1 Thessalonians 5:12-28.
 Guidance in Christian Growth

 Copyright 2009 (c) American Journal of Biblical Theology 
www.biblicaltheology.com     Scripture quotes from KJV


"Today is the beginning of the rest of your life."  We have all probably heard this phrase stated in a variety of settings when it is used as a reminder that we can always be resolved to step away from the errors of our past and move forward with a greater maturity and focus.  Though there is no intrinsic difference between one day and the next, we often use seminal moments as an opportunity to examine our lives.  Have we grown and matured?  Is our faith stronger, and are we more obedient to the Lord's call?  Growth necessitates change, and change comes first from a recognition that change is needed. 

1 Peter 2:2-3.  As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: 3If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.

Each person who has turned their hearts and lives over to God, by His grace, through the saving act of atonement by Jesus Christ, accepting Him as personal Savior and Lord, did so as the result of a conscious decision.  That decision was based upon an understanding of the truth of God's purpose as learned from either written or oral testimony.  At the point of that decision we may be referred to as "newborn babes."  This common description of a new Christian invokes much truth of that state.  As a new Christian we have heard, read, and understood enough of our faith to respond to it.  However, scripture continually teaches that to accept Christ is to accept Him as Lord and to follow His will in life.   We are to continue to grow in knowledge of our faith so that we can mature in our application of it and grow in our relationship with Him.  We are to be immersed in God's word[1] so that, as His disciples, we can serve Him by being ministers to others as we grow in Christian maturity.

Paul, and others, often refer to the knowledge that is presented to new Christians as "milk."  This includes basic concepts of Christian doctrine and faith.  However, Paul often admonishes Christians to be able to move beyond the need for milk, and to grow to desire a deeper understanding and application of the depths of God's word.  This "diet" of deeper doctrine is often referred to as "meat".[2]

Heb. 5:12-14.  For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. 13For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. 

The call to Christian growth is clear, and when we observe any group of Christians, it is evident that there are always varying levels of Christian maturity represented in it.  There will be relatively new Christians who seem to have more fully devoted themselves to the faith and by so doing demonstrate a surprising level of Christian maturity, becoming respected leaders in the congregation in a relatively short term of time.  There will also be members who have been Christians for many years who's life is less characterized by devotion to Christ, and will be more engaged in self-centered actions such as an unteachable spirit that is characterized by such loveless traits as bickering and criticizing others.  It is all too often that the unity that is so necessary for growth in the congregation is rent asunder by the division generated by this latter, less mature, Christian example.

As Paul finishes his first letter to the Thessalonians, he presents a series of imperatives that provide some guidance for Christian growth.  These are examples of Paul's effort to move the new congregation from the milk of his initial instruction to the more meaty doctrine that is necessary for Christian maturity.  If we spend some time observing these imperatives and take a close look at their application in our own lives, we can take a few steps further down that road of Christian maturity ourselves.  By so doing, we will find ourselves continually growing closer to God, realizing more of the promised abundant life of peace and joy, and be a more fruitful member of the Kingdom of God.

What would be the consequences of the failure of Christians to mature in the faith?  The cause of Christ would be significantly hampered, fewer people would come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, churches would be in division, and ultimately, Satan wins on all fronts.

1.  RESOLVE TO GROW IN OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ONE ANOTHER.

1 Thess. 5:12.  And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you;

The spectrum of Christian growth is implied in this statement that among the Thessalonian congregation there are some individuals who are "over you in the Lord," and who have the authority to "admonish" the members of the congregation.  What is it that characterizes such an individual?  We see here that they are described by their "labor" among the congregation.  When we consider those who we consider respected leaders in our congregations, we will almost always be able to note that these are the people who work hard in their ministry to the congregation and in their own personal witness.  These are members who are faithful to God, and faithful in ministry. 

In Paul's list of imperatives, the first one describes how to relate to those in Christian leadership. Paul's instruction is simple, we are to get to "know" them.  The Greek word that is translated refers to an intimate knowledge that comes from an established relationship.  Paul is strongly encouraging all Christians (young and mature alike) to develop close relationships with those who are more spiritually mature.  Why is this so important to Paul?  It is from these more mature Christians that we can learn what they have learned, and by sharing our knowledge and understanding with each other, we all can grow in the Lord.  The church is a network of social relationships with more mature leaders and youthful followers, and the future of the church is dependant upon the "passing on" of this maturity to the younger generations.

