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By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
These letters were among the earliest of the letters of Paul, and were written to the new church of Thessalonika, the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia, successfully established by Paul and Silas (Silvanus) as described in Acts 17.1-9 amidst much tribulation. The church included in it some Jews, a great multitude of ‘devout Greeks’ (Greeks attracted to the synagogue by its high moral teaching, but who were ‘God-fearers’ and did not wish to become full proselytes), and a number of the ‘chief women’, possibly wives of important officials, but they seem to have had some kind of authority of their own (Acts 17.4 compare Acts 13.50). It also included many who had been totally caught up in idolatry (1.9).
The occasion of the first letter was that Timothy had just arrived bringing the good news of the perseverance of the Thessalonians amidst persecution, of their goodwill towards Paul and their longing to see him again, and of certain questions about which they were troubled to do with the second coming. He also brought news of some calumnies which were being laid against Paul by the inevitable false teachers who fed on Paul’s success. These Paul deals with.
Chapter 1. Paul Rejoices in the Remarkable Work of God Revealed in the Thessalonians.
1.1 ‘Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be to you, and peace.’
This was a typical form of greeting by a letter writer of the day, indicating the author’s name, the recipient’s name, a reference to a deity and a hope for their well-being. It is noteworthy that Paul does not see it as necessary to refer here to his Apostleship (contrast Galatians 1.1. He does mention it in passing in 2.6). Instead he wrote confident of a warm reception from the church because of what he had heard about them.
He included Silas (his Latin name Silvanus) and Timothy in his greeting. Silas they knew from his being a companion of Paul in the founding of the church (Acts 17.1-10 compare Acts 15.40). Timothy also was clearly known to them, and had probably been with Silas and Paul in their ministry there, but not prominent.
‘The church of the Thessalonians.’ Compare ‘the churches of Galatia’ (Galatians 1.2) and contrast ‘the church of God which is at Corinth’ (1 Corinthians 1.2; 2 Corinthians 1.1), and the later ‘to the saints at --’ (Ephesians 1.1; Philippians 1.1; Colossians 1.1. See also Romans 1.1). In this there is a growing awareness of the universal church as seen as one whole, composed of all those set apart for Himself (‘saints’) by God.
The difference in the use of ‘church’ is one of emphasis only. Each church in a city (Romans 16.4, 16, 23; 1 Corinthians 1.2 and often), and the local branches within that church (Philemon 1.2; 1 Corinthians 11.18), as well as the universal church (1 Corinthians 10.32; 12.28; Ephesians 1.22; 3.10, 21;5.23-32), can be called ‘the church’. Thus reference can be made to ‘the churches’ and to ‘the church’, and the latter often wider in meaning than the former. In all cases it refers to a group of believers, whether local, city-wide or worldwide.
‘Church’ (ekklesia) was used in LXX to translate ‘the assembly’ of Israel, the gathering together of His people to Sinai to receive the covenant (Deuteronomy 4.10; 18.16) and to the Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 9.10; 23.1, 2, 3, 8; 31.30) and the Temple (1 Kings 8.14, 22, 55, 65) and in response to the covenant (Judges 20.2, 21.5, 8; 1 Samuel 17.47). In a religious context it thus indicated ‘the people of God gathered for worship and response to the covenant’. This was the sense in which Jesus used it (Matthew 16.18). The more general ‘congregation’ of Israel was translated as ‘synagogue’.
‘In God the Father.’ Every Christian dwells ‘in God’ (1 John 4.15), and our lives are ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3). The thought is of being enveloped in the love, mercy and care of a gracious God, and of seeking to walk as those who are His, and is in contrast with those who are ‘in the world’ (Ephesians 2.12; 2 Peter 1.4; compare 1 John 2.15-16; 4.3-4), who walk as the world walks.
Christians are ‘in the world’ (John 17.11-12) but only as strangers and pilgrims (Hebrews 11.13; 1 Peter 2.13). They are not ‘of the world’ (John 15.19). And this is because they are now ‘in God the Father’.
There is in this phrase a recognition of ‘the Father’, in contrast with ‘our Father’, which is more personal (2 Thessalonians 1.1). Jesus constantly spoke of ‘the Father’ in this distinctive way (Matthew 28.19; Mark 13.32; Luke 10.22; John 4.21, 23; 5.19-45; 6.27-57; 8.16-29; 10 15, 36-38; 13-16 constantly). He is the prototype and perfect exemplar of all fatherhoods (Ephesians 3.14-15), the one ‘of Whom are all things’ (1 Corinthians 8.6), the One Who raised Christ from the dead, and is thus the Source of all future life (Galatians 1.1), the One whose foreknowing results in the gathering of His elect (1 Peter 1.2), the source of all Light (James 1.17). And His people are ‘in Him’.
‘And the Lord Jesus Christ.’ This linking of our Lord Jesus Christ with ‘the Father’ using a single preposition, as being the One in Whom we are, (‘in God -- and the Lord’ and not ‘in God -- and in the Lord’) is a clear declaration of His equality with the Father. No other could have been so combined. It indicates that we must give full significance to the title ‘the Lord’ as meaning ‘Yahweh’ (the name of God in the Old Testament), which to the Jew was the name above every name, which is represented in LXX (the Greek Old Testament) as ‘Lord’ (kurios). Compare Philippians 2.11 where this is clearly indicated, and see Matthew 28.19.
‘In Christ’ is one of Paul’s favourite descriptions. Christ is the body and we are members of that body (1 Corinthians 12.12-14), Christ is the vine and we are the branches of the vine (John 15.1-6), because we are in Him we are declared righteous in God’s sight (Romans 3.24), in Christ we are accepted as holy in God’s sight (1 Corinthians 1.2), in Christ the veil on our hearts is done away (2 Corinthians 3.14), in Him we are created unto good works (Ephesians 2.10), in Him we have been made alive, and raised and seated with Him in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 2.5-6), there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8.1). Thus when we enter into Christ He is made to us wisdom from God, even righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1.30). How much more the blessing then to be both ‘in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’.
‘The Lord Jesus Christ.’ The title ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ contains three elements. Firstly He is Lord (kurios), the One Whose Name is above every name, Yahweh Himself (Philippians 2.9). To the Jew and to Paul the Name above every name was Yahweh and in the Greek Old Testament Yahweh is represented by kurios. He is also elsewhere the great ‘I am’ (John 8.58, compare Exodus 3.14), another name for Yahweh (which means ‘the One Who is’), and thus ‘the Word’, Who existed in the beginning, through Whom God created the worlds (John 1.1-3; Hebrews 1.1-3; Psalm 33.6, 9), the Lord of all.
Secondly He is ‘Jesus’. He became flesh and dwelt among us (1.14). He was truly man and yet in His manhood epitomised all that man was meant to be. He hungered as a man (Matthew 4.2). He grew thirsty as a man (John 4.7; 19.28). He suffered as a man. And His death was the death of a man, and yet it was of more than a man, for He was ‘the Lord’. He was ‘the Christ (Messiah)’. And the name Jesus means ‘Yahweh is salvation’.
Thirdly He is ‘the Christ, the Messiah.’ By His death and resurrection He is declared to be ‘both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2.36). He is the expected King Messiah, the One appointed to eternal Rule (2 Peter 1.11; compare Psalm 145.13; Daniel 4.3, 34; 7.14), the One Who both sits on His own throne and also uniquely shares His Father’s throne (Revelation 3.21), the One before Whom every knee shall bow (Philippians 2.10).
And because of this He is the powerful One (Romans 1.4). He is the One worthy of worship and honour. He is the Lord of glory.
‘Grace to you, and peace.’ ‘Grace to you.’ Nothing can be more desirable than to have God looking on us in active love and favour without our deserving, and this is what is signified by grace. Thus Paul wants the Thessalonians to know that he desires for them only that they enjoy the experience of the grace of God.
‘And peace.’ Peace results from grace, but this kind of peace is also God’s gift, flowing from Him to us. Once we know that we are right with God, and experience His graciousness towards us, we have peace with God (Romans 5.1) and enjoy such peace, prosperity and success of spirit that our hearts can only overflow. For however things may seem to smile on us, if God is not pleased with us, we cannot fully know peace. The very foundation then of peace in our hearts is the favour of God, by which we enjoy true and genuine prosperity of spirit through the work of His Spirit, and find the peace of God which passes all understanding guarding our thoughts and hearts (Philippians 4.7). And this is what Paul wished for, and prayed for, for the Thessalonians.
‘Grace to you’ represented a general greeting in the Gentile world, and ‘peace to you’ in the Jewish world. The combination thus emphasised the unity of the church, both Jew and Gentile, as one. It was seemingly a regular combination in the Christian church (2 Peter 1.2; 2 John 1.3; Revelation 1.4).
1.2-4 ‘We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patient endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ before our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved, your election.’
We have here a threefold pattern revealing the completeness of Paul’s concern for the Thessalonians. ‘Making mention -- remembering -- knowing’, resulting from and the result of his gratitude to God for their faithfulness. He mentions them in his prayers, he remembers them in his heart continually, he knows in his heart that they are truly Christ’s, truly God’s ‘elect’.
‘We give thanks to God always for you all.’ Note that he includes his fellow-workers in his declaration. They give thanks together as they pray together, and it goes on continually, ‘always’, and it excludes none, ‘for you all’. The giving of thanks is in Scripture an important part of prayer, possibly the most important. It expresses confidence in God’s working, and gratitude for it, puts the onus on Him and leaves Him to sort out the details. Paul constantly speaks of expressing gratitude to God (1 Corinthians 15.57; 2 Corinthians 2.14; 8.16; 9.15; Ephesians 1.16; 5.4, 20; Philippians 4.6; Colossians 1.3, 12; 2.7; 3.17; 4.2; 1 Thessalonians 3.9; 5.18; 2 Thessalonians 2.13; 1 Timothy 2.1). He lived and breathed such gratitude.
‘For you all.’ Paul had no favourites. He was concerned for, and grateful for, the wellbeing of every child of God.
Modern praying can so often tend to be selfish, concentrating on what we want, (consider your prayer list), but the Lord’s prayer concentrated on what God wants, the hallowing of His name by the bringing about of His purposes, the establishing of the Kingly Rule of God and the doing of His will on earth as in Heaven followed by the desire for the minimum necessary physical provision, daily forgiveness and deliverance from the machinations of the Evil One so that we may faithfully seek to achieve what we have prayed for. It lacks a thought of benefit for self and is full of desire for the fulfilment of God’s purposes. We need wider horizons.
‘Making mention of you in our prayers.’ His gratitude and praise to God was expressed in his prayers. His heart was full of thanksgiving. And he knew that so to give thanks for them was to bring blessing on them as they were remembered before God.
‘Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patient endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ before our God and Father.’ He gave thanks because he remembered continually what he had seen spring up in their lives. The genitive here probably indicates ‘which springs from’. They worked hard for God because they believed. They laboured hard for God because they loved Him. They patiently endured because of their future hope. And Paul remembered gladly how all three were revealed when he was among them.
What a contrast this was with the Ephesian church in Revelation 2.2. They too had works, and labour, and patient endurance, but they had lost their first love. There is no mention there of faith, love and hope, except for the loss of their first love. We must ever ensure that our service does not take our eyes off Christ. When His listeners asked what they should do to ‘work the works of God’, doing God’s work along with Him, eager to please, Jesus replied that the first work of God was to enable them to believe on Him Whom God had sent. They wanted some wonderful means of being enabled to live God-pleasing lives. His reply was that God’s first work was for their hearts to be rightly directed on Him (John 6.28-29). Then they would work the works of God truly.
This trilogy of faith, love and hope occurs regularly. See 1 Thessalonians 5.8; Romans 5.2-5; 1 Corinthians 13.13; Galatians 5.5-6; Colossians 1.4-5; Hebrews 6.10-12; 1 Peter 1.21-22. The early church recognised that they were the foundation of any Christian life. If one be missing that life will be severely impeded.
‘Your work of faith.’ True faith is not something that you do, it is a response which results from knowing God and Jesus Christ. As we see Him and know more of Him faith flows from our hearts, the natural response to His attraction and His truth. We cannot make ourselves believe. We respond because the Father draws us (John 6.44; 12.32). Thus the faith that saves is not of our doing, it results from the work of God in our hearts as our eyes are opened to see Him (Acts 26.18). We can read His word, we can consider Him, but we cannot make ourselves believe. The faith that saves, while possibly resulting directly from so seeking Him, is His work not ours as our eyes are opened and we respond to Him. Thus the ‘work of faith’ is not that of producing faith but that work which results from the arousal of faith. Because we believe, we do, and so our faith is proved genuine (James 2.14-20). It is a faith that works by love (Galatians 5.6).
Jesus constantly told men to believe in Him, and so did Paul, but both did so in anticipation of the work of God in men’s hearts. For we cannot make ourselves truly believe in Christ. We cannot make ourselves truly believe anything. Such a worked up ‘faith’ would not last, and could only do us harm. Faith can only spring from recognition of truth (or what is conceived of as truth). It is a result, not a cause, although once faith has sprung up it then becomes the cause of our actions. Thus the Pharisees antagonistic to Jesus believed in God and in their own interpretation of the Jewish religion, but it was a faith that led them to demand the crucifixion of Christ, and to condemnation. As James tells us, ‘the devils also believe (in God) and tremble’ (James 2.1). They are aware of what He is and that what He is condemns them. But in neither case was it responsive faith.
It is not faith that saves, but the response of faith to the truth as it is revealed in the heart by God. Great faith, if it is in what is not true, can only finally lead to disaster. The truth about the state of a man’s heart is discovered by what he believes. The faith that saves is faith in Christ wrought in us by God. That is saving faith. (Although strictly speaking it is God Who saves, faith is only the channel). And it then results in service.
What then was their ‘work of faith’? That they turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God and to wait for His Son from Heaven (verse 9). This was the result of their faith, not the cause of it.
‘Your labour of love.’ Having believed, the Thessalonians were then filled with love for Christ and responded by hard work in His service. The word for ‘labour’ means hard toil and the willingness to endure much hardship. True love for Christ is all demanding and expresses itself in service, both in witnessing and praying, and in doing good and revealing concern for those in need. It is not without significance that the provision of hospitals and schools for the poor in Europe in centuries past originally arose from the activities of men and women of God, and that many of the great nineteenth century reformers were evangelical Christians. Jesus’ parables constantly stressed that we are ‘servants’ who are to go about our physical duties in readiness for His coming.
The word for love is agape. It was not a word in common use, as far as we know, in classical Greek, and when used tended to contain the meaning of the highest and noblest form of love, spiritual or rational love for what is noble. But especially in its verbal form it was regularly used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to express covenant love, love between God and His people on the basis of His covenant, resulting in similar love between the covenanters. It was not emotional so much as responsive in action for the good of the object of that love, having a genuine desire to be pleasing and for the wellbeing of the one loved.
Analysis of human emotion is always tricky, the subject is so intricate, but agape in this sense must be distinguished from romantic love, sexual love and human affection, although it did come to be used more generally for the latter and agapao and phileo are sometimes used indistinguishably. But the general Christian thought behind the word was of a higher love, as described above. It is used of God’s love, a general benevolence that then results in activity for the wellbeing of its object, and is willing to do so at great cost. It is not a love only of the deserving, but also of the undeserving who are chosen out without merit for that purpose.
‘And patient endurance of hope.’ Becoming a Christian produces ‘hope’ for the future. It is a certain hope because of the One in Whom that hope is placed. In the final analysis it is the assured hope of eventually being a totally transformed being in the presence of God, often expressed in terms of Christ’s second coming which will bring that about. Indeed the thought of Christ’s return to raise the dead and take the living into His presence, while judging and destroying all that is evil, is central to the idea of hope. And because we have that hope it affects the whole of our lives, and results in patient endurance (see Luke 21.19; Romans 5.3-4; 2 Corinthians 6.4-10; Colossians 1.11; 2 Thessalonians 1.4; Hebrews 6.12). It is not the wistful hope of the dreamer, but the fortitude of the soldier who is confident of final victory. It enables us to ‘keep on going on’ whatever the circumstances.
Such patient endurance of hope is well illustrated in 2 Corinthians 4.14-18. ‘He Who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus --- wherefore we faint not --- for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us to a greater and greater extent an eternal weight of glory. While we do not look at the things that are seen, but the things that are not seen, for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.’
‘In our Lord Jesus Christ before our God and Father.’ This must be attached to all three expressions ‘faith -- love -- and hope’, for without it they are incomplete. It is ‘faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, love for our Lord Jesus Christ and hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ that is the essence of the Christian message. The Christian’s faith, love and hope are set on a Person, the One Who is Lord, the One Who saves, the One Who is God’s enthroned King. And it is response to Him, and to Him alone that is the test of the genuineness of our faith. It is not love for a church or love for a creed that finally proves our faith, but response of heart towards the One proclaimed by that church or creed if they are true to their responsibilities. Without that both church and creed are irrelevant for the purpose of salvation.
‘Before our God and Father’. Paul does not hesitate to exalt Christ in the presence of God, and what is more to turn all our thoughts on Christ while in that Presence. The Jew would argue for faith in God as being supreme, and that to put faith, love and hope on any other in His presence would be blasphemy. It would be to sideline God. And Paul agrees. And yet in the presence of our God and Father he centralises attention on the Lord Jesus Christ. This can only be because to love Christ is to love God, to believe in Christ is to believe in God, to hope in Christ is to hope in God. In this is clearly expressed that in Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2.9). It confirms His co-equality with the Father. When we love Christ, serve Christ, worship Christ, it is always in the presence of our God and Father, and is worship too of Him. The Fatherhood of God results in response to the Son Who reveals Him (John 1.14, 18; 14.9).
1.4-6 ‘Knowing, brothers beloved of God, your election, how that our Good News did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance, even as you know what manner of men we showed ourselves towards you for your sake, and you became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit.’
This was the third thing for which Paul gave thanks, that their election by God was clear from the power and response revealed in their lives, which he knew could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. He had no time for a Gospel that was not life transforming.
‘Brothers’. When used in general the word means ‘brothers and sisters’, fellow siblings. The thought ties in with the previous mention of ‘our God and Father’ and is that true Christians are all one family because they have one Father. Here it excludes the thought of the universal Fatherhood of God, and ‘Father’ is used in a personal sense. While the universal Fatherhood of God has some truth in that God is the Creator of all (a possible interpretation of Malachi 2.10, and even there His people were specifically in mind; compare 1 Corinthians 8.6, and His regular description as ‘the Father’), it must be distinguished from the central idea of His personal Fatherhood found in both the Old and the New Testament message.
Throughout Scripture the idea of the personal Fatherhood of God has special relationship with the idea of the sonship of His people. Israel was His son, His firstborn (Exodus 4.22) and this was indicating that they were unique and precious. They were chosen out to be uniquely His children (Deuteronomy 14.1-2 compare Isaiah 1.2). There was no thought of the Fatherhood of God before this. But from now on they saw Him as their Father by adoption and election (Deuteronomy 32.6; Isaiah 63.16; 64.8; Jeremiah 3.4; Malachi 1.6; 2.10), and the idea of redemption is central to the thought (explicitly in Isaiah 63.16). He is their Father in a way that He is not to others.
