THE EPISTLES TO THE THESSALONIANS
In the very earliest times there was a place called Therma, at the northwestern corner of the JEgean Sea. It was so called because there were warm springs there; and that place Therma gave its name to the Thermaic Gulf, the northwestern projection, so to speak, of the Greek Archipelago. That place was beautifully situated and had great advantages for commerce. The result was that, in the year 315 before Christ, Cassander rebuilt it and gave it a new name from the name of his wife, who was the sister of Alexander the Great; and the name he gave to the place was Thessalonica.
This Thessalonica became afterward one of the great cities of the Via Egnatia, the great Roman military road between the East and the West, and a place of great political importance.
In the time of the apostle it was the capital of Macedonia; it was governed by a Roman prefect, although under him the old laws were respected, and according to those old laws there were seven politarchs, so called, or magistrates, elected by the people. It is a very curious fact that this word "politarchs" is used in the Acts of the Apostles in describing the founding of the church at Thessalonica. The word precisely answers to what has recently been found to be the actual government of the city. The word, moreover, is found in inscriptions upon the site of the old city of Thessalonica; and a ruined arch not only has this word "politarch " on it, but has also some names which bear a very strong resemblance to those we find in the Acts and in the Epistles. So we have evidence that the accounts of the founding of the church in the Acts and in the Epistles, which were written by Paul, are all genuine. They exactly fit in with what we know from other sources to be the surroundings and government of the place.
Thessalonica was a center from which Christianity might be very easily diffused, for it was upon the great highway from the East to the West. All the travel from East to West passed through it. And, as it was a seaport of great importance, it shared with Corinth and with Ephesus the commerce of the Mgean Sea. We are quite prepared to hear Paul say to us that from Thessalonica the gospel had sounded out through Macedonia and all Achaia.
The modern town is called Salonica, a corruption or shortening of the ancient word. Even now it is the second city in European Turkey. It has a population of ninety thousand, a curious population in its constitution, for one-third of them are Spanish Jews who came thither when they were expelled from Spain; one-third are Greeks; and another third are Turks.
Very curiously too, one of the commonest trades in Salonica to-day is the weaving of goat's-hair, so that travelers say that the sound which most frequently strikes one's ear as he passes through the streets, is the click of the shuttle. And we read, in the founding of the church, that Paul worked here with his own hand; worked undoubtedly at his trade of weaving
goat's-hair, or making tents of goat's-hair; worked before the break of day in order to save his time for preaching, and yet support himself in his labors for the gospel.
You remember that, after Paul had preached the gospel in Philippi and had passed through stripes and imprisonment, he was compelled to leave the town, and to leave it suddenly. With his back still raw and bleeding from the scourge, he made his way through Apollonia and Amphipolis until he came to Thessalonica. As there is no mention of his staying any length of time in these intermediate places, it seems to be altogether probable that, without delay, he proceeded to Thessalonica, and began to preach the gospel there—a remarkable instance of courage and devotion in the prosecution of his work. Persecution in one place only drives him to another; and, no sooner has he reached that other, than he immediately begins to proclaim the same truth that had brought him into difficulty before. The teacher is as indomitable as the truth is unchangeable.
During his stay in Thessalonica he was dependent upon his own labor for his support. People there do not appear to have been wealthy. He would not lay upon those who were won for the gospel the burden of supporting him. During that short stay—perhaps not more than a month—he twice received contributions from the Philippian brethren whom he had so recently left. So by his own personal labor, before the break of day or possibly by night work, after he had been preaching the gospel in public and from house to house all the day, Paul gained the means of his own
support in carrying on his work in the gospel. For three Sabbath days he preached the gospel in the synagogue.
In Philippi there was no synagogue; but in ThessaIonica, apparently, there was a large number of Jews, and probably a synagogue where they met together. Some Jews, it is said, believed, and of the chief women not a few; and a multitude of proselytes were converted—heathen adherents of the synagogue, or Gentiles who had accepted more or less perfectly the Jewish faith, but had not actually become Jews. The result seems to have been the formation of a church that was mainly composed of Gentile converts. We do not find in Paul's letters to the church any evidences of necessity on his part to deal with questions of law and circumcision, such as we find him dealing with when he writes to other churches that were Jewish in their constitution.
