Comments On First Thessalonians
This epistle is evidently the first written by the apostle Paul, likely in the year 52 A.D., the same year as his first visit to Thessalonica. He and Silas and Timothy had come there from Philippi, leaving Luke in the latter city. Persecution was raised in both places, and the apostle remained only briefly, but not without having established bright, solid testimonies to the grace of God: Philippi remaining steadfast and devoted through the years, and Thessalonica a shining example of Gospel witness in the face of continued persecution. Only "three sabbath days" we are told Paul reasoned with the Jews there out of the Scriptures, some of them believing, but "a great multitude" of Greeks also receiving the Gospel (Acts 17:1-4).
The record seems to indicate that Paul did not remain longer there, though it has been thought by some that he must have done so, since he writes to the Philippians, "Even at Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity" (Ch. 4:16). Yet it seems not unlikely that the fresh, ardent affection of the Philippians could gladly send help such as this to Paul, even twice in the course of three weeks (the distance being possibly eighty miles). Afflicted with poverty as they were, they evidently understood and felt deeply Paul's need, sending to him as soon as they were able, not holding back until they were able to increase the amount, but sending as they obtained it. This is characteristic of the poor who love the Lord.
Thessalonians, as Philippians, is pastoral rather than doctrinal. The devotion, faith, and love of the Lord's servants stands out as an example that had precious effect in the witness of the saints at Thessalonica. The hope of the coming of the Lord is a theme that permeates the book and lends sweetest character to every aspect of life. The wholesome, energetic, substantial character of the ministry here is most refreshing, although it does not compare with Romans and Hebrews so far as deep penetration and intellectual argument is concerned. But we cannot dispense with its fresh and refreshing encouragement.
Only in the two epistles to the Thessalonians does Paul include the names of his two co-workers, Silas and Timothy, in his addressing them. Also only in these does he refrain from designating himself in any way: as "an apostle," or "a servant," or "a prisoner." Therefore he is not here giving an authoritative communication of the mind of God (as an apostle), nor is he presented as a pattern of Christianity (as a servant; cf. Philippians), nor is he appealing to godly feelings and sympathies (as a prisoner; cf. Philemon), but as one on the same level with them, he takes delight in their faith, love, and hope, and encourages them in this. It is most salutary that just as three men are associated in writing, so the epistle contains many groups of three characteristics, three being the number of substantiality (as three dimensions form a solid), the number of the eternal Trinity. How precious then is the character of substantial, solid, enduring truth here presented. Consistently with this character of divine energy is the meaning of the name Thessalonica - "victory over falsity" - for intellect or education does not accomplish this, but the power of God in the soul.
Another expression used only in these two epistles is that of his addressing the assembly: "the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Does it not show tender affection for a company of newly converted children of God the Father, united to His beloved Son? Thus the apostle nourishes and nurtures that new life, though not simply as individuals, but as an assembly in proper local character. Of course this does not set aside the unity of the assembly world-wide which is so clearly taught in Corinthians and Ephesians, but the emphasis here is on local aspects of testimony and order. The salutation is as in other epistles, "Grace to you and peace,from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ": grace the active favor of God in abundance of supply; peace the tranquility begotten by submission to and communion with Himself.
In verse 2 let us mark well the apostle's habit of expressing his thankfulness for all saints in the writing of his epistles. We may remember to pray for the saints, yet may easily neglect this wholesome practice of thanking God for them, which to the apostle was of first importance. Thanksgiving first with prayer following is the wise and godly order.
In verse 3 is a basic, threefold character of Christianity, exemplified beautifully in this newly converted company. Though often referred to, it is worthy of repetition that the address to the Ephesian assembly in Revelation 2:2 commends their works, labor, and patience, but that they are not there coupled with faith, love, and hope. Work may go on even after faith has begun to wax feeble; that is, the work may not be the living product of faith but of habit, or of a sense of responsibility. Labor may continue while love is not its real power. Patience may become more or less habitual, not continuing as the fresh, sweet result of the expectant hope of the coming of the Lord. Let us constantly cultivate not only the outward fruits of faith, love, and hope, but rather these blessed motives themselves.
Faith both sees God and sees myself as manifested before God. It is no mere dormant acknowledgment of His truth, but a living, active power that "works." But love is more powerful still. It "labors." It may bear long and forbear, continuing to serve even when rebuffed, refused, despised. The apostle would continue to "spend and be spent" even though, as he said, "the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved" (2 Cor. 12:15).
This is labor energized by unfeigned love, love begotten by the pure love of God received and known in the soul. Hope centered in the Person of Christ, assured that His coming is near and that He alone will answer all the problems of every circumstance, is that which gives calm, joyful endurance and constancy in everything. All of these things will maintain a sweet, refreshing fullness when the proper motives are active. But they are "in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father." The Lord Himself is the Living Object of these things, and the sense of all being opened and naked in the sight of God the Father is another matter of deepest encouragement.
"Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God." There was no shadow of doubt as to the reality of the work of God in the Thessalonians. The fruits they bore were proof to the apostle that they were elect of God.
