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117

VIII.

LOVE AND PRAYERS.

"But when Timothy came even now unto us from you, and brought us glad tidings of your faith and love, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, longing to see us, even as we also to see you; for this cause, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our distress and affliction through your faith: for now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we render again unto God for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face, and may perfect that which is lacking in your faith? Now may our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way unto you: and the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you; to the end He may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints."—1 Thess. iii. 6-13 (R.V.).

THESE verses present no peculiar difficulty to the expositor. They illustrate the remark of Bengel that the First Epistle to the Thessalonians is characterised by a kind of unmixed sweetness,—a quality which is insipid to those who are indifferent to the relations in which it is displayed, but which can never lose its charm for simple, kindly, Christian hearts.

It is worth observing that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians the moment Timothy returned.1111   Ἄρτι is naturally taken with ἐλθόντος: as by Ellicott. Such promptitude has not only a business value, but a moral and Christian worth as well. It not only prevents arrears from accumulating; it gives those to whom we write the first and freshest feelings of the heart. Of course one may write hastily, as well as speak hastily; a living critic has had the audacity to say that if Paul had kept the Epistle to the Galatians long enough to read it over, he would have thrown it into the fire; but most of our faults as correspondents arise, not from 118 precipitation, but from undue delay. Where our hearts prompt us to speak or to write, let us dread procrastination as a sin. The letter of congratulation or condolence is natural and in place, and it will be inspired by true feeling, if it is written when the sad or joyful news has touched the heart with genuine sympathy; but if it is put on till a more convenient season, it will never be done as it ought to be. How fervent and hearty is the language in which Paul here expresses himself. The news that Timothy has brought from Thessalonica is a veritable gospel to him. It has comforted him in all his necessities and distresses; it has brought him new life; it has been an indescribable joy. If he had not written for a fortnight, we should have missed this rebound of gladness; and what is more serious, the Thessalonians would have missed it. Cold-hearted people may think they would have survived the loss; but it is a loss which the cold hearted cannot estimate. Who can doubt that, when this letter was read in the little congregation at Thessalonica, the hearts of the disciples warmed again to the great teacher who had been among them, and to the message of love which he had preached? The gospel is wonderfully commended by the manifestation of its own spirit in its ministers, and the love of Paul to the Thessalonians no doubt made it easier for them to believe in the love of God, and to love one another. 119 For good, as well as for evil, a little spark can kindle a great fire; and it would only be natural if the burning words of this letter kindled the flame of love anew in hearts in which it was beginning to die.

There were two causes for Paul's joy,—one larger and more public; the other, proper to himself. The first was the faith and love of the Thessalonians, or, as he calls it further on, their standing fast in the Lord; the other was their affectionate and faithful remembrance of him, their desire, earnestly reciprocated on his part, to see his face once more.

