The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone;Apostolic Apprehension
1 Thessalonians 3
When the Apostle says, in the first verse, "we could no longer forbear," and in the fifth verse, "I could no longer forbear," he uses a very intense expression. He represents himself as boiling over; we are to think of him as restraining himself for a long time, reining himself in as with both hands; then the enthusiasm or desire becomes too strong to be thus kept back, and it overcomes everything; the enthusiasm conquers. If it was an enthusiasm opposed to reason; then there would have been simple loss of self-control: Christian enthusiasm is reason at its best, reason on fire, reason conscious of wings and higher kinships and desires that cannot be satisfied with time and space. These words give us insight into the Apostle's quality of character. He was not one of those uniform persons who are always alike, because they are always nothing. The Apostle rose and fell with the occasion; he represented the times that were passing within his soul; all the weather of his heart was written on his face, so that men could go and look at him as at a barometer, and know exactly how matters stood. He was responsive, sensitive: everything that touched him elicited replies from his soul. It is interesting to observe how often he was mistaken for a madman. Christians have outlived that enthusiasm. There are few mad Christians now, except in the newer sects, the formative communities. All young life begins in a species of excess or madness, then it settles down into respectability, and from respectability it works its easy way into oblivion. The Apostle never outlived himself. Many of us have to mourn the days that are gone, saying, Oh, that it were with me as in the days past! oh, that I could pray as I did pray in those early times! The Apostle was a growing Christian. He prayed most vehemently at the last. He never struck so boldly at heaven's door as when he smote it with a dying hand. We should live upwards.
To what intent did he send Timotheus? We wondered, in reading the first verse, that Paul did not designate himself as an Apostle, and that he did not by some descriptive clause indicate the status of Silvanus and Timotheus: but in the second verse we have Timotheus set forth in full figure—"our brother, and minister of God, and our fellow-labourer in the Gospel of Christ." You can add nothing to that; addition would be subtraction; he who paints the lily kills it. Thus armed with Apostolic recognition and certification, Timotheus went forth—to what end? "to establish you." It is not with Christians that they can be made once for all and left to grow as they may: Christianity requires continual attention. Christians need to be confirmed, and re-confirmed, and spoken to every day. There are works which once done are done for ever, but Christianity is not one of them; we have to watch until the end, our very last action may be an action of resistance as against evil. The devil never gives up any man until heaven's door is shut upon him. "Call no man happy until he is dead." We then want established Christians, men who have foundation of faith, basis of conviction, doctrines upon which they can rely, and for the truth of which they risk everything. To some minds it may appear to be a risk to go right through to the last darkness with nothing to rely upon but a Cross, yet there are countless millions of men who have faced the final gloom in that tender light. Not one of them was ever heard to complain. Innumerable testimonies have risen up in the darkness to the effect that it never was so light as in the valley of the shadow of death, it never was so glorious as when all time-lights were put out and the eternal radiance smiled upon the soul. "Let me die the death of the righteous; let my last end be like his."
Not only to establish the Thessalonians, but "to comfort you concerning your faith." Again we come upon that equivocal word "comfort." What does it literally mean, as we have often seen, in these readings? It means, encourage you. Not comfort in the sense of an opiate; the Apostle is not narcotising the soul, giving it something which by its fumes shall lull the soul into semi-consciousness and give it opium dreams: to "comfort" often means in the New Testament, almost always indeed, as we have seen, to spur, to encourage, to vivify, to cheer, to say, Go on! That is a very different idea of comfort from that which many persons entertain—to sit down in self-luxuriation and suppose everything has been done, and now they are only waiting to blossom into heaven. We go into heaven under impulse; wanting at the last to do something more, we are at the last hurried on to rewards inconceivable and unspeakable.
