I Thessalonians 5:12-22
So today we hear more from the “-ans” of the Bible. You know what I mean by that, don’t you? The Bible is full of them, all addressees of letters, mostly from Paul.
You’ve got the Romans, the Ephesians, the Galatians, the Philippians, the Colossians, the Corinthians (who we mentioned two weeks ago), and the Thessalonians.
I don’t know why the author of Hebrews didn’t get the memo. These were all letters to churches. Paul planted many of them. He showed fatherly concern for each one.
Of course, each congregation differed from the others. The same is true today. The issues for the Ephesians were not the same as those facing the Thessalonians.
Incidentally, that’s who we will cover today, looking at Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. Each church had a different surrounding culture.
Each church had its own strengths. Each church had its own weaknesses. To be sure, each church had its own predictable tendencies.
This means a couple of different things for us as we read Paul’s words to them.
First of all, if we believe his words to be the inspired words of God, then they are all profitable and beneficial for us to read. God’s word does not return void.
However, his warnings to the Galatians weren’t exactly what the Ephesians needed to hear. And his encouragement to the Thessalonians might not have fit in with what was going on at Philippi.
Similarly, some of you may read about the struggles of some of these churches and think that Paul’s words really strike a chord.
Others of you might read the exact same passage and find little appropriate to your own life—and yet will connect deeply to a different passage to a different church.
But there will always be those passages that connect with all of us, across the board.
Warnings against sexual immorality are largely meaningless to an 8-year-old. The urgencies of hard work are old hat to the seasoned rancher.
But two weeks ago, we connected with a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that was loaded. Everybody could find something applicable in there.
Today’s passage offers us similar content, I believe. Once again, we will be delving into what it means to live as the church—the body of Jesus Christ.
In this passage, we will find some similar material to Paul’s words to the Corinthians. You may remember what we talked about that morning.
We talked about anger. We talked about falsehood. We talked about generosity.
We talked about using our tongues to build up, rather than to tear down. And we talked about our charge to never grieve the Holy Spirit.
Though very similar in theme, our passage today will speak to other disciplines of life as a Christian and upstanding member in the body of Christ.
But, enough dilly-dallying. Let’s jump right in. We’ll be in chapter five of I Thessalonians. I’ll begin with verse 12. (Read I Thessalonians 5:12-22.)
Were we to go back to the very beginning of this letter, we would see that it was written primarily by Paul, but also by Silas and Timothy.
So, when verse 12 begins with the words “we ask you,” the “we” is a reference to all three men. They have requests of the church members there at Thessalonica.
The first command is that the Thessalonians recognize the leaders among them.
Every church has leaders. Every church needs leaders. Furthermore, not every person can be a leader. Nor should every person be one.
So how might we recognize the church leaders in our midst? Thankfully, Paul gives us some qualifications. First of all, leaders “work hard” among the congregation.
And we need to notice every word there. It says, “Work hard among you.” Hard work in any area of life is a noble and God-ordained characteristic.
But being a hard worker in the field, in the classroom, or in the office does not qualify one to be a leader in the church.
Congregational leaders must be hard workers within the church. They must show commitment to regular gatherings—worship, Sunday School, prayer meetings.
They must visibly demonstrate a willingness not only to come up with ideas but also to see them through and do something about them.
They must do the little, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes behind the scenes tasks of ministry. Yes, they must work hard in our midst.
But verse 12 provides other qualifications. Church leaders must show care for their fellow church members. We often struggle with balancing these two.
It seems that hard work and treating others with care are mutually exclusive endeavors. But leaders must balance the two.
In fact, we leaders ought to be working hard within the church because we care for each other. Finally, leaders admonish those in their midst.
Leaders are ones who give instruction. They teach. They guide. They have wisdom that others don’t have, and they impart that wisdom with caution and care.
And so we are called to recognize these leaders. Pay attention. You know who they are. Some of you are those leaders.
But, beyond recognizing them, we are called to hold them in high regard, according to verse 13. We are called to respect them.
This is not so as to diminish any one of us, as though some were lesser than others.
Nor is this to inflate the egos of these leaders. This would be cause for strife and grumbling. Instead, verse 13 ends with a very important command.
“Live in peace with each other.” Let those words roll around in your head for a moment. Live in peace with each other. That’s a plain-as-day command.
If there are folks within our midst, with whom you are not living at peace, then you are outside the will of God.
Perhaps you didn’t know that. Perhaps you assumed squabbles and grudges were just par for the course in Baptist circles, much like casseroles and committees.
