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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Thessalonians 3

 

 

Verses 1-5

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.


Verses 6-13

Chapter 8

LOVE AND PRAYERS

1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 (R.V.)

THESE verses present no peculiar difficulty to the expositor. They illustrate the remark of Bengel that the First Epistle to the Thessalonians is characterised by a kind of unmixed sweetness, -a quality which is insipid to those who are indifferent to the relations in which it is displayed, but which can never lose its charm for simple, kindly, Christian hearts

It is worth observing that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians the moment Timothy returned. Such promptitude has not only a business value, but a moral and Christian worth as well. It not only prevents arrears from accumulating; it gives those to whom we write the first and freshest feelings of the heart. Of course one may write hastily, as well as speak hastily; a living critic has had the audacity to say that if Paul had kept the Epistle to the Galatians long enough to read it over, he would have thrown it into the fire; but most of our faults as correspondents arise, not from precipitation, but from undue delay. Where our hearts prompt us to speak or to write, let us dread procrastination as a sin. The letter of congratulation or condolence is natural and in place, and it will be inspired by true feeling, if it is written when the sad or joyful news has touched the heart with genuine sympathy; but if it is put off till a more convenient season, it will never be done as it ought to be. How fervent and hearty is the language in which Paul here expresses himself. The news that Timothy has brought from Thessalonica is a veritable gospel to him. It has comforted him in all his necessities and distresses; it has brought him new life; it has been an indescribable joy. If he had not written for a fortnight, we should have missed this rebound of gladness; and what is more serious, the Thessalonians would have missed it. Cold-hearted people may think they would have survived the loss; but it is a loss which the cold hearted cannot estimate. Who can doubt that, when this letter was read in the little congregation at Thessalonica, the hearts of the disciples warmed again to the great teacher who had been among them, and to the message of love which he had preached? The gospel is wonderfully commended by the manifestation of its own spirit in its ministers, and the love of Paul to the Thessalonians no doubt made it easier for them to believe in the love of God, and to love one another. For good, as well as for evil, a little spark can kindle a great fire; and it would only be natural if the burning words of this letter kindled the flame of love anew in hearts in which it was beginning to die.

There were two causes for Paul’s joy, one larger and more public; the other, proper to himself. The first was the faith and love of the Thessalonians, or, as he calls it further on, their standing fast in the Lord; the other was their affectionate and faithful remembrance of him, their desire, earnestly reciprocated on his part, to see his face once more.

The visitation of a Christian congregation by a deputy from Synod or Assembly is sometimes embarrassing: no one knows exactly what is wanted; a schedule of queries, filled up by the minister or the office bearers, is a painfully formal affair, which gives little real knowledge of the health and spirit of the Church. But Timothy was one of the founders of the church at Thessalonica; he had an affectionate and natural interest in it; he came at once into close contact with its real condition, and found the disciples full of faith and love. Faith and love are not easily calculated and registered; but where they exist in any power they are easily felt by a Christian man. They determine the temperature of the congregation; and a very short experience enables a true disciple to tell whether it is high or low. To the great joy of Timothy, he found the Thessalonians unmistakably Christian. They were standing fast in the Lord. Christ was the basis, the centre, the soul of their life. Their faith is mentioned twice, because that is the most comprehensive word to describe the new life in its root; they still kept their hold of the Word of God in the gospel; no one could live among them and not feel that unseen things were real to their souls; God and Christ, the resurrection and the coming judgment, the atonement and the final salvation, were the great forces which ruled their thoughts and lives. Faith in these distinguished them from their Pagan neighbours. It made them a Christian congregation, in which an Evangelist like Timothy at once found himself at home. The common faith had its most signal exhibition in love; if it separated the brethren from the rest of the world, it united them more closely to each other. Everyone knows what love is in a family, and how different the spiritual atmosphere is, according as love reigns or is disregarded in the relations of the household. In some homes love does reign: parents and children, brothers and sisters, masters and servants, bear themselves beautifully to each other; it is a delight to visit them; there are openness and simplicity, sweetness of temper, a willingness to deny self, a readiness to be interested in others, no suspicion, reserve, or gloom; there is one mind and one heart, in old and young, and a brightness like the sunshine. In others, again, we see the very opposite: friction, self-will, captiousness, mutual distrust, readiness to suspect or to sneer, a painful separation of hearts that should be one. And the same holds good of churches, which are in reality large families, united not by natural but by spiritual bonds. We ought all to be friends. There ought to be a spirit of love shed abroad in our hearts, drawing us to each other in spite of natural differences, giving us an unaffected interest in each other, making us frank, sincere, cordial, self-denying, eager to help where help is needed and it is in our power to render it, ready to resign our own liking, and our own judgment even, to the common mind and purpose of the Church. These two graces of faith and love are the very soul of the Christian life. It is good news to a good man to hear that they exist in any church. It is good news to Christ.

