The First Epistle To The Thessalonians
Introductory Lectures On The Epistles Of Paul
There is a special interest in examining the epistles to the Thessalonians, more particularly the first, because, in point of fact, it was the earliest of the letters of the apostles; and as the first on the part of Paul, so also to an assembly found in the freshness of its faith, and in the endurance of no small suffering for Jesus' sake. This has given a colour to the character of the epistle. Besides, the very truth which most strongly characterized the assembly there - the habitual waiting for the Lord Jesus - was that which the enemy perverted into a means of danger. It is always thus. Whatever God has specially given to the church, whatever He has caused to be brought out in any marked manner at any time, is that which we may expect Satan to sap and undermine with all diligence. We might have supposed, à priori, that any characteristic truth would be that in which the children of God would be more earnest, and strong, and united. Undoubtedly it is that for which they are specially responsible; but for this very reason they are the object of the continual and subtle attacks of Satan in respect of it.
Now these epistles (for both in fact show us the same truth, but on different sides, guarding it against a different means used by the enemy to injure the saints) present on their very face, in great fulness of application, the hope of the Christian, and that which surrounds it and flows from it. At the same time, the Spirit of God in no way limits Himself to that one subject in all its parts; but as we receive the truth in its fulness in Christ, so we have the great elements of Christianity, as well as the attractive state of the believers in Thessalonica, formed by the hope which animated them, and by the truth in general seen in its light.
The apostle writes to them in a manner to confirm their faith: "Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians, which is in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ." He does not mean by this to set forth any great advance, any high standing on the part of the believer, as has been sometimes drawn from these words, but rather the contrary. It was the infantine condition of the assembly of the Thessalonians which appears to have suggested this mode of address from the apostle. Just as the babe of the family would be an especial object of a father's concern - more particularly if peril surrounded it, so does the apostle cheer the church of the Thessalonians, by speaking of their being in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ. (Compare John 10: 28, 29.) It is as children, not merely in the sense of being born of God, but as babes; and the Spirit of God views the assembly of the Thessalonians in this way. As a proof that this is correct, it may be noticed that there does not appear at this time to have been any regular oversight established in their midst. There is no hint of elders appointed here as yet, any more than at Corinth. There was no small vigour; but, at the same time, it had the stamp of youth. The fresh flow of affection filled their hearts, and the beauty of the truth had but just dawned, as it were, on their souls. This, and more of kindred character, may be traced very clearly. And we find here an instructive lesson how to deal with the entrance of error, and the dangers that threaten the children of God, more particularly such as may be comparatively unformed in the common faith.
After his salutation the apostle, as usual, gives thanks to God for them all, making mention of them in his prayers, as he says: "Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father." From the outset we find the eminently practical shape which the truth had taken; as indeed must always be the case where there is the care and activity of the Spirit of God. There is no truth that is not given both to form the heart, and to guide the steps of the saints, so that there may be a living and a fruitful service flowing to God from it. Such was the case with these Thessalonians; their work was the work of faith, and their labour had love for its spring; and more than that, their hope was one which had proved its divine strength by the power of endurance which it had given them in the midst of their afflictions. It was really the hope of Christ Himself, as it is said "patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father." Thus, we see, all was kept in conscience before God; for this is the meaning of the words - "in the sight of God and our Father."
All this brings them before the soul of the apostle in confidence, as being simple‑hearted witnesses, not only of the truth, but of Christ the Lord. "For our gospel," he says, "came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake." The apostle could unburden himself, and speak freely. With the Corinthians he could not so open his heart: there was such fleshly vaunting among them that the apostle speaks to them with no small reserve. But here it is otherwise; and as there was fervent love in their hearts and ways, so the apostle could speak out of the very same love; for assuredly love was not less on his part. Hence he could enlarge with joy on that which was before him - the manner in which the gospel had come to them; and this is of no small consequence in the ways of God. We should by no means pass by a due consideration of the manner in which God deals either with individual souls, or with saints, in any special place. For all things are of God. The effect of a storm of persecution, accompanying the introduction of the gospel, could not have been without its weight in forming the character of the saints who received the truth; and, yet more, the way in which God had wrought - particularly in him who was the bearer of His message - at that time would not be without its modifying influence in giving such a direction to it as would be for the Lord's glory and praise. I doubt not, therefore, that the apostle's entrance among them, the notable accompanying circumstances of it, the faith and love that had been then tried - of course, habitually there, but, nevertheless, put at that juncture to the proof to a remarkable degree at Thessalonica - had all their source in God's good guidance; so that those that were to follow in the wake of the same faith, who would have to stand and suffer in the name of the same Lord Jesus at a later day, were thus strengthened and fitted, as no other way could have done so well, for what was to befall them.
