Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone;III.
(1) We could no longer forbear.—The Greek word contains the metaphor of a vessel over-full and bursting with its contents. “We” must be understood here by the limitation of 1Thessalonians 2:18, and by the direct singular of 1Thessalonians 3:5, to mean St. Paul alone, not him and Silas.
To be left at Athens alone.—The difficulty of interpreting this passage so as to agree with Acts 17:15-16; Acts 18:5, is not a light one. From those passages it would appear that immediately upon reaching Athens, St. Paul sent word back to Macedonia, by the friends who had escorted him, that St. Silas and St. Timothy should join him at once; but that some delay took place, and that St. Paul had arrived at Corinth before his companions reached him; that they consequently never were with him at Athens. In that case, “to be left alone” must mean, “We resolved not to keep with us the brethren who escorted us;” and the “sent” of 1Thessalonians 3:2 will mean that he gave them a message to Timothy that he should go back to Thessalonica (presumably from Berœa), before joining St. Paul at Athens; for the tense of the Greek verb “to be left” absolutely necessitates an act of parting with some one: it cannot mean, “We were willing to endure loneliness a little longer.” But such an interpretation suits ill with Acts 17:15; it is hard to identify an urgent message to “come with all speed” with a command to make such a détour. It seems, therefore, most reasonable to suppose that Silas and Timothy joined St. Paul forthwith at Athens, and were almost as soon sent back into Macedonia,—Silas to Berœa or Philippi, and Timothy to Thessalonica. This would explain St. Paul’s being left alone, an expression which would hardly have been used had Silas remained with him at Athens, as some (misled by the word “we”) have supposed; and also it explains how in Acts 18:5 both Timothy and Silas come from Macedonia to Corinth. The despatching of Silas from Athens is not mentioned here, simply because it had no particular interest for the Thessalonians. If the two men did not reach St. Paul at all during the time he was at Athens, after receiving so imperative a message, they must have been very slow, for a week would have allowed ample time for their journey from Berœa, and Acts 17:17; Acts 18:1 certainly imply a much longer period of residence there. “To be left alone” was a great trial to St. Paul’s affectionate nature: such a sacrifice may well impress the Thessalonians with the strength of his love for them.
And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith:(2) Sent.—It may possibly mean that a message was despatched to him at Berœa, ordering him to go, but is far more naturally understood if Timothy were at Athens at the time.
And minister . . .—The text here, according to the judgment of most of the best editors (though Tischendorf in his last edition has modified his opinion), is interpolated, and the verse should run: “our brother, and God’s fellow-worker in the gospel of Christ.” Timothy being a person so well known at Thessalonica, it is difficult to see why he should be thus particularised, unless he was the bearer of the letter, and St. Paul wished to insist upon their paying him due deference in spite of his youth.
To establish, perhaps in the sense of perfecting their organisation.
To comfort is here equivalent to “to encourage.”
That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto.(3) Moved, or more literally, seduced. The very peculiar word in the original means, in the first instance, the fawning of an animal upon its master: then, through the intermediate sense of “wheedling,” it comes to mean the gradual detachment of a person from his resolution by any insinuating representations, whether of flattery or (as here) of fear. The next word should be in or in the midst of, rather than “by”, therefore (though both may be included) their own “afflictions” are chiefly meant, not St. Paul’s.
For yourselves.—“Your previous expectation that Christianity involved the suffering of persecution ought to be enough to prevent you now from losing your faith.”
We are appointed thereunto.—The “we” means all Christian people: their election into the Church must needs be an election to suffering (see marg. refs.). “No cross, no crown.”
For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know.(4) For verily, when . . .—To appreciate the nature of the argument, see the passages referred to in the margin.
For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labour be in vain.(5) For this cause.—“Because I knew that temptation was sure to overtake you, I sent to see whether our work still lived, and was likely to live, in spite of it.”
To know your faith.—“To ascertain whether you still believed:” only the form courteously implies that the faith was certainly there, and St. Paul only sent to “make assurance doubly sure.”
The tempter.—See Matthew 4:3. The word and the tense in the Greek imply, not only that it is his character to tempt, but that it is his constant occupation.
Have tempted you . . . .—The original implies no doubt on the writer’s part that the Thessalonians had been tempted; the only doubt was, how they had borne it. The striking out of the comma after “tempted you,” and reading the clauses quickly together, will give a fair notion of the purport. It might be paraphrased, “Lest, in consequence of the temptations which the tempter brought against you, our toil should prove in vain.” The “temptations” were those of persecution, and the time at which they befell, the same as in 1Thessalonians 3:4, “it came to pass.”
But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you:(6) “We were in great anxiety, for fear you should have fallen away, and sent Timothy to see if all was well; but now, all anxiety is over.”
Timotheus came.—According to the usual interpretation of 1Thessalonians 3:1-2, adopted above, this will mean that Timothy had already returned from his mission to Thessalonica, as related in Acts 18:5, and the occasion of this present letter will be St. Paul’s relief at the news brought by him.
Brought us good tidings.—An enthusiastic word, generally rendered, “preached us the gospel.”
Faith and charity.—The first signifies the confidence in God which enabled them to endure (“that in all our troubles we may put our whole trust and confidence in Thy mercy”); the second, the tenderness with which they helped one another through.
