Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
This passage connects being made completely holy (oloklēron) with the coming parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Paul’s conviction is that “the God of peace” will keep the “spirit and soul and body” blameless during the cataclysmic return of Christ.
Earlier, Paul has described what the return will look like: “the Lord will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). At this climactic and dramatic moment, the dead who are ‘in Christ’ will rise (4:16) and then those who are alive will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17).
In our passage, Paul assures his converts that during this revolutionary event they will be protected–they will be kept unharmed (tçrçtheiç; 5:23). The God of peace is the subject of the verb “kept”. God will protect the converts during the coming of Jesus Christ.
Every aspect of their persons will be protected by God during the parousia. Believers can expect that their spirits, souls and bodies will be without blame and remain blameless during the transformation that is coming with Christ’s return. This is the only time Paul refers to human beings as having three parts: spirit, soul and body. Typically Paul speaks of only two aspects to a human person: the spirit and the body (1 Corinthians 5:3,4). Perhaps he, in essence, covers all the bases here. His intention is to emphasize that at the parousia, every possible facet of believers will be pure because God will make it so.
The significance and intrinsic relatedness of the divinely insured blamelessness of believers and the coming of Christ is underlined by Paul: “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (5:24). There are two features to note about the relationship of God’s protection of the purity of believers and the coming of Christ. First, the stated importance of believers appearing blameless at that event reminds us of what we have heard in previous passages during Advent–that the parousia is at once the judgment of God. Consequently, here Paul is assuring his converts that they will be on the right side of God’s judgment when Christ returns. At the outset of the letter, Paul speaks of “the wrath to come” (1:10). In our passage, which is almost at the end of the letter, Paul speaks words of assurance–they will be delivered from that wrath because there will be nothing in their spirits or their souls or their bodies to which wrath can affix itself.
Second, the fundamental reason they escape the judgment is that God will make it so. At the beginning of the letter, Paul speaks of the Thessalonians believers as “beloved by God” and “chosen” (1:4). He closes the letter by declaring that their beloved-ness, their chosen-ness, will never end. They have nothing to fear. God, who loves them and has chosen them, is faithful. God will not let them down. They will go through the coming day of the Lord unscathed, for God is faithful and will keep every fiber of their beings blameless.
At the same time as Paul here focuses attention on God’s fundamental role in keeping believers pure, he also exhorts his converts to participate in their own holiness. While God will “sanctify you wholly” (5:23), at the same time believers are to do certain things in order to grow toward that holiness. There is a partnership between God and those ‘in Christ.’ God’s part of the bargain is God is faithful and will complete the job of sanctification–making believers completely holy.
The believers’ task is to direct their energies towards the holiness God offers and enables. This includes always rejoicing, praying constantly, giving thanks in all things, not suppressing the spirit, not despising prophesying, holding fast to what is good and abstaining from every form of evil.
Some of these directions are unsurprising, given that the purpose of this set of commands (most of the directions are in the imperative mood) is to clarify how believers can help in their own process of sanctification. The command to “hold fast to the good” (my translation; 5:21) and “keep away from every visible form (eidous) of evil” (my translation; 5:22) obviously directly relate to being holy.
Other directives are less obviously related to holiness, for instance rejoicing, continual prayer, and giving thanks in all circumstances. However, in the contours of Paul’s thought, these make perfect sense as a means to sanctity. Paul thinks of joy as a characteristic of Christ. At the opening of this letter, Paul speaks of the Lord receiving the word “in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1:6). Since joy is part of the character of Christ, Paul regularly speaks of working alongside his converts for the goal of their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24; Philippians 1:25). Rejoicing is a means to becoming like Christ, the one who is without sin.
Prayer and thanksgiving are closely related to joy and all are responses to and reflections of trust in God through Christ. For Paul, trust in God is manifest in joy, prayer and thanksgiving. The recipe he gives his converts in Philippi for having no anxiety–that is, to be full of trust in God–is to rejoice and let their requests be made known to God in prayer and thanksgiving. The peace of God, Paul says, will then keep them in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7).
Paul thinks that trust in God should be the fundamental stance of human beings. It is the mode of life exemplified by Christ and how those who are ‘in Christ’ are to live. This is why Paul re-names his converts ‘believers’. Their primary identity after conversion to faith in Christ is belief–trust. Paul claims that the source of wickedness is lack of trust in God (Romans 1:18-25).
Indications of trust in God, such as rejoicing always, praying constantly and giving thanks in all circumstances, are a means to holiness. Trust in God is critical and essential in order to achieve sanctity.
There is a partnership between God and believers in the growth of holiness in expectation of the return of Christ. Paul is certain that God will do God’s part, for God is faithful. He directs his converts about the part they are to play.