But now you know. We are commanded to live at peace with each other. To walk out of this room and continue to live out of fellowship with someone else in our midst is to live in deliberate sin—in willful violation of God’s command.
And you may say, “Well I don’t know how to fix it!” And I will tell you that Jesus made it clear. If somebody as a problem with you, go to that person before the worship service starts—before Sunday morning rolls around.
Make the first move. Be reconciled. Be a peacemaker. Be willing to live at peace.
To live at peace means to lay down any claims to war. “Well, I’ll apologize to him if he does it first!” That’s not a peaceful attitude. That’s a combative attitude.
Making peace means forgetting about who’s right and who’s wrong.
And some of you in here may decide that you can let this one slide.
You’ll focus on the “bigger” commands. You’ll pretend you didn’t hear this one.
It’s just something little, right? I tell you, the Bible is full of instances where so-called “little” sins brought huge punishment from God.
Sin is an affront to God. It’s a slap in the face and a punch in the gut. It’s a heart-breaker. Little sins are about like little cancers. They don’t really exist.
Ask King Saul. Ask the men who reached out to touch the ark. Ask Peter as he denied Jesus. Ask Adam and Eve. I mean, they just ate some fruit—right?
Paul and his companions are not done with their challenges. They urge the Thessalonian brothers and sisters in three other ways in verse 14.
The first deals with the idle. They are to admonish the idle. A better translation is to warn the unruly.
Every church has those who are disruptive and undisciplined. And every congregation must admonish such people.
Now, before we get into these other ones—encouraging the downtrodden and helping the weak—let’s pause a moment here.
I always shudder a little bit when the Bible tells us to warn others who are unruly and undisciplined. First of all, we all have our own definition of undisciplined.
Secondly, we have our own ways of “warning” others. Some of our “warnings” come off as judgmental, arrogant, and even hateful.
We have to hold in tension our command to warn the unruly with our command to live at peace with one another.
Beyond that, notice that we are called to be patient with everyone. Our warnings must be seasoned with peace and patience. This is not an easy thing to do.
It can only be done in the most prayerful and careful of ways.
Paul continues in verse 14 with a challenge regarding the disheartened and the weak. There’s a word that keeps cropping up in Bible readings regarding church.
I’m talking about encouragement. We have to encourage those who are worn out and worn down. We will always have these people in our midst.
These are people for whom the circumstances of life have become a tremendous burden. I’m talking about those with health concerns, from cancer to arthritis.
I’m talking about those facing mounting costs, from car troubles to taking care of aging parents.
I’m talking about those facing relational difficulties, from betrayal to death.
We have to be encouraging each other. Yes, pray for these folks, but why not let them know you are praying for them as well?
Paul also mentions helping the weak. These are those folks who society walks over and puts down, according to commentator Gene Green.
These folks aren’t merely disheartened for a season. They are regularly beaten down and broken. They are searching for any sort of help.
Church should always be a place where the broken down and beaten up find help.
Then we get to verse 15. Don’t repay evil for evil. Our Romans passage told us that vengeance belongs to the Lord. It’s His to dole out.
It doesn’t say that vengeance belongs to God…unless you are really mad. It doesn’t say that vengeance belongs to God…unless he talked about your momma.
It doesn’t say that vengeance belongs to God…unless you are a woman scorned.
Our Thessalonians passage says that no one should repay evil with evil. But isn’t that our natural stance? “But he did it to me!”
And it goes beyond avoiding revenge. God always takes it farther, doesn’t He?
Instead we are to always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Always seek to do good.
It doesn’t matter how you have been treated. You simply seek after the good. And you do it for each other, here within the church.
But you also do it for all people. Everybody gets that same treatment. And I get it. This is tough stuff. You may be sitting there thinking, “How can I do this?”
All I can say is this. If somebody told you, when you decided to follow Jesus, that this would be easy, then they were selling you some snake oil.
Jesus never once tells us that this is going to be easy. This takes effort. It takes discipline. It takes getting up and dusting off after we fail.
It takes reliance on the Lord. It takes working this out with Him, sometimes in the most agonizing fashion—always in the most prayerful fashion.
You don’t think it’s difficult? Then you probably aren’t walking with the same God I’m walking with. His ways fly in the face of our human nature.
Just look at our next commands, starting with verse 16. Rejoice always.
Never have two little words made me feel so bad about myself. We just sang that fun, upbeat song—rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say, “Rejoice!”