When Jesus refers to ‘your Father’ He has this in mind. For by their lives His people were to reveal that they were true children of their Father (Matthew 5.45). Thus those who pray ‘our Father’ do so on the basis of Old Testament expectations (Matthew 6.9-10). It is the righteous who will shine forth in ‘their Father’s’ kingdom (Matthew 13.43). When the Pharisees claimed that God was their Father Jesus denied it. Had God been their Father they would have loved Jesus and believed in Him (John 8.41-42).
It should be noted that we should distinguish this personal use from the more austere ‘the Father’ where the idea is more of the Creator and sovereign of the Universe, the One Who is over all, and judge of all, and offers redemption to all. To all God is ‘the Father’, to His people only He is ‘our Father’.
This idea is confirmed in the rest of the New Testament. Those who believe in Jesus Christ become His children (John 1.12) and are ‘born -- of God’ (1.13). We can call God ‘Abba, Father’ when we have been adopted through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.15; Galatians 4.6). To become His sons and daughters we must turn away from all that defiles, especially idolatry (2 Corinthians 6.16-18).
Thus when Paul says ‘brothers’ it has a very powerful significance. He is speaking to those whom he believes are true children of God, who can say ‘our Father’, as indeed his next words reveal.
‘Beloved of God.’ ‘Beloved’ is a perfect participle, ‘those who have become beloved by response to Christ and now are beloved’. And they are so beloved because of their election. They are beloved because they are ‘in Christ’. In the words of the hymnwriter, ‘the love wherewith He loves His Son, such is His love for me’.
‘Your election.’ The idea of God choosing out for Himself those who are His is constant throughout Scripture. He said of Abraham that He had ‘known’ him in order that he might fulfil His purposes (Genesis 18.19). This ‘knowing’ was a personal choosing out and calling, a ‘foreknowing’ resulting in Abraham’s final response. Thus His elect are chosen because He has set His love upon them (Deuteronomy 7.6-8) that they may be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19.6). They are chosen to be His servant (Isaiah 41.8-9; 43.10; 44.1-2; 45.4; 65.9). And being ‘known’ by Him in this way results in special responsibility (Amos 3.2).
It should be noted that while they have been chosen to be redeemed (Isaiah 43.1, 14) and to be filled with His Holy Spirit (Isaiah 44.1-5), that very election puts upon them a great responsibility. To be chosen involves great demands. A none active member of ‘the elect’ is a contradiction in terms. The work of faith, the labour of love, the patient endurance of hope are expected of them.
The same idea continues through the New Testament. We are elect through God’s ‘foreknowing’ (an active ‘knowing’ (pro-gnosis) as in Genesis 18.19 as opposed to intellectual knowledge) to obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus (1 Peter 1-2). We are called to full obedient response to God and to reconciliation and cleansing through the blood of Jesus. We put the latter first, God puts the former, although the one would not be possible without the other.
Thus Jesus speaks of the fact that men come to Him because the Father draws them (John 6.44), because it is given to them by the Father (John 6.65), because they are His sheep (John 10.26-27). That is why they respond and obey. The disciples were not those who had chosen Him, but those whom He had chosen to bear fruit, in other words both for salvation and for service (John 15.16, 19 compare 13.18). For He alone had the words of eternal life (John 6.68).
Paul also speaks of Christians as those ‘called according to His purpose’ (Romans 8.28). They are called in the will and purpose of God. Then he describes the grand eternal process through which that calling was and will be accomplished (Romans 8.29-30), ‘personally known beforehand by God, foreordained to be made Christlike, called, declared righteous in Him, and finally glorified’. Notice that all this results from God’s purpose and will, and that the purpose is not solely that we should be forgiven, that is only a part, albeit an important part, of the route, but that we should be made Christlike, fit for companionship with Him, and glorified.
Then Paul follows this up in Romans 9 by making quite clear that this election is of God. It is not something deserved but given before a man is born (9.11). It is a matter of God’s free choice (9.15-16). The Potter has a right to do what He will with the clay (9.21-23), and there are those whom he has prepared beforehand for glory (9.23). Nevertheless ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (10.13). The doctrine of election does not prevent anyone from coming to Him, only unbelief does that.
But did not God ‘foreknow’ His people in Old Testament days? Has He then now cast off those whom He foreknew? Paul’s reply is ‘never!’. (11.1-2). The fact is that those truly foreknown have always been a remnant, as Scripture clearly indicates. He has already pointed out that God’s election was restricted. God ‘foreknew’ Abraham (Genesis 18.19). But only one of Abraham’s sons was certainly elect (Romans 9.7) and only one of Isaac’s (9.11-13). Then he points out that in Elijah’s time there were only seven thousand who were elect and chosen by God (11.4). And this was demonstrated by belief and faithfulness (11.4), in contrast with unbelief (11.20). Yet if the latter respond in faith they too will be restored (11.23). Thus God’s saving purpose has not been thwarted. For ‘the gifts and calling of God are not subject to a change of mind’ (11.29). God will never cast off those whom He has ‘foreknown’.
These ‘elect ones’ have been chosen by God (Mark 13.20) and will be preserved throughout all that comes (Matthew 24.22; Mark 13.20), will by implication not be deceived by false prophets (Matthew 24.24; Mark 13.22), and will be gathered up to Christ in the final day (Matthew 24.31; Mark 13.27). Injustice wrought upon them will be noted and avenged (Luke 18.7) and no charge can be laid on them before God because God has declared them righteous in Christ (Romans 8.33). The Gospel is ‘the faith of God’s elect’ (Titus 1.1), thus those who truly hold that faith are the elect and they must demonstrate their election by adherence to their faith and by their lives (Colossians 3.12; 2 Peter 1.10). They have been ‘chosen in Him before the foundation of the world that they may be holy and without blemish before Him in love,’ being ‘foreordained -- to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will’ (Ephesians 1.4-5). His purpose is their true holiness and their spiritual sonship, first reckoned to them in Christ, then wrought by the Holy Spirit.
So he can tell the Thessalonians, ‘God chose you from the beginning to salvation, in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, to which He called you through our Good News to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Thessalonians 2.13). Notice the stress on ‘from the beginning’. Here the idea is of the beginning of all things (John 1.1; Genesis 1.1; Ephesians 1.4; 2 Timothy 1.9). Our salvation was determined in the mind of God from the beginning, and is wrought by the separating, purifying power of the Holy Spirit which is manifested by our belief of the truth and will result in our obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that Paul gives thanks when he thinks of their ‘election’.
And how does he know that they are ‘elect’? Because they not only received the word but they experienced power, they experienced the Holy Spirit, they experienced a deep assurance of faith, in the same way as Paul and his companions had experienced them. And this resulted in their emulation of Paul and of Christ Himself. In other words their lives and their way of living were transformed.
‘Our Good News.’ The Good News that Paul and his associates had brought was a Good News that they had made personally their own. It had been experienced by them before they had brought it to the Thessalonians. And it had so thrilled them that they had had to pass it on. Alternately the ‘our’ might be contrasting their Good News with other Gospels which were not Gospels (Galatians 1.7). In 2.2 he describes it as ‘the Good News of God’.
‘Came to you not in words only but in power and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance.’ The question must be asked, does this refer to the preachers or to the recipients? Our answer is that it must be seen as to both. When men preach in power and the Holy Spirit and in assurance that is how the recipients receive and experience it. This word coming ‘in power in the Holy Spirit and much assurance’ is related both to their ‘election’ (verse 4) which resulted in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, and to ‘what manner of men we showed ourselves to be’ (verse 5). God’s powerful word was going out to accomplish His purpose (Isaiah 55.11). We have only to read Acts to discover that in the early church ‘power’ was constantly experienced and revealed (Acts 4.33; 6.8) and received. And this power was closely tied in with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4.31; Acts 6.5). The early church expected the power of God at work among them, with signs and miracles and most importantly with the dynamic transformation of lives.
Their words were not just words, they were words of power, for they were ‘the living and powerful -- word of God’ (Hebrews 4.12). The word for power is ‘dunamis’ from which we get the word dynamite. It was active, explosive power. As Paul says elsewhere ‘the Good News -- is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes’ (Romans 1.16). ‘For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1.18). It has a power that seizes men and takes them out from under the power of darkness and translates them into the Kingly Rule of His beloved Son (Colossians 1.13). They are made fit and suitable to become inheritors of ‘the inheritance of the saints in light’ (Colossians 1.12). So that power then works within the hearer, changing and transforming. They are the recipients of transfiguring power.
‘In the Holy Spirit and much assurance.’ The preachers spoke ‘in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance’. But that same Holy Spirit worked within the hearers so that they believed and responded fully to the call of Christ, being born of, and transformed by, the Spirit, and receiving a full assurance of salvation. They too experienced ‘the Holy Spirit and much assurance’. The idea of a powerful, good and holy Spirit Who was over all and all triumphant was indeed also Good News to the Gentiles who lived in a world of fear of malevolent spirits.
Here this work of the Spirit is linked closely with ‘much assurance’. This is part of the work of the Spirit. He brings men peace and certainty in a world of doubt, bolstering their faith and making the Good News real in their hearts, as the Thessalonians had themselves experienced.
‘Even as you know what manner of men we showed ourselves towards you for your sakes, and you became emulators of us and of the Lord.’ This confirms the dual meaning. On the one hand the Thessalonians saw in the preachers power and the Holy Spirit and much assurance, and then they became ‘emulators’, experiencing and revealing it within themselves. The word mimeomai means to emulate, follow the example of, imitate, do as others do. So having witnessed the purity of the lives of Paul and his companions, having witnessed their fearlessness in the face of adversity (Acts 17.4-9 - which demonstrates that their period of preaching was accompanied by continuing and growing opposition from outsiders which finally resulted in an attempt to have them imprisoned) and having witnessed the power that they had manifested through the same Holy Spirit, they became powerfully enabled to reveal the same.
‘And of the Lord.’ Paul not only preached the Gospel, he was also one of its greatest ornaments. But he pointed not so much to himself as the One Who was at work through him. That was finally what mattered, that they became emulators of the Lord (compare 1 Corinthians 11.1). When Christians are new born they need an immediate example to follow, and that should be found in their godly teachers, but once they have become founded in the word and see Jesus more clearly, He is the final example that we should encourage them to follow.
‘And you became imitators of us and of the Lord having received the word in much affliction.’ Facing up to affliction was one way in which they emulated Him. These new Christians too had had to face up to adversity on becoming Christians and they faced it bravely as Paul and his companions had, and indeed as the Lord Himself had, following the example of both their teachers and their Lord. They ‘followed in His steps’ (1 Peter 2.21). For ‘all who will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution’ in one way or another (2 Timothy 3.12; John 15.18-21; 16.2-3, 33).
‘With joy of the Holy Spirit.’ But even more their response to affliction had been with fullness of joy because of, and as a result of, the work of the Holy Spirit within them (compare Acts 13.52; John 16.22). Their affliction had not resulted in a gritting of the teeth (although that is sometimes necessary) but in a time of rejoicing in that they could suffer for Christ’s sake. Joy is one aspect of the fruit which the Holy Spirit produces within (Galatians 5.22), especially in the face of adversity, which is to the Christian a cause for rejoicing because of its effectiveness in making him more Christ-like (Romans 5.3-5; 1 Peter 4.12-13; James 1.2).
Joy is different from happiness. The latter comes when things ‘hap’ our way, when all is going well. But joy is something deep within that survives even when the going is hard and life is tough and we are being fully tested. It comes from knowing God and being indwelt by His Spirit and being confident that we are in His hand.
1.7-8 ‘So that you became an example to all who believe in Macedonia and Achaia, for from you has sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith towards God has gone out so that we need not speak anything.’
The word tupos (example) meant originally the mark made by a blow (see John 20.25), then an impression made by a seal or die, and then an image generally (Acts 7.43) and then a pattern (Hebrews 8.5). Here the activity of Paul and his companions through the Holy Spirit had so wrought in the Thessalonians that they themselves became ‘images’ of Paul, doing his work for him and proclaiming Christ in such a way that Paul’s preaching was made unnecessary.
What a scintillating picture this is. A new born church so filled with zeal that they could not keep silent, and spreading throughout their locality and beyond, in spite of persecution, boldly and effectively proclaiming ‘the word of the Lord’, and thus becoming an example not only to the world, but to many of their fellow Christians as well. Not all were preachers, but all spoke about Him wherever they went.
‘Sounded out.’ The word could be used of a trumpet call or a roll of thunder. It emphasises the resounding nature of their witness. Note that the verb is in the perfect, ‘sounded out and are still sounding out’.
‘The word of the Lord.’ A well known Old Testament description speaking of a God-given word coming directly from Him. And that was how they saw the words and work of Christ which they proclaimed.
‘In every place.’ Not only in their own region or their neighbouring region, but far afield because they could not keep silent wherever they went.
‘Your faith towards God has gone out.’ These men were living testimonies to the grace and power of God, revealed not only in their words but in their lives. Their faith towards the one living God was made abundantly apparent to all in their lives and witness.
1.9-10 ‘For they themselves report concerning us what manner of entering in we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the coming wrath.’
Everywhere Christians were talking about what had happened to the Thessalonians through the preaching of Paul and Silas, and with what powerful effect (in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance) they had proclaimed the Good News in Thessalonika. For they saw these Thessalonians transformed. They had become completely different people. They no longer partook in idolatrous worship but looked only to the living God, and were now totally involved in serving Him and looking for the return of Christ, the deliverer from coming judgment and wrath.
Note the threefold picture. ‘Turned to God from idols (a work of faith), to serve the living and true God (a labour of love) and to wait for His Son from the heavens (the patient endurance of hope).’ Note also that the turning was immediate and once for all (aorist tense) but the serving and the waiting was continual (present tense).
The picture is vibrant. This was no passive conversion but an active turning to God. Idols were thrust aside in their positive turning to God. All that had previously controlled their lives was done away with. The fact that they did this demonstrates that the converts were far more than the Jews and God-fearers mentioned in Acts. These were men who had still been deeply involved in idolatry, but on hearing the message of the Gospel had ‘seen’ the living and true God and had thrust their idols aside so that they might serve Him and wait for His Son from Heaven. The contrast is clear. Their new faith was in a living God, not in lifeless idols, it was in One Who was true rather than in mythological beings who themselves told lies, it resulted in active service on His behalf and it involved a positive expectancy of a face to face encounter with the coming One, Who had Himself conquered death and would deliver them from coming judgment.
‘To wait for His Son from heaven (the heavens, a plural of intensity), Whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus Who delivers us from the wrath to come.’ This emphasis on the eschatological return of Christ will be amplified later in the letter. Paul had taught the Thessalonians that He Who had been raised from the dead according to his Gospel (2 Timothy 2.8 compare 1 Corinthians 15) was coming again as the heavenly Deliverer from coming judgment. Thus they now awaited His coming with joyful anticipation.
The expectation of Christ’s return is especially prominent in this letter, see 2.19; 3.13; 4.13-17; 5.1-11, 23. It was an especially important doctrine when tribulation and persecution was rife as the Book of Revelation indicates.
‘Whom He raised from the dead.’ This coming One was a proof of the new life that was available to those who believed, for He Himself had been raised from the dead and would come in that resurrected life. He was the guarantee of their future resurrected life (4.14; 1 Corinthians 15.20-24). This positive view of life beyond death was in direct contrast to the gloomy views held by many of some kind of amorphous life beyond the grave.
‘Even Jesus Who delivers us (is delivering us) from the coming wrath.’ The process of deliverance has already begun and will find itself completed at His coming (Ephesians 5.27). He is delivering from ‘the coming wrath’, a phrase that covers all views and aspects of the coming judgment of men revealed in the Old Testament. The present tense forbids us seeing this as simply referring to some particular aspect of the wrath of God. He is the One who delivers from wrath in all its aspects. This ‘wrath’ is not some anger of a God unable to control His feelings, but the deserved and controlled judgmental attitude of a righteous and holy God when faced with man’s sinfulness. For right to prevail sin must be fully punished, and all that is sinful done away with. This dealing with sin is not optional but demanded. Impenitent sinners cannot be forgiven for they would simply go on in their sins, and the whole sad story of history would begin again.
Notice the active involvement of God in all this. He is the living God, He raised Jesus, His Son, from the dead, His Son will come from Heaven, He will one day deal with impenitent man in wrath, and through His Son is delivering those who are penitent. All is in His hands. No greater contrast with idolatry can be found.
Chapter 2. Paul Demonstrates the Genuineness of His Ministry and Encourages the Thessalonians in the Face of Persecution.
Having commended and rejoiced in the wonderful experience of the Thessalonians brought about by God through his Spirit-filled preaching, Paul now demonstrates what kind of a ministry he had among them. It is clear that this question arose because some had come to the Thessalonian church seeking to diminish Paul and his influence, apparently calling him a self-seeker, a time server, a hypocrite, and a money grabber who had now moved on and deserted them, like many wandering philosophers who were concerned only for themselves and their own cleverness and what they could get out of it. So Paul reminds them of what the truth about him really was as they knew from their own experience.
He emphasises that they had brought the Gospel of God, that they had been approved by Him for that purpose and always preached as those who must give account, that all the charges were unfounded, that they were always sincere and never used flattery or fair words, that they sought neither prestige nor money, but that rather they had provided their own finance, had laboured hard night and day, and had shown love and tenderness like that of a father or a nursing mother. He calls on them to themselves testify as to the total rightness and godliness of their behaviour from their own experience.
The amount of emphasis on this in the epistles demonstrates how concerned God was for His word to constantly speak to preachers to remind them what their approach and attitude of heart should be. All preachers would do well to study these words again and again, and measure their ministry by them.
He then encourages them in the face of persecution.
2.1 ‘For you yourselves, brothers, know our entering into you, that it has not been found vain.’
This is his first evidence of his genuineness, the wonderful results that followed his ‘entering into’ them. For the verb compare 1.9. He had ‘come in’ and the result had been the transformation of their lives (1.9-10) as they well knew. Thus his visit had not been a failure, it had not been found empty and useless, accomplishing nothing. It had indeed accomplished a great deal.
The second evidence of his genuineness is that he was willing to go on preaching even though it brought him much suffering. They knew how badly treated he had been at Philippi (Acts 16.12-40), but this had not prevented them from coming to Thessalonika, and continuing to preach boldly even though there were the signs of the same things happening to him there (Acts 17.5). He had not flinched or hesitated. He had been willing to suffer among them for the Gospel’s sake while proclaiming that ‘Good News from God’ to them. Note the stress that the Good News they had brought was ‘of God’. It was God’s Good News, not his.
‘Shamefully treated’, that is treated arrogantly or spitefully. At Philippi the law was called in and false accusations were made against them. They were then scourged and put in the stocks in prison.
‘Waxed bold’, that is had the courage to speak freely. Did not hold anything back for fear of misinterpretation. And this was because they knew that they were ‘in our God’, Who watched over them and protected them, for it was His good News that they proclaimed.
‘Much conflict.’ This probably refers to external conflict rather than inner conflict. The Thessalonian opponents also called in the law. It was a time of great upheaval and coping with strong opposition.
2.3-4 ‘For our exhortation is not of error, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile, but even as we have been approved of God to be entrusted with the Good News, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who proves our hearts.’
This amplifies the fact that what they preached was God’s Good News. Their enemies had clearly charged them with wandering from the truth (as they had accused Jesus of the same), of encouraging immorality (the constant Jewish criticism, usually justified, of pagan religion), and of using guile. So Paul stressed that there was no error in their teaching, no wandering from the truth, there was no lack of morality, there was no deceit or attempts to mislead, rather they spoke as those appointed with the approval of God as worthy proclaimers of that Good News. They preached as those who wanted to please the God Who had appointed them, and Who searched and tested their hearts, and not just to please men. Any pastor or preacher who is of God will follow their example, and should also remember that God will weigh up their message and will test out their inner heart.