The visitation of a Christian congregation by a deputy from Synod or Assembly is sometimes embarrassing: no one knows exactly what is wanted; a schedule of queries, filled up by the minister or the office-bearers, is a painfully formal affair, which gives little real knowledge of the health and spirit of the Church. But Timothy was one of the founders of the church at Thessalonica; he had an affectionate and natural interest in it; he came at once into close contact with its real condition, and found the disciples full of faith and love. Faith and love are not easily calculated and registered; but where they exist in any power, they are easily felt by a Christian man. They determine the temperature of the congregation; and a very short experience enables a true disciple to tell whether it is high or low. To the great joy of 120 Timothy, he found the Thessalonians unmistakably Christian. They were standing fast in the Lord. Christ was the basis, the centre, the soul of their life. Their faith is mentioned twice, because that is the most comprehensive word to describe the new life in its root; they still kept their hold of the Word of God in the gospel; no one could live among them and not feel that unseen things were real to their souls; God and Christ, the resurrection and the coming judgment, the atonement and the final salvation, were the great forces which ruled their thoughts and lives. Faith in these distinguished them from their Pagan neighbours. It made them a Christian congregation, in which an Evangelist like Timothy at once found himself at home. The common faith had its most signal exhibition in love; if it separated the brethren from the rest of the world, it united them more closely to each other. Every one knows what love is in a family, and how different the spiritual atmosphere is, according as love reigns or is disregarded in the relations of the household. In some homes, love does reign: parents and children, brothers and sisters, masters and servants, bear themselves beautifully to each other; it is a delight to visit them; there is openness and simplicity, sweetness of temper, a willingness to deny self, a readiness to be interested in others, no suspicion, reserve, or gloom; there is one mind and one heart 121 in old and young, and a brightness like the sunshine. In others, again, we see the very opposite: friction, self-will, captiousness, mutual distrust, readiness to suspect or to sneer, a painful separation of hearts that should be one. And the same holds good of churches, which are in reality large families, united not by natural but by spiritual bonds. We ought all to be friends. There ought to be a spirit of love shed abroad in our hearts, drawing us to each other in spite of natural differences, giving us an unaffected interest in each other, making us frank, sincere, cordial, self-denying, eager to help where help is needed and it is in our power to render it, ready to resign our own liking, and our own judgment even, to the common mind and purpose of the Church. These two graces of faith and love are the very soul of the Christian life. It is good news to a good man to hear that they exist in any church. It is good news to Christ.

But besides this more public cause for joy, which Paul shared to some extent with all Christian men, there was another more private to himself,—their good remembrance of him, and their earnest desire to see him. Paul wrought for nothing but love. He did not care for money or for fame; but a place in the hearts of his disciples was dear to him above everything else in the world. He did not always get it. Sometimes those who had just heard the gospel from his lips, and 122 welcomed its glad tidings, were prejudiced against him; they deserted him for more attractive preachers; they forgot, amid the multitude of their Christian instructors, the father who had begotten them in the gospel. Such occurrences, of which we read in the Epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians, were a deep grief to Paul; and though he says to one of these thankless churches, "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you the less I be loved," he says also, "Brethren, receive us; make room for us in your hearts; our heart has been opened wide to you." He hungered and thirsted for an answer of love to all the love which he lavished on his converts; and his heart leapt up when Timothy returned from Thessalonica, and told him that the disciples there had good remembrance of him, that is, spoke of him with love, and longed to see him once more. Nobody is fit to be a servant of Christ in any degree, as parent, or teacher, or elder, or pastor, who does not know what this craving for love is. It is not selfishness: it is itself one side of love. Not to care for a place in the hearts of others; not to wish for love, not to need it, not to miss it if it is wanting, does not signify that we are free from selfishness or vanity: it is the mark of a cold and narrow heart, shut up in itself, and disqualified for any service the very essence of which is love. The thanklessness or indifference of 123 others is not a reason why we should cease to serve them; yet it is apt to make the attempt at service heartless; and if you would encourage any who have ever helped you in your spiritual life, do not forget them, but esteem them very highly in love for their works' sake.

When Timothy returned from Thessalonica, he found Paul sorely in need of good news. He was beset by distress and affliction; not inward or spiritual troubles, but persecutions and sufferings, which befell him from the enemies of the gospel. So extreme was his distress that he even speaks of it by implication as death. But the glad tidings of Thessalonian faith and love swept it at once away. They brought comfort, joy, thanksgiving, life from the dead. How intensely, we are compelled to say, did this man live his apostolic life! What depths and heights are in it; what depression, not stopping short of despair; what hope, not falling short of triumph. There are Christian workers in multitudes whose experience, it is to be feared, gives them no key to what we read here. There is less passion in their life in a year than there was in Paul's in a day; they know nothing of these transitions from distress and affliction to unspeakable joy and praise. Of course all men are not alike; all natures are not equally impressible; but surely all who are engaged in work which asks the heart or nothing should suspect 124 themselves if they go on from week to week and year to year with heart unmoved? It is a great thing to have part in a work which deals with men for their spiritual interests—which has in view life and death, God and Christ, salvation and judgment. Who can think of failures and discouragements without pain and fear? who can hear the glad tidings of victory without heartfelt joy? Is it not those only who have neither part nor lot in the matter?