The Apostle, then, had a fear. What was his apprehension? That the Thessalonians might "be moved by these afflictions." Note the word "moved": it is full of suggestion, it is a most pictorial word; it is the action of a hound that fawns upon its owner, a hound that wags its tail, that licks the owner's hand, that paws the owner's knee, and would allure the owner. It is not a mad wolf running into the house and devouring the inhabitants, it is the attitude and the action of a fawning dog. Thus variously are men led away. Some are smitten, as it were, squarely on the forehead, and they fall down unable to recover themselves, and so are left behind among the wounded, if not among the dead. Others are the subjects of subtle spiritual declension. They do not know when they ceased to pray, for in very deed they are not sure that they have even now quite ceased; one knee has been taken from the altar, but they are still bending on the other; yet a spirit of reluctance is stealing over them; they have no hostility, no argued unbelief which they thrust in the face of heaven, but a general sense of decadence and self-loss. They cannot be fired up as they were wont to be enkindled once; one little spark would set them aflame, so that they would have burned down mountains in their holy ardour: now the powder is damped, and the whole soul is aware of an encroaching reluctance. Others are seduced from the right way, fawned from the altar, by those hounds who would say, Come with us, we know where there are pleasures that would just suit you, delights fitted to your very soul's capacity, flowers evidently grown for man: come with us; we do not invite you to profanity, to violence, to robbery, or to murder; we invite you to quite another line of action: come! "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not." Then there is a moving which is done by cross-providences. All things seem to go wrong, afflictions come in great numbers, and prosperity seems to be a vanished bird of plumage; God for ever gone, the soul therefore loses heart and says, It is vain to serve the Lord, and what profit is it that we pray to the Almighty? Paul said, all this must be attended to; in effect he said, You Thessalonians are a warm-hearted people, energetic, responsive, impulsive; you are gifted with the spirit of sympathy, and therefore you expose to the enemy a point of supreme peril. The best natures fall first; the finest natures go down most deeply. They are not all the best natures that never get wrong, they may often be the poorest, meanest, shallowest natures that God ever made—if he made them at all. You Thessalonians are so ardent and sympathetic that you easily may be led astray: now, whether it be by fawning, by seduction, by violence, by cross-providences, take care; I send Timotheus down to you that he may encourage you in the upward way.
"For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labour be in vain." After the word "you," in 1Thessalonians 3:5, omit the comma, and read the sentence in a hurry, fusing all the other words into one syllable; otherwise you will miss the grammar and the meaning—"I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you and our labour be in vain." The Apostle is principally thinking now of the labour which had been expended upon the Thessalonians; and that all this should be turned to nothingness was to the apostolic heart a great grief. "Lest by some means"—that is a characteristic expression. The Apostle used it before concerning his own ministry; he said, "Lest by any means," or some means, "I might save some." He would indicate that the tempter is wily, fertile in suggestion, most inventive, fitting his devilhood to every degree of sight and every extent of capacity. The Apostle would hot fear one temptation only but all temptations, every kind of means at the disposal of the devil. Men do not all fall in one way, but they all fall when they do fall into one place—call it darkness, or call it hell. We think we shall get no harm from the tempter, whilst all the time he is poisoning our minds. Sometimes we almost challenge the devil to an encounter. That is always foolish. Never address a challenge to your spiritual enemies. When they do come, resist them, let them come on their own bidding and not on yours; and when they do come, pray all heaven to take up your cause and fight your battle. You do not know what you brought with you from the enemy's land. You think you brought no harm, you got no contagion, and that you are just about as you were before you went into unhallowed relationships. Do not so delude yourselves. A man sent the great Darwin the leg of a red-legged partridge, and within the little claw there was a portion of innocent-looking mud, quite a little piece of soil; but that little piece of soil was taken out and put into water and set in growing condition and out of it there came eighty-two different plants. You cannot tell what you have brought away from the devil's ground on your foot, in your hand, in your eyes; your very voice may have changed. Life is subtle, life is tremendous. Do not play the fool and say you can challenge the enemy, and do with him what you like, and be a stronger man for the tussle, the wrestle. We know not what we do; we are only safe in God: "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe." Give me the quick-wittedness of heart that sees the devil in every guise, and that holy scorn of all wrong that hates the devil even when he robes himself with the stolen garments of light.
