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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Thessalonians 2

 

 

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Verses 1-12

Chapter 5

APOLOGIA PRO VITA SUA

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (R.V.)

OUR first impression, as we read these verses, is that they contain little that is new. They simply expand the statement of chap. 1, ver. 5 (1 Thessalonians 1:5): "Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; even as ye know what manner of men we showed ourselves toward you for your sake." But if their substance is the same, their tone is very different. It is obvious at a glance that the Apostle has a definite purpose in view in appealing so pointedly as he does here to facts with which his readers were familiar. The truth is, he is standing upon his defence. Unless it were so, he would not think of writing, as he does in 1 Thessalonians 2:5, that he had never had recourse to flattery, nor sought to make gain out of his apostleship; nor as he does in 1 Thessalonians 2:10, that God knows the entire purity of his life among them. Although he does not name them, it is quite plain that he was already suffering from those enemies who never ceased to vex him while he lived. As we learn afterwards, these enemies were the Jews. When they had opportunity, they used open violence; they roused the Gentile mob against him; they had him scourged and stoned. When his body was out of their reach, they assailed him through his character and affections. They crept into the churches which his love and zeal had gathered here and there, and scattered injurious suspicions against him among his disciples. He was not, they hinted, all that he seemed to be. They could tell stories about his early days, and advised those who did not know him so well to be on their guard. Evangelising paid him quite as well as harder work, and his paltry ambition was gratified by lording it over his ignorant converts. Such messengers of Satan had apparently made their appearance in Thessalonica since Paul left, and this chapter is his reply to their insinuations.

There is something exquisitely painful in the situation thus created. It would have been like a sword piercing the Apostle’s heart, had his enemies succeeded in their attempt to breed distrust in the Thessalonians toward him. He could not have borne to think that those whom he loved so utterly should entertain the faintest suspicion of the integrity, of his love. But happily he is spared that pain. He writes, indeed, as one who has felt the indignity of the charges brought against him, but with the frankness and heartiness of a man who is confident that his defence will be well received. From baseless insinuations he can appeal to facts which are well known to all. From the false character in which he has been dressed by his adversaries he can appeal to the true, in which he lived and moved familiarly among them.

The first point in his favour is found in the circumstances under which he had preached the gospel in Thessalonica. Had he been an insincere man, with by-ends of his own to serve, he would never have faced the career of an apostle. He had been scourged and put in the stocks at Philippi; and when he left that city for Thessalonica, he brought his troubles with him. Here also he had much conflict; he was beset on every hand with difficulties; it was only in the strength of God that he had courage to preach at all. You yourselves, he says, know that; and how, in spite of that, our coming to you was not vain, but full of power; surely it needs no more to prove the disinterestedness of our mission.

From this point onward, the apology falls into two parts, a negative and a positive: the Apostle tells us what his gospel and the proclamation of it are not; and then he tells us what, at Thessalonica, it had been.

In the first place, it is not of error. It does not rest on mistakes, or imaginations, or cunningly devised fables; in the fullest sense it is the truth. It would have taken the heart out of the Apostle, and made him incapable of braving anything for its sake, had he been in doubt of this. If the gospel were a device of man, then men might take liberties with it, handle it deceitfully, make their own account out of it; but resting as it does on facts and truth, it demands honest dealing in all its ministers. Paul claims here a character in agreement with the dispensation which he serves: can a minister of the truth, he asks, be other than a true man?

In the next place, it is not of uncleanness; that is, it is not prompted by any impure motive. The force of the word here must be determined by the context; and we see that the impure motives specially laid to the charge of Paul were avarice and ambition; or, to use the words of the Apostle himself, covetousness, and the seeking of honour from men. The first of these is so manifestly inconsistent with any degree of spirituality that Paul writes instinctively "a cloke of covetousness"; he did not make his apostolic labour a veil, under cover of which he could gratify his love of gain. It is impossible to exaggerate the subtle and clinging character of this vice. It owes its strength to the fact that it can be so easily cloked. We seek money, so we tell ourselves, not because we are covetous, but because it is a power for all good purposes. Piety, charity, humanity, refinement, art, science-it can minister to them all; but when we obtain it, it is too easily hoarded, or spent in indulgence, display, and conformity to the world. The pursuit of wealth, except in an utterly materialised society, is always cloked by some ideal end to which it is to minister; but how few there are in whose hands wealth is merely an instrument for the furtherance of such ends. In many men the desire for it is naked selfishness, an idolatry as undisguised as that of Israel at Sinai. Yet all men feel how bad and mean it is to have the heart set on money. All men see how base and incongruous it is to make godliness a source of gain. All men see the peculiar ugliness of a character which associates piety and avarice-of a Balaam, for instance, a Gehazi, or an Ananias. It is not ministers of the gospel only, but all to whom. the credit of the gospel is entrusted, who have to be on their guard here. Our enemies are entitled to question our sincerity when we can be shown to be lovers of money. At Thessalonica, as elsewhere, Paul had been at pains to make such calumny impossible. Although entitled to claim support from the Church in accordance with the law of Christ that they who preach the gospel should live by the gospel, he had wrought night and day with his own hands that he might not burden any of them. As a precaution, this self-denial was vain; there can be no security against malice; but it gave him a triumphant vindication when the charge of covetousness was actually made.

