The historical setting and occasion for this epistle is found in the book of Acts (17:1-15, 18:5). By constraint of the Spirit of God, after he had revisited the scenes of his first missionary journey, Paul is led to go across to Macedonia. He perceived a vision in which a Macedonian entreated him, "Cross over into Macedonia. Help us!" In response to this appeal, Paul and his party founded an ecclesia in Philippi, to which also he afterwards penned the epistle of that name. After being beaten and imprisoned, they are besought to leave the city, and came to Thessalonica.
Paul first reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue for three sabbaths, showing from their Scriptures that Christ must suffer and rise from the dead and that Jesus was their Messiah. Some believed but some did not. As at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:46-48), Paul then turns to those outside the pale of Judaism and of these a vast multitude believe, But, as at Pisidian Antioch, the unbelieving Jews stirred up a persecution against them so that they were sent away. After going to Berea (Ac.17:10) and Athens (Ac.17:15-34), he came to Corinth, where both Silas and Timothy joined him (Acts 18:5; 1 Thess.3:6) and where he probably wrote this, the first of all the writings of the Greek Scriptures.
Paul did not desire to leave the Thessalonians. They had only just received the evangel and needed to be taught and confirmed in the faith. He was deeply concerned about them and sought twice to return to them, but was hindered. So he sent Timothy in his stead. The report of Timothy greatly comforted him. Not being able to go to them, he pens this epistle. The literary framework shows that the whole epistle takes its color from the persecutions endured by the Thessalonians. At present, they are suffering from the anger of men, but they shall be saved from the indignation of God. The Jews who persecute them are drawing down God's indignation, but the Thessalonians will never be subjects of His wrath (1:10, 2:16, 5:9).
The doctrinal burden of the epistle is based on the truth of the Lord's future presence. He had taught this during the few days he was with them but it needed further explanation.
Some had died and some were indifferent. Would these two classes be left out when He comes? The answer is that those who are asleep will be roused first and accompany the living when they are caught up to meet the Lord in the air. They will not be left behind.
So, too, those who do not watch. The death of Christ provides for their salvation from future wrath quite apart from their present walk. All who are His, whether watchful or drowsy, shall live together with Him.
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
2 This is the pattern pastoral epistle. Paul's deep concern leads him to constant prayer for them, for he knows their need and has been torn from them before it was possible for him to teach them much.
3 It is most significant to find in the opening strain of this, Paul's earliest epistle, that abiding trinity, faith, expectation, and love, which have continued the leading characteristics of his ministry and which alone remain throughout this economy (1Cor.13:13). Expectation is expounded in these Promise Epistles. Faith is fully set forth in the Preparatory Epistles, especially Romans. Love overflows in the Perfection Epistles. When all the "gifts" vanished, these remained.
It is the character, not the quantity of work that counts with God. Apart from faith, it is impossible to please Him. Let us avoid all efforts which are not firmly founded on faith. Even toil and weariness depend on their motive to meet His approbation. Love alone can give value to our toil. Expectation, not the indefinite, uncertain desire which "hope" suggests, but an assured and confident prospect of their Lord's return, gave these young believers their endurance in the midst of persecution.
4 Paul might well question the reality of the work done in Thessalonica. In a few weeks' time, a great multitude heard and believed. There was danger that the enthusiasm of the moment had carried many into their company who were never the subjects of God's grace. But as Paul reflects upon the vision which sent him there (Ac.16:9) and the mighty power of the preaching, and their subsequent service and sufferings, he is convinced that God has chosen them. At this very time, God assures him that He had many people in Corinth (Ac.18:10).
6 What fervor, what zeal, was shown by this ecclesia! Only a few months before they bowed down to idols. Now, in the face of a furious persecution, they fearlessly proclaim Christ. They have no thought of confining themselves to their own city or even their own province. This was indeed a model even at that time, and how much more so now! Every member was a missionary. Their conduct forced the very enemies of Paul to bear testimony to the reality of his work amongst them (Ac.17:6).
10 Waiting has no English equivalent. It is used in the papyri of those who were required to settle their debts without waiting the full term.
The secret of Paul's Thessalonian evangelism is twofold. He did not seek to turn them from their idols. That was incidental. He turned them to God. God and His grace provide the impelling power. In doing this they must needs turn their back on the idols they had worshiped. But more than this, he put before them a vital expectation. It was not a dead Christ he proclaimed to them. Nor did he stop with the resurrection. He engaged their hearts with the ascended Son of God, Whom they might expect to leave His place in heaven in order to receive them to Himself.
I Thessalonians 2:4-20
4 There is an overwhelming temptation to please men, in evangelistic work. The marvelous success of Paul's short ministry in Thessalonica arose from his determination to please God at any cost.
