Preface to the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians
Thessalonica, now called by the Turks Salonichi, a mere corruption of its ancient name, is a seaport town of Turkey in Europe, situated on what was called the Thermaic Gulf, and was anciently the capital of Macedonia. According to Stephanus Byzantinus, it was embellished and enlarged by Philip, king of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, who called it Thessalonica, or the Victory of Thessalia, on account of the victory he obtained there over the Thessalians; prior to which it was called Thermae. Strabo, Tzetzes, and Zonaras say that it obtained the name of Thessalonica from Thessalonica, wife of Cassander, and daughter of Philip.
In 1431, it was taken from the Venetians by the Turks, in whose possession it still continues. It is still a large, rich, and populous city, being ten miles in circumference, and carrying on an extensive trade in silk, the principal merchants being Greek Christians and Jews.
Christianity has never been extinct in Thessalonica since the year 51 or 52, in which it was planted there by the Apostle Paul; see Acts 17, etc. It contains at present thirty churches belonging to the Greek Christians, and as many Jewish synagogues, besides some Mohammedan mosques. Thessalonica is the see of an archbishop; and is well fortified, being surrounded with walls flanked with towers, and defended on the land side by a citadel; and near the harbor, with three forts.
St. Paul, in company with Silas, first preached the Gospel in this city and the adjacent country, about a.d. 52 or 53. Though the Jews, who were sojourners in this city, rejected the Gospel in general, yet a great multitude of the devout Greeks, i.e., such as were proselytes to Judaism, or the descendants of Jewish parents, born and naturalized in Greece, believed and associated with Paul and Silas, and not a few of the chief women of the city embraced the Christian faith. Acts 17:4.
As the Jews found that, according to the doctrine of the Gospel, the Gentiles were called to enjoy the same privileges with themselves, without being obliged to submit to circumcision and other ordinances of the law, they persecuted that Gospel, and those who proclaimed it; for, moved with indignation, they employed certain lewd fellows of the baser sort - the beasts of the people, set the city on an uproar, assaulted the house of Jason, where the apostles lodged, dragged him and certain brethren before the rulers, and charged them with seditious designs and treason against the Roman emperor! The apostles escaped, and got to Berea, where they began anew their important evangelical labors: thither the Jews of Thessalonica, pursuing them, raised a fresh tumult; so that the apostle, being counselled by the brethren, made his escape to Athens; Acts 17:5-15. Thus he followed the command of his Master: Being persecuted in one city, he fled to another; not to hide himself, but to proclaim, in every place, the saving truths of the Gospel of Christ.
It does not appear that St. Paul stayed long at Athens; he soon went thence to Corinth, where Timothy and Silas were, but probably not before Timothy met him, for whom he had sent, Acts 17:15, to come to him speedily; and whom, it appears, he sent immediately back to Thessalonica, to establish the believers there, and comfort them concerning the faith; 1 Thessalonians 3:2. While Paul abode at Corinth, Timothy and Silas came to him from Thessalonica, and hearing by them of the steadfastness of the Thessalonian converts in the faith of Christ, he wrote this epistle, and shortly after the second, to comfort and encourage them; to give them farther instructions in the doctrines of Christianity, and to rectify some mistaken views, relative to the day of judgment, which had been propagated amongst them. See the preface to the second epistle.
Who the persons were who formed the apostolic Church at Thessalonica is not easy to determine. They were not Jews, for these in general persecuted the apostle and the Gospel in this place. We are therefore left to infer that the Church was formed, 1st, of Jewish proselytes, called, Acts 17:4, devout Greeks. And 2dly, of converts from heathenism; for, on the preaching of the Gospel to them, it is said; 1 Thessalonians 1:9, that they turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God. Though some of the Jews believed on the preaching of Paul and Silas, Acts 17:3, Acts 17:4, yet it is evident that the great bulk of the Church was composed of Grecian proselytes and converts from heathenism. Hence we find in this epistle but few allusions to the Jews, and but few references to the peculiarities of their religious or civil institutions.
There is a remarkable reading in the text of Acts 17:4, which I neglected to quote in the note on that place: instead of των σεβομενων, Ελληνων πολυ πληθος, of devout Greeks a great multitude; the Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Bezae, both in the Greek and Latin, two others, with the Vulgate, read των σεβομενων και Ἑλληνων, of the devout, i.e., those who worshipped the true God; And of the Greeks, i.e., those who were previously heathens, a great multitude; so that,
1. Some few Jews;
2. A great number of those who acknowledged the true God; and
3. A great multitude of heathens, besides many of the chief women, received the doctrine preached by the apostle, and became members of the Church at Thessalonica. See Dr. Paley's remarks on this various reading.
