Colin Smith suggests a number of common, but faulty, metaphors for the church. He says the church can be viewed as a gas station—a place to fill up your spiritual tank, to be recharged spiritually; a theater—a place to watch others perform; a drug store—a place to ease psychological pain; a big box retailer—a one stop producer of programs for children and adults. Someone else compared the church to a tourist destination—a place to drop in and visit, without a sense of commitment or permanency. These are all faulty, inadequate metaphors.
The Bible has its own metaphors or analogies for the church. They give us a sense of what the church is designed to be. For example, the church can be described as a nation—we are a new humanity with a new identity, a priesthood—we come together and offer worship to God, a body—composed of different parts but carrying out a common mission, a bride—waiting for her groom. But perhaps the most common analogy for the church is that of a family—where spiritual newborns are welcomed, where we grow and mature and accept different roles, where we love one another and respond to the needs of one another, where we challenge one another to follow hard after the Savior.
The concept of family dominates this section of 1 Thessalonians. Five times Paul refers to his readers as brothers and sisters (see verses 12, 14, 25, 26, 27). Five times he uses family language. When we place our trust in Jesus Christ we not only enter into a relationship with God—a new vertical relationship, but we also enter into new horizontal relationships with other believers—we become part of a family.
Within the physical family there are responsibilities. There may be obligations with a spouse, with children, with siblings, with parents. In the spiritual family there are also real responsibilities. That is what Paul is putting in front of us in this section. These are our obligations within the family.
Encourage those in leadership roles.
The first two verses have to do with those who "care" for you or are over you. These verses have to do with leadership.
We live in a culture that celebrates the individual, a culture that is reluctant to be accountable to others. Because of our fallenness, anarchy runs deep in our veins. But God calls us into relationships with others. And when we come together effective guidance becomes essential.
Within this local body we need leaders. We need men and women who can lead groups, communicate biblical truth in Sunday school classes, come beside hurting people, provide direction for various ministries. Without leadership there is confusion, morale erodes, enthusiasm fades, and the work of the body grinds to a halt. We need leaders for direction, motivation, achievement. We need leaders to carry out our mission of making disciples. Leaders—with authentic hearts for God—are critical. We need to identify and cultivate leaders.
In this passage, there are three ways we should respond to our leaders:
Acknowledge them (or respect them)
There may have been some resentment of those in leadership roles. But we are to welcome these role distinctions. Hebrews 13:17 says, "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you."
Esteem them (or hold them in the highest regard).
The word "highest" is particularly strong in the original text. This word is a composite of three words. A literal translation might be "beyond-exceeding-abundantly." The standard Greek dictionary has these definitions: "beyond all measure, most highly." We need to value these individuals.
It is the Greek word agape. This kind of love is an act of the will. It is me putting the needs of the other person above my own. It is encouraging them to lead, supporting them as they lead.
We are to value those in leadership roles. But the relationship between the body and those in leadership roles is not a one-way street. Those in leadership roles have certain obligations as well.
There are three things that leaders should do from vs. 12:
The verb Paul uses normally refers to manual labor, but Paul also uses it for teaching, preaching, and various ministry roles. It means "to toil, strive, struggle." If you have a leadership role within the body, apply yourself to it. Do your best work. Pursue excellence. Work hard.
Provide oversight (or care for others in the Lord)
Leadership within the body is different. Jesus calls for servant leadership. It is not a taking for ourselves, but the giving of ourselves. Authentic leadership is characterized by humility, not authority; by gentleness, not power.
This verb gives us the word nouthetic—which is a type of counseling. It means to warn, to reprove, even discipline those who are engaging in wrong behavior. God gives all of us different gifts, different roles. When we give to others the respect and love that God calls for, the final command becomes much easier. We will find it much easier to live in peace with each other.
There is a second responsibility within the body:
Care for other family members.
Notice in verse 14 that the instructions that follow are given to the church at large. It is not only the leaders who respond to needs within the body, but—as family members—all of us have very real responsibilities to one another.
There are six commands. The first is especially hard to do. One writer calls this a command for the problem child within the body.
Warn the idle
Some within the body refused to work. Apparently the excuse was since Jesus was returning soon there was no need to work. These individuals apparently expected the body to take care of them. We are to speak the truth in love. We have an obligation to address flagrantly wrong behavior. It should be done with sensitivity. It should be done out of an authentic relationship. Ideally it happens friend to friend. But again, the mission of the church is to make disciples. One key aspect of this process is accountability.
Encourage the timid (or disheartened)
The first readers of this letter lived in the Roman Empire; it was a time of persecution. This was in the One-year Bible this past week:
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourself had better and lasting possessions (Hebrews 10:32-34).
Encourage those who've lost family members, who are concerned with their own vulnerability, who are concerned with rejection from family members or co-workers.
Help the weak
This refers to someone struggling with his/her faith or some moral issue. The term used here for help conveys the idea of someone actively holding on to the person. That individual who is struggling must know that he/she is not alone.
Be patient with everyone
The verb literally means to be slow to anger. It is restraint in the face of opposition, irritation, some personal wrong. Churches consist of people. Relationships can be messy. We are to show restraint in the face of irritation.
Don't pay back wrong for wrong
Don't respond with equivalent behavior. Don't lash out. Don't get even. I think this can be a special challenge within a marriage. When we're wronged or hurt, we may want to even the score. We don't respond with equivalent behavior.
Strive to do what is good
There are two circles. We show special concern for those within the body. But this extends out to those who have not yet come to faith. The pattern in the New Testament is to do the unexpected. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. We do the unexpected. We initiate the conversation. We write the note. We respond to the need. The focus in this section is with other believers. Family takes care of family. We are genuinely concerned for one another. We love one another.
