The coming of the Lord characterises both these Epistles, which are the capital seat of that great truth. Of early date in the writings of the apostle, they bespeak simplicity, freshness and vigour in the saints addressed. They warmly, overflowingly, answer to their hearts, in kindred tones, but so as to lead on and deepen them. Hence the informal manner, not didactic but practically interweaving that blessed hope with every topic, with every duty, with all sources or motives of joy and sorrow so as to imbue the inner man and outer ways of all the saints day by day.
Those of Thessalonica, it appears from Act_17:6-7, had from the first received strong impressions of the kingdom. But they needed instruction on that large and fruitful theme, which, like every other revealed truth, affords ample room not only for unintelligent mistake but also for baneful error. Both in time wrought among these saints; and as the first epistle supplied that which sprang from mere ignorance, the latter corrected what was unequivocally false and mischievous. In the two epistles the presence or coming of the Lord is carefully distinguished from the day of the Lord, their true characters set out distinctly, and their due relation to one another explained. The need for this is as urgent now as then; for though the error was then both recent and active, it is shown to be grounded in a certain preparedness of the heart for it, inasmuch as to this day there is the same propensity to stray similarly, and the same difficulty in appropriating the revelation of God. The commentators ancient and modern are dull in seizing the different sides of the truth as the Spirit has given them, and though it is only in our own day that the chief mistranslation (2Th_2:2) has been set right, on all sides the truth which should have been cleared by the correction seems as little understood as ever. The course of things in Christendom, as in the old world before it assumed that new shape, indisposes the minds of those bound up with its interests to receive what is here taught. The coming of the Lord as a living and constant hope detaches the heart from every thing as an object on earth: for He is coming, we know not how soon, but we do know, to receive us to Himself on high. As is the Heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly and as this is the character in which Christ and the Christian stand correlatively, the hope exactly corresponds. It is independent of earthly events and is not a question of times or seasons. At a moment purposely unrevealed, that those who are His own might be truly and intelligently and always looking for Him, He will come for them that they may be with Him in His Father's house.
The day of the Lord, on the other hand, connects itself with earthly associations of a solemn kind, of which prophecy in the Old and the New Testaments alike speak; and this also has its suited place in these epistles. It is indeed eminently adapted, as it is meant, to deal with the conscience; for that day will deal with the pride of man and the power of the world, with earthly religion and with lawlessness in every form. Further, it is a test in one sense for the affections, whether we do really love His appearing who will put down evil and establish all in order according to God.
But we turn to the apostle's words in their order and detail.
"Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus to the assembly of Thessalonians in God [the] Father and [the] Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace." (ver. 1.)
Such is the inscription, with its own marked and beautifully suited peculiarities. On the one hand there is the marked absence of relative or indeed of any official place in the address of the apostle or the association of his companions, who are graciously introduced like himself without form. On the other hand the Thessalonian assembly is said, here and in the opening of the second epistle, to be "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," which is predicated of none other. What can harmonise so well with new-born saints, just delivered from the gods many and the lords many of heathenism, and brought into the conscious relationship of babes that know the Father? To us, Christians, there is but one God the Father, of Whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom are all things and we by Him. But what an expression of tenderness and near relationship thus to speak of the assembly of Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! How sweet for them to be thus addressed as even corporately set in the fellowship of such love and light! But such is the principle in the manifestation of the divine ways of grace. So even in the comforting ways of the Jewish prophet it is written, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." Those who are most needy receive special care and consolation.
For the infant assembly so characterised it was enough to say the brief but pregnant words, "Grace to you and peace." To others a fuller form was becoming, here needless because of what went before.
"We thank God always for you all, making mention at our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labour of love and patience of hope of our Lord Jesus Christ before our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, your election; because our gospel came not unto you in word only but also in power and in [the] Holy Spirit and in much assurance; even as ye know what we were among you for your sake. And ye became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with joy of [the] Holy Spirit; so that ye became a pattern to all that believe in Macedonia and in Achaia. For from you hath sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith that is toward God hath gone out, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report concerning us what sort of entrance we had unto you, and how ye turned unto God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from the heavens, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus that delivered us from the coming wrath." (vers. 2-10.)
The joy of the labourer's heart bursts forth in constant thanksgiving to God for them all, and this not vaguely but with special mention on the occasion of prayer. It answered to their joy who had so lately been brought out of darkness into the marvellous light of God; but it had the deep character of rising to the Blesser from the blessing, as the blessing itself savoured of communion with that source of blessing. So had Paul wrought with God in Thessalonica, not merely with some of the Jews who were persuaded and who consorted with him and Silas (or Silvanus), but especially with a great multitude of the devout Greeks: a mighty and permanent work in no long time. Do we know such thanksgiving to God? Do we make like personal mention on like occasion? Do we unceasingly remember the fruit of the Spirit's blessing in the saints? We know what it is to pray for saints in sorrow, shame, danger, need: are we drawn out in joy before God at the working of His grace in those He has saved and gathered to the name of Jesus? Have not our hearts been straitened by the low and shattered and isolated circumstances of the once united saints? We are quick in putting out, cutting off, withdrawing, avoiding, and every form of repulsion; slow and powerless in the grace that sees and enjoys grace in others, that wins, helps, welcomes, and restores. Not so the apostle and his companions. Doubtless great grace is needed to appreciate little grace. It is Christ-like.
