The Sheep’s Responsibilities to the Great Shepherd—Part 1: Joyfulness, Prayerfulness, and Thankfulness
(1 Thessalonians 5:16–18)
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (5:16–18)
If God’s flock is to be healthy, above all else the relationship between the sheep and the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ the Son of God, must be right. For that to happen, believers must be mindful of their responsibilities to worship and serve the Lord their King. The words of the first three stanzas of Frances Havergal’s classic hymn, “Take My Life, and Let It Be,” perhaps capture the essence of those responsibilities better than any ordinary prose could:
Take my life, and let it be Consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days; Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move At the impulse of thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be Swift and beautiful for thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing, Always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be Filled with messages from thee.
Explicitly and implicitly, that hymn contains the spirit of the first three of Paul’s exhortations to the Thessalonians to strengthen their inner spiritual lives and thus be able to fulfill their responsibilities to God (1 Thess. 5:16–22). The three exhortations go right to the starting point of the believer’s attitude: the exhortation to constant joyfulness, to constant prayerfulness, and to constant thankfulness.
The Exhortation to Constant Joyfulness
Rejoice always; (5:16)
A thorough and accurate understanding of Christian joy is essential for all believers. Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to rejoice always may seem absurd and impossible to obey given life’s inevitable difficulties, but as a divinely inspired command, believers must heed it. Any failure to do so constitutes a disregard for Scripture’s clear instructions and therefore sinful disobedience.
Many other statements throughout God’s Word enjoin the believer to have joy in all situations (Deut. 12:18; Neh. 8:10; Pss. 2:11; 5:11; 32:11; 68:3; 100:2; 132:16; Isa. 29:19; Joel 2:23–24; Hab. 3:17–18; Matt. 5:10–12; Luke 6:22–23; 10:20; John 16:20–22; cf. Pss. 16:8–9; 21:6; 28:7; 132:16; Isa. 35:10; 55:12; 56:7; Zech. 9:9; Acts 5:41; Rom. 15:13; 2 Cor. 10:17; Eph. 5:9; Phil. 2:17–18; 4:4; Col. 1:24; James 1:2; 5:13; 1 Peter 1:6; 4:13). While he was aware of the many injunctions to rejoice, Paul also recognized the existence of negative human emotions like sorrow and distress (e.g., Acts 20:19, 37–38; Rom. 12:15; Phil. 3:18; cf. Isa. 32:11–12; Matt. 9:23; Mark 5:38–39). However, the apostle also knew believers must transcend their sorrows with a continual focus on true joy; they must be as he wrote of himself, “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). Such a focus is possible because biblical joy comes from God, not merely from a superficial emotional response to positive circumstances (cf. Phil. 3:3). Christian joy constantly flows from what the believer continually knows to be true about God and about his eternal, saving relationship to Him—regardless of circumstances (Pss. 16:11; 68:3; Luke 2:10–11; 24:52; Acts 16:34; Rom. 5:2, 11; 1 Peter 1:8). Supernatural joy is from the Holy Spirit; thus Paul listed it as an aspect of spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22; cf. Rom. 14:17).
The phrase translated rejoice always literally reads “at all times be rejoicing” and emphasizes that truly joyful Christians will always have a deep-seated confidence in God’s sovereign love and mighty power on behalf of His own, and in His providential working of all things according to His perfect plan (Matt. 6:33–34; Rom. 8:28–30; 11:33; Phil. 1:12; cf. Gen. 50:20; Ps. 139:1–5). Therefore, no event or circumstance in the Christian’s life, apart from sin, can or should diminish his true joy.
A proper perspective on biblical joy provides numerous reasons for believers to rejoice. First of all, they should rejoice always in appreciation for God’s righteous character, which, even in trouble, He demonstrates so faithfully to believers. The psalmist declared, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and I am helped; therefore my heart exults, and with my song I shall thank Him” (Ps. 28:7; cf. Neh. 8:10; Pss. 71:23; 89:16; Isa. 61:10). Second, they should have constant joy out of appreciation for Christ’s redemptive work, which derives from a gracious, loving, merciful, and compassionate God (Luke 2:10; 10:20; Rom. 5:1–2, 11; 1 Peter 1:8–9), and for His infallible instruction (John 15:11; 16:30; 1 John 5:20). Third, they should rejoice in appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s ministry on their behalf (Acts 10:44; Rom. 14:17; cf. 8:14–27). Fourth, believers should rejoice always because of the vast array of spiritual blessings they possess (cf. Eph. 1:3–4; Phil. 4:13, 19; Col. 2:9–14; 2 Peter 1:3). Fifth, they should have joy in God’s providence as He orchestrates everything for their benefit (Rom. 8:28–30; James 1:2–4). Sixth, they should be joyful out of gratitude for the promise of future glory (cf. Ps. 16:8–11; Matt. 5:12; Luke 10:20; 1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 1:18–21; 3:20; Jude 24). Seventh, answered prayer should always be a source of joy (Pss. 66:20; 116:1, 17; 118:21; John 16:24), as should an eighth reason, an appreciation for the gift of God’s Word (Col. 3:16; cf. Pss. 19:7–11; 119:14, 111, 162; Jer. 15:16). Ninth, the privilege of genuine fellowship should bring continual joy to the believer (1 Thess. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:4; Philem. 7; 2 John 12). And finally, true believers cannot help but express their joy at the saving proclamation of the gospel, as the early church did: “Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they [Paul, Barnabas, and other believers] were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren” (Acts 15:3; cf. Phil. 1:18).
The joyful Christian is more concerned about glorifying God than about avoiding temporal difficulties (Rom. 8:18; cf. Heb. 11:13–16, 25). He thinks more of his spiritual riches and eternal glory than he does any present pain or material poverty (1 Peter 1:6–7; 4:13; James 5:11; cf. 2 Cor. 6:4–10; 1 Peter 5:10). Believers who live like that will fulfill the command to rejoice always.