The other impure motive contemplated is ambition. Some modern students of Paul’s character-devil’s advocates, no doubt-hint at this as his most obvious fault. It was necessary for him, we are told, to be first; to be the leader of a party; to have a following of his own. But he disclaims ambition as explicitly as avarice. He never sought glory from men, at Thessalonica or elsewhere. He used none of the arts which obtain it. As apostles of Christ-he includes his friends-they had, indeed, a rank of their own; the greatness of the Prince whom they represented was reflected on them as His ambassadors; they might have "stood upon their dignity" had they chosen to do so. Their very self-denial in the matter of money formed a new temptation for them here. They might well feel that their disinterested service of the Thessalonians entitled them to a spiritual preeminence; and indeed there is no pride like that which bases on ascetic austerities the claim to direct with authority the life and conduct of others. Paul escaped this snare. He did not compensate himself for renouncing gain, with any lordship over souls. In all things he was the servant of those to whom he preached.

And as his motives were pure, so were the means he used. His exhortation was not in guile. He did not manipulate his message; he was never found using words of flattery. The gospel was not his own to do what he pleased with: it was God’s; God had approved him. so far as to entrust it to him; yet every moment, in the discharge of his trust, that same God was proving his heart still, so that false dealing was impossible. He did not make his message other than it was; he did not hide any part of the counsel of God; he did not inveigle the Thessalonians by any false pretences into responsibilities which would not have been accepted could they have been foreseen.

All these denials-not of error, not of uncleanness, not of guile; not pleasing men, not using words of flattery, not cloaking over covetousness - all these denials presuppose the contrary affirmations. Paul does not indulge in boasting but on compulsion; he would never have sought to justify himself, unless he had first been accused. And now, over against this picture, drawn by his enemies, let us look at the true likeness which is held up before God and man.

Instead of selfishness there is love, and nothing but love. We are all familiar with the great passage in the epistle to the Philippians where the Apostle depicts the mind which was in Christ Jesus. The contrast in that passage between the disposition which grasps at eminence and that which makes itself of no reputation, between αρπαγμος and κενωσις, is reproduced here. Paul had learned of Christ; and instead of seeking in his apostolic work opportunities for self-exaltation, he shrank from no service imposed by love. "We were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children." "Her own" is to be emphasised. The tenderness of the Apostle was that of a mother warming her babe at her breast. Most of the ancient authorities, the R.V tells us in the margin, read "We were babes in the midst of you." If this were correct, the thought would be that Paul stooped to the level of these infant disciples, speaking to them, as it were, in the language of childhood, and accommodating himself to their immaturity. But though this is appropriate enough, the word νηπιοι is not proper to express it. Gentleness is really what is meant. But his love went further than this in its yearning over the Thessalonians. He had been accused of seeking gain and glory when he came among them; but his sole desire had been not to get but to give. As his stay was prolonged, the disciples became very dear to their teachers; "we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls." That is the true standard of pastoral care. The Apostle lived up to it always "Now we live," he writes in the next chapter, "if ye stand fast in the Lord." "Ye are in our hearts," he cries to the Corinthians, "to live together and to die together." He not only kept back from them nothing of the whole purpose of God; he kept back no part of himself. His daily toil, his toil by night, his prayers, his preaching, his spiritual ardour, his very soul, were theirs. They knew his labour and travail; they were witnesses, and God also, how holily and righteously and unblamably he had behaved toward them.

As the Apostle recalls these recent memories, he dwells for a moment on another aspect of his love. It had not only the tender fondness of a mother’s, but the educative wisdom of a father’s. One by one he dealt with the disciples-which is not the way to gain glory-exhorting, encouraging, bearing solemn testimony to the truth of God. And his end in all this, as they knew, was ideal and spiritual, an end as remote as possible from any worldly interest of his own, that they might walk worthily of God who was calling them into His own kingdom and glory. How far from the rewards and distinctions of the present must that man’s mind be who sees, as Paul saw steadily, the things that are invisible. If he who is blind to the golden crown above his head grasps the muck rake tightly and clutches eagerly all it brings within his reach, surely he whose eye is set upon the crown must be superior alike to the gain and the glory of the world. That, at least, is the claim which the Apostle makes here. Nothing could be more incongruous than that a man to whom the visible world was transitory and unreal, and the visible kingdom of God real and eternal, should be eager for money and applause and forget the high calling with which he himself was calling men in Christ. So far the apology of the Apostle.

