A Commentary by John Stott

1 Thessalonians 5:16-22, 27. 3). The worship.

At first reading one might not think that this section relates to the nature and conduct of public worship. But there are clear indications that this is primarily what Paul has in mind. To begin with, all the verbs are plural, so that they seem to describe our collective and public, rather than individual and private, Christian duties. The prophesying of verse 20 is obviously public. The holy kiss of verse 26 presupposes a meeting (you cannot kiss people at a distance!). And verse 27 envisages the reading of the letter when ‘all the brothers’ are present. It is this context, then, which suggests that the rejoicing, the praying and the thanksgiving of verses 16-18 (like Eph.5:19-20 and Col.3:15-17) are also meant to be expressed when the congregation assembles. Dr. Ralph Martin goes further and considers that these short, sharp commands read like ‘the “headings” of a church service’.

Now public worship is a vital part of the life of the local church. it is even essential to its identity. Yet in the interests of ‘spontaneity’, worship services often lack both content and form, and so become slovenly, mindless, irreverent or dull. Most churches could afford to give more time and trouble to the preparation of their worship. It is a mistake to imagine either that freedom and form exclude one another, or that the Holy Spirit is the friend of freedom in such a way as to be the enemy of form. This is demonstrated both by the early church’s use of the Psalms, and by the many fragments of Christian hymns, psalms, creeds and confessions which are imbedded in the New Testament itself (Notable examples are 1 Cor.15:3-5; Phil.2:6-11; 1 Tim,3:16; Rev.4:8, 11; 15:3-4).

The apostle Paul issues four instructions with regard to public worship, which lay down four of its essential ingredients.

a). Rejoice always! (5:16, RSV)

This injunction can hardly be interpreted as a general exhortation to Christians to ‘be joyful always’ (NIV) or ‘be happy in your faith at all times’ (JBP), for joy and happiness are not at our command, and cannot be turned on and off like a tap. We would be wiser to understand this instruction as meaning ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Phil.4:4). Then at once it becomes reminiscent of many Old Testament commands like those which introduce the *Venite*, ‘Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord’, and the *Jubilate*, ‘Shout for joy to the Lord’ (Ps.95:1; 100:1). In other words, Paul is issuing not an order to be happy but an invitation to worship, and to joyful worship at that. Yet many church services are unforgivably gloomy and boring. Although, to be sure, it is always appropriate to worship Almighty God with awe and humility, yet every service should also be a celebration, a joyful rehearsal of what God has done and given through Christ. So let there be organs and trumpets and drums and singing.!

b). Pray continually! (5:17).

The disciples of Jesus, he said, ‘should always pray and not give up’, and he added his parable of the wicked judge and the persistent widow in order to enforce his dictum (Lk.18:1-8). His teaching did not relate, however, to private individual prayer only (entering our room, closing the door and speaking to the Father in secret, (Mt. 6:6), for he went on in the Sermon on the Mount to give us the ‘Our Father’, which can only be prayed with others (Mt. 6:9). So, if praise is one indispensable element of public worship, prayer is another, especially in the form of intercession. Each congregation should accept the responsibility to engage in serious intercession, not only during the Sunday services but at a midweek prayer meeting as well. We should be praying for our own church members, far and near; for the church throughout the world, its leaders, its adherence to the truth of God’s revelation, its holiness, unity and mission; for our nation, parliament and government, and for a just, free, compassionate and participatory society; for world mission, especially for places and peoples resistant to the gospel; for peace, justice and environmental stewardship; and for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless and the sick. I sometimes wonder if the comparatively slow progress towards world peace, world equity and world evangelisation is not due, more than anything else, to the prayerlessness of the people of God

Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians: 5:18a. c). Give thanks in all circumstances.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.