10. The Conduct of the Assembly (1 Thes. 5:12-22)
In the first chapter, the Apostle thanked God for this body of believers because, among other reasons, they were an example to the believers in Macedonia and Achaia and because their testimony had literally echoed out across the country. If such a testimony was to continue, certain basic responsibilities to the church leadership, within the leaders themselves, and within the church as a whole were absolutely necessary. Unless the leadership is properly recognized and functioning and there is peace within the assembly through a deep spiritual relationship with the Lord, their witness, like undernourished grapes, would soon die on the vine. While no specific pattern of leadership is set forth in this early epistle (i.e., elders and deacons), there is a clear reference to those who were leading, what that leadership involved, and to the need for respect of that leadership and for the right reasons.
The emphasis in these verses might imply certain problems had been communicated to Paul by the return of Timothy, due to some of the problems that existed there like the disorderly mentioned in verse 14. Nevertheless, the instructions and exhortations given here are fundamental regardless of conditions and need to always be guarded in any church. This is because, as previously stressed, there are no perfect churches. The leaders will not be perfect and neither will be the rest of the flock. Because of this, the tendency is for Christians to neglect, ignore, or leave the church, sometimes skipping around from one church to another. Of course, there may be times when one needs to purge himself from a church for certain doctrinal or other spiritual reasons if they are serious enough, but too often the reasons are superficial. Christians need the protection and edification God designed to occur in the local church. We are part of the family of God, and we need one another not just in a general sense, but in the atmosphere of a local church.
Twenty one times in the Thessalonian epistles alone, Paul addressed the believers of this church as “brethren” (the Greek adelphoi). Such plural nouns as this one are often generic and refer to an entire class, brothers and sisters, or fellow believers. The point is that we are spiritual brothers and sisters born into the family of God by the Spirit. No family is perfect, but, as Wiersbe points out, “… without a family to protect him and provide for him, a child would suffer and die. The Child of God needs the church family if he is to grow, develop his gifts, and serve God.”144 Verses 12-28, continuing the one another concern of verse 11, instruct us on a number of vital principles needed for a healthy and growing body of Christ that is truly able to carry out mutual edification in a peaceful and loving way.
Instructions in Relation to Church Leaders
5:12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you in the Lord and admonish you, 5:13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
Verses 12-13 are addressed to the entire congregation, as is most likely the case with verses 14ff. Though addressed specifically to those who are led, the very nature of what is said is clearly instructive to both the leaders and to those who follow their leadership and these verses will be dealt with accordingly. Furthermore, “lest the preceding words should be misunderstood to imply that churches can be maintained without leaders, the Apostle proceeds to urge their recognition; this forms an introduction to the general instructions upon church life which follow.”145 In keeping with this principle, we should note that in Titus 1:5 Paul teaches us the organization of the Cretan church was unfinished due to the brevity of Paul’s visit. Thus, Titus was to correct the situation (“set it in order”) by appointing elders in every city or town as the Apostle had given direction. In other words, a church is not truly complete and functioning as God intended without an appointed leadership according to the guidelines of Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1f.; Tit. 1:5f.; Heb. 7:7, 17; and here).
For Those Who Are Led (vss. 12-13)
The Apostle begin with “now we ask you.” The verb used here is erotao, a word used of a request from a friend and is more intimate and personal than the stronger parakaleo of verse 14, “I urge, exhort.” The request concerns three responsibilities: (1) to acknowledge, recognize their leaders, (2) to appreciate them highly because of their work, and (3) to be at peace among themselves.
Acknowledge Them (vs. 12)
“Acknowledge” is a present infinitive of the verb oida, “to know, acknowledge, recognize.” Some understand oida in this context to mean “appreciate, value.” But this idea is found in the second request, “to appreciate highly.” There is the need in every congregation to become aware of and recognize those God has raised up in their midst who perform the duties and functions of a caring leadership. This is what we can call an emergent leadership and demonstrates the fact they are God’s appointed leaders. The responsibility of the church then is to first discern and then recognize such men (Acts 20:28b) as their leaders. This would include a formal appointment to places of service and submission (1 Tim. 3:1f.; Tit. 1:5; Heb. 13:7, 17).
Esteem Them Highly in Love (vs. 13)
“Esteem” is the verb hegeomai, but the use here is a rather rare nuance. Hegeomai means (1) “to lead, guide, go before,” (2) “to think, consider, regard,” and from this (3) “esteem, respect.”146 “Very highly” is a strong adverb, which means “super-abundantly” or “quite beyond all measure” (the highest form of comparison imaginable).147 Two things are to guide this high appreciation that bring balance, protection, and direction to it.
