1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
We simply jump right back into this list of instructions….
Don’t seek personal revenge
Paul’s next command is to not seek revenge.
Verse 15: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil.”
Revenge is not just tolerated today; it’s championed. You can’t avoid the image. Everywhere you go, everywhere you turn, it’s there. People are wired for it. ‘You do that to me, I’ll get you back, somehow.’ ‘You do me wrong and I’ll repay you equally.’ Payback: that’s what’s so wished for. People want justice. They want the score settled. And they, all too often we, want it done now.
The philosophers of Paul’s day were no different than our own. “Where vengeance follows most closely upon the wrong,” says one, “it best equals it and most amply requites [repays] it.” Seneca said that vengeance was legitimate. The commentator writes “In the Roman world, just as in the Greek, avenging oneself for a wrong done was necessary ‘because of the humiliation a Roman’s prestige suffered, if he showed himself reluctant to respond and retaliate for hostile acts. A Roman, governed by a harsh ethos, simply could not afford to ‘turn the other cheek’ and expect to maintain his position in society.'” In other words: No revenge. No honor.
The counsel of a Roman mother to her sons is also documented. “You will say that it is beautiful to make revenge on your enemies. I consider revenge as important and glorious as anyone,” said she.
The Instruction of Scripture
But the instruction of Scripture is quite different. Scripture forbids revenge. Personal payback has no place in the life of a believer.
In Romans 12:17 Paul says to not repay anyone evil for evil. Two verses later, in verse 19, he tells the Roman believers to not avenge themselves. “Never avenge yourselves,” he writes, “but leave it to the wrath of God … “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” One thing we can draw from this is how payback is really symptomatic of a tremendous pride. Avenging ourselves is really an exaltation of self to the place of God.
In 1 Peter 3:9, the apostle commands us “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling…”
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Proverbs 20:22. “Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.” So, payback is also a form of unbelief. Those who entrust themselves to a faithful God wait for him.
Proverbs 24:29. “Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.”
So, don’t avenge yourself. If you’re humble and you trust in God, you won’t.
To be clear about this, I want to be specific. I want you to see how mixed up and distorted this can be. We’ve talked a bit about admonishing one another. Paul brings it up here. So that’s why we are. And that’s good because it’s an area we lack in. We don’t really admonish each other. If we’re honest about it, we don’t. We listen to each other. We make excuses for each other. We do all kinds of things, but we don’t admonish. Not really. And here’s why in part: We actually got this upside down. When a brother admonishes, that is an act of kindness and love. “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it (Psalm 141:5). But what do we do when rebuked? We treat it as if evil and hatred. We take offense often. And we seek revenge some subtle way. Or not so subtle. That’s upside down. That’s evil. No wrong has been suffered. But we all too easily act otherwise. We act as if wronged.
By the way, evil here is that which harms. It’s what’s harmful. It’s not merely the kind of payback one might see at the movies with guns blazing. It doesn’t need massive explosions to be evil. It doesn’t need horns and pitchforks and vampires to be evil. The devil doesn’t wear red. He actually masquerades as an angel. That’s what Paul says. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). He doesn’t even wear black, for goodness sake. So, we must be about our wits. We must be alert and on our guard at all times. Devouring a church for dinner is on the devil’s bucket list. And one way he does that is through calling evil good and good evil. To admonish is good. To receive it is good. To seek revenge for it, in any number of ways, is that which is actually evil. Don’t get this mixed up and turned upside down.
Also, do not fail to notice this is a corporate responsibility. In other words, this is not merely a call for individuals to keep themselves from revenge. Rather, it’s a call to the entire church body to ensure it doesn’t happen. Paul says ‘See that no one repays evil for evil.’ He’s calling on the entire church to see this doesn’t happen. There is, in other words, a call to accountability in the thing. It’s a group project, and one that requires, again, admonishment.
Decisively strive to bless all.
The flip side of this is decisively striving to bless. Don’t avenge yourselves. Be a blessing instead.
“…always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
This ‘seeking’ is to be very intentional. If not it won’t happen.
It is also to be very intense. Intentionally, and with intensity, do good to one another. This is so huge. We could spend many Sundays on this. And we might very well spend two.
Do Good to One Another
But doing good to one another; what does that look like?
Doing good to others is much more than shovelling sidewalks.
Well, it might include things like shovelling sidewalks. It’s keeping doors open for each other. It’s greeting one another, bringing meals to each other, praying for each other, and things like that. But that’s only the beginning of it. MUCH, if not everything I’ve mentioned, anyone can do. It doesn’t take someone indwelt by the Spirit of Christ to do these things. What Paul means is more, much more than shoveling driveways. What he means is in keeping with things such as…
Do good by keeping your word.
