“In everything give thanks.”
The importance of thankfulness is impossible to miss in that well-known verse.
Other aspects of 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and the following two verses, however, are easier to overlook. Keep reading to find out how “in everything give thanks” applies beyond personal worship, how the command is connected to the Holy Spirit, and more.
The excerpt below is adapted from Dr. Jeffrey Weima’s Mobile Education course on 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, the topic shifts . . . to that of congregational worship.
. . .
Context of worship
The context of worship is suggested by at least two factors. First of all, the next paragraph after this—that is, the fourth paragraph in our passage (verses 19–22)—[deals] with prophecy, and prophecy typically takes place in the context of worship. Also, after this passage comes the letter closing, and the letter closing has two commands that are also connected with worship—namely, greeting each other with a holy kiss and the public reading of the letter. . . .
Connections to Holy Spirit
Now, the three commands of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving are possibly, maybe probably, linked in Paul’s mind because of the working of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul connects the Holy Spirit with each one of these three things, and so that’s what holds this paragraph together. So joy, for instance, is connected with the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writings in this letter, earlier in 1:6, [and] also in Romans 14:17 and Galatians 5:22. Prayer is connected with the Holy Spirit in passages like Romans 8:26–27; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 6:18; and Philippians 1:19. Thanksgiving is connected with the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 14:16.
So, if this is the case, if Paul has joined these three things together because of their common connection to the Holy Spirit, that would explain the function of this third paragraph because then, almost certainly, it functions as a transition to the fourth paragraph. Why? Because the fourth paragraph is all about the Spirit and Spirit-inspired prophecy in the context of worship.
So the three commands of the third paragraph form an excellent transition to that concern that is about to be addressed.
Rejoice always (verse 16)
Now, the first command, found in verse 16, is “rejoice always.” I’m sure that you know that Paul had a hard life and that afflictions were actually a common part of his missionary activity. And despite all of those pains and heartaches, [the] Christian life was still, ultimately, for him a life of rejoicing and joy. It’s striking that there are over 50 occurrences of the verb “rejoice” and the noun “joy” in his letters. And what’s more, joy is, of course, a distinguishing virtue of Christianity and [one] contrasting with the hopelessness and the pessimism of first-century paganism. In fact, one Christian scholar has been struck by the fact that the occurrences of the word “joy” in the papyri are almost all from Christian writings, whereas in pagan documents the term is hardly ever found.
Pray constantly (verse 17)
The second command is in verse 17. Paul says [to] pray constantly. Now, it’s not surprising to find here a reference to prayer because Paul, everywhere, connects prayer with activities of rejoicing and thanksgiving. And the reference to prayer is also expected because Paul frequently commands readers to pray. And what’s more, he exemplifies this concern with constant prayer in his life, both praying for others—I am thinking about his thanksgiving section, where he talks about remembering them in prayer—but also his request that his readers pray for him.
Now, joy was a distinguishing feature of the Christian life. But that can’t be said of prayer, and that’s because Paul’s Thessalonian readers, in their former pagan life, would have been engaged in prayers, prayers to pagan deities before they became followers of Jesus. But pagan prayer was characterized by what could be called a quid pro quo mentality in which worship is kind of viewed as a transaction. You go to the god, and you kind of strike a bargain. You say, “Do this for me, O god, and then I’ll do that for you.”
Christian prayer, however, presupposes a much different relationship. It presupposes that our heavenly Father already loves us and, therefore, as a result, is eager to give us good gifts because we are his children (check out Matthew 7:11 or Luke 11:11–13).
Give thanks in everything (verse 18)
Well, the third command is found in verse 18a: “Give thanks in everything.” For Paul, ingratitude is typical of the pagan life. For instance, in Romans 1:21 he says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him or give thanks to him.” But it’s totally the opposite for the Christian; the Christian [life] is a life of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving to God is natural and even obligatory as a response to who he is and what he has done for us in Christ. So Paul frequently commands his readers to give thanks to God. And he exemplifies the importance of thanksgiving, [as] we’ve seen this in this letter, by including, in the structure of the letter, after the opening and before the body of the letter, a whole section that can be characterized by thanksgiving gratitude to God.
Now, this command implies that there must be [a theocentric] focus to worship. Why do I say that? Because the Thessalonians gather not primarily to meet the needs of their members but, more importantly, to rejoice, to pray, and to give God thanksgiving—responses that he is justly due for his gracious work in their lives. So this theocentric focus to worship is explicit in Paul’s command to the Colossians about teaching, admonishing, and singing in their corporate worship. He says, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Thankful in trials
Notice that Paul says, “Give thanks in everything,” not “Give thanks for everything.” Believers are not thankful for the specific trials they must endure; however, they can be thankful in those specific trials. Why can they be thankful? Well, for a number of reasons. They know that they face these trials not alone but with the presence and power and help of the Holy Spirit. They know, according to Romans 8:38–39, that these trials will not be able to do something to “separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.” They also know, from 2 Corinthians 4:17, that our trials are, well, light and momentary compared with eternity, and what’s more, they’re achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
In the third unit, then, of verses [16–18], Paul gives three commands about doing God’s will in congregational worship that ought to still characterize the worship of believers today. A church where their corporate worship is characterized by a commitment to rejoice always, to pray constantly, and [to] give thanks in everything is a church that is worshiping in a way that is in keeping with the very will of God.