An American Commentary on the New Testament

Edited by Hovey, Alvah

Introduction to the First Epistle to the Thessalonians

A letter, if it fall into the hands of other readers than those to whom it was first addressed, needs an Introduction, perhaps, more than any other writing. Especially is this the case with the letters contained in the New Testament Scriptures— documents saved to our time from an ancient and vanished world; all of them, it is true, parts of one apostolic message of the Spirit of Christ to his churches, yet each with a history, an individuality, and a mission of its own. The Epistles to the Thessalonians are among the earliest writings of the New Testament (preceded, it is probable, only by James), and the earliest by several years from the hand of the Apostle Paul. The most ancient copies contain the text alone— no preface or note explanatory of their occasion or history. The present Introduction will treat, first, of The City of Thessalonica; second, of The Church; third, of The Occasion and Object of the First Epistle; fourth, of its General Character and Contents. Other topics, such as the History of the Text, and the Genuineness and Integrity of the Epistle, without which an Introduction can scarcely be called complete, are deemed less suitable to a commentary on the English text.


Thessalonica, in Paul's time, was the metropolis, the political and commercial capital of Northern Greece. From the earliest historic period it was a seaport of Macedonia; in B. C. 315, it was enlarged by Cassander, and received the name Thessalonica, of which the modern name, Salonica, is an obvious abbreviation, still retaining the same penultimate accent. It was situated at the northwestern corner of the Ăgean Sea, at the extreme end of the long Thermaic Gulf,— now the Gulf of Salonica,— with which the Ăgean terminates on the northwest. In ancient times, as now, the traveler, as he neared the head of the gulf, beheld facing him an imposing walled city, broad based at the water's edge, and narrowing upward toward the fortified angle high on the mountain side. Unlike many of the older Greek cities, its wharves were close to its principal streets and buildings. Thessalonica was not built, like Athens or Corinth, around an acropolis, distant from the shore. The walls were about five miles in circuit. Back of the city the mountains rise still higher to the north and east. Looking down the blue bay, some fifty miles off, the majestic summit of Olympus— snow capped— is seen against the sky.

As a commercial emporium, it was second, among Greek cities, only to Corinth and Ephesus; the fertile and populous provinces of the interior created an extensive traffic of imports and exports alike. The construction, under the empire, of the Via Egnatia had added to its importance and prosperity. This was the great land route between Rome and her eastern dominions, the main line connecting the Imperial city with Byzantium, Antioch, and Jerusalem. It was, as Cicero said, " in the heart of the empire." It was not only the seat of government of the province of Macedonia, and its most populous city, but it was virtually the capital of Greece. Vessels from all parts of the Mediterranean were seen in her roadstead; the " Egnatian " was the eastern extension of the "Appian " Way, and kept the provincial city in constant communication, by the swiftest posts, with Rome, as well as with the East. It passed through the heart of the city, forming a broad, straight street parallel with the shore. The Thessalonians would be familiar with the figures and the pageants that Milton has pictured on the Appian Way, nearer Rome:

"Praetors, proconsuls to their provinces

Hasting or on return in robes of state;

Lictors and rods, the ensigns of their power,

Legions and cohorts, turms of horse, and wings;

Or embassies from regions far remote,

In various habits on the Appian road." 1

Thus the newly formed church was soon heard of afar, and became "an example"; "From you," writes the apostle, " the word of the Lord hath sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia. but in every place."

Its ancient population cannot be estimated with any accuracy, but it was pretty certainly larger than now. It has been rapidly increasing in recent years; the estimate in 1884 was one hundred and twenty thousand, over against one hundred thousand in 1880. It is destined soon to attain a size and importance unknown in its past checkered history. A recent visitor to the city says:  "The railway which connects it with Belgrade and Vienna is completed all but a very few miles between Nisch and Pristina. When this is done, not only will the rich plains of Upper Macedonia, Servia, and Bulgaria be brought within easy access of the sea, but it is expected that through Salonica will lie the main route to Egypt, India, and the East, as in former days did the great thoroughfare between Rome and Constantinople. The overland mail will then leave the shores of Europe at Salonica, instead of Brindisi, and an economy of about thirty hours will be effected. If Turkish stupidity will only not throw obstacles in the way, there is no reason why Salonica should not rival Smyrna, and become the Marseilles of the Eastern Mediterranean."

The Jewish colony was larger, it would seem, than Paul had found at Philippi; they had "a synagogue." (Acts 17:1.) At present the Jews nearly or quite outnumber the other races, — Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, and all, — and control the leading branches of business. In the time of the apostle they could have formed no such preponderant element, and Dr. Dods can scarcely be right in assuming that "the population was largely Jewish." But their synagogue, with its weekly services of prayer to "the living and true God" (1 Thess. 1:9), and its public readings of the Old Testament Scriptures, had pre- pared the way for the reception of the gospel and the establishment of this flourishing church.

