Well, we’ve managed to go through Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians quite quickly. In the first chapter, Paul gave thanks to God for this model church, because do you remember? They were known for their work produced by faith; and for their labour prompted by love; and for their endurance inspired by hope. Despite severe suffering, they welcomed the gospel message with joy. And they had turned from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
And in chapter 2, Paul wrote about his ministry among them. It seems that some people in Thessalonica were criticising him and spreading rumours about him and were trying to turn the members of the church against him. And so, Paul wrote to defend himself and his ministry, which he says was not a failure. And he compared himself to a mother, because he didn’t make demands on the people, but he cared for them and shared, not only the gospel with them, but his whole life with them. And he compared himself to a father, because he instructed them in the faith and exhorted and encouraged them to live lives worthy of God.
And then, towards the end of chapter 2 and throughout chapter 3 he wrote about how he longed to see them again, because he was so concerned for them because of the trials they faced. However, Timothy had brought him an encouraging report about them and about their faith in Christ and their love and affection for Paul.
And in chapter 4 and in to chapter 5 he wrote to them about holiness and how they must avoid sexual immorality; and he wrote to them about loving one other and how they’re to lead quiet lives, minding their own business, and working hard for a living; and he wrote to them about the coming of the Lord, who will raise from the dead those believers who died before his coming; and how believers who died before his coming and believers who are alive when he comes again will together meet the Lord when he comes, because, of course, the Lord is coming again to punish his enemies, but to gather together his believing people so that we might live in his presence forever and forever.
And so, we come to the last part of this short letter. And in this last part, Paul instructs his readers — and that includes us — about congregational life and about worshipping the Lord together. And so, in verses 12 and 13 he writes about church leaders. And verses 14 and 15, he gives instructions about how to minister to various kinds of people in the church. In verses 16 to 22 he gives various instructions to do with worship and our attitude to God’s word. And then, from verse 23 to verse 28, he winds up the letter.
Verses 12 and 13
And so, let’s turn to verses 12 and 13 where he writes about church leaders. Now, in a few weeks, John will be ordained and installed as minister of the churches of Culnady and Swatragh. And during the service, one of the ministers of that presbytery will be responsible for preaching a charge to John as the new minister and to the two congregations where he will serve. And verses 12 and 13 of 1 Thessalonians 5 would make an excellent text for that occasion, because in these two verses Paul instructs his readers about the responsibilities of leaders and lay-people.
He says three things about the responsibilities of leaders. First of all, they’re to work hard among the people. You know, there’s that old joke about ministers having to work only one day a week. But we all know it’s not true, because, in a sense, the minister’s work is never done. This is true of many people today, who have to work long hours; but it’s also true of ministers. You see, Sunday is always coming, so there are always new sermons to prepare, and each sermon can take hours to prepare. And there are not just sermons to prepare, but the whole service needs careful preparation and prayer. And then there are midweek meetings to get ready for. And there are pastoral visits to make: visiting the sick and the bereaved and the infirm and the troubled. There are meetings to prepare for and to chair. There are other responsibilities in the wider church, because ministers are to serve in the presbytery and they’re to participate in Assembly Councils. And while John’s time at college is over, ministers must study continually throughout their ministry so that everyone will see their progress, as Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 4. The work never ends; and so ministers must work hard among the people. And, of course, this is not only true for ministers, but it’s true for the elders, who are also leaders in the church. They have meetings to attend; and they have their districts to visit; and they must give themselves to the hard, hard work of praying for their people.
Ministers and elders are called to work hard among God’s people. And they’re also responsible for overseeing the people. Do you see what Paul says in verse 12? They’re to work hard among you and ‘they are over you’. Well, the word Paul uses which is translated ‘over’ in this verse can have two, quite different meanings. It can either mean rule over; and therefore to exercise authority. Or it can mean take an interest in; and therefore show care and concern for. In other words, the word Paul uses here can refer to authority or to care.
Well, since Paul goes on to say that leaders must admonish the people, it seems likely that the emphasis here is on the leader’s authority and how they’ve been given responsibility for ruling over and overseeing the members of the church. And they’re to do this ‘in the Lord’, because, of course, leaders receive their authority from him, because he’s the King and Head of the church, who has appointed elders to govern his people on his behalf. But just as Paul was like a mother to the Thessalonians, ministers and elders are to rule over the church with a mother’s love and gentleness.
