The next and final section of the letter is a series of very brief ethical instructions. Many students of Paul find these sections uninteresting because they don’t deal with “real” theology — just how to live together in community.
But many scholars are now reminding us that these sections on practical Christian living are often the very point of the letter. The theology was covered to explain why it is that we should live together in peace, abstain from evil, etc.
The ethics may be obvious to someone raised as a Christian, but to someone converted to Christianity then or today, such instruction is imperative. Just as was true when Paul was doing mission work, we cannot assume that our converts understand Christian morality. Indeed, many converts will bring with them ethical standards very much at odds with Christ’s standards.
In fact, there are many of Paul’s ethical teachings that even those raised in the church don’t practice and even preach against. Therefore, working through the ethical sections can be time very well spent for even very mature Christians. It’s easy to forget the basics.
And as we’ve studied in several recent series, the NT concept of the Christian life is that we begin by allowing God to build us into a Christian community called “the church.” Paul emphasizes life in church far more than he addresses evangelism or social justice. He certainly favors these things! But these things need to be built on a foundation of a holy and united church.
Therefore, 1 Thess doesn’t conclude with a lesson on inviting your friends and neighbors to church or petitioning the government for fairer treatment of widows. Paul concludes with how to get along as a community. He emphasizes community spiritual formation to the near exclusion of all else — and this doesn’t fit our understanding and so we ignore it. But Paul keeps returning to how to live together in letter after letter — which sounds a lot like Jesus, who spent much of his three-year ministry teaching on how to live together in community.
Does this result in an inward focus? Well, yes and no. Yes, we are focused on living together as Jesus would have us live together. But our resulting holiness and unity will make the church more attractive and so make Jesus more attractive. That leads to evangelism. And as we learn to love each other, including sharing with each other based on need, we learn how to better serve those outside the church.
But love for fellow Christians is first. If we aren’t a loving, united community, what are we inviting people to? You see, the great evangelical mistake is to prioritize evangelism over love for each other. So we convert people to fear of hell and a desire for heaven, but the church — and love for each other — isn’t an emphasis. Indeed, it’s not unusual to find very spiritual, very devoted Christians with no congregational affiliation because their goal is heaven, not the Kingdom.
And Paul would say that there’s no difference. The afterlife is the full realization of the Kingdom. Life in Jesus today is a partial realization of the Kingdom. And if you don’t much care for the partially realized Kingdom, well, we’re going to be with the very same people in the afterlife forever. We’re going to be worshiping God forever. And so, if we don’t enjoy church today, we’ll likely hate the afterlife.
1 Thess 5:14
(1 Thess. 5:14 ESV) 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
Paul is speaking of our fellow church members. The church has been in Paul’s mind for the last several verses.
Paul believes Christians should work, not just to support themselves but also to have money to share with those in need (Eph 4:28). Therefore, those who refuse to support themselves are to be admonished. Paul doesn’t direct this instruction to the elders. It’s a brother to brother sort of thing. We are to have the moral courage to call each other to account, and we are to have the courage to permit our brothers to do this — gently and in love.
The word translated “fainthearted” could also mean discouraged. The KJV “feebleminded” is just wrong. Paul lists encouragement as a gift of the Spirit in Rom 12, and I’m persuaded that it’s one of the most important gifts. It’s rarely preached on as, I guess, too obvious or something, but congregations with encouragers will flourish. Those without encouragers will struggle and even die.
Again, this is not the elders’ special job. It’s not assigned particularly to the preacher. It’s a brother to brother sort of thing.
“Help the weak” likely does not refer to those weak in the faith (as in 1 Cor 8-10 and Rom 14). Rather, it likely refers to members with physical or mental weaknesses, perhaps due to persecution — but I wouldn’t read “weak” to only include the persecuted. It’s probably close enough to interpret as “help those who need help.” Just that simple because it really doesn’t matter why someone is in need — so long as we aren’t being enablers and making it easy to live off the church rather than working and handling money prudently. Some people need help with budgeting and setting priorities rather than handouts.
Patience is, of course, a lesson that comes from a true shepherd. Those who’ve spent time working with members who need help know how the work can tax anyone’s patience. I mean, there’s no sense in romanticizing things. Admonishing the idle and helping members handle money and such like is not easy and not fun. It’s like disciplining children — very rewarding and very necessary in the long run, but emotionally exhausting in the short run. This is one of many reasons God gives us his Spirit — we need divine help to do these things and to keep doing them.
1 Thess 5:15
(1 Thess. 5:15 ESV) See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
Sounds like Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. We are not allowed vengeance or retaliation.
The second clause extends our Christian ethics to how we deal with unbelievers. We first seek the good of our fellow believers, but this not enough. We must also help “everyone” — Christians in other congregations and unbelievers, even persecutors.
Nevertheless, in 1 Thes. 5:15 the apostle demands an unqualified concern on the part of all his readers for the well-being of both those within and outside the community without offering either negative or positive motivation. For this reason it seems likely that Paul is reiterating here what he had previously taught the Thessalonians. Whatever may have been his explicit motivation, the underlying motives probably reflect his desire to foster solidarity in the community and to encourage the sort of behavior toward those outside that might lead to their conversion and inclusion in it, even among those who had been responsible for afflicting the community at an earlier stage.
Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 199.
1 Thess 5:16-18
(1 Thess. 5:16-18 ESV) 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I’ve long struggled with v. 16. I mean, how do you command someone to rejoice? Doesn’t it have to be spontaneous and heartfelt to be rejoicing? How do you make yourself rejoice?
Then again, how dare we ignore this rule and spend our time together in mournful reverence? When we are gathered — and God is present among us — how can we refuse to rejoice? Why sing at 15 beats a minute? Why enter our time of worship in silence? How do our traditional worship practices measure up to this command?
Of course, Paul isn’t speaking solely of worship, but “always” would seem to include our time together. And our times together should be joyous — not called joyous but actually somber.
It would help if we were to preach a gospel that gives us reason to rejoice. I mean, a proper gospel sermon shouldn’t include an exhortation to rejoice — because the gospel should be sufficient to cause us to rejoice. And so, if our assemblies aren’t joyous, it’s likely we’re preaching a defective gospel.
Giving thanks in all circumstances would naturally help us rejoice because it would discipline our minds to see the good even in difficult times.
“Pray without ceasing” is likely best translated as in the NET Bible: “Never stop praying.” Again, if we’re in conversation with God about each day’s events, it’ll be easier to be thankful and so to rejoice.