“Congregation is a company of people
who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered.”
– Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (2012)
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Notes on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
The apostle Paul wrote to a church that was experiencing affliction and distress — not to mention that some members had died because of their faith in the gospel. Throughout the letter, Paul kept the extraspective vision of the Lord Jesus Christ and his coming before the eyes of the congregation. This helped them turn away from self-absorbed navel-gazing and turn towards Christ-exalting worship. The former ends in despair, the latter leads to hope. This extraspective vision was not intended to overlook their existential crisis, but to re-frame their life situation in light of eternity. The end shapes the now, even (perhaps especially) in the life of a congregation.
At the end of this pastoral letter, Paul gives the church a set of action-steps to put into practice. This is not random busy work, but necessary discipline. If followed, the church will find herself becoming more and more stable, safe, and secure — even in the midst of her afflictions and distress.
One thing to notice is this: Paul directs his instructions to all the members of the whole congregation, not just the pastor and elders. Perhaps the members of the church were trying to figure out what to do with themselves, how to serve, where to use their gifts, how to fit in. Instead of fabricating a variety of activities for them, the apostle focused their attention on all the interpersonal relationships within their congregation.
He gave each and every member of the congregation a set of rules and responsibilities for congregational life. In this way, every congregant was called to participate in the mission and ministry of Christ, for the glory of God and the good of the church.
Now, let’s take a look at these rules and responsibilities one at a time.
+ First, a congregant’s responsibilities start with his/her relationship to his/her pastors and elders.
We ask you, brothers and sisters,
to respect those who labor among you
and preside over you in the Lord
and counsel you,
and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.
Congregants must learn to respect and esteem their leaders.
The Greek word for respect means know by experience. The idea is that congregants and leaders will know each other personally and forge a relationship in the Lord. The Greek word for esteem means to hold them in high regard either by lifting them up or by lowering yourself. The idea is that congregants will defer graciously and respectfully to the leaders of the church. Everyone must learn to stay in their own lane.
Here, the leaders of the church are described as those who wear themselves out for the church, who stand before the church, who give wise counsel to the church, and who work for the good of the church. Such leaders are worthy of a congregant’s love. This love is displayed in real life by a congregant’s attitudes and actions of respect and esteem.
+ Next, a congregant’s responsibilities include his/her relationship to each other.
Be at peace among yourselves.
Personality conflicts and differences of opinions often disrupt the peace and unity of a church. Everybody wants what they want. Fights and quarrels come about when someone wants what they want more than anything else, no matter who it hurts or what it costs. Congregants who practice the first principle towards their leaders often find it much easier to practice the second one towards each other. It is much easier to be at peace with people you love, know, and admire — and who treat you the same.
And we urge you, brothers and sisters,
admonish the idle,
encourage the fainthearted,
help the weak,
be patient with them all.
Here, the leaders call congregants to their side, and then send them on mission as brother-and-sister-keepers.
If you see a brother or sister stepping out of line, give them wise counsel. If you see a brother or sister in low spirit or running on fumes, try to comfort and console them. If you see a brother or sister too weak to stand or walk, hold them up. In all these things, with all these people, do not rush things. Give them room to breathe and space to grow up in the Lord.
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil,
but always seek to do good to one another
and to everyone.
Make sure that everyone in your circle is seeking the good of others (inside and outside the church) and not their own self-interests. That means (among other things) practicing forgiveness, not taking revenge, seeking the best for others, not trying to get even.
+ Furthermore, a congregant’s responsibilities include his/her relationship to the true and living God.
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
This requires one to cultivate a triune God-conscious attitude of worship. Worship and praise the Lord; do not wallow in self-pity. Carry on a daily living conversation with the Father; do not treat him like an EMT or ATM. Give thanks in the good times and the bad; do not grumble and complain about every little thing. Why? This is what God desires for you.
+ Finally, a congregant’s responsibilities include his/her relationship to the Spirit and word of God.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophecies, but test everything.
Hold fast what is good.
Abstain from every form of evil.
The Spirit lives, moves, and works in your life to conform you to the image of Christ. He convicts you of sin, corrects your ways, comforts your heart. To quench the Spirit is to stifle or suppress his influence in your life. To submit and surrender to the Spirit is stoke the fires of his influence in your life.
Preaching is often despised, treated with contempt, mocked, rejected. And yet, it is an ordinary means of grace, ordained by God, for his glory and our good. Therefore, preaching must be desired, treated with care, and received.
The Spirit and preaching go hand in hand. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q89) explains:
The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
Now, not all preaching is good preaching, and not all preaching is gospel preaching — especially in our times. That is why pastors are called to rightly preach God’s word and why congregants are called to practice discernment and discretion. Everything must be tested against the Holy Scriptures, the only infallible rule of faith and life. Only in this way, may they enjoy fish and eat the meat without choking on the bones.
The point here is that good and godly leaders do not try to do everything for everyone. Rather, they empower and encourage congregants to participate in the life of the church by taking care of each other in deeply personal and relational ways.
Congregants who take these things to heart and put them into practice will find it much easier to enjoy congregational life, and much harder to escape it.
And much more expectant and eager for the Lord’s coming.
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”