Systematic Contemplations on Paul’s Greeting to Thessalonica

It is an elementary error to squeeze texts so tightly that one word of Scripture may yield 2000 words of exposition. I have read that one preacher in the 19th century preached hundreds of sermons on John 3:16. Such treatment of the text is irresponsible. A passage teaches something and the exegete’s role is to communicate this thing and move on, having demonstrated through grammatical analysis why his conclusion is favorable.

That said, I claim from the outset that this article is mainly a practice in systematics. I do not claim that 1 Thessalonians 1:1 communicates all that I communicate below. I have taken Paul’s greeting seriously as Divinely inspired and therefore believe it to be consistent with the larger corpus of Pauline and Biblical teaching. To those who object, “Paul did not mean to teach with verse 1 all that you communicate here,” I say, “amen.” I say bluntly, again, that this article does not serve to draw up from 1 Thessalonians 1:1 only what is communicated therein, but rather to consider how this simple greeting is consistent with the rest of Divine revelation. Having clarified that my work below is primarily in systematics, any refutation proposing or suggesting otherwise is irrelevant and shall not be seriously considered by the author.

1. A Singular Divide

Θεσσαλονικέων – This word identifies which church Paul is writing to. Paul traversed much ground as a missionary. Before Thessalonica, he ministered in Philippi (Acts 16:11-40) – post-Thessalonica, Berea and Athens (Acts 17:10-34). 

1. “Thessalonica” identifies the locality of this congregation, but fails to communicate their identity. For this, Paul must add “in God.” Ethnic, social, genealogical, etc. distinctions among men are, with Christ’s resurrection, to be considered trivial regarding the kingdom of God. In these latter days, the eternal purpose of God has been revealed (Ephesians 3:4-13): that He divides men once and on the basis of Christ’s merit (Galatians 3:27-29). No condition is considered save the blood of God’s Holy One (Luke 4:34) upon the doorframe of one’s soul (Exodus 12:1-13, 21-23; 1 Peter 1:17-19). Even the Jewish/Gentile divide is proven a false means of identifying God’s kingdom. There are those chosen, purchased, sealed by God and there are those who are not. God divides only once: the receptive from rejecting (John 1:9-13) – the narrow from wide (Matthew 7:13-14) – the sheep from goats (Matthew 25:31-33) – the called from uncalled (1 Corinthians 1:21-24) – the honorable from common (Romans 9:21). 

2. Though this counsel was not manifested with such clarity until these latter days, it is yet present pre-incarnation. To be clear: God has always revealed Himself to be One Who splits humanity on the basis of who they are in reference to Christ (i.e. with no respect to fleshly differentiation). God’s agenda is not determined by what man fancies. Rather, it is determined in reference to Christ. He has installed Christ as preeminent above all things (Col 1:15) and in relation to Him the Divine counel has prescribed and procured its sentiments. God will not bless (2 Corinthians 1:20; Ephesians 1:3-14) or curse (Acts 2:33-35; Philippians 2:9-11) outside of Christ.

All Divine self-revelation is consistent manifestly, but also because God does not lie. Therefore, the N.T. proposition will prove true in the Old Testament – that these pre-Messianic writings reveal God to be no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35). The witness of the prophets is consistent with Christ’s (Hebrews 1:1-2). The foundation to which they contributed was the very same as the apostles – with Christ as their cornerstone, perfect harmony exists between their ancient stones and the apostles’ latter day stones (Ephesians 2:19-22). Consider now this theme of God dividing once among the sons of men.

2.1. Enoch is honored exclusively for having walked with God (i.e. material characteristics did not differentiate him from other men; Genesis 5:21-24). The Deluge (Genesis 6:1-9:29) prefigured the consummation of all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10) by separating men once: the righteous (Noah) from unrighteous (Genesis 6:9-12). Christ (the Ark) alone sanctifies His people from the wrath to come (the flood): there are no further divides among men relevant to how God relates to them. God demonstrated disregard for anthropocentric distinctions with Israel’s Patriarchs, choosing the younger sons of Abraham and Isaac (Romans 9:6-13). Joseph was far from firstborn, and even between his sons Jacob favored the younger (Genesis 48:17-20). Disregard for what man values and regard for what God values is perhaps a theme of holiness itself. Circumcision (Genesis 17:1-8) symbolizes all of this by dividing men once: circumcised from uncircumcised – God’s people from the world. The things considered valuable by men are to be cut away and cast aside, God’s agenda is to be given supreme attention.