The Exhortation to Constant Prayerfulness
pray without ceasing; (5:17)
Joyful believers will also be prayerful believers. Those who live their Christian lives in joyful dependency on God will continually recognize their own insufficiency and therefore constantly be in an attitude of prayer. Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing is thus a divine mandate to all believers. Pray is from proseuchomai, the most common New Testament word for prayer (e.g., Matt. 6:5–6; Mark 11:24; Luke 5:16; 11:1–2; Acts 10:9; Rom. 8:26; 1 Cor. 14:13–15; Eph. 6:18; Col. 1:9; 2 Thess. 3:1; James 5:13–14, 16). It encompasses all the aspects of prayer: submission, confession, petition, intercession, praise, and thanksgiving. Without ceasing means “constant” and defines prayer not as some perpetual activity of kneeling and interceding but as a way of life marked by a continual attitude of prayer.
One cannot begin to understand Paul’s command to continual prayerfulness without considering how faithfully Jesus prayed during His earthly ministry. As the Son of God, He was in constant communion with the Father, and the Gospels provide many examples of the Lord’s consistent prayer life (Matt. 14:23; Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 9:18, 28–29; cf. John 6:15; 17:1–26). During times when He went to the Mount of Olives to pray all night (Luke 21:37–38; John 8:1–2) He undoubtedly prayed with a kind of intensity that believers know little or nothing about. The classic example of such intensity is when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion. “And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray.… And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:41, 44). Matthew 26:38–46 records that Jesus’ prayer in the garden was a prolonged experience in which He pleaded three times for the Father to spare Him from “this cup” (v. 39)—the divine wrath against sin, which He would have to bear the next day in His substitutionary death on the cross for sinners. (For a complete exposition of this passage, see Matthew 24–28, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1989], 167–78.) That level of intense agonizing is beyond anything Christians have to face, but it illustrates the persistence Jesus spoke of in the parables of the friend in need (Luke 11:5–10) and the relentless widow (Luke 18:1–8). It also uniquely exemplifies what the apostle Paul meant when he instructed the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing.
From its inception, the early church demonstrated a Christlike earnestness and constancy in its prayer life. Luke wrote how devoted Christ’s followers were to prayer, even before the Day of Pentecost: “These all [the apostles] with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14). Later they gave themselves regularly to prayer (Acts 2:42). In their role as leaders of the young church, the apostles determined to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Also, diligent prayer by believers played a part in Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:11–16; cf. 4:23–31).
The New Testament emphasis on the importance of prayer cannot be overstated. Already in 1 Thessalonians, Paul had written, “As we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face” (3:10). Many of Paul’s other epistles also indicate the importance of prayer (Rom. 12:12; 1 Cor. 7:5; Eph. 6:18–19; Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:8).
The strong scriptural emphasis on prayer suggests a substantial list of motivations for Christians to pray without ceasing. First of all—and the highest of all motives for believers—is their desire to glorify the Lord. Jesus taught the disciples in His model prayer, “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ ” (Matt. 6:9–10; cf. Dan. 9:4–19). Second, the desire for fellowship with God motivates believers to pray: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1–2; cf. 27:1, 4; 63:1–2; 84:1–2). Jesus said believers’ prayers would be answered in order that “the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13; cf. v. 14).
Third, believers will pray for God to meet their needs: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11; cf. Luke 11:9–13; 1 John 5:14–15). Fourth, Christians will pray persistently for God’s wisdom as they live in the midst of a sinful world: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5; cf. Matt. 6:13; 1 Cor. 10:13). Fifth, the desire for deliverance from trouble motivates prayer. Jonah is a vivid example of such motivation: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish, and he said, ‘I called out of my distress to the Lord, and He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice’ ” (Jonah 2:1–2; cf. Ps. 20:1).
Sixth, all Christians desire relief from fear and worry. Paul encouraged the Philippians: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6–7; cf. Ps. 4:1). A seventh motive is gratitude for past blessings, as the psalmist prayed:
O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us the work that You did in their days, in the days of old. You with Your own hand drove out the nations; then You planted them; You afflicted the peoples, then You spread them abroad. For by their own sword they did not possess the land, and their own arm did not save them, but Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your presence, for You favored them. You are my King, O God. (Ps. 44:1–4a; cf. Phil. 1:3–5)
Eighth, believers pray to be freed from the guilt of sin. David expressed this when he wrote, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:5; cf. Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:9). Ninth, believers’ concern for salvation of the lost causes them to pray. Paul captured this motivation in his words to Timothy:
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1–4; cf. Matt. 9:37–38; Rom. 10:1)
Finally, and certainly as important as any of the motivations for Christians to pray without ceasing, is their desire for spiritual growth—for themselves and for fellow believers. Paul’s petition to the Lord for the Ephesians is a model in this regard:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:14–21; cf. 1:15–19; Col. 1:9–12)
The Exhortation to Constant Thankfulness
in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (5:18)
Being unthankful is the very essence of the unregenerate heart. The apostle Paul identified unbelievers as ungrateful: “For even though they knew God [through conscience and general revelation], they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). But when God regenerates an individual, He produces a new heart that longs to obey Paul’s injunction and in everything give thanks. That simple, direct statement allows believers no excuses to be ungrateful. In everything (en panti) refers to all that occurs in life. No matter what struggles, trials, testings, or vicissitudes occur in the lives of Christians (with the obvious exception of personal sins), they are to give thanks (Acts 5:41; cf. James 1:2–3; 1 Peter 1:6–9). Thankfulness therefore should be part of the fabric of the regenerate life (Ps. 136:1–3; Dan. 6:10; Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:17; Heb. 13:15), a gracious fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work within the believer’s heart (cf. Col. 2:7).
It is spiritually abnormal for Christians to be unthankful. Unthankfulness disobeys the many Scripture texts that enjoin the believer to a life of gratitude. Romans 8:28 sets forth the overarching principle: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” God’s providence—His sovereign blending of all of life’s contingencies for believers’ ultimate blessing—causes them to be thankful for everything in life, knowing that it fits into His eternal purpose for them (cf. Gen. 50:20; Pss. 37:28; 91:3–4; 145:9; Prov. 19:21).
When the early church met, one of its main purposes was to give thanks to God. That is implicit even in Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians concerning the proper use of tongues (languages) during their worship services.
So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. (1 Cor. 14:12–17)
Paul’s other letters remind believers to express their thankfulness and thereby be distinct from the ungrateful, unbelieving culture around them. “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3–4; cf. 2 Cor. 4:15; 9:11).