‘Approved’, that is approved by testing.
‘Not as pleasing men.’ The verb often signifies pleasing by service on someone’s behalf. So they were God approved, God tested, and intent solely on pleasing God in the way they served.
‘Hearts.’ In the Bible this word includes the will and the mind as well as the emotions. It represents the whole of a man’s disposition.
2.5-6 ‘For neither at any time were we found using words of flattery, as you know, nor a pretext resulting from greed. God is witness. Nor seeking glory of men, neither from you nor from others, when we might have been burdensome as Apostles of Christ.’
They were not like professional philosophers who went around in their philosophers’ cloaks, giving men what they wanted to hear so that they would feel self-satisfied, and seeking payment for their teaching. Who put on a pretence because of their greed, as they angled for money and admiration. But Paul and his companions were not interested in pleasing men in their teaching, and lulling them into a feeling of satisfaction and wellbeing so that they would receive a reward. They were not in it for money or for prestige or for hero worship. Indeed they refrained from seeking in any way to benefit financially, even though as the Apostles of Christ they would have had a right to hospitality and assistance (Matthew 10.10-11).
‘Seeking glory from men.’ The idea here is of being exalted in men’s eyes as spiritual superiors and mentors so that people paid over money or rendered honour.
‘Apostles of Christ.’ The word is used, with rare exceptions, only of the twelve, Paul and Barnabas (‘the Apostles to the Gentiles’) and possibly of James, the Lord’s brother (see 1 Corinthians 9.5; Galatians 1.11-2.9; 1 Corinthians 15.5-7; Acts 1.26). They uniquely represented Christ. The word Apostle has similarities with the Hebrew shaliach, someone sent as a representative so that he stood in the other’s place. It was an authority that could not be transmitted. The idea related mainly to having personally known the Lord (Acts 1.21), of being specifically appointed by Christ (Matthias through the lot) and of being the vehicles of special revelation from God (John 14-16; Galatians 1.12). Here Silvanus is included as sharing Paul’s Apostleship in a secondary way because of his close association with Paul in his Apostolic ministry. It includes a little more than just a messenger. It stresses their right to give authoritative teaching. But he is never directly called an Apostle.
2.7 ‘But we were babes in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherishes her own children.’
‘Babes’ is the majority reading of the most ancient manuscripts and is powerfully supported. The alternative ‘gentle’ has relatively little support. The idea is of innocence and no pretence. A baby expresses itself totally honestly. Paul then illustrates it with the example of the way a nanny cherishes her children, completely open and honest and thoughtful. A relationship of total trust and faithfulness. Some see Paul as having here the idea of a nurse indulging in ‘baby talk’, adapting herself to her listeners.
The Old Testament uses a similar picture of the people of God being comforted by Jerusalem (Isaiah 66.10-13 compare Isaiah 49.15 of God Himself)
2.8-9 ‘Even so being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart to you, not the Good News of God only, but also our own inner selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labour and travail. Working night and day, that we might not burden any of you, we preached to you the Good News of God.’
We learn here the great love that Paul had for his converts. ‘Affectionately desirous’ expresses the idea of a yearning love. It was used on a grave inscription describing the parents’ sad yearning for their dead child. He gave them not only the Good News, but himself as well, because of how much they meant to him. Beware the preacher who lacks love, and does not impart his inner self to his hearers.
This was further demonstrated by the huge effort he put into bringing home to them the Gospel. ‘Labour and travail’, represents wearisome toil and hard and painful toil. They had worn themselves out, working to support themselves (see Acts 18.3) so as not to be a financial burden, and preaching night and day whenever opportunity arose, until they were exhausted.
Note the stress in this chapter on ‘the Good News of God’ (verses 2, 8, 9). He wants to stress that the Good News is from God, and reveals God, because He is its source.
2.10-12 ‘You are witnesses, and God also, how holily and righteously and unblameably we behaved ourselves towards you who believe, as you know how we dealt with each one of you, as a father with his own children, exhorting you, and encouraging you, and testifying, to the end that you should walk worthily of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Paul now calls on a twofold witness to the truth of what he is saying, and each is called on three times. The Thessalonian Christians are themselves witnesses. Compare verse 2, ‘you know’, verse 9, ‘you remember’, but here the ‘you’ is emphatic The idea is getting stronger. And Paul now again calls on God as a witness. Compare verse 4, ‘God Who proves the heart’, verse 5, ‘God is witness’.
‘How holily and righteously and unblameably we behaved ourselves towards you who believe.’ Again a threefold combination emphasising completeness. Compare 1.3, 5, 9-10. ‘Holily’ stresses the rightness of their behaviour in God’ eyes in their religious approach, righteously stresses the rightness of their behaviour in God’s eyes in terms of right and wrong, unblameably stresses the faultlessness of their behaviour before God. ‘Towards you who believe.’ Christians are regularly thought of as ‘believers’, the idea being that there is only one truth, Jesus Christ (compare John 14.6), and therefore no object need be stated.
‘As a father with his own children.’ First the nursing mother, now the father. No closer relationship could be described. Compare Psalm 103.13. They were father and mother to them in the best sense of the words. Note the interesting comparison of the nursing mother ‘cherishing’ her children, and the father ‘exhorting and encouraging’.
‘Each one of you.’ This is emphatic. He had taken a personal interest in each one. None had been neglected.
‘Exhorting you, and encouraging and testifying --.’ The emphatic ‘you’ probably connects with all three verbs. ‘Exhorting’ has in mind awakening and spurring on. The word for ‘encouraging’ is found in John 11.19, 31 where it refers to comforting the bereaved. It is a very tender word. ‘Testifying’ stresses that the exhortation and gentle encouragement was on the basis of a truth testified to. It was not just general platitude, but based on response to specific truths.
‘To the end that you should walk worthily of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.’ The truths are now stated. They walk before God Who has called them under His kingly rule and to share His glory. (The present tense stresses that the call is continual and never ceasing). They must therefore walk worthily of Him. Response to the Good News brings a man into a personal relationship with God. He can no longer be what he was. He has been called to be God-like, a true representative of the King. Note the close connection between the kingdom and God’s glory. To be in the Kingdom is to share His glory. Thus the final idea here is of the heavenly kingdom, and yet it is something that we can enjoy now.
The idea of ‘the Kingly Rule of God’ appears in the Old Testament, first at Sinai where it is implicit and God becomes His people’s sovereign (explicit in Deuteronomy 33.5; Exodus 19.6 compare Psalm 5.2; 10.16; 22.8; 24.7-10; 29.10; 44.4; 45.6; 47.2; 74.12; 95.3; 98.6; 103.19; 145.1, 11-13; 149.2 where He is also king of all the earth), and then in the ideal fulfilment of what was expressed there in the coming time when God’s rule will be established and acknowledged and all will walk in obedience to Him (e.g. Zechariah 14.9, 16-17; Isaiah 24.23; Obadiah 1.21; Zephaniah 3.15). It is also linked with the establishing of His righteous King (e.g. Isaiah 9.6-7; 11.1-10; Ezekiel 37.22-24; Daniel 7.13-14; Zechariah 9.9).
Jesus pointed to the Kingly Rule of God as ‘at hand’ (e.g. Mark 1.15), and taught both its present fulfilment in those who responded to God through His teaching (Matthew 6.33; 12.28; 21.31, 43; Mark 4.26, 30; 9.1; 10.14-15; 12.34; Luke 7.28; 9.27; 10.9; 11.20; 16.16; 17.21; 18.17; John 3.3-5 compare Acts 8.12; 14.22; 20.25; 28.23, 31; Romans 14.17; 1 Corinthians 4.20) and its future fulfilment when all things will be under God as King (Mark 14.25; Luke 13.29; 22.16-18; 19.11; 21.31; compare 1 Corinthians 6.9-10; 15.50; Galatians 5.21; Colossians 4.11; 2 Thessalonians 1.5). Indeed He Himself would be the King (Matthew 16.28; 19.28; 25.31-46).
The idea behind the Kingly Rule of God is not of rule over an area of land, but of holding sway over His people. Christians are under the Kingly Rule of God wherever they are as they respond to Him. But the ideal will be fulfilled when all is under His sway and He is all in all (1 Corinthians 15.24-25, 28, 50-54), and His people share His glory.
2.13 ‘And for this cause we also thank God without ceasing, that, when you received from us the word of the message, even the word of God, you accepted it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also works in you who believe.’
‘And for this cause --.’ This looks back to what he has been saying, and forward to the description of the Thessalonian response. Paul and companions have preached faithfully and pastored faithfully. Now he rejoices that the Thessalonians responded faithfully. We have already seen how closely he links his powerful ministry and their equally powerful response (1.4-6).
‘We also thank God without ceasing.’ Compare 1.2-3a. Paul’s gratitude to God overflows. The Thessalonian continued response had been a great encouragement to him after the hard time he had had at Athens where response had been limited (Acts 17.17-34), which had caused him much pause for thought (1 Corinthians 2.3).
‘That, when you received from us the word of the message, even the word of God, you accepted it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also is working in you who believe.’
There is an interesting contrast here between receiving (paralambano) a message outwardly, and receiving it (dechomai) and fully responding to it inwardly, thus ‘accepting’ it.
‘The word of the message’, or ‘the word that was heard’. Akoe can mean the faculty of hearing, the act of hearing or listening, that which was heard, the preaching. Thus the emphasis here is on hearing without indicating the response (which is included in the next verb). ‘Even the word of God.’ The phrase is literally ‘having received the word of hearing from us of God’. What they heard was ‘of God’.
‘You accepted it.’ They received it into their hearts and responded to it. Why? Precisely because they recognised it for what it truly was, not man’s word but God’s word. And that word is now continually at work within them through the effective working of God because they are in a state of continually believing, they are ‘believing ones’. Thus they need have no doubt of Paul’s credentials for they are still experiencing within the effects of the message he proclaimed. But he has really moved on from concentration on defence. That is no longer his emphasis. He is now rather rejoicing in what has been accomplished.
2.14-16 ‘For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus, for you also suffered the same things of your own countrymen, even as they did of the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out (or ‘persecuted us’), and do not please God, and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved. To fill up their sins always. But the wrath is come on them to the uttermost.’
Paul now likens them to the churches in Judea ‘in Christ Jesus’. They too are suffering persecution as the Christians in Judea are, partly, or even largely, instigated by the Jews in Thessalonika. ‘Imitators’ means those who go through the same things. They are not alone in their sufferings. The Jews are also causing them elsewhere, as they always have.
The Thessalonians' persecution would last a long time, and so would their steadfastness. Some six years later Paul would still speak of the churches of Macedonia as enduring 'a severe test of affliction' and as continuing to give evidence of the reality of their faith in that 'their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality' (2 Corinthians 8.1, 2). The 'extreme poverty' might well have been the result of mob violence and looting, and having their property confiscated. Elsewhere in the New Testament we learn of those who, in the early days of their faith, 'joyfully accepted' the plundering of their property in addition to other forms of illtreatment (Hebrews 10.32- 34).
The comparison Paul makes is interesting in that it includes both Old and New Testament churches. ‘The church’, the righteous believers in God, have always suffered at the hands of the Jews, whether it was the Prophets or the Lord Jesus Himself.
It is clear from this that the continual persecution of Christians in Judea was well known throughout the churches. They were suffering for Christ’s sake. It was nothing new. It had happened to the Prophets throughout history, as Jesus emphasised. That this signifies the Old Testament prophets as well as the New (Matthew 23.34) is indicated by the fact that it is they of whom we have a record that they had been killed (Matthew 23.31, 35, 37; Luke 11.47-50; Acts 7.52). Indeed Jesus links them together (Matthew 23.29-36). But Jesus had clearly shown what they would do to those who believed in Him (Mark 13.9-13; Matthew 10.17, 23; 23.34; John 16.2-3).
‘Who -- killed the Lord, even Jesus.’ They had capped all their infamy by killing ‘the Lord, even Jesus’. Paul in his Greek distinguishes the Lord from Jesus by placing the verb between them. He wants his hearers to take in the full enormity of it. They had killed ‘the Lord’, He Who was over all, He Who they claimed to worship. And that Lord was Jesus.
Interestingly this is the only place in Paul where the blame is specifically attached to the Jews by him, but that is because here he was thinking of the Jews as persecutors. Elsewhere the blame is laid squarely on everyone, both Jew and Gentile. Compare also Acts 4.27. But Luke regularly shows the Apostles as having done so in Acts 3.15; 4.10; 7.52; 10.39.
His indictment of the Jews is frightening. ‘Who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out (or ‘persecuted us’), and do not please God, and are contrary to all men.’ Yet on the whole the Jews would have accepted it as true (although they blamed their fathers for what had been done to the Prophets and they would not have agreed that they did not please God). They were proud that they had killed Jesus, they were still driving Christians out and persecuting them and they still looked on the rest of the world as unacceptable, unless of course they became proselytes, and as a nation they spurned preaching to them for that purpose. They considered the Gentiles as not worthy of consideration and had no feeling of friendship towards them, rather the opposite. They would in fact have accepted that they were ‘contrary to them’. ‘Do not please God’ is Paul’s summary of the whole. They had become the opposite of what God had intended them to be (Exodus 19.6; Isaiah 42.4; 49.6).
Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved. To fill up their sins always. But the wrath is come on them to the uttermost.’ Thus the Jews, with some exceptions, opposed preaching to the Gentiles. They were angry at those who did so, condemning what they were doing. If Gentiles wanted to be saved, they said, let hem become proselytes, but they did not seek to make them so (although paradoxically they were angry when the God-fearers, those on the fringes who attended synagogues, became Christians).
‘To fill up their sins always.’ Does this refer to the Jews or the Gentiles? Did he mean that by their behaviour the Jews were simply piling up sin upon sin, capping the sins of which they were guilty by adding to them and filling them to the full. Or does it mean that by their behaviour they were leaving the Gentiles to become more and more filled up with sin, leaving them to wallow in them. The former is more probable. It explains why the wrath has come upon them.
‘But the wrath has come on them to the uttermost (or ‘to the end’).’ Here ‘the wrath’ clearly refers to what God has determined to do to them because of their sinfulness, and because of the slaying of His Son. The aorist tense signifies a once for all decision. They are now under wrath. It thus includes all wrath to be directed at the Jews, the wrath to be poured out on them at the destruction and treading down of Jerusalem and the scattering of the nation (Luke 21.23-24; Matthew 23.37), the wrath which is the consequence of sin (Romans 9.22; Romans 1.18; Ephesians 5.6; Colossians 3.6), the wrath revealed in the devastations of ‘the end times’, whenever they may be (Revelation 15.1, 7; 16.1, 19) and the wrath of judgment (1 Thessalonians 5.9; Revelation 6.17; 11.18; 14.10, 19). They have passed the point of no return (although as ever there will be mercy for those who return to God) and have been rejected as a nation. All that awaits them as a nation is continually the wrath of God. This applies whether we translate ‘to the uttermost’ or ‘to the end’. For ‘the end’ would mean the end of all things.
Paul was aware of what Jesus had prophesied about Jerusalem, he was aware of what the Old Testament had said awaited the Jews (and the world) e.g. Daniel 9.27b, he was aware that at the Judgment the final wrath of God would be revealed. He saw it all as one. It was all the consequence of their rejection of their destiny. His emphasis is on that rejection, with its resulting consequence, not on the detail of the outworking of the wrath.
2.17-18 ‘But we, brothers, being bereaved of you for a short while (literally ‘a season of an hour’), in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more exceedingly to see your face with great desire, because we would fain come to you, I Paul once and again, and Satan hindered us.’
Paul now explains why he has not been back to see them and declares his strong desire to do so. He tells them that being parted from them has been like a bereavement. They had had to leave Thessalonika in a hurry (Acts 17.10), and then Paul had had to leave Beroea (Acts 17.14). That had been for the sake of the churches there, to prevent serious trouble for them. But he assures them that the absence was only of the body. His heart was still with them. Indeed his desire to see them was so great that he had made every attempt to come to them but Satan had hindered him. Possibly this points to some illness that had prevented him, or more likely to the interference of legal authorities, possibly brought about by Jewish instigators. Both of the latter are directly connected with Satan in Revelation (Revelation 2.9, 13; 3.9; 13; 17).
‘Endeavoured.’ The word indicates eagerness and serious attempt. ‘The more exceedingly’ adds further emphasis. He had made a great effort.
‘With great desire.’ The word indicates strength of feeling. It often indicates lust or covetousness. Here it is used in a good sense, and intense longing.
Satan means ‘the adversary’. Whatever adversaries the people of Christ, have those adversaries have their backing from Satan, the great Adversary. Yet we must not see him as being almost as powerful as God. Powerful he is (Jude 1.9), but he has been defeated and bound by Christ (Mark 3.27; Colossians 2.15) and is limited in what he can do. Thus he acts through men who unconsciously carry out his bidding.
‘Hindered us.’ The word is used of an athlete cutting in front of a rival to slow him down and prevent him winning. The hindering of the people of God is one of Satan’s main aims.
2.19-20 ‘For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of glorying? Are not even you before our Lord Jesus at his coming? For you are our glory and joy.’
Paul now reveals how important they are to him and his companions from every point of view. He has described to them his yearning to see them again. Now he confirms their preciousness as those who participate with them in their success. When the Lord Jesus comes at His Parousia (personal presence, royal visit) they will be their hope and joy and crown of glorying. Parousia is regularly used to describe the second coming of Christ. Paul was aware of Christ’s personal presence with him continually (Galatians 2.20), and the Parousia would be the manifestation of His presence on His visible coming.
This threefold description may have in mind the joy and satisfaction they will have when the race is won and they receive praise from God at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 4.5 compare Romans 14.10; 2 Corinthians 5.10). The hope of success, the joy of victory and the laurel crown given to the victor suggest a victor at the games.
Or the idea may be simply to express the picture of them all coming together to the judgment seat of Christ with Paul and his companions filled with pride and joy at the company they can present before God, who are themselves as good and valued as a crown of victory. This is suggested by the final words, ‘you are our glory and joy’. That is, are at present. Paul’s heart overflows as he contemplates them, and he knows that his heart will continue to overflow in that day. And that is why he has now sent Timothy to them, even though it meant losing his company and assistance (3.1-2).
Chapter 3. Paul Expresses His Gladness about their State and Prays That It Will Abound Yet More and More.
This chapter simply continues chapter 2, describing in terms of it the sending of Timothy to them and his joy when Timothy returned with the good news of their continued progress and steadfastness in the face of their difficulties. He assures them that they are not forgotten in the midst of their afflictions, and prays for their continued perseverance and growth.
3.1-3 ‘Wherefore when we could not longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone, and sent Timothy, our brother and God’s minister (or fellow worker) in the Good News of Christ, to establish you and comfort you concerning your faith, that no man be moved by these afflictions, for you yourselves know that hereunto we were appointed.’
Paul’s concern for the Thessalonians had been such that it had preyed on his mind, and in the end, at great sacrifice to himself, for it meant that he and Silas were then alone in Athens, he had sent Timothy to them. The purpose behind this had been to establish and strengthen them in their faith.
