This message continues to look through the “final instructions” in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. The message is called, “The Worship of the Waiting Church.”
Last week, we looked at how the church waits for the coming of Christ – the life of the waiting church. This is part of worship in the broad sense of life for the glory of God.
In 1 Thess 5:12-15, this is seen specifically in our relationships with each other and the world – respect for leadership, being at peace with each other, and doing good to each other and to the wider world.
The rest of this section focuses on worship in the narrower sense – our personal and corporate expression of worship.
This passage doesn’t appear at first glance to be dealing with the corporate worship meetings of the church. Indeed, when we’ve looked at these verses in the past (v16-18 was our church text for 2019), we have focused on our own lives – our attitude and words to the Lord. However, all these things are also part of corporate worship. John Stott, in his excellent commentary, called The Message of Thessalonians suggests that these verses are headings telling us what we should be doing when the church comes together.
He has a valid point. In modern English we don’t differentiate between “you” singular and “you” plural. But Greek does – and this passage is plural. Yes, these things are part of our individual worship, but they should also be in our corporate worship.
I) Our words and attitude to Him (v16-18)
Rejoice always – our attitude in finding joy and delight. This is a command that is hard amid sorrow, and it is surprising given the context of suffering in the church. But He doesn’t command the impossible; we can ask Him to give us the will to do what He commands – to supply the grace in order to fulfil this command.
Rejoice is something we do, not just feel. It is to be “in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4). He is the source of our joy even in sorrow.
In Galatians 5:22, joy is a fruit of the Spirit; so joy is empowered by the Spirit. We need to ask Him and cultivate the fruit through our relationship with Him. Joy in Him becomes a natural outworking of that relationship. Yes, it is shaken by trouble, but it is not destroyed.
Rejoicing should be a key element of corporate worship also – we come to delight in the Lord. Yes, corporate worship contains many aspects – grief for those we have lost, lament over troubles in our lives, burden for the lost around us – but as worship is God centred, we come through Christ to Him by one Spirit, so rejoicing is normal for corporate worship.
Even though, in our first worship services after lockdown we won’t be able to sing, we can still delight ourselves in the Lord and what He has done. Then, when we can sing, our expression of rejoicing will overflow.
There is no restriction on singing in your home! So, as you read His word, you can express that rejoicing in Him.
v17: Prayer without ceasing – this is not 24/7 prayer, but persevering prayer. As we wait for Christ’s return, as we are patient with all, as we seek to encourage and even challenge others, and strengthen the weak (v12-15), so we need to keep praying.
But it is also in the attitude of prayer. It is in living a life of dependence on the Lord whereby prayer is not far from our lips because we are walking with Him in humility.
Corporately, it means not neglecting coming together in prayer. It means saying, “yes, I will join with my brothers and sisters in prayer even when I don’t feel like it.” Sometimes prayer is hard, we are all tired at the end of the day and it feels like we’re rowing through treacle, but we still pray!
In lockdown, we pray at home or in our families, but we can still persevere and pray for the same things together – the things that come out in the newsletter and the things that come through the Bible study video and prayer guide.
Those prayers will include thanksgiving (v18) in (not for) all circumstances. “In” because the Lord is at work (Rom 8:28). This doesn’t mean that we will give thanks all the time (there is a distinction), but it means that we come to a place where we are able to give thanks to God in all the different circumstances of life – we come to that place of acknowledging that the Lord is at work, even though it is hard.
Again this flows into our corporate gatherings. We come and give thanks when life is good, when life is bad, when life is normal.
This is God’s will – all these things are part of the journey to heaven.
II) His words to us (v19-20)
We don’t simply come into the church to sing – we also worship as we come together to hear God’s word.
First, by not quenching the Spirit (v19).
The Holy Spirit is shown as fire in Matt 3:11, Acts 2:3, 2 Tim 1:6, which reflects the power and purity of the Holy Spirit.
In Paul’s days, fire or a torch could be quenched. If we quench the Spirit, we are dampening His fire and His illumination. His fire of God’s presence and empowering to do all the things in verses 12-18. His illumination in revealing to us God’s word. He is quenched when we do the opposite and we despise His word.
Second, by not despising prophecies (v20). Even though there might be error (which is why we test, v21), we must not despise the Word of God.
“Prophecies” refers to the revelation of the mind of God. This comes primarily through preaching but also through the NT gift of prophecy.
True preaching of the word is the word of God. When God’s word is opened up, God’s voice is truly heard. All true preaching is prophetic.
However, not all that is called preaching is prophecy. If they are simply preaching their own ideas, that is not the voice of God, but if the word of God is being opened up and the truth is being lifted from the page, explained and applied, then God’s voice is heard.
Most of us will have experienced those times when the preacher speaks about something and it seems like God is talking directly to us. The preacher speaks about a sin we have been struggling with, a fear that is on our minds, a question that we have.
The primary place we can expect to hear God’s voice in corporate worship is through the preaching of the word. However, although many godly Christians and great preachers believe that prophecy and preaching are one and the same thing, the evidence of the NT doesn’t allow us to limit prophecy to preaching.
- 1 Cor 14 outlines the use of spiritual gifts, particularly tongues and prophecy. It suggests the gift is used by the congregation and is not limited to those who are the appointed pastors and teachers.
- In 1 Tim 2:12, it is stated that the main preaching ministry for mixed congregations should not be done by women but in Acts 21, Philip’s daughters prophesied and 1 Cor 11:8 speaks of women prophesying in the local church.
How does it work? Not time to explore this fully, but a few examples:
- Through prayer – a corporate or one to one prayer touches something that the person praying could not have known about.
- Through a word of encouragement or exhortation that strongly lays hold of your heart and mind that feels almost too hot to hold onto and needs to be shared. Ideally it needs to be talked through with the elders first – the next verse talks about testing.
- Through the reading of scripture – something that is laid upon your heart that you read in public worship or you share with an individual – and it is just the scripture that is needed.
There are lots of things that go on in the visible church under the name prophecy that are not prophecy, just as there are lots of things that are called preaching that are not preaching. But just because these things are wrong doesn’t mean that we should despise preaching or the other ways in which God can apply His word.
We despise prophecy if we reject or neglect the Word of God. Even when God speaks to us separately from the preaching of the word, He always speaks consistently with His word. Therefore to reject His word is to despise prophecy.
III) Our response to His word (v21-22)
Test (examine with care) everything (both preaching and prophecy). Check that it is the truth. We test by the final authority, which is the scripture.
We must not only test but “hold fast to what is good” (v21). So our response to the genuine word of God is not just to acknowledge it is true, but to hold onto it. It is like being given a bag of money – some is real money and some is fake money – and you keep hold of the real money – it is yours. Likewise, you keep hold of the true word of God as it is preached and tested by the scriptures – and as the gift of prophecy is used and tested by the scriptures – and you respond to it in faith, in obedience, in worship of the Lord.
And this enables us (v22) to abstain (be distant from) every kind of evil. The word of God and us taking hold of the truth isn’t to educate us but to change us. There is only one truth, but there is every kind of evil. And being a people who are grounded in the good, the truth, will protect us.
That is why we need the word of God. That is why we need to embrace the word of God and cling onto the truth, which leads us back to “broad worship” – all of life as worship for the glory of God.
So, we rejoice always, pray without giving up, give thanks, long for the Spirit’s work, hear and welcome God’s word, test what we hear (preaching and prophecy) by God’s word, cling and take to ourselves the good, and so we grow in godliness and avoid evil – and live to the glory of God.
This is the Christian life – waiting, working and worshipping for God’s glory, as we wait for Christ’s return.