The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you.Apostolic Prayers
1 Thessalonians 4, 1 Thessalonians 5
"But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you" (1Thessalonians 4:9). We have just heard the Apostle express a wish in prayer that he might see the face of his friends in Thessalonica, that he might perfect that which was lacking in their faith. Here he says there was nothing lacking in their love. Why, this is the supreme test of faith and righteousness: "We know that we have passed from death unto life"—not because we can answer many questions, or hold high and wordy disputations, but—"because we love the brethren." "If a man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." These people had reached the very highest line of spiritual education. Perhaps something of this progress was due to the circumstances under which they lived. There were circumstances of persecution; daily affliction was the lot of the Christian life: these are circumstances which try the quality of men, and which bring them more closely together. The light disperses men, the darkness gathers them together; in the morning we leave one another; at night we all come home again. More persecution would mean more affection. In the darkest days of the olden time "they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written," and they who conversed with one another were reckoned jewels of God.
How did they come to this high level of education? Were they taught by the Apostle? Partly. Did this come from their natural dispositions? for we have seen them to be humane, genial, and enthusiastic. Perhaps, in some degree. But what is the deeper and larger interpretation of this mutual loyalty, this sacred fraternal affection? The answer is given in this same verse (1Thessalonians 4:9): "for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another." This is the teaching that fills the heart, that illumines the mind, that constrains the soul, that perfects the miracle of holiness. If we are not taught of God we are not taught at all, we have not got beyond the point of information—and machines may almost be stuffed with intelligence. To be taught of God is to be filled with the Spirit of God, to enjoy the inspiration of God, to think God's thoughts, and to live with God as if actually partakers of the Divine nature. Thy children shall be all taught of thee, thou holy Father of the universe; they shall know thy voice, they shall distinguish it from the voice of strangers; the voice of strangers they will not follow, but when they hear the tones of thy voice they will respond instantly, unanimously, and passionately. What have we been taught, if we have not been taught the mystery of love? Our religion is foam and our professions are vanity and our prayers are lies. Test the whole progress, as the whole purpose, of Christianity by this growth of love. How do we stand in this line? Have we large forgiveness? Are we ready to pardon? Have we a genius for overlooking infirmities? Are we inspired to detect and magnify one another's excellences? Then we are taught of God, and we magnify the Cross, and we are worthy followers of Jesus Christ: but if this cannot be said of us, then all our profession is a bubble, glittering perhaps, but hollow certainly. He who loves man loves God. We cannot love man until we have the higher love, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself": we cannot begin at the neighbourly end; if we do even apparently begin there we do really begin with the end that is Divine. Many men act under Divine inspiration who are not aware of the fact, who would almost resent the suggestion: but wherever you find sacrifice, love, true condescension, rich and self-sacrificing sympathy, you find God, if it be in paganism heathenism, or in the finest civilisation in the world. Wherever you find light you find the sun: wherever you find charity you find the Cross.
It is interesting to observe how, in the course of this letter, the Apostle is now profoundly theological, now passionately consecrated to high pursuits, and anon minute and detailed in practical exhortation. For example, he urges upon the Church in Thessalonica "that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you." The Apostle was not conscious of any violence of transition from theme to theme. We are the victims of uniformity; we think it is a long way from heaven to earth—so it is to some natures—but heaven and earth ought to be equal terms to those who are really and externally in Christ. There ought to be no earth, no time, no space; all these details should be lost in the overwhelming and sublimating thought of eternity, then out of that thought we could come to do the day's plain work with both hands, simply, industriously, faithfully. The idea of the Apostle in exhorting the Thessalonians to "study to be quiet" is beautiful as a picture,—"Covet the honour of quietness": where other men can see no honour but in fame, you see honour in quiet, simple, domestic obscurity. This is making the best of the smallest occasions. It is not, Study to be quiet and to obliterate yourselves; but, Covet the honour of doing so: count it a worthy ambition; do not allow the shade to be undervalued or the little corner to be dispraised as if it were unworthy of recognition: magnify obscurity, and count it fame to have a quiet resting-place with God. "And to do your own business": do not go outside seeking to attract attention by interfering with things that you do not understand; keep to that you were born to, trained to, prepared for. If you understand your own business, you will find room enough in it for the exercise of your energies. "And to work with your own hands," or with your own brains; for brains are hands. We are not to understand the word "hands" as if it were limited to the portion of the body thus commonly designated, but, Work with your own faculties, earn your own livelihood, make your own bread, establish and confirm your own social and personal position; do not be loafers in society, do not accept what other men are doing for you, but by genius, by invention, by suggestion, by patient industry in some way or other, render an equivalent for every mouthful of bread you enjoy. Society would thus be constituted on a large and secure basis. Christianity can handle all the affairs of life skilfully and successfully. Ignore the supernatural if you please, but in doing so you ignore the only power that can get hold of the entire occasion, and use it with sovereign and beneficent mastery.
