1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

Practical Exhortations: Preservation until the Coming of the Lord
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28. The remainder of chapter 5 deals with the practical exhortations that will help the Christian be preserved until the coming of the Lord. He first mentions ten things the believer can do to be preserved: (1) recognize leadership in the assembly, vv.12-13a, (2) strive for peace in the assembly, v.13b, (3) show appropriate behavior toward others, vv.14-15, (4) rejoice at all times, v.16, (5) pray without giving up, v.17, (6) give thanks in all circumstances, v.18, (7) allow the Spirit liberty to act, v.19, (8) listen to what God has to say, v.20, (9) test everything, only keep what is right, v.21, and (10) remain separate from evil, v.22. But after this, Paul comforts the saints by reminding them that God Himself is working to preserved them blameless until the coming of the Lord. Although we may fail, He is faithful!

Things the Believer can do to be Preserved (5:12-22)

Regarding our actions toward others (vv.12-15)

12 But we beg you, brethren, to know those who labour among you, and take the lead among you in the Lord, and admonish you, 13a and to regard them exceedingly in love on account of their work. vv.12-13a Recognize leadership in the assembly.

It is helpful to note that there is no mention of elders or bishops in the Thessalonian assembly. They were a young assembly, and Paul had not visited a second time. In Acts 14:21-23 we find it was Paul’s habit to appoint elders in a local assembly on a subsequent visit. We only ever read of apostles or special delegates that were given authority to appoint elders (Titus 1:5); never the local assembly. But passages like 1 Thess. 5 show that even without the official relationship, there were those the Holy Spirit was stirring up to do that work; "those who labour among you, and take the lead among you in the Lord, and admonish you" (1 Thess. 5:12). Note that 1 Tim. 5:17 couples "taking the lead" with elders. The exhortation is to recognize those who labored among the saints and took the lead among them. There were overseers mentioned in Ephesus and Philippi, but not in Rome, Thessalonica, or Corinth. It is important to have oversight, and for the assembly to recognize it, in order to have peace in the assembly. Even without official appointment, we can recognize and esteem those who do the work of an overseer. Notice that there is no mention of elders in Corinth, because it was a young assembly, and Paul had only visited once. Yet even there, in the first epistle, there was "the house of Stephanas" who had "devoted themselves to the saints for service", and that the saints should "be subject to such, and to every one joined in the work and labouring" (1 Cor. 16:15-16). What a tremendous help this is to us, who live centuries after the apostles and their delegates passed off the scene. God is still raising up leaders in local assemblies, even though they have no official title.