‘To be left at Athens alone.’ The verb is a strong one conveying something of the cost to them. Compare its use in Mark 12.19 and Ephesians 5.31. It indicates how difficult they were finding ministry in Athens to which they presumably returned some time after Paul’s first visit (see Acts 17.16-34, although that was before Silas and Timothy joined him at Corinth).
‘God’s minister’ or ‘God’s fellow-worker. The manuscripts are divided on this (with variations). The latter is the more difficult reading as representing a description that might be felt to be too bold, although a similar also appears in 1 Corinthians 3.9. We can see why it might have been softened to the former. It demonstrates the highest regard for Timothy in his ministry. To be God’s fellow-worker, a worker together with God, is the highest honour that can be paid to a man. Notice that it is a fellow-worker in the Gospel. It is in passing on the Good News of Christ by which we become uniquely fellow-workers with God.
‘To establish and comfort you concerning your faith.’ To act as a support (sterizo) and to come alongside to help (parakaleo). The idea behind both words is of strengthening. The idea is used of the Holy Spirit (Parakletos) in John 14.16, 26. The aim was to bolster their faith in the face of persecution.
‘That no man be moved by these afflictions, for you yourselves know that hereunto we were appointed.’ The assumption is that tribulation and persecution are to be seen as a normal part of the Christian life. We are in enemy territory (‘the world’) and must therefore expect affliction. We therefore need encouragement to stand firm and not allow faith to waver or become doubt. ‘Great tribulation’ is to be expected when we undermine the Enemy’s position but we need not fear for Christ ‘has overcome the world’ (Revelation 7.14; John 16.33; Matthew 13.21; Acts 14.22; Romans 5.3; 2 Thessalonians 1.4; Revelation 1.9).
‘Hereunto we were appointed.’ It is quite clear that the Thessalonians were continually experiencing persecution and tribulation (see also 2 Thessalonians 1.4, 6). Perhaps that was one reason why they were so buoyant and alive (Romans 5.3-5). As good soldiers of Jesus Christ they responded to the challenge (2 Timothy 2.3). Paul here makes clear that it is the expected lot of all Christians. It is something established, ‘set’ like a city on a hill (Matthew 5.14). We should not therefore be surprised when tribulation comes, nor should we make excessive efforts to avoid it unless thereby we help others.
3.4 ‘For truly when we were with you we told you beforehand that we are to suffer affliction, even as it happened, and you know.’
Paul reinforces his statements by reminding them that they had continually pre-warned (imperfect) the Thessalonians that tribulation was the Christian’s lot. And now they knew it for themselves for it had happened.
3.5 ‘For this reason I also, when I could no longer forbear, sent that I might know your faith, lest by any means the tempter had tempted you and our labour should be in vain.’
The change to the first person singular brings out how much he was moved by what he was talking about. He felt personally involved. He had heard about what they were going through, and was concerned about what effect it was having on their faith. So in the end he could not restrain himself. He had to know. That was why he had despatched Timothy in order to find out.
‘Lest by any means the tempter had tempted you.’ Paul was very much aware that once a person became a Christian they became a prey of the Tempter. ‘By any means’ reminds us that his methods are not restricted to persecution and affliction (compare Ephesians 6.12). But in context that was clearly to the fore. Paul saw the hand of the Tempter behind all attacks on Christians. He was encouraged in this by the words of Jesus Himself. Satan had desired to have them that he might sift them as wheat (Luke 22.31 compare Job 1-2). He had used tribulation to try to shake their faith, and persuade them to turn from Christ.
‘And our labour should be in vain.’ The change to the subjunctive indicates that this was something mooted, not something believed. It had been a possibility that their labour might have been in vain, but Paul had hoped for better things, in which as it turned out he was justified. The word for labour suggests great effort. The ministry had not been an easy one, as indeed no ministry should be.
3.6-7 ‘But when Timothy came even now to us from you, and brought us the good news of your faith and love, and that you have good remembrance of us always, longing to see us as we also to see you, for this reason, brothers and sisters, we were comforted over you in all our distress and affliction through your faith.’
The recent arrival of Timothy had come to Paul like a breath of fresh air in the midst of his problems, and especially the news of their faith and love, and of their good memories of him. (It would have been so easy to add ‘hope’ here after ‘faith and love’, but he did not. This should warn us against assuming too much about Paul’s emphasis on the second coming in this letter. His view was balanced and realistic, not overloaded).
‘Your faith and love.’ His first rejoicing was in that which demonstrated their growth in the Gospel. That their faith was strong and true, and manifested itself in love. That was all important. His second rejoicing was in the fact of their good remembrance of him and of their desire to see him again. He suffered so much from news of the activities of false teachers and the problems they caused that to learn of those who had not allowed themselves to be affected by such was good news indeed.
Note that Paul is not ashamed to mention the trials he is going through. He wants them to know that they have been a great help to him. The distress and affliction may have been referring to his worries about them, but it is far more likely that it refers to other factors, for while he had not been certain about their state there is no reason to think that lack of news had caused him distress to that extent. Anxiety, yes, but not distress (‘crushing pressures’). So Paul, as often, was going through tough times. His life was one of continual triumph over great tribulation.
3.8 ‘For now we live if you stand firm in the Lord.’
‘Now we are alive.’ This use of the word live emphasises the great burden under which Paul had suffered. He had felt dead and discouraged, but now he had sprung to life. We tend to overlook the dreadful burdens he had to bear, the constant worries as more and more seemingly bad news filtered through which could not be tested, the pressures of learning of the activities of false teachers, especially when they were accompanied by seeming success, the constant brushes with authority and what they could mean for the success of his mission. But now this great news had come though that this vital church was alive and well and prospering. The word was going out in Macedonia and around. All was well.
Note that ‘if’ (ean) is followed, not by the subjunctive of doubt, but by the indicative of greater certainty. Possibly we should paraphrase ‘as long as you go on standing firm’. For the meaning of the verb compare 1 Corinthians 16.13; Galatians 5.1; Philippians 4.1.
3.9-10 ‘For what thanksgiving can we render again to God for you, for all the joy with which we joy for your sakes before our God, night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face, and perfect that which is lacking in your faith.’
Paul might have been excused for feeling a little self-satisfaction for the success of his ministry, but had he done so it might have been the end of his success. Once a man begins to think he is something in the spiritual realm he becomes nothing (Galatians 6.3; 1 Corinthians 8.2). But Paul was too wise for that. He knew that the spiritual success of his work was totally due to God and he accordingly rendered thanks to Him. Indeed he recognised that the thanksgiving due was so much that he could not achieve it. When he thought of the joy he had experienced as a result of what God had done he was overwhelmed.
‘For all the joy with which we joy for your sakes before our God.’ As he prayed before God to be able to see them again and build them up further in the faith, his joy overflowed in the presence of God at the blessings God had bestowed on them.
‘Night and day praying exceedingly.’ There was nothing half hearted about his desire to see them and bring them blessing. The cry of his heart was continual and fervent, for he knew that there was more that they needed to know.
‘Perfect that which was lacking in your faith.’ His longing was to be able to teach them more so that they would be well rounded in their theology. ‘Faith’ here surely includes reference to the content of their faith, what they believed. There was so much more that he wanted to pass on. But such expansion of knowledge of the faith, if rightly received, will also result in growth in faith and in the love of God.
‘Perfect.’ A word used of the mending of nets, of equipping someone, of supplying what is missing, of making complete.
3.11-13 ‘Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you. And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love, one toward another, and towards all men, even as we also do towards you, to the end that he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’
In the prayer that closes this section Paul clearly demonstrates that all must be of God. If they are to come to Thessalonika it must be because God directs them, removing the obstacles and the interference of Satan which has prevented it. Note again how God the Father and the Lord Jesus are in parallel. They are our God and Lord, working in full unity. And all our ways must be in their hands. That they are addressed in prayer together confirms the full deity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Then he prays for their growth, that they may ‘increase and abound’. Both words convey the same general idea, growth and fullness. The growth and fullness are to be in love, first towards each other and then towards all men, a love comparable to that Paul has for them. The comparison brings out the genuineness of his love. This will then result in their fulfilling all God’s requirements (Galatians 5.14 see also John 14.15), and prepare them for the coming of the Lord Jesus (3.13). Love for one another was a central feature of the final words of Jesus Christ to His disciples (John 13.34-35; 15.12-13, 17). It was one way by which all men would be able to identify the true disciples of Christ (John 13.35).
‘To the end that he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ The purpose of this love being made to increase and abound in them is that their hearts may be established, ‘unblameable in holiness’, ready to meet God at Jesus’ second coming. We note again the importance of faith (verse 10b), love (verse 12) and here, the Christian hope, the three foundation pillars manward of Christian belief.
‘He may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness.’ The verb ‘establish’ is used in LXX Psalm 112.8 to signify someone whose heart is established so that he need not be afraid. It refers to a strong and sure position and attitude resulting from faith (‘the fear of the Lord’) and past experience of righteousness. Thus here faith and its outworking in love is seen as establishing the hearts of Christians ‘unblameable in holiness’. The former, the faith and love, is the outworking of salvation as seen within man, unblameable in holiness is the outworking of salvation on God’s part. It is through the sacrifice of Christ, resulting in sanctification and cleansing, that we are presented before God holy and without blame (Ephesians 5.25-27; Colossians 1.22), but it is our faith and love, worked within us by God, that give us the confidence that we will be so, and reproduce something of that holiness within us (see 2 Corinthians 7.1).
‘Before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ At the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus with all His saints (all the people of God) (4.14) we will be presented before our God and Father. Our Lord will ‘confess us’, bear witness to us, before Him (Matthew 10.32; Luke 12.8). Then indeed we will need to be unblameable in holiness. Were that to mean in actuality as a result of righteous living none could stand before Him. We will indeed be clothed with ‘the righteous acts of the saints’ (Revelation 19.8), and presented as a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Corinthians 11.2), but our final assurance can only rest in the fact that our clothes have been washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7.14), that Christ is made unto us sanctification (1 Corinthians 1.30), that we have become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5.21).
‘With all his saints (holy ones).’ The question has been asked whether this means His people as resurrected (4.14), or His angels, or all His people. But in the New Testament the word ‘holy ones’ always signifies the whole people of God or a section of the whole people of God (sixty times) with the possible exception of Jude 1.14, which is a quotation from extra-Biblical literature.
While therefore it is true that Christ will come with His angels (Matthew 16.27; 25.31; Mark 8.38; Luke 9.26; 2 Thessalonians 1.7), and in LXX angels are sometimes called ‘holy ones’ (Zechariah 14.5; Daniel 8.13), but never in the New Testament outside of Jude’s quotation from pre-New Testament days which is based on Deuteronomy 33.2 where the meaning is obscure, the force of the New Testament evidence is on translating this ‘saints’ as meaning the whole people of God or a section of them.
Thus here it probably primarily means the resurrected saints who will accompany Him, although we would not exclude the possibility that it allows for the angels as also coming with them, a splendid and glorious array (the same question arises in Revelation 19.14). In view of the close connection with 4.14 the primary connection with the resurrected saints is surely certain, and the non-mention of angels in that passage must be seen as telling.
Chapter 4. A Call to Holiness and Assurance Regarding Those Who Have Died in the Light of Christ’s Second Coming.
4.1 ‘Finally then, brothers and sisters, we beseech and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, even as you do walk - that you abound more and more.’
‘Finally.’ The word is regularly used by Paul in this sense having the idea of ‘for the remainder’ (loipos means ‘the rest, the remainder’). But it is not necessarily an indication of finality, having also the meaning ‘furthermore, moreover’. Here it signifies an addition to, and connection with, what has gone before without necessarily indicating that the letter is nearly over.
‘We beseech and exhort.’ We may paraphrase ‘request and urge you strongly, calling upon you to --’. The first verb is to soften up the second verb, making it more friendly.
‘In the Lord Jesus.’ Both are ‘in Christ’, and his urgings relate to this fact. Being His what he speaks about is required of both him and them because they are His.
‘Lord Jesus’ (2.15, 19; 3.11, 13; 4.1, 2) and ‘the Lord’ (1.6; 3.8, 12; 4.6, 15 (twice), 16, 17 (twice); 5.2, 12, 27) are Paul’s regular descriptions of Christ in the central part of this letter, although he opened with reference to ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1.1, 3) and closes similarly (5.9, 23, 28). He also uses ‘Jesus’ (1.10; 4.14 (twice)) and ‘in Christ Jesus’ (2.14; 5.18). ‘Christ’ appears alone as a genitive (2.6; 3.2) and once as ‘in Christ’.
It seems probable that we can see ‘Lord Jesus’ and ‘Lord’ as simply abbreviations and variations of the full ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ (which he uses comparatively more often in the second letter), with the grander phrase being used to open and close, especially as ‘Lord Jesus’ is also used in parallel with God the Father (3.11). ‘Jesus’ is twice used in connection with His death and resurrection (1.10; 4.14a), stressing His manward side, although the third use (4.14b) connects more with the other uses, probably affected by the previous use in the verse. ‘In Christ Jesus’ and ‘in Christ’ are again simply variations (although ‘the dead in Christ’ may have become a technical term) for he can also say ‘in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1.1, 3), ‘in the Lord’ (3.8; 5.12) and ‘in the Lord Jesus’ (4.1).
‘That as you received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, even as you do walk - that you abound more and more.’ This was what he exhorts them to do. Firstly he stresses that they had learned from him and his companions, both by example and teaching, how they should walk and thus please God, then he assures them that he does know that they are walking like this, and finally he stresses the need to abound more and more. He goes out of his way to be tactful and not cause offence, while achieving his object in stressing the need to continue to grow. It reminds us that Paul only behaved like a sergeant major when it was necessary.
‘You ought to walk.’ The phrase is strong, ‘how it is necessary for you to walk’. It was not a matter of choice or opinion. ‘Walking’ was a verb regularly used of living life in a certain way. It stressed the need for continual right behaviour and attitude, step by step, hour by hour, through life.
‘Abound more and more.’ In 3.12 he spoke of ‘abounding in love’, now it expands to abounding more and more in everything good, although those who genuinely do the one will do the other (compare verse 10). And he wants them to realise that they will never achieve the goal in this life, rather they are to be, and will be, changed from glory into glory as they become more like Him (2 Corinthians 3.18), ever growing, ever becoming more Christ-like.
This is especially true in that he connects this with an indictment of sexual misbehaviour (verses 3-8). Many men of God have a continual battle with their natural sexual proclivities which they have to fight at various times all their lives until death brings release, something which others know little about and therefore have little sympathy with. For the former it will be a battle to the end, even though victory is continually obtained. Becoming a Christian does not remove the cravings of the flesh, it gives strength to overcome them for those who walk wisely and prayerfully and avoid causes of temptation (2 Timothy 2.21-22).
4.2 ‘For you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus’.
This defines what they had received. Direct commandments from the Lord Jesus, as found through the authority of the teaching of Jesus passed on through the Apostles, and through Paul, and the early church, the ‘Testimony of Jesus’ (as later found in the Gospels). The word for ‘commandment’ contains the idea of strict orders similar to military orders (Acts 16.23-24). We are under orders. It is not a matter of choice. So Paul stresses that he had not passed on his own ideas, they were the commands of the Lord.
4.3-7 ‘For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that you abstain from fornication, that each of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honour, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. That no man transgress and wrong his brother in the matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as also we forewarned you and testified. For God called us not to uncleanness but in sanctification.’
The passage must be read as one whole, for each part defines the other. It is dealing with the major moral problem that faced Christians in the first century, and faces them in many countries today, of lax and loose sexual behaviour. Marriage for some had become a mockery. Many religions in the first century encouraged sexual misbehaviour and laxity. Sacred prostitutes were common, with whom sex was seen as a form of worship, and ‘love feasts’ (see 2 Peter 2.13-14), orgies, where anything went and was even looked on as religious activity, were a favourite pastime for many. Indeed the practise later invaded the Christian church causing major condemnation from Christ (Revelation 2.6, 14-15, 20-23). This was especially prevalent in the area of the world in which the Thessalonians lived. Thus becoming Christians had faced them with a totally new way of life.
‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification.’ The will of God for His people determines, among other things (‘will’ has no article), that they should be separated to Him and therefore holy. And here we learn that this especially applies to the avoidance of wrong sexual practises. Here sanctification is the process of being made truly holy and Christ-like.
Now Paul delineates three things that the Christian must avoid, ‘that you abstain from fornication -- that each one of you know how to possess himself -- that no man transgress and wrong his brother.’
‘That you abstain from fornication.’ Fornication is a general word signifying sex engaged in outside a formal marriage relationship, and includes sex engaged in with other than one’s first wife while she is still alive, unless she herself has first committed fornication (and vice versa), and any forms of perverted sex. ‘From’, included in the verb, is emphasised by the further use of a preposition. They are to keep far from such things.
‘That each of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honour, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.’ ‘The Gentiles’ in general were ruled by their lustful passions. But that was the opposite of how Christians should behave. They should be ruled by spiritual ideals under God. Thus they are like the holy vessels set apart on the Tabernacle and must rule their bodies as ‘holy vessels’ set apart for God, dedicated to God’s service. They must do all as in the sight and presence of God. Their whole manner of life will be different, for their primary aim and responsibility will be to please and to serve God. See 2 Timothy 2.20-22 for a similar comparison of a man with a vessel (skeuos) unto honour, which must avoid ‘youthful lusts’, a good parallel to here. See also 2 Corinthians 4.7 for men as ‘earthen vessels’.
‘The passion of lust.’ Something which possesses the mind as an overriding feature and results in outward lust, making someone surrender to their passion. This was especially prevalent in a world where there were few barriers.
It should be noted that this is not saying that all Gentiles behaved openly in this way, just as not all openly live immorally today, although society in those days did not generally frown so much on such behaviour. It is rather indicating the passions that controlled the majority of them and which they followed when they could, and which many of their religions and societies encouraged them to practise openly. Similarly, many a ‘respectable’ man or woman today goes on the internet and indulges in sexual appetites in secret, hidden behind anonymity, and enjoys on television the corruptness of society. But their behaviour is known to God (and recorded secretly on their computer). What we laugh or gaze at in secret indicates what we are. For an honest and open indictment of Gentile belief and behaviour see Romans 1.18-32.
The verb translated ‘possess’ has mainly the meaning of ‘acquire’, but then went on to mean that having acquired you possessed. We might translate ‘gain and keep control over’. Control is the central idea. ‘Know to’ may indicate knowing that they are responsible to, rather than simply knowing how to (there is no specific ‘how’ in the Greek or in the verb).
So each is responsible for his own ‘vessel’. To control it and keep it as holy to God and honourable, ‘a vessel unto honour’ (2 Timothy 2.21), or to prostitute it and make it dishonourable, ‘unto dishonour’.
Some see the ‘vessel’ as indicating the wife. Wives are elsewhere called ‘the weaker vessel’ (1 Peter 3.7). But that then also makes the husband a vessel also, ‘the stronger vessel’. There is not there the suggestion, as there would be here, that the man possesses the wife like a chattel. The latter was not the Christian view (Galatians 3.28; Ephesians 5.28). It is true that the verb can also be used of acquiring a wife. But there is nothing obvious in the context to support the idea here and it is a good principle in interpreting Scripture to take the obvious interpretation where two interpretations clash. If Paul meant a wife why did he not say so? Nor does it fit well with verse 6.
