Of the fourteen epistles of Paul in the New Testament those to the Thessalonians are probably the earliest. His first great missionary journey (Acts 13:14), undertaken in company with Barnabas, did not give rise to any letter from him that we are acquainted with; and to none of the churches then founded do we hear of his writing, even in after years. But part of the fruits of that journey is seen in the conversion of Timothy, Paul's son in the faith, who, being well reported of by the brethren at Lystra and Iconium on the occasion of Paul's second visit to those towns, then joined his company, to be ever after most intimately associated with him in the work. With Paul and Silas, Timothy was identified in the work at Thessalonica, and is mentioned with Silas in both letters to the assembly of the Thessalonians.
Thessalonica was the capital of the second government of Macedonia, which province had been divided into four parts, Philippi being the capital of the first. Here the Jews possessed a synagogue (Acts 17:1), which it would seem at Philippi they did not. (Acts 16:13.) Arriving at Thessalonica, after leaving Philippi, having passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia on their way, they entered the synagogue on the sabbath day, where Paul availed himself of the opportunity, of which he was always ready to take advantage, to preach to his own countrymen the glad tidings of the grace of God. The Word was not preached in vain; for 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." Amongst the Gentiles the work greatly spread; many were converted, and turned from idols to serve a living and true God (the contrast to all their idols), and to wait for His Son from the heavens. (1 Thess. 1:10.)
What length of time the apostle remained here we cannot say. He preached in the synagogue on three different sabbaths (Acts 17:2); but it is likely that his stay in the town was longer than that, since the Philippians sent him help there once and again. (Phil. 4:16.) Details, however, of this kind are wanting; but the character of the work, and the results of it, are in some measure made known to us, and this more especially by the notices about it in the first epistle addressed to the assembly in that town. Driven away by the persecution of the Jews, but leaving behind a goodly number of converts, Paul had earnestly desired to return to see their faces, and to perfect that which was lacking in their faith. That consolation was denied him; Satan hindered it. But Timothy had visited them by the apostle's desire to establish them, and to comfort them concerning their faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted them, and the labours of these hearty evangelists had been in vain. Bringing to Paul a re-assuring account of their faith and love, and good remembrance of Paul and Silas, "greatly desiring to see us," as he writes, "as they also to see you": "we were comforted over you, in all our affliction and distress, by your faith:" for now," he adds, "we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord." (1 Thess. 3:8.) Hence he wrote to them this letter, which is more hortatory than doctrinal in its character.
As the first of his epistles which is both inspired and canonical (for he may have written other inspired ones for aught we know; but they were never really canonical, nor have they come down to our time), it is of especial interest to us, as it gives an idea, such as we have nowhere else presented to us, of the way the truth was received, the spirit in which Paul and his companions worked, and the hope which the converts had embraced, and clung to most firmly. Viewed in this light, it is well suited to be the first epistle which came from his pen, forming a kind of introduction to all that he subsequently wrote; for his epistles are all addressed to Christian converts.
Addressed "to the church of the Thessalonians, which is in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ," the apostle at the outset reminds them of the perfect security of the assembly. It was in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ. No power then of the enemy could destroy it. (John 10:28-30.) Suffering as they were and had been (1 Thess. 2:14), and would still be (2 Thess. 1:5-7), this must have been most consoling. Writing to the Corinthians, he reminds those saints that the assembly at Corinth was God's assembly (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1); for their spiritual state, as we learn from the first epistle (1 Cor. 3), necessitated such a reminder. On the other hand, writing to the Thessalonian saints, against whom persecution was active, he both times reminds them (1 Thess. 1:1, 2; 2 Thess. 1:1) of the assembly's perfect security; and tried as they were by the enemy's attempts to stamp out through persecution the work of God in the place, since neither false doctrine nor carelessness of walk had wrought their dire and withering work among them, the apostle had no need to blame them for anything. Encouragement and exhortation were called for, and this last of the simplest kind.
From 1 Thess. 1 we learn how the work spread. In 1 Thess. 2 we have unfolded the spirit in which Paul and his companions worked. In 1 Thess. 3 we learn of his encouragement about them by the visit of Timothy, sent there at his request. This is followed (1 Thess. 4, 5.) by exhortations, and the revelation about the rapture, the ministry then suited to their need.
Opening with the assurance that he could thank God for them, making mention of them always in his prayers, he states the ground for his confident thanksgivings on their behalf, and by the subjects taken up in the body of the epistle we may learn what must have been the tenor of his prayers for them. Their work of faith, their labour of love, their patience of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, these three fruits of the divine nature (1 Cor. 13) he could not forget, and these assured him of their election as beloved of God, "knowing," as he wrote, "brethren, beloved of God, your election." With them as with him, the truth of election was not a matter for argument, but to be exemplified. He owned it as a truth, and they showed that it was true of them, for ample and manifest proof had been afforded of the reality of their conversion. The gospel had come to them not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; for the walk of the labourers testified to the reality of the truth preached, and the converts became imitators of them and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction with joy of the Holy Ghost. (1 Thess. 1:5-7.) Joy filled their hearts whilst persecution was stirred up against them. The life too, the labours, the sufferings of these evangelists, told powerfully on the converts, and produced corresponding results in them, which those around could see, and with which those at a distance became acquainted (vv. 8, 9); for the work was not done in a corner. What an advertisement was this! And clear was their testimony, and decided the stand which they made; for they turned to God from idols to serve a (not the) living and true God, and to wait for His Son from the heavens, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivers us from the wrath to come. (vv. 7-10.)
