Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 315 - January 1882
The apostle next turns to a need rarely if over oat of season among the faithful, even where the stream of faith and love is yet fresh and strong, the due recognition of those that labour and take the lead on the part of their brethren.
"Now we beseech you, brethren, to know those that labour among you and are over you in [the] Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them exceedingly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves." (Ver. 12, 18.)
It is commonly assumed that the persons indicated by, these expressions of spiritual toil, admonition, or presidency, were bishops or presbyters. But this is to lose the special instruction and value of what is here urged; as it is an oversight of the apostolic order as presented in the Scripture to take for granted that any were appointed in the Thessalonian assembly to the office of oversight during so brief a sojourn as the first visit, among converts, all of them as yet necessarily novices in the things of God, however bright, and fervent, and promising. To the careful reader of Acts xiii. "xiv. no argument is needed to prove that it was on a second visit, unless the first were of long continuance, that the apostles appointed or chose for the disciples elders in every. assembly. The wisdom of this, if not the necessity for it, will be evident to any sober mind that reflects, even if we had not the positive prohibition to Timothy of any such persons from such a function.. (1 Tim. iii. ó.) For surely, whatever Popes may do, it would be harsh in the extreme to suppose that the apostle in his own choice of bishops neglected the principle which he so gravely charges on his true son in the faith.
Undoubtedly elders, or bishops, were to be honoured, especially those that laboured in word and teaching. (1 Tim. v. 17.) But the weighty lesson inculcated in the other Scriptures we are considering is that, before there was such an official relationship, those who laboured among the saints, took the lead of them in the Lord, and admonished the saints, are held up by the apostle as entitled not only to recognition in their work, but to be regarded exceedingly in love on account of it. Very probably they were just the persons suited for an apostle, or an apostolic delegate like Titus, to appoint as presbyters; but meanwhile, and independently this established a most important principle, and quite as wholesome for the saints themselves as for those who had no external title as yet: nothing more than a 'spiritual gift exercised in faith and love, with the simple-hearted desire of the Lord's glory in the healthful, happy, and holy condition of their brethren.
Nor is this state of things among the Thessalonians at all an exceptional case; in other places we may see what is analogous. Thus, among the saints at Rome, where (so far as Scripture teaches) no apostle had as yet sojourned, we find gifts which they are encouraged in the Epistle to exercise, teaching, exhorting, presiding or ruling, &c. Apostolic appointment they had not yet; and accordingly we hear of no such officers as bishops or deacons. But it is a mistake to infer from this that there were or could be none otherwise taking the lead; for Rom. xii. explicitly exhorts such persons to exercise their gifts, even if they had no outward appointment.
Similarly in the Epistles to the church in Corinth we find no trace of elders, rather the proof that they did not yet exist there. For if they did, would it not be strange to ignore them in the absence of godly discipline we see in 1 Cor. vi., and in the presence of such. disorder as there dishonoured the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. xi.), not t3 speak of confusion in the assembly (1 Cor., xiv.), and heterodoxy germinating in their midst (1 Cor. xv.)? If elders were not there, one could understand these evils laid directly at the door of the assembly without reference to any individuals appointed to rule. Their absence is readily accounted for: the Corinthian assembly was still young, however vigorous. It was usual to appoint on a later visit those of the brethren in whom the Lord gave the apostles to descry fitting qualifications for the office of a bishop. Yet, meanwhile, they were not destitute of those that devoted themselves, like the house of Stephanas, to the service of the saints (1 Cor. xvi. 15, 16); and the apostle enjoins subjection to each and to every one joined in the work and labouring.
At Ephesus there were, as we know from Acts xx., elders or bishops; but this did not hinder the free action of those who were gifts from the Lord, whether pastors or others (E ph. iv.), who might not have the local charge of elders. The same remark applies to Philippi, where express mention is made of bishops and deacons, but as there might be, and no doubt was, the exercise of gifts in teaching or presiding before such officials appeared, so there was n&thing in their presence to hinder the liberty of the Spirit in the assembly. Compare also Col. ii. 19 with iv. 17, Heb. xiii. 7, 17, 24. 1 Pet. iv. 11 illustrates and confirms the same principle: a golden one for us now, when we cannot have apostolic visits, or the then orderly appointment to local charge such as they were authorised to make. But we may and ought so much the more sedulously to own all that the Lord gives for the order and edifying of the assembly, as we hear the apostles exhorting the saints in so many places to do, where elders were not, and even where and when they were.