‘Who do not know God.’ For if they did they would be aware that their sexual behaviour was contrary to His nature. Romans 1.18-32 links the sins of the Gentiles with the fact that they do not know God because they close their eyes to His appeal through nature and conscience and turn to idolatry. Thus they worship beasts and behave like them.
‘That no man transgress and wrong his brother in the matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as also we forewarned you and testified.’ Sexual sin not only affects us, it affects others. It defrauds and takes advantage of others. It destroys marriages, breaks up relationships, makes a mockery of genuine love, drags men and women down to a lower level of living, and dishonours God (1 Corinthians 6.15-16, 18-19). And when we so lead others astray or hurt them, the Lord will avenge them, either at the day of judgment, or by illness and disease (1 Corinthians 11.30).
There is no reason for considering that ‘brother’ here means any different from elsewhere. It refers to a fellow-Christian. Sexual transgression in the church was most likely to affect other Christians, especially in days when free time was limited, and that would be a great sin for it would be a sin against a brother which the Lord will avenge. And even sex outside the church community would harm fellow-Chrisitian for it would bring shame on the church and on each brother.
‘For God called us not to uncleanness but in sanctification.’ Paul finally summarises the position. Sexual purity is part of the call of God. There are two options, being involved in uncleanness or being in sanctification. God’s call is from the one to the other. If we are those who are called by God then we do not have an option, for our behaviour and attitude will reveal the genuineness of our calling. Again this sanctification is to be practical and not imputed, although resulting from having been first sanctified by God (1 Corinthians 1.2; 2 Thessalonians 2.13; 1 Peter 1.2).
4.8 ‘Therefore he who rejects, rejects not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.’
This confirms the strength behind the idea of ‘call’ in verse 7. God has not given a suggestion, He has called us out of uncleanness. Thus those who reject the necessity for purity in their sexual lives are ‘rejecting’ God and His call. That is they are treating Him of no account and as someone Who can be ignored. And this is further emphasised in that when we respond to the call of God he gives His Holy Spirit to us on a continual basis. There is an emphasis on His holiness in the way the phrase is worded, ‘the Spirit of Him, the Holy one’. The present tense emphasises the continual presence of His Holy Spirit within the Christian. How then can one who is the Temple of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the One Who is superlatively clean and pure, indulge in uncleanness? It would be a contradiction of the very idea (see 1 Corinthians 6.13b-20 where this idea is expressed and connected with the fact that we are not our own but have been ‘bought with a price’).
4.9 ‘But concerning love of brothers and sisters you have no need that one write to you, for you yourselves are taught of God to love one another.’
Note the strong contrast between the fornication of the previous verses based on sexual love and the true Christian love here. They are as far apart as black from white. ‘Love of brothers and sisters’ is ‘philadelphia’. It is a love based on the idea of love between blood brothers. It has no sexual connotations but stresses loyalty and desire for the wellbeing of the other. It now applies to all Christians because they are brothers and sisters.
‘For you yourselves are taught of God to love one another.’ It was taught in the Law (Leviticus 19.18; Galatians 5.14), it was stressed by Jesus (Mark 12.31; John 13.34-35; 15.12-13, 17), it is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22). It is central to the Christian message. Here the word for love is agape, the higher and nobler form of love that transcends feelings (see 1 Corinthians 13.4-8), given a new content by the Christian message. To behave towards others as you would have them behave towards you (without misapplying the idea), is to reveal such love. It is the untainted love of comrades-in-arms, which true Christians engaged in spiritual warfare feel instinctively when they meet other Christians engaged in the same.
‘Taught of God.’ Literally ‘you are taught of God ones’. This links with the idea of the Holy Spirit being within them. True Christians are ‘taught of God ones’ and it will reveal itself in their lives (compare 1 Corinthians 2.12).
4.10a ‘For indeed you are doing it towards all the brothers and sisters who are in all Macedonia.’
What a testimony was that. The Thessalonians were famed for their true and continuing love of their fellow believers. That is why Paul felt that he had no need to mention it to them (although he did).
4.10b ‘But we exhort you, brothers and sisters, that you abound more and more.’
While their love is so well known it has not reached perfection, and therefore he exhorts them not to be content but to let it grow and grow, by more and more self-giving. We can compare here Philippians 1.9-11 where Paul prays that love may abound yet more and more ‘in all spiritual knowledge (epignosis) and discernment’. Love to be true love must be in line with the highest ideals, and those result from spiritual knowledge and discernment.
4.11-12 ‘And that you are ambitious to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your hands, even as we charged you. That you may walk honestly towards those who are without, and may have need of nothing.’
The general impression here is of some who were going about in an excited way, creating a great stir, criticising, chattering, gossiping, constantly passing on unrequested spiritual advice, avoiding normal work and living off others ‘by faith’, presumably in view of the near return of Christ (2 Thessalonians 3.11). This is not to condemn those who are truly called of God to a particular ministry and trust God to supply their needs through the ‘hospitality’ of faithful Christians, but it does warn about taking up such a position too lightly on one’s own initiative. All the Apostles journeyed ‘by faith’. But their call was sure and approved by the whole church.
‘Be ambitious to be still (quiet in the sense of at rest).’ A deliberate paradox. He was warning them against being frustrating ‘busy-bodies’ (2 Thessalonians 3.11 compare 1 Timothy 5.13) at other people’s expense. This would suggest that in view of what they saw as Christ’s near return some thought that working was futile, and that rather they should meet with fellow-Christians all the time, talking excitedly about their own opinion on Christian things, looking constantly into other people’s lives in order to advise them or put them right, advising them in accordance with their own wrong ideas, discussing other Christians behind their backs with a view to ‘helping’ them while only upsetting them, regularly backbiting, claiming to stir everyone to faithfulness, while only being annoying, and so on (this is taking the best view of them). It is a caricature of what a real pastor should be. Rather, says Paul, they should be ambitious to settle down and support themselves, and do physical or mental work and not be so ‘spiritually’ active on their own cognisance. They will do the church far more good.
‘And to do (practise, carry out) your own business, and to work with your hands, even as we charged you.’
Rather these people should spend more time looking to their own affairs and the affairs of their families, should attend to their work and business, and should get down to some honest day’s work, just as Paul had previously told them to do. Unlike the Jews (all Rabbis were expected to have a trade), the Gentiles did not look favourably on physical work. But Paul points out to them that it is not spiritual to be idle. These important words are a remedy for when we begin to worry that in the light of the Lord’s return we are spending too much time on mundane things.
It is, of course, as so often, a matter of balance. There can be no doubt that some Christians are too taken up with their own affairs, and could do to give more assistance to the church and to evangelism in their ‘leisure time’. But our efforts should be prayerfully determined and not over-hectic.
‘That you may walk honestly towards those who are without, and may have need of nothing.’ His advice is so that they might treat fairly and honestly and decently ‘those who are outside’. This may mean outside their own circle, or outside their own families, or outside the church. Those who live off others on their own cognisance cheat everybody. Those who are busybodies cause harm to others. Those who are seen as parasites are a bad witness to the world.
‘And may have need of nothing.’ By working as others do, and have to, they will then be able to provide for their own needs and not be in a state where they have to receive help from others to meet their basic physical needs.
The Coming of Christ for His Own (4.13-18).
Paul assures the Thessalonians that those who have died in Christ will not be disadvantaged as against those who will be alive at His coming, and describes what will happen when Christ comes for His own.
4.13 ‘But we would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are falling asleep, that you sorrow not, even as the rest who have no hope.’
It is clear that the Thessalonians had grasped the idea that Jesus Christ was imminently returning and were in expectation that it would be very soon. Thus when some died before that glorious event took place they were concerned lest that meant that those dying would lose out in some way. In view of the parallel they probably thought that death before Christ’s coming meant that such people had lost their hope. The majority of Gentiles saw no hope beyond the grave. They saw death as the end. The comparison with them as those who ‘have no hope’ suggests that was also how the Thessalonian Christians saw their fellow-Christians who had died.
‘Those who are falling asleep.’ The picture of death as sleep is constant in the New Testament and was here intended to stress that death was not the end, it was only a ‘sleep’. The picture comes originally from Daniel 12.2 where it applied to both believers and the condemned and is directly connected with the fact of resurrection, compare also Psalm 17.15 and Isaiah 26.19 where it is only of believers. But in each case it is connected with the resurrection. Other references to death as sleep such as Job 24.20; 1 Kings 2.10 contain rather the idea of final sleep, such as was held by many Gentiles, from which, as far as they were aware, there was no waking up. We can understand why. A dead person often looks just like someone in the repose of sleep. The thought was that they had found final rest. But for the believer ‘sleep’ indicated a state from which one day they would awake.
This idea of death as sleep carries on into the New Testament. Jesus Himself described those whom He was about to bring back from the dead as ‘asleep’ (Matthew 9.24; Mark 5.39; Luke 8.52; John 11.11-13. Matthew speaks of ‘the saints who had fallen asleep’ when describing their resurrection (Matthew 27.52). Paul regularly speaks of death as sleep (5.10; 1 Corinthians 7.39; 11.30; 15.6, 18, 51, and only the last is directly connected with the resurrection, but with Paul we can be sure that the resurrection was always in mind, although 15.18 contains the theoretical idea that they have ‘perished’. See also Acts 13.36; 2 Peter 3.4.
Sleep is a time of restoration and a kind of awareness. It is not necessarily a time of total lack of consciousness. Thus Paul can look forward to sleep beyond death as being enjoyed in the conscious presence of Christ (Philippians 1.23) and Jesus could say to the dying thief, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 10.43). Both Luke 16.19-31 and Revelation 6.9-11, although highly pictorial and not to be taken literally, indicate the consciousness of ‘sleeping’ saints in the presence of God, and in the former case the awareness of sinners of the displeasure of God prior to the judgment.
‘That you sorrow not, even as the rest who have no hope.’ Paul sees them as sorrowing with the same sorrow as Gentiles who have no hope. Certainly the vast majority of the Gentile world saw no hope beyond death. The Platonists believed in the immortality of the soul and thus an afterlife of sorts in a disembodied state, but they were comparatively few and restricted mainly to the thinking classes. For the rest death was the end. Ancient literature and tomb inscriptions were full of the awareness of the hopelessness of death. Thus the fear of the Thessalonians appears to have been that those of them who died before the second coming died without hope. Paul answers this firstly by stressing the fact of the resurrection in order that they need not sorrow. This refers to sorrow over final death not sorrow over a temporary parting.
4.14 ‘For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so those also who are fallen asleep through Jesus will God bring with Him.’
Paul’s solution is simple. Jesus died and rose again. He defeated death (1 Corinthians 15.52-55). He has therefore the power to give life to the dead (John 5.25-29). Thus the dead in Christ will rise prior to His royal visit and will come with Him (see 3.13).
The ‘if’ does not express doubt about their faith, it distinguishes between them and the unbelievers among whom they live. It is the equivalent of ‘because’ while also stirring up their faith within them.
Note that Jesus did not ‘sleep’, He ‘died’. It is because Jesus died that the saints only sleep. It was through His death that resurrection was made possible. Jesus’ death when spoken of directly is always described as death.
‘Those who are fallen asleep through Jesus will God bring with Him.’ Or more literally, ‘even so God the fallen asleep ones through Jesus will bring with Him’. To fall asleep in Christ is to be ‘safe in the arms of Jesus’. Because they are in Him they will rise again. And when He comes again God will bring them with Him. The use of the name Jesus without the accompanying Lord makes it possible to see ‘God’ as signifying the Godhead. All the Godhead were involved in the first coming of Jesus, and will be involved with this coming of the resurrected saints (people of God).
‘Through Jesus.’ This may be attached to ‘those who are fallen asleep’ or to ‘God’. In the first case it may be confirming the fact that it is through Jesus’ work on the cross that their death is only sleep. In the second it is signifying that the resurrected people of God can accompany Jesus at His coming because God was able to bring it about through what Jesus had done on the cross and by His resurrection. The former seems more probable because of the construction of the sentence, and because it is necessary to distinguish which sleeping ones are meant, but both are true.
4.15 ‘For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and are left to the Parousia of the Lord, will in no way precede those who are asleep.’
Paul assures the Thessalonians that there is no way in which Christians living at the time of Christ’s coming and divine presence will have precedence over those who have died in Christ.
‘By the word of the Lord.’ This may be seen as signifying a literal word of the Lord of which Paul was aware, or it may be signifying that, as with the prophets of old, the word of the Lord came to Paul. Some have seen in Matthew 24.31 one ‘word’ that may have been in mind with ‘His elect’ meaning all, both dead and living. It certainly contains the idea of the trumpet and the gathering together in a miraculous way of His people.
‘We who are alive and are left.’ At this time Paul was still hopeful of being alive when Jesus came and states this position on that basis. He wanted to make the words personal and link himself with the Thessalonians in their faith, and not just make a doctrinal statement. Had Jesus come at that moment Paul would have been among those alive, and that was his earnest hope. It was only later that he learned that that was not to be and that it was to be his privilege to die for Christ (2 Timothy 4.6).
‘To the Parousia of the Lord.’ ‘Parousia’ means ‘presence’, but it was used of royal visits by which the presence of the royal person would be among them. It indicated that He was on an official visit in order to fulfil some purpose. Many see it as including the carrying out of His judgments (e.g. Matthew 24.50-25.46). ‘Of the Lord’. This confirms what we have just said. It was ‘the Lord’ Who was here, He Who bore the name above every name and was sovereign over the Universe, to Whom one day every knee shall bow (Philippians 2.9-11). And the Lord was coming in triumph and victory to exert His royal right.
‘Will in no way precede those who are asleep.’ The fears of the Thessalonians had not been about precedence, however Paul here assures them that not only will the dead in Christ rise, but they will also not lose anything or any privilege by having died. They will join in the royal procession.
4.16-17 ‘For the Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord.’
We will not at this point cloud the glory of these words by controversy (see excursus at the end of chapter 5). The picture is immense, but it speaks of things that we cannot fully comprehend. To press the detail too literally to conform it to a viewpoint is to overlook that here we are dealing with something beyond human comprehension. This was the moment for which creation had waited and groaned, the full redemption of God’s people both dead and living (Romans 8.19-23), and the One Who was coming was not just a king, He was the King of glory, and those who united with Him were no longer flesh and blood but spiritual beings.
‘For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven.’ Cease argument and gaze in wonder. The Lord Himself will be revealed in His glory. He will come with the clouds and every eye will see Him (Revelation 1.7). For there will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven -- and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and He will send forth His angels with the sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven (Matthew 24.30-31; Mark 13.26-27). 1 Corinthians 15.51-53 puts it, ‘we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will all be changed.’
‘With a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God.’ The picture is a military one. The sergeant major calls the troops to order (note the anonymity of the shout), the commander-in-chief gives the order to march and the trumpet sounds. But this time the commander-in-chief is the archangel, a reminder that although not mentioned here the angels are there at their stations, and the trumpet is the trumpet of God, sounded by the royal trumpeter on His behalf. And it is ‘the last trump’ (1 Corinthians 15.52), the final culmination of all trumpets that have sounded in the purposes of God (see Exodus 19.16; Isaiah 27.13; Joel 2.1; Zechariah 9.14; Matthew 24.31), for the end is here. These pictures depict heavenly events in earthly terms. We must not literalise them. Spiritual beings do not blow trumpets. Basically it refers to ‘the command to march’.
‘And the dead in Christ shall rise first.’ At the voice of the Son of God the tombs are opened, and the dead come forth, raised as incorruptible to the resurrection of life (John 5.25, 28-29)
‘Then we who are alive, who remain, will together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.’ Paul numbers himself with the living because at that time he was living. He is enthusiastically picturing the whole scene as though they were all taking part in it, as indeed at that time was his hope. The ‘we’ really means ‘we Christians’, whoever are alive at the time. Without the pronoun in the first person the picture would have lost some of its emphasis and some of the sense of participation. It was essential.
Notice the clouds, a common feature of the glorious appearance of the Son of Man. The clouds have not been previously mentioned here but are assumed on the basis of well known teaching elsewhere (Matthew 24.30; Mark 13.26; Luke 21.27). They indicate the heavenly nature of the whole operation.
Notice also that the living will be caught up together with the resurrected dead, and will with them meet the Lord ‘in the air’, the sphere in which Satan once was active (Ephesians 2.2). But he is a defeated foe, and he cannot stand before the Lord of glory. The word ‘caught up’ is not necessarily ‘forceful’. It is used of transference by the Holy Spirit in Acts 8.39, and of someone (probably Paul himself) caught up to the third heaven for revelation in 2 Corinthians 12.2. He did not even know whether it was in or out of the body. There is not therefore necessarily the idea of rescue. (This is also true in extra-Biblical literature). It thus indicates being ‘borne by the hand of God’ (compare Ezekiel 3.14; 11.1, 24). Both living and resurrected are caught up together. In this we see the irresistible power of the Lord. Being caught up includes spiritual transformation which takes place in both dead and living in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15.52).
The verb to ‘meet’ is regularly used of the citizens of a city going our to meet an important personage in order to bring them in triumph into the city. But there Paul stops with no further detailed explanation. Where they proceed to is unimportant here. He is dealing with the question of the resurrected dead in relation to the living at the Lord’s coming, and having dealt with the question He points to the grand conclusion, ‘so shall we ever be with the Lord’. Any other fact pales into insignificance. The final purposes of God are complete and the eternal future is with Him in His presence, wherever He may be.
The idea of the Lord so coming down, but in judgment, is found in Micah 1.3; Zechariah 14.5 which may well be seen as following immediately on this event.
14.18 ‘Wherefore comfort one another with these words.’
The word for comfort is parakaleo, ‘comfort, strengthen, firmly assist’. The first comfort is found in that they need no longer fear at the thought of those who die in Christ missing out. They will share all the glory of His coming. The second, of course, is in that these words are a comfort and a strengthener to all Christians, especially when the going gets tough. For all the sacrifices of ‘training’ for success have the reaching of the objective firmly in mind.
Chapter 5 Words About The End of the Days, Exhortations to Holiness and Final Salutations.
5.1-2 ‘But concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need that anything be written to you, for you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.’
‘Concerning the times and the seasons.’ The first denotes chronological time and simply signifies that they are already aware of how chronologically events will work out from their own day until the end. The second, something of what will result during those times. They have been well taught concerning coming happenings.
‘You yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.’ It is clear that Paul was satisfied that the Thessalonians had a good grasp of teaching about the second coming and the day of the Lord. To ‘know perfectly’ is to have a good grasp of the subject.
The first thing they knew was that no one knows the time of the end (Mark 13.32). But they did know that Jerusalem must be destroyed and its inhabitants scattered, for Jesus had firmly asserted it (Luke 21.20-24; Mark 13.14-20), and that the church must go through continual tribulation, as indeed they already were (Mark 13.9-13). They knew that at some stage troubles and judgments must come on the world, although they were already no doubt aware of such troubles and judgments, and the 1st century AD was a time of troubles and judgments. Tacitus, a first century Roman historian, after referring to the horrors and calamities, and disasters and portents, of the period, went on to say ‘never has it been better proved, by such terrible disasters to Rome, or by such clear evidence, that the gods were concerned, not with our safety but with vengeance on our sins.’