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians is allowed on all hands to be the first epistle that St. Paul wrote to any of the Churches of God; and from it two things may be particularly noted:
1. That the apostle was full of the Spirit of love;
2. That the Church at Thessalonica was pure, upright, and faithful, as we scarcely find any reprehension in the whole epistle: the Thessalonian converts had Faith that worked, a Love that labored, and a Hope which induced them to bear afflictions patiently and wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This epistle has been divided into different parts by commentators; but these are arbitrary, the apostle having made no division of this kind; for, although he treats of several subjects, yet he has not so distinguished them from each other as to show that he had any formal division in his mind. In the divisions imposed on this epistle by commentators we do not find two of them alike; a full proof that the apostle has made no divisions, else some of these learned men would have certainly found them out. Technical distinctions of this nature are of little use to a proper understanding of the contents of this epistle.
The inscription by Paul, Silvanus, and Timotheus, to the Church of the Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians 1:1. St. Paul gives thanks to God for their good estate, and prays for their continuance in the faith, 1 Thessalonians 1:2-4. Shows how the Gospel came to them, and the blessed effects it produced in their life and conversation, 1 Thessalonians 1:5-7, How it became published from them through Macedonia and Achaia, and how their faith was everywhere celebrated, 1 Thessalonians 1:8. He shows farther, that the Thessalonians had turned from idolatry, become worshippers of the true God, and were waiting for the revelation of Christ, 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 1 Thessalonians 1:10.
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.Paul, and: Silvanus, and Timotheus - Though St. Paul himself dictated this letter, yet he joins the names of Silas and Timothy, because they had been with him at Thessalonica, and were well known there. See Acts 17:4, Acts 17:14.
And Silvanus - This was certainly the same as Silas, who was St. Paul's companion in all his journeys through Asia Minor and Greece; see Acts 15:22; Acts 16:19; Acts 17:4, Acts 17:10. Him and Timothy, the apostle took with him into Macedonia, and they continued at Berea when the apostle went from thence to Athens; from this place St. Paul sent for them to come to him speedily, and, though it is not said that they came while he was at Athens, yet it is most probable that they did; after which, having sent them to Thessalonica, he proceeded to Corinth, where they afterwards rejoined him, and from whence he wrote this epistle. See the preface.
We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers;We give thanks - See Philippians 1:3, Philippians 1:4, and Colossians 1:3; where the same forms of speech are used.
Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;Your work of faith - This verse contains a very high character of the believers at Thessalonica. They had Faith, not speculative and indolent, but true, sound, and operative; their faith worked. They had Love, not that gazed at and became enamoured of the perfections of God, but such a love as labored with faith to fulfill the whole will of God. Faith worked; but love, because it can do more, did more, and therefore labored - worked energetically, to promote the glory of God and the salvation of men. They had Hope; not an idle, cold, heartless expectation of future good, from which they felt no excitement, and for which they could give no reason, but such a hope as produced a satisfying expectation of a future life and state of blessedness, the reality of which faith had descried, and love anticipated; a hope, not hasty and impatient to get out of the trials of life and possess the heavenly inheritance, but one that was as willing to endure hardships as to enjoy glory itself, when God might be most honored by this patient endurance. Faith worked, Love labored, and Hope endured patiently.
It is not a mark of much grace to be longing to get to heaven because of the troubles and difficulties of the present life; they who love Christ are ever willing to suffer with him; and he may be as much glorified by patient suffering, as by the most active faith or laborious love. There are times in which, through affliction or other hinderances, we cannot do the will of God, but we can suffer it; and in such cases he seeks a heart that bears submissively, suffers patiently, and endures, as seeing him who is invisible, without repining or murmuring. This is as full a proof of Christian perfection as the most intense and ardent love. Meekness, gentleness, and long-suffering, are in our present state of more use to ourselves and others, and of more consequence in the sight of God, than all the ecstasies of the spirits of just men made perfect, and than all the raptures of an archangel. That Church or Christian society, the members of which manifest the work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope, is most nearly allied to heaven, and is on the suburbs of glory.
Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.Knowing your election of God - Being assured, from the doctrine which I have delivered to you, and which God has confirmed by various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, that he has chosen and called the Gentiles to the same privileges to which he chose and called the Jews; and that, as they have rejected the offers of the Gospel, God has now elected the Gentiles in their stead. This is the election which the Thessalonians knew; and of which the apostle treats at large in his Epistle to the Romans, and also in his Epistles to the Galatians and Ephesians. No irrespective, unconditional, eternal, and personal election to everlasting glory, is meant by the apostle. As God had chosen the Jews, whom, because of their obstinate unbelief, he had now rejected; so he had now chosen or elected the Gentiles. And in neither case was there any thing absolute; all was most specifically conditional, as far as their final salvation was concerned; without any merit on their side, they were chosen and called to those blessings which, if rightly used, would lead them to eternal glory. That these blessings could be abused - become finally useless and forfeited, they had an ample proof in the case of the Jews, who, after having been the elect of God for more than 2000 years, were now become reprobates.
