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Christian House Rules for Living -- Paul's Final Instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

God wants us to be more like Jesus, and He will help us get there.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14

Paul wraps up this letter with a flurry of exhortations for how they (and all Christians) should live as we wait for Jesus to return. This brilliant package of rules covers how we should treat our church leaders, one another, our relationship with God, and our attitude toward worship. And it ends with a prayer that every day would end with us more like Jesus.

He who calls you is faithful; he will do it. (5:24)

Gettings Started: Things to Think About

Mom's House, Mom's Rules

I thoroughly enjoy the Progressive commercials about Dr. Rick, "Parental Life Coach", mainly because I realize that I have turned into my dad. How many of you have turned into your parents?

My favorite one is probably this one, which features the "house rules" signs.

Yes, the point of the commercial is to suggest that once you have put a sign like that up in your home, you have become your parents. But it reminds me of all the great "Mom's House Mom's Rules" signs that you can buy at Buc-cee's or every store on Etsy.

Do you have a favorite "rule" that you remember seeing in your mom's or grandma's house?

My new favorite rule is, of course, the toilet seat rule.

Dr. Rick's "point" was that we don't need a sign to tell us to "live, laugh, and love". And he's certainly right! But is there a value in such signs?

The sentimentalist in me says yes -- there's always value in being reminded of things we think are important. Why? Because we're human -- we get distracted or forgetful. And that's what we have in this week's passage, a spitfire reminder of some of the important rules for Christian living.

Here's my bizarre idea for this week's passage (that may or may not work). Write a list of your favorite "mom's rules" on a board. Then, after you're done studying the passage, come back and ask yourself if Paul would (1) use that rule, (2) modify that rule, or (3) discard that rule.


This Week's Big Idea: Our Relationship with Our Church Leaders

I used parts of this survey a few weeks ago, but it's the most thorough (and recent) one on the topic:

Lifeway surveyed 1,000 pastors a year ago and recently released the results. (You can find the complete report and survey at the link.) I would hope that nothing in the survey would surprise you (pastors have workplace problems just like me, what?), but I was interested in the percentages. 63% of pastors experience stress and 48% of pastors experience discouragement. Those are significant numbers, and church members need to be aware of them. We tend to assume that pastors have the secret method to dealing with life and that they can take everything that comes in stride. In many ways they can, but pastors are human. How many of you would have thought that 1 in 5 pastors struggle with depression? That's not far behind the numbers of the general population.

Check out this next list -- more than 2/3s of pastors identify these as "needs" in their lives and churches: developing leaders out of church members, building relationships with unchurched people, helping church members "care", being more consistent in prayer, and having friends. I find those to be serious, big-picture needs.

Here's where I'm going with this. In our passage, Paul tells us to "give recognition" to our church leaders and to "regard them highly in love". That's just not the way some church members feel about their pastors. We all have known church members (and I am sincerely praying that you are not this church member) who feel like it is their God-given responsibility to make their pastor miserable. (I found a lot of stories online of people who profoundly dislike their pastors.) To, I don't know, make sure he's working hard? To bring up all of his faults and failures on a regular basis? To do everything possible to thwart any projects he is championing? I don't understand that. One, it's not God-given. It goes directly against what Paul says here. Note that Paul doesn't add "if you like them or the job they're doing". Two, what's the point? What legacy are you trying to leave with your life? "I made my pastors miserable." What do you think God is going to say to that when you stand before Him? Really -- I don't understand that mindset.

Here is my very favorite advice for dealing with a pastor you don't like:

If you don't like your pastor, pray for him. Pray that his sermons will be awesome, his outreach will be irresistible, and his leadership will be foundational. Pray that he is incredibly successful and help him get there. And before you know it, the big church down the road will come and take him off of your hands.

I don't remember where I heard that, but it's stuck with me. Yes, it's tongue-in-cheek, but as far as dealing with a pastor you don't like (or how he does his job), that's a much more biblical approach than being his enemy.

