Such was the vivid and powerful effect of the Apostle's visit to Thessalonica. There was an unmistakeable and deep impression produced by the conversion and walk of the saints there on those outside, around and everywhere. Their faith went forth as a living proclamation of the truth; "so that we need not to speak anything." How happy, when the work is in such power and freshness as to leave the workman free for other fields white already unto harvest! What glory to the Lord, when the very heathen aroused and amazed by the result in power before them cannot but talk of the true God and His Son!
Now, the apostle draws a good sketch of his "entering in," as to its character and bearing on the saints themselves, an internal picture, as before we were told of its external effect.
"For yourselves know, brethren, our entrance unto you that it hath not been vain. But having suffered before, and been outraged, as ye know, at Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God in much conflict. For our exhortation [is, or was] not of error, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile; but even as we have been approved of God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God that proveth our hearts.
For neither at any time were we with speech of flattery, as ye know, nor with a cloke of covetousness, God [is] witness; nor seeking glory of men, neither from you nor from others, when we might have been burdensome as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children; so yearning over you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls because ye became beloved by us. For ye remember, brethren, our labour and our toil; working night and day that we might not burden any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God. Ye [are] witnesses, and God, how holily and righteously and blamelessly we behaved ourselves to you that believe, just as ye know how each one of you as a father his own children we [were] exhorting you, and comforting, and testifying that ye should walk worthily of God that calleth you unto His own kingdom and glory" (vers. 1-12.)
The apostle could confidently appeal to the inner consciousness of the brethren. The entering in of Paul and Silas, which they had to the Thessalonian saints had not been empty. A divine purpose of grace, reality in pressing the truth on consciences, and energy of the Holy Spirit, had characterised their service and produced corresponding results. And no wonder; for it was the love of Christ constraining to the love of perishing souls, which knew not God nor the power of His resurrection who had tasted death even for them. Assuredly too, it was neither an ostentatious show nor a holiday visit, but an errand so serious in the eyes of their visitors, that no object by the way or on the spot detained; "but having suffered before and been outraged, even as ye know, in Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God in much conflict" (ver. 2).
Their injurious treatment at the hands of the Gentiles in Philippi no more daunted their unconquerable faith and love than the subsequent persecution by Jewish spite and jealousy at Thessalonica. No experience of suffering can turn aside those whose mind is to endure all things both for Christ and for the elect's sake, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. Hence their confidence: "we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God in much conflict." If there was the assurance that the glad tidings were God's, they were emboldened in God to speak out whatever the opposition or violence that environed them. So, if the apostle had now to exhort the saints in Thessalonica that no one might be moved by their affliction, it was not as a dilettante divine, laying on the shoulders of others a burden which he would not move with his own finger. From the first he was called to suffer for Christ's name, as distinctly as to bear that name before Gentiles and kings and sons of Israel, to open their eyes that they might turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive remission of sins and an inheritance among those that are sanctified by faith in Christ. And in this he wrought with burning earnestness, to which "much conflict" refers, rather than to mere external trouble on the one hand, or that wrestling for the saints against the wiles of the devil, of which we hear in Col_2:1, on the other hand. He walked and served in the truth he taught.
"For our exhortation [is, or was] not of error, nor of uncleanness, nor of guile; but even as we have been approved of God to be entrusted with the gospel so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God that proveth our hearts" (vers. 3-4). There was as good a conscience as boldness and endurance. There was integrity of heart, the very reverse of playing a part, instead of becoming the victim of delusion and so misleading others. Error was as far from the exhortation as impurity, nor was there the least intent to deceive, which "guile" expresses; but the truth was pressed holily and sincerely; and so spoke these blessed labourers, as became those who knew they had been approved of God to have the gospel entrusted to them. Grace forms responsibility, as grace enjoyed in the soul maintains its force livingly. They had God before them, God that proveth the hearts, not men to please whose breath is in their nostrils: wherein is man to be accounted of?