They also knew that these would come as ‘a thief in the night’, for God would act not only to deliver His people but to bring His judgments on the world. The picture of a thief in the night is of the situation with regard to unbelievers, caught unawares by one who comes to take their possessions. The Lord will not come like a thief in the night to those who are in readiness, only to those who are in darkness and not watching (verse 4; Revelation 3.3; 16.15; Luke 12.39, compare 2 Peter 3.10). To those who are waiting and ready He comes as their great God and Saviour (Titus 2.13).
‘The day of the Lord.’ This phrase refers to the day when the Lord has His day, when He acts in judgment. In a sense through the Old Testament period there were many ‘days of the Lord’, for it could be used of the day when God brought His judgment both on His faithless people and on the enemies of His people. But all looked forward to a final ‘day of the Lord’, a day of the Lord’s judgments, at the time when final restoration took place (Joel 2.31; 3.14; Zechariah 14.1).
In the New Testament the phrase appears three times (Acts 2.20 quoting Joel 2.31, fulfilled, partially at least, at the resurrection and Pentecost; 2 Peter 3.10 and here. 2 Peter 3.10 is definitive, it is the time when ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works in it will be discovered’ (or in some manuscripts ‘burned up’), that is will be revealed in God’s eyes and judged. It thus refers to God’s final judgments in the end days including the final Judgment itself. A similar phrase, ‘the Lord’s day’, occurs in Revelation 1.10 where it possibly refers to a symbolical depiction of Christ ‘at the door’ on the point of returning.
But in both 1 Thessalonians and 2 Peter ‘the Lord’ has primary reference to Jesus Christ. It is He Who is ‘the Lord’ all through the letter, so ‘the day of the Lord’ has special reference to Him as the one appointed to judge the world (John 5.22, 27). This is confirmed in that it can also be called ‘the day of the Lord Jesus’ in 1 Corinthians 5.5 where it refers to deliverance from the judgment, and 2 Corinthians 1.14 where it refers to Christian rejoicing at that day. We can compare also ‘the day of Christ’ (Philippians 1.10; 2.16; 2 Thessalonians 2.2), where there is a slant towards the Christian’s part in that day, and the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1.6) and the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1.8) which are similar. All references to the day include the time of judgment, whether of Christians with regard to reward, or of all.
Excursus on ‘the day of the Lord’ in the Old Testament.
The term was used in Isaiah 13.9 of God’s visitation in judgment. Firstly judgment would come on His faithless people through Babylon, and then through the Medes God would bring judgment on Babylon (Isaiah 13.17). The whole is depicted in apocalyptic language (verses 10, 13) and is described as the wrath of the Lord (verse 13). It also has a far view for it depicts the final desolation of Babylon (verses 19-22). In the judgments of God near and far were part of one whole, especially as regards Babylon which was the symbol from the beginning of rebellion against God (Genesis 10.9-12; 11.1-9). The earlier judgment was a foretaste of the later one.
Again the day of the Lord was to come on Edom and its allies, its surrounding nations (Isaiah 34.4, 8). ‘All the nations’ refers to these for other nations are called on to witness the event (verse 1). But it is on Edom that the main judgment comes (verse 6). Again it is represented in apocalyptic language (verses 9-10), and such judgment did finally come upon them.
Jeremiah also prophesied a day of the Lord on Egypt and Pharaoh Neco (46.2, repeated in verse 13), this time at the hands of Babylon (46.10, 26). Thus ‘the day of the Lord’ began to indicate the day of the Lord’s judgments whenever they were.
It could be called ‘the day of the Lord of hosts’ (Isaiah 2.12), ‘the day of the Lord’s vengeance’ (Isaiah 34.8 - on Edom), ‘the day of the Lord, the Lord of hosts, a day of vengeance’ (on Egypt - Jeremiah 46.10), ‘the day of the Lord’s anger’ ( on Judah - Lamentations 2.22; on Judah and surrounding nations - Zephaniah 1.18, 2.2, 3), ‘the day of the Lord’s sacrifice’ (on Judah - Zephaniah 1.8), ‘the great day of the Lord’ (on Judah - Zephaniah 1.14), ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord’ (Malachi 4.5), which referred to the first coming of Jesus as the beginning of ‘the end days’ (Matthew 11.14 with Acts 2.17; 1 Corinthians 10.11; Hebrews 1.2; 1 Peter 1.20; 4.7).
But the basic term was ‘the day of the Lord’ (Isaiah 13.6, 9 - on Babylon through the Medes; Ezekiel 13.5 - on Judah through Nebuchadnezzar; 30.3 - on Egypt through Nebuchadnezzar; Joel 1.15 - on Judah through Nebuchadnezzar; 2.1, 11 - on Judah through Nebuchadnezzar; 2.31; 3.14 - in the end days at the time of restoration; Amos 5.18, 20 - on Israel through Assyria; Obadiah 1.15 - on Edom and their allies (for ‘all the nations’ compare Isaiah 34.1); Zephaniah 1.7 - on Judah; Zechariah 14.1 - in the end days at the time of restoration, and as the prophets began to look forward to the day when God would set all things right, establish His people and deal with their enemies, it began to be applied especially to that day (Joel 2.31; 3.14; Zechariah 14.1).
In the New Testament the phrase appears three times (Acts 2.20 quoting Joel 2.31, fulfilled, partially at least, at the resurrection and Pentecost; 2 Peter 3.10 and here. 2 Peter 3.10 is definitive, it is the time when ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works in it will be discovered’ (or in some manuscripts ‘burned up’), that is will be revealed in God’s eyes and judged. It thus refers to God’s final judgments in the end days including the final Judgment itself.
End of Excursus.
5.3 ‘When they are saying “Peace and Safety (or ‘Certainty’)”, then sudden destruction comes on them, as birth-pains on a woman with child, and they shall in no way escape.’
This defines further the day of the Lord in terms of God’s final judgments. The world, content and self satisfied, says ‘Peace and safety’, and then suddenly and unexpectedly, as with the final moments before birth, sudden destruction comes from which they cannot escape. Whether this comprises final desolation on earth in the midst of warfare and violence, or the activity of God as judge we are not told. ‘Destruction’ (olethros) describes the sentence after judgment in 2 Thessalonians 1.9; 1 Timothy 6.9.
‘Peace and safety.’ The idea of falsely saying ‘peace’ occurs regularly in the Old Testament, see Ezekiel 13.10; Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11; Micah 3.5. The word translated safety can mean ‘certainty’ (Luke 1.4), ‘safely secured’. Possibly it is intended to be seen as an ironic declaration of false certainty over against the truth. The suddenness of the destruction is an argument against seeing this as referring to destruction over a period of time. It suggests the final judgment.
5.4 ‘But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness that that day should overtake you as a thief.’
The day overtakes these people because they are in darkness. They are asleep in the wrong sense. But Christians, who are no longer under the power of darkness (Colossians 1.13), nor walking in darkness (John 8.12; 1 John 1.6) should be watching, that is living their lives in the light of His coming, and therefore will not be caught out.
5.5 ‘For you are all sons of light, and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.’
In contrast to those who are in darkness, Christians are ‘sons of light’ and ‘sons of the day’. To be sons of light means that light characterises us, that we are those who believe in the Light (John 12.36), who come to the light that it may reveal what is right and wrong within (John 3.21; 1 John 1.7) and who reveal and enjoy light in our lives (Matthew 5.14-16). For ‘the fruit of the light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth’ (Ephesians 5.9 compare Philippians 2.16; Luke 16.8). ‘Sons of the day’ stresses a contrast with those who are in the night, and therefore asleep. The change to ‘we’ stresses that this is true of all Christians, not just of the Thessalonians.
5.6-8 ‘So then let us not sleep as do the rest, but let us watch and be sober, for those who sleep, sleep in the night, and those who are drunken, are drunken in the night, but let us, since we are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and for a helmet the hope of salvation.’
As sons of the day we are to watch and be sober, not sleep and be drunken (see Romans 13.13). The Christian does not ‘sleep’ with regard to spiritual things (compare Mark 13.36; Ephesians 5.14), he studies them, keeps them in his heart, and lives them out in his life. He does not allow strong drink to dull his mind and hinder his witness, frittering away his life in idle pleasure. Instead of being drunk with wine he is filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5.18-19).
He puts on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. The switch to armour may indicate the idea of a soldier armoured and on watch, in contrast with his mates who are off duty and drunk or asleep. And the Christian does this by responsive faith and ‘putting on love’. His Spirit-produced love for his brothers and sisters, and for his neighbour, the result of worship, meditation on God’s word and praise from the heart, and the working of God within, keeps his heart protected from evil and the Evil One, and his mind is concentrated on the hope of final salvation, when he will be made like Christ, for he will see Him as He is (1 John 3.2), and this involves looking actively for the coming of Christ (Luke 12.35-40).
This ‘hope of salvation’ is described in many ways. See Romans 8.23-24; 1 Corinthians 15.42-49; 2 Corinthians 5.1; Galatians 6.8; Ephesians 1.4; 5.27; Philippians 3.21; Colossians 1.22; 1 Thessalonians 3.13; 2 Thessalonians 2.14; Hebrews 12.22-23; 1 Peter 1.4; 5.10; 2 Peter 3.13; Jude 1.24; Revelation 21-22.5.
In contrast the unbelievers are asleep in the night, and drunken in the night. They are not living in readiness for ‘the day’ for they do not believe in the day. They are not waiting and watching, they are spiritually asleep and drunk.
For the use of armour to depict spiritual virtues and activity see Romans 13.12; 2 Corinthians 6.7; 10.4; Ephesians 6.13-18 compare Isaiah 59.17.
5.9 ‘For God appointed us not to wrath but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Here Paul tells us that God has ‘appointed’ His own to the obtaining of salvation through Jesus Christ. This agrees with the constant revelation in Scripture that salvation is of God’s doing. See for this the detailed comments on ‘election’ on 1.4. As Paul will tell the Thessalonians later, ‘God chose you from the beginning unto salvation, in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2.13). This might suggest that in both cases the ‘obtaining of salvation’ has in mind final salvation when we are presented perfect before God, holy and without blemish. It may however have in mind rather the process of salvation, or indeed be all inclusive.
Salvation is an overall process. It commences when we first believe in Christ and have been ‘saved’ (Ephesians 2.8), that is when we experience the work of the Holy Spirit and believe, and are accounted righteous before God through the sacrifice of the cross. It goes on as the Holy Spirit continues His work within us, changing us from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3.18), as we continue to grow in faith and are ‘being saved’ (1 Corinthians 1.18), becoming more and more like Him. And it reaches its final accomplishment when we are presented before God holy and without blemish (Colossians 1.22; Ephesians 5.27), made like Him (1 John 3.1-2).
If we see this verse as referring to ultimate salvation, wrath will then indicate the final judgment. If, however, we see it as the process of salvation, wrath will refer to the continuing wrath of God against sin. If we see it as a combination of both then wrath will refer to all aspects of the wrath of God. Let us consider this further.
In this verse we thus have the comparison of two destinations, wrath or salvation. But we do not necessarily need to limit this wrath to one particular example of its manifestation, for those who do not believe are ‘children of wrath’ in general (Ephesians 2.3), that is, under wrath all the time, however manifested. The contrast with ‘obtaining salvation’, depending on how we interpret it, may be seen as suggesting that the main stress is on the wrath of the final judgment, or on God’s wrath against sin in general (Romans 1.18). But as the latter always results in the expressing of that wrath in the day of judgment (Romans 2.5, 8), we may hold that both are in mind here. Nor need we on that account exclude sin’s consequence as seen in the outpouring of that wrath in judgment and destruction at other times, for in the end that is all part of that final judgment. But we cannot make it primary. Indeed this is confirmed by the use of ‘wrath’ by Paul, and in the New Testament generally.
For ‘the wrath of God’ in the New Testament see Matthew 3.7 and Luke 3.7 (wrath to come - ambiguous); Luke 21.23 (wrath on Israel at the destruction of the Temple and what followed); John 3.36 (where it is in contrast with ‘seeing (eternal) life’, and therefore refers to the day of judgment); Romans 1.18 (where it is general); 2.5, 8 (where it has in mind the day of judgment); 4.15 (general wrath); 5.9 (the final judgment); 9.22 (the final judgment); 13.4 (present wrath revealed through judges); Ephesians 5.6 and Colossians 3.6 (could be present wrath or the final judgment); 1 Thessalonians 1.10 (‘the wrath to come’ - ambiguous); 2.16 (present wrath with final manifestation); Hebrews 3.11 and 4.3 (present wrath); Revelation 6.16, 17; 11.18; 14.10, 19; 15.1; 16.1, 19; 19.15. It will be seen that most references refer to the wrath of God as expressed at the final judgment, with some referring to His wrath revealed in present judgments on sin, and some ambiguous in the sense that they can be turned to mean whatever expositors want them to mean. None obviously and specifically refer to a period of wrath prior to Christ’s coming.
For it should be carefully noted that it is only in Revelation that some references definitely mean the outpouring of wrath in such a period, although even in Revelation other references refer it specifically to the day of judgment. Some are ambiguous depending on interpretation of the Book. But Paul could not have had Revelation in mind, for it was not yet written. Thus the overall testimony of the New Testament is that ‘wrath’ here has mainly in mind God’s wrath revealed in the final judgment, or God’s general wrath which manifests itself in various forms.
Having said that we must recognise what we mean by ‘wrath’. By ‘wrath’ the Bible indicates an attitude of God against sin. It is not one of uncontrolled anger, but indeed the very opposite. It is a set attitude of One Who is morally righteous in all respects, to that which is contrary to moral righteousness, a horror of, and determination to deal with, sin because of what it is, defiling and destructive.
5.10 ‘Who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep we should live together with him.’
Having stated the fact of salvation Paul now declares the basis. It is because our Lord Jesus Christ died for us that salvation is possible. The very fact of his mentioning the death of Christ here demonstrates that he knew of no other way by which a man could be saved. And the result of that death is that when we believe in Him we are put into a position where it does not matter whether we ‘fall asleep in Christ’ or are found still ‘awake’. In either case, at His coming, we begin to live together with Him, we begin to experience His life as the spiritual life-giver (John 5.21, 25, 29).
Interestingly the verbs are the same as in verse 6 but the meaning is totally different. There sleeping and being awake were referring to a moral state. Here it refers to having died or being alive. It answers the question posed in 4.13. It is true that the word for the sleep of Christians in 4.13 is different from here but there is no suggestion elsewhere in Thessalonians that some Christians will be sleeping morally in relation to His coming, and 5.5 contrasts the ‘sons of light’ with those ‘of darkness’, while 5.6 parallels those who are ‘awake’ with those who ‘sleep’. The clear implication is that the sons of light are those who are awake, and those who sleep are sons of darkness. He is hardly likely here therefore to have been changing that picture when a simpler explanation is at hand.
While Paul no doubt knew that some Christians were not as watchful as they should be, it was not something he would mildly have accepted. The question is, can a person be a Christian and not at all watchful? The answer must be no.
5.11 ‘Wherefore exhort (or strengthen by coming alongside) one another, and build each other up, even as also you do.’
The fact of the coming of Christ and the resurrection and transformation of the people of God should make them ever more eager to help each other to grow as Christians, exhorting, giving strength to each other, praying for each other and talking together about His word and teaching each other, building one another up (1 Corinthians 3.10-15 compare Ephesians 2.20-22 and see Acts 9.31).
5.12 ‘But we beg you, brothers and sisters, to know those who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.’
From the very beginning the early church appointed leaders over the flock. The earliest church was overseen by the Apostles themselves (Acts 2.42; 4.35) but they soon saw it necessary for the church to appoint subsidiary officials (Acts 6.2-4), who were separated off and shown to be their representatives by the laying on of hands (6.6), and who then felt that they had authority to preach (6.7, 10; 8.4-6). They also had the synagogues to act as an example, whereby a council of elders was appointed and it seems extremely probable that as the church spread throughout Judea and Samaria, elders would be chosen on that pattern to oversee affairs.
There is no suggestion of an ordained ministry (apart from the Apostles) and the lack of mention of such is significant, but overseeing elders soon specifically occur (11.30; 14.23; 15.2, 4, 22; 20.17 compare Titus 1.5), although subject finally to the church as a whole (15.22). There were also ‘prophets and teachers’ (13.1; 15.32), and they not only preached and taught but were seen as having authority of a kind to send out Paul and Barnabas in the name of the church (13.3). They may well therefore have been the equivalent of teaching elders. The fact that they laid hands on them may suggest that the same had once happened to themselves, probably by the Apostles. Paul and Barnabas were ‘chief men among the brothers’ (15.22). But generally activity was by ‘the brothers’ (e.g. 9.13; 15.23, 40; 16.2; 17.10, 14), which in view of 15.22-23 probably means the whole church, although as having representatives.
Thus we may surmise that the church at Thessalonika had elders, and/or prophets and teachers. It is these that Paul has in mind in these verses.
‘Know those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.’ ‘Know’. This means acknowledge them, and recognise and appreciate them. Their work is described as ‘labour’, laborious toil. It clearly involved them in a great deal of activity. Paul certainly knew how hard a good servant of Christ had to labour (see 1 Corinthians 15.10; Galatians 4.11; Philippians 2.16; Colossians 1.29; 1 Timothy 4.10). Especially when God is mightily at work within (Colossians 1.29). Serving God truly is tiring both physically and spiritually. ‘Those who are -- presiders over you in the Lord’ may suggest elders. The word means those who ‘rule, direct, manage, are concerned about, care for’ but it is not to be by lording it over the flock (see 1 Peter 5.3). They are also called ‘overseers’ (bishops - Titus 1.5 with 7; Acts 20.17 with 28), those who watch over. ‘Admonish you’ may suggest prophets and teachers.
‘And to esteem them highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.’ This may suggest that there had been some dissension, with possibly tactlessness and authoritarianism on one side and unresponsiveness on the other. So Paul asks both to consider their ways, the brothers to accept lovingly their overseers because of the work they did, and all to ensure peace between themselves. ‘Esteem highly’. This is very strong in the Greek. They are to look on them as what they are, God’s representatives, and to accord them Christian love, the love that is due to all the brothers and sisters. ‘Be at peace’ addresses both sides. All are to acknowledge any fault and restore peace among themselves, possibly following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18.15-17. Compare here Mark 9.50; Romans 14.19; 2 Corinthians 13.11; Colossians 3.15; 2 Timothy 2.22).
5.14-15 ‘And we exhort you, brothers and sisters, admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be longsuffering towards all. See that none render to anyone evil for evil, but always follow after that which is good.’
‘Brothers and sisters’. The work of the leaders, as described here, is to be supported and entered into by all on behalf of the whole church. The ‘disorderly’ or ‘lazy’ are to be admonished. The word for disorderly originally referred to soldiers who broke ranks, and then to anything out of order. Thus any displays of lack of unity are to be sorted out, and if necessary dealt with. Some, however, see the word as referring, as it can, to the culpably lazy. Paul may well have had in mind those who had ceased work because ‘Christ was coming’ (4.11-12; 2 Thessalonians 3.11). But it also refers to those who are disorderly in doctrine (2 Thessalonians 3.6). The fainthearted must be encouraged, or comforted in order to give them more strength. The spiritually weak would include those still babes in Christ (1 Corinthians 3.1-2; 1 Peter 2.2), but would also include some who by their very nature always continue to need help, who are to be supported and nurtured. Compare Romans 14.1-8, 13-23; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13. Longsuffering and patience is to be shown to all. This is the way the church should be (1 Corinthians 13.4-8).
Note the threefold injunctions, ‘admonish -- encourage -- support’ which are then held together by the fourth.
