11. The Concluding Remarks (1 Thes. 5:23-28)
A Final Petition
5:23 Now may the God of peace make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 5:24 He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this.
The Basic Petition: Complete Sanctification (5:23a)
“May the God of peace Himself make you completely holy.” In a world that is so totally contrary and alienated to the holiness of God, the theme of sanctification is a critical concern for the Christian who, though not of the world, is left to represent the Lord in this alien environment. Thus, the Apostle begins his conclusion of this epistle with a concern that he has mentioned before (3:13; 4:3, 4, 7, 8).
The “now” (Greek de) of verse 23 is slightly transitional and moves the reader to another point, though not totally unrelated to the preceding. In the preceding verses there has been one admonition after another relating to the spiritual walk corporately and individually. Each of these commands embrace the believer’s sanctification. How is it possible for us to accomplish such commands with any sense of consistency? Paul has already related the process of sanctification to the Holy Spirit in 4:1-8, but with this final petition, he again points us to the only true source of spiritual growth and change—the awesome sanctifying work of God Himself to whom we must all turn.
(1) The Greek text literally says, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you.” “Himself” is emphatic (the intensive use of autos) suggests “Himself and no other.” What an awesome lesson for ministry and the desire to see spiritual change whether in ourselves or in others. While this should never lessen our concern, personal discipline, and hard work in working with others, grasping this truth should cause us to turn away from manipulative tactics and appeal to the only One who can work in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phi. 2:13).
(2) With the words, “the God of peace,” the Apostle focuses on both the person and work of God—He is the “God of peace.” This may have been brought to mind by concerns for conditions at Thessalonica. Regardless, here is a very familiar expression in the New Testament (see Rom. 15:33; 16:20; Phil. 4:9; Heb. 13:20 and cf. John 16:33; 1 Cor. 14:33; 2 Cor. 13:11; 2 Thess. 3:16; and Isa. 9:6). They had come to have peace with God (see Rom. 5:1), with one another (see Phil. 4:9; Col. 3:15), and in their own hearts through the gospel message that brought them into a vital relationship with the Savior, the Prince of Peace, the Peacemaker (see Phil. 1:7; Eph. 2:14-17). As the God of peace, He is the source of peace. If we are to know real peace, we must know God through Christ (see John 14:27).
(3) With the words, “may God … make you holy” or “sanctify you,” we see the faith and heart of the Apostle and his missionary team (see Col. 1:28-29). The verb here is in the optative mood, the mood of a strong wish that expresses the Apostle’s humility (only God can do this) and his expectation and desire for these and all believers. Sanctification is the work of God accomplished through His Word and the ministry of the Spirit. No matter how hard we may attempt to keep the principles of God’s Word as set forth in the previous verses (5:1-22), or preach and teach that Word to others, prayerful dependence on the Lord is absolutely vital to the process. Because he recognized and believed in this principle, the Apostle began this epistle with thanksgiving for the work of God in the Thessalonians and now he concludes with the same attitude of faith, not in man’s efforts, but in the Lord. We may sow and water, but only God Himself can give the increase—true growth and spiritual change (1 Cor. 3:5-9).
(4) The design and work of God is also stressed by the use of chiasmus. This is a literary device that refers to an inverted parallelism or sequence of words or ideas in a phrase or clause, sentence, paragraph, chapter, or even an entire book or work. The term chiasmus or chiasm is derived from the Greek letter chi (c) which is a mark with two lines that cross. A chiasm can be very complex or simple as here. There are two elements involved, inversion and balance with the goal of focusing on a particular theme or point. In this there is often a repetition of ideas by which the first and last elements of the first half of a clause or sentence are inverted in the second half. This draws attention to the central terms and focus of the words used. It therefore presupposes a center, a “crossing point.” The words in italics and bold letters illustrate this. Note how the verbs are first and last with the goal or request in the middle forming a crossing pattern. This may be illustrated in different ways, but the following arrangement has been chosen to illustrate the focus of the actual word order and arrangement of the Greek text.
Now the God of peace Himself, may (He) sanctify
and entirely your spirit and soul and body blamelessly
may (they) be kept at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is the subject of “sanctify” and the unspecified agent of “may be kept.” By the above arrangement with the verbs first and last and the objects in the middle, the source and effective cause are somewhat emphasized. The central focus, however, is on the expressed design of complete sanctification at the coming of the Lord. This was not only the great object of Paul’s prayer, but it expresses God’s purpose for all believers (see Rom. 8:28-29), and that which should likewise be our great desire and commitment as Christians.
