Book Review – The Message of Thessalonians (John Stott)

The Message of ThessaloniansThis is actually the second time I have read (and reviewed) this book in the Bible Speaks Today series, but since I was recently going through Thessalonians again, I wanted to re-read it. I feel I have a great collection of commentaries on Thessalonians as I also really enjoyed the ones by Green and Fee. But I always appreciate Stott’s insights, and this volume has the advantage of being more concise (200 pages).

The introduction provides a brief outline of the Acts account. Stott sees the lesson of 1 Thessalonians as “the gospel and the church” and breaks it into five sections which roughly correspond to the five chapters:

  • Christian evangelism
  • Christian ministry
  • Christian behaviour
  • Christian hope
  • Christian community

Stott has a knack for breaking passages down into structures that might seem implausibly neat at first, but after he goes through the passage, you begin to think that Paul himself probably had the exact same headings in mind.

There is also a brief introduction to 2 Thessalonians, whose structure is broken down as:

  • Revelation of Christ
  • Rebellion of Antichrist
  • Responsibility of Christians meanwhile

I’ll pick out a few highlights from his commentary, which as always is insightful, devotional and practical. On the triad of “faith, hope and love” mentioned in 1 Thess 1:3, he notes that these three virtues are outgoing (faith towards God, love towards others, hope towards the future) and productive (“faith works, love labours and hope endures”).

In the section on “Christian Ministry” (1 Thess 2:1-3:13) he highlights the minister’s dual responsibility, first to the Word of God and second to the people of God. In the section on “Christian Responsibility” (1 Thess 4:1-12) he argues that “There is an urgent need for us, as pluralism and relativism spread world-wide to follow Paul’s example and give people plain, practical, ethical teaching”.

right from the beginning, converts must be told that the new life in Christ is a holy life, a life bent on pleasing God by obeying his commandments.

Although this is by no means an academic commentary series, Stott will refer to the Greek where neccessary, such as discussing the meaning of σκεῦος and κτᾶσθαι in 1 Thess 4:4.

There are a couple of places where I am not sure I agree with his conclusions. For example, he argues that the most likely explanation that some of the “idle” had stopped working was due to their imminent expectation of the Parousia. And his fitting of the “idle, timid and weak” in 1 Thess 5:14 very neatly into groups discussed earlier (so for example the “weak” are the sexually immoral) is ingenious if perhaps a little contrived. I did find his argument that the commands of 1 Thess 5:16-18 are in the context of a church service to make a lot of sense, and it is not an option I had considered before.

As I mentioned in my previous review, he provides a level-headed approach to the teaching on the second coming and antichrist. He also takes opportunities in both books to firmly underscore his opposition to the thought of modern-day apostles.

Overall, I would say that this is classic John Stott, and a fine example of how Biblical exposition should be done. Unless you need the more detailed analysis of Fee or Green, this is a great starting point for getting to grips with the teaching of these two often neglected epistles.

Perseverance in 1 Thessalonians

There must have been serious questions in Paul’s mind concerning the long-term viability of the church in Thessalonica. The church had barely been formed before Paul and Silas had to move on to Berea due to great opposition (see Acts 17:1-10). This fledgling young church was left in a hostile environment, without anyone obviously qualified to be their pastor, and reliant on a very brief (but intensive) period of teaching from Paul for their Christian doctrine.

Hence there is a strong theme of perseverance running through 1 Thessalonians (and 2 Thess, although I have mainly used examples from 1 Thess). Paul fears that the devil may tempt them to fall away, yet at the same time he has confidence in God’s power to sustain them. This is the paradox of perseverance for Paul – it is assured, but not automatic. His confidence in God does not lead him to be casual about continuing in the faith.

Perseverance is assured

Several verses in 1 Thessalonians demonstrate Paul’s confidence in God to sustain the believers despite the attacks on their faith. He has seen in the work of the Spirit amongst them evidence that they have been chosen (1:4,5). He knows that his evangelism there was not in vain (2:1). The believers do not stand firm in their own strength, but in the Lord (3:8). He knows that their final destiny is not wrath, but salvation (5:9). Ultimately, their perseverance depends on God’s faithfulness, hence it is sure (5:24, 2 Thess 3:3).

Perseverance is not automatic.

Yet, despite this confidence in the faithfulness of God, Paul was greatly concerned, even fearful, that the devil could have got in, and everything that had been done would end up have being “in vain” (3:5). In particular, he knew that suffering and persecution, could be causes of failure to persevere (3:4). It was therefore a source of overwhelming joy and relief for Paul to discover that the Thessalonians were in fact standing firm (3:7-10). He also recognises that he himself cannot presume on his own strength and is also in need of prayer (5:25).

