Alêtheia Christian Fellowship ~ August 26, 2007
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ~ 1Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. 4But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 5for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. 7For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. 9For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ~12But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13aand that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ~ 13bLive in peace with one another. 14We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. 16Rejoice always; 17pray without ceasing; 18in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19Do not quench the Spirit; 20do not despise prophetic utterances. 21But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ~23Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.
25Brethren, pray for us.
26Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. 27I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren.
28The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
In chapter 4:13, the Apostle began with, “Now we do not want you to be uninformed.” He then proceeded to enlighten them on an important prophetic theme. In this chapter, we find that Paul had thoroughly taught the Thessalonians on the Day of the Lord. Quite clearly, God wants us to know and understand the prophetic themes and doctrines of Scripture. But why?
There are a number of biblical designs or purposes for the study and knowledge of the various prophetic themes of Scripture. As the last chapter shows, knowing prophecy is designed to comfort, encourage, and give hope where there would normally be no hope. It is also designed to remove ignorance so that Christians might be informed as a protection from erroneous ideas that might disturb them as we see in this passage and in 2 Thessalonians 2. A further blessing of knowing prophecy is that it also protects Christians from the counterfeit strategies of Satan and the world system that is under his control. As an example, one of the ancient counterfeits and one that will be a key note of his last day satanic strategies (a strategy already prominent today) is the belief in one world government which will be portrayed as a utopia and the final hope for mankind.
But the greatest purpose of the prophetic Word is the pursuit of holiness by His people. This is everywhere evident in one prophetic passage after another. Check all the passages dealing with the return of the Lord and you will find that, almost without exception, our Lord’s return is used as a basis for an exhortation to godliness. This includes themes like living as aliens in His service, living for heavenly treasure, and finding comfort in the midst of suffering and persecution through the assurance of Christ’s return. The present passage is no exception. Too often we get so bogged down in the debate over when the rapture will occur (pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib) that we tend to miss or ignore this emphasis.
An understanding of the prophetic Word should mark us out as a distinct people, just as cream is separated from milk. We are not of this world, just as the Savior is not. This should show in the moral quality of our lives, in our values, priorities, and pursuits. Paul uses several analogies in this passage to illustrate this: light versus darkness, sleep versus alertness, drunkenness versus soberness, and wrath versus deliverance. Prophecy, then, is not designed to satisfy our curiosity or an urge for the sensational. Its design, in view of what it means spiritually, is to motivate Christians to holy living.
Knowledge Versus Ignorance
5:1 Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. 5:2 For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night.
The words, “Now on the topic” is the translation of the Greek peri de which shows us Paul is turning to another subject, often in connection with answering questions or dealing with issues pertinent to the church he was writing to (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12; and here in 5:1). Though separated by a few words, peri de also occurs in 4:12. However, though a new subject is now taken up, it is not one completely unrelated to the previous chapter in that both deal with prophecy of future events with one following the other. The peri de does show that the subject of chapter 5 is different and to be distinguished from that of chapter 4:13f.
With the perplexity about the dead in Christ resolved, Paul turns to a new subject (cf. peri de, “now about”) yet not one completely distinct from the previous one. It is wrong to say that the two are so different as to be in contrast (Ryrie, “The Church and the Tribulation: A Review,” BS, April-June, 1974, p. 75; Ellicott, p. 67). But it is equally wrong to see this as a simple continuation of the same subject (W.C. Thomas, p. 7). The proper interpretation recognizes a shift in thought, but not without some connection with the foregoing (Walvoord, p. 81; Gundry, p. 105). The direct and affectionate address “brothers” marks the new discussion as an addition prompted by Timothy’s report of the Thessalonians’ situation. The nonarrival of the parousia had created another perplexity for them (Best, p. 203).128
A natural question arises here in the debate over when the rapture occurs. Walvoord writes,
… The fact that the rapture is mentioned first in chapter 4 before the day of the Lord is presented in chapter 5 is significant. The important subject was the rapture, including the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the translation of living believers. The rapture is not introduced as a phase of the day of the Lord and seems to be distinguished from it.129
Speaking about the significance of peri de and the natural chronological order of these two chapters, Walvoord continues:
Accordingly, it is clear that 1 Thessalonians 5 is not talking specifically about the rapture, but about another truth. The introduction of this material at this point, however, implies that it has some relationship to the preceding context. Accordingly, while it is not talking specifically about the rapture, it is dealing with the general subject of eschatology, of which the rapture is a part. Thus it would be a fair judgment that, to some extent, Paul is continuing his discussion by dealing with the broad program of endtime events as defined by the term “the day of the Lord.”130
The instruction given in this chapter begins with, “Now on the topic of the times and seasons” (NET Bible, but compare, “times and epochs” [NASB] and “times and dates” [NIV]), was a well known description of the end times and future periods of eschatological fulfillment. “Times and seasons” occurs three times in Scripture (Dan. 2:21; Acts 1:7, and here). On the subject of the rapture, they were ignorant and needed instruction, but not regarding the times and seasons (future periods of eschatological fulfillment). On this they needed no such instruction because of the previous teaching they had received.
The first word, “times” (chronos) is concerned more with the idea of elapsed time or duration of time. It could include the idea of particular dates when predictions would come to pass, or it could look at the various periods or ages of God’s program for the world. The latter word, “seasons” (kairos), stresses the quality or the characteristics of time, hence, the events, the nature of the time with its accompanied signs and characteristics like those expressed in Matthew 24, “the sun darkened,” or as expressed here, “as a thief in the night.”
“You have no need for anything to be written …” This comment with what is said in the next verse regarding the day of the Lord shows he had taught them carefully and thoroughly about these last time events including the day of the Lord which will usher in God’s judgments on earth.
Implication: If the rapture of the church was a part of the Day of the Lord, the instruction of 4:13f. would not have been needed for, since he had taught accurately about these things, they would already have been instructed on such an important event.
“For you yourselves know full well” refers to the features of the Day of the Lord. “Full well” is akribos. It means “accurately, precisely.” It was a word of precision and accuracy. Their previous learning had been adequate, definite, and specific regarding the Day of the Lord. Here is an important implication regarding the rapture or the subject of chapter 4:13f. The focus of attention in 5:1f. is “the Day of the Lord.” This is a subject of a great deal of biblical revelation and Paul must have gone into great detail explaining this to them (e.g., Isa. 13:9-11; Joel 2:28-32; Zeph. 1:14-18; 3:14-15).
In the Old Testament, the Day of the Lord is referred to by that phrase about 20 times, often with eschatological implications. In addition, a parallel term, “the last days,” occurs 14 times, always eschatological. Further, the phrase “in that day” occurs over a hundred times and is generally eschatological. In Isaiah 2:2, 11, 12 (KJV) the three phrases refer to the same eschatological time. So there was ample reason for Paul to say that his readers knew about the Day of the Lord from the Old Testament itself.
But concerning the rapture there is no Old Testament revelation. This omission from over a hundred passages seems hard to understand if the rapture is the first event of the Day of the Lord, as the posttrib view teaches. But if the rapture is a mystery, unrevealed in the Old Testament, and if it precedes the beginning of the Day of the Lord …, then it is not strange that Paul had to inform them about the rapture.131
According to the passages listed above, the Day of the Lord has multiple characteristics and if the rapture, as important as it is to the body of Christ, were a part of that day or was one of its key events, surely Paul would have included it in his previous instruction.
Facts About the Day of the Lord
1. It includes a time of great judgment and wrath on all the nations and on Israel (Isa. 2:12-21; 13:9-16; 34:1-8; Joel. 1:15-2:11, 28-32; 3:9-12; Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 15-17; Zeph. 1:7-18).
2. It is associated with the overthrow of God’s enemies (Isa. 2:12).
3. It is God’s instrument of wrath to purge out the rebels from Israel and results in Israel’s return to the Lord (Ezek. 20:33-39).
4. While it begins with judgment to defeat the enemies of God, it ushers in a time of great blessing called the millennium in which Christ will reign with the church, the body of Christ (Zeph. 1:7-18; 3:14-17). “The significant truth revealed here is that the day of the Lord which first inflicts terrible judgments ends with an extended period of blessing on Israel, which will be fulfilled in the millennial kingdom. Based on Old Testament revelation, the day of the Lord is a time of judgment, culminating in the second coming of Christ, and followed by a time of special divine blessing to be fulfilled in the millennial kingdom.”132
5. The day of the Lord is also known by the terms “the time of Jacob’s distress” (Jer. 30:7) and “Daniel’s seventieth week” (Dan. 9:24-29). Many other students of prophecy refer to this time as the Tribulation (see Matt. 24:9, 21, 29; Mark 13:19, 24; Rev. 7:14). The chief passage on the many characteristics and events of this time is Revelation 6-19.
“As a thief in the night “ describes how this day will arrive. The primary point of the thief analogy is the element of surprise. A thief usually comes when people are asleep or gone. Dr. John Walvoord writes:
But this earthly wrath does not pertain to those in Christ (v. 9). Their meeting with Christ will be “in the air” and separate from God’s dealing with those on earth. The only way to hold that this meeting with Christ in the air is an imminent prospect is to see it as simultaneous with the beginning of the divine judgment against earth. Only if the rapture coincides with the beginning of the day of the Lord can both be imminent and the salvation of those in Christ coincide with the coming of wrath to the rest (vs. 9).133
Thomas adds to this thought and writes:
Were either the rapture or the day of the Lord to precede the other, one or the other would cease to be an imminent prospect to which the “thief in the night” and related expressions (1:10; 4:15, 17) are inappropriate. That both are any-moment possibilities is why Paul can talk about these two in successive paragraphs. This is how the Lord’s personal coming as well as the “day’s” coming can be compared to a thief (2 Pet. 3:4, 10; Rev. 3:3, 11; 16:15).134
“In the night” is an added detail to the picture. It points to the usual time for thievery, i.e., secretly, under the cover of darkness. As to the spiritual condition of the world, it will be asleep spiritually. Walvoord writes:
When we take the total picture of this passage into consideration, the reason for Paul’s introducing it becomes clearer. Although the events of the day of the Lord do not begin immediately after the rapture, the time period as such—following the symbolism of a day beginning at midnight—could easily be understood to begin with the rapture itself. The opening hours of the day of the Lord do not contain great events. Gradually the major events of the day of the Lord unfold, climaxing in the terrible judgments with which the great tribulation is brought to conclusion.
