Notes on the Epistles to the Thessalonians

1Th  •  26 min. read  •  grade level: 7
WHEN the Thessalonians received Paul's first epistle, they had not long been converted to the Lord. They then were in all the freshness of Christian life, waiting for the Son of God from heaven, and suffering persecution for His sake. But their faith was mixed with a measure of obscurity. They thought that those from among them who had died would not see the Lord at His coming. To meet their need, the Holy Spirit addresses this epistle to them, in order to establish their faith, to give them light as to the coming of Jesus, and to comfort them in the midst of the persecutions they were going through.
Chapter 1:1. " The church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father." The Epistles to the Thessalonians present the only instance where we find the expression, " in God the Father," used to indicate the position of a church. In the other epistles, in general, Paul says, " the church of God which is at Corinth," or " the saints which are at Ephesus," etc. It is probably because the Thessalonians were recently brought to the faith that Paul speaks of them in this way. Taking, so to speak, this church at its birth, he only sees it in its relationship to God. " One God and Father "-such is the first notion that springs from faith.
" Grace be unto you and peace ": that is to say, May all the energy and riches of that grace in which you stand be displayed in you.
Verse 3. The great christian principles showed themselves in all their force among the Thessalonians; hence it is that we remark so much freshness in their spiritual condition.
" Your work of faith." See the acts which belong to faith- acts like those which are presented in Heb. 11 and in James 2; the act of Abraham delivering up his son, and that of Rahab preferring Israel to her own country, etc.
Your " labor of love ": that is, the pains one takes in the Lord, the labor one pursues in love, though amidst difficulties.
" Patience of hope "; that is, patient waiting for the promised glory.
" In our Lord Jesus Christ," translate, " of our Lord Jesus Christ." In Him is the source of all blessing for our souls; from Him it is that we derive strength and in Him we find that which nourishes the spiritual life.
" In the sight of God and our Father." In the presence of God we find the exercise of conscience. These two blessings-the maintenance of life in Christ, and the exercise of conscience before God-present the two sides of the Christian life. When the soul is in a good state, there is always an exercise of the conscience before God. One may, it is true, after a period of blessing, walk for some time with a certain measure of life, but without the conscience being much in activity. But if conscience is not reawakened, the time comes when one slips away and declines rapidly.
Verse 4. The great principles of Christianity-faith, hope, and love, which were in activity among the Thessalonians, gave evidence of their election. And this proof is the only practical proof of the election of the saints.
Verse 6. " Followers of us, and of the Lord." The Thessalonians had a share of the experience of Christ, when He was on earth. Like Him, they possessed the joy of God through the word, and they suffered persecution.
Verse 8. The faith of the Thessalonians had had an echo; it was noised abroad.
Verse 10. Converted through the power of God, the Thessalonians, far from remaining in the world and seeking to reconcile the world and faith, were, on the contrary, formed by that faith to wait for the Son of God from heaven.
Chapter 2:1-12 gives a beautiful instance of the feelings and ways of grace in the conduct and labors of a servant of God.
Verse 7. " As a nurse," etc.; that is to say, like a mother who nurses her own child. It was in this spirit of tenderness and affection towards the Thessalonians that Paul had labored amongst them.
Verse 13. After having called to remembrance his labors, what care Paul takes to maintain the Thessalonians on the foundation of the word which they had received through his preaching. The apostle puts himself aside and gives thanks that they had received that word, not as the word of man, but as being the word of God. Thus their faith was founded on the word of God, although it was by the ministry of a man that it had been produced and placed upon that foundation.
There are two evidences, which show the divine authority of the word of God-works of power, that is to say, miracles; and the effective action which it exercises in the heart. The word of God was accompanied by works of power, when it came unto the Thessalonians through Paul's preaching; chap. 1: 5. And now, in his letter, the apostle, to the praise of these believers, proclaims that the same word worked effectually in them.
Verse 14. In consequence of their obedience of faith, the Thessalonians found themselves connected with the churches of Judea, which had preceded them in the same faith (there is one body); and, like those churches, the Thessalonians were suffering persecution from those of their own nation.
Verse 16. " Wrath is come upon them to the uttermost "upon the Jews. Unbelieving Israel had been visited of God several times by partial chastisements; but now that they had rejected Christ and the gospel, God subjects them to the full extent of His judgment, a judgment which still continues, and will only be executed in the future trouble of Jacob.