The Apostle in the fulness of his joy turns with devout gratitude toward God. It is He who has kept the Thessalonians from falling, and the only return the Apostle can make is to express his thankfulness. He feels how unworthy words are of God's kindness; how unequal even to his own feelings; but they are the first recompense to be made, and he does not withhold them. There is no surer mark of a truly pious spirit than this grateful mood. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above; most directly and immediately are all gifts like love and faith to be referred to God as their source, and to call forth the thanks and praise of those who are interested in them. If God does little for us, giving us few signs of His presence and help, may it not be because we have refused to acknowledge His kindness when He has interposed on our behalf? "Whoso offereth praise," He says, "glorifieth Me." "In everything give thanks."

125 Paul's love for the Thessalonians did not blind him to their imperfections. It was their faith which comforted him in all his distress, yet he speaks of the deficiencies of their faith as something he sought to remedy. In one sense, faith is a very simple thing, the setting of the heart right with God in Christ Jesus. In another, it is very comprehensive. It has to lay hold on the whole revelation which God has made in His Son, and it has to pass into action through love in every department of life. It is related on the one side to knowledge, and on the other to conduct. Now Timothy saw that while the Thessalonians had the root of the matter in them, and had set themselves right with God, they were far from perfect. They were ignorant of much which it concerned Christians to know; they had false ideas on many points in regard to which God had given light. They had much to do before they could be said to have escaped from the prejudices, the instincts, and the habits of heathenism, and to have entered completely into the mind of Christ. In later chapters we shall find the Apostle rectifying what was amiss in their notions both of truth and duty; and, in doing so, opening up to us the lines on which defective faith needs to be corrected and supplemented.

But we should not pass by this notice of the deficiencies of faith without asking ourselves whether our 126 own faith is alive and progressive. It may be quite true and sound in itself; but what if it never gets any further on? It is in its nature an engrafting into Christ, a setting of the soul into a vital connection with Him; and if it is what it should be, there will be a transfusion, by means of it, of Christ into us. We shall get a larger and surer possession of the mind of Christ, which is the standard both of spiritual truth and of spiritual life. His thoughts will be our thoughts; His judgment, our judgment; His estimates of life and the various elements in it, our estimates; His disposition and conduct, the pattern and the inspiration of ours. Faith is a little thing in itself, the smallest of small beginnings; in its earliest stage it is compatible with a high degree of ignorance, of foolishness, of insensibility in the conscience; and hence the believer must not forget that he is a disciple; and that though he has entered the school of Christ, he has only entered it, and has many classes to pass through, and much to learn and unlearn, before he can become a credit to his Teacher. An Apostle coming among us would in all likelihood be struck with manifest deficiencies in our faith. This aspect of the truth, he would say, is overlooked; this vital doctrine is not really a vital piece of your minds; in your estimate of such and such a thing you are betrayed by worldly prejudices that have survived your conversion; in your 127 conduct in such and such a situation you are utterly at variance with Christ. He would have much to teach us, no doubt, of truth, of right and wrong, and of our Christian calling; and if we wish to remedy the defects of our faith, we must give heed to the words of Christ and His Apostles, so that we may not only be engrafted into Him, but grow up into Him in all things, and become perfect men in Christ Jesus.