‘See that none render to anyone evil for evil, but always follow after that which is good.’ For this we can compare Matthew 5.38-48. The Christian is above mere retaliation and revenge. Those can be left in the hands of God (compare Romans 12.17-21; 1 Peter 3.9-12). Rather he must seek to follow the good for the benefit of all. This is especially to be true between fellow-Christians.
‘Always follow after that which is good.’ The verb is fairly strong, ‘pursue, run after’. The Christian is to pursue what is good.
5.16-18 ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.’
Again we have a threefold injunction. Rejoicing, praying and giving of thanks which are to be continual and total. This is to be the spirit of the church. A satisfactory attitude of heart towards God in worship, prayer and gratitude is God’s will for us and will enable the church to go forward in strength.
‘For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.’ God’s will for His people is that they be a rejoicing people, that their hearts be filled with joy, joy that endures through pain, through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5.22; 1 Thessalonians 1.6). They are to rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5.2), they are to rejoice in their tribulations because of the fruit that it produces within them (Romans 5.3), they are to rejoice in persecution and when men speak ill against them for Christ’s sake because it puts them on the side of the prophets and it will bring them great reward (Matthew 5.11-12; Luke 6.23), they are to rejoice because their names are written in Heaven (Luke 10.20), they are to rejoice in the truth (1 Corinthians 13.6), they are to rejoice in costly service (Philippians 2.17-18), they are to rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 3.1, 3; 4.4; 1 Peter 1.8) and in God through our Lord Jesus Christ because they have received atonement (Romans 5.11), they are to rejoice in their sufferings for the service of Christ (Colossians 1.24) because they are partakers in Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4.13) and in testing (James 1.2), they are to rejoice because they have been begotten again to a living hope -- unto a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time’ (1 Peter 1.3-6). Notice how often persecution and tribulation is mentioned. They are to be a cause of rejoicing.
God’s will for His people is that they be a praying people. We are to pray for those who use us badly (Matthew 5.44), we are to pray for the establishing of God’s Kingly Rule (Matthew 6.9-10), we are to pray for daily forgiveness and delivery from evil ((Matthew 6.12-13), we are to pray that the Lord will send forth labourers into the harvest (Matthew 9.38), we are to pray when times of testing approach (Matthew 26.41), we are to watch and pray in the light of the second coming (Mark 13.33), we are to pray for the work of God and His ambassadors (Romans 15.30; Colossians 4.3; 2 Thessalonians 3.1), we are to pray for each other (Romans 1.9; Colossians 1.9). Indeed prayer is mentioned so often as the Christian’s vital breath at all times that it is impossible to list all references. It is regularly mentioned in Acts. It is Paul’s constant theme. He constantly assures his converts and the churches to whom he writes that he is praying for them. He constantly exhorts to prayer. It is assumed that it will accompany all we do. Praying without ceasing means that we should carry God with us in everything we do. If we cannot take God with us we should not be there.
God’s will for His people is that they be a thankful people. Paul never ceased to give thanks (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1.4; Ephesians 1.16; 5.20; 1 Thessalonians 1.2; 2.13; 2 Thessalonians 1.3). We are told that we must give thanks for everything (Ephesians 5.20; 1 Thessalonians 5.18), abounding at all times (Colossians 2.7; 3.15, 17), and that thanksgiving should accompany all our prayers (Philippians 4.6; Colossians 4.2; 1 Timothy 2.1).
5.19-22 ‘Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesyings, prove all things, hold fast that which is good, abstain from every appearance (or ‘form’) of evil.’
The word for quench is often used of the quenching of a fire, but the word then means ‘stifle, suppress’. We quench the Spirit when we choose to sin, we quench the Spirit when we allow other things to take over our thoughts that should not, we quench the Spirit when we have a harsh attitude, we quench the Spirit when we are not willing to go along with God. But the main thought here would seem to be quenching the Spirit by being over-critical and by unwillingness to hear those who proclaim the truth, by formalism and possibly by being unwilling to discern the Spirit at work through unexpected sources.
Following on Paul’s previous threefold injunctions it may be that we should divide this as, ‘Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesyings --- prove all things, hold fast that which is good --- abstain from every appearance of evil’.
‘Prophesying’ refers to bringing a message ‘from God’. It has to be proved and tested (compare also 1 Corinthians 14.29). There is no thought of just accepting what is said, nor would it be open to just anyone. ‘Prophets’ would be acknowledged as having the ‘gift of prophecy’ (1 Corinthians 12.29; Ephesians 4.11). They were formally recognised (Acts 13.1; Ephesians 2.20; 3.5). Their message would be tested against the Scriptures. But there would be a number of them in each church gathering (1 Corinthians 14.29-31). Their main ministry was exhortation (Acts 15.32). At least one, Agabus, had a special gift for interpreting the near future (Acts 11.28; 21.10), but note that neither event was a detailed prediction, and both referred to something discernible by clear insight based on signs already present. The point was that the insight was confirmed by God. He was not a fortune teller.
It would seem that a feeling had arisen against such prophesying among some, possibly because the message being given was unwelcome. And this may have led to attempts to limit the number of prophets. Paul warns that while the prophets have to be tested, their message should not be despised, and their gifts should be recognised.
‘Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.’ The church, however, must be constantly on the guard against error. Everything must be tested, both by other prophets (1 Corinthians 14.29) and ultimately by the Scriptures. This not only refers to prophesying, but to all things pertaining to the church. Then what is good must be held fast, and the rest rejected. Christians were not to be undiscerning.
‘Abstain from every appearance (or ‘form’) of evil.’ The Christian is to avoid evil in all its forms, whether in false teaching, in false dealings or in false living. They must avoid that which even gives an appearance of evil. It is the opposite of holding fast what is good. An example of abstaining from ‘the appearance of evil’, that which may cause someone else to stumble, is found in Romans 14.15-16, 21.
5.23-24 ‘And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he who calls you who also will do it.’
Paul’s final prayer and exhortation is an important one. It draws the attention away from the doctrine of the coming of Christ to its purpose, that His people may be sanctified fully and be presented before Him ‘without blame’. Holiness is the objective, the second coming a spur towards it.
First we see the author of this activity. It is ‘the God of peace’, a regular description of God. He is with His people (Romans 15.33; 2 Corinthians 13.11), through Jesus Christ He has broken down the wall of partition that separated us from Him (Ephesians 2.14), He will bruise Satan under their feet shortly (Romans 16.20), He is with those who allow themselves to be perfected and made strong, who are of the same mind and live in peace (2 Corinthians 13.11), and with those whose minds are set on what is good, pure, just and lovely (Philippians 4.9), He is the One Who gives peace at all times and in all ways (2 Thessalonians 3.16), and, through Jesus Christ the risen Shepherd, He will make His people perfect in every good thing to do His will, working in them what is pleasing in His sight (Hebrews 13.20).
Thus the idea is of reconciliation, of being delivered from sin’s power into a life of positive goodness and positive thinking so that we may enjoy His presence, of being delivered from the Evil One, and of being made fit for His presence.
‘Sanctify you wholly.’ To sanctify means to set apart to God, and when used of God’s action on man speaks of the process of being transformed into God-likeness and to eventually being wholly without sin and without blemish. The verb here is in the aorist and thus seen as one complete action. This is God’s purpose for His people, their total sanctification. It is not referring to initial sanctification (contrast 1 Corinthians 1.2) which they have already experienced, but to the whole range of God’s sanctifying work. It includes acceptability to God and total deliverance from sin and evil, and in the end final transformation to Godlikeness. Thus its effect will be total, as is emphasised by the ‘wholly’. It will permeate into body, soul and spirit. And its result will be presentation before God ‘without blame’.
‘Your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire.’ This is presenting three aspects of a human being but is not to be taken as a ‘scientific’ analysis of man’s make up showing three separate parts. Indeed it is stressed that they are to be preserved ‘entire’, that is ‘complete in all its parts’. Paul sought the preservation of the whole man. Jesus spoke of a man’s ‘heart and soul and mind and strength’ (Mark 12.30; Luke 10.27) and of his ‘flesh -- and spirit’. It is clear that it is suggesting that man (or at least a man in Christ - John 3.6) is not just body and mind, that there is a spiritual and heavenly aspect to his make-up, but how these relate to each other is never explained, and probably could not be in a way that we could understand.
When man was first made ‘a living soul’ (Genesis 2.7; 1 Corinthians 15.45) it no doubt included all these aspects (man was made ‘in God’s image’ - Genesis 1.27), but something of this was lost and awaited Christ’s ‘life-giving’ work (1 Corinthians 15.45). What Christ did and will give, more than makes up for what was lost (2 Peter 1.4).
John’s Gospel speaks of man as ‘flesh and spirit’, where flesh represents man as he is in relation to the world and spirit the new-born aspect of a believer (John 3.6). So Christ was made flesh and dwelt among us. There is no idea of ‘sinful flesh’ in John, flesh is what man is.
‘Without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The sanctifying process, which includes justification, will result in our being presented ‘without blame’ at the coming of Jesus Christ. This will be the result our justification in Christ, the work of the Spirit within and of the final transformation wrought at His coming (1 Corinthians 15.52).
‘Faithful is he who calls you who also will do.’ This final result is the consequence of God’s faithfulness. It is He Who will bring it about. Seen from the point of view of eternity our salvation is His work and not ours, and depends only on His faithfulness. See the whole process as described in Romans 8.28-30 and Ephesians 1.4-11 and compare 1 Corinthians 1.8-9. The calling is continual until the last one has been called. Notice the ‘do’. He not only calls, He acts.
5.25 ‘Brothers, pray for us.’
In the midst of his trials and the need of the world Paul was very much aware of how he and his companions needed prayer. Being full of the Holy Spirit and specially chosen men of God did not mean that they did not need such prayers, although not so much for themselves as for their ministry.
5.26 ‘Salute all the brothers with a holy kiss.’
There is no certain instance in the Bible of a kiss being used in salutation except between family members. It was used between close family members and in order to demonstrate affection, as well as as a sign of submission to a superior. In Palestine kissing did not normally take place on the lips (but see Proverbs 24.26, which was however figurative and had in mind the kiss between lovers - Song of Solomon 1.2 compare Proverbs 7.13) and it was used usually between members of the same sex, although Jacob greeted his cousin Rachel with a kiss of greeting on their first meeting (Genesis 29.11). It would usually be on the cheek, the forehead or the beard, although for submission might be on hand or foot. Thus the idea of the kiss here is because he looked on ‘all the brothers’ as brothers, members of his family the church. It was probably passed on by word of mouth rather than actually.
5.27 ‘I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren.’
The change to the first person probably indicates the point at which Paul took up the pen himself to authenticate the letter. The remainder would have been written by an amanuensis (a kind of secretary). The strength of the request, putting them on oath, suggests that Paul was a little concerned lest otherwise it would not have been read to all. Perhaps he was thinking of some who were out of favour or had separated themselves because of their behaviour. But at this stage it may not have been the custom to read letters in church meetings and Paul may simply have not wanted the letter to be kept to the few.
5.28 ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.’ This again is Paul’s personal greeting. It partly repeats the greeting in 1.1. Grace is God’s undeserved active favour given in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, which Paul prays will be active in all the members of the church at Thessalonika.
What is the place of 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11 with relation to the final judgment? Is there anything that has to occur before the ‘taking away’ or ‘rapture’ (from the Latin) can take place. What will follow it? In 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 Paul did not see any of these questions as needing to be answered. He does not actually say that it could occur at any moment, and readiness for His coming is not mentioned. That is dealt with briefly in chapter 5 with regard to coming judgment which could occur at any moment (like a thief in the night). ‘For God appointed us, not to wrath but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5.9) only has a time reference to those who read their own meaning into the idea of wrath, whereas as we saw in the commentary ‘wrath’ can apply to the whole church age (Romans 1.18 onwards), as well as signalling the final judgment. Thus the verse is stating a basic principle similar to that in John 5.29 ‘and shall come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done ill to the resurrection of judgment’ and again with John 3.36, ‘he who believes on the Son has eternal life, but he who obeys not the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God abides on him.’
The basic message of the Bible and of the New Testament is that the end will come with deliverance for God’s people and judgment for those who have rejected Him, resurrection for the former, eternal destruction (Isaiah 66.24) and everlasting contempt for the latter (Daniel 12.4). But in the Old Testament there is no direct idea of a heavenly kingdom. ‘Shining as the stars’ might mean that to us, but to them it simply indicated glory. The impression in Isaiah 6.19 is of being raised to live again on earth.
These ideas are elsewhere expressed in many ways but the central message is clear. However, in the time of the Moses and the prophets there was no clear understanding of the possibility of a future, heavenly, spiritual existence. Men thought in practical terms of serving under God in this life. Men lived on in their sons. Rewards came on earth. There are only two clear references to resurrection (Isaiah 26.19; Daniel 12.2-3), and neither of these give any indication of a heaven to come, just as Hell is depicted as being in a valley outside Jerusalem (Isaiah 66.24). The impression in Isaiah 26.19 is of being resurrected to live again on this earth. There are, of course, references in the Psalms to the certainty of the godly that they have a future ‘with God’ but no detail is supplied.
Thus when we interpret prophetic pronouncements we must do so in this light. Philosophical ideas of a spiritual life beyond the grave would have been meaningless to the people in Old Testament days, with no background to enlighten them, and they are not found in the prophets. Spiritual ideas there are, but they are linked to this life.
So when the prophets wanted to depict heavenly realities they had to do so in earthly terms. They spoke in terms of restoration of the land to Israel as the kingdom of God, although it was as an everlasting kingdom (Micah 4.7-8; Obadiah 1.21; Daniel 2.44; 7.14, 18, 27; Isaiah 9.7; Psalm 145.11-13; 146.10; Psalm 45.6; Exodus 19.6; Ezekiel 37.22-24), to Jerusalem the holy city as being the centre of God’s presence (Zechariah 2.10; 8.3; Micah 4.2; Joel 3.17; Isaiah 52.1), although His throne was in the heavens (Psalm 103.19), to a new priesthood which was better than the old (Ezekiel 48.11), of judgment on the wicked as being in terms of defeat and physical destruction (Zephaniah 3.8; Isaiah 66.24). They had no other terms to use that would have been understood.
The New Testament writers saw this clearly and reinterpreted these in terms of heavenly realities. This is the central theme in the teaching of Jesus about the Kingly Rule of God; in Paul, openly expressed in Galatians 4.21-31; in the letter to the Hebrews (all the way through but see especially 12.18-28) and in Revelation, especially see 20-22. All is transferred to the heavenly realm.
God’s wrath may continually be revealed on this earth (Romans 1.18) but in the end it reaches its climax at the Judgement. And that Judgment is revealed in many ways. It is like a king summoning the world to judgment (Matthew 25.31-46) but the issues are eternal (verse 46). It is like a lord or king calling his servants to account (Matthew 22.1-14; 25.14-30; Luke 12.41-48 and often). Note that the rewards to the righteous and the condemnation of the unrighteous occur at around the same time. It is described as coming in ‘flaming fire’ (2 Thessalonians 1.8 compare Hebrews 10.27). It is described in terms of the heavens passing away and the earth being burned up, which is the day of the Lord (2 Peter 3.10). It is described as a time of devastating earthly tumult (Revelation 6.12-17), which is the great day of His wrath. It is described as great hail (Revelation 11.19; 16.21). It is described as a reaper reaping a deadly harvest (Revelation 14.14-20). It is described as a last great battle in which there is no fighting. Everyone is killed with the Judge’s one sword (Revelation 19.11-21). It is described as being called before a great white throne of justice (Revelation 20.11-15).
It is strange how those who want to literalise this ignore the realities. How can the above all be reconciled literally? How can the world survive for a moment the falling of the stars to the earth (Revelation 6.13)?
In the text I have deliberately avoided controversy about the complicated issues connected with the second coming. They are not necessary to the exegesis of 1 Thessalonians. They arise simply because of an attempt to fit 1 Thessalonians into an overall system. Now, however, we will consider some of them in view of the importance of the verses to so many views. In doing this my aim is simply to make readers think for themselves (which to their credit all would want them to do). I acknowledge gladly the sincerity and genuine spirituality of those who hold the differing views on this subject. Happily the days when such views produced great heat (in the wrong sense) are mainly behind us. While they are considered important, they are also rightly considered secondary to the great central truths themselves.
Jesus Himself will decide whether He comes before any tribulation, during it, or after it. Or whether there will be such tribulation, and whether He will bother with a Millennial kingdom, or has already ruled over it. What He wants us to do is be ready for His coming. And when He judges us it will not be on the basis of whether we got our interpretation right, but whether what we learned produced within us the determination to worship Him and serve Him more faithfully. We can simply consider the outskirts of His ways. No one will have got it completely right.
The first problem in studying the second coming teachings is that, with many, certain ideas and phrases have come to be looked on as sacrosanct and certain, without detailed consideration being given to their full truth. They are assumed to be correct and the case built around them. And yet strangely those ideas are nowhere clearly stated in the letters of Peter, John or Paul. This is indeed odd if they are so certain. One cannot imagine a modern futurist writer writing about the second coming and not at some time mentioning ‘The Great Tribulation’ and, if he believed in it, the ‘pre-tribulation rapture’, to say nothing of the Millennium. Yet Paul has written about ‘the rapture’ in this letter and yet made no mention of any of these things, indeed the Millennium is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament outside Revelation (where the interpretation is debatable), and many would argue that the so-called ‘Great Tribulation’ is also unmentioned. There are verses which are interpreted by some as referring to the latter, but they certainly do not do so in any way that leaves large numbers of interpreters convinced.
It is fine to refer to what Paul had already taught them, but how are we to know what it was. And why in that great letter where he revealed his central doctrine to the Roman church does he say so little about the second coming?
We will therefore ask ourselves a number of questions.
Will There Be a Seven Year Great Tribulation?
It must be stated at once that the New Testament makes clear again and again, as all would agree, that Christians will go through tribulation, that some were doing so even when Paul wrote to them (as we have seen in Thessalonians) and that for some their tribulation would become intense. We must also agree that it says that the world will also go through tribulation, and that some of that will occur towards the end, for the trend is for things to get worse even when they appear to be getting better (1 Timothy 3.1-5), but note verse 6 which relates it to Paul’s time as well. But that is a very different thing from the unique seven year period held by many.
Let us then consider first the question of ‘The Great Tribulation’ as held by many today. This is seen as a period of especially great tribulation which will either precede or follow the rapture and be over a seven year period. But the question is, is this period actually mentioned in Scripture at all?
The phrase appears three times in the New Testament and not at all in the Old. The first mention is in Matthew 24.21, (thlipsis megale), see also Mark 13.19 which omits ‘great’. It is without the definite article. ‘Then shall be great tribulation such as has not been seen from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be.’ But the question is, when? The parallel in Luke 21.20-24 tells us quite plainly. It is before and during the destruction of Jerusalem, followed by the scattering of the Jews into all nations, so that Jerusalem is trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. And this occurred in 70 AD and after.
That tribulation was great indeed and is described by Luke as ‘wrath upon this people’. But relatively few would deny that Luke is speaking of the period around 70 AD. What, however, the believers in ‘The Great Tribulation’ argue is that Luke is referring to words not mentioned by Matthew and Mark, and vice versa, and that Matthew’s ‘great tribulation’ refers to the end times. (Yet even then it must be seen as local for it is clear from the text that it can be avoided by fleeing).
