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I.

THE CHURCH OF THE THESSALONIANS.

"Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: and Paul, as his custom was, went in unto them, and for three sabbath days reasoned with them from the scriptures, opening and alleging, that it behoved the Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom, said he, I proclaim unto you, is the Christ. And some of them were persuaded, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. But the Jews, being moved with jealousy, took unto them certain vile fellows of the rabble, and gathering a crowd, set the city on an uproar; and assaulting the house of Jason, they sought to bring them forth to the people. And when they found them not, they dragged Jason and certain brethren before the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; whom Jason hath received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Cæsar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. And they troubled the multitude and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. And when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go."—Acts xvii. 1-9 (R.V.).

"Paul, and Silvanus, and Timothy, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace."—1 Thess. i. 1 (R.V.).

THESSALONICA, now called Saloniki, was in the first century of our era a large and flourishing city. It was situated at the north-eastern corner of the Thermaic gulf, on the line of the great Egnatian road, which formed the main connection by land between Italy and the East. It was an important commercial centre, with a mixed population of Greeks, Romans, and Jews. The Jews, who at the present day amount to some twenty thousand, were numerous enough to have a synagogue of their own; and we can infer from the Book of Acts (xvii. 4) that it was frequented by many of the better spirits among the Gentiles also. Unconsciously, and as the event too often proved, unwillingly, the Dispersion was preparing the way of the Lord.

To this city the Apostle Paul came, attended by Silas and Timothy, in the course of his second 4 missionary journey. He had just left Philippi, dearest to his heart of all his churches; for there, more than anywhere else, the sufferings of Christ had abounded in him, and his consolations also had been abundant in Christ. He came to Thessalonica with the marks of the lictors' rods upon his body; but to him they were the marks of Jesus; not warnings to change his path, but tokens that the Lord was taking him into fellowship with Himself, and binding him more strictly to His service. He came with the memory of his converts' kindness warm upon his heart; conscious that, amid whatever disappointments, a welcome awaited the gospel, which admitted its messenger into the joy of his Lord. We need not wonder, then, that the Apostle kept to his custom, and in spite of the malignity of the Jews, made his way, when Sabbath came, to the synagogue of Thessalonica.

His evangelistic ministry is very briefly described by St. Luke. For three Sabbath days he addressed himself to his fellow-countrymen. He took the Scriptures into his hand, that is, of course, the Old Testament Scriptures,—and opening the mysterious casket, as the picturesque words in Acts describe his method, he brought out and set before his auditors, as its inmost and essential secret, the wonderful idea that the Christ whom they all expected, the Messiah of God, must die and rise again from the dead. That was not 5 what ordinary Jewish readers found in the law, the prophets, or the psalms; but, once persuaded that this interpretation was true, it was not difficult to believe that the Jesus whom Paul preached was the Christ for whom they all hoped. Luke tells us that some were persuaded; but they cannot have been many: his account agrees with the representation of the Epistle (i. 9) that the church at Thessalonica was mainly Gentile. Of the "chief women not a few," who were among the first converts, we know nothing; the exhortations in both Epistles make it plain that what Paul left at Thessalonica was what we should call a working-class congregation. The jealousy of the Jews, who resorted to the device which had already proved successful at Philippi, compelled Paul and his friends to leave the city prematurely. The mission, indeed, had probably lasted longer than most readers infer from Acts xvii. Paul had had time to make his character and conduct impressive to the church, and to deal with each one of them as a father with his own children (ii. 11); he had wrought night and day with his own hands for a livelihood (2 Thess. iii. 8); he had twice received help from the Philippians (Phil. iv. 15, 16). But although this implies a stay of some duration, much remained to be done; and the natural anxiety of the Apostle, as he thought of his inexperienced disciples, was intensified by the reflection that he had left them exposed to the 6 malignity of his and their enemies. What means that malignity employed—what violence and what calumny—the Epistle itself enables us to see; meantime, it is sufficient to say that the pressure of these things upon the Apostle's spirit was the occasion of his writing this letter. He had tried in vain to get back to Thessalonica; he had condemned himself to solitude in a strange city that he might send Timothy to them; he must hear whether they stand fast in their Christian calling. On his return from this mission Timothy joined Paul in Corinth with a report, cheering on the whole, yet not without its graver side, concerning the Thessalonian believers; and the first Epistle is the apostolic message in these circumstances. It is, in all probability, the earliest of the New Testament writings; it is certainly the earliest extant of Paul's: if we except the decree in Acts xv., it is the earliest piece of Christian writing in existence.11   The date cannot be precisely assigned, but it is not later than 54 A.D., and cannot be so early as 52. Most scholars say 54. It was written in Corinth.