Taken as a whole, the pretribulational point of view gives sense and meaning to 1 Thessalonians 5 and explains why this is introduced after the rapture. In effect, Paul is saying that the time of the rapture cannot be determined any more than the time of the beginning of the day of the Lord, but this is of no concern to believers because our appointment is not the wrath of the day of the Lord, but rather the salvation which is ours in Christ.135
Expectancy Versus Surprise
5:3 Now when they are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction comes on them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will surely not escape. 5:4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness for the day to overtake you like a thief would. 5:5 For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness.
First, note the pronouns “they” and “them” in verse 3. In contrast to 4:15 and 16, the Apostle did not include himself nor his readers with those who would see the Day of the Lord, but that is exactly what he did when describing the rapture in chapter 4. Why? Because now in chapter 5 these third person pronouns refer to those left behind after the rapture, that is, non-Christians. In their spiritual blindness and because they have believed the lies of the Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:9-12), they will be expecting peace and safety, but instead sudden destruction will come upon them—but not on the church which will be gone.
Second, the world will be anticipating world peace through the united efforts of the nations, as has been the case for many years now, especially in Europe. For passages that deal with the issue of man’s search for peace and safety, see Daniel 9:27; Revelation 6:2; Ezekiel 38:11.
“Then sudden destruction …” The word for “destruction” (olethros, cf. 2 Thess. 1:9) does not mean annihilation, but the ruination of peace and security through the outpouring of God’s wrath on earth in the Day of the Lord. Included in this word is the utter and hopeless ruin, the loss of everything worthwhile causing the victims to despair of even life (cf. Rev. 6:14-17). The peace and safety undoubtedly includes the promises of the white horse rider of Revelation 6, the Antichrist. This is the prince of the people mentioned in Daniel 9:27. Likewise, this destruction includes the failure of that peace caused by the red horse rider (the scenario of Revelation 6:3) and perhaps also the wars and rumors of wars of Matthew 24.
“Like labor pains on a pregnant woman.” The analogy to a woman in labor includes at least four things:
1. The world is “pregnant,” ripe for what will happen because of its rejection of the Lord. God’s wrath, which has been building up throughout history, will suddenly break forth. The signs of its coming are discernible, even though the moment of its arrival is unpredictable.
2. This stresses the element of surprise: it will come suddenly, like the birth pains of a woman when the child is ready to be born.
3. The world can no more escape the coming wrath of God when it breaks out in the Day of the Lord, than a pregnant woman can escape labor pains. A strong expression is used in the Greek (a double negative, ou me) to stress that fleeing or seeking escape will be futile.
4. Like birth pains, it will be short-lived, but will steadily grow in intensity.
The world will be caught off guard and totally surprised because it will have rejected God’s revelation and listened to the delusions or lies of Satan and his world system. This is not new, however, for in Noah’s day God had warned of a coming flood, but only eight people believed and were delivered (1 Pet. 3:20). Lot also warned his family of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but they too would not listen (Gen. 19:12-14). These historical incidents Jesus used136 as illustrations to warn a certain kind of people of the sudden coming destruction of the future Day of the Lord. He described these people by the term, “this generation.” It is important to note that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is qualitative and does not refer to a people of a particular period of history. Rather, it refers to a kind of people of any generation who are characterized as unbelieving and headed toward eschatological judgment. They are a people who ignore the revelation of God and proceed in their regular daily activities of eating, drinking, getting married, etc., without any concern for the possibility of coming judgment.137
“But you brothers and sisters” marks out a contrast and introduces an appeal to believers. Though believers in Christ will not be a part of this, it still has a very real and practical application. Note the contrast in verses 4-5 and the words “them” and “they” of verse 3 and “others” in verse 6.
What is Paul saying here?
1. His readers were not “in the dark” with regard to these things; they had been taught about them before. But Paul meant more than this.
2. The Thessalonians along with all believers have a new spiritual position and a whole new realm or sphere of life. They were not even in the same group who would be caught in this day. Being in Christ, their sphere of life was not in the darkness, but in the light (cf. Col. 1:13).
3. Instructed Christians will not be surprised by the coming of this day. Not just because they have been told it is coming, nor simply because it cannot take believers by surprise since they will by then be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:9), but because they are to be living differently from the “this generation” kind of people mentioned above. Christians are to be living as alien ambassadors and not as the worldling who seeks all the gusto he can from this life.
“Darkness” continues the figure of night mentioned in verse 2 and calls to mind the darkness versus light analogy of the Bible. Darkness stands for the realms of:
1. Error and ignorance versus truth and understanding—this is the intellectual aspect of the darkness/light analogy of Scripture. In other words, the world, because of its darkened understanding, is ignorant of this impending doom that even today stands imminently ready to strike.
2. Blindness versus sight—the operational element of this analogy. The world is spiritually blind, it cannot see the truth of Scripture and has believed the delusions of Satan (2 Thess. 2:9f.).
3. Wickedness or immoral living versus righteousness—the moral element of this analogy.
I can’t think of anything that better illustrates all three elements of the darkness/light analogy than the tremendous apathy we see today in our country over the behavior of our president. In their pursuit of the good life, acting like a “this generation” kind of people, a large number of people in this country (assuming the polls are correct and not skewed for political purposes) don’t care what our president has done so long as their own lifestyle is not affected and they can go on eating, drinking, and marrying, etc.
Verses 4-5 set forth the doctrinal principle and fact: Here Paul declares unequivocally that believers are not in that realm of darkness so that day could overtake them.
Verse 4. “But you” is very emphatic in the original text. Paul is contrasting the destiny of believers with that of unbelievers. The day (as a thief) can’t overtake them. Believers can’t be a part of such a time. Because of what they have in Christ, they can’t be subject to such a day.
Verse 5 gives the positive reason why. “For” introduces us to the reason for the statement of verse 4. “All” and “sons” are emphatic in the Greek text. “Sons of the light and sons of day” have a qualitative emphasis in the Greek text. Not simply the sons, but those characterized with all the blessings and privileges of sons. The coming of the Day of the Lord, and this is Paul’s subject, is a day of darkness, a night time kind of day. Actually, it is also a day of wrath and we as believers cannot be appointed to such a day because Christ bore God’s wrath for us. Thus, believers, by virtue of their new nature and position as children of light, as sons of the living God in Christ, can have no part in such a day. Compare also 1 Thess. 1:10.
Growing out of this assertion that believers will not participate in darkness is the promise of their non-participation in “the day” of the Lord. It will not overtake them by surprise—“like a thief” overtakes his victim. As v. 5 explains, their position in Christ guarantees their deliverance from this.138
Soberness Versus Drunkenness
5:6 So then we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. 5:7 For those who sleep sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. 5:8 But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet our hope for salvation.
With verses 6-8, Paul gives the practical application of this doctrine indicated by “so then.” In the Greek text, this is ara oun, a very strong way to point the reader to the application and consequence of what he has just said. Here Paul makes the believer’s position as sons of the light the basis for the following exhortation. Since we are not of night or darkness and not subject to such a day, let us not be asleep spiritually, but be watchful. Let us live in a manner that is consistent with our life and standing in Christ and the future glory we will share with Him.
“Sleep” is the Greek katheudo, a different word from the one used in chapter 4 for death. Katheudo refers to a state of spiritual insensitivity. In Ephesians 5:14, believers are enjoined to wake out of such a sleep that they might walk in the light of Christ in wisdom as wise and not foolish. Here in 1 Thessalonians 5, they are enjoined not to enter into it. In view of the context and the meaning of the text, a comparison of the words used for sleep here and in chapter 4 is in order.
In chapter 4, the word for sleep, koimao, refers to a gentle, peaceful sleep and refers to physical death. It is a synonym for death and is in contrast with “those who are alive.”
In chapter 5, katheudo looks at the opposite, a state of sleep which is restless and wild. It refers to spiritual indifference and to carnality. It implies immorality and a life that seeks to live devoid of a relationship with God. Katheudo is a synonym for spiritual lethargy or carnality and is in contrast with not physically being alive, but with being spiritually awake and in tune with the Lord.
“Stay alert” or “watch” is gregoreo which means “to be awake, watchful, alert.” Here it is used figuratively for being spiritually awake and alert. As a strong contrast to what precedes, the use of this word in this context with katheudo shows us clearly that katheudo refers to spiritual indifference and not physical death in this chapter. Gregoreo is never used as a synonym for being physically alive.
“Sober” is likewise a figurative term here and states the same idea, but under a different synonym, that of spiritual sobriety. This word brings out the need to be under the Spirit’s control (Eph. 5:18).
With the words of verse 7, “For those who sleep sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night,” the Apostle reinforces the need for sober alertness by calling our attention to that which characterizes the unbelieving world. In the Greek text here, there is a certain emphasis on the nature of how the unbelieving world lives. This is so because of the repetition of the words “at night” and by the grammar used. “Night” in both cases is in the genitive case. Paul could have used the accusative or the dative case. If he had used the dative case with the noun “night,” he would have stressed the length of time, like all night long; if the dative case, the focus would have been on a particular point during the night. The use of the genitive case, however, stresses the kind of time, a nighttime kind of existence, an existence in the dark.
Paul, then, is clearly calling believers to stay spiritually awake. As Christians, we are never to be in a state of slumbering unwatchfulness or in frivolous activity. Instead we are to be spiritually awake, sober, and living in anticipation of the Lord’s imminent coming—and certainly not worried about being caught in the Day of the Lord.
With verse 8, the Apostle tells us how, since we are of the day, we can be alert, watchful, and sober or properly oriented to the Lord’s coming. Here again we have the Christian triad of faith, love, and hope as those fortifying qualities that prepare believers for effective living (see 1:3). These Thessalonian believers had demonstrated all three of these qualities, but we must all continue to maintain and even grow in faith, love and hope (confident expectation) if we are to live soberly in a world that is in darkness—drunk, disoriented to the truth of God.