 It is easy to despise elders, but we are instead to submit to them, and honor them; “Obey your leaders, and be submissive; for they watch over your souls as those that shall give account; that they may do this with joy, and not groaning, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). Furthermore, we are to “regard them exceedingly in love on account of their work”. Being a leader is not easy. In fact, it is often messy and unrewarding. But the motive for that service is love, and that should produce a response in the hearts of the saints toward those the Holy Spirit has raised up to do the work of oversight. Recognizing leadership is one way for us to be preserved. Read more…
13b Be in peace among yourselves. v.13b Strive for peace in the assembly. The Devil and the flesh are always at work among brethren, seeking to divide them, and disturb the peace. It is hard to serve (preach the gospel, etc.) when there is strife in the assembly. It is hard to enjoy Christ, and grow spiritually, when there is strife in the assembly. The exhortation to “be in peace among yourselves” is a necessary one. This has a passive component and an active component. Passively, we should each conduct ourselves so as to not cause offense of any kind. Actively, we are also to make peace; “Blessed the peace-makers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). Striving for peace in the local assembly will contribute to the preservation of each one.
14 But we exhort you, brethren, admonish the disorderly, comfort the faint-hearted, sustain the weak, be patient towards all. 15 See that no one render to any evil for evil, but pursue always what is good towards one another and towards all; vv.14-15 Appropriate behavior toward others. These verses deal with our interactions toward others. I don’t believe this is addressed to the leaders only, but more generally to “brethren”. We are going to encounter a variety of states in our brethren around us. Not all cases require the same response. Paul gives three examples. First, the disorderly need to be admonished. If you comforted the disorderly, it would do nothing to help them. What they need is a stern word of admonition. Paul just touches on the issue in Thessalonica of disorderliness (1 Thess. 4:11), but takes it up more fully in the second epistle (2 Thess. 3:6). Second, the faint-hearted need to be comforted. It would only depressed the faint-hearted more if you admonished them. But comfort can lift their hearts up, and contribute to their preservation. Third, the weak are to be sustained or strengthened. This is very broad. It might include those who are weak physically, but probably it refers more to those who are weak in the faith (Rom. 14). These would be new or young believers who really are not established in grace. Perhaps their faith is faltering, they have doubts, or are struggling with addiction. These ones need to be strengthened, and we can do this by praying for them, walking alongside them, having a real relationship with them, and ministering the Word of God to them. We can bear their infirmities (Rom. 15:1), and we can also seek to make them strong in grace (2 Tim. 2:1; Heb. 13:9). There are certain behaviors that we should show toward ones, and not toward others, because each is in a different state. But there are some behaviors that we can show universally, toward “all” or “no one”. The first is patience; “be patient towards all”. Two words that are often used in the New Testament exhortations are endurance and patience. Endurance usually has to do with difficult circumstances, such as sickness or persecution. Patience usually has to with difficult relationships, particularly with those we disagree with or those who dislike and treat us poorly. We need to have patience toward all. This is harder than it sounds. The next thing is retaliation, “see that no one render to any evil for evil”. Retaliation is never acceptable behavior, toward anyone, no matter how they have wronged us. We can leave it with the Lord, and pray for that person. Our Lord is the perfect example in this; “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). In contrast with doing evil for evil, we should “pursue always what is good towards one another and towards all”. Goodness is a behavior that we should always have toward every person we know and interact with. Goodness is moral perfection in both motive and action.

Regarding our personal soul-condition (vv.16-22) 

