(1) But of the times.—The fourth subject of instruction; the bearing of the doctrine of the Advent upon the Christian’s own life. “Times and seasons” is a Hebraism, and in the original, the second word, not the first, is the more explicit: we should say, “About day and hour.” The plural seems to mean the different periods at which men might conceive the Advent likely to come.
Ye have no need.—The next verse shows that this paragraph is not so much intended for an answer to a false theory about the time of the Advent, as practically to cure the restlessness common at Thessalonica.
The day of the Lord.—Here “the Lord” (as usual in the New Testament) means Jesus Christ; and this day can mean nothing else than the great day of His return to judgment. The expression is taken from the Old Testament, where, of course, it does not primarily mean what we call “the Day of Judgment,” but the set time which God has fixed for any great visitation. Thus in Joel 2:1, et seq., it means the time appointed for the plague of locusts; in Ezekiel 13:5, generally, any day when God visits His people; in Joel 3:14, the fixed time for vengeance to be taken upon the heathen for persecuting the Church; which, in Isaiah 2:12 (a passage largely influenced by recollections of Joel), seems to widen into a general day of judgment for mankind.
Cometh.—Not merely, will come; it is an absolute certainty that the time is on its way to come. (See Note on 1 Thessalonians 1:10.)
As a thief in the night—i.e. unexpectedly (Matthew 24:43), and under cover of darkness. The frequency of the simile (see references) throws light on the words “know perfectly,” making it apparent that it was the ordinary formula in which the doctrine was universally taught by the Apostles.
Peace and safety.—Carrying on the thought suggested by the word “night; they are taking their repose in security, without dreaming of any interruption to their slumbers. Is it possible that there may here be a faint recollection of the parable related in Matthew 25:1-13?
Destruction cometh upon them.—Literally, stands over them; or takes its stand over them; presents itself. The present tense is used for the sake of a more vivid effect. The extreme similarity of this passage to Luke 21:34 (with other indications) inclines Bishop Wordsworth to think that the Thessalonians had the Gospel of St. Luke to refer to.
As travail.—A common Oriental simile to express not only suddenness, but horror also. Theodoret fairly says, “The woman with child knows that she has the child to bear, but knows not the exact time for her pangs; so we also know that the Lord of all will appear, but the moment itself we have by no means been explicitly taught.” The comment, however, hardly suits this passage, as the persons on whom the destruction will thus burst are not persons who live in any expectation of such a judgment.
That day.—Literally, the day: so that it does not mean the Judgment Day simply as a point of time, but brings out its characteristic of being a day indeed. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 3:13.)
As a thief.—There is another reading which has two of the best MSS. and he Coptic version in its favour, and the judgment of Lachmann and Dr. Lightfoot,” As thieves.” But not only is the evidence from the MSS. strongly in favour of the Received text, but the whole context shows that St. Paul was not thinking of the day as catching them at evil practices, but as catching them in inadvertence.
Children of light.—The expression is an enthusiastic Hebrew poetical turn for intimate vital connection with anything; thus, e.g., “children of this world” (Luke 16:8; Luke 20:34) = “mere products of this age,” with a family likeness for other worldly people; “the son of peace” (Luke 10:6)=a person with whom peace has a natural affinity, to whom the “peace” pronounced will cleave naturally. So “children of the light” are persons to whom darkness is an alien thing, whose natures have a kinship, an intuitive responsiveness for whatever may be called “light.” To such persons the “light,” the “day,” can never come as an unwelcome, startling apparition.
We.—Notice St. Paul’s courtesy again: he suddenly includes himself in his exhortation.
Others.—Rather, the rest, as in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 : so also Romans 11:7; Ephesians 2:3.
Watch and be sober.—The comparison of night now suggests to the writer another thought besides that of sloth, namely, that of dissipation. Christians are not to turn day into night by debauchery any more than by sleep.
Breastplate of faith and love.—We have not to do with the Christian soldier as aggressive and going forth to conquer, which idea is developed in Ephesians 6:11 et seq., but only as defensive, and protected in breast and head against sudden blows. The three “theological virtues” are the Christian’s defence. (Comp. 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Corinthians 13:13.) The “breastplate” is a cuirass fitting close to the body, and in Ephesians this cuirass is composed of righteousness, while faith becomes the shield, and love disappears from the panoply. The “faith” here is a general trust in God’s presence and goodness; the “love” is the love both of God and men. Perhaps it is unnecessary to inquire particularly why faith and love are represented as covering the body, and hope as covering the head. It seems far-fetched to consider the first two as keeping the heart, i.e., the affections, from injury; the third as preserving the brain, i.e., keeping us from miscalculating the dangers and so falling into despair. In the passage of Isaiah which St. Paul here imitates, the “helmet of salvation” appears to mean little more than a helmet which secures safety; but as one of the chief benefits which such armour confers is the confident hope of coming off unhurt, St. Paul fairly describes that hope itself as being a protection. In the forefront of the lost (Revelation 21:8) stand those who have had no “hope” or “trust.”