(1) The first is “love.” Leaders are to be esteemed highly in love. The sphere that is to envelop a flock’s esteem for their leaders is love, the Greek agape, which is a love that chooses to act for the well being of its object, and often sacrificially. This would include all the things that constitute the guidelines of Scripture for loving one another. It would include the negative like refusing to gossip, malign or criticize them to others. But it also included the positive like helping in ministry, expressing thankfulness, appreciation, and providing for them financially in an adequate, God-honoring way (see Gal. 6:6-9; 1 Tim. 5:17-18; though it deals with itinerant teachers, see also 3 John 6-8). Churches need to examine what they are doing that demonstrates their esteem and love for their leaders. Too often all leaders hear or experience are the negative complaints.
(2) The second guide is seen in the words “because of their work.” We must note this carefully. Too often, when leaders are esteemed, it is for the wrong reasons. The reason given here is not status or position or dynamic personalities or good looks, tall, dark, and handsome. In Christian ministry status depends on the nature of the work (function) and not vice versa. The nature of this work will be discussed below.
Be at Peace Among Yourselves (vs. 13)
Previously the Apostle used two infinitives in the Greek text to express the content of the request of the missionaries, Paul and his associates. Now suddenly, he switches to a present imperative. Why this sudden change and the command to be at peace? This is not an uncommon exhortation in the New Testament for believers (see Mark 9:50; Rom. 12:18; 14:19; 1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 13:11; Col. 3:15; 2 Tim. 2:22). Its sudden insertion here, however, “… may be that the recognition of such people and deference to their judgment would check any tendency to anarchy, with consequent strife, that might manifest itself among them.”148 But the command to live in peace is not only a protection, but a result. Perhaps the Apostle is saying here that obeying the former instructions will enable you to fulfill this command.
For Those Who Lead (vs. 12)
As these verses give guidelines for those qualities that a congregation might look for in recognizing an emergent leadership, so they also provide wonderful guidelines for those who lead. In this, the Apostle describes three things, (1) those who labor, and (2) who preside over you, and (3) admonish you, that are to characterize the leaders. This is clear for we have one article with three participles connected with “and.” Each of the participles are in the present tense and, in this context, the present aspect points to what should characterizes the ministry of these leaders.
Those Who Labor
“Labor” is the verb kopiao (1) “to become weary, tired,” (2) “to work hard, toil with effort, strive.” It may describe both a mental and physical kind of labor. Paul used this word frequently to describe his own ministry (see 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 4:11; Phil. 2:16; Col. 1:29; 1 Tim. 4:10). Ministry is hard work and often leads to weariness, not of the work, but in the work, and there is a difference. This is why Paul often added the dimension of spiritual enablement, as in Colossians. In connection with the great goal of bringing believers to spiritual maturity, he said, “Toward this goal I also labor (kopiao), struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.” It is when men and women labor in their own strength that they become weary of the ministry and want to throw in the towel.
It is imperative that those who are told to follow and appreciate the leadership of others have a good example in their leaders of how love produces labor (hard work) on behalf of others (1:3) in contrast to some in the church at Thessalonica that were failing to work (see 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). But in what ways do these leaders labor among the Thessalonian believers? This is spelled out, at least in part, in the following description.
Who Preside Over You in the Lord
The word “preside” is proistemi, which has two fundamental uses: (1) “be at the head of, rule, direct, manage,” and (2) “be concerned about, give aid to.” From this last use, it also came to have the idea of “busy oneself with, be engaged in, attend to” as in Titus 3:8, 14. It is translated “manage” in relation to the family (1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12), “leads” or “lead well” in relation to the local church (Rom. 12:8; 1 Tim. 5:17). The KJV, NKJV, NASB, and NRSV all translate 1 Timothy 5:17 with “rule,” but the better translation, in view of New Testament theology, is “leads” or even “caring leadership.” While there is authority in their leadership, the focus is clearly on a loving leadership, or management like a father or shepherd. The leadership of the church is never to be like that of the world where leaders many times exercise a dominating leadership, often with the desire for status. Leadership in the New Testament church, whether in the home or the local assembly, is to be that of a servant who seeks to care for the needs of the flock.