Verse 17-20. Had it not been for the hindrances which had several times prevented him, Paul would have visited the Thessalonians. He greatly wished to see again these believers, the fruit of his labors-they who were the subject of his present joy and his crown of boasting at the moment of the coming of the Lord Jesus. Here then is a new element, with regard to the coming of the Lord! in that glorious day Paul and the Thessalonians would be found together.
There is a difference in the way in which the coming of the Lord is presented in these two instances. Verse 10 of chapter I places more particularly before our eyes the coming of the Son, and the joy of the saints, in experiencing the deliverance which He will bring them. There the distinction of the rapture of the saints is not yet brought out; the statement simply presents the coming of the Son from heaven. Verse 19 of the chapter we are reading goes farther; it shows the blessedness of the saints gathered together at the coming of Jesus. The testimony rendered to the Son coming from heaven has enlarged the circle of believers. There are numerous saints; all will be gathered together and happy in that blessed day.
Chapter 3. But there are in the hearts of the saints affections which grace produces.
Verses 1-10. Paul, in the midst of the care he devotes to the faith of the believers, is the first to show us how Christian affections can be connected with the cares of the ministry.
Verse 3. " We are appointed thereunto." It reads better thus; " We are set for this "-this is our lot.
Verse 8. " For now we live." It is my life, if ye stand firm, ye Thessalonians, says Paul.
Verse to. " Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face." This desire was not so soon realized; Paul before that had time to address a second epistle to the Thessalonians; and indeed several years elapsed before he was able to see them again.
Verses 11-13. In this passage Paul puts the coming of the Lord in connection with every Christian affection. This apostle, who abounded in love towards the saints, desired also that they should themselves walk in love, in order to abide in holiness, and to shine forth in that day. He does not yet state the order of the facts by which this result will be seen, but he mentions the moral truths and the practical grace which prepare it.
" The Lord make you to increase and abound in love... to the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness." The love of God possessing the heart is what enables the Christian to walk in holiness. Here we find again the doctrine of John: " He that loveth his brother abideth in the light," 1 John 2:1010He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. (1 John 2:10). It is interesting to see these fundamental elements of faith and of individual blessing forming an integral part of the powerful testimony through which Paul was forming the church.
" To the end he may stablish your hearts," etc. It is an actual establishing of the heart, but which will be seen in its results at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ: " We must all be manifested," etc.
" Before God, even our Father." Paul always sees the Thessalonians in their relationship to the Father. It does not appear that these believers had as yet got beyond the state of babes in the faith. " I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father," 1 John 2:1313I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father. (1 John 2:13).
The sense of verse 13 is this: May God establish your hearts in holiness (now, by the exercise of love), that ye may be [seen] unblameable in holiness, before our God and Father [at that moment] at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. In this passage the coming of Jesus is not presented in the act of our gathering together to Him, when we go to meet Him; but in the act of our coming with Him from the Father's house, after having been in His presence. It is that moment which will show whether we are unblameable.
When Paul, occupied with the coming of Jesus, considers the privilege of faith, he sees the saints all gathered together to the Lord, tasting before Him the common joy. When he considers the responsibility of the Christian walk, he always sees the appearing of Christ. There can be nothing but joy in our hearts at that blessed moment when we shall go with Jesus into the Father's presence, taking a place which the love of God has given unto us, and which the work of Christ has procured to us. It will be otherwise when we return with Jesus. Without losing our position and our blessedness in Him, we shall nevertheless be in a different scene; we shall have reached that solemn moment when the consequences of our responsibility will be manifested.
Chapter 4: 1-12. Here Paul adds several developments to the truths which he mentioned at the close of chapter 3; and first of all on the subject of holiness and love.
Verses 1-8. When Paul was with the Thessalonians, he had shown them the conduct that is pleasing to God. We must preserve or possess our own vessel in sanctification and honor. If anyone disregards his brother in overstepping his marriage rights, it is not man only but God whom he disregards; for the Holy Spirit dwells in that brother who has been wronged.
Verse 8. " Despiseth." It means, He therefore that [in this] disregards [his brother], disregards not man but God.
" God, who hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit," to dwell in us-Christians. Some read you instead of us.