The names mentioned in the address are all well known—Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. The three are united in the greeting, and are sometimes, apparently, included in the "we" or "us" of the Epistle; but they are not joint authors of it. It is the Epistle of Paul, who includes them in the salutation out of courtesy, as 7 in the First to the Corinthians he includes Sosthenes, and in Galatians "all the brethren that are with me"; a courtesy the more binding on this occasion that Silas and Timothy had shared with him his missionary work in Thessalonica. In First and Second Thessalonians only, of all his letters, the Apostle adds nothing to his name to indicate the character in which he writes; he neither calls himself an apostle, nor a servant of Jesus Christ. The Thessalonians knew him simply for what he was; his apostolic dignity was yet unassailed by false brethren; the simple name was enough. Silas comes before Timothy as an older man, and a fellow-labourer of longer standing. In the Book of Acts he is described as a prophet, and as one of the chief men among the brethren; he had been associated with Paul all through this journey; and though we know very little of him, the fact that he was chosen one of the bearers of the apostolic decree, and that he afterwards attached himself to Paul, justifies the inference that he heartily sympathised with the evangelising of the heathen. Timothy was apparently one of Paul's own converts. Carefully instructed in childhood by a pious mother and grandmother, he had been won to the faith of Christ during the first tour of the Apostle in Asia Minor. He was naturally timid, but kept the faith in spite of the persecutions which then awaited it; and when Paul returned, he found that the steadfastness and 8 other graces of his spiritual son had won an honourable name in the local churches. He determined to take him with him, apparently in the character of an evangelist; but before he was ordained by the presbyters, Paul circumcised him, remembering his Jewish descent on the mother's side, and desirous of facilitating his access to the synagogue, in which the work of gospel preaching usually began. Of all the Apostle's assistants he was the most faithful and affectionate. He had the true pastoral spirit, devoid of selfishness, and caring naturally and unfeignedly for the souls of men (Phil. ii. 20 f.). Such were the three who sent their Christian greetings in this Epistle.