Luke 22:24 A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 22:25 So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ 22:26 But it must not be like that with you! Instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. 22:27 For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
1 Peter 5:3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you but be examples to the flock.
In the New Testament, those who lead are called “elders” (1 Tim. 5:17) and “overseers” (Tit. 1:7). Both of these terms refer to the same official position of leadership. Elder lays stress on the maturity needed, along with the dignity of the office. Overseer points to the function of the office. That these are one office and not two is seen in the interchange of the two terms in Titus 1:6-7 and in Acts 20:17, 28, as well as in the parallels between these verses and 1 Tim 3:1-7. Two other terms used for the same office and its function are (1) hegeomai, “to lead, guide” (Heb. 13:7, 17) and (2) poimaino, “to shepherd” (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
These words, and Paul’s emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 5:13, clearly shows the need of leadership in the local church. It is important to note, however, that this investment of leadership was plural, not singular. Although the titles of elder or overseer are not used here, we should not think that such leadership had not been established this early in the church for Paul and Barnabas saw to it that elders were appointed in every church as early as their missionary journey in Acts 14:23.
The final phrase, “in the Lord,” must not be overlooked. The oversight or leadership finds its authority, example, and nature in the sphere of the Lord Himself who is the Great and Chief Shepherd (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 5:4). First, such leadership is by divine appointment rather than human appointment. Second, the Lord Jesus Himself is the great example of how men should lead (Luke 22:24-27). Finally, these words “… limit the scope of the authority of the elders to the spiritual concerns of the saints, and show that there was no intention to deny or to limit the authority over Christians of civic or political rulers in the things that lie within their proper spheres.”149 The fact that they are “leaders in the Lord” emphasizes that they act in the interest of Christ and for the good of the entire community, not for self-gain (against the idlers’ accusations to the contrary).150
Who Admonish You
The other caring function of these leaders mentioned here is that of admonishing the flock at Thessalonica. “Admonish” is noutheteo, “to admonish, warn, instruct.” Literally it means “to put into the mind.” It might be used of general instruction, but it was often used where there were wrong tendencies that needed correcting. It involves a moral appeal to the will, but one based on understanding through biblical instruction. There is a vital difference between biblical admonition from mere protest or reprimand. Biblical admonition is based on instruction with the goal of correction based on spiritual understanding and conviction while the latter is little more than verbal disapproval. A classic illustration of this is Eli the priest in 1 Samuel. First Samuel 2:24 records Eli’s verbal disapproval of the behavior of his degenerate sons, but in 3:13, God rebuked Eli because of his failure to admonish his sons. Interestingly, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) uses the imperfect of noutheteo. The imperfect points to a habitual pattern of failure in Eli’s leadership of his sons.
Instructions in Relation to Various Biblical Responsibilities
5:14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. 5:15 See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. 5:16 Always rejoice, 5:17 constantly pray, 5:18 in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 5:19 Do not extinguish the Spirit. 5:20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt. 5:21 But examine all things; hold fast to what is good; 5:22 stay away from every form of evil.
That there is a slight change now in the focus of Paul’s instructions is clear by the words, “And we urge you, brothers and sisters.” Not only does he repeat the address “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi), which makes it parallel to verse 13, but he uses “we urge” which is stronger than the “we request” of verse 12. “Urge” is parakaleo, “to appeal to, exhort, urge, encourage.” Now Paul addresses not just those who are led, but the whole flock.
Some early church fathers, beginning with Chrysostom, saw these strong directives as addressed to the leaders, thus counterbalancing those just given to the rest of the people (Best, p. 228). Such a distinction, however, finds more difference between the leaders and the led than is justified at this point in church history (Hogg and Vine, p. 181). It also overly restricts “brothers,” which must broadly designate the whole Christian community. Furthermore, Romans 12:14-17, a section similar to 1 Thessalonians 5:15, is directed to the whole Roman church, not just to its leaders.151
An outstanding feature of this section is the triple series of short commands. Each has a verb in the imperative with an object or an adverbial amplification.
(1) The first series consists of four exhortations aimed at the whole body in carrying for one another (vss. 14-15). Though verse 15 contains two more imperatives, they seem to form an amplification of what is involved in showing the patience commanded in the fourth exhortation. These verses deal with the ‘one another’ responsibilities all believers have to each other in a pastoral sense.
(2) The second series consists of three commands for doing the will of God (vss. 16-18). These commands seem to be directed more at the individual.
(3) The third series consists of five commands that are somewhat general, though they may all relate to prophetic utterance in the early church (vss. 19-22). They ultimately relate to corporate worship.
Finally, we should also note that each of the commands of this section are in the present tense or aspect of continual action. By the nature of the verbs used and the context, they are calling for customary or habitual action on the part of all believers. These are godly patterns that should characterize all Christians. Two of the commands (vss. 19-20) occur in a construction (the present imperative plus the negative me ) which can call for an action or behavior to stop. This will be discussed when dealing with these verses.
