12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil. – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 ESV
The Thessalonian believers are living in what Paul refers to as “the times.” This is what may also be referred to as the church age or the times of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). It is the period of time between Christ’s first and second advent. The phrase, “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” used by Jesus in Luke 21:24, refers to the period leading up until His second coming. He used it in direct reference to Jerusalem, indicating that the holy city would remain predominantly under Gentile control or influence until He returned to set up His Millennial Kingdom at the end of the seven years of Tribulation.
Paul wrote of this same time period in his letter to the church in Rome, telling them, “I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way, all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26 ESV). Paul seems to indicate that there is a specific number of Gentiles who will come to faith in Christ, but it is only known to God. When the full number of Gentile converts is reached, the day of the Lord will begin, and it will commence with the Rapture of the church.
The Thessalonian believers were excited about the possible return of Jesus, but they were also confused by what appeared to be His delay. So, Paul has reassured them that God has a plan and that they were living in “the times” leading up to the day of the Lord. But God has provided no date or length of time by which to measure its arrival. As Jesus told His disciples, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know” (Acts 1:7 NLT).
So, rather than worry about things God has chosen to keep a mystery, Paul points his readers back to God’s clearly revealed will.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification… – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV
While it was proper for them to eagerly long for the Lord’s return, they were not to allow their anticipation to turn into preoccupation or lull them into a sense of spiritual complacency. While they waited, they were to walk in a manner worthy of their calling (Ephesians 4:1) and to work hard to show the results of their salvation (Philippians 2:12). They had work to do. And if God delayed the return of His Son, that was up to Him. In the meantime, they were to stay actively engaged in the pursuit of holiness. Which is why Paul told them, “So be on your guard, not asleep like the others. Stay alert and be clearheaded” (1 Thessalonians 5:6 NLT).
Paul was all about practical holiness. It wasn’t meant to be some kind of pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by and by mentality that leaves you heavenly minded but of no earthly good. That’s why he challenges them to show respect to those who minister among them. This would have included Timothy, their elders, and any other God-ordained leadership in their local congregations. Notice that Paul doesn’t tell them to respect their leaders if they deem them worthy of it, but because of their work. This had less to do with the leader than with God’s calling on that leader. As Paul reminded the believers in Ephesus, spiritual leaders within the body of Christ are to be seen as gifts provided by Christ Himself.
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT
These individual have been given authority by God to lead and, sometimes, admonish. They were shepherds who had the responsibility to lead, feed, protect, and, if necessary, discipline the flock of Jesus Christ. And they were to be treated with honor and respect.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He calls them to live in harmony with one another. They were to pursue peace at all costs. There was no place for disunity within the body of Christ. Paul shared this same advice with the believers in Rome.
Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. – Romans 12:18 NLT
The author of the book of Hebrews gave similar counsel.
Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life. – Hebrews 12:14 NLT
But the presence of peace is not an absence of conflict. It is impossible to live in close proximity with other people and not experience some degree of disagreement. So, Paul provides them with steps to deal with the inevitable threat of disunity. He tells them to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14 ESV). These four admonitions run the gamut, covering everything from reproving the lazy and strengthening the timid to caring for the weak and showing patience to all. That about covers every possible relationship scenario in the local church.
Paul wanted them to know that their survival was dependent upon their mutual care and concern for one another. There was no place for backbiting and payback. Instead, they were to seek the good of one another. That requires selflessness. It demands that each individual put the needs of others ahead of his own. And Paul knew that kind of lifestyle was only possible if they remained prayerful, joyful, and thankful.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV
As soon as they lost the ability to rejoice in the unbelievable reality of their salvation, they would become myopic and self-focused again. And if they failed to pray, they would tend to live according to their own wills, rather than God’s. If they became ungrateful to God for all He had done for them, they would become envious and jealous of others. And that would lead to quarreling, conflict, and disunity.
Failure to rejoice, refusal to pray and a reluctance to give thanks will only stifle the work of the Spirit of God among the people of God. When believers begin to live selfishly, ungratefully, and prayerlessly, the Spirit’s power is diminished in their midst, like water poured on a flame. Paul referred to this as living according to the flesh, and he described it in these terms to the Galatian believers:
…the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other. – Galatians 5:17 ESV
A believer’s decision to give in to their fleshly desires will end up stifling the transformative power of the Spirit in his or her life. And it will do damage to the body of Christ.
Paul also provided the Thessalonians with what appears to be a very specific word regarding prophecy. It appears that there were some in the local congregations who were rejecting the idea of someone having a direct word from God. In the 1st-Century church, there were those who were given the gift of prophetic utterance, the ability to hear from God and to share that word with the local congregation. This was before the finalization of the Scriptures. Evidently, in their worship services, it was not uncommon for someone to stand up and share a word from God. And it appears that the Thessalonians were reluctant to accept that these individuals were speaking on behalf of God. But Paul warns them to test the words of these people, not to reject them. If these people actually spoke for God, it would be proven true in time. God would validate their words. And whatever God validated, they were to hang on to it as having come directly from Him.
And Paul wraps up this section with the simple, yet profound, phrase: “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22 ESV). They were to avoid sinful behavior like the plague. But not only that, they were to have nothing to do with anything remotely associated with evil. Paul provided the Ephesians believers with a similar word of admonition.
Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:10-14 NLT
The Christian life is comprised of acts of commission and omission. There are things we are to do and other things we are to refuse to do. There are activities we are to pursue, and there are those we are to avoid like a plague. This is part of what it means to be in the world but not of it. In His High Priestly Prayer, recorded in John 17, Jesus addressed the awkward reality of the believer’s presence in this fallen world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. – John 17:15-19 ESV
Living in “the times” was not going to be easy for the Thessalonians, but it was also not impossible. They had all they needed to live as lights in the darkness. And Paul was convinced that they could and would.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).