Living in Gratitude

| 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

Week of November 24, 2019

The Point:  Give thanks … in everything.

Final Instructions:  1 Thessalonians 5:12-22.

[12] We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, [13] and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. [14] And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. [15] See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. [16] Rejoice always, [17] pray without ceasing, [18] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [19] Do not quench the Spirit. [20] Do not despise prophecies, [21] but test everything; hold fast what is good. [22] Abstain from every form of evil.  [ESV]

“Christian Community [5:12-22]. Now Paul develops further his vision for the church family, and for the ‘one anotherness’ of its members. He takes up one by one three essential aspects of the life of the local church (all of which are items of contemporary debate or concern), and gives apostolic instruction about them. First, he addresses himself to the leadership or pastorate [12-13] and tells us how pastors and people, ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’, should regard and relate to each other. Secondly, he writes about the fellowship of the local church [14-15] and about the responsibilities of church members to care for each other. Thirdly, he comes to the church’s public worship [16-28], what should be included in it, and in particular how the Word of God evokes the worship of God.

The pastorate [5:12-13]. We do not know what prompted Paul to write verses 12 and 13. Probably some church members had been disrespectful towards their leaders. On the other hand, some leaders may have provoked this reaction by their heavy-handed or autocratic behavior. Paul rejected both attitudes. For it is God’s will, he taught, that every local church should enjoy pastoral oversight, but not His will that pastors should dominate and organize everything. They are not meant to monopolize ministries, but rather to multiply them. Notice now how Paul describes local church leaders. He uses three expressions in verse 12. Since these are participles, introduced by a single definite article, it is evident that the same people are in mind, although they are portrayed from three distinct perspectives. First, Christian leaders are those who labor among you. It is a significant phrase because some people regard the pastorate as a Sundays-only occupation, in fact a paid job involving little or no work. And, to be sure, some clergy have been known to be lazy. But true pastoral work is hard work. The verb Paul uses (labor) normally refers to manual occupations. It means to ‘toil, strive, struggle’, and to grow weary in doing so. Whether it is study and the preparation of sermons, or visiting the sick and counselling the disturbed, or instructing people for baptism or marriage, or being diligent in intercession – these things demand that we ‘toil, striving with all the energy which Christ mightily inspires within us’ [Col. 1:29]. Secondly, Christian leaders are those who are over you in the Lord. True, the very first thing which needs to be said about Christian ministers of all kinds is that they are ‘under’ people (as their servants) rather than ‘over’ them (as their leaders, let alone their lords). Jesus made this absolutely plain [Mark 10:42-45]. The chief characteristic of Christian leaders, He insisted, is humility not authority, and gentleness not power. Nevertheless, authentic servant-leadership still carries an element of authority. Those who are ‘over’ others in the Lord (that is, in the Christian community, whose members are bound together by their common allegiance to Jesus) must never forget their Lord’s teaching on leadership. Thirdly, Christian leaders are those who admonish you. The verb admonish is almost invariably used in an ethical context. It means to warn against bad behavior and its consequences, and to reprove, even discipline, those who have done wrong. Being a negative word, it is often coupled with teaching. Both admonishing and teaching belong to the responsibility of pastors. Here, then, are three parallel expressions, which indicate that Paul envisages a distinct group of leaders, who are ‘over’ the congregation in the Lord, to whom has been entrusted their pastoral oversight and care, including admonition, and who are expected to work hard in serving them. Their ministry may take different forms, and has developed different patterns in the history of the church, but in each case it must give the Christian community the pastoral care which God intends it to enjoy, especially by teaching. What attitude should the local congregation adopt towards its pastors? They are neither to despise them, as if they were dispensable, nor to flatter or fawn on them as if they were popes or princes, but rather to respect them, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. This combination of appreciation and affection will enable pastors and people to be at peace among yourselves. Yet in too many churches they are at loggerheads, which is painful to those involved, inhibiting to the church’s life and growth, and damaging to its public image. By contrast, happy is the church family in which pastors and people recognize that God calls different believers to different ministries, exercise their own ministries with diligence and humility, and give to others the respect and love which their God-appointed labor demands!