Ephesians 5:18–20 clearly affirms that Christians ought to be known by their constant thankfulness:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father. (cf. Col. 2:6–7; 3:15–17; 4:2.)
Even in times of great anxiety, fear, worry, and stress, a prayerful attitude of thanksgiving should characterize believers (Phil. 4:6–7).
Paul’s statement, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus, attaches to all three commands in this passage. It is God’s will that all those who are in Christ Jesus should express constant joy, constant prayer, and constant thanksgiving. And God not only mandates those expressions of righteousness, but He makes it possible for believers to articulate them (cf. Phil. 2:13)—and is pleased when they do.
The Spirit of Joy
1 Thessalonians 5:16–22
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess. 5:16–18)
Having arrived in the final section of Paul’s message to the Thessalonians before his benediction, we are prompted to ask a question: What is the purpose of the church? This question is closely linked to Paul’s final exhortations, since from the beginning of this letter he has identified the Thessalonian congregation as a good church. Paul has not written to correct a major doctrinal error, as in Galatians, or to rebuke major moral lapses, as he will later do in 1 Corinthians. Instead, Paul has written to express his joy over the Thessalonians’ faith, love, and hope, to address questions about Christ’s second coming, and to deal with minor concerns. As he concludes his letter, he gives his general pastoral encouragement for them to press on and fulfill their calling together.
So what is the primary calling of the church? Some people say that the main purpose of the church is evangelism. After all, Jesus told the apostles to “go … and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Those who think this way look on the church as an army conquering the world through its witness. Others answer that the church’s purpose is to do ministry in the world. Jesus rejoiced in Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (25:35). On this view, the church is mainly a social-service agency. Still others think of the church as a safe place where we can escape the damage occurring in our world. Those who think this way look on the church as a fortress and a refuge.
According to Paul, none of these is the primary calling of the church. Certainly, the church must evangelize, minister, and protect, but these are not God’s main purposes for the church. According to Paul, the purpose of the church is that we, God’s people, should grow spiritually so that we increasingly attain to Christlike holiness and maturity. This principle is perhaps most clearly expressed in the fourth chapter of Ephesians, a letter that is widely regarded as the most full and developed expression of Paul’s pastoral philosophy. There, he writes that we are to attain “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.… Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:13–15).
This definition challenges the kind of Christianity that is common today. For many church members, Christian faith resides in the background of their lives. They think little about the Bible or God or their own spiritual condition, and they draw from very little of the power for godliness that is available to them in Christ. For many, Christianity is mainly the comfort that we can dial 911 to heaven and make an emergency call when needed. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asks, “Is Christian truth something you like to have, and to know that it is there if you are taken desperately ill, or some loved one is taken ill, or if you are suddenly confronted by the loss of your income, or when some disaster takes place, or when you are on your death bed?”
If this describes your Christianity, then you should realize that it is very far from the conception not only of Paul but also of Jesus Christ. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed, “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The essence of salvation is knowing God in a personal relationship that grows continually in this life until, in eternity to come, we are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).
A Trinitarian Relationship with God
As Paul concludes his first letter to the Thessalonians, he is concerned to direct the new believers to a spiritual maturity in which their relationship to God has grown and been strengthened. Here, as elsewhere, Paul conceives of our relationship to God in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity. There is only one God, but God is known in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paul’s concluding exhortations clearly follow this biblical pattern: through our relationship with God the Son, believers are brought into communion with God the Father, through the power provided by God the Spirit (Eph. 2:18).
In 1 Thessalonians 5:14–15, the apostle calls believers to enter sacrificially into the ministry of the Son. To heed Paul’s call to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who began the Last Supper by donning a servant’s towel and washing his disciples’ feet. “I have given you an example,” he said, “that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). His example called them, as it calls us, to humble, personal, and sacrificial care for the well-being of others.
Paul’s exhortations in 1 Thessalonians 5:16–22 open up further dimensions of the Trinity by teaching us how to relate to the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that while the Son accomplishes our salvation, the Father plays the role of ordaining his saving will for us. Paul describes in verses 16–18 “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” in terms of living consciously in the Father’s love. Moreover, the Holy Spirit has the role of applying God’s saving work in our lives. Therefore, in verses 19–22, Paul urges us to walk intentionally in step with the Holy Spirit.
Living in the Father’s Love
Since our study of 1 Thessalonians 5:14–15 considered Paul’s charge to imitate the servant ministry of God’s Son, we progress in verse 16 to living consciously in the presence of the Father’s love. Paul expresses this principle in terms of a threefold exhortation: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). All three of these responses—joy, prayer, and thanksgiving—are by-products of a life consciously opened to the Father’s love.
When speaking of Christian joy, we must first differentiate between true spiritual joy and the giddy emotionalism of the world. Unbelievers are happy when their circumstances are good. Christian joy, in contrast, does not depend on how well things are going, but is able to flourish even amid great afflictions. This was the setting in Thessalonica: it was to a persecuted church with many troubles that Paul gave his exhortation, “Rejoice always.”
The commands of 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 are very terse, lacking any development. This probably reflects the fact that Paul had recently spent time with the Thessalonians, so they could remember his more detailed teaching on subjects such as joy, prayer, and thanksgiving. Fortunately for us, Paul expands on these themes in his other letters, as do the other apostles in their writings, so we may consider his brief teaching in our passage in light of that broader instruction.
Speaking of joy, if pleasant circumstances are not the cause of a Christian’s happiness, then what are the sources of our rejoicing? First, Christians rejoice in the Father’s gift of his Son to be our Savior. The Christian says, “No matter what the world may do to me, God has given his Son Jesus for my salvation!” Paul reasoned this way in Romans 8:32, saying that since God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” John Lillie notes some of our reasons for rejoicing in Christ:
What is there that our ruined nature needs, which it cannot find in Christ?—atoning blood, to cleanse from all sin—a righteousness, in which not even the eye of the Divine holiness can discern spot or blemish—subduing, renewing power, to form us into the Divine image—a Teacher, to instruct our ignorance—a Friend, to cheer us—a kindred High Priest, to intercede for us in the heavenly places, and reconcile us to God—a wise, faithful, gentle, almighty Shepherd, to lead us, and feed us, and guard us through the wilderness into the bright, spacious, ever fresh and unfading pastures of eternity.