16 rejoice always; v.16 Rejoice at all times. We often think of joy as something that happens to us, as if we have nothing to do with joy, and it is a matter of our circumstances. But this is not how joy is spoken of in scripture. Paul could say, in spite of suffering, “rejoice in the Lord alway; and again I say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). We can choose to rejoice, because we can choose what we think about. When occupy our minds with God’s love, the natural result is to be filled with a deep, inward joy! The Christian ought to be characterized by joy consistently at all times. We have every reason to rejoice. God’s mind is not that the believers would be like an emotional rollercoaster, giddy with happiness one minute, then plunged into depression the next. Someone might ask, but how can a person rejoice when they are passing through great loss or suffering? A person can be sad, even broken-hearted, because of a circumstance, and yet still have deep inward joy, if they are walking in the light of our Father’s love.
17 pray unceasingly; v.17 Pray without giving up. If we would “pray unceasingly”, we might be able to “rejoice always”. It is extremely important for the believer to have an active prayer-life. If we daily commit our cares to the One who cares for us, this will have a tremendous effect on our state of soul. Paul had regular prayer times; “at my prayers” (Eph. 1:16). When Paul speaks of praying “without ceasing”, he doesn’t mean praying every hour of every day. This would be impossible as we need to sleep, eat, and work through the course of a dat. Rather, it means not give up in prayer. We need to keep up our regular prayer times. Three times in scripture Paul uses the expression “at my prayers” (Rom. 1:10; Eph. 1:16; Philemon 1:4), indicating that Paul prayed for the saints at his regular prayer times. We all should have those regular prayer times, and we should not give them up. “Men ought always to pray and not to faint” (Luke 18:1). In addition, we should always have an open line of communication with the Lord, even when not at a set prayer time. Prayer is a vital part of our communication with God.
18 in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus towards you; v.18 Give thanks in all circumstances. Thankfulness is a great key to a joyful Christian life, and giving thanks to God should be the habit of every believer. Every gift God has given to us is a worthy subject for thanksgiving. Humans tend to become quickly ungrateful, and leads to complaining and bitterness. The motivation here however is, “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus towards you”. God wants us to be thankful. It doesn’t say  “give thanks for everything”, but “in everything give thanks”. No matter what the circumstances are, there is always much to be thankful for. We can count on God, what he is working all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). We should be thankful for what the Lord has given us, not focus on what we don’t have. King David presents a warning to us in that regard. Nathan traces David’s sin with Bathsheba to a lack of thankfulness and contentment with what the Lord had given him (2 Sam. 12:7-10). In this way, thankfulness can preserve the believer.
19 quench not the Spirit; v.19 Allow the Spirit liberty to act. We are to be careful that our human will does not “quench the Spirit”. To quench is the rapidly remove heat. A metal worker quenches a piece of red hot metal by dunking it in a bucket of cold water, and it cools almost instantly. There are things we can do to hinder the working of the Spirit through us. We can quench the Spirit by: not doing what the Spirit directs us to do, or not doing it when the Spirit directs us to do it, or not doing it how the Spirit directs us to do it. For example, the Spirit might be stirring me up to present the gospel to my co-worker, but I allow my fear of reproach to get in the way, and the opportunity is lost. The believer is to be a channel of blessing through which the Spirit of God works, like rivers of living water (John 7:38). If we quench the Spirit, that water cannot flow. A parallel passage is Ephesians 4:30, which warns us, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God”. To grieve the Spirit is to act independently of the mind and leading of the Spirit. It would seem that the primary way we grieve the Spirit is by our words, although it could also be our actions. Compare grieving with quenching the Spirit. If “grieving” the Spirit is accomplished by doing what the Spirit directs us not to do, then “quenching” the Spirit is accomplished by not doing what the Spirit directs us to do.
20 do not lightly esteem prophecies; v.20 Listen to what God has to say. The next exhortation has to do with listing to what God would have to say to us through prophetic ministry. “Prophecies” are an important way that God speaks to us. Prophecy in the New Testament sometimes takes the form of foretelling (future events), but more often it takes the form of forth-telling (giving God’s mind for the time). This second aspect would seem to be the primary thought in our verse. Often prophecy has the effect of reaching the conscience of the people of God. Prophecy is something that can be spoken privately (Acts 21:9), when someone comes to us with a burden and a message the Lord has given them for us. It could also be publicly in the assembly meetings, where “he that prophesies speaks to men in edification, and encouragement, and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). In the assembly meeting, the prophets were to speak two or three in sequence; “And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge” (1 Cor. 14:29). There is a danger that we would despise the prophecies that the Lord might give. This could be because we perceive some weakness in the vessel the Lord uses to give us the message, or because we do not like the person, or it could be simply that we do not want to hear what the Lord has to say. We need to remember that the vessel of of no importance; the source is God Himself. The Spirit moves the prophets (2 Pet. 1:21). There are a number of examples in the Old Testament where someone “lightly esteemed” or “despised” a prophecy or a prophet of God. We recall that Ahab surrounded himself with 400 false prophets of Baal, who would tell him what he wanted to hear. He did not want Micaiah, a faithful prophet of Jehovah, to speak to him, because he didn’t want to hear what Jehovah had to say (1 Kings 22:8). Ahaz pretended to not want to bother God when the prophet told him to ask from the Lord a sign. In reality, he did not want to hear what the Lord had to say (Isa. 7:11). Even in the life of the Apostle Paul, when he wanted to go to Jerusalem, the Spirit sent Agabus to him to warn him not to go (Acts 21:11), but Paul wouldn’t listen. Now, I don’t think we could say Paul despised the prophecy, but he did not listen. The result was that Paul was imprisoned.
21 but prove all things, hold fast the right; v.21 Test everything, only keep what is right. A good balance to v.20 is v.21. We need to test everything we hear or read, and see whether it is right. Notice that in the assembly meeting for prophecy, the prophets were to speak by two or at the most three, and the rest were to judge. That means they were to judge if what is said is of the Spirit of God. We need to do the same, not only with ministry in the assembly, but everything we hear. The world around us is full of false information, and so is the professing church concerning doctrine. We need this exhortation more than ever. How do we judge if what we hear is good? If it is according to the Word of God. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). Notice that before the subject of separation from evil is mentioned (vv.22), the positive side is brought out. This is a pattern in scripture.

