A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 5:18a. c). Give thanks in all circumstances!
Thankfulness ought always to characterize the people of God, as they say to themselves: ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits’ (Ps.103:2). Indeed, ‘the Christian’s life is to be an unceasing eucharist’. Thanksgiving also belongs, side by side with rejoicing and praying, to our public worship (Cf. Eph.5:20). In it there is a place for a ‘general thanksgiving’ in which we express our gratitude both for the material blessings of the creation and above all for God’s priceless love in redeeming the world through Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion or, as it soon became to be called in the early Church, the Eucharist (*eucharistia* meaning simply thanksgiving’). Alongside a ‘general thanksgiving’ and regular Eucharists, most churches have a Harvest Thanksgiving and perhaps a Thanksgiving Sunday, Patronal Festival or Anniversary Service, in order to thank God for particular blessings. We cannot of course thank God ‘for all circumstances’, including those which are evil and displeasing to him; but we can and should thank him *in all circumstances* or ‘whatever happens’ (REB).
We may not always feel like praising, praying or giving God thanks. Our circumstances may not be conducive to these things. Yet we are to do so all the same. Why? Because *this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus* (18b). This statement almost certainly belongs to all three commands which precede it. It is God’s will, as expressed and seen in Jesus Christ, whenever his people meet together for worship, and whatever their feelings and circumstances may be, that there should be rejoicing in him, praying to him and giving him thanks for his mercies.
d). Listen to the Word of God!
This exhortation, although not to be found in so many words in Paul’s text, seems to me a legitimate heading to cover his references to prophecy in verses 20-22 (we will come back to verse 19 later) and to the public reading of his letter in verse 27.
*Do not treat prophecies with contempt* (20). Here is a clear command to the church to listen to whatever messages purport to come from God, and not to ‘despise’ (RSV, REB) or reject them unheard and untested.
In the post-Pentecost era all God’s people receive the Holy Spirit and all may therefore ‘prophesy’ (Acts 2:17ff.; cf. Nu.11:29), that is, know and speak God’s mind and will. Nevertheless, in the early church a number of people were called in a more specific way ‘prophets’ or ‘prophetesses’, e.g. Agabus, Judas and Silas, Philip’s four daughters, and others (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11;; 15:32; 21:8-9; e.g. 1 Cor.14:1ff.). In our day pentecostal and charismatic Christians believe that God is again giving the gift of prophecy to his church in the same way and measure as he did at the beginning. Although this is a controversial question, there are some aspects of it on which all biblical Christians should be able to agree.
Because we affirm the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture, we naturally recognise a major difference between Paul’s time and our own, namely that we have the completed canon of Scripture, the written Word of God. Certainly, therefore, there are today no apostles, comparable to the apostles of Christ like Peter, John and Paul, and no prophets comparable to the biblical prophets, whether the Old Testament authors or John who called his book (the *Revelation*) a ‘prophecy’ (Rev.1:3; 22:7ff., 18-19). Otherwise if there were such inspired people in the church today, we would have to add their words to Scripture, and the whole church would have to listen and obey. But no, it should not be difficult for us to agree that in the *primary* sense in which ‘apostles and prophets’ appear in Scripture (namely as organs of direct revelation and infallible teachers) there are no more. Paul refers to them (1.e. their teaching) as the ‘foundation’ on which the church is built (Eph.2:20), and nobody has the right to tamper with, add to or subtract from that foundation; it has been laid once and for all.
Nevertheless, once the uniqueness of the biblical prophets (and apostles) has been conceded, we should be ready to add that there are today secondary and subsidiary kinds of prophetic gift and ministry. For God undoubtedly gives to some a remarkable degree of insight either into Scripture itself and its meaning, or into its application to the contemporary world, or into his particular will for particular people in particular situations. It seems to be quite legitimate to call this insight ‘prophetic’ insight and this gift a ‘prophetic’ gift. Speaking personally, I think we would be wise to limit ourselves to this adjectival use (‘prophetic’ gifts and ministries), in order to reserve the nouns (‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’) for the inspired biblical authors. I recognize that the New Testament itself does not draw this neat distinction, and calls both kinds of people ‘prophets’. Nevertheless, we live in different days, in which, in order to preserve our doctrine of the unique inspiration of Scripture, and in order to avoid confusion, to make this distinction would be helpfully clarifying.
|Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 5:18a. d). Listen to the Word of God (continued).|
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.