July 16, 2018
General Remarks on First Thessalonians
The Church in Thessalonica was founded by Paul and Silas during Paul's second missionary journey and has the distinction of being the second church founded on European soil, probably in the year 51 or 52 A.D. (Acts 17:1-10). Silas is called by his Roman name in 1 Thess. 1:1, "Silvanus." Paul may have written 1 Thessalonians from Corinth, for he mentions in verses 7 and 8 that the Thessalonians were examples to believers in Achaia, where Corinth is located. The letter was written to encourage the Christians in that city who were under persecution from the very start (Acts 17:5), which is why Paul wrote they had received the word in much affliction (1 Thess.1:6). During Paul’s visit to Thessalonica, the new Christians feared for his safety, and secretly sent him and his companions away at night (Acts17:10). Yet the Thessalonians' perseverance in the faith was known "abroad" (1:8). According to Acts 17:2, Paul spent only 3 weeks in Thessalonica, so these new converts, with very little exposure to the Gospel, have remained faithful in the face of persecution.
Naturally, the Apostle is concerned about the physical safety of the Thessalonian Christians. He is also concerned about their spiritual safety and their need for further instruction and guidance in the Faith. While Paul cannot return to Thessalonica without bringing more danger to the Church, he can send Timothy, who is not known to those who oppose the Gospel. By the time Paul writes First Thessalonians, Timothy has been to Thessalonica, where he has probably spent several months teaching and organising the church into congregations and ordaining clergy. At some point, he returned to Paul with a report that the Thessalonian Christians are standing firm in the faith. Paul sends Timothy back to Thessalonica, this time with a letter from Paul, which is our New Testament book of First Thessalonians.
The letter asserts Paul’s joy at the solid faith Timothy tells of, and encourages the people to continue in it. It also addresses a question the church has about the Second Coming of Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1
It is notable that First Thessalonians does not begin with a statement about Paul’s Apostolic authority. Only the Thessalonian epistles and Hebrews lack this statement, which make us believe the Thessalonians need no reminder of it. Their loyalty to Christ leads them to accept those sent by Christ to preach His message of forgiveness and peace.
Sylvanus and Timothy (1) were with Paul when he went to Thessalonica to preach the Gospel (Acts 17:1). Sylvanus would naturally wish to have his greetings included in a letter to them. Timothy, bearing the letter, is mentioned to show that he is an envoy from Paul and Sylvanus, or, Silas, as he is called in Acts.
Paul immediately pays due respect to the great faith of the Thessalonian people (2, 3). They remain faithful to Christ in the face of much affliction (6), for when they believed in Christ, a mob rioted in the streets against them (Acts 17:5-9).
Next Paul assures them of the truth of the Gospel by reminding them of their election (4). Being elected, or, chosen, by God to receive Christ, they will not fail to receive their Heavenly home, which outshines their present trials. They received the Gospel by the power of the Holy Ghost (5), not by enticing words and gimmicks. Therefore, the Thessalonians can rest in assurance that they have received the actual word of God, not cunningly devised fables. Their faith is so well known in the area Paul says he hardly has need to add to their testimony by his own teaching. It seems that their faith makes people eager to learn more about their Saviour. They may even be sending missionaries into the surrounding areas to tell people about Christ. Certainly, the story of their faith, and their opposers would spread rapidly, for it is big news at that time.
1 Thessalonians 2
The Roman world is crawling with traveling "preachers" selling their various religions and philosophies for a price. Showmanship, emotional manipulation, and bogus miracles are part of the means by which they gather large crowds and large sums of money. It is not surprising that Paul is often accused of being just another one of them. This charge comes not only from modern skeptics, including many "inside" the Church, but also seems to be prevalent in Paul's own life time. Surely his opponents and detractors would use such a charge to discourage people from listening to or believing the Gospel, and, apparently some in Thessalonica accuse him of it, for verses1-12 seem to be a defense of Paul's legitimacy as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The false teachers sell empty promises at high prices to the poor and hopeless masses of the Roman Empire. Using psychological/emotional manipulation, they induce emotional experiences in their followers, which they claim is the work of their deities. The experiences relieve the people's mind-numbing despair and leave them with a good feeling, for which they gladly pay large amounts of their small incomes. Some of the false teachers begin to preach heretical versions of Christianity, finding their way into the churches. They often find the Christians easy targets for their scams. The church at Corinth is an obvious example of this.
Cults continue to use these tactics today. Many of their converts are former church members who do not know the Scriptures or the faith well enough to resist their manipulative methods. This is one reason why we should spare no effort to learn and understand the Scriptures and worship in a Biblical church.
