Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
The reading for this Sunday comes at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
In fact, since most scholars believe 1 Thessalonians to be the first Pauline letter, these verses could be the closing exhortations of the earliest writing in our New Testament.
How does Paul choose to end his first letter to the fledgling church at Thessalonica? The closing includes a series of easy to remember admonitions that, in reality, are hard to follow.
Upon first read, the short imperative phrases in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 sound like the instructions that I might rehearse for my kids before dropping them off at a friend’s house: “Always be respectful. Listen closely. Pick up after yourself. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Call me if you need anything. In fact, just call me period.” The list goes on. Most of the time those words are not even heard, because my children know them by heart. They have heard them repeatedly. (Doing them is another matter!). I suspect that many of us read Paul’s list of final exhortations in a similar way—barely listening.
Though Paul may have given similar verbal instructions while he was in Thessalonica, this is his first-time writing. We should not assume that the Thessalonians heard these admonitions in the same way that we hear Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice (“Wah wah wah wah wah Wah wah”). In fact, Paul seems to have gone out of his way to make the instructions more memorable to his first century audience.
Though in our English translations the verses sound like a disconnected string, in Greek a similar sound courses throughout the list to tie the string together aurally. Each imperative phrase contains a word beginning with a “p” sound (the Greek letter pi) as either the first or second word of the verse. Plus, while every verse contains a brief imperative, there is a natural break in the exhortations with the additional clause in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This break creates a division between verses 16-18 and verses 19-22. Upon closer examination it is clear that the two sections also hold together thematically.
Verses 16-18 contain the following admonitions: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things. These imperatives convey a human response toward God, recognition that God is the source of our joy and thanksgiving. While the exhortations to rejoice, pray, and give thanks are common in Paul’s letters, they take on new life when one considers that this church has been grieving over the death of some of its members. In chapters 4-5 Paul reminds them of the power of the gospel. This is a God who has conquered death and will not neglect the believers who have already died. God will raise them from the dead just as God raised Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The gospel provides the very basis for rejoicing and thanksgiving, even in the midst of grief.
Verses 19-22 contain further evidence of God’s work among them, particularly in the context of community worship. The work of the Spirit (verse 19) is made evident in the gift of prophesying (verse 20), which is itself supposed to be a word from the Lord. Nevertheless, not all who claim the gift of prophecy or practice it in the community may be speaking through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Paul admonishes the church to “test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (verses 21-22).
A few verses earlier Paul tells the believers to respect those who labor among them and have authority over them (1 Thessalonians 5:12). He has not left the church leaderless. He exhorts the congregation to esteem them, but he does not give these leaders the authority to say or teach whatever they wish. The congregation takes part in discerning the works and words of the Spirit. The charge to abstain from evil echoes verse 15’s admonition to seek the good for one another and not to repay evil for evil.
None of these admonitions result in a lazy or passive congregation. Paul ends the letter with action words that are God-centered. Rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, discerning, and testing—these activities leave no room for idleness (1 Thessalonians 5:14) nor do they allow the church to forget the source of their good news. Nonetheless, obeying these imperatives is only possible due to the power of the Spirit’s work among them.
The exhortations are followed by a final prayer for the congregation in verses 23-24 (compare to 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13). The prayer reminds the church that they are part of God’s work. God is the one who has called them and set them apart, and God has power to redeem all of them—body, soul, and spirit (verse 23). Here Paul makes a rare reference to a tripartite division of the body. Since Paul is inconsistent in talking about the body this way (see for example 1 Thessalonians 2:8), we should not place too much weight on this verse. Instead, Paul is using language that his congregation can understand. There is no aspect of one’s being that is beyond the realm of God’s grace and power. This God is faithful indeed.
The church today reads these final admonitions as we too await Christ’s return. Paul is insistent that Christ will come again (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Death, pain, suffering, and turmoil do not get the last word. We await a Savior who has conquered Death. This period of waiting, though, is not a time to twiddle our thumbs. We are called to be active. Pray and rejoice that God has not abandoned us to evil. Model what is good and peaceful. Allow God’s Spirit to shine in your midst for the God of peace is really at work among us.