William Kelly Major Works Commentary - 1 Thessalonians 5:1 - 5:28

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - 1 Thessalonians 5:1 - 5:28


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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

1 Thessalonians Chapter 5

From the special side of the Lord's coming which consummates His grace to those waiting for Him by their translation to His presence in the air, the apostle now turns to the more general fact of "the day", when he deals with the world according to the concurrent testimony of the Old Testament and of the New. The gathering of the saints to Himself, asleep or alive changed into the image of His glory, is a new revelation, and is introduced here as such. Not so the appearing or day of the Lord, which had formed the burden of many prophecies, and, I think we may say, of all the prophets since time began. For it is an epoch and indeed period second to none in manifest importance, affecting every creature in heaven and earth, and displaying the immense change which God will then bring to pass in honour of His Son according to His word from the beginning.

"But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need to be written to. For yourselves know thoroughly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief at night. When they are saying peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh on them as the pain on her that is with child; and they shall! in no wise escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you as a thief; for ye all are sons of light and sons of day: we are not of night nor of darkness.

So, then, let us not sleep as [do] the rest, but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep by night, and they that ere drunk drink by night; but we being of day, let us be sober, putting on a breastplate of faith and love, and hope of salvation as helmet. Because God did not appoint us unto wrath, but unto obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we may live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another, and edify each other, even as also ye do" (vers. 1-11).

It will be remarked that there is no mention, no mixing up, of "the times and the seasons" with the presence of the Lord to gather His own to Himself on high. This, our hope, is wholly apart from the defined periods of which prophecy treats. Here where "the day of the Lord" is in question, they are expressly brought forward; for that day is the most momentous event embraced within its scope. It is not improbable from 2Th_2:5 that the apostle had already taught them of it orally, as he certainly did of antecedent circumstances. But it is not necessary to assume that he had taught them as much as could be known, nor even that he had ever by word of mouth gone into detail on the day of the Lord. There was really no need for this, because the Old Testament treats of no theme more largely and minutely. It was already, therefore, a matter of common and familiar knowledge among the saints. Yet the accuracy of their knowledge is here simply said of the sure and sudden and unwelcome coming of the day of the Lord. There was no need of writing anything now, for they knew perfectly that Jehovah's day so comes as a thief at night. The apostle may not have gone into particulars; but this great and solemn truth was part of their inward conscious assurance (vers. 1, 2.) They knew perfectly, not as some strangely say that the time of it is uncertain, but that its coming is certain, and no less terrible than unlooked for.

With this is contrasted the fatal self-deceiving security of men around them, of the world. "When they are saying peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh on them, as the pain on her that is with child; and they shall in no wise escape" (ver. 3), In 2 Peter 3 it is rather such scoffing unbelief as is found among philosophers, who point to the substantial stability of all things visible in the midst of superficial change and development. Here it is rather inward quiet and outward exemption from danger, through confidence in the social and political state of mankind; yet not without uneasy qualms which betray the real unrest and underlying dread of those that know not God and His Christ. As it was with men when the flood came and swept away all those who despised God's warning by Noah; as it was when, after feebler and still briefer warning in the days of Lot, condign judgment fell on the polluted cities of the plain; so shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. Sudden destruction, indeed, impends on those who trust themselves and their own thoughts, rejecting the testimony of God. This is the judgment of the quick; and, it will be noticed, no trace accompanies it of a judgment of the dead nor yet of a burning up of the earth, however surely both are to follow in their own due season. It is the end of the age, but not of the world materially. As a snare shall it come upon all them that dwell on the face of all the earth. And they shall in no wise escape, any more than the woman with child when her hour is come and the birth-pang is on her. It is unspiritual ignorance, not to say folly, to apply this to the destruction of Jerusalem or to death, as some have done and do. It is the day of the Lord yet to fall on the world.