In view of their deficiencies, Paul prayed exceedingly that he might see the Thessalonians again; and conscious of his own inability to overcome the hindrances raised in his path by Satan, he refers the whole matter to God. "May our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you." Certainly in that prayer the person directly addressed is our God and Father Himself; our Lord Jesus Christ is introduced in subordination to Him; yet what a dignity is implied in this juxtaposition of God and Christ! Surely the name of a merely human creature, even if such could be exalted to share the throne of God, could not possibly appear in this connexion. It is not to be overlooked that both in this and in the similar passage in 2 Thess. ii. 16 f., where God and Christ are named side by side, the verb is in the singular number. It is an involuntary assent of the Apostle to the word of the Lord, "I and My Father are one." We 128 can understand why He added in this place "our Lord Jesus Christ" to "our God and Father." It was not only that all power was given to the Son in heaven and on earth; but that, as Paul well knew from that day on which the Lord arrested him by Damascus, the Saviour's heart beat in sympathy with His suffering Church, and would surely respond to any prayer on its behalf. Nevertheless, he leaves the result to God; and even if he is not permitted to come to them, he can still pray for them, as he does in the closing verses of the chapter: "The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you; to the end He may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints."

Here it is distinctly Christ who is addressed in prayer; and what the Apostle asks is that He may make the Thessalonians increase and abound in love. Love, he seems to say, is the one grace in which all others are comprehended; we can never have too much of it; we can never have enough. The strong words of the prayer really ask that the Thessalonians may be loving in a superlative degree, overflowing with love. And notice the aspect in which love is here presented to us: it is a power and an exercise of our own souls certainly, yet we are not the fountain of it; it is 129 the Lord who is to make us rich in love. The best commentary on this prayer is the word of the Apostle in another letter: "The love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Ghost which was given unto us." "We love, because He first loved us." In whatever degree love exists in us, God is its source; it is like a faint pulse, every separate beat of which tells of the throbbing of the heart; and it is only as God imparts His Spirit to us more fully that our capacity for loving deepens and expands. When that Spirit springs up within us, an inexhaustible fountain, then rivers of living water, streams of love, will overflow on all around. For God is love, and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.

Paul seeks love for his converts as the means by which their hearts may be established unblameable in holiness. That is a notable direction for those in search of holiness. A selfish, loveless heart can never succeed in this quest. A cold heart is not unblameable, and never will be; it is either pharisaical or foul, or both. But love sanctifies. Often we only escape from our sins by escaping from ourselves; by a hearty, self-denying, self-forgetting interest in others. It is quite possible to think so much about holiness as to put holiness out of our reach: it does not come with concentrating thought upon ourselves at all; it is the child of love, which kindles a fire in 130 the heart in which faults are burnt up. Love is the fulfilling of the law; the sum of the ten commandments; the end of all perfection. Do not let us imagine that there is any other holiness than that which is thus created. There is an ugly kind of faultlessness which is always raising its head anew in the Church; a holiness which knows nothing of love, but consists in a sort of spiritual isolation, in censoriousness, in holding up one's head and shaking off the dust of one's feet against brethren, in conceit, in condescension, in sanctimonious separateness from the freedom of common life, as though one were too good for the company which God has given him: all this is as common in the Church as it is plainly condemned in the New Testament. It is an abomination in God's sight. Except your righteousness, says Christ, exceed this, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Love exceeds it infinitely, and opens the door which is closed to every other claim.

The kingdom of heaven comes before the Apostle's mind as he writes. The Thessalonians are to be blameless in holiness, not in the judgment of any human tribunal, but before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. At the end of each of these three chapters this great event has risen into view. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is a scene of judgment for some; of joy 131 and glory for others; of imposing splendour for all. Many think that the last words here, "with all His saints," refer to the angels, and Zech. xiv. 5,—"The Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with Thee,"—in which angels are undoubtedly meant, has been quoted in support of this view; but such a use of "saints" would be unexampled in the New Testament.1212   Yet see Jude 14, quoting from Enoch. The Apostle means the dead in Christ, who, as he explains in a later chapter, will swell the Lord's train at His coming. The instinctiveness with which Paul recurs to this great event shows how large a place it filled in his creed and in his heart. His hope was a hope of Christ's second coming; his joy was a joy which would not pale in that awful presence; his holiness was a holiness to stand the test of those searching eyes. Where has this supreme motive gone in the modern Church? Is not this one point in which the apostolic word bids us perfect that which is lacking in our faith?


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