Politically, it was a "free city" (urbs libera), as were also, for instance. Tarsus and Athens, vested with the privilege — prized by no people more than the Greeks — of local self-government. No Roman garrison could be quartered within its walls It was free from interference in its local affairs on the part of the Roman provincial governors; even the power of life and death lay with its chief magistrates. In Thessalonica, these magistrates, seven in number, bore the title of Politarch, as we learn from Luke, whose accuracy on this point has been in modern times confirmed by the testimony of ancient inscriptions. There was also the usual local assembly, called the Demos, and probably a senate (Βουλή).

But it is the moral and religious life of the Thessalonian city that is of chief interest to the reader of these letters. Many questions spring up in the mind that require for their discussion a larger space than would here be appropriate, ^\^as Thessalonica. like Athens, a "religious" city, and "full of idols"? What type of Paganism did the apostle find here? what standards of social morality? what basis in the life and character of this population for Christian instruction? or what providential preparation for the reception of the gospel? Some of these points will be briefly touched upon in the following pages both of the Introduction and of the Commentary. The inquiry concerning the preparation for the gospel, as has already been shown, finds partial answer in the presence of the Jewish colony and its synagogue. Speaking generally, however, Thessalonica was a city of Greeks — Greeks of the north, a race hardier, less effeminate, and less sensualized than the bulk of the population in Ephesus or in Corinth. Their religion was that pagan idolatry which adored the gods of Olympus, the sacred and majestic mountain which, on clear days, was in full view as one looked across the bay. This legendary faith of their ancestors still kept its hold upon the imagination, and to an extent upon the heart. That they "had long lost all practical belief in the Pagan religion," as Farrar assumes, we cannot admit to be true of the mass of the people. The Olympian system of the poets was no longer an object of faith, if, indeed, it ever had been; but local superstitions, and the worship of native demi-gods and deities, did not so easily vanish before philosophy and doubt. To the poor and the uncultivated, Paganism was still a worship, and when they became Christians, it was to "turn from idols," and to offend demoniac powers, who, they perhaps thought with dread, could hurt if they could not help. That they worshiped the deities of their race with a certain sincere faith and fear, there is every reason to believe. Yet the idolatry of the age was itself frightfully immoral; a wealthy commercial city like Thessalonica revealed much that was worst in the national religion. Its household art; its legends; its public festivals and processions; its encouragement of nameless vice and sensuality— are familiar to readers of classical literature, and have been treated at length by many writers. What might have been seen in Corinth of the Fourth Century B. c, has been told by Becker in his Charicles; Corinth was no better four centuries later,— only worse, — and Thessalonica would not fail to import its fashions and its follies. Prof Fisher2 has clearly and candidly set forth the leading features of the popular religion at this time in Greek and Roman communities, touching also upon the morality of ancient heathenism. Others, as Tholuck and Friedlander, have exhibited more fully, and in still darker colors, the debasement and degradation entailed by the Paganism of the classical world. One of the saddest phases at the period when Christianity came was the moral hopelessness which shut in those who felt most deeply the evils of their life. This feature impressed the Apostle Paul, who again and again characterizes the Gentiles as men who have no hope. This is, indeed, the most striking ethical phenomenon of the age: the sense, in some of its noblest spirits, of the burden of life, the utter emptiness of existence, and the impenetrable darkness of the future.

From the opening paragraph in the twentieth of Acts, it appears that Paul revisited Thessalonica during his second missionary' journey, both going and returning, A. D. 53, 54. It is supposed, also, from allusions in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, that there were subsequent visits (see 1 Tim. 1:3; Titus 3:12; 2 Tim. 4:13) while journeying in that region after his return from the imprisonment in Rome, A. D. 61-63.


The Thessalonian Church was founded A. D. 52, only a few months before the writing of the First Epistle. Paul, Silas, and Timothy, had come directly from Philippi, leaving Luke behind, it appears, to have oversight of the recently established church. Though still suffering from his injuries, Paul proceeds at once to his task. The story of his ministry in Thessalonica occupies but one short paragraph in Acts. Luke was not here an eyewitness; his narrative is no longer in the first person, as in the preceding chapter, and lacks somewhat the graphic circumstantiality with which he recounts their Philippian experiences. He relates (we render freely):

"They came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews. Paul, according to his custom, went in, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Old Testament Scriptures, explaining the prophecies and showing that it was necessary, for their fulfillment, that the Messiah should suffer and arise from the dead; and 'this Jesus,' said he, 'whom I am proclaiming unto you, is the Messiah.' And some of the Jews were persuaded, and attached themselves to Paul and Silas; likewise a great number of devout Greeks, and of women of high rank, not a few.

"But the Jews, moved with jealousy, and taking with them some of the city rabble, gathered a crowd and set the city in an uproar. And they assaulted the house of Jason, and sought for them, to bring them into the Assembly of the people. But, not finding them, they dragged Jason and certain brethren to the Politarchs, shouting: 'These men who have turned the world upside down are come hither also; Jason has entertained them; and all of them are acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, declaring that there is another king, Jesus.' And the multitude and the Politarchs were alarmed when they heard these things; and they took security from Jason and the rest, and then dismissed them. And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea."