The practical application of this passage is different, according as we look at it in detail, or as a whole. It exhibits to us, in the charges brought against Paul, those vices which even bad men can see to be rankly inconsistent with the Christian character. Covetousness is the foremost. No matter how we cloak it-and we always cloak it somehow-it is incurably unchristian. Christ had no money. He never wished to have any. The one perfect life that has been lived in this world, is the life of Him who owned nothing, and who left nothing but the clothes he wore. Whoever names the name of Christ, and professes to follow Him, must learn of Him, indifference to gain. The mere suspicion of avarice will discredit, and ought to discredit, the most pious pretensions. The second vice I have spoken of as ambition. It is the desire to use others for one’s own exaltation, to make them the stepping stones on which we rise to eminence, the ministers of our vanity, the sphere for the display of our own abilities as leaders, masters, organisers, preachers. To put ourselves in that relation to others is to do an essentially unchristian thing. A minister whose congregation is the theatre on which he displays his talents or his eloquence is not a Christian. A clever man, to whom the men and women with whom he meets in society are merely specimens of human nature on whom he can make shrewd observations, sharpening his wits on them as on a grindstone, is not a Christian. A man of business, who looks at the labourers whom he employs as only so many instruments for rearing the fabric of his prosperity, is not a Christian. Everybody in the world knows that; and such men, if they profess Christianity, give a handle to slander, and bring disgrace on the religion which they wear merely as a blind. True Christianity is love, and the nature of love is not to take but to give. There is no limit to the Christian’s beneficence; he counts nothing his own; he gives his very soul with every separate gift. He is as tender as the mother to her infant; as wise, as manly, as earnest as the father with his growing boy.

Looked at as a whole this passage warns us against slander. It must needs be that slander is spoken and believed; but woe to the man or woman by whom it is either believed or spoken! None are good enough to escape it. Christ was slandered; they called Him a glutton and a drunkard, and said He was in league with the devil. Paul was slandered; they said he was a very smart man, who looked well to his own interest, and made dupes of simple people. The deliberate wickedness of such falsehoods is diabolical, but it is not so very rare. Numbers of people who would not invent such stories are glad to hear them. They are not very particular whether they are true or false; it pleases them to think that an evangelist, eminent in profession, gets a royalty on hymn books; or that a priest, famous for devotion, was really no better than he should have been; or that a preacher, whose words regenerated a whole church, sometimes despised his audience, and talked nonsense impromptu. To sympathise with detraction is to have the spirit of the devil, not of Christ. Be on your guard against such sympathy; you are human, and therefore need to. Never give utterance to a suspicious thought. Never repeat what would discredit a man, if you have only heard it and are not sure it is true; even it you are sure of its truth, be afraid of yourself if it gives you any pleasure to think of it. Love thinketh no evil; love rejoiceth not in iniquity.


Verses 13-16

Chapter 6

IMPEACHMENT OF THE JEWS

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 (R.V.)

THESE verses complete the treatment of the subject with which this chapter opens. The Apostle has drawn a moving picture of his life and labours in Thessalonica; he has pointed to it as his sufficient vindication from all the charges laid against him. Before carrying the war into the enemies’ camp, and depicting the traditions and the spirit of his traducers, he lingers again for a moment on the happy results of his work. In spite of persecution and calumny, he has cause to thank God without ceasing when he remembers the reception of the gospel by the Thessalonians.

When the message was brought to them, they accepted it, he says, not as the word of men, but as what it was in truth, the word of God. It is in this character that the gospel always presents itself. A word of men cannot address men with authority; it must submit itself to criticism; it must vindicate itself on grounds which man’s understanding approves. Now, the gospel is not irrational; it is its own demand that the Christian shall be ready to answer everyone who demands a rational account of the hope that is in him. But neither does it, on the other hand, come to us soliciting our approval; submitting itself, as a system of ideas, to our scrutiny, and courting approbation. It speaks with authority. It commands repentance; it preaches forgiveness on the ground of Christ’s death-a supreme gift of God which may be accepted or rejected, but is not proposed for discussion; it exhibits the law of Christ’s life as the law which is binding upon every human being, and calls upon all men to follow him. Its decisive appeal is made to the conscience and the will; and to respond to it is to give up will and conscience to God. When the Apostle says, "Ye received it as, what it is in truth, the word of God," he betrays, if one may use the word, the consciousness of his own inspiration. Nothing is commoner now than to speak of the theology of Paul as if it were a private possession of the Apostle, a scheme of thought that he had framed for himself, to explain his own experience. Such a scheme of thought, we are told, has no right whatever to impose itself on us; it has only a historical and biographical interest; it has no necessary connection with truth. The first result of this line of thought, in almost every case, is the rejection of the very heart of the apostolic gospel; the doctrine of the atonement is no longer the greatest truth of revelation, but a rickety bridge on which Paul imagined he had crossed from Pharisaism to Christianity. Certainly this modern analysis of the epistles does not reflect the Apostle’s own way of looking at what he called "My gospel." To him it was no device of man, but unequivocally Divine; in very truth, the word of God. His theology certainly came to him in the way of his experience; his mind had been engaged with it, and was engaged with it continually; but he was conscious that, with all this freedom, it rested at bottom on the truth of God; and when he preached it - for his theology was the sum of the Divine truth he held, and he did preach it-he did not submit it to men as a theme for discussion. He put it above discussion. He pronounced a solemn and reiterated anathema on either man or angel who should put anything else in its stead. He published it, not for criticism, as though it had been his own device; but, as the word of God, for the obedience of faith. The tone of this passage recalls the word of our Lord, "Whoso shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein." There are difficulties enough connected with the gospel, but they are not of a kind that disappear while we stand and look at them, or even stand and think about them; unquestioning surrender solves many, and introduces us to experiences which enable us to bear the rest with patience.

