Building Up the Body

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

After providing the Thessalonians with some much-needed clarification and new information regarding the end times, Paul brings the focus of his letter back to the present day. The news he shared regarding the Rapture of the church and the Second Coming of Christ was intended to quell their fears and cause them to encourage and build up one another. For Paul, the unity and mutual edification of fellow believers were essential to the health and vitality of the church. He told the church in Corinth:

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. – 1 Corinthians 1:10 NLT

He encouraged the believers in Rome to “Live in harmony with each other” (Romans 12:16 NLT). And he wrote to the believers in Philippi, charging them to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ and to stand together “with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News” (Philippians 1:27 NLT).

And Paul knew that unity within the body of Christ began with the people showing respect and submitting themselves to those whom God had placed as leaders over the church. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul referred to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as gifts from God, tasked with equipping “God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT).

The author of the book of Hebrews adds his own admonition regarding respect for and submission to the God-appointed leaders in the church.

Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. – Hebrews 13:17 NLT

Paul told the members of the church in Corinth to treat those who ministered among them with respect and “to submit to them and others like them who serve with such devotion” (1 Corinthians 16:16 NLT). So, when Paul tells the Thessalonians to “to respect those who labor among you” and “to esteem them very highly in love because of their work,” he is simply restating his strongly held belief in God’s authority structure for the local church.

It is important to remember that at the point Paul wrote this letter, the church of Jesus Christ was still in its infancy. Through the evangelistic efforts of Paul, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, Peter and the other apostles, the Gospel had spread like wildfire throughout the Roman empire. And its rapid expansion had created a pressing need for leaders. The book of Acts records that, on one of their many missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas made many disciples and “they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22 NLT). And Luke goes on to explain how “Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church. With prayer and fasting, they turned the elders over to the care of the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23 NLT).

One of the primary responsibilities Paul gave to his young protégés, Titus and Timothy, was to appoint elders and leaders for the growing number of congregations springing up all over Macedonia, Asia Minor, Galatia, and Achaia. He told Titus, “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you” (Titus 1:5 NLT). And Paul gave Timothy very specific characteristics to look for when seeking out men to lead the church.

…a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinkerc or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? – 1 Timothy 3:2-5 NLT

These men were not to be new converts to the faith. Their lives were to be characterized by a level of integrity that garnered the respect of those inside and outside of the church. As Paul told Titus, these individuals were God-appointed leaders who were to be held to a high standard.

A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money. – Titus 1:5 NLT

And when these men taught, led, fed, encouraged, or admonished the flock of God, they were to be treated with respect and love by those under their care.

But along with godly leadership, Paul knew there was a need for mutual accountability and compassionate care among the congregation. The church was the body of Christ. It was an organism, not an organization. And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand their mutual responsibility to care for and build up one another, which led him to write, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14 NLT).

In his letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth, Paul compared the church to the human body.

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:4-5 NLT

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12 NLT

And, as in the human body, the diversity of parts was part of God’s plan for maintaining unity and vitality. Each member of the body of Christ had a personal responsibility to use his or her gifts for the good of the whole. There was no place for selfishness or self-centeredness. God designed the body of Christ to operate in a spirit of solidarity, not solitariness.

So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. – 1 Corinthians 12:6-9 NLT

And Paul lets the Thessalonians know that the love God expected them to express toward one another was to consist of equal parts love, admonishment, comfort, help, and patience. They were to pursue what was best for one another, putting the needs of others ahead of their own. There was no place for disunity, dissension, lack of discipline, laziness, self-centeredness, or selfishness in the body of Christ.

In fact, as far as Paul was concerned, Christ’s church was to be characterized by continuous rejoicing, constant prayer, and contagious gratitude to God for all that He has done. And Paul makes it plain that these characteristics were in keeping with the will of God for the church. When the body of Christ operates outside those parameters, it runs the risk of extinguishing the work of the Spirit in their midst. Ungodly behavior among God’s people is unacceptable and has the same effect on the Spirit’s power as water being poured on an open flame. When members of the body of Christ fail to live in unity and refuse to minister to one another with a focus on community, the Spirit of God is grieved.

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. – Ephesians 4:29-30 NLT

And, as if to illustrate all that he has just said, Paul warns the Thessalonians to “not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thessalonians 5:20 NET). This statement ties in Paul’s teaching on the end times and his admonition that the Thessalonians respect those who labor among them. Paul had provided them new teaching about the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ. And, as difficult as these new revelations might be to understand, he expected them to receive them as coming from God. He invited them to “test everything” and to “hold fast what is good,” but they were not to treat the words of God contemptuously. The Greek word Paul uses means “to make of no account.” While they were free to examine and test these new teachings, they were not to throw them out just because they were difficult to understand or hard to accept.

So much of what they were hearing was new to them. The Bible as we know it did not yet exist. Like many of the other letters Paul wrote, this one would eventually become part of the Canon of Scripture. But at this point in the history of the church, the doctrines and theology with which we are intimately familiar were still in the process of being determined and disseminated. This meant that the members of the local churches were going to have to trust leaders like Paul, whom God had placed over them. And, as Paul concludes in this section, it also meant that they were going to have to avoid “every form of evil.”

Paul expands on this thought in his letter to the church in Rome.

Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. – Romans 12:9-13 NLT

The body of Christ is to be a wonderful demonstration of unity, community, love, and mutual care, empowered by the Spirit of God and for the building up of the people of God.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson