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.