The word of God, in other words the gospel, proved its Divine character in the Thessalonians after it was received. "It also worketh," says Paul, "in you that believe." The last words are not superfluous. The word preached, we read of an earlier generation, did not profit, not being mixed with faith in them that heard. Faith conditions its efficacy. Gospel truth is an active force when it is within the heart; but it can do nothing for us while doubt, pride, or unacknowledged reserve, keep it outside. If we have really welcomed the Divine message, it will not be inoperative; it will work within us all that is characteristic of New Testament life-love, joy, peace, hope, patience. These are the proofs of its truth. Here, then, is the source of all graces: if the word of Christ dwell in us richly; if the truth of the gospel, deep, manifold, inexhaustible, yet ever the same, possess our hearts, -the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.

The particular gospel grace which the Apostle has here in view is patience. He proves that the word of God is at work in the Thessalonians by pointing to the fact that they have suffered for His sake. "Had you been still of the world, the world would have loved its own; but as it is, you have become imitators of the Christian churches in Judea, and have suffered the same things at the hands of your countrymen as they from theirs." Of all places in the world Judea was that in which the gospel and its adherents had suffered most severely. Jerusalem itself was the focus of hostility. No one knew better than Paul, the zealous persecutor of heresy, what it had cost from the very beginning to be true to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Scourging, imprisonment, exile, death by the sword or by stoning, had rewarded such fidelity. We do not know to what extremity the enemies of the gospel had gone in Thessalonica; but the distress of the Christians must have been great when the Apostle could make this comparison even in passing. He had already told them [1 Thessalonians 1:6] that much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost, is the very badge of God’s elect; and here he combines the same stern necessity with the operation of the Divine word in their hearts. Do not let us overlook this. The work of God’s word (or if you prefer it, the effect of receiving the gospel), is in the first instance to produce a new character, a character not only distinct from that of the unconverted, but antagonistic to it, and more directly and inevitably antagonistic, the more thoroughly it is wrought out; so that in proportion as God’s word is operative in us, we come into collision with the world which rejects it. To suffer, therefore, is to the Apostle the seal of faith; it warrants the genuineness of a Christian profession. It is not a sign that God has forgotten His people, but a sign that He is with them; and that they are being brought by Him into. fellowship with primitive churches, with apostles and prophets, with the Incarnate Son Himself. And hence the whole situation of the Thessalonians, suffering included, comes under that heartfelt expression of thanks to God with which the passage opens. It is not a subject for condolence, but for gratitude, that they have been counted worthy to suffer shame for the Name.

And now the Apostle turns from. the persecuted to the persecutors. There is nothing in his epistles elsewhere that can be compared with this passionate outburst. Paul was proud with no common pride of his Jewish descent; it was better in his eyes than any patent of nobility. His heart swelled as he thought of the nation to which the adoption pertained, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose were the fathers, and of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came. Apostle of the Gentiles though he was, he had great sorrow and unceasing pain in his heart, when he remembered the antagonism of the Jews to the gospel; he could have wished himself anathema from Christ for their sakes. He was confident, too, that in some glorious future they would yet submit to the Messiah, so that all Israel should be saved. The turning of the heathen to God would provoke them to jealousy; and the Divine calling with which the nation had been called in Abraham would reach its predestined goal. Such is the tone, and such the anticipation, with which, not very long afterwards, Paul writes in the epistle to the Romans. Here he looks at his countrymen with other eyes. They are identified, in his experience, with a fierce resistance to the gospel, and with cruel persecutions of the Church of Christ. Only in the character of bitter enemies has he been in contact with them in recent years. They have hunted him from city to city in Asia and in Europe; they have raised the populace against his converts; they have sought to poison the minds of his disciples against him. He knows that this policy is that with which his countrymen as a whole have identified themselves; and as he looks steadily at it, he sees that in doing so they have only acted in consistency with all their past history. The messengers whom God sends to demand the fruit of His vineyard have always been treated with violence and despite. The crowning sin of the race is put in the forefront; they slew the Lord Jesus; but before the Lord came, they had slain His prophets; and after He had gone, they expelled His apostles. God had put them in a position of privilege, but only for a time; they were the depositaries, or trustees, of the knowledge of God as the Saviour of men; and now, when the time had come for that knowledge to be diffused throughout all the world, they clung proudly and stubbornly to the old position. They pleased not God and were contrary to all men, in forbidding the apostles to preach salvation to the heathen. There is an echo, all through this passage, of the Words of Stephen: "Ye stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost." There are sentences in heathen authors, who repaid the contempt and hatred of the Jews with haughty disdain, that have been compared with this terrible impeachment by the Apostle; but in reality, they are quite unlike. What we have here is not a burst of temper, though there is undoubtedly strong feeling in it; it is the vehement condemnation, by a man in thorough sympathy with the mind and spirit of God, of the principles on which the Jews as a nation had acted at every period of their history.

