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.
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.
16 Paul proceeds to three activities that should characterize the Christian (and which he links elsewhere, Phil. 1:3–4). Perhaps the first of these, “Be joyful always,” is especially suitable after what he has been saying. The refusal to nurse grudges and to retaliate when provoked is not something that is to be attempted in a spirit of suffering resignation. It is possible ostensibly to forgive, but to make quite clear that the forgiver is deserving of great credit for his restraint, and that he is very conscious of the magnitude of the wrong that has been done to him. Jesus did not give that impression, and Paul is saying that his followers should not do so either. Forgiveness ought to be a joyous affair, with genuine Christian zest for life bubbling through. Christians are people who have been born all over again (John 3:3, 7); they have been created anew (2 Cor. 5:17). They do not see things as the earthling sees them, but, as children of the heavenly Father, they go rejoicing through their Father’s world. The New Testament does not give us a picture of believers as people who are always screwing themselves up to the point of doing unpleasant things in the service of their God but rather of those who are glad to live out the implications of their faith. There is a serious purpose to life, and that is not overlooked. Sometimes it will lead to stern and serious action. But the emphasis is on the truth that by and large the way of Christians is a happy way. Their spiritual resources are so great that earthly things cannot disturb their composure, and they go on their way with a song in their hearts (Col. 3:16). Joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22; cf. Rom. 14:17), and Paul has made it clear that the Thessalonians knew this joy (1:6). He is not writing about a joy that Christians produce by their own efforts. It is natural for people to be happy when things go well with them. But it is not this natural joy, dependent on circumstances, that is the special characteristic of Christians. It is the joy that comes from being “in Christ.” Thus it is that the New Testament contains so many exhortations to joyful living—startlingly many, if we fix our attention on the outward circumstances of the early Christian communities. Persecution was always threatening and often actual. Believers were usually in straitened circumstances and compelled to work hard for their living. Their lot can rarely have been other than hard. But if we fasten our attention on these things, we put our emphasis in the wrong place. They thought more of their Lord than of their difficulties, more of their spiritual riches in Christ than of their poverty on earth, more of the glorious future when their Lord should come again than of their unhappy past. So the note of joy rings through the New Testament, and so Paul, who himself knew what it was to rejoice in difficult circumstances (Acts 16:25; Rom. 5:3; Col. 1:24), can say, “Be joyful always” (cf. Phil. 4:4), and speak of the Christian as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).
17 The injunction to continual prayer (cf. Luke 18:1; Rom. 12:12; Eph. 6:18) springs out of the same great idea as that to continual rejoicing. Christianity is a religion that turns people’s thoughts away from themselves and their puny deeds to the great God who has wrought a stupendous salvation for them in Christ. It is of the very essence of the faith that it insists on the inability of sinners to bring about their salvation, either in the sense of the initial act whereby they enter a state of salvation, or in the sense of the day-by-day living out of the Christian life. For the putting away of their sins the atonement wrought by the Son of God is necessary. For the living of the dedicated life the power of the indwelling Spirit alone suffices. All along the way they experience their own insufficiency. Paul’s exhortation to continual prayer fits into this picture. The Thessalonian believers (like all others) were dependent on God for everything. Continuing prayer is the continuing expression of this dependence.
Christians, then, are always conscious that they depend on God, and that they are always surrounded by God’s love. Therefore, although they are not able to achieve anything worthwhile in their own strength, they have all that they need. This knowledge will keep them always rejoicing. Why should they be otherwise? And it will keep them always in the spirit of prayer. Prayer and rejoicing are closely related, for often believers find in prayer the means of removing that which was the barrier to their joy. Prayer is not to be thought of only as offering petitions in set words. Prayer is fellowship with God. Prayer is the realization of the presence of our Father. Though it is quite impossible for us always to be uttering the words of prayer, it is possible and necessary that we should always be living in the spirit of prayer.
But believers who live in this way, conscious continually of their dependence on God, conscious of his presence with them always, find that their general spirit of prayerfulness in the most natural way overflows into uttered prayer. Again and again in Paul’s letters (and especially in these two letters to the Thessalonians) the apostle interjects little prayers into his argument. Prayer was as natural to Paul as breathing. At any time he was likely to break off his argument or to sum it up by a prayer. In the same way he looks for the Thessalonians to live lives with such an attitude of dependence on God that they will easily and naturally move into the words of prayer on all sorts of occasions, great and small, grave and festive. Prayer is to be constant. This does not, of course, mean that they are to spend all their time in uttering words of prayer; throughout these letters there are too many exhortations to be active in daily affairs for that to be accepted. Paul is arguing for lives lived constantly in a prayerful spirit.
18 The trio of injunctions is completed with the command “give thanks in all circumstances.” Like the preceding two, this one springs from the great central truth of the gospel. As worldly people go on their way they meet with some things that make them happy, and some about which they complain bitterly. They conceive of life as a matter more or less of chance. Accordingly they welcome those workings of chance which favor their purposes and object to those which do not. But when anyone comes to see that God in Christ has saved him, everything is altered. Now it is apparent that God’s purpose is being worked out, and the evidence of this becomes clear in the believer’s own life and in the lives of those about him. This leads to the thought that the same loving purpose is being worked out even in those events which the believer is inclined not to welcome at all. When we come to realize that God’s hand is in all things, we learn to give thanks for all things. Tribulation is unpleasant. Yet in the midst of tribulation who would not give thanks, knowing that the Father who loves us so greatly has permitted that tribulation only in order that his wise and merciful purpose might be worked out? So out of this great central truth of Christianity Paul calls on his friends to practice the continual giving of thanks.
As he has already done in another connection (see 4:3), the apostle proceeds to give what he has said the highest possible authority by rooting it in the will of God. “This” is singular, but it is very probable that it applies to all three of the preceding injunctions. As we have seen, they all proceed from one root and may fittingly be regarded as a unity. They do not represent three different attitudes to life, but three aspects of one attitude.
As he has already done in 4:3 (where see note), Paul uses the word “will” without the article. The significance of this is that he is making no attempt to deal with the whole will of God. That will includes many things, and many things of importance to the Thessalonians. But among them is this of which he now speaks. On this occasion there is the interesting addition “in Christ Jesus.” The centrality of Christ to Christianity cannot be emphasized too strongly. We do not know God of our own selves, but only as he has pleased to reveal himself to us. Preeminently he has revealed himself in Christ, and preeminently he has revealed his will in Christ. The use of the compound name “Christ Jesus” reminds us of both the deity and the humanity of our Lord, and in this way heightens the solemnity of the injunction. Not only is it in Christ that the will of God is revealed, but it is in him that the power is given to us to enable us to live according to that will (see on 3:11 for the close connection between the Father and the Son).
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.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (pp. 183–190). Chicago: Moody Press.
 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.
 Morris, L. (1991). The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (pp. 171–175). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Fee, G. D. (2009). The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (pp. 213–215). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Shenton, T. (2006). Opening up 1 Thessalonians (pp. 108–110). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Williams, D. J. (2011). 1 and 2 Thessalonians (pp. 99–100). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of I-II Thessalonians (Vol. 3, pp. 138–139). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.