In the course of our study, I challenge your group to identify ways you can follow Paul's suggestion to "give recognition" and "regard" to your church leaders (yes, I'm focusing on pastors here because that's the position that comes up the most online).


Where We Are in 1 Thessalonians

The end! This is our last lesson in 1 Thessalonians. In my study Bible, the passage has the heading of "Final Instructions". I like that -- that's exactly what Paul is doing here. Often, Paul ends his letters with a section Bibles call "Final Greetings" (Romans, 1 Cor, Phil, Col) (in 2 Cor, it's called "Final Warnings"), but in Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 Thess, Paul has a much bigger "Final Instructions" section. That makes sense in this letter -- everybody he has in common with this church has already been mentioned. And so he ends with a blast of instructions.

This should only make sense, right? Last week, we looked at what Paul said about Christ's return. In my notes, I highlighted Jesus' parables on the same subject:

Both Jesus' and Paul's point was this: "It doesn't matter when Christ returns; it matters how you live your life in the meantime". So, Paul ends his letter with an extremely handy summary of how Christians should live.

What I want you to notice is how broad these instructions are -- turn this into a Mom's Rules-style sign, and you'll have a pretty good sign!


Part 1: Respecting (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to give recognition to those who labor among you and lead you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to regard them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Paul has not suggested that there was a problem between church members and church leaders. Paul has spent the letter saying very positive things about the church members! Rather, I think this request is entirely positive. On very short notice, and with approximately two weeks of training, church members in Thessalonica had to step into leadership, and they did a great job (with the Spirit's help). Paul is genuinely thankful for these leaders, and he wants the church members to feel the same way.

We have two commands (asks): "give recognition to" and "regard".

"Give recognition to" (or "acknowledge") means something more than being willing to say "hey preacher". It's more than acknowledging that this person holds the position of pastor in the church. This means to show honor and respect.

"Regard" is attached to the word "love". In other words, your feelings for the person cannot be solely tied to the fact that this person holds the position of pastor. Rather, you should love your pastor. But what if you don't like your pastor? Tough. Guess which word Paul used for love? Agape. In fact, if you don't like your pastor, that's all the more way you can demonstrate the self-giving, sacrificial love Paul is talking about 😎.

In all seriousness, the internet suggests that there are lots of church members who don't like their pastors. What if that's you? I am not going to suggest that there aren't pastors out there who are real turkeys. There are. But you can't control that. You can control yourself (see last week's passage). Here's what trustworthy leaders have said on this issue:

  1. Examine yourself first -- make sure you've given your pastor a real chance

  2. Talk it out with your pastor -- make sure you both know what's what

  3. Give your pastor a chance -- forgiveness and grace apply to everyone

  4. Let God deal with your pastor -- if there's a real problem, turn it over to God

And if you do love your pastor (and I pray that everyone who reads this post feels that way!), then it will be all the easier to do what Paul asks you to do.

Paul highlights three tasks that identify these church leaders:

  • labor (work hard and long)

  • lead (refers both to authority and to caring guidance)

  • admonish (instruct and correct)

[Aside: Strangely, some Christians have taken this to mean that Paul is referring to three specific offices (specifically pastors, teachers, and either bishops or deacons, depending on who you ask). No, Paul is just talking about the often-thankless tasks of church leadership, regardless of "office/position/title". If you are a manager or a schoolteacher, you already know exactly how thankless these tasks can be.]

What's more, my guess is that these particular church leaders were "volunteers". It often took time for a church to become organized well enough to be able to pay their leaders something significant enough to allow them to cut back on their "day job". That makes their commitment all the more praiseworthy.

But here's something important -- I've highlighted "pastors" in my notes (because Paul's "church leaders" certainly include those who would have filled that role), but Paul was clearly not restricting his comments to "pastors-by-title". The identifier "those who labor among you" is intentionally open. We need to hold in high regard everyone who works hard to help our church function. If you're involved in your church, you know that it takes a lot more than a pastor or two to keep the church healthy. Because of the obvious connection, I suggest highlighting Bible study leaders 😊.

Discussion: what are ways your group can give recognition to your church leaders?