What is the relation of God to such a situation as is here described? The Jews, Paul says, did all this "to fill up their sins at all times." He does not mean that that was their intention; neither does he speak ironically; but speaking as he often does from that Divine standpoint at which all results are intended and purposed results, not outside of, but within, the counsel of God, he signifies that this Divine end was being secured by their wickedness. The cup of their iniquity was filling all the time. Every generation did something to raise the level within. The men who bade Amos begone, and eat his bread at home, raised it a little; the men who sought Hosea’s life in the sanctuary raised it further; so did those who put Jeremiah in the dungeon, and those who murdered Zechariah between the temple and the altar. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the cup was full to the brim. When those whom He left behind to be His witnesses, and to preach repentance and remission of sins to all men, beginning at Jerusalem, were expelled or put to death, it ran over. God could bear no more. Side by side with the cup of iniquity the cup of judgment had been filling also; and they overflowed together. Even when Paul wrote he could say, "The wrath is come upon them to the very end."

It is not easy to explain the precise force of these words. They seem to point definitely to some event, or some act of God, in which His wrath had been unmistakably made manifest. To suppose that ‘the fall of Jerusalem is meant is to deny that Paul wrote the words. All that is certain is that the Apostle saw in the signs of the times some infallible token that the nation’s day of grace had come to an end. Perhaps some excess of a Roman procurator, now forgotten; perhaps one of those famines that desolated Judea in that unhappy age; perhaps the recent edict of Claudius, expelling all Jews from Rome, and betraying the temper of the supreme power; perhaps the coming shadow of an awful doom, obscure in outline but none the less inevitable, gave shape to the expression. The Jews had failed, in their day, to recognise the things that belonged to their peace; and now they were hid from their eyes. They had disregarded every presage of the coming storm; and at length the clouds that could not be charmed away had accumulated over their heads, and the fire of God was ready to leap out.

This striking passage embodies certain truths to which we do well to give heed. It shows us that there is such a thing as a national character. In the providential government of God a nation is not an aggregate of individuals, each one of whom stands apart from the rest; it is a corporation with a unity, life, and spirit of its own. Within that unity there may be a conflict of forces, a struggle of good with evil, of higher with lower tendencies, just as there is in the individual soul; but there will be a preponderance on one side or the other; and that side to which the balance leans will prevail more and more. In the vast spirit of the nation, as in the spirit of each man or woman, through the slow succession of generations as in the swift succession of years, character gradually assumes more fixed and definite form. There is a process of development, interrupted perhaps and retarded by such conflicts as I have referred to, but bringing out all the more decisively and irreversibly the inmost spirit of the whole. There is nothing which the proud and the weak more dread than inconsistency; there is nothing, therefore, which is so fatally certain to happen as what has happened already. The Jews resented from the first the intrusion of God’s word into their lives; they had ambitions and ideas of their own, and in its corporate action the nation was uniformly hostile to the prophets. It beat one and killed another and stoned a third; it was of a different spirit from them, and from Him who sent them; and the longer it lived, the more like itself, the more unlike God, it became. It was the climax of its sin, yet only the climax-for it had previously taken every step that led to that eminence in evil-when it slew the Lord Jesus. And when it was ripe for judgment, judgment fell upon it as a whole.

It is not easy to speak impartially about our own country and its character; yet such a character there undoubtedly is, just as there is such a unity as the British nation. Many observers tell us that the character has degenerated into a mere instinct for trade; and that it has begotten a vast unscrupulousness in dealing with the weak. Nobody will deny that there is a protesting conscience in the nation, a voice which pleads in God’s name for justice, as the prophets pled in Israel; but the question is not whether such a voice is audible, but whether in the corporate acts of the nation it is obeyed. The state ought to be a Christian state. The nation ought to be conscious of a spiritual vocation, and to be animated with the spirit of Christ. In its dealings with other powers, in its relations to savage or half civilised peoples, in its care for the weak among its own citizens, it should acknowledge the laws of justice and of mercy. We have reason to thank God that in all these matters Christian sentiment is beginning to tell. The opium trade with China, the liquor trade with the natives of Africa, the labour trade in the South Seas, the dwellings of the poor, the public-house system with its deliberate fostering of drunkenness, all these are matters in regard to which the nation was in danger of settling into permanent hostility to God, and in which there is now hope of better things. The wrath which is the due and inevitable accompaniment of such hostility, when persisted in, has not come on us to the very end; God has given us opportunity to rectify what is amiss, and to deal with all our interests in the spirit of the New Testament. Let no one be backward or indifferent when so great a work is in hand. The heritage of sin accumulates if it is not put away by well-doing; and with sin, judgment. It is for us to learn by the word of God and the examples of history that the nation and kingdom that will not serve Him shall perish.