According to Peter, rejoicing in Jesus is one of the chief marks of a true Christian. He writes: “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Jesus spoke in the same emotional key when he said that “father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day” (John 8:56). The angels who heralded Jesus’ birth gave us an example of rejoicing by announcing “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Christians may and should rejoice in all settings for God’s gift of his Son.
A second source of Christian joy is the relationship with the Father that Jesus has secured by his saving work—what Paul described in Romans 5:1 as “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The knowledge of God’s sovereign care compensates for all manner of earthly troubles, so that Christians can rejoice even in the most barren times. Habakkuk memorably expressed this reality:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Hab. 3:17–19)
This example points out a third source of the believer’s joy, namely, the Bible’s testimony to God’s saving promises. God’s Word assures us that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Psalm 55:22 encourages us, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” These and myriad other promises enable the Christian to “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” and even to “rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:2–3).
In addition to joy, Christians are to live in an attitude of continual prayer. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul says (1 Thess. 5:17). He is not suggesting that Christians drop all our other activities so as only to pray, but urges a heart that is always open to God. Paul advocates prayer not merely as an action but also as an attitude. J. B. Lightfoot wrote: “It is not in the moving of the lips, but in the elevation of the heart to God, that the essence of prayer consists. Thus amidst the commonest duties and recreations of life it is still possible to be engaged in prayer.” The prayerful attitude that Paul seeks was lived by Enoch and Noah, who according to the Bible “walked with God” (Gen. 5:24; 6:9).
It is not difficult to see the relationship between rejoicing in the Lord and prayer, since Paul frequently connected them. In Romans 12:12, he wrote: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Similarly, in Philippians, when he commanded believers to “rejoice in the Lord always,” he followed this command with an exhortation to prayer: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:4, 6). Starting with the joy of knowing God, “believers are so to cultivate a spirit of constant prayerfulness that their whole lives will be permeated by the presence of God.”
The third leg of Paul’s call to live in God’s presence is to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). How are Christians to be thankful for trials and tribulations? The answer is that our faith turns us away from ourselves and onto God. Just as David faced giant Goliath without fear by his faith in God, Christians face all threats and dangers with gratitude to the God who they know is sovereignly ruling for his glory and our salvation.
The great Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield told the story of a Christian man who traveled west during the days of the pioneers. One day he found himself in the middle of a gunfight in a wild western town. The whole town was in an uproar, but he saw one man who—despite all the commotion—remained calm, cool, and collected. The traveler was so amazed at the man’s composure that he said to himself, “Now there is a man who knows his theology.” At this he walked up to him and asked the first question in the Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” The man answered correctly, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” “Ah!” said he; “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why that is just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder. Young people who are raised on the biblical truth of God’s sovereignty as summarized in the Shorter Catechism grow up to be adults who possess confidence in God’s working for his glory and our salvation.
Thinking on this truth caused the Scottish preacher George Matheson to grow in spiritual maturity. Matheson had often trusted God to help him manage the near-blindness that he had suffered since childhood, but he could not remember ever thanking God for this dreadful affliction. Then he prayed: “My God, I have never thanked you for my ‘thorn’. I have thanked you a thousand times for my roses, but never once for my ‘thorn’.… Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.” Likewise, when we realize that God is sovereignly working in all our circumstances, knowing the faithfulness of his love, we will thank the Lord at all times.
Paul notes that these gracious responses to God’s loving presence are “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18). God does not necessarily will that we should have good health or earthly riches, faithful friends or successful careers. God does something better than these things for us: he gives us his Son to be our Savior, and in his Word he promises us eternal life in glory. It is his will that we should grow into the maturity of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, because of and “in Christ Jesus.” God’s grace is revealed to us in Christ, and the Holy Spirit’s power for this spiritual transformation comes through faith in Jesus.
Knowing that these blessings are found in Christ Jesus warns us against directly seeking after joy, prayerfulness, or thanksgiving. We do not attain to joy by seeking to be happy, but by seeking Christ and by coming to God through the promises of his Word. We do not attain to prayer by means of rigorous schedules, but by realizing all that God is and has for us in Christ. We will become thankful not by means of reminders that we place on our desks but by coming to know God better and reflecting on everything that he has secured for us eternally in his Son. In short, it is through a worshiping heart that is directed to God that these graces arise in our souls. Psalm 16:8–9 declares: “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices.” It is the trusting and worshiping heart, David asserts, that knows the joy of the Lord.
Fueling the Flame of the Holy Spirit
Paul’s final exhortations concern the believer’s cooperation with the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Just as Christians are to enter sacrificially into the servant ministry of the Son and live consciously in the Father’s love, we are also to fuel the flame of the Holy Spirit.
Along these lines, Paul urges his readers, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19). The ministry of the Holy Spirit is sometimes compared to a fire (Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:3), so resisting the Spirit’s ministry is similar to dousing a fire with water or ashes. Presumably, this quenching takes place when believers crowd out God’s Word, prayer, and corporate worship with earthly pursuits or sinful pleasures. The result is that the effects of the Spirit’s work are diminished, like the flickering flames of a fire that has been deprived of oxygen. Leon Morris suggests problems that Paul had identified earlier in this letter: “Loafing, immorality, and other sins … will quench the Spirit in a man’s life, and result in the loss of spiritual power and joy.”
Paul’s particular concern focuses on neglecting or rejecting God’s revealed Word. “Do not despise prophecies,” he writes (1 Thess. 5:20). Paul occasionally mentions the New Testament prophets (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 3:5; 4:11). We remember that these early churches did not yet possess the written New Testament, so God provided prophets to declare God’s Word concerning salvation in Jesus Christ. These prophets might also foretell future events, but their main job was to “forth-tell” the gospel: they were preachers of the New Testament message before that message was recorded in writing. These gifted men belonged to the foundation-laying era of the apostles, and once the canon of the Bible was completed, their foretelling function ceased in the church (see also Eph. 2:20).
Today, the analogy to prophecy is the preaching of God’s Word. This means that to fuel the flame of God’s Spirit, we must devote ourselves to the ministry of the Bible, in personal reading and especially in the preaching ministry of the church. Either the Word of God will shape our thinking or the message of the world will drown out God’s voice and quench the ministry of God’s Spirit.