5 The apostle, in discussing his own motives and methods, gives us an ideal by which to test all such efforts. Flattery is barred out. Avarice is denounced. He himself did not even get a living for his labor, for the Philippians sent him aid even in Thessalonica (Phil.4:16). How many are willing to work for such wages today? As an apostle, he deserved the highest honors, and could have demanded them, but he preferred to get no glory from men. His personal presence was weak and his oratory despicable (so said the Corinthians, 2 Cor.10:10), but his love was great, his tenderness was touching, his toil and labor, to avoid being a burden to them, were more eloquent than words, and his conduct above reproach.
7 What figure could more touchingly convey the apostle's genuine affection for the Thessalonians than that of a nursing mother? How unselfish and gentle and self-sacrificing is her care! The soul is the seat of sensation. To impart his own soul to them conveys the thought that he, like the true mother, would endure any discomfort or weariness for their sakes.
11 The figure of a father is no less affectionate. His solicitude for his own is spontaneous and real. He has the welfare of his children at heart. So Paul dealt with the beloved saints at Thessalonica.
13 Nothing is more important than that the Scriptures, in their pristine purity, be received as the word of God. Greece and the adjacent provinces were famed for their philosophies. Yet which of them ever produced effects to compare with the few words spoken by the apostle? He who fails to get beyond the preacher to the One Whose word he speaks has less than nothing. The one who hears the words of God receives everything.
16 What an exhibition of God's sovereign grace! The Jews, with all their advantages and their divine ritual, suffer a foretaste of God's indignation as it will be displayed in the day of the Lord. After the siege of Jerusalem under Titus, their temple was destroyed, their city razed and their whole polity brought to an end. When they go back to their land and establish their religious rites again they are meeting the more disastrous indignation of Jehovah. The Thessalonians, who had no claims on God's mercy, suffer, indeed, from their countrymen, but are promised immunity in the day of His indignation.
17 Paul was torn from the Thessalonians long before he wished to go, but God had other work for him to do, especially in Corinth, where he wrote this letter. It does not seem that his desire was gratified till some years later, when he went over Macedonia on his way to Greece (Ac.20:2).
I Thessalonians 3:1-13
1 The record in the book of Acts passes over this journey of Timothy back to Thessalonica from Athens. Timothy and Silas were, indeed, charged to come to him at Athens (Ac.17:15) and came back from Macedonia to Corinth (Ac.18:5), but this visit, being outside the scope of the book of Acts, finds no place there. Such was the apostle's solicitude for them that, seeing that he cannot return to them himself, he sends his son in the faith. The persecution which forced him to leave rages about them and threatens to undermine their faith, for unlike Corinth and Ephesus, where the apostle remained for years, he had been with them but a few weeks and even then spent much of his time toiling for his living.
10 The "deficiencies" in the faith of the Thessalonians are met in this epistle and in his second letter to them, as well as in all his nine letters to the seven ecclesias. The historical order of Paul's epistles should always be borne in mind. While the Thessalonian epistles come after the Ephesian group in the canon, they were written long before, during one of the earlier ministries of the apostle. Perhaps one of the important lessons for the apostle himself lay in his enforced absence from Thessalonica. The spiritual contact of an epistle accords much more with the trend of his ministries than his personal presence. His epistles, also, have ministered to millions who have found themselves in need of the same help that he extended to the Thessalonians.
This is the key to much that is inexplicable in the later epistles of Paul. He is always looking forward with confidence to a physical presence with those to whom he wrote. Even if the expectations were fulfilled, the Scriptures are silent, and leave us with the impression that his presence, like his ministry, forsook the physical.
THE LORD'S PRESENCE
12 Paul gives us the true motive and incentive of a holy life and a steadfast faith. It springs from the overflow of love to our fellow saints and to all others as well. It looks forward to the presence of Him Who does not decide by the outward appearance, but rewards according to the secret motives of the heart. The presence of our Lord is to be understood in its plainest literal sense. This is His absence. Whenever He is actually near and known, He will be present.
ASKING AND ENTREATING
I Thessalonians 4:3-18
3 Looseness in marriage relations is one of the saddest spots on the history of mankind. The gods of the nations were most offensive in this regard and their reputed misdeeds gave ample excuse for the trespasses of their devotees. Besides this, the religious ceremonies and rites by which they were worshiped gave sanction to the most debasing excesses and abuses. No wonder the apostle speaks plainly and sharply. He will allow no trifling. Each one is to have his own wife and is not to interfere with his brother in this matter. No doubt the apostle refers to special customs and abuses in Thessalonica.
