Notes on the Epistles to the Thessalonians

J. N. Darby.

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1 Thessalonians

When the Thessalonians received Paul's first epistle, they had not long been converted to the Lord. They then were in all the freshness of Christian life, waiting for the Son of God from heaven, and suffering persecution for His sake. But their faith was mixed with a measure of obscurity. They thought that those from among them who had died would not see the Lord at His coming. To meet their need, the Holy Spirit addresses this epistle to them, in order to establish their faith, to give them light as to the coming of Jesus, and to comfort them in the midst of the persecutions they were going through.

Chapter 1:1. "The church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father." The Epistles to the Thessalonians present the only instance where we find the expression, "in God the Father," used to indicate the position of a church. In the other epistles, in general, Paul says, "the church of God which is at Corinth," or "the saints which are at Ephesus," etc. It is probably because the Thessalonians were recently brought to the faith that Paul speaks of them in this way. Taking, so to speak, this church at its birth, he only sees it in its relationship to God. "One God and Father" - such is the first notion that springs from faith.

"Grace be unto you and peace": that is to say, May all the energy and riches of that grace in which you stand be displayed in you.

Verse 3. The great christian principles shewed themselves in all their force among the Thessalonians; hence it is that we remark so much freshness in their spiritual condition.

"Your work of faith." See the acts which belong to faith - acts like those which are presented in Hebrews 11 and in James 2; the act of Abraham delivering up his son, and that of Rahab preferring Israel to her own country, etc.

Your "labour of love": that is, the pains one takes in the Lord, the labour one pursues in love, though amidst difficulties.

"Patience of hope"; that is, patient waiting for the promised glory.

"In our Lord Jesus Christ," translate, "of our Lord Jesus Christ." In Him is the source of all blessing for our souls; from Him it is that we derive strength and in Him we find that which nourishes the spiritual life.

294 "In the sight of God and our Father." In the presence of God we find the exercise of conscience. These two blessings - the maintenance of life in Christ, and the exercise of conscience before God - present the two sides of the Christian life. When the soul is in a good state, there is always an exercise of the conscience before God. One may, it is true, after a period of blessing, walk for some time with a certain measure of life, but without the conscience being much in activity. But if conscience is not reawakened, the time comes when one slips away and declines rapidly.

Verse 4. The great principles of Christianity - faith, hope, and love, which were in activity among the Thessalonians, gave evidence of their election. And this proof is the only practical proof of the election of the saints.

Verse 6. "Followers of us, and of the Lord." The Thessalonians had a share of the experience of Christ, when He was on earth. Like Him, they possessed the joy of God through the word, and they suffered persecution.

Verse 8. The faith of the Thessalonians had had an echo; it was noised abroad.

Verse 10. Converted through the power of God, the Thessalonians, far from remaining in the world and seeking to reconcile the world and faith, were, on the contrary, formed by that faith to wait for the Son of God from heaven.

Chapter 2:1-12 gives a beautiful instance of the feelings and ways of grace in the conduct and labours of a servant of God.

Verse 7. "As a nurse," etc.; that is to say, like a mother who nurses her own child. It was in this spirit of tenderness and affection towards the Thessalonians that Paul had laboured amongst them.

Verse 13. After having called to remembrance his labours, what care Paul takes to maintain the Thessalonians on the foundation of the word which they had received through his preaching. The apostle puts himself aside and gives thanks that they had received that word, not as the word of man, but as being the word of God. Thus their faith was founded on the word of God, although it was by the ministry of a man that it had been produced and placed upon that foundation.

295 There are two evidences, which shew the divine authority of the word of God - works of power, that is to say, miracles; and the effective action which it exercises in the heart. The word of God was accompanied by works of power, when it came unto the Thessalonians through Paul's preaching; chap. 1:5. And now, in his letter, the apostle, to the praise of these believers, proclaims that the same word worked effectually in them.

Verse 14. In consequence of their obedience of faith, the Thessalonians found themselves connected with the churches of Judea, which had preceded them in the same faith (there is one body); and, like those churches, the Thessalonians were suffering persecution from those of their own nation.

Verse 16. "Wrath is come upon them to the uttermost" - upon the Jews. Unbelieving Israel had been visited of God several times by partial chastisements; but now that they had rejected Christ and the gospel, God subjects them to the full extent of His judgment, a judgment which still continues, and will only be executed in the future trouble of Jacob.

