1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 The Spirit of Joy

Having arrived in the final section of Paul’s message to the Thessalonians before his benediction, we are prompted to ask a question: What is the purpose of the church? This question is closely linked to Paul’s exhortations, since from the beginning of this letter he has identified the Thessalonian congregation as a good church. Paul has not written to correct a major doctrinal error, as in Galatians, or to rebuke major moral lapses, as he will later do in 1 Corinthians. Instead, Paul has written to express his joy over the Thessalonians’ faith, love, and hope, to address questions about Christ’s second coming, and to deal with minor concerns. As he concludes his letter, he gives his general pastoral encouragement for them to press on and fulfill their calling together.

So, what is the primary calling of the church? Some people say that the main purpose of the church is evangelism (Matt. 28:19). Those who think this way look on the church as an army conquering the world through its witness. Others answer that the church’s purpose is to do ministry in the world (Matt. 25:35). On this view, the church is mainly a social-service agency. Still others think of the church as a safe place where we can escape the damage occurring in our world. Those who think this way look on the church as a fortress and a refuge.

According to Paul, none of these is the primary calling of the church. Certainly, the church must evangelize, minister, and protect, but these are not God’s main purposes for the church. According to Paul, the purpose of the church is that we, God’s people, should grow spiritually so that we increasingly attain to Christlike holiness and maturity. This principle is perhaps most clearly expressed in the fourth chapter of Ephesians, a letter that is widely regarded as the most fully developed expression of Paul’s pastoral philosophy. There, he writes that we are to attain “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:13-15).

This definition challenges the kind of Christianity that is common today. For many church members, Christian faith resides in the background of their lives. They think little about the Bible or God or their own spiritual condition, and they draw from very little of the power for godliness that is available to them in Christ. For many, Christianity is mainly the comfort that we can dial 911 to heaven and make an emergency call when needed.

If this describes your Christianity, then you should realize that it is very far from the conception not only of Paul but also of Jesus Christ. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed, “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The essence of salvation is knowing God in a personal relationship that grows continually in this life until, in eternity to come, we are “filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:19).

As Paul concludes his first letter to the Thessalonians, he is concerned to direct the new believers to a spiritual maturity in which their relationship to God has grown and been strengthened. Here, as elsewhere, Paul conceives of our relationship to God in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity. There is only one God, but God is known in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paul’s concluding exhortations clearly follow this biblical pattern: through our relationship with God the Son, believers are brought into communion with God the Father, through the power provided by God the Spirit (Eph. 2:18).

Paul’s exhortations in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 open up further dimensions of the Trinity by teaching us how to relate to the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that while the Son accomplishes our salvation, the Father plays the role of ordaining His saving will for us. Paul describes in verses 16-18 “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” in terms of living consciously in the Father’s love. Moreover, the Holy Spirit has the role of applying God’s saving work in our lives. Therefore, in verses 19-22, Paul urges us to walk intentionally in step with the Holy Spirit.

Since our study of verses 5:14-15 considered Paul’s charge to imitate the servant ministry of God’s Son, we progress in verse 16 to living consciously in the presence of the Father’s love. Paul expresses this principle in terms of a threefold exhortation: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (vv. 5:16-18). All three of these responses – joy, prayer, and thanksgiving – are by-products of a life consciously opened to the Father’s love.

When speaking of Christian joy, we must first differentiate between true spiritual joy and the giddy emotionalism of the world. Unbelievers are happy when their circumstances are good. Christian joy, in contrast does not depend on how well things are going, but is able to flourish even amid great afflictions. This was the setting in Thessalonica: “Rejoice always.”

So, if pleasant circumstances are not the cause of a Christian’s happiness, then what are the sources of our rejoicing? First, Christians rejoice in the Father’s gift of His Son to be our Savior. A second source of Christian joy is the relationship with the Father that Jesus has secured by His saving work – what Paul described in Romans 5:1 as “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” A third source of the believer’s joy is the Bible’s testimony of God’s saving promises. God’s Word assures us that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

In addition to joy, Christians are to live in an attitude of continual prayer. Pray without ceasing,” Paul says (v. 17). He is not suggesting that Christians stop all our other activities so as only to pray, but urges a heart that is always open to God. Paul advocates prayer not merely as an action but also an attitude. The prayerful attitude that Paul seeks was lived by Enoch and Noah, who according to the Bible “walked with God” (Gen. 5:24; 6:9).