Instructions in Relation to All (vss. 14-15)
Admonish the Undisciplined (vs. 14a)
“Admonish” is noutheteo as described above. “The undisciplined” is ataktos, “out of order, out of place, undisciplined.” In this context it undoubtedly refers to those who refuse to work, loafers, and who are living in a state of idleness. See comments on 4:11-12. These people needed informed admonishment which not only disapproved of their conduct, but demonstrated how such behavior was wrong and out of order with the principles of the Scripture God has designed for the blessing and orderly function of society.
Comfort the Discouraged (vs. 14b)
“Discouraged” is the oligopsuchychos, which literally means “small souled.” It means “fainthearted, despondent, discouraged.” These are those who, looking at circumstances or problems, tend to give up and throw in the towel. They are those who lack optimism and faith in what God is doing and is able to do. They need encouragement. The word translated “comfort” is the Greek paramutheomai. Paul used it in 2:11 when he discussed his loving concern for the Thessalonians as a father who exhorts and encourages his children. Paramutheomai points to the work of encouraging someone to continue on a specific course when faced with discouraging or perplexing problems. It works to promote endurance and staying power by helping others to get their eyes on the Lord and the principles and promises of His Word.
Help the Weak (vs. 14c)
“Help” is a verb (antecho) which literally means (1) “cling to, hold fast to something or someone, be devoted to,” and then (2) “to be interested in, pay attention to,” but as here, in the sense of “giving support, help.”
“Weak” is asthenes, from sthenoo,” to strengthen.” With the negative prefix a (not) it means “without strength, weak, powerless.” It is used of both physical and spiritual weakness, and the context must determine its meaning. Paul does not define the exact weakness, but in the context he is obviously talking about the spiritually weak.
“Help the weak” almost certainly relates to moral and spiritual debility. Whether it was weakness in shrinking from persecution (3:3-5), yielding to temptations to immorality (4:3-8), or some other kind of weakness cannot be precisely determined. It may well have been weakness in exercising full Christian liberty in doubtful matters as was the case in other churches that included people from a pagan background (Rom 14:1-15:6; 1 Cor 8-10). Whatever it was, however, the strong in faith were responsible to support those who were weak.152
Asthenes is a member of a family of words used for spiritual weakness. These include the noun astheneia, the verb astheneo, the noun asthenema, and the adjective asthenes. A study of these words in the New Testament yields the following:
(1) There is a spiritual weakness caused by the natural inability of the flesh in contrast to the enablement given by the Spirit (Matt. 26:41; Rom. 6:19; 8:3). In this regard, some are weak in that they are unable to control the appetites or impulses of the body and struggle with life-dominating habits, patterns, or some particular sin (see Gal. 6:1f.; and also Jam. 5:13-20). James 5:13ff. is generally related to physical weaknesses or infirmities, but there is good evidence James is speaking about spiritual weaknesses of the kind just mentioned.153
(2) There is a weakness related to a lack of courage to trust God in the difficulties of life (Rom. 4:8). Abraham is an example of one who was strong in faith.
(3) There is a weakness related to a lack of the knowledge and will of God. This may relate to our inability to know how to pray in many situations of life that all Christians face (Rom. 8:26). More prominently, however, weakness is a problem related to knowing, understanding, and relating one’s life to the Word of God in faith. Some, because they are weak in the faith (the body of revealed truth) and do not understand their liberty in Christ, have a weak conscience and become overly scrupulous about what might be called doubtful or questionable issues (Rom. 14:1–15:1; 1 Cor. 8:1-12).
This passage in 1 Thessalonians, along with Romans 15:1-14, teaches us that Christians with such weaknesses are to be the special objects of the loving care of the whole body of Christ and not just that of a few leaders.
Be Patient Toward All (vs. 14d)
When one deals with the disorderly, the discouraged, and the weak, patience or longsuffering is certainly a needed quality. “Be patient” is the Greek makrothumeo, which literally means “long-tempered.” It is derived from makros, “long,” and thumeo, “passion, anger.” It is the opposite of our term “short-tempered.”
Longsuffering is that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish; it is the opposite of anger and is associated with mercy, …
Resistance, active or passive, to admonition, exhortation or instruction, imposes a strain upon those who seek the welfare of the saints, hence the need for this further word. Longsuffering characterizes all labour that has love for its motive, 1 Cor. 13:4.154
“Toward all” draws our attention to two things. First, that all situations with all people call for longsuffering. We might feel that some situations with some people allow for the opposite, but not so. Further, it is not just the disorderly, the weak, or discouraged that require patience.