Whenever we emphasize the importance of following teachers of God’s Word, however, there is the serious danger of false teachers who lead many people astray. The New Testament frequently warns against wolves “in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15)—false teachers who intentionally lead followers astray, along with self-serving religious charlatans (Phil. 3:18–19). Paul’s ministry was frequently opposed by false teachers, many of whom were outwardly more impressive than he was (1 Cor. 2:1–4). It was important, therefore, for the Thessalonians to listen to true prophets and close their ears to false teachers. How could they tell the difference? Paul writes: “Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21–22).
We are living in a time when spirituality is big business and also when spiritual discernment among Christians is low. For this reason, one of the most dangerous places for an undiscerning believer is the average Christian bookstore. Whether it is mystical paganism dressed up in Christian garb or the lies of the so-called prosperity gospel, deadly false teaching is aggressively marketed by many Christian businessmen, most of whom are themselves unaware of the danger they are posing. In this kind of environment, the apostle John urges us: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
The way to test someone’s teaching is to compare it with the written Word of God. This is what the Bereans had done during Paul’s recent visit there to preach the gospel. Acts 17:11 commends the Bereans as being “more noble” than others, because “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Preachers are to base their messages on the Bible, proving their doctrine through straightforward appeals to Scripture and not with clever displays of logic or flights of emotion. Moreover, Jesus said that the personal character and conduct of teachers would reveal the soundness of their teaching: “You will recognize them by their fruits.… Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:16–17).
With careful attention to biblical faithfulness, and by keeping watch for the personal conduct of teachers and the spiritual quality of their ministry, believers cooperate with the Holy Spirit. “Test everything,” Paul says, and “hold fast what is good.” Paul’s word for the idea of testing means to “prove” the soundness of metals. Like a goldsmith gazing intently on a bar of precious metal, believers are to examine teaching for its genuine biblical quality, taking from it “what is good” and true according to Scripture, and always being careful to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21–22). Whenever it is clear that teaching is promoting self-worship, malice, greed, sexual indecency, or falsehood, Christians are responsible to recognize violations of God’s law and to flee from worldliness and sin.
In Galatians 5:25 (niv), Paul wrote that believers are to “keep in step with the Spirit.” The Spirit is, of course, the author of the Bible, having supernaturally inspired its human writers. The way to hear the Spirit today is not by opening our hearts to mystical impressions but by directing our minds to the pages of the Bible, where the Spirit of God speaks and gives life to God’s people. We live in a day when worldly, sensual voices will soon quench the Holy Spirit’s influence if we walk in a casual, careless manner. But if we give attention to the Bible and “keep in step” with the Spirit’s application of Scripture to our lives, he will bear the good fruit by which God’s ministry is known, the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
Weaned from Earthly Things
Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is one that our generation of Christians greatly needs to hear. Having begun well in the faith, they are urged by Paul to grow up. He commends to us a childlike faith that receives God’s true Word in simplicity and love (Matt. 18:3), but never a childish faith that is easily tossed back and forth by every fad and deceitful teaching (Eph. 4:14).
Yet this is the predominant situation in churches today. Os Guinness laments that “we are people with a true, sometimes a deep experience of God. But we are no longer a people of truth.” Pollster George Gallup cites “the glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basic doctrines, and the traditions of one’s church … [and] the superficiality of faith, with many people not knowing what they believe, or why.”9 Such a church culture will never impress unbelievers with the value of the Christian message, nor will it safeguard believers from the deadly worldly influences that seek to crowd out our faith, quench the Spirit’s voice, and steal the joy that ought to be ours.
The first priority for the Thessalonians then and for us today is to return with new devotion to the sacred book. In the Bible, Christians meet with God so as to live consciously in the Father’s love and walk intentionally in step with the Holy Spirit. Donald Grey Barnhouse testifies to what countless Christians have experienced through a devotion to God by means of his Spirit-inspired Word:
It begins, as we read it, by being a book with cover and paper pages, overprinted with ink. Little by little, we forget the work of the printer and are brought into the presence of God Himself, the Author of the Book. We are brought face to face with Him and He speaks to us therein.… Our heart is then opened to the truth and becomes receptive to His grace.… From one end of the Bible to the other there are verses that now stand before me as bushes which burn, but which are not consumed, where once I put my shoes from off my feet and stood on holy ground. I can read these verses today and remember how the Lord spoke to me there in a time of need, how He drew me away from myself to follow Him, how He weaned me from earthly things to feed me with the living bread of Christ, how He cleansed me from sin, how He maintained me in Christ in a time of difficulty, and how He gave me the power to walk before Him in a way that was pleasing to Him.
Responsibilities to Oneself (5:16–18)
16 Compliance with the social regulations of vv. 12–15 is impossible apart from personal communion with God. Thus Paul turns to the believer’s inner life. In the exhortation to “be joyful always” he voices a theme that is characteristic of NT writings. Though this probably goes back to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:10–12), it recurs both in the historical (Ac 5:41; 16:25) and epistolary (e.g., Php 1:18; 4:4) writings. The uniqueness of Christian joy lies in its emergence under the most adverse circumstances. Paul states the paradox succinctly in 2 Corinthians 6:10: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” The Thessalonian Christians had already maintained joy in suffering (1:6), as had Paul himself (3:9). The challenge is for this joyful outlook to become constant (“always”). From a human perspective, they have every reason not to be joyful—persecution from outsiders and friction among themselves. Yet in Christ they can rejoice more and more.
17 Intimately related to constant joy is incessant prayer—the only way to cultivate a joyful attitude in times of trial. Uninterrupted communication with God keeps temporal and spiritual values in balance. Adialeiptōs (GK 90, “continually”; cf. Ro 1:9; 1 Th 1:2–3; 2:13) does not mean some sort of formal, nonstop praying. Rather, it implies constantly recurring prayer growing out of a settled attitude of dependence on God. Whether words are uttered or not, lifting the heart to God while occupied with miscellaneous duties is the vital thing. Verbalized prayer will be spontaneous and will punctuate one’s daily schedule, as it does Paul’s writings (3:11–13; 2 Th 2:16–17).