From this account of its origin, and from the two short letters written a few months later, not very much can be gained concerning the history and distinctive features of the little community which the apostle addresses as The congregation of the Thessalonians that is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. A few features appear, however, that interest us at once in this young church, Paul's pride and joy.

It had for the most part a Gentile membership. A few of the first converts were Jews; a larger number (including the above-mentioned women of rank) Gentiles, presumably Greeks by race. The latter, although not, strictly speaking, proselytes, had been worshipers with the Jews in their synagogue. All these converts were the fruit of three Sabbaths" or weeks' preaching. Afterward a much larger number of converts were won directly from the Pagan community; for we find Paul, in the First Epistle, addressing his readers as those who had under his preaching turned from the worship of idols to that of the true God.

It is commonly taken for granted that the three or four weeks spoken of in Acts embrace the whole period of the apostle's sojourn at this time in Thessalonica. Riggenbach controverts the supposition that Paul remained longer; more recently, Godet also assumes that he " left the city and its beloved church after a stay of about four weeks."3 But both of Paul's letters imply a longer period of personal labor and instruction. He verifies certain facts of his ministry by appealing to the personal knowledge of his readers in a way which fully justifies the inference that he had been with them for a longer time than the mere week or two following the conversion of the most of those whom he addressed. For example, he reminds them of his freedom from mercenary motives and the man-pleasing spirit, of his daily labor for self-support, and how he instructed them one by one in the ways of Christian duty. The latter reminiscence (compare 1 Thess. 2:11, 12) of itself implies a period of continued personal labor. And the whole appeal to their personal testimony on the points referred to would lose much of its force if Paul had left the city after the third Sabbath, when the majority of his Gentile converts could have known him but a very few days. Still more decisive is the allusion to these Gentile converts as having, at the time of his arrival among them, "turned from idols." This cannot be meant of the "devout Greeks" mentioned in Acts 17:4, for, as the term "devout" (σεβομένων) Implies, they were already worshipers of the God of the Jews. They must have been subsequent accessions from the Pagan population. We are driven, therefore, to the conclusion that the apostle remained at least several weeks after his three Sabbaths of synagogue work before he was driven from the city by the Jews. That Luke does not mention it in the passage in Acts, a second-hand and closed condensed account, is not surprising, and forms no serious objection to the supposition.

It was composed of the poor. It is to men who "work with their hands" that the letters are written — tradesmen and mechanics, who would become dependent upon others if they neglected daily labor. (Compare 1 Thess. 4:11, 12; 2 Thess. 3:12.) This, however, would not distinguish it from others among the early churches. "Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God," expresses the constitutive principle that has ever prevailed in the history of the Church of Christ. But it was no ordinary poverty that tested the patience and fidelity of the Thessalonians. It is, doubtless, of them, as well as of the Philippian and other Macedonian churches, that Paul writes to the Corinthians "that in much proof of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality." (2 Cor. 8:2, Rev. Ver.) The whole of the fine tribute to the zeal and liberality of the Macedonian Christians, contained in the chapter cited, belongs in no slight part, one is impelled to think, to the Thessalonians, of whom Paul could emphatically say, they "gave their own selves to the Lord, and to us by the will of God."

The prominence of women in its membership is a feature mentioned by Luke which marks the Thessalonian Church in common with others of Macedonia. Here, as at Philippi and Berea, women of rank and influence early identified themselves with the new movement. Bishop Lightfoot is undoubtedly correct in assuming that the apostle's work was thus strongly reinforced. The conditions of life in Northern Greece were in this respect very favorable as compared with the cities of Asia Minor, where Paul had labored hitherto. "The extant Macedonian inscriptions," says Lightfoot,4 "seem to assign to the sex a higher social influence than is common among the civilized nations of antiquity. In not a few instances a metronymic takes the place of the usual patronymic, and in other cases a prominence is given to women which can hardly be accidental. But, whether I am right or not in the conjecture that the work of the gospel was in this respect aided by the social condition of Macedonia, the active zeal of the women in this country is a remarkable fact, without a parallel in the apostle's history elsewhere, and only to be compared with their prominence at an earlier date in the personal ministry of our Lord."

Like the sister church at Philippi, it had sprung up amid persecution. Expressions in both letters to the Thessalonians show that the persecuting activity of their enemies continued after the apostle's departure. It could hardly be otherwise. The number of Jews was probably larger than in any other Macedonian city, and their malignity was unrelenting. Thus the church was from the very first a suffering church, to whom "it had been granted" not only to believe on Christ, "but also to suffer in his behalf" The praise of its fidelity and its heroism speedily went abroad among all the churches of the empire. The Saviour's message to the church at Smyrna is strikingly applicable to the case of the Thessalonians, and reads, indeed, like a summary of the apostle's letter at this time:" I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich), and the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and they are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer." (Rev. 2:8, 9, Rev. Ver.)