But besides this more public cause for joy, which Paul shared to some extent with all Christian men, there was another more private to himself, -their good remembrance of him, and their earnest desire to see him. Paul wrought for nothing but love. He did not care for money or for fame; but a place in the hearts of his disciples was dear to him above everything else in the world. He did not always get it. Sometimes those who had just heard the gospel from his lips, and welcomed its glad tidings, were prejudiced against him; they deserted him for more attractive preachers; they forgot, amid the multitude of their Christian instructors, the father who had begotten them in the gospel. Such occurrences, of which we read in the Epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians, were a deep grief to Paul; and though he says to one of these thankless churches, "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you the less I be loved," he says also, "Brethren, receive us; make room for us in your hearts; our heart has been opened wide to you." He hungered and thirsted for an answer of love to all the love which he lavished on his converts; and his heart leaped up when Timothy returned from Thessalonica, and told him that the disciples there had good remembrance of him, that is, spoke of him with love, and longed to see him once more. Nobody is fit to be a servant of Christ in any degree, as parent, or teacher, or elder, or pastor, who does not know what this craving for love is. It is not selfishness: it is itself one side of love. Not to care for a place in the hearts of others; not to wish for love, not to need it, not to miss it if it is wanting, does not signify that we are free from selfishness or vanity: it is the mark of a cold and narrow heart, shut up in itself, and disqualified for any service the very essence of which is love. The thanklessness or indifference of others is not a reason why we should cease to serve them; yet it is apt to make the attempt at service heartless; and if you would encourage any who have ever helped you in your spiritual life, do not forget them, but esteem them very highly in love for their works’ sake.

When Timothy returned from Thessalonica, he found Paul sorely in need of good news. He was beset by distress and affliction; not inward or spiritual troubles, but persecutions and sufferings, which befell him from the enemies of the gospel. So extreme was his distress that he even speaks of it by implication as death. But the glad tidings of Thessalonian faith and love swept it at once away. They brought comfort, joy, thanksgiving, life from the dead. How intensely, we are compelled to say, did this man live his apostolic life! What depths and heights are in it; what depression, not stopping short of despair; what hope, not falling short of triumph. There are Christian workers in multitudes whose experience, it is to be feared, gives them no key to what we read here. There is less passion in their life in a year than there was in Paul’s in a day; they know nothing of these transitions from distress and affliction to unspeakable joy and praise. Of course all men are not alike; all natures are not equally impressible; but surely all who are engaged in work which asks the heart or nothing should suspect themselves if they go on from week to week and year to year with heart unmoved. It is a great thing to have part in a work which deals with men for their spiritual interests-which has in view life and death, God and Christ, salvation and judgment. Who can think of failures and discouragements without pain and fear? who can hear the glad tidings of victory without heartfelt joy? Is it not those only who have neither part nor lot in the matter?

The Apostle in the fulness of his joy turns with devout gratitude toward God. It is He who has kept the Thessalonians from falling, and the only return the Apostle can make is to express his thankfulness. He feels how unworthy words are of God’s kindness; how unequal even to his own feelings; but they are the first recompense to be made, and he does not withhold them. There is no surer mark of a truly pious spirit than this grateful mood. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above; most directly and immediately are all gifts like love and faith to be referred to God as their source, and to call forth the thanks and praise of those who are interested in them. If God does little for us, giving us few signs of His presence and help, may it not be because we have refused to acknowledge His kindness when He has interposed on our behalf? "Whoso offereth praise," He says, "glorifieth Me." "In everything give thanks."

Paul’s love for the Thessalonians did not blind him to their imperfections. It was their faith which comforted him in all his distress, yet he speaks of the deficiencies of their faith as something he sought to remedy. In one sense faith is a very simple thing, the setting of the heart right with God in Christ Jesus. In another, it is very comprehensive. It has to lay hold on the whole revelation which God has made in His Son, and it has to pass into action through love in every department of life. It is related on the one side to knowledge, and on the other to conduct. Now Timothy saw that while the Thessalonians had the root of the matter in them., and had set themselves right with God, they were far from perfect. They were ignorant of much which it concerned Christians to know; they had false ideas on many points in regard to which God had given light. They had much to do before they could be said to have escaped from the prejudices, the instincts, and the habits of heathenism, and to have entered completely into the mind of Christ. In later chapters we shall find the Apostle rectifying what was amiss in their notions both of truth and duty; and, in doing so, opening up to us the lines on which defective faith needs to be corrected and supplemented.

But we should not pass by this notice of the deficiencies of faith without asking ourselves whether our own faith is alive and progressive. It may be quite true and sound in itself; but what if it never gets any further on? It is in its nature an engrafting into Christ, a setting of the soul into a vital connection with Him; and if it is what it should be, there will be a transfusion, by means of it, of Christ into us. We shall get a larger and surer possession of the mind of Christ, which is the standard both of spiritual truth and of spiritual life. His thoughts will be our thoughts; His judgment, our judgment; His estimates of life and the various elements in it, our estimates; His disposition and conduct, the pattern and the inspiration of ours. Faith is a little thing in itself, the smallest of small beginnings; in its earliest stage it is compatible with a high degree of ignorance, of foolishness, of insensibility in the conscience; and hence the believer must not forget that he is a disciple; and that though he has entered the school of Christ, he has only entered it, and has many classes to pass through, and much to learn and unlearn, before he can become a credit to his Teacher. An Apostle coming among us would in all likelihood be struck with manifest deficiencies in our faith. This aspect of the truth, he would say, is overlooked; this vital doctrine is not really a vital piece of your minds; in your estimate of such and such a thing you are betrayed by worldly prejudices that have survived your conversion; in your conduct in such and such a situation you are utterly at variance with Christ. He would have much to teach us, no doubt, of truth, of right and wrong, and of our Christian calling; and if we wish to remedy the defects of our faith, we must give heed to the words of Christ and His Apostles, so that we may not only be engrafted into Him, but grow up into Him in all things, and become perfect men in Christ Jesus.

