Holy and Blameless to the End
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:11–28
11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
25 Brothers, pray for us.
26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The last two weeks we’ve been learning that the great hope of the Christian faith, the end goal of the gospel, is not the experience of heaven, of life after death, but rather of resurrection from the dead into a new world of life that will take place on the day our Lord returns. We cannot know when that day will be, but we are not therefore to be careless about our lives while we wait.
Verse 11 tells us what we must do in the meantime. We are to encourage one another and build one another up. It is by Spirit-empowered obedience to God’s instructions that God’s people will be completely holy on the day the Lord returns.
So as Paul concludes his first letter to his dear brothers and sisters in Christ at Thessalonica, he urges them to engage in pastoral ministry, maintain religious conduct, and rest assured of their complete sanctification on that day of the Lord.
First, as we hope for and wait for our Lord’s return, we need the encouragement of pastoral ministry.
Formal Pastoral Ministry
In every church there are leaders who are to lead the way in this pastoral ministry. So Paul says, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (vv. 12-13).
Now what is interesting here is the fact that it is not likely that these church leaders were formally identified or appointed. He does not speak here of pastors or elders but rather of leaders who were beginning to emerge. Because Paul was forced to leave this young congregation so quickly, it is likely that these leaders were identified simply by how they had emerged as leaders rather than by any formal appointment or ordination to their office.
But this is surely the right way for leaders to be identified and then appointed to the more formal offices of pastors and deacons in the local church. Church leaders ought to be identified by their labor among us. Those who “are over you in the Lord” may better be understood as those “who care for you in the Lord” (NIV). Church leaders are the ones who do the work and who exhibit great care and concern for the well-being of the church. The word admonish means to give counsel or instruction about whether one should or should not act in a certain way. We’ll encounter this word again in verse 14, but what we can say here is that church leaders ought to be the ones who have proven themselves capable of offering wise, biblical counsel and who are the primary moral influences in the community by the way they live their own lives.
Church leaders should be identified not by status or title but by their service. When that is the case, they are far more likely to be esteemed very highly in love by the people they lead, and it will be far easier for the church to “be at peace among” themselves (v. 13).
Every Member Ministry
But we must not think that what Paul has set up here is a hard line of separation between what we would today call the clergy and the laity. For read on through verse 14 and we can clearly see that while leaders set the example for ministry in the church, every member is expected to engage in the same ministry. What is the ministry? In short, it is service to God’s people, but this service takes on different forms.
The verbs are “admonish, encourage, help, be patient.” Again we find the word admonish. It is a stronger word than “instruct” because it involves a more direct and personal word about one’s conduct. It involves confrontation, the kind of thing that most of us would rather avoid. Indeed, some seem to like it too much, and receiving “admonition” from such people usually feels harsh and over-bearing.
Relationship is the key to admonishing. In the Bible, it usually appears in the context of the parent-child relationship. Admonishing, when done rightly, is done “with moderation, with regret, and as little as possible.” In this verse, Christians are told to admonish “the idle,” which does not mean “the lazy” as much as the “disorderly” or the “insubordinate.” We are not commanded to go around prying into each other’s business, but neither is each other’s business merely of private or individual concern. In the second letter to the Thessalonians, the idle are those who are not living “in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess 3:6). Thus, where a brother or sister in Christ is not living in harmony with what the Christian tradition contained in the Scripture dictates, we are not to ignore it. We must confront it.
Again, like most parents, churches tend to be either to over-bearing or too lenient in such matters. We must admonish, but we must only admonish where the Word of God has plainly spoken on a matter. And when we admonish, we should do so with a father-like love for his children.
And we should remember it is not just admonishing that we are called to do. Those who are “fainthearted” do not need admonishing as much as they need encouragement. And the weak don’t just need encouragement, they need help, real tangible acts of service. So it is not just the actions we are called to take, but the wisdom to know which actions need to be taken for the condition we find our brothers or sisters to be in at any given moment. And at any rate, all of us will need a lot of patience with one another; we must “be patient” with all (v. 14).