Yet these are not the only ones requiring patient treatment. All Christians (“everyone”) at one time or another provokes dissatisfaction through thoughtless or even intentionally hurtful acts. They too need patient treatment. The same patience is required toward non-Christians, but reference to them is not specific until v. 15.155
Second, the preposition “toward” is pros, which is a word suggesting close fellowship. It “always implies active intercourse with”156 the persons involved (see Mark 9:16; John 1:1, 2; 2 Cor. 5:8; and Gal. 1:18). We must not withdraw or become aloof with those who try our patience, which is the natural tendency.
Pay Back Evil for Evil to No One (vs. 15a)
As mentioned, an outstanding feature of this section (vss. 14-22) is the triple series of short commands. The first series consists of four exhortations (verse 14) designed to help the whole body care for one another. Though verse 15 contains two more imperatives, they form an amplification of what is involved in showing the patience commanded in the fourth exhortation. These verses deal with the ‘one another’ responsibilities all believers have to each other in a pastoral sense. Longsuffering requires the two elements found in verse 15.
Paul begins the command against paying back evil for evil with “see that.” The verb is horao, which fundamentally means (1) “to see, perceive, behold,” then (2) “to see with the mind, perceive, discern,” and (3) “experience.” From this it developed the idea of (4) to see in the sense of “take heed, beware” due to the precarious conditions involved. I used to get the opportunity to go quail hunting in south Texas, and while the quail were plentiful, so were rattlesnakes. This required extreme watchfulness for you never knew when you might stumble upon one of these critters. Just so, due to the natural bent of our own natures, we need extreme care when dealing with others. Our natural tendency to retaliate for a wrong suffered must be strongly guarded against, no matter what the injury.
We might also note that Paul moves from the second person plural, “you all see that,” to the third person singular, “no one pays back evil for evil to any one.” This stresses that the whole congregation of believers is responsible to see to this personally and corporately. See Romans 12:17-21 where Paul treats this issue in more detail.
Pursue What Is Good for One Another and for All (vs. 15b)
The above negative is now followed by the positive which reminds us of an important truth. Putting on what is good is basic to our ability to overcome or put off what is evil.157 Literally, to grasp something of the emphasis of the Greek text, Paul said, “but (strong contrast, alla) always the good being pursuing unto one another and to all.” The “always” is emphatic. Man’s tendency is to look for loopholes to excuse the bad behavior of taking matters into his own hands. “Good” is agathos, which as used here with the article as a pure substantive (to agathon), refers to “the good, what is good, right.” It speaks of what is intrinsically valuable, morally good and beneficial.158 This, of course, must be defined by the teaching of Scripture according to its values, priorities, and objectives.
The verb the apostle used here, “pursue,” is significant. He did not simply say, “do” or “practice,” but “pursue.” This is dioko, which means “to hasten, run, chase after, press on.” Concerning the use of this verb and its implications, Robert Thomas writes:
Diokete (“pursue”; NIV, “try”) is immeasurably more than halfhearted effort. Eager expenditure of all one’s energies is none too much in seeking to agathon (“the good”; NIV, “to be kind”). In place of wrong, injury, or harm dictated by a vengeful spirit, Christians must diligently endeavor to produce what is intrinsically beneficial to others, whether other Christians (“each other”) or unbelievers (“everyone else”). The seriousness of the abuse suffered is no issue. Some Thessalonians doubtless had been victims of unjustified harsh treatment, but regardless of this, a positive Christian response is the only suitable recourse. The welfare of the offender must be the prime objective.159
Instructions in Relation to Self (vss. 16-18)
With verse 16 the Apostle moved to address a number of vital responsibilities all believers have in relation to their own walk with the Lord. This forms the sure foundation needed to fulfill the previous commands through the Lord’s enablement, so now he turns to the believer’s own inner life.
The Exhortations (vss. 16-18a)
Always Rejoice (vs. 16)
Because of what we have in Christ, believers have reason to rejoice even in the face of many and variegated trials of life. Maintaining a joyful spirit is not easy, however, because it depends on our focus and faith in the Lord—His person, plan, principles, promises, and purposes as set forth in Scripture. This doesn’t mean life won’t hurt, but even in the midst of the hurts, we can rejoice because we know that God is at work and in control. Note the following:
Some of the grounds for rejoicing as Christians are: The Lord Himself (Phil. 3:1; 4:4), His incarnation (Luke 2:10), His power (Luke 12:17), His resurrection (Matt. 28:8; Luke 24:52), His presence with the Father (John 14:28), His presence with believers (John 16:22; 20:20), His ultimate triumph (John 8:56), the believer’s salvation (2 Cor. 8:2), enrollment in heaven (Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3), liberty in Christ (Acts 15:31, cf. Gal. 5:1), hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2), and his prospect of eternal rewards (Matt. 5:12; Luke 6:23).