In view of their deficiencies, Paul prayed exceedingly that he might see the Thessalonians again; and conscious of his own inability to overcome the hindrances raised in his path by Satan, he refers the whole matter to God. "May our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you." Certainly in that prayer the person directly addressed is our God and Father Himself; our Lord Jesus Christ is introduced in subordination to Him; yet what a dignity is implied in this juxtaposition of God and Christ! Surely the name of a merely human creature, even if such could be exalted to share the throne of God, could not possibly appear in this connection. It is not to be overlooked that both in this and in the similar passage in 2 Thessalonians 2:16 f., where God and Christ are named side by side, the verb is in the singular number. It is an involuntary assent of the Apostle to the word of the Lord, "I and My Father are one." We can understand why He added in this place "our Lord Jesus Christ" to "our God and Father." It was not only that all power was given to the Son in heaven and on earth; but that as Paul well knew from that day on which the Lord arrested him by Damascus, the Saviour’s heart beat in sympathy with His suffering Church, and would surely respond to any prayer on its behalf. Nevertheless, he leaves the result to God; and even if he is not permitted to come to them, he can still pray for them, as he does in the closing verses of the chapter: "The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you; to the end He may stablish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints."

Here it is distinctly Christ who is addressed in prayer; and what the Apostle asks is that He may make the Thessalonians increase and abound in love. Love, he seems to say, is the one grace in which all others are comprehended; we can never have too much of it; we can never have enough. The strong words of the prayer really ask that the Thessalonians may be loving in a superlative degree, overflowing with love. And notice the aspect in which love is here presented to us: it is a power and an exercise of our own souls certainly, yet we are not the fountain of it; it is the Lord who is to make us rich in love. The best commentary on this prayer is the word of the Apostle in another letter: "The love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Ghost which was given unto us." "We love, because He first loved us." In whatever degree love exists in us, God is its source; it is like a faint pulse, every separate beat of which tells of the throbbing of the heart; and it is only as God imparts His Spirit to us more fully that our capacity for loving deepens and expands. When that Spirit springs up within us, an inexhaustible fountain, then rivers of living water, streams of love, will overflow on all around. For God is love, and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.

Paul seeks love for his converts as the means by which their hearts may be established unblamable in holiness. That is a notable direction for those in search of holiness. A selfish, loveless heart can never succeed in this quest. A cold heart is not unblamable, and never will be; it is either pharisaical or foul, or both. But love sanctifies. Often we only escape from our sins by escaping from ourselves; by a hearty, self-denying, self-forgetting interest in others. It is quite possible to think so much about holiness as to put holiness out of our reach: it does not come with concentrating thought upon ourselves at all; it is the child of love, which kindles a fire in the heart in which faults are burnt up. Love is the fulfilling of the law; the sum of the ten commandments; the end of all perfection. Do not let us imagine that there is any other holiness than that which is thus created. There is an ugly kind of faultlessness which is always raising its head anew in the Church; a holiness which knows nothing of love, but consists in a sort of spiritual isolation, in censoriousness, in holding up one’s head and shaking off the dust of one’s feet against brethren, in conceit, in condescension, in sanctimonious separateness from the freedom of common life, as though one were too good for the company which God has given him: all this is as common in the Church as it is plainly condemned in the New Testament. It is an abomination in God’s sight. Except your righteousness, says Christ, exceed this, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Love exceeds it infinitely, and opens the door which is closed to every other claim.

The kingdom of heaven comes before the Apostle’s mind as he writes. The Thessalonians are to be blameless in holiness, not in the judgment of any human tribunal, but before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. At the end of each of these three chapters this great event has risen into view. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is a scene of judgment for some; of joy and glory for others; of imposing splendour for all. Many think that the last words here, "with all His saints," refer to the angels, and Zechariah 14:5, -"The Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with Thee,"-in which angels are undoubtedly meant, has been quoted in support of this view; but such a use of "saints" would be unexampled in the New Testament. The Apostle means the dead in Christ, who, as he explains in a later chapter, will swell the Lord’s train at His coming. The instinctiveness with which Paul recurs to this great event shows how large a place it filled in his creed and in his heart. His hope was a hope of Christ’s second coming; his joy was a joy which would not pale in that awful presence: his holiness was a holiness to stand the test of those searching eyes. Where has this supreme motive gone in the modern Church? Is not this one point in which the apostolic word bids us perfect that which is lacking in our faith?

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-thessalonians-3.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, December 8th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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