However, let us consider the facts. In Matthew 24.16 we have the words ‘then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him that is on the housetop not go down to take out the things that are in his house, and let him that is in the field not return back to take his cloak. But woe to them that are with child and to those who give suck in those days.’ Then in Matthew 24.29 reference is made to sun, moon and stars and the effects on them, finishing with ‘and the powers of the heavens will be shaken’.
Comparison with Luke 21.21, 23 and 21.24a and 26b will demonstrate very similar words, any differences accounted for by translation from the Aramaic, summarising and an attempt to make the ideas clear to Gentile readers. And the opening and closing phrases are exactly the same.
It is certainly beyond what in my view is an acceptable method of interpretation to think that what lies between these identical phrases refers to two totally different occasions, and that Matthew omitted the important event of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which Jesus had promised to describe, while Luke omitted an equally important later destruction of Jerusalem. It is so incredible that it is impossible. This is especially so as both writers began the discourse with Jesus’ reference to the question about the destruction of Jerusalem and are answering the same question! Readers must judge for themselves, but it seems to me that only people determined to prove a theory could argue for such a method of interpretation. Why on earth should Luke omit such important teaching about the end times? Thus we conclude that this great tribulation occurred in 70 AD and in what preceded and followed.
The second mention of ‘great tribulation’ is in Revelation 2.22 where the false teachers and their adherents in the church of Thyatira are threatened with great tribulation (thlipsis megale) unless they repent. Now quite apart from the question of the dating of these false teachers and what is to happen to them, (whether they were first century teachers or latter day teachers), there are no grounds at all for relating this ‘great tribulation’, which will come on them as a punishment, to any particular period of time elsewhere. It is mentioned as being their punishment. And the phrase is without the article.
The third mention of great tribulation is in Revelation 7.14. There John was dealing with the multitude which no one could number out of all nations, who were seen in Heaven following the narrative about the sealing of ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’. It is said of them, (translating over-literally) ‘these are the coming ones out of the tribulation, the great one, (tes thilpsis tes megales) and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
The exegesis of this verse in context, considering all possible views, would take a great deal of time. Reference can be made for my view at Revelation. But apart from the assumptions of particular views the question as to when this event took place is not apparent from the text and must therefore depend on other references in Scripture. It could refer to the 1st century or to the 21st century AD. They are simply coming out of ‘the great tribulation’. The definite article on ‘great tribulation’ here can either be seen as referring back to the ‘great tribulation’ of 2.22 (‘the great tribulation that I spoke of in 2.22’), or more probably to the fact of the more general tribulation mentioned elsewhere in the Revelation which is also certainly great. But the timing of this is totally based on one’s particular interpretation of the book.
The order of the words (‘great’ following ‘tribulation’) is the same as in 2.22 (and in Matthew 24), and therefore it does not necessarily have special significance here. And relation to a time period will very much depend on our view of the Book of Revelation as a whole. But while the general meaning of the Book of Revelation is clear in terms of heavenly effects on earthly life, some detailed interpretations very much depend on the interpretation of a few key phrases which seem innocuous in themselves and yet are given a meaning far beyond what is obvious. In other words they can depend on inferences which are doubtfully used to support a particular position which are not openly apparent, and which can be interpreted widely differently.
So in this all too brief survey we conclude that reference to great tribulation itself tells us little about when such tribulation was to take place, apart from the first which would be around 70 AD. There is in context no reason for referring any of these verses to the last seven years of the age. It would be different if a convincing case could be otherwise made from elsewhere.
But from where do people then get the idea of a seven year Great Tribulation? And why do they refer it to the end of the church age? The first part of the answer given would refer us to the Book of Daniel. There in chapter 9 is a prophetic passage, the interpretation of which is actually widely varied, from which comes the idea of a period of seven years, argued by some to refer to a period at the end of the church age. This passage actually includes desolations, but in it no mention is made of tribulation as such. Furthermore these desolations are only in the last part of the seven years. (I do not want to make too much of this last point for many would agree that ‘The Seven Year Great Tribulation’ is a misnomer and that it should rather be ‘The Seven Year period at the end of the age in which the Tribulation occurs at some point’. I mention it only because of some people’s misconceptions).
Now this seven year period in Daniel follows the cutting off of Messiah the Prince and the destruction of city and sanctuary by ‘the people of the coming prince’. But who is the ‘coming prince’? For a fuller treatment we would refer readers to The Seventy Weeks of Daniel’ found on Revelation . Suffice to say here that large numbers refer ‘the people of the coming prince’ either to Titus and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD or to the prince who will come in the last days, the Antichrist. But, while I hesitate to suggest this so firmly in view of the weight and scholarship supporting these views, this is due to exegesis which is in my view a little careless and results from fitting history into a particular view rather than asking what the book itself says.
In fact if we look at it in the light of the Book of Daniel alone, ignoring fulfilment, ‘the people of the coming prince’ can only mean the Jews. Why?
Thus if language means anything, everything points to ‘the people of the prince who will come’ as being the Jews.
At first sight this may seem unacceptable. It may be asked whether the Jews would destroy their own city and temple. But then we can also ask, would they have cut off their own Messiah?
But the fact is that on careful reading it fits the situation perfectly. When the Jews cut off their Messiah the Prince this did lead them on to behaviour that brought about the destruction of the city and the temple. And Jesus Himself said it would happen. What they had done to Him itself guaranteed the destruction of the city and the temple. That was why the end of the sixty ninth seven occurred at that point.
But it actually goes further than that because the remarkable fact is that the Jews were directly responsible for contributing to the destruction of city and temple in actuality, for they did actually cause much of the destruction in the city by fighting each other even while the Roman army was approaching, and it was claimed by some that they also set alight the temple to prevent sacrilege at the end. And in view of their fanaticism that was quite possible.
The story of their battles with each other, and the slaughter that took place as Jew fought Jew, including the insane destruction of food supplies to prevent others getting them, is almost incredible for a city about to be besieged, and would have been seen as totally unbelievable had it not been for the evidence of someone who was there and knew eyewitnesses.
But even more is it true that Josephus, the Jewish historian who was involved in the action, does actually speak of them as ‘destroying Jerusalem’ by their activities, activities which contributed to and finally brought about the final completion of the destruction by the Romans. For example he says, ‘the sedition destroyed the city’. So that was how some Jews saw it.
And as we have said above Jesus Himself made clear that Jerusalem would be destroyed because of the rejection of Him by the Jews. Thus in every way they did bring about the destruction of their own city and temple. And that is Daniel’s point, that Messiah’s people, who had rejected Him and cut Him off, then proceeded to do the same with the holy city and the Temple.
Furthermore the most natural reading of the Hebrew would make the subject of the sentence ‘he (it) will confirm covenant for one seven’ refer back to ‘the people’ (of the coming prince), the Jews, for ‘the people’ is a singular noun and would take a singular verb, and in Hebrew ‘he/it’ would naturally refer back to the subject of the previous phrase. And when we consider that ‘covenant’ in Daniel elsewhere always refers to the covenant with God, and that here it is ‘confirmed’ or ‘made to prevail’, this is final confirmation of the fact if language means anything.
Thus having breached the covenant by what they had done to their Messiah, holy city and Temple, at some stage they will reconfirm the covenant.
This would mean that the seventieth seven of Daniel did not point to an Antichrist, and a tribulation period following the cessation of sacrifice at his instigation, but to a conversion of the Jews back to ‘the covenant’, (by confirming the covenant by accepting Jesus Christ), and to a backsliding by some half way through the seven as they again rejected true worship (put in Old Testament terms). This would not necessarily lead to tribulation, but it does explain the desolator as being God’s judgment on their behaviour. But while desolations are mentioned those are different from the usual idea of ‘tribulation’ found in the New Testament which was more personal, and they apply here to the people of the coming Prince. And this desolation is by ‘a desolator’, a deliberately vague description. Desolations were to be a regular feature of the coming age, as they have been of all their history because of their unbelief.
This being so the only place that we can now look to for specific reference to a ‘Tribulation period’ is Daniel 12.1. This follows invasion activities in Egypt and North Africa and is prior to the resurrection of the righteous. Thus we are justified in placing it in the final days of the age. But it certainly includes true believers for they are the ones ‘written in the book’.
This whole description may well fit in with the idea of the backsliding of the Jews mentioned in Daniel 9, referred to again in 12.11, with it being followed by them persecuting Jewish Christians, but that is by no means certain, for the ‘trouble’ surely has in mind the approaching triumphant king of the south. So, while the fact that there will be an intense ‘time of trouble’ (whatever that means, and in the context of Daniel 9 it means desolation by a desolator) at the end of the age, probably in and around Palestine, is certain, no length of time is suggested for it, nor is the trouble described. All it tells us is that there will be severe troubles at the end of the age, of a kind not defined and the length of which is not described.
Indeed there is here an interesting contrast between Daniel and Matthew. Here in Daniel it is noteworthy that the reference to the awfulness of this time says ‘never once since there was a nation to that same time’. Thus it has in view no future because it is immediately prior to the resurrection. This is in direct contrast with that in Matthew 24.21 which say ‘no, nor ever shall be’ and therefore does foresee a future, in which there will be trouble, but not as great as this. Both are deliberate exaggerations (how do you measure the intensity of different types of suffering?) simply indicating the intensity and awfulness of the Trouble.
What then does this leave us with? Certainly with a totally different picture from the usual one held by many of ‘The Great Tribulation’. The period of trouble in Daniel, though intense, is limited to a smallish area. There are desolations. But there is no Seven Year Great Tribulation in mind. And the only reference to a final ‘trouble’ is possibly in Daniel 12.1 which is severe but limited, and more thought of in terms of desolation.
Of course in the Old Testament there are large numbers of references of warfare and tumult connected to Judah and Jerusalem, and some of those are related to the end times, but none are so specific as to suggest a period called ‘The Great Tribulation’. And Israel is at this present time experiencing such warfare and such enmity.
So no Great Seven Year Tribulation is mentioned in the Bible. And indeed to find the passages which are usually used to detail The Great Tribulation we have to go back to the Book of Revelation. But while that book does describe tribulation for Christians, and for unbelievers, it does not speak of a seven year tribulation period, nor is there any certainty that the main tribulations described in detail are at the end of the age. There are good reasons for applying them to the church through the ages. ‘Overcoming’, as in the first three chapters where it refers to Christians, is mentioned all through the book. It is the final battle with Antichrist, and the final judgments at the time of the second coming, that are at the end of the age, and they are clearly not to be taken too literally. (See above and for more detail my commentary on Revelation.
Does anyone really believe that Jesus Christ is going to come with a sword and fight Satan, presumably also with a sword, on almost equal terms? That Satan could battle with Jesus at the cross was because Jesus had become man and had submerged His Godhood, but to suggest that he could battle with Him in any meaningful way when He is King of Kings is incredible, and it is noteworthy that in Revelation 19 there is no mention of actual battle. Satan, as it were, faces up to Jesus Christ, and total annihilation of his forces results without battle, all slain with the one sword. The picture is a vivid portrayal of the fact of the destruction of Satan and Antichrist and their supporters, given in earthly terms, not a literal portrayal of how it will be done.
Indeed this brings us to another major point, and that is that the usual picture of ‘The Great Tribulation’ given by many of those who teach it is of a worldwide event, mainly again based on the Book of Revelation. But when John thought of ‘the world’ it meant the Roman world and its near neighbours as known to the New Testament writers, and that tended to mean the Near and Middle East, (including Iraq and Iran), North Africa, Turkey, Greece and Italy, with other countries peripheral. Old Testament prophecies of troubles also relate to these areas. That most of this has been, and is, a troubled area is without question. And in most of those areas there is tribulation for Christians today and much desolation. They could indeed say that they are going through ‘great tribulation’ and have done for a long time. But it is not worldwide as we would see it today. While America is a major nation today it was not even a twinkle in the eye in New Testament days.
So we have no hesitation in saying that the period of ‘The Seven Year Great Tribulation’ as described by many is in our view mainly the figment of wrong interpretation, except possibly in general terms for those in Palestine (compare Revelation 11).
Will Christians go through the Seven Years of Daniel (in which there is no hint of tribulation, and no desolation in the first half)? Our answer to this question is, why not? Indeed in our view the confirming of covenant by the Jews with ‘many’ requires it.
But the reply to such a suggestion as this is often that it cannot be so because if the ‘rapture’ is to take place at the end of the seven years, it will mean that it cannot be at ‘any moment’? (This does, of course, assume that everyone knows for certain the meaning of Daniel 9, and are right).
Our counter-reply is simple. The New Testament clearly constantly holds in tension the idea of the imminence of Christ’s return and what must happen before it takes place. There was in theory much that had to happen before it in Paul’s day. The Gospel had to be preached among all nations; Jerusalem had to be destroyed and the Jews scattered, followed by the times of the Gentiles; Messiahs had to arise. Furthermore, in the view of many tribulationists, after the scattering the Jews had to return to Palestine and restore Jerusalem, and there had to be a build up of tension and trouble, for none of these things could happen too quickly. How then could Christ’s coming be seen as imminent?
The answer, of course, is based on the element of interpretation in it all and the recognition of lack of constant up-to-date knowledge. To Paul the Gospel had gone out into ‘the whole world’ (Romans 1.8; Acts 2.5); whether Jerusalem had been destroyed or not was news that would take months to filter through to most places, thus it might have happened unknown to them; antichrists and Messiahs can depend upon definition; and so on. Furthermore interpretations were not so certain that their fulfilment could be dogmatically required in a specific way. Desolations were taking place of which news kept arriving, tribulation for the people of God and for dwellers on earth happened continually in one place or another (and still does), the antichrists appeared continually (1 John 2.18), Satan’s attacks were constantly seen, many Jews did ‘confirm covenant’ with their Messiah by becoming Christians, some did then revert back to Judaism. And as news filtered through it was often exaggerated.
So there was never any time when it could dogmatically be said ‘Jesus Christ cannot come because such and such a Scripture has not been fulfilled’. We may lay down what we think has to happen in the future. Many others will differ. They will say that it has happened (even of the seventieth seven of Daniel), or that our interpretation is wrong. And none of us can be so certain that we are right that we can say that everyone else is wrong. For many interpretations are on the basis of nuances, or of translation in a particular way, or on how we view particular passages, so that no one is going to be fully right. That is why, on the basis of Scripture, the imminence of Christ’s return has been held in all centuries. It was believed because He said it . That was the one certainty. They recognised that there may be doubts about other things but not about that.
In other words it is only because of ‘dogmatic’ interpretations and schemes (I use the words in the best possible manner, I too have dogmatic interpretations and schemes, they are inherent in trying to understand the subject) that we can say ‘this cannot happen because of that’. But those who are wise will put the certainty that ‘Christ’s coming is imminent’ before the certainty of their other interpretations on passages about which widely different interpretations are made and others are uncertain.
Furthermore we may argue that Paul was certainly right on the doctrines God guided him to put in Scripture form, but we cannot assume from that that he had such an encyclopaedic knowledge of all possible doctrines of Scripture that he knew all that there was to know about all subjects and was right on everything he said whenever he spoke. He too had to read and learn.
We can compare Peter in Galatians 2.11 and Acts 10.14, where Peter was wrong both times. I would certainly hesitate to say that Paul had a fully worked out scheme regarding end of the age events which would put every Scripture in its rightful place, even if that were possible. I doubt whether he had the time to put one together. And to one who was anticipating for quite a long time that he would be alive at the coming of Christ, and knew constant tribulation, things would look very different, and Scriptures would have different emphases. (And there was no Book of Revelation).
The claim for Paul must be that when he wrote, or specifically taught, God so guided his mind, as He did all the Apostles (John 14.17, 26; 15.26; 16.13), that what he actually put down in words was free from error, even though if asked he might not have known about all its ramifications. It is not that he was omniscient and all-knowing and had it all fitted together in one huge scenario. He had no difficulty with paradoxes.
We all have an awareness of certain things that we believe must happen before Christ returns. But we should certainly not say therefore that Christ cannot return at any moment. There is always the possibility that our interpretations may be wrong. So we hold both positions in tension, because He told us to.
Will There Be a Millennium?
To the question of whether there will be, or has been since the time of John, a period of ‘a thousand years’ when Jesus Christ reigns, or reigned, the answer must be yes because John said so. But that is a very different thing from believing in a Millennium (Revelation 20.1-11). What John’s vision meant by the ‘thousand years’ is very much open to question. In my commentary on Revelation I argue against it speaking of a Millennium yet to come. To me Revelation 20 is a summary of what has gone before. Indeed it is thought provoking to recognise that the Millennium as conceived by many is not clearly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Most who believe in it would point back to Old Testament Scriptures. But there can be no doubt that the prophets had to speak of spiritual activities and events in terms of their own thought forms. How they are to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament is a totally different question, as we have seen above.
I must admit that, even though the population of the world may have been decimated by world events, the idea that the whole population of the world will go up to Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles in order to ensure rain, and that the whole of Judah will be such that all its pots are holy for the purpose of seething sacrifices, is unlikely (Zechariah 14.16-17, 21). Indeed I can see no way in which men taught by the New Testament could offer literal animal sacrifices. Even less can I see the whole world coming to Jerusalem week by week and month by month (Isaiah 66.23-24). The logistics are huge.
Animal sacrifices were ordained at a time when they were a recognised method of worship among nations, which God took and transformed in His own purposes. He utilised them as a copy and shadow of heavenly things (Hebrews 8.5). But now God has replaced them with the greatest of all sacrifices, the only one that in the end meant anything (Romans 3.25). Thus all other sacrifices have been done away with (Hebrews 9.23-28; 10.1-9, 11-12, 26; 11.18-24, 28; 13.10-16). Note especially God’s word on what today constitutes proper sacrifices (Hebrews 13.15-16). Others may want the old unsatisfactory ways back, but I do not believe that God does. So those who do see them as coming back have to make them mean something totally different from what they did mean. They would not be the Old Testament sacrifices, which are clearly defined in Leviticus), at all.
My view is that all these Old Testament Scriptures were pictures and symbols, using the thought forms of the time, intended to portray more wonderful ideas and to be interpreted using the method developed by the writer of the Hebrews, just as the sacrifices were. Indeed I believe the same method was used by John in Revelation in chapters 20-21 where he proclaimed heavenly realities in terms of Old Testament pictures. See again my commentary on Revelation
So I see no difficulty in accepting that 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 as an imminent event was written to people going through tribulation, without the question of whether they needed to go through ‘the Tribulation’ raising its head. I doubt very much whether they were aware of the problem. The idea that somehow Paul had taught them a fully thought out scheme that he never actually put down plainly on parchment, or referred to plainly in his letters, and that we can somehow reformulate it from hints, seems to me very doubtful indeed. My view is that he felt he had more important things to spend his time on, at a time when New Testament doctrine was being formulated, than building up an involved scheme of second coming teaching.
That he knew the central ideas is clear. That he had had revealed to him further ideas is also clear. But that he formulated them into a scheme which he taught to others I doubt. I am not by that decrying those who study such schemes. I have studied them in some depth myself. But then I do not have the huge responsibility of formulating an overall foundation of doctrine, with limited facilities, for an infant church from the Old Testament Scriptures, nor fortunately do I need to. Paul had no library, no pocket Bible. He even managed without a computer. His task was immense. And he fitted his studies in with evangelising almost the whole of Europe and Asia Minor as well. Even he was limited by hours in the day.
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