It might be asked, if there was as yet no official nomination of the chiefs at Thessalonica, how were the saints to know the right persons to own, honour, and lose as such? The answer is, that the Spirit of God would give this, if not with the intelligence, and surely not with the authoιity of an apostle, but quite enough to guide the saints for all practical purposes. Therefore, says the apostle here, "We beseech you, brethren, to know those that labour among you," &c. Here was the warrant of the word; the Holy Spirit would do the rest, unless self-will and pride or envy hindered. Even so such service of devoted labour and lowly taking the lead and faithful admonition would make itself known in the conscience, as it would yet more readily to the heart if the saints walked with God. Yet this is so novel among Christians, that even devout scholars find very great difficulty in discovering the meaning of εiδέναι, whereas its force here is its constant use. If the saints can know a brother to love him, so they can know those whom God uses for their blessing and guidance, and, if right themselves before Him, will respect them the more for not slurring over what is wrong, though a pain at the moment. "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be fall of light." You cannot love as here exhorted unless you know them; just as it is to render brotherly love impossible if we cannot tell who are our brethren.
To be at peace among ourselves is of great moment in order to such recognition, as the recognition conduces to it. So it follows here.
But there is no countenance given to the unloving, careless thought that those who labour are to undertake the whole burden of the saints, especially that which draws on moral courage and patience. This is enjoined, not as Chrysostom says here, on the rulers, but also on the brethren generally. " And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the disorderly, comfort the faint-hearted, support the weak, be long-suffering toward all " (ver.14). Love alone can thus work, looking at the saints as they are in God's sight, and grieved at the havoc Satan would make in that holy garden of the Lord, for whose will and glory it is jealous. Such is to be our way with our brethren.
Next follows a cluster of short, pithy exhortations almost to the end, which deal first of all with our spirit or state personally; next, in our more public walk. "See that none render to anyone evil for evil, but always pursue that which is good one toward another, and toward all. Rejoice always; pray unceasingly; in everything give thanks, for this [is] God's will in Christ Jesus toward you. Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophecies; but prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." (Ver. 15-22.)
Grace is the characteristic of the gospel; and as it is the spring in God Himself as shown in Christ, so would He have it in His children; not human justice, for the just against the unjust, but unselfish love doing good to the evil and suffering evil from them. Thus would He have us to be not overcome of evil, but to overcome evil with good. Such is Christianity in practice, above heathenism and Judaism alike. Such is it one with another and toward all, and so Peter no less than Paul: " If when ye do well and suffer, ye shall take it patiently, this is acceptable—grace—with God."
Nor should the Christian give an ill impression of his God and Father or pf the portion he even now possesses in His grace, any more than of his prospects. With what joy the disciples returned even from their Master departing to heaven! And the Holy Spirit in duo time came to make the joy unfailing. (John iv. 14.) What has there been since to dry up the spring? "Rejoice always."
But we are still in the body and in the world, as they we are. Therefore is the word "pray unceasingly;" just as we see those who returned with great joy from Olivet, all with one accord continuing steadfastly in prayer with Mary the mother of Jesus, not yet the abomination of prayer to her or to His brethren. But this due expression of increasing dependence on God should never be without thanksgiving; but as we are in everything, which otherwise might make us anxious, by prayer and supplication to let our requests be made known to God (1 Phil. iv. 6), so are we here exhorted to "give thanks in everything." And as a constant spirit of thanksgiving is the very reverse of nature's querulousness, because of manifold suffering and chagrin and disappointment, the apostle fortifies this call with a reason subjoined, "for this is God's will in Christ Jesus toward you." Otherwise it would soon in the declension of Christendom have been counted levity and presumption. How truly does the apostle say in his second epistle, " all have not faith."