This is a grave and abiding principle, as true and important now as when Paul thus spoke of himself and his companion in the service of Christ. One cannot serve two masters. Patrons and congregations are not the only snares. Desire of influence, dread of disfavour, party, ecclesiasticism, may interfere with allegiance to the Lord, and righteousness in that case will surely suffer, perhaps truth itself. So Satan works in Christendom to the dishonour of Christ. The attempt to serve more than one is fatal; for a man will either hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. If a labourer in faith regards himself as approved of God to be entrusted with the gospel, he will only the more take heed to himself that the ministration be not blamed, but in every thing commend himself as God's minister. Only he will seek to hold fast liberty as much as responsibility in the Spirit, with the written word as his sole rule. An apostle had the same direct responsibility to the Lord as the least labourer in the gospel, and, as we see here, owned it for himself as he urged it on others. It is no question of right but on Christ's part; it is solely of responsibility on ours. This maintains His glory and our obedience. To us there is, and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, to whom are all things, and we through Him; as there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto Him. May we be imitators of the apostle, as he was of Christ.
But there is the snare of mammon as well as of a master rival to Christ; and we cannot serve God and mammon. Here, too, the apostle could appeal to the experience of the Thessalonian saints. "For neither at any time were we with speech of flattery, as ye know, nor with a cloak of covetousness, God [is] witness; nor seeking glory of men, neither from you nor from others, when we might have been burdensome [or, stood on dignity] as apostles of Christ" (vers. 5, 6). Those with whom Paul and the others were conversant could bear witness whether his speech was that of flattery or words of truth and soberness. God was his witness whether covetousness was concealed under any pretext. But there are other ways in which the corruption of our nature is apt to indulge and betray itself. Hence many a man who would not stoop to flattery and may not be covetous is vain or ambitious. How in these respects had Paul and his companions carried themselves? "Not seeking glory of men, neither from you nor from others, when we might have been burdensome as apostles of Christ." He sought their blessing in the testimony of Christ, not theirs but them for God's glory; and instead of claiming just consideration in carnal things as sent of the Lord on spiritual service, there was thorough self-denial in devotedness to Christ.
Now he turns to the positive side of their walk and work. "But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children" (ver. 7). The figure of a parent, even a mother, fails to convey the tender care of a love which has its spring in God Himself. Babes need a nurse, which all mothers are not; but a nurse cherishing her own children is the just figure here employed, not a hireling for another's offspring. "So yearning over you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye became beloved by us" (ver. 8). Where else is there anything to compare with this in unselfish love unless it be in the persevering faithfulness of grace which watches over the same objects in their growth end difficulties end dangers afterwards? "For ye remember, brethren, our labour and our toil: working night and day that we might not burden any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God" (ver. 9).
Paul wrought with his own hands in Thessalonica as in Corinth, whence he wrote to them, that he might be chargeable to none. Yet if anyone was entitled to say, like Nehemiah, "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down," it was the apostle, who truly did in another sense come down, and so much the better did his great work though never was there a greater mind than his who thus laboured manually night and day during his brief stay among the Thessalonians. "Ye [are] witnesses, and God, how holily and righteously and blamelessly we behaved ourselves to you that believe." He sums up his appeal to the believers and to God Himself, as only one could do who exercised himself to have a conscience void of offence toward God and men alway. "Just as ye know how each one of you as a father his own children, we [were] exhorting you and comforting, and testifying that ye should walk worthily of God that calleth you unto His own kingdom and glory" (vers. 11, 12).
Love adapts itself to the wants of those loved. So did the apostle when the saints needed more than the food of babes. And what earthly father ever made good his relation to his own children as Paul to his beloved Thessalonians? Each one and all were objects of unremitting and considerate vigilance. Exhortation, comfort, testimony never failed to stimulate, cheer, and direct in the ways that befit the God that calls unto his own kingdom and glory. There He will have His own with Christ soon and for ever; in that hope, and worthily of it, He would have them now to walk. Such is the aim of a true workman of Christ; and no lovelier picture can anywhere be found than appears in the simple sketch here drawn by the Apostle.
Thus far for the ministry of Paul and his companions. Now he turns to the means God had used for the blessing of the saints by that ministry.
"And* for this cause we also thank God unceasingly that, when ye received [the] word of [the] report from us of God, ye accepted not men's word but as it is truly God's word, which also worketh in you that believe. For ye, brethren, became imitators of the assemblies of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus; for ye also suffered the same things of your own countrymen, even as they also of the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and please not God, and [are] contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, to fill up their sins alway; but the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost" (vers. 13-16).
* "And," omitted in Text. Rec., has the highest but not large authority.