Verse 5. Words by themselves may be empty and vain if not backed up by that which bears evidence of reality. But here again we find three dimensions of substantial, real value: "in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance." The power here is the "dynamite" of the gospel, an energy that produced decisive results. Moreover the Spirit of God was the living source of that power: supreme, divine, holy. "Much assurance" was the inevitable accompaniment of this. No doubtfulness, fears, apprehensions could remain in such anatmosphere. The apostle left no such impression with souls that one could be actually saved by God and then lost again. His gospel was one of certainty and "much assurance," and such was its effect upon the Thessalonians.
The character and conduct of these three servants of the Lord was also such as to beget such results. Their words were backed up by such action as to show that the truth they preached had effect in their own lives.
Verse 6. Being "followers of us" was no mere sectarian following of men, but rather their conduct followed that of the godly example of these men who were themselves so formed by following the Lord. It is the practical effect upon their ways of which he is speaking, not the acknowledgment of leadership. They had received the Word from those who suffered for it, and they themselves found the same affliction, but sweetened by "joy of the Holy Ghost." It was no mere servile adherence to popular leaders, but pure joy in suffering along with those who had suffered for the Lord's sake. In this simple, godly way they became a model of true testimony to all Macedonia and Achaia, though young indeed in the faith.
Macedonia and Achaia were two provinces in Greece, and in these the news of the faith and witness of the Thessalonians had soon become well known. But it was not confined here, for "also in every place" (no doubt wherever Christianity had come) this refreshing knowledge had spread, speaking with good effect to believers everywhere, so that the apostle and his co-workers had no need to tell of the results of their work in Thessalonica.
In every direction was reported the amazing change in these souls, their turning to God from idols - idols so many and so firmly entrenched in the life of the populace that there could be no mere natural explanation for such a change. But it was "to God" they had turned, not to another religion. Living faith produced positive action. The negative turning from idols certainly accompanied this, but it was secondary. And the initial turning is followed by "serving the living and true God," a good, solid effect in consistent life. Moreover, it awakened proper thoughts and feelings as to the future and expectant waiting for the Son of God from heaven. Observe how these three grand characteristics are the working of faith, love and hope, in that order. If wrath is coming He is our Deliverer. Rather than in condemning He has put all His power (as well as grace) into our deliverance.
We are to consider now that which had great effect in producing the energetic, devoted response to the gospel such as we have seen in the Thessalonians. Certainly it is the Word of God itself that is responsible for this, as insisted on in verse 13. Yet the living effects of that Word in the Lord's servants had such an effect as to attach the hearts of the Thessalonians to that Word as being not the word of men but in truth the Word of God. How precious is such work! If souls are drawn to the Word of God to receive its truth as living and real because they have seen in others some true, unselfish, self-sacrificing character that has no explanation except as the effects of the Word of God, this is valuable beyond words.
God had opened a door in Thessalonica, and the entering in of His servants was not in vain. They had suffered before at Philippi, being beaten and imprisoned and later asked to leave the city. But this did not discourage them nor lessen their boldness in speaking the gospel of God, though in much conflict. Not that they were contentious, but would firmly declare the gospel in the face of the contentions of others. Their own comfort or safety was nothing compared to the precious gospel of the grace of God. Alas, how weak we are today in comparison to these men in their calm, purposeful devotion to God - men to whom Christ was supreme!
Verse 3 contains three negatives. Idolatry was guilty of all three evils mentioned here, and the Thessalonians would certainly discern a difference in the message of these men. Idolatry itself was religious deception; and many today, as then, are most practised in the ability to deceive, being so deceived themselves that they are blinded to the deception of their own ways. Uncleanness too accompanied idolatry, with a profession of being sanctified because it was for a religious purpose. Nor is it any less evident in the religious systems of men today. In fact many things that even natural conscience condemns are calmly justified by many who glory in their particular religion. Guile too is characteristic of the methods used by idolaters to secure followers. They may give very nice, proper things to begin with, and when one is persuaded to accept what appears to be a drink of cold water, then the poison is slipped in. Every false religion uses such methods. Nothing of this, however, was true of Paul, Silas, and Timothy.
Verse 4 speaks now of that which is positive. It is a refreshing spirit of lowly thankfulness seen in the expression "we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel." Having such realization, that the gospel was a sacred trust committed to them by the grace of the eternal God, how could they do otherwise than speak it as directly responsible to God? God's gospel was not for the mere pleasure of men. It is a message of pure truth that the appostle was diligent to speak in the manner that pleased his Master, who tried their hearts. Men could not always decide as to another's motives, but God knew them perfectly. How vitally important then that the soul should be fully opened as before God, to be diligent to honestly please Him.
Verses 5 and 6 again revert to the negative, and doubtless because, as has been remarked, the accustomed evil practices of idolatry required such evil methods as are here refused and avoided by Paul and his companions. "Flattering words" will secure the friendship of those who are not themselves honorable and cautious, and an honest man will not receive flatery that, of course, puts him in a much better light than is really true of him. It was by flattery that Absalom "stole the hearts of the men of Israel" (2 Sam. 15:1-6). But the gospel shows honestly the guilt of mankind and the pure grace of God. "A cloak of covetousness" would, of course, be a nice appearance that covers a covetous character. The Thessalonians knew this was not true of these servants of God, and God was witness.
