Keep Blameless at the Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Advent 2017: New Covenant Hope
Third Sunday of Advent – December 17, 2017 (am)
Christmas Day is a week from tomorrow!
Our excitement builds for the celebration of the coming our Lord Jesus Christ, and the giving and receiving of gifts that imitates our receiving of the greatest gift in Him! Three of the Advent Candles are lit! Only two more to go, and the most anticipated day of the year has arrived! And even as we mark the time until Christmas Day, we’re consciously, intentionally stoking our anticipation for the arrival of the greatest day in all of human history: the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, His second Advent, His arrival, the consummation of His long-awaited Kingdom!
Our Advent Readings this year, all from the NT, focus on how we should live in light of that day—what should our lives look like until He returns. Our first text reminded us that we’re not lacking… any gift from God as (we) wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain us guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1Co.1:7-8). Our spiritual standing is undergirded and ensured by God! God has given us everything we need to endure until He returns, and we should strive to live in that grace. And it will be worth it because, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2Pe.3:13). Now, today we gain additional assurance that all of this is secured for us—the God of peace himself will sanctify (us) completely, such that (our) whole spirit and soul and body will be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1Th.5:23). This is the word of God. And it’s good news! In each of our three Advent passages we’ve been reminded in different words that God is faithful (1Co.1:9; 2Pe.3:10; 1Th.5:24); He will keep His promises! And He will help us to be ready on the day Jesus returns. Let’s look at 1Th516-24 in two parts.
Our Calling in Christ Until He Returns – 16-22
Late in his life, but before he was exiled on the Island of Patmos, the Apostle John wrote to his people: And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming (1Jo.2:28). Does that charge fire your imagination? Does it capture your heart? Does it have you saying: I’d like that. I’d like to have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. But how do I do it? What does that even look like? How is it possible?
Paul’s instruction here to the Thessalonians, another persecuted church (1:6), offers the rapid-fire charges that we read earlier. And they’re pretty self-explanatory. Actually from v.12 on Paul is calling them to joyful worship (of) God, to whom (they) owed (unceasing) thanks. And grumbling toward leaders (12-13), or impatience with the immature (14), (or) anger toward those who do wrong (15) (should never be allowed to invade) the fellowship of (their local church) (Martin 181). Rather, within their body, they should always seek to do good to one another, and to everyone (15).
How does this happen? 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. This is a pretty high calling, isn’t it? Essentially: always rejoice, always pray, and always give thank. There it is! It’s that simple! That’s what God calls us to until Jesus returns. And maybe it sounds impossible. But as you think about it, the more you can actually see how it might not be. All Paul is doing is calling them, and us, to keep our eyes fixed on the amazing work God has done for us in Christ. Even for a persecuted church, knowing what’s awaiting them is a pretty joyful, thankful thought! And it’s not hard to imagine that living in satisfied anticipation of it pleases God! It is His will for (us) (18). And it really is possible when, having a relationship with God, means that, for us, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phi.1:21).
And let’s think about this word joy, rejoice, for a moment. Various derivatives of joy occur with startling frequency throughout the NT. The word for ‘grace’, for example, is from this root (χαίρω), as are one of the words (translated) ‘forgive’ and ‘give thanks’, and another for ‘gifts of the Spirit’. NT Christianity is permeated with the spirit of holy joy (Morris 104). Joy is central to what it means to be a Christian. It’s a great place to live. And Paul is calling us to live there! The same is true for thankfulness, and prayer. This is just what Christians do. It’s how we live. And in a moment, Paul is going to let us in on how that happens!
But first, look at the rest of his instruction. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil—a set of negative commands to accompany the positive, things not to do along with the things we should do. Evidently, some bad preaching had slipped into Thessalonica, some false ideas. And rather than working the problem—weeding out the bad and keeping the good—the Thessalonians had grown suspicious of all preaching. And it was quenching the ministry of the Spirit in their church. So, Paul is telling them not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Rather, test what you hear according to Scripture and the Apostles’ teaching (1Co.14:29; 1Jo.4:1). Exercise some discernment. And don’t let some bad apples ruin the whole bunch—don’t let them steal your joy, or mute your prayers, or deaden your thanksgiving. God speaks through the preaching of His Word. But His children are still supposed to listen carefully to what they hear, and test it, and dismiss anything that’s offline. That’s a big part of what we do while we’re waiting for Jesus to return.
