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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries
1 Thessalonians

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5

Book Overview - 1 Thessalonians

by Joseph Exell

Introduction.

§ 1. THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE EPISTLE.

THERE is no doubt that the author of this First Epistle to the Thessalonians is the Apostle Paul. This is one of those scriptural writings the genuineness of which has been almost universally acknowledged. It has been called in question only by theologians of the most extreme school of criticism, and has even been admitted by some belonging to that school. The external evidence in its favor is strong. It is indirectly alluded to by the apostolic Fathers; it is directly referred to by such early Fathers as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian; it is contained in the Muratorian Canon, and in the early Syriac and Latin versions belonging to the second century; and its genuineness has never been challenged until recent times. To quote only one of these Fathers; Irenaeus thus writes: "And on account of this the apostle, explaining himself, has set forth the perfect man of salvation, saying thus in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians: 'And may the God of peace sanctify you wholly, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved without complaint until the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ" ('Adv. Haeres.,' 5:6, 1). Nor is the internal evidence less strong than the external. The character of Paul is distinctly impressed upon this Epistle; his intense love for his converts, his anxiety about their spiritual welfare, his joy when he receives a favorable account of their faith and charity, his zeal for the cause of the Lord for which he is ready to sacrifice everything, his noble independence of spirit, — all these characteristics of the apostle are seen in this Epistle. So also the style and mode of expression are Paul's. We have the same employment of emphatic terms, the same rich use of synonyms, the same accumulation of ideas, the same digressions suggested by a word, the same preference for participial constructions as are elsewhere found in Paul's other Epistles. In short, as Professor Jowett observes, "It has been objected against the genuineness of this Epistle that it contains only a single statement of doctrine. But liveliness, personality, similar traits of disposition, are more difficult to invent than statements of doctrine. A later age might have supplied these, but it could hardly have caught the very likeness and portrait of the apostle.... Such intricate similarities of language, such lively traits of character, it is not within the power of any forger to invent, and, least of all, a forger of the second century." Nor is there anything in the contents of the Epistle at variance with the opinion that it was written by Paul. It has, indeed, been asserted that it is devoid of individuality and doctrinal statements. Its perusal will show that it is at once lively and specially adapted to the wants of the Thessalonians. And that it is devoid of doctrinal statements is an assertion which may also well he disputed; but even admitting that there is a partial truth in the remark, yet this is easily accounted for by the circumstances under which the Epistle was written.

The coincidences between the Epistle and the incidents in the life of Paul, as recorded in the Acts, is another striking proof of its authenticity. In the Acts we read of the persecution to which Paul and Silas were subjected at Philippi, when, in violation of their rights as Roman citizens, they were publicly scourged and cast into prison. In the Epistle, written in the name of Paul and Silas, there is reference to this shameful treatment: "Even after we had suffered before and were shamefully entreated, as ye know, at Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention" (1 Thessalonians 2:2). In the Acts we are informed that Paul and Silas encountered a similar persecution at Thessalonica. "The Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people" (Acts 17:5). In the Epistle Paul appeals to the knowledge of the Thessalonians concerning this treatment: "For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know" (1 Thessalonians 3:4). In the Acts we are informed that Paul parted from his companions, Silas and Timothy, at Beraea, and was rejoined by them at Corinth: "And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia (to Corinth), Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ" (Acts 18:5). And the Epistle, written, as we shall afterwards see, from Corinth, is in the joint names of Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus. Not only are there these coincidences, but also additional statements in the Epistle supplementing the history, thus proving that the one record could not have been copied from the other. Thus in the Acts we are informed that Silas and Timothy did not join Paul until after his arrival at Corinth (Acts 18:5); whereas in the Epistle there is a statement which has led many to affirm that Timothy joined Paul at Athens, and was sent by him from that city to Thessalonica: "Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone; and sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellow-laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith" (1 Thessalonians 3:1, 2). In the Acts we are informed that Paul preached in the synagogue for three sabbaths, reasoning with the Jews (Acts 17:2); whereas there are references in the Epistle which have induced some to think that his residence in Thessalonica was more protracted. In the Acts we are only informed that Paul preached in the synagogue to the Jews and devout Greeks, that is, the religious proselytes; whereas it is evident from the whole character of the Epistle that the Church was composed of Gentile converts. These differences are not contradictions, and may easily be adjusted; but they are apparent enough to demonstrate the independence both of the history and the Epistle.

§ 2. THE CHURCH OF THESSALONICA.