Man as he is naturally lives without God, acted on by the things he sees around him, a prey to the desires of the flesh and of the mind. In order to a spiritual link with God he needs a revelation from Him; and God is now sending this in the glad tidings concerning His Son, that men may believe and be saved. Thus does the soul know God, and Jesus Christ whom He did send, and this is life eternal. By faith he begins to feel and think according to God; and faith is the reception of a divine testimony. Thereby he sets to his seal that God is true. The word of God mixed with faith puts into immediate association with God.
In apostolic days Paul, as here, was an instrument to convey God's word in his preaching; and this, by divine power, without admixture of error. So it is in the Scriptures, which as being inspired of God exclude mistake. Hence, while they are of the richest value as a medium of communicating the truth, they have their special and indeed unique function as being the divinely given standard to try every word and work.
Not only, then, had the Apostle laboured in the power of the Holy Ghost and in a way suitable to the beginning and growth of those who were the objects of his ministry, but it was not in vain. There were sweet and manifest fruits in God's grace. "And for this cause we also thank God unceasingly, that, when ye received the word of the report from us of God ye accepted not men's word, but as it is truly God's word, which also worketh in you that believe." It is always a true effect of God's gracious power when souls in a hostile world receive His testimony, however perfectly His word meets the cravings of the heart and presents the blood of Christ to purify the conscience from the dead works to serve the living God. There is a constant network for men to hold them fast in Satan's hand; and the truth, as being God's word, judges the thoughts and intents of the heart. It was yet more trying when the truth was as novel as it must ever be opposed to human will and reasoning. When many profess it, the reproach to a great extent disappears, though God does not fail to counteract Satan's wiles, who would thus destroy the power by making the form cheap and common. To the Thessalonians, as indeed to every Gentile then, the word reported was a new thing. But it was "of God," and so they proved it. "Ye accepted not men's word, but as it is truly God's word." The heart bowed to God, and the word also wrought by the Spirit of God its own divine effects in those subject to it by faith.
The Jewish matron was true to the instincts of humanity and the traditions of her race, when she saw the Messiah casting out demons and heard Him warning of a worse power of the enemy those who still sought a sign from heaven; out of the crowd she cried, "Blessed is the womb that bare Thee, and the breasts that Thou didst suck." The gospel renders it plain and certain that it is no question of a relationship after the flesh, but of the authority and blessing of the divine word, and thus as open to the Gentile as to the Jew. To believe it is the obedience of faith. It is to be in living association with God, which cannot be otherwise.
The word wielded by the Spirit and received as of God thus separates to Him, and is indeed exactly what is called "sanctification of the Spirit" in 1Pe_1:2: not in the practical sense (which follows in ver. 15, 16 as well as elsewhere), but, in principle and absolutely, that setting apart to God from the beginning which constitutes a saint (see. 1Co_6:11). Hence it precedes the knowledge of forgiveness or the possession of peace with God; as Peter says, in (or by) sanctification of the Spirit unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. Here nothing but prejudice would have hindered believers seeing that obedience is not merely faith-obedience, but practical. Now sanctification in the ordinary sense cannot be said to be for or "unto obedience," seeing that it very largely consists of obedience, and cannot exist without it; but sanctification of the Spirit as here spoken of is for (εἰς) obedience, and such as Christ's in contrast with a mere Israelite's. It is also for "sprinkling with His blood," for the new life or divine nature in the saint wishes to obey God even before it knows the efficacy of His blood in a purged conscience; and hence the perfect order of the words in the phrase.
The want of seeing this has greatly embarrassed the commentators, and has even led, to positive falsification, as in Beza's Latin Version and the Geneva English Version, which render the clause unto (ἐν) sanctification of the Spirit through (εἰς) obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ! This is to sacrifice, not grammar merely, but God's word to a defective system of theology, which only acknowledges the sanctification that is consequent on justification, and ignores the primary setting of the person apart to God by the Spirit, which is true of every saint from his conversion, when he may not yet rest by faith in Christ's blood. Erasmus, though perplexed, is nearer the truth than the Vulgate, followed by the Rhemish, which yields no just sense whatever. Archbishop Leighton is one of the few who saw that sanctification here does not mean inherent, gradual, or practical holiness, but that work of the Spirit which from first to last separates from nature and the world to God (compare 2Th_2:13).
