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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

1 Thessalonians 5

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-11

Chapter 12

THE DAY OF THE LORD

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (R.V.)

THE last verses of the fourth chapter perfect that which is lacking, on one side, in the faith of the Thessalonians. The Apostle addresses himself to the ignorance of his readers: he instructs them more fully on the circumstances of Christ’s second coming; and he bids them comfort one another with the sure hope that they and their departed friends shall meet, never to part, in the kingdom of the Saviour. In the passage before us he perfects what is lacking to their faith on another side. He addresses himself, not to their ignorance, but to their knowledge; and he instructs them how to improve, instead of abusing, both what they knew and what they were ignorant of, in regard to the last Advent. It had led, in some, to curious inquiries; in others, to a moral restlessness which could not bind itself patiently to duty; yet its true fruit, the Apostle tells them, ought to be hope, watchfulness, and sobriety.

"The day of the Lord" is a famous expression in the Old Testament; it runs through all prophecy, and is one of its most characteristic ideas. It means a day which belongs in a peculiar sense to God: a day which He has chosen for the perfect manifestation of Himself, for the thorough working out of His work among men. It is impossible to combine in one picture all the traits which prophets of different ages, from Amos downward, embody in their representations of this great day. It is heralded, as a rule, by terrific phenomena in nature: the sun is turned into darkness and the moon into blood, and the stars withdraw their light; we read of earthquake and tempest, of blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The great day ushers in the deliverance of God’s people from all their enemies; and it is accompanied by a terrible sifting process, which separates the sinners and hypocrites among the holy people from those who are truly the Lord’s. Wherever it appears, the day of the Lord has the character of finality. It is a supreme manifestation of judgment, in which the wicked perish forever; it is a supreme manifestation of grace, in which a new and unchangeable life of blessedness is opened to the righteous. Sometimes it seemed near to the prophet, and sometimes far off; but near or far, it bounded his horizon; he saw nothing beyond. It was the end of one era, and the beginning of another which should have no end.

This great conception is carried over by the Apostle from the Old Testament to the New. The day of the Lord is identified with the Return of Christ. All the contents of that old conception are carried over along with it. Christ’s return bounds the Apostle’s horizon; it is the final revelation of the mercy and judgment of God. There is sudden destruction in it for some, a darkness in which there is no light at all; and for others, eternal salvation, a light in which there is no darkness at all. It is the end of the present order of things, and the beginning of a new and eternal order. All this the Thessalonians knew; they had been carefully taught it by the Apostle. He did not need to write such elementary truths, nor did he need to say anything about the times and seasons which the Father had kept in His own power. They knew perfectly all that had been revealed on this matter, viz., that the day of the Lord comes exactly as a thief in the night. Suddenly, unexpectedly, giving a shock of alarm and terror to those whom it finds unprepared, -in such wise it breaks upon the world. The telling image, so frequent with the Apostles, was derived from the Master Himself; we can imagine the solemnity with which Christ said, "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame." The New Testament tells us everywhere that men will be taken at unawares by the final revelation of Christ as Judge and Saviour; and in so doing, it enforces with all possible earnestness the duty of watching. False security is so easy, so natural, -looking to the general attitude, even of Christian men, to this truth, one is tempted to say, so inevitable, -that it may well seem. vain to urge the duty of watchfulness more. As it was in the days of Noah, as it was in the days of Lot, as it was-when Jerusalem fell, as it is at this moment, so shall it be at the day of the Lord. Men will say, Peace and safety, though every sign of the times says, Judgment. They will eat and drink, plant and build, marry and be given in marriage, with their whole heart concentrated and absorbed in these transient interests, till in a moment suddenly, like the lightning which flashes from east to west, the sign of the Son of Man is seen in heaven. Instead of peace and safety, sudden destruction surprises them; all that they have lived for passes away; they awake, as from deep sleep, to discover that their soul has no part with God. It is too late then to think of preparing for the end: the end has come; and it is with solemn emphasis the Apostle adds, "They shall in no wise escape."

A doom so awful, a life so evil, cannot be the destiny or the duty of any Christian man. "Ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief." Darkness, in that saying of the Apostle, has a double weight of meaning. The Christian is not in ignorance of what is impending, and forewarned is forearmed. Neither is he any longer in moral darkness, plunged in vice, living a life the first necessity of which is to keep out of God’s sight. Once the Thessalonians had been in such darkness; their souls had had their part in a world sunk in sin, on which the day spring from on high had not risen; but now that time was past. God had shined into their hearts; He who is Himself light had poured the radiance of His own love and truth into them till ignorance, vice, and wickedness had passed away, and they had become light in the Lord. How intimate is the relation between the Christian and God, how complete the regeneration, expressed in the words, "Ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day; we are not of the night, nor of darkness"! There are shady things in the world, and shady persons, but they are not in Christianity, or among Christians. The true Christian takes his nature, all that characterises and distinguishes him, from light. There is no darkness in him, nothing to hide, no guilty secret, no corner of his being into which the light of God has not penetrated, nothing that makes him dread exposure. His whole nature is full of light, transparently luminous, so that it is impossible to surprise him or take him at a disadvantage. This, at least, is his ideal character; to this he is called, and this he makes his aim. There are those, the Apostle implies, who take their character from night and darkness, -men with souls that hide from God, that love secrecy, that have much to remember they dare not speak of, that turn with instinctive aversion from the light which the gospel brings, and the sincerity and openness which it claims; men, in short, who have come to love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. The day of the Lord will certainly be a surprise to them; it will smite them with sudden terror, as the midnight thief, breaking unseen through door or window, terrifies the defenceless householder; it will overwhelm them with despair, because it will come as a great and searching light, -a day on which God will bring every hidden thing to view, and judge the secrets of men’s hearts by Christ Jesus. For those who have lived in darkness the surprise will be inevitable; but what surprise can there be for the children of the light? They are partakers of the Divine nature; there is nothing in their souls which they would not have God know; the light that shines from the great white throne will discover nothing in them to which its searching brightness is unwelcome; Christ’s coming is so far from. disconcerting them that it is really the crowning of their hopes.

The Apostle demands of his disciples conduct answering to this ideal. Walk worthy, he says, of your privileges and of your calling. "Let us not sleep, as do the rest, but let us watch and be sober." "Sleep" is certainly a strange word to describe the life of the worldly man. He probably thinks himself very wide awake, and as far as a certain circle of interests is concerned, probably is so. The children of this world, Jesus tells us, are wonderfully wise for their generation. They are more shrewd and more enterprising than the children of light. But what a stupor falls upon them, what a lethargy, what a deep unconscious slumber, when the interests in view are spiritual. The claims of God, the future of the soul, the coming of Christ, our manifestation at His judgment seat, they are not awake to any concern in these. They live on as if these were not realities at all; if they pass through their minds on occasion, as they look at the Bible or listen to a sermon, it is as dreams pass through the mind of one asleep; they go out and shake themselves, and all is over; earth has recovered its solidity, and the airy unrealities have passed away. Philosophers have amused themselves with the difficulty of finding a scientific criterion between the experiences of the sleeping and the waking state, i.e., a means of distinguishing between the kind of reality which belongs to each; it is at least one element of sanity to be able to make the distinction. If we may enlarge the ideas of sleep and waking, as they are enlarged by the Apostle in this passage, it is a distinction which many fail to make. When they have the ideas which make up the staple of revelation presented to them, they feel as if they were in dreamland; there is no substance to them in a page of St. Paul; they cannot grasp the realities that underlie his words, any more than they can grasp the forms which swept before their minds in last night’s sleep. But when they go out to their work in the world, to deal in commodities, to handle money, then they are in the sphere of real things, and wide awake enough. Yet the sound mind will reverse their decisions. It is the visible things that are unreal and that ultimately pass away; the spiritual things-God, Christ, the human soul, faith, love, hope-that abide. Let us not face our life in that sleepy mood to which the spiritual is but a dream; on the contrary, as we are of the day, let us be wide awake and sober. The world is full of illusions, of shadows which impose themselves as substances upon the heedless, of gilded trifles which the man whose eyes are heavy with sleep accepts as gold; but the Christian ought not to be thus deceived. Look to the coming of the Lord, Paul says, and do not sleep through your days, like the heathen, making your life one long delusion; taking the transitory for the eternal, and regarding the eternal as a dream; that is the way to be surprised with sudden destruction at the last; watch and be sober; and you will not be ashamed before Him at His coming.

It may not be out of place to insist on the fact that "sober" in this passage means sober as opposed to drunk. No one would wish to be overtaken drunk by any great occasion; yet the day of the Lord is associated in at least three passages of Scripture with a warning against this gross sin. "Take heed to yourselves," the Master says, "lest haply your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day come on you suddenly as a snare." "The night is far spent," says the Apostle, "the day is at hand Let us walk honestly as in the day; not in revelling and drunkenness." And in this passage: "Let us, since we are of the day, be sober; they that be drunken are drunken in the night." The conscience of men is awakening to the sin of excess, but it has much to do before it comes to the New Testament standard. Does it not help us to see it in its true light when it is thus confronted with the day of the Lord? What horror could be more awful than to be overtaken in this state? What death is more terrible to contemplate than one which is not so very rare-death in drink?