Granted, that here among the Thessalonians, especially when the first epistle was written, there was as much power of life as there was simplicity with lack of knowledge. The three great spiritual elements, of which we often hear in the New Testament and notably in the apostle's writings, were manifest and in the fervent vigour of the Holy Spirit: not only faith, but the "work of faith," not love only but "labour of love," and hope of our Lord Jesus Christ in its patience or enduring constancy. And as Christ is the object of faith which exercises the heart and fixes it on things unseen, so does His grace call forth love, and the hope cheers along the way, and so much the more when all is in the light of God, "before our God and Father." He is our Father, and if babes we know Him as such (1Jn_2:13); but He is God, and in our life, in our ways, we are before Him, and would serve him acceptably with reverence and godly fear. He, before whom the new life in Christ is thus exercised by motives which have their spring and power in Christ, is the God who chose the Thessalonians in His grace to be His children beloved by Him, as thus attested to the consciences and affection of those that serve Him, "Knowing, brethren beloved by God, your election." What practical proof of our election can there be to others but in the manifested power of the life we have in Christ, maintained as it can only be by seeking to have in everything a conscience without offence toward God and men? To gather evidence for ourselves out of it is mere self-righteousness, as well as the unbelief that slights God's testimony to Christ and His work, the effete theology of Christendom hastening on to divine judgment.
But God has ever wrought blessing by the revelation of Himself. Hence it is of faith that it may be according to grace, as the law works wrath; for where no law is, neither is there transgression. But the glad tidings as preached by Paul and those with him, "our gospel," is the full testimony of what is in Christ for the lost. This had been brought home to the Thessalonians in the energy of the Holy Ghost. "Because our gospel came not unto you in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance; even as ye know what we were among you for your sake." (ver. 5.) This young but devoted, persecuted yet happy, assembly was the living testimony to God and His Christ. The gospel had come not in word only but in power, and as it was in the Holy Spirit not fleshly display, so was it in much assurance. The word was spoken with all boldness and certainty by men whose ways were its bright and genuine reflection in love. This produced corresponding effects in those who received it. For Paul and his companions were not like such as seem incapable of appreciating the glory of Christ in the gospel as in the church; who are never weary of crying up one part of the truth to the disparagement of another, as if all did not centre in our Lord: short-sighted and mischievous souls, who overlook the simplest elements of truth in self-admiration, and a broker-like pressure on others of the value of their own wares. If all were teachers where were the evangelists? If there were none to awaken souls, where the sheep to be fed and tended.
The Thessalonians too bore the impress of the power which wrought on their hearts and consciences. "And ye became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with joy of the Holy Spirit; so that ye became a pattern to all that believe in Macedonia and in Achaia." (vers. 6, 7.) They suffered bitterly for the truth which filled their hearts with joy; so Paul dying daily while he lived; so the Lord Who died as no other, yet lived the perfect ensample and fulness of joy in God His Father with utter rejection here below.
How different those in Thessalonica from their brethren in Corinth who soon followed, who slighted the weightier matters of practical grace as they gloried in the showier displays of sign-gifts and external power. And what a difference in the moral testimony! Never do we hear of the Corinthians as a pattern to any that believed in Macedonia or in Achaia. Yet did the apostle's heart yearn in love over his later children in the faith, untoward and unruly as they were, that God's unspeakable gift of grace might produce suited if late fruit in them also.
Nor was this all: the world was full of strange tidings and this beyond all Greece where the believers were impressed with the zeal and moral power of the Thessalonian assembly. "For from you hath sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith that is toward God hath gone out, so that we have no need to say anything." (ver. 8). Men were talking everywhere of the singular change and fact in that important entrepôt of trade which lay in the direct line between the West and the East. That a body of people should have abandoned their false gods, and be filled with the knowledge of the one true God in a joy which no sufferings could chill (as distinct from the Jews as from the heathen, and yet more distinguished in an all absorbing life of faith, love, hope, never so seen there before) could not but strike minds so acute, speculative, and communicative as the Greek. The sound of it rang out like a trumpet's in all directions, not about miracles or tongues, but their faith Godward: surely a fine, admirable, and gracious testimony had gone out in the midst of idolaters. For it was wholly in contrast with the hard proud legalism of the Jews, as decidedly as with the dark and indecent follies of the Gentile world. Indeed the effect was such that the apostle declares "we have no need to say anything." Why preach that which the very world in a certain way preached? Preaching has for its aim to make known the unknown God and His Son, to rouse the slumberers, to gain the ear of the careless for God's good news. Here men's lips were full of this truly new thing in Thessalonica; and from this active centre of commerce the report went out everywhere of a Macedonian assembly that renounced Zeus, Hera, Artemis, Apollo, and all the rest, without adopting circumcision or the institutions of Moses.
Nor was there anything vague or pretentious, but the sobriety of grace and truth. "For they themselves report concerning us what sort of entrance we had unto you; and how ye turned unto God from idols to serve a living and true God and to await his Son from the heavens whom he raised from the dead Jesus that delivered us from the coming wrath." (vers. 9, 10.) It is a grand object of Satan to combine the world with God, to allow the flesh while pretending to the Spirit, and thus really to fall under his own delusions while professing Christ. The reverse of all this Babylonish confusion is seen in the sort of entrance the apostle had among the Thessalonians, and the complete break made for their souls from all that is opposed to God known in light and love. They turned unto God from their idols instead of christening them and mocking Him; they served not forms or doctrines or institutions, but a living and true God; and they awaited His Son from the heavens, not as an awful and dreaded Judge, but as their Deliverer from the coming wrath, whom He raised from the dead, the pledge of their justification and the pattern of the new life of which they lived to God in the faith of Him.