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NIV Application Commentary – 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18
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1 Thessalonians 5:16–18

Congregational Responsibilities Toward God (5:16–18)

In 5:16–18 Paul turns from instructions covering attitudes and actions toward fellow believers and other human beings to instructions dealing with attitudes toward God. Whereas 4:3 established “holiness” as God’s will with respect to individual behavior, here three closely connected imperatives (5:18b goes with all three commands, not just the last one in the series) spell out “God’s will in Christ Jesus” for the Thessalonians as a community.

With regard to the command to “rejoice always” (nrsv; cf. Phil. 4:4), “the emphasis on joy is not so much on the experience of joy, but the active expression of it.” Thus the translation “rejoice” (nrsv, nasb), which makes it clear that an action or attitude is involved, is preferable to “be joyful” (niv), which misleadingly suggests more an emotional state. Though the basis for joy is not indicated here, the earlier references in the letter to joy (1:6; 2:19–20; 3:9) make it clear that the basis is God’s activity and work among his people.

In urging the Thessalonians to “pray” and to “give thanks” (5:17–18a), Paul is giving advice he himself modeled (cf. 1:2; also 2:13; 3:9–10, 11–13; 5:23; 2 Thess. 1:3, 11; 2:13, 16–17). Similar encouragement to pray occurs in several letters (cf. Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:1). For “continually” (cf. 1 Thess. 1:3; 2:13), “persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12:12, nrsv) gives the sense.

Giving thanks (5:18) is another common command or theme (cf. Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:11; 4:15; 9:11; Eph. 5:4, 20; Phil. 4:6; Col. 2:7; 3:17). Like the command to rejoice, it is deeply rooted in Paul’s theology, that is, his understanding about God. Because he was convinced that in any and all circumstances God was at work on behalf of his people (Rom. 8:28), he could therefore urge the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). This was so even if the circumstances involved the death of a believer because, even though death was an awful reality, it was not the last word or act (cf. Rom. 8:31–39). The last word or act belongs to God, and it is resurrection and life. Thus for Paul, both rejoicing and giving thanks become forms of worship or praise of God.