We come now to an inquiry equally important for our insight into the inner life of the church, and for the proper understanding of the letters addressed to it; namely, as to the basis of its faith. The letters assume an instructed faith, a more or less fully developed body of Christian teaching; in other words, a theology. Now what was the elementary theology that the church had received — the doctrinal basis of its faith and life? The epistles themselves have been made to deliver one-sided testimony on this point; they have been interpreted as didactic and theological documents, rather than as personal, casual letters, — quite perversely, as will appear evident when we come to consider their occasion and object. The inquiry must take into account other sources than the letters alone, and is a necessary requisite to a proper understanding of their contents.

It is apparent, from the account in Acts, that, on entering Thessalonica, Paul took as his main theme the supremacy of the slain and risen Jesus — of him who had been proven by his death and resurrection to be the Christ-king of prophecy. The two letters also dwell upon a second theme — the Parousia — Christ's return to pronounce judgment upon his foes and to establish his kingdom. On these considerations is founded the theory that the religion of the Thessalonian Church at this period was a "Messianic Christianity." It is supposed not only that their faith was rudimentary as regards their conscious appropriation of the gospel (Paul refers, in the third chapter of the First Epistle, to what "was lacking" in this respect), but that the gospel message itself as delivered to them was of a peculiarly Messianic type; that they had but one article of faith, — Jesus is the Messiah, — with emphatic stress laid upon his promised return. To serve God and to await his return from heaven — these were "the two poles of their Christian life."5

This view bases itself mainly upon the observed contrast between the doctrinal topics of these two, and of the subsequent epistles of Paul, especially Romans and Galatians, but including First and Second Corinthians. In what he writes to the Thessalonians, the apostle does not once mention the law, nor allude to the hopeless bondage of the soul under its dominion. The reign of grace and the glories of the new free life in Christ are not dwelt upon. In fact, according to Sabatier, Paul had taught them nothing more than what he terms "primitive Paulinism." "The apostle of the Gentiles began, like the others, by preaching the impending judgment of God, and portraying, as did John the Baptist, the wrath to come."6 Professor Jowett has supported this view at some length.7 He finds allusions in the Epistles to the Corinthians to a change in the apostle's teaching. In the earlier stage of his ministry his conceptions of the kingdom of God clothed themselves in the traditional imagery of Judaism. It is to this stage of his experience that he refers when he writes:" Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more." (2 Cor. 5:16, Rev. Ver.) Thus the church in Thessalonica had received from him a JudŠo-Christian gospel; and this is the phase of Christianity which is reflected in the First Epistle. Jowett even seems to suppose that, when Paul, in his letter to the Philippians (4:15), refers back to "the beginning of the gospel," he has in mind this rude and undeveloped type of Christian doctrine; that, within the four or five years after the writing of First Thessalonians, and before either First or Second Corinthians was written, he had broken away from these trammels, and attained to larger and more spiritual conceptions.

There are others who would scarcely assent to the principles of interpretation followed by the above critics, but who, notwithstanding, admit' this theory of a marked and notable progress in doctrine on the part of the Apostle Paul during the interval in question. Principal Edwards, in the Introduction to his Commentary on First Corinthians, writes: ''Daring the four or five years that have elapsed, few stirring events have occurred. The apostle has spent a large portion of the time at Ephesus, with Apollos for his companion. Whether the influence of Alexandria, or closer acquaintance with Greek ideas, or his own insight, gave him the clue, the result is the growth of a peculiar theology, which mainly rests on the conception of a mystical union between Christ and the believer. Never for a moment wavering in his belief in the supernatural facts of Christianity, which have brought to pass so great a revolution as the conversion of the persecutor into an apostle, and always acknowledging their authority over his spirit, he has at length discovered a principle that will explain their inner meaning, transform his hopes of the speedy return of Christ in his kingdom from earthly to spiritual, and render love to Christ — not a short- lived affection or a mere feeling of thankfulness, but an undying, holy well-spring of zeal and absolute consecration to the service of the living and glorified Jesus, into communion with whom he has entered, and from whose abiding presence he derives all grace. In short, the difference between the two Epistles to the Thessalonians and the less simple and pathetic, but more profound, Epistles to the Corinthians, lies in the new conception that sustains the keenly philosophical reasonings of the apostle in the latter concerning Christ, whom he knows no more after the flesh, but after the spirit."8

To allow this position is to put the interpretation of the two epistles before us on a false footing. For we have to do not merely with the explicit doctrinal teachings of two or three paragraphs, but with the terms and phraseology employed by the apostle throughout them both. If the church and its teacher were still in the swaddling clothes of a "Messianic Christianity," the letters take on a different tone — the force of the words is other than it has usually been considered, and even the ethical precepts belong to a different plane of Christian thought. The question is not merely the historical one as to the status of one or more of the apostolic churches at a given epoch; it is indispensably requisite to the elucidation of these two first documents from the hand of Paul that they be viewed against the proper background — that background of faith and doctrine which may reasonably be presupposed in the persons addressed.