1 Thess. 5:13.  And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves. 

One who is young in the faith (and probably many who are not so young in the faith) still has to deal with those issues that are a part of life that we should grow to overcome, such as anger, pride, prejudice, etc.  Consequently, it is very easy to be resentful of someone who the church has recognized as a leader when we do not agree with a position or action taken by that leader.  If our response is selfish, and by so responding we are exhibiting these traits of pride, prejudice, or anger, our actions will serve to create strife and division in the congregation.   It is important that we grow beyond this point in our faith.  If we cannot, there is little that we can be taught, and Christian growth is stifled.  Consequently, this is a very important issue with Paul as he is preparing to move the Thessalonian church past the point of infancy.  Paul states that we are to esteem our Christian leaders very highly, and to do so in agape love.  When we truly love someone, we are not prone to be critical or judgmental.  Note that the call is not to esteem them in respect, it is to esteem them in love, a far higher calling.

In a related statement, Paul admonishes the church members to be at peace among themselves.  Satan wins when disunity is allowed to disrupt the fellowship.  Unity is present when the members of the church fully love and respect one another.  Just as one can accept the differences between ourselves and a leader that we love and respect, we can accept one another's differences in the same manner.  A common "catch-phrase" that identifies such a position is "unity in diversity."  We are all unique individuals with a unique set of gifts, talents, desires, viewpoints, etc.  We will never agree on every point of thought, so to try to do so is rather futile and frustrating.  We are far better off loving one another so that we come to accept our differences.  By so doing we can be at peace with one another, and then work together for the common cause of Christ, each contributing our uniqueness to the general purpose of the overall enterprise, empowered not by our own will, but by the common will of the Holy Spirit that come from a close relationship with Him.

1 Thess. 5:14.  Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. 

We see here four more imperatives that provide instruction on improving relationships among one another.

(1) Warn them that are unruly.  This statement still speaks to the paramount importance of unity in the fellowship.  Those who are unruly are individuals who are living and acting in opposition to the network of spiritual relationships in the fellowship.  Such people are often characterized by self-centered purposes.  These may be people who are demanding their own way, creating division and strife.   Such people often create a cliquish environment at best, or polarize the congregation into opposing factions, at worst.  When it appears that a person or group of persons is challenging the unity of the body, what should be done?  Hopefully, avenues of communication can be opened and conflicting issues successfully addressed before the point of unruly behavior is reached.  Warning one another of the dangers of unruly behavior that promotes disunity can be a powerful defense against this weapon of Satan against the church.  When members immerse one another in true love and sincere prayer, the power of disunity is destroyed.  Since we are called upon to issue a warning when danger presents itself, we are to be vigilant.  We should respond quickly, and in true love, when such a warning is appropriate so that what could at one point be easily and positively addressed does not grow to an unmanageable and destructive point.

(2) Comfort the feebleminded.  If we are to limit our observation of this verse to the grammar of the King James Version, we might come away with a doctrine that we are to provide comfort to those who are mentally retarded.  Certainly, this is true, but this is not what the reader of the Greek letter would have understood.  This word that is translated, feebleminded, can also be rendered "fainthearted" (NKJV, NASB, RSV), "timid" (NIV, NLT) or "poor in spirit."  Any inference to mental retardation is an error that is propagated by a variant interpretation of the KJV text.  As the previous verse provided instruction on how to relate to one who is ahead of us in spiritual maturity, this statement provides instruction on relating to those who are not as spiritually mature.  It would be easy for us to allow our own pride to lead us to despise those who are new to the faith, and demonstrate that youthful spirit in behaviors that we would not expect from a mature Christian.  That makes about as much sense as criticizing a 5-year old child for failing a test in quantum mechanics.  Our place is to provide sincere love and comfort to such an individual.  The mature Christian should be one that the youthful Christian can go to for shelter, for care, and for loving advice.  By providing such a ministry, all will grow in faith.

(3) Support the weak.  This imperative is related to the last.  Those who are strong in the faith gained that strength through a variety of experiences related to both learning and living.  We are reminded by James[3] that we grow from the trials and difficulties of life.  It is probably advantageous to learn from the trials and mistakes of others rather than to have to repeat the mistakes or difficult times ourselves.  By supporting and caring for the more youthful Christian we can help that person to grow in the faith, and possibly save them a lot of stress and heartache.  We can love that person as we see that younger version of ourselves who had a similar outlook on faith and life.  Those who are weaker in the faith tend to be more easily influenced by the strain and stress of such trials that have the purpose of strengthening that faith.  At times when people are experiencing these trials, it is important that we respond by providing comfort and caring support, rather than with criticism or, even worse, silence.  One of the most damaging actions often taken by the church is to shun those youthful Christians who are still dealing with issues that more mature Christians tend to have overcome.  When a new member joins the church and gets into trouble of their own making, they all too often see the church door slam in their face at the time in their life when they need the church the most, and the opportunity for the church to minister to them is the greatest.  We should keep a close eye on the "weak" so that we can support them at these difficult times.