The apostle, however, immediately and carefully declares how different is the lot of the faithful. "But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you as a thief; for ye all are sons of light and sons of day: we are not of night nor of darkness" (vers. 4, 5). He is not afraid that it would endanger the young believers in Thessalonica, or any others, to know how grace had distinguished them from the rest of mankind, his very aim here, as elsewhere, is to impress this distinction on them ineffaceably. He says, first, that they were not in darkness, that the day should surprise them as a thief; secondly, that they all were sons of light and sons of day. Not only were they unlike the world as in darkness and the objects of the Lord's judgment, but positive sharers of divine nature and blessedness. Indeed, such is the peculiar being of God's children generally, as he adds, "we are not of night nor of darkness." We are of God, Who is light, and in Whom is no darkness at all.

But privilege known and enjoyed by the believer is the very hinge and incentive of responsibility; and so the apostle proceeds to exhort. "So then let us not sleep as do the rest, but let us watch and be sober" (ver. 6). If children of God, it is a deep spring of joy in Christ and of thanksgiving to our Father, but how instant and inalienable the call to walk according to the relationship! So here, if sons of light and of day, sleep - indifference to the will of the Lord - becomes us not, but watchfulness and sobriety, as those who derive their life from Him Who is the one true light, and will bring in the day, as free from excitement as from careless ease. The righteous shall then shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

Then follows a brief but vivid picture of the slumbering world and of the wakeful Christian. "For those that sleep sleep by night, and those that are drunk drink by night; but we, as being of day, let us be sober, putting on a breastplate of faith and love, and as helmet hope of salvation" (vers. 7, 8). Sleep suits the night, and so does excess: men naturally do in the dark what they would not like to do in the light. It is the common and undeniable practice of men which is thus brought before the mind. To what is the Christian exhorted? It is not exactly, as in the Authorised Version after the Vulgate, etc., "Let us who are of the day," which would require the article, but let us as being of day be sober, having put on a breastplate of faith and love, and hope of salvation as helmet.* Thus the believer is called to be in arms as well as watchful and sober. But the arms here, as but young Christians were immediately addressed, are not offensive, but defensive only: the three characteristics of their life here below, faith, love, and hope. We have seen how they are used in chap. 1 of this Epistle; here they re-appear in the last. Indeed they cannot be absent if we would speak of the motive principles of Christ, whether in truth or in practice; and hence they are more or less prominent in all the apostolic writings.

* It may be worth while here to remark that the reason for the anarthrous structure of the phraseology is not what Bishop Ellicott assigned following Winer's Greek New Testament Grammar, namely, that as well known terms they dispense with the article. Now there may be cases where with a connected word the phrase is virtually a proper name, which sufficiently designative to do without the article unless special reasons require it. But as a general rule the facts do not bear out the conclusion and the familiar words in question fall under the ordinary principle that when they are intended to present an object before the mind the article must be used; whereas it is dropped in order to characterise or predicate simply. The usage is not arbitrary nor careless, but correct in the New Testament and all exact writings. Sometimes the article might or might not be inserted, and both be true; but the force is never precisely the same.

It must be understood that "salvation" here is used in the final or complete sense when the body will share the application of that gracious power which has already dealt with the soul. The believer has already life everlasting and redemption in the Son of God, and thus receives the end of his faith, soul-salvation; he is therefore looking for the salvation of his body (Php_3:21) at Christ's coming as Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to His body of glory, according to the working of the power which He has even to subdue all things to Himself. "Because God did not appoint us unto wrath, but unto obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep we should live together with Him." These are plain words which trace up to God the sovereign grace which distinguishes the saints from the world from first to last, and makes Christ and His death the turning-point of all blessing for those who look to Him, as His wrath abides on such as are not subject to His Son. As lawyers, however, are apt to find in the law more difficulties and stumbling-blocks and evasions than any other class, so do theologians in the written word, to the dishonour of God and the injury of all who confide in them. Could any minds save those perverted by systematic divinity have ever allowed so low a thought as that physical waking or sleeping was here meant? Yet Dr. Whitby did thus think; and even Calvin* says that we might not unsuitably interpret it as meaning ordinary sleep and that it is doubtful what is now intended by sleeping and waking, for it might seem as if he meant life and death, and this meaning would be more complete. Assuredly this pious and learned man here gives a very uncertain sound with the trumpet. It were better to utter no opinion at all than to leave the reader under such a confusion of thoughts. But even this is not the lowest depth, for there have not been wanting men who wish the apostle to teach that the words bear the same ethical force in ver. 10 as in 6, 7! the necessary inference from which would be that, whether we be spiritually watchful or slothful, we shall alike enjoy the portion of everlasting blessedness together with Christ. Does not this sound uncommonly like moral indifferentism?

