E. Tod Twist
I’m a recovering twitch—way too tightly-wrapped for my own good—and it messes up my thinking and my relationships. I work hard on self-management, but when life gets too dramatic, my self-management becomes crisis management. In those moments, 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 provides some of the best advice I’ve found: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It’s a tall order. To understand the meaning of Paul’s command, we will need to consult a commentary, a lexicon and a Bible handbook.
Step 1: Focus on Central Questions
Paul’s letters usually close with ethical exhortations, with the commands often coming in a series without explicit connection. First Thessalonians 5:12–22 follows this pattern, with the central command to “rejoice always” (5:16) placed within a larger block of other commands.
It’s challenging to unpack and apply a compressed passage like this, especially since the command occurs without clarification. To present-day readers, “rejoice always” comes across as an admonition to be happy—all the time. In fact, the Greek verb translated “rejoice” (chairō, χαίρω) has the basic sense of being glad or delighted. Consulting either a commentary or a specialized resource on Paul can help explain the sense of “rejoice” used here. The New International Greek Testament Commentary on Thessalonians states:
Although Paul does not spell out the source or basis of Christian joy in [1 Thessalonians] 5:16, the instruction to “rejoice always” derives its meaning from the earlier passages in the letter. To rejoice always is to see the hand of God in whatever is happening and to remain certain of God’s future salvation. Without such conviction joy would not be possible in the face of affliction, suffering, and death.
So, rejoicing in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 is about looking at life from a different perspective, through the eyes of faith.
Step 2: Adjust Your Questions
Sometimes Scripture doesn’t give us the answers we want. Often, we need to abandon our own agenda and refocus on what a passage is addressing. For instance, we may ask what it means to pray “without ceasing” (adialeiptōs, άδιαλείπτως; 5:17). Does it mean “all the time” or “on a regular basis”? Opinions go both ways, and even A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature lists the meanings of the Greek word as either “unceasingly” or “constantly.” Instead of trying to make the passage more specific than it is, we might change our focus. What about prayer makes it worthy of so much attention?
A similar puzzle occurs with “give thanks in all circumstances” in the next verse (5:18), where a strictly literal translation would read, “give thanks in all.” The UBS Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians explains, “Circumstances is not explicit in the text, and it is equally possible that ‘at all times’ is intended. The Greek is quite general.” Again, instead of trying to make the passage more specific than it is, we need to change our focus. What about thankfulness makes it an appropriate response in any situation?
Step 3: Focus on How it Fits Together
The commands to rejoice, pray and give thanks (5:16–18) all share a common element—they are focused on God. Each action is an implicit recognition that we are incomplete in ourselves; that we need God. We rejoice in what God has done for us already and we look forward to His help in the future. We pray to God, bringing our needs and experiencing His presence. We give thanks in the ups and downs of life because we trust that God will bring about the deepest good in the end.
That’s the sort of perspective that can turn crisis management back into self-management—with the ever-important caveat that you don’t do it all by yourself.
Pick up the UBS Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians at Logos.com/UBSNT