It is difficult to see how the above-mentioned view can be held without impugning the historical authority of the Acts of the Apostles, and reconstructing the entire narrative of Paul's missionary life. The apostle was not now in the beginning, but in the middle of his missionary career". In A. D. 52, when he entered Thessalonica, he had been preaching the gospel for fifteen or sixteen years. He had founded churches in Cilicia and in Central Asia Minor. In his first preaching at Antioch, in Pisidia, he emphasized the distinctive truths of the Pauline gospel:" Be it known unto you therefore, brethren, that through this man is proclaimed unto you remission of sins: and by him every one that believeth is justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses." (Acts 13:38, 39, Rev. Ver.)

But, turning from Acts to the later epistles, there we find equally convincing testimony. The Galatian churches had been founded before Paul came to Philippi and Thessalonica. In writing to the Galatians, he gives no hint that he is presenting to them a phase of the gospel in any wise different from that which he had first taught them, or even an advance upon previous teaching. He defends the gospel that he had preached among them. (1:11.) He relates his controversy at Antioch with Peter, which is probably to be placed before the second missionary journey, and thus before the foundation of the Galatian churches. He had made known to them the crucified Jesus and the "message of faith'' (3:1, 2); he reminds them that they had " begun in the Spirit," not "in the flesh." In other words, the doctrine of the Epistle to the Galatians is not an outgrowth of, or an advance upon, his preaching in the year 51 or 52, but a re-affirmation and vindication of it.

Again, in writing to the Romans five or six years subsequent to the foundation of the Thessalonian Church, Paul expresses his gratitude to God that the Roman Church had accepted his exposition of the gospel: "But thanks be to God . . . that ye became obedient [the context implies at the time of their conversion] to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered." (Rom. 6:17.) The "form" referred to denotes "the distinct expression which the gospel had received through Paul"; see Meyer, De Wette, Philippi, Godet. It is the "form" of that gospel whose free individualism and high spirituality he is engaged in expounding in chapters six to eight of the Epistle. Now these Romans are not addressed as recent converts; if the faith of this large and widely known Christian community was known to be of this type, it certainly was not in consequence of some recent change. It is only reasonable to infer that this had been the. Christianity taught at Rome for at least several years.

Not to pursue this inquiry farther, we assume that the Thessalonian Church had already been taught the essential principles of what Paul called his gospel — taught, that is to say, as fully as his brief sojourn, and the limited capacities of his converts, permitted. He had to them, as to the Corinthians, preached Christ crucified, as their righteousness, their sanctification, and their final redemption. Compare 1 Cor. 1:30. That which is expounded in Romans as the central truth of the Christian system, is in First and Second Thessalonians implied as its central truth — namely, the vital union of the believer with Christ, a union already established and to be perfected in eternity.

Of the history of the church subsequent to these epistles, the New Testament furnishes little or no trace. The probability that he visited it on various occasions, both before and alter the Roman imprisonment, has already been referred to. Several of its members became active participants in the apostolic missionary work. Jason is not afterward mentioned, unless he be supposed to be identical with the apostle's kinsman who sends salutations from Corinth to the Roman Church. (Rom. 16:21.) Gaius and Secundus were assistants of Paul in his third missionary journey. Aristarchus also, who accompanied Paul on the same journey, has honorable mention. He and Gaius fell into the hands of the mob that gathered in the great theatre at Ephesus. In Colossians 4:10, he is named by the apostle as his " fellow prisoner," having become, it would seem, a voluntary sharer of Paul's exile and captivity.


The letter itself explains the immediate occasion. After his departure from Thessalonica, the welfare of the newly formed church had been constantly on the apostle's heart. He made two attempts to return — each in vain; "Satan hindered" him. (2:18.) From Athens he sends Timothy back to comfort them, establish them more firmly in the faith, and bring report of their state. He himself soon goes from Athens to Corinth, and there awaits the return of Timothy from Thessalonica, and of Silas from Berea, or some other of the Macedonian churches. The interval was one of those periods of "distress and affliction" (3:7) which seem often to have characterized the experience of the apostle, particularly during these more active and laborious years of his missionary career; similar, perhaps, to a subsequent experience in Macedonia, of which he speaks in 2 Cor. 7:5:" For even when we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no relief, but we were afflicted on every side; without were fightings, within were fears. Nevertheless, he that comforteth the lowly, even God, comforted us by the coming of Titus." While he is in this state of depression, Timothy arrives, bringing relief and joy. He is the bearer of good news from the Thessalonians — of their faith and love, of their affection for Paul, and of their steadfastness in persecution. This was comfort indeed; "unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness." The " even now " of 3:6 shows that this was the occasion on which the letter was written, immediately after Timothy's arrival He obeys the impulse, seizes the hour of his own revived hope and courage, and, sending back cheer and uplifting to the hearts whence it had come to himself, writes this inspiring exhortation.