With the mention of the breastplate and helmet, Paul turns to the metaphor of a soldier. This was one of his favorite illustrations of the Christian life (Rom. 13:12b; Eph. 6:10-18; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; 4:7a). In view of the fact Christians belong to the day, they must be prepared to live accordingly. Such requires living soberly like a soldier on duty.
… A Roman breastplate covered a soldier from his neck to his waist and protected most of his vital organs (cf. Eph. 6:14). That is what Christians’ faith and love do. Faith in God protects inwardly and love for people protects outwardly. These two graces cannot be separated; if one believes in God he will also love other people (cf. 1 Thes. 1:3; 3:5). These attitudes equip Christians to stand ready for the rapture. In addition, the hope of salvation guards their heads from attacks on their thinking. The salvation they look forward to is deliverance from the wrath to come when the Lord returns, as is clear from the context. It is not a wishful longing that someday they might be saved eternally. Such a thought is entirely foreign to the New Testament. Followers of Christ have a sure hope; they are not as others who have no hope.139
Salvation Versus Wrath
5:9 For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 5:10 He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him. 5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.
The “for” of verse 9 is the Greek hoti, used here as a causal conjunction, “because, since, for.” It points us to the reason for following the above exhortations, especially that of verse 8. The reason is our guaranteed deliverance or why we won’t be overtaken as a thief by the Day of the Lord and why we should live soberly putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of deliverance.
The reason is thus twofold, one negative and one positive. (1) Negatively, believers are not appointed to wrath. In the context, the wrath is the Day of the Lord. (2) Positively, all believers are appointed unto obtaining salvation from this awful day through the Lord Jesus. To emphasize this positive element, Paul used the Greek conjunction alla, a conjunction of strong contrast. The salvation here includes all that we have in Christ, but by context, the Apostle specifically had in mind deliverance from the wrath of the Day of the Lord by means of the rapture since both the rapture and this day are seen as imminent (cf. 4:13-18).
God’s intention for them is not the wrath that will come on the earth in the day of the Lord, but the full salvation that will be theirs when the Lord returns for them in the clouds. The wrath of God referred to here clearly refers to the Tribulation; the context makes this apparent. Deliverance from that wrath is God’s appointment for believers. This temporal salvation comes through the Lord Jesus Christ just as does eternal salvation.140
With verse 10, the Apostle points to the all-encompassing nature of our salvation in Christ and reiterates the principles of Romans 8:1 and John 5:24-25, that for the believer in Christ, there can be no judgment of God’s wrath because Christ has borne that judgment for us. Thus, the basis of our confidence is the Lord Jesus Christ because He is “the One who died for us.” The Greek text is very descriptive here calling our attention to a further fact that defines the reason for our deliverance. Paul used what grammarians call an adjectival participle which ascribes a special fact, quality, or characteristic to the noun or substantive it modifies, or it may even add a further defining fact. Here that substantive is our “Lord Jesus Christ” and the reason for our deliverance is that He is “the One who died for us.” The Apostle then calls our attention to the outcome of His death—“that whether we are alert or asleep, we shall live though Him.”
First, to what does “sleep” refer in this verse? Does it refer to death as in chapter 4 or to spiritual apathy as in 5:6-7? Some claim that “awake or sleep” is used metaphorically for whether one is physically alive or physically dead (cf. Luke. 17:34). This is possible, but certainly not plausible in view of the context. These words refer to spiritual carnality or apathy.
(1) Context: The immediate context favors this view because of vss. 6-7 and the call to be alert and sober. Remember, the Apostle has changed to a different subject (see again the use of peri de as discussed above).
(2) Syntax: Sleep is connected with being awake (gregoreo). In this context this clearly deals with spiritual alertness.
(3) Lexical: More importantly, while the word for sleep here, katheudo, is used of death in one passage in the gospels (Matt. 9:24), gregoreo, the word used for being alert or awake is never used metaphorically of physical life in the Greek Bible.141 The use of katheudo for physical death is rare. Normally, it is used of spiritual sleep. Since Paul used koimao for the death of believers in chapter 4, it is highly unlikely that if he meant that here, he would not substitute the metaphorical koimao for katheudo since that would leave no question.
(4) Application: Not only does this passage stress the sufficiency of the finished work of Christ, but this passage also becomes an argument against the partial rapture theory. Those who believe in a partial rapture believe that only those who are in fellowship and walking with the Lord will be raptured. All carnal Christians will have to go through the Tribulation. But this passage affirms that, because of the finished work of the Lord Jesus, all believers, whether they are alert or spiritually asleep, will be delivered from the coming wrath should they be living when rapture occurs.
Verse 11. “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.” With verse 11 we come to the final application of this section. “Therefore” is dio, a strong coordinating or inferential conjunction. It points us to the consequence of the preceding truth with two responsibilities given:
(1) We are to comfort one another. This is one of the many “one another” passages of Scripture. This exhortation along with the many other “one another” exhortations call on us to be involved in the lives of one another in order to give comfort and encouragement. “Comfort” is the Greek parakaleo which includes the concept of giving aid, of coming alongside to help, or to enable as needed. The noun form is used of the Holy Spirit who is called our Comforter or Enabler.
(2) We are to “build one another up.” This is the Greek oikodomeo, “to build up, erect, restore.” Here it is used metaphorically of spiritual edification or restoration as might be needed in the life of each individual believer. It refers to an intellectual grasp of the truth discussed so that it fortifies the heart and mind. But toward what are we to build up one another? Toward living for the Lord in the sufficiency of His glorious life. We are to help one another stay sober and spiritually awake in view of who we are as Christians and in view of our glorious inheritance. This means we are to help other believers find their strength in the Savior rather than in the details of life or from the things of this world which is passing away and headed for sure destruction. We are not to be a “this generation” kind of people who live as worldlings or earthdwellers, as those who make no plans for the future or are unconcerned about spiritual matters.
His own encouragement and edification in this letter were not enough. This new instruction needed constant repetition and reemphasis. It was to be added to the body of truth they already had received, and as they were encouraging each other in their meetings and in private conversations about other revealed truth they were to include this great truth as well. Believers do not need to be hearing something new all the time, but they often do need to remind themselves of what they already know so that they do not forget it. This verse gives some insight into the meetings of the early church. They included opportunity for mutual edification among the believers. Mutual encouragement and edification are still needed in every local church. And encouragement and edification with reference to their hope in Christ’s return is especially needed.142
As mentioned previously, the purpose of the prophetic portions of Scripture must never be reduced to the realm of simply satisfying one’s curiosity nor should it become a source of tension or purely academic argument. As with one prophetic passage after another, the design of the truth of this portion of Scripture is practical. It is designed both to comfort and to challenge us to godly living. The preceding chapter, 4:13-18, was primarily aimed at giving comfort in the face of death, while this chapter, 5:1-11 is designed to comfort and to challenge. It comforts us in that, should the Day of the Lord come in our lifetime, a day that begins with great wrath, we will not face that wrath but will be delivered by the blessed hope mentioned in the preceding chapter. It also challenges us to live as people of the day or the light. In other words, the element of comfort must not lull us into apathy where we live for the temporal and cheap experiences of the world. Rather, in view of all that will follow the parousia of the Lord we should live accordingly. The great events that follow include the Judgment Seat or Bema of Christ when we will stand before Him to receive rewards or their loss. They also include our returning with Him in glory at the end of the Tribulation “when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony” (2 Thess. 1:10).
Having this outlook means that we will live soberly and alertly as people of the day (vss. 6-8).
The soberminded believer has a calm, sane outlook on life. He is not complacent, but neither is he frustrated and afraid. He hears tragic news of the day, yet he does not lose heart. He experiences the difficulties of life, but he does not give up. He knows his future is secure in God’s hands, so he lives each day creatively, calmly, and obediently. Outlook determines outcome; and when your outlook is the uplook, then your outcome is secure.143
The position presented in this commentary is that of the pretribulation viewpoint of the rapture of the church. I recognize that many other godly students of the Word disagree with this and, while I will not take the time to set forth the reasons for this conviction, I can suggest a number of excellent books that do. Some of these are: The Rapture Question Revised, and The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, both by John F. Walvoord, Zondervan; Come Quickly Lord Jesus, by Charles C. Ryrie, Harvest House Publishing; The Truth About the Rapture, Pocket Prophecy Series, by Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy; Rapture Under Attack, by Tim LaHaye, Multnomah Publishers; Snatched Before the Storm? A Case for Pretribulationism, by Richard L. Mayhue, BMH Books.
In the first chapter, the Apostle thanked God for this body of believers because, among other reasons, they were an example to the believers in Macedonia and Achaia and because their testimony had literally echoed out across the country. If such a testimony was to continue, certain basic responsibilities to the church leadership, within the leaders themselves, and within the church as a whole were absolutely necessary. Unless the leadership is properly recognized and functioning and there is peace within the assembly through a deep spiritual relationship with the Lord, their witness, like undernourished grapes, would soon die on the vine. While no specific pattern of leadership is set forth in this early epistle (i.e., elders and deacons), there is a clear reference to those who were leading, what that leadership involved, and to the need for respect of that leadership and for the right reasons.
The emphasis in these verses might imply certain problems had been communicated to Paul by the return of Timothy, due to some of the problems that existed there like the disorderly mentioned in verse 14. Nevertheless, the instructions and exhortations given here are fundamental regardless of conditions and need to always be guarded in any church. This is because, as previously stressed, there are no perfect churches. The leaders will not be perfect and neither will be the rest of the flock. Because of this, the tendency is for Christians to neglect, ignore, or leave the church, sometimes skipping around from one church to another. Of course, there may be times when one needs to purge himself from a church for certain doctrinal or other spiritual reasons if they are serious enough, but too often the reasons are superficial. Christians need the protection and edification God designed to occur in the local church. We are part of the family of God, and we need one another not just in a general sense, but in the atmosphere of a local church.
Twenty one times in the Thessalonian epistles alone, Paul addressed the believers of this church as “brethren” (the Greek adelphoi). Such plural nouns as this one are often generic and refer to an entire class, brothers and sisters, or fellow believers. The point is that we are spiritual brothers and sisters born into the family of God by the Spirit. No family is perfect, but, as Wiersbe points out, “… without a family to protect him and provide for him, a child would suffer and die. The Child of God needs the church family if he is to grow, develop his gifts, and serve God.”144 Verses 12-28, continuing the one another concern of verse 11, instruct us on a number of vital principles needed for a healthy and growing body of Christ that is truly able to carry out mutual edification in a peaceful and loving way.
