1st and 2nd Thessalonians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary

1st and 2nd Thessalonians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary

by John MacArthur

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The Thessalonian epistles are probably best known for what they reveal about the last days. But there is much more to these letters than just end-times prophecy. At their core, they underscore the marks of a healthy church, addressing such practical matters as moral purity, disciplined living, church relationships, prayer, and church discipline.

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The Thessalonian epistles are probably best known for what they reveal about the last days. But there is much more to these letters than just end-times prophecy. At their core, they underscore the marks of a healthy church, addressing such practical matters as moral purity, disciplined living, church relationships, prayer, and church discipline.

Join John MacArthur as he explains each verse in a way that is both doctrinally precise and intensely practical. Taking into account the cultural, theological, and Old Testament contexts of each passage, MacArthur tackles interpretive challenges and fairly evaluates differing views, giving the reader confidence in his conclusions.

The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series comes from the experience, wisdom, and insight of one of the most trusted ministry leaders and Bible scholars of our day. Each volume was written to be as comprehensive and accurate as possible, dealing thoroughly with every key phrase and word in the Scripture without being unnecessarily technical. This commentary will help to give a better, fuller, richer understanding of God's Word, while challenging the reader to a vibrant personal spiritual walk.

A great resource for pastors, teachers, leaders, students, or anyone desiring to dig deeper into Scripture

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The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 & 2 Thessalonians

By John MacArthur

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2002 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8024-0882-2


Identifying the Elect (1 Thessalonians 1:1–10)

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1:1–10)

The Thessalonians, like all believers, were the elect of God. That reality caused the apostle Paul to begin his first letter to them by simply pouring out his thanks for the divine gift of their saving faith. The only way believers can discern that someone is elect is after God has regenerated and sanctified that soul. Paul did not know the eternal, elective decree of God, but he could see whose lives gave evidence of genuine salvation (cf. 2:13).

Paul suffered constantly and extremely for the cause of Christ, and he carried on his shoulders an overwhelming burden of responsibility and care for all the churches. He described his burden to the Corinthian church this way:

Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24–28)

In view of such severe suffering amid heavy responsibilities, it must have been refreshing and exhilarating for Paul to minister to the Thessalonian elect, whom in this letter he deemed worthy of nothing but commendation and encouragement. In the situation he experienced at Thessalonica, the believers displayed many characteristics that reliably identify the elect. He began his first letter to them with a recognition of those virtues. He arranged them under two categories: the Thessalonians' present condition (a faith that works, a love that labors, a steadfastness of hope) and their past conversion (a reception of the gospel in power and the Holy Spirit, a genuine imitation of the Lord, a joyful endurance in tribulation, a behavior that exemplifies all believers, a proclamation of the Word everywhere, a total transformation from idolatry, and an expectant looking for the return of Christ). Between those two lists Paul paused in verse 4 to affirm his understanding that the church in Thessalonica was elect. Before that, as usual, he opened the letter with identifying words of greeting for his beloved friends.

Paul's Greeting

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; (1:1–2)

Though Paul was the most influential apostle of the early church, in his greeting to the Thessalonians, he did not identify himself as an apostle. Apparently in the Macedonian churches, his apostleship was never in question, because in neither of his letters to the church at Thessalonica, nor in his letter to Philippi, did he begin by identifying himself as an apostle. Those churches had not questioned his apostolic status, although he would later defend his integrity and sincerity (1 Thess. 2:1–6). Here he simply and humbly identified himself as Paul. And in the same attitude of humility he linked his co-laborers Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy to himself as if they were all equals.

Silas, probably a Hellenistic Jew, was a prominent member of the Jerusalem church who first accompanied Paul on the apostle's second missionary journey (Acts 15:40) and later was a scribe for Peter (cf. 1 Peter 5:12). Timothy was a native of Lystra (Acts 16:1–3), a city in Asia Minor. He was Paul's son in the faith (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1) and protégé. He toured with Paul on the second and third missionary journeys and remained near the apostle during Paul's first incarceration in Rome (cf. Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; Philem. 1). Later Timothy served the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3) and was himself imprisoned (Heb. 13:23). At the end of Paul's life, when Timothy was in Ephesus, he wrote the two inspired letters to him.

All three men knew the Thessalonian believers well. They founded the church in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), and Timothy later checked on its well-being and brought back a positive report to Paul (1 Thess. 3:6). Be cause the Thessalonians were precious to all three of them, Paul included his coworkers' names in the greeting.

Paul's use of the Greek word translated church(ekklesia) emphasizes the reality of the Thessalonians' election. Ekklesia is related to the phrase ek kaleo, "to call out," and means "the called out ones," or it can mean "the elect ones," especially when connected with the phrase "His choice of you" (v. 4), which is specific. Paul was certain that the Thessalonians were among God's elect because he had seen the evidence of their transformation.

The apostle elaborated on the nature of the church with the somewhat unusual but wonderful expression in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, which demonstrates the Thessalonians' vital and inextricable union with God and Christ (cf. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:1). They participated in the very life of God and the life of Christ. There is an indivisible spiritual union between Christ and His own. In his New Testament letters, Paul taught that believers do not simply believe facts about Jesus Christ, but that they are in Him. He told the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). "For you have died," he reminded the Colossians, "and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). That is the inexplicable and incomprehensible mystery of what it is to be a Christian—that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 11; 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Tim. 1:14) live within the believer and the believer lives in them in a sharing of divine and eternal life.