From men they sought no advantage, whether from the Thessalonians or from any others, though as being sent of Christ they may have been entitled to the support of those who had been spiritually blessed through them.
In these verses (4,5,6) there are again three distinctions: the first connected with faith, the second with love, the third with hope. The following three verses also in a positive way deal similarly.
The bold, energetic zeal of the apostle we may not easily connect with gentleness, but this is a side of his character that the Thessalonians knew well. It was not merely his habit to declare the truth, but to care for souls as a nurse her children.
But beyond this their affection for the Thessalonians was such that they were willing not only to give them the gospel freely, but to pour out their whole soul for them. Not thus could he speak to the Galatians, nor to the Corinthians, for in each case there is some reservation of soul demanded by the fact of their evident reservations as regards the truth itself. How can the Lord's servant be free in his spirit with those who compromise the truth of his Master? But our verse shows the tender pastor's heart of the apostle, and Timothy was likeminded (Phil. 3:19,20), while Silas also is included in the "we".
Verse 9. The character of these servants is also beautifully seen in the fact of the incessant "labor and travail" in which they engaged in order that they would not be dependent on any of the Thessalonians for their support. To do this, and to spend much time in preaching also, was wonderful evidence of the precious effect of the truth of God upon themselves and it wrought effectually upon their hearers. That some of them afterward would desist from working (2 Th. 3:11) is a strange contradiction, but shows that the truth can be accepted while its evident effects may be ignored.
Observe in verse 10 again the solemn appeal (as in verse 5) to their own knowledge and the witness of God. Precious it is that a servant of God can honorably do this, as we see with Samuel in 1 Samuel 12:3-5. Now three features of their behavior are pressed upon us: "holily," which is Godward; "justly," manward; and "unblameably," selfward. Men will commonly ignore the first, which is most important of all, and will justify personal evil by claiming that they harm no one but themselves, so that it leaves only one's relationship with others to be really considered. But the child of God must ignore none of these spheres of responsibility if there is to be wholesome, substantial, dependable behavior.
Verse 11. Exhorting would be the stirring up of faith; comforting, the binding up of love; and charging, the strengthening of hope, as in the charge of the Lord Jesus to His servants, "Occupy till I come." (Luke 19:13) This threefold ministry was necessary in order that they might "walk worthy of God" - the triune God, who had called them "unto His kingdom and glory." In Ephesians the calling of God is greatly emphasized, and saints exhorted to "walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye are called" (Eph. 4:1); that is, heavenly in contrast to Israel's earthly calling. Colossians 1:10 speaks of walking "worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing"; that is, as subject to His authority in a pathway through a world of testing. But here it is God Himself of whom they are to walk worthy. Yet He has called them unto His kingdom and glory." This is, of course, future, the object of their hope, while in Ephesians the calling involves present heavenly blessings and heavenly position.
Verse 13 shows us the vital secret of the fullness of blessing found at Thessalonica. It filled the hearts of the laborers with unceasing thanksgiving to God that these newborn souls received the Word of God as no mere attractive religion of men, but as directly from God. They were therefore no mere followers of men, though affected greatly by the example of their teachers as subject themselves to that Word which laid hold of their hearts. Paul, Silas and Timothy were not required to remain long enough to thoroughly indoctrinate these disciples as is necessary in the case of false religions; but the Word of God effectually working in them would both teach and preserve them, enabling them to stand with firmest decision and energy of faith. What power indeed in that Word!
Verse 14. In the same sense that they had become followers of the apostles, so had they become followers of the assemblies in Judea. For the same blessed cause they had suffered similarly. Those by nature linked with the Thessalonians were their persecutors, just as the Jews persecuted their own brethren who stood for the Lord Jesus. Indeed it was they who killed their own Messiah, as well as many prophets whose true witness of theLord Jesus had been so hated; they had driven out by persecution Paul and others of their own nation. Certainly this was not pleasing God, no matter how zealous for God they professed to be; it was "contrary to all men," or "against all men," for it was against the proper interests of all mankind. Many might agree with them, but it was yet to the actual detriment of them all.
Their intense sectarian hatred too is seen in their forbidding the apostles to speak to Gentiles. We may ask, what did this have to do with them? They had themselves rejected Jesus as an imposter. If the Gentiles, whom they despised, received Him, why did they not gloat over the fact of Gentiles being exposed to what they considered gross deception? Were they afraid, though they hated Christ, that this might not be deception after all, and therefore were really fighting their own badly troubled conscience? But this kind of enmity was the filling up of their sins for which the wrath of God must come upon them, and from that time until now the history of wrath against them has been awesome and emblazoned before the world, soon to culminate in the Great Tribulation.
The apostle does not minimize the enmity, but shows clearly the forces of evil at work - not to discourage saints, but to show that however great the opposition, the grace of God had, and would, enable a true overcoming, strengthening the saints by it in solid, serious, real testimony to the glory of the Lord Jesus. How precious and wonderful the power of God over all the powers of evil!