We now have an illustration of the Apostle's instantaneous method of transition. Mark with what amazing, almost blinding, suddenness, he turns to speak of the great subject of the Lord's coming, and the awakening of those who sleep in Christ, and the being caught up in the air to meet the Lord around his invisible but infinite throne. I cannot read the words that follow without feeling that the Apostle Paul was under the impression that the Lord would come in the most literal way in a given period, and that period not remote. I am aware that there are arguments on the other side, but I cannot read these words and other words of kindred import without feeling that the Apostles were looking for the almost immediate appearance of Christ. Whether that advent took place in the destruction of Jerusalem, who can decide? That was a tragic and momentous era in human history, and in point of moral sublimity and political eclat it was enough to cover the whole suggestion of the Second Advent. I prefer rather to think that God has always trained the world by promises that have larger meanings in them than those that were obvious. He trained Abraham in this way; he said, I will show thee and give thee a country flowing with milk and honey, and Abraham rose and obediently followed the Lord: and when all came to all he said, I do not want anything on the earth, I seek a country out of sight. But if the Lord had promised him a country out of sight, a land celestial, the appeal would have been too great and sublime for his then mental condition: God promises us something that is measurable and visible that he may train us towards that which is infinite and unseen. Paul is the Abraham of this greater covenant. The Apostles were promised an advent, an all but immediate and visible appearance of Christ, and yet they were trained to see that Christ is always coming, that the universe exists as a highway along which he may advance so as to redeem and sanctify and educate and perfect his Church. Providence has thus been magnified and sanctified, so that events are no longer mere occurrences, they are epiphanies, they are revelations of the Lord, they are pages in an infinite book of revelation: blessed are they who have eyes to see these wonders: yea, thrice blessed are they who see the Lord in every sunrise and in every sunset, and who behold him on the whole circle of the year. We are straining ourselves after what we supposed to be sublime appearances; whereas Christ is appearing around us every moment; every event is a chariot in which he rides, every consecrated epoch of time is a throne on which he sits. Why do we not enjoy the immediate, continual, spiritual revelation of Christ?
Having indulged in this anticipation of the Lord's coming, the Apostle returns with a fine grace, more than rhetorical, to practical exhortation and stimulus—"Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober" (1Thessalonians 5:6). The Apostle would have us constantly awake; the Apostle made no provision for sleep, at least for sleep of a slothful kind. He lived this theory of wakefulness. There never was a man so entirely and absolutely awake as was the Apostle Paul. Nothing escaped that eager attention. It is said of great men, notably of Aristotle, that they would lie down to rest with brazen balls in their hands which would drop into metal vessels at the side of the couch, and thus moderate their sleep. If they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, shall we be slothful who profess to be in quest of a crown eternal? If men subjected themselves to this painful discipline that they might attain the highest intellectual capacity and faculty, shall we do nothing who ought to be training ourselves to the higher wisdom and the nobler communion? The sluggard gets nothing, the sluggard has no harvest: this is right. When you see the sluggard returning with bare hands, do not pity him; say, This is the Lord's doing. If you could see the sluggard coming home with laden wains, so that his horses could hardly draw the rich harvest, you might then begin to suspect that the universe is an orphan left to itself, blind, helpless, wholly ironical in all its impulse and issue, a mischievous and pestilent lie: but so long as you see a man who has been over-slumbering, succumbing to want as to an armed man, then know that behind the little blue film or veil there is great beneficent Sovereignty overruling all things, smiting the wrong, and preparing to reward and honour, enrich and satisfy all faithfulness.
Now the Apostle continues his practical exhortations, saying many things that might be commented upon to our spiritual advantage; notably, saying (1Thessalonians 5:14) two things. "Warn them that are unruly." We cannot do without that word "warn": that is a great bell-word; ring the alarum, tell men of penalty, speak to men of hell, do not keep back the terror of the Lord. There be men who are gifted with this genius of warning; their voices arc terrible, their aspect confirms their dreary exhortation. "Support the weak": literally, Put your shoulder to and shore-up the weak. Your shoulder was not made for epaulettes; your shoulder is not to be the seat of ornament, the point of decoration: if, O man, thou hast a brawny shoulder, it belongs to thy weak brother. You have seen buildings propped up: that is the precise idea of the Apostle here: shore-up the weak, let the weak man feel that he can rest upon you until he recover himself or until he have time to reclaim his position. He who has wealth holds it as a trustee, he who has strength holds it as a steward; he who counts his own gold shall have no heaven but the chink of his own metal, and that, thank God, shall be taken from him, and he shall hear no music evermore. But he who supports the weak and is patient toward all men, he who is kind, gentle, charitable, is never out of heaven; he cannot go to heaven because he is never away from it, he breathes its balmy air, he sings its exquisite music, he breathes the very spirit of the father-home.
