A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians. Author’s preface.
‘There is a kind of unmingled sweetness in this epistle’, wrote Bengel about 1 Thessalonians in the eighteenth century. I agree. Indeed, I have found much sweetness in both letters as, for many years now, I have reflected on their meaning and message. Their value, I suggest, lies in three related areas.
First, these letters reveal the authentic Paul. Not that he is ever inauthentic. But sometimes the human Paul is obscured by his apostolic office and authority. To be sure, in the Thessalonian letters he issues commands and demands obedience. More often, however, he writes like the pastor he is, indeed like the Thessalonians’ mother and father, which is what he claims to be (1 Thes.2:7, 11). He loves them, gives himself for them, is anxiously concerned for their welfare, teaches and admonishes them, begs them to stand firm, and prays for them constantly, urgently and personally. We can hear his heart-beat and see his tears. It would be hard to find a finer model for ministry than Paul.
Secondly, these letters address a local church, and the life of the local church is of increasing concern to many people today. When we affirm (as we should) that the church is central to the historical purpose of God, we are not referring only to its universal aspect, but also to its concrete, local, colourful manifestations. But what is to be our vision for the local church, and how is its life to be developed? Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church throw valuable light on such aspects as its continuous evangelism, pastoral care, ethical standards, reciprocal fellowship, public worship, obedience to apostolic teaching, and future hope. I cannot imagine how any church member or leader could fail to find both direction and inspiration in these letters for the life of their local church.
Thirdly, these letters set the church in a theological, indeed an eschatological, context. Paul is emphatically not a pragmatist. He is first and foremost a believer, who is concerned to allow his beliefs to determine his actions. Again and again he returns to the central verities of the Christian faith, that Christ died for our sins, that he was raised from the dead, and that he is coming back. One can almost hear the threefold acclamation, in which many Anglicans join at the Lord’s Supper:
Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ will come again!
It is these truths which stimulate evangelism, promote holiness, deepen fellowship, inform worship and inspire hope. In other words, it is the gospel which shapes the church, just as it is the church which spreads the gospel. This seems to me to be the underlying theme of the Thessalonian letters.
I am particularly grateful to the church family of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, of which I have now been a privileged member for forty-five years (five as curate, twenty-five as Rector, and fifteen as Rector Emeritus) for the vision they have helped to give me of God’s purpose for the local church; to Frances Whitfield for typing yet another manuscript with undiminished efficiency, energy and eagerness; to Jo Bramwell for putting together the study guide; and to Todd Shy for his characteristically painstaking work in reading and commenting, compiling the bibliography and the list of abbreviations, checking the typescript and correcting the proofs.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.