Good remembrance.—Not merely “clear, vivid remembrance” (as we say, “to remember well”), but “a good, kind remembrance,” as the explanation in “desiring,” &c, shows. The word “good” bears the same significance in Matthew 20:15; Romans 5:7; 1Peter 2:18. If the Thessalonians had been beginning to fall away, they would not have cared to see their teachers.
Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith:(7) In all our affliction and distress.—The words give no decisive indication whether the distress came from within or from without, and it is impossible to specify in what it consisted; but either way it suits very well with Acts 18:5-17; 1Corinthians 2:3.
For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.(8) Now we live, if.—“Now” contrasts the new life and vigour which the “gospel of their faith and charity” had infused into the Apostle, with the deadly sinking he had felt at the thought of their possible apostacy. At the same time the “if” has the half-future sense, as though St. Paul meant that the continuance of this “life” was contingent upon their continued steadfastness. Another interpretation has been suggested, according to which both the “we” and “ye” are perfectly general, and therefore interchangeable, and the sense is made to be a vague proposition, “for standing fast in the Lord is a sine qua non of life”—life in the theological sense: and parts of Romans 7, 8 are compared. This interpretation, however, suits the Greek as little as the context.
For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God;(9) For what thanks can we render.—An apology for the enthusiastic expressions used in the three foregoing verses. “I may call it a gospel, a balm for all anxieties, a new life, for what mode of thanksgiving could be deemed extravagant in such a case of joy?”
Before our God.—As in 1Thessalonians 1:3, the occasion on which the joy and thankfulness bursts out is “in prayer;” perhaps, in connection with thanksgiving, especially at the great Eucharistic Thanksgiving (1Corinthians 14:16), when he “stood before the Lord in a special manner (Acts 13:2; comp. Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 1:11; Leviticus 3:1, et al).
Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?(10) See your face.—Seeing them by proxy might satisfy for the while, but not for long. This exceeding importunate, prayer is caused by the feeling that it was Satan’s hindrance (1Thessalonians 2:18), not God’s will, which forbad the meeting. He would not so have prayed to go into Bithynia (Acts 16:7), for the essence of prayer is to conform the will to God’s will.
That which is lacking in your faith.—Bishop Wordsworth points out the unflattering faithfulness of St. Paul’s dealing with his converts. What the deficiencies were is unknown, but they certainly include want of knowledge of the state of the dead and concerning the Advent.
Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you.(11) God himself and our Father.—Better, our God and Father Himself. If we are to find any special person with whom the word “Himself” is intended to enforce a contrast, the contrast is probably not so much with the baffled efforts of St. Paul, as with Satan, who had hindered the journey. But the word is probably added without such specific reference: “May God Himself direct us; for in that case who could hinder?”
And our Lord . . .—An important theological passage. From the use of the singular in the verb “direct” (which of course the English cannot express), some divines argue in favour of the Catholic doctrine of “homoüsion,” or substantial unity of the Son with the Father: it must not, however, be too strongly pressed, or it might otherwise lead to the false notion of a personal unity between Them. Nevertheless, we may admit that the prayer (or, rather, wish) implies the equality of the two Persons, and that it would have been inconceivable for a Catholic Christian to have used the verb in the plural. (See 2Thessalonians 2:17.)
And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you:(12) And the Lord make you.—The word you in the Greek is emphatic and stands first. The wish in the previous verse concerned the writers:” But you (whether we come or not) may the Lord make,” &c. By “the Lord” here St. Paul seems to mean not only the Son: the word appears to be an equivalent for the name of God.
Increase and abound.—These words make the readers think first of progress and then of the state to which the progress will bring them—“Multiply you in love until you have enough and to spare of it”—and the same progress is expressed by the objects of the swelling charity: “So that you may not only love one another abundantly, but all mankind—missionary efforts being the supreme work of Christian love—“such loving missionary work” (the writers go on to say) “as ours among you.”
To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.(13) To the end.—A beautiful connection of thought. Perfect and settled sanctification in the eyes of God is the object in view, and the means by which it is to be attained is growing and overflowing love toward mankind. (See Colossians 3:14.) St. Paul is already thinking, probably, how he shall treat the subject of chastity in the next chapter. (See Note on 1Thessalonians 4:6.)
Before God . . . at the coming.—The hearts are to be unblamably holy before God—not only all through life, but also at the Judgment Day, when Jesus Christ is to judge us in the Father’s presence. Though He has “committed all judgment unto the Son” (John 5:22), yet the judgment is His own, and the Son is the agent by whom He judges, just as He is the agent by whom He creates (see Acts 17:31): therefore in that day it is in the Father’s sight rather than in the Son’s (though there can be no divergence between Them) that we are to be able to clear ourselves.
With all his saints—i.e., attended by them:-
“Thousand, thousand saints attending, Swell the triumph of His train.”
Swell the triumph of His train.”
The word might possibly be stretched to include the holy angels (Deuteronomy 33:2; Daniel 4:13, et al.); but here we may more probably suppose that St. Paul is anticipating his teaching of 1Thessalonians 4:14, and besides, the Greek seems almost to indicate that these “saints” are to be assessors in the judgment—an honour to be given only to holy men. (Comp. Luke 22:30; John 5:28; 1Corinthians 6:3, et al.)