* "Dubium tamen est quid nunc per somnium et vigilias intelligat: videri enim posset vitam et mortem designare, et hic sensus esset plenior, quanquam de quotidiano somno non inepte etiam exponere liceat." Comm. in loco, Opera, vii. 418.)

Dean Alford, to take a recent case, seems in no small strait as to all this in his remarks on the passage (iii. 278, 279, ed. iv.): "In what sense? surely not in an ethical sense, as above: for they who sleep will be overtaken by Him as a thief, and His day will be to them darkness, not light. If not in an ethical sense, it must be in that of living or dying, and the sense as Rom_14:8. [For we cannot adopt the trifling sense given by Whitby, al., - 'whether He come in the night, and so find us taking our natural rest, or in the day when we are waking.'] Thus understood, however, it will be at the expense of perspicacity, seeing that γρηγορεν and καθεδειν have been used ethically throughout this passage. If we wish to preserve the uniformity of the metaphor, we may [though I am not satisfied with this] interpret in this sense: that our Lord died for us, that whether we watch [are of the number of the watchful, i.e. already Christians] or sleep [are of the number of the sleeping, i.e. unconverted] we should live, etc. Thus it would = 'who died that all men might be saved:' who came, not to call the righteous only, but sinners to life. There is to this interpretation the great objection that it confounds with the λοιπο, the μς who are definitely spoken of as set by God not to wrath but to περιποησιν σωτηρας. So that the sense live or die must, I think, be accepted, and the want of perspicuity with it."

Of course Alford is right in accepting the sense of living or dying, but wrong and irreverent in imputing want of perspicuity to scripture. He saw Paul only not the Holy Ghost perfectly guiding and guarding him, in what is written. Apply the Dean's reasoning to a kindred mode of speech in Mat_8:21-22 Was there want of perspicuity in the words of the Lord Jesus? or, in 1 Cor. 8, does the unexpected but striking turn given to the word "edified" = "emboldened" in ver. 10 destroy perspicuity? It really gives force in every instance: it is only men's perception which is at fault, with the still worse fault of lack of faith in God's word. If they felt their own shortcoming but owned the perfection of scripture, it would be the right attitude, and they would learn, instead of indulging an assumption which covers ignorance in themselves, injures others, and is a great disrespect to God. The verse is really the conclusion of the answer to the Thessalonian difficulty as to the dead, and the Holy Spirit seems to have boldly used the words γρ and κ ethically in 6 and 7, and metaphorically here, because He took for granted the mind of Christ in the saints, which could not misapprehend His different aims in the two cases. Christ died for us, that, whether alive or dead, we should live together with Him. It is living along with Him where He is and as He is, glorified on high. And as the apostle called on the saints in 1Th_4:18 to comfort or encourage one another with these words he repeats it here in ver. 11, with the added call to edify one the other; for to know the solemn judgment to fall on the world in the day of the Lord should the more build up believers consoled and rejoicing in their own proper hope at His coming.

The apostle next turns to a need rarely if ever out of season among the faithful, even where the stream of faith and love is yet fresh and strong, the due recognition of those that labour and take the lead on the part of their brethren.

"Now we beseech you, brethren, to know those that labour among you and are over you in [the] Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them exceedingly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves" (vers. 12, 13).