The fellowship [5:14-15]. These two verses begin with the words And we urge you, brothers, much as verses 12 and 13 were introduced by the words We ask you, brothers. The formula is identical except for the change of verb. It is probable, therefore, that the brothers addressed are the same people. In verse 12 these were clearly the rank and file members of the Thessalonian church, because they were distinguished from their leaders whom they were told to respect. The brothers of verse 14 must surely, therefore, be the same church members. It is they and not the leaders whom Paul now urges to give pastoral care to specially needy people in the congregation, and indeed to each other. The existence of pastors does not relieve members of their responsibilities to care for one another. First, the apostle singles out for mention three particular groups whom the brothers are to care for. They must admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak. The verb for help presents a graphic picture of the support which the weak needed. It is as if Paul wrote to the stronger Christians: ‘Hold on to them’, ‘cling to them’, even ‘put your arm round’ them. He then continued: be patient with them all. One might say that the idle, the anxious and the weak were the ‘problem children’ of the church family, plagued respectively with problems of understanding, faith and conduct. Every church has members of this kind. We have no excuse for becoming impatient with them on the ground that they are difficult, demanding, disappointing, argumentative or rude. On the contrary, we are to be patient with all of them. Patience is an attribute of God, a fruit of the Spirit and a characteristic of love. Since God has been infinitely patient with us, as He was with Paul [1 Tim. 1:16], we too must be patient with others. Secondly, Paul moves on from particular groups needing help to general Christian behavior. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil. All personal revenge and retaliation are forbidden to the followers of Jesus. And in place of these negative attitudes and actions, we are enjoined: always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. We are to seek to do good not only to each other within the fellowship of God’s children but indeed to everyone else, including our enemies. See to it, the apostle writes. We recall that he is not addressing the church’s leaders, although they of course have a vital role in pastoral oversight. Instead, he is laying on the whole congregation the responsibility to care for each other as sisters and brothers, to give appropriate support, encouragement or admonition to the church’s problem children, and to ensure that all its members follow the teaching of Jesus, cultivating patience, renouncing retaliation and pursuing kindness. It is a beautiful vision of the local church as a community not only of mutual comfort and encouragement [4:18; 5:11] but of mutual forbearance and service as well.

The worship [5:16-22]. At first reading one might not think that this section relates to the nature and conduct of public worship. But there are clear indications that this is primarily what Paul has in mind. To begin with, all the verbs are plural, so that they seem to describe our collective and public, rather than individual and private, Christian duties. The prophesying of verse 20 is obviously public. The holy kiss of verse 26 presupposes a meeting. And verse 27 envisages the reading of the letter when all the brothers are present. The apostle Paul issues four instructions with regard to public worship, which lay down four of its essential ingredients. Rejoice always [16]. This injunction can hardly be interpreted as a general exhortation to Christians to be joyful or happy always, for joy and happiness are not at our command, and cannot be turned on and off like a tap. We would be wiser to understand this instruction as meaning Rejoice in the Lord always [Phil. 4:4]. Then at once it becomes reminiscent of many Old Testament commands. In other words, Paul is issuing not an order to be happy but an invitation to worship, and to joyful worship at that. Yet many church services are unforgivably gloomy and boring. Although, to be sure, it is always appropriate to worship Almighty God with awe and humility, yet every service should also be a celebration, a joyful rehearsal of what God has done and given through Christ. Pray continually [17]. The disciples of Jesus, He said, ‘should always pray and not give up’, and He added His parable of the wicked judge and the persistent widow in order to enforce His dictum [Luke 18:1-8]. His teaching did not relate, however, to private individual prayer only, for He went on in the Sermon on the Mount to give us the ‘Our Father’, which can only be prayed with others. So, if praise is one indispensable element of public worship, prayer is another, especially in the form of intercession. Each congregation should accept the responsibility to engage in serious intercession, not only during the Sunday services but at a midweek prayer meeting as well. We should be praying for our own church members, far and near; for the church throughout the world, its leaders, its adherence to the truth of God’s revelation, its holiness, unity and mission; for our nation, parliament and government, and for a just, free, compassionate and participatory society; for world mission, especially for places and peoples resistant to the gospel; for peace, justice and environmental stewardship; and for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless and the sick. Give thanks in all circumstances [18a]. Thankfulness ought always to characterize the people of God, as they say to themselves: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! [Ps. 103:2]. Thanksgiving also belongs, side by side with rejoicing and praying, to our public worship. In it there is a place for a ‘general thanksgiving’ in which we express our gratitude both for the material blessings of the creation and above all for God’s priceless love in redeeming the world through Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at the Lord’s Supper. We cannot of course thank God ‘for all circumstances’, including those which are evil and displeasing to Him; but we can and should thank Him in all circumstances. We may not always feel like praising, praying or giving God thanks. Our circumstances may not be conducive to these things. Yet we are to do so all the same. Why? Because this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you [18b]. This statement almost certainly belongs to all three commands which precede it. It is God’s will, as expressed and seen in Jesus Christ, whenever His people meet together for worship, and whatever their feelings and circumstances may be, that there should be rejoicing in Him, praying to Him and giving Him thanks for His mercies. Listen to the Word of God! This exhortation, although not to be found in so many words in Paul’s text, seems to me a legitimate heading to cover his references to prophecy in verses 20-22 and to the public reading of his letter in verse 27. Do not despise prophecies [20]. Here is a clear command to the church to listen to whatever messages purport to come from God, and not to despise or reject them unheard and untested. In the post-Pentecost era all God’s people receive the Holy Spirit and all may therefore ‘prophesy’, that is, know and speak God’s mind and will. Nevertheless, in the early church a number of people were called in a more specific way ‘prophets’ or ‘prophetesses’. Because we affirm the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture, we naturally recognize a major difference between Paul’s time and our own, namely that we have the completed canon of Scripture, the written Word of God. Certainly, therefore, there are today no apostles comparable to the apostles of Christ like Peter, John and Paul, and no prophets comparable to the biblical prophets, whether the Old Testament authors or John who called his book (the Revelation) a prophecy [Rev. 1:3; 22:7,18-19]. Otherwise, if there were such inspired people in the church today, we would have to add their words to Scripture, and the whole church would have to listen and obey. But no, it should not be difficult for us to agree that in the primary sense in which apostles and prophets appear in Scripture (namely as organs of direct revelation and infallible teachers) there are no more. Paul refers to them (i.e. their teaching) as the ‘foundation’ on which the church is built [Eph. 2:20], and nobody has the right to tamper with, add to or subtract from that foundation; it has been laid once and for all.   Nevertheless, once the uniqueness of the biblical prophets has been conceded, we should be ready to add that there are today secondary and subsidiary kinds of prophetic gift and ministry. For God undoubtedly gives to some a remarkable degree of insight either into Scripture itself and its meaning, or into its application to the contemporary world, or into His particular will for particular people in particular situations. It seems to be quite legitimate to call this insight ‘prophetic’ insight and this gift a ‘prophetic’ gift. Paul’s injunction to us is to treat with respect and not with contempt any utterance which claims to come from God. Indeed, we are neither to reject it outright, not to accept it outright. We are rather to listen to it, and as we do so to test everything [21], to sift it, to weigh carefully what is said. They were to weigh prophetic utterances, because not all of them were from God. They were to test what they heard according to the apostolic teachings. Just so today, Scripture has supreme authority in the church. It is God’s Word which the church, for its own health and growth, needs to hear read and expounded. It alone is the standard by which the church today tests any and all teachings that comes to them. Once the words spoken have passed the test then we are to hold fast what is good and to abstain from every form of evil.