Verses 9-12. Love is of God. By Him we love the children of God-the brethren. And this love, because it has not its source in the sympathies of man, but in God, is a love which is exercised likewise towards all; chap. 3: 12. Nevertheless, the object which is here recommended to the attention of the saints is brotherly love. The Thessalonians were not wanting in it. They were taught of God, and did not need to be written to about it. Only it was well that they should abound in it, even more and more, and seek earnestly to manifest to those without a quiet and reputable walk. When love is true, we do not merely confine ourselves to the effusions of brotherly love; we watch also, lest as to things without we should be in fault.
Verses 13-18. Paul presents, at the end of the chapter, fresh developments on the subject of the Lord's coming. He had already given the chief features of that truth; he now returns to it, in order to supply details, and to introduce elements which had not yet found their place in the subject. What he adds as a fresh element is particularly the doctrine of resurrection. Doubtless, the Thessalonians would not have denied that there will be a resurrection from among the dead, but they might not perhaps have been able to apply it to the Lord's coming.
Verse 14. " Them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." The departed saints will be found again at the coming of the Lord Jesus. They will reappear on the scene at that blessed moment. You, Thessalonians, you will find again your lost ones! And these are the glorious acts that will then be accomplished. " The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air," v. 16, 17.
Verse 15. " We which are alive and remain." As regards the coming of the Lord, the saints form two classes. There will be one class composed of those who have fallen asleep through Him, and the other of the saints who will be then on the earth. It is these latter ones that Paul points to, when he says, " We which are alive and remain." When he was writing this epistle, he considered himself as included in that class.
Verse 16. " A shout "-an assembling shout. The word here used in the Greek meant originally, the shout raised by the chiefs, on the Greek galleys, to call the men at the time of resuming their work. In our day we mean something similar when we speak of sounding a call to assemble.
It is interesting to see, in the course of this epistle, the progressive order with which the apostle sets forth the truths which concern the coming of the Lord. Instead of immediately attacking the error which was mixed up with the faith of the Thessalonians, he first takes up the subject at the point where it was known to those believers. He begins by using this language to them: You are waiting for the Son of God from heaven! This is indeed the privilege of your faith; for it is to this end, in effect that you were converted; chap. 1.
Then, by developments which it is precious to know, he brings them to those things which necessitate our gathering together in that day; chap. 2.
He then fills their hearts with the truth, so that they may be built up in God for that august moment; chap. 3.
It is after this that Paul develops the coming of Jesus for the saints, rectifying errors of judgment in the minds of these believers on certain points; chap. 4.
Lastly, after having expressed the whole portion of the saints in this event, he mentions the portion of the world; chap. 5.
Chapter 5. In the preceding chapters Paul had not pointed out any period of time in connection with the Lord's coming. Here he takes up the question of " times and seasons." But the moment he touches upon this point, he ceases to say " we." He says, " they," " them," those that are without, from whom he takes great care to distinguish the saints, by pointing to them by these words, " But ye brethren," when he again addresses himself to them. " The times," when it is a question of the Lord's coming, are connected with this world and judgment. The saints have their portion above, outside of the ages. They are taught by the Holy Spirit to be constantly waiting for Jesus.
Verses 2, 3. But the world will know what the day of the Lord is-that day which will bring with it sudden destruction on the earth.
Verses 4, 5. The saints will not be overtaken by that day. Why? Because they are not in darkness. Paul adds, " Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day." Hence, for us, a privilege and a character; the privilege of not being overtaken, as those will be who dwell in darkness, and the character of children of light. There are not in the word mere naked doctrines. The truth always clothes with a certain character those whom it places in the position of privilege.
Verse to. " That, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him "; whether we belong to the class of the living or to that of the sleepers (the departed saints), when the Lord comes, we shall live together with Him.
Verse 22. " Abstain from all appearance of evil." It may be translated equally well, " Abstain from every form of wickedness."
Verse 23. " And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly." God is often called, "the God of peace." (See Phil. 4, Heb. 13.) There is peace where all is perfect. If we live in these relationships where peace exists, we shall walk in holiness.