Wakefulness and sobriety do not exhaust the demands made upon the Christian. He is also to be on his guard. "Put on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation." While waiting for the Lord’s coming, the Christian waits in a hostile world. He is exposed to assault from spiritual enemies who aim at nothing less than his life, and he needs to be protected against them. In the very beginning of this letter we came upon the three Christian graces; the Thessalonians were commended for their work of faith, labour of love, and patience of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. There they were represented as active powers in the Christian life, each manifesting its presence by some appropriate work, or some notable fruit of character; here they constitute a defensive armour by which the Christian is shielded against any mortal assault. We cannot press the figure further than this. If we keep our faith in Jesus Christ, if we love one another, if our hearts are set with confident hope on that salvation which is to be brought to us at Christ’s appearing, we need fear no evil; no foe can touch our life. It is remarkable, I think, that both here and in the famous passage in Ephesians, as well as in the original of both in Isaiah 59:17, salvation, or, to be more precise, the hope of salvation, is made the helmet. The Apostle is very free in his comparisons; faith is now a shield, and now a breastplate; the breastplate in one passage is faith and love, and in another righteousness; but the helmet is always the same. Without hope, he would say to us, no man can hold up his head in the battle; and the Christian hope is always Christ’s second coming. If He is not to come again, the very word hope may be blotted out of the New Testament. This assured grasp on the coming salvation-a salvation ready to be revealed in the last times-is what gives the spirit of victory to the Christian even in the darkest hour.

The mention of salvation brings the Apostle back to his principal subject. It is as if he wrote, "for a helmet the hope of salvation; salvation, I say; for God did not appoint us to wrath, but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ." The day of the Lord is indeed a day of wrath, -a day when men will cry to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath is come. The Apostle cannot remember it for any purpose without getting a glimpse of those terrors; but it is not for these he recalls it at this time. God did not appoint Christians to the wrath of that day, but to its salvation, -a salvation the hope of which is to cover their heads in the day of battle.

The next verse-the tenth-has the peculiar interest of containing the only hint to be found in this early Epistle of Paul’s teaching as to the mode of salvation. We obtain it through Jesus Christ, who died for us. It is not who died instead of us, nor even on our behalf ( υπερ), but, according to the true reading, who died a death in which we are concerned. It is the most vague expression that could have been used to signify that Christ’s death had something to do with our salvation. Of course it does not follow that Paul had said no more to the Thessalonians than he indicates here; judging from the account he gives in 1st Corinthians of his preaching immediately after he left Thessalonica, one would suppose he had been much more explicit; certainly no church ever existed that was not based on the Atonement and the Resurrection. In point of fact, however, what is here made prominent is not the mode of salvation, but one special result of salvation as accomplished by Christ’s death, a result contemplated by Christ, and pertinent to the purpose of this letter; He died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should together live with Him. The same conception precisely is found in Romans 14:9 : "To this end Christ died, and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living." This was His aim in redeeming us by passing through all modes of human existence, seen and unseen. It made Him Lord of all. He filled all things. He claims all modes of existence as His own. Nothing separates from Him. Whether we sleep or wake, whether we live or die, we shall alike live with Him. The strong consolation, to impart which was the Apostle’s original motive in approaching this subject, has thus come uppermost again; in the circumstances of the church, it is this which lies nearest to his heart.

He ends, therefore, with the old exhortation: "Comfort one another, and build each other up, as also ye do." The knowledge of the truth is one thing; the Christian use of it is another: if we cannot help one another very much with the first, there is more in our power with regard to the last. We are not ignorant of Christ’s second coming; of its awful and consoling circumstances; of its final judgment and final mercy; of its final separations and final unions. Why have these things been revealed to us? What influence are they meant to have in our lives? They ought to be consoling and strengthening. They ought to banish hopeless sorrow. They ought to generate and sustain an earnest, sober, watchful spirit; strong patience; a complete independence of this world. It is left to us as Christian men to assist each other in the appropriation and application of these great truths. Let us fix our minds upon them. Our salvation is nearer than when we believed. Christ is coming. There will be a gathering together of all His people unto Him. The living and the dead shall be forever with the Lord. Of the times and the seasons we can say no more than could be said at the beginning; the Father has kept them in His own power; it remains with us to watch and be sober; to arm ourselves with faith, love, and hope; to set our mind on the things that are above, where our true country is, whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.


Verses 12-15

Chapter 13

RULERS AND RULED

1 Thessalonians 5:12-15 (R.V.)

AT the present moment, one great cause of division among Christian churches is the existence of different forms of Church government. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians are separated from each other much more decidedly by difference of organisation than by difference of creed. By some of them, if not by all, a certain form of Church order is identified with the existence of the Church itself. Thus the English-speaking bishops of the world, who met some time ago in conference at Lambeth, adopted as a basis, on which they could treat for union with other Churches, the acceptance of Holy Scripture, of the Sacraments of Baptism. and the Lord’s Supper, of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, and of the Historic Episcopate. In other words, diocesan bishops are as essential to the constitution of the Church as the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the Sacraments. That is an opinion which one may say, without offence, has neither history nor reason on its side. Part of the interest of this Epistle to the Thessalonians lies in the glimpses it gives of the early state of the Church, when such questions would simply have been unintelligible. The little community at Thessalonica was not quite without a constitution-no society could exist on that footing-but its constitution, as we see from this passage, was of the most elementary kind; and it certainly contained nothing like a modern bishop.

"We beseech you," says the Apostle, "to know them that labour among you." "To labour" is the ordinary expression of Paul for such Christian work as he himself did. Perhaps it refers mainly to the work of catechising, to the giving of that regular and connected instruction in Christian truth which followed conversion and baptism. It covers everything that could be of service to the Church or any of its members. It would include even works of charity. There is a passage very like this in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, {1 Corinthians 16:15 f.} where the two things are closely connected: "Now I beseech you, brethren (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have set themselves to minister unto the saints), that ye also be in subjection unto such, and to everyone that helpeth in the work and laboureth." In both passages there is a certain indefiniteness. Those who labour are not necessarily official persons, elders, or, as they are often called in the New Testament, bishops, and deacons; they may have given themselves to the work without any election or ordination at all. We know that this is often the case still. The best workers in a church are not always or necessarily found among those who have official functions to perform. Especially is it so in churches which provide no recognition for women, yet depend for their efficiency as religious agencies even more on women than on men. What would become of our Sunday Schools, of our Home Missions, of our charities, of our visitation of the sick, the aged, and the poor, but for the labour of Christian women? Now what the Apostle tells us here is, that it is labour which, in the first instance, is entitled to respect. "Know them that labour among you," means "Know them for what they are"; recognise with all due reverence their self-denial, their faithfulness, the services they render to you, their claim upon your regard. The Christian labourer does not labour for praise or flattery; but those who take the burden of the church upon them in any way, as pastors or teachers or visitors, as choir or collectors, as managers of the church property, or however else, are entitled to our acknowledgment, and ought not to be left without it. There is no doubt a great deal of unknown, unheeded, unrequited labour in every church. That is inevitable, and probably good; but it should make us the more anxious to acknowledge what we see, and to esteem, the workers very highly in love because of it. How unseemly it is, and how unworthy of the Christian name, when those who do not work busy themselves with criticising those who do, -inventing objections, deriding honest effort, anticipating failure, pouring cold water upon zeal. That is bad for all, but bad especially for those who practise it. The ungenerous soul, which grudges recognition to others, and though it never labours itself has always wisdom to spare for those who do, is in a hopeless state; there is no growth for it in anything noble and good. Let us open our eyes on those who labour among us, men or women, and recognise them as they deserve.

There are two special forms of labour to which the Apostle gives prominence: he mentions as among those that labour "them that are over you in the Lord, and admonish you." The first of the words here employed, the one translated "them that are over" you, is the only hint the Epistle contains of Church government. Wherever there is a society there must be order. There must be those through whom the society acts, those who represent it officially by words or deeds. At Thessalonica there was not a single president, a minister in our sense, possessing to a certain extent an exclusive responsibility; the presidency was in the hands of a plurality of men, what Presbyterians would call a Kirk Session. This body, as far as we can make out from the few surviving indications of their duties, would direct, but not conduct, the public worship, and would manage the financial affairs, and especially the charity, of the church. They would as a rule be elderly men; and were called by the official name, borrowed from the Jews, of elders. They did not, in the earliest times, preach or teach; they were too old to learn that new profession; but what may be called the administration was in their hands; they were the governing committee of the new Christian community. The limits of their authority are indicated by the words "in the Lord." They are over the members of the church in their characters and relations as church members; but they have nothing to do with other departments of life, so far as these relations are unaffected by them.