Verse 15 adds this final word on pastoral ministry. We must not “repay anyone evil for evil.” That is the natural human tendency. But Christians must not do it; however much one deserves it, vengeance rightly belongs to God alone. The context here is not about whether we can seek justice in the legal system of those places in which we reside. The concern of this passage is that our desire for justice not turn us into the kind of people who forget mercy and grace. Thus, it is not enough to simply not retaliate, we are to “seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (v. 15).
The command to “encourage one another and build one another up” is the call for every Christian, every member of a local church, to engage in pastoral ministry and to receive pastoral ministry from one another. Now in verses 16-22, the emphasis shifts from this interpersonal emphasis in the church to proper religious conduct in the church. That is, there is a way that Christians are to behave when they gather together, a proper attitude we should bring, an atmosphere that should permeate our life together. We are to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. And we are to be sure we do not quench the Spirit.
Three commands are strung together in short order: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” These are not exhaustive expectations for how we should behave, as if nothing else is ever expected of us. As we will see, these three are all about the practice of prayer, and what holds them together is the fact that they are to be constant: we should rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.
Now the expectation that we are to be rejoicing always certainly does not mean there is no place for lament, for sorrow, or for grief. There is a paradox here; as Paul says elsewhere, Christians can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). To always be rejoicing does not mean that we need to pretend that everything is great. But the reason why we can truly rejoice always is because we are Christians. We believe in resurrection. And that means that the Christian gospel is a message “infused with hope,” a hope that “grows in relationship with the Lord.”
It is this relationship with God that is at the center of these three commands. We are commanded to “pray without ceasing.” Our relationship with God and the privilege of communicating with him at any moment is the foundation for our ability to always be rejoicing. We are to be always ready for prayer; we should be praying regularly. We pray habitually, at certain set times, but we also ought to pray spontaneously. Prayer is always appropriate for the Christian.
And how should we pray? With thanksgiving. We are to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Regardless of the difficult circumstances in which we might find ourselves, Christians always have reason to give thanks. After all, the promise of God is to make everything work together for our good (Rom 8:28).
Do you see how joy and prayer and thanksgiving work together? One commentator says this, “To the extent that we have a prayerful attitude we will have a thankful one.” And this is, Paul says at the end of verse 18, what God’s will is for us. Far from being something God wants us to have should we try hard enough to get it, this is God’s will for us “in Christ Jesus.” It is one of the many benefits that is ours because of our union with Jesus.
James tells us that if anyone is suffering, he should pray. And if anyone is cheerful, he should sing praise (Jas 5:13). Prayer and praise are not completely separate from each other. A Christian is someone who is privileged to be at peace with God and so will find himself in joyful communion with God always, without ceasing, and in all circumstances.
Do Not Quench the Spirit
In addition to rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks, we are commanded, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Now what does that mean?
The verb means to stifle or suppress, to quench, like putting out a fire. But this does not refer to some lack of excitement of personality, a quenching of the spirit that comes from more reserved personalities. Neither are we in danger of quenching the spirit by a formal liturgy in worship or by spending too much time in Bible study rather than being more “charismatic” and relying on spontaneous impressions.
Quenching the Spirit is explained in the next verse. It is despising prophecies. Now a prophecy is not so hard to define as we might imagine. A prophecy is a message from God. The essence of a prophecy is proclaiming God’s word to his people, including the application of it. It is not something different from the Bible; a prophecy may be defined as “any verbal enforcement of biblical teaching as it applies to one’s present hearers.” To despise it would be to undervalue the message or to refuse to believe it or submit to it.