Hath not appointed.—Rather, did not appoint, referring to some mysterious moment of God’s eternal counsels, when He fixed His predestination of us—whether the moment of creative thought, or of sending the gospel to us. The “wrath” is that which is to come upon the “children of wrath” at the Second Advent, as in 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:16. (Comp. 1 Peter 2:8.) We may well be confident then, for we ourselves are the only persons that can defeat God’s predestinations.
To obtain salvation.—More than “obtain;” the Greek means “acquire” by one’s own efforts;” earn and make our own;” being the same word as is used in 1 Timothy 3:13 and Acts 20:28 in the verb; and in the substantive in Ephesians 1:14 (where it is translated “purchased possession”); 2 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 10:39 (translated “saving”); and 1 Peter 2:9, where see Note. It will be seen that God does not predestinate men to “salvation” without laborious acquisition on their part, but predestinates them to occupy a position in which they will be able to “work out their own salvation” by placing them “under grace” in the Church. The very same word is used of the Christian’s way of securing salvation, and of Christ’s way of securing it for him (see references); both are “purchasing,” “earning.” But mark that the Christian can only so purchase salvation “through our Lord Jesus Christ:” apart from Him a man can do nothing to redeem himself, but through union with Him the believer can pay the whole price of his salvation (see e.g. John 15:5);
Whether we wake or sleep.—The mention of Christ’s death at once brings back the recollection of the Advent and the questions concerning the dead in their relation to it. The words “wake or sleep” seem distinctly suggested by the metaphor used from 1 Thessalonians 5:2 to 1 Thessalonians 5:8, being different in the Greek from the terms used in 1 Thessalonians 4, but abruptly take a much altered meaning. They here, no doubt, signify “life and death:”—“Let us arm ourselves with a brave hope of our salvation, for it will be against God’s will if we should perish: He means us to save ourselves by union with Him who put an end to death for us by dying, and made all who wait for His coming to live, whether they be in the world’s sense dead or alive.”
We should live.—In sharp contrast with “who died for us.” Christ’s dying destroyed the power of death (Hebrews 2:14); henceforth it is only a matter of being awake or asleep; those who sleep quite as truly live, and live with Him, as we who wake (see Luke 20:38; and compare the more developed passage in Romans 14:8). The word “together” (as the Greek clearly shows) must be separated from the “with;” rather, “we should live with Him together,” i.e., we quick, and our brethren the dead; for St. Paul has entirely reverted from the effect of the Advent-doctrine upon Christian life to the subject of the last chapter—the equality of the two classes at Christ’s coming. Bengel, thinking that St. Paul is still applying himself to the discussion of the date of the Advent (which in fact was scarcely raised), tries to make out the meaning, “That we should there and then live with Him.”
To know them which labour.—A command to enter into the spirit of ecclesiastical discipline. The persons meant are not simply the hard-working laity, contrasted with the idlers of 1 Thessalonians 4:11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:11, but those who performed the laborious office of the priesthood, as the words subsequent show. And “knowing” them is hardly to be limited either to the sense of “recognising their position,” i.e., “not ignoring them,” or, on the other hand, to the sense of “being on terms of familiar intercourse with them.” The Greek word indicates appreciation; they are bidden to acquaint themselves thoroughly with the presbyter and his work, and to endeavour to understand his teaching, and to value his example. The logical connection of this verse with the preceding is that of course the main endeavours to “edify” the brethren were made by the presbytery; and the command to edify involves the command to accept edification.
Are over you in the Lord.—This is the primitive idea of the priest in the Church: he is not a member of a sacerdotal caste, ministering to an outer world, but a superior officer in a spiritual society consisting of nothing but priests (Revelation 1:6, where the right reading is, “Made us a kingdom of priests”). It is specially interesting to notice how much power is given to the presbytery in this earliest writing of the New Testament, and how carefully St. Paul seems to have organised his churches, and that at the very foundation of them. It is only “in the Lord” that the presbytery are over men, that is, in spiritual matters.
Admonish you.—The presbytery are not only organisers, managers of the corporate affairs of their Church, but also spiritual guides to give practical advice to individual Christians. These are the two senses in which they are “over you.”
For their work’s sake.—Our love is to be paid them not for any social or intellectual qualities they may have in themselves; it is the work which they have to do that should attract our sympathy. The original seems to mean that we are to love them, not only because they do such work, but also ‘for the sake of their work,” i.e., to help it forward.
Be at peace among yourselves.—Discipline to be observed towards equals, as well as superiors.
Warn.—The same Greek word as “admonish” in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, and selected for that very reason. The “unruly” or “disorderly” are those who infringe good discipline—said of soldiers who leave their ranks: here notably of those mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 3:11.