Side by side with those who preside over the church, Paul mentions those "who admonish you." Admonish is a somewhat severe word; it means to speak to one about his conduct, reminding him of what he seems to have forgotten, and of what is rightly expected from him. It gives us a glimpse of discipline in the early Church, that is, of the care which was taken that those who had named the Christian name should lead a truly Christian life. There is nothing expressly said in this passage about doctrines. Purity of doctrine is certainly essential to the health of the Church, but rightness of life comes before it. There is nothing expressly said about teaching the truth; that work belonged to apostles, prophets, and evangelists, who were ministers of the Church at large, and not fixed to a single congregation; the only exercise of Christian speech proper to the congregation is its use in admonition, i.e., for practical moral purposes. The moral ideal of the gospel must be clearly before the mind of the Church, and all who deviate from it must be admonished of their danger. "It is difficult for us in modern times," says Dr. Hatch, "with the widely different views which we have come to hold as to the relation of Church government to social life, to understand how large a part discipline filled in the communities of primitive times. These communities were what they were mainly by the strictness of their discipline In the midst of ‘a crooked and perverse nation’ they could only hold their own by the extreme of circumspection. Moral purity was not so much a virtue at which they were bound to aim as the very condition of their existence. If the salt of the earth should lose its savour, wherewith should it be salted? If the lights of the world were dimmed, who should rekindle their flame? And of this moral purity the officers of each community were the custodians. ‘They watched for souls as those that must give account."’ This vivid picture should provoke us to reflection. Our minds are not set sufficiently on the practical duty of keeping up the Christian standard. The moral originality of the gospel drops too easily out of sight. Is it not the case that we are much more expert at vindicating the approach of the Church to the standard of the non-Christian world, than at maintaining the necessary distinction between the two? We are certain to bring a good deal of the world into the Church without knowing it; we are certain to have instincts, habits, dispositions, associates perhaps, and likings, which are hostile to the Christian type of character; and it is this which makes admonition indispensable. Far worse than any aberration in thought is an irregularity in conduct which threatens the Christian ideal. When you are warned of such a thing in your conduct by your minister or elder, or by any Christian, do not resent the warning. Take it seriously and kindly; thank God that He has not allowed you to go on unadmonished; and esteem very highly in love the brother or sister who has been so true to you. Nothing is more unchristian than fault finding; nothing is more truly Christian than frank and affectionate admonishing of those who are going astray. This may be especially commended to the young. In youth we are apt to be proud and wilful; we are confident that we can keep ourselves safe in what the old and timid consider dangerous situations; we do not fear temptation, nor think that this or that little fall is more than an indiscretion; and, in any case, we have a determined dislike to being interfered with. All this is very natural; but we should remember that, as Christians, we are pledged to a course of life which is not in all ways natural; to a spirit and conduct which are incompatible with pride; to a seriousness of purpose, to a loftiness and purity of aim, which may all be lost through wilfulness; and we should love and honour those who put their experience at our service, and warn us when, in lightness of heart, we are on the way to make shipwreck of our life. They do not admonish us because they like it, but because they love us and would save us from harm; and love is the only recompense for such a service.

How little there is of an official spirit in what the Apostle has been saying, we see clearly from what follows. In one way it is specially the duty of the elders or pastors in the Church to exercise rule and discipline; but it is not so exclusively their duty as to exempt the members of the Church at large from responsibility. The Apostle addresses the whole congregation when he goes on, "Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be long suffering toward all." Let us look more closely at these simple exhortations.

"Admonish," he says, "the disorderly." Who are they? The word is a military one, and means properly those who leave their place in the ranks. In the Epistle to the Colossians [Colossians 2:5] Paul rejoices over what he calls the solid front presented by their faith in Christ. The solid front is broken, and great advantage given to the enemy, when there are disorderly persons in a church, -men or women who fall short of the Christian standard, or who violate, by irregularities of any kind, the law of Christ. Such are to be admonished by their brethren. Any Christian who sees the disorder has a right to admonish them; nay, it is laid upon his conscience as a sacred duty tenderly and earnestly to do so. We are too much afraid of giving offence, and too little afraid of allowing sin to run its course. Which is better-to speak to the brother who has been disorderly, whether by neglecting work, neglecting worship, or openly falling into sin: which is better, to speak to such a one as a brother, privately, earnestly, lovingly; or to say nothing at all to him, but talk about what we find to censure in him to everybody else, dealing freely behind his back with things we dare not speak of to his face? Surely admonition is better than gossip; if it is more difficult, it is more Christlike too. It may be that our own conduct shuts our mouth, or at least exposes us to a rude retort; but unaffected humility can overcome even that.

But it is not always admonition that is needed. Sometimes the very opposite is in place; and so Paul writes, "Encourage the fainthearted." Put heart into them. The word rendered "fainthearted" is only used in this single passage; yet everyone knows what it means. It includes those for whose benefit the Apostle wrote in chapter 4 the description of Christ’s second coming, -those whose hearts sunk within them as they thought they might never see their departed friends again. It includes those who shrink from persecution, from the smiles or the frowns of the unchristian, and who fear they may deny the Lord. It includes those who have fallen before temptation, and are sitting despondent and fearful, not able to lift up so much as their eyes to heaven and pray the publican’s prayer. All such timid souls need to be heartened; and those who have learned of Jesus, who would not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax, will know how to speak a word in season to them. The whole life of the Lord is an encouragement to the fainthearted; He who welcomed the penitent, who comforted the mourners, who restored Peter after his triple denial, is able to lift up the most timid and to make them stand. Nor is there any work more Christlike than this. The fainthearted get no quarter from the world; bad men delight to trample on the timid; but Christ bids them hope in Him, and strengthen themselves for battle and for victory.

Akin to this exhortation is the one which follows, "Support the weak." That does not mean, Provide for those who are unable to work; but, lay hold of those who are weak in the faith, and keep them up. There are people in every congregation whose connection with Christ and the gospel is very slight; and if some one does not take hold of them, they will drift away altogether. Sometimes such weakness is due to ignorance: the people in question know little about the gospel; it fills no space in their minds; it does not awe their weakness, or fascinate their trust. Sometimes, again, it is due to an unsteadiness of mind or character; they are easily led away by new ideas or by new companions. Sometimes, without any tendency to lapsing, there is a weakness due to a false reverence for the past, and for the traditions and opinions of men, by which the mind and conscience are enslaved. What is to be done with such weak Christians? They are to be supported. Some one is to lay hands upon them, and uphold them till their weakness is outgrown. If they are ignorant, they must be taught. If they are easily carried away by new ideas, they must be shown the incalculable weight of evidence which from every side establishes the unchangeable truth of the gospel. If they are prejudiced and bigoted, or full of irrational scruples, and blind reverence for dead customs, they must be constrained to look the imaginary terrors of liberty in the face, till the truth makes them free. Let us lay this exhortation to heart. Men and women slip away and are lost to the Church and to Christ, because they were weak, and no one supported them. Your word or your influence, spoken or used at the right time, might have saved them. What is the use of strength if not to lay hold of the weak?

It is an apt climax when the Apostle adds, "Be long suffering toward all." He who tries to keep these commandments-"Admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak"-will have need of patience. If we are absolutely indifferent to each other, it does not matter; we can do without it. But if we seek to be of use to each other, our moral infirmities are very trying. We summon up all our love and all our courage, and venture to hint to a brother that something in his conduct has been amiss; and he flies into a passion, and tells us to mind our own business. Or we undertake some trying task of teaching, and after years of pains and patience some guileless question is asked which shows that our labour has been in vain; or we sacrifice our own leisure and recreation to lay hold on some weak one, and discover that the first approach of temptation has been too strong for him after all. How slow, we are tempted to cry, men are to respond to efforts made for their good! Yet we are men who so cry, -men who have wearied God by their own slowness, and who must constantly appeal to His forbearance. Surely it is not too much for us to be long suffering toward all.

This little section closes with a warning against revenge, the vice directly opposed to forbearance. "See that none render unto any one evil for evil; but alway follow after that which is good, one toward another, and toward all." Who are addressed in this verse? No doubt, I should say, all the members of the Church; they have a common interest in seeing that it is not disgraced by revenge. If forgiveness is the original and characteristic virtue of Christianity, it is because revenge is the most natural and instinctive of vices. It is a kind of wild justice, as Bacon says, and men will hardly be persuaded that it is not just. It is the vice which can most easily pass itself off as a virtue; but in the Church it is to have no opportunity of doing so. Christian men are to have their eyes about them; and where a wrong has been done, they are to guard against the possibility of revenge by acting as mediators between the severed brethren. Is it not written in the words of Jesus, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God"? We are not only to refrain from vengeance ourselves, but we are to see to it, as Christian men, that it has no place among us. And here, again, we sometimes have a thankless task, and need to be long suffering. Angry men are unreasonable; and he who seeks the blessing of the peacemaker sometimes earns only the ill name of a busybody in other men’s matters. Nevertheless, wisdom is justified of all her children; and no man who wars against revenge, out of a heart loyal to Christ, can ever be made to look foolish. If that which is good is our constant aim, one toward another, and toward all, we shall gain the confidence even of angry men, and have the joy of seeing evil passions banished from the Church. For revenge is the last stronghold of the natural man; it is the last fort which he holds against the spirit of the gospel; and when it is stormed, Christ reigns indeed.