And the third thing church leaders are to do is that they’re to admonish the people, which means they’re to instruct the people and even warn them. If the people are in danger of going astray and of turning away from the ways of the Lord, or if they’re in danger of being deceived by false teaching, then the minister and elders are to warn them. That’s their responsibility.
And so, this is an excellent text for a charge when a minister or an elder is being installed. Work hard among the people. Oversee the people on behalf of the Lord. And admonish the people when necessary.
But then, there’s a charge for the lay-people, isn’t there? Paul calls on the congregation to respect the leaders of the church. And he says in verse 13 you’re to hold your leaders in the highest regard. Isn’t that interesting? Paul doesn’t say ‘regard them well’. He says:
Hold them in the highest regard.
Here’s the Lord God — and remember this is God’s word to us which we’re to receive and believe — teaching us that God’s people are to treat your leaders with a level of respect that is higher or greater than that shown to any other person.
And Paul adds you’re to hold your leaders in the highest regard ‘in love’ and ‘because of their work’. You see, the Lord Jesus — who is the King and Head of the church — has determined that it’s necessary for you and for your spiritual well-being to have leaders to work hard among you and to oversee you and to admonish you when necessary. And so, you’re to hold them in the highest regard and you’re to love them, because the Lord has given these leaders to you for your good.
Now, often we don’t like people having authority over us. We resent it. And we resist it. Who do you think you are? Who gave you the right to rule over me? We’ve been studying the book of Numbers on Wednesday evenings and we’ve seen how the Israelites turned on Moses and Aaron on more than one occasion. It happens so easily. And so, it’s perhaps for that reason that Paul adds at the end of verse 13:
Live in peace with each other.
Don’t fight and argue and complain and criticise and hold grudges. Don’t stir up trouble in the church. Live in peace with each other.
Verses 14 and 15
So, as Paul closes this letter, he writes to the people about church leaders. Now, of course, Paul doesn’t refer to them as elders or ministers. But we know from other New Testament letters that the church is to be governed by elders and by pastor-teachers or ministers. But in verses 14 and 15, Paul moves away from talking about the leaders to give instructions to all members about how to minister to various kinds of people in the church.
Well now, the Puritans — who were English ministers in the 16th and 17th centuries — used to have in mind different kinds of people when they preached. There might be in any congregation unbelievers who are teachable; and unbelievers who are not teachable; and believers who need reassured of the gospel; and believers who need instructed in their duties; and believers who have fallen into error or sin; and so on. And so, the preacher needed to address each of these people. Well, Paul is doing something similar in these verses, because he refers to the idle and to the timid and to the weak before addressing everyone.
Who are the idle? Well, when he was writing about loving one another back in chapter 4, he instructed his readers to mind their own business and to work hard with their hands, so that they would not be dependent on anyone. Perhaps there were people in the congregation who refused to work for a living; and instead relied on the generosity of others to feed them. In fact, Paul addresses this topic again in 2 Thessalonians. Now, one of the commentators argues that the word Paul uses suggests that the problem was not just laziness. These people knew they ought to work, but they refused to do so. So, they weren’t just idlers; they were rebellious idlers, who refused to do their duty. Or, as another commentator puts it, they were unruly people, who were busy doing the wrong things, instead of the right things. Well, warn them, says Paul. We’re to warn one another that it’s our duty as believers to work hard. Work hard in school and college if you’re a student. Work hard in your job if you’re employed. Work hard in the home and in whatever place you find yourself. In this way, we’ll win the respect of outsiders, as Paul said in chapter 4.
Who are the timid? The word ‘timid’ can also be translated as ‘fainthearted’; and it describes the person who is discouraged or despondent. Paul may be referring to those in the church who had suffered severely for the gospel. Or he may be referring to those who were grieving for loved ones who had died. Whoever they are, Paul instructs his readers not to warn them, but to encourage them. That is, comfort and console them.
And who then are the weak? Perhaps he’s referring to members who are physically weak: the sick and the elderly and infirm. Or perhaps he’s thinking about people who are morally weak and tempted to sexual immorality. It’s not clear exactly who Paul has in mind, but instead of getting impatient with them — as we often do with those who are weak — we’re to help them. In fact, the word Paul uses is stronger than that. He says we’re to be devoted to them. We’re to dedicate ourselves to helping them.
And then Paul adds that we’re to be patient with everyone. We want people to be patient with us, don’t we? Be patient with my mistakes and my shortcomings and my weaknesses. Be patient with me. When I do wrong, be patient with me and excuse my error. We want people to be patient with us. Well, says Paul, you make sure that you’re patient with other people.