18 A final member of this triplet for personal development is “give thanks in all circumstances.” No combination of happenings can be termed “bad” for a Christian because of God’s constant superintendence (Ro 8:28). Seeming aggravations are but a temporary part of a larger plan for a Christian’s spiritual well-being. With this perspective, one can always discern a cause for thanks. In fact, failure to do this is a symptom of unbelief (Ro 1:21).
“For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” justifies all three brief commands. Rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks do not exhaust God’s will but are vital parts of it. “In Christ Jesus” is a significant qualification of God’s will because only here can inner motives be touched. Paul’s earlier rule, the Mosiac law, was strong on outward conformity but helpless to deal with human thoughts. It could not dictate an inner attitude even though it was a perfect expression of God’s will (cf. Best, 236). In union with Christ, together with an accompanying inward transformation (2 Co 5:17), however, compliance with God’s standards can extend to motives.
These three commands penetrate the innermost recesses of human personality—the spring from which all outward obedience flows. If the source is contaminated, fulfillment of God’s will in outward matters is impossible. Such is the note sounded by the Lord Jesus in his own teaching (Mt 5–7). True victories in life for Christians come to those who are joyful, prayerful, and thankful.
Exhortation to Continue Basic Christian Piety (5:16–18)
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
With the preceding community-related emphases in hand, Paul turns his attention next to how the community is to live its corporate life in the face of their present difficulties. Again, we encounter sets of “staccato imperatives,” but now with the verbs themselves second, a most unusual word order for an imperative even in Greek. In this first set the verbs are preceded by nearly synonymous adverbs, in the next set by nouns or pronouns. In both cases we are once again not quite prepared for what we get, which probably says something about the distance factor between ourselves and these early Gentile believers. Nonetheless, anyone who has spent very much time in the letters of Paul will quickly recognize how thoroughly Pauline these admonitions are.
In light of the preceding verse 14 and verses 19–22 that follow, this present set of imperatives is best understood within the context of the gathered community at worship, the context in which the letter itself would be read. That is, these are not aimed primarily toward how individual believers live out their faith in Thessalonica—although neither is that excluded—but with how these believers as a gathered community are to respond in the midst of their present difficulties. In addition, this first set focuses altogether on vocalized worship that is directed toward God, while the next set focuses on vocalized worship directed toward the building up of the believing community.
Indeed, the set of imperatives that immediately follows (vv. 19–22) comes as something of a surprise, in the sense that nothing in the letter itself or in the immediate context quite prepares us for what is there said. But one element of the surprise, its place in the immediate context, is alleviated somewhat if one recalls that for Paul the activities of rejoicing and prayer presuppose the activity of the Holy Spirit in the community. Indeed, in some ways what Paul says in 1:6 prepares us for this understanding; there he recalls their experience of conversion as accompanied by both great affliction and the joy of the Holy Spirit. The point is that Paul, in a thoroughgoing way, understood joy, prayer, and praise (thanksgiving) as both the result and the evidence of the Spirit’s presence. Thus in Galatians 5:22, the second item on Paul’s list of the “fruit” of the Spirit is joy, and in Romans 14:17 the joy of the Spirit is evidence of the presence of the kingdom of God. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 14:15; Romans 8:26–27, and Ephesians 6:18 all verify that for Paul prayer was especially an activity of the Spirit.
16 It is of some interest that the admonition “always rejoice” precedes the imperatives “continually pray” and “in all circumstances give thanks.” This most likely reflects Paul’s own piety as it has been conditioned by the Psalter. Thus, it is especially important in the context of the more saccharine Christianity of a later time to note that Paul’s emphasis here is not so much on the experience of joy, but on the active expression of it. They are to “rejoice always,” which, as Philippians 4:4 bears out, means not simply to express joy in general, but specifically to “rejoice in the Lord.” This is not a sugar-coated call for putting on a happy face in the midst of difficulties. Here is a church that is undergoing severe hardship because of its faith in Christ. God’s will for such a community, both as individuals and as they gather for worship, is that as a matter of first importance they continue to exalt Christ by rejoicing, with him as the focus.
17–18a In this context they should also “continually pray,” constantly offering their petitions to God. Continual prayer is the ongoing reminder that God’s children are always and wholly dependent on their heavenly Father for all things. It is also in this context that they are “in all circumstances” to “give thanks”—including those of their present lot. It is especially important to note that the modifier in this case does not say “for all things,” but “in all circumstances.” It is neither reasonable nor biblical piety to imagine that God wishes his children to be thankful for all things that befall them, good or ill. Rather, a thankful heart should simply be a way of life for those whom God has redeemed through Christ.
18b The “this” in Paul’s concluding clause, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” is almost certainly intended to modify all three of the imperatives, not simply the giving of thanks in all circumstances. Paul, after all, did not write in numbered verses! The three imperatives are intentionally similar in structure, all three beginning with a synonymous term for urging ongoing activity on their part: “always, continually, at all times.”38 Thus, all of “this” is a way of adhering to what God wills for his children.
One should note at the end that Paul himself is as good as his word. See especially 3:9–10, where he had already in this letter combined prayer, joy, and thanksgiving. He will do the same again in the much later letter to Philippi (Phil 1:3–4), where he mentions joy and thanksgiving as inherent to his praying—and the latter in the context of a trying imprisonment. Thus, what we find being urged on the Thessalonian believers is something that has already long marked the life of the apostle himself, and will continue to do so right to the end.
God’s will (vv. 16–18)
Here is God’s will in three specific areas which affect our everyday lives. These instructions must direct our hearts and lives to live more fully for his glory.
‘Be Joyful Always.’ The great composer, Joseph Haydn, was once asked why his church music was so cheerful. He replied, ‘When I think upon God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap, as it were, from my pen, and since God has given me a cheerful heart it will be pardoned me that I serve him with a cheerful spirit.’ A Christian’s joy is not a natural joy that ebbs and flows according to the circumstances that surround us, but a supernatural joy that comes from God and is rooted in our relationship with him. It is a joy that fills our hearts even in the midst of persecution. Joy was one of the marks of primitive Christianity, which amazed the heathen world and attracted men to Christ. Paul is concerned that the joy of the Thessalonians might be strangled by suffering, so he urges them to rejoice not in what was happening to them, but in their Saviour and all that he has done for them.