He preached the gospel here for about four weeks, and gathered to himself so large a number of these proselytes that he aroused the wrath of the unbelieving Jews. They stirred up a riot against him. They assembled a great number of unbelievers in the marketplace; and, with this following, made an assault upon the house of Jason, Paul's host. In the Epistle to the Romans, Jason is called a kinsman of Paul. Some have supposed that this means a kinsman spiritually; yet it seems most natural to take the word in its literal acceptation. When the Jews made their assault upon the house of Jason, Paul and Silas and Timothy were not there. They were perhaps preaching elsewhere, although still somewhere in the town. The Jews could only take Jason, Paul's host, and bring him before the magistrates, the politarchs of the city.
They made the charge that Paul and Silas and Timothy were attempting to establish another sovereignty, by preaching in the name of one Jesus, a king. The intimation was that they were subverting the constituted authority and were guilty of high treason. The magistrates were desirous of maintaining their good relations with Rome. If they allowed such preaching as this to go on they would be compromised; and, as they were unable at the time to take bail of Paul and Silas, they seem to have taken bail of Jason. that no harm should be suffered and that this work should not continue. The result was that Paul and Silas and Timothy, that very night, took their departure from Thessalonica, and presently made their way southward to Athens, and finally to Corinth, to which Paul came toward the close of the year A. D. 50.
The persecution which had failed to harm the apostles themselves broke upon the devoted heads of the new church-members at Thessalonica. It would seem that they were maltreated after the departure of Silas and Paul, and that their circumstances of persecution and trial called especially for the sympathy of the apostle. This doubtless was one of the reasons why the first letter to the Thessalonians was written. Paul naturally was concerned about the spiritual and the temporal welfare of these new converts. Twice he proposed to make them a visit, but in one way or another he was prevented. At last he sent Timothy to inquire with regard to their state, and when Timothy came back to him with a favorable report, declaring that they were still steadfast in their faith, and were still witnessing for Christ in spite of persecutions, and in spite of many sorrows which had recently come to them in the deaths of some they greatly loved, Paul's heart overflowed with gratitude, and as, at another time, he wrote to the Corinthians his second Epistle full of love and thanksgiving to God, so he was moved to write this first letter to the Thessalonians, which expresses his ardent affection, and encourages them to endure persecution. Paul aims also to instruct them further in the Christian life, and to build them up in faith and holiness. As we read this first Epistle, especially the first three chapters of it, we perceive that here is a church that is living in the first freshness of its love to Christ. It is a beautiful picture of overflowing faith and zeal and affection. The apostle recognized it as a church in which the power of God had been made manifest. As they had gladly received the word, so they had been faithful to the word which they had received.
Yet, at the same time, there were certain things that needed to be corrected, and which required admonition. The members of the church were mostly Greeks, and they showed the defects of the Greek character. They were impulsive and excitable, and there was a tendency to indolence among them. Some were prone to avarice, and there was danger in sensual directions. All these things Paul recognizes; and while he commends them for their love and patience and faithfulness to Christ, he warns them against these wrong tendencies, and strives to set them right. And yet, after all, the great danger of the Thessalonians has not yet been mentioned. Their main defects, and the main difficulties toward which Paul addresses himself in the latter part of the First Epistle, center about the doctrine of the coming of Christ. If we can only understand what Paul's preaching had been, and how they had received that preaching, I think we shall have the proper point of view from which to estimate these two Epistles to the Thessalonians.
At this time in the apostle's life he had not advanced, so far as we can see, to the teaching of those larger and profounder doctrines of the Christian faith which he sets forth so magnificently in the Romans and in the Ephesians and in the Colossians. It was a sort of elementary teaching that he gave to the Thessalonians, perhaps because of the fact that they were new converts from among the heathen, and that one thing, above all, needed to be impressed upon them, namely, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The preaching of Paul to the Thessalonians, if we may judge from his Epistles, was such preaching as we find represented in his speeches in the Acts of the Apostles.
