How To Be a Gospel-Shaped Church (preaching resource for Advent 3, December 17, 2023)

This post exegetes 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading for 12/17/2023 (third Sunday of Advent). This exegesis draws on John Stott's commentary.

Early Christian Worship in the Catacombs
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


In the second half of 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, the apostle Paul calls on the church to strengthen their life together as 'brothers' in the family of God. He does so by addressing three vital aspects of gospel-shaped Christian community: the church's leadership, the church's fellowship, and the church's worship. 

The church's leadership 

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd, delegates to under-shepherds ('pastors') the oversight of the flock which Jesus bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28). We do not know what prompted Paul to write verses 12 and 13. Perhaps some church members had been disrespectful towards their leaders. Perhaps some leaders provoked this reaction by being heavy-handed. Paul rejected both attitudes. For it is God's will, he taught, that every local church should enjoy pastoral (spiritual oversight) leadership, but not his will that pastors dominate and organize everything. They are not meant to perform all the ministries themselves, but to equip and oversee others who perform the vital ministries of the local church (Eph. 4:12). Paul portrays the work of Christian leaders by discussing three aspects of their responsibilities:

1. Christian leaders are those *who work hard among you* (12a). The Greek verb here conjures up pictures of rippling muscles and pouring sweat. Paul used it to refer to both farm laborers (e.g. 2Tim.2:6) as well as to those who 'labor in preaching and teaching' (1Tim.5:17, RSV). Whether it is study and the preparation of sermons, training and coaching ministry leaders, visiting the sick and counseling the disturbed, or instructing people for baptism or marriage, or being diligent in intercession - these things demand that church leaders 'toil, striving with all the energy which he [Christ] mightily inspires within' them (Col.1:29, RSV). Christian leadership is not about privilege. It involves persistence and hard work. 

2.  Christian leaders are those *who are over you in the Lord* (12b).  According to what Paul says elsewhere, the chief characteristic of Christian leaders is humility and gentleness, not power. According to Jesus, in God's kingdom the first are last, the leaders servants and the chiefs slaves. Nevertheless, authentic Christian leaders are called to exercise authority (Cf. Heb.13:7, 17, 24). The Greek verb translated 'over' signified in Paul's day both to lead (manage) in the sense of to direct or rule, and to care for (protect). It was  applied to a variety of governmental and household leaders including superintendents, village heads, landlords, estate managers and guardians of children. The same combination of lead/manage and care for/protect is suggested in the New Testament, in which 'leadership' in Romans 12:8 comes in the middle of three other caring ministries, and the same verb is used of a father 'managing' his own home and children (1Tim.3:4-5, 12). It was natural, therefore, to use the verb of Christian elders, for 'If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?' (1Tim. 3:5; cf. 5:17). As Paul shows in 1Thes 2 and 3, pastoral care, like parental care, involves the exercise of God-ordained authority. 

3. Christian leaders are those *who admonish you* (12c). In exercising authority, one of the responsibilities of a Christian leader is to warn against bad behavior (E.g. Acts 20:31; 1Cor.4:14), and to reprove, even discipline, those who have done wrong. Because the word 'admonish' has negative connotations, it is often coupled with 'teaching', e.g. 'admonishing and teaching everyone' (Col.1:28; 3:16). Though both activities are necessary, they are never to be administered with harshness or in a condescending spirit. 

Given these aspects of the responsibilities of Christian leaders, what attitude should the local congregation adopt towards them? They are neither to despise them, as if they were dispensable, nor to flatter or fawn on them as if they were princes, but rather to *respect* them (12a), and to *hold them in the highest regard (NEB 'in the highest possible esteem') in love because of their work* (13a). This combination of appreciation, respect and affection will enable leaders and members to *live in peace with each other* (13b). 

The church's fellowship 

1 Thessalonians 5:14-15 

In these two verses Paul urges the church to true Christian fellowship in two ways:

1. Help the difficult ones. Paul's exhortation to provide pastoral care to the members is not limited to pastors--giving such care is the responsibility of all members. Paul exhorts them to extend that care in particular ways to three particularly needy groups: They are to *warn those who are idle* (14a) (those refusing to work), *encourage the timid* (those 'fainthearted' who were anxious either about their friends who had died or about their own salvation), and they are to *help the weak* (those finding sexual self-control difficult--apparently the same group that is addressed in 4:3-8). Paul then continues: *be patient with everyone* or, as perhaps it should in the context be translated, be very patient 'with them all' (RSV). 

One might say that the idle, the anxious and the weak were the 'problem children' of this church family.  Every congregation has members of this kind. We have no excuse for becoming impatient with them on the ground that they are difficult, demanding, disappointing, argumentative or rude. On the contrary, we are to be *patient* with all of them. This patience (or 'longsuffering') is an attribute of God (Ex.34:6; Ps.103:8), a fruit of the Spirit, and a characteristic of love (Gal.5:22; 1Cor. 13:4). Since God has been infinitely patient with us, we too must be patient with others.

2. Be kind, not vengeful. *Make sure*, Paul writes, *that nobody* (or 'none of you' RSV) *pays back wrong for wrong*. Here is an allusion to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5:39, 44; cf. Rom.12:17-21). All personal revenge and retaliation are forbidden to followers of Jesus. And in place of these negative attitudes and actions, we are enjoined: *always try to be kind* (RSV 'seek to do good', NEB 'aim at doing the best you can') *to each other* within the fellowship of God's children *and* indeed *to everyone else*, including (as Jesus specifically taught) our enemies. 

