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1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

The apostle comes to the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians and it seems as if he is compressing all he has to say to this church in a summary form. There is no doubt that these exhortations are related to the situation in the church at Thessalonica, as such, they are not just universal ethical maxim for all people in all places. However, this is not to say these cannot apply to other contexts. In fact other early Christian communities did face issues addressed in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24.


Verse 16-18 address three issues that is joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Paul calls on these Thessalonians Christians to rejoice continually. There is no doubt that joy is a gift of the Spirit.[1] Joy was not something religions of the day spoke about. The church, then,  was somehow extraordinary in making it an important part of her faith. Consequently joy is deeply embedded in the gospel of God and it can only be attested where there is a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.[2] Where there is a deep trust in God, one will find joy since one must believe that God is control of the present and the future to experience joy. This is the reason why joy is possible even in the midst affliction, suffering or even death.[3] The second command Paul gives is that the Thessalonians should pray without ceasing. Paul does not mean they should be in a prayer meeting all day long. He, however, want them to pray frequently. In whatever situation, they should always be praying or be in the mood of prayer.  The third command is give thanks in all circumstances. In ancient world, the gods were the ultimate benefactors of humanity and those they gave their bounty where expected to return appropriate thanks (charitas), this of course was done with expectation of receiving further benefits.[4]  Reciprocity was the order of day even in social relationships. What Paul says here is that the believers are to give thanks in all circumstances rather than just when they receive goodies from God.[5] Yet Paul is not proposing giving thanks for evil things that happen to the people of God. Rather to thank God in all circumstances is to see God working in each and every situation and bringing his will to pass. [6]Paul’s command is not something that the Thessalonians can choose to do or not do; it is at the center of God’s will. This refers back to all things. The three commands of joy, prayer and giving thanks “are not optional, secondary characteristics of the Christian’s existence but stand at the center of God’s plan for his people in Christ Jesus.”[7]


In verses 19-22 Paul shifts to the issue of the Spirit and prophecy. He starts by asserting that the Thessalonians should not quench the Spirit (v.19) and not despise the words of prophecy. (v.20). It is possible that some in the Thessalonian church might have endeavored to forbid the demonstrations of the Spirit within the church.[8]  The practice of quenching the Spirit had to do with subduing the Spirit “from manifesting itself in charismatic activities like speaking in tongues and uttering prophecy within the life of the community.”[9]  For Paul despising prophetic utterances was tantamount to a denial to accept God’s word and his will for the church. At the same time Paul qualifies what he means in verse 21. Prophecy is not to be accepted wholesale it must be tested.[10]  The testing of everything goes hand in hand with holding fast to what is good (v.21) and abstaining from every form of evil (v.22). The Greek verb dokimazete is in the imperative and it has to do with testing something or someone to see if they are fit for public office. In 1 Thess 2:4 Paul uses the verb dokimazo when he says that he and his co-workers have been approved by God as apostles. The Didache even though written later than the letter to the Thessalonians says something related to this verse when it says “But not everyone who speaks in a spirit is a prophet, except he have the behavior of the Lord.”[11] It is, then, not enough to speak a word of prophecy, one’s conduct must in line with the Lord’s requirements.  Even though Paul does not provide the criteria upon which the Thessalonians are to test everything, it is likely that he expected them to evaluate the supposed prophecy and the conduct of the prophets alongside the doctrinal and ethical standards that he provided them.[12]  The community should only pay attention to the revelations that has their origin from the Holy Spirit rather than from any other source.[13]


The last section of this verse Paul expresses his wish for the Thessalonians. His desire is that the God of peace…sanctify you entirely. The language of sanctification recalls the 1 Thess. 4:3 which states that this is the will of God your sanctification. The sanctification Paul wishes for his audience is one that is (holoteleis kai holoklēron [“completely and wholly”]).[14] When Paul’s wish is granted the converts will be complete and blameless (spirit, soul and body) in their every existence at the time the Lord appears.[15] What Paul wishes is total sanctification, one that affects the totality of human existence. In the words of Paige, “Paul prays that God will sanctify the Thessalonians in every aspect of their humanity in this present age.”[16] In verse 24 Paul follows up and declares that “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” This statement provides the surety that what Paul wishes can in fact be granted. It is the nature of God as faithful that makes Paul confidently say he will do this.[17] Using the present tense participle kalōn translates “the one calling” suggesting that God does not only call once but continues to call his people to salvation.[18] It is also means that the people of God have not been called and left on their own, but just like the people of Israel, God continues to be faithful to his people even when they are faithless because he is faithful.[19]


Conclusion

What Paul teaches in this passage was applicable to the Thessalonian Christians in the first century, just as it is for us. We do need to rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances. The Spirit should certainly be allowed to do its work in the community of faith and the word of prophecy must be give a hearing, this, however must be done after testing it. God still desires to make his church holy and He still sanctifies those who desire to be sanctified. His sanctification is holistic extending to the body, soul and spirit. Above all God is still the one who calls and he is faithful to provide sanctification—he will do this. Amen

[1] Terence Peter Paige, 1 & 2 Thessalonians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, 2017, 171.

[2] Gene Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 258.

[3] Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistle to the Thessalonians, New Intern. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 200.

[4] Gene Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 259.

[5] Gene Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 259.

[6] Wanamaker, The Epistle to the Thessalonians, 200.

[7] Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 260.

[8] Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 261.