Summary: Being a Christian is not defined by what we do or don't do, but by who we are and Whose we are.
THE GOOD LIFE
Many people labour under the misapprehension that Christianity is negative, emphasising the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments. Yet even the Decalogue has positive commands: “Remember the Sabbath day”; “Honour your father and mother” - along with the more familiar negatives: “You shall not…” (Exodus 20:1-17). After all, being a Christian is not defined by what we don’t do (Mark 10:17-22) - nor even by what we do (Matthew 7:21-23) - but by who we are, and whose we are.
The book of 1 Thessalonians, despite its position in the Canon, is arguably the first-written epistle of the New Testament: and in the section before us we find some very positive instructions, along with a smaller number of commands to hold back. The passage exhorts us to a wholesome life and worship: Always rejoice (1 Thessalonians 5:16); Unceasingly pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17); in Every circumstance give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18); abstain from Every type, form or appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22, on which more later). The following prayer is also holistic: may the God of peace sanctify you Entirely, and may your Whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless until the coming of our Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
The triad of Rejoice evermore, Pray without ceasing, and Thanksgiving in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) - are not just individual instructions, but markers indicative of a complete way of life. They may seem impossible without our seeming to be fluffy and artificial, but it is the Lord who fits us to this pleasurable task (1 Thessalonians 5:24). When we rejoice, we pray; and when we pray, we give thanks; and when we give thanks we rejoice: this is what it is to Always pray (Ephesians 6:18).
Paul elsewhere, with some emphasis, exhorts us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). As a good pastor he practised what he preached when, along with Silas, he prayed and sang praises to God in the midst of adversity (Acts 16:25). This is a good example of the attitude of worship which should mark out God’s people in the time between the ascension and return of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer is more than just saying certain words by rote: even when we try our hardest not to fall into other men’s liturgies, we often replace them with our own. Importunity is one thing, but prayer without thanksgiving can rapidly sink into unbelief and ingratitude. So in everything, not just the good things, we give thanks. In all circumstances we focus on the positive, and rejoice. By doing this we fulfil the will of God for the Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
The following verses deal with our attitude to the Spirit’s ministry in the church under the general exhortation, “Quench not the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). We effectively extinguish the influence of the Spirit when we “set at naught” the word of prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:20). Whether Paul is talking of the Old Testament Scriptures, or of the charismatic gift of prophecy mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14, this is to stifle the word of God. Suppressing our own gift might also be quenching the Spirit (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).
There is a tension between spontaneity and order in the church. Too much of the former may easily sink down into confusion, so Paul later set parameters (1 Corinthians 14:29-33). Too much of the latter fails to fan the flames of revival when it comes, and pours cold water on the enthusiastic evangelist! So Paul encourages an openness that nevertheless precludes naivety: all things are to be tried and proved (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Discernment must distinguish and differentiate between the good and the evil. “Hold fast to the good” stands in contradistinction to “from every appearance of evil be abstaining” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
Traditionally this expression has been understood as “fleeing from the very appearance of evil” - perhaps suggesting the possibility of evil by association. Guilt by association would have forbidden Jesus to eat with publicans and prostitutes - for which, indeed, the self-righteous Pharisees did take Him to task! However, the context dictates that the meaning of the verse is that we abstain from any manifestation of unsoundness in our corporate life and worship, not just the “appearance of evil” in some other person’s opinion.
In conclusion, it is Paul’s prayer that the God of peace will sanctify you wholly, preserving you blameless in your whole man - spirit and soul and body - until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23): God is not the God of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). The faithfulness of God is the key to living the Christian life while our Lord tarries (Philippians 1:6): and He who has called us, who sees the end from the beginning, already views the job as completed in Him (1 Thessalonians 5:24). “It is finished,” said Jesus (John 19:30): or as the hymn writer said, “It’s done, the great transaction’s done.” Jesus said, “It is enough” (Mark 14:41): the bill is paid in full.