And then Paul adds the seemingly spurious "live in peace with each other". One of the problems with verse numbers is we think they are original to the text, as if Paul added verse numbers when he was writing. No, those were added much later for reference (and they do makes things easier, don't you think?). Because this sentence is in the same verse as the previous, people think they must be related. And they are! But not entirely.

Conflict over a pastor or church leader can cause serious conflict in a church, right? So on the one hand, Paul is certainly talking about living at peace with and with respect to your church leaders! (I read a good argument that there must have been tension between the Thessalonian church leaders and the people in the church who were being lazy.) But this rule isn't restricted to that. "Live in peace" should be taken generally:

  • If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Rom 12:18

  • So then, let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Rom 14:19

  • God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 1 Cor 14:33

  • Become mature, be encouraged, be of the same mind, be at peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. 2 Cor 13:11

  • Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Eph 4:3

Why is it important for church members to live at peace with one another?


Part 2: Accountable (1 Thessalonians 5:14-22)

14 And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray constantly, 18 give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t stifle the Spirit. 20 Don’t despise prophecies, 21 but test all things. Hold on to what is good. 22 Stay away from every kind of evil.

Here's the rapid-fire part that I think would make an impressive "mom's rules" sign.

It's important that Paul says "exhort" here. That means "strongly encourage", but it's short of "command". Paul wanted them to live this way of their own volition.

  1. "Warn those who are idle". The word for "idle" really means "undisciplined". This very well could be those people who have stopped working because they think Jesus is coming back before their next meal. In any case, their idleness had led to them becoming unruly and undisciplined. We've talked about this at length with respect to COVID -- the lost structure for young adults has been pretty devastating, making them both undisciplined and unruly. If someone in our church has become that, we're supposed to step in. God doesn't want us to be like that. Remember that last week Paul spoke of the foundation of self-control for a Christian.

  2. "Comfort the discouraged". Paul has mentioned two sources of discouragement in this letter -- persecution (2:14), and the death of loved ones (4:13). But this rule doesn't have to be limited to that. One of the most important things we can do as church members is encourage one another to stay the course. Remember our last two lessons -- particularly consider 4:18 and 5:11.

  3. "Help the weak". I think Paul is talking about "weak in spirit" (see Rom 14:1, 1 Cor 9:22, 2 Cor 12:10), although it wouldn't change anything if he meant "weak in body" (2 Cor 12:9, Gal 4:13). If someone needs spiritual help or physical help, we're supposed to help them. Perhaps their discouragement has made them spiritually "frail".

  4. "Be patient with everyone". I really shouldn't have to tell you what this means or why it's important. And yes, everyone means everyone.

  5. "Don't repay evil for evil". Now we're really meddling. Rom 12:21 says, "Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good." Retaliation is a tool of the world that Christians should never use. Rather, we are to "turn the other cheek", right? In Romans 12, Paul connects this idea with living at peace with everyone. You can see how they fit together. Note that "evil for evil" is a saying -- Paul means any act of retaliation, even if you don't think it's particularly "evil".

  6. "Pursue what is good for one another". This is the natural opposite of the previous. In Phil 2, Paul says, "Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others." And then he immediately describes Jesus as our perfect model of such a lifestyle. Note that we are supposed to seek the good of everyone else, not just the people we like. Also catch this: where "one another" refers to church members, the "all" covers everybody else.

I'm going to put a break before these next three because Paul intends us to take them together: "always rejoice / constantly pray / in everything give thanks". Paul isn't saying you're supposed to block out your calendar for those three activities but rather that your life should be characterized by those three activities. These things are directed to God: we express our joy to God; we pray to God; we give thanks to God. They are tied to one another, and they build on one another.

  1. "Rejoice always". Paul uses this regularly (see Rom 12:12, 2 Cor 13:11, Phil 3:1), but most people's favorite is Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" "Rejoice" is the verb form of "joy"; we've said consistently that joy is a choice, not a feeling (like "hope" or "love").