The writer's object is equally manifest. He writes for the same reason that he had sent Timothy before, for the same reason that he would now have come himself— he is with them "in heart," and can "no longer forbear" (2:17, seq.); he desires "to comfort them concerning their faith," "to establish " them, "to perfect that which was lacking in their faith." (3:2, 10.)

The effect, when read in the church at Thessalonica, can easily be imagined. Paul's generous praise and recognition of their fidelity; the winning unreserve with which he takes them into his confidence; his ardent affection to them personally; and his inspiring tone of courage and hope — all this, as well as the closing words of instruction and kindly admonition, would enkindle the like ardor and zeal, and arouse the enthusiasm of the little community to the highest. The natural tendency of expositors to lay stress on the didactic element has thrown the personal and historical substance of the Epistle into the background, and the reader is liable to pass rapidly over the early chapters as if they were merely introductory to the writer's main theme. The Epistle is classified as "eschatological," and the fourth and fifth chapters are regarded as the body of it. "The main object of the apostle in writing this Epistle," says Bishop Ellicott, "can easily be gathered from some of the leading expressions; it was designed alike to console and to admonish," etc.; see the whole paragraph in the Introduction at the beginning of his excellent grammatical commentary on the Greek text. Dr. Schaff summarizes the Epistle thus: "The theoretical theme: The Parousia of Christ. The practical theme: Christian Hope in the Midst of Persecution"9 But neither the didactic nor the admonitory motive furnishes the key to the letter. The instruction given concerning the Parousia is principally a reminder, in order to remove misapprehension concerning instruction previously given. The ethical precepts are, for the most part, repetitions of his previous oral exhortations. Both these hortatory portions, moreover, belong to the closing section of the letter, introduced by "Finally"; this conjunction, as Ellicott properly says, "marks the transition to the close " of the Epistle; it indicates that he had now written what it was his principal object to say. An ethical motive, indeed, pervades the entire letter; but it is partly unconscious, and finds expression in but few direct precepts. It aims higher. A letter will be Paul's other self, and do, in part, what he wished to do in person: promote mutual knowledge and confidence between himself and the church, develop the self-consciousness of the church as a body, and animate it with his own holy ambition.


1. We are to remember, first of all, that it is a letter — a genuine letter in motive and substance, as well as in form. "All the writings of Paul which have come down to us," says Reuss, "are not only in the epistolary form, but are actual letters addressed to particular and definite readers." Some of them, however, are of a more general character than others. The Epistles to the Romans and Colossians were addressed to churches that he had never visited. The Epistle to the Ephesians is supposed to have been intended, not for that church exclusively, but for a circle of churches in that region. Both the Epistles to the Thessalonians have the best characteristics of the epistolary style. The true letter is personal, spontaneous, vivid. It is born of the moment; it is the flash of intelligence and feeling from soul to soul, as in an instant of electric contact. Letters are the most personal of all writings; their form and texture allow the fullest revelation of individual traits. They often of themselves constitute a biography, as in the case of Cicero or of Carlyle. This significance depends not only on the facts or truths of which they are the vehicle, but on the weight and worth of the writer's individuality.

Such are Paul's letters to the Thessalonian Church. So much is it the custom to read them by chapters, or to resolve them into "lessons," or to study them in single " texts," so seldom is one of them read at a single sitting as one piece of writing, that this prime characteristic needs the utmost emphasis. This First Epistle is anything but "an open letter"— a public tract in epistolary form, as, for instance, the once famous Junius Letters, or Pascal's Provincial Letters, nominally addressed to definite persons, but really intended for a wider and quite different public. It is not a doctrinal treatise, though often so treated, and labeled, accordingly, " Eschatological," a title which lends its aid toward rendering both of these two Epistles the least read of the Pauline writings.

" In the study of the Scripture," says Bengel, "the reader ought to put himself, as it were, in the time and place where the words were spoken or the thing was done, and to consider the feelings of the writer and the force of the words." Once back to the time and place, and he has gained for himself the interpreter's true standing point and centre of vision, and has more than half accomplished the interpreter's task. The field of vision, however, in the case of a real letter, like an ellipse, has two centres, two times and places — that of its writer and that of the persons addressed. So he who will for himself "feel the force of the words," must take his place, first, with Paul in Corinth, and then in the assembled Thessalonian Church when the letter is read.