(4).  Be patient toward all men.  Paul's final imperative on relationships  includes those outside the church body.  We are to be patient towards one another and towards those outside of the church.  If we think for a moment of how patient God is with us, we can begin to gain an appreciation for that statement.  If we maintain the same patience towards others that God had towards us, what will be the resulting impact on our relationships with others?  If we are truly patient with one another it will be much easier for use to love one another and to express that love when we exercise that patience in love.   

1 Thess. 5:15.  See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men. 

Verse 15 really closes the thought of verse 14.  How are we to relate to one another and to those outside the church?  We have seen that we are to be patient toward every person, both in and out of the church body.  Also, it is inappropriate for any Christian to engage in any activity that would "render evil" on another.  That is, all of what we do with, for, and concerning, other individuals should be done in love so that we never take any action that can hurt another person.  There are many ways to render evil upon one another, and the culture of this world tends to make this a full-time effort.  One way that Christians should be separate from the world is that they should be known by their love for one another and for all people.  Before we engage in any attitude or action towards another person we should ensure that our act is done in love, demonstrates patience, renders no evil, and can only be characterized by that which is good and Godly.  This is a difficult task when we can never completely free ourselves of the self-will that comes from an attitude of pride and prejudice.  Satan can use that pride and prejudice to keep us in conflict with one another.  The need to defeat this enemy is clear, and such defeat is predicated on our loving one another above all other things.  When we truly love, we will not seek to do evil on any man, desiring to do only good.  The key is love. Jesus described this practice as heaping burning coals upon the head of another,[4] an idiom that refers to giving a lavish and sacrificial gift to one who really does not deserve it.  A gift that can only be given in unconditional love.

2.  RESOLVE TO GROW IN OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LORD.

These next seven verses provide guidance in personal spiritual growth.  Paul provides us with some ideas that shape the fundamental viewpoints that we have concerning ourselves and our relationship with God.  Personal spiritual growth comes from addressing such issues and responding by changes in attitudes and actions that bring us closer to God. 

1 Thess. 5:16. Rejoice evermore.   

The first imperative that Paul lists is to "rejoice evermore."  That may be a really tough command.  What does it mean to rejoice?  The word is a verb form of the word "joy."  Rejoicing is joy in action.  In order to be in a continual state of rejoicing, we must be always aware of the joy that has been placed in our heart by the presence of God's Holy Spirit.  This can be difficult when we focus on our circumstances rather than focus on God.  Unfortunately, most of us spend most of our time immersed in our worldly problems and give little thought to His Spirit or what He has done for us.  When we do this, we stifle the joy that should characterize our faith.  By stifling that joy, we surrender one of the most powerful weapons that we can use to combat the stress and strain of the worldly issues that so easily overwhelm us.  Can we have joy at the same time we are embroiled in stressful situations?  We can maintain that joy if we learn to draw upon the strength within us that God provides though His Holy Spirit rather than try to do everything on our own.  When we find ourselves in situations where we do not feel that joy that we have in the Lord, it is reasonable to look at what it is that is stifling that joy, surrender it to the Lord, and pray.  When we do so we will find that we are not facing the enemy alone.  We will have God with us: certainly reason for joy.  

1 Thess. 5:17. Pray without ceasing. 

Just as Paul sees an attitude of joy as a continual action, Paul admonishes us to pray without ceasing.  Does this mean that we are to get down on our knees in prayer, and never get up?  Of course, this is not what Paul is referring to.  Some people may think of prayer only in those terms, but Paul did not.  To Paul, prayer was an open channel of communication to God.  Since God knows our thoughts, words, and actions, all of these can be used to communicate with Him.  One can certainly pray vocally, both with others and when alone.  One can also pray in their thoughts.  There may be times in our lives when we think that our prayers are not going anywhere, and we might want to stop trying.  Actually, what we feel has nothing to do with God's ability to hear our prayers.  Like Paul, we should see prayer as an open pipeline that never shuts down; a conduit that enables us to communicate with God in our words and thoughts just as if He were literally standing next to us (which He is, anyway).  We should be comfortable sharing our thoughts and ideas with Him as well as our needs and desires.  All of what we think and do can be bathed in prayer when we pray in this way.