Instructions in Relation to Church Leaders
5:12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you in the Lord and admonish you, 5:13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
Verses 12-13 are addressed to the entire congregation, as is most likely the case with verses 14ff. Though addressed specifically to those who are led, the very nature of what is said is clearly instructive to both the leaders and to those who follow their leadership and these verses will be dealt with accordingly. Furthermore, “lest the preceding words should be misunderstood to imply that churches can be maintained without leaders, the Apostle proceeds to urge their recognition; this forms an introduction to the general instructions upon church life which follow.”145 In keeping with this principle, we should note that in Titus 1:5 Paul teaches us the organization of the Cretan church was unfinished due to the brevity of Paul’s visit. Thus, Titus was to correct the situation (“set it in order”) by appointing elders in every city or town as the Apostle had given direction. In other words, a church is not truly complete and functioning as God intended without an appointed leadership according to the guidelines of Scripture (1 Tim. 3:1f.; Tit. 1:5f.; Heb. 7:7, 17; and here).
For Those Who Are Led (vss. 12-13)
The Apostle begin with “now we ask you.” The verb used here is erotao, a word used of a request from a friend and is more intimate and personal than the stronger parakaleo of verse 14, “I urge, exhort.” The request concerns three responsibilities: (1) to acknowledge, recognize their leaders, (2) to appreciate them highly because of their work, and (3) to be at peace among themselves.
Acknowledge Them (vs. 12)
“Acknowledge” is a present infinitive of the verb oida, “to know, acknowledge, recognize.” Some understand oida in this context to mean “appreciate, value.” But this idea is found in the second request, “to appreciate highly.” There is the need in every congregation to become aware of and recognize those God has raised up in their midst who perform the duties and functions of a caring leadership. This is what we can call an emergent leadership and demonstrates the fact they are God’s appointed leaders. The responsibility of the church then is to first discern and then recognize such men (Acts 20:28b) as their leaders. This would include a formal appointment to places of service and submission (1 Tim. 3:1f.; Tit. 1:5; Heb. 13:7, 17).
Esteem Them Highly in Love (vs. 13)
“Esteem” is the verb hegeomai, but the use here is a rather rare nuance. Hegeomai means (1) “to lead, guide, go before,” (2) “to think, consider, regard,” and from this (3) “esteem, respect.”146 “Very highly” is a strong adverb, which means “super-abundantly” or “quite beyond all measure” (the highest form of comparison imaginable).147 Two things are to guide this high appreciation that bring balance, protection, and direction to it.
(1) The first is “love.” Leaders are to be esteemed highly in love. The sphere that is to envelop a flock’s esteem for their leaders is love, the Greek agape, which is a love that chooses to act for the well being of its object, and often sacrificially. This would include all the things that constitute the guidelines of Scripture for loving one another. It would include the negative like refusing to gossip, malign or criticize them to others. But it also included the positive like helping in ministry, expressing thankfulness, appreciation, and providing for them financially in an adequate, God-honoring way (see Gal. 6:6-9; 1 Tim. 5:17-18; though it deals with itinerant teachers, see also 3 John 6-8). Churches need to examine what they are doing that demonstrates their esteem and love for their leaders. Too often all leaders hear or experience are the negative complaints.
(2) The second guide is seen in the words “because of their work.” We must note this carefully. Too often, when leaders are esteemed, it is for the wrong reasons. The reason given here is not status or position or dynamic personalities or good looks, tall, dark, and handsome. In Christian ministry status depends on the nature of the work (function) and not vice versa. The nature of this work will be discussed below.
Be at Peace Among Yourselves (vs. 13)
Previously the Apostle used two infinitives in the Greek text to express the content of the request of the missionaries, Paul and his associates. Now suddenly, he switches to a present imperative. Why this sudden change and the command to be at peace? This is not an uncommon exhortation in the New Testament for believers (see Mark 9:50; Rom. 12:18; 14:19; 1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 13:11; Col. 3:15; 2 Tim. 2:22). Its sudden insertion here, however, “… may be that the recognition of such people and deference to their judgment would check any tendency to anarchy, with consequent strife, that might manifest itself among them.”148 But the command to live in peace is not only a protection, but a result. Perhaps the Apostle is saying here that obeying the former instructions will enable you to fulfill this command.
For Those Who Lead (vs. 12)
As these verses give guidelines for those qualities that a congregation might look for in recognizing an emergent leadership, so they also provide wonderful guidelines for those who lead. In this, the Apostle describes three things, (1) those who labor, and (2) who preside over you, and (3) admonish you, that are to characterize the leaders. This is clear for we have one article with three participles connected with “and.” Each of the participles are in the present tense and, in this context, the present aspect points to what should characterizes the ministry of these leaders.
Those Who Labor
“Labor” is the verb kopiao (1) “to become weary, tired,” (2) “to work hard, toil with effort, strive.” It may describe both a mental and physical kind of labor. Paul used this word frequently to describe his own ministry (see 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 4:11; Phil. 2:16; Col. 1:29; 1 Tim. 4:10). Ministry is hard work and often leads to weariness, not of the work, but in the work, and there is a difference. This is why Paul often added the dimension of spiritual enablement, as in Colossians. In connection with the great goal of bringing believers to spiritual maturity, he said, “Toward this goal I also labor (kopiao), struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.” It is when men and women labor in their own strength that they become weary of the ministry and want to throw in the towel.
It is imperative that those who are told to follow and appreciate the leadership of others have a good example in their leaders of how love produces labor (hard work) on behalf of others (1:3) in contrast to some in the church at Thessalonica that were failing to work (see 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). But in what ways do these leaders labor among the Thessalonian believers? This is spelled out, at least in part, in the following description.
Who Preside Over You in the Lord
The word “preside” is proistemi, which has two fundamental uses: (1) “be at the head of, rule, direct, manage,” and (2) “be concerned about, give aid to.” From this last use, it also came to have the idea of “busy oneself with, be engaged in, attend to” as in Titus 3:8, 14. It is translated “manage” in relation to the family (1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12), “leads” or “lead well” in relation to the local church (Rom. 12:8; 1 Tim. 5:17). The KJV, NKJV, NASB, and NRSV all translate 1 Timothy 5:17 with “rule,” but the better translation, in view of New Testament theology, is “leads” or even “caring leadership.” While there is authority in their leadership, the focus is clearly on a loving leadership, or management like a father or shepherd. The leadership of the church is never to be like that of the world where leaders many times exercise a dominating leadership, often with the desire for status. Leadership in the New Testament church, whether in the home or the local assembly, is to be that of a servant who seeks to care for the needs of the flock.
Luke 22:24 A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 22:25 So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ 22:26 But it must not be like that with you! Instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. 22:27 For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
1 Peter 5:3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you but be examples to the flock.
In the New Testament, those who lead are called “elders” (1 Tim. 5:17) and “overseers” (Tit. 1:7). Both of these terms refer to the same official position of leadership. Elder lays stress on the maturity needed, along with the dignity of the office. Overseer points to the function of the office. That these are one office and not two is seen in the interchange of the two terms in Titus 1:6-7 and in Acts 20:17, 28, as well as in the parallels between these verses and 1 Tim 3:1-7. Two other terms used for the same office and its function are (1) hegeomai, “to lead, guide” (Heb. 13:7, 17) and (2) poimaino, “to shepherd” (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
These words, and Paul’s emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 5:13, clearly shows the need of leadership in the local church. It is important to note, however, that this investment of leadership was plural, not singular. Although the titles of elder or overseer are not used here, we should not think that such leadership had not been established this early in the church for Paul and Barnabas saw to it that elders were appointed in every church as early as their missionary journey in Acts 14:23.
The final phrase, “in the Lord,” must not be overlooked. The oversight or leadership finds its authority, example, and nature in the sphere of the Lord Himself who is the Great and Chief Shepherd (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 5:4). First, such leadership is by divine appointment rather than human appointment. Second, the Lord Jesus Himself is the great example of how men should lead (Luke 22:24-27). Finally, these words “… limit the scope of the authority of the elders to the spiritual concerns of the saints, and show that there was no intention to deny or to limit the authority over Christians of civic or political rulers in the things that lie within their proper spheres.”149 The fact that they are “leaders in the Lord” emphasizes that they act in the interest of Christ and for the good of the entire community, not for self-gain (against the idlers’ accusations to the contrary).150
Who Admonish You
The other caring function of these leaders mentioned here is that of admonishing the flock at Thessalonica. “Admonish” is noutheteo, “to admonish, warn, instruct.” Literally it means “to put into the mind.” It might be used of general instruction, but it was often used where there were wrong tendencies that needed correcting. It involves a moral appeal to the will, but one based on understanding through biblical instruction. There is a vital difference between biblical admonition from mere protest or reprimand. Biblical admonition is based on instruction with the goal of correction based on spiritual understanding and conviction while the latter is little more than verbal disapproval. A classic illustration of this is Eli the priest in 1 Samuel. First Samuel 2:24 records Eli’s verbal disapproval of the behavior of his degenerate sons, but in 3:13, God rebuked Eli because of his failure to admonish his sons. Interestingly, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) uses the imperfect of noutheteo. The imperfect points to a habitual pattern of failure in Eli’s leadership of his sons.
Instructions in Relation to Various Biblical Responsibilities
5:14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. 5:15 See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. 5:16 Always rejoice, 5:17 constantly pray, 5:18 in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 5:19 Do not extinguish the Spirit. 5:20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt. 5:21 But examine all things; hold fast to what is good; 5:22 stay away from every form of evil.
That there is a slight change now in the focus of Paul’s instructions is clear by the words, “And we urge you, brothers and sisters.” Not only does he repeat the address “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi), which makes it parallel to verse 13, but he uses “we urge” which is stronger than the “we request” of verse 12. “Urge” is parakaleo, “to appeal to, exhort, urge, encourage.” Now Paul addresses not just those who are led, but the whole flock.