Thessalonica was a large seaport of Macedonia, situated in the form of an amphitheatre on the slope of a hill at the north-east end of the Thermaic Gulf, now called the Gulf of Salonica. It had in antiquity various names. Thus it was called Emathia and Italia. In ancient history it appears under the name Therma, so called from the hot springs in the neighborhood. Under this name it is mentioned in the account of the invasion of Xerxes, and in the history of the Peloponnesian War. We are informed that Cassander, the son of Antipater, King of Macedonia, rebuilt Therma, and called it Thessalonica, after the name of his wife, the half-sister of Alexander the Great (Strabo, 7. Frag. 24). According to another account, less trustworthy, it was so called by Philip, the father of Alexander, to commemorate his victory over the Thessalonians. In the Middle Ages it appears under the contracted form Salneck; and is now known under the name Salonica. Under the Romans Thessalonica became a city of great importance. During the temporary division of Macedonia into four districts, it was the capital of the second district; and afterwards, when the Roman province of Macedonia was formed, it became the metropolis of the country, and the residence of the Roman governor. In the civil wars it sided with Augustus and Antony, and was rewarded by receiving the privileges of a free city. Strabo, who lived shortly before the Christian era, observes that "it has at present the largest population of any town in the district" (Strabo 7:7, 4). In the time of Paul, then, Thessalonica was a populous and flourishing town; it was chiefly inhabited by Greeks, with a mixture of Romans. The Jews also were attracted to it in great numbers for the sake of commerce, and here was the synagogue of the district (Acts 17:1). It has always been a city of great importance. It long continued to be a bulwark against the assaults of the northern barbarians, and afterwards of the Saracens. When the Greek empire became enfeebled, Thessalonica was attached to the Venetian Republic, and remained so until the year 1430, when it was captured by the Turks, in whose possession it continues to this day. It is considered as the second city of European Turkey, having a population of about seventy thousand, of whom at least thirty thousand are Jews. Thessalonica has many remains of antiquity, one of which deserves special mention, a triumphal arch, erected to commemorate the victory of Philippi, and which must have been standing when Paul visited that city.

We have an account of the origin of the Church of Thessalonica in the Acts of the Apostles. In his second great missionary journey, Paul and his fellow-laborers, Silas and Timothy, had arrived at Alexandria Tress, when he was directed by a vision to cross over the AEgean Sea and repair to Europe. In obedience to this Divine direction, we are informed that loosing from Tress, they came with a straight course to the island of Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis, and from that they journeyed inland to Philippi (Acts 16:11, 12). Here they remained for some time, preaching the gospel with great success, until they were driven from it by a severe persecution. From Philippi Paul and his companions proceeded, by way of Amphipolis and Apollonia, to Thessalonica. Here was the chief synagogue of the district, and into it Paul, according to his custom, entered and preached the gospel. He proved to the Jews from their Scriptures that the Messiah was to suffer and rise from the dead; and he showed them that Jesus did thus suffer and rise again, and was consequently the Messiah (Acts 17:3). It would also appear that at Thessalonica he dwelt much on the kingdom and second advent of the Lord Jesus Christ; he laid great stress on the resurrection of Christ, and on his exaltation to the throne of eternal majesty. Hence the accusation brought against him that he proclaimed another King, one Jesus (Acts 17:7); and, in his Epistle, he observes, "Ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, that you would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory" (1 Thessalonians 2:11, 12). For three sabbaths Paul continued his efforts in the Jewish synagogue with considerable success; some of the Jews believed, but his converts were especially numerous among the devout Greeks (Acts 17:1-4). At length the unbelieving Jews, moved with envy, raised a tumult against Paul and his companions; they stirred up the rabble, and assaulted the house of Jason, with whom the Christian preachers lodged; and when they failed to capture them, they dragged Jason and certain of the converts before the magistrates of the city, accusing them of disturbing the public peace and of harboring traitors to the emperor. In consequence of this, to avoid further disturbance, Paul and Silas left the city by night, and repaired to the neighboring town of Bercea (Acts 17:10).