The greetings are addressed "to the church of (the) Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." No such address had ever been written or read before, for the community to which it was directed was a new thing in the world. The word translated "church" was certainly familiar enough to all who knew Greek: it was the name given to the citizens of a Greek town assembled for public business; it is the name given in the Greek Bible either to the children of Israel as the congregation of Jehovah, or to any gathering of them for a special purpose; but here it obtains a new significance. The church of the Thessalonians is a church in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the common relation of its members 9 to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ which constitutes them a church in the sense of the Apostle: in contradistinction from all other associations or societies, they form a Christian community. The Jews who met from Sabbath to Sabbath in the synagogue were a church; they were one in the acknowledgment of the Living God, and in their observance of His law; God, as revealed in the Old Testament and in the polity of Israel, was the element or atmosphere of their spiritual life. The citizens of Thessalonica, who met in the theatre to discuss their political interests, were a "church"; they were one in recognising the same constitution and the same ends of civic life; it was in that constitution, in the pursuit of those ends, that they found the atmosphere in which they lived. Paul in this Epistle greets a community distinct from either of these. It is not civic, but religious; though religious, it is neither pagan nor Jewish; it is an original creation, new in its bond of union, in the law by which it lives, in the objects at which it aims; a church in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This newness and originality of Christianity could not fail to impress those who first received it. The gospel made an immeasurable difference to them, a difference almost equally great whether they had been Jews or heathen before; and they were intensely 10 conscious of the gulf which separated their new life from the old. In another epistle Paul describes the condition of Gentiles not yet evangelised. Once, he says, you were apart from Christ, without God, in the world. The world—the great system of things and interests separated from God—was the sphere and element of their life. The gospel found them there, and translated them. When they received it, they ceased to be in the world; they were no longer apart from Christ, and without God: they were in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing could be more revolutionary in those days than to become a Christian: old things passed away; all things became new; all things were determined by the new relation to God and His Son. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian was as unmistakable and as clear to the Christian mind as the difference between the shipwrecked sailor who has reached the shore and him who is still fighting a hopeless fight with wind and waves. In a country which has long been Christian, that difference tends, to sense at least, and to imagination, to disappear. We are not vividly impressed with the distinction between those who claim to be Christians and those who do not; we do not see a radical unlikeness, and we are sometimes disposed to deny it. We may even feel that we are bound to deny it, were it only in justice to God. He 11 has made all men for Himself; He is the Father of all; He is near to all, even when they are blind to Him; the pressure of His hand is felt and in a measure responded to by all, even when they do not recognise it; to say that any one is ἄθεος, or χωρὶς Χριστοῦ, or that he is not in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ, seems really to deny both God and man.

Yet what is at issue here is really a question of fact; and among those who have been in contact with the facts, among those, above all, who have had experience of the critical fact—who once were not Christians and now are—there will not be two opinions about it. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian, though historical accidents have made it less visible, or rather, less conspicuous than it once was, is still as real and as vast as ever. The higher nature of man, intellectual and spiritual, must always have an element in which it lives, an atmosphere surrounding it, principles to guide it, ends to stimulate its action; and it may find all these in either of two places. It may find them in the world—that is, in that sphere of things from which God, so far as man's will and intent goes, is excluded; or it may find them in God Himself and in His Son. It is no objection to this division to say that God cannot be excluded from His own world, that He is always at work there whether acknowledged or not; for the acknowledgment is the 12 essential point; without it, though God is near to man, man is still far from God. Nothing could be a more hopeless symptom in character than the benevolent neutrality which evades this truth; it takes away every motive to evangelise the non-Christian, or to work out the originality and distinctiveness of the Christian life itself. Now, as in the apostolic age, there are persons who are Christians and persons who are not; and, however alike their lives may be on the surface, they are radically apart. Their centre is different; the element in which they move is different; the nutriment of thought, the fountain of motives, the standard of purity are different; they are related to each other as life in God, and life without God; life in Christ, and life apart from Christ; and in proportion to their sincerity is their mutual antagonism.

In Thessalonica the Christian life was original enough to have formed a new society. In those days, and in the Roman Empire, there was not much room for the social instincts to expand. Unions of all kinds were suspected by the governments, and discouraged, as probable centres of political disaffection. Local self-government ceased to be interesting when all important interests were withdrawn from its control; and even had it been otherwise, there was no part in it possible for that great mass of population from which the Church was so largely recruited, namely, the slaves. Any 13 power that could bring men together, that could touch them deeply, and give them a common interest that engaged their hearts and bound them to each other, met the greatest want of the time, and was sure of a welcome. Such a power was the gospel preached by Paul. It formed little communities of men and women wherever it was proclaimed; communities in which there was no law but that of love, in which heart opened to heart as nowhere else in all the world, in which there was fervour and hope and freedom and brotherly kindness, and all that makes life good and dear. We feel this very strongly in reading the New Testament, and it is one of the points on which, unhappily, we have drifted away from the primitive model. The Christian congregation is not now, in point of fact, the type of a sociable community. Too often it is oppressed with constraint and formality. Take any particular member of any particular congregation; and his social circle, the company of friends in which he expands most freely and happily, will possibly have no connection with those he sits beside in the church. The power of the faith to bring men into real unity with each other is not lessened; we see this wherever the gospel breaks ground in a heathen country, or wherever the frigidity of the church drives two or three fervent souls to form a secret society of their own, but the temperature of faith itself is lowered; we are 14 not really living, with any intensity of life, in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. If we were, we would be drawn closer to each other; our hearts would touch and overflow; the place where we meet in the name of Jesus would be the most radiant and sociable place we know.