Addressing heathen, as he did, he reproves their sins, declares their need of pardon, and stimulates them to repentance by declaring the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as a Judge. When he has thus spoken of Christ as the Lord, and of Christ's coming to judge the world, the Thessalonians are led to accept the gospel, to believe in this Christ as a Saviour, and actually to enter the Christian church.
Four weeks with these heathen converts was not a long time to expound the mysteries of the gospel of Christ. It would seem that the teaching given them
was somewhat elementary. The doctrine of the coming of Christ was not fully understood by some of the Thessalonians.
After Paul had departed, they were led to think that the coming of Christ was not to be long delayed; that it was certainly to take place in the lifetime of those who were then members of the church. Since some whom they especially loved had died already, they drew the inference that these departed friends, by dying before Christ's coming, had lost their share in the Messianic glory; in other words, that those who had been so early and prematurely taken away were debarred from participation in the Saviour's triumph; and they grieved that their departed friends had lost so much.
In the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul corrects this error first of all, and tells them that, when Christ comes, those who sleep in Jesus will be the first that are raised from the dead; that they will be caught up in the air; and that then those who are living will be caught up with them, to meet the Lord in the clouds. Paul corrects their wrong impression with regard to the meaning of his words. He declares that the resurrection of the dead is one event; that all are to be raised together; that all are to be raised at the coming of Christ; and that the rising of those who have departed in the faith of Jesus will precede in time the rising of those who are still living at his coming. Since some were disposed to regard this coming as immediate, Paul urges them to be faithful in their appointed calling; quietly to earn their own livelihood from day to day; to be prepared for whatever may come; to be prepared whenever Christ comes, by being prepared always. And there the First Epistle to the Thessalonians leaves the matter.
There was a class of New Testament prophets who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, interpreted the Scriptures. Some of these prophets had declared the real truth with regard to this matter of Christ's coming and had pointed out their mistake to those who were thus agitated and excited. Those who were thus agitated had been inclined to neglect the admonitions that had been given to them. Paul, therefore, advises the Thessalonians not to despise the prophets, but to heed the instruction which they gave under the influence of the Spirit. With these particular injunctions, and with a few others directed to more minute matters of Christian practical life, the First Epistle closes.
Both the Epistles to the Thessalonians must be dated in the year A. D. 51. During the interval that elapsed between the First and Second Epistles—an interval not very long in point of time, probably not more than six months at the most—it would seem as if these tendencies in the Thessalonian church increased, until at last the agitation become very general, and the misinterpretation of Paul's views became much more serious than at the first.
People who are not accustomed to think very deeply can take any sort of document, can run away with a single phrase and exaggerate its meaning, while at the same time they neglect the qualifying words that have been used, and so fail to get the whole scope of the document. In this way the First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians was misinterpreted. While Paul speaks of what will happen at the coming of Christ, and declares that all should be ready for his coming, the inference was unwarrantably drawn that Christ's coming was in the immediate future, and that, therefore, the main thing to do was to watch for the coming of the Lord and pay little attention to ordinary temporal affairs. Paul was credited with teaching that in the lifetime of those then living Christ would come in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. It was necessary that Paul should correct this misapprehension of his teaching. His second letter was written to set everything right by declaring that they had misunderstood what he had said to them.
When you compare these two letters of the apostle, four things are perfectly plain with regard to them. The first is, that the two letters agree perfectly with one another. The doctrine of the one is perfectly consistent with the doctrine of the other. They are two hemispheres which complement one another. The second is, that there is not, in either of these Epistles, any statement that our Lord would come during the lifetime of those who were then members of the church. In the Second Epistle, Paul makes it perfectly plain that this is not to be so, by the fact that he prophesies great intervening events, and declares that these must take place before the Lord can come. "The man of sin " must be revealed. There is a power which now withholds his full manifestation, and that withholding power must be taken away first. In other words, it is intimated that the end is farther away than these Thessalonians are inclined to believe. These great intervening events, then, are set forth as the third piece of instruction which the apostle gives to them. And then, fourthly, it is perfectly plain, upon reading these Epistles together, that the apostle never did teach expressly, and never did teach at all, that Christ was to come in the lifetime of Paul himself.