The church's public worship 

1 Thessalonians 5:16-22, 25-27  

The Greek verbs in these verses are plural, suggesting that Paul is discussing the public (corporate) worship of the church. Here Paul sets forth five essential ingredients of that worship: 

1. 'Rejoice always!' (5:16, RSV). Paul's words echo such Old Testament exhortations as, 'Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord', and  'Shout for joy to the Lord' (Ps 95:1; 100:1). Paul is offering an invitation to worship, and to joyful worship at that. Although, to be sure, it is always appropriate to worship Almighty God with awe and humility, yet every worship service should also be a celebration, a joyful rehearsal of what God has done and given through Christ. 

2. 'Pray continually!' (5:17). Jesus told his disciples that they 'should always pray and not give up', and he added his parable of the wicked judge and the persistent widow in order to enforce his dictum (Lk.18:1-8). His teaching did not relate, however, to private individual prayer only (entering our room, closing the door and speaking to the Father in secret, Mt. 6:6), for he went on in the Sermon on the Mount to give us the 'Our Father' (often referred to as 'the Lord's prayer), which was given for groups of disciples to recite together (Mt. 6:9). So, like praise, prayer is another essential element of pubic worship, especially prayers of intercession. One of our primary concerns in such prayer should be for the lost--those who do not know Jesus as Savior and Lord. 

3. 'Give thanks in all circumstances!' (5:18). Thankfulness should always characterize the people of God, as they say to themselves: 'Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits' (Ps 103:2). Indeed, a Christian's life is to be an unceasing day of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is thus essential to public worship (Cf. Eph.5:20).  We give thanks for our material blessings, but above all for God's priceless love in redeeming the world through Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at the Lord's Supper (called in the  early Church, the Eucharist--*eucharistia* being the Greek word in the Bible meaning thanksgiving). 

We cannot of course thank God for all circumstances, including those which are evil and displeasing to him; but we can and should thank him *in all circumstances* or 'whatever happens' (REB) even when we don't (naturally) feel thankful. Why? Because *this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus* (18b). This statement almost certainly belongs to all three commands which precede it. It is God's will, as expressed and seen in Jesus Christ, whenever his people meet together for worship, and whatever their feelings and circumstances may be, that there should be rejoicing in him, praying to him and giving him thanks for his mercies.

4. Proclaim the Word (20-22, 27). This fourth element of public worship is implied here in Paul's mentions of prophecy in verses 20-22 and to the public reading of his letter in verse 27. By writing, *do not treat prophecies with contempt* but *test* them and *hold on* to those proven to be from God (20-22), Paul calls the church to listen to God's Word. Before the completion of the Biblical canon, the Word of God was conveyed to the early church through the Apostles and certain prophets (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11;; 15:32; 21:8-9; e.g. 1 Cor.14:1ff.). Today our primary source for God's Word is Holy Scripture with its words given by God to the 'apostles and prophets' who were the recipients and conveyers of  special and direct revelation from God. With the close of the biblical canon, there are no longer apostles and prophets of that sort. Indeed, Paul refers to the teachings of the original apostles and prophets as the 'foundation' on which the church is built (Eph.2:20), and nobody has the right to tamper with, add to or subtract from that foundation; it has been laid once and for all.  

And so, for us, Scripture is the authoritative and fully adequate source for us of God's Word, to which we are to pay close attention. The public reading and exposition (preaching) of Scripture is therefore an essential part of our public worship. Often God gives to certain ones in the church apostolic and prophetic gifts to proclaim the Word from Scripture with power, clarity and depth of insight. But what they teach must always be evaluated according to Scripture and must never be received if it contradicts what Scripture proclaims.

5. 'Do not quench the Spirit' (19, RSV). Given the flow of the text, Paul seems to be giving a two-fold warning concerning public worship: 'Let the Holy Spirit speak to you through his Word, and listen to his voice; do not quench Him', and 'Let the Holy Spirit move you to respond to the Word in praise, prayer and thanksgiving; do not quench Him,' The Greek word for 'quench' was used of extinguishing both lights and fires. The Holy Spirit is light as well as fire and, far from extinguishing him, we must let him both shine and burn within us. In our public worship, we should expect him to speak to us with a living, contemporary voice through the ancient Scriptures and then to move us to respond to God appropriately with all our being. To allow the Spirit to direct our worship does not mean that we should not use set forms and orders-of-worship in our gatherings, since such are modeled in the new Testament text. But perhaps the best way to avoid Spirit-quenching traditions in public worship is to develop a flexible combination of liturgy and spontaneity, form and freedom. Above all, we must acknowledge the Spirit's sovereignty in all our worship together and in private.


1 Thessalonians 5:23-28

In discussing Christian community Paul has touched on the three main relationships of church members: to their pastors (respect and love), to each other (mutual care and support) and to God (both listening and responding to him). All three relationships are transformed when we remember that we are 'brethren' (perhaps the key word of the section)--brothers and sisters in the family of God relating to one another in love (expressed in Paul's time through a *holy kiss* (26b). This community is sanctified (23) by the God who is supremely able and faithful (24) and abundant in grace (28).