The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica was primarily to assure them that believers who died before Jesus returned would be taken up, and to answer some questions. This was needed because when the Jewish leaders learned that Paul was teaching in this city, they incited the gentile population, persecuted the church, and drove Paul and his traveling companions out before they could teach the Thessalonians much about living as a believer.
They left behind a fledgling church. It was not uncommon for Paul to spend 2 or 3 years teaching a newly planted church how to live as followers of The Way (Christians) but he didn’t get that chance this time. Before fleeing, Paul appointed the men with the strongest faith to be leaders over the new congregation and promised to return as soon as was possible.
Outsiders were attempting to infiltrate the young church and turn them from the Gospel, so Paul wrote to them to answer the allegations being made and to encourage the church to stand strong in faith: to test new teaching against the scripture, to trust their leaders.
In chapter 5:14-15 Paul says,
14 Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. 15 See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. (NKJV)
Paul gives a list of instructions designed to bolster the church as it was being persecuted by the Jews and pagan religions.
- warn the unruly
- comfort the fainthearted
- uphold the weak
- be patient
- no evil for evil
- pursue good
Before we delve into the meanings of these, who is Paul addressing this to, and about? “we exhort you brethren” indicates he is talking TO the faithful of the church. Who are these to warn, comfort, uphold, etc?
In verses 12 and 13 he says,
12 And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves. (NKJV)
Here he’s speaking to “brethren”: fellow believers, members of the church about “those over you in the Lord”: those Paul left in place as church leaders. Paul advises the membership to recognize and be grateful for the leadership of these men, and to be at peace with one another. To support one another in their time of persecution.
These church leaders were countering the teachings of newcomers who were trying to twist the gospel by introducing new ideas that pulled them away from the true, pure gospel of Jesus. These ideas were attractive to some, and the church began squabbling amongst itself as to what they should believe.
What it Means
Let’s look at what these terms meant to the persecuted church at Thessalonica and to us today.
Warn the Unruly
The word translated as unruly here is a picture of a man who refuses to march in step with his battalion of soldiers. These are the defiant, the disruptive, seeking their own way. They are to be warned against being defiant.
Comfort the Fainthearted
Fainthearted here was originally “oligopsuchos”, literally: “small-souled” or “desponent”. The King James has this as “feeble-minded” but that has been identified as a misinterpretation. A lack of experience with their Christianity leaves new believers open for attack. Many fall away when their former friends ridicule them for their choice.
Uphold the Weak
This term relates not to spiritual strength, but the physical condition. Uphold or prop-up those who cannot stand alone. This may refer to taking care of the sick and injured so they don’t feel abandoned.
Christian patience is more than simply waiting for something, this waiting also includes persistence and perseverance. James 1:4 says, “patience perfects Christian character”. When attacked by an enemy, don’t crawl in a hole and hide, persevere in your work. Trust God.
No One Renders Evil for Evil
This is revenge. No Christian is to plot to get back at anyone who has wronged them. It is human nature to want to strike back at someone who has hurt us, and this is the topic of many full sermons. Here, I can say only that we are not to do that. Vengeance belongs to God.
Pursue What is Good
Rather than chasing after revenge against those who persecuted and misled them, the Thessalonian church was to pursue (chase after, hunt down) the good things that Jesus stands for — not only for themselves as individuals but for the church as a whole.
Paul concludes this thought with verses 16-18:
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (NKJV)
A modern iteration of “Rejoice always” would be the saying “Find the good and praise it”. Even when we are in dire situations, we are to find the good around us and be grateful for that.
“Pray without ceasing” does not mean we are to walk around muttering prayers all day, but that we are to live a life where communication with God is an integral part. Prayers should not be limited to the “formal” prayers before meals and at the start of our day but an inward conversation with God that acknowledges that the Spirit walks with us all day long, not just at those special prayer times.
“In everything give thanks” may be the most difficult instruction we have been given. When a loved one dies, or we are taken seriously ill, or we lose a job and finances are at risk it’s difficult to be thankful. This thankfulness does not mean being grateful for the disease or job loss, but being grateful that God is still with us and will help us get through this personal disaster.
When we are persecuted — and we will be — whether by man or spiritual enemies, we are to remain strong, trust our leaders, support one another, and be grateful that we serve a living God who does not abandon us. Jesus will come again. When He does, will he find you faithful?