It is quite possible that the apostle Paul had his own private surmises with regard to the meaning of his prophetic utterances. But it is very important that we should distinguish between inspiration and inferences from inspiration. It is very important that we should distinguish between what the Spirit definitely communicates with regard to the future, and the private impressions which even an apostle may have with regard to the meaning of those things that are communicated. Peter, in his Epistle, declares that those who were inspired in the Old Testament times "sought what time or what manner of time the Spirit within them did signify, when they spoke beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow." In other words, even inspired men in Old Testament times, when they had communicated great things with regard to the future, looked upon this revelation with wonder, and did not comprehend its meaning. A man may have given to him great revelations with regard to the future, which, yet, he may not be able to understand. Just as under the Old Testament, the prophets had made known to them things with regard to the coming of Christ, and yet what time it was, or what manner of time it was, in which these things were to take place, they did not understand; just so Paul seems to have had made known to him the fact of the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, and the judgment, and yet Paul was not told when these things were to take place. He was left to himself with regard to that matter, and knew but little more as to the time of Christ's coming than did these church-members whom he addressed. Indeed, in the early part of Paul's life and ministry, and even while he was preaching to the Thessalonians and writing to them, Paul may have had a private surmise and hope that this revelation might refer to a time very near at hand in the future, and might have hoped that Christ's coming might be in his own day. But if he had such a private surmise as that, he never once taught it. There is not one word, in the Acts or in any one of his Epistles, which shows that Paul ever vouched for the immediate coming of Christ. On the other hand, it is plain that, as the apostle's life went on, his private impressions with regard to the meaning of Christ's revelation of the future changed their character; when he writes to Timothy, the last of the Epistles which we know to have proceeded from him—Second Timothy—he says: "Now I am ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand; I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." In other words, he expects death, after the ordinary manner, and perhaps by martyrdom. He does not expect that the Lord will come before he dies. He has got past any such impression as that. Either he has had new communications from God with regard to the time, so that now he understands that it is not in the immediate future, or he has used his ordinary faculties of human discernment to such effect that he sees the time to be farther away than he supposed in his early experience, s
But, I would have you remember, he has never taught anything about it; and whatever false impressions have been formed by the Thessalonians in regard to this matter have been their own impressions, and not the necessary or proper result of any apostolic assertion.
In the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, therefore, Paul corrects the misapprehension that the Thessalonians had received with regard to his first communication; shows them that there must be great intervening events first; and urges them to put away habits of indolence and neglect of business, and to give up looking to the richer members of the church for their support, on the plea that the Lord is coming so soon that there is no use of labor or anxiety with regard to the future. He teaches that every man must work in order that he may eat, and may have something besides with which to help those who are less comfortably off than he. It is true that the doctrine of the New Testament, and the prophecy of the New Testament, and the church polity of the New Testament had a progressive development; but it is important that we understand what this progressive development was. This progressive development was simply an unfolding. Prophecy in the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, is gradually unfolded. We have prophecy in germ at the gates of Eden, when it is predicted that the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head. As age after age goes by, that initial prophecy is qualified and expanded. Just so, in the New Testament revelation, we have the beginnings of prophecy in the discourse of our Lord Jesus with regard to the destruction of Jerusalem, and we have the
unfolding of this revelation until at last we get the sum and ending of it in the Apocalypse, so that the revelation goes on until the very last apostolic writer has passed from earth.
So it is with regard to doctrine. We cannot get all the doctrine of the New Testament from this Epistle to the Thessalonians—the first Epistle that Paul wrote, as early as the year 53. We must take all the other Epistles that Paul wrote, down to the year 65 or 68, in order to get the whole doctrine of the apostle Paul, and even his Epistles must be supplemented by those of Peter, James, and John, if we would learn the complete doctrinal development of the New Testament.