" Sanctify you wholly." That is, sanctify you in every point, sanctify the converted man-the whole man. One may, in certain respects, be faithful to God, and in others be faulty. Remark, that Paul does not say, " sanctify perfectly"; but he says, " sanctify wholly," which expresses another idea.1 " Your whole spirit and soul and body." The spirit is that which is most excellent in our moral being, that by which we are placed in relationship with God and distinguished from the brutes. The soul is the seat of the affections; it is a faculty of an inferior order which is to be met with, in a certain measure, even among animals: " all in whose nostrils was the breath of life "-" both men and cattle," Gen. 7:22, 2222All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. (Genesis 7:22)
22All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. (Genesis 7:22)
Wishing to show how sanctification takes up a man in his whole being, Paul says, " spirit, soul, and body." In other passages we read simply " the soul," when the soul and the spirit are meant: or else we read, " the spirit," when the spirit and the soul are meant. These two spiritual elements are the instrument on which the life acts, which God has given to the believer, and the body is in its turn the instrument which obeys the spirit and the soul.
Verse 24. It is a consolation for us to know that God is faithful; and that if we walk with Him, He will act in our behalf.
The summary of the second Epistle to the Thessalonians is this. False teachers had come, taking advantage of the little light which the Thessalonians (as yet young in the faith) possessed on the Lord's return; and seizing the occasion of their tribulation, they had thrown them into trouble of mind by telling them, " The day is present." In opposition to this work of the enemy, Paul reassures them by writing to them this epistle, the object of which is to show them that the day of the Lord was not yet present. These data are the key to the book.
Chapter 1. In this epistle, as in the preceding one, Paul, in saluting the church of the Thessalonians, sees it " in God our Father," v. 1, 2.
Then, before entering upon the special subject, the apostle considers the circumstances of the Thessalonians; and, on the occasion of their sufferings for the gospel, he recognizes their good estate in Christ, and finds in their tribulations an evidence that they were really in the Christian position. " Your faith," he says, " increases exceedingly and your love abounds, so that we ourselves make our boast in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions.... For these tribulations are the portion of those who inherit the kingdom of God," v. 3-5.
Then he shows in what an end these tribulations would issue and the change of position they were preparing between the persecuted and the persecutors at the appearing of the Lord Jesus. In that day we shall be at rest while the wicked will find themselves in tribulation. The Lord will manifest against them His retributive justice. This change of condition is not mentioned, as though it were only to be accomplished at the Lord's appearing; but the words by which it is expressed show what will be the respective condition of saints and unbelievers at that moment. It is already a first intimation, showing that the Lord will not put the saints into sorrow and trouble when He comes; v. 5-10.
Verse 5. " A manifest token of the righteous judgment of God." The persecutions which the Thessalonians endured proved they were " counted worthy of the kingdom of God." The judgment of God would bring this into evidence, as it would also manifest what had been the conduct of the persecutors.
Verse 8. There are two classes of persons on whom the vengeance of the Lord will come at His appearing: those who knew not God (that is, sinners in general), and those who do not obey the gospel.
Chapter 2. While declaring, in the preceding verses that the Lord, in His day, will manifest His retributive justice, Paul lays down a general truth which governs the subject. Now he enters upon the special point:-Is that day come?
Verses 1, 2. Read, " Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind... as that the day of the Lord is present." The coming of Jesus, and the gathering together of the saints to Him at His coming, is a motive, for the latter, not to be troubled as if they were to be included in the judgments which the day of the Lord would usher in. They will be with Him before that. When He shall be revealed from heaven, the saints will have rest; chap. 1: 7. Evidently they will no longer be on this world's scene, for it is not then that there will be rest on earth.
The seducers told the Thessalonians, " The day is present "; and not " the day is at hand."2 The Greek word is the same that is used in Rom. 8:3838For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, (Romans 8:38), and 1 Cor. 3:2222Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; (1 Corinthians 3:22), to signify, " things present," in contrast with " things to come." The language of the seducers signified that this day had been already entered on.
Having the declaration that the Lord should come and gather them together to Himself before that day, and being themselves still on earth, the Thessalonians had, by this very fact, a proof that the day was not yet present.
Verses 3, 4. Here is another proof. The one who will be the object of the Lord's judgment in that day was not yet on the scene. As long as, on the one hand, those who are to be on the seat of judgment are not gathered together (the saints above), and while, on the other hand the criminal is not brought to the bar, there can be no judgment.
Verse 6. " What withholdeth." It is not in order to prevent the revelation of the lawless one that God has put a restraint; it is to prevent his being revealed before his time. The adversary is always ready for evil. In the day that God takes away the bridle, Satan will immediately show himself at work to drag men into apostasy.
