The theme of Advent holds in tension both the advent phenomenon of the incarnation of our Lord and His coming on the Day of the Lord. The preacher should be mindful of both and neglect neither. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 clearly has Christ coming in judgment on the Last Day in view. Consider verse 23: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet, Paul cannot offer this prayerful benediction without laying his hand on the touchstone of the first great advent, the incarnation of the Son of God who gave Himself as the atonement for sin so we might be justified according to the promise of the Gospel. Again, be mindful of both, neglect neither.
The preacher should follow the lead of the Apostle Paul who gives exhortations to the church in Thessaloniki regarding the life of the baptized, which they are, who shares in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (their spirit having already been resurrected) and abides in anticipation of the return of Christ which will transform their bodies. If not, then the resurrection of their dead bodies will take place (refer to Romans 6:3-11), which is the theme of the “parousia” from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. Paul’s exhortations flow from the fact that they already have a share in the resurrection (their spirits). So, as baptized persons indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the exhortations of verses 16-22 (and verse 25) are a consequence of justification and regeneration. God has not only redeemed them, but He has also re-created them.
These exhortations flow from the Gospel. They are not Neonomian conditions upon which their justification depends. Rather, it is dependent upon the accomplishments of Christ in the first Advent, with the upshot that upon the final advent the faithful will stand “sanctified completely” and “blameless.” Once more, be mindful of both, neglect neither.
The exhortations are worthy of comment too, of course. “Rejoicing always” (verse 16) seems a bit out of place for a persecuted church, standing “contra Roma.” But such rejoicing is altogether appropriate if one properly holds the truths of the two advents in view. “The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5), as the Apostle says elsewhere. He is at hand in the Gospel, the Sacraments, and He wields all power and authority, so come-what-may Christ is in charge.
He is at hand in the Gospel, the Sacraments, and He wields all power and authority, so come-what-may Christ is in charge.
“Pray without ceasing” (verse 17). Certainly, this is easier said than done, but Paul does not mean formal or liturgical prayers only, but rather a life lived coram Deo, in which conversation, intercession, thankfulness, and acknowledgement of the triune God are always taking place. Indeed, it is the very disposition in which the baptized live, namely in constant discourse before the Lord.
“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (verse 18). Not only does this naturally follow from verse 17’s injunction concerning prayer, but it also describes what is most basic to a Christian: We are thankful people. Thankfulness is not some nebulous sentiment or abstract notion. Instead, a posture and expressions of gratitude are always toward a person. We are thankful to God the Father. We are thankful to God the Son. We are thankful to God the Holy Spirit. The will of the triune God is we are thankful for the goodness, grace, mercy, love, peace, and truth that flow from His works of creation and redemption. Notice, there is no mystery to finding out the will of God. It is not hidden. It is not a secret. It is right there in 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
I suspect that un-thankfulness for the triune God’s works of creation and re-creation is what may “quench the Spirit” (verse 19). The koine Greek here hints at “drowning out” or “putting out” the fire of the Holy Spirit, as it were. Paul writes something similar in Ephesians 4:30: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.” What could be more grievous to the Spirit then having illumined our hearts and minds to the truth of creation and redemption in Christ Jesus, as well as the ongoing truth of His goodness and provision, and this be met with indifferent ingratitude?
Verses 20 and 21 read as a new thought, rather than elucidating the preceding verse. The preacher would do well to remind his people that the church in Thessaloniki does not have a New Testament in their possession. Indeed, this is the apostolic era when many miraculous occurrences, such as prophesying, were taking place. But unlike the completed canon that objectively exists, prophesying could be faked or originate from a sinister source. Hence, the Apostle charges them to “test everything.” Test everything by the truth of the Gospel, that is, and so “hold fast what is good” (verse 22). Then follows Paul’s catch-all directive: “Abstain from every form of evil” (verse 23). The Thessalonians, having been regenerated and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, can both adjudicate all forms of evil and abstain from it.
This marvelous pericope rounds out with the Gospel of the having-already-come-and-coming-again Jesus Christ with all its justifying and regenerating implications as they bear on the aforementioned pious behavior. And in case there is concern over one’s failure to actually live up to this standard, the standard of the Kingdom of God, then Paul reminds them Christ has provided all things necessary for our salvation and fulfilled all conditions before the Father: “He who calls you is faithful. He will surely do it” (verse 24).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!