In the Acts of the Apostles a residence in Thessalonica of only three weeks is mentioned (Acts 17:2). There are, however, statements in the Epistle which would lead us to infer that his residence was for a somewhat longer period. A flourishing Church was formed in Thessalonica; the gospel spread from it as a center throughout Macedonia; its fame was everywhere diffused; and for this success a longer space of time than three weeks would appear requisite. Besides, at Thessalonica Paul supported himself by manual labor. "Ye remember," he writes, "our labor and travail: for laboring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:9). And it was his custom to do so only when his residence in any city was prolonged. And we are informed in the Epistle to the Philippians that his converts in Philippi "sent to Thessalonica once and again to his necessities;" and that this was on the occasion of this visit to Thessalonica is evident, for the apostle tells us that it was "in the beginning of the gospel" (Philippians 4:15, 16). Now, the distance between these two cities was a hundred miles; and therefore more than three weeks appear to be necessary for the transmission of this twofold supply for his wants. Still, however, his residence could not have been long, and his departure from the city was compulsory. Probably Paul preached for three successive sabbaths in the synagogue, but, finding the Jews obstinate and the synagogue closed against him, he turned, as his manner was, to the Gentiles; and it was his success among the Gentiles that stirred up the wrath of the Jews, and excited that disturbance which was the occasion of his leaving Thessalonica.

The result of Paul's ministry during the three sabbaths he preached in the synagogue is thus given by the author of the Acts: "And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few" (Acts 17:4). From this it appears that his success was small among the Jews, but great among the devout Greeks, that is, those Greeks who had previously detached themselves from idolatry and were seeking after God, and were thus in a manner prepared for the reception of Christianity. Afterwards it is probable that Paul preached to the Gentiles, and made numerous converts among them. Although the Jews were numerous in Thessalonica, yet it is evident from the two Epistles that the Church there was chiefly composed of Gentile converts. They are described as those who turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9) — a description applicable to converted Gentiles, but not to converted Jews and Jewish proselytes; and in neither Epistle is there a direct quotation from the Old Testament, the only probable allusion being to the prophecies of Daniel in the description of the man of sin contained in the Second Epistle (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

§ 3 THE OCCASION OF THE EPISTLE.

Paul, driven from Thessalonica, had repaired to Beraea, but from this also he had been compelled to depart by the machinations of the Jews of Thessalonica (Acts 17:13, 14). He had learned that the persecution which had arisen during his presence was continued in his absence (1 Thessalonians 2:14). And hence he was filled with anxiety about his Thessalonian converts. He knew that by reason of the shortness of his residence they were only partially instructed in Christianity, and he naturally feared that they might fall from the faith. Twice he had planned to visit them; but circumstances had prevented him (1 Thessalonians 2:18). Accordingly, no longer able to master his anxiety, he sent his fellow-laborer Timothy, either from Beraea or Athens, to ascertain their state (1 Thessalonians 3:1, 2). Paul, meanwhile, had repaired from Beraea to Athens, and thence to Corinth; and there Timothy joined him, and the information which he brought was the occasion of this Epistle. That information was upon the whole consolatory and satisfactory. Timothy brought good tidings of the faith and charity of the Thessalonians, of their affectionate regard for the apostle, and of their earnest desire to see him. The Thessalonians, in spite of the persecution which they endured, continued steadfast to the faith; they were examples to all that believed in Thessalonica and Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:7; 3:6, 7). But, however favorable this report of Timothy, there were still many defects to supply, many errors to correct, and many evil practices to reform. The religious knowledge of the Thessalonians was defective; their religion had partially degenerated into fanaticism; and especially they were filled with excitement under the persuasion of the immediate coming of Christ. Some of them had neglected their worldly duties and had sunk into an indolent inactivity (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12). It would appear that some of the converts had died, and their friends were distressed on their account, lest they should forfeit the blessings to be bestowed at the advent of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Nor had the Thessalonians entirely detached themselves from the vices of their former heathen state. The apostle had to warn them against sensuality, that vice so prevalent among the Gentiles; and he had to rebuke the covetousness of some as well as the indolence of others (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7).

With regard to its contents, the Epistle is divided into two parts: the first, comprehending the first three chapters, may be termed historical; the second, including the two last chapters, is practical. The apostle, after saluting the Thessalonians, renders thanks to God for the entrance of the gospel among them, for the mighty efficacy with which it was accompanied, and for the steadfastness of their faith (1 Thessalonians 1.). He alludes to his demeanor when in Thessalonica; how, notwithstanding his shameful treatment at Philippi, he had preached the gospel among them amid much contention; how he had sought neither their money nor their applause, but, actuated by the purest motives, had labored incessantly for their spiritual welfare, and was ready to sacrifice himself for them (1 Thessalonians 2.). He mentions the extreme anxiety he had on their account, the mission of Timothy to them, and the great satisfaction he experienced at the information which Timothy brought of the steadfastness of their faith and the abundance of their charity (1 Thessalonians 3.). He then exhorts them to continue in holiness, carefully to avoid the lusts of the Gentiles who knew not God, and, instead of being led away by excitement as if the advent of Christ was at hand, to be diligent in the, performance of their earthly duties. He comforts them concerning the fate of their departed friends, and exhorts them to be watchful and prepared for the coming of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4.). Then follow a series of detached exhortations to cultivate the virtues of Christianity, and the Epistle concludes with the apostolic benediction (1 Thessalonians 5.).