When Timotheus came back again he brought what ought to be called a "gospel"; it is called, in verse six "good things," which is the same word. Read—"Now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us the gospel of your faith and charity." That is all the Apostle wanted to hear from Thessalonica. Said he in effect, Are they still strong? are they as firm as ever? do they stand the stress of weather well? do they break down easily before the tempter? how do they pray? with what breath do they address the heavens? in whose name do they wage their wars? and Timotheus said, They are a brave folk, they are praying night and day; and as for the apostles, and especially as for thee, O Paul, they never cease to think about the ministry they have enjoyed; they picture you in every possible situation and attitude; they recall your every tone and manner of speech; they live in you, they have nothing else to live for; and as for the questions they asked, they were ceaseless and numberless. What did Paul then respond? In the seventh verse, he says—"Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith." That is the medicine the apostolic heart wanted. The Apostle wanted to know that his converts were doing well, that they were growing in knowledge and in grace, and that they were deepening in all their spiritual conceptions and relationships; then he was young again, then he gathered himself up and said: I have hardly begun my work yet; I must do better than ever I have done before.
In the eighth verse he gives us this wondrous statement—"For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord." What a self-revelation! Now we know the Apostle Paul as we never knew him before. We can invert this sentence, and thus get out of it its true meaning—For now, if you do not stand fast in the Lord, we shall die: if we hear that your faith is giving way, our life will give way too: we live in our converts, we live in our Churches. The Apostle has nothing to live for but for those who are his children in the truth. "For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord": you will be living arguments, we can point to you wherever we preach this gospel, we can say, If you want to know what the gospel has done and can do, go to Thessalonica, there you will see men who rise above all affliction and distress and who pray the louder the more the storm roars around their lives; men of honesty, honour, simple-mindedness, chivalry of heart, and likeness to the Lord Jesus Christ: but, brethren, the Apostle would continue, if ye give way, and we have nothing to point to, then we are left to mere argument, to shadowy metaphysics, and the world will not believe our statement, but will reject it and scorn it as a self-defeating and self-disappointing theory.
Still the Apostle would look upon the Thessalonians as requiring perfecting in their education—"Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith." The action here indicated is a mechanical action, yet necessary. It is the action that may be performed upon a ball after it has been moulded. Here, for example, is the mould into which the hot metal is poured; as soon as that metal has cooled, the ball may be declared by some to be perfected, but the smith says, No, now I have but the ball to work upon; it must be filed, it must be polished, it must now be brought under another kind of detailed action, so that there shall not be found upon it one point of asperity. So the Apostle says, You are moulded, you have your shape, you are Christians, but you want filing, refining, perfecting; there will be something to do upon you to the very last, and I want to come and help perfect that which is lacking in your faith—not lacking by way of defect, but lacking for want of service that must be performed upon it There is a lacking which means deficiency, and there is a lacking which means attention concentrated upon certain points that require careful, skilful treatment. So faith is not that rude thing which it is sometimes represented to be; nor is it a mere assent that costs neither mind nor heart much pains. Faith is at first a grand impulsive act, a sublime effort, the very miracle of the soul; then, when it has passed into that form, it requires to be perfected, line upon line, precept upon precept. There are those who would seek to be Christians all at once, and they succeed. But the oldest Christian still requires one more prayer, another cheering discourse, one more long interview with Christ. Christian perfecting is never done, but in the doing of it, it is full of charm and reward and promised glory.