Verses 16-18

Chapter 14

THE STANDING ORDERS OF THE GOSPEL

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (R.V.)

THE three precepts of these three verses may be called the standing orders of the Christian Church. However various the circumstances in which Christians may find themselves, the duties here prescribed are always binding upon them. We are to rejoice alway, to pray without ceasing, and in everything to give thanks. We may live in peaceful or in troubled times; we may be encompassed with friends or beset by foes; we may see the path we have chosen for ourselves open easily before us, or find our inclination thwarted at every step; but we must always have the music of the gospel in our hearts in its own proper key. Let us look at these rules in order.

"Rejoice alway." There are circumstances in which it is natural for us to rejoice; whether we are Christians or not, joy fills the heart till it overflows. Youth, health, hope, love, these richest and best possessions, give almost every man and woman at least a term of unmixed gladness; some months, or years perhaps, of pure light heartedness, when they feel like singing all the time. But that natural joy can hardly be kept up. It would not be good for us if it could; for it really means that we are for the time absorbed in ourselves, and having found our own satisfaction decline to look beyond. It is quite another situation to which the Apostle addresses himself. He knows that the persons who receive his letter have had to suffer cruelly for their faith in Christ; he knows that some of them have quite lately stood beside the graves of their dead. Must not a man be very sure of himself, very confident of the truth on which he stands, when he ventures to say to people so situated, "Rejoice alway"?

But these people, we must remember, were Christians; they had received the gospel from the Apostle; and, in the gospel, the supreme assurance of the love of God. We need to remind ourselves occasionally that the gospel is good news, glad tidings of great joy. Wherever it comes, it is a joyful sound; it puts a gladness into the heart which no change of circumstances can abate or take away. There is a great deal in the Old Testament which may fairly be described as doubt of God’s love. Even the saints sometimes wondered whether God was good to Israel; they became impatient, unbelieving, bitter, foolish; the outpourings of their hearts in some of the psalms show how far they were from being able to rejoice evermore. But there is nothing the least like this in the New Testament. The New Testament is the work of Christian men, of men who had stood quite close to the supreme manifestation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Some of them had been in Christ’s company for years. They knew that every word He spoke and every deed He wrought declared His love; they knew that it was revealed, above all, by the death which He died; they knew that it was made almighty, immortal, and ever present, by His resurrection from the dead. The sublime revelation of Divine love dominated everything else in their experience. It was impossible for them, for a single moment, to forget it or to escape from it. It drew and fixed their hearts as irresistibly as a mountain peak draws and holds the eyes of the traveller. They never lost sight of the love of God in Christ Jesus, that sight so new, so stupendous, so irresistible, so joyful. And because they did not, they were able to rejoice evermore; and the New Testament, which reflects the life of the first believers, does not contain a querulous word from beginning to end. It is the book of infinite joy.

We see, then, that this command, unreasonable as it appears, is not impracticable. If we are truly Christians, if we have seen and received the love of God, if we see and receive it continually, it will enable us, like those who wrote the New Testament, to rejoice evermore. There are places on our coast where a spring of fresh water gushes up through the sand among the salt waves of the sea; and just such a fountain of joy is the love of God in the Christian soul, even when the waters close over it. "As sorrowful," says the Apostle, "yet alway rejoicing."

Most churches and Christians need to lay this exhortation to heart. It contains a plain direction for our common worship. The house of God is the place where we come to make united and adoring confession of His name. If we think only of ourselves, as we enter, we may be despondent and low spirited enough; but surely we ought to think, in the first instance, of Him, Let God be great in the assembly of His people; let Him be lifted up as He is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and joy will fill our hearts. If the services of the Church are dull, it is because He has been left outside; because the glad tidings of redemption, holiness, and life everlasting are still waiting for admission to our hearts. Do not let us belie the gospel by dreary, joyless worship: it is not so that it is endeared to ourselves or commended to others.

The Apostle’s exhortation contains a hint also for Christian temper. Not only our united worship, but the habitual disposition of each of us, is to be joyful. It would not be easy to measure the loss the cause of Christ has sustained through the neglect of this rule. A conception of Christianity has been set before men, and especially before the young, which could not fail to repel; the typical Christian has been presented, austere and pure perhaps, or lifted high above the world, but rigid, cold, and self-contained. That is not the Christian as the New Testament conceives him. He is cheerful, sunny, joyous; and there is nothing so charming as joy. There is nothing so contagious, because there is nothing in which all men are so willing to partake; and hence there is nothing so powerful in evangelistic work. The joy of the Lord is the strength of the preacher of the gospel. There is an interesting passage in 1 Corinthians 9:1-27, where Paul enlarges on a certain relation between the evangelist and the evangel. The gospel, he tells us, is God’s free gift to the world; and he who would become a fellow worker with the gospel must enter into the spirit of it, and make his preaching also a free gift. So here, one may say, the gospel is conceived as glad tidings; and whoever would open his lips for Christ must enter into the spirit of his message, and stand up to speak clothed in joy. Our looks and tones must not belie our words. Languor, dulness, dreariness, a melancholy visage, are a libel upon the gospel. If the knowledge of the love of God does not make us glad, what does it do for us? If it does not make a difference to our spirits and our temper, do we really know it? Christ compares its influence to that of new wine; it is nothing if not exhilarating; if it does not make our faces shine, it is because we have not tasted it. I do not overlook, any more than St. Paul did, the causes for sorrow; but the causes for sorrow are transient; they are like the dark clouds which overshadow the sky for a time and then pass away; while the cause of joy-the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus-is permanent; it is like the unchanging blue behind the clouds, ever present, ever radiant, overarching and encompassing all our passing woes. Let us remember it, and see it through the darkest clouds, and it will not be impossible for us to rejoice evermore.

It may seem strange that one difficult thing should be made easy when it is combined with another; but this is what is suggested by the second exhortation of the Apostle, "Pray without ceasing." It is not easy to rejoice alway, but our one hope of doing so is to pray constantly. How are we to understand so singular a precept?

Prayer, we know, when we take it in the widest sense, is the primary mark of the Christian. "Behold, he prayeth," the Lord said of Saul, when He wished to convince Ananias that there was no mistake about his conversion. He who does not pray at all-and is it too much to suppose that some come to churches who never do?-is no Christian. Prayer is the converse of the soul with God; it is that exercise in which we hold up our hearts to Him, that they may be filled with His fulness, and changed into His likeness. The more we pray, and the more we are in contact with Him, the greater is our assurance of His love, the firmer our confidence that He is with us to help and save. If we once think of it, we shall see that our very life as Christians depends on our being in perpetual contact and perpetual fellowship with God. If He does not breathe into us the breath of life, we have no life. If He does not hour by hour send our help from above, we face our spiritual foes without resources.

It is with such thoughts present to the mind that some would interpret the command, "Pray without ceasing." "Cherish a spirit of prayer," they would render it, "and make devotion the true business of life. Cultivate the sense of dependence on God; let it be part of the very structure of your thoughts that without Him you can do nothing, but through His strength all things." But this is, in truth, to put the effect where the cause should be. This spirit of devotion is itself the fruit of ceaseless prayers; this strong consciousness of dependence on God becomes an ever present and abiding thing only when in all our necessities we betake ourselves to Him. Occasions, we must rather say, if we would follow the Apostle’s thought, are never wanting, and will never be wanting, which call for the help of God; therefore, pray without ceasing. It is useless to say that the thing cannot be done before the experiment has been made. There are few works that cannot be accompanied with prayer; there are few indeed that cannot be preceded by prayer; there is none at all that would not profit by prayer. Take the very first work to which you must set your mind and your hand, and you know it will be better done if, as you turn to it, you look up to God and ask His help to do it well and faithfully, as a Christian ought to do it for the Master above. It is not in any vague, indefinite fashion, but by taking prayer with us wherever we go, by consciously, deliberately, and persistently lifting our hearts to God as each emergency in life, great or small, makes its new demand upon us, that the apostolic exhortation is to be obeyed. If prayer is thus combined with all our works, we shall find that it wastes no time, though it fills all. Certainly it is not an easy practice to begin, that of praying without ceasing. It is so natural for us not to pray, that we perpetually forget, and undertake this or that without God. But surely we get reminders enough that this omission of prayer is a mistake. Failure, loss of temper, absence of joy, weariness, and discouragement are its fruits; while prayer brings us without fail the joy and strength of God. The Apostle himself knew that to pray without ceasing requires an extraordinary effort: and in the only passages in which he urges it, he combines with it the duties of watchfulness and persistence. [Colossians 4:2, Romans 12:12] We must be on our guard that the occasion for prayer does not escape us, and we must take care not to be wearied with this incessant reference of everything to God.