The same spiritual cause produced kindred effects. All are not Israelites, neither are they Cretans, and the flesh in all, if unjudged, affords a ready occasion to the enemy who presents snares suited to beguile each. But the Holy Spirit forms by the image of Christ, presented in God's word, which is effectual not only to beget souls to God. but to clear, correct, instruct, reprove, and in every way to discipline, as well as cheer on, the believer. Of this the apostle reminds the Thessalonians. "For ye, brethren, became imitators of the assemblies of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus." Difference of race, contrast as to previous habits of religion, cannot hinder the power of grace and truth. The Thessalonians followed in the same path of suffering and endurance as the Jewish assemblies in Christ Jesus. There the flame of persecution burnt fiercely against the companies that bore the name of Him whom they had crucified. It was not otherwise for the Thessalonian saints from their own countrymen.
There is no such hatred as that embittered by difference in religion, and especially where the claim is exclusive and divine. The gospel gave occasion to this in its most concentrated form; for it first had to make its way where God had really given peculiar privileges, which it was quite right to maintain in all their value as long as He owned the people to whom He had given them. But the Jewish people slighted and abandoned them, killing the prophets who pressed their infidelity and apostasy on their consciences, as they crowned their guilt when outward forms seemed orderly, but real unbelief and enmity to God were laid bare, by the ignominious rejection and death of their own Messiah. But evil is insatiable, and even the cross only whetted their rancour against the witnesses of divine grace. They "drove us out."
For the possessors of law are provoked to madness by the preaching of grace, which makes little of any earthly privileges whatever, and insists on the ruin of the Jew as much as of the Gentile. Hence the Jew's undying hatred of the gospel. It were bad enough to hear a testimony as much above and deeper than the law, as Christ is greater than Moses; and the difference is really immeasurable. But to proclaim its incomparable blessings in Christ so as to obliterate all distinction, and to bring the believer, Jew or Gentile alike, into a new place of heavenly relationship and of everlasting favour, is intolerable. This, then, was necessarily the final dealing of God as far as Israel's responsibility was concerned. All hope for the nation on the earth was buried in the grave of Christ. They had a last appeal from the Holy Ghost in the gospel witnessing of Christ exalted to heaven; but they refused the message as much or more than the Person, above all when they saw others, yea, Gentiles, entering into the good which they had spurned for themselves.
Thus they "please not God, and [are] contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, to fill up their sins always; but the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." It might not yet be executed, but it impended, and no small part became their portion after the apostle passed away. Still it rests on the ,Jew, but it is not yet expended; and were the Jew to return to his land, to rebuild the city and the sanctuary, and to take possession as far as possible of his ancient heritage, it would be but a deadly delusion and a satanic snare, bringing on them first Antichrist, then the trouble from the Assyrian, and finally the Lord Himself in unsparing vengeance, however mercy may in the end rejoice against judgment. As, however, the apostle does not lift the veil of the future, (as in Rom. 11). from their prospects, but returns to the new relations of grace, the common joy of himself and the Thessalonian saints, we too follow the line of the Holy Spirit here.
"But we, brethren, being bereaved of you for a little season [lit., of an hour], in person, not in heart, made more exceeding diligence to see your face with much desire. Wherefore* we desired to come unto You, I, Paul, both once and twice, and Satan hindered us. For what [is] our hope, or joy, or crown of glorying? [Are] not even ye before our Lord Jesus† at His coming? For ye are our glory and joy" (vers. 17-19).
* The right reading is διότι, not διό of the Text. Rec., though the sense differs little.
† "Christ" is added in the Text. Rec., but does not appear in the best MSS. and Versions.
Doubtless, if Christianity gives the deepest importance to the individual with God, the assembly affords the largest scope to the affections of the members of Christ as His one body. And Satan hinders in all possible ways the happy interchange of what is so sweet and holy, the mind and love of heaven enjoyed among saints on earth. The presence of each other, above all of such an one as Paul, what a difference it makes! Still the apostle had been introducing that which ought to correct any undue moment given to bodily presence. Had he not been showing the all-importance of God's word, and how effective it is in the hand of grace? Absence, therefore, is in no way fatal to the saints' joy and blessing. Waiting but exercises faith, and should increase the longing desire, which after all was stronger in Paul than in his Thessalonian children; how much in Him Whose patient waiting is as perfect as His love to us! Thus does he bind their hearts with his own (and may it be true of us also!) in the joy of Christ's presence at His coming. Then will be the true rest from labour, then the enjoyment of the fruits without alloy or danger. May we find ourselves habitually thus looking onward from present hindrances to that blessed and everlasting scene!