§ 4. THE DATE OF THE EPISTLE.

When Paul and Silas left Thessalonica, they came to Beraea; Timothy probably remained behind, but he also soon joined them. Paul left them both at Beraea, and proceeded alone to Athens. Timothy was probably sent from Beraea back to Thessalonica to confirm the Church there, though some suppose that this mission took place from Athens. At Athens Paul intended to remain until his companions joined him; he sent a message to Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed (Acts 17:14, 15). It would, however, appear that he left Athens without them; unforeseen circumstances had prevented them complying with his request, and they did not rejoin him until his arrival at Corinth. Now, as the Epistle is written in the joint names of Paul, Silvanus, and Timotheus, it is evident that it was not composed until all three met together at Corinth. Some time also must have elapsed between the planting of Christianity in Thessalonica and the writing of this Epistle. Paul had twice attempted to visit them; Timothy had been sent by the apostle and had returned from his mission; and the faith of the Thessalonians had been spread abroad throughout Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:7, 8). The interval, however, could not have been long. Timothy returned at the commencement of Paul's residence at Corinth; and the apostle's anxiety for the Thessalonians would induce him to write the Epistle immediately on his receiving the information. He speaks of his absence from them as having as yet lasted only a short time. "We, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored the more abundantly to see your face with great desire" (1 Thessalonians 2:17). We may, therefore, safely fix the time of the composition of the Epistle toward the close of the year 52 or the beginning of the year 53, and during the early part of Paul's residence at Corinth, about six months after the planting of Christianity in Thessalonica.

Accordingly the place of writing was Corinth. In our New Testament, at the end of the Epistle, there is appended the note: "The First Epistle to the Thessalonians was written from Athens." Though such a note is found in the most ancient manuscripts, it is evidently a mistake. The Epistle could not have been written from Athens, for Silas and Timothy were not both there with the apostle; and it was not written until the return of Timothy from Thessalonica, which occurred at Corinth; nor is there any ground for the supposition that Paul and his companions, during his residence at Corinth, made a short excursion to Athens. The mistake appears to have arisen from a careless inference drawn from the words, "We thought it good to be left at Athens alone" (1 Thessalonians 3:1); whereas the reference there is evidently to a past event, and indirectly implies that the apostle was not at Athens when he wrote these words. These subscriptions at the end of the Epistles have no authority; and although in general correct, yet occasionally, as in the present instance, they are erroneous.

§ 5. THE PECULIARITIES OF THE EPISTLE.

The special peculiarity of this Epistle is that it is undoubtedly the first of Paul's extant Epistles. Whether it is the first Epistle that Paul ever wrote is an entirely different question; but it is the first that has come down to us. This is a point on which almost all commentators are agreed. In all probability it is the earliest of the books of the New Testament, with the possible exception of the Epistle of James.

It is erroneous to affirm that this First Epistle to the Thessalonians is devoid of doctrinal statements. The supreme dignity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spiritual kingdom which he has established in this world, the deliverance from the wrath to come effected by him, the necessity of holiness for salvation, the reign of Christ in heaven, the resurrection of the just, the second advent of Christ, the blessedness of a future state to the righteous and the wrath which awaits the wicked, are all clearly deduced from this Epistle. The great plan of redemption through the sufferings of Christ was clear to the apostle from the beginning. We can hardly even affirm that there was a development in the views of the apostle — a progress made in spiritual knowledge and insight into the ways of God. No doubt different doctrines are insisted on in the different Epistles; but this arose from the circumstances of the Churches to whom the apostle wrote. Thus in this Epistle to the Thessalonians there is no mention of the great Pauline doctrine of justification, because in that Church there was no controversy with the Judaistic Christians, and therefore no necessity of defending the doctrine of justification against erroneous notions; whereas the errors of the Galatian Church caused the apostle to dwell specially on that doctrine. So also at a still later period the incipient Gnostic errors were the occasion which induced the apostle to insist more fully on the nature of Christ's Person in the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians than in his earlier Epistles. Bishop Lightfoot, in his able article on the "Epistles to the Thessalonians," in Smith's 'Biblical Dictionary,' notices three points of difference between these and Paul's later Epistles. First, in the general style of these earlier letters there is greater simplicity and less exuberance of language. Secondly, the antagonism is different. Here the opposition comes from the unconverted Jews; afterwards Paul's opponents are Judaizing Christians. Thirdly, the doctrinal teaching of the apostle does not bear quite the same aspect as in the later Epistles. Many of the distinctive doctrines of Christianity which are inseparably connected with Paul's name were not evolved and distinctly enunciated until the needs of the Church drew them out into prominence at a later date. So far, then, it may be true that this First Epistle to the Thessalonians is not so doctrinal as the Epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. The circumstances of the Church determined the contents of the Epistle. The doctrine most insisted on and explained is the second advent, because erroneous views prevailed concerning it among the Thessalonians, giving rise to many disorders.

Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, lays bare his heart; he speaks of his gentleness among them, even as a nursing mother cherisheth her children, and of his readiness to impart unto them, not the gospel of God only, but his own soul by reason of the affection which he bore to them. The Epistle which it most closely resembles is that to the Philippians. The Macedonian Churches were peculiarly attached to the apostle, and he to them; he writes to them in the fullness of his affection; and exhorts them, not so much with the authority of a spiritual teacher, as with the love and tenderness of parental affection, even as a father doth his children.

§ 6. LITERATURE.

List of works consulted in the following Exposition: —Alexander, Bishop of Derry, "Epistles to Thessalonians," in 'Speaker's Commentary,' 1881; Alford, H., 'The Greek Testament,' vol. 3., 3rd. edit., 1866; Auberlen, C. A., '1 Thessalonians 1., 2.,' in Lange's 'Bibelwerk,' 1869; Bleek, J. F., 'Introduction to the New Testament,' translation 1870; 'Lectures on the Apocalypse,' translation 1875; Calvin, J., 'Commentary on the Thessalonians,' translation 1851; Conybeare and Howson, 'Life and Epistles of St. Paul,' 2nd edit., 1862; Davidson, S., 'Introduction to the New Testament,' 1st edit., 3 vols., 1851; 'Introduction to the Study of the New Testament,' 2 vols., 1868; De Wette, W. M. L., 'Exegetisches Handbuch: Thessalonicher,' 1864; Diedrich, J., 'Die Briefe St. Pauli,' Leipzig, 1858; Doddridge, P., 'Family Expositor;'Dusterdieck, F., 'Offenbarung Johannis: ' dritte Aufiage, 1877; Eadie, John, 'Commentary on Thesalonians,' 1877; Ellicott, Bishop, 'St. Paul's Epistles to the Thessalonians,' 3rd edit., 1866; Elliott, E. B., 'Horae Apocalyptical,' 5th edit., 1862; Farrar, F. W., 'Articles in the Expositor,' vols. 1. and 2., 2nd series; Gloag, P. J., 'Pauline Epistles,' 1874; Hofmann, J. C. K., 'Die heilige Schrift N.T.: Th. 1., Thessalonicher,' 1869; 'Schriftbeweis,' 1854; Hurd, Bishop, 'On the Prophecies,' vol. 2., 4th edit., 1776; Jowett, B., 'St. Paul's Epistles to the Thessalonians,' etc., 1st edit., 1855; 2nd edit., 1859; Kirchhofer, J., 'Quellensammlung,' 1842; Koch, A., 'Commentar fiber d. 1 Thessalonicher,' 1855; Lardner, N., 'Credibility of the Gospel History,' 1815; Lee, W., "Revelations," in 'Speaker's Commentary,' 1881; Lightfoot. Bishop, article "Thessalonians," in Smith's 'Dictionary;' Lillie, J., 'Lectures on the Epistles to the Thessalonians,' 1863; Lunemman, G., "Briefe and. Thessalonians," in Meyer's 'Kommentar,' dritte Aufiage, 1867; Translation of the same, 1880; Macknight, J., 'Translation of the Epistles;' Meyrick, F., article on "Antichrist," in Smith's 'Dictionary;' Newton, Bishop, 'Dissertations on the Prophecies;' Olshausen, H., 'On the Thessalonians,' translation 1851; Paley, W., 'Horae Paulinae;' Paterson, A., 'Commentary on 1 Thessalonians,' 1857; Renan, E., 'L'Antichrist,' 3rd edit., 1873; Reuss, E., 'Geschichte d. heiligen Schriften,' vierte Aufiage, 1864; Riggenbach, C. J., "Commentary on Thessalonians," in Lange's 'Bibelwerk,' 1869; Vaughan, C. J., 'First Epistle to the Thessalonians,' 1864; Whitby, D., 'Commentary on the New Testament;' Wieseler, Karl, 'Chronologie d. Apost. Zeitalters,' 1848; Wordsworth, Bishop, 'Greek Testament,' 6th edit., 1851.

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