It is commonly assumed that the persons indicated by these expressions of spiritual toil, admonition, or presidency, were bishops or presbyters. But this is to lose the special instruction and value of what is here urged; as it is an oversight of the apostolic order as presented in the scripture to take for granted that any were appointed in the Thessalonian assembly to the office of oversight during so brief a sojourn as the first visit, among converts, all of them as yet necessarily novices in the things of God, however bright, and fervent, and promising. To the careful reader of Acts 13, 14 no argument is needed to prove that it was on a second visit, unless the first were of long continuance, that the apostles appointed or chose for the disciples elders in every assembly. The wisdom of this, if not the necessity for it, will be evident to any sober mind that reflects, even if we had not the positive prohibition to Timothy of any such persons from such a function. (1Ti_3:6) For surely, whatever Popes may do, it would be harsh in the extreme to suppose that the apostle in his own choice of bishops neglected the principle which he so gravely charges on his true son in the faith.

Undoubtedly elders, or bishops, were to be honoured, especially those that laboured in word and teaching. (1Ti_5:17.) But the weighty lesson inculcated in the other scriptures we are considering is that, before there was such an official relationship, those who laboured among the saints, took the lead of them in the Lord, and admonished the saints, are held up by the apostle as entitled not only to recognition in their work, but to be regarded exceedingly in love on account of it. Very probably they were just the persons suited for an apostle, or an apostolic delegate like Titus, to appoint as presbyters. But meanwhile, and independently, this established a most important principle, and quite as wholesome for the saints themselves as for those who had no external title as yet: nothing more than a spiritual gift exercised in faith and love, with the simple-hearted desire of the Lord's glory in the healthful, happy, and holy condition of their brethren.

Nor is this state of things among the Thessalonians at all an exceptional case; in other places we may see what is analogous. Thus, among the saints at Rome, where (so far as scripture teaches) no apostle had as yet sojourned, we find gifts which they are encouraged in the Epistle to exercise, teaching, exhorting, presiding or ruling, etc. Apostolic appointment they had not yet; and accordingly we hear of no such officers as bishops or deacons. But it is a mistake to infer from this that there were or could be none otherwise taking the lead; for Rom. 12 explicitly exhorts such persons to exercise their gift, even if they had no outward appointment.

Similarly in the Epistles to the church in Corinth we find no trace of elders - rather the proof that they did not yet exist there. For if they did, would it not be strange to ignore them in the absence of godly discipline as we see in 1 Cor. 5, 6, and in the presence of such disorder as there dishonoured the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11), not to speak of confusion in the assembly (1 Cor. 14), and heterodoxy germinating in their midst (1 Cor. 15)? If elders were not there, one could understand these evils laid directly at the door of the assembly without reference to any individuals appointed to rule. Their absence is readily accounted for: the Corinthian assembly was still young, however vigorous. It was usual to appoint on a later visit those of the brethren in whom the Lord gave the apostles to descry fitting qualifications for the office of a bishop. Yet, meanwhile they were not destitute of those that devoted themselves, like the house of Stephanas to the service of the saints (1Co_16:15-16); and the apostle enjoins subjection to each and to every one joined in the work and labouring.

At Ephesus there were, as we know from Acts 20, elders or bishops; but this did not hinder the free action of those who were gifts from the Lord, whether pastors or others (Eph. 4), who might not have the local charge of elders. The same remark applies to Philippi, where express mention is made of bishops and deacons, but as there might be, and no doubt was, the exercise of gifts in teaching or presiding before such officials appeared, so there was nothing in their presence to hinder the liberty of the Spirit in the assembly. Compare also Col_2:19 with Col_4:17, Heb_13:7; Heb_13:17; Heb_13:24. 1Pe_4:11 illustrates and confirms the same principle: a golden one for us now, when we cannot have apostolic visits, or the then orderly appointment to local charge such as they were authorised to make. But we may and ought so much the more sedulously to own all that the Lord gives for the order and edifying of the assembly, as we hear the apostles exhorting the saints in so many places to do, where elders were not, and even where and when they were.