Verse 17. While the Spirit of God had used Paul's absence for the good of the Thessalonian saints to strengthen them to stand without his help, yet his heart was greatly with them, and he had evidently sought opportunity to return "with great desire." Here was indeed the heart of a true shepherd, concerned for the state of the flock and yet hindered from his yearning desire to come to them again. In verse 18 he says "even I Paul," because as a matter of fact Timothy was able to visit them before this time, as is seen in ch. 3:1,2. But Paul and Silas were hindered by Satan. What form this resistance took we are not told, but Satan's malignancy against the truth wanted no strengthening of an already devoted assembly. Still, we know God overrules Satan and will permit nothing except as He is able to produce good from it.
In verse 19 three precious things are again mentioned which deeply moved the apostle's concern for them, for they themselves (in common no doubt with others who had been converted through the labors of these men) were able to be a crowning joy to them at the coming of the Lord. We may say, is it not the Lord Himself who is to be "our hope, or joy or crown of rejoicing?" No doubt this is true, yet He so delights to identify Himself with His saints that the apostle's heart cannot but expand with joy in the fact of the Lord's joy in having all His own in His presence, and of course the fruits of the labor of the apostle will there be fully displayed. Not that it was his labors that he was thinking of, but of them in whose blessing he delighted. They were his glory and joy. Indeed the heart of his Master is reflected in this - He who shall see of the fruit of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied.
Paul had been driven by persecution from Thessalonica, then from Berea to Athens. Alone at Athens for a time (Acts 17), he sent word for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed (17:15). Evidently Timothy at least had done so. As to Silas, it does not seem clear. But Paul sent Timothy then from Athens to Thessalonica, though unable to go himself and no doubt loathe to be without the help of Timothy. Later both Silas and Timothy rejoined Paul at Corinth (Acts 18:5), but as to the movements of Silas in the meanwhile it seems Scripture gives no indication.
As to verse 2 it appears that a more correct translation is "Timotheus, our brother, and fellow-worker under God in the gospel of Christ." Paul manifestly had confidence in the faithfulness of Timothy in caring for the state of their souls and was specially concerned that the persecutions endured by the saints at Thessalonica should not tend to discourage them. His work was first to establish them, that is, of course, to provide the ministry of the Word that is a basis for firm solid stability in standing for God, then to comfort or encourage them. Establishing is, of course, more connected with teaching, while encouraging is rather shepherding, or pastoral work. How good if both are seen together.
If we should be too distressed or shaken by afflictions, is it not well to remember "that we are appointed thereunto?" Itseems this reminder is constantly needed by saints of God, and the apostle reminds them that when with them they had made it clear beforehand that they would suffer tribulation. So it turned out, as they were witnesses themselves. Yet we can too easily forget the preciousness of the privilege of suffering for the Lord's sake. Human nature will look for an escape from this, so that Paul's sending Timothy so soon after their visit is easily understandable.
Paul was not ignorant of Satan's devices, and his great concern for the preservation of the Thessalonians could be satisfied with nothing less than knowing their state. Satan has many means of turning young souls aside with temptations that make a strong appeal, and the apostle was most concerned that his labors should not prove in vain so far as the Thessalonians were concerned. But the return of Timothy brought the good news of their continued faith and love, as well as longing for the sight of the Lord's servants. Notice again this triplet of blessing: faith, love and hope. This news to the apostle was a great reward of comfort in view of his continued affliction and distress, a testimony of its being worthwhile. But it is by their faith he is comforted, that sweet principle that looks above and beyond all present things to the living God. For the apostle life was worth living when his converts stood fast in the Lord. How trying indeed to the soul of the servant if it is otherwise! The apostle knew something of this too, especially in his later years when all in Asia forsook him (2 Tim. 1:15), and in fact as regards the Galatians, of whom he stood in serious doubt, after having bestowed much labor upon them (Gal. 4:19, 20). We may, of course, hope that in the latter case his epistle was used for their recovery.
Verses 9-10. The profound thanksgiving on the part of the Lord's servants for the sake of the Thessalonians is surely a lesson of great value to us. Nor was it only thanksgiving, but a precious joy as before God that filled their hearts to such an extent that they prayed "exceedingly" for the privilege of again seeing the faces of these beloved converts, coupled with the desire to minister that which would supply anything that might be lacking in their faith. They sought no less than fullness of blessing for these precious souls.
Verse I1 is more correctly translated, "But our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you" (Numerical Bible). There is no reason for the official title "Christ" to be added in an affectionate desire such as this. Yet this hope is evidently deferred for over four years, for we do not read of Paul's return to Macedonia until in Acts 19:21 he purposed to pass through there, a desire accomplished in Acts 20:1,2. This is considered to be the spring of 57 A.D. So that their prayers were answered, but no doubt not as soon as they had hoped for. These are very real considerations for our own souls.
But we may well echo on our own behalf the prayer of verse 12, for the increasing and abounding of love toward the saints of God and toward all men. How easily we lose sight of this most vital and primary character of Christianity, so that love wanes rather than increases. If growth in knowledge decreases love, there is something badly lacking in such knowledge. If it is truly the knowledge of the Lord Jesus it will increase love. Paul and his companions were a living example of this in their abundant love toward the Thessalonians.