Some early church fathers, beginning with Chrysostom, saw these strong directives as addressed to the leaders, thus counterbalancing those just given to the rest of the people (Best, p. 228). Such a distinction, however, finds more difference between the leaders and the led than is justified at this point in church history (Hogg and Vine, p. 181). It also overly restricts “brothers,” which must broadly designate the whole Christian community. Furthermore, Romans 12:14-17, a section similar to 1 Thessalonians 5:15, is directed to the whole Roman church, not just to its leaders.151
An outstanding feature of this section is the triple series of short commands. Each has a verb in the imperative with an object or an adverbial amplification.
(1) The first series consists of four exhortations aimed at the whole body in carrying for one another (vss. 14-15). Though verse 15 contains two more imperatives, they seem to form an amplification of what is involved in showing the patience commanded in the fourth exhortation. These verses deal with the ‘one another’ responsibilities all believers have to each other in a pastoral sense.
(2) The second series consists of three commands for doing the will of God (vss. 16-18). These commands seem to be directed more at the individual.
(3) The third series consists of five commands that are somewhat general, though they may all relate to prophetic utterance in the early church (vss. 19-22). They ultimately relate to corporate worship.
Finally, we should also note that each of the commands of this section are in the present tense or aspect of continual action. By the nature of the verbs used and the context, they are calling for customary or habitual action on the part of all believers. These are godly patterns that should characterize all Christians. Two of the commands (vss. 19-20) occur in a construction (the present imperative plus the negative me ) which can call for an action or behavior to stop. This will be discussed when dealing with these verses.
Instructions in Relation to All (vss. 14-15)
Admonish the Undisciplined (vs. 14a)
“Admonish” is noutheteo as described above. “The undisciplined” is ataktos, “out of order, out of place, undisciplined.” In this context it undoubtedly refers to those who refuse to work, loafers, and who are living in a state of idleness. See comments on 4:11-12. These people needed informed admonishment which not only disapproved of their conduct, but demonstrated how such behavior was wrong and out of order with the principles of the Scripture God has designed for the blessing and orderly function of society.
Comfort the Discouraged (vs. 14b)
“Discouraged” is the oligopsuchychos, which literally means “small souled.” It means “fainthearted, despondent, discouraged.” These are those who, looking at circumstances or problems, tend to give up and throw in the towel. They are those who lack optimism and faith in what God is doing and is able to do. They need encouragement. The word translated “comfort” is the Greek paramutheomai. Paul used it in 2:11 when he discussed his loving concern for the Thessalonians as a father who exhorts and encourages his children. Paramutheomai points to the work of encouraging someone to continue on a specific course when faced with discouraging or perplexing problems. It works to promote endurance and staying power by helping others to get their eyes on the Lord and the principles and promises of His Word.
Help the Weak (vs. 14c)
“Help” is a verb (antecho) which literally means (1) “cling to, hold fast to something or someone, be devoted to,” and then (2) “to be interested in, pay attention to,” but as here, in the sense of “giving support, help.”
“Weak” is asthenes, from sthenoo,” to strengthen.” With the negative prefix a (not) it means “without strength, weak, powerless.” It is used of both physical and spiritual weakness, and the context must determine its meaning. Paul does not define the exact weakness, but in the context he is obviously talking about the spiritually weak.
“Help the weak” almost certainly relates to moral and spiritual debility. Whether it was weakness in shrinking from persecution (3:3-5), yielding to temptations to immorality (4:3-8), or some other kind of weakness cannot be precisely determined. It may well have been weakness in exercising full Christian liberty in doubtful matters as was the case in other churches that included people from a pagan background (Rom 14:1-15:6; 1 Cor 8-10). Whatever it was, however, the strong in faith were responsible to support those who were weak.152
Asthenes is a member of a family of words used for spiritual weakness. These include the noun astheneia, the verb astheneo, the noun asthenema, and the adjective asthenes. A study of these words in the New Testament yields the following:
(1) There is a spiritual weakness caused by the natural inability of the flesh in contrast to the enablement given by the Spirit (Matt. 26:41; Rom. 6:19; 8:3). In this regard, some are weak in that they are unable to control the appetites or impulses of the body and struggle with life-dominating habits, patterns, or some particular sin (see Gal. 6:1f.; and also Jam. 5:13-20). James 5:13ff. is generally related to physical weaknesses or infirmities, but there is good evidence James is speaking about spiritual weaknesses of the kind just mentioned.153
(2) There is a weakness related to a lack of courage to trust God in the difficulties of life (Rom. 4:8). Abraham is an example of one who was strong in faith.
(3) There is a weakness related to a lack of the knowledge and will of God. This may relate to our inability to know how to pray in many situations of life that all Christians face (Rom. 8:26). More prominently, however, weakness is a problem related to knowing, understanding, and relating one’s life to the Word of God in faith. Some, because they are weak in the faith (the body of revealed truth) and do not understand their liberty in Christ, have a weak conscience and become overly scrupulous about what might be called doubtful or questionable issues (Rom. 14:1–15:1; 1 Cor. 8:1-12).
This passage in 1 Thessalonians, along with Romans 15:1-14, teaches us that Christians with such weaknesses are to be the special objects of the loving care of the whole body of Christ and not just that of a few leaders.
Be Patient Toward All (vs. 14d)
When one deals with the disorderly, the discouraged, and the weak, patience or longsuffering is certainly a needed quality. “Be patient” is the Greek makrothumeo, which literally means “long-tempered.” It is derived from makros, “long,” and thumeo, “passion, anger.” It is the opposite of our term “short-tempered.”
Longsuffering is that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish; it is the opposite of anger and is associated with mercy, …
Resistance, active or passive, to admonition, exhortation or instruction, imposes a strain upon those who seek the welfare of the saints, hence the need for this further word. Longsuffering characterizes all labour that has love for its motive, 1 Cor. 13:4.154
“Toward all” draws our attention to two things. First, that all situations with all people call for longsuffering. We might feel that some situations with some people allow for the opposite, but not so. Further, it is not just the disorderly, the weak, or discouraged that require patience.
Yet these are not the only ones requiring patient treatment. All Christians (“everyone”) at one time or another provokes dissatisfaction through thoughtless or even intentionally hurtful acts. They too need patient treatment. The same patience is required toward non-Christians, but reference to them is not specific until v. 15.155
Second, the preposition “toward” is pros, which is a word suggesting close fellowship. It “always implies active intercourse with”156 the persons involved (see Mark 9:16; John 1:1, 2; 2 Cor. 5:8; and Gal. 1:18). We must not withdraw or become aloof with those who try our patience, which is the natural tendency.
Pay Back Evil for Evil to No One (vs. 15a)
As mentioned, an outstanding feature of this section (vss. 14-22) is the triple series of short commands. The first series consists of four exhortations (verse 14) designed to help the whole body care for one another. Though verse 15 contains two more imperatives, they form an amplification of what is involved in showing the patience commanded in the fourth exhortation. These verses deal with the ‘one another’ responsibilities all believers have to each other in a pastoral sense. Longsuffering requires the two elements found in verse 15.
Paul begins the command against paying back evil for evil with “see that.” The verb is horao, which fundamentally means (1) “to see, perceive, behold,” then (2) “to see with the mind, perceive, discern,” and (3) “experience.” From this it developed the idea of (4) to see in the sense of “take heed, beware” due to the precarious conditions involved. I used to get the opportunity to go quail hunting in south Texas, and while the quail were plentiful, so were rattlesnakes. This required extreme watchfulness for you never knew when you might stumble upon one of these critters. Just so, due to the natural bent of our own natures, we need extreme care when dealing with others. Our natural tendency to retaliate for a wrong suffered must be strongly guarded against, no matter what the injury.
We might also note that Paul moves from the second person plural, “you all see that,” to the third person singular, “no one pays back evil for evil to any one.” This stresses that the whole congregation of believers is responsible to see to this personally and corporately. See Romans 12:17-21 where Paul treats this issue in more detail.
Pursue What Is Good for One Another and for All (vs. 15b)
The above negative is now followed by the positive which reminds us of an important truth. Putting on what is good is basic to our ability to overcome or put off what is evil.157 Literally, to grasp something of the emphasis of the Greek text, Paul said, “but (strong contrast, alla) always the good being pursuing unto one another and to all.” The “always” is emphatic. Man’s tendency is to look for loopholes to excuse the bad behavior of taking matters into his own hands. “Good” is agathos, which as used here with the article as a pure substantive (to agathon), refers to “the good, what is good, right.” It speaks of what is intrinsically valuable, morally good and beneficial.158 This, of course, must be defined by the teaching of Scripture according to its values, priorities, and objectives.
The verb the apostle used here, “pursue,” is significant. He did not simply say, “do” or “practice,” but “pursue.” This is dioko, which means “to hasten, run, chase after, press on.” Concerning the use of this verb and its implications, Robert Thomas writes:
Diokete (“pursue”; NIV, “try”) is immeasurably more than halfhearted effort. Eager expenditure of all one’s energies is none too much in seeking to agathon (“the good”; NIV, “to be kind”). In place of wrong, injury, or harm dictated by a vengeful spirit, Christians must diligently endeavor to produce what is intrinsically beneficial to others, whether other Christians (“each other”) or unbelievers (“everyone else”). The seriousness of the abuse suffered is no issue. Some Thessalonians doubtless had been victims of unjustified harsh treatment, but regardless of this, a positive Christian response is the only suitable recourse. The welfare of the offender must be the prime objective.159
Instructions in Relation to Self (vss. 16-18)
With verse 16 the Apostle moved to address a number of vital responsibilities all believers have in relation to their own walk with the Lord. This forms the sure foundation needed to fulfill the previous commands through the Lord’s enablement, so now he turns to the believer’s own inner life.
The Exhortations (vss. 16-18a)
Always Rejoice (vs. 16)
Because of what we have in Christ, believers have reason to rejoice even in the face of many and variegated trials of life. Maintaining a joyful spirit is not easy, however, because it depends on our focus and faith in the Lord—His person, plan, principles, promises, and purposes as set forth in Scripture. This doesn’t mean life won’t hurt, but even in the midst of the hurts, we can rejoice because we know that God is at work and in control. Note the following:
Some of the grounds for rejoicing as Christians are: The Lord Himself (Phil. 3:1; 4:4), His incarnation (Luke 2:10), His power (Luke 12:17), His resurrection (Matt. 28:8; Luke 24:52), His presence with the Father (John 14:28), His presence with believers (John 16:22; 20:20), His ultimate triumph (John 8:56), the believer’s salvation (2 Cor. 8:2), enrollment in heaven (Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3), liberty in Christ (Acts 15:31, cf. Gal. 5:1), hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2), and his prospect of eternal rewards (Matt. 5:12; Luke 6:23).
