Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 17, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 Commentary
After the heavy duty apocalyptic warnings and the stern commands of II Peter 3:8-15a, our reading for this third Sunday of Advent feels a bit lightweight, like a snow flurry of commands that don’t really fit the Advent season, except that our reading ends with Paul’s final reference in this letter to “the Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Our first impression of this text changes a great deal if we begin with that ending. Then this is a perfect text for a pointed sermon about Advent. The commands become the moral imperatives of Advent. They are followed by an Advent wish, or prayer, or even blessing. And the whole passage ends with a firm assurance that the God who fulfilled the promises of the first Advent will certainly fulfill all that he commands at the Second Advent of Christ.
In fact, if we focus on the end of verse 18 (“for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”), and play with the Greek word thelema a bit, we could preach on the whole text as “God’s Christmas List.” Our children spend a great deal of time making a list of all the things they want for Christmas. Well, our text shows us exactly what God wants of us in this season of Advent, and tells us what he will do to help us achieve his will.
God’s list of commands begins with a group of three that might seem fluffy in their brevity, until we note the universals attached to each one. “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances….” When we take those universals seriously, these three little commands become almost unbearably difficult. And yet, says Paul, this cluster of commands is “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Those last three words are, of course, the key. We can take them in different ways. They might mean that we are in Christ Jesus in the sense that we live in a different sphere. We live in the world, but it is really Jesus who is the dominant sphere of influence or control. Or Paul might mean that in Christ Jesus we have a revelation of God’s will for our lives in the world. He is our model or example. Or perhaps Paul is talking about the way Christ Jesus gives us the will and the power to live according to God’s command. Paul probably means all of these things. Christ is absolutely central to our joy, our prayer, and our thanksgiving. Let’s think about each of these commands separately and in connection with each other.
Leon Morris points out that “the New Testament is full of exhortations to joyful living—startlingly so, if we fix our attention on the outward circumstances of their (the original readers) lives. They were persecuted or threatened with it. They lived in straitened circumstances, often poor, always working hard for a living. They had a hard lot in life.” Yet Paul and his fellow writers often call the early Christians to live lives characterized by joy, no matter what the circumstances of those lives. They are to “rejoice always.”
One wonders how that fits with the fact that the Psalms are filled with lament. Does this command supersede those Psalms? Are we forbidden to mourn? Given Paul’s words earlier in this letter about grief and hope (I Thess. 4:13), he cannot mean that grief is contrary to God’s will. Jesus wept, after all. Paul probably means that in the end, our joy in Christ Jesus will overcome our sorrow. Leon Morris characterizes the early Christians thus: “They thought more of their Lord than of their difficulties, more of their spiritual riches in Christ than of their poverty on earth, more of the glorious future when Christ would come than of their unhappy past.”
One of the practical means God has given us to cope with our grief is prayer, so the command to “rejoice always” is followed by the command to “pray continually.” Once again, that universal word is what makes this command so difficult. How can we pray as we do brain surgery, or take a calculus test, or discipline children, or build a house, or do anything that demands our full attention? The answer lies in how we think about prayer. Is it an occasion that interrupts all other occasions or is it an overall attitude toward God that permeates all of life’s occasions? I think it is obvious that Paul means something like the latter. We must always with live with a sense of fellowship with God, with an awareness of God’s presence. Brother Lawrence put it well when he spoke of “practicing the presence of God.” On occasion, that prayerful attitude breaks out into the specific thoughts and words and gestures we call prayer. But we must always have that attitude of dependence and gratitude that is the substratum and heart of specific prayers.
So it is natural that Paul’s next command has to do with giving “thanks in all circumstances.” We simply cannot pray continually unless we can give thanks in all circumstances. We must be careful how we preach this. God does not want us to give thanks for all circumstances, because that would mean giving thanks for sin and suffering and death, which are contrary to his will. God does not want us to call the Holocaust good. But, says Paul, God does want us to give thanks in all circumstances.
How on earth can we do that? Only if we genuinely believe that “God works all things together for good for those who love him….” (Romans 8:28) The only way we can believe that promise in the face of the horrors of human existence is “in Christ Jesus,” that is, in the light of what God has done for us in him. We will be able to give thanks in all circumstances only if we believe that Jesus proves God’s commitment to turn even the worst into the best.