The apostle, therefore, does not hesitate to say, "Ye became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: so that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia." And this was so true that the apostle did not need to say anything in proof of it. The very world wondered how the word wrought among these Thessalonians. Men were struck by it; and what impressed even people outside was this - that they not only abandoned their idols, but henceforth were serving the one living and true God, and were waiting for His Son from heaven. Such was the testimony, and an uncommonly bright one it is. But, indeed, simplicity is the secret for enjoying the truth, as well as for receiving it; and we shall find always that it is the sure mark of God's power in the soul by His word and Spirit. For there are two things that characterize divine teaching: real simplicity, on the one hand, and, on the other, that definiteness which gives the inward conviction to the Christian that what he has is the truth of God. It might be too much to expect the development, or, at any rate, a large exercise of such precision as this among the Thessalonians as yet; but. one may be sure that if there was true simplicity at first, it would lead into distinctness of judgment ere long. We shall find some features of this kind for our guidance, and I hope to remark upon them as they come before me.
But, first of all, take notice that the first description which is given of them, in relation to the coming of the Lord, is simply awaiting the Son of God from heaven. We do not well to fasten upon this expression more than it was intended to convey. It does not appear to me to mean anything more than the general attitude of the Christian in relation to Him whom he expects from above. It is the simple fact of their looking for the same Saviour who had already come, whom they had known - that Jesus who had died for them and was raised again from the dead, their Deliverer from the wrath to come. Thus they were waiting for this mighty and gracious Saviour to come from heaven. How He was coming they knew not; what would be the effects of His coming they knew little. They of course knew nothing about the time, no soul does; it is reserved in the hands of our God and Father; but they were, as became babes, waiting for Him according to His own word. Whether He would take them back into the heavens, or at once enter on the kingdom under the whole heaven, I am persuaded they did not know at this time.
It seems therefore a mistake to press this text, as if it necessarily taught Christ's coming in order to translate saints into heaven. It leaves the aim, mode, and result an entirely open matter. We may find ourselves sometimes forcing scripture in this way; but be assured, it is true wisdom to draw from scripture no more than it distinctly undertakes to convey. It is much better, if with fewer texts, to have them more to the purpose. We shall find ere long the importance of not multiplying proof‑texts for any particular aim, but of seeking rather from God the definite use of each scripture. Now all that the apostle has here in view is to remind the Thessalonian saints that they were waiting for that same Deliverer, who was dead and risen, to come from heaven. It is likely that as His coming is presented in the character of Son of God, it may suggest more to the spiritual mind, and probably did suggest more to them at a later day. I am only speaking of what is important to bear in mind at their first conversion. It was the simple truth that the divine person, who loved them and died for them, was coming back from heaven. What would be the manner and the consequences they had yet to learn. They were waiting for Him who had proved His love for them deeper than death or judgment; and He was coming: how could they but love Him and wait for Him?
The second chapter pursues the subject of the apostle's ministry in connection with their conversion. He had not left them when they had been brought to the knowledge of Christ. He had laboured among them. "For yourselves, brethren, know our entrance in unto you, that it was not in vain: but 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." The apostle had gone on in persevering faith, undisturbed by that which had followed. He was not to be turned aside from the gospel. It had brought trouble on him, but he persevered. "For our exhortation," he says, "was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile: but as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts. For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness, God is witness: nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ."
Here we see how entirely his ministry had been above the ordinary motives of men. There was no self-seeking It was not a question of exalting himself, or of earthly personal gain; nor, on the other hand, was there the indulging of the passions, either gross or refined None of these things had a place in his heart, as he could appeal to God solemnly. Their own consciences were witnesses of it. But, more than that, love and tenderness of care had wrought toward them. "We were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: so being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us." What a picture of gracious interest in souls, and of this, not in Him who has the full expression of divine love, but in a man of like passions with ourselves! For if we must ever look for the perfection of it in Christ alone, it is good for us to see the life and love of Christ in one who had to contend with the very same evils which we have in our nature.