But this prayer had in view the end that their hearts might be established unblamable in holiness at the coming of the Lord Jesus. The end of all mere social gospels is more comfortable circumstances on earth, but the apostle looks for holiness completely without blame at the coming of the Lord. The believer's present character, therefore, is to be formed by this pure anticipation. However, let us observe here that it is His coming "with all His saints," that is, when manifested in glory at the end of the tribulation period. Certainly the Church will have been taken to heaven before this, or they could not come with Him. But it is not the rapture of which he speaks here. Rather, it is the day when all creation shall be witness to the unblamable holiness of saints who have on earth "suffered with Christ," despised, blamed, rejected. What a difference then! But such training now is in view of so incomparable an end.
The end of Chapter 3 has encouraged their abounding love. Here the apostle adds to this the entreaty that they abound in obedience. No amount of love can make up for a disobedient walk, for love and obedience necessarily go together. A child's love for its parent is only convincing where there is an obedient character. They had seen consistent Christianity in the example of the servants of God and had received godly instruction by word of mouth. This had already taken good effect, but we must not be satisfied with any measure of progress. Faith would stir us always to "abound more and more." Notice again in these verses the name "The Lord Jesus." It is a tender appeal rather than any suggestion of a preemptory demand, though indeed "commandments" that faith could never ignore.
Verses 3 to 6. Nothing can be more precious than the will of God to an obedient heart. If we know a certain thing is the will of God, do we not wholeheartedly desire to do this -without any direct command to do so? This certainly should settle any matter for the child of God. But His will is our sanctification. Since it is true that "we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10), and also that the Lord Jesus prays, "Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth" (John 17:17), it is certainly evident that this is God's will. In Hebrews 10 the position of the believer is that
of being sanctified, or set apart as sacred to God. In John 17 sanctification is seen as a progressive work in the soul, for the prospering of which the Lord prays. Then certainly it is only right and proper that the believer should willingly sanctify himself to God in practice.
This involves abstaining from fornication. His body is for the Lord, not for corrupt purposes, a vessel to be possessed in separation from evil and in honorable devotion to the Lord. All passionate desire is to be judged and firmly turned from. These things might be prevalent among "the Gentiles which know not God," but the Christian is of a completely different character. The possessing of his vessel applies to all the conduct of the believer, and verse 6 warns against going beyond the bounds of propriety to defraud or oppress one's brother in any matter. In whatever relationships we may be placed we must be careful to respect the proper responsibilities of such relationship. It would, of course, be easier to take advantage of one's brother than of a stranger (cf. 1 Tim. 6:2), but this is sin. "The Lord is the Avenger of all such," and of this they had been warned by Paul beforehand.
Uncleanness is here put in contrast to holiness. It is not only righteousness to which we are called, but holiness, which involves the love of what is good and the hatred of evil. Righteousness does not require such feelings as this, but the believer must be holy as well as righteous. If we should think lightly of unseemly conduct, this is not simply despising men's opinions but despising God Himself who, in the very fact of giving us His Holy Spirit has provided the power to both discern and to refuse uncleanness.
As to the fact of brotherly love it is God Himself, by the implantation of the divine nature, who teaches saints to love one another. They had no need that Paul should teach them this. In fact in all Macedonia their hearts went out to others who were redeemed by the blood of Christ and the apostle rejoiced in the manifest exercise of such love. Nevertheless it was needful that he beseech them to "increase more and more." Though he had told them practically the same thing in ch. 3:12, yet this was necessary again. It is similar in Philippians in regard to joy in the Lord (Phil. 3:1). For how easily it seems that true joy in the Lord can wane rather than increase, and love toward others become feeble in its exercise rather than to abound. Such exhortation we constantly need.
But again, to "study to be quiet, and to work with your own hands" was important. The thrill of a newfound faith, the excitement of a wonderfully prosperous work of God, might too easily occupy souls. There must be a settling, a learning to quietly estimate things rightly and soberly. This studying therefore is a true, consistent application of the heart. Work with the hands is, of course, a good balancing factor to keep souls from a one-sided type of emotional Christianity. The reality of their faith would be proven to "them that are without" by an honest walk steadily maintained. This was to be diligently cultivated. The latter part of verse 12 may be translated "and that ye may have need of no one," that is, that they would not be dependent upon men.
The subject of the rapture of the saints at the coming of the Lord Jesus is one of a number concerning which Paul would not have us ignorant. There was real need of enlightenment as to this subject, for the truths here found had not before been revealed. But no doubt the sorrow of the saints at Thessalonica was made the occasion of this wonderful revelation. Evidently some among them had already departed to be with Christ, though it was so short a time since they had been converted to God. Suffering persecution as they did, it may, of course, have been possible that some were martyred. The apostle had taught them that, in accordance with Old Testament teaching, the Lord Jesus would come in glory to judge the world, and that the saints would be with Him in this marvelous. event. Now they had suffered the sorrow of some of their number having passed away, and they evidently feared that these would therefore not have part with the Lord Jesus in His coming in glory. But the apostle assures them that there is no reason to sorrow for these sleeping saints as they might for others who had died without mercy. He appeals to the blessed truth of the death and resurrection of Christ as a basis for the comfort he gives them. If He had risen again then those who had "fallen asleep in Jesus" could be certain to also come with Him in glory. But how could this be? To answer this question required a new and definite revelation of God, and this is now for the first time communicated by Paul, beginning with verse 15.