Feebleminded.—Or, fainthearted, pusillanimous. Such persons, e.g., as were overburdened with sorrow for the dead, or afraid of the persecutions, or the like.
Support the weak.—Or, keep hold of them, to help them on. The “weak” are not quite the same as the “feebleminded,” but rather (judging from Romans 14:1 et seq.) those who have not attained that robust common-sense and breadth of conscience which discriminates between truths and superstitions, necessities and expediencies; or who are not yet ripe enough Christians to be sure of standing in persecution.
Patient toward all men.—Church officers are not to be rendered impatient by the defects, errors, weakness, stupidity, unbelief of any one, catholic, heretic, or heathen.
None render evil for evil.—Like the prohibition of fornication, abstinence from revenge is practically a new thought for Greeks, among whom feuds were frequent and undying. (Comp. Romans 1:31; Titus 3:3.)
That which is good—i.e., that which is kind. (See Note on 1 Thessalonians 3:6.) This duty is to be “followed,” i.e., made an object to be pursued eagerly, “toward all men.” There is not one standard of morals towards the brethren and another towards the world.
This is the will of God—i.e., that you should be always full of thanksgiving. This clause hardly enforces thanksgiving as a duty, “Give thanks always, for you recognise the duty of doing God’s will, and this is His will;” but rather encourages the Thessalonians to see that thankfulness is always possible. “Give thanks always, for God has no wish to give you cause for sorrow: His will towards you is to fill you with thankfulness.” “Towards you” seems here a more exact rendering than “concerning you.”
In Christ Jesus.—This kind and loving will of God for our good was most abundantly manifested in the life and death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, and even to this day it is chiefly manifested in what Christ Jesus still is for us (e.g. Hebrews 6:19-20).
The very God of peace.—In more usual English, “the God of peace Himself:” the contrast is between the futile efforts after holiness of which they in themselves were capable, and the almighty power of sanctification exercised by God. This sanctification (which is the special work of the Third Person) is here ascribed to the First Person of the Holy Trinity, from whom the Holy Ghost proceeds. He is called (as in Hebrews 13:20) the “God of peace,” not in reference to any dissensions between the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:13), but because of the peace which His sanctification brings into the soul, so that it fears neither temptation’s power nor persecution’s rage. (Comp. the Second Collect for Evensong).
Sanctify you wholly.—Rather, sanctify you whole. The idea is rather that of leaving no part unsanctified, than that of doing the work completely so far as it goes: thus it serves to introduce the next sentence, which explains it.
And I pray God.—If there were need of any insertion, it should have been “We pray God:” Silas and Timothy are never forgotten throughout.
Spirit and soul and body.—This is St. Paul’s fullest and most scientific psychology, not merely a rhetorical piling up of words without any particular meaning being assigned to them. Elsewhere, he merely divides man according to popular language, into two parts, visible and invisible, “body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:34, et al.); the division into “body and soul” he never uses. (Comp. Note on 1 Corinthians 2:14.) The “spirit” (pneuma) is the part by which we apprehend realities intuitively—i.e., without reasoning upon them; with it we touch, see, serve, worship God (John 4:23-24; Romans 1:9; 1 Corinthians 6:17; Revelation 1:10, et al.); it is the very inmost consciousness of the man (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:11); it is the part of him which survives death (Hebrews 12:23; 1 Peter 3:19; comp. Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). The “soul.” (psyche) includes the intellect, the affections, and the will: and it is of the very essence of the gospel to force sharply upon men the distinction between it and the spirit (Hebrews 4:12). Low-living men may have soul (i.e., intellect, affection, will) in abundance, but their spirit falls into complete abeyance (Jude 1:19); the soul belongs altogether to the lower nature, so that when St. Paul uses the two-fold division, “body and spirit,” the soul is reckoned (not, probably, as Bishop Ellicott says on our present passage, as part of the spirit, but) as part of the body; and when St. Paul describes the “works of the flesh,” he includes among them such distinctly soul-sins as “heresies” (Galatians 5:20). Sanctification preserves all these three divisions entire, and in their due relation to each other; without sanctification, the spirit might be overwhelmed by the other parts gaining the predominance, which would, of course, eventually be the ruin both of “soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28. N.B., that our Lord says nothing of the destruction of the “spirit” in hell: the question is whether He there definitely meant to exclude “spirit,” or used “soul” popularly as including it). Where the New Testament writers acquired such a psychology cannot be determined, but it was probably derived from experimental knowledge of life, not from books, and all experience confirms its accuracy. Modern science tends more and more to show that “soul” is a function of “body.”
Unto the coming.—A mistranslation for “at the coming,” caused by the slight difficulty in understanding the true version. The idea is not so much that of their preservation from sin during the interval, but rather the writers hasten in eager anticipation to the Coming itself, and hope that the Thessalonians at the Coming will be found to have been preserved. “Blameless” should have been “blamelessly.”