" That which restrains; " the Greek means a thing. What is it? God has not told us what it is, and this, doubtless, because the thing which restrained then is not that which restrains now. Then it was, in one sense, the Roman empire, as the fathers thought; who saw in the power of the Roman empire a hindrance to the revelation of the man of sin, and thus prayed for the prosperity of that empire. At present the hindrance is still the existence of the governments established by God in the world; and God will maintain them as long as there is here below the gathering of His church. Viewed in this light, the hindrance is, at the bottom, the presence of the church and of the Holy Spirit on the earth.
The Antichrist will be the head of the ecclesiastical apostasy. He " denieth the Father and the Son." He " denieth that Jesus is the Christ." He will be at the same time a civil head, although the first beast (Rev. 13:1-101And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. 2And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. 3And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast. 4And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? 5And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months. 6And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. 7And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. 8And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. 9If any man have an ear, let him hear. 10He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:1‑10)) will be the one to whom the authority and throne of the dragon will be given. The Antichrist, whose seat appears to be in Judea, will be a kind of lieutenant of the beast. Herod might furnish us an example.
Verse 8. " The Lord shall consume... with the brightness of his coming." Mark these last words. The lawless one shall be consumed by the presence of the Lord, manifested at His appearing. This leads us to distinguish between the coming of Jesus and His appearing. The Lord will first come, and then He will manifest Himself-He will appear.
Verse 9. " With all power and signs and lying wonders." It is very solemn to see the terms used by Peter, in his preaching at Jerusalem (Acts 2:2222Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: (Acts 2:22)), to denote the works of power which accompanied the ministry of Jesus, now used by Paul in this epistle to express what the man of sin will do. What seduction there will be then!
Elijah's miracles will also have their counterfeit. The lawless one will cause fire to come down from heaven. And here are signs which, in the days of Elijah, were the touchstone of truth-signs by which one recognized that Jehovah was God, which now will be accomplished in behalf of the beast! (Rev. 13).
Verses 9-12. These verses furnish circumstantial but most solemn details concerning the ecclesiastical action which will take place then, and the power of seduction which will be at work among men. The lawless one will come " with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish." God will send " strong delusion," and men will believe what is false, that they all may be judged who have not believed the truth.
Such will be the moral state of things during the great tribulation which is to come on the earth. Two passages in the prophets (Jer. 30:77Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble; but he shall be saved out of it. (Jeremiah 30:7), and Dan. 12:11And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. (Daniel 12:1)), as well as two passages in the gospel (Matt. 24:2121For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. (Matthew 24:21) and Mark 13:1919For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be. (Mark 13:19)), tell us of this great tribulation. There we remark that it will fall more especially on the Jews, although it may happen that the Gentiles also shall suffer from it. It is to the sorrows of this crisis that the sufferings of that remnant refer, which we find on the scene in the Psalm The tribulation will take place during the latter half of the last week mentioned in the book of Daniel (chap. 9), and will last until the Lord's appearing.
Besides, there are two passages in the Revelation which speak of a general tribulation. The first is Rev. 3:1010Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. (Revelation 3:10), where we read these words, " The hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world to try," etc. Then we have Rev. 7:9, 179After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; (Revelation 7:9)
17For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. (Revelation 7:17)
, where we find persons saved out of " all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongue," coming out of the great tribulation. From the evidence given by these passages, we find that there will be a general tribulation on the whole earth; then, at the last moment, a more special tribulation for the Jews.
The church possesses the inestimable privilege of exemption from going through these evil days. Not only will it not be on the earth at the appearing of Jesus (and this is what we have seen at the beginning of the chapter), but, besides, it will not be there at the time of the great tribulation. The Lord has said, " I also will keep thee out of the hour of temptation." We shall not therefore pass through that hour.
Verses 13, 14. There are persons who obey not the gospel; but you, Thessalonians, you have obeyed it. But this was before ordained of God, because He has chosen you from the beginning (according to a counsel determined before all ages), in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, which are things accomplished in time.
" Chosen you to salvation "-such is the object which God has purposed in Himself. " In sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth "-such is the effect produced in the elect, conformably to God's purpose. " Our gospel "-such is the means used of God to produce that effect.
Chapter 3 contains various exhortations and wishes of Paul in behalf of the Thessalonians. It mentions prayer, obedience, love, and the patience of Christ; also how to treat any walking disorderly: then salutations.
Verse 5. " The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of the Christ." The teachers who told the Thessalonians, " the day is present," had not that patience.