Here, then, we have the lovely picture of the grace of the apostle in watching over these young Christians; and this he presents in a two‑fold form. First, when in the most infantine condition, as a nurse he cherished them; but when they grew a little, he pursued his course, "labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, preaching unto you the gospel of God. As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children." As they advanced spiritually, so the character of ministering to their need was changed; but it was the very same love in exhorting them as a father, which had cared for them as a nurse. This may be the beau idéal of a true pastor; but it is the picture of a real apostle of Christ, of Paul among the Thessalonians, whose one desire was that they should walk worthy of God, who had called them to His kingdom and glory. "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe."
Then follows a sketch of that suffering which faith entails, as sooner or later it must come; and as he had charged them to walk worthy of God, who had cheered them with the prospect of the unseen and eternal things so he would have them to prove by their constancy and endurance that it was God's word which so powerfully wrought in them, spite of all man could do. "For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets" - not exactly their own prophets, but the prophets - "and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles." What a contrast with the grace of God! The people who had the prestige of religion could not endure that the gospel should go to the despised Gentiles, their enemies. Yet why should they have been so careful of it, since they did not believe in it themselves? How came to pass this their sudden interest in the spiritual welfare of the heathen? Whence originated this unwearied zeal to deprive others of the gospel they themselves scorned? If the gospel were such an irrational and immoral and trumpery matter as they professed to consider it, how was it that they spared no pains to prejudice men against it, and to persecute its preachers? Men do not usually feel thus - do not set themselves so bitterly and continuously against that which does not prick their consciences. One can understand it where there is the sense of a good of which they are not prepared to avail themselves: the rebellious heart - vents itself then in implacable hatred at seeing it go to others, who peradventure would receive it gladly. It is man always the enemy, the persistent antagonist of God, and more particularly of His grace. But it is religions man, as the Jew was, here and everywhere - man with a measure of traditional truth, who feels thus sore at the operations of God in His mighty grace.
But the apostle as he had shown us men the objects of the gospel, and the constant interest of grace in Christians, contrasted with those who hindered because they hated the grace of God, so he also lets them know the affectionate desire that was not weakened by absence from it, but rather the contrary. "But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire." There is nothing so real upon earth as the love of Christ reproduced by the Spirit in the Christian. "Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us." There is a reality for evil in Satan, the great personal enemy, as much in a certain sense as there is in Christ for good. Let us not forget it.
On the other hand, what is the encouragement to suffering love and toil along the road? "What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?" It matters little what the circumstances maybe in regard to true ministry in the grace of Christ. Trial shows how superior it is to circumstances. Bodily presence or absence only tests it. Afflictions only prove its strength. Distance only gives room to its expression to those who are absent. The unfailing and only adequate comfort is the certain re‑union of those who minister, and those who are ministered to, in the day when all opposition will vanish, and around the board where all the fruits of true ministry, whether of a nurse or of a father that exhorts those who are growing up in the truth, will be tasted in the joy of our Lord. The apostles and their companions in labour were content to wait for the reward of loving oversight exercised among the saints of God.
But this did not in the slightest degree hinder the apostle's tender sympathy with those who were pressed down by any special sufferings. For Christianity is not dreamy or sentimental, but most real in its power of adapting itself to every need. It is the true deliverance from all that is fictitious, whether on the side of reason or of imagination in the things of God. Superstition has its perils; but quite as much has the dogmatism of mere intellect. Scripture raises the believer above both; yet the apostle shows what anxiety of feeling was his about the Thessalonians.
He did not doubt the Lord's watchful eye. Nevertheless all his heart was in movement about them. He had sent Timotheus when he could not go himself; and he was rejoiced to hear the good account which he thus gleaned through him, for he dreaded lest they might be shaken by the great wave of trouble that was sweeping over them. No doubt they had been prepared for this in a measure; for he had told them, when with them, that they were appointed thereunto.
But now, how cheered was his spirit to find that the tempter had been foiled! Timotheus had come with good tidings of their faith and love. Spite of all, they had "good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you." Love was still fervent, as in him so in them. "Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: for now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord." But in the midst of thanksgiving he prays for them.
We may notice two prayers particularly in this epistle. The first occurs at the end of 1 Thessalonians 3, and the second at the end of the last chapter. The first is more particularly a review of the entrance of the gospel among the Thessalonian saints and of his own ministry, which was no doubt meant to be suggestive to them of the true character and method of serving the Lord in dealing with all men. He winds it up with prayer to the effect: "Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you. And the Lord make you to increase and abound one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: to the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints."