We will surely quench the Spirit by outright disregarding or disobeying the Bible. But plenty of Christians and their churches are in danger of quenching the Spirit by something that is a bit more subtle. While saying we believe the Bible, we find our lives not often or not much informed by it. So for example, there is the danger of going about doing things as we’ve always done them rather than considering whether we ought to make adjustments to be more effective in gospel ministry without compromising biblical faithfulness.
J.I. Packer wrote, “The Holy Spirit is not a sentimentalist as too many of us are; he is a change agent, and he comes to change human structures as well as human hearts.” And then he says this:
Most of us are not realists when it comes to self-assessment, however brutally matter-of-fact we may become when assessing others. In our attitude toward ourselves we are either starry-eyed romantics, kidding ourselves that all is well, or at least well enough, or at any rate will magically come right some day without our needing to take any action; or else, like Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the serpent, we are assiduous blamers of others for whatever goes wrong in our marriages, families, churches, careers, and so on. In neither case do we accept responsibility for present shortcomings; in both cases the root of our attitude is pride, which tells us that whoever else needs to change, we don’t. Romantic complacency and resourcefulness in acting the injured innocent are among the most Spirit-quenching traits imaginable, since both become excuses for doing nothing in situations where realism requires that we do something and do it as a matter of urgency.
We who are led by God’s Spirit are not left to the random ideas that just pop into our minds. We are to “test everything” (v. 21), undoubtedly by the clear teaching of Scripture. But then we must not assume that the Bible will not make us change or to rethink the way we’ve always done things. So when the Spirit speaks, we must hold on to what is good while abandoning every form of evil (vv. 21-22). This is the healthy dynamic of the Spirit-controlled Christian life. It is the proper religious conduct we are all to exhibit.
But as we seek to live in this way, in step with God’s dynamic Spirit, we must not think for one moment that we are credited for the results that will come from our lives. Change will come, but all the glory will belong to God alone. Paul closes out this letter with a benediction and a guarantee of complete sanctification.
A Benediction of Sanctification
A benediction is a prayer of blessing. In praying it, the pray-er is asking God to do something good on behalf of the ones for whom he prays. So there is a shift here from what Paul expected his audience to do to what he now expects God to do.
And notice what he expects God to do. He expects God himself, the God of peace, to sanctify them completely. The concern of this entire letter has been on the moral transformation of the church at Thessalonica. There were serious concerns there, just like there are here or in any other church. But Paul saw clear evidence of God’s grace and so is able to express his confidence that God’s work will transcend the moral weakness of the believers.
What an encouraging word this is! For all of us who struggle to change, who wrestle with sin, the promise of complete sanctification depends not on you but on God.
And the promise is of complete sanctification. The NIV reads, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.” And the point of speaking of one’s “spirit and soul and body” is not to prove that human nature is tripartite any more than to suggest that the command to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) proves a four-fold distinction. He is simply wanting to emphasize that God will bring about the entire renewal of our being. As far as sin has gone in corrupting us, God will go so far in changing us.
The Assurance of Sanctification
In fact, we might even say that so certain is this promise that it is already done. Sanctification, complete sanctification, is our destiny because “the God of peace himself” is the one who will see to it. This benediction comes with the assurance that it is God who will keep our entire selves blameless so that on the day of the Lord’s return, on judgment day, there will be no shame or guilt when we stand before him.
What a wonderful promise! And to emphasize the point again, Paul writes, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Indeed, Christian, as Philippians 1:6 says, you can be “sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
What more can we say in light of such an astounding word of hope? Maybe just what Paul says to end this letter (vv. 25-28). Let us pray for one another, let us greet one another in ways that show we are a holy family, and let us read and believe the Scriptures.
And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all.
 The verb that is used (προΐστημι) can be understood to mean a combination of leading, protecting, and caring for. In the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3, it is used to refer to one who “manages” his own family well, for if one “does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:4-5). So this “management” is not done as a job but as a responsibility for which one cares deeply.
 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 679.
 Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, vol. 32B, ed. David Noel Freedman (London: Yale University Press, 2008), 327.