Perseverance is through means of grace

So if perseverance is not automatic, how is it obtained? Paul sees three things as being crucial means of grace, by which God has ordained to keep his people close to himself..

First is constant and persistent prayer on behalf of others. Several times in the letter he expresses his continual prayers for them (1:2, 3:10) as well as encouraging them to be constantly in prayer (5:17) themselves. When he expresses the content of his prayers, it is that they will continually grow in love and holiness, and most importantly, that they will be blameless on the day of the coming of Christ (3:12-13). In other words, he prays that they will not just keep going until the end, but that they would keep growing until the end.

Second is the importance of encouragement and exhortations. This was Paul’s regular practice with all the churches he founded or visited (e.g. Acts 14:22). He did not just “teach” them, but got alongside them and urged them onwards. He was like a father in the way he lovingly but firmly encouraged them (2:11,12). Several times in the letter he urges them to keep going (e.g. 4:1). He expects that there should be constant progress in the Christian walk (4:10). Like riding a bike, forward motion is what will keep you from falling. Paul also calls all the whole community of believers to play an active role in encouraging one another to continue in the faith (5:11).

Third, and most importantly, though it is only obliquely referred to in this letter, through the work of the Spirit. It is God’s work to sanctify us (5:23), which he does through the Spirit who is the one who empowers us to live in purity (4:7-8). Indeed, he understands the sanctifying work of the Spirit to be a crucial component of our salvation (2 Thess 2:13)

Book Review – The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Gordon Fee)

This is a replacement volume in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (NICNT), provided by the series editor, Gordon Fee. His reputation as a biblical scholar and commentator is first-rate, and as one would expect, this is another fine contribution. The series now features the text of the TNIV, although commentators are free to disagree with the translation and provide their own preferred alternatives.

The introduction is relatively brief (there is a separate introduction for each book). 1 Thessalonians is dated around AD49, most likely sent during Paul’s visit to Corinth, and with Timothy delivering the letter in person.

1 Thessalonians

The structure of the book is simple, with the first three chapters forming a lengthy introduction consisting of thanksgiving, narrative and prayer, before the final two chapters address the reason for writing – to answer questions concerning the sanctity of marriage, the refusal of some to work, and the timing of the second coming.

Fee regularly points out the high Christology that is to be found in 1 Thessalonians, particularly in the way that Paul will echo Old Testament passages but use Lord to refer to Jesus (e.g. in 3:13). On top of this, in 1:3 and 3:11 he indentifies precursors of Paul’s inserting Jesus into the Shema which he does more explicitly in 1 Cor 8:6.

Contrary to most commentators, he argues for infant rather than gentle in 2:7 – Paul and his companions were innocent like infants. There are some helpful comments on perseverance on 2:11-12 and 3:5, noting that our perseverance depends ultimately on God’s absolute faithfulness (5:23).  He argues that the polemic of 2:14-16 does not fall on the entire Jewish community but on those who were specifically responsible for killing Christ. He shows how the crown in 2:19 refers to a laurel wreath at the Roman games, which Paul pictures as the Thessalonians themselves.

The “vessel” of 4:4 is considered to be a euphemism for the male sexual organ. He provides some helpful comments on how the Holy Spirit enables us to walk in holiness (4:7-8). I was a little surprised, given how much emphasis Green puts on the client-patron relationship as the background to the letter, that Fee does not interact with this possibility at all in 4:11-12.

Fee considers the question behind 4:13-18 to be “what has happened to those who died before the second coming”? He criticises those who try to speculatively go beyond the main point of this passage, with especially strong censure for the “Left Behind” interpretation. He diffuses the debate concerning “going to heaven” versus living on the new earth somewhat, by pointing out that for Paul, our final eschatological “geography” was a secondary concern, whereas his interest was primarily personal – we will be with the Lord.

The short section on prophecy in 5:19-22 is of interest as Fee brings a Pentecostal perspective to bear, noting that there is no hermeneutical justification for modern-day prohibition of prophecy. He argues, drawing on evidence from Romans and 1 Corinthians as well that prophecy seemed to be part of the normal activity of the early church, and reminds us that the solution to abuse is not disuse but proper use. He proposes two tests of prophecy: a test of content (is it doctrinally correct?) and purpose (is it given to edify?). In 5:23, whilst he acknowledges that Paul probably would have made some kind of distinction in meaning between soul and spirit, he is not thinking in terms of humans as a trichotomy here. With regards to the “holy kiss” of 5:26, Fee points out how it would have crossed social boundary lines of slave/free, rich/poor and Jew/Gentile (although he fails to mention male/female! – not sure what they did there).