Separation is always looked at as from something and to something. We are to be separate unto the Lord first (Num. 6:2), and then from the world and defilement (Num. 6:3). The order is important. We can fall into a legal frame of mind if we forget that separation is first positive, then negative. In fact, the negative aspect will follow almost automatically when the heart is right. However, God still does speak extensively about the negative side of separation because our consciences need to be exercised.

22 hold aloof from every form of wickedness. v.22 Remain separate from evil. The final exhortation regards separation from evil. When we “prove all things” (v.21), we will find that not everything is “right”. When we encounter anything that is wrong, we are to reject it. But this verse goes deeper than wrong; “hold aloof from every form of wickedness”. No matter what form wickedness make take, the believer is to keep separate from it. Evil make take the form of doctrine, practice, entertainment, education, or associations. The believer is to stay separate from these things. To “hold aloof” means to give them a wide berth. In the words of Prov. 4:15; “Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away”. Separation from evil is critical to the believer’s preservation. Involvement with evil leads to a number of things: the flesh growing stronger leading to addiction, the breaking of communion between the soul and God, incurring the governmental judgment of God, as well as a miserable conscience. In any case, separation from evil is crucial to preservation.

God’s Work in Preserving Us (5:23-24)

23 Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly: and your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He is faithful who calls you, who will also perform it. vv.23-24 God’s Work in Sanctification. Having spoken of what the believer can do to be preserved, Paul then addresses what God is doing, and he does so in the form of a prayer. He speaks of God as “the God of peace”, because when we submit our spirit, soul, and body to Him (total sanctification), we are filled with peace. The God who is characterized by peace is seeking to work that character into our lives through sanctifying us. Here is it God that is doing the work of sanctification; “Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly”.

The verb "to sanctify" means 'to declare or set apart as holy, or for a holy purpose'. As an example, we read that "God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it" (Gen. 2:3), not because it was previously defiled by sin, but because the Sabbath was to be set apart from the other six days. But when sin is present, sanctification involves separation from it. God is holy (Rev. 4:8), and all that is in association with God or in proximity to Him must be holy too; "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully" (Psa. 24:3-4). There are several different aspects of sanctification in scripture; sometimes called positional (or, once-for-all), practical (or, on-going), and provisional (or, outward). Read more...