Here at once we come to very distinct guidance for our thoughts; and this in more ways than one. He prays not that they may be established in holiness, in order that they might love one another, but that they might abound in love, in order that they might be established in holiness. Love always precedes holiness. It is true from conversion - from the beginning of the work in the soul - and it is also true to the last. What first raises the heart to God is some faint sense of His love in Christ. I do not say anything at all like the love of God shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit given us. There may then be no power to rest on divine love; there can be no abounding in love in such a state. But, for all that, there is a hope of love - if it be the feeblest thought; if it be only that "there is bread enough and to spare" for the merest prodigal that betakes himself to the father's house. If we look at God and Christ, and at the grace that suits the Father's counsels and the Son's work, I admit all this is a scanty measure - a poor thing on their part, to give a servant's portion in such a house. But it was no small prize for the heart of a sinner, darkened and narrowed by selfishness, and the indulgence of lust and passion. And what is sin in every form but selfishness? We know how this shuts up the heart, and how it destroys every expectation of goodness in others. The grace of God, contrariwise, works and kindles, it may be, a very little spark at first, but still a beginning of what is truly great, good, and eternal. Accordingly, as we read, the prodigal starts from the far country, and cannot rest - though there was incomparably more earnestness on the part of the father to meet him, as well we know; for it was not the prodigal that ran to the father, but the father to the prodigal. And thus it is always. The same true working of love, however at first dimly seen, that wakes the sinner from his wretched bed of sin - for rest it cannot be called - this rouses him from the guilty dreams of death. On the other hand, it is the fulness of love which gives the heart to enter into the riches of grace towards us, shedding abroad, not an earnest of it, but itself in the heart. And this holiness, not in desire only, but real and deep, keeps pace with love.
It is not, of course, my present task to unfold the wonderful way in which that love has been proved to us. It does not come before me now, nor is it for me to leave my theme even to speak of its display in Christ, by whom God commends His own love to us, in that, while yet sinners, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, till we can joy in Himself through our Lord Jesus Christ. But I affirm that all practical holiness is the fruit of the love to which the heart has surrendered, and which it receives simply and enjoys fully. This, then, is true of the soul that is only seeking to know the grace of God.
But here he earnestly desires their growth in holiness, and prays for them that they might "increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: to the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness." And the manner in which this is connected with the coming of Christ here is very noticeable. He supposes it to be flowing out of love, and going on in holiness, proceeding unbroken, until the saint finds himself at last in the display of glory; not when Christ comes to take us up, but when God brings us with Him. Why (let me ask) is there not presented His coming to receive the saints in this chapter, as in the next? Because our walking in love and holiness is the question in the hand of the Holy Spirit; and this has the most intimate connection with Christ's appearing, when we come with Him. And for this there is a simple reason. Where the walk comes in, we have clearly responsibility before the saints. Now the appearing of the Lord Jesus is that which will manifest us in the results of responsibility. Then we shall each see, when self‑love can no longer darken our judgment of ourselves, or our estimate of others, when nothing but the truth shall remain and be displayed of all that his been wrought in us, or done by us. For the Lord will assuredly come to translate us to His presence; but He will also cause us, to appear with Him in glory, when He appears; and when this moment arrives, it will be made manifest how far we have been faithful, and how far faithless. All will be turned to His own glory. Accordingly then here in 1 Thessalonians 3 we see the reason why, as it appears to. me, the Spirit directs attention to His coming with all His saints, not for them.
The next portion, or second half of the epistle, opens with practical exhortation. The early part insists on purity; then follow a few words on love. It might seem strange that it should be needful to guard these saints, walking as we have seen so simply and delightfully, against unclean offences even in the closest relations of life - that Christian men should be warned against fornication and adultery; but we know that so desperate is the evil of the flesh, that no circumstances nor position can secure, yea, even the joy of the blessing of God's grace, without * exercise of conscience and self-judgment; and hence these solemn admonitions from the Lord. It was particularly needed at that time and in Greece, because such sins were rather sanctioned than judged in the heathen world. Even mankind in later days have profited enormously by the change. They can now no doubt enrich themselves with truth, and talk largely about holiness; but how little they knew of either before they borrowed from Scripture! it is all stolen goods, every bit of real value. The men of whom they are the successors were unclean to the last degree. The Aristotles and Platos were really not fit for decent company. I admit our Grecians would scowl at such an estimate, or scorn it; but they lack the elements for forming an adequate moral appraisal, or they do not look the facts in the face, plain enough as they are. If knowingly they endorse or make light of such morals as Plato counted desirable for his republic, it cannot be doubted where they themselves are. Undoubtedly there were some fine speculations, but nothing more; for men thought that talking about morality would do as well as the thing itself. It is Christ, and Christ alone, that has brought in the very truth of God in word and deed. It was unknown to man before: still more the ultimate proof in the cross that He is love. Christ first displayed absolute purity in the very nature which had revelled in lust and passion heretofore.