There is a bond which binds believers together. That was owned and manifested by them. (1 Thess. 4:9, 10.) There is a special tie between the labourer and those who have received help and profit from his service. Of this last the apostle now goes on to speak. Gentiles and idolaters these saints had been, now they had become endeared (egenethete) to Paul, Silas, and Timotheus, who were willing to have imparted unto them, not the gospel of God only, but also their own souls. (1 Thess. 2:8.) Love working in their hearts moved them to evangelize these souls. Recently suffering for the truth's sake at Philippi, they nevertheless could not be silent when they entered the town of Thessalonica, so they were bold in their God, to speak unto them the gospel of God in much contention. How the heart of an evangelist is here displayed to us! And how did they work? Their exhortation was not of deceit, nor in uncleanness, nor in guile. They spoke as those pleasing, not men, but God, who trieth the heart. They carried on their work consciously in God's presence, so no honeyed words of flattery came forth from their lips; nor was covetousness a motive which was working in their hearts, nor of men sought they glory, nor any temporal advantage, foregoing what they might have claimed, because, as a nurse cherisheth her children, they were affectionately desirous of their souls, and laboured day and night with their hands for the supply of their own bodily wants. In such a spirit did they evangelize. (1 Thess. 2:1-9.) In what spirit, it may be asked, did they teach? Verses 10-12 give the answer. As a father does his children, Paul exhorted them to walk worthy of God, who had called them to His kingdom and glory.
Thanksgiving filled Paul's heart as he thought of these saints, remembering how they had received the Word, not gathering round him and his companions in labour, endeared though they were to the Thessalonian Christians, but receiving the Word as it was in truth God's word, which was effectually working in them that believed. What knitting of heart there was between Paul and these converts! How he longed to be with them again, but was hindered by the enemy! To that he had to bow. But his enforced absence did not diminish the strength of his love, and whilst it was enforced he was, as it were, bereaved of them (aporphanisthentes), though only for a time. "For what," he writes, "is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For ye are our glory and joy." (1 Thess. 2:19, 20.) He looked across the interval between that day and the Lord's coming to reign, and was comforted. But what affection he had for them! For a time the enemy might seem to triumph, and those he was using as tools might frustrate the desires of Paul's heart. But where will be Satan and those instruments of his malice when the saints and Paul meet together in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ? Meanwhile, his heart yearning over them, he sent Timothy to encourage them lest by any means the tempter had tempted them, and his labour had been in vain. (1 Thess. 3:5.) Learning from Timothy that they stood firm, their faith and love manifested, and their desire to see Paul unabated, he was comforted in all his troubles, and turned to God the Father to open up the way for him to revisit them, which possibly was granted to him during his third missionary journey. (Acts 20:1: 2.) He desired to be with them to perfect that which was lacking in their faith. Meantime he gave vent to his desire for them, that the Lord would establish their hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even the Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. And this would be effected by their increasing and abounding in love towards each other, and towards all men, even as Paul and his companions did towards them. (1 Thess. 3:12, 13.) How remarkably was the enemy really baffled whilst apparently triumphing! Sorrow and persecution he could cause them and Paul; but a joy which nothing could extinguish those Christians experienced, and the future, when his power would be broken, was only the more vividly presented to their hearts.
Paul's desires expressed for them, the needful exhortations follow. He had spoken of holiness and of love. As to both he would now remind them. Holiness in conduct became them, and he would enforce it. (1 Thess. 4:1-8.) The debasing character of idolatry, and how it blunts the moral sense of men, these verses clearly demonstrate. Man becomes a slave to his passions, and seeks to satisfy them at the expense, if need be, of his neighbour, a brother. That would not do for the Christian. Moreover, he who in such a matter overreached his brother in Christ, sinning with his wife, despised not man, but God, who had also given His Holy Spirit to both; i.e. the offender and the one offended against. The indwelling presence of the Holy Ghost, which makes our bodies His temples, should restrain them from sinning in such a way. But if they did, the Lord, he reminded them, was the avenger of all such. Holiness enjoined, he passes on to the subject of brotherly love. Of that he had no need to write, for they were taught of God to love one another, and they did it, only he desired that they would increase more and more (1 Thess. 4:9, 10) and be quiet, and do each their own work, walking honestly toward them that were without, and that they might have need of nothing. How he would have them increase and abound. (1 Thess. 3:1, 2; 1 Thess. 4:1-10.)