Do good by keeping your word. That’s what God did. And does. And will always do. God means what he says. Some of you don’t believe that, I know. O yes, you nod your head to the fact. You would never disagree, nor deny with your lips. But the way you live betrays you. You think your profession of faith is all you need. Pursuing righteousness, producing the fruits of repentance, and real affections for Christ do not interest you. Your life, your unexamined life, proves you don’t believe Jesus when he said, “Unless you repent [unless you be repentant and are in fact repenting; repentance is a life-long thing of producing the fruits in keeping with repentance, like thirsting to be with those who starve for Christ, like not demanding your own way, like refusing to covet the attention others get and you don’t, like presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice], you will all likewise perish” (Luke 3:5). Lord, have mercy and remove the scales of unbelief from the eyes of our hearts!
But God always and without fail keeps his word. “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45). And that is good.
“O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:1-4).
Translation – His words are bonds. He would rather break a bone than his word. Does this not speak of God Himself? His words are a bond. He would rather crush His Son than break His promise!
There’s a cost to keeping our word! Keeping our word may often mean sacrificing something we treasure, like our comfort, or money, or pride. What the Scripture makes plain to us is the tremendous premium and value of a word kept. And so we should follow through on what we tell our spouses, our children, our friends. But we dare not forget our church. We dare not forget those who are over you in the Lord. [And in case you’re wondering, that isn’t John Piper or RC Sproul or John MacAarthur. In your case, that’s me. I’m over you in the Lord. You’re under me in the Lord. I’m not trying to exalt myself over you or anybody else. I’m just dealing with the verses before us. So, if you have an issue with this, take it up with Paul and the One for whom he speaks. Okay? The Word is the authority in this.] You are to do good to me by keeping your word to me. If you say you’ll show up, show up. If you say you’ll do something, do it, whatever that might be. Of course, that goes both ways. Our words to each other are bonds. We need to value them. We need to keep them. We need to make good on them and thus show we really care for each other. If we don’t keep our word to each other, we don’t love each other. It’s that simple. And that’s serious stuff.
Allow me to remind you of what we’ve said to each other.
Members, we’ve promised to walk together in Christian love, to strive together for the advancement of this church, to promote its prosperity and spirituality, to be faithful in our commitments, to maintain private and family devotions, to avoid all backbiting, slander, and unrighteous anger, to watch over one another in Christian love, to remember each other in prayer, to be slow to take offence, always ready for reconciliation; that’s just a partial list. We do good to each other if keep our word here. How served would this church be if we were faithful in these things, if we all were slow to take offence, especially when admonished? How served would we be if every member kept private and family devotions!
Our life together is nothing more than the sum total of who we are as individuals.
We cannot expect to burst with life on Sunday if there’s nothing but death Monday through Saturday. If there’s no feeding upon and communion with Christ during the week, our post-sermon chat will show it. You will speak to each other about the weather, your jobs, your families, your struggles, and even, shiver me timbers, the Calgary Flames. And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But if our conversing never gets past those things, what does that say? Does it not speak of what we’ve stored up in our hearts? And does it not betray our word, our pledge, to strive together for the advancement of this church, to promote its spirituality, and maintain devotions? We speak out of that which fills the heart. Why is it that we do not exude Christ and bleed over each other with His word? C.H. Spurgeon – “The converse of saints on earth should be a rehearsal of their everlasting communion in heaven.” I love that. Church should be heaven on a stick, a foretaste of glory.
So, do good to each other by keeping your word. Be faithful to your word. Don’t be fickle with each other. I urge you in the Lord’s presence, and have every confidence in him, that you will view your words to each other as bonds.
Do good by speaking truth to each other.
“It is impossible for God to lie.” And that is good. Speak truth to one another, Paul exhorts, “for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4.25). “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self which is being renewed…” (Colossians 3:9-10).
The command to speak truthfully is grounded in the body’s unity. Think about it. The eye cannot lie to the brain without consequence, sometimes serious consequences. You’re driving up the QE-2. Everything’s fine. Traffic is moving well. But you think you see a deer. You react. And there’s a twenty-car pile up, because you thought you saw a deer. Your eye lied. And many paid the price.
But other times false messages and disconnects may not be so consequential, at least at first. Sometimes the consequences manifest themselves over time. I’m no medical student. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in medicine to figure it out. If any part of the body gives or receives false information, dysfunction, and even death, is the consequence. Just think about it.
