Guidance In Godliness
Sunday School Lesson for October 28, 2001
I Thessalonians 5:12-28
Focal Teaching Passage: I Thessalonians 5:12-22
Guidance in Relationships (5:12-15)
In this section of the epistle, Paul begins to address the practical concerns related to Christian conduct among fellow-believers, and in view of the world at large. In this verse there is particular stress upon the relationship the church has with those who have been placed in positions of leadership and authority. Paul’s "request," or apostolic challenge, to his "brethren," is that they continually "appreciate those who diligently labor" in serving Christ and His church. The identity of those mentioned above is made clearer by the addition of the phrase "have charge over you in the Lord." This apparently indicates that Paul is calling for the Thessalonian believers to love and appreciate those who have been placed by God in positions of spiritual oversight and leadership. Their leadership is exercised "in the Lord," or under His direct authority. It is to such God-ordained leaders that the members of the congregation are called to give respect. Note carefully how the apostle details the church’s responsibility to its ministerial laborers:
- "appreciate"—This term, along with its companion "esteem" in verse 13, seems to indicate the idea of acknowledging and therefore respecting those whom God has placed in positions of authority. It means that they should be treated with such dignity as is appropriate for those who work hard ("labor") for the sake of the gospel. Also implied in these terms is the idea of following the leadership of the spiritual authorities and giving heed to their "instruction."
- "love"—This is the noun form of the classic word agape—the New Testament’s most lofty term for love. The members of the church, therefore, are to lovingly support, respect, and follow those whom God has set before them with a view to promoting the "peace" of Christ’s body. When faithful and hardworking leaders are esteemed and respected in the church, the result should be tranquility and harmony among brothers.
The necessity of such a command may have been precipitated by events transpiring in Thessalonica. Leon Morris suggests that it seems quite clear that "the leaders in the Church had not been sufficiently highly regarded, and their authority had been resisted. Also, in all probability, they had not exercised that authority as tactfully as they might have done, and in this situation the injunction be at peace among yourselves is very much in place" (100).
Next, Paul provides specific instructions related to living in harmony with other Christian brothers and sisters. While these commands have a special relevance to those in leadership positions, the wider application includes all believers in the church. Again, Paul’s commands are quite explicit, and are intended to promote stability and cohesion within the fellowship of believers:
- "admonish the unruly"—Here the apostle means that those who are living undisciplined lives, and not maintaining their Christian duties and responsibilities, are to be strongly instructed otherwise. The term "unruly" is actually a word employed in military contexts to indicate "the soldier who does not keep in the ranks" (Morris, 100).
- "encourage the fainthearted"—While the lazy and idle among the brethren must be confronted, the "fainthearted," or spiritually discouraged, must be lovingly consoled. Paul may have in mind those who had become beset with worry and fear related to their Christian lives. Wanamaker theorizes that Paul’s pastoral concern was for such persons who "were shaken by the persecutions experienced by the community (cf. 2:14) or those who had doubts and anxiety regarding various aspects of the parousia" (cf. 4:13-5:10) (197).
- "help the weak"—Those who lack spiritual strength against the forces of temptation should be continually held up and lovingly supported by stronger brethren. This is essentially the same instruction given to the Christians at Rome where Paul called upon the "strong" to faithfully "bear the weaknesses of those without strength" (Rom. 15:1).
- "be patient with all"—In ministering to the community of believers in this specialized manner, one would be required to manifest the spiritual fruit of "patience." This term represents the quality of inner strength and resilience that allows one to hold out long under the weight of a heavy burden. Such longsuffering would be a clear "manifestation of love" and would aid the believer in ministering to those who had "become irritating and burdensome" (Wanamaker, 198).
- "See that no one repays evil for evil" (v.15)—Here Paul sets forth the Christian principle of non-retaliation—an ideal surfaced by the apostle in Romans 12:17 and firmly anchored upon the very words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:44-48). Taken alongside of II Thessalonians 1:6, Paul is stressing that "God’s wrath will exact retribution in the judgment so that it is unnecessary for Christians to avenge themselves in the here and now" (Wanamaker, 199).
- "always seek after that which is good"—This is a call to constantly be working for the benefit and well being of others within the body of Christ, as well as those who are apart from faith in Him—"for one another and for all men." Morris comments that the word "good" in this particular context "stands over against evil in the previous clause, and so denotes, primarily, what is helpful to others . . . . It is the attitude of returning blessing for cursing, of being actively friendly in the face of hostility . . . . [It is] a life lived in an attitude of Christian love" (102). One can readily see how such a command would be vital to both the health of the church and its witness to the watching world. Gracious, Christ-like behavior directed toward "all men" would open many doors to evangelism and witness.
Guidance in Spiritual Matters (5:16-22)
Having addressed the issue of personal relationships, Paul now turns the attention of his readers to more practical spiritual matters. As before, the apostle lays down a series of rapid-fire exhortations designed to guide his brethren into a closer walk with Christ.
These verses present three positive commands, each governed by the phrase "for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus" (v.18). This is the second time in the epistle where Paul has declared in specific terms what God’s will is (see 4:3ff). The reader should understand, then, that "praise, intercession, and thanksgiving were not optional for the Christian, but were required just as much as proper ethical conduct" (Wanamaker, 201).
- "Rejoice always" (v. 16)—It is the will of God that all believers live in the atmosphere of praise to God. Christians should always be rejoicing in every circumstance in life, especially during times of tribulation and suffering. We must remember that this had been the experience of the Thessalonians in the early days of the founding of the church. Having initially "received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit" (1:6), they are called upon to continue to manifest an attitude of joyfulness.
- "pray without ceasing" (v. 17)—F. F. Bruce translates this phrase as "pray incessantly" (124). Such a command is not surprising in light of Paul’s deep commitment to the spiritual discipline of prayer (see 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:11; Rom. 1:10; Col. 1:3,9). Here he commands his brethren to constantly remain in the attitude of prayerfulness before God. While literally praying all the time would be impossible for the believer, it is possible to "be all our days in the spirit of prayer, realizing our dependence on God for all that we have and are, realizing something of His presence with us wherever we may be, and yielding ourselves continually to Him for the doing of His will" (Morris, 103).
- "in everything give thanks" (v.18)—Not only are Christians called to rejoice and pray at all times and seasons, they are to "give thanks" to God in every situation, even those that are painful and difficult. To do so manifests an active faith in the God who sovereignly "causes all things to work together for good" for the sake of His elect bride (Rom. 8:28). Bruce reminds us that the lack of gratitude is "one of the features of pagan depravity" listed by Paul in Romans 1:21. Consequently, "the children of God are expected to ‘abound in thanksgiving’ (Col. 2:7; cf. Col. 3:15, 17; 4:2; Eph. 5:4,20" (124).
In this section we discover that Paul has provided for his readers four additional commands related to the exercise of the spiritual gifts within the body. Particularly, Paul desired to encourage restraint and balance regarding the manifestation of the Spirit through prophecy.
- "Do not quench the Spirit" (v.19)—This statement may be indicative of the fact that certain members of the Thessalonian congregation were discouraging others from exercising their gifts, primarily those related to the more spectacular manifestations as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11. It may also be possible that Paul had in mind the moral and ethical behavior of the believers that would encumber the work of the Spirit. For example, immorality, laziness, prayerlessness, and the like would certainly hinder God’s working among the brethren.
- "do not despise prophetic utterances" (v. 20)—The specific manifestation of the Spirit’s activity in view for Paul was prophecy. This gift, which apparently consisted of both declarative and predictive elements, was likely being used and abused among the Thessalonians. Such abuses, perhaps related to the eschatological expectations of some of the members, might have caused some to completely ignore any and all prophetic words. To "despise" the "utterance," or treat the message as of no account, was essentially to "refuse to listen to God’s word and God’s will for the community" (Wanamaker, 202). F. F. Bruce agrees, noting that when such a "prophetic gift is exercised in church, the utterance must be received seriously and not ignored" (125).
- "examine everything carefully" (v. 21)—However, Paul’s words above should not be taken as a sweeping endorsement of all so called "prophetic utterances." When any word or teaching is given, those who hear it must exercise discernment in all things. Every message must be tested, particularly with reference to its "testimony to Christ" as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12:3 (Bruce, 126).
- "hold fast to that which is good" (v.21)—Once a message is properly tested, only that which "is good," or is in agreement with "the doctrinal and ethical norms they had received from [Paul]," should be embraced as having come from God (Wanamaker, 203).
- "abstain from every form of evil" (v.22)—This final injunction, to stay away from all species of wickedness, relates to both general evil and that associated with prophetic messages, which fail the examination above. The word "abstain" stresses the complete separation of the Christian from any form evil, and particularly that which is forbidden in 4:3 (see Morris p.106, and Bruce p.126).
Major Questions to Promote Application and Discussion
One: (5:12-13) What is a church’s responsibility to its ministerial leaders, both lay and ordained? What other passages can you think of that outline such responsibilities? In what practical ways may we "appreciate" and "love" those whom God has called to lead us in our local churches?
Two: (5:14-15) Are the responsibilities mentioned in these verses restricted to pastors and other high-profile church officials, or are such duties assigned to every member?
Three: (5:16-18) Carefully examine the three commands in this section: rejoice, pray, and give thanks. How are they related and interdependent? Why did Paul link these three together? What impact are these likely to have on our personal lives and ministries? On our church? On our families?
Four: (5:19-22) This section teaches us that the Holy Spirit is quenched or hindered when the Word of God is neglected and ignored. How do Christians "quench the Spirit" today? That is, are we ever guilty of despising "prophetic utterances" and, if so, how? On the flip side, should believers uncritically accept what they hear taught or proclaimed from the pulpit?