Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 17, 2023

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 Commentary

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might bring to mind for some North American preachers the Christmas “classic” song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” After all, generations of merry makers have sung of how Santa Claus is “making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s going to find out/ Who’s naughty and who’s nice.” And then, as if to reinforce that message, we continue to “carol,” “He sees you when you’re sleeping/ He knows when you’re awake/ He knows when you’ve been bad or good/ So be good for goodness’ sake.”

Creative preachers of 1 Thessalonians 5 might consider giving this song a makeover that we might call, “Jesus Christ is Coming to Town:” “He’s making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s going to find out/ Who’s not joyful … Christ sees you when you’re sleeping/ He knows when you’re awake/ He knows you when you’re ungrateful/ So be good for goodness’ sake.”

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’s” lyrics imply that people should be nice because when Santa arrives, he only gives good people good things. Yet while few Christians “believe in Santa,” I sometimes wonder if the Church at least implies a similar message. That we’d better be good so that when Jesus returns, he’ll do something good like take us to heaven.

If, however, that’s true, Paul’s end of his letter to the Thessalonian Christians is, at best, deeply sobering. At worst, it may be terrifying. Any implication that Jesus will return to give good things only to nice people reminds me of the message of a bumper sticker some college students displayed in my neighborhood where I grew up. It read, “Read the Bible. It will scare the H*** out of you.”

Earlier in 1 Thessalonians, of course, Paul tells the Thessalonians some things about the Lord Jesus Christ’s “coming.” In chapter 4:16 he promises that “the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God.” At that time, the apostle adds, “the dead in Christ will rise first,” and then those who are still alive “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord Jesus in the air” (17).

To prepare Thessalonica’s Christians for Christ’s “coming down from heaven,” Paul summons them to do things like, “Be joyful [chairete] always” (5:16), “pray continually [adialeptos]” (17), and “give thanks [eucharisteiste] in all circumstances [en panti].” But who on earth can, in Eugene Peterson’s Message’s paraphrase, “be cheerful no matter what”? If God notices when we’ve been naughty, won’t God see that we don’t pray all the time? Since God knows when I’ve given thanks only in good circumstances, will the returning Christ give me a spiritual lump of coal?

“Do not put out [sbennyte] the Spirit’s fire,” the apostle adds in verse 19-22. “Do not treat prophecies with contempt [exouthenetei]. Test [dokimazete] everything. Hold on to [katechete] the good. Avoid [apechesthete] every kind of evil.” But who, in the words of The Message’s paraphrase of verse 19, is never spiritually “gullible”? If God’s checking for naughtiness, God has noticed that we don’t always examine things, including our own lives, very carefully. God knows better than any of us how often we prefer to hold on to what’s evil and let go of what’s good.

The things to which Paul summons Jesus’ friends in 1 Thessalonians 5 are good and Christ-like. Perpetual rejoicing honors God and blesses our neighbors. Constant prayer lets the Spirit keep us connected to the God who always hears our prayers. Gratitude in all times and places is clearly both spiritually and healthy.

Since the Spirit lights not just our faith, but also our lives, Jesus’ friends want to stoke rather than extinguish the Spirit. Because prophets speak God’s words of truth and comfort, we want to listen to rather than ignore them. Since God’s dearly beloved people don’t want to be spiritually misled, we wish to carefully evaluate claims about truth rather than simply accept them. Because we know that God loves the good and hates evil, we want to cling to what’s good rather than tightly clasp what’s evil.

So is Paul trying to terrify the Corinthians to whom he writes when he challenges them to do and be what’s naturally nearly impossible for us? Or might this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s apostle actually be communicating something radically different?

I’d suggest that he’s actually trying to remind Jesus’ followers of the only hope we have for living faithfully as we await Christ’s second coming. Our hope lies not in our faithfulness, but God’s. Christians’ Christlikeness depends not on our efforts, but God’s work. Our eternal well-being rests not on those whom God calls, but on the God who calls us.

That is, in fact, the consistent message of 1 Thessalonians 5:23a’s prayer. There, after all, Paul prays, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify [hagiasai] you through and through [holoteleis].” While God’s adopted sons and daughters seek to cooperate in God’s sanctifying work, God alone can make us holy, not just in our standing before God, but also in our whole persons. Only God can completely equip us to be joyful and pray always.

That’s also Paul implied message in verse 23b’s prayer: “May your whole spirit [holokleron hymon to pneuma], soul [psyche] and body [soma] be kept blameless [amemptos] at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The apostle, of course, doesn’t explicitly identify the One who will literally “preserve” [teretheie] Jesus’ friends until Christ returns. He, in fact, uses a passive verb form that we might translate as “may be preserved.” Yet Paul’s message is unmistakable. He’s praying that God will preserve Jesus’ friends’ faultlessness until our Lord Jesus Christ returns.

Paul, in fact, makes God’s role in our preservation and keeping explicit in verse 24. There he insists that “The one who calls [kalon] you is faithful [pistos] and he will do it [poiesei].” God is dependable. Christians can count on God to do what God promises to do. So Paul can insist that we can rely on God to keep us blameless until Jesus Christ comes again. If God “said it,” The Message paraphrases the apostle as saying in verse 24, he’ll do it!”

The New Testament scholar L. Ann Jervis points to two links between Christians’ faultlessness’ protection and Christ’s coming. Christ’s coming will inaugurate the public phase of God’s judgment. In 1:10 Paul describes that as “the coming wrath.” However, in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul insists that Christians will be on “the right side of God’s judgment” when Christ returns.

Yet the apostle also insists that Christians will escape that wrath only because God graciously declares us innocent. In 1 Thessalonians 1:4’s beginning of his letter he calls us “loved by God” and chosen. Now, notes Jarvis, at its end Paul insists that we have nothing to fear when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. After all, God’s people’s belovedness and chosenness will never end because God is completely faithful.

During Advent God’s dearly beloved people’s awareness of Christ’s return is heightened. We rest in God’s promises to preserve us until the end. But as the New Testament scholar Carla Weeks notes, this is “not a time to twiddle our thumbs.” Paul calls us to actively wait for the Second Coming. We pray, are joyful and give thanks always. Jesus’ friends model what is good and peaceful. We’re free to do that and more because we know our future lies not in our hands, but in the coming Christ’s nail-scarred hands.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


The 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his short book Life Together as a guide for communal learning in seminary. In it he describes the importance of praying “continually” (17): “The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to ‘pray without ceasing.’

“The prayer of the Christian reaches, therefore, beyond the time allocated to it and extends into the midst of work. It surrounds the whole day, and in so doing, it does not hinder the work; it promotes work, affirms work, gives work great significance and joyfulness. Thus every word, every deed, every piece of work of the Christian becomes a prayer, not in the unreal sense of being constantly distracted from the task that must be done, but in the real breakthrough from the hard It to the gracious You.”


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