Some of the occasions for rejoicing for Christians are: Hearing the gospel (Acts 13:48), receiving the Lord (Luke 19:6; Acts 8:39), suffering with Christ (Acts 5:41, cf. 1 Pet. 4:13), the preaching of the gospel (Phil. 1:18), suffering for the gospel (Phil. 2:17; Col. 1:24), the conversion of sinners (Luke 15:7; Acts 15:3), the manifestation of grace (Acts 11:23), the godly walk of believers (Rom. 16:19; 2 Cor. 7:4; 3 John 3, 4), godly submission to admonition (2 Cor. 7:9), the godly order of an assembly (Col. 2:5), receiving support and fellowship (Phil. 4:10), the rejoicing of others (Rom. 12:15, 2 Cor. 7:13), hearing of the well-being of others (2 Cor. 7:16), hearing of the kindness of believers to one another (Phil. 7), honor due to others (1 Cor. 12:26), and the triumph of truth (1 Cor. 13:6).160
Paul states the paradox succinctly in 2 Corinthians 6:10:
… sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (cf. 2 Cor 12:10). The Thessalonian Christians had already suffered with joy (1 Thess 1:6), as had Paul himself (3:9). The challenge is for this joyful outlook to become constant (“always”). From a human perspective they had every reason not to be joyful—persecution from outsiders and friction among themselves. Yet in Christ they are to be more and more joyful.161
Nehemiah 8:10 states, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Joy has its roots in a deep thankfulness for what God has done, is doing, will do, and for who God is (sovereign, merciful, faithful, omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent, loving, etc.). As such, joy takes the burden out of toilsome service and gives strength to endure. Joy is also a part of the fruit of the Spirit’s control as described in Galatians 5:22f. It is linked with love, peace, longsuffering, and kindness. In other words, capacity to love people, be longsuffering and kind is directly related to inner joy. Thus, it is needed always.
Constantly Pray (vs. 17)
Closely associated with the ability to rejoice always is a constant prayerfulness. As mentioned, these imperatives are each in the present tense. Here, with the “always” (adialeiptos) it is what grammarians call an iterative or customary present of what regularly occurs. It describes prayer as an attitude which regularly breaks forth throughout the day in the various aspects of prayer—confession, praise, thanksgiving, petition for others, and personal requests to God. The term used here for pray is proseuchomai, the general term for prayer, but one that suggests the worshipful nature of prayer. It is derived from a preposition of motion and direction, pros, “to, toward,” and euchomai, “to pray.”
In Everything Give Thanks (vs. 18a)
The triplet of commands is completed with giving thanks in any and all circumstances of life. As constant rejoicing is related to prayerfulness so it is also related to a thankful heart. But how can we be thankful when situations we face are so painful? Ultimately, this boils down to understanding and trusting in the promises of Scripture and how God uses suffering as a tool in accomplishing His sovereign purposes in this life. For a brief overview of this, see Why Christians Suffer on our web site in the “Bible Studies / Spiritual Life” section. Again, Thomas has an excellent word here.
No combination of happenings can be termed “bad” for a Christian because of God’s constant superintendence (Rom 8:28). We need to recognize that seeming aggravations are but a temporary part of a larger plan for our spiritual well-being. Out of this perspective we can always discern a cause for thanks. In fact, failure to do this is a symptom of unbelief (Rom 1:21).162
The Justification: For This Is God’s Will … (vs. 18b)
The statement, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” looks back to all three commands, rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. “Will” is thelema, which refers more to the “gracious design” of God rather than His sovereign purpose or resolve (boule). Ultimately then, obeying God’s will is to submit to His designed purposes as He has revealed them to us in Scripture. Thus, the three commands here comprise only a small part of the will of God. In ourselves, we have neither the desire nor ability to accomplish His will. Our need is (1) to seek to understand what His will is by a study of His Word (Eph. 5:17; Rom. 12:1-2) and (2) to appropriate His grace by faith so that He is free to work in us both to will and do His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13; Rom. 6-8).
“In Christ Jesus” is the controlling source and motive for obeying the will of God. Apart from Him, we can no more do the will of God than we can perfectly obey the Law. Thus, He becomes the very source and motive for obedience. It is through our union with Christ that we find the capacity to fulfill the will of God.
Instructions in Relation to Worship (vss. 19-22)
At this point there is change in the responsibilities commanded. Many believe that Paul moves from personal worship to corporate worship, or life in the assembly of believers. This is believed because of the reference to prophecy and examining all things. While there is undoubtedly a shift here in this direction, this does not negate the personal application of some of these commands in other ways, as will be brought out in the exegesis. Here, then, are five short exhortations, two negative and three positive, that affect the quality of public worship.
Do Not Extinguish (Quench) the Spirit (vs. 19)
“Extinguish” is sbennumi, “put out (a fire), quench, extinguish.” In its other occurrences in the New Testament it refers to fire (see Matt. 12:20; 25:8; Heb. 11:34, or metaphorically, Mark 9:48; Eph. 6:16). This is clearly a prohibition against hindering the work, ministry, and gifts of the Spirit who, because of His enlightening, empowering, cleansing—and ministry of warming the hearts of His people—is sometimes likened to fire in Scripture (Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:3, 4, and see also 2 Tim. 1:6). In view of this and the prohibition of verse 20 regarding prophecies, some in the church may have been resisting the gift of prophecy, and perhaps other manifestations of the Spirit as well. As a result, some of the leadership, being more cautious and conservative, may have overreacted and prohibited the ministry of the Spirit. In Corinth, a very different scenario occurred. There the gift of prophecy was being ignored because of an overzealous emphasis on the showy gifts like speaking in tongues (see 1 Cor. 12-14).
However, because believers are called upon to walk by means of the Holy Spirit as the enabling power for the Christian life (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16ff.), it is possible that Paul’s statement here is general, forbidding them to check the Spirit’s ministry of controlling, refining, and convicting believers in their daily walk (see also Eph 4:30). By way of application, the prohibition is applicable to any aspect of the work of the indwelling Spirit in a Christian’s life in view of the fact that sin grieves the person of the Spirit. We can say, then, that any sin a believer refuses to confess and deal with, grieves the Spirit’s person and quenches or stifles His power.
Now a word about the negative prohibition here (vs. 19) and in the next verse. Paul employed the present imperative and the negative me. Many grammars have understood this construction to command the cessation of action already in progress, rather than, in keeping with the normal use of the present aspect of Greek verbs, to refer to the continuation of action as dictated by the nuance of the verb used and the context.163 Here, then, the command would be “stop extinguishing the Spirit,” and “stop treating prophecies with contempt.” But such a meaning should only be understood if there is sufficient warrant from the context. In view of the above, it may be that here there is warrant for understanding the grammar in this way, but we should also recognize that this may simply be calling for a general prohibition that is to be an ongoing, customary pattern for believers, a command designed to develop character through the power of the Spirit.
Do Not Treat Prophecies With Contempt (vs. 20)
“Do not treat … with contempt” is the Greek exoutheneo, (1) “to set at naught, disdain, despise,” (2) “reject or treat with contempt.” “Prophecies” is propheteia, which may mean: (1) prophetic activity (Rev. 11:6), (2) the gift of prophecy, prophesying (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10; 13:2, 8; 14:22), or (3) the utterance of the prophet, the prophetic word, the content of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:6; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 1:18; Rev. 22:7, 10, 18). In this text the noun is plural and clearly refers to utterances or messages of the many prophets that may have been in the church at Thessalonica. Concerning the gift of prophecy, Thomas L. Constable writes:
The gift of prophecy was the ability to receive and communicate direct revelations from God before the New Testament was completed (1 Cor. 13:8). Sometimes these revelations concerned future events (Acts 11:28), but often they dealt with the present (Acts 13:2). Perhaps people who had not received prophetic revelations were teaching their own views of such things as the Second Advent, with the result that prophetic revelations tended to be evaluated on superficial terms (e.g., the eloquence of the speaker) instead of on the basis of their intrinsic authority.
By way of application, Christians should not disparage any revelation that has come to the church and has been recognized as authoritative and preserved by the Holy Spirit in Scripture. The temptation to put the ideas of men on an equal footing with the Word of God is still present.164
To this, Robert L. Thomas adds the following:
These were separate utterances of those who in their prophetic office proclaimed the will and command of God as well as predicted the future (Acts 11:28). Benefits from these utterances could build up a local church (1 Cor 14:3).
Apparently, however, certain “idle” brothers (v. 14; cf. 4:11, 12) had misused this gift by falsifying data regarding the Lord’s return. This had soured the remainder of the flock against prophecy in general. Their tendency now was not to listen to any more prophetic messages, but to discount them in view of counterfeit utterances they had heard. Once again Paul warns against overreaction and urges the church to give prophecies their proper place in edifying its members (cf. v. 11).165, 166
Examine All Things (vs. 21a)
Since false prophets would arise as the Lord Himself warned (cf. Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; see also 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1), there must be careful discernment of the message or utterances of a prophet. Thus, Paul balanced the preceding with this positive command. “All things” (panta) is a neuter accusative plural rather than an accusative masculine, “every person.” The ultimate issue is the message, not the person, his claims or personality. “Examine” is dokimazo, “to put to the test, examine,” and then, based on the result of the test, “to accept as approved, approve.” Here is a warning against gullibility and a call for biblical discernment. No criteria, however, are given by the Apostle upon which the test is to be made. As with those in Berea (Acts 17:11), the index for what is truly from God is the Word of God itself. For these early believers this included the Old Testament and the traditions handed down by the apostles (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). It naturally centered in a biblical view of Jesus as both the Christ and Lord (see 1 John 4:1; 1 Cor. 12:3).
