Third Sunday in Advent: 1 Thess. 5:12-24
In some ways, this final section of Thessalonians is like the short hand exhortations of a coach to his team in the huddle before they sprint back onto the field. These are short summary commands that outline the way Christians are to be a ready people, prepared for whatever the Lord has for them.
The Text: Paul has just finished encouraging the Thessalonians that whatever the future holds the key to being ready is remembering that they are sons of light (5:4-6). They put the armor of light on by remembering the gospel and reminding one another of it (5:8-11). This light is fundamentally the “word of truth” by which the Father of Lights brings Christians forth (Js. 1:17-18). This is the truth about sin and its effects, and the greater truth about God’s love and provision in Christ. This is the light of the gospel that has shone on us (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6). The final series of exhortations are descriptions of what this gospel light looks like in Christian community. This is what watchfulness, alertness, vigilance, and sobriety looks like. It means rejoicing always (5:16), praying always (5:17), giving thanks in all things (5:18), honoring the Holy Spirit (5:19), respecting prophecy (5:20), testing all things (5:21), clinging to good things (5:21), and avoiding all appearances of evil (5:22). And Paul hastens to assure us that that this vigilance flows directly from the “God of peace” who sanctifies us blameless all the way to the coming of the Lord Jesus (5:23). And when the Lord calls us to this watchfulness, He simultaneously assures us that He will perform it in us (5:24).
Rejoice, Pray & Give Thanks Always
While it may come as a surprise, the Greek word for “always” actually means “always.” We rejoice and give thanks always because in Jesus the goodness of God always overshadows our pain, disappointment, and failures. But this rejoicing and gratitude is accompanied by constant prayer which Paul modeled throughout his letters (e.g. Rom. 1:9, Col. 1:9, 1 Thess. 1:2, 2:13). In fact, it is our constant prayer that makes constant rejoicing and thanksgiving possible (Phil. 4:4-7). We rejoice in the midst of suffering and disappointment because God cares more than we do (1 Pet. 5:7). In another place, Paul says that prayer is part of our resistance against the principalities and powers – how we stay alert against the darts of the evil one (Eph. 6:18). Notice too that “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (5:18). What does God want you to do? He wants you to rejoice, pray, and give thanks.
Don’t Quench & Don’t Despise
First, note that in the Bible, the Spirit goes with prophecy (e.g. Num. 11, 1 Sam. 10, Joel 2:28, Lk. 1:67). In fact, the prophecies that we must honor and cherish are those which the Spirit has spoken and collected for our instruction in Scripture (2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21). The Bible is the apostolic and prophetic foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20). The Spirit was given uniquely to the apostles for the writing of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16), but through the Scriptures, the Body of Christ continues to be prophetic in the world: naming sin, forgiving sin, calling the nations to obedience, praying for the nations. The word for “quench” is used several other times in the NT always referring to putting out fires. Here, Paul insists that the fire of the Spirit not be put out. Paul speaks of grieving the Spirit in Ephesians 4:30, specifically through corrupt, bitter, and angry words (Eph. 4:29-31). We keep the fire of the Spirit blazing through reading, speaking, and singing Scripture (Eph. 5:18-19).
Test, Cling, Abstain
The final series of exhortations center on finding good things and clinging to them (5:21-22, cf. Rom. 12:9). The word here for “test” is the same word Jesus uses in Lk. 12:56 to rebuke the crowds for their inattentiveness to the times. He says this is pure hypocrisy that they can tell the weather but can’t tell what’s going on in the world around them. Here Paul says to test everything, which is not only a difficult job but may often seem like overkill. This is why Christians are frequently as functionally relativistic as pagans, specifically when it comes to what is “fitting,” a category that desperately needs recovery in Christian circles. What is “fitting” drills down deeper into the question of what is good, insisting that we also ask “good for what?” Proverbs says that luxury is not fitting for a fool, nor is honor, nor is excellent speech (Prov. 19:10, 26:1, 17:7). “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov. 25:11). But praise to God from the upright is fitting and beautiful (Ps. 33:1). The art of understanding “what is fitting” is related to the architectural project of building the Church with Christians being “fitted together” (Eph. 2:21, 4:16). People are not interchangeably parts in the Body of Christ. Likewise, what is “good” is not equally good in every setting, for every purpose. For example, feminine modesty is understanding what you are dressing for (1 Tim. 2:10). The solution is not a cranky legalism but testing everything by the Word of God and holding fast to whatever is good (cf. Phil. 4:8). It also means abstaining from even the appearance of evil (5:22, cf. Rom. 14:14-21). This is wisdom, a skill that comes through years of studying Scripture and the world (Heb. 5:12-14). This is why the Bible puts so much emphasis on honoring parents (Dt. 5:16), and this is why Jesus saw the dishonor of parents as such a threat (Mk. 7:10-13).
Advent reminds us that God has already come to be with us in Jesus, and He will come again and is at work in this world now. Therefore, we are to be a watchful people, a ready people, ready to be used by Jesus for whatever He has for us.
The foundation of this vigilance is the peace of God (5:23). This peace guards us and sanctifies us, and this peace flows from the fact that we have been made right with God (Rom. 5:1). Our confidence in prayer and praise, in study and work is in the fact that we have peace with God. If we lack this peace, everything comes as a threat, but if we are the friends of God then all goodness is His goodness for us. He who has called us is faithful, and He will perform it (5:24). Christ is born so we are vigilant with this assurance. This is a Christmas peace that guards our hearts and teaches us wisdom. So we rejoice and pray, and cling to His Word, testing everything, holding fast to everything good because Christ our Savior was born.