This was a direct "word of the Lord" through the apostle, just as he had also received a direct revelation from the Lord as to the Lord's supper (1 Cor. 11:23), and another concerning the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers as members of the one body of Christ (Eph. 3:1-13).
Historically this event of the rapture of saints to glory will take place seven years before the coming of the Lord in power and glory "with His saints," but these are commonly looked at as two aspects of His coming rather than as two "comings."
But those who are living when the Lord comes will have no priority whatever on this account. Those who have previously died in Christ will have the same blessed place of privilege as they. Two verses show us the marvel of events connected with this proper and blessed hope of saints of God today.
First theLord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout. It is a personal, real coming of our Lord in bodily form, just as "Jesus Himself" drew near and went with the two on the way to Emmaus following His bodily resurrection (Luke 24:15); or just as "Jesus Himself" appeared bodily in the upper room on the same evening (Luke 24:36). It will be no vision or apparition, but a bodily coming of the blessed Lord Himself. "All that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth" (John 5:28, 29). Of course at the first resurrection it will be only believers who hear that voice and come forth. Later the ungodly will hear it also and come forth to the judgment of the great white throne. The first is a resurrection "from among the dead," just as Lazarus alone was raised by the powerful voice of the Son of God.
"With the voice of the archangel" is added here. Only Michael is referred to in Scripture as "the archangel" (Jude 9). Whether there may be others we cannot say. Since Michael is called Israel's "prince" (Dan. 10:21), and the dispensation of law was "ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator" (Gal. 3:19), it has been suggested that the archangel's voice may have some connection with the raising of Old Testament saints at the coming of the Lord. Whether this is so it would seem unwise to judge, however, without more solid grounds. But at least the occasion is seen to be one of great angelic rejoicing.
"The trump of God" is also heard, and this is a divine, declared testimony. It will be "the last trump" (1 Cor. 15:52) so far as the assembly on earth is concerned. The seven trumpets of Revelation are of a different order, for they are those of judgment, bearing a clarion testimony to a world in rebellion against God. This "trump of God," however, is to be heard by saints, who by this are to be gathered together unto the Lord. It seems clear that, as others have pointed out, this connects with Numbers 10:4, where the blowing of one trumpet was the signal for gathering the princes of Israel unto Moses. The saints so gathered, of course, are to reign with Christ, and for this reason are represented as princes. The gathering of "all the assembly to Moses at the door of the tabernacle, on the other hand, by the blowing of both trumpets would speak apparently of the regathering of Israel for millennial blessing (Num. 10:3).
"And the dead in Christ shall rise first," that is, they rise before the living are caught up in order that all may be "caught up together." Corinthians 15 supplies the fact that "we shall be changed" (verse 52). For if the dead are raised incorruptible, then our condition must, of course, conform to theirs in incorruptibility, and immortality. No doubt this refers directly to our bodily condition, while 1 John 3:2 adds, "We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." This is, of course, far more than bodily, but moral and spiritual conformity to His image.
"Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air." In perfect unison thus all the saints shall meet Him. Wonderful joy indeed! In those very clouds that have once obscured heaven from earth we shall meet Hirn, and in the atmosphere above the earth's level. Let the world argue about the physical impossibility of this great prospect. We shail experience it while they weary their minds and tongues with idle speculations and unbelieving questions. "So shall we ever be with the Lord." This is clear enough that our portion is eternally heavenly - in the Father's house, with the Lord, where He is, not to leave His presence again to return to live on earth, as some have imagined. Certainly there will be an earthly people but those who have been taken by our Lord to heaven, the Father's house, will have this as their permanent abode.
"Wherefore, comfort one another with these words." Blessed theme of pure comfort and encouragement!
In contrast to the new revelation Paul gives at the end of ch. 4, he now tells them in ch. 5 that "of the times and seasons" there was no need to write, for this was a matter of which they were well aware. They knew perfectly that the day of the Lord would come as a thief in the night. No doubt Paul had touched on this subject when with them; but even if he had not done so, yet the Old Testament abounds in its information as to "the day of the Lord." This "Day" will come upon the whole world unexpectedly and unwelcome. Not so the coming of the Lord Jesus for His saints, for this will be both expected and gladly welcomed. But the world will know nothing of this except the sudden bewildering fact that hosts of believers have disappeared from earth. It would seem, however, that this startling event will engross them. Following the rapture of the saints to glory "the times and seasons" will resume their course and the seventieth week of Daniel 9:27 will begin. Before the first 3 %2 years are finished anarchy will erupt, and a state of world-wide convulsion, with resulting awful apprehensions of men. But the beast of Revelation 13:1-10 will, by help of Satanic power, restore a semblance of unity and order that will be so successful that he will become the object of admiring worship. "All the world wondered after the beast" (Rev. 13:3). It is then that men will say "Peace and safety," thinking that they have found the supreme leader who is able to maintain the peace for which the world has vainly struggled over the centuries. But this is the apex of the world's idolatry and will actually begin the worst trouble the world has ever seen: "then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape." There will be no avoiding this awesome reaping of the whirlwind; man's pride, having been built up to such a height, will come down with tremendous force.