"To the end"—what is the end? That is what we want to know. For what purpose is all this operation? "To the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God." The end of the whole Christian thought, the whole Christian economy, is character—in Biblical language, holiness. What does it matter, what you believe, if you are as bad as ever you were? You are not a living soul, you are a mere receptacle filled with certain dead dogmas. What does it avail that you have the most orthodox creed, if there is not a soul that knows you that can believe your word? What does it amount to that you know the whole creed from beginning to end, and would fight for every comma in its punctuation, if you are such a churl at home that nobody wants to see you in the home? Your creed is as hateful as yourself. You an orthodox man You are an infidel, and I mean henceforth to call such people the infidels—men who theoretically know what is orthodox and sound and good, and who think that all has been done when they have acknowledged it with their lips. We must have orthodoxy of conduct, orthodoxy of soul, orthodoxy of heart. "To the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness." There are speculative minds you cannot bring into line; errant, wilful minds that will state their own thoughts in their own way. They are not the infidels: the infidels are those who know the true doctrine, and who obstinately maintain it in argument, and who flagrantly contradict it in practice. Some of you may be odd thinkers, you may have been blessed or oppressed with an eccentric action of mind, it may not be easy for you to fall into old ruts and conventional beats. You are often mistaken as heterodox and as dangerous. I would simply ask, What are you in character? Simple, pure, noble, charitable? Can a little child lead you? Are you always desiring to be more Godlike and more Christlike? Do you want to be really so good and tender that all souls may come to you for help? I would like to hold hands with you when we stand before the Judge.
Almighty God, it hath pleased thee to build thy house upon the earth, and even here thou hast a living Church; amid all the darkness and tumult, thou hast still a hiding-place for those who love thee, and an open way to thy heavens for those who put their trust in thee. The tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth: thy house supports our dwelling-places; our dwelling-places derive their security and their light from thy tabernacle. Thus may we see thee in all our lives, near us, without us, within us, above us like a sky, and beneath us like an eternal rock; thus shall our lives be no longer accidents, varying and passing away as clouds that have no resting-place; they shall be strong in God, they shall be centred in eternity; they shall derive all light and sustenance and hope from the upper places yea, from the hidden sanctuary of thy love. May we understand the meaning of thy providence in having thy house here; this is the beginning of a revelation, this is the opening of a promise; thou wouldst not have turned our poor stone into an altar, if thou didst not mean to symbolise the existence of an altar that is within the veil, to which broadest access has been created and established through the blood of him who was slain from before the foundation of the world. Thou dost make common bread into Christ's living sacrificial flesh, and thou dost turn the stones on which we tread into sanctuaries and temples and refuges, in which we may gather strength, and in quietness we may pray, and in the secret battlefield we may win victories over God. Thou hast been pleased to allow our weakness to prevail against thee; thou hast given to our necessity and wondrous power, so that hunger can move thee, and our thirst can cause thee to turn upon us fountains of water, and our ignorance challenges the revelation of thy wisdom. These are miracles of love, these are triumphs of grace; explain them we cannot, we would not; it is better to rest in them, to accept them as thy gifts, as tokens celestial and pledges of brighter things yet to come. Comfort our hearts whilst we journey through the wilderness; mile on mile of sand wearies us; the hard stones try our feet; sometimes the very absence of rain and darkness and storm troubles us with a strange monotony. But the wilderness is measurable, the Canaan to which it leads is infinite, enable us therefore to look beyond, and by fixing our attention upon the power of an endless life may there be created in us an indestructible and triumphant fortitude, that cannot be bowed down by gathering difficulties. We bless thee for what we have seen of thy goodness. Truly the vision was lovely to look upon, tenderer than the morning light, brighter than the noonday glory, richer than all the pomp of the westering sun. Thou hast led us, and cheered us, and nursed us, and made us strong when men said our day of hope was gone; yea, thou hast brought us back from sinful wandering, and made us pray the sweeter for an absence of heart from thyself, which was but for a moment; thou hast enriched our supplications with new music; when we remembered how we had turned aside from the living name thy festivals gathered around our returning prodigality; thy house was never so bright and glad as when we came back from the darkness of alienation. Thou wilt not allow our sins to condemn us; thy grace is more than our sin; thou wilt disappoint the enemy; thou wilt break his teeth, and put out his eyes, and smite his arms that they fall