And, of course, if anyone wrongs us, or does something to annoy or hurt us, we’re not to take vengeance. We’re not to get even, though we’re often tempted to pay them back for what they did to me. Or though we very often hold grudges and refuse to forgive others, we’re not to pay back wrong for wrong, says Paul in verse 15. Instead, we’re to do what? The NIV says in verse 15 that we’re to try to be kind to each other. But that’s a bit weak. Paul really says that we’re to seek to do good to one another. We’re to make an effort and we’re to strive to go good to them. We’re to pursue this as our goal for them.
And we’re to strive to do good to fellow believers and to everyone else. That is, to those who are not part of the church. Now remember: the Thessalonians were suffering for their faith. Their unbelieving neighbours were persecuting them. Nevertheless, instead of seeking revenge, instead of paying them back, instead of putting up with them even, you’re in fact to do everything you can to do them good. That’s what Paul is saying to his readers and to us. Just as the Lord prayed for those who were crucifying him, so we’re to love and serve the people who do us harm.
Verses 16 to 18
So, Paul has given us instructions about church leaders. And he’s given us instructions about ministering to various kinds of people in the church. Then, in verses 16 to 22, he gives various instructions to do with worship and our attitude to God’s word. When we meet for worship — and since Paul goes on to speak about prophecy, and about greeting one another with a holy kiss, it seems likely that he’s thinking in these verses about what we should do when we gather together for worship — we’re to be joyful always; and we’re to pray continually; and we’re to give thanks in all circumstances. And we’re not to despise God’s word.
Well, back in chapter 1, Paul wrote about how his readers — in spite severe trials — welcomed the gospel message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. So, right from the beginning of their Christian lives, they rejoiced before the Lord, because of his grace and mercy towards them, choosing to save them from their sins and to give them the hope of everlasting life. And Paul instructs believers to rejoice whenever we meet together. Our meetings should be marked by joy.
And our meetings are to be marked by prayer. When Paul says ‘pray continually’, he obviously using hyperbole. He’s obviously exaggerating, because there are many others things we must do when we meet together. However, he’s making the point that our worship must be marked by prayer. For that reason, our Sunday services here in Immanuel contain three main prayers: the prayer of adoration; the prayer of confession; and the prayer of intercession. When we meet on Wednesdays, half the meeting is devoted to prayer. Even our praise is a form of prayer, because our praise is directed to God. And, of course, we’re to pray continually, because we continually need the Lord’s help; and in prayer we seek his help for the present and for future; and we give thanks to him for his help to us in the past.
And then, when we meet together, we’re to give thanks. The commentators are careful to point out that Paul says we’re to give thanks in all circumstances and not for all circumstances. We’re not called to give thanks for trials and troubles. But when we experience trials and troubles, we can still give thanks to God, because he’s faithful and has promised to help us; and he can use these trials for our good; and whatever we face, we believe that nothing will separate us from his love. So, while we don’t give thanks for the circumstances, we can give thanks in the circumstances, because the Lord is with us.
So, when we meet together, we’re to be joyful; and we’re to pray continually; and we’re to give thanks. And this, says Paul at the end of verse 18, is God’s will for us.
Verses 19 to 22
Well, in verses 19 to 22 Paul turns his attention to God’s word. Now, he doesn’t mention God’s word in these verses, but he refers to the Holy Spirit and to prophecies and to the need to test what we hear. And when he says we’re to hold on to the good and avoid every kind of evil, it’s likely he’s still thinking about God’s word; and how we’re to avoid all kinds of evil teaching.
So, he refers to the Holy Spirit, and how we mustn’t put out the Spirit’s fire. More literally, he says we must not quench the Spirit. And he refers to prophecies and how we mustn’t treat them with contempt. Now, we talked a lot about prophecy when we studied 1 Corinthians. Prophecy, you might recall, is Spirit-inspired speech by which God reveals his truth to his people. It’s different from preaching, because the preacher works with a text, whereas the prophet does not. I start with a passage from the Bible; and try to explain it to you. We go through it, word by word, or phrase by phrase, or verse by verse. That’s preaching. The prophet doesn’t need a text, because the Holy Spirit inspires the prophet to reveal God’s truth to his people directly. The prophet reveals God’s word; the preacher explains God’s word. And while there were prophets in the Old Testament era, and while there were prophets in the New Testament era, reformed churches have always taught that prophecy has ceased today, because today God speaks to us through his written word. You see, in the days before the New Testament was written, believers didn’t have a complete Bible. And so, they relied on the apostles and prophets to reveal to them God’s truth. Prophecy therefore was for that special apostolic era, before the New Testament was written. Now, though, we have the Spirit-inspired Scriptures which — as Paul says in 2 Timothy — are useful for teaching, rebuking correcting and training in righteousness. Now that we have a complete Bible, the preacher is thoroughly equipped for his work and there’s no need for prophecy from the Lord.