But the Thessalonians in general might not mated its importance fully, being young in the truth. There was doubtless good reason why the apostle in writing to them had to lay great stress on moral purity. The fact is, that it was a matter of course then for men to live just as they listed. There was no restriction, except so far as mere human vengeance or punishments of the law might deter them. Men indulged themselves in anything they could do safely. And so indeed it is to this day, except so far as Christianity or the profession of it prevents them.
After speaking of purity, the apostle treats of loving one another, and adds that there was no need to say much about it. They themselves were taught of God; they knew what they were called to in brotherly love. But he does exhort them to be quiet and to mind their own business, working with their own hands, as he not only commanded them when in their midst, but exemplified it from day to day himself. He had it deeply at heart that they should walk reputably toward those without, and have need of no one or thing.
But we come in the next place to a main topic of the epistle. They had fallen into a serious mistake as to some of the brethren that had fallen asleep. They feared that these departed saints would miss much at the coming of the Lord - in fact, that they would lose their part in the joyful meeting between the Lord Jesus and His saints. This at once shows us that we must not estimate the Thessalonian believers according to that standard which these mistakes helped to elicit from the Holy Ghost. We have the advantage of the entire development of the truth, much of which was the inspired correction of evils and errors. The New Testament, you must remember, was not then written; a very small part - one gospel, or at most perhaps two, and not one of the epistles. Thus, except the teaching that they had received from the apostle during his comparatively short stay in Thessalonica, they had little, or no means of further instruction in the truth, and we know how easily that which is only heard passes away. We may learn from this the invaluable blessing we have, not merely in the word, but in the written word of God - scripture. However, at this time, for the most part, the New Testament books were not yet written. It was that part of scripture which most of all concerned these saints. We must not, therefore, wonder that they were ignorant of what had regard to their brethren who had fallen asleep. On the other hand, it is not meant that they entertained any fears of their being lost. This could not arise in the minds of souls grounded in what the apostle calls our gospel; and no charge is so much as hinted of any failure in this respect. Still a delay might have been conceived before they entered into full blessedness. One can understand their perplexity for want of light on what the Lord would do with them. They did not know whether they would then enter the kingdom, or how, or when. These were questions unsolved.
The Holy Ghost meets their difficulties now, and tells them to this effect: "I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." Clearly we hear again of the Lord coming, and bringing these saints with Him. It is not the Lord, however, receiving them to Himself, but bringing them with Him. That is, we have once more the Lord coining in glory with His saints already glorified. When that moment comes, at any rate, they will be with Him. Such is the first statement of the apostle. But this very truth, which made part of their old difficulty, raises another difficulty. How could the saints that had fallen asleep come with Him now? - How could all the saints appear in glory with Christ? They seem to have understood that when the Lord came, there would be saints here below waiting for Christ; and that these would somehow be with Him in glory. But they were utterly perplexed as to the saints that had fallen asleep. They did not know what to make of the interim - if indeed they suspected an interim. They did not know the process by which the Lord would deal with those that had died; and it is now explained.
"For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [shall in no wise anticipate] them which are asleep." If they had remained alive, no difficulty had been felt in the case. Some in our day seem to feel a good deal surprised at such a difficulty as this; but the truth is that the sorrow of the Thessalonians arose from the simplicity of their faith, and men's feeling no difficulty now is partly owing to their lack of any genuine faith in it. Had they more faith, they might have their perplexities too, not at the end, but, as usual, at the beginning. It was certainly so with the Thessalonians at this time. It is always the effect of faith at first. Newly‑entered light gives occasion to the perception of much which we cannot solve at once. But God comes in to the aid of the believer, and in His own grace and time solves one difficulty after another. Then the apostle clears it up thus: "We which are alive and remain unto the coming [or presence] of the Lord," etc. The word "coming" means the fact of being present in contrast with absence. "We which are alive and remain unto the presence of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep." I take the liberty of changing the word "prevent," which is old English, into a phrase which gives the same meaning as "prevent" when the translation was made.
