1 Thessalonians 5 Commentary

vv.1-2  “Times and Dates”

As to when the Day will occur, Paul writes that there is nothing more he can say on the point (“we do not need to write you”), since the Thessalonians already “know very well” the only thing one needs to know about “when” it will occur: It “will come like a thief in the night” (5:2; cf. 2 Peter 3:10; Rev. 3:3; 16:15). The most likely source of this metaphor is the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt. 24:43//Luke 12:39), where this expression occurs in a context stressing the necessity of readiness or watchfulness (Matt. 24:44//Luke 12:40) — a theme Paul picks up in 5:4 – 6. Its use here throws emphasis on the unexpectedness of the Day’s arrival and on its threatening character as a time of judgment for those who are unprepared. [1]

vv.12-13 As F. F. Bruce has observed, in general “leaders did not do the appropriate work because they had been appointed as leaders; they were recognized as leaders because they were seen to be doing the work.”

In this respect, Paul’s instructions in 5:12 are countercultural. He wanted the congregation both to acknowledge and to respect as its leaders those people who were actually doing the work of ministry, rather than accepting (perhaps by default) those who had, from the perspective of secular culture, the “proper” social or financial qualifications.

[…]

The congregation should respect or “hold … in highest regard” its leaders. This may be the greater failure of congregations today. We usually know who our leaders are, but far too often we do not respect or follow them. To be sure, to some extent respect is something that must be earned, as we like to remind ourselves, but far too often even when it has been earned, it is not given. A leader does something less than perfectly, and we think to ourselves, “I could have done better than that.”

v.14 With respect to 5:14, it is important to notice that Paul calls on the entire congregation, not just the leaders, to take responsibility for mutual care and encouragement (cf. 5:11 above). As Ernest Best observes,

Paul lays the responsibility for the whole community on the community itself; each member, and not the leaders alone, must be aware of his or her responsibility for others and seek to help them. At no stage can the ordinary member lean back and say, “This is the task of the ministry alone.” Paul knows nothing of an inert mass, the congregation, on which the ministry operates.

In short, Paul is trying to develop in the entire congregation a sense of pastoral responsibility.

vv.16-18 The real challenge in verses 16 – 18 comes out, however, not when times or circumstances are good and it is easy to rejoice and give thanks, but when (as in Thessalonica) our material circumstances may not seem so good. Do we truly believe that God’s salvation is of more value than the cost of persecution that comes as a result of accepting the gospel? Then let us demonstrate that conviction by rejoicing in the midst of it. Are we really persuaded that God will indeed deliver his people and bring justice on their behalf? Then let us pray with persistence and patience, waiting and watching expectantly for God to act (cf. Luke 18:1 – 8, the parable of the persistent widow). Are we genuinely convinced that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28)? Then let us demonstrate that conviction by giving thanks in all circumstances.

vv.23-24  Paul’s prayer. Paul’s prayer in 5:23 that we might “be kept” blameless, which stands parallel to the phrase “may God … sanctify you,” reminds us that sanctification is a gift as well as a goal. It is a gift given in grace, in that at conversion believers have already passed from death to life (Col. 2:13), so that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), in whom we stand before God blamelessly. Yet it is also a goal (cf. 1 Thess. 3:13), in that we are called to live it out in our lives. This means that “discipleship is life between the times, for God has not yet finished what he began.” But it is important to note that “the life of faith is not a striving for more; it is living more fully in what has already been given, knowing that even efforts to live more appropriately as ‘saints’ (4:1 – 3) depend upon God who sanctifies.”

The holy kiss. The “holy kiss” (5:26) apparently at first was a social custom. But early on it became (and continues to be in some traditions) part of the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It signified mutual reconciliation between believers before they took communion together as fellow Christians. In its Pauline context the key aspect is not the greeting’s form but its function as a sign of unity and mutual affection within the congregation. Any culturally acceptable form of greeting, whether a kiss on each cheek, a hug, a hearty handshake, or whatever, that conveys warmth and symbolizes unity would likely be acceptable to Paul.

On instruction. At first glance the command in 5:27 about reading the letter to everyone seems so tied to its first-century setting that it may appear to be of no relevance today in a culture where literacy is more widespread. But the result of Paul’s command — that the entire church be instructed in what he had to say — is no less relevant now. Christian discipleship is not a matter of developing our own individual spiritual intuitions, but of following after Jesus, in accordance with what he modeled and taught, both in person and through the writings of the New Testament. Thus instruction — learning (and remembering) the good news about what God through Jesus has done on our behalf, and about its implications for how we live — is a central element of discipleship for everyone.


[1] All commentaries drawn from: Holmes, Michael W. “1 Thessalonians 5:1 – 11” In The NIV Application Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians. By Michael W. Holmes, 164-177. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1998.

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