Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
The third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been known as Gaudete Sunday, taken from the opening of the Psalm appointed for the day so long ago. That Psalm began with the Latin command to rejoice. Today’s reading from the epistles also begins with the command to rejoice. In this reading, which is the conclusion of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul sends words of encouragement and support.
Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and this letter has a friendly tone. Paul would seem to be pleased with the way that they are living their new lives as followers of The Way, as Christians. He opens his letter with the comforting reminder that “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). I suspect all of us would be happy to receive this letter confirming who we are and recognizing that we are on the right path.
Paul goes on also to remind them that they are serving as excellent role models for “all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7). Yet even these people of strong faith are troubled with an important question. Recalling Jesus’ declaration of the end time and the comforting news that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30), they wonder what will happen to their loved ones who have died. The end time has not arrived, Christ has not returned, yet members of “this generation” are passing away. As they walk to the burials of their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives; standing before the graves of the faithful, they wonder if Jesus has forsaken them.
Continuing the themes introduced in the epistle readings for the First and Second Sundays of Advent, we once again return to the theme of the delay of the parousia. Will we, in fact, see the end time? Will we see Jesus return in great glory? In the fourth chapter of the letter Paul turns to their question. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). They seem to have been asking how could they rejoice in the Lord in the midst of their grieving? How could they continue to trust and believe that Jesus was “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) when people were dying?
Paul declares to these worried and grieving faithful that those who have died will not be ignored or forgotten. In fact, he confirms that at the last day those who have already died will actually be the first to be raised by God, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Christ will return in glory. The dead shall be raised. We shall be raised to meet them. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. There will be an end time and there will be a second coming, “encourage one another with theses words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
With the sound of the trumpet ringing in their ears and the vision of Christ returning to lead their loved ones home, Paul turns to words of exhortation and encouragement. If we are confident in the news that there will be a second coming, the question remains, how are we who are alive to live our lives in the light of that knowledge and certainty?
Gaudete, “Rejoice always.” The instructions in this, the conclusion of the letter, are very brief and very general. Furthermore, the verbs are all plural. Paul is not speaking to individuals as much as he is to the entire community in Thessalonica. They are all to rejoice. And when? Not at a particular time, nor only in good times, but always. They are to pray always. They are to give thanks not just for the good things that happen to them, but “in all circumstances.” Earlier in the letter Paul speaks of the suffering he has endured for Christ. And he notes that they too “suffered the same things” (1 Thessalonians 2:14). It was not easy to follow Christ. But Paul’s call is simple and direct, rejoice, pray, give thanks always and no matter what happens.
Paul also directs them to live lives grounded not only in the Spirit but also in the words of the prophets whose words have already been directing their lives. He does not point to any particular actions they have undertaken that would have quenched the Spirit. Likewise, he does not indicate exactly what they should test nor what evils they should avoid.
The ending of the reading serves as a wonderful benediction for all of us as our celebration of the first coming of Christ and a reminder to keep our eyes and our lives focused on the second coming. We will be kept holy, “sound and blameless” (1 Thessalonians 5:23) for that day, and it is not through our work alone, but by “The one who calls [us]” and who “is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
This is truly a time to rejoice, pray, and give thanks for the great gift of God’s Word made flesh who came to dwell among us and who will surely come again. This message may be of great comfort to those who have recently lost a loved one and for whom the holiday festivities may be particularly difficult.