The third leg of Paul’s call to live in God’s presence is to “give thanks in all circumstances” (v. 18). How are Christians to be thankful for trials and tribulations? The answer is that our faith turns us away from ourselves and unto God. Just as David faced giant Goliath without fear by his faith in God, Christians face all threats and dangers with gratitude to the God who they know is sovereignly ruling for His glory and our salvation.

Paul notes that these gracious responses to God’s loving presence are “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (v. 18). God does not necessarily will that we should have good health or earthly riches, faithful friends or successful careers. God does something better than these for us: He gives us His Son to be our Savior, and in His Word He promises us eternal life in glory. It is His will that we should grow into the maturity of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, because of and “in Christ Jesus.”

Paul’s final exhortations concern the believer’s cooperation with the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Just as Christians are to enter sacrificially into the servant ministry of the Son and live consciously in the Father’s love, we are also to fuel the flame of the Holy Spirit. Along these lines, Paul urges his readers, “Do not quench the Spirit” (v. 19).

The ministry of the Holy Spirit is sometimes compared to a fire (Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:3), so resisting the Spirit’s ministry is similar to dousing a fire with water or ashes. Presumably, this quenching takes place when believers crowd out God’s Word, prayer, and corporate worship with earthly pursuits or sinful pleasures. The result is that the effects of the Spirit’s work are diminished, like the flickering flames of a fire that has been deprived of oxygen.

Paul’s particular concern focuses on neglecting or rejecting God’s revealed Word. “Do not despise prophecies,” he writes (v. 20). Paul occasionally mentions the New Testament prophets (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph 3:5; 4:11). We need to remember that these early churches did not yet possess the written New Testament, so God provided prophets to declare God’s Word concerning salvation in Jesus Christ. These prophets might also foretell future events, but their main job was to “forth-tell” the gospel: they were preachers of the New Testament message before that message was recorded in writing. These gifted men belonged to the foundation-laying era of the apostles, and once the canon of the Bible was completed, their foretelling function ceased in the church (see also Eph 2:20).

Today, the analogy to prophecy is the preaching of God’s Word. This means that to fuel the flame of God’s Spirit, we must devote ourselves to the ministry of the Bible, in personal reading and especially in the preaching ministry of the church. Either the Word of God will shape our thinking or the message of the world will drown out God’s voice and quench the ministry of God’s Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 Study Questions:

What are the sources of our rejoicing?

What does “pray without ceasing” mean to you?

What does it mean to “give thanks in all circumstances?”

What is God’s will for us?

1 Thessalonians 5:13-15 A Call to Ministry

A dispute that arises from time to time among Christians has to do with the relationship between the law and the gospel, or, to put it differently, between justification and sanctification. Sound Christians note the distinction between these doctrinal matters. The law is what God commands us to do, and the gospel is what God promises in order to save us. Justification is God’s declaring sinners forgiven and righteous through faith in Jesus. Sanctification is the process by which justified believers become holy in practical ways.

In our studies of 1 Thessalonians, we have had several occasions to note that while these doctrines are distinct, they must never be separated. Throughout this letter, Paul celebrates the faith of the Thessalonians, through which we are justified (1 Thess. 1:3, 8). This emphasis on faith does not deter Paul, however, from also urging good works. In believing, they had “turns…from idols to serve the living and true God” (v. 1:9). Having been justified through faith, the believers are reminded by Paul that “this is the will of God, your sanctification.

Seeing that the law and the gospel, faith and works, and justification and sanctification are always intended to go together, Christians should not be surprised to receive not only promises but also exhortations in the Bible. Thus, when Paul issues commands to believers, he has not descended into legalism. Rather, he is reminding us that faith in Jesus involves getting up from the place of our sin and following him, just as Jesus Himself so often commanded, “Come, follow me.”

In the concluding section of 1Thessalonians, Paul exhorts the believers in the church in their shared discipleship to Christ, charging them with three categories of attitude and action. The first of these categories deals with their relationships, involving respect for their leaders, mutual ministry among believers, and good deeds for even their enemies (vv. 5:12-15). Second, the Thessalonians are exhorted with respect to their piety, which should be filled with joy and thanksgiving (vv. 16-18). Third, they are charged to be receptive to God’s revealed Word (vv. 19-22). In all these matters, Christians are to respond to Christ’s grace not only by trusting Him but also by following His example of ministry, godliness, and zeal.