Verse 17-20. Had it not been for the hindrances which had several times prevented him, Paul would have visited the Thessalonians. He greatly wished to see again these believers, the fruit of his labours - they who were the subject of his present joy and his crown of boasting at the moment of the coming of the Lord Jesus. Here then is a new element, with regard to the coming of the Lord! in that glorious day Paul and the Thessalonians would be found together.

There is a difference in the way in which the coming of the Lord is presented in these two instances. Verse 10 of chapter 1 places more particularly before our eyes the coming of the Son, and the joy of the saints, in experiencing the deliverance which He will bring them. There the distinction of the rapture of the saints is not yet brought out; the statement simply presents the coming of the Son from heaven. Verse 19 of the chapter we are reading goes farther; it shews the blessedness of the saints gathered together at the coming of Jesus. The testimony rendered to the Son coming from heaven has enlarged the circle of believers. There are numerous saints; all will be gathered together and happy in that blessed day.

Chapter 3. But there are in the hearts of the saints affections which grace produces.

296 Verses 1-10. Paul, in the midst of the care he devotes to the faith of the believers, is the first to shew us how Christian affections can be connected with the cares of the ministry.

Verse 3. "We are appointed thereunto." It reads better thus; "We are set for this" - this is our lot.

Verse 8. "For now we live." It is my life, if ye stand firm, ye Thessalonians, says Paul.

Verse 10. "Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face." This desire was not so soon realised; Paul before that had time to address a second epistle to the Thessalonians; and indeed several years elapsed before he was able to see them again.

Verses 11-13. In this passage Paul puts the coming of the Lord in connection with every Christian affection. This apostle, who abounded in love towards the saints, desired also that they should themselves walk in love, in order to abide in holiness, and to shine forth in that day. He does not yet state the order of the facts by which this result will be seen, but he mentions the moral truths and the practical grace which prepare it.

"The Lord make you to increase and abound in love … to the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness." The love of God possessing the heart is what enables the Christian to walk in holiness. Here we find again the doctrine of John: "He that loveth his brother abideth in the light," 1 John 2:10. It is interesting to see these fundamental elements of faith and of individual blessing forming an integral part of the powerful testimony through which Paul was forming the church.

"To the end he may stablish your hearts," etc. It is an actual establishing of the heart, but which will be seen in its results at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ: "We must all be manifested," etc.

"Before God, even our Father." Paul always sees the Thessalonians in their relationship to the Father. It does not appear that these believers had as yet got beyond the state of babes in the faith. "I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father," 1 John 2:13.

The sense of verse 13 is this: May God establish your hearts in holiness (now, by the exercise of love), that ye may be [seen] unblameable in holiness, before our God and Father [at that moment] at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. In this passage the coming of Jesus is not presented in the act of our gathering together to Him, when we go to meet Him; but in the act of our coming with Him from the Father's house, after having been in His presence. It is that moment which will shew whether we are unblameable.

297 When Paul, occupied with the coming of Jesus, considers the privilege of faith, he sees the saints all gathered together to the Lord, tasting before Him the common joy. When he considers the responsibility of the Christian walk, he always sees the appearing of Christ. There can be nothing but joy in our hearts at that blessed moment when we shall go with Jesus into the Father's presence, taking a place which the love of God has given unto us, and which the work of Christ has procured to us. It will be otherwise when we return with Jesus. Without losing our position and our blessedness in Him, we shall nevertheless be in a different scene; we shall have reached that solemn moment when the consequences of our responsibility will be manifested.

Chapter 4:1-12. Here Paul adds several developments to the truths which he mentioned at the close of chapter 3; and first of all on the subject of holiness and love.

Verses 1-8. When Paul was with the Thessalonians, he had shewn them the conduct that is pleasing to God. We must preserve or possess our own vessel in sanctification and honour. If anyone disregards his brother in overstepping his marriage rights, it is not man only but God whom he disregards; for the Holy Spirit dwells in that brother who has been wronged.

Verse 8. "Despiseth." It means, He therefore that [in this] disregards [his brother], disregards not man but God.

"God, who hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit," to dwell in us - Christians. Some read you instead of us.