Paul says the Thessalonians know that Paul and his fellow ministers are not like the others (1). They know, "our entrance unto you." The false teachers seek comfort for themselves, but Paul and Silvanus suffer great physical abuse for the Gospel. At Philippi they were publicly flogged and imprisoned (1 Thess. 1:2, Acts16:22-24). In Thessalonica a mob took to the streets with the intention of killing them (Acts 17:5-9).
Paul says his ministry among the Thessalonians was free of the manipulation and tricks of the false teachers (2:3). He used no "deceit," meaning false teachings or watered-down doctrine to attract crowds. He used no "uncleanness," which is preaching Christ for personal gain and fame (see also verse 6). Nor did he preach with "guile," meaning he did not use psychological/emotional tricks to manipulate and sway the people. It is, unfortunately necessary to mention that watered-down doctrine, personal gain, and psychological/emotional manipulation have become standard methods of drawing people into the "church" today. Preaching has been exchanged for motivational pep talks; and worship has been patterned after rock concerts and sporting events, all in the effort to please people and make them feel good about being in church. But Paul says he does not try to please people. Instead of using tricks, he trusts God to reach people through the faithful preaching of the Gospel. It is impossible to imagine Paul going into a city with a band playing the music of the pagan culture, or having the crowd sing emotional songs in a semi-hypnotic fashion to get them ready for an emotional sermon, long on anecdotes and flattery (2:5) but short on doctrine. Such are the ways of the false teachers, not Paul.
Instead of "selling" the Gospel, Paul is not "burdensome" by receiving money from the Thessalonians (6). Though, as a minster of the Gospel he has every right to financial support (1 Cor. 9:1-14) he, and his fellow servants of Christ labour night and day because they "would not be chargeable unto any" (9). While the false teachers grew wealthy on the gifts of the people, Paul and his companions support themselves through Paul's work as a tent maker. They probably make tents during the day and teach about Jesus at night and in the Synagogues on the Sabbath. He reminds the Thessalonians of this, saying, "For ye, remember, brethren, our labour and travail" (9).
The difference between the character and behaviour of the false teachers and that of Paul, Silas, and Timothy is shown in verses 7, 8, and 11. Their concern is for the spiritual good of the Thessalonians, not their own fame and fortune. He compares them to a nurse or "nanny" who cherishes the children trusted to her care. Again he says they are "affectionately desirous" of them; they care about the Thessalonians and want them to know Christ. In this desire they gladly give not only the Gospel, but also their own souls to the Thessalonians. These words are very similar to those Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:15; "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you." This expresses well the feelings of all true ministers of the Gospel. We desire to spend and be spent in the service of God's people because you are dear to us. Verse 11 compares their labours to those of a father comforting and teaching his children.
The Thessalonians know Paul speaks the truth here because they are witnesses (10). The Thessalonians have seen the lives and behaviour of Paul with their own eyes. But God also sees it. God also knows they behaved themselves "holily and justly and unblameably" for the cause that the Thessalonians would walk (live) worthily of God who called them into His Kingdom (2:12).
Verse 13 begins to describe the way the Thessalonians received the ministry of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. They not only saw how the ministers lived and noted the sacrifices they made, they also saw that the Gospel they preached was not like the doctrines of the false teachers; it was the word of God. It is important to note that the holy lives and great personal sacrifices made by Paul testify to the truth of his message. Just as Peter and other Apostles would not have been willing to suffer for a lie, Paul and his companions would not be willing to endure their trials merely for the sake of making money from a false religion. They obviously believe in what they preach, and this gives credence to their words. Ultimately, however, it was God, not Paul, who enabled the Thessalonians to believe the Gospel. Through His Spirit He enabled them to see that it was the word of God, and by His Spirit He made it effectual in them. Paul did not need to use tricks and gimmicks to reach people for Christ. The Gospel reaches them by the power of God. "For the word of God is quick, and powerful... and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb 4:12).
To be followers of the churches in Judea (2:14) is first to be in Jesus Christ and the faith delivered to the Church by Him, taught by His Apostles, and recorded in the Scriptures. Second, it is to suffer persecution from your own people. The "Jews" of verse 14 are not the average "man in the street" but the religious and political leaders and their henchmen who commit the horrible deeds of verses 15 and 16. Many Jews are also Christians. Others are sympathetic to the Church and hold it in high esteem (Acts 2:47). Thus, Paul's statement in verse 14 is not against the Jews as a people, but against all who do evil in the name of God.