‘Pray Continually.’ Martin Luther, when pressed by huge volumes of work, did not use it as an excuse to stop praying, but said, ‘I have so much to do that I cannot get on without three hours a day of praying.’ The way to rejoice always is to pray continually and to have a close walk with the giver of joy. We must cultivate a spirit of constant devotion so that our lives are filled with the presence of God. Prayer is a lifting up of our hearts to God in humble submission and dependence, trusting him as our loving Father and acknowledging him as our almighty Lord. Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to take hold of God in every situation and at all times, to draw near to him especially in times of conflict, and to develop an intimate relationship with him.
‘Give Thanks In All Circumstances.’ George Matheson, the Scottish minister and hymnwriter, who was practically blind at eighteen, once prayed, ‘My God, I have never thanked you for my “thorn”. I have thanked you a thousand times for my roses, but never once for my “thorn”. I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross as itself a present glory. Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my “thorn”. Show me that I have climbed to you by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbow.’ Thanksgiving to God is to be given in adversity and prosperity, for no matter what happens all things work together for the believer’s good. To be thankful is a fruit of grace and is in contrast to the constant grumblings and ingratitude of a godless world. For Christians there is no situation in which we cannot give thanks. Even in affliction we are more than conquerors as the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us. In our blessings we would do well to remember the Chinese proverb, ‘When you drink from the stream, remember the spring.’ A life of prayer and devotion leads to a thankful heart.
5:16–18 / Some things vary in the Christian experience; they come and go. But some things have an “always” attached to them. These verses name three, for the explanatory clause at the end of these verses almost certainly refers to them all (despite the singular “this” of v. 18 which might appear to refer only to the last of the three). Thus it was God’s will for them first, that they should learn to face all that comes with irrepressible joy (niv be joyful always). Paul’s intent is explained more fully in Philippians 4:4, where he has “rejoice in the Lord always.” We might have little in the world to be glad about (cf. 1:6), but in the Lord we have much, and the world cannot take that joy from us (cf. John 16:22). The phrase “in the Lord” points to the objective grounds for our rejoicing in what God has done for us in Christ: “God so loved … that he gave …” (John 3:16). But this is linked with a subjective capacity to rejoice, which is no less God-given: once again a part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22; cf. Acts 13:52; Rom. 14:17). In short, joy lies at the heart of the gospel—a truth echoed in the common root, in Greek, of two words, grace and joy (charis, chara). It is God’s joy to be gracious to us, while our joy has its grounds in his grace.
Second, they should face all that comes with prayer—pray continually, that is, live always in the spirit of prayer. Prayer acknowledges our utter dependence upon God and the utter dependability of God in all circumstances. Prayer as much as joy is the product of God’s grace. For the adverb, “continually,” adialeiptōs, cf. 1:2 and 2:13, and for the injunction to pray continually, compare Jesus’ intention in telling the parable of the Persistent Widow: “that they (the disciples) should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). See also Romans 12:12, where the thought is again of persistence in prayer. Paul’s own letters are a case in point. They are full of prayers for his readers, and their picture of Paul as a man of prayer is corroborated by Luke’s account of him in Acts (cf. Acts 9:11; 13:2f.; 14:23; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17–21; 27:35; 28:8).
Third, God’s will for them was that they should give thanks in all circumstances. This is not a stoical indifference to all that comes. Paul regards the Christian as vulnerable. He or she can be hurt, disappointed, confused, or defeated, but never driven to total despair, never forsaken, never destroyed (2 Cor. 4:8–11), for God is always there. As in verse 17, so here, there is the implied qualification: “to the Lord.” Compare Paul’s thanksgiving for joy “in the presence of our God” in 3:9. His love and his power give the strength to meet every situation in life. The thanks are not for the circumstances but for the fact that in all circumstances the Lord is there. The same association of thanksgiving with prayer in these verses occurred earlier in 1:2 and reappears in Philippians 4:6. According to Romans 1:21, the failure to give thanks is a mark of human sinfulness, and elsewhere Paul urges those whose sins have been forgiven to “overflow with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7; cf. also Eph. 5:4, 20; Col. 3:15, 17; 4:2). To be able to give thanks in all circumstances presupposes a recognition of God’s sovereignty, that in all these circumstances (whatever the appearance might be) he is working “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
Finally, we note that God’s will is said to be in Christ Jesus. In these particular matters, as in all others (for God’s will includes far more than is mentioned here; note that “will” in the Greek lacks the definite article—“a will of God for you is …”), his will is made known to us in Christ, whether in his practice or in his precepts, whether in the days of his flesh or through his Spirit. Moreover, only as we are “in Christ” are we empowered through that same Spirit to do what God’s will demands (for Christ, see note on 1:1, and for his oneness with the Father, see disc. on 3:11 and 2 Thess. 2:16).
16–18. While in verses 12–15 Paul has shown what should be the attitude of the Thessalonians toward their leaders, to fellow-members characterized by particular shortcomings, to those who have injured them, and finally to one another and to all, in verses 16–18 he sets forth what should be their inner attitude and how this inner attitude should express itself with reference to God. Hence, we now have the following three beautiful, closely related, and tersely expressed admonitions:
Always be joyful.
In all circumstances give thanks.
The Thessalonians were no strangers (see on 1:6) to the “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8), the “great joy” which resulted from the incarnation of Christ and from the redemption wrought through his cross. Yet with persecution from without and disturbances within, there was a danger (humanly speaking, of course!) that this joy would disappear. Hence, Paul, who himself again and again rejoiced in the midst of persecution and hardship (3:7–9; cf. Phil. 3:1; 4:4, 10), urges his readers to always be joyful.
Of course, in seasons of distress and grief he alone is able to find relief and even be joyful (in view of Rom. 8:28, 35–39) who at the Father’s throne makes all his wants and wishes known. Hence, the directive “Always be joyful” is immediately followed by “Ceaselessly pray.” The most comprehensive word for prayer (προσευχή, προσεύχομαι is used here. For synonyms see the striking passage Phil. 4:6. What Paul means is: there must be no decline in the regularity of the habit of “taking hold on God” in the midst of all circumstances of life. Cf. Rom. 12:12; Eph. 6:18; Col. 4:2. The apostle could afford to say this, for he himself gave the example (3:10; 2 Thess. 1:11; Eph. 1:16; 3:14).