2 Thessalonians

The introduction to 2 Thessalonians briefly sets forth 9 reasons for considering it to be authentically Pauline and dates it c. 50, shortly after the first letter. It is written in response to the news brought back from Timothy, that the “disruptive idle” were a bigger problem than first thought, that some were misrepresenting Paul’s eschatological views, and that the persecution had increased in severity.

In chapter 2, Fee is at pains to remind us that we do not have the “insider knowledge” that the Thessalonians and Paul shared, making it impossible for us to answer all the questions we may have without resorting to guesswork. Additionally, we need to recognise Paul’s purpose (to encourage believers facing persecution) in these eschatological passages is often far removed from our own (to gather information for our end-times theology). As such, he refrains from speculating on who the “Rebel” (man of lawlessness) is, and who or what is holding him back.

As with the commentary on first letter, Fee is eager to point out the high Christology and Trinitarian soteriology to be found in this early letter. The commentary also benefits from his extensive prior work on Pauline pneumatology, and his comments are incisive when it comes to the work of the Spirit. Having said that, I was hoping he would elucidate a bit more on how exactly the sanctifying work of the Spirit relates to our salvation in 2:13.

Another thread running through the commentary is Fee pointing out numerous places that are so authentically Pauline in theology, grammar, vocabulary and concerns that by the end he declares that the theory of 2 Thessalonians as a forgery no longer deserves any place in NT scholarship.


As with all Fee’s commentaries, this one is an excellent resource for any Bible teacher or student, and is easily equal to my previous favourite on Thessalonians (Green’s Pillar Commentary). Fee is thorough, without being long-winded. Despite it being a primarily exegetical commentary, he is not afraid to put a paragraph or two of application in at the end of each section, with suggestions of lessons the modern church needs to be aware of. Whenever he differs from the majority view in either translation or meaning, he always makes his case persuasively. The right amount of material is relegated to the footnotes, which mostly deal with further manuscript evidence or the views of other commentators, but occasionally provide some additional theological reflection.

Book Review – The Pillar Commentary on Thessalonians (Gene Green)

This latest addition to the Pillar series of commentaries is reminiscent of O’Brien’s Pillar Commentary on Ephesians in that it has a long introduction (75 pages), which includes a critique of the rhetorical analysis approach to the epistles and defends Pauline authorship. He also explains why he is not convinced by arguments placing 2 Thessalonians before 1 (contra Wanamaker).

However, the bulk of the introduction is spent providing historical background on the city of Thessalonica and tying in the Acts accounts of how the gospel came to that city. Green goes right back to tell the story of how the Romans came to take the region of Macedonia from the Greeks and lists the various uprisings that the Romans crushed. There is also a good deal of information about the religious beliefs and practices of the time.

While it is all interesting, I couldn’t help feeling that some of this material would have been more suited to a New Testament background reference book, or at least interspersed in the commentary as excursuses. However, Green believes that the historical background is key to interpreting the letter, and he does particularly well at highlighting the reasons why the gospel was so badly received when it first arrived in Thessalonica.

The opening chapters of 1 Thessalonians in particular are closely tied in to both Paul and the Thessalonians’ historical and geographical situation. Green fills in the details from Acts, as well as making regular quotations from ancient documents to illustrate his points. Like Edward’s Pillar commentary on Mark, quotes from first century documents are regularly found, while interaction with other commentators is generally left to the footnotes.

The section on the second coming is handled in a level-headed manner, careful not to draw out more than the text says (as is the section on the man of lawlessness in 2 Thess 2). He does not particularly attempt to synthesize with prophetic passages from Revelation, the Gospels or the Old Testament, and only makes the briefest of comments to dismiss some fanciful interpretations of the rapture.

The historical background established in the introduction proves helpful as he seeks to interpret the commands concerning idleness in terms of the patron-client system that was operating in those days. The idle are understood as those who are “disorderly” and are remaining as clients. They are counselled to get out of local politics and live a quiet life, which contrasts with the more common understanding of this passage as being simply a critique of laziness.

I found this to be a worthy addition to the excellent Pillar series, which will serve evangelicals who want to dig deeper into the meaning of the text, but don’t necessarily require great elaboration on contemporary application. As with the other volumes in the Pillar series, the comments are based on the NIV text, while feeling free to question some of the translators decisions, but maintaining a reverent attitude to Scripture throughout.