Verses 9-12. Love is of God. By Him we love the children of God - the brethren. And this love, because it has not its source in the sympathies of man, but in God, is a love which is exercised likewise towards all; chap. 3:12. Nevertheless, the object which is here recommended to the attention of the saints is brotherly love. The Thessalonians were not wanting in it. They were taught of God, and did not need to be written to about it. Only it was well that they should abound in it, even more and more, and seek earnestly to manifest to those without a quiet and reputable walk. When love is true, we do not merely confine ourselves to the effusions of brotherly love; we watch also, lest as to things without we should be in fault.

298 Verses 13-18. Paul presents, at the end of the chapter, fresh developments on the subject of the Lord's coming. He had already given the chief features of that truth; he now returns to it, in order to supply details, and to introduce elements which had not yet found their place in the subject. What he adds as a fresh element is particularly the doctrine of resurrection. Doubtless, the Thessalonians would not have denied that there will be a resurrection from among the dead, but they might not perhaps have been able to apply it to the Lord's coming.

Verse 14. "Them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." The departed saints will be found again at the coming of the Lord Jesus. They will reappear on the scene at that blessed moment. You, Thessalonians, you will find again your lost ones! And these are the glorious acts that will then be accomplished. "The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air," v. 16, 17.

Verse 15. "We which are alive and remain." As regards the coming of the Lord, the saints form two classes. There will be one class composed of those who have fallen asleep through Him, and the other of the saints who will be then on the earth. It is these latter ones that Paul points to, when he says, "We which are alive and remain." When he was writing this epistle, he considered himself as included in that class.

Verse 16. "A shout" - an assembling shout. The word here used in the Greek meant originally, the shout raised by the chiefs, on the Greek galleys, to call the men at the time of resuming their work. In our day we mean something similar when we speak of sounding a call to assemble.

It is interesting to see, in the course of this epistle, the progressive order with which the apostle sets forth the truths which concern the coming of the Lord. Instead of immediately attacking the error which was mixed up with the faith of the Thessalonians, he first takes up the subject at the point where it was known to those believers. He begins by using this language to them: You are waiting for the Son of God from heaven! This is indeed the privilege of your faith; for it is to this end, in effect that you were converted; chap. 1.

299 Then, by developments which it is precious to know, he brings them to those things which necessitate our gathering together in that day; chap. 2.

He then fills their hearts with the truth, so that they may be built up in God for that august moment; chap. 3.

It is after this that Paul develops the coming of Jesus for the saints, rectifying errors of judgment in the minds of these believers on certain points; chap. 4.

Lastly, after having expressed the whole portion of the saints in this event, he mentions the portion of the world; chap. 5.

Chapter 5. In the preceding chapters Paul had not pointed out any period of time in connection with the Lord's coming. Here he takes up the question of "times and seasons." But the moment he touches upon this point, he ceases to say "we." He says, "they," "them," those that are without, from whom he takes great care to distinguish the saints, by pointing to them by these words, "But ye brethren," when he again addresses himself to them. "The times," when it is a question of the Lord's coming, are connected with this world and judgment. The saints have their portion above, outside of the ages. They are taught by the Holy Spirit to be constantly waiting for Jesus.

Verses 2, 3. But the world will know what the day of the Lord is - that day which will bring with it sudden destruction on the earth.

Verses 4, 5. The saints will not be overtaken by that day. Why? Because they are not in darkness. Paul adds, "Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day." Hence, for us, a privilege and a character; the privilege of not being overtaken, as those will be who dwell in darkness, and the character of children of light. There are not in the word mere naked doctrines. The truth always clothes with a certain character those whom it places in the position of privilege.

Verse 10. "That, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him"; whether we belong to the class of the living or to that of the sleepers (the departed saints), when the Lord comes, we shall live together with Him.

Verse 22. "Abstain from all appearance of evil." It may be translated equally well, "Abstain from every form of wickedness."

300 Verse 23. "And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly." God is often called, "the God of peace." (See Phil. 4, Heb. 13.) There is peace where all is perfect. If we live in these relationships where peace exists, we shall walk in holiness.

"Sanctify you wholly." That is, sanctify you in every point, sanctify the converted man - the whole man. One may, in certain respects, be faithful to God, and in others be faulty. Remark, that Paul does not say, "sanctify perfectly"; but he says, "sanctify wholly," which expresses another idea.* "Your whole spirit and soul and body." The spirit is that which is most excellent in our moral being, that by which we are placed in relationship with God and distinguished from the brutes. The soul is the seat of the affections; it is a faculty of an inferior order which is to be met with, in a certain measure, even among animals: "all in whose nostrils was the breath of life" - "both men and cattle," Gen. 7:22-23.