  2. "Pray continually". We've talked about this before -- what is prayer? Prayer is talking with God, not to try to change God's mind but understand God's will. Want to know how to deal with an unruly church member? Someone who is weak in spirit? Someone who is persecuting you? Pray! Let God by His Holy Spirit help you!

  3. "Give thanks in everything". We've also talked about this -- Paul isn't saying "give thanks for everything". There's a huge difference there. For example, we aren't supposed to give thanks for tragedies. Rather, we give thanks that God has been with us in the tragedy, and that He can bring good out of the tragedy. We know that in all things, God is working toward the perfect end -- the return of Jesus. And so we thank God in everything that happens along the way. (And let's be honest -- God had given us so many blessings to be thankful for.)

Paul ends that triad with the fantastic phrase -- "this is God's will for you". We talked about this in 4:3

when we discussed how our lives can be pleasing to God. Upon further reading, I think that Paul directly applies the "God's will" to the whole triad, not just the "give thanks".

And then Paul shifts gears to a final batch of Spirit-related exhortations. You can see how they run parallel to one another:

  • Don't / stifle / Spirit

  • Don't / despise / prophecy

  • Do / test / [prophecy]

  • Do / hold on to / good

  • Do / stay away from / evil

Paul does seem to have something specific in mind, but he doesn't tell us what it is. It's easy to speculate that perhaps one of the leaders had given what we would today call a "sermon" and gotten a tepid response, and that can be very discouraging. It's also possible that someone had done a "the Day of the Lord has come" message (falsely). So Paul was just giving them an overview of how to keep things moving the right direction.

  1. "Don't stifle the Spirit". A pastor friend once told me about a neighboring church (in another state) that "The Spirit left there years ago -- they just haven't noticed it yet". It's possible to get so mechanical about our functioning that the Spirit's involvement becomes unnecessary. That's bad. We need to constantly "fan the flame of the Spirit" (as Paul says it) rather than "snuff out the flame of the Spirit". Perhaps it would be wise to discuss how a church can stifle the Spirit.

  2. "Don't despise prophecies". Remember that this isn't necessarily talking about predicting-the-future stuff, but rather -thus-saith-the-Lord stuff, like sermons. When someone is teaching us God's Word, we should pay attention! "In one ear out the other" or worse, hearing it and denying it, that is not how a Christian should treat a sermon (or a Bible study lesson).

  3. "[Do] test all things". This is the necessary corollary to the above -- don't gullibly accept everything everyone says as a word from God. Just as people use "in Jesus' name" as a magic formula for prayer, they might also use "thus saith the Lord" at the end of a soapbox. Maybe. Maybe not. It is our responsibility to test what people tell us, like the Bereans did with Paul's message (Acts 17).

  4. "Hold on to good / stay away from evil". These make a logical pair, and together they cover pretty much everything in life. Paul elaborated on this to the Philippians -- "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things" (4:8). The important thing to note is that Paul uses active verbs for both. We have to work at this.

If you come up with a clever way to turn all of that into a sign, let us know. I imagine it would be a great one!


Part 3: Sanctified (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.

Long and short -- this is just a very nice prayer that Paul wanted this church to know. Just very nice, encouraging, and uplifting.

But of course, nothing is that simple anymore, right? There are two major debates that spring from this verse, neither of which are really necessary, but I want you to be aware of them.

John Wesley's Doctrine of Entire Sanctification

"Sanctification" is the process by which Christians become more like Jesus. It starts the moment we are saved (justified) and the Holy Spirit "moves in" to our lives in order to clean out our sinful nature and make us holy. It's a process that lasts our entire lives as we cooperate with the Spirit in following Jesus closer and closer.

Well, Wesley (he's the guy who started the Methodist church) read verse 23 and said "No, there must be a point in time at which a Christian can be completely sanctified." Because many Christians do not seem to be "entirely sanctified" (other groups call this the state of "Christian perfection"), Wesley concluded that it must be a second work of grace by the Spirit. (Note: this is where Pentecostal groups got the idea of the "second blessing" and later the "third blessing".) When someone is saved, they are born again; when they are entirely sanctified, they are again born again.