1 Thessalonians 3
Paul desires to return to Thessalonica, and has planned to do so many times. When he says Satan hindered him (2:18) he probably refers to the attention his return would call to the Christians, renewing and intensifying the persecution against them. While Paul did not fear for himself, he preferred not to further endanger the Thessalonian Church. Thus, he sent Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens to further establish and comfort them in the faith (1, 2, 4). Timothy was not as well known as Paul, and could easily enter the city without causing another riot. His task was to continue to teach the faith to the Church, and to help them not lose heart due to the continuing persecution of Paul and his companions (3:3 & 4).
Paul is encouraged by the good news Timothy brings back from Thessalonica (6-8). He feels that his sacrifices and sufferings for the Gospel are worth it when he sees people standing firm in the faith due to his work. This is true joy for all faithful ministers of Christ (9), while it is almost crushing sorrow to see people they have spent and been spent for (2 Cor. 12:15) turn away from the Church and their ministry. Thus, chapter 3 ends with a benediction (11-13) which summarises Paul's prayers for the Thessalonians. Everything he asks in this prayer is for the benefit of the Thessalonians, even his prayer that God will direct his way back to them, is a request that he may continue to teach and strengthen them in Christ. When a true minister of the Gospel asks you to come to church, Bible studies, and Prayers, he is not asking you for his benefit. He is asking you to come for your benefit, so you may increase in Christian love and be established in holiness before God, and so you will be found in Christ at the coming of our Lord.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
The Thessalonian Church seems to be remarkably free of the theological and practical errors that plague so many churches of that time. Maybe it is because the church is so new the false teachers haven't discovered it yet. Maybe it is because the false teachers stay away out of fear that they would be persecuted along with the Christians. Certainly the persecution contributes to the congregation’s faith and unity, for the false teachers stay away, and the false, lukewarm believers will not stay. Only the true believers remain in the church, and they need each other so much they do not think about fighting and dividing over the foolish things that often divide Christians today. Thus, Paul does not spend time in this letter exhorting the people to repent of sin and heresy. Instead, he calls upon them to "abound more and more" and "increase more and more" in the things they are already doing (1, 10).
His exhortations in verses 2-12 are not given because the Thessalonians do not know or do the things of God. They know the commandments given by Christ through Paul (2). The exhortations are given to remind them and encourage them to continue to increase in the things of Christ.
Paul uses the word, "sanctification" to describe the process of abounding and increasing in one's walk with God. As it appears in English, sanctification derives from the Latin word for holy. This meaning is made clear in its many English derivatives, such as sanctity, sanctuary, and sanctify, meaning, holy, holy place, and, to make holy. Thus, sanctification means to be made holy, or to be set aside for God. In Greek it means to make pure, and since God is absolute purity, it means to become more like Him. Sanctification, then, is the life long process of becoming more and more holy, or, more and more like God in your character and actions, and more and more the person God intends you to be, and less and less the person you were before you trusted Christ and began to walk with Him.
Paul makes this point in verses 4-12. The "vessel" of verse 4 is the body. To possess it is to keep it, and we are to keep our own bodies in (here's that word again) "sanctification." Our bodies belong to Christ as surely as our souls. So we are to honour Him with our bodies. The most obvious meaning of this is sexual purity rather than lust or, "concupiscence" (5), but there are other applications as well. Clean living, healthy lifestyles, and sobriety are examples. Fraud (6) refers to impropriety in business, which is just another means of theft. "Uncleanness" is the life of sin and disregard for God. It is the opposite of the life of quiet Godliness and sanctification (11) to which Christians are called (7). For those interested in such things, the word translated "sanctification" in verse 3, "holiness" in verse 7, and "holy" as in "Holy Spirit" in verse 8 are all forms of the same Greek word, hagios. So, though our English version uses two words to translate it, in the Greek they are all the same.
To despise what Paul teaches here is not just to despise Paul, but to despise God. How does this apply to those who distort the Bible's message? How does this apply to those who stay away from the Church, or attend churches where the Gospel is distorted? How does this apply to those who refuse to heed the Biblical teachings of a Godly minister? Do not such people also despise God?