But here’s the point: The local church is a body. We not only sin when we deceive each other, we hinder the spiritual advancement of that body. And we even hasten its death. Speak truth to one another, Paul exhorts, “for we are members one of another.” Deceiving a brother is like deceiving yourself, ‘for we are members one of another.’ Personal, even private actions have corporate effects. A little yeast leavens the whole batch. And lies kill. And killing is not good; suicide is not good. That’s what deceiving each other is. It’s spiritual suicide, why? “We are members one of another.” The church is a body, and bodies have members and parts. When those parts sin by lies, it’s like death by a thousand dope injections.
Of course, we don’t lie to each other here. No one has ever been deceitful under my watch. I wish that were true. The truth is, that is not true. Oh, there may not have been blatant lies amongst us. Maybe not. But deception isn’t a blatant lie. Deception is craftier than that. Deception is underhanded; it mixes enough truth with untruth to make it believable. In fact, deception, or deceit, is a distortion of the truth. That’s the oldest trick in the Book, isn’t it? The snake lied. But he was crafty about it, subtle, clever, and cunning.
And if we take a look at it, we see this sinful action employed by those who were jealous. In Matthew 26.4, we find the chief priests plotting to kill Jesus. ‘They plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth.’ ‘Stealth’ is the rendering of the word for ‘deceit,’ or ‘guile.’ It’s very helpful; there’s stealthiness to deception. It’s there. But it’s under the radar, lurking about. And that’s very hard to deal with, isn’t it.
It’s tough to deal with. But it must be dealt with. Those given to it must stop it. We must guard against in ourselves. It’s sinful. It’s manipulative. It’s self-justifying. It brings reproach upon the name of the One you profess and His church. It breaks fellowship, hinders worship, and causes sinful division. Resolve this day to speak truth to your brothers and sisters, and especially yourself. That’s where it begins, right? Get real with yourself! And everyone, here’s a novel idea: why not admonish each other to speak truthfully to each other. If something doesn’t pass the smell test, if it doesn’t add up, say so to each other. Don’t enable sinful patterns. Encourage godly patterns. Be a sanctifying influence on each other. That’s what the church is for! That’s what genuine Christian fellowship is about. It’s about encouraging each other to kill sin by the Spirit. It’s about encouraging each other to pursue Christ and behold Christ and become like Christ.
Do good by walking in truth before each other.
“The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth…I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in truth” (3 John 1,4).
Truth is not simply something embraced and cherished and delighted over and treasured. Truth is walked in. Truth is lived. The faithful live in truth. Which means they walk in the light. Which means they know Christ. Which means 1 John 2:3. “And by this we know if we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.“
It’s addressed to Timothy. But it’s applicable to every believer: “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12). That’s tremendous. You want to serve the church? You want to do good to each other? Be an example. Be an example of what it means to be a Christian! Of what it looks like to love Christ and worship Christ and put Christ before all your earthly endeavors! Be an example of what it looks like to lay your life down for the sheep! Be resting in Him, fleeing sin, pursuing righteousness, committed to the church and its spiritual welfare! YES, that will cost you. Where did you get the idea that it would not? Not from the Bible! What the church, what this body needs from you, is your holiness. The church needs you to be holy. The church needs you to be walking in truth, and decisively so. We don’t need you if you are of two opinions. Choose this day whom you will serve! If Christ and His people, great! But anything less just won’t cut it.
Good is not at odds with pain because conformity to Christ is the goal.
Next. Doing good to others sometimes means causing them pain. And that means willing to be thought of as a jerk. I long to have a godly, Christ-entranced, Scripture-saturated elder beside me, and one who loves you so much he’s willing to call you out at the risk of bringing your wrath down on his head. Why? Because that would be most profitable. Doing good to another is not the same as making them feel better. Sometimes they must feel worse before they feel better. But feeling better isn’t even the goal. Being conformed to Christ is the goal. And that doesn’t happen apart from the odd spanking. Our dads, if they loved us, “disciplined us for a short time… but he [i.e. God the Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful… but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-11).
This is not the way most think. Most think doing good to others means protecting them from all pain. “If it hurts them, or troubles them, it can’t be good for them,” is the thinking. Well, I want to tell you that is all wrong. That’s the wisdom of man. But to the Bible it is folly.
In conclusion, I remind you that ‘there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.’ Let our prayers be filled with petitions for much help in these things, for eyes that see, hearts that hear, and feet that walk the way that is indeed right according to His Word and not the folly of sinful minds. And may we examine ourselves – there is much reason here to do so, even to see if we are indeed in the faith… Where repentance is needed, let there be much of it. Amen.
Todd is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Blacke, Alberta, Canada. After graduating from the Canadian Theological Seminary (M.Div), he served a Baptist church in eastern Ontario for six years before coming home to Alberta. He has been SGBC’s pastor since October 1, 2005.