It might be asked if there was as yet no official nomination of the chiefs at Thessalonica, how were the saints to know the right persons to own, honour, and love as such? The answer is, that the Spirit of God would give this, if not with the intelligence and surely not with the authority, of an apostle, but quite enough to guide the saints for all practical purposes. Therefore, says the apostle here, "We beseech you brethren, to know those that labour among you," etc. Here was the warrant of the word; the Holy Spirit would do the rest, unless self-will and pride or envy hindered. Even so much service of devoted labour and lowly taking the lead and faithful admonition would make itself known in the conscience, as it would yet more readily to the heart if the saints walked with God. Yet this is so novel among Christians, that even devout scholars find very great difficulty in discovering the meaning of εδυαι, whereas its force here is its constant use. If the saints can know a brother to love him, so they can know those whom God uses for their blessing and guidance, and, if right themselves before Him, will respect them the more for not slurring over what is wrong, though a pain at the moment. "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." You cannot love as here exhorted unless you know them, just as it is impossible to render brotherly love if we cannot tell who are our brethren.

To be at peace among ourselves is of great moment in order to such recognition as the recognition conduces to it. So it follows here.

But there is no countenance given to the unloving, careless thought that those who labour are to undertake the whole burden of the saints, especially that which draws on moral courage and patience. This is enjoined, not (as Chrysostom says here) on the rulers, but also on the brethren generally. "And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the disorderly, comfort the faint-hearted, support the weak, be long-suffering toward all" (ver. 14). Love alone can thus work, looking at the saints as they are in God's sight, and grieved at the havoc Satan would make in that holy garden of the Lord, for whose will and glory love is jealous. Such is to be our way with our brethren.

Next follows a cluster of short pithy exhortations almost to the end, which deal first of all with our spirit or state personally; next in our more public walk.

"See that none render to anyone evil for evil, but always pursue that which is good one toward another, and toward all. Rejoice always; pray unceasingly; in everything give thanks, for this [is] God's will in Christ Jesus toward you. Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophecies; but prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil" (ver. 15-22).

Grace is the characteristic of the gospel; and as it is the spring in God Himself as shown in Christ so would He have it in His children, not human justice, for the just against the unjust, but unselfish love doing good to the evil and suffering evil from them. Thus would He have us to be not overcome of evil but to overcome evil with good. Such is Christianity in practice above heathenism and Judaism alike. Such is it one with another and toward all, and so Peter no less than Paul: "If when ye do well and suffer, ye shall take it patiently this is acceptable - grace - with God."

Nor should the Christian give an ill impression of his God and Father or of the portion he even now possesses in His grace, any more than of his prospects. With what joy the disciples returned even from their Master departing to heaven! And the Holy Spirit in due time came to make the joy unfailing. (Joh_4:14) What has there been since to dry up the spring? "Rejoice always."

But we are still in the body and in the world, as they were. Therefore is the word "pray unceasingly;" just as we see those who returned with great joy from Olivet, all with one accord continuing steadfastly in prayer with Mary the mother of Jesus, not yet the abomination of prayer to her or to His brethren. Yet this due expression of increasing dependence on God should never be without thanksgiving, but as we are in everything, which otherwise might make us anxious, by prayer and supplication to let our requests be made known to God (Php_4:6), so are we here exhorted to "give thanks in everything." And as a constant spirit of thanksgiving is the very reverse of nature's querulousness, because of manifold suffering and chagrin and disappointment, the apostle fortifies this call with a reason subjoined, "for this is God's will in Christ Jesus toward you." Otherwise it would soon in the declension of Christendom have been counted levity and presumption. How truly does the apostle say in his second Epistle, "all have not faith."