The aspect here is practical sanctification, which is ongoing through a believer’s life; therefore it is sometimes called “progressive” sanctification. Previously, in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Paul addressed the believer’s responsibility in sanctification. But now we have God’s side of it. This is a work that God is doing, and other scriptures give us information about His means of accomplishing our sanctification; i.e. by occupying us with Christ, through His discipline in our lives, and through the reading of God’s Word, etc. The emphasis here is on the wholistic nature and aim of God’s work; “…sanctify you wholly: and your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved…”. Practical sanctification is something that touches every aspect of our lives. God’s desire is not that we should merely be set apart in certain aspects, with other corners of our life untouched. We are to be holy in taking up with Divine things (spirit), in our emotions and desires (soul), and in our physical actions (body). God’s desire is that our whole person would be “preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. When the Lord comes, we will be transformed into the moral and physical likeness of Christ. But God’s grace can preserve us undefiled to the end. “He is faithful who calls you, who will also perform it.” Since God called us, we can be confident that He retains the power to preserve us “all the way home”. This doesn’t mean there are no trials in store for us as Christians. But we can be preserved “blameless”, that is without making shipwreck of our faith. Although we may fail, God is faithful! “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Spirit, Soul, and Body. Man has three parts to his being; a physical part, an emotional part, and a spiritual part. Animals have a body and soul, but no spirit. Plants have a body, but no soul. Angels are "ministering spirits" (Heb. 1:14). Only man has all three. Body gives us world-consciousness, soul gives us self-consciousness, spirit gives us God-consciousnesses. Man is set apart from all the animals, because his soul has a special self-consciousness, and his spirit a special God-consciousness. "There is a spirit in man, and the breath at the Almighty giveth them understanding" (Job 32:8). Man has three parts to his being, and they are connected, but distinct. Paul enumerates them in 1 Thess. 5:23; "I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ". The order is important. Our body can be in pain, but our soul can rise above. Our soul can be downcast, but our spirit can still rejoice in God. But when the spirit is in a bad state, everything is wrong. Man often quotes it backwards: "body, soul, and spirit". “This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly (body), sensual (soul), devilish (spiritual)” (James 3:15). In the men of this world, the cravings of the body rule the soul and spirit. But with the believer it should be the opposite; what James calls “the wisdom from above”, and it results in peace (James 3:18). Our understanding of God’s will (spirit), should inform our emotions, and then what we do with our body. When God chooses to save a person, He saves the whole person; spirit, soul, and body. This is why the doctrine of the bodily resurrection from the dead is so vital. The Christian has not only the redemption of his spirit and soul, but also the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23).

Greetings and Salutation (5:25-28)

25 Brethren, pray for us. 26 Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. vv.25-26 Paul coveted the prayers of the saints as he and his companions moved forward in the missionary journeys. This is instructive: Paul had prayed for the saints, but he needed their prayers as well. No matter who we are, we all need prayer. He instructed the saints to pass along his personal greeting to “all the brethren” with a sign of affection.

The holy kiss is mentioned four times in the New Testament as a common expression of affection, to be used as a greeting for Christians (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:261).  There was to be a ‘kiss’, or display of affection; but it was to ‘holy’ as well. They were to be careful that their greetings were genuine, and above reproach. There are at least two ways a kiss could be unholy. First, if it is not genuine, like the kiss of Judas (Luke 22:47-48) or Joab (2 Sam. 20:9). Second, if it is sexually motivated or gives the appearance of evil (1 Cor. 7:1). Paul wanted to see affection between the saints, but he wanted it to be pure. God's desire is for warmth and affection to be present in the greetings of His saints. It is remarkable how a simple greeting such as a kiss can remove barriers, soften bitter hearts, and draw the Lord's people together.2

27 I adjure you by the Lord that the letter be read to all the holy brethren. 28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. vv.27-28 Paul gave the strongest possible exhortation (“I adjure you”) to the Thessalonians that the epistle should be read to all the brethren. The teaching of this first of Paul’s epistle was important for the whole assembly, and one reason was that most of them were newly converted. Who were the “holy brethren”? Were they a special elite class, such as a clergy? No. All the brethren were holy, having been sanctified by God. All who are “partakers of the heavenly calling” are “holy brethren” (Heb. 3:1). This epistle, and the whole Word of God, is not just for a special class, but for the whole body of Christ. Finally, Paul prayed that “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” would be with the Thessalonians. Surely, they would need it. They were a bright new testimony in Greece, but Satan was doing all he could to stop them. First, they were facing the threat of persecution. Second, there were some unruly characters among them. Finally, they were facing the inroads of false eschatology. These young converts would need the grace of Christ to be with them, in order to be preserved until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ! And so do we.
  1. In addition, we have a "kiss of love" in 1 Pet. 5:14.
  2. Should we still practice the holy kiss today? If God had intended some other form of greeting He would have specified it. In many cultures around the world, a greeting with a kiss is still common and socially appropriate. However, in some western cultures a kiss in public would have the appearance of evil. For example, in the United States, two men kissing in public, or a man kissing another man's wife, would give the appearance of evil, and therefore could not be considered "a holy kiss". In these cases, a different greeting could be used, or else discretion should govern the times and places the holy kiss is used.