down in pitiable weakness; and thy saved ones shall be redeemed with an infinite redemption; yea, in heaven we shall see what was greater in us, thy grace or the evil's evil seed; and when we are there we shall praise thee none the less sweetly because of remembered thanklessness and hardness of heart. Help us to know what to make of our life; it is a mystery, it is a burden; sometimes it is a pain; sometimes it is a song that brings with it no consciousness of weight; sometimes our life is all night, and sometimes it is all summer, and we are sure we know nothing of it as it is yet to be known: prepare us, therefore, that we may calmly wait, spiritually rest, and assure ourselves that that which begins in mystery will end in grace and glory. Comfort those that mourn; say unto them, Mourning is but for a night, joy will come with the dawn, and never go away. Make up to those who are bereaved—suddenly or after long affliction—the sense of loss which they now tremble under, and feel to be intolerable. The Lord himself hath comforts, solaces right tender, deeper than life, and he will not withhold these consolations from hearts that mourn for him with lamentation and strong desire. Help us to do wisely, bravely, well: help us to be economical, thrifty, calculating, where our temptation is towards expenditure, extravagance, and folly; help us to be pitiful, tender, clement, helpful to others, where our tendency is to be hard, critical, severe, and reproachful; enable us to pray where our tendency is to doubt, and when the doubting man tries to pray surprise him into new breadths of supplication, and charm his own ear as with thine eloquence from above. The Lord have us all in his holy, mighty keeping; the Lord every day meet us at the Saviour's Cross, Saviour crucified for us; Saviour, not of us only, but of the whole world; whose grace is larger than sin, and whose arm was never stretched out but to win some great victory. Amen.
He craveth their prayers for himself, 3 testifieth what confidence he hath in them, 5 maketh request to God in their behalf, 6 giveth them divers precepts, especially to shun idleness, and ill company, 16 and last of all concludeth with prayer and salutation.
1. Finally [the word used by one who is rapidly proceeding to the end of what he has to say], brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified [a delicate reference here to the Psalter], even as it is with you:
2. And that we may be delivered from [the] unreasonable [Gr. absurd] and wicked men: for all men have not faith [for it is not all that have faith].
3. But the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil [guard you from the Evil One].
4. And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things which we command you.
5. And [but may] the Lord direct your hearts, [another instance of prayer to Christ] into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ [or "the patience of Christ."]
6. Now we command you, brethren [omit "brethren." This passage is important as bearing upon Apostolical authority] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves [means "to abstain from habitual conversation with," "to keep at a distance from" "to treat with studied distance and coldness"] from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
7. For yourselves know how [it is better to teach by one's life than by one's sermons] ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you:
8. Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought [gratis, i.e. from a low, material point of view. Assuredly, the missionary or pastor does not get his bread without giving return, even when he pays no money for it. Cf. St. Luke 10:7; St. Matthew 10:10]; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you:
9. Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.
10. For even when we were with you, this [the A.V. well marks the emphatic position of the pronoun this in the original] we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat [a favourite proverb in the Jewish schools].
11. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies [busy only with what is not their own business].
12. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ [Chrysostom notes the softening tone of the Apostle here], that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread [their own is very emphatic, not other people's].
13. But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing [Bishop Ellicott well translates—"lose not heart in well doing."]
14. And if any man obey not our word by this Epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.
15. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
16. Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace [Now he, the Lord of the Peace, give you his peace, a reference to the peace which Christ promised (St. John 14:27). Again a prayer to Christ] always by all means. The Lord be with you all. [The old liturgical form, Latin and Greek, which took the place of Numbers 6:24 in the old rite. It most probably refers to the great promise ("I am with you alway," St. Matthew 28:20), and implies, "may that promise be fulfilled!"]
17. The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every Epistle: so I write [suggests a security against the possibility of forgery].
18. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. [With some slight variations in form, the "Grace" closes all the Pauline Epistles (and that to the Hebrews), and is peculiar to them. "Such a preacher of Divine Grace was Paul!" (Estius).] Amen.