1 Thess. 5:18. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. 

Just as Paul sees joy and prayer as a constant in his life, he also sees giving thanks to God as being a basic point of character of the Christian, not simply a repeated event.  Just as it is sometimes hard to have joy, sometimes hard to pray, it is sometimes hard to be thankful when times are tough.  However difficult the circumstances, what Jesus has done for us always rises above them.  It is only when we allow worldly circumstances to take precedence over our true thankfulness to God for what He has done is such thanks interrupted.  As we grow more and more in our faith, we can begin to even thank God for the bad things that happen, often drawing upon his promise[5] that He derives a positive purpose from every event.  And, Paul reminds us that continual thanksgiving is not necessarily an arbitrary choice.  It is the expressed will of God in your life. 

1 Thess. 19. Quench not the Spirit.

The word "quench" that is used here is the same word used to describe the action of putting out a fire with a bucket of cold water.  It might be surprising how easy it is for a movement of the Spirit to be quenched, but when we consider that God has ordained that we hear Him as a "still, small voice," this makes some sense.  Anyone who has spent much time in a church congregation may have seen the Spirit quenched.  You see it when someone feels led of the Lord to do something and their joy is nipped in the bud by other individuals who do not agree.  The political process necessary to affect change in some churches is a built-in automatic fire extinguisher.  We program the Holy Spirit out of our plans.  It is difficult to maintain the balance of stable organization with changes that come from growth in the Spirit in the church membership.  Spiritual growth always results in increased ministry.  As the hearts of members become more committed to God, there is opportunity and need for that commitment to be expressed.  Rather than acting as a fire extinguisher, we should always be vigilant to recognize when the Spirit is behind some event or action so that we can find a way of supporting it and going with it.  We can use the breath of the Holy Spirit to feed the newly kindled fire just as blowing on the embers brings life to a dying campfire.

1 Thess. 20. Despise not prophesyings.

Paul describes the spiritual gifts in several of his letters.[6]  He also encourages Christians to mature in the faith, seeking the higher gifts.  He lists prophesy as a higher gift.  Prophesy is the gift of understanding and perceiving God's word, and being able to communicate it with others.  This gift can come from a sensitivity to God's Spirit's leading on specific issues, or from preparation through prayer and study of God's word.  Of the gifts, prophesy is not as "showy" as some gifts such as glossalalia[7] that Paul considers the lowest of gifts.  However, it is often the showy gifts that get the attention in a congregation, and by emphasizing those, the maturity of the church is stifled.  It is through hearing the Holy Spirit and understanding God's Word, that the people grow.  Today, most prophesy is done through well-prepared preaching and teaching.  However, in many Christian settings, the preaching is not held in appropriate esteem by either the congregation or the one doing the preaching or teaching.  Messages can become sermons that may, or may not, be an illumination of the Word of God. 

Congregants all too often half-listen to the message that has been prepared and is being presented, with more interest in watching the clock and thinking about the remainder of the events of the day.  In these ways, prophesy is despised.  Paul teaches us that the value of prophesy is above all other gifts.  How do we respond to teaching and preaching?  Those who preach and teach the Word must realize the importance and responsibility of the task.  Their preparation must be sincere, bathed in prayer, and be diligent in its pursuit of the truth.  Likewise, church members should also be aware of the importance of the prophesy presented, and coupled with a preacher who prepares properly, the Word of God can be better learned, understood, and applied:  an absolute necessity for the maturity of the congregation.  Though stated herein concerning sermon or message preparation, the same responsibility holds true for those who teach the Word of God.  James reminds us of the responsibility of the teacher when he states that theirs is the "greater judgment."[8]  The teacher's position is not one from which to promote personal viewpoints, but rather to teach the Word of God.  Those who have been granted the opportunity to share God's Word must treat it with an appropriate attitude and response.  Likewise, those who sit under their teaching have a responsibility to love and respect their teacher and use the time of instruction as one in which to deepen their understanding of the Word of God.

1 Thess. 21. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

The word rendered "prove" in the KJV has changed a little in its more common use in the years since the version was published.  As used here, it refers more literally to the process of testing that which we read and hear.  We have the resources, through God's Word and the presence of the Holy Spirit, to test everything we observe to discern whether it is right or wrong, good or evil, etc.  We should also test our attitudes, actions, and intended actions against the same biblical standard.  Each time such an assessment is made, what is the choice concerning decisions that we make as the result of that comparison?  Paul admonishes us to hold fast to that which is good.  It is on those good things that we should hold on to as part of who we are and what we do.  When we participate in any action that is not good, such an action is inappropriate for the Christian. 