The first set of Paul’s exhortations pertains to the believers’ duty to minister to one another. This is an important point of emphasis, especially since in the previous verses Paul has given prominence to the authority of church leaders. It is vital that the church have a balanced relationship between its official ministers and the rank-and-file members, or, as it is sometimes put, between the clergy and the laity. Errors in this matter have often crippled the church and brought needless strife.

The first error is called clericalism. This is the view that all ministry is performed by the ordained ministers, who are paid to do it, while the members are merely to follow in a docile manner. Historically, this approach is represented by the priests of the Roman Catholic Church, although it is found among Protestants as well. Many ministers promote this view by wanting to be in charge of everything and sometimes by holding their church in actual tyranny.

A second error, anticlericalism, runs to the other extreme. Here, the church strips ministers of their authority or even does away with them, ignoring the fact that Christ has appointed pastors and teachers to lead and serve His flock. The true model for ministry is neither clericalism nor anticlericalism, but is the dual approach to ministry explained in Ephesians 4:11-12. He pointed out that Christ appointed pastors and teachers for the church. Their role is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Ministry therefore starts with the teaching of God’s Word by faithful and gifted pastors. This does not replace but inspires other ministries in the church and provides the biblical understanding and motivation that the people need.

If Ephesians 4:12 calls for all Christians to engage in ministry, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 works out some of the details: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” These charges are not given to the leaders, but to the rank-and-file Christians, who are commanded to care for one another. Paul cites three groups that need attention from fellow Christians: the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak.

First, Paul identifies church members who are “idle.” The Greek word used, ataktos, has a broader meaning along the lines of “unruly” or “apathetic.” This is a word used in the military for a soldier who has stepped out of rank. In this sense, Paul is describing a wide variety of unruly Christians who are not living up to their responsibility as church members.

A second kind of person who needs attention is the “fainthearted. In contrast to the slacker, Paul here addresses the needs of those who are easily discouraged. While some Christians boldly embrace the dangers and challenges of following Jesus in this world, others are easily made to tremble, especially in a situation like that at Thessalonica, in which the church faced serious and painful persecution. Some Christians merit this description nearly all the time, but virtually all of us will fall into this condition at least some of the time. The proper ministry response from Christian friends is encouragement: “encourage the fainthearted.” This ministry may include reminders of biblical promises, support in prayer, and examples of others who struggled but continued in salvation.

Third, Paul urges Christians to “help the weak.” This term probably applies to those who find it difficult to abandon sin and resist worldly pressures. Paul’s letters reveal how uncompromising the apostle was in demanding that Christians never abandon believers who are weak, yet still trying to do better. The word for help literally means “to lay hold of,” with the idea of not letting them go. This should be our response to Christians who fall prey to substance abuse or are entangled in ungodly relationships, and who thus require close accountability and constant support.

Verses 5:12-15 forms a unit focusing on the Christian attitude in a variety of relationships. Christians are to treat church leaders with respect and “esteem them very highly in love” (v. 13). Among their fellow believers, Christians are to minister to the needs around them with a balanced response of truth and love. Finally, Paul offers a word of exhortation concerning even the believers’ enemies, which includes those violent persons who were persecuting fledgling church. In this case Paul charges them: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (v. 15).

Paul’s point in this matter is that Christians must not retaliate for wrongs as to seek to harm others. People outside the church – and sometimes within it – may deal out evil, but it should never be returned to them (see Matt. 5:44-45). This precept does not preclude Christians from seeking lawful redress from the civil authorities who are appointed by God to this very end (see Rom. 13:3-4). Nor does it mean that we should not act in defense of others. Yet when it comes to merely personal injuries against ourselves, Christians are privileged to honor Jesus by “turning the cheek” and giving our cloak as well to the one who asks for our tunic (Matt. 5:39-40).

In one of his greatest summaries of the Christian life, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). If Christ lives in and through those who trust Him, then we should expect to see their lives bear and increasing resemblance to the ministry of Christ. This resemblance is exactly what Paul has in mind as he sets forth the Christian calling to relationships of love and grace. In considering Paul’s charge to the early converts, we see a reflection of the very actions by which Christ brought salvation to our souls.

1 Thessalonians 5:13-15 Study Questions:

What role does the whole community play in bringing believers to a point of fluency in their behavior (vv. 14-15)?

Describe a time when your Christian community affected an aspect of your behavior, causing you to live more as a child of light.