1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
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1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 Biblical Commentary
These are among the closing verses of this letter. Paul is taking the opportunity to include several brief admonitions—and to emphasize a few things of special importance.
In chapter 4, Paul urged the Thessalonian Christians to live lives pleasing to God—holy lives. He specifically mentioned abstaining from fornication (4:3). He commended them for loving one another, to include loving brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia (the province in which Thessalonica was located) (4:9-10). He counseled them to live quiet lives, to attend to their own business, and to work with their own hands, “that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and may have need of nothing” (4:11-12). Quiet diligent work will enhance their witness to Christ as well as their spiritual and material prosperity.
Paul’s call for them to work with their own hands is related to a problem in Thessalonica to which Paul alludes in this first letter—and which he will deal with at more length in his second letter. The problem has to do with Christians who, anticipating that Jesus will return soon, have quit working and are relying on charity for their support.
Paul calls on the church to “admonish the disorderly” (Greek: ataktos) (5:14). The word ataktos combines the Greek a (not) with tasso (to set in order), so disorderly is a good translation. Ataktos was used in other documents of the time to refer to people who were idle or absent from their post, and that is what Paul means here. In his second letter, he will talk about how he and his colleagues “worked day and night, that we might not burden any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8). He had urged them to follow that example, but he had heard” of some who walk among you in rebellion (ataktos), who don’t work at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are that way, we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). So it is clear that, when Paul uses ataktos, the disorderly people are slackers who have, in their idleness, become busybodies.
Paul goes on to say, “See that no one returns evil for evil to anyone, but always follow after that which is good, for one another, and for all” (5:15).
1 THESSALONIANS 5:16-18. IN EVERYTHING GIVE THANKS!
16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray without ceasing. 18 In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.
“Rejoice (Greek: chairete) always“ (v. 16; see also Philippians 4:4). The Greek word, chairete (from the root word, chairo), is a common greeting, and means “Rejoice!”
Joy and rejoicing are common themes throughout both Old and New Testaments. The feasts which the Israelites were required to observe celebrated the great events of their history (i.e., the Passover feast celebrated their deliverance from slavery in Egypt), and were to be times of rejoicing (Numbers 10:10). A man could rejoice in the wife of his youth (Proverbs 5:18)—or for the prospect of salvation (Psalm 51:12). Women sang songs of joy when David returned from a victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 18:6-7). The people could rejoice at the prospect of Yahweh breaking the rod of their oppressor (Isaiah 9:3).
In the New Testament, we first encountered this word chairo in the announcement to Mary that she would have a baby (Luke 1:14)—and in Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s visit (Luke 1:44). In her Magnificat, Mary uses another word for “rejoice” (agalliao)—but it conveys the same enthusiasm (Luke 1:47). The Magi, seeing the star stop above the house where Mary was taking care of the baby Jesus, “rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (Matthew 2:10). From the beginning of Jesus’ life to his resurrection appearances (Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:41, 52), rejoicing was an important response.
We can certainly understand the call to rejoice, but Paul’s call to rejoice always causes us pause. Can we rejoice when we’re sick—or in prison—or bereaved? Can we rejoice when we have just lost our job and don’t know where to turn?
Paul demonstrated that it is, indeed, possible to rejoice in the midst of adversity. Early in his ministry, when arrested, he and Silas sang hymns and prayed in their prison cell (Acts 16:25). Later, in prison awaiting trial, he wrote a short letter to the church at Philippi in which he used the word “joy” or “rejoice” no less than a dozen times (Philippians 1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17-18, 28-29; 3:1; 4:1, 4, 10). In some of those verses, he is urging the Philippians to rejoice, but in others he is talking about his own joy. He mentions thanking God “whenever I remember you, always in every request of mine on behalf of you all making my requests with joy” (1:3-4). He talks about proclaiming Christ, and says, “I rejoice in this, yes, and will rejoice” (1:18). He asks the Philippians to “make (his) joy full, by being like-minded” (2:2). He knows that there is a possibility that he will be found guilty and executed—but he responds, “Yes, and if I am poured out on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice, and rejoice with you all. In the same way, you also rejoice, and rejoice with me” (2:17-18).