{*The doctrine of perfect sanctification, preached by Wesley, does not admit of the communication of life which is made to the believer; it only requires the action of the Spirit on man such as he is. "The Holy Spirit," it says, "sanctifies the body, the soul, and the spirit." At bottom, this is to set aside regeneration; and it is perhaps for that very reason that the same doctrine will see something good in man, and gives this definition of sin, "a wilful transgression of the law." If sin is merely a wilful transgression of the law, Paul was wrong to express such grief about sin where it was not wilful; Rom. 7.}

Wishing to shew how sanctification takes up a man in his whole being, Paul says, "spirit, soul, and body." In other passages we read simply "the soul," when the soul and the spirit are meant: or else we read, "the spirit," when the spirit and the soul are meant. These two spiritual elements are the instrument on which the life acts, which God has given to the believer, and the body is in its turn the instrument which obeys the spirit and the soul.

Verse 24. It is a consolation for us to know that God is faithful; and that if we walk with Him, He will act in our behalf.

2 Thessalonians

The summary of the second Epistle to the Thessalonians is this. False teachers had come, taking advantage of the little light which the Thessalonians (as yet young in the faith) possessed on the Lord's return; and seizing the occasion of their tribulation, they had thrown them into trouble of mind by telling them, "The day is present." In opposition to this work of the enemy, Paul reassures them by writing to them this epistle, the object of which is to shew them that the day of the Lord was not yet present. These data are the key to the book.

301 Chapter 1. In this epistle, as in the preceding one, Paul, in saluting the church of the Thessalonians, sees it "in God our Father," v. 1, 2.

Then, before entering upon the special subject, the apostle considers the circumstances of the Thessalonians; and, on the occasion of their sufferings for the gospel, he recognises their good estate in Christ, and finds in their tribulations an evidence that they were really in the Christian position. "Your faith," he says, "increases exceedingly and your love abounds, so that we ourselves make our boast in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions. … For these tribulations are the portion of those who inherit the kingdom of God," v. 3-5.

Then he shews in what an end these tribulations would issue and the change of position they were preparing between the persecuted and the persecutors at the appearing of the Lord Jesus. In that day we shall be at rest while the wicked will find themselves in tribulation. The Lord will manifest against them His retributive justice. This change of condition is not mentioned, as though it were only to be accomplished at the Lord's appearing; but the words by which it is expressed shew what will be the respective condition of saints and unbelievers at that moment. It is already a first intimation, shewing that the Lord will not put the saints into sorrow and trouble when He comes; v. 5-10.

Verse 5. "A manifest token of the righteous judgment of God." The persecutions which the Thessalonians endured proved they were "counted worthy of the kingdom of God." The judgment of God would bring this into evidence, as it would also manifest what had been the conduct of the persecutors.

Verse 8. There are two classes of persons on whom the vengeance of the Lord will come at His appearing: those who knew not God (that is, sinners in general), and those who do not obey the gospel.

302 Chapter 2. While declaring, in the preceding verses that the Lord, in His day, will manifest His retributive justice, Paul lays down a general truth which governs the subject. Now he enters upon the special point: - Is that day come?

Verses 1, 2. Read, "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind … as that the day of the Lord is present." The coming of Jesus, and the gathering together of the saints to Him at His coming, is a motive, for the latter, not to be troubled as if they were to be included in the judgments which the day of the Lord would usher in. They will be with Him before that. When He shall be revealed from heaven, the saints will have rest; chap. 1:7. Evidently they will no longer be on this world's scene, for it is not then that there will be rest on earth.

The seducers told the Thessalonians, "The day is present"; and not "the day is at hand."* The Greek word is the same that is used in Romans 8:38, and 1 Corinthians 3:22, to signify, "things present," in contrast with "things to come." The language of the seducers signified that this day had been already entered on.

{*If we change the word "present," the whole epistle becomes unintelligible.}

Having the declaration that the Lord should come and gather them together to Himself before that day, and being themselves still on earth, the Thessalonians had, by this very fact, a proof that the day was not yet present.

Verses 3, 4. Here is another proof. The one who will be the object of the Lord's judgment in that day was not yet on the scene. As long as, on the one hand, those who are to be on the seat of judgment are not gathered together (the saints above), and while, on the other hand the criminal is not brought to the bar, there can be no judgment.

