SALUTATION AND THANKSGIVING
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 (R.V.)
IN beginning to expound the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, it is necessary to say a few words by way of introduction to the book as a whole. Certain questions occur to the mind whenever such a document as this is presented to it; and it will put us in a better position for understanding details if we first answer these. How do we know, for instance, that this Epistle is really the second to the Thessalonians? It has been maintained that it is the earlier of the two. Can we justify its appearance in the place which it usually occupies? I think we can. The tradition of the church itself counts for something. It is quite unmistakable, in other cases in which there are two letters addressed to the same people, - e.g., the Epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy, -that they stand in the canon in the order of time. Presumably the same is the case here. Of course a tradition like this is not infallible, and if it can be proved false must be abandoned; but at the present moment, the tendency in most minds is to underestimate the historical value of such traditions; and, in the instance before us, tradition is supported by various indications in the Epistle itself. For example, in the other letter, Paul congratulates the Thessalonians on their reception of the gospel, and the characteristic experiences attendant upon it; here it is the wonderful growth of their faith, and the abounding of their love, which calls forth his thanksgiving, -surely a more advanced stage of Christian life being in view. Again, in the other Epistle there are slight hints of moral disorder, due to misapprehension of the Lord’s Second Coming; but in this Epistle such disorder is broadly exposed and denounced; the Apostle has heard of unruly busybodies, who do no work at all; he charges them in the name of the Lord Jesus to change their conduct, and bids the brethren avoid them, that they may be put to shame. Plainly the faults as well as the graces of the church are seen here at a higher growth. Once more, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 of this letter, there is reference to instruction which the Thessalonians have already received from Paul in a letter; and though he may quite conceivably have written them letters which no longer exist, still the natural reference of these words is to what we call the First Epistle. If anything else were needed to prove that the letter we are about to study stands in its right place, it might be found in the appeal of 2 Thessalonians 2:1. "Our gathering together unto Him" is the characteristic revelation of the other, and therefore the earlier letter.
But though this Epistle is certainly later than the other, it is not much later. The Apostle has still the same companions-Silas and Timothy-to join in his Christian greeting. He is still in Corinth or its neighbourhood; for we never find these two along with him but there. The gospel, however, has spread beyond the great city, and taken root in other places, for he boasts of the Thessalonians and their graces in the "churches" of God. His work has so far progressed as to excite opposition; he is in personal peril, and asks the prayers of the Thessalonians, that he may be delivered from unreasonable and evil men. If we put all these things together, and remember the duration of Paul’s stay in Corinth, we may suppose that some months separated the Second Epistle from the First.
What, now, was the main purpose of it? What had the Apostle in his mind when he sat down to write? To answer that, we must go back a little way.
A great subject of apostolic preaching at Thessalonica had been the Second Advent. So characteristic was it of the gospel message, that Christian converts from heathenism are defined as those who have turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven. This waiting, or expectation, was the characteristically Christian attitude; the Christian’s hope was hidden in heaven, and he could not but look up and long for its appearing. But this attitude became strained, under various influences. The Apostle’s teaching was pressed, as if he had said, not only that the day of the Lord was coming, but that it was actually here. Men, affecting to speak through the Spirit, patronised such fanaticism. We see from 2 Thessalonians 2:2 that pretended words of Paul were put in circulation; and what was more deliberately wicked, a forged epistle was produced, in which his authority was claimed for this transformation of his doctrine. Weak-minded people were carried off their feet, and bad-hearted people feigned an exaltation they did not feel; and both together brought discredit on the church, and injured their own souls, by neglecting the commonest duties. Not only decorum and reputation were lost, but character itself was endangered. This was the situation to which Paul addressed himself.
We do not need to be fastidious in dealing with the Apostle’s teaching on the Second Advent; our Saviour tells us that of the day and the hour no man knows, nor angel; nay, not even the Son, but the Father only. Certainly St. Paul did not know; and almost as certainly, in the ardour of his hope, he anticipated the end sooner than it was actually to arrive. He spoke of himself as one who might naturally enough expect to see the Lord come again; and it was only as experience brought him new light that in his later years he began to speak of a desire to depart, and to be with Christ. Not to die, had been his earlier hope, but to have the mortal being swallowed up of life; and it was this earlier hope he had communicated to the Thessalonians. They also hoped not to die; as the sky grew darker over them with affliction and persecution, their heated imaginations saw the glory of Christ ready to break through for their final deliverance. The present Epistle puts this hope, if one may say so, to a certain remove. It does not fix the date of the Advent; it does not tell us when the day of the Lord shall come; but it tells us plainly that it is not here yet, and that it will not be here till certain things have first happened. What these things are is by no means obvious; but this is not the place to discuss the question. All we have to notice is this: that with a view to counteracting the excitement at Thessalonica, which was producing bad consequences, St. Paul points out that the Second Advent is the term of a moral process, and that the world must run through a spiritual development of a particular kind before Christ can come again. The first Advent was in the fulness of the times; so will the second be; and though he might not be able to interpret all the signs, or tell when the great day would dawn, he could say to the Thessalonians, "The end is not yet."