The third of the standing orders of the Church is, from one point of view, a combination of the first and second; for thanksgiving is a kind of joyful prayer. As a duty, it is recognised by everyone within limits; the difficulty of it is only seen when it is claimed, as here, without limits: "In everything give thanks." That this is no accidental extravagance is shown by its recurrence in other places. To mention only one: in Philippians 4:6 the Apostle writes, "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Is it really possible to do this thing?

There are times, we all know, at which thanksgiving is natural and easy. When our life has taken the course which we ourselves had purposed, and the result seems to justify our foresight; when those whom we love are prosperous and happy; when we have escaped a great danger, or recovered from a severe illness, we feel, or say we feel, so thankful. Even in such circumstances we are possibly not so thankful as we ought to be. Perhaps, if we were, our lives would be a great deal happier. But at all events we frankly admit that we have cause for thanksgiving; God has been good to us, even in our own estimate of goodness; and we ought to cherish and express our grateful love toward Him. Let us not forget to do so. It has been said that an unblessed sorrow is the saddest thing in life; but perhaps as sad a thing is an unblessed joy. And every joy is unblessed for which we do not give God thanks. "Unhallowed pleasures" is a strong expression, which seems proper only to describe gross wickedness; yet it is the very name which describes any pleasure in our life of which we do not recognise God as the Giver, and for which we do not offer Him our humble and hearty thanks. We would not be so apt to protest against the idea of giving thanks in everything if it had ever been our habit to give thanks in anything. Think of what you call, with thorough conviction, your blessings and your mercies, -your bodily health, your soundness of mind, your calling in this world, the faith which you repose in others and which others repose in you; think of the love of your husband or wife, of all those sweet and tender ties that bind our lives into one; think of the success with which you have wrought out your own purposes, and laboured at your own ideal; and with all this multitude of mercies before your face, ask whether even for these you have given God thanks. Have they been hallowed and made means of grace to you by your grateful acknowledgment that He is the Giver of them. all? If not, it is plain that you have lost much joy, and have to begin the duty of thanksgiving in the easiest and lowest place.

But the Apostle rises high above this when he says, "In everything give thanks." He knew, as I have remarked already, that the Thessalonians had been visited by suffering and death: is there a place for thanksgiving there? Yes, he says; for the Christian does not look on sorrow with the eyes of another man. When sickness comes to him or to his home; when there is loss to be borne, or disappointment, or bereavement; when his plans are frustrated, his hopes deferred, and the whole conduct of his life simply taken out of his hands, he is still called to give thanks to God. For he knows that God is love. He knows that God has a purpose of His own in his life, -a purpose which at the moment he may not discern, but which he is bound to believe wiser and larger than any he could purpose for himself. Everyone who has eyes to see must have seen, in the lives of Christian men and women, fruits of sorrow and of suffering which were conspicuously their best possessions, the things for which the whole Church was under obligation to give thanks to God on their behalf. It is not easy at the moment to see what underlies sorrow; it is not possible to grasp by anticipation the beautiful fruits which it yields in the long run to those who accept it without murmuring: but every Christian knows that all things work together for good to them that love God; and in the strength of that knowledge he is able to keep a thankful heart, however mysterious and trying the providence of God may be. That sorrow, even the deepest and most hopeless, has been blessed, no one can deny. It has taught many a deeper thoughtfulness, a truer estimate of the world and its interests, a more simple trust in God. It has opened the eyes of many to the sufferings of others, and changed boisterous rudeness into tender and delicate sympathy. It has given many weak ones the opportunity of demonstrating the nearness and the strength of Christ, as out of weakness they have been made strong. Often the sufferer in a home is the most thankful member of it. Often the bedside is the sunniest spot in the house, though the bedridden one knows that he or she will never be free again. It is not impossible for a Christian in everything to give thanks.

But it is only a Christian who can do it, as the last words of the Apostle intimate: "This is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward." These words may refer to all that has preceded: "Rejoice alway; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks"; or they may refer to the last clause only. Whichever be the case, the Apostle tells us that the ideal in question has only been revealed in Christ, and hence is only within reach of those who know Christ. Till Christ came, no man ever dreamt of rejoicing alway, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in everything. There were noble ideals in the world, high, severe, and pure; but nothing so lofty, buoyant, and exhilarating as this. Men did not know God well enough to know what His will for them was; they thought He demanded integrity, probably, and beyond that, silent and passive submission at the most; no one had conceived that God’s will for man was that his life should be made up of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving. But he who has seen Jesus Christ, and has discovered the meaning of His life, knows that this is the true ideal. For Jesus came into our world, and lived among us, that we might know God; He manifested the name of God that we might put our trust in it; and that name is Love; it is Father. If we know the Father, it is possible for us, in the spirit of children, to aim at this lofty Christian ideal; if we do not, it will seem to us utterly unreal. The will of God in Christ Jesus means the will of the Father; it is only for children that His will exists. Do not put aside the apostolic exhortation as paradox or extravagance; to Christian hearts, to the children of God, he speaks words of truth and soberness when he says, "Rejoice alway; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks." Has not Christ Jesus given us peace with God, and made us friends instead of enemies? Is not that a fountain of joy too deep for sorrow to touch? Has He not assured us that He is with us all the days, even to the end of the world? Is not that a ground upon which we can look up in prayer all the day long? Has He not told us that all things work together for good to them that love God? Of course we cannot trace His operation always; but when we remember the seal with which Christ sealed that great truth; when we remember that in order to fulfil the purpose of God in each of us He laid down His life on our behalf, can we hesitate to trust His word? And if we do not hesitate, but welcome it gladly as our hope in the darkest hour, shall we not try even in everything to give thanks?


Verses 20-22

Chapter 15

THE SPIRIT

1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 (R.V.)

THESE verses are abruptly introduced, but are not unconnected with what precedes. The Apostle has spoken of order and discipline, and of the joyful and devout temper which should characterise the Christian Church; and here he comes to speak of that Spirit in which the Church lives, and moves, and has her being. The presence of the Spirit is, of course, presupposed in all that he has said already: how could men, except by His help, "rejoice alway, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks"? But there are other manifestations of the Spirit’s power, of a more precise and definite character, and it is with these we have here to do.

Spiritus ubi est, ardet. When the Holy Spirit descended on the Church at Pentecost, "there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them"; and their lips were open to declare the mighty works of God. A man who has received this great gift is described as fervent, literally, boiling ( ζεων) with the Spirit. The new birth in those early days was a new birth; it kindled in the soul thoughts and feelings to which it had hitherto been strange; it brought with it the consciousness of new powers; a new vision of God; a new love of holiness; a new insight into the Holy Scriptures, and into the meaning of man’s life; often a new power of ardent, passionate speech. In the First Epistle to the Corinthians Paul describes a primitive Christian congregation. There was not one silent among them. When they came together everyone had a psalm, a revelation, a prophecy, an interpretation. The manifestation of the Spirit had been given to each one to profit withal; and on all hands the spiritual fire was ready to flame forth. Conversion to the Christian faith, the acceptance of the apostolic gospel, was not a thing which made little difference to men: it convulsed their whole nature to its depths; they were never the same again; they were new creatures, with a new life in them, all fervour and flame.

A state so unlike nature, in the ordinary sense of the term, was sure to have its inconveniences. The Christian, even when he had received the gift of the Holy Ghost, was still a man; and as likely as not a man who had to struggle against vanity, folly, ambition, and selfishness of all kinds. His enthusiasm might even seem, in the first instance, to aggravate, instead of removing, his natural faults. It might drive him to speak-for in a primitive church anybody who pleased might speak-when it would have been better for him to be silent. It might lead him to break out in prayer or praise or exhortation, in a style which made the wise sigh. And for those reasons the wise, and such as thought themselves wise, would be apt to discourage the exercise of spiritual gifts altogether. "Contain yourself," they would say to the man whose heart burned within him, and who was restless till the flame could leap out; "contain yourself; exercise a little self-control; it is unworthy of a rational being to be carried away in this fashion."

No doubt situations like this were common in the church at Thessalonica. They are produced inevitably by differences of age and of temperament. The old and the phlegmatic are a natural, and, doubtless, a providential, counterweight to the young and sanguine. But the wisdom which comes of experience and of temperament has its disadvantages as compared with fervour of spirit. It is cold and unenthusiastic; it cannot propagate itself; it cannot set fire to anything and spread. And because it is under this incapacity of kindling the souls of men into enthusiasm, it is forbidden to pour cold water on such enthusiasm when it breaks forth in words of fire. That is the meaning of "Quench not the Spirit." The commandment presupposes that the Spirit can be quenched. Cold looks, contemptuous words, silence, studied disregard, go a long way to quench it. So does unsympathetic criticism.