Summary. Looking back now over Paul’s teaching about public worship, we see that it should always include two complementary elements. On the one hand, there should be rejoicing in the Lord, praying, and giving of thanks, and on the other listening to God’s Word read, expounded and applied. For God speaks to His people through His Word, and they respond to Him in praise, prayer and thanksgiving. Indeed, in every well-constructed worship service the pendulum should swing rhythmically between God addressing His people through Scripture and His people responding to Him in confession, faith, adoration or prayer. Moreover, in both these aspects of corporate worship (the listening and the responding) we are to acknowledge the sovereignty and freedom of the Holy Spirit. Do not quench the Spirit [19], the apostle writes. This prohibition comes right in the middle of the other exhortations. It could therefore apply either to those which precede it or to those which follow it. In fact, I see no reason why we should not do both. The word for quench was used of extinguishing both lights and fires. The Holy Spirit is light as well as fire and, far from extinguishing Him, we must let Him both shine and burn within us. As for His role in public worship, we should expect Him to speak to us with a living, contemporary voice through the ancient Scriptures and then to move us to respond to God appropriately with all our being.” [Stott, pp. 117-135].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What three expressions does Paul use to describe church leaders in 5:12-13? How should Christians view their leaders, and why is it so important that they do regard them in this way? What does it mean to respect and esteem in love our church leaders?
  2. In 5:14-15, Paul describes Christian fellowship within the church. What three groups does he mention? How are church members to care for these groups? What four commands does Paul give in verse 14 concerning every member’s responsibility in the life of the church? What general instruction for Christian behavior does Paul give in verse 15? How can you put this instruction into practice in your church?
  3. What four instructions for church life does Paul give in 5:16-22? These instructions apply to both our individual and our corporate lives. How do you personally obey Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful at all times and in all situations?
  4. How do we quench the Spirit? What role does the Spirit play in the life of the church? What are we to use in order to test everything so that we can discern what is good and what is evil; what is true and what is false [see Acts 17:10-12]?

References:

The Letters to the Thessalonians, Gene Green, Pillar, Eerdmans.

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

1-2 Thessalonians, Jeffrey Weima, BENT, Baker.

Let’s Study 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Andrew Young, Banner of Truth.