Finally, this passage shows us the last and worst form which sin can assume, in the words "forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they should be saved." Nothing is so completely ungodly, so utterly unlike God and opposed to Him, as that spirit which grudges others the good things which it prizes for itself. When the Jewish nation set itself relentlessly to prohibit the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles-when the word was passed round the synagogues from headquarters that this renegade Paul, who was summoning the pagans to become the people of God, was to be thwarted by fraud or violence-God’s patience was exhausted. Such selfish pride was the very negation of His love; the ne plus ultra of evil. Yet nothing is more easy and natural than for men who have occupied a position of privilege to indulge this temper. An imperial nation, which boasts of its freedom, grudges such freedom to others; it seems to lose the very consciousness of being free, unless there is a subject people over which it can tyrannise. In many relations of minor consequence, political and social, we have cause to make this reflection. Do not think that what is good for you is anything else than good for your neighbour. If you are a better man because you have a comfortable home, leisure, education, interest in public affairs, a place in the church, so would he be. Above all, if the gospel of Christ is to you the pearl above all price, take care how you grudge that to any human soul. This is not an unnecessary caution. The criticism of missionary methods, which may be legitimate enough, is interrupted too often by the suggestion that such and such a race is not fit for the gospel. Nobody who knows what the gospel is will ever make such a suggestion; but we have all heard it made, and we see from this passage what it means. It is the mark of a heart which is deeply estranged from God, and ignorant of the Golden Rule which embodies both gospel and law. Let us rather be imitators of the great man who first entered into the spirit of Christ, and discovered the open secret of His life and death, -the mystery of redemption, -that the heathen should be heirs with God’s ancient people, and of the same body, and partakers of the same promises. "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them."


Verses 17-20

Chapter 7

ABSENCE AND LONGING

1 Thessalonians 2:17-20; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5 (R.V.)

THE Apostle has said all that he means to say of the opposition of the Jews to the gospel, and in the verses before us turns to his own relations to the Thessalonians. He had been compelled to leave their city against his will; they themselves had escorted him by night to Beroea. He cannot find words strong enough to describe the pain of separation. It was a bereavement, although he hoped it would only last for a short time. His heart was with them as truly as if he were still bodily present in Thessalonica. His strongest desire was to look upon their faces once more.

Here we ought to notice again the power of the gospel to create new relations and the corresponding affections. A few months before Paul had not known a single soul in Thessalonica; if he had been only a travelling tent maker he might have stayed there as long as he did, and then moved on with as little emotion as troubles a modern gipsy when he shifts his camp; but coming as a Christian evangelist, he finds or rather makes brothers, and feels his enforced parting from them like a bereavement. Months after, his heart is sore for those whom he has left behind. This is one of the ways in which the gospel enriches life; hearts that would otherwise be empty and isolated are brought by it into living contact with a great circle whose nature and needs are like their own; and capacities, that would otherwise have been unsuspected, have free course for development. No one knows what is in him; and, in particular, no one knows of what love, of what expansion of heart he is capable, till Christ has made real to him those relations to others by which his duties are determined, and all his powers of thought and feeling called forth. Only the Christian man can ever tell what it is to love with all his heart and soul and strength and mind.

Such an experience as shines through the words of the Apostle in this passage furnishes the key to one of the best known but least understood words of our Saviour. "Verily I say unto you," said Jesus to the twelve, "there is no man that hath left house, or wife, or brethren, or parents, or children, for the Kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this time, and in the world to come eternal life." These words might almost stand for a description of Paul. He had given up everything for Christ’s sake. He had no home, no wife, no child; as far as we can see, no brother or friend among all his old acquaintances. Yet we may be sure that not one of those who were most richly blessed with all these natural relations and natural affections knew better than he what love is. No father ever loved his children more tenderly, fervently, austerely, and unchangeably than Paul loved those whom he had begotten in the gospel. No father was ever rewarded with affection more genuine, obedience more loyal, than many of his converts rendered to him. Even in the trials of love, which search it, and strain it, and bring out its virtues to perfection-in misunderstandings, ingratitude, wilfulness, suspicion-he had an experience with blessings of its own in which he surpassed them all. If love is the true wealth and blessedness of our life, surely none was richer or more blessed than this man, who had given up for Christ’s sake all those relations and connections through which love naturally comes. Christ had fulfilled to him the promise just quoted; He had given him a hundredfold in this life, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children. It would have been nothing but loss to cling to the natural affections and decline the lonely apostolic career.

There is something wonderfully vivid in the idea which Paul gives of his love for the Thessalonians. His mind is full of them; he imagines all the circumstances of trial and danger in which they may be placed; if he could only be with them at need! He seems to follow them as a woman follows with her thoughts the son who has gone alone to a distant town; she remembers him when he goes out in the morning, pities him if there are any circumstances of hardship in his work, pictures him busy in shop or office or street, looks at the clock when he ought to be home for the day; wonders where he is, and with what companions, in the evening; and counts the days till she will see him again. The Christian love of the Apostle, which had no basis at all in nature, was as real as this; and it is a pattern for all those who try to serve others in the gospel. The power of the truth, as far as its ministers are concerned, depends on its being spoken in love; unless the heart of the preacher or teacher is really pledged to those to whom. he speaks, he cannot expect but to labour in vain.

Paul is anxious that the Thessalonians should understand the strength of his feeling. It was no passing fancy. On two separate occasions he had determined to revisit them, and had felt, apparently, some peculiar malignity in the circumstances which foiled him. "Satan," he says, "hindered us."