Verse 6. "What withholdeth." It is not in order to prevent the revelation of the lawless one that God has put a restraint; it is to prevent his being revealed before his time. The adversary is always ready for evil. In the day that God takes away the bridle, Satan will immediately shew himself at work to drag men into apostasy.

"That which restrains;" the Greek means a thing. What is it? God has not told us what it is, and this, doubtless, because the thing which restrained then is not that which restrains now. Then it was, in one sense, the Roman empire, as the fathers thought; who saw in the power of the Roman empire a hindrance to the revelation of the man of sin, and thus prayed for the prosperity of that empire. At present the hindrance is still the existence of the governments established by God in the world; and God will maintain them as long as there is here below the gathering of His church. Viewed in this light, the hindrance is, at the bottom, the presence of the church and of the Holy Spirit on the earth.

303 The Antichrist will be the head of the ecclesiastical apostasy. He "denieth the Father and the Son." He "denieth that Jesus is the Christ." He will be at the same time a civil head, although the first beast (Rev. 13:1-10) will be the one to whom the authority and throne of the dragon will be given. The Antichrist, whose seat appears to be in Judea, will be a kind of lieutenant of the beast. Herod might furnish us an example.

Verse 8. "The Lord shall consume … with the brightness of his coming." Mark these last words. The lawless one shall be consumed by the presence of the Lord, manifested at His appearing. This leads us to distinguish between the coming of Jesus and His appearing. The Lord will first come, and then He will manifest Himself - He will appear.

Verse 9. "With all power and signs and lying wonders." It is very solemn to see the terms used by Peter, in his preaching at Jerusalem (Acts 2:22), to denote the works of power which accompanied the ministry of Jesus, now used by Paul in this epistle to express what the man of sin will do. What seduction there will be then!

Elijah's miracles will also have their counterfeit. The lawless one will cause fire to come down from heaven. And here are signs which, in the days of Elijah, were the touchstone of truth - signs by which one recognised that Jehovah was God, which now will be accomplished in behalf of the beast! (Rev. 13).

Verses 9-12. These verses furnish circumstantial but most solemn details concerning the ecclesiastical action which will take place then, and the power of seduction which will be at work among men. The lawless one will come "with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish." God will send "strong delusion," and men will believe what is false, that they all may be judged who have not believed the truth.

304 Such will be the moral state of things during the great tribulation which is to come on the earth. Two passages in the prophets (Jer. 30:7, and Dan. 12:1), as well as two passages in the gospel (Matt. 24:21 and Mark 13:19), tell us of this great tribulation. There we remark that it will fall more especially on the Jews, although it may happen that the Gentiles also shall suffer from it. It is to the sorrows of this crisis that the sufferings of that remnant refer, which we find on the scene in the Psalms. The tribulation will take place during the latter half of the last week mentioned in the book of Daniel (chap. 9), and will last until the Lord's appearing.

Besides, there are two passages in the Revelation which speak of a general tribulation. The first is Revelation 3:10, where we read these words, "The hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world to try," etc. Then we have Revelation 7:9, 17, where we find persons saved out of "all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongue," coming out of the great tribulation. From the evidence given by these passages, we find that there will be a general tribulation on the whole earth; then, at the last moment, a more special tribulation for the Jews.

The church possesses the inestimable privilege of exemption from going through these evil days. Not only will it not be on the earth at the appearing of Jesus (and this is what we have seen at the beginning of the chapter), but, besides, it will not be there at the time of the great tribulation. The Lord has said, "I also will keep thee out of the hour of temptation." We shall not therefore pass through that hour.

Verses 13, 14. There are persons who obey not the gospel; but you, Thessalonians, you have obeyed it. But this was before ordained of God, because He has chosen you from the beginning (according to a counsel determined before all ages), in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, which are things accomplished in time.

"Chosen you to salvation" - such is the object which God has purposed in Himself. "In sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth" - such is the effect produced in the elect, conformably to God's purpose. "Our gospel" - such is the means used of God to produce that effect.

305 Chapter 3 contains various exhortations and wishes of Paul in behalf of the Thessalonians. It mentions prayer, obedience, love, and the patience of Christ; also how to treat any walking disorderly: then salutations.

Verse 5. "The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of the Christ." The teachers who told the Thessalonians, "the day is present," had not that patience.