Everyone knows that a fire smokes most when it is newly kindled; but the way to get rid of the smoke is not to pour cold water on the fire, but to let it burn itself clear. If you are wise enough you may even help it to burn itself clear, by rearranging the materials, or securing a better draught; but the wisest thing most people can do when the fire has got hold is to let it alone; and that is also the wise course for most when they meet with a disciple whose zeal burns like fire. Very likely the smoke hurts their eyes; but the smoke will soon pass by; and it may well be tolerated in the meantime for the sake of the heat. For this apostolic precept takes for granted that fervour of spirit, a Christian enthusiasm for what is good, is the best thing in the world. It may be untaught and inexperienced; it may have all its mistakes to make; it may be wonderfully blind to the limitations which the stern necessities of life put upon the generous hopes of man: but it is of God; it is expansive; it is contagious; it is worth more as a spiritual force than all the wisdom in the world.

I have hinted at ways in which the Spirit is quenched; it is sad to reflect that from one point of view the history of the Church is a long series of transgressions of this precept, checked by an equally long series of rebellions of the Spirit. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is," the Apostle tells us elsewhere, "there is liberty." But liberty in a society has its dangers; it is, to a certain extent, at war with order; and the guardians of order are not apt to be too considerate of it. Hence it came to pass that at a very early period, and in the interests of good order, the freedom of the Spirit was summarily suppressed in the Church. "The gift of ruling," it has been said, "like Aaron’s rod, seemed to swallow up the other gifts." The rulers of the Church became a class entirely apart from its ordinary members, and all exercise of spiritual gifts for the building up of the Church was confined to them. Nay, the monstrous idea was originated, and taught as a dogma, that they alone were the depositaries, or, as it is sometimes said, the custodians, of the grace and truth of the gospel; only through them could men come into contact with the Holy Ghost. In plain English, the Spirit was quenched when Christians met for worship. One great extinguisher was placed over the flame that burned in the hearts of the brethren; it was not allowed to show itself; it must not disturb, by its eruption in praise or prayer or fiery exhortation, the decency and order of divine service. I say that was the condition to which Christian worship was reduced at a very early period; and it is unhappily the condition in which, for the most part, it subsists at this moment. Do you think we are gainers by it? I do not believe it. It has always come from time to time to be intolerable. The Montanists of the second century, the heretical sects of the Middle Ages, the Independents and Quakers of the English Commonwealth, the lay preachers of Wesleyanism, the Salvationists, the Plymouthists, and the Evangelistic associations of our own day, -all these are in various degrees the protest of the Spirit, and its right and necessary protest, against the authority which would quench it, and by quenching it impoverish the Church. In many Nonconformist churches there is a movement just now in favour of a liturgy. A liturgy may indeed be a defence against the coldness and incompetence of the one man to whom the whole conduct of public worship is at present left; but our true refuge is not this mechanical one, but the opening of the mouths of all Christian people. A liturgy, however beautiful, is a melancholy witness to the quenching of the Spirit: it may be better or worse than the prayers of one man; but it could never compare for fervour with the spontaneous prayers of a living Church.

Among the gifts of the Spirit, that which the Apostle valued most highly was prophecy. We read in the Book of Acts of prophets, like Agabus, who foretold future events affecting the fortunes of the gospel, and possibly at Thessalonica the minds of those who were spiritually gifted were preoccupied with thoughts of the Lord’s coming, and made it the subject of their discourses in the Church; but there is no necessary limitation of this sort in the idea of prophesying. The prophet was a man whose rational and moral nature had been quickened by the Spirit of Christ, and who possessed in an uncommon degree the power of speaking edification, exhortation, and comfort. In other words, he was a Christian preacher, endued with wisdom, fervour, and tenderness; and his spiritual addresses were among the Lord’s best gifts to the Church. Such addresses, or prophesyings, Paul tells us, we are not to despise.

Now despise is a strong word; it is, literally, to set utterly at naught, as Herod set at naught Jesus, when he clothed Him in purple, or as the Pharisees set at naught the publicans, even when they came into the Temple to pray. Of course, prophecy, or, to speak in the language of our own time, the preacher’s calling, may be abused: a man may preach without a message, without sincerity, without reverence for God or respect for those to whom he speaks, he may make a mystery, a professional secret, of the truth of God, instead of declaring it even to little children; he may seek, as some who called themselves prophets in early times sought, to make the profession of godliness a source of gain; and under such circumstances no respect is due. But such circumstances are not to be assumed without cause. We are rather to assume that he who stands up in the Church to speak in God’s name has had a word of God entrusted to him; it is not wise to despise it before it is heard. It may be because we have been so often disappointed that we pitch our hopes so low; but to expect nothing is to be guilty of a sort of contempt by anticipation. To despise not prophesyings requires us to look for something from the preacher, some word of God that will build us up in godliness, or bring us encouragement or consolation; it requires us to listen as those who have a precious opportunity given them of being strengthened by Divine grace and truth. We ought not to lounge or fidget while the word of God is spoken, or to turn over the leaves of the Bible at random, or to look at the clock; we ought to hearken for that word which God has put into the preacher’s mouth for us; and it will be a very exceptional prophesying in which there is not a single thought that it would repay us to consider.

When the Apostle claimed respect for the Christian preacher, he did not claim infallibility. That is plain from what follows, for all the words are connected. Despise not prophesyings, but put all things to the test, that is, all the contents of the prophesying, all the utterances of the Christian man whose spiritual ardour has urged him to speak. We may remark in passing that this injunction prohibits all passive listening to the word. Many people prefer this. They come to church, not to be taught, not to exercise any faculty of discernment or testing at all, but to be impressed. They like to be played upon, and to have their feelings moved by a tender or vehement address; it is an easy way of coming into apparent contact with good. But the Apostle here counsels a different attitude. We are to put to the proof all that the preacher says.

This is a favorite text with Protestants, and especially with Protestants of an extreme type. It has been called "a piece of most rationalistic advice"; it has been said to imply "that every man has a verifying faculty, whereby to judge of facts and doctrines, and to decide between right and wrong, truth and falsehood." But this is a most unconsidered extension to give to the Apostle’s words. He does not say a word about every man; he is speaking expressly to the Thessalonians, who were Christian men. He would not have admitted that any man who came in from the street, and constituted himself a judge, was competent to pronounce upon the contents of the prophesyings, and to say which of the burning words were spiritually sound, and which were not. On the contrary, he tells us very plainly that some men have no capacity for this task-"The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit"; and that even in the Christian Church, where all are to some extent spiritual, some have this faculty of discernment in a much higher degree than others. In 1 Corinthians 12:10, "discernment of spirits," this power of distinguishing in spiritual discourse between the gold and that which merely glitters, is itself represented as a distinct spiritual gift; and in a later chapter he says, [1 Corinthians 14:29] "Let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others" (that is, in all probability, the other prophets) "discern." I do not say this to deprecate the judgment of the wise, but to deprecate rash and hasty judgment. A heathen man is no judge of Christian truth; neither is a man with a bad conscience, and an unrepented sin in his heart; neither is a flippant man, who has never been awed by the majestic holiness and love of Jesus Christ, -all these are simply out of court. But the Christian preacher who stands up in the presence of his brethren knows, and rejoices, that he is in the presence of those who can put what he says to the proof. They are his brethren; they are in the same communion of all the saints with Christ Jesus; the same Christian tradition has formed, and the same Christian spirit animates, their conscience; their power to prove his words is a safeguard both to them and to him.

And it is necessary that they should prove them. No man is perfect, not the most devout and enthusiastic of Christians. In his most spiritual utterances something of himself will very naturally mingle; there will be chaff among the wheat; wood, hay, and stubble in the material he brings to build up the Church, as well as gold, silver, and precious stones. That is not a reason for refusing to listen; it is a reason for listening earnestly, conscientiously, and with much forbearance. There is a responsibility laid upon each of us, a responsibility laid upon the Christian conscience of every congregation and of the Church at large, to put prophesyings to the proof. Words that are spiritually unsound, that are out of tune with the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, ought to be discovered when they are spoken in the Church. No man with any idea of modesty, to say nothing of humility, could wish it otherwise. And here, again, we have to regret the quenching of the Spirit. We have all heard the sermon criticised when the preacher could not get the benefit; but have we often heard it spiritually judged, so that he, as well as those who listened to him, is edified, comforted, and encouraged? The preacher has as much need of the word as his hearers; if there is a service which God enables him to do for them, in enlightening their minds or fortifying their wills, there is a corresponding service when they can do for him. An open meeting, a liberty of prophesying, a gathering in which any one could speak as the Spirit gave him utterance, is one of the crying needs of the modern Church.