Our Calling Accomplished and Kept by Our Faithful God – 16-22
But how does all this happen? How does it work? If you’re like me, and I think you are, there are days when I not only don’t rejoice always, or pray without ceasing, or give thanks in all circumstances, but I don’t even want to! And then that sours my discernment. And…. What am I supposed to do about that? What if the Lord returns on one of those days, won’t I lack confidence and shrink from him in shame? I mean, I know what I’m told in Scripture that I already have in Christ. I know I’ve been delivered… from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of (God’s) beloved Son (Col.1:13), but I also know that I don’t always act like it. And, again, way too often I don’t even want to! So, what do I do about that?
Paul tells us right here in vv.23-24. And, my friends, this is the glory of the gospel! 23 Now, at times just like this, may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely…. God himself is working in me to sanctify me! It’s just like Paul wrote to some fellow Macedonians: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phi.2:12-13). As he was with these Philippians, and the Thessalonians, God is committed to completing my salvation, and yours, such that 23 … (our) whole spirit and soul and body will be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is committed to working in us so that we can have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming! Our calling is simply to cooperate with Him in that work—to live in the new life we’ve been granted in Him.
His power is present for us to do it. His work is being done. And when we’re cooperating, there’s no better experience in this life—we really can rejoice always and pray without ceasing and even give thanks in all circumstances because we know at those moments that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us (Rom.8:18). We know that this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2Co.4:17), and that’s enough for us right then!
And when we’re not, and the suffering of this world starts to cloud our memory of our coming inheritance, we can look just like everyone else in this world. Joy, prayer, thanksgiving can be nowhere in sight, and we’re (quenching) the Spirit and (despising) God’s work all over the place. We’re not running from every form of evil, but are almost embracing it. That gets scary. It can get dark. And then we’re not even sure where we stand with God.
Do you ever have days like this in your Christian life? My friends, that’s why He reminds us in His Word again and again that He, the God of peace himself, will sanctify (us) completely, so that (our) whole spirit and soul and body may be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ! If He doesn’t make this promise, we’re lost! And if He doesn’t keep it, we’re finished! But: 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
He won’t let His children fall. Even when they stumble into sin, or run headlong into it because of the weakness of their flesh, He’s made them even more promises. How about 1Jo.1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Bottom line: God has made promises to us. And He will have us ready for Jesus’ return!
That’s why a passage like this in included in our Advent Readings this year. We need reminders that God is faithful to us as we wait for Jesus’ return. We need reassurance that we are His and His promises are meant for us. That’s why we participate in this season of Advent. As we give time to acknowledging our anticipation of the excitement of celebrating Christmas, we’re drawn into reflection on all that Jesus’ coming means for us. And as that happens, we’re strengthened in our anticipation of His return, and so we’re pressed to remember His promises and live all the more joyfully, prayerfully, and thankfully in line with them.
And as we come to the Table of the Lord Sunday by Sunday, it works the very same way. We’re reminded of who we are in Christ—His New Covenant community. We’re reminded of the promises He’s made, and the lengths to which He’ll go to keep them. We’re implicitly reminded of the depth of our sin as we recall together what it required for Jesus to provide a solution. But we’re also reminded that if God did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, surely He will also, with him, graciously give us all things (Rom.8:32). He’ll keep His promises to us!
He will grant us grace to 16 rejoice always, and to 17 pray without ceasing, and to 18 give thanks in all circumstances; (knowing that) this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for (us). And increasingly, my friends, we can also be sure He will help us not to quench the Spirit, but to abstain from every form of evil as we long more and more for Jesus’ return. We can be certain He will do all this because 24 He who calls (us) is faithful; he will surely do it.