1 THESSALONIANS 5:16-22 - Look to the Shepherd

1 Thessalonians: Real Gospel For Real People  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  49:05
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Back in November there was bizarre video footage of a sheep farm in Inner Mongolia that showed dozens of sheep walking around their enclosure in a perfect circle. According to published reports their odd behavior went on for almost two weeks straight--about 100 sheep in total just kept walking in a clockwise circle behind each other. Of the 34 sheep pens on the farm, only the sheep in one pen behaved this way. Various explanations were offered--stress behavior from being penned up, an outbreak of listeriosis, some sensitivity to an underground electrical installation, aliens, you name it.
It’s unclear whether there will ever really be a conclusive explanation for the root cause of their behavior, but there was one common thread about the nature of sheep that may help illuminate at least in part what was going on. Sheep are herd animals, and they will instinctively join in and follow other sheep. So, on one explanation, if a few sheep wound up with a listeriosis infection that affected their balance and they started listing sideways when they walked, eventually others would join in until you wind up with a few unhealthy sheep causing the whole flock to spin in circles.
We looked last week at Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonian church on how to grow a healthy flock—how the sheep were to relate to the shepherds, the shepherds to the sheep, the sheep to each other. But there is more to a healthy flock than just good horizontal relationships between church members and leadership, isn’t there? You can be completely committed to following the leadership of your church—but if those leaders are unhealthy, you’re only going to wind up walking in unhealthy, destructive circles. In order to grow a healthy flock, you also need to look to the Shepherd.
Here in our text this morning, Paul goes beyond exhorting the church to faithful horizontal relationships with one another and reminds them that they must also grow their vertical relationship between them and Christ. I think that is what is in view in these short, powerful commands from Paul in these verses:
1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 (ESV)
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.
And so here is the exhortation that I believe God has for us in His Word this morning: If you would be part of a healthy flock here at Bethel,
Let your VISION be filled with the EXCELLENCIES of Christ
So what I have been praying for grace to be able to do for you this morning is to open these verses in such a way that you will be able to look to Jesus Christ, our Chief Shepherd, in such a way that your sight is full of His glory and His mercy and His kindness and His infinite worth and loveliness and commendable perfections so that we would not be a church that merely “walks in circles” chasing each other’s frail and fallible direction, but His perfect and steadfast leadership.
Let’s look at these excellencies together—let your vision be filled with the excellencies of Christ; first, that you

I. See Him at the ROOT of every JOY (v. 16)

1 Thessalonians 5:16 (ESV)
16 Rejoice always,
The literal rendering of this verse is “at all times be rejoicing”. Now, the first response we are prone to is to say, “Really? At all times? How can I rejoice when I lose my job, when the doctor says it’s cancer, when my husband wants a divorce, when my daughter overdoses—how can I rejoice in this loneliness, how can I be joyful in the midst of this pain?”
But let me suggest to you, beloved, that for the Christian joy is not a goal to strive for; it is not an ideal to reach someday—it is a command to obey. Put that way, what are you doing when you protest that you “can’t” obey God in this? You are not only able to rejoice in the midst of these things, it is disobedience not to!
You can and must rejoice
Because He has EQUIPPED you for it (cf. Galatians 5:22; Romans 5:2-3)
Does it seem impossible to find joy in the trials and hardships and dark seasons of your life? Perhaps if you are left to your own devices, but Christianyou have been given a supernatural capacity for joy!
Galatians 5:22 (ESV)
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
The rejoicing you are commanded to demonstrate is not the result of screwing up your willpower with a “grin-and-bear-it” attitude; it is a supernatural power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you! It is a divinely-empowered ability to respond with joy and (as we will see) gratitude for every circumstance we find ourselves in—as Paul wrote in Romans 5--
Romans 5:2–3 (ESV)
2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
You have been supernaturally equipped for joy in every circumstance. But the greatest reason that a Christian lives with continual joy, the overridingly magnificent cause of your constant, supernatural capacity for rejoicing is that
It is the SIGN that you are REDEEMED (1 Peter 1:8-9)
Listen to how the Apostle Peter describes the heart of a Christian in his first epistle:
1 Peter 1:8–9 (ESV)
8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
When Jesus saves you, Christian—when you come to realize just how amazing His love to you has been to deliver you from the darkness and destruction of your sin against God and give you the perfections of His own holiness—you love Him with an inexplicable joy! A joy that overflows even in your darkest moments; a rejoicing that echoes even through the tears and heartbreak and pain of this life—let your vision be filled with the excellencies of Christ as you see Him at the root of every joy!
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to rejoice always—look to the Shepherd and see Him at the root of every joy in your life. In verse 17, Paul says that we must look to the Shepherd and