Let us notice, however, the purpose of this testing of prophecy. Despise not such utterances, the Apostle says, but prove all; hold fast that which is good, and hold off from every evil kind. There is a curious circumstance connected with these short verses. Many of the fathers of the Church connect them with what they consider a saying of Jesus, one of the few which is reasonably attested, though it has failed to find a place in the written gospels. The saying is, "Show yourselves approved money changers." The fathers believed, and on such a point they were likely to be better judges than we, that in the verses before us the Apostle uses a metaphor from coinage. To prove is really to assay, to put to the test as a banker tests a piece of money; the word rendered "good" is often the equivalent of our sterling; "evil," of our base or forged; and the word which in our old Bibles is rendered "appearance"-"Abstain from all appearance of evil"-and in the Revised Version "form"-"Abstain from every form of evil"-has, at least in some connections, the signification of mint or die. If we bring out this faded metaphor in its original freshness, it will run something like this: Show yourselves skilful money changers; do not accept in blind trust all the spiritual currency which you find in circulation; put it all to the test; rub it on the touchstone; keep hold of what is genuine and of sterling value, but every spurious coin decline. Whether the metaphor is in the text or not, -and in spite of a great preponderance of learned names against it, I feel almost certain it is, -it will help to fix the Apostle’s exhortation in our memories. There is no scarcity, at this moment, of spiritual currency. We are deluged with books and spoken words about Christ and the gospel. It is idle and unprofitable, nay, it is positively pernicious, to open our minds promiscuously to them, to give equal and impartial lodging to them all. There is a distinction to be made between the true and the false, between the sterling and the spurious; and till we put ourselves to the trouble to make that distinction, we are not likely to advance very far. How would a man get on in business who could not tell good money from bad? And how is any one to grow in the Christian life whose mind and conscience are not earnestly put to it to distinguish between what is in reality Christian and what is not, and to hold to the one and reject the other? A critic of sermons is apt to forget the practical purpose of the discernment here spoken of. He is apt to think it his function to pick holes. "Oh," he says, "such and such a statement is utterly misleading: the preacher was simply in the air; he did not know what he was talking about." Very possibly; and if you have found out such an unsound idea in the sermon, be brotherly, and let the preacher know. But do not forget the first and main purpose of spiritual judgment-hold fast that which is good. God forbid that you should have no gain out of the sermon except to discover the preacher going astray. Who would think to make his fortune only by detecting base coin?

In conclusion, let us recall to our minds the touchstone which the Apostle himself supplies for this spiritual assaying. "No one," he writes to the Corinthians, "can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Ghost." In other words, whatever is spoken in the Holy Ghost, and is therefore spiritual and true, has this characteristic, this purpose and result, that it exalts Jesus. The Christian Church, that community which embodies spiritual life, has this watchword on its banner, "Jesus is Lord." That presupposes, in the New Testament sense of it, the Resurrection and the Ascension; it signifies the sovereignty of the Son of Man. Everything is genuine in the Church which bears on it the stamp of Christ’s exaltation; everything is spurious and to be rejected which calls that in question. It is the practical recognition of that sovereignty-the surrender of thought, heart, will, and life to Jesus-which constitutes the spiritual man, and gives competence to judge of spiritual things. He in whom Christ reigns judges in all spiritual things, and is judged by no man; but he who is a rebel to Christ, who does not wear His yoke, who has not learned of Him by obedience, who assumes the attitude of equality, and thinks himself at liberty to negotiate and treat with Christ, he has no competence, and no right to judge at all. "Unto Him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by His blood; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen."


Verses 23-28

Chapter 16

CONCLUSION

1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 (R.V.)

THESE verses open with a contrast to what precedes, which is more strongly brought out in the original than in the translation. The Apostle has drawn the likeness of a Christian church, as a Christian church ought to be, waiting for the coming of the Lord; he has appealed to the Thessalonians to make this picture their standard, and to aim at Christian holiness; and conscious of the futility of such advice, as long as it stands alone and addresses itself to man’s unaided efforts, he turns here instinctively to prayer: "The God of peace Himself"-working in independence of your exertions and my exhortations-"sanctify you wholly."

The solemn fulness of this title forbids us to pass it by. Why does Paul describe God in this particular place as the God of peace? Is it not because peace is the only possible basis on which the work of sanctification can proceed? I do not think it is forced to render the words literally, the God of the peace, i.e., the peace with which all believers are familiar, the Christian peace, the primary blessing of the gospel. The God of peace is the God of the gospel, the God who has come preaching peace in Jesus Christ, proclaiming reconciliation to those who are far off and to those who are near. No one can ever be sanctified who does not first accept the message of reconciliation. It is not possible to become holy as God is holy, until, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is God’s way of holiness; and this is why the Apostle presents his prayer for the sanctification of the Thessalonians to the God of peace. We are so slow to learn this, in spite of the countless ways in which it is forced upon us, that one is tempted to call it a secret; yet no secret, surely, could be more open. Who has not tried to overcome a fault, to work off a vicious temper, to break for good with an evil habit, or in some other direction to sanctify himself, and withal to keep out of God’s sight till the work was done? It is of no use. Only the God of Christian peace, the God of the gospel, can sanctify us; or to look at the same thing from our own side, we cannot be sanctified until we are at peace with God. Confess your sins with a humble and penitent heart; accept the forgiveness and friendship of God in Christ Jesus: and then He will work in you both will and deed to further His good pleasure.

Notice the comprehensiveness of the Apostle’s prayer in this place. It is conveyed in three separate words - wholly ( ολοτελεις), entire ( ολοκληρον), and without blame ( αμεμπτως). It is intensified by what has, at least, the look of an enumeration of the parts or elements of which man’s nature consists-"your spirit and soul and body." It is raised to its highest power when the sanctity for which he prays is set in the searching light of the Last Judgment-in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. We all feel how great a thing it is which the Apostle here asks of God: can we bring its details more nearly home to ourselves? Can we tell, in particular, what he means by spirit and soul and body?

The learned and philosophical have found in these three words a magnificent field for the display of philosophy and learning; but unhappily for plain people, it is not very easy to follow them. As the words stand before us in the text, they have a friendly Biblical look; we get a fair impression of the Apostle’s intention in using them; but as they come out in treatises on Biblical Psychology, though they are much more imposing, it would be rash to say they are more strictly scientific, and they are certainly much less apprehensible than they are here. To begin with the easiest one, everybody knows what it meant by the body. What the Apostle prays for in this place is that God would make the body in its entirety-every organ and every function of it-holy. God made the body at the beginning; He made it for Himself; and it is His. To begin with, it is neither holy nor unholy; it has no character of its own at all; but it may be profaned or it may be sanctified; it may be made the servant of God or the servant of sin, consecrated or prostituted. Everybody knows whether his body is being sanctified or not. Everybody knows "the inconceivable evil of sensuality." Everybody knows that pampering of the body, excess in eating and drinking, sloth and dirt, are incompatible with bodily sanctification. It is not a survival of Judaism when the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us to draw near to God "in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." But sanctification, even of the body, really comes only by employment in God’s service; charity, the service of others for Jesus’ sake, is that which makes the body truly His. Holy are the feet which move incessantly on His errands; holy are the hands which, like His, are continually doing good; holy are the lips which plead His cause or speak comfort in His Name. The Apostle himself points the moral of this prayer for the consecration of the body when he says to the Romans, "Present your members as servants to righteousness unto sanctification."

But let us look, now, at the other two terms-spirit and soul. Sometimes one of these is used in contrast with body, sometimes the other. Thus Paul says that the unmarried Christian woman cares for the things of the Lord, seeking only how she may be holy in body and in spirit, -the two together constituting the whole person. Jesus, again, warns His disciples not to fear man, but to fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell; where the person is made to consist, not of body and spirit, but of body and soul. These passages certainly lead us to think that soul and spirit must be very near akin to each other; and that impression is strengthened when we remember such a passage as is found in Mary’s song: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour"; where, according to the laws of Hebrew poetry, soul and spirit must mean practically the same thing. But granting that they do so, when we find two words used for the same thing, the natural inference is that they give us each a different look at it. One of them shows it in one aspect; the other in another. Can we apply that distinction here? I think the use of the words in the Bible enables us to do it quite decidedly; but it is unnecessary to go into the details. The soul means the life which is in man, taken simply as it is, with all its powers; the spirit means that very same life, taken in its relation to God. This relation may be of various kinds: for the life that is in us is derived from God; it is akin to the life of God Himself; it is created with a view to fellowship with God; in the Christian it is actually redeemed and admitted to that fellowship; and in all those aspects it is spiritual life. But we may look at it without thinking of God at all; and then, in Bible language, we are looking, not at man’s spirit, but at his soul.