And some of us sang it while frowning. Some of us sang it while wondering how we’ll endure whatever’s facing us in life.
Crabby Christians can do as much damage as the most immoral heathen. Complaining Christians can do as much damage as the fool who puts his hope in a no-god idol—in this world and all that it offers.
There are no exceptions! Rejoicing goes beyond being happy. We aren’t expected to be happy all the time. I don’t even think that God’s primary concern is us being happy. Rejoicing means we know the end of the story.
Rejoicing means we know the God who saves—the God who will ultimately win, the God who is with us.
Rejoicing means we celebrate as we repeat those verses of Christ Tomlin’s song, Our God—and if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what could stand against?
The little commands—well, little in size but big in impact—continue in verses 17 and 18. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in everything.
This does not mean that we walk around, individual moment by individual moment, talking aloud to God and repeating the words “thank you” again and again.
But prayer and thanksgiving must become a lifestyle. Look at it like this. My wife, Kelley, and I have played golf twice in the last two weeks.
It’s been a lot of fun. Prior to those two instances, however, we last played in October, I believe. Golf is a nice add-on to my life, but it’s not part of my lifestyle.
Unfortunately, for many of us, prayer and thanksgiving are add-ons to life. We pray at church, when the preacher tells us to and how he tells us to.
We pray at the dinner table. And we pray when we really need—or, better, want—something. That’s not a lifestyle. Here’s how to tell whether it’s a lifestyle for you.
Do you only think about praying at certain times—routine times? Or do seemingly random occurrences throughout your day drive you to prayer?
Do you carve out time for quiet, focused prayer every day? Does your prayer time often get bumped for other things, more pressing things?
Do you ever simply talk to God, or is your prayer time more like blowing through a checklist? Do you ever feel like you have spent time with God? Or does it feel more like accomplishing a duty or an obligation?
As with all of these things, a lifestyle of prayer requires discipline and commitment.
It requires pressing on, even when your prayer life seems to dry up. It requires reading and studying about how to pray. It requires listening and meditating.
It requires knowing Jesus and His will. It requires praying for the right things—the big things, the God-ordained things, the things that glorify Him and not you.
And what about thanksgiving? That’s equally difficult to make into a lifestyle. We are so often known as people dissatisfied with what we have, rather than grateful for what we have. Do you only thank God when you get what you ask for?
Or do you thank Him for whatever comes your way? Do you ever write thank you notes? There’s a good reason for using the phrase “thank you”.
The only object in that phrase is the person you are talking to. It takes the focus off yourself and puts onto another. Here’s a simple test.
Which two-word phrase passes your lips more often: “I want” or “thank you”?
The last few verses of our passage are quite interesting. The Thessalonians are commanded to avoid quenching the Spirit.
This is in the context of prophecy. We see that in verse 20. They are not to despise or disrespect the prophecies. We misunderstand prophecy sometimes.
Because of great men such as Isaiah and Ezekiel, we tend to assume that prophecy means predicting the future.
In truth, the literal definition of a prophet is “mouthpiece of God”. A prophecy is a word, straight from God.
As you probably well know, too often people have made false claims, saying that the words they speak were given to directly to them from God.
Unfortunately, we can get so skeptical that we will ignore anything that doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions.
You know, that’s a great way to describe the Holy Spirit. He does not fit into our preconceived notions. God is not bound by our understanding of Him, because His ways are not our ways and His thoughts our not our thoughts.
We need to take verse 21 seriously. We need to examine things carefully. Too often, God is speaking to us.
But we are too busy. Or, perhaps, we hear and quickly assume, “Nah, God wouldn’t ask me to do that?” That’s because, whatever that was, it didn’t fit into our preconceived notions of how God works and our preconceived plans for our lives.
When we do that, we quench the Spirit. Is that what you are doing with your life?
Is your lifestyle nothing more than that which puts out the flame of God’s Spirit working in your life? Paul, in another letter, urged Timothy to fan into flame the gift of God. That gift is later described as the Spirit, given to us by God.
To ignore God’s commands in this passage today is to quench God’s working in our lives. To embrace these commands is to fan that gift into blazing, glorious flame.
I’m not completely sure what God might be saying to each of you, but I do know this.
It’s time to listen. And it’s time to respond. We are going to sing in a moment, and we are going to bow. And you simply need an audience of one.
It needs to be time between you and God—just you two, just right now. You listen and you respond, as you feel led. (Pray.)