We "shall not precede them which are asleep." Thus, suppose we are waiting for Christ to come, and that He comes, we shall not be before those saints that have departed previously. How can this be? It is answered in the next verse. "For the Lord himself," says he, "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: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." Thus it is evident that, if there be a moment of difference, it is in favour of the sleepers, and not of those which remain alive. Those that are asleep are first wakened up. Bear in mind, sleep is for the body; the soul is never said or supposed in scripture to be asleep. But those who are asleep in their graves will be wakened up by the shout (kevleusma) of the Lord Jesus; for the word means the call of a commander to his men that follow, or of an admiral to his sailors. It is from one who has a relation to others under his authority; it is not a vague call to those that may not own his command, but to his own people.
It is evident, therefore, that the notion entertained by some, that this shout must be heard by men in general, is refuted by these words, as well as other facts. Men in general have no such relation to the Lord. It is a shout that is heard by those to whom it appertains. Not a word, therefore, includes - but, rather the contrary, shuts out - those to whom Christ stands in no such connection. In other words, it is the Lord's call to His own, and accordingly the dead in Christ rise first, as the immediate fruit of it. "Then we, the living that remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." This at once dispels the difficulty as to those who were asleep. So far from missing the moment of meeting between the Lord and His own, they rise first; we immediately join them; and thus both together are caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with Him.
Then the apostle, having left with the Thessalonians the comfort of this about their brethren, turns to the day of the Lord, or His appearing. "But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night." "The day of the Lord" is invariably in Scripture that period when the Lord will come in manifest and awful judgment of sinful men. It is never applied to any dealing with the Christian as on the earth. We find a very particular application of it, which seems connected with the saints. This is not exactly called the day of the Lord, but "the day of Christ." Confessedly there is a connection between the two. The day of Christ means that aspect of the day of the Lord, in which those who are in Christ will have their special place in the kingdom assigned. Consequently, where it is a question of the fruit of labour in the service of Christ, reward of faithfulness, or anything of the kind, "the day of Christ" is mentioned.
But "the day of the Lord," as such, is invariably the day of the Lord's dealing in judgment with man as such on the earth. Of that day, then, the apostle felt no need to write. It was already known perfectly that the day of the Lord is coming as a thief in the night. This was a matter of Old Testament statement and phraseology. All the prophets speak of it. If you search from Isaiah to Malachi, you will find that the day of Jehovah is that moment of divine intervention when man is no longer allowed to pursue his own path, when the Lord God will deal with the world's system in all its parts, when the idols of the nations all perish together with their benighted votaries. But - the Lord Himself shall be exalted in that day, and His people shall be brought into their true place, and the Gentiles shall accept theirs. This will be the time of displayed divine government. Jehovah will take Zion as the central seat of His earthly throne, and all peoples shall submit to His authority in the person of Christ.
Hence, therefore, the apostle, when he speaks of the day of the Lord, alludes to it as already too notorious to need fresh words about it. The Thessalonians did not require to be instructed as to that. But this makes most plain the distinction of the manner in which the saints and mankind will be dealt with. When he treats of the Lord's coming, they require to be instructed; where he speaks about the day of Jehovah, they do not. The day of Jehovah was matter of common knowledge from the Old Testament. To a scribe instructed thus, there was no doubt about its bearing. Not even a Jew disputed about it, and of course a Christian would be subject to the testimony of God in the Old Testament. But a Christian might not know that which most of all it was desirable for him to understand, - the manner in which his own proper hopes would link themselves with the day of Jehovah.
It is exactly there many make such utter confusion; for they do not distinguish between the hope of the Christian and "the day" for the world. And this lets out a great secret - the heart's desire to think of the two things together. We can all understand that people would like to have the best of both. But it cannot be done. Hence in speaking of the day of the Lord (and I draw your attention to it, because we shall find its importance in the next epistle) he says, "When they shall say, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child." He does not say "you," but "they." Why this difference? When he is speaking about the presence of the Lord, he says "you," "we;" but when treating of the day of Jehovah, he says "they."
Indeed, the apostle excludes the believer; for he says, "Ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief." Besides, he gives a moral reason, "Ye are children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore 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." Salvation here means complete deliverance not yet come - the redemption of the 'body and not that of the soul alone. For Christ "died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him."