Some of the occasions for rejoicing for Christians are: Hearing the gospel (Acts 13:48), receiving the Lord (Luke 19:6; Acts 8:39), suffering with Christ (Acts 5:41, cf. 1 Pet. 4:13), the preaching of the gospel (Phil. 1:18), suffering for the gospel (Phil. 2:17; Col. 1:24), the conversion of sinners (Luke 15:7; Acts 15:3), the manifestation of grace (Acts 11:23), the godly walk of believers (Rom. 16:19; 2 Cor. 7:4; 3 John 3, 4), godly submission to admonition (2 Cor. 7:9), the godly order of an assembly (Col. 2:5), receiving support and fellowship (Phil. 4:10), the rejoicing of others (Rom. 12:15, 2 Cor. 7:13), hearing of the well-being of others (2 Cor. 7:16), hearing of the kindness of believers to one another (Phil. 7), honor due to others (1 Cor. 12:26), and the triumph of truth (1 Cor. 13:6).160
Paul states the paradox succinctly in 2 Corinthians 6:10:
… sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (cf. 2 Cor 12:10). The Thessalonian Christians had already suffered with joy (1 Thess 1:6), as had Paul himself (3:9). The challenge is for this joyful outlook to become constant (“always”). From a human perspective they had every reason not to be joyful—persecution from outsiders and friction among themselves. Yet in Christ they are to be more and more joyful.161
Nehemiah 8:10 states, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Joy has its roots in a deep thankfulness for what God has done, is doing, will do, and for who God is (sovereign, merciful, faithful, omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent, loving, etc.). As such, joy takes the burden out of toilsome service and gives strength to endure. Joy is also a part of the fruit of the Spirit’s control as described in Galatians 5:22f. It is linked with love, peace, longsuffering, and kindness. In other words, capacity to love people, be longsuffering and kind is directly related to inner joy. Thus, it is needed always.
Constantly Pray (vs. 17)
Closely associated with the ability to rejoice always is a constant prayerfulness. As mentioned, these imperatives are each in the present tense. Here, with the “always” (adialeiptos) it is what grammarians call an iterative or customary present of what regularly occurs. It describes prayer as an attitude which regularly breaks forth throughout the day in the various aspects of prayer—confession, praise, thanksgiving, petition for others, and personal requests to God. The term used here for pray is proseuchomai, the general term for prayer, but one that suggests the worshipful nature of prayer. It is derived from a preposition of motion and direction, pros, “to, toward,” and euchomai, “to pray.”
In Everything Give Thanks (vs. 18a)
The triplet of commands is completed with giving thanks in any and all circumstances of life. As constant rejoicing is related to prayerfulness so it is also related to a thankful heart. But how can we be thankful when situations we face are so painful? Ultimately, this boils down to understanding and trusting in the promises of Scripture and how God uses suffering as a tool in accomplishing His sovereign purposes in this life. For a brief overview of this, see Why Christians Suffer on our web site in the “Bible Studies / Spiritual Life” section. Again, Thomas has an excellent word here.
No combination of happenings can be termed “bad” for a Christian because of God’s constant superintendence (Rom 8:28). We need to recognize that seeming aggravations are but a temporary part of a larger plan for our spiritual well-being. Out of this perspective we can always discern a cause for thanks. In fact, failure to do this is a symptom of unbelief (Rom 1:21).162
The Justification: For This Is God’s Will … (vs. 18b)
The statement, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” looks back to all three commands, rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. “Will” is thelema, which refers more to the “gracious design” of God rather than His sovereign purpose or resolve (boule). Ultimately then, obeying God’s will is to submit to His designed purposes as He has revealed them to us in Scripture. Thus, the three commands here comprise only a small part of the will of God. In ourselves, we have neither the desire nor ability to accomplish His will. Our need is (1) to seek to understand what His will is by a study of His Word (Eph. 5:17; Rom. 12:1-2) and (2) to appropriate His grace by faith so that He is free to work in us both to will and do His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13; Rom. 6-8).
“In Christ Jesus” is the controlling source and motive for obeying the will of God. Apart from Him, we can no more do the will of God than we can perfectly obey the Law. Thus, He becomes the very source and motive for obedience. It is through our union with Christ that we find the capacity to fulfill the will of God.
Instructions in Relation to Worship (vss. 19-22)
At this point there is change in the responsibilities commanded. Many believe that Paul moves from personal worship to corporate worship, or life in the assembly of believers. This is believed because of the reference to prophecy and examining all things. While there is undoubtedly a shift here in this direction, this does not negate the personal application of some of these commands in other ways, as will be brought out in the exegesis. Here, then, are five short exhortations, two negative and three positive, that affect the quality of public worship.