Next we have terse but full exhortation as to our more public ways. It is not here the personal call of Eph. 4, "grieve not," but "quench not the Spirit," followed up by "despise not prophecies," which serves to fix its true bearing. Both suppose the free action of the Holy Spirit in the assembly, where He must not be hindered in His general movement even by the least member of Christ, any more than despised in the highest form of dealing with souls, or "prophesying." On the other hand the saints must not be imposed on by high or exclusive claims which are never needed by, and would be repulsive to, the truly spiritual. They were to prove all things, to hold fast the good, to abstain from every form of evil. By έἶδος translated "appearance" in the Authorised Version, is really meant kind or form.

This brief but full exhortation is followed by a beautifully suited prayer. "Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit, and soul, and body be preserved entire without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful [is] He that calleth, who will also do [it]" (ver. 23, 24). Thus does the apostle commend his beloved children in the faith to the God of peace Himself, after so comprehensively urging their own responsibility; and this both generally and in detail. This is the reason of distinguishing the spirit, the soul, and the body, the entire man inner and outer, and even the inner divided into spirit and soul, that they might look for God to set them apart wholly, and every whit within as well as without to be preserved entire without blame at Christ's coming.

It may be well to add that "the soul" is the seat of personality, "the spirit" is rather the expression of capacity. Hence the soul, with its affections, is the responsible "I;" as the spirit is that higher faculty capable of knowing God, but also of unutterable woe in the rejection of Him. The God of peace Himself claims and sanctifies us wholly. For this should we pray, as the apostle for the saints in Thessalonica, that they might be preserved entire blamelessly, and in every respect, at the coming of our Lord. And for our comfort he adds that, as He who calls us is faithful, so also He will accomplish His purpose. Peace with God, the peace of God, the God of peace; such is the order of the soul's entrance into and experience of the blessing through our Lord Jesus, as the Holy Ghost is the person who effectuates this wonderful purpose of our Father whether now in measure, or absolutely and perfectly at Christ's coming, a hope never separated in Scripture from any part of Christian life.

But there is another trait of that life to which the apostle invites the saints. "Brethren, pray for us." What grace! We can understand easily an Abraham praying for an Abimelech, and perhaps also a more faulty Abraham interceding for a faulty prince of the world who had done a wrong which he wist not fully. But how blessed that it is the privilege of the saints to pray for the most honoured servant of the Lord, and that he seeks and values their prayers! Then follows a warm expression of loving salutation to the brethren, to all the brethren.

But there is another word of marked significance introduced with peculiar solemnity. "I adjure you by the Lord that the letter be read to all the [holy]* brethren." We may conceive how proper and necessary this was when the apostle sent out his first Epistle. It was a communication in the form of a letter, so characteristic of Christianity in its affectionate intimacy as well as in its simplicity. Depth of grace and truth it has in its nature, whatever the form in which it may be presented orally or in writing. But being a letter, and the first of the apostle's sending out, he will have the things he writes acknowledged as the commandments of the Lord, and read to all as concerning all in the Lord. For though he does not put forward his title of apostle, when he could only rejoice that its assertion was needless, he writes in the fullest consciousness of it (1Th_2:6), and here implies its fullest authority, but withal would be in immediate contact with the least member of Christ's body, as he wishes finally that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ should be with them (ver. 28). It was not that he suspected the integrity of those that were over them in the Lord, but that he would impress on all the saints the solemnity of a fresh inspired communication. And truly, the more we reflect on the gracious interest of God in thus drawing out the heart of the apostle, guided and filled with suited truth for His children, the more will our value rise for such unerring words of divine love.

*Some have judged "holy" a gloss. For my own part, I venture to think it is as appropriate here as in Heb_3:1, and can readily understand that its absence from "brethren" generally might induce scribes even in early days as in later to omit the term. This was the first letter addressed to the Gentile saints, as the Epistle to the Hebrews lays special emphasis on those of that nation who confessed Christ being now "holy brethren," not such as were only Abraham's seed according to the flesh.