While verses 5-8 describe things that are in opposition to the life of holiness, verses 9-12 tell of things that are in accord with it and of its essence. As Paul wrote, "as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you." You already know and practice it, so "increase more and more" (11). Integrity in all dealings with others is an important part of Godliness. We should do our own business (11) rather than expecting others to take care of us. "Those without" (12) are those outside of Christ. We are to conduct ourselves with integrity and honesty toward them. As we do our work and earn our livings in integrity and honesty we will provide the things we need for ourselves and families. This honours God, and is an important part of the sanctified life.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Timothy brought much good news to Paul regarding the Thessalonians. He also brought with him their one big question, what happens to Christians who die before the Lord returns? Apparently some have died in Thessalonica, causing so much grief and anxiety among them, Paul worries that they grieve as the pagans, having no hope that the dead would have a part in Heaven. Thus, Paul writes to comfort them with greater understanding of the promises of God (13). As Christ often called death "sleep," so Paul says Christians who have died are asleep in Jesus (14). The first thing we learn here is that they are not dead as the pagans thought of death. Their existence has not ended. It continues on in another state or dimension, so that it may be said of their bodies that they sleep. Second, the dimension, or realm of their continued existence is Christ. There is no separation from Him in death for the Christian. The Christian merely sleeps in Christ, but this sleep is of the body only. The soul goes into the immediate presence of God, as shown by such passages as Luke 16:19-29, Luke 23:43, Philippians 1:23, and, especially, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Third, the body will be resurrected. People question how a body that has been eaten by beasts, or become nourishment for trees and plants over thousands of years can be resurrected. To that we can only reply that it will be a glorified body, and that the One who created this vast universe is able to re-order its elements and compounds as He decrees. Though, how, is beyond our understanding, the fact of the resurrection is as much a part of the Gospel as the Return of Christ.
Our hope, or, confidence, for the resurrection is that Jesus died and rose again (14). Christ Himself made it very plain that His death was a conscious offering of Himself on the cross as the propitiation for our sins. No power on earth could have taken His life otherwise. He had the power to lay down His life, and the power to take it up again (Jn. 10:18). If He has that power for Himself, He has that power for His people also.
The dead will have a dual role in the return of Christ. First, they will come with Him (14). Their souls, which have been with Him in Heaven, will come with Him when He returns, and will witness the entire event. Second, their bodies will be resurrected before those living at the time are taken up. "The dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up" (16-17).
The result of this is, "so shall we ever be with the Lord" (17). This is the Second Coming. This is the return of the Lord to bring the world as we know it to its end. This is not the "rapture." It is open and public, for all to see. Christ commands the dead to rise with a loud voice; the trumpet blasts like a military signal that is "loud enough to raise the dead."
Finally we come to the point of all this, which is comfort. "Comfort one another with these words" (18). Paul is saying these truths, these doctrines ought to bring cheer, joy, and hope to believers when we stand beside the grave of a loved one, and when we face our own death. For even in death we are in Christ, and we will ever be with the Lord.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Having shown that Christians who die before the return of Christ are actually with Him in Heaven and will return with Him to greet those who are alive at His coming, the Apostle turns to the event of the Second Coming. Paul calls it "the day of the Lord" (1). It is important to see that chapter 5 is a continuation of 4 13-18, where Paul wrote of the condition of those who die prior to that Day. In chapter 5, he writes about discerning the times and seasons. The times and seasons are not signs that tell us the Day is near; they are the present time and season, and the future time and season of the Day of the Lord (Acts 1:7). We live in the time and season prior to the fullness of the Day of the Lord. But, the time and season of its fullness is coming, and Paul wants the Thessalonians, who are confused about this (1 Thess. 5:1, 2 Thess. 2:2), to know which time and season they are in, and how to conduct themselves in it.
The Day of the Lord is a frequent phrase in Scripture, describing the time in which God visits His wrath and grace upon the earth. It is also the era in which He makes all things right and establishes His Kingdom in fullness upon the earth. It has the sense of both being here now, and the sense of being not here yet in its full and complete sense. We who are in the Church are people of that Day, but the Day itself is visible only to the eyes of faith. One day our Lord, who came once in humility, will return in power. In that Day He will bring the time and season of darkness and sin to an end, and will establish the time and season of His Righteousness openly and fully in the New Heaven and New Earth. When will this happen? Paul says the Day will come "as a thief in the night" (2). This means it will come at a time when the world does not expect it. The people of the world will be going about life as usual, not looking for God, not concerned about Godliness, but, as in the days of Noah, carrying on with life as usual, thinking all is well and that they live in peace and safety (3). Then, as far as they are concerned, without warning, the way labour pains come upon a woman, the Day of the Lord will be upon them, and there will be no escape.