This is one of the expressions which strike us as remote from our present modes of thought. Yet it is not false or unnatural. It belongs to that profound biblical view of life, according to which all the opposing forces in our experience have at bottom a personal character. We speak of the conflict of good and evil, as if good and evil were powers with an existence of their own; but the moment we think of it we see that the only good force in the world is the force of a good will, and the only bad force the force of a bad will; in other words, we see that the conflict of good and evil is essentially a conflict of persons. Good persons are in conflict with bad persons; and so far as the antagonism comes to a head, Christ, the New Testament teaches, is in conflict with Satan. These persons are the centres of force on one side and on the other; and the Apostle discerns, in incidents of his life which have now been lost to us, the presence and working now of this and now of that. An instructive illustration is really furnished by a passage in Acts which seems at the first glance of a very different purport. It is in the 16th chap., vv. 6-10 (Acts 16:6-10), in which the historian describes the route of the Apostle from the East to Europe. "They were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to speak the word in Asia" "they assayed to go into Bithynia; and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not" Paul saw a vision, after which they "sought to go forth into Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel unto them." Here, we might almost say, the three Divine Persons are referred to as the source of intimations directing and controlling the course of the gospel; yet it is evident, from the last mentioned, that such intimations might come in the shape of any event providentially ordered, and that the interpretation of them depended on those to whom they came. The obstacles which checked Paul’s impulse to preach in Asia and in Bithynia he recognised to be of Divine appointment; those which prevented him from returning to Thessalonica were of Satanic origin. We do not know what they were; perhaps a plot against his life, which made the journey dangerous; perhaps some sin or scandal that detained him. in Corinth. At all events it was the doing of the enemy, who in this world, of which Paul does not hesitate to call him the god, has means enough at his disposal to foil, though he cannot overcome, the saints.

It is a delicate operation, in many cases, to interpret outward events, and say what is the source and what the purpose of this or that. Moral indifference may blind us; but those who are in the thick of the moral conflict have a swift and sure instinct for what is against them or on their side; they can tell at once what is Satanic and what is Divine. As a rule, the two forces will show in their strength at the same time; "a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries": each is a foil to the other. What we ought to remark in this connection is the fundamental character of all moral action. It is not a figure of speech to say that the world is the scene of incessant spiritual conflict; it is the literal truth. And spiritual conflict is not simply an interaction of forces; it is the deliberate antagonism of persons to each other. When we do what is right, we take Christ’s side in a real struggle; when we do what is wrong, we side with Satan. It is a question of personal relations; to whose will do I add my own? to whose will do I oppose my own? And the struggle approaches its close for each of us as our will is more thoroughly assimilated to that of one or other of the two leaders. Do not let us dwell in generalities which disguise from us the seriousness of the issue. There is a place in one of his epistles in which Paul uses just such abstract terms as we do in speaking of this matter. "What fellowship," he asks, "have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness?" But he clinches the truth by bringing out the personal relations involved, when he goes on, "And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what portion hath a believer with an unbeliever?" These are the real quantities concerned-all persons: Christ and Belial, believers and unbelievers; all that happens is at bottom Christian or Satanic; all that we do is on the side of Christ or on the side of the great enemy of our Lord.

The recollection of the Satanic hindrances to his visit does not detain the Apostle more than a moment; his heart overflows them to those whom he describes as his hope and joy and crown of glorying in the day of the Lord Jesus. The form of words implies that these titles are not the property of the Thessalonians only; yet at the same time, that if they belong to anybody, they belong to them.

It is almost a pity to analyse words which are spoken out of the abundance of the heart; yet we pass over the surface, and lose the sense of their truth, unless we do so. What then does Paul mean when he calls the Thessalonians his hope? Everyone looks at least a certain distance into the future, and projects something into it to give it reality and interest to himself. That is his hope. It may be the returns he expects from investments of money; it may be the expansion of some scheme he has set on foot for the common good; it may be his children, on whose love and reverence, or on whose advancement in life, he counts for the happiness of his declining years. Paul, we know, had none of these hopes; when he looked down into the future he saw no fortune growing secretly, no peaceful retirement in which the love of sons and daughters would surround him and call him blessed. Yet his future was not dreary or desolate; it was bright with a great light; he had a hope that made life abundantly worth living, and that hope was the Thessalonians. He saw them in his mind’s eye grow daily out of the lingering taint of heathenism into the purity and love of Christ. He saw them, as the discipline of God’s providence had its perfect work in them, escape from the immaturity of babes in Christ, and grow in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour to the measure of the stature of perfect men. He saw them presented faultless in the presence of the Lord’s glory in the great day. That was something to live for. To witness that spiritual transformation which he had inaugurated carried on to completion gave the future a greatness and a worth which made the Apostle’s heart leap for joy. He is glad when he thinks of his children walking in the truth. They are "a chaplet of victory of which he may justly make his boast"; he is prouder of them than a king of his crown, or a champion in the games of his wreath.

Such words might well be charged with extravagance if we omitted to look at the connection in which they stand. "What is our hope, or joy, or crown of glorying? Are not even ye, before our Lord Jesus at His coming." "Before our Lord Jesus at His coming": this is the presence, this the occasion, with which Paul confronts, in imagination, his hope and joy and triumph. They are such as give him confidence and exultation even as he thinks of the great event which will try all common hopes and put them to shame.