II. Behold how He LOVES to PRAY (v. 17)

1 Thessalonians 5:17 (ESV)
17 pray without ceasing,
What does it mean to “pray without ceasing”? Once again—we find our definition for this kind of prayer in the life of Jesus. We might say that Jesus was “never done praying”—He was always looking for more opportunities to spend time with His heavenly Father in prayer:
Matthew 14:23 (ESV)
23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray...
Mark 1:35 (ESV)
35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
Luke 6:12 (ESV)
12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.
The disciples watched how Jesus loved to pray, and so they asked Him to teach them to pray that way:
Luke 11:1 (ESV)
1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
And clearly they learned their lesson well—because in the opening verses of the Book of Acts we see that the disciples
Acts 1:14 (ESV)
14 with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Here in our text, Paul is drawing his readers to pray like Jesus and the disciples did—they were devoted to prayer; they never finished praying! Jesus taught the disciples to pray by demonstrating praying without ceasing—He taught them to
Pray EARNESTLY (Luke 22:41, 44)
When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before He died, the Scripture tells us that
Luke 22:44 (ESV)
44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
Thomas Watson once wrote of this verse:
Christ was in an agony at prayer… Many when they pray are rather in a lethargy, than in an agony. When they are about the world they are all fire; when they are at prayer, they are all ice.
A Christian who is “all ice” in prayer will quickly come to the end of his prayers: “That’s enough for today...” But the believer who delights in prayer is one who will never feel like they have enough hours in the day to pray!
See how your Shepherd loves to pray—follow His example to pray earnestly, and follow His command to
Pray RELENTLESSLY (Luke 18:1-8)
In Luke 18, Jesus tells the story of a widow and a corrupt judge who ignored her because he had no bribe to offer him. But at the end of the story he finally gave in “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (Luke 18:5). The point of the parable, Luke tells us, is to teach us that we “ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). This is a classic rabbinical pattern of arguing from the lesser to the greater: If a powerless widow can get a corrupt judge to finally hear her case, then how much more will a good and loving and gracious and righteous God hear our persistent, relentless prayers?
Jesus is our model for earnest, relentless prayer. And what a joy it is to look to your Shepherd and know that this is how He prays for you, Christian! We read together earlier how Jesus prayed for us in John 17, and in Romans 8, Paul fortifies us with the great hope that Our Savior continues to pray for us even today:
Romans 8:32–34 (ESV)
32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
He is praying for you earnestly; He is praying for you relentlessly! Christian, fill your vision with the excellencies of Jesus Christ! Look to your Shepherd and find Him at the root of every joy, behold how He loves to pray for you, and

III. Look to Him with GRATITUDE for every CIRCUMSTANCE (v. 18)

This is what Paul is aiming at in verse 18 of our text:
1 Thessalonians 5:18 (ESV)
18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
When our lives are governed by God’s commands for joy in all things and prayer at all times, there are no circumstances that befall us that we cannot find reason to be thankful for, because we know that we have a Shepherd who can (and does) turn every circumstance to our benefit! You can face every circumstance with gratitude because
There are no RANDOM EVENTS with Him (Romans 8:28)
Have you ever noticed, when you’re watching a TV show or movie, and there is a scene where the characters are interrupted by a phone call, that the phone call is ALWAYS directly relevant to the conversation they were having? How often does that happen in real life?? It’s a minor suspension of disbelief that we willingly employ for the sake of efficiently telling a story.
Now, in a really good story, there may be a phone call interrupt the plot that seems random and unimportant to the story, but ultimately is discovered to play a key role in the entire show. You might not find out until the third act why there was a seemingly random telemarketer calling the protagonist in the first act, but the writers know why, and they are setting up the climax of the story with it.
Beloved, this is why you can look to your Shepherd with gratitude for every seemingly random, painful, bewildering circumstance that tumbles into your life—you may not understand why this is happening, but He does! And not only does He know why it is happening, He is working that “interruption”, that “tragedy”, that “dead-end”, that seemingly random phone call that breaks up the plot—He is writing it into the story of your life so that when all is revealed it will blow your mind! So look to your shepherd with gratitude, Christian—there are no random events with Him!
Romans 8:28 (ESV)
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Fill your vision with the excellencies of Christ this morning that there are no random or useless events in your life. And let your gratitude flow to Him in every circumstance also because
There is no SORROW UNSEEN by Him (Matt. 5:11-12; Psalm 56:8; cp. Exodus 2:25)
Your Great Shepherd sees every time you have been reviled and hated for His Name—and He remembers:
Matthew 5:11–12 (ESV)
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
He knows every secret sorrow that you bear, every private tear you have ever shed has been captured in His bottle because they are precious to Him:
Psalm 56:8 (ESV)
8 You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?
Like the Israelites groaning under the whips of their Egyptian taskmasters, He sees your suffering and will not let it pass:
Exodus 2:25 (ESV)
25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
Let your vision be filled with the excellencies of Christ, Christian—you can look to Him with gratitude in every circumstance because there are no “random” events; there is no sorrow unseen. See Him at the root of every joy, behold how He loves to pray for you, and