When a person prays without giving thanks, he has clipped the wings of prayer, so that it cannot rise. Hence, the trio of admonitions concludes with, “In all circumstances give thanks.” This phrase in everything (ἐν παντί probably with χρήματι understood) includes affliction, for even in the midst of all these things (“tribulation, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword”) believers are not merely conquerors but “more than conquerors” (super-invincibles), inasmuch as all these things actually help them to reach their predestined goal! See Rom. 8:35–37.
For this is the will of God (not merely the word of Paul, Silas, and Timothy) is in Christ Jesus for you. The will of God, as clearly set forth by means of the redemptive work and revelation of Jesus Christ, is this very thing, namely, that believers should always be joyful, should ceaselessly pray, and should in all circumstances give thanks.
Inner attitudes (5:16–18)
5:16. Paul admonished, Be joyful always. This is short and to the point. The key, however, is the word always. Paul meant this literally. Christian joy is not bound by circumstances or hindered by difficulties. In fact, joy in the New Testament is often coupled with sorrow or suffering.
The Thessalonian believers had already experienced this strange duet, like an inspiring song played in minor key (1 Thess. 1:6). When the sorrow or suffering results from being identified with Christ, the Holy Spirit creates a supernatural joy—a wellness of soul that cannot be dampened by adverse situations. The explanation may be found in 2 Corinthians 4:16–18: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
But we should remember that we have a part in this joy. We are the ones commanded to be joyful. It is a choice, a deliberate response that focuses on the grace and goodness of God. As the writer to the Hebrews directed us, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:2–3).
5:17. The next staccato note follows: pray continually. This means never stop praying. Paul was a busy missionary, and he wrote about the Christian’s duty to fulfill daily responsibilities, so this is not a command about speaking non-stop prayers. It refers, however, to the attitude of prayer, or reverence before God. The Christian’s life of righteousness and his approach to relationships and responsibilities should be such that he maintains a constant attitude of being in God’s presence. Such a person will pray often and about many things, including requests, praise, and thanksgiving. This command also means that we should never quit praying.
5:18. The next command requires trust in the sovereignty of Christ: give thanks in all circumstances. It recognizes God’s eminence in all events.
A thankful spirit does not come naturally to most of us. Certainly it pushes us beyond our natural capacities when difficult or painful situations invade our life. This command to be thankful, no matter what happens, is possible only by God’s grace. When we can agree with God that he works all things out for good to those who love him and are committed to obedience (Rom. 8:28), then we can thank him.
For those who wonder about God’s will, here it is emphatically stated: this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. There is no need for searching, seminars, books, or “fleeces.” God’s will is that we are to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful because we are his children.
Their Attitudes toward Those Who Persecute (5:16–18)
5:16–18. These verses probably have more relevance to the Thessalonians’ historical situation than often thought. They were facing the prospect of insufferable persecution, yet Paul commanded (note the imperative mood of these verbs) them to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. “Uttered without any connecting particles, these crisp injunctions ring out with arresting terseness, delineating the attitude that must characterize their inner life” (Heibert, Thessalonian Epistles, 239). To rejoice always (pantote) has the idea of rejoicing in all circumstances—even those not naturally conducive to joyfulness. To pray without ceasing (adialeiptos) has the idea of prayer—not as an uninterrupted vigil but “constantly recurring” as well as with faithful consistency. “In the Christian life the act of prayer is intermittent but the spirit of prayer should be incessant” (Heibert, Thessalonian Epistles, 241). To give thanks, in everything is not to say “give thanks for everything” but to look past circumstances and know that “all things work together for good” (Rm 8:28). Jesus gave similar instruction for those facing similar hardships (rejoice and give thanks find a parallel in rejoicing and being glad in Mt 5:12; “pray for those who persecute you” is what the Lord taught in Mt 5:44).
16–18 A series of brief, staccato commands indicates the basis for Christian living. They are quite general and would apply to any group of believers. Christians have grounds for joy in both their experience of salvation and their hope of what God will do in the future, but they need to express that joy; there is a right and proper place for the expression of joyful emotion. Christians must also pray—here probably in the sense of making requests to God, since the next command is about the need to be thankful. Common to the three commands is the stress on fulfilling them all the time and in all circumstances; this does not mean, for example, that one prays uninterruptedly but that one prays regularly and frequently. Such a life is made possible, Paul adds, because God intends it to be so; he wants his people to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and he makes it possible for them to be so.
personal living (5:16–18)
These exhortations—dealing with attitudes—are addressed to believers as individuals concerning their personal lives before God.
5:16. God wants His people to be joyful and He gives them every reason to be. But Paul knew human nature well enough to sense the need for a reminder to rejoice at all times (cf. Phil. 3:1; 4:4). This is a command. A Christian’s joy does not spring from his circumstances, but from the blessings that are his because he is in Christ. “The Christian who remains in sadness and depression really breaks a commandment: in some direction or other he mistrusts God—His power, providence, forgiveness” (A.J. Mason, “The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians,” in Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 145). These two words (pantote chairete) constitute the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament.
5:17. Continual prayer is not prayer that prevails without any interruption, but prayer that continues whenever possible. The adverb for continually (adialeiptōs, also in 1:3) was used in Greek of a hacking cough. Paul was speaking of maintaining continuous fellowship with God as much as possible in the midst of daily living in which concentration is frequently broken.
5:18. The two previous commands deal with one’s time (“always” and “continually”); this one deals with his circumstances. Christians are to give thanks to God in every circumstance of life. The fact that God works everything together for good for those who love Him (Rom. 8:28) is the basis for this entreaty.
These three exhortations in verses 16–18 are not just good advice; they are God’s will for every Christian. They are not the totality of God’s will, but they are a clear and important segment of it. God’s will means joy, prayer, and thanksgiving for those who are in Christ Jesus.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (pp. 183–190). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2015). 1 & 2 Thessalonians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 247–257). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Thomas, R. L. (2006). 1 Thessalonians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 431–432). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Fee, G. D. (2009). The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (pp. 213–215). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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