Nothing could better illustrate the reality of that new character which Christianity confers than the fact that men can be addressed as Christians. Nothing, either, could better illustrate the confusion of mind that exists in this matter, or the insincerity of much profession, than the fact that so many members of churches would hesitate before taking the liberty so to address a brother. We have all written letters, and on all sorts of occasions; we have addressed men as lawyers, or doctors, or men of business; we have sent or accepted invitations to gatherings where nothing would have astonished us more than the unaffected naming of the name of God; did we ever write to anybody because he was a Christian, and because we were Christians? Of all the relations in which we stand to others, is that which is established by "our common Christianity," by our common life in Jesus Christ, the only one which is so crazy and precarious that it can never be really used for anything? Here we see the Apostle look back from Corinth to Thessalonica, and his one interest in the poor people whom he remembers so affectionately 15 is that they are Christians. The one thing in which he wishes to help them is their Christian life. He does not care much whether they are well or ill off in respect of this world's goods; but he is anxious to supply what is lacking in their faith (iii. 10). How real a thing the Christian life was to him! what a substantial interest, whether in himself or in others, engrossing all his thought, absorbing all his love and devotion. To many of us it is the one topic for silence; to him it was the one theme of thought and speech. He wrote about it, as he spoke about it, as though there were no other interest for man; and letters like those of Thomas Erskine show that still, out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh. The full soul overflows, unaffected, unforced; Christian fellowship, as soon as Christian life is real, is restored to its true place.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy wish the church of the Thessalonians grace and peace. This is the greeting in all the Apostle's letters; it is not varied except by the addition of "mercy" in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus. In form it seems to combine the salutations current among the Greeks and the Jews (χαίρειν and שָׁלוֹם), but in import it has all the originality of the Christian faith. In the second Epistle it runs, "Grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Grace is the love of God, spontaneous, beautiful, 16 unearned, at work in Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinful men; peace is the effect and fruit in man of the reception of grace. It is easy to narrow unduly the significance of peace; those expositors do so who suppose in this passage a reference to the persecution which the Thessalonian Christians had to bear, and understand the Apostle to wish them deliverance from it. The Apostle has something far more comprehensive in his mind. The peace, which Christ is; the peace with God which we have when we are reconciled to Him by the death of His Son; the soul-health which comes when grace makes our hearts to their very depths right with God, and frightens away care and fear; this "perfect soundness" spiritually is all summed up in the word. It carries in it the fulness of the blessing of Christ. The order of the words is significant; there is no peace without grace; and there is no grace apart from fellowship with God in Christ. The history of the Church has been written by some who practically put Paul in Christ's place; and by others who imagine that the doctrine of the person of Christ only attained by slow degrees, and in the post-apostolic age, its traditional importance; but here, in the oldest extant monument of the Christian faith, and in the very first line of it, the Church is defined as existing in the Lord Jesus Christ; and in that single expression, in which the Son stands side by side with the Father, as the life of all 17 believing souls, we have the final refutation of such perverse thoughts. By the grace of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Christian is what he is; he lives and moves and has his being there; apart from Christ, he is not. Here, then, is our hope. Conscious of our own sins, and of the shortcomings of the Christian community of which we are members, let us have recourse to Him whose grace is sufficient for us. Let us abide in Christ, and in all things grow up into Him. God alone is good; Christ alone is the Pattern and the Inspiration of the Christian character; only in the Father and the Son can the new life and the new fellowship come to their perfection.


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