Now he calls on these Thessalonian Christians to rejoice too—to rejoice always.
“Pray (Greek: proseuchesthe) without ceasing“ (Greek: adialeiptos) (v. 17). The New Testament has four words for prayer:
• Deesis has to do with asking God to supply particular needs.
• Enteuxeis is supplication—prayers for others or for oneself.
• Eucharistias is thanksgiving.
• The word used here,proseuchesthe, is a general word for prayer that would include all kinds of prayer.
Prayer assumes that a relationship exists between the person and God so that the person can believe that God is listening and that God will take seriously the person’s petitions. That doesn’t mean that God will always answer prayers as we ask. However, the more closely our hearts are aligned with God’s will, the more likely we will receive what we asked.
Paul’s requirement for constant prayer causes us problems. We have no problem with praying, but how can we pray without ceasing. Life places many demands on us, and we cannot spend every moment in prayer.
But we can live every moment in the confidence that we are connected to God’s love. We can look to God for guidance when we need to make a decision. If we have eyes to see, we can find a thousand things for which to give thanks. Even a cursory reading of a newspaper will tell us of situations around the world that need God’s intervention. There are any number of people deserving of our supplications—our family and friends, the church and its’ members, church leaders, governmental leaders, the person standing in line with us at the supermarket, and the clerk who takes our order at Burger King.
I once read of a young woman whose work made it impossible for her to attend church services regularly. However, she made it a point to read the obituaries in the local paper and to pray for the families of those who had died. She read about births, and prayed for the mothers and babies. She read about weddings, and prayed for the couples.
There is no lack of subject matter for our prayers. While we cannot devote every minute of every day to prayer, we can live in such a way that our lives honor God—and we can live in thanksgiving for all the blessings that we have received, great and small—and we can offer prayers for people we pass on the street. The possibilities are endless.
And so Paul says, “Pray constantly!”
“In everything give thanks“ (v. 18a). Many years ago, someone gave me a copy of Merlin Carothers’ book, Prison to Praise. It’s a small book—smaller than a copy of Reader’s Digest, but it has stuck with me all these years. I mention it because Carothers talks about reading “in everything give thanks” while in prison and tells how this verse changed his life.
Carothers decided to take God at his word. If God called him to give thanks in all circumstances, Carothers would do that. Even though he was still in prison, he would give thanks. He would not give thanks for the troubles that his eyes could see, but would give thanks for the confidence that God would use those troubles in a positive way.
When he began giving thanks, God began to do wonderful things in his life. Doors that had been closed began to open wide, including the door of his cell. Carothers was released early.
One miraculous door led to another, and Carothers found himself in the ministry. He taught other people about thanksgiving in all circumstances, and they too began to experience miracles in their lives.
That book was first published in 1970 and has sold millions of copies. It is still in print. They carry it at Amazon at very reasonable cost. Get a copy. It will help you to understand the power of this verse properly applied.
Corrie ten Boom also tells a wonderful story about this verse. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, were prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. The camp was horrible. Fleas nearly drove them crazy. Fleas were everywhere. Fleas got in their hair and under their skin. Fleas made it impossible to sleep. Corrie and Betsy had no soap or flea power. The fleas swarmed unchecked. It was terrible.
Betsy mentioned this verse, “in everything give thanks.” Corrie said, “I can’t give thanks for the fleas.” Betsy said, “Give thanks that we’re together. Give thanks that they didn’t check our belongings, and we have our Bible.” So Corrie agreed to give thanks for her sister and for their Bible. They didn’t give thanks for the fleas, but they did give thanks while living a flea-bitten existence.
Much later, Corrie discovered that the fleas had been a blessing in disguise. She learned that the guards often raped women prisoners. But the guards never touched the women in Corrie’s section of the camp, because they didn’t want to expose themselves to the fleas. Corrie said that this taught her to give thanks for all things—because you never know.