The Words “make you holy” or “sanctify” (NASB, NIV) translate the Greek hagiasai, the aorist optative of hagiazo, “to set apart, make holy, sanctify.” In its unaffected meaning, the aorist is the undefined tense from the standpoint of its aspect or action. It may, however, look at the beginning of action, its conclusion or culmination, or it may view the action in its entirety depending on the context and the nuance of the verb used. Since Paul was writing to believers, those who are already “saints,” or “set apart ones” in Christ positionally (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2), the focus here is on the culmination of the present process of sanctification (spiritual growth) to be culminated at the parousia, the coming of the Lord.
“Completely” is holoteles, “quite complete, without damage, through and through.”170 This word occurs only here in the New Testament. It signifies complete in reference to degree or amount from the standpoint of the aim or design. Some believe this word may focus on the qualitative side with the word below looking at the quantitative element.171
The Particulars of the Petition: Spirit, Soul, and Body Kept Blameless (5:23b)
Having set down the general goal that the Apostle desired for these and all believers, he then particularized the process to stress even more emphatically the total sanctification God wants for all believers. “And” introduces us to the further details. The very next word in Greek is holokleros, “complete, sound in every part.” With that, man’s entire makeup is focused on—spirit, soul, and body.
What the Apostle means by this three-fold division of the believer is the big question of this passage which has been the object of a tremendous amount of debate among theologians and Bible students for a long time. Robert L. Thomas has an excellent summary of some of the various explanations for the Apostle’s expression, “spirit and soul and body.”
1. Paul intends no systematic dissection of human personality. Instead, he uses a loose rhetorical expression emphasizing the totality of personality and reinforcing “through and through” and “whole” (H.W. Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man [Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1926], pp. 108-109). This view leans heavily on comparable expressions in Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30; and Luke 10:27 (e.g., “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength,” Mark 12:30). What it fails to explain, however, is why Paul did not use this already well-known formula for completeness, if that is what he meant. It also cannot explain why he included man’s material part (“body”), which the alleged analogous passages do not include. It is contrary to Paul’s acknowledged careful use of words to attribute such a rhetorical device to him (Ellicott, p. 84; Hiebert, p. 252).
2. Another explanation makes “spirit” and “soul” interchangeable and sees each of them as referring to man’s immaterial substance. “Body” then completes the picture by referring to man’s material part: “your whole spirit (i.e., soul) and body.” This sees man as dichotomous. Two terms for the same immaterial substance simply view it according to its two functions, relationship to God and relationship to the lower realm of sensations, affections, desires, etc. (Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 483). Defense of this approach lies in the way Paul parallels pneuma (“spirit”) with psyche (“soul”) in Philippians 1:27 and speaks at times of man’s make-up as bipartite (2 Cor 7:1). Also, body and soul (or spirit) together sometimes describe the whole man (Matt 10:28; 1 Cor 5:3; 3 John 2) (Strong, p. 483). The weakness in the above arguments is evident, however, because Paul sometimes parallels pneuma with sarx (“flesh,” “body”), with which it cannot be identical (2 Cor 2:13; 7:5, 13). Clear-cut distinctions between psyche and pneuma indicate they cannot be used interchangeably (Cremer, Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, pp. 504-505). In addition, it is doubtful whether Paul would pray for man’s functional capabilities, as this view holds, rather than two substantial parts of man’s make-up.
3. Others try to escape a threefold division by dividing the last sentence of v. 23 either into two independent parts (Hendriksen, p. 150) or else by joining “may your whole spirit” with the first part of the verse (Stempvort, cited by Best, p. 243). The former alternative requires inserting words that are not in v. 23b, while the latter is unnecessarily complicated and causes prohibitive grammatical difficulties (Best, p. 243). To fill out the sense of either of these explanations, words must also be omitted.