Just so it is with regard to church polity. We have . the beginnings in the early Epistles. If you follow the Epistles in the order of time, you find one thing after another taught as you go on, until you get to the last Epistle, when you have a pretty fully developed outline of the organization and offices and ordinances of the Christian church. This is God's method. The whole body of instruction with regard to prophecy, with regard to doctrine, and with regard to church polity was not given as a sort of lightning flash at the first; there was development in it; and yet that development reached its climax and culmination; all that was necessary to Christian faith and practice was given and was completed by the close of the apostolic age; and all development since then is simply development in the comprehension and understanding of the prophecy, doctrine, and polity then given.
It is important to observe a second thing, namely, that this development in prophecy and doctrine and church polity, from stage to stage, was occasioned by actual outward and inward needs. In other words, Christ did not make communications to the apostles without reference to the facts in the particular case, and the needs of the church which they were instructing; but the revelation in each case was, step by step, drawn forth by the outward necessities of the churches to which the apostle wrote, and then by the inward experiences of the apostles themselves. Side by side with this development in prophecy and doctrine and church polity, we have the external needs of the churches. In the church at Jerusalem, for example, there was too much for the apostles to do. They could not serve tables, at the same time that they preached the gospel and prayed, as they ought. That particular necessity led to the appointment of deacons; the outward need led to that development of church organization.
I find another example in the Epistle to the Colossians. Here was a great heresy brewing that finally culminated in the Gnostics of the second century; that false teaching in the Colossian church was made by the Holy Spirit the occasion of giving a magnificent exposition of the greatness of Christ and of showing that he is Head over all things to this universe, the Creator and Upholder of all. The outward need of the Colossians was the occasion of unfolding this great doctrine of the Christian faith.
So we have two parallel lines. On the one hand, we have an advancing line of prophecy and doctrine and church polity; and then, on the other hand, we have a line of inward and outward experience, both on the part of the church and on the part of the apostle.
There was in those times, just as there is in these later times, a principle of false religion which had to have its development. It seems to have been God's plan that, side by side with the church, there should be the opportunity to misrepresent truth and to show the error and tendency of evil. In the New Testament, side by side with the doctrine of faith and of grace, there is a continuous development of the principle of self-righteousness and dependence upon works. "The man of sin" must be revealed. I suppose "the man of sin" is essentially the same in all ages and times. The man of sin is not simply and only Roman Catholicism. It is not simply and only the doctrine of justification by works. It is all that tendency of the human heart to self-righteousness and pride, in matters of belief and in matters of practice, which stands over against the doctrine of the grace of God, as its bitter and perpetual antagonist.
That principle of false religion began its development then; but it was hindered for a time, hindered by the outward and constant power of Roman government and organization. It reached its culmination, it had its greatest power of evil only when Roman law and organization was followed by hierarchy. The Epistle to the Thessalonians gives us the first of the prophecies of this mighty power of the world that is to rise as Antichrist and to oppose the kingdom of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Over against this prophecy of the coming opposition to the kingdom of God there stands another prophecy that must give us comfort, just as it gave the Thessalonians comfort then; and that is the prophecy of the coming of our Lord in judgment, to put down evil and to set up righteousness in the earth. Our Lord is to come. Paul, in the early part of his life, did not know when that coming would be, and thought perhaps that it might take place in his own day. But he never made this a matter of teaching to the churches, and before his death the false impression was dispelled. He came to see that the time of Christ's coming was farther on. Age after age has come since then, and age after age has been watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord. We are to watch, as those to whom the Master may come at any time; and we are to be always ready. Somewhere in the future, we know not when, and we know not where, Christ is to come in clouds of heaven, in power and great glory, to judge the world; and, for us Christians to-day, just as it was in the times when these Epistles to the Thessalonians were written, the coming of Christ is the great comfort and hope of the church. Our Lord has gone into a far country to receive a kingdom and to return; we have been entrusted with our several talents; we are to employ and increase them until he comes. When he comes, he will bring us before him to render up our account. Let us be faithful to him, looking for and hastening, says the apostle, the coming of the day of God. By our faithfulness, by our zeal, by our Christian labor and endeavors, we may make it possible for the Lord to come the sooner and to complete his work in the earth. In the last chapter of the book of Revelation we have the words, "Behold, I come quickly "; and the answer of the church to-day, just as it was the answer of the church then, is " Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly."