The final part of 1 Thessalonians can be divided into three. Verses 16-22 contain a series of exhortations. Before that, Paul is concerned that the Thessalonians should have right attitudes to each other. After that, ready to close, Paul gives his final commands, blessings and requests.
Attitudes to fellow believers
Many churches today are small, but if they are united that is something positive. Paul talks in verses 12-15, first of having the right attitude to leaders, then to all.
Paul refers to leaders as ‘Those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.’ They are hard workers who have the right to be in authority over others and ‘admonish’ or counsel people – literally, put sense into them!
Paul asks for two things with respect to leaders – respect or acknowledgement. Listen to them, appreciate them, try to please them. More than that, ‘Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.’ Do not criticise them behind their backs, ignore what they say or take it with a pinch of salt. Take it seriously. Believe it. Act on it. One writer says, ‘We need wise leadership today but still more wise following. An army of captains and colonels never won a battle.’
Paul goes on to say that we must live in peace with each other. The New Testament often calls for peace (see Eph. 4:3). He speaks of three different types of church member (the idle, the timid and the weak) and our duty to each. This is far from exhaustive but these are typical problems. We are not all the same. Each must be dealt with appropriately. The idle or unruly must be warned. The timid must be encouraged. This will not always be easy so we need to ‘be patient with everyone’.
In verse 15 Paul warns against a spirit of revenge and urges kindness to all. Spurgeon once sent a very brief letter to a man. ‘Bear. Bear. Bear. Forbear. Forbear. Forbear. In yielding is victory. Fight the devil and love the deacon. Love him till he is loveable.’ That is the approach.
Dos and don’ts
Verses 16-22 are a little like when a preacher is short of time and says, ‘I’ve no more time. I’ll just give the heads’. Here are six brief exhortations vital to remember always.
- Be joyful always.
Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna says of her minister father that he would not have remained a minister ‘if ’twasn’t for the rejoicing texts’. She elucidates ‘Of course the Bible didn’t name ’em that. But it’s all those that begin “Be glad in the Lord” or “Rejoice greatly” … and all that, you know – such a lot of ’em. Once … he counted ’em. There were eight hundred of ’em.’ There may not be 800 but that sounds about right. All are there to keep us rejoicing.
- Pray continually.
In his Institutes Calvin calls prayer the chief exercise of faith. Certainly, if we are real Christians, we will pray. It is impossible live the Christian life without praying. Here Paul calls for continual prayer. Obviously this does not mean that we do nothing but pray but it does mean that we continually turn back to prayer.
- Give thanks in all circumstances.
How easy it is to forget this. We must not.
- Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.
Scripture uses different symbols for the Holy Spirit. One is fire, so by analogy when he is at work it is as if fire is burning. Burning fire can be put out by various means. That is the picture here. You are not to put out the Spirit’s fire, Paul warns. In those days that would have included fresh prophecy; today, prayer, preaching, evangelism and Spirit-prompted acts of love. When people are stirred up regarding these things we are not to quench the flame.
- Never treat preaching with contempt.
Verse 20 narrows down to a particular offence. There are no prophecies of a New Testament sort today but we have preaching and a believer may show contempt towards it or treat it as of no consequence. He may fail to see what a vital tool it is to bring sinners to faith and build up believers. Paul says to such not to treat preaching with contempt.
- Test everything, holding on to the good and rejecting all evil.
What if it is not the Spirit setting things on fire? What if the prophecy is false, the preaching in error? Everything needs to be tested then dealt with appropriately. This attitude is commended everywhere in Scripture.
Paul closes with five sorts of words.
- Prayers for sanctification.
‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through and in a parallel prayer. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The story is told of a girl who came to faith and applied for church membership. ‘Were you a sinner before the Lord Jesus came into your life?’ enquired an old deacon. ‘Yes, sir,’ she replied. ‘Well, are you still a sinner?’ ‘To tell the truth, I feel I’m a greater sinner than ever.’ ‘Then what real change have you experienced?’ ‘I don’t quite know how to explain,’ she said, ‘except I used to be a sinner running after sin but now I’m a sinner running from sin!’ She was received into the church and proved by her consistent life that she was truly converted.
- A reassuring promise
Verse 24 says ‘The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.’ This follows on from Paul’s prayers for their sanctification and preservation. Paul is confident his prayers will be answered because he knows that the one he is praying to is the one who called the Thessalonians to himself in the first place and he is not a God who begins things then leaves them incomplete.
- A request for prayer
With his prayers for them, Paul appropriately makes his own prayer request, ‘Brothers, pray for us’. Romans 15:30 is similar. If the Apostle felt in need of prayer so should every minister. If he wanted the Thessalonians to pray, it is right that every Christian should pray for ministers.
- Two commands – to give greetings and about public reading
A kiss was the normal way of greeting as it is in most countries today, except Germanised ones like the UK, where hands are shaken. ‘Holy’ points to the need to avoid any sexual element. Paul also commands that his letter be read publicly and that there be an exchange of letters with the Laodiceans. Even at the time of writing Paul thought of his words as authoritative. It is right that we continue the tradition and read this letter and others like it in public so that all may hear its contents.
- A benediction of grace, Paul finishes the whole letter with a benediction (v.28). The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Someone confronted Luther about justification, with the remark, ‘If this is true, a person could simply live as he pleased!’ ‘Indeed!’ answered Luther ‘Now, what pleases you?’ Augustine, the great preacher of grace during the 4th and 5th centuries, lacked the fine-tuned precision of the Reformers but his response on this point was similar to Luther’s. He said that the doctrine of justification led to the maxim, ‘Love God and do as you please.’ That is grace.