2. It is a page of Paul's experience while in Corinth. We have already seen how erroneous it is to regard it as marking a stage in his theological development, or as furnishing a transcript of his theology at a given epoch. It is a transcript of himself It is a spontaneous letter, struck off at an hour when, to use his own expression on another occasion to the Corinthians, " his heart was enlarged," and his soul flowed forth like a river in conscious joy and strength. No one of his epistles abounds in warmer expressions of affection. The first three chapters glow with a father's love; nay, the apostle boldly likens his own love to these children of his soul to a mother's yearning tenderness as she presses her babe to her bosom. It is an hour, also, of fresh assurance and courage. The contempt shown him at Athens, the disheartening prospect in Corinth, were for a moment forgotten. His paralyzing depression has vanished, and his soul is alive again (3:8); he is on heights of glory and joy. (2:20.) The contrast is touching, between his downcast mood just before and the rebound after Timothy's arrival. Even at the distance of eighteen centuries one can scarcely view without tears the overflowing, grateful joy of the heroic apostle, as he receives the messages from his converts in Thessalonica. A man of many enemies, " alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake " —

" Bruised of his brethren, wounded from within " —

so much the stronger was the tie that bound him to the souls he had won for Christ. We see, from such a letter, not only how he himself could love, but how he prized and hungered for the love that others gave.

3. It contains Paul's own account of his ministry in Thessalonica. This is found in the first and second chapters — the most interesting, perhaps the most instructive, portion of the Epistle. The reminiscences are the more valuable, considered as autobiography, because they seem not to be written in the way of personal vindication. They are rather to remind the church of its glorious beginning, and to inspire it anew with his own aims and spirit. His history is in part theirs. It rehearses suffering, conflict, toil b}' day and by night, but a ministry wrought in power, in the Holy Spirit, and in strong conviction — a ministry that had not been found "vain."

4. It is a picture from life of a newly formed Gentile church in the apostolic age. In the earnest endeavor of modern thought to realize to itself the true character of primitive Christianity, a document like this is of inestimable value — second, in this respect, only to the Corinthian Epistles. Its testimony is the more valuable from its being a casual production, so slightly dogmatic, and, in its retrospect, so recent. We get glimpses into the interior of a society of Christian believers which has just separated itself from Pagan fellowship, as well as from the synagogue of Jews, and to which the new life is gradually giving form and character. The heaven-born principle of faith working by love has already begun to produce the fruit of righteousness, not only transforming individual life, but organizing its diverse and antagonistic elements till they are already one body in Christ. In truth, it is a spectacle of thrilling interest— this church in the fresh beauty of its first love. It is "m the Lord Jesus Christ." It has evidently, like the Galatian Church, "begun in the Spirit." Each member has received the Holy Spirit (compare 1:6; 4:8); still more, some have received his charismatic gifts, for the church has its prophets. (Compare 5:20.) Its ideals of duty are not yet the highest, as regards either the individual or the church. It has its special temptations, as has already been observed. Especially is it suffering the fiery trial of persecution, and tempted to think some strange thing has happened to it. But thus far its escutcheon is unstained by apostasy; it is steadfast in the Lord — a church of faith, of love, above all, of hope. This last — "queen of the virtues," as Chrysostom calls it — is the jewel that shines brightest in its diadem. It confronts its foes clad in the breastplate of faith and love, and helmeted with hope — the hope ready to be revealed in the last time, the hope of the Saviour's appearing.

5. Its doctrinal section (4:13-5:11) treats of Christ's second coming. It forms but a small part of the Epistle (about a sixth), and is chiefly designed to recall instructions previously given. Even here the explicitly doctrinal element is but slight. Some of the church were in distress lest their friends — believers who had recently died — should not arise from the dead in time to share the glories of the Lord's coming. On this point Paul gives assurance and comfort, declaring in unmistakable terms that the Christian dead should arise before the saints who might then be alive should gather to meet the Lord. The other points are scarcely more than re-affirmations of our Lord's own teaching to his disciples before his crucifixion and his ascension. The "Day of the Lord," as in Old Testament phraseology he terms the time of Christ's return, cannot be definitely predicted. It will come suddenly; it will come unexpectedly; it will come with terror to the enemies of God. Although himself evidently under the personal impression that the Parousia was not far off, and would probably come within the lifetime of some then living, he nevertheless refrains from affirming this, or in any way suggesting it as a matter of faith. He shows that the chief significance of the doctrine is its practical significance. It teaches spiritual vigilance and sobriety. The decree of God hath appointed them to salvation; it is theirs to watch and wait until his salvation be revealed.

6. The fourth and fifth chapters are principally ethical. There are a number of specific precepts — terse, pointed, and evidently adjusted with accuracy to the immediate needs of the church. Especially characteristic are the injunctions regarding chastity, industry, order, and subordination in church relations, constant joy and unceasing prayer, recognition of the Holy Spirit's presence and work — the latter particularly in respect to the deliverances of those who had the gift of prophecy. Here occurs the memorable exhortation "to be quiet, to do your own business, and to work with your hand"; and parallel with it, in the Second Epistle, "If any will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear of some that walk among you disorderly, that work not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread."