4. That Paul saw man as a threefold substance in this verse has been generally recognized since the early fathers. The symmetrical arrangement of three nouns with their articles and their connection by means of two “ands” (kai) renders this the most natural explanation. This becomes a “distinct enunciation of three component parts of the nature of man” (Ellicott, p. 84). That Paul elsewhere does not make such a distinction (Best, pp. 242-244; Hendriksen, pp. 146-147) is no argument against trichotomy. It is always possible that Paul has been misunderstood elsewhere. It is also conceivable that he did not endeavor to make specific distinctions in other letters as he does here. That Paul possibly depends on liturgical formulation and attaches no special meaning to these separate terms (Dibelius, cited by Best, p. 244) is also inconclusive speculation. To object that this interpretation reads in the trichotomy of secular psychology (Schweizer, TDNT, 6:435) neglects Paul’s occasional acceptance of portions of secular philosophy that were valid. He simply incorporated them into a divinely inspired framework (Ellicott, p. 84). A trichotomous understanding of 5:23 has so much to commend it that other interpretations cannot compete without summoning arguments from elsewhere. The difference between the material part (“body”) and the immaterial parts (“spirit” and “soul”) is obvious. Paul’s pronounced distinction between psychikos (“natural”; NIV, “without the spirit”) and pneumatikos (“spiritual”) (1 Cor 2:14, 15; 15:44), his differentiation of pneuma (“spirit”) and ego (“self”) or nous (“mind”), parts of psyche (“soul”) (Rom 7:17-23; 1 Cor 14:14), and other writers’ distinguishing of pneuma and psyche (James 3:15; Jude 19) argue heavily for a substantial, not just a functional, difference between the two immaterial parts (Hiebert, p. 252; Schweizer, TDNT, 6:436; Lightfoot, p. 88).
The spirit (pneuma) is the part that enables man to perceive the divine. Through this component he can know and communicate with God. This higher element, though damaged through the fall of Adam, is sufficiently intact to provide each individual a consciousness of God. The soul (psyche) is the sphere of man’s will and emotions. Here is his true center of personality. It gives him a self-consciousness that relates to the physical world through the body and to God through the spirit. This analysis of man had been Paul’s training in the OT and no impressive evidence has surfaced to eradicate such a picture here (Milligan, p. 78; Olshausen, p. 457). Yet, it must be confessed, much unresolved mystery remains regarding the interrelationships between man’s different parts, including the body. How one affects the other is fully understood only by him who is the Creator.
For such a composite creature Paul therefore prays, seeking an unblamable wholeness in the presence “of our Lord Jesus Christ” (23; cf. 2:19; 3:13).172
Regardless of one’s view of this passage, clearly, the emphasis is on the completeness of the sanctification that God is committed to promoting in the believer in all aspects of his being.
The word “blameless,” amemptos, meaning “free from blame,” is an adverb and modifies the verb “kept.” “Kept” is tereo, which means (1) “keep, guard, watch over,” and (2) “keep, hold, preserve someone.” In this last sense, it has the following uses: (a) “keep for a definite purpose or suitable time” (1 Pet. 1:4; 2 Pet. 2:4), and (b) “keep unharmed, protected, preserved with an emphasis on the condition that is to be kept unharmed or sound” (1 Cor. 7:37; 1 Tim. 6:14; 1 Tim. 5:22; 1 Thess. 5:23).173 What is kept is the “whole spirit, soul, and body,” the complete person. Though not expressed, God is the one doing the keeping. This expresses the Apostle’s dependence on the Lord to accomplish this keeping work in believers.
But what is involved and what is the goal? This is a desire for greater and greater maturity so that at the parousia, when believers are made manifest before the Judgment Seat of Christ, they will be without blame not merely in conduct before men, but in heart before the Lord Himself (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 3:13).
“At the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” should not be understood as “until His coming” as translated by the KJV. The focus is on the believer’s spiritual state at the time of the rapture.
The Basis for the Petition: The Faithfulness of God (5:24)
“He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this.”
Literally, to show Paul’s emphasis, the text reads, “Faithful is the One Who calls you, Who also will do it.” All the principles and promises of Scripture and our confidence in prayer stand on the character of God’s person. So, the trustworthiness of God is here brought into focus. “Faithful” is pistos, “trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust.”174 But God is also described as “the One Who calls you.” The point is that the call of God to save believers and bring them into a vital relationship with Himself does not end His loving care. In His character as faithful, He continues His work to produce spiritual growth and change. As the One who calls and justifies by grace, so He sanctifies by grace too.
A Final Postscript
5:25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us too. 5:26 Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. 5:27 I call on you solemnly in the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters. 5:28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Here the Apostle concludes with three requests and a final benediction. First, as Paul had prayed for the growth and sanctifying grace of God for the Thessalonians, so he asked for their prayers for the missionary team. Here was a very gifted committed missionary team yet they too needed the sanctifying and preserving power of God. All believers alike need the prayer support of the body of Christ regardless of how mature and gifted they may appear. As one always oriented to grace and dependent on the Lord, Paul, as he so often did, sought spiritual support from his converts (Rom. 15:30; Eph 6:19; Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3; 2 Thess. 3:1; Philemon 22).