In 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 14:29 discernment is a specific spiritual function in combination with the gift of prophecy. It consists of an ability to discern whether another prophetic spokesman has given a genuinely inspired utterance. But perhaps these two tests are too specialized for the present context, and preference should be given a more general criterion of whether a positive contribution to the body’s edification and mutual love has been made.167
For us today, this is a call to examine all preaching and teaching in light of the Scripture. Just because one opens his Bible and preaches from it does not mean the message is truly biblical. There is far too much Scripture twisting and abuse of the Bible in view of one’s own personal agendas or biases. Perhaps nothing is more difficult than to skillfully handle the Word (2 Tim. 2:15) so that we put away our own preconceived understanding and theological biases. Our only authority for the truth is God’s Revelation, His Word; but if what we believe or if our understanding of a particular passage is based on our bias rather than on what the passage really says, then we have deceived ourselves and maybe even those who listen to us.168 This is one of the reasons God places a greater responsibility on teachers (Jam. 3:1).
Hold Fast to What Is Good (vs. 21b)
Obviously, then, once what is heard is discovered to be “the good,” i.e., true and in accord with the revelation of God in Christ, we are to tenaciously hold on to it, for God’s revelation alone is a sure foundation and an anchor of the soul. “Hold fast” (katecho), as used in this context, means “to hold fast to in the sense of retain and guard.” The very nature of this word calls our attention to the fact this will not be easy. Satan and the world will constantly seek to undermine the truth and teaching of Scripture (see Jude 3). “Good” is kalos, which carries the idea of valuable, profitable, useful and describes the inherent value and profit of the Word (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17). We should also note that it is the Word that enables us to discern what is truly good and valuable in matters not only of doctrinal and moral right, but also in practice (see Heb. 5:13-14).
Stay Away From Every Form of Evil (vs. 22)
Here is one of those verses that has not only been wrenched out of its context, but twisted by many, due in part to the translation of the KJV, “Abstain from every appearance of evil.” This suggests the idea that we should avoid what even appears to be evil, though it may not in reality be evil. This command must not be wrested from its context. It comes as an antithesis and a means of strengthening the preceding, “hold on to the good.” Rather than simply, “stay away from the evil,” we have “stay away from every form of evil.” The contrast is not between what is really good and what only appears as evil, but what is in reality evil as a result of the testing.
The word “appearance” is eidos (eido"), “appearance, form, kind.” Commenting on this verse and this word, F. F. Bruce writes:
The sense of “species” or “kind” for eido" is quite classical … and is attested far beyond the classical period (cf. Eusebius HE 5.1.6, pa’n eido" ojneidismou', “every kind of abuse”). The present injunction could also refer to prophetic utterances; indeed, it is possible to treat ponhrou' as attributive to eidou" (rather than as a genitive dependent on it) and translate “abstain from every evil kind (of utterance).” An utterance which is “evil” would be one running contrary to gospel faith and practice; such an utterance is to be rejected …169
Thus, believers must examine everything carefully and avoid that which does not conform to the truth. There will be many professed spiritual manifestations that do not contribute but rather detract from the development of spiritual growth and progress in the faith. Such the Apostle defines as pantos eidous ponerou (“every kind of evil”). As a further application of this command, using the truth as our index for testing, believers are to avoid every kind or form of evil in thought and deed, everything that might produce beliefs and behavior contrary to the kind of living promoted by the previous commands.
A Final Petition
5:23 Now may the God of peace make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 5:24 He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this.
The Basic Petition: Complete Sanctification (5:23a)
“May the God of peace Himself make you completely holy.” In a world that is so totally contrary and alienated to the holiness of God, the theme of sanctification is a critical concern for the Christian who, though not of the world, is left to represent the Lord in this alien environment. Thus, the Apostle begins his conclusion of this epistle with a concern that he has mentioned before (3:13; 4:3, 4, 7, 8).
The “now” (Greek de) of verse 23 is slightly transitional and moves the reader to another point, though not totally unrelated to the preceding. In the preceding verses there has been one admonition after another relating to the spiritual walk corporately and individually. Each of these commands embrace the believer’s sanctification. How is it possible for us to accomplish such commands with any sense of consistency? Paul has already related the process of sanctification to the Holy Spirit in 4:1-8, but with this final petition, he again points us to the only true source of spiritual growth and change—the awesome sanctifying work of God Himself to whom we must all turn.
(1) The Greek text literally says, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you.” “Himself” is emphatic (the intensive use of autos) suggests “Himself and no other.” What an awesome lesson for ministry and the desire to see spiritual change whether in ourselves or in others. While this should never lessen our concern, personal discipline, and hard work in working with others, grasping this truth should cause us to turn away from manipulative tactics and appeal to the only One who can work in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phi. 2:13).
(2) With the words, “the God of peace,” the Apostle focuses on both the person and work of God—He is the “God of peace.” This may have been brought to mind by concerns for conditions at Thessalonica. Regardless, here is a very familiar expression in the New Testament (see Rom. 15:33; 16:20; Phil. 4:9; Heb. 13:20 and cf. John 16:33; 1 Cor. 14:33; 2 Cor. 13:11; 2 Thess. 3:16; and Isa. 9:6). They had come to have peace with God (see Rom. 5:1), with one another (see Phil. 4:9; Col. 3:15), and in their own hearts through the gospel message that brought them into a vital relationship with the Savior, the Prince of Peace, the Peacemaker (see Phil. 1:7; Eph. 2:14-17). As the God of peace, He is the source of peace. If we are to know real peace, we must know God through Christ (see John 14:27).
(3) With the words, “may God … make you holy” or “sanctify you,” we see the faith and heart of the Apostle and his missionary team (see Col. 1:28-29). The verb here is in the optative mood, the mood of a strong wish that expresses the Apostle’s humility (only God can do this) and his expectation and desire for these and all believers. Sanctification is the work of God accomplished through His Word and the ministry of the Spirit. No matter how hard we may attempt to keep the principles of God’s Word as set forth in the previous verses (5:1-22), or preach and teach that Word to others, prayerful dependence on the Lord is absolutely vital to the process. Because he recognized and believed in this principle, the Apostle began this epistle with thanksgiving for the work of God in the Thessalonians and now he concludes with the same attitude of faith, not in man’s efforts, but in the Lord. We may sow and water, but only God Himself can give the increase—true growth and spiritual change (1 Cor. 3:5-9).
(4) The design and work of God is also stressed by the use of chiasmus. This is a literary device that refers to an inverted parallelism or sequence of words or ideas in a phrase or clause, sentence, paragraph, chapter, or even an entire book or work. The term chiasmus or chiasm is derived from the Greek letter chi (c) which is a mark with two lines that cross. A chiasm can be very complex or simple as here. There are two elements involved, inversion and balance with the goal of focusing on a particular theme or point. In this there is often a repetition of ideas by which the first and last elements of the first half of a clause or sentence are inverted in the second half. This draws attention to the central terms and focus of the words used. It therefore presupposes a center, a “crossing point.” The words in italics and bold letters illustrate this. Note how the verbs are first and last with the goal or request in the middle forming a crossing pattern. This may be illustrated in different ways, but the following arrangement has been chosen to illustrate the focus of the actual word order and arrangement of the Greek text.
Now the God of peace Himself, may (He) sanctify
and entirely your spirit and soul and body blamelessly
may (they) be kept at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is the subject of “sanctify” and the unspecified agent of “may be kept.” By the above arrangement with the verbs first and last and the objects in the middle, the source and effective cause are somewhat emphasized. The central focus, however, is on the expressed design of complete sanctification at the coming of the Lord. This was not only the great object of Paul’s prayer, but it expresses God’s purpose for all believers (see Rom. 8:28-29), and that which should likewise be our great desire and commitment as Christians.
The Words “make you holy” or “sanctify” (NASB, NIV) translate the Greek hagiasai, the aorist optative of hagiazo, “to set apart, make holy, sanctify.” In its unaffected meaning, the aorist is the undefined tense from the standpoint of its aspect or action. It may, however, look at the beginning of action, its conclusion or culmination, or it may view the action in its entirety depending on the context and the nuance of the verb used. Since Paul was writing to believers, those who are already “saints,” or “set apart ones” in Christ positionally (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2), the focus here is on the culmination of the present process of sanctification (spiritual growth) to be culminated at the parousia, the coming of the Lord.
“Completely” is holoteles, “quite complete, without damage, through and through.”170 This word occurs only here in the New Testament. It signifies complete in reference to degree or amount from the standpoint of the aim or design. Some believe this word may focus on the qualitative side with the word below looking at the quantitative element.171
The Particulars of the Petition: Spirit, Soul, and Body Kept Blameless (5:23b)
Having set down the general goal that the Apostle desired for these and all believers, he then particularized the process to stress even more emphatically the total sanctification God wants for all believers. “And” introduces us to the further details. The very next word in Greek is holokleros, “complete, sound in every part.” With that, man’s entire makeup is focused on—spirit, soul, and body.
What the Apostle means by this three-fold division of the believer is the big question of this passage which has been the object of a tremendous amount of debate among theologians and Bible students for a long time. Robert L. Thomas has an excellent summary of some of the various explanations for the Apostle’s expression, “spirit and soul and body.”
1. Paul intends no systematic dissection of human personality. Instead, he uses a loose rhetorical expression emphasizing the totality of personality and reinforcing “through and through” and “whole” (H.W. Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man [Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1926], pp. 108-109). This view leans heavily on comparable expressions in Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30; and Luke 10:27 (e.g., “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength,” Mark 12:30). What it fails to explain, however, is why Paul did not use this already well-known formula for completeness, if that is what he meant. It also cannot explain why he included man’s material part (“body”), which the alleged analogous passages do not include. It is contrary to Paul’s acknowledged careful use of words to attribute such a rhetorical device to him (Ellicott, p. 84; Hiebert, p. 252).
