Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. 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. (1 Thessalonians 5:16–24)
These closing instructions from Paul fall into four broad areas, and so I thought it best to simply give you four broad headings. Together, these give us a strong plan for Christian living which comes from the pen of this great Apostle. I thought of trying to come up with some sort of clever story to tie everything together, but in the end some medicine is better taken straight. So here goes.
First of all, Paul starts with a most welcome command: rejoice! Oh what it is to have a religion which contains such an obligation! Whilst the gods of old demanded sacrifice and hardship, our God demands rejoicing! Now whilst this is a grand thing to ponder, it is often easier to say than to do. Rejoicing may come easily as the sun rises brightly, but when life is coloured in darker shades things look rather different. This is why Paul not only issues the command, but also gives us the tools we need to fulfil that selfsame command: continual prayer, and thanksgiving.
These two acts, both of which are pointed heavenward, are the two lungs of prayer. I often think that in church we give a rather odd model of prayer. I stand at the front and read set prayers to you, and once a week we might mention some general areas of the world which are giving us concern. That is well and good, but it is not the entirely of prayer. Prayer is something which should grow into reflex, an ongoing conversation with God. A familiar chunter, a hearty thanks and a cry for help. The Christian life is best when it is consciously lived in the presence of God. Prayer brings us close to God, and saturates our lives with his presence.
To rejoice is to be one who prays. The two go together, and should you wish to turn your despair to joy then it is to your knees you should go!
Do Not Quench!
So let us assume you have followed Paul’s first bit of advice. Prayer is becoming more of a habit, and you are more aware of God’s presence. You begin to feel God’s Spirit within you, bubbling up into joy and strengthening your resolve. Well, cautions Paul, make sure you don’t quench it! As the Spirit catches you alight, do not put out the flickering flame of faith!
So it is that Paul advises: “do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” This begs the question: what are the prophecies Paul has in mind? Well, a prophet is understood as one who is inspired by God to speak. That would certainly include those from whose inspired pens the Bible flowed, but are there others too? In the New Testament there are quite a few who are called prophets, and that then begs another question: how do we know? If someone says to you “thus says the Lord”, it is important to know if “thus” is indeed what the Lord saith! That is why Paul urges his readers to test everything. And yet another question raises its head: how? How should we test?
The simply answer is: by Scripture. There is a simple logic to this: if God inspired the writers of the Bible and God also inspires prophets then they should not contradict each other. In the Bible we have the word of God written, and so it acts as a standard by which we can measure other teachings or statements. It acts as a map: the better we know it, the more confident we are when we walk out as we will know when we go wrong. It is a rule of the Christian life that the better you know your Bible, the more confident you become in your faith. Test everything, Paul urges, and keep hold of that which is good. Do note that everything does mean everything! Never be afraid to test the words which pour out from the pulpit to see if they have that Scriptural ring. For that matter, test this very email you are reading!
Abstain from Evil
So if you are praying, and testing you should be better equipped to know what is the will of God. This knowledge gives us an idea of what is good and - as a result - what is evil. Now, you might think that if you know something is evil, you would automatically keep away from it, but that isn’t the case. Human nature is rather more frail than all that, and so Paul knows he needs to urge his readers to keep away from evil.
In the end, evil is a walking away from God and a clouding of his presence. It has a corrupting influence, and tarnishes the life of the saint. We no longer clearly reflect the glory of God, and our brightness fades. Keep away! urges the apostle. Flee! he cries. There is more danger here than we might think. Temptation should be a prompt to pray. We are not alone in this struggle, and that brings Paul to his final point.
This final point takes the form of a prayer. It gives us a glimpse into the heart that Paul has for the church, and for those who make it up. His prayer is profound: “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.”
Whilst the content of the prayer is important, I want you particularly to notice who Paul wants to do all this. The prayer is not that you sanctify yourself and keep yourself holy. It is that God would do this. In fact, to underline this point, Paul ends by encouraging you “he who calls you is faithful: he will surely do it”.
There is a great truth here: so much of the Christian life is allowing God to work within you It is allowing the very Spirit of the living God to change you from the inside out. It is acknowledging your own shortcomings, and allowing God to work in your stead. This is no vain hope. “He will do it”.
Here then is Paul’s recipe for a Christian life. We are to pray, to fan the flame of the Spirit within us, to listen for God’s voice, to abstain from evil and let God work in us. Here is wise advice indeed! Here is the key to the Christian life.
Now live it!