2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Commentary: 1 Thess 5:16-24

Background and Context

In 1 Thessalonians (probably the earliest of Paul's extant letters), Paul is engaged in pastoral care. He is seeking to nurture, comfort, and inspire a young Christian church as they struggle to live out their faith in a pagan, urban environment. The first half of the letter, 1:2-3:13, is really an extended thanksgiving to God for the bonds Paul shares with the Thessalonians and for their exemplary perseverance in the faith. Throughout this section Paul uses kinship language to help the Thessalonians reshape their self-identity as members of God's family. Similarly, Paul presents himself as a paradigm for proper Christian attitudes and actions as he attempts to build their confidence.

In the second half of the letter, 4:1-5:24, Paul is engaged in a series of pastoral instructions and admonitions which call for Christian conduct that properly reflects God's will. It is important to note, however, that throughout this section Paul is not presenting a standard up to which the Thessalonians must live or else they won't be saved at the parousia. Rather, the foundation of his exhortations is God's work. God has called them in holiness (i.e., God has set them apart for special relationships and special work), and therefore Christian conduct reflects this God-given reality of holiness (4:1-12). God has destined them for salvation on the day of the Lord, the parousia, and therefore they now live as children of light (5:1-11). Hence Paul grounds Christian conduct not in the superior morality of Christianity but in God's saving activity centered in Jesus Christ's death, resurrection, and parousia.

5:16-24 is to be seen against this backdrop of the entire letter. Up to 5:16 Paul has shaped the reader's perspective to understand that Christian conduct is relational. It flows out of the relationship God has established with us in Jesus Christ. It reflects the reality that Christians live in a family relationship with each other. Thus the imperatives of our verses (eight in vv. 16-22) are not new laws which must be followed but are the benchmarks of life flowing from God's saving work, of life within God's holy family.

5:16-24

Our unit is composed of three sub-units: Vv. 16-18, 19-22, 23-25. In the first of these (vv. 16-18), Paul gives straightforward instructions on Christian prayer and praise. All of life is to be one of prayer and praise. Why? Because that is God's will for us established in Christ Jesus. Thus Paul tells the Thessalonians that Christian rejoicing, prayer, and giving thanks stem not from one's inner feelings but from God's saving activity. Likewise these are not determined by life's outer circumstances but are constant features of a life of worship which permeates all circumstances. Not only does such a life of prayer, joy, and thanksgiving reflect one's relationship with God, it is also integral to the relationships Christians share in the family of God (as Paul himself exemplifies in 1:2-3i; 2:13; 3:9-10,11-13; 5:25).

5:19-22 focuses on the stance of Christians toward the Spirit's charismatic activity within the community. His instructions here are probably general and do not reflect specific communal problems as is the case in 1 Corinthians 12-14. The community is not to extinguish the the work of the Spirit in Christians. Likewise the community is not to hold in disdain the charism of prophecy. Prophecy, in this case, is not the ability to predict the future but the pronouncement of God's word and will for the life of the community. In 1 Cor 14:1-3 prophecy is a pre-eminent gift of the Spirit for the up building and encouragement of the community, and here it probably parallels the activity Paul encourages in 5:11. This does not mean, however, that everything which appears to be "charismatic activity" (i.e., stemming from the grace-gifts of the Spirit for the sake of the whole community) really reflects the Spirit at work in the community. Christians are to test all such spiritual activities and manifestations. Those which conform to God's will and build up the community (i.e., the "good") are to be held fast while the community is to keep away form those which actually prove to be evil (i.e., stand in opposition to God's will and harm the community's family relationships).

5:23-24 closes the second half of the letter with a prayer-request parallel to the way the prayer-request of 3:11-13 closed the first half of the letter. At the same time, Paul is wrapping the entire letter in the vision of God's faithful activity unto the parousia. God has called them in holiness (4:3-7), and now Paul prays with confidence that God will keep them thoroughly in such divine holiness unto Christ's advent (5:23). Hence the Thessalonians are able to live out their lives in faithfulness to God's will, because God is the one who calls them, and God is the one who will faithfully accomplish the divine work of salvation which will culminate at the Lord's parousia (5:24).

Advent Implications

There is perhaps a temptation on the part of a preacher to treat this as a thoroughly disposable Advent text. After all, it seems to contain a number of pithy little maxims that do not appear particularly tied to this season. The first three admonitions are somewhat superfluous for Advent since this is the one time of the year when most parishoners actually do come out to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. It is not the time of year, however, when we focus on the Spirit's activity in the life of the community, and so 5:19-22 seems obtrusive. What then is there about this text that really links it to Advent?

The answer is found in verses 23-24 and not just what they say in themselves but in the way they function in the letter as a whole. As was noted above, Paul uses these verses to wrap the whole letter in the vision of divine faithfulness culminating in the parousia of Jesus Christ. For Paul, all communal conduct, all communal relationships, all communal worship are carried out in anticipation of that salvific event and also in the realization that right now God is at work shaping us, preparing us, and moving us toward the salvation which culminates in the future advent of Jesus. Hence our text shows us that we are not the only ones engaged in preparation during Advent. God is faithfully at work preparing us for the advent of Jesus Christ at the parousia.

Richard Carlson