IV. Fix your eyes on the HOLINESS He has PURCHASED (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)

Your Great Shepherd has decreed that you will be holy1 Thess 4:3 “For this is the will of God, your sanctification...” He shed His own blood to make you holy! And here in the next three verses Paul gives you three great promises to cling to as you look for that purity and holiness and blamelessness in His sight that He has purchased. You have the promise that
His SPIRIT is working in you (v. 19)
You will commonly see people connecting this verse to verse 20—saying that you must never question or doubt “prophecies” that are spoken by people claiming to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”. “The Holy Spirit gave me a prophecy...” sort of thing. In a few moments, I want to explain from the Scriptures why that is a mistaken belief—but here I want to show you that verse 19 isn’t the introduction to verses 20-21, but the conclusion of verses 16-18!
Here’s what I mean by that. Jesus uses this word “quench” to describe the foolish virgins’ lamps “going out” in Matthew 25:8 because they had no oil. That seems to be the sense that Paul is using here— in light of all that God’s sanctifying Spirit is doing in your life to give you joy and inhabit your continual prayers and impart a holy gratitude in everything you do, don’t quench all that work in you!
Do not allow the Holy Spirit’s work in your life to sputter and go out like a lamp with no fuel:
He gives you supernatural joy so that you may rejoice always—don’t quench that gift through fearful apprehension in the midst of your circumstances and pessimistic despair instead of rejoicing.
He calls you to pray without ceasing and intercedes for you as you pray—don’t quench that work with boredom or mindless repetition in your prayer.
He gives you holy gratitude in every circumstance; don’t quench that thankfulness by bitterness and complaining over your circumstances.
Your Great Shepherd has given you the gift of His Holy Spirit to dwell in you—as one preacher put it:
Dear brother, honour the Spirit of God as you would honour Jesus Christ if he were present. If Jesus Christ were dwelling in your house you would not ignore him, you would not go about your business as if he were not there. Do not ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit in your soul. I beseech you, do not live as if you had not heard whether there were any Holy Spirit. To him pay your constant adorations. Reverence the august guest who has been pleased to make your body his sacred abode. Love him, obey him, worship him. (Charles Spurgeon, “The Paraclete,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 18 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1872), 563.) Quoted in MacArthur, John F.. Strange Fire (pp. 182-183). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.)
Do not ignore His work; do not push against it with fear and anxiety where He commands joy; prayerless boredom where He commands earnest and relentless intercession; bitterness and complaining where He calls you to holy gratitude.
Fix your eyes on the holiness Christ has purchased for you by His blood—His Spirit that is working in you, and
His WORD is working in you (vv. 20-21; cp. Romans 12:6; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21)
1 Thessalonians 5:20 (ESV)
20 Do not despise prophecies,
The word “prophecy” in the New Testament means “to speak or proclaim publicly”—and the “gift” of prophecy referred to in places like Romans 12:6
Romans 12:6 (ESV)
6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;
refers to a Spirit-endowed skill of publicly proclaiming God’s Word. When Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians, the New Testament was still being written; there were occasions when God would reveal new truth through one of the Apostles or through a member of a church that was responsible for proclaiming God’s Word.
Once the New Testament Scriptures were completed, then, there was no more need for “new” or “additional” prophecies from God—the completed Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that we have today is sufficient—Paul wrote to Timothy that
2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
This is why I said a few moments ago that people who claim that the “Holy Spirit” spoke directly and immediately to them are at best mistaken, and at worst deliberately manipulative. Because the Holy Spirit has spoken to us in this Book—and this Book is completely sufficient for the entire Christian life!
In other words, the Holy Spirit wrote a Book! And so if you want to hear “A word from the Holy Spirit” today, the only place to get it is to read this Book! I want to be as clear as I can about this today, because it is the difference between truth and error; it is the difference between God’s Word and blasphemy. f you hear someone say that they have “A word from the Holy Spirit”, and that “word” does not consist of a verse of Scripture, then it is not a word from the Holy Spirit. Period.
When Paul tells his readers in 1 Thessalonians 5:20 not to “despise” prophecies, he is not saying, “Anything that a person claims comes from the Holy Spirit must be unquestioningly believed”—he is saying “Don’t disregard or ignore what the Holy Spirit is saying to you here in this Book!
Do not ignore or discount or push back against God’s Word when it is publicly proclaimed—don’t keep a running commentary of every little facet of something you don’t agree with in the public proclamation of God’s Word from this Holy Ghost-Authored Book. Paul is clear that you must test what is proclaimed:
