Being thankful is a central ideal of our culture. We write thank you notes for gifts. Children are taught to mind their P’s and Q’s. Even an entire holiday exists during which we gather to remember and share our good fortune.
It is also a recurring theme throughout the Bible, and today, we will reflect on thankfulness and the meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
The Context of 1 Thessalonians 5:18
Before we can look at the 1 Thessalonians 5:18 meaning we need to look at the context. This will help us better understand how it applies to our lives today.
We first read of the church in Thessalonica in Acts 17, during Paul’s second missionary journey. He would make regular visits to this church, holding it in high regard for its reputation among other congregations (1 Thessalonians 1:7).
From the beginning, it suffered persecution (1 Thes. 1:16, 2:14, and 2 Thes. 1:4). In light of this, and to answer questions they faced regarding death, Paul wrote to restore their hope. He fanned their faith, urging them to live lives marked by holiness. This is the letter of a pastor to a young congregation plagued by trial.
The Meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:18
Our verse today is the second half of a statement found in 1 Thessalonians 5. Taken all together, it reads, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
“Rejoice always” is a verb-adverb combination. “Rejoice” directs the reader to take delight in God, and “always” indicates that we are to exist in this state at all times. “Pray continually” is also a verb-adverb statement. As prayer is an act of aligning our perspective with God’s, these words remind us to seek his will without ceasing. Paul is not instructing believers to spend their waking hours making requests to God. Instead, they are to abide in his presence. These verses describe characteristics, not define tasks to accomplish.
Finally, he writes, “in everything give thanks.” “Everything” is a translation of the word “panti.” Its root is related to the word from which we derive words pandemic or pandamonium—essentially meaning “all.” Therefore, thankfulness ought not to be situational; it ought to be a lifestyle.
Paul continues with, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” This is not an instruction, but a description. God desired the Thessalonians, and us as well, to be transformed. He is to be our delight. We are to be aligned with him, embodying thankfulness. It ought a characteristic of our faith, not an exercise. This is God’s will for us, not a commandment, but his ardent desire.
When 1 Thessalonians 5:18 is viewed in light of the trials the recipients faced, its words take on a deeper meaning. Paul is breathing hope into their situation. He paints a picture of life, not filled with fear and doubt but transformed by thanksgiving. God longs to lift their spirits with the joy that is found only in him. This is the promise Paul makes to the Thessalonicans and to us today.
How 1 Thessalonians 5:18 Applies to Your Life
Years ago, I read the book, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. It is her firsthand account of her family’s efforts to aid Jewish men and women fleeing the Netherlands during WWII. After years of work, Corrie and her sister were discovered and sent to a concentration camp.
In the camp, they shared their faith and secretly held worship services in the dorms. As part of their daily prayer time, the sisters gave thanks. One day, her sister presses her to give thanks for all things, even the fleas that had infested their cots. She does so begrudgingly. Later, she learns that their worship services went undetected because the Nazi guards refused to enter the dorms—they were afraid to catch fleas.
This story comes to my mind whenever I read 1 Thessalonians 5:18. Thankfulness is a journey, not a destination. We do not wake up aware of the goodness that surrounds us. Like the Ten Boom sisters, we must learn to see it.
When we wake, we must give thanks. As we eat, we must remember the good. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we must view the world through lenses tinted by gratefulness. It is by developing this habit that we can see God, not merely in the moments of his favor, but in the minutiae—in the space between the blessings.
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