It is most important for us to observe, in verse 3, that though the world will not escape the "sudden destruction" that is to come, yet even the Great Tribulation will not be merely punishment of the ungodly.
The analogy"travail upon a woman with child" is surely intended to teach us that out of all this anguish God will set fit to bring fruit for His own glory. Multitudes during the tribulation will turn in faith to the Living God, having not previously known the gospel. In this God will be glorified as well as in His holy triumph over evil. Indeed as to Israel, the tribulation will be the travail pains of "a nation ... horn at once" (Isa. 66:8).
But verse 4 speaks of the brethren, the children of God, in complete contrast to verses 2 and 3. The day of the Lord cannot overtake them as a thief, for they will already have been caught up at the coming of the Lord. In no sense is the believer himself in darkness; he is in the light, though, as in Egypt's plague all around there is "darkness which may be felt." And not only are we "in the light," but our very nature is that of "children of light, and children of the day." New birth has made an infinite difference, so that a great gulf separates us from those who are "of the night" and "of darkness." It would seem that the expression "children of light" has reference to the truth already having taken possession of the heart, though all around may be darkness, while "children of day" connects us with the future day of glory, when we shall be manifested and blessed in our proper sphere. We are not part of the present condition of things at all. The night and the darkness are alien to our nature; we look for the day, for it is our proper element.
Verse 7 is suited exhortation based upon the fact of this great difference existing. Because we are so blessed, therefore we ought not to sleep, as do others, but to watch, and be soberly on guard. Those who are of the night are asleep, unaware of the dangers lurking in the darkness, indifferent to matters of deep importance. Or they may be drunken, intoxicated with pleasure, excitement, vanity to such an extent that they are hopelessly unable to discern or meet the dangers of the night. Watching then is in contrast to sleeping, sobriety contrasted to drunkenness. May we have opened eyes, hearts exercised with godly discretion, able to avoid evil and to cleave to good. For while we are of the day, we do pass through the night of this world, and the breastplate of faith and love is an essential protection against the cold unbelief and hatred that pervades the darkness. And the helmet, the hope of salvation, is how needful too in a world intoxicated with its futile efforts to improve a condition that becomes rapidly worse. We know the answer is the coming of the Lord, and this helmet, the protection of the mind, must not be neglected. Our minds should be set on things above. Of course, this is a hope "both sure and steadfast" (Heb. 6:19), the anticipation of salvation from the very presence of sin, from the circumstances of this present evil world, at the coming of the Lord. It is the future aspect of salvation and does not in any way affect the fact of present, settled salvation being the possession of the believer now.
And of course the future is settled. God's appointment for the believer is totally opposite that of the unbeliever. As to men generally, Hebrews 9:27 declares, "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." Such an appointment means no hope whatever, but eternal doom - it is an appointment to wrath. But that of the believer is just as positively and unchangeably an appointment to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ. Though saved by grace through faith now, yet we look for salvation in its fullest, purest manifestation at the coming of the Lord.
Thank God this is an appointment we shall not miss, for it is based upon the perfection of the work of the Lord Jesus, "Who died for us." It is He who has borne the wrath of God on our account, and this exempts us fully from the wrath we deserved. Consequently at the coming of the Lord "whether we wake," that is, are still alive on earth, "or sleep," that is, have died in Christ, yet there is no doubt in either case that we shall live together with Him. This would of course refer back to ch. 4:16, 17, and verse 11 would have a direct connection with ch. 4:18. How precious indeed is the basis we have for encouraging ourselves together and building up one another. We are surely provided with every necessary incentive. But the apostle adds, "even as also ye do." It was their practice, yet the admonition was needful. Is it not true that those who are the most diligent are the most ready to acknowledge the need of admonition?
More specific exhortation now begins in verse 12. While nothing is said of anyone in any official position, the saints are urged to recognize those who labored in the Lord and who took the lead in the assembly. Devotion to the work of the Lord and moral qualifications for leading the saints were things not to be ignored. Elders are not mentioned in the epistle, possibly because, all the saints having been only recently converted, none had yet gained the experience and Christian maturity suited to this. But there was preserving guards for the young assembly, and faithful laborers were to be esteemed very highly in love, not simply as personal attachment but "for their work's sake." And among all saints, they were to be at peace. This is simply being true to proper spiritual character rather than submission to officially appointed leaders.
Verse 14 shows that though generally fresh and fervent in faith, yet among the Thessalonians there were those disorderly, who required stern admonition lest this should progress to more serious proportions, but rather that this attitude should be changed. Sad to say this evidently did not correct the condition, for in the second epistle (ch. 3) he has much more to say of those who walked disorderly and requires yet more severe measures with them - that is, "withdraw yourselves" from them - not as an enemy, but withholding fellowship that might be taken in any way as implying approval. Love is always to dictate these disciplinary measures, but is not to be weak and lax when such need is present. The warning must be given first, however, before the more stern "withdrawal."
But a different attitude is to be shown to "the feebleminded" or "fainthearted," as the New Translation reads. Such require encouragement, which we must be always prepared to give with cheerful willingness. "The weak" have need of support. For this I am certainly my brother's keeper, and if God has given strength to one, it is to be willingly shared with others. We may be sure our sharing in this will not decrease our own strength, but the opposite. And after all this, patience is still to be shown to all. If we should ask, "Are there not times when patience should end?" the answer is simply, "Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord" (Jas. 5:7). This we must deeply take to heart.