Second, Paul called for a greeting among all the brethren or the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.
Paul’s usual “one another” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; cf. 1 Peter 5:14) is replaced this time by an expression that may imply that the request is addressed to leaders only. This need not distinguish leaders from the rest of the assembly, however, as the Epistle will eventually find its way to all (v. 27). In the meantime those receiving it first were to greet the rest (Moffatt, p. 43). The symbol of greeting was “a holy kiss” (v. 26). This was not a kiss of respect as was used in ancient times to honor men of authority. Neither was it cultic as though copied from an ancient mystery religion. It most closely parallels the use of a kiss among members of the same family as a token of their close relationship. Christians have come into the family of God, which knows even closer ties than those of any human family (Matt 12:46-50). It was quite appropriate that a symbolic greeting be adopted. It was to be “holy” (hagio), i.e., such as is becoming to saints (hagiois, 3:13). This may have been the custom of men kissing men and women kissing women so as to forestall any suspicion of impropriety. A Jewish synagogue practice, it could easily have found its way into early Christian assemblies.175
Third, his final request is very strong and demonstrates a deep concern on the Apostle’s part to see that this epistle was read in the assembly. In the first two requests, he used the imperative mood of command common throughout this last section, but here he switched to a formula that basically consisted of placing someone under oath. “I call on you solemnly” is enorkizo, “to adjure, cause or call on someone to swear,” “to bind by an oath.” To add to the force of this adjuration, he does so by the name and authority of the Lord. Finally, while the “you” is specified, this more than likely refers to the leadership in keeping with the normal responsibilities of elders in the local church. The word for “read” is anaginosko, which is often used of the public reading of Scripture (see Luke 4:16; Acts 15:21; 2 Cor. 3:15; and see the noun anagnosis at 1 Tim. 4:13; Acts 13:15).
But why the change in intensity here? Because the Apostle knew the importance of the truths presented in this epistle for it is God’s truth He uses to transform lives (John 17:17). In commenting on the various reasons for Paul’s change of tone here, Thomas comments:
Very probably Paul sensed the far-reaching import of the teaching of the Epistle and its binding authority as part of a canon of Scripture (1 Cor 14:37). Whatever the case, this charge has implications of divine punishment for failure to comply. The first recipients of the letter, probably the church leaders, were bound under oath “to have this letter read to all the brothers.”
Obviously it was to be read aloud, in line with the classical meaning of anaginosko (“read”). Under restrictions of limited educational privilege, not all participants in Christian circles were able to read for themselves. The further limitation of insufficient copies and expense of writing materials prohibited distribution to all. The only solution was to give the Epistle a place in public worship alongside the OT Scripture, the consequence of which would eventually be ecclesiastical recognition of its authority as an inspired book.176
Finally, with verse 28, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you,” the epistle is brought to a close. The epistle began with the note of grace and ends with the same note. We cannot live apart from God’s grace. It is the grace of the Lord Jesus that makes our salvation and sanctification possible from start to finish.
That the Lord Jesus should be presented as the source of grace … , either alone, as here, cf. Acts 15:11, or in association with God, 2 Ep. 1:12, is significant testimony to His Deity.177
As we have seen, in every chapter of this epistle, the coming of the Lord Jesus has been a very prominent focus (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:10; 5:23). Further, it is the conviction of this author that this is an imminent coming, the blessed hope. Regardless of one’s view of this, however, both the fact of His coming and the events following His coming for the body of Christ are certain. This life is not the end; it is only the beginning. It is a stage of preparation for eternity where all believers will be with Christ for eternity and, if they are faithful in their walk and growth with the Savior, they will also have the awesome privilege of reigning with Christ. These are facts promised us by the Word of God, and such promises and their reality should encourage us to live for the Lord, not in our own strength, but in His. The sure coming of the Lord should encourage us to study the Word, pray, faithfully assemble together for fellowship, worship, the preaching and teaching of Scripture, to love the brethren, and many other biblical responsibilities. All of this we should do knowing that it is the Lord who sanctifies and keeps us, and who will strengthen us both to will and do of His good pleasure.
Related Topics: Sanctification