2. Another explanation makes “spirit” and “soul” interchangeable and sees each of them as referring to man’s immaterial substance. “Body” then completes the picture by referring to man’s material part: “your whole spirit (i.e., soul) and body.” This sees man as dichotomous. Two terms for the same immaterial substance simply view it according to its two functions, relationship to God and relationship to the lower realm of sensations, affections, desires, etc. (Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 483). Defense of this approach lies in the way Paul parallels pneuma (“spirit”) with psyche (“soul”) in Philippians 1:27 and speaks at times of man’s make-up as bipartite (2 Cor 7:1). Also, body and soul (or spirit) together sometimes describe the whole man (Matt 10:28; 1 Cor 5:3; 3 John 2) (Strong, p. 483). The weakness in the above arguments is evident, however, because Paul sometimes parallels pneuma with sarx (“flesh,” “body”), with which it cannot be identical (2 Cor 2:13; 7:5, 13). Clear-cut distinctions between psyche and pneuma indicate they cannot be used interchangeably (Cremer, Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, pp. 504-505). In addition, it is doubtful whether Paul would pray for man’s functional capabilities, as this view holds, rather than two substantial parts of man’s make-up.
3. Others try to escape a threefold division by dividing the last sentence of v. 23 either into two independent parts (Hendriksen, p. 150) or else by joining “may your whole spirit” with the first part of the verse (Stempvort, cited by Best, p. 243). The former alternative requires inserting words that are not in v. 23b, while the latter is unnecessarily complicated and causes prohibitive grammatical difficulties (Best, p. 243). To fill out the sense of either of these explanations, words must also be omitted.
4. That Paul saw man as a threefold substance in this verse has been generally recognized since the early fathers. The symmetrical arrangement of three nouns with their articles and their connection by means of two “ands” (kai) renders this the most natural explanation. This becomes a “distinct enunciation of three component parts of the nature of man” (Ellicott, p. 84). That Paul elsewhere does not make such a distinction (Best, pp. 242-244; Hendriksen, pp. 146-147) is no argument against trichotomy. It is always possible that Paul has been misunderstood elsewhere. It is also conceivable that he did not endeavor to make specific distinctions in other letters as he does here. That Paul possibly depends on liturgical formulation and attaches no special meaning to these separate terms (Dibelius, cited by Best, p. 244) is also inconclusive speculation. To object that this interpretation reads in the trichotomy of secular psychology (Schweizer, TDNT, 6:435) neglects Paul’s occasional acceptance of portions of secular philosophy that were valid. He simply incorporated them into a divinely inspired framework (Ellicott, p. 84). A trichotomous understanding of 5:23 has so much to commend it that other interpretations cannot compete without summoning arguments from elsewhere. The difference between the material part (“body”) and the immaterial parts (“spirit” and “soul”) is obvious. Paul’s pronounced distinction between psychikos (“natural”; NIV, “without the spirit”) and pneumatikos (“spiritual”) (1 Cor 2:14, 15; 15:44), his differentiation of pneuma (“spirit”) and ego (“self”) or nous (“mind”), parts of psyche (“soul”) (Rom 7:17-23; 1 Cor 14:14), and other writers’ distinguishing of pneuma and psyche (James 3:15; Jude 19) argue heavily for a substantial, not just a functional, difference between the two immaterial parts (Hiebert, p. 252; Schweizer, TDNT, 6:436; Lightfoot, p. 88).
The spirit (pneuma) is the part that enables man to perceive the divine. Through this component he can know and communicate with God. This higher element, though damaged through the fall of Adam, is sufficiently intact to provide each individual a consciousness of God. The soul (psyche) is the sphere of man’s will and emotions. Here is his true center of personality. It gives him a self-consciousness that relates to the physical world through the body and to God through the spirit. This analysis of man had been Paul’s training in the OT and no impressive evidence has surfaced to eradicate such a picture here (Milligan, p. 78; Olshausen, p. 457). Yet, it must be confessed, much unresolved mystery remains regarding the interrelationships between man’s different parts, including the body. How one affects the other is fully understood only by him who is the Creator.
For such a composite creature Paul therefore prays, seeking an unblamable wholeness in the presence “of our Lord Jesus Christ” (23; cf. 2:19; 3:13).172
Regardless of one’s view of this passage, clearly, the emphasis is on the completeness of the sanctification that God is committed to promoting in the believer in all aspects of his being.
The word “blameless,” amemptos, meaning “free from blame,” is an adverb and modifies the verb “kept.” “Kept” is tereo, which means (1) “keep, guard, watch over,” and (2) “keep, hold, preserve someone.” In this last sense, it has the following uses: (a) “keep for a definite purpose or suitable time” (1 Pet. 1:4; 2 Pet. 2:4), and (b) “keep unharmed, protected, preserved with an emphasis on the condition that is to be kept unharmed or sound” (1 Cor. 7:37; 1 Tim. 6:14; 1 Tim. 5:22; 1 Thess. 5:23).173 What is kept is the “whole spirit, soul, and body,” the complete person. Though not expressed, God is the one doing the keeping. This expresses the Apostle’s dependence on the Lord to accomplish this keeping work in believers.
But what is involved and what is the goal? This is a desire for greater and greater maturity so that at the parousia, when believers are made manifest before the Judgment Seat of Christ, they will be without blame not merely in conduct before men, but in heart before the Lord Himself (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 3:13).
“At the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” should not be understood as “until His coming” as translated by the KJV. The focus is on the believer’s spiritual state at the time of the rapture.
The Basis for the Petition: The Faithfulness of God (5:24)
“He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this.”
Literally, to show Paul’s emphasis, the text reads, “Faithful is the One Who calls you, Who also will do it.” All the principles and promises of Scripture and our confidence in prayer stand on the character of God’s person. So, the trustworthiness of God is here brought into focus. “Faithful” is pistos, “trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust.”174 But God is also described as “the One Who calls you.” The point is that the call of God to save believers and bring them into a vital relationship with Himself does not end His loving care. In His character as faithful, He continues His work to produce spiritual growth and change. As the One who calls and justifies by grace, so He sanctifies by grace too.
A Final Postscript
5:25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us too. 5:26 Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. 5:27 I call on you solemnly in the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters. 5:28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Here the Apostle concludes with three requests and a final benediction. First, as Paul had prayed for the growth and sanctifying grace of God for the Thessalonians, so he asked for their prayers for the missionary team. Here was a very gifted committed missionary team yet they too needed the sanctifying and preserving power of God. All believers alike need the prayer support of the body of Christ regardless of how mature and gifted they may appear. As one always oriented to grace and dependent on the Lord, Paul, as he so often did, sought spiritual support from his converts (Rom. 15:30; Eph 6:19; Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3; 2 Thess. 3:1; Philemon 22).
Second, Paul called for a greeting among all the brethren or the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.
Paul’s usual “one another” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; cf. 1 Peter 5:14) is replaced this time by an expression that may imply that the request is addressed to leaders only. This need not distinguish leaders from the rest of the assembly, however, as the Epistle will eventually find its way to all (v. 27). In the meantime those receiving it first were to greet the rest (Moffatt, p. 43). The symbol of greeting was “a holy kiss” (v. 26). This was not a kiss of respect as was used in ancient times to honor men of authority. Neither was it cultic as though copied from an ancient mystery religion. It most closely parallels the use of a kiss among members of the same family as a token of their close relationship. Christians have come into the family of God, which knows even closer ties than those of any human family (Matt 12:46-50). It was quite appropriate that a symbolic greeting be adopted. It was to be “holy” (hagio), i.e., such as is becoming to saints (hagiois, 3:13). This may have been the custom of men kissing men and women kissing women so as to forestall any suspicion of impropriety. A Jewish synagogue practice, it could easily have found its way into early Christian assemblies.175
Third, his final request is very strong and demonstrates a deep concern on the Apostle’s part to see that this epistle was read in the assembly. In the first two requests, he used the imperative mood of command common throughout this last section, but here he switched to a formula that basically consisted of placing someone under oath. “I call on you solemnly” is enorkizo, “to adjure, cause or call on someone to swear,” “to bind by an oath.” To add to the force of this adjuration, he does so by the name and authority of the Lord. Finally, while the “you” is specified, this more than likely refers to the leadership in keeping with the normal responsibilities of elders in the local church. The word for “read” is anaginosko, which is often used of the public reading of Scripture (see Luke 4:16; Acts 15:21; 2 Cor. 3:15; and see the noun anagnosis at 1 Tim. 4:13; Acts 13:15).
But why the change in intensity here? Because the Apostle knew the importance of the truths presented in this epistle for it is God’s truth He uses to transform lives (John 17:17). In commenting on the various reasons for Paul’s change of tone here, Thomas comments:
Very probably Paul sensed the far-reaching import of the teaching of the Epistle and its binding authority as part of a canon of Scripture (1 Cor 14:37). Whatever the case, this charge has implications of divine punishment for failure to comply. The first recipients of the letter, probably the church leaders, were bound under oath “to have this letter read to all the brothers.”
Obviously it was to be read aloud, in line with the classical meaning of anaginosko (“read”). Under restrictions of limited educational privilege, not all participants in Christian circles were able to read for themselves. The further limitation of insufficient copies and expense of writing materials prohibited distribution to all. The only solution was to give the Epistle a place in public worship alongside the OT Scripture, the consequence of which would eventually be ecclesiastical recognition of its authority as an inspired book.176
Finally, with verse 28, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you,” the epistle is brought to a close. The epistle began with the note of grace and ends with the same note. We cannot live apart from God’s grace. It is the grace of the Lord Jesus that makes our salvation and sanctification possible from start to finish.
That the Lord Jesus should be presented as the source of grace … , either alone, as here, cf. Acts 15:11, or in association with God, 2 Ep. 1:12, is significant testimony to His Deity.177
As we have seen, in every chapter of this epistle, the coming of the Lord Jesus has been a very prominent focus (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:10; 5:23). Further, it is the conviction of this author that this is an imminent coming, the blessed hope. Regardless of one’s view of this, however, both the fact of His coming and the events following His coming for the body of Christ are certain. This life is not the end; it is only the beginning. It is a stage of preparation for eternity where all believers will be with Christ for eternity and, if they are faithful in their walk and growth with the Savior, they will also have the awesome privilege of reigning with Christ. These are facts promised us by the Word of God, and such promises and their reality should encourage us to live for the Lord, not in our own strength, but in His. The sure coming of the Lord should encourage us to study the Word, pray, faithfully assemble together for fellowship, worship, the preaching and teaching of Scripture, to love the brethren, and many other biblical responsibilities. All of this we should do knowing that it is the Lord who sanctifies and keeps us, and who will strengthen us both to will and do of His good pleasure.