Verse 15. The Thessalonians did suffer evil from the world around, but as their Master, they were not to return it. This we need as a constant reminder, for the flesh too quickly resents unfair treatment. But to return evil for evil only makes me the same as my persecutor and untrue to my Christian character. We may find it even more of a test if treated badly by a child of God, but of course the same applies. He must answer for his conduct, no doubt, but I must answer for mine. To have the heart set on good is the real preservative here. If it is so, I shall be loathe to do evil, no matter what the provocation.
But more. Though in tribulation, there could yet be a positive rejoicing, not intermittently but evermore, consistently, which is really only normal when the Lord Jesus Himself is the Object of our joy. And prayer too is to be as constant. At all times the heart may be lifted up to God, so real a habit that every occasion of need, of difficulty, or of distress will find us voluntarily and immediately crying to Him from the heart. This too is to he attended with thanksgiving "in everything." We cannot of course give thanks for what is sinful, but in the midst of whatever evil or good this thankful spirit is to be ours. The importance of this is pressed upon us in the fact of its being "the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." If we are honest in saying we desire the will of God, then here it is, and no excuse can be accepted for lack of giving of thanks.
The connection between this verse and the following should be well noted. The habit of giving thanks is important if we are to keep from quenching the Spirit. The Spirit of God should certainly be unhindered when He desires to speak through us, yet it is possible that through timidity, or through pride, or through indifference, we may be seriously guilty of quenching His working, as water quenches fire. On the other hand, we may be just as guilty of quenching the Spirit in another, by impatience, or resentment, or by belittling what the Spirit of God may be seeking to bring to our attention by another member of the body of Christ. May we judge unsparingly such selfish, sinful ways and the thoughts that lead to them. The spirit of fresh energy and devotion of a young assembly such as this could be dampened greatly by such things. In Eph. 4:30 we are told, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption." The context here involves our moral character and conduct which, if wrong, hinders the Spirit of God. But in our present chapter, quenching the Spirit is hindering His speaking through us or through others.
There is, of course, a very close connection between verses 19 and 20. To "quench not the Spirit" involves a genuine consideration of others and of that which the Spirit of God may be seeking to say through one or through another. It may be that prophesyings would be the most likely type of ministry to be despised, for this is not teaching to appeal to man's intellect, but whether in the assembly or otherwise, it is that ministry that would speak to the heart and conscience - for edification, exhortation, or encouragement (1 Cor. 14:3) - and may be searching. Let us never think lightly of this, for it is a continual need for the intellectual, just as for all others. In fact this is the very character of the book we are considering.
But on the other hand we are not to accept anything that is said without subjecting it to the test of the Word of God. We are to "prove all things." However, young in the faith, this was the personal responsibility of every saint. Nothing was to be taken for granted or taken merely on the word of another; Scripture was their one real authority. And what is good we are to hold fast, allowing nothing to slip of the precious truth of God. This too was essential if they were to "avoid every form of evil" U.N. Darby). For evil will assume most attractive and deceiving forms just as readily as more gross forms, and only the heart holding fast what is good will be protected.
How precious in verse 23 to see the name "the God of peace," especially when the turmoil of persecution so oppressed the saints. But He was using this too for their sanctification, their being gradually weaned from the world in all its forms. Paul desires nothing less than complete sanctification, however, which could not be until the coming of the Lord. Yet experience here is intended to lead us more and more in that direction. But the whole man must be included. We are to allow "not a hoof" to be left behind, for it is only right that we should be completely devoted to the pleasure of the Lord. The "spirit" is first mentioned, being the highest entity in man, that which "knoweth the things of a man" (I Cor. 2:11), and is therefore connected with the mind, intelligence, conscience, reasoning power. The soul's function is rather that of feelings, desires, passions - good or bad. The body is the marvelous physical instrument in which the spirit and soul manifest themselves. Every part is to be for God as, alas, in our natural sinful state we have been utterly for self. But this preservation of spirit and soul and body in blameless character will also be perfectly fulfilled only at the coming of the Lord. Even death, though it separates spirit and soul from the body, cannot frustrate this blessed purpose of God in preserving the whole man blameless. But the end in view is to give precious character to our present lives, confiding in the faithfulness of Him who will do as He has said. He has called us, and certainly not in vain.
Is it not deeply precious too that the apostle requests the prayers of these newly converted saints? They needed no long experience to pray effectually. Nor did Paul make such a request of the Corinthians, whose history was longer, for there was spiritual exercise in Thessalonica such as was lacking in Corinth. And the affections of the saints for one another are encouraged in proper expressions too, their greeting one another with an holy kiss. In western nations, of course, this is little accepted, yet let us encourage every true expression of holy affection in the Lord between saints.
The importance of the epistle is last of all insisted upon, with a solemn charge that it be read to "all the holy brethren." Surely it is no less vital for us today, nor is the benediction less precious, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen." For it is this grace that is power for a walk with Him in sanctification from this evil world, until we see Him face to face.
Leslie M. Grant