For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.For our Gospel - That is, the glad tidings of salvation by Jesus Christ, and of your being elected to enjoy all the privileges to which the Jews were called, without being obliged to submit to circumcision, or fulfill the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic law.
Came not unto you in word only - It was not by simple teaching or mere reasoning that the doctrines which we preached recommended themselves to you, we did not insist on your using this or the other religious institution; we insisted on a change of heart and life, and we held out the energy which was able to effect it.
But also in power - Εν δυναμει· With miraculous manifestations, to your eyes and to your hearts, which induced you to acknowledge that this Gospel was the power of God unto salvation.
And in the Holy Ghost - By his influence upon your hearts, in changing and renewing them; and by the testimony which ye received from him, that you were accepted through the Beloved, and become the adopted children of God.
And in much assurance - Εν πληροφοριᾳ πολλῃ. The Holy Spirit which was given you left no doubt on your mind, either with respect to the general truth of the doctrine, or the safety of your own state. Ye had the fullest assurance that the Gospel was true, and the fullest assurance that ye had received the remission of sins through that Gospel; the Spirit himself bearing witness with your spirit, that you are the sons and daughters of God Almighty.
What manner of men we were - How we preached, and how we lived; our doctrines and our practices ever corresponding. And for your sakes we sustained difficulties, endured hardships, and were incessant in our labors.
And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost:Ye became followers of us - Ye became imitators, μιμηται, of us-ye believed the same truths, walked in the same way, and minded the same thing; knowing that our doctrine was of the Lord, and that the way in which we walked was prescribed by himself, and that he also suffered the contradictions of ungodly men.
With joy of the Holy Ghost - The consolations which they received, in consequence of believing in Christ, more than counterbalanced all the afflictions which they suffered from their persecutors.
So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia.Ye were ensamples - Τοπους· Types, models, or patterns; according to which all the Churches in Macedonia and Achaia formed both their creed and their conduct.
For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.From you sounded out - As Thessalonica vas very conveniently situated for traffic, many merchants from thence traded through Macedonia, Achaia, and different parts of Greece. By these, the fame of the Thessalonians having received the doctrine of the Gospel was doubtless carried far and wide. And it appears that they had walked so conscientiously before God and man, that their friends could speak of them without a blush, and their adversaries could say nothing to their disgrace.
For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;How ye turned to God from idols - This could not be spoken either of the Jews or of the devout persons, but of the heathen Greeks, and of such it appears that the majority of the Church was formed. See what is said on this subject in the preface to this epistle.
To serve the living and true God - The living God; in opposition to the idols, which were either inanimate stocks or stones, or the representations of dead men.
The true God - In opposition to the whole system of idolatry, which was false in the objects of its adoration, false in its pretensions, false in its promises, and false in all its prospects.
And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.And to wait for his Son from heaven - To expect a future state of glory, and resurrection of the body, according to the Gospel doctrine, after the example of Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead, and ascended unto heaven, ever to appear in the presence of God for us.
Delivered us from the wrath to come - From all the punishment due to us for our sins, and from the destruction which is about to come on the unbelieving and impenitent Jews.
This was the news, the sounding out, that went abroad concerning the converted Thessalonians. Every where it was said: They have believed the Gospel; they have renounced idolatry; they worship the living and true God; they have received the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit; they are happy in their souls, unspotted in their lives, and full of joy; expecting an eternal glory through that Christ who had died for and purged their sins, and who shall fashion their degraded bodies and make them like to his glorious body, and give them an eternal residence with himself in a state of blessedness.
These were glorious news; and, wherever they were told, prepared the way of the Gospel among the heathen. The mere preaching of the Gospel has done much to convince and convert sinners, but the lives of the sincere followers of Christ, as illustrative of the truth of these doctrines, have done much more: Truth represented in action seems to assume a body, and thus renders itself palpable. In heathen countries, which are under the dominion of Christian powers, the Gospel, though established there, does little good, because of the profane and irreligious lives of those who profess it. Why has not the whole peninsula of India been long since evangelized? The Gospel has been preached there; but the lives of the Europeans professing Christianity there have been, in general, profligate, sordid, and base. From them sounded out no good report of the Gospel; and therefore the Mohammedans continue to prefer their Koran, and the Hindoos their Vedas and Shasters, to the Bible. It should now ever be acknowledged, to the glory of God, that of late years a few apostolic men in that country are turning the tide in favor of the Gospel; and several eminent Europeans have warmly espoused the doctrine of Christ, and are labouring to circulate the word of God through the whole of British India.