Significantly, in this profound statement in verse 1, Paul used the preposition in just once. Modifying the phrase God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ with a single preposition emphasizes the equality of essence between Father and Son. It is also worth noting here that Paul used the Savior's full title, the Lord Jesus Christ. That combines in one phrase all the major aspects of His redemptive work. Lord describes Him as creator and sovereign ruler, the One who made us, bought us, rules over us, and to whom we owe full allegiance. Jesus ("Jehovah saves") refers to His humanity; it was the name given Him at His birth (Matt. 1:21, 25). Christ ("the anointed one") is the Greek term for the Messiah, the one promised by God to fulfill His plan of redemption.

Paul continued the salutation with his common greeting Grace to you and peace (cf., for example, 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2). Grace is God's undeserved favor to the sinner in the form of complete forgiveness of sin and the granting of eternal life, and peace is the result of that amazing gift of love. Paul desired that the Thessalonians would continually experience the fullness of God's grace. They would then possess not only an unending peace with God, but an experience of peace in their hearts that always surpassed their human understanding (Phil. 4:7). Grace and peace are Christians' daily portion—every day they receive divine grace to cover their sins and divine peace to assuage their guilt.

Because of his sincere wish that the Thessalonians constantly know God's grace and peace, it was understandable for the apostle Paul and his companions to give thanks to God always for all of them, making mention of them in their prayers (v. 2). Paul, Silas, and Timothy thanked God continually for all of them because all the Thessalonian believers were the elect of God.

The Thessalonians, because they were elect, were living for the honor of Christ. The apostle underscored his thankfulness for that reality by listing the first three qualities that proved God's sovereign choice of them, which were manifest in their sanctification.

Their Present Condition

constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, (1:3)

Here begins Paul's litany of praise to God for the evidence of salvation the Thessalonians presently displayed. He thanked God for their faith that worked, labor that loved, and hope that endured. This trio of Christian virtues was a favorite of Paul's (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13; Col. 1:4–5; 1 Thess. 5:8).


constantly bearing in mind your work of faith (1:3a)

Paul was constantly bearing in mind, or remembering, in thankful prayer these foundational spiritual qualities, the first of which was the Thessalonians' work of faith. A true saving belief in Jesus Christ will always result in the mighty work of God that produces change in one's nature or disposition. A work of faith is action representative of the transforming power of regeneration (2 Cor. 5:17). Simply stated, the elect engage in holy, righteous deeds to the honor of God. Work is the Greek word ergon, which refers to the deed, achievement, or function itself. Paul was confident of the Thessalonians' election because their faith —the authentic saving and sanctifying gift from God—was producing righteous deeds in their lives.

Paul's words here, however, do not in any way contradict his clear teaching elsewhere that salvation is by faith alone, apart from any human works. For example, in Romans 3:20–21 he declares, "By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested." Paul goes on to assert that sinners are "justified as a gift by His [God's] grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith" (vv. 24–25; cf. 4:4; 5:1; Eph. 2:8–9).

However, the New Testament also stresses the active side of faith—salvation will necessarily produce holy conduct. Such teaching is not opposed to justification by faith alone through grace alone and, when properly understood, actually complements that doctrine. Paul is unequivocal early in the book of Romans that works flow from saving faith: "[God] will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life" (2:6–7). This does not mean people can earn salvation because of their good works, but rather that those works verify the reality of their faith.

Paul instructed the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them" (Eph. 2:8–10). And the reason believers perform good deeds is because God is at work in them (Phil. 2:13).

Paul described the believer's transformation as going from one kind of slavery to another:

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.... Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (Rom. 6:16–18, 21–22)

The apostle James also taught that good works must be present in the lives of those who profess faith in Christ; otherwise that profession is not genuine.

But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.... For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:18–22, 26)

Believers will sometimes disobey God's commands and fail to do His will, but they will always long to obey (Rom. 7:18–20) and will manifest some true spiritual fruit of obedience (cf. John 15:5). Genuine saving faith is by definition powerfully inclined toward obedience to God, which leads inevitably to the work of faith Paul commended the Thessalonians for.


and labor of love (1:36)

The second identifying mark of the elect is their labor of love.

True Christians minister motivated by their love for others. Loving even one's enemies is an expression of the power of salvation (cf. Matt. 5:44; Gal. 6:10). Loving other believers is also evidence of salvation, as 4:9 explicitly states, "Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another." Peter affirmed this reality: "Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart" (1 Peter 1:22). The apostle John expressed this truth also when he wrote, "The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him" (1 John 2:10). He went on to state that such love is definitive evidence of salvation: "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death" (3:14; cf. John 13:35; 1 John 2:9, 11; 3:10; 4:20). This love is part of the fruit of the Spirit produced in those led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Labor is the Greek word kopos, which denotes an arduous, wearying kind of toil, done to the point of exhaustion. Unlike ergon (work), which focuses on the deed itself, kopos looks at the effort expended in accomplishing a particular deed. It is an effort that strains all of one's energies to the maximum level. The noblest, most altruistic and selfless form of love(agape) motivates this kind of spiritual effort. The apostle Paul referred to the spiritual effort believers make as they work to advance divine truth and the kingdom of the Lord because they sincerely love people.


Excerpted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 & 2 Thessalonians by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2002 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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