This is what the Methodist statement of faith still says:

Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift may be received in this life both gradually and instantaneously, and should be sought earnestly by every child of God.

As you can imagine, Methodist scholars (and even Wesley himself later in life) have done everything they can to walk this back or redefine what it means, and the way it is currently reinterpreted is unrecognizable by what Wesley originally said.

So -- what did Paul mean by "sanctify you completely"? Exactly that! May God do this for you. What should Paul be praying for them? "May God help you be a little less awful of a person tomorrow than you are today"?? Our goal should be to be like Jesus. Jesus faced temptation and never sinned. Jesus was challenged and never spoke error. Jesus was confronted and never retaliated. We should desire to be the same!

By saying this, Paul was not suggesting that God would end the process of our sanctification in this life as a point in time. Paul was praying that God would make his readers all-the-way like Jesus; he was not predicting a time when it would be completed.

Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy of the Human Person

Oh, and it just gets better from here. Have you ever heard an argument along the lines of "a person is body/soul/spirit" vs "no, a person is physical/spiritual"? No? Just me? Well, there is a debate out there over whether we should think of a person as body/soul/spirit or body/spirit. Verse 23 is the primary fuel to this debate. Other passages to consider:

  • The unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But the married woman is concerned about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. (1 Cor 7:33)

  • For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12)

I want to cut this debate off before it starts. It doesn't actually matter. It doesn't matter if there is an ontological distinction between our soul and our spirit. It doesn't matter where we classify our "mind" or our "will" or our "self" or our "emotions". All that matters is that Jesus made us, and He saved us -- our entire being.

Paul, a "Hebrew of Hebrews" would have had the Hebrew concept of nephesh in mind when writing this, and the Bible Project has an excellent, short video on what the Old Testament meant by "soul" that I think helps us understand this passage:

If someone really wants to have this debate, just establish that "scientists still don't know how the brain works, what consciousness is, or what makes a living thing alive". And neither do we. So let's not argue about it.

What was Paul's point? Let's not make this complicated. This is Paul's much more powerful way of saying "May God get ahold of you completely" or "May God change every part of you" or "May God leave no part of your life in the dark". Isn't that and shouldn't that be our desire for ourselves? We have talked about this a lot -- we are supposed to be a complete person. Christianity isn't just about what we do on Sundays. We don't have a separate work life and home life (sorry "Severance"). We can't say "I'll be a Christian on my taxes, but I'll be a heathen behind the wheel" or whatever. Right? Paul wanted these church members to realize that every aspect of their lives is subject to discipleship and that God could make every part of them more like Jesus.

"Sound and blameless" means that when we stand before Jesus, we can do so with a clear conscience.

Finally, verse 24 is amazingly important -- God wants us to be more like Jesus, and He will help us get there.

I find that encouraging. I want all of you to pray this for everyone in your group! And if there is a specific area in your life where you are struggling (like how you handle money, how you speak to coworkers, how you spend your free time, whatever), ask someone you trust to pray with you about that specific thing.


Closing Thoughts: Paul's Benediction

Paul has a few more words, and I don't want you to miss them.

  1. Paul asked for prayer for himself and his co-laborers. I love that! Paul believed prayer "worked", and he wanted those spiritual benefits for himself as he did for his readers.

  2. The "holy kiss" means something different than you might think. A lot of readers associate this with a cultural greeting of respect, and others think it was borrowed from cultic practices. No -- Paul was talking about a common practice in Jewish homes and synagogues. It was a symbol of family relationships. Culturally, these kisses mean something different today than then, so we are well-served finding other greetings of true familial intimacy.

  3. Letters had to be read aloud. There was only one copy, and it would not be passed around to everyone in the church to read at home! ("Sorry, I spilled coffee on Paul's letter.") It was important to Paul that everyone in the church heard it, and he was absolutely clear about this.

But most importantly, Paul concluded with a message of grace, his favorite benediction probably because it was his favorite topic. The grace of Jesus had completely changed his life, and he wanted everyone he knew to experience that grace and share it.

We should do the same.


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