1 Thess. 22. Abstain from all appearance of evil.

This verse has been often misapplied and misunderstood.  Ascertaining the intent of the author of this verse requires us to take a look at the grammar as presented in the Greek language and the context within which it is written.  If we depend upon the English, it is not clear how "appearance" is used.  Are we, when observed, never to have an appearance that could be possibly construed as unholy?  Or, are we to avoid evil any time it appears?  I was once publicly criticized by a respected church leader for being engaged in a ministry that took me into inner-city bars.  His argument was that, if someone saw me in a bar, I would be giving an appearance of being involved in an ungodly act, so the ministry must be stopped immediately.  He quoted this verse in his argument.  His position was that a Christian must abstain from any activity that could be construed by anyone to be anything less than godly.  This might sound like a worthy doctrine, but applying it opens the door to legalism on the part of the practitioner and judgmentalism on the part of the observer when appearances supersede true intent.

In the Greek, this phrase is a continuation of the last that applies testing.  "Abstain" is simply an opposite of "hold fast."  We have a duplet that could be stated, "Test all things:  hold on to that which is good, let go of that which is evil."  When "hold on" is understood to mean to make something a part of who you are, the duplet can be stated, "Test all things, choosing that which is good and rejecting that which is evil."  It is that which is good and godly that should characterize the life of a Christian.  For such a standard to be maintained, it is necessary that we are continually aware of our attitudes and actions, letting go of that which is ungodly.  It is this testing that was the inspiration for the "What Would Jesus Do?" movement that was initiated by Charles M. Sheldon in his book, In His Steps.  If we ask that question and follow its answer with an understanding of the truth of God's Word, we can hardly make a wrong choice.

3.  RESOLVE TO GROW IN HOLINESS.

1 Thess. 5:23-24. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  24Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.

Paul closes his letter to the Thessalonians with a prayer for the reader's preservation in the faith.  He has already complimented them for their demonstrated faith in a setting that makes such obedience difficult.  It is his prayer that this faith, applied in their "spirit, soul, and body" will be kept blameless until the end of the age.  Note an important part of Paul's understanding of salvation is implied here.  Who is responsible for maintaining a Christian's salvation?  Paul clearly believed in the doctrine of the "perseverance of the saints," that teaches that once an individual is saved, that salvation is eternal, and cannot be lost by any act of man.  We cannot save ourselves, and by the same means and argument we are wholly incapable of maintaining our salvation by ourselves.  We will continue to commit sin after the point of salvation.  However, Paul clearly teaches that it is God that preserves the blamelessness of the Christian through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the saved.  A common classic Christian hymn repeats Paul's words from 2 Tim. 1:12.

2 Tim 1:12b.  For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.

It is God who is able to keep the commitment that Christians have made to Himself.  In his prayer, Paul communicates this truth, repeating its effectiveness with the statement that God is faithful, and by that faithfulness we are assured that this prayer will be answered positively.

1 Thess. 25-28. Brethren, pray for us. 26Greet all the brethren with an holy kiss. 27I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren. 28The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

Just as Paul has mentioned the Thessalonians in his prayers, he is requesting that they continue to pray for Himself, Silas, and Timothy as they continue in their church planting ministry.  We should never refrain from praying for one another. 

No special concern need be drawn from the statement that Christians should kiss one another.  In their culture, it was customary for people to kiss one another in the same way that our culture shakes hands.  I once had the opportunity to be engaged in a missionary trip to Belarus where I witnessed their customary greeting:  a kiss.  When I saw the practice, my thoughts went to this verse, as I saw the Greek Christians greeting one another in this same manner thousands of years ago, a custom that had persevered to this very day.  When the greeting carries with it the love of Christ, that greeting is holy.  When we greet one another we can do so with the love of Christ in us, and whether we greet with a kiss, a handshake, or a simple smile, we are acting in a way that is consistent with God's purpose for us.

 

This last part of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians contains a tremendous amount of teaching that can serve to help us mature in the faith.  We find beneficial guidance in our relationships with those who are more spiritually mature, with those who are less spiritually mature, and with those who have not made the step of faith in Jesus Christ.  We see guidance in personal spiritual matters that shape our daily activities as they relate to God's purpose for each of us.  We see a call to a life that is characterized by consistent joy, consistent prayer, and consistent thankfulness.  It is also a life that is consistent in seeking out and applying that which is true and good.  It is my hope that all who study these verses will not leave them without having been inspired to adjust those attitudes and actions that will propel each one a little further down the path of spiritual maturity.

 

[1] Matthew 28:18-20.

[2] 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12-14.

[3] James, Chapter 1.

[4] Romans 12:20.

[5] Romans 8:28, etc.

[6] cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1, e.g.

[7] Speaking in tongues.

[8] James 3:1.