So, when Paul refers to prophecies here, we should bear in mind that he was writing to believers in Thessalonica who lived in that special and unique apostolic era which has now ended. But what he said to them about prophecies still applies to us today in the sense that we mustn’t quench the Spirit by rejecting the Spirit-inspired Scriptures; and we mustn’t treat God’s written word with contempt by disregarding and disobeying it. So, we’re not to disregard the preaching of God’s word by staying away from church or by switching off during the sermon or by saying ‘no’ to what we hear. And we’re not to let God’s word sit unopened on our bedside table. To do so, is to treat God’s word with contempt and it’s to quench the Spirit who has chosen to use his word to minister to us. Instead, we’re to study God’s word for ourselves at home; and we’re to listen carefully and prayerfully and with faith and humility to the preaching of God’s word in church. We’re to be like the Bereans in Acts 17. Do you know what the Bereans did? Whenever they heard Paul preach, they examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. So, we’re to listen to the preacher and we’re to examine the Scriptures for ourselves. We’re to test what we hear. And we’re to hold on to God’s good word and we’re to avoid every kind of evil word, which is everything that contradicts God’s word, which alone is true.
I was talking to someone not so long ago; and he had a choice between accepting what God’s word says or else relying instead on what made sense to him. What should I accept and what should I believe? What the Spirit-inspired Scriptures say or what make sense to me? Well, sadly he chose what made sense to him. And it’s the choice Eve had to make in the Garden of Eden; and Eve too chose to accept what seemed to make sense to her; and she set aside what God had said. So, we need to be careful that we don’t quench the Spirit; and despise the Spirit-inspired Scriptures, but we must hold on to God’s good word and regard whatever contradicts it as evil.
Verses 23 to 28
And so, we come to Paul’s conclusion. We’ll come back to verses 23 and 24 in a moment, but notice how Paul asks the people to pray for him. It’s vital that God’s people pray for preachers and for the preaching of God’s word. Notice how Paul instructs them to greet one another with a holy kiss. The point of this is that we’re to be at peace with one another. Instead of holding grudges, we’re to be ready to welcome one another with love and affection. Notice that Paul wanted this letter to be read to all the brothers. The point is that this is God’s word for all of God’s people. Notice how he ends the letter with a prayer for the Lord Jesus to be gracious towards Paul’s readers. And we all need his grace, don’t we? We need his gracious help every day to stand firm in the faith and to resist temptation and to do his will.
But let’s turn back to verses 23 and 24 which is also in the form of a prayer. Paul asks God to sanctify his people through and through. And he prays that God’s people will be blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, he’s praying for the Lord to make his readers — including us — holy and obedient; and that we’ll become more and more willing and able to do God’s will throughout our lives. And this work of sanctification will only be complete — so that we’re blameless — when Christ comes again, because when Christ comes again, he will transform his people completely; and in an instant, we will be glorified in body and in soul forever. And so, this prayer is related to what Paul said in chapter 4 that it’s God’s will for his people that we should be sanctified and avoid all forms of sexual immorality. And it’s related to what he’s said throughout this book about the coming of the Lord, which will mean destruction for those who don’t believe, but for those who believe, it’s something we’re looking forward to and waiting for, because when Christ comes, we will be made perfect forever and will be done with sin and shame forever.
And after including this prayer for holiness in verse 23, Paul adds the note of encouragement in verse 24. And we all need encouragement, don’t we? When the student is fed up with revising, and wants to give it all up, the parent needs to encourage her not to give up. When you’re climbing that mountain, and are tired and weary and want to give up, you need someone to come alongside you and encourage you to keep going. And here’s Paul with a wonderful word of encouragement for faithful believers, who are striving to do God’s will and to lead holy, obedient lives, but who are continually harassed by temptations. Paul says to you:
The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
The Lord God who calls you to live a holy and obedient life is faithful. He will not leave you alone to do it all by yourself. Instead he’s with you by his Spirit; and he’ll give you the help you need each day to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live a self-controlled and upright and holy life while you wait for your Saviour to come again. And he will keep you to the end, if you trust in him and look to him everyday to help you.