Love, the activity of the divine nature, was present among them, and they gave a proof of brotherly love unexampled in the whole range of the church's experience, sorrowing for their friends who had died in the Lord, fearing that by death they would miss the seeing and being with Him when He returned. To comfort their hearts as to this, the apostle explains, by a revelation vouchsafed for their benefit (1 Thess. 4:15-17), the order of events, when the Lord shall cone for His saints. All who sleep through Jesus will God "bring with Him" (1 Thess. 4:14), that is, when He appears in power to reign. How that is to be brought about, that the sleeping saints can come with Him, verses 15-17 explain. So these, if arranged in order of time, would come before verse 14, describing the gathering together of the saints, in order that they may come with the Lord. He whose they are (John 6:37; John 17:10), though men may have forgotten them, will first think of His sleeping saints, and then of those still alive upon the earth. What a sweet thought is this! Those alive shall not go before those who are asleep; but both shall be caught up together in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall they ever be with Him. With this they were to comfort one another. But what love had they manifested that they needed such comfort?
He had spoken of the Lord's return to reign. (1 Thess. 2:19; 1 Thess. 3:13; 1 Thess. 4:14.) With that event times and seasons are connected; but of such he had no need to write. They had already learnt from Paul about them, and what a solemn moment it would be for the ungodly, involving them in sudden destruction, from which they shall not escape. But the saints could not be taken unawares by that day; they were all sons of light, and sons of day. That day could not dawn on earth without them. Were they then to be careless as to their walk? On the contrary, they were to exhibit what it is to be sons of the day, and of light. Hence, though that day had no terrors for them, the certainty of its coming was to have power over them whilst still upon earth. "Therefore," he adds (for all Christians need the exhortation), "let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Wherefore," he concludes, "comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do." (1 Thess. 5:6-11.)
With a few more admonitions he closes. They were to know them that laboured among them, and were over them - proistamenous (see Rom. 12:8; 1 Tim. 5:17) in the Lord, and admonished them, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. This exhortation evidences the non-existence of an ordained ministry at Thessalonica, though it clearly supposes the existence of ministry, whether in the Word or in other ways, actively at work in their midst. Further, it was the concern of all to maintain order amongst those composing the assembly, to care for those who specially needed to be cared for (vv. 14, 15); and in addition - to this they were warned not to quench the Spirit, nor to despise prophesyings. Such an exhortation evidenced a freeness of ministry among them to which Christians have for centuries been strangers.
As regards the saints individually, they were to rejoice evermore, to pray without ceasing, and in everything to give thanks; proving, too, all things, holding fast that which is good, and abstaining from every form of evil. If then the Holy Ghost was free to minister the Word by whomsoever He chose, it was incumbent on the saints to prove or try that which was set before them as truth. Then with a prayer for their sanctification in body, soul, and spirit, and with a desire expressed for an interest in their prayers, and an injunction to have the epistle read to all the holy brethren (for it concerned them all), the apostle closes with part of that formula afterwards to be known as the token that an epistle which had it proceeded from him.
A letter this was, then, of exhortation and encouragement, suited to the condition in which these saints were found. For exposition of doctrine we should look elsewhere; yet it may interest the reader to be reminded of some of the doctrines set forth, or referred to in it. Clearly the saints knew their souls were saved; for they were waiting for God's Son from heaven - a hope which cheered them. But final salvation was a different matter; for that they were looking, as the apostle reminds them. (1 Thess. 1:9.) The indwelling of the Holy Ghost, God's gift to believers, was no unknown truth to the saints. (1 Thess. 4:8.) The Lord's return to reign they knew well about. (1 Thess. 2:19; 1 Thess. 3:13; 1 Thess. 5:1-3.) To see Him was their desire (1 Thess. 1:10), and to be with Him would be their delight. (1 Thess. 4:13.) A ministry unordained by man existed in their midst (1 Thess. 5:12, 13), and freedom of ministry in the Word they were exhorted in no way to hinder. (1 Thess. 5:19, 20.) The coming of the Lord, too, to take up His saints before He comes to reign they were taught about by this epistle (1 Thess. 4:15-17), and what effect His return to reign will have on the ungodly then alive, they had personally learnt from the apostle. (1 Thess. 5:2, 3.) Truths these are, known then; but by how many of God's children in these days are they still really unknown, and by some even resisted! It is no secret that many still refuse to accept the truth of the personal return of the Lord to reign. Many too have learnt little about the Holy Ghost dwelling in the believer. To how many, we might ask, of the saints in Christendom is the exhortation to quench not the Spirit almost a dead letter? C. E. Stuart.
BY CHRIST REDEEMED.
By Christ redeemed, in Christ restored,
We keep the memory adored,
And show the death of our dear Lord,
Until He come.
His body given in our stead,
Is shown by this memorial bread;
And so our feeble love is fed,
Until He come.
His fearful drops of agony,
His life-blood shed for us we see
The wine shall tell the mystery,
Until He come.
And thus that dark betrayal-night
With the last advent we unite -
The shame, the glory - by this rite,
Until He come.
Until the trump of God be heard,
Until the ancient graves be stirred,
And with the great commanding word,
The Lord shall come.
O blessed hope! with this elate,
Let not our hearts be desolate,
But strong in faith, in patience wait,
Until He come.
*This hymn may be found in many collections. The intelligent reader will notice several very defective expressions, while willingly confessing the beauty of the composition. - ED.