Virtues, like vices, are like grapes—they come in clusters. Paul is following his usual pattern here, which is to conclude his letter with a burst of ethical exhortations, all of which should be arranged within the larger framework of what he established earlier in the letter.
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men. Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it. Brethren, pray for us. Greet all the brethren with an holy kiss. I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen” (1 Thess. 5:12–28).
Summary of the Text
The letter to the Thessalonians concludes with a cluster of rapid-fire exhortations. Remember this, and also that, and then here is something else. The first thing Paul reminds them of is their duty to the leaders of their church. Know those who labor, who rule, and who admonish (v. 12). Paul says to esteem them highly, and to be at peace (v. 13). And being at peace with one another is actually a good way to esteem them. In the next verse, he says to be hard and to be soft, depending on who you are dealing with (v. 14). Hard all the time is no good, and neither is soft all the time. Don’t be the kind of person who retaliates, whether inside the church or outside (v. 15). Rejoice all the time, in every circumstance (v. 16). Pray without ceasing (v. 17). Give thanks in every situation (v. 18). Don’t quench the Spirit (v. 19). Don’t treat prophecy with contempt (v. 20). Test everything, and cling to what passes the test (v. 21). Abstain from every form of evil (v. 22). Do these things and God will preserve you till the coming of Christ. He is faithful and He will do it (vv. 23-24). Paul then requests prayer for his work (v. 25). Greet one another with a kiss (v. 26). The letter is to be read to all (v. 27). And may the grace of Christ with be you (v. 28). And amen.
There are a number of places where we quietly assume that certain practices are human traditions when they are actually profoundly biblical. One of those things is the biblical practice of church membership. We think that membership is a human invention when it is actually a scriptural requirement. Set vv. 12-13 alongside Hebrews 13:7, 17 and see what happens.
“Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”
Heb. 13:7 (KJV)
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”
Heb. 13:17 (KJV)
“And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” ().
1 THess. 5: 12-13 (KJV)
What would you think of someone who argued that husbands did have to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25), but that this did not mean that they had to know who they were? Nonsense, right?
These exhortations absolutely require the leaders of the church to know the names of those they are responsible for, and it requires the members of the church to know the names of those they are responsible to.
Members have to remember their rulers. They have to remember their sermons. They must imitate their lives. They must render obedience, and they must be submissive. They must know those who labor in their midst. They must esteem them highly. And all this means that they must know their names.
And what must elders do? They must rule, speak, and live lives worthy of imitation. They must joyfully watch over souls, as men who will give a reckoning. They must work and work hard, and they must admonish those who are erring. And all of this requires them to know their parishioner’s names. What would you think of your tax accountant if he said you owed a couple thousand dollars, and you said, “you sure?” and he said, “more or less.” Accountants count. Shepherds count. Are they all here? Is everyone present?
The Critical Eye
These exhortations require discernment. You have to discern who is lazy and who not. You have to discern who is unruly, and who is feeble. You have to discern the word of the Spirit, and you must have nothing to do with charlatans. “God told you, eh?” But there is a true balance that has to be struck, which we can see in v 21. Test everything, but do it with a certain spirit—a spirit that is eager to embrace whatever passes the test. In other words, you are to be a judge, but not a hanging judge. Be like the Ephesians in your hatred of the Nicolaitans, but do it without falling from your first love, the way the Ephesians did. Be like the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures diligently to see if these things were so, but who also received the word with great eagerness (Acts 17:11).
In the flesh, people who like to test tend to be ornery, and they like to see people crash and burn. In the flesh, people who are eager to hold fast to what is good tend to want everything to be good. This is why everybody gets a participant ribbon. And these two errors feed off each other.
All of these traits are to be pursued and embraced in the light of the coming of Christ (vv. 23-24). And given how God has directed history, this means that you must pursue this lifestyle with your death in view, or with the Final Coming of Christ in view. Going back to the previous point, those who love to hold people accountable must remember that the day is coming when they will be held accountable. Those who are allergic to every form of accountability must remember that the day is coming when they will be held accountable.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”
2 Cor. 5:10 (KJV)