John Stott believes the next two paragraphs are describing corporate worship, the church family worshiping together. He points out that the verbs are all plural perhaps suggesting a group response. Verse 20: Prophesying would have been done in a worship setting. Verse 26: The holy kiss would be done in worship services. Verse 27: The letter would have been read in a worship service. I suspect though that the first three of these staccato-like commands are both for us as individuals and for worship settings:
Paul is not referring to a state of constant euphoria. The second fruit is joy. He produces within us a sense of inner peace, satisfaction, fulfillment. There are some amazing statements in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 6 Paul outlines a series of incredibly hard experiences. He and his team were abused, beaten—he experiences stoning. There were sleepless nights, times of desperate need. Sandwiched into all of this he writes: We were sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. James writes that we are to consider it pure joy when we experience difficult things because God uses these to transform our lives.
Leon Morris says,
Few things about the New Testament are more remarkable than this continual stress on joy. Our information about the Early Church indicates that, from an outward point of view, there was little that could cause rejoicing. … [But] various derivatives of [the word] "joy" occur with startling frequency throughout the New Testament. The word for "grace," for example, and one of the verbs meaning "to forgive" are from this root. New Testament Christianity is permeated with the spirit of holy joy, and there is no reason why [our] Christianity should not have the same joyfulness.
When we come together as a family, this joy should be reflected in our worship, in our music, in our praise.
Twenty-four hour prayer is not possible. An awareness of God—a dependency on God—throughout our day is. Prayer should be a priority. It is to be persistent. Again, that is true individually, and it is to be true with corporate worship. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul states that prayer is to be the priority for the church as it comes together for worship.
Be thankful in all circumstances.
Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsy were prisoners of the Nazis at Ravensbruck. Betsy died there. In the beautiful book, The Hiding Place, Corey writes about how Betsy thanked God for the fleas in the horrific barracks where they were held at night. Once the prisoners were in the barracks they were left alone; the guards didn't come into the barracks. The prisoners had a smuggled Bible; they were able to read it and pray together and worship together. Only later did Corey and Betsy learn that they were left alone because of the fleas. The guards didn't want to go into the barracks because of the fleas. I love that story. I understand that we should probably make a distinction between thanking God for all circumstances, and in all circumstances. Nevertheless, we are to have lives characterized by thankfulness.
Let me summarize the final commands with this: We open our hearts to God's truth. We don't quench the Spirit or put out the Spirit's fire. We allow the Spirit to work in our lives.
In the early church prophets received revelation and communicated it to the body. Paul writes that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Prophecy is a foundational gift. Paul is saying, "Don't dismiss these prophecies." But they do have to be tested. Is it clear that the Holy Spirit has revealed this? Was the prophecy in agreement with the Old Testament writings and what you know regarding the teaching of Jesus? Hold on to what is good or genuine, but reject anything that is not true; it doesn't come from God.
At this time the New Testament is just beginning to be written. The first book is thought to be the book of James. 1 Thessalonians is thought to be Paul's first book, and only the second New Testament book written. We now have God's revelation in written form. In the fullest sense, this is his Word to us. We need to open ourselves to this truth. Allow his Spirit to speak through his Word. Verse 27: "I charge you/I put you under oath," is the sense, "Have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters." Notice that there is no command to test Paul's teaching or the teaching of the apostles. There is a certainty to this teaching. It is God's Word to us.
Pray for one another.
Again, we are to pray continually. But Paul closes the letter with a prayer for his readers.
Verse 23 is a blessing, a benediction.
The God of peace—He is the source of love and peace in our relationships.
Sanctify—Set you apart, bring about growth in every area of your life.
Spirit, soul, body—every aspect of your life.
He will do it—i.e., transform your life.
Verse 25: Paul asks for prayer for himself. Through prayer we are able to come beside a brother or sister, intercede for that individual, put his/her needs in front of our Father.
When we come to faith in Jesus Christ we are joined to one another. We are given the same Spirit. All the old barriers—cultural, ethnic, social—come down. No other human community is like it. In Ephesians the church is described as a public demonstration of God's resurrection power, his grace, his love, his manifold wisdom.
Make the head of the spiritual family your priority
When we come to faith we are brought into a unique family. The head of this family is Jesus Christ. Through him we are given what Paul calls the "boundless riches"—the endless riches—of Jesus Christ. We are given everything of real value. Changing the imagery slightly, the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus: "He is not ashamed to call us brothers." We're in his family. He gives us our identity. We are to orient our lives around him. The first step is to make sure you're in the family. You have to be born into the family. We enter the family through birth not behavior. This birth comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Make the family itself a priority
Jesus Christ loves the church; he offered himself for it. He established it through his blood.
It is his priority. When we share his heart, it becomes our priority as well. Ask yourself what that would look like? At the least it means making weekly worship a priority. I would encourage you to become part of a small group. It is in these smaller settings that we experience the kind of community the New Testament calls for. Jim Daly writing for Focus on the Family recently reported that young people are not leaving the church in droves. But with those who do, only 11 percent come from homes where a consistent faith was practiced.
I'm not trying to put anyone on a guilt trip. Your child may be in the 11 percent. When they leave our homes they will make their own decisions. But we profoundly impact our children by living out an authentic, vibrant faith. One critical aspect of that is making the church family a priority. Parents, make Sunday school, youth group, church a priority for your children.
Accept family responsibilities
Support and encourage those in leadership roles. Care about other believers in tangible, concrete ways. Commit to weekly worship and a small group. Pray for other believers within the body.
Jim Nite is the pastor of Center Point Community church in Naples, FL.