Next we have terse but full exhortation as to our more public ways. It is not here the personal call of Eph. iv., " grieve not," but " quench not the Spirit," followed u ρ by " despise not prophecies," which serves to fix its true bearing. Both suppose the free action of the Holy Spirit in the assembly, where He must not be hindered in His general movement even by the least member of Christ, any more than despised in the highest form of dealing with souls, or " prophesying." On the other hand the saints must not be imposed on by high or exclusive claims which are never needed by, and would be repulsive to, the truly spiritual. They were to prove all things, to hold fast the good, to abstain from every form of evil. By εἶδος, translated "appearance" in the Authorised Version, is really meant kind or form.
This brief but full exhortation is followed by a beautifully suited prayer. "Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit, and soul, and body be preserved entire without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful [is] He that calleth, who will ' also do [it] " (ver. 23, 24). Thus does the apostle commend his beloved children in the faith to the God of peace Himself, after so comprehensively urging their own responsibility; and this both generally and in detail, which is the reason of distinguishing the spirit, the soul, and the body, the entire man inner and outer, and even the inner divided into spirit and soul, that they might look for God to set them apart wholly, and every whit within as well as without to be preserved entire without blame at Christ's coming.
It many be well to add that "the soul" is the seat of personality, "the spirit" is rather the expression of capacity. Hence the soul, with its affections, is the responsible "I;" as the spirit is that higher faculty capable of knowing God, but also of unutterable woe in the rejection of Him. The God of peace Himself claims and sanctifies us wholly. For this should gee pray, as the apostle for the saints in Thessalonica, that they might be preserved entire blamelessly, and in every respect, at the coming of our Lord. And for our comfort he adds that, as He who calls us is faithful, so also II ο will accomplish His purpose. Peace with God, the peace of God, the God of peace; such is the order of the soul's entrance into and experience of the blessing through our Lord Jesus, as the Holy Ghost is the person who effectuates this wonderful purpose of our Father, whether now in measure, or absolutely and perfectly at Christ's coming, a hope never separated in Scripture from any part of Christian life.
But there is another trait of that life to which the apostle invites the saints. " Brethren, pray for us." What grace! We can understand easily an Abraham praying for an Abimelecb, and perhaps also a mere faulty Abraham interceding for a faulty prince of the world who had done a wrong which he moist not fully. Bat how blessed that it is the privilege of the saints to pray for the most honoured servant of the Lord, and that he seeks and values their prayers!
Then follows a warm expression of loving salutation to the brethren, to all the brethren.
But there is another word of marked significance introduced with peculiar solemnity. "I adjure you by the Lord that the letter be read to all the [holy]1 brethren." We may conceive how proper and necessary this was when the apostle sent out his first epistle. It was a communication in the form of a letter, so characteristic of Christianity in its affectionate intimacy as well as in its simplicity. Depth of grace and truth it has in its nature, whatever the form in which it may be presented orally or in writing. But being a letter, and the first of the apostle's sending out, he will have the things he writes acknowledged as the commandment s of the Lord, and read to all as concerning all in the Lord. For though he does not put forward his title of apostle, when he could only rejoice that its assertion was needless, he writes in the fullest consciousness of it (1 Thess. ii. 6), and here implies its fullest authority, but withal would be in immediate contact with the least member of Christ's body, as he wishes finally that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ should be with them (ver. 28). It was not that he suspected the integrity of those that were over them in the Lord, but that he would impress on all the saints the solemnity of a fresh inspired communication. And truly, the more we reflect on the gracious interest of God in thus drawing out the heart of the apostle, guided and filled with suited truth for His children, the more will our value rise fur such unerring words of divine love.
1) Some have judged "holy" a gloss. For my own part, I venture to think it as appropriate here as in Heb. iii. 1, and we can readily understand that its absence from "brethren" generally might induce scribes even in early days as in later to omit the term. This was the first letter addressed to the Gentile saints, as the Epistle to the Hebrews lays special emphasis on those of that nation who confessed Christ as being now " holy brethren," not such as were only Abraham's seed according to the flesh.