1 Thessalonians 5:21 (ESV)
21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.
In the Apostolic era it was possible for a prophecy to be false—Paul said that it is crucial to test what is said to make sure it is trustworthy—worth being “held on to”. (It is instructive to note that the so-called “Holy Spirit prophecies” that come from people who claim to be prophets today are almost never tested to see if they are true—and even to suggest that they be tested causes you to be accused of “quenching the Holy Spirit...” )
But just as it was in Paul’s day, so it is today: We are called to test what comes out of the proclamation of God’s Word, examining it to see if it is so—and how do we test the public proclamation of God’s Word? By the standard of God’s Written Word!
2 Peter 1:20–21 (ESV)
20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Don’t quench the Spirit by pushing back against His Word as it is faithfully delivered by the men gifted to proclaim it—because this Word is the means by which He is at work in your life to make you holy! His Spirit is working in you, His Word is working in you, and
His POWER is working in you (v. 22; cp. Romans 6:11; Ephesians 3:20)
Paul writes in verse 22:
1 Thessalonians 5:22 (ESV)
22 Abstain from every form of evil.
Look to your Shepherd, Christian, for the power that His Holy Spirit gives you to say no to sin! In all your battles with the corruption that remains in you, in all the ways you still fall short of the perfections of sanctification He has willed for you, He has given you power to resist that sin! When Paul writes in Romans 6:11
Romans 6:11 (ESV)
11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
he is pointing to that wonderful promise that you have died to sin—it can’t control you anymore! And not only so, but His Spirit is dwelling in you with power to make you holier than you ever thought possible!
Ephesians 3:20 (ESV)
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,
Fill your vision with the excellencies of Jesus Christ, your Great Shepherd—He is able to do far more than you could ever imagine for you; filling you with unquenchable joy, continual prayer, never ending gratitude by the power of His Spirit working in you through His perfect, complete and authoritative Word.
But if you are here today and you don’t know that kind of unquenchable joy—your life is full instead of fear and loathing and anxiety instead; you don’t have this kind of intimate communication with God—in your mind He is distant and angry and judgmental; you do not have anything in your life to be grateful for—you are full of bitterness and hatred for all that has been done to you and the “bad rap” life has given you—the reason very well may be because you are an enemy of God this morning.
You are full of fear and loathing and anxiety because you have good reason to be fearful. You know that your guilt reaches to the heavens before God and you have no excuse for any of it. Your bitterness and hatred and grudges you hold against others are all ultimately rooted in your bitterness against Him.
Of course God seems angry and distant and judgmental to you—because you are His enemy. You are a “child of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), you are an object of loathing to Him, you are an affront to His holiness and righteous anger, and He would be entirely just to cast you at this very moment into Hell.
But the best of all the excellencies of Jesus Christ for you this morning is because He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep (John 10:11). The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ suffered the wrath of God on the Cross in your place—He took on Himself all of the punishment you deserved; He was tortured to death instead of you.
And He has called you here this morning to hear this message. John 10:27 says
John 10:27 (ESV)
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
Friend, you didn’t come here by accident; you didn’t show up here just “because”—there are no random phone calls! You came here this morning because the Great Shepherd called you here! He called you here so that you would hear the proclamation of His Word to you this morning so that you would confess your sins and come to Him for forgiveness and grace and the gift of His Spirit to dwell in you and work powerfully in you to make you holier than you ever thought possible!
He called you here this morning and you came—so don’t pass up this opportunity to get out from under all the shame and guilt and bitterness and rebellion against Him that is slowly destroying you. He freely forgives everyone who calls on His Name; He rejoices to set you free from all of that sin this morning. So hear the voice of your Shepherd and follow Him—come, and welcome! to Jesus Christ!
Ephesians 3:20–21 (ESV)
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


What does it mean to see Jesus at the root of all of your joys in this life? Read Galatians 5:22 again. How does this verse equip you to obey the command to “rejoice always”?
How does understanding that there are “no random phone calls” in the Christian life enable you to be grateful to God for every circumstance in your life? Read Romans 5:3-5 again. How do these verses connect to Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 that God’s will is for you to be made holy?
What does it mean to “quench” the Holy Spirit’s work in your life? How does 1 Thessalonians 5:19 connect back to verses 16-18? How would you answer someone that claims that this verse means that the Holy Spirit speaks to us outside of the Bible today?
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