This inward life, in all its aspects, is to be sanctified through and through. All our powers of thought and imagination are to be consecrated; unholy thoughts are to be banished; lawless, roving imaginings, suppressed. All our inventiveness is to be used in God’s service. All our affections are to be holy. Our heart’s desire is not to settle on anything from which it would shrink in the day of the Lord Jesus. The fire which He came to cast on the earth must be kindled in our souls, and blaze there till it has burned up all that is unworthy of His love. Our consciences must be disciplined by His word and Spirit, till all the aberrations due to pride and passion and the law of the world have been reduced to nothing, and as face answers face in the glass, so our judgment and our will answer His. Paul prays for this when he says, May your whole soul be preserved blameless. But what is the special point of the sanctification of the spirit? It is probably narrowing it a little, but it points us in the right direction, if we say that it has regard to worship and devotion. The spirit of man is his life in its relation to God. Holiness belongs to the very idea of this: but who has not heard of sins in holy things? Which of us ever prays as he ought to pray? Which of us is not weak, distrustful, incoherent, divided in heart, wandering in desire, even when he approaches God? Which of us does not at times forget God altogether? Which of us has really worthy thoughts of God, worthy conceptions of His holiness and of His love, worthy reverence, a worthy trust? Is there not an element in our devotions even, in the life of our spirits at their best and highest, which is worldly and unhallowed, and for which we need the pardoning and sanctifying love of God? The more we reflect upon it, the more comprehensive will this prayer of the Apostle appear, and the more vast and far-reaching the work of sanctification. He seems himself to have felt, as man’s complex nature passes before his mind, with all its elements, all its activities, all its bearings, all its possible and actual profanation, how great a task its complete purification and consecration to God must be. It is a task infinitely beyond man’s power to accomplish. Unless he is prompted and supported from above, it is more than he can hope for, more than he can ask or think. When the Apostle adds to his prayer, as if to justify his boldness, "Faithful is He that calleth you, who will also do it," is it not a New Testament echo of David’s cry, "Thou, O Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, hast revealed to Thy servant, saying, I will build thee a house: therefore hath Thy servant found in his heart to pray this prayer unto Thee"?

Theologians have tried in various ways to find a scientific expression for the Christian conviction implied in such words as these, but with imperfect success. Calvinism is one of these expressions: its doctrines of a Divine decree, and of the perseverance of the saints, really rest upon the truth of this 24th verse (1 Thessalonians 5:24), -that salvation is of God to begin with; and that God, who has begun the good work, is in earnest with it, and will not fail nor be discouraged until He has carried it through. Every Christian depends upon these truths, whatever he may think of Calvinistic inferences from them, or of the forms in which theologians have embodied them. When we pray to God to sanctify us wholly; to make us His in body, soul, and spirit; to preserve our whole nature in all its parts and functions blameless in the day of the Lord Jesus, is not our confidence this, that God has called us to this life of entire consecration, that He has opened the door for us to enter upon it by sending His Son to be a propitiation for our sins, that He has actually begun it by inclining our hearts to receive the gospel, and that He may be depended upon to persevere in it till it is thoroughly accomplished? What would all our good resolutions amount to, if they were not backed by the unchanging purpose of God’s love? What would be the worth of all our efforts and of all our hopes, if behind them, and behind our despondency and our failures too, there did not stand the unwearying faithfulness of God? This is the rock which is higher than we; our refuge; our stronghold; our stay in the time of trouble. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. We may change, but not He.

What follows is the affectionate desultory close of the letter. Paul has prayed for the Thessalonians; he begs their prayers for himself. This request is made no less than seven times in his Epistles-including the one before us: a fact which shows how priceless to the Apostle was the intercession of others on his behalf. So it is always; there is nothing which so directly and powerfully helps a minister of the gospel as the prayers of his congregation. They are the channels of all possible blessing both for him and those to whom he ministers. But prayer for him is to be combined with love to one another: "Salute all the brethren with a holy kiss." The kiss was the ordinary greeting among members of a family; brothers and sisters kissed each other when they met, especially after long separation; even among those who were no kin to each other, but only on friendly terms, it was common enough, and answered to our shaking of hands. In the Church the kiss was the pledge of brotherhood; those who exchanged it declared themselves members of one family. When the Apostle says, "Greet one another with a holy kiss," he means, as holy always does in the New Testament, a Christian kiss; a greeting not of natural affection, nor of social courtesy merely, but recognising the unity of all members of the Church in Christ Jesus, and expressing pure Christian love. The history of the kiss of charity is rather curious, and not without its moral. Of course, its only value was as the natural expression of brotherly love; where the natural expression of such love was not kissing, but the grasping of the hand, or the friendly inclination of the head, the Christian kiss ought to have died a natural death. So, on the whole, it did; but with some partial survivals in ritual, which in the Greek and Romish Churches are not yet extinct. It became a custom in the Church to give the kiss of brotherhood to a member newly admitted by baptism; that practice still survives in some quarters, even when children only are baptised. The great celebrations at Easter, when no element of ritual was omitted, retained the kiss of peace long after it had fallen out of the other services. At Solemn Mass in the Church of Rome the kiss is ceremonially exchanged, between the celebrating and the assistant ministers. At Low Mass it is omitted, or given with what is called an osculatory or Pax. The priest kisses the altar; then he kisses the osculatory, which is a small metal plate; then he hands this to the server, and the server hands it to the people, who pass it from one to another, kissing it as it goes. This cold survival of the cordial greeting of the Apostolic Church warns us to distinguish spirit from letter. "Greet one another with a holy kiss" means, Show your Christian love one to another, frankly and heartily, in the way which comes natural to you. Do not be afraid to break the ice when you come into the church. There should be no ice there to break. Greet your brother or your sister cordially and like a Christian: assume and create the atmosphere of home.

Perhaps the very strong language which follows may point to some lack of good feeling in the church at Thessalonica: "I adjure you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the brethren." Why should he need to adjure them by the Lord? Could there be any doubt that everybody in the church would hear his Epistle? It is not easy to say. Perhaps the elders who received it might have thought it wiser not to tell all that it contained to everybody; we know how instinctive it is for men in office-whether they be ministers of the church or ministers of state-to make a mystery out of their business, and, by keeping something always in reserve, to provide a basis for a despotic and uncontrolled authority. But whether for this or some other purpose, consciously or unconsciously influencing them, Paul seems to have thought the suppression of his letter possible; and gives this strong charge that it be read to all. It is interesting to notice the beginnings of the New Testament. This is its earliest book, and here we see its place in the Church vindicated by the Apostle himself. Of course when he commands it to be read, he does not mean that it is to be read repeatedly; the idea of a New Testament, of a collection of Christian books to stand side by side with the books of the earlier revelation, and to be used like them in public worship, could not enter men’s minds as long as the apostles were with them; but a direction like this manifestly gives the Apostle’s pen the authority of his voice, and makes the writing for us what his personal presence was in his lifetime. The apostolic word is the primary document of the Christian faith; no Christianity has ever existed in the world but that which has drawn its contents and its quality from this; and nothing which departs from this rule is entitled to be called Christian.

The charge to read the letter to all the brethren is one of the many indications in the New Testament that, though the gospel is a mysterion, as it is called in Greek, there is no mystery about it in the modern sense. It is all open and aboveboard. There is not something on the surface, which the simple are to be allowed to believe; and something quite different underneath, into which the wise and prudent are to be initiated. The whole thing has been revealed unto babes. He who makes a mystery out of it, a professional secret which it needs a special education to understand, is not only guilty of a great sin, but proves that he knows nothing about it. Paul knew its length and breadth and depth and height better than any man; and though he had to accommodate himself to human weakness, distinguishing between babes in Christ and such as were able to bear strong meat, he put the highest things within reach of all; "Him we preach," he exclaims to the Colossians, "warning every man, and teaching every man in every wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ." There is no attainment in wisdom or in goodness which is barred against any man by the gospel; and there is no surer mark of faithlessness and treachery in a church than this, that it keeps its members in a perpetual pupilage or minority, discouraging the free use of Holy Scripture, and taking care that all that it contains is not read to all the brethren. Among the many tokens which mark the Church of Rome as faithless to the true conception of the gospel, which proclaims the end of man’s minority in religion, and the coming to age of the true children of God, her treatment of Scripture is the most conspicuous. Let us who have the Book in our hands, and the Spirit to guide us, prize at its true worth this unspeakable gift.

This last caution is followed by the benediction with which in one form. or another the Apostle concludes his letters. Here it is very brief: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." He ends with practically the same prayer as that with which he began: "Grace to you and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ." And what is true of this Epistle is true of all the rest: the. grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is their A-and their W, their first word and their last. Whatever God has to say to us - and in all the New Testament letters there are things that search the heart and make it quake-begins and ends with grace. It has its fountain in the love of God; it is working out, as its end, the purpose of that love. I have known people take a violent dislike to the word grace, probably because they had often heard it used without meaning; but surely it is the sweetest and most constraining even of Bible words. All that God has been to man in Jesus Christ is summed up in it: all His gentleness and beauty, all His tenderness and patience, all the holy passion of His love, is gathered up in grace. What more could one soul wish for another than that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ should be with it?

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-thessalonians-5.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 28th, 2017
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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