This, I say, is the great lesson of the Epistle, the main thing which the Apostle has to communicate to the Thessalonians. But it is preceded by what may be called, in a loose sense, a consolatory paragraph, and it is followed up by exhortations, the same in purport as those of the First Epistle, but more peremptory and emphatic. The true preparedness for the Lord’s Second Coming is to be sought, he assures them, not in this irrational exaltation, which is morally empty and worthless, but in diligent, humble, faithful performance of duty; in love, faith, and patience.
The greeting with which the Epistle opens is almost word for word the same as that of the First Epistle. It is a church which is addressed; and a church subsisting in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle has no other interest in the Thessalonians than as they are Christian people. Their Christian character and their Christian interests are the only things he cares for. One could wish it were so among us. One could wish our relation to God and His Son were so real and so dominant that it gave us an unmistakable character, in which we might naturally address each other, without any consciousness or suspicion of unreality. With every desire to think well of the Church, when we look to the ordinary tone of conversation and of correspondence among Christians, we can hardly think that this is so. There is an aversion to such directness of speech as was alone natural to the Apostle. Even in church meetings there is a disposition to let the Christian character fall into the background; it is a sensible relief to many to be able to think of those about them as ladies and gentlemen, rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet it is this last relation only in virtue of which we form a church; it is the interests of this relation that our intercourse with one another as Christians is designed to serve. We ought not to look in the Christian assembly for what it was never meant to be, -for a society to further the temporal interests of its members; for an educational institution, aiming at the general enlightenment of those who frequent its meetings; still less, as some seem to be inclined to do, for a purveyor of innocent amusements: all these are simply beside the mark; the Church is not called to any such functions; her whole life is in God and Christ; and she can say nothing and do nothing for any man until his life has been brought to this source and centre. An apostolic interest in the Church is the interest of one who cares only for the relation of the soul to Christ; and who can say no more to those he loves best than John says to Gaius, "Beloved, I pray that in all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth."
It is in accordance with this Spirit that the Apostle wishes the Thessalonians not any outward advantages, but grace and peace. Grace and peace are related as cause and effect. Grace is God’s unmerited love, His free and beautiful goodness to the sinful; and when men receive it, it bears the fruit of peace. Peace is a far bigger word in the Bible than in common usage; and it has its very largest sense in these salutations, where it represents the old Hebrew greeting "Shalom." Properly speaking, it means completeness, wholeness, health-the perfect soundness of the spiritual nature. This is what the Apostle wishes for the Thessalonians. Of course, there is a narrower sense of peace, in which it means the quieting of the perturbed conscience, the putting away of the alienation between the soul and God; but that is only the initial work of grace, the first degree of the great peace which is in view here. When grace has had its perfect work, it results in a more profound and steadfast peace, -a soundness of the whole nature, a restoration of the shattered spiritual health, which is the crown of all God’s blessings. There is a vast difference in the degrees of bodily health between the man who is chronically ailing, always anxious, nervous about himself, and unable to trust himself if any unexpected drain is made upon his strength, and the man who has solid, unimpaired health, whose heart is whole within him, and who is not shaken by the thought of what may be. It is this radical soundness which is really meant by peace; thorough spiritual health is the best of God’s blessings in the Christian life, as thorough bodily health is the best in the natural life. Hence the Apostle wishes it for the Thessalonians before everything else; and wishes it, as alone it can come, in the train of grace. The free love of God is all our hope. Grace is love imparting itself, giving itself away, as it were, to others, for their good. Only as that love comes to us, and is received in its fulness of blessing into our hearts, can we attain that stable spiritual health which is the end of our calling.
