salvation by grace, of which St. Paul was so eminently the minister.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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