2.2. All of this, beloved, only from the first book. Need we continue? God’s supreme delight in the singular divide among men, and persistent disregard for what wicked men esteem worthy of distinguishment, is a Penteteuchial theme, with Moses perhaps as the hallmark case (Exodus 3:1-22) and Leviticus the hallmark piece. The Law divided once: law-keeping from guilty (Deuteronomy 27:1-28:68; cf. Romans 1:18-3:20). 2.3. What of the poetic works? The Psalms and Proverbs work around a theme of dividing men once: righteous from unrighteous. Psalm 1 is the catalyst: “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the wicked will perish” (v.6). The great teacher’s wisdom in sum is to obey God, for He judges by one divide (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14) and takes no bribes (Proverbs 11:1). Beyond these genres, need I provide further evidence?

3. The materialistic bribes of social status, ethnic association, genealogy, monetary affluence, etc. cannot tempt Yahweh’s gavel – nor can Zion’s honey be purchased by these. There is but one Divine consideration when blessings or curses are to be given: has this person the righteousness of Christ? If they are God’s people, righteous in the fruit of His Spirit, then yes, they possess His papers. These fruits, beloved, ripen only by Christ’s goodness. Heaven’s tulips only blossom by Christ’s sweet aroma. The Father, then, only divides by Christ.

Therefore, it is of no eternal or eschatological significance that this church is in Thessalonica. But Oh how brightly they are distinguished by residing in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! The contrast is full between inclusion to and exclusion from Christ. Thus we read Θεσσαλονικέων but wait in eager hope for ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ καὶ κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ.

2. The Position and Possessions of the Church

Here we have simply stated the church’s position and possessions: where she rests and what she has – the sphere of her existence and the sum of her equipment.

1. She is ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ καὶ κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. 1.1. Her origin, sustenance, and future come from God. He made her, keeps her, will glorify her. By the Father’s (θεῷ πατρὶ) ordination and gracious adoption she exists. She needs no liveliness from men: all that the world can give her is dreariness and sluggishness. She has sufficient vitality from God her Father. 1.2. By Christ’s will (κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ) according to the sufficiency of His sacrifice she is ruled. She needs no judgment from men: all that the world can advise her with are fools’ wisdoms. She is sufficiently presided over by Christ her Lord. 1.3. Woe to those men who forget her position in God, who attempt sneaking off with the Father’s handi-work and Christ’s wife.

2. She is greeted by Paul: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη. First we may ask what grace and peace she could possibly hope for outside of God’s bosom. Second we may notice in 2 Thessalonians 1:1-2 Paul makes plain that the grace and peace he desires for the Thessalonians only comes from God. 2.1. Grace is the ultimate request a sinner can make. It is a grace that the church finds herself with her present position in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The Father graciously chose before the foundations of the earth to place her in Christ. The Son graciously died so as to bring her to God the Father. The grace could be said to be the position she is in. So by “charis humin” Paul means, “May God ever keep you as He now holds you in His palm.” 2.2. Peace is the result of the grace. Because of the grace she receives, the church has ample cause to be at peace. Paul could have in mind the peace that arrives in respect to the Divine and the wicked, where the enmity between God and man is dispersed in the Gospel: Christ bore the Father’s righteous indignation and the Spirit resurrects our unrighteously angery hearts. Yet I favor a Romans 8:28-39 interpretation: Gospel grace is the furtile ground from which Gospel peace grows with fruition.

3. Paul greets a specific people with this verse. He is not speaking in abstract language or of a figurative, corporate body with no identity in the realm of individuality. He speaks to a specific local congregation, knowing them all personally and deeply. He sees each face as he opens this letter. The personal nature of this greeting demands that we recognize the singular application of each point made above. 3.1. The individual believer is in God. 3.1.1. The Christian finds all vitality and meaning in God the Father. He elected and adopted him, keeps him and feeds him, and will one day resurrect him. 3.1.2. The Christian takes all prescriptions from Christ the Lord. His Word is most highly authoritative. His will is superlative in the believer’s life. 3.2. The individual believer is blessed by God. 3.2.1. The Christian is given grace upon grace. According to the Father’s will and Christ’s merit, blessings abound. 3.2.2. Therein, what could possibly shake the believer? What reason has the Christian to lose heart or hope? Peace is his, if he would have it.