Carefully remember that waking or sleeping here has reference to the body; it has no reference at all to anything of moral state. It is impossible that the Spirit of God should say that, whether in a right state or wrong we should live together with Him. The Holy Spirit never makes light of the condition of sin. Nor is there anything more foreign to the tone of scripture, than that the Spirit of God should treat with indifference the question whether a saint was in a good or a bad state. He had no doubt just used the words "wake or sleep" in another sense; but he seems to me to assume the impossibility of a saint applying them in a moral sense when he pursues the subject farther. In verse 6, for instance, the sleeping and watching are moral states; but when we come down to verse 10, they refer to the question of life or death in the body, and not to the saints' ways. In fact this manner of taking up words, and applying them in another sense, will be found to be one of the characteristics of the abrupt, animated, and forcible style of the apostle.
I should not make the remark if I had not known excellent men sometimes in considerable danger from overlooking this, and taking scripture in a narrow and pseudo‑literal sense. But this is not the way to understand the Bible. It is one of the great misuses to which a concordance exposes those who are caught by verbal analogies, instead of entering into the scope of thought real meaning.
We shall live with Him then. "Wherefore," he says, comfort yourselves to ether, and edify one another." Then he gives them certain instructions; and I add this observation, which is one of practical importance. He calls upon these young believers to know those who laboured among them, and were over them, or took the lead in the Lord, and admonished them. They were to esteem them very highly in love for their work, being at peace at the same time among themselves.
This exhortation, always right, has, to my own mind, great wisdom and worth for us now; for the simple reason that, so far, we stand in a measure, as to circumstances - though not from the same cause - with these Thessalonian saints. Assuredly they were in a comparatively infantine condition, quite as much or more than those I am now addressing. Yet if saints, no matter how informed, then had among them those that laboured and were over them in the Lord, surely the same Lord gives still the same helps and governments. He raises up and sends His workmen in the world, and those who bring in that moral power and wisdom which enable some to take the lead. Hence it is beyond just controversy - from the case of the Thessalonians (and it is not alone) - that for some to be over others in the Lord did not depend on apostolical appointment. It is a defective and even mistaken idea to restrict it to this, though it is admitted that the apostles used to appoint such elders. But the essence , - of what we find here is, that in that appointment spiritual power and might did show itself in this way; and that the greatest of the apostles exhorts the saints to acknowledge those who were thus - and only thus - over them in the Lord, altogether independently of any apostolic act. No doubt the due external appointment was desirable and important in its place. But what of places (and I would add, what of times) where it could not be had?
These are our circumstances now; for no matter how much we might welcome and value such outward appointment, we cannot have it. Without the proper scriptural authority, who is to appoint? Any body unquestionably, and leaders especially, might imitate Paul and Barnabas, or Titus. But, assuredly, mere imitation is nothing, or worse; and those that take the lead, or are qualified to do so, are the persons to be appointed - not to appoint, if we really bow to the Lord. More than this - direct authority from the Lord for the purpose was needed. Where is it now? The moment you make an appointing power of your own, it is evident that its authority cannot rise above its source. If it is only a humanly given authority, it can exercise no more than a human power. But the apostle - or rather the prescient Spirit of God - meets various contingencies in the exhortation, and shows that a company of believers, even though not long gathered, might have more than one in their midst qualified to lead the rest, and entitled to respect and love on the score of their work, as thus labouring. If there be such now, (and who will deny it?) are the saints not called on to know them? Are there none who labour among them - none that take the lead among them in the Lord? It is evident that there ought to be no flinching from such a truth as this. For the present and long-existing confusion of Christendom in no way neutralizes it, but rather creates a fresh reason for adhering to it, as to all scripture. No doubt it may not be always pleasant to high‑minded men; but be assured, it is a thing of no small moment in its place.
Again, under the circumstances of Thessalonica, as there must have been danger of headiness, the apostle calls on the brethren to watch against unruly ways. The two things would be likely to go together: peace promotes love and respect. Disorderly folk are apt to know nobody over them in the Lord. Hence he calls on all to admonish them, to comfort the fainthearted, to support the weak, to be patient toward all. Then follows a cluster of other exhortations on which I need not dwell now. My object is not so much to insist on the exhortatory part of the epistle, as to present the general thread of design that runs though each, so as to give a comprehensive view of its structure.