“for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you“ (v. 18b). The “this” in this verse incorporates all three commands: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.” These commands are not the product of human wisdom, but come from God. It is God’s will that these Christians obey these three commands. It is part of God’s plan for their lives.
1 THESSALONIANS 5:19-20. DON’T QUENCH THE SPIRIT.
19Don’t quench the Spirit. 20 Don’t despise prophesies.
“Don’t quench the Spirit“ (v. 19). The Spirit in question here is the Holy Spirit. Paul tells these people not to hinder the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst, but doesn’t explain the problem in detail. We don’t know who was hindering the work of the Holy Spirit or what form their resistance was taking.
“Don’t despise prophesies“ (v. 20). While people today think of prophecy as foretelling the future, the role of a Biblical prophet was to convey a message from God to humans. In many cases, that involved giving people a glimpse of the future, but the foretelling was only in support of the larger prophetic message.
While most Biblical prophecy took place in the Old Testament, the New Testament also includes accounts of prophecy (Acts 11:27-28; 13:1; 15:32).
Later, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul will give more detailed guidance regarding speaking in tongues and prophecy:
• Prophecy is for the purpose of “edification (oikodome), exhortation (paraklesis), and consolation” (paramythian) (1 Corinthians 14:3).
Oikodome is related to the word oikia (house), and is usually associated with constructing a building—building it up, so to speak. Paul uses it metaphorically here to mean the building up or edifying of the church.
Paraklesis involves exhortation or encouragement—helping people to see the possibility of overcoming an obstacle or winning a battle.
Paramythian is a tender word that has to do with consoling or comforting.
• Prophecy is more significant than speaking in tongues, because “he who speaks in another language edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the assembly (ekklesia—the church). Now I desire to have you all speak with other languages, but rather that you would prophesy. For he is greater who prophesies than he who speaks with other languages, unless he interprets, that the assembly (church) may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:4-5).
• People who speak in tongues are required to have an interpreter. Those who claim to have a prophetic word are to give it in an orderly fashion, speaking one at a time and giving others a chance to speak, “that all may learn, and all may be exhorted” (1 Corinthians 14:26-33).
1 THESSALONIANS 5:21-22. TEST ALL THINGS. ABSTAIN FROM EVIL.
21 Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
“Test (Greek: dokimazo) all things“ (v. 21a). The word dokimazo means to test something to determine its quality or authenticity. Given the context, Paul intends that these Thessalonian Christians should try to discern the validity of that which appears to be the work of the Holy Spirit (v. 19) and that which appears to be prophecy (v. 20). However, he doesn’t tell them how to go about making those judgments.
The counsel of church officers (bishops, elders, deacons) would be a good starting point in making these kinds of judgments. Presumably they are spiritually mature and committed to the Lord. Their opinion should carry significant weight when testing ministry in their midst.
Also, with regard to those who claim to be prophets, consider these ten tests:
1. Does their message exalt Christ? (John 16:13-14; 1 Corinthians 12:1-4)
2. Does it accord with scripture? (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:15b-16)
3. Does it build up the church? (1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:3-5, 12, 26)
4. Does it pronounce judgment on sin?
5. Does it emphasize the grace of God?
6. Does it produce Godly fruits? (Matthew 7:15-18; Galatians 5:22-23)
7. If the prophecy involves foretelling the future, does it come true? (Deut. 18:22)
8. Does the alleged prophet have a prophet-motive or a profit-motive?
9. Does the alleged prophet have a Godly character?
10. To whom is the alleged prophet accountable, and to what degree? (1 Cor. 14:29-33)
When applying these tests, we must be careful not to be overly critical. Even Godly prophets are sinners (Romans 3:23), and every ministry is subject to error. However, these tests provide a starting point for evaluating those who appear to be led by the Spirit and those who appear to have the gift of prophecy.
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul will give an example of something that would not pass the test. Someone had said “that the day of the Lord had come,” and Paul disavows that, saying, “Let no one deceive you in any way”—and then goes on to give more detail about the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 2:2ff.)