WRITING NOT NECESSARY
9 One of the earliest impulses of the new life of the believer is to love his fellow saints. We are taught by God. It is instinctive and should be fostered and encouraged. Let us not allow party lines and differences in details to divide between us and all who have the same life and harbor the same love.
11 In the midst of such a great spiritual awakening as occurred at Thessalonica there is a temptation to neglect the necessary duties of life and mistake enthusiasm and noise for the quiet yet powerful operations of the spirit. The apostle urges them to attend to their own affairs and provide for their needs, so that their enemies will not find occasion to reproach them.
THE LORD'S PRESENCE
13 We do not sorrow when our dear ones are literally reposing. The reference is to death under a most beautiful figure for the distressed Thessalonian saints. The resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that all who are His will likewise be raised. Until Paul received this revelation, the only resurrection of the saints was the "resurrection of life" (Jn.5:29 ) called the "former" resurrection (Un.20:5), at the beginning of the thousand years, after the judgment period. Then the Lord comes down to earth. The saints are not snatched into the air. But this resurrection follows the Lord's presence in the air long before His coming to the earth. It precedes the great judgment era which ushers in the day of Jehovah. Being justified in the blood of Christ, we shall be saved from God's indignation through Him (Rom.5:9). God has not assigned us to indignation but to the procuring of salvation (5:9). This new revelation is further unfolded to the Corinthians (l Co.15:51), where the secret is disclosed that the living, as well as the dead, will be changed. Both will be given incorruptible, spiritual, celestial bodies, without which, indeed, they could hardly meet Him in the air. The crowning glory of this blessed expectation was made known to the Philippians. These bodies of humiliation will be transfigured to conform them to that glorious body which blinded Paul when first he beheld Him (Phil.3:21; Ac.9:3,8,18).
17 "We, the living." Paul does not insist that he must survive to the advent, any more than he meant to assert positively that he should die when he said the Lord Jesus "shall raise us up" (2 Cor.4:14).
I Thessalonians 5:1-28
2 This is man's day (1Cor.4:3). It is near its end. The day of Jehovah, with its awful divine judgments, is fast approaching. It will give no notice of its coming. On the contrary, it will seem unnecessary and impossible. Is it not true that never, in the history of the race, was there such a hope and expectation of the end of war? The parliament of nations, the reduction of armaments, the federation of the world–are we not always hoping for peace and security?
THE LORD'S PRESENCE THOSE DROWSING
4 The day of the Lord with its terrors and destruction is not for us. The cry of "peace and security" should not lull us to sleep. We should be on the alert, knowing the futility of all security and peace apart from Christ. And, though aware of the whirlpool into which this world is sweeping, we have no fear, for it will not engulf us. But, suppose that we, too, relax our vigilance and take a nap along with the rest. Will we be left for judgment? At His coming to set up the kingdom it is vital that they watch or they will lose their reward (Mt.24:42, 25:13; Mk.13:34; Lu.12:37; Un.3:3, 16:15). Not so here. Those who received Paul's gospel of faith apart from deeds, find their salvation a matter of pure unadulterated grace. This is true of the future as well as the past. The death of Christ, not our conduct, our watchfulness or the lack of it, is the foundation on which our future salvation rests just as really as the salvation which we already enjoy. This confidence will not lead to laxness.
8 The believer's armor is defensive. His only weapon is the spirit's sword, the word of God. Not, indeed, every statement in the Scriptures, for some of it is an inspired record of human philosophy and the very lies of the adversary are contained in its pages, but every actual declaration which has proceeded forth from God through His accredited prophets and apostles. These are powerful and effective. No other weapon should be used. For defense, we rely on faith and love for the present and on the blessed expectation of our gathering together unto Him for the future. This is figured by the helmet. No judgment from above can harm us. When heaven's judgments fall we will be safe above them in His presence.
ASKING AND ENTREATING
12 Love and patience should characterize all our intercourse with fellow saints. Love will lead us to acknowledge those who are over us and to bear with those below. It will rule out all retaliation.
16 Constant joy, constant prayer, constant thanksgiving is the normal privilege of all saints.
20 These exhortations are made in view of the changing character of Paul's ministries. They became more spiritual as time advanced. The gift of prophecy was especially adapted to meet the need of the saints until God's complete revelation should be given (1 Cor.12:10, 13:8). Yet they were to be tested and only those in line with the ideal toward which God was working were to be permanent.
23 The lame man who sat at the Beautiful gate of the temple (Ac.3:2-16) had unimpaired health and strength after he was healed. The same word is used here but is extended to the soul and spirit as well. This, and far more, will be our lot in His presence even should any part be lame or deficient now!