From 1Thessalonians 5:16-22, the Apostle speaks as it were in separate lines; that, at all events, is the mechanical form given to this exhortation by those who constructed the Authorised Version. For example—"Rejoice evermore": literally, Fare you well: cheer yourselves: drink God's wine, have a banquet of love, let the spirit of high festivity be the spirit of Christian hearts and Christian families. Now what detailed instruction! "Pray without ceasing," and "In everything give thanks." These two should go together. Praying without ceasing means, be always in a prayerful spirit. The bird is not always flying, but how long does it take a bird to spread its wings? It should take us just so long to begin to pray when we see the fowler lift his piece, when we see the enemy stoop for a stone. Keep at it, be importunate, is the idea. There was a woman who stirred up the unjust judge to answer her; she left, literally, a spot in his face. If you keep on with ever so small a tapping upon one place, you will make an impression; a continual dropping wears the stone. The woman kept appealing until she made a spot in the man's face, until where her finger smote there burned a fever flush, and he said in his heart, Curse her! What wants she—eh? Hear what the unjust judge said. Sanctify this method of appeal, and as it were live on God's promises, until, using the language of the illustration and using it with reverence, God would blush to deny his own covenant. "In everything give thanks"—in affliction, in darkness, in winter, in the time of snow and ice and north wind; when there is no herd in the stall, when the fig tree doth not blossom: "in everything give thanks": the darkness is best, the winter is but another name for rest, bereave-merit will but whet the appetite for reunion. So live in God and for God as to give thanks to him with, as it were, equal breath and emphasis, whether he give you great broad sunshine or make the whole sky a cloud.
"Quench not the Spirit." Let inspiration have free play: speak out of your hearts what God puts into them: let the Spirit work in his own way and at his own time; sometimes the action will appear to be eccentric, sometimes it will be wholly incalculable, but do not quench the Spirit. Quenching may be done in one of two ways: first, by withdrawment of fuel, the fire dies when the fuel is not replenished; secondly, by drowning with water, pour on the stream and the fire dies. Neglect the ordinance of grace, and you quench the Spirit; invite the action of those who hate God and Christ, and they will pour cold water upon your flaming zeal. The Apostle says, "Quench not the Spirit": you should live in the spiritual, the supernatural, the eternal, the invisible; you should live in the large, the glorious, the celestial. And if you do this then you will "Despise not prophesyings." These two should be bracketed, namely, "Quench not the Spirit," "Despise not prophesyings," literally, preachings, utterances, all kinds of utterances; so that if a man shall come and speak to you in an unknown tongue do not laugh at him or scorn him, but say, What, is this new revelation? is this a new departure in accustomed providences? let us hear the man, if he speak loudly, or if his voice be low; if he shall speak uniformly and in consistency with what we already know, so be it; if he shall say something quite novel, startling, and contrary to practice, still let us hear him. That was the apostolic spirit. Paul was not an exclusive but an inclusive teacher: he was not a shepherd who drove away parts of the flock, but he looked among the wolves if haply he might find a sheep that was missing. Let us hear all voices. This has not been the rule of the Church. The Church has been foolish! The Church has loved to keep a place for martyrs, a fire for heretics, a block for those whom it hated because of supposed false doctrine. The Apostle would first have a sublime constant action of the Spirit, and then he would inquire reverently and intelligently into the quality of the preachings or prophesyings. What wondrous things have been done in the name of orthodoxy! The youngest are familiar with the story of Sir Isaac Newton, sitting in the garden, the apple falling upon him, and his discovering from that circumstance what is called the attraction of gravity, or the law of gravitation, and formulating an almost new economy of the universe from that one simple circumstance. Who could suspect anything wrong in that? Yet a man, a great man, called Leibnitz, charged Sir Isaac Newton with propounding a doctrine (I quote the words) "subversive of natural if not of revealed religion." Poor Leibnitz! great Newton! If you have a truth, out with it. Who are they that keep natural and revealed religion? Who are these ecclesiastical constables? Who are those proud, mighty people who know everything and revel in their own omniscience? Despise not prophecy.
Now two more things—"Prove all things:" test all things: having heard the prophesyings, do not necessarily believe them, but test them, sift them, probe them. Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God, search into the whole case; call for proof, for illustration, for simplification, and see the reality of things; then "hold fast that which is good," that which is proved, that which is established. "Abstain from all appearance of evil," which is absurd and impossible; it should be, literally rendered, Abstain from every form of evil, abstain from every species or kind of evil. Many a man is apparently doing evil who is really doing good. This translation therefore cannot stand; it is not "Abstain from all appearance of evil," because the appearance is always superficial and changeable, but, Abstain from every form, species, kind, quality, of evil—abhor that which is evil.
Now the Apostle, having exhorted his Thessalonian friends, begins to pray for them (1Thessalonians 5:23).—"And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.... The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." Paul, great, heroic, longsuffering, magnificent Paul—how he writes, how he speaks, how he exhorts, how he prays! This is the very genius of Christianity: this is the miracle of Christ.