“and hold firmly (Greek: katecho) that which is good“ (v. 21b). After they have tested things, Paul tells them to hold fast (katecho) that which is good—to embrace it—to seize it—to make it their own.
What would be examples of that which is good? One approach to answering that question would be to look at the tests mentioned above. Something would be good if it exalts Christ, accords with scripture, builds up the church, etc.
But we must remember the context. Paul has been talking about the work of the Spirit (v. 19) and prophesies (v. 20), so that which is good would be Spirit-work and prophesies that pass the test of authenticity.
“Abstain from (Greek: apecho) every form of evil“ (v. 22). But they are to exercise restraint when faced with evil—the kind of restraint that a ship’s captain might exercise when trying to keep his ship from running aground—the kind of restraint that a spiritually sound person would exercise when faced with life-threatening evil.
“every form of evil.“ The tempter is infinitely clever when it comes to repackaging evil to look beautiful—to appear benign—even to look as if it would be good. Even a virtue, such as humility, can become evil if the tempter can persuade us to take pride in it.
How can we avoid evil? For one thing, we can avoid going to evil places and entangling our lives with evil people—the exception, of course, being if we are being led by the Holy Spirit to counter evil by going head to head with it.
When the opportunity presented itself, my wife and I sent our children to Christian schools where they would be taught by Godly people. We encouraged them to seek out friends who embraced solid values and to avoid those who didn’t. In an interesting twist, our children had a good deal of contact with troubled kids, because the troubled kids saw them as a ray of light or an anchor. Happily, our children were sometimes able to help the troubled kids—and they didn’t succumb to the pull of the darkness.
Ephesians 6:11-18 provides helpful counsel when it comes to abstaining from evil—”Put on the whole armor of God.”
1 THESSALONIANS 5:23. MAY GOD SANCTIFY YOU COMPLETELY
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify (Greek: hagiazo) you (plural) completely“ (Greek: holoteleis) (v. 23a). Sanctify and sanctification are not words that we use in everyday conversation, but they are central to the life of a Christian. The word hagiazo (sanctify, make holy) is closely related to the word hagios (holy—usually translated “saint” in the New Testament). A saint is someone who has been sanctified—made holy.
We are likely to think, “Well, that doesn’t include me. I’m no saint”—because we have come to think of saints as Christian super-heroes—deserving of Godly Medals of Honor.
But the New Testament uses the word hagios to mean ordinary Christians (Acts 9:13, 41; Romans 1:7; 12:13; 15:26; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 1:1, etc.). So we are saints—people made holy by the grace of God—set apart for a Godly purpose—”sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 10:10).
Paul’s prayer is that God will sanctify these people completely (holoteleis). The word holoteleis is made up of holo (all or whole) and telos (accomplished or completed). The idea here, then, is that God will pull these Thessalonian disciples together as a sanctified (holy) people.
The word “you” is plural, so Paul is praying that God would sanctify (make holy) the congregation-at-large as well as individual members thereof.
“May your (plural) whole (Greek: holokleron) spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless (Greek:amemptos) at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 23b).
Note the similarity in sound of holoteleis in v. 23a and holokleron in v. 23b. This is a small example of word-art in the New Testament. Paul was an educated man who used language gracefully. While that might seem unimportant, graceful use of language has power to spark imaginations and to persuade.
Holokleron combines holos (whole) with kleros (part). A person whose “whole spirit, soul, and body (are) preserved” is a person whose parts have come together so that they work in perfect harmony—a person whose life is not fragmented but is what we might today call “centered” or “together.”
“blameless” (amemptos) (v. 23b; see also 3:13). Paul wants these disciples to be found blameless (amemptous) on that great day. The word amemptous is made up of the Greek a (without) and memphomai (fault). Paul wants these Christians to be found without fault when Jesus comes to judge the world.
1 THESSALONIANS 5:24. HE WHO CALLS YOU IS FAITHFUL
24 He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.
“He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it“ (v. 24). To become holy and blameless is something that these disciples cannot do on their own, but Paul says that God is faithful and will work the needed miracle in their lives.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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