God’s Christmas list has gotten very heavy, hasn’t it? But Paul isn’t done yet. Although his words about “this” being God’s will clearly point back to those three little commands, I think it is obvious that what follows is also God’s will. God doesn’t want us to “put out the Spirit’s fire.” That is an interesting translation, given that the word “fire” doesn’t occur in the Greek. Paul really says, don’t quench the Spirit. But the presence of tongues of fire on Pentecost and Paul’s similar command in Romans 12:11 (“be aglow with the Spirit”) and Wesley’s famous words (“my heart was strangely warmed”), give us a powerful image to work with.
It is entirely possible that the Thessalonians had the exact opposite problem as the Corinthians. In Corinth, the fire of the Spirit was in danger of burning out of control, while in Thessalonica the congregation was in danger of controlling things so strictly that the fire of the Spirit was being extinguished. Whereas in Corinth, the gifts of the Spirit were being used too freely, perhaps in Thessalonica those gifts were being treated with contempt. Particularly the gift of prophecy was scorned. It is hard to know whether Paul is referring simply to preaching here or to that more ecstatic gift in which someone stood up in church and announced that God had told him to pass a new word along to the congregation (think of Agabus in Acts). Whatever Paul meant, it is clear that Paul wants their worship and their lives to be deeply spiritual, rather than simply religious.
That doesn’t mean that Paul wanted an “anything goes” spirit to govern them. No, says Paul, “test everything.” And “hold on to the good and avoid every kind of evil.” Notice, again, the universals—“everything, every.” Paul was not into relativism. In their spiritual freedom, they were to test every practice, every truth claim, every ethical norm, the way people test a metal. The Greek dokimadzo was almost a technical term in metallurgy, referring to the process of heating up ore to purify it. Christians are to live critically in a world filled with fool’s gold. If verse 20 was about the use of the ecstatic gifts given by the Spirit, verse 21 is probably about the ethical fruit of the Spirit.
So, here is God’s Christmas list, or more properly, God’s Advent will. In a world that mindlessly shouts, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” we are to “rejoice always.” In a world filled with the endless sound of advertising, God wants us to “pray continually.” In a world that is never content, we must “give thanks in all circumstances.” In a world that has quenched the true spirit of Christmas, we must not “quench the Spirit” who gives gifts to be used and fruit to be displayed to an incredulous world. That’s what God wants of us in the season of Advent, as we await the Parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s an imposing list of commands. Thank God for Paul’s next words. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.” As I said before, that’s a wish, or a prayer, or maybe even a blessing. Whatever it is exactly, the idea is that the God who drew up his Christmas list is the very God who will enable us to do his will. “Himself” (autos in Greek) is thrust forward in the sentence to emphasize that God and only God can enable us to fully do his will.
Paul uses some very interesting words to indicate the full extent of God’s sanctifying work. “Through and through” is the Greek holoteleis, from holo meaning whole and teleis meaning end. The idea is that God will sanctify us entirely and to full completion. The next sentence expands on that with these words about “spirit, soul and body.” These have given rise to ferocious debates about the composition of humanity. Are we bi-partite or tri-partite? Such things matter a great deal to some Christians, but it probably wasn’t Paul’s intent here to teach us anything about anthropology. His interest was in soteriology, in the doctrine of sanctification, to be specific. God will make every part of us holy, even blameless, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, whatever else we can expect at the Parousia, we can expect to be found completely holy, because of the work of God. That is God’s Advent blessing in a world filled with striving for all sorts of things. “I will fulfill your striving to be holy.”
In fact, that is precisely what Paul says next. God “will do it.” He will fulfill his own Christmas list, doing in us the very thing he wants from us. (Cf. Phil. 2:11-12 for a similar thought.) We can be sure that God will do this, because the one who has called us into this new life is faithful. Indeed, Paul thrusts the “faithful” to the first place in the Greek as a way of emphasizing the certainty of the blessing. God kept all his promises in the first Advent of his Son. He will keep all his promises at the Second Advent, including this one about complete sanctification. Yes, God calls us to do things that are impossible in our own strength. But he also promises that he will enable us to do them perfectly in the end. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”
As I ponder the Good News at the end of this demandingly heavy little text, I can’t help but contrast the Gospel of Christ Jesus with the secular emphasis on Santa Claus. I know, I’ve mentioned this before, but think about it again. Santa has a list. He checks it twice. He wants to know if you’ve been naughty or nice. In fact, his whole bag of gifts is a very uncertain thing for you. If you don’t do the right things, you might lose all the things you put on your Christmas list. Everything depends on your performance, so “be good for goodness’ sake.”
No, says Paul. You should be good for Christ’s sake, because God not only wants you to be perfect, but will also make you so in Christ Jesus. That Good News makes for a genuinely joyful, prayerful, thankful, and spiritual Christmas, as we await Christ’s second coming.
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