A Confession of Ecclesiology: Elders and Deacons

I. I believe that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Christ: the firstborn of creation through Whom all things were made and are sustained, the Savior and therefore head of the church.

Matthew 28:18-20; John 1:1-3; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 1:15-17

II. I believe that earthly mediations of Christ’s authority exist by His delegation and function through man’s operation, therein all human authority is a stewardship and thus accountable to Christ.

Deuteronomy 12:6-8; Psalm 2:1-12; Matthew 16:18-19; Ephesians 5:21-33

III. I believe that the local church, by God’s design, is led by such stewards called “elders,” whose authority is authentic though not intrinsic, unto whom all members of the local church are to submit as to Christ.

1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17

IV. I believe that elders, along with apostles and prophets, are Divine gifts to the church for the individual edification and corporate sanctification of God’s elect, therein such leaders are worthy of double honor, though no less in need of God’s power unto salvation.

Romans 1:16; 7:24; 1 Corinthians 4:9; Ephesians 2:20-22; 4:11-14; 1 Timothy 5:17; 2 Timothy 2:10

V. I believe that the offices of elder and deacon are distinct, therein a deacon is not by Christ made a steward but a servant for the body’s well-being, therein the functions of a deacon may be helpful and diverse though never to include an authoritative operation in the local church.

Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9

VI. I believe that a qualified deacon is worthy of honor and respect by all members of the body, while the deacon himself must be willfully and gladly subject to the elder.

1 Timothy 3:13

VII. I believe that Scripture is the sole infallible rule for the faith and operation of the local church, such that any proposition not supported by this standard, unable to be vindicated with faithful exegesis, should be renounced and swiftly denied by the congregation, therein proponents of such propositions should be called urgently to repentance and, if hardened in unrepentance, cast from fellowship, for the sake of his own salvation and that of the church.

Matthew 7:15-23; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 john 4:1-6

VIII. I believe that the church is a body formed and preserved by the Word of God, therefore it cannot be destroyed, therein Hades, accusers, condemners, tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, principalities, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, flesh, rulers, darkness, world forces, wickedness, Lucifer, governments, the mouths of lions, and the arrows of evil cannot abate the almighty power of God at work within and on behalf of the people of God.

Numbers 23:19; Daniel 6:16-28; Matthew 16:18; Romans 8:28-39; 9:6; Ephesians 3:20-21; 4:10-17; 1 Peter 5:8

I Love the Church, Because Christ Loves Me

The text I am commenting on is quite lengthy – John 13:1-17. This being the case, I will make the commentary brief and divide it into three sections. Following the commentary, I will suggest one main implication from the text.

Christ Humbles Himself in Service (vv.1-5)

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (John 13:1-5)

John shows three things that were on Christ’s mind when He stooped down with a bowl of water. First, He knew that His hour had come. In the waning hours before Judas’ betrayal, Christ was fully aware that He was about to die. Second, He knew that the Father had given all things into his hands. This refers to His exaltation as Lord (cf. Phil 2:5-11). He was fully aware that everything is His to do with as He desires. Third, He knew that He had come forth from God and was going back to God. This is His Messianic identity. Christ was fully conscious that He is the Messiah, sent by God’s will to be a propitiation for His people. With these three things on His mind, Jesus stoops down to wash the disciples’ feet.

Christ Cleanses Us of Sin (vv.6-11)

So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” (John 13:6-11)

Peter was thinking what you probably are: “Lord, do You wash my feet?” The roles seem a bit reversed. Jesus’ foot-washing was a shadow of the cross. He would cleanse us of sin and win for us righteous robes. This washing is necessary to have a part with Christ. Notice how quickly Peter’s disposition changes when He realizes this. When Peter thought that Christ was serving him as a slave, he immediately objected. Are we not His slaves? However, when Peter realized that Christ was serving him as a Redeemer, he immediately pleaded for it. To be with Christ, Peter was willing to let go of pride and allow Christ to serve Him. We too must be humble before the cross.