Do Not Extinguish (Quench) the Spirit (vs. 19)
“Extinguish” is sbennumi, “put out (a fire), quench, extinguish.” In its other occurrences in the New Testament it refers to fire (see Matt. 12:20; 25:8; Heb. 11:34, or metaphorically, Mark 9:48; Eph. 6:16). This is clearly a prohibition against hindering the work, ministry, and gifts of the Spirit who, because of His enlightening, empowering, cleansing—and ministry of warming the hearts of His people—is sometimes likened to fire in Scripture (Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:3, 4, and see also 2 Tim. 1:6). In view of this and the prohibition of verse 20 regarding prophecies, some in the church may have been resisting the gift of prophecy, and perhaps other manifestations of the Spirit as well. As a result, some of the leadership, being more cautious and conservative, may have overreacted and prohibited the ministry of the Spirit. In Corinth, a very different scenario occurred. There the gift of prophecy was being ignored because of an overzealous emphasis on the showy gifts like speaking in tongues (see 1 Cor. 12-14).
However, because believers are called upon to walk by means of the Holy Spirit as the enabling power for the Christian life (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16ff.), it is possible that Paul’s statement here is general, forbidding them to check the Spirit’s ministry of controlling, refining, and convicting believers in their daily walk (see also Eph 4:30). By way of application, the prohibition is applicable to any aspect of the work of the indwelling Spirit in a Christian’s life in view of the fact that sin grieves the person of the Spirit. We can say, then, that any sin a believer refuses to confess and deal with, grieves the Spirit’s person and quenches or stifles His power.
Now a word about the negative prohibition here (vs. 19) and in the next verse. Paul employed the present imperative and the negative me. Many grammars have understood this construction to command the cessation of action already in progress, rather than, in keeping with the normal use of the present aspect of Greek verbs, to refer to the continuation of action as dictated by the nuance of the verb used and the context.163 Here, then, the command would be “stop extinguishing the Spirit,” and “stop treating prophecies with contempt.” But such a meaning should only be understood if there is sufficient warrant from the context. In view of the above, it may be that here there is warrant for understanding the grammar in this way, but we should also recognize that this may simply be calling for a general prohibition that is to be an ongoing, customary pattern for believers, a command designed to develop character through the power of the Spirit.
Do Not Treat Prophecies With Contempt (vs. 20)
“Do not treat … with contempt” is the Greek exoutheneo, (1) “to set at naught, disdain, despise,” (2) “reject or treat with contempt.” “Prophecies” is propheteia, which may mean: (1) prophetic activity (Rev. 11:6), (2) the gift of prophecy, prophesying (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10; 13:2, 8; 14:22), or (3) the utterance of the prophet, the prophetic word, the content of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:6; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 1:18; Rev. 22:7, 10, 18). In this text the noun is plural and clearly refers to utterances or messages of the many prophets that may have been in the church at Thessalonica. Concerning the gift of prophecy, Thomas L. Constable writes:
The gift of prophecy was the ability to receive and communicate direct revelations from God before the New Testament was completed (1 Cor. 13:8). Sometimes these revelations concerned future events (Acts 11:28), but often they dealt with the present (Acts 13:2). Perhaps people who had not received prophetic revelations were teaching their own views of such things as the Second Advent, with the result that prophetic revelations tended to be evaluated on superficial terms (e.g., the eloquence of the speaker) instead of on the basis of their intrinsic authority.
By way of application, Christians should not disparage any revelation that has come to the church and has been recognized as authoritative and preserved by the Holy Spirit in Scripture. The temptation to put the ideas of men on an equal footing with the Word of God is still present.164
To this, Robert L. Thomas adds the following:
These were separate utterances of those who in their prophetic office proclaimed the will and command of God as well as predicted the future (Acts 11:28). Benefits from these utterances could build up a local church (1 Cor 14:3).
Apparently, however, certain “idle” brothers (v. 14; cf. 4:11, 12) had misused this gift by falsifying data regarding the Lord’s return. This had soured the remainder of the flock against prophecy in general. Their tendency now was not to listen to any more prophetic messages, but to discount them in view of counterfeit utterances they had heard. Once again Paul warns against overreaction and urges the church to give prophecies their proper place in edifying its members (cf. v. 11).165, 166
Examine All Things (vs. 21a)
Since false prophets would arise as the Lord Himself warned (cf. Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; see also 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1), there must be careful discernment of the message or utterances of a prophet. Thus, Paul balanced the preceding with this positive command. “All things” (panta) is a neuter accusative plural rather than an accusative masculine, “every person.” The ultimate issue is the message, not the person, his claims or personality. “Examine” is dokimazo, “to put to the test, examine,” and then, based on the result of the test, “to accept as approved, approve.” Here is a warning against gullibility and a call for biblical discernment. No criteria, however, are given by the Apostle upon which the test is to be made. As with those in Berea (Acts 17:11), the index for what is truly from God is the Word of God itself. For these early believers this included the Old Testament and the traditions handed down by the apostles (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). It naturally centered in a biblical view of Jesus as both the Christ and Lord (see 1 John 4:1; 1 Cor. 12:3).