The salutation is followed, as usual, by a thanksgiving, which at the first glance seems endless. One long sentence runs, apparently without interruption, from the third verse to the end of the tenth. But it is plain, on a more attentive glance, that the Apostle goes off at a tangent; and that his thanksgiving is properly contained in the third and fourth verses: "We are bound to give thanks to God alway for you, brethren, even as it is meet, for that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the love of each one of you all toward one another aboundeth; so that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which ye endure." It is worthy of remark that the mere existence of faults in a church never blinded the Apostle to its graces. There was much in this congregation to rectify, and a good deal to censure; there were ignorance, fanaticism, falsehood, sloth, unruliness; but though he knew of them all, and would rebuke them all before he had done, he begins with this grateful acknowledgment of a Divine work among them. It is not merely that Paul was constitutionally of a bright temperament, and looked naturally on the promising side of things, -I hardly think he was, - but he must have felt it was undutiful and unbecoming to say anything at all to Christian people, who had once been pagans, without thanking God for what He had done for them. Some of us have this lesson to learn, especially in regard to missionary and evangelistic work and its results. We are too ready to see everything in it except what is of God, -the mistakes made by the worker, or the misconceptions in new disciples that the light has not cleared up, and the faults of character that the Spirit has not overcome; and when we fix our attention on these things, it is very natural for us to be censorious. The natural man loves to find fault; it gives him at the cheapest rate the comfortable feeling of superiority. But it is a malignant eye which can see and delight in nothing but faults; before we comment on deficiencies or mistakes which have only become visible against the background of the new life, let us give thanks to God that the new life, in however lowly and imperfect a form, is there. It need not yet appear what it shall be. But we are bound, by duty, by truth, by all that is right and seemly, to say, Thanks be to God for what He has begun to do by His grace. There are some people who should never see half-done work; perhaps the same people should be forbidden to criticise missions either at home or abroad. The grace of God is not responsible for the faults of preachers or of converts; but it is the source of their virtues; it is the fountain of their new life; it is the hope of their future; and unless we welcome its workings with constant thanksgiving, we are in no spirit in which it can work through us.
But let us see for what fruit of grace the Apostle gives thanks here. It is because the faith of the Thessalonians grows exceedingly, and their mutual love abounds. In a word, it is for their progress in the Christian character. Here is a point of the first interest and importance. It is the very nature of life to grow; when growth is arrested, it is the beginning of decay. I would not like to fall into the very fault I have been exposing, and speak as if there were no progress, among Christians in general, in faith and love; but one of the discouragements of the Christian ministry is undoubtedly the slowness, or it may be the invisibility, not to say the absence, of growth. At a certain stage in the physical life, we know, equilibrium is attained: we are at the maturity of our powers; our faces change little, our minds change little; the tones of our voices and the character of our handwriting are pretty constant; and when we get past that point, the progress is backward. But we can hardly say that this is an analogy by which we may judge the spiritual life. It does not run its full course here. It has not a birth, a maturity, and an inevitable decay, within the limits of our natural life. There is room for it to grow and grow unceasingly, because it is planned for eternity, and not for time. It should be in continual progress, ever improving, advancing from strength to strength. Day by day and year by year Christians should become better men and better women, stronger in faith, richer in love. The very steadiness and uniformity of our spiritual life has its disheartening side. Surely there is room, in a thing so great and expansive as life in Jesus Christ, for fresh developments, for new manifestations of trust in God, for new enterprises prompted and sustained by brotherly love. Let us ask whether we ourselves, each in his own place, face the trials of our life, its cares, its doubts, its terrible certainties, with a more unwavering faith in God than we had five years ago? Have we learned in that interval, or in all the years of our Christian profession, to commit our life more unreservedly to Him, to trust Him to undertake for us, in our sins, in our weakness, in all our necessities, temporal and spiritual? Have we become more loving than we were? Have we overcome any of our irrational and unchristian dislikes? Have we made advances, for Christ’s sake and His Church’s, to persons with whom we were at variance, and sought in brotherly love to foster a warm and loyal Christian feeling in the whole body of believers? God be thanked, there are some who know what faith and love are better than they once did; who have learned-and it needs learning-what it is to confide in God, and to love others in Him; but could an Apostle thank God that this advance was universal, and that the charity of everyone of us all was abundant to all the rest?
The apostolic thanksgiving is supplemented in this particular ease by something, not indeed alien to it, yet on a quite different level-a glorying before men. Paul thanked God for the increase of faith and love at Thessalonica; and when he remembered that he himself had been the means of converting the Thessalonians, their progress made him fond and proud; he boasted of his spiritual children in the churches of God. "Look at the Thessalonians," he said to the Christians in the south; "you know their persecutions, and the afflictions they endure; yet their faith and patience triumph over all; their sufferings only serve to bring their Christian goodness to perfection." That was a great thing to be able to say; it would be particularly telling in that old pagan world, which could meet suffering only with an inhuman defiance or a resigned indifference; it is a great thing to be able to say yet. It is a witness to the truth and power of the gospel, of which its humblest minister may feel justly proud, when the new spirit which it breathes into men gives them the victory over sorrow and pain. There is no persecution now to test the sincerity or the heroism of the Church as a whole; but there are afflictions still; and there must be few Christian ministers but thank God, and would do it always, as is meet, that He has allowed them to see the new life develop new energies under trial, and to see His children out of weakness made strong by faith and hope and love in Christ Jesus. These things are our true wealth and strength, and we are richer in them than some of us are aware. They are the mark of the gospel upon human nature; wherever it comes, it is to be identified by the combination of affliction and patience, of suffering, and spiritual joy. That combination is peculiar to the kingdom of God: there is not the like found in any other kingdom on earth. Blessed, let us say, be the God and Father Of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us such proofs of His love and power among us; He only doeth such: wondrous things; let the earth be filled with His glory.