None of us, it may be presumed, is without hope when he looks into the future; but how far does our future extend? For what situation is provision made by the hope that we actually cherish? The one certain event of the future is that we shall stand before our Lord Jesus, at His coming; can we acknowledge there with joy and boasting the hope on which our heart is at present set? Can we carry into that presence the expectation which at this moment gives us courage to look down the years to come? Not everyone can. There are multitudes of human hopes which terminate on material things, and expire with Christ’s coming; it is not these that can give us joy at last. The only hope whose light is not dimmed by the brightness of Christ’s appearing is the disinterested spiritual hope of one who has made himself the servant of others for Jesus’ sake, and has lived to see and aid their growth in the Lord. The fire which tries every man’s work of what sort it is, brings out the imperishable worth of this. The Old Testament as well as the New tells us that souls saved and sanctified are the one hope and glory of men in the great day. "They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever." It is a favourite thought of the Apostle himself: "appear as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life, that I may have whereof to glory in the day of Christ." Even the Lord Himself, as he looks at the men whom He has gathered out of the world, can say, "I am glorified in them." It is His glory, as the Father’s servant, that He has sought and found and sanctified His Church.

We ought not to pass by such fervent utterances as if they must mean less than they say. We ought not, because our own hold on the circle of Christian facts is weak, to glide over the qualification, "before our Lord Jesus at His coming," as if it were without any solid meaning. The Bible is verbally inspired at least in the sense that nothing in it is otiose; every word is meant. And we miss the main lesson of this passage, if we do not ask ourselves whether we have any hope which is valid on the grand occasion in question. Your future may be secured as far as this world is concerned. Your investments may be as safe as the National debt; the loyalty and virtue of your children all that heart could wish; you are not afraid of poverty, loneliness, age. But what of our Lord Jesus, and His coming? Will your hope be worth anything before Him, at that day? You do not know how near it is. For some it may be very near. There are people in every congregation who know they cannot live ten years. No one knows that he will live so long. And all are summoned to take that great event into their view of the future; and to make ready for it. Is it not a fine thing to think that, if we do so, we can look forward to the coming of our Lord Jesus with hope and joy and triumph?

The intensity of Paul’s love for the Thessalonians made his longing to see them intolerable; and after being twice baffled in his attempts to revisit them he sent Timothy in his stead. Rather than be without news of them he was content to be left in Athens alone. He mentions this as if it had been a great sacrifice, and probably it was so for him. He seems to have been in many ways dependent on the sympathy and assistance of others; and, of all places he ever visited, Athens was the most trying to his ardent temperament. It was covered with idols and exceedingly religious; yet it seemed to him more hopelessly away from God than any city in the world. Never had he been left alone in a place so unsympathetic; never had he felt so great a gulf fixed between others’ minds and his own; and Timothy had no sooner gone than he made his way to Corinth, where his messenger found him on his return.

The object of this mission is sufficiently plain from what has been already said. The Apostle knew the troubles that had beset the Thessalonians; and it was Timothy’s function to establish them and to comfort them concerning their faith, that no man should be moved by these afflictions. The word translated "moved" occurs only this once in the New Testament, and the meaning is not quite certain. It may be quite as general as our version represents it; but it may also have a more definite sense, viz., that of allowing oneself to be befooled, or flattered out of one’s faith, in the midst of tribulations. Besides the vehement enemies who pursued Paul with open violence, there may have been others who spoke of him to the Thessalonians as a mere enthusiast, the victim in his own person of delusions about a resurrection and a life to come, which he sought to impose upon others; and who, when affliction came on the Church, tried by appeals of this sort to wheedle the Thessalonians out of their faith. Such a situation would answer very exactly to the peculiar word here used. But however this may be, the general situation was plain. The Church was suffering; suffering is a trial which not everyone can bear; and Paul was anxious to have some one with them who had learned the elementary Christian lesson, that it is inevitable. The disciples had not, indeed, been taken by surprise. The Apostle had told them before that to this lot Christians were appointed; we are destined, he says, to suffer affliction. Nevertheless, it is one thing to know this by being told, and another to know it, as the Thessalonians now did, by experience. The two things are as different as reading a book about a trade and serving an apprenticeship to it.

The suffering of the good because they are good is mysterious, in part because it has the two aspects here made so manifest. On the one hand, it comes by Divine appointment; it is the law under which the Son of God Himself and all His followers live. But on the other hand, it is capable of a double issue. It may perfect those who endure it as ordained by God; it may bring out the solidity of their character, and redound to the glory of their Saviour; or it may give an opening to the tempter to seduce them from a path so full of pain. The one thing of which Paul is certain is, that the salvation of Christ is cheaply purchased at any price of affliction. Christ’s life here and hereafter is the supreme good; the one thing needful, for which all else may be counted loss.

This possible double issue of suffering-in higher goodness, or in the abandonment of the narrow way-explains the difference of tone with which Scripture speaks of it in different places. With the happy issue in view, it bids us count it all joy when we fall into divers temptations; blessed, it exclaims, is the man who endures; for when he is found proof, he shall receive the crown of life. But with human weakness in view, and the terrible consequences of failure, it bids us pray, Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. The true Christian will seek, in all the afflictions of life, to combine the courage and hope of the one view with the humility and fear of the other.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-thessalonians-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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