Christ Commissions Us to Serve (vv.12-17)

So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)

The immediate cleansing is with a bowl and towel. The foreshadowed cleansing is with the cross. Both scenes are applicable here, as Christ commissions us to serve in light of His service. Our response to Christ’s service is: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Christ’s death was more than an example, but it was not less. While I cannot redeem people from sin and death, I can certainly mirror the sacrificial love of Christ and serve them.

Implication

First, recognize who Christ commands us to serve: the church. John 13 is a Great Commission in its own right because it calls for the highest level of service among members of Christ’s body. Second, recognize how Christ commands us to serve: as He served us. The standard for inner-church love is not how well we are treated but how graciously Christ treated us.

Third, recognize why Christ commands us to serve: the cross. This is the great implication that I take from this passage. Why do I serve my brethren? If I am wronged or mistreated by someone in the church, what is my motivation to forgive them? I think this principle slides naturally from the text: we serve one another not to receive something, but because we have received something. The basis for inner-church service is not “Hey, I’ll get something from that” but rather “Christ gave me redemption on the cross.”

So here I come to the second reason why I love the church (you can read my first reason here) and specifically my local church. I love my local congregation because Christ loves me. What determines how I treat these brothers and sisters of mine is not how well they treat me but rather how well Christ has treated me. The cross is my motivation. Whether it is cleaning up after Potluck, watching kids in the nursery, leading worship, or forgiving injustice – all of my love for the church is motivated by the Savior of the church. It is from a joy in Christ my Savior that I love the fellow Christians I am in covenant with.

I am under covenant to serve my local church. This covenant is not bound by the deeds and decisions of my brothers and sisters. Rather, it is sealed by the blood of Christ. When His blood loses merit, I shall be released from my covenant. Until then, I love the church.

I Love the Church, Because Christ Loves the Church

 

I don’t have much to say in this article except what God spoke through the Apostle Paul. So I’ll just dive into the text.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. (Eph 5:25-30)

Commentary

Paul commands husbands to mirror their marital love after Christ’s. Christ’s love for His bride (the Church) is essentially securing her redemption. He gave Himself up for her, dying as a propitiation for her sins. The purpose of this death was her sanctification, that she would be set-apart and made holy. Question: from what and to what? I suggest that Christ’s death cleansed her of sin. She is separated from the kingdom of Satan, death, depravity and carried to the kingdom of Christ, life, righteousness.

He presents her in all her glory. That glory is only hers because He has given it to her. He won for her the worth she manifests. No only this, but He presents her as well – to Himself. He secured for Himself a bride. The glory she boasts is without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. As a bed-sheet without the smallest fold or furrow, she exists in perfection. Her perfect existence is wholly created by Christ. All her glory is given by Him, to the extent that the ungodly characteristics of her previous existence are not even recognizable. In contrast to her past depravity, she is presented holy and blameless. The church is Christ’s body and so He nourishes and cherishes it – so too should husbands nourish and cherish their wives.

Implication

What a great love this is. How might it be measured? Where is the rod with which I can mark the extent of God’s love for His people? Surely it has no scope. If Christ’s merit has no end then His love for the church has no end, because He gave Himself up for her. In response to this love, I am called to love my wife the same way: unconditionally and endlessly. “Christ loves the church, so I love my wife.”

After this immediate point of marital relation, I am driven to a second implication: “Christ loves the church, so I love the church.” My Lord and Savior thought that God’s people were worth living and dying for. If the church ranks so high in Christ’s estimation, how can I think it any less valuable? My love for all believers individually and corporately is based on Christ’s death on the cross. I do not love the church because they can give me something, I love the church because Christ loves them.

This should be stated in more practical terms, I think: “I love my local church because Christ loves my local church.” I love those believers I weekly gather with because Christ loved them. The basis for my fellowship is the intention of Christ’s blood. If ever I am to doubt whether or not I should love my local congregation, a more firm thought should be: “Christ loves them.”

I am under covenant to nourish and cherish my local church. This covenant is not bound by the deeds and decisions of my brothers and sisters. Rather, this covenant is sealed by the blood of Christ. When His blood loses merit, I shall be released from my covenant. Until then, I love the church.