In 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 14:29 discernment is a specific spiritual function in combination with the gift of prophecy. It consists of an ability to discern whether another prophetic spokesman has given a genuinely inspired utterance. But perhaps these two tests are too specialized for the present context, and preference should be given a more general criterion of whether a positive contribution to the body’s edification and mutual love has been made.167
For us today, this is a call to examine all preaching and teaching in light of the Scripture. Just because one opens his Bible and preaches from it does not mean the message is truly biblical. There is far too much Scripture twisting and abuse of the Bible in view of one’s own personal agendas or biases. Perhaps nothing is more difficult than to skillfully handle the Word (2 Tim. 2:15) so that we put away our own preconceived understanding and theological biases. Our only authority for the truth is God’s Revelation, His Word; but if what we believe or if our understanding of a particular passage is based on our bias rather than on what the passage really says, then we have deceived ourselves and maybe even those who listen to us.168 This is one of the reasons God places a greater responsibility on teachers (Jam. 3:1).
Hold Fast to What Is Good (vs. 21b)
Obviously, then, once what is heard is discovered to be “the good,” i.e., true and in accord with the revelation of God in Christ, we are to tenaciously hold on to it, for God’s revelation alone is a sure foundation and an anchor of the soul. “Hold fast” (katecho), as used in this context, means “to hold fast to in the sense of retain and guard.” The very nature of this word calls our attention to the fact this will not be easy. Satan and the world will constantly seek to undermine the truth and teaching of Scripture (see Jude 3). “Good” is kalos, which carries the idea of valuable, profitable, useful and describes the inherent value and profit of the Word (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17). We should also note that it is the Word that enables us to discern what is truly good and valuable in matters not only of doctrinal and moral right, but also in practice (see Heb. 5:13-14).
Stay Away From Every Form of Evil (vs. 22)
Here is one of those verses that has not only been wrenched out of its context, but twisted by many, due in part to the translation of the KJV, “Abstain from every appearance of evil.” This suggests the idea that we should avoid what even appears to be evil, though it may not in reality be evil. This command must not be wrested from its context. It comes as an antithesis and a means of strengthening the preceding, “hold on to the good.” Rather than simply, “stay away from the evil,” we have “stay away from every form of evil.” The contrast is not between what is really good and what only appears as evil, but what is in reality evil as a result of the testing.
The word “appearance” is eidos (eido"), “appearance, form, kind.” Commenting on this verse and this word, F. F. Bruce writes:
The sense of “species” or “kind” for eido" is quite classical … and is attested far beyond the classical period (cf. Eusebius HE 5.1.6, pa’n eido" ojneidismou', “every kind of abuse”). The present injunction could also refer to prophetic utterances; indeed, it is possible to treat ponhrou' as attributive to eidou" (rather than as a genitive dependent on it) and translate “abstain from every evil kind (of utterance).” An utterance which is “evil” would be one running contrary to gospel faith and practice; such an utterance is to be rejected …169
Thus, believers must examine everything carefully and avoid that which does not conform to the truth. There will be many professed spiritual manifestations that do not contribute but rather detract from the development of spiritual growth and progress in the faith. Such the Apostle defines as pantos eidous ponerou (“every kind of evil”). As a further application of this command, using the truth as our index for testing, believers are to avoid every kind or form of evil in thought and deed, everything that might produce beliefs and behavior contrary to the kind of living promoted by the previous commands.
146 Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, electronic media.
163 For a thorough discussion of this issue and commands and prohititions, see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, 1996, pp. 714-725.
166 For a discussion on the cessation of the gift of prophecy, see “Prophecy Rediscovered? A Review of the Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today,” Robert L. Thomas, Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 149, # 593, Jan. 1992; “Contemporary Issues in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit—Part IV: Today,” John F. Walvoord, Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 130, # 520, Oct.-Dec., 1973; “The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts,” John F. Walvoord, Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 143, # 570, April-June, 1986; “Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?,” F. David Farnell, Bibliotheca Sacra, Part I, Vol. 149, # 595, July-Sept., Part II, Vol. 149, # 596, Oct.-Dec. 1992. See also Farnell’s article in Vol. 150, # 597, Jan.-March 1993.