"Few persons, perhaps, have remarked how significant this style of exhortation is of a new world and a new order of ideas. For, in spite of ultrademocratic appearances, there was in Greek society an ultra-aristocratic spirit in its most evil form — the ultra-aristocracy of culture as well as of social position. As regards the former, tradesmen and mechanics were held to be incapable of true philosophy or spiritual religion or refined thought. As regards the latter, one of the worst influences of slavery was the discredit which it threw upon free labor, and all the smaller forms of commerce. Aristotle treats with cold cynicism everything of the sort. The tradesman or mechanic is but a higher kind of slave, — differing from him in kind, not in degree, — bearing the same relation to the public which the slave bears to the individual. To do any Work which marks or curves the body; to live upon daily pay; to be connected with the detail of fabrications, or with sales in the public markets — this was to degrade a freeman, and to plebeianize his spirit as well as his body. Such were the ideas of Aristotle, who knew Macedonia so well, and had lived in it so long — such the ideas which were in the very air of Thessalonica when St. Paul wrote his epistles. It is full of significance that the first apostolic epistle speaks out so boldly and earnestly upon the dignity and becomingness of industry, the nobility of working with our own hands, though they may be blackened by the work — the duty of preferring our own coarse bread, won by the sweat of our brow, to the precarious food of the beggar, or the ignominious luxury of the parasite. This was one great social and moral result of the message, which, if its origin was in God's eternal counsels, came from a carpenter's shop, and was published by a company of fishermen, among whom a tent- maker of Tarsus had obtained admission."

But the Epistle, as a whole, is ethical. It is the ethical motive that gives tone to the earlier as well as to the later chapters. One desire evidently controls the writer: the desire for the spiritual welfare of his readers, that he may "establish their faith" — in other words, that he may strengthen and develop their Christian character. But he relies less upon precepts and instruction than upon the impact of his own personality. He takes them into his spiritual embrace. He points them to his own example. He will transfuse their souls with his own vitality and enthusiasm. It is evident how perfectly he apprehends the nature of his task as a moral teacher. High attainments in character are possible only through energetic effort; there must be an arousal of spiritual ambition and enthusiasm. But the effort must be directed to the highest moral ends; clearly conceived ideals are prerequisite to the highest excellence. Thus the apostle sedulously seeks to correct and to perfect their conceptions of the life that is in Christ. It is a fundamental misconception of the scope of the Epistle to regard it as pointing only or chiefly to a Messianic deliverance. It points upward to higher ideals of character, and not merely for- ward to a final redemption. There is a deliverance from sin to be striven for now, as well as a deliverance from wrath to be attained hereafter. God calls them to be holy here. Much stress, it will be observed, is laid upon sanctification and holiness. God's will and purpose is their sanctification— the work of the Holy Spirit, but not less truly their work. Thus the general drift of the Epistle allies it very closely to that written to the Philippians about ten years later. There are many points of contact between the two. Indeed, the latter is a constant commentary upon the earlier letter, containing, as it does, a richer development of the same ethical ideas. Its keynote, as has often been said, is hope. It is thus a message from Christ to the suffering Christian and to the suffering church in all ages. As to his people under the Old Covenant, so here, under the New, he speaks "to her heart" (compare Hosea 2:13) words of unspeakable comfort and cheer in the midst of conflict or distress or temptation — to the heart of a man in the tones of a man. And the supreme comfort to his people will ever lie in "the promise of his coming." What has well been said of the Apocalypse applies to each of these epistles. "It calls the Church to fix her eyes more intently upon her true hope. For what is that hope? Is it not the hope of the revelation of her Lord in the glory that belongs to him? No hope springs so eternal in the Christian breast. It was that of the early Church, as she believed that he whom she had loved while he was on earth would return to perfect the happiness of his redeemed. It ought not to be less our hope now. ' Watching for it, waiting for it, being patient unto it, groaning without it, looking for it, hasting unto it' — these are the phrases which the Scripture uses concerning the day of God. And surely it may well use them, for what, in comparison with the prospect of such a day, is every other anticipation of the future?"10

7. Analysis. It readily divides into two portions: chapters 1-3, Personal and Retrospective; chapters 4, 5, Hortatory and Didactic. Topically, it may be divided as follows:

1:1, Address and Salutation.

1:2-10, Grateful recollection of their steadfist hope.

2:1-16, Review of his ministry in Thessalonica.

2:17-3:13, Assurance of affection, desire to visit them, Timothy's mission, prayer in their behalf

4:1-12, Exhortations to chastity and love.

4:13-5:11, The Parousia.

5:12-28, Closing exhortations, and Benediction.


1) "Brit, and For. Ev. Review," 1886, p. 226.

2) "Beginnings of Christianity," chapters 3, 4, and 6,

3) "Expositor," Feb., 1885.

4) "On Philippians," page 56.

5) See Immer, " Theologie des Neuen Testaments," 1877, page 217.

6) Sabatier, "L' Ap˛tre Paul," 1881, page 93.

7) "Epistles of St. Paul," 18.59.

8) Principal Edwards, "Commentary on First Corinthians," Introd., page xix.; see also Farrar, ''Messages of the Books," pages 185, 186.

9) "History of the Christian Church," I., page 757.

10) Milligan, " Revelation of St. John," page 191.