But it will not be that way for the Church. We are not in darkness (night) like the people of the world (7), so the Day will not overtake us like a thief (4). A thief comes secretly, at a time he thinks he will not be detected. His arrival is unexpected. But, if we know when a thief is coming, we will be awake and ready. The point is that Christians are awake (6) and looking for the Lord's return. It will not be a surprise to us. We are always ready. Knowing that the Lord will return, and being people of the Day who look for the Day of the Lord, we are sober. We put on the breast plate of faith and love; and the helmet of the hope of salvation (8). In other words, we live in anticipation of the return of the Lord, whether He comes to catch us up to meet him in the air at His return, or whether He comes to take us individually to His House of many Mansions through death (10). We live in His grace, we conduct ourselves in Godliness, and we look for His Return.
Verse 9 brings us to an important point; we will not be overtaken by surprise, because we are appointed to salvation, not wrath. It is those appointed to wrath who will be surprised. They do not look for the Day because they do not seek God. They don't believe the Day is coming, just as those in the days of Noah did not believe the flood was coming. Since they didn't believe in it, they didn't prepare. Since they didn't prepare they were lost. Those who don't believe in the return of Christ will not prepare for it. They will not put on the breastplate of faith or the helmet of the hope of salvation. They will continue in the things of darkness (7). Since they will not prepare, they will be lost. But we who have put on faith and hope in Christ are prepared, and we will be saved.
It is integral to a right understanding of this passage to know that it is this spiritual preparation to which Paul refers. It is faith and hope in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Heaven (8). Paul does not intend for us to spend our lives trying to make current events correspond with Scripture as "signs" that His return is near. Nor are we to attempt to "date" the Day of Christ's Return, as so many have done in recent decades. We are to be preoccupied with faith and Godliness. Note also that this passage, like 4:13-18, is not about the "rapture." It is about the Return of Christ, the Second Coming, the great and fearful Day of the Lord.
"Wherefore" (11), meaning, because of these things, because you know these things, and because you are appointed for salvation, comfort and edify yourselves and one another with them. To comfort is to encourage faith and hope. To edify is to build up a person in the faith and hope of Christ. This is not accomplished by working up feelings. It is accomplished by putting us in mind of the great truths of this passage. It is done by reminding ourselves and others that we are in Christ whether we sleep or wake (10), and that either way we will see the Day of the Lord on this earth, and will participate in it in all its glory and goodness. This is our hope and comfort.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
1 Thessalonians closes with words that are full of practical wisdom and truth, yet are so clear they need little explanation. The relationship between the Church and her ministers is addressed in verses 12 and 13. The ministers are described as "over" the Church in verse 12. This means they have the responsibility for overseeing the work and ministry of the Church, especially the ministry of the word and sacraments. It also means they are to care for the souls of the members, and has a note of authority in it. Ministers have authority to "admonish," which means to give encouragement and hope, and to correct errors and call people to Godliness, through the public ministry of teaching and preaching, and through the private ministry of personal visitation and counsel. They also have authority to discipline people who have fallen into serious and unrepentant sin. The minister is to labour for the Church. He is to spend himself, and to be spent in the service of the people, in order lead them into the things of God.
The Church is to "know" her ministers, meaning to recognise their service, their sacrifices, and their self-giving love on their behalf. It also means they are to recognise the true ministers, and distinguish them from the false teachers. The Church is to esteem her ministers, which is to hold them in high regard; not just regard, but love.
The end of verse 13 turns to the relationships of the people within the Church, beginning with the encouragement to "be at peace among yourselves." Verses 14 and 15 continue in this theme, and are so clear that no explanation of their intent is necessary.
Verses 16-28 give several short exhortations, most of which are self explanatory. Verse 20, "Despise not prophesyings," puzzles some until it is remembered that God continued to send prophets to His people in the early days of the New Testament Church. The prophets were enabled to expound and apply the Old Testament Scriptures to the Church. Thus, their ministry was primarily one of preaching the Gospel prior to the writing of the New Testament Scriptures. The office of the prophet has now been replaced by preaching, which is the exposition and application of the Bible.
After asking the Thessalonians to pray for him and those with him, Paul closes with two exhortations and a blessing. The exhortations are, first, “greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (26). The kiss is not the romantic embrace we think of today. Nor does this verse encourage the abundance of hugging that often occurs in the church today. It is the double kiss, one on each side of the face, that is still practiced in much of the Mediterranean area today.
The second exhortation is to ensure that “this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren” (27). Paul intends to address the entire church of Thessalonica, not just the clergy or a select few. Like the rest of the Bible, it is for the entire Church. That is why it is so relevant today.
The blessing is in verse 28. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.” If the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with us, then all that is promised through Christ is unfailingly ours. What better way for the Apostle to close?