Paul's Purifying Benediction for the Church
1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.
Paul’s parting words are actually a prayer or benediction for the church’s sanctification and final perseverance. These closing remarks are often neglected by preachers. They hardly ever get the exposition they deserve. That is truly tragic because in these closing remarks the authors of Scripture often bear their hearts for the church and impart truly precious words of wisdom and encouragement. Here Paul’s words are designed to purify the church, to sanctify the church and empower the church by reminding them of God’s faithfulness to them. Its as if Paul in leaving the church with his closing remarks wants them to know that he is leaving them with God, His grace, peace and presence.
Prayer For Sanctification
Paul’s prayer for peace is rooted in God’s power and extends to the total life of the believer. It is “the God of peace” (ὁ θεὸς τῆς εἰρήνης) who sanctifies us. As Paul speaks of God he beautifies God, he accents His perfections, he amplifies His attributes and glorifies His goodness. This emphasis on God’s sanctifying power stresses the divine initiative and accomplishment of our sanctification. Sanctification is begun by God and brought to its consummate end by God himself (cf. 1 Cor. 1.30; Phil. 1.6). God’s peace is also not something that is available to everyone indiscriminately. It’s more complicated than that. It is God’s redemptive peace. It is salvific, covenantal and personal peace that He imparts to those He loves and saves. MacArthur rightly comments:
“Peace (eirēnē) is the best word to summarize God’s saving work, which is why the New Testament often uses it to describe Him (cf. Luke 19:38; John 14:27; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 2:14; 2 Thess. 3:16). It denotes not just some existence, situation, or state of mind free from conflict, but the composite of gospel blessing. Paul is not speaking of God’s own tranquility, but the peace of salvation He provides through the cross of Christ for all who repent and believe (Isa. 53:5; Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:14–15; Col. 1:20; cf. Luke 1:79; 2:14; John 14:27; Acts 10:36; Rom. 10:17).” (John MacArthur, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 204).
This peace is also the peace that God intends for us. Eternal peace with the God of peace! The wicked are destined for the opposite. Instead of everlasting peace they will experience everlasting hostility to God. Their enmity against God will be fixed forever. God’s peace is a special peace for a special people, in a special relationship with Him:
Ezekiel 37:26 26 “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever.
Hebrews 13:20 20 Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord,
The God who established the peace of redemption will produce in His people the peace of sanctification. As we increase in our sanctification, we will increase in the experience and confident knowledge of God’s peace:
Philippians 4:6–7 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s prayer is a petition to “the God of peace” to “sanctify” (ἁγιάζω) the church “entirely” (ὁλοτελής). The phrase Paul uses here reveals a desire for God to mature the church in an exhaustive way. We should not isolate this desired sanctification to the perfected state of heaven but more generally as it relates to the total life of the believer. In every area of life, in every stage of life, and in all of life’s circumstances; Paul’s ultimately desire for the church is rooted in a holy ambition. Earlier Paul had already stressed that sanctification was God’s explicit will of our lives (4.3-4); here Paul reminds us that God “himself” (αὐτός) is the divine and powerful source of that sanctification:
Titus 2:11–14 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
Prayer For Preservation
While the first part of Paul’s benediction and prayer relates to our lives in general, holistically, and throughout our lives; here Paul focuses on the sphere of our sanctification, “and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete” (ὁλόκληρον ὑμῶν τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ ἡ ψυχὴ καὶ τὸ σῶμα... τηρηθείη). From the lives we live externally to the lives we lead internally; Paul’s view of sanctification reveals the comprehensive nature of sanctification. For Paul, sanctification is both a public and private affair. The phrase, “spirit and soul” (τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ ἡ ψυχὴ) refers particularly to the same immaterial, invisible, and spiritual aspect of our constitution. The two terms are used interchangeably in Scripture (cf. Heb. 6.19; 10.39; 1 Peter 2.11; 2 Peter 2.8). We are both “body” (σῶμα) and “soul” (ψυχὴ) (cf. Rom. 8.10). Only here the reference to our “body” is talking about what we do with our body more than our bodies themselves as if what Paul is praying for is for God to make us physically healthy or merely externally religious. Rather, the body is for obedience and therefore, Paul’s prayer for sanctification of the body aims to make us conscious of our obligation to honor God with the members of our body.
1 Corinthians 6:19–20 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.
Romans 6:12–13 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
Sexually, the body is for procreation and purity (1 Th. 4.7; 1 Tim. 5.14), our strength is for service (Rom. 12.11), our brains are for study and contemplating the mind of God (2 Tim. 2.7), our mouths are for praise and speaking the truth (Eph. 4.15), our eyes are for seeing the glory of God and beholding the beauty of the Lord (Is. 33.17), our ears are for listening to God’s commands and receiving His instruction (Rev. 2.29), our feet are for the preaching of the gospel (Eph. 6.15), our hands are for working hard to the glory of God (1 Cor. 4.12). The world tells that our bodies are for excess, for debauchery, for intoxication, entertainment, fashion, accessories, and fitness. Scripture tells us that our bodies are vessels in the service of God’s temple- the church (Phil. 4.17). They have been given to us for consecration so that we are set apart for holy use, for the Master’s purpose (cf. 2 Tim. 2.21). In fact, Paul was so utterly emphatic on this point the lives we live in our bodies are not even to be our own any more. Having been bought with a price, we now belong to the one who laid down His life for us (cf. 1 Cor. 6.20; 2 Cor. 5.15). Ultimately our bodies belong on the altar. This was Paul’s way of saying that our whole being including our bodies belong to God in everything:
Romans 12:1 1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
The emphasis on this prayer for complete sanctification in this context is also on the act of God’s preservation of the believer. Notice again that Paul prays for God to do this. Sovereign preservation is an act of God. He keeps us to the end and the reason He keeps us to the end is because He called us:
Romans 8:30 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
This is why Paul’s earnest desire is to see the church beautified with the moral quality that is fitting for Christ’s bride. He has already set for his own example before them by reminding them of his conduct among them, “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers” (2.10). Here he seeks the same holiness in them so that collectively as a church they might be ready to meet their Lord in the light of His glory and stand “blameless” (ἀμέμπτως):
Ephesians 5:25–27 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.
This level of passionate desire for total, complete, comprehensives and exhaustive sanctification is found repeatedly in Paul (as well as in other NT authors, e.g. 1 Pet. 1.16-17). This language for sanctification in Paul was not just empty rhetoric, he strove for this, he labored and toiled for this, he wept for this. Paul’s ultimate passion was to see Christ formed in his people (cf. Gal. 4.19; Col. 1.28-30):
Colossians 1:21–23 21 And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, 22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.
Prayer For Glorification
Paul ends the letter with the same emphasis that dominates both of these letters, namely eschatology. But his emphasis on the second coming also helps us understand his theology of sanctification. Not only does Paul not expect sinless perfection or anything of the sort; only the parousia of Jesus Christ will provide the final installment of God’s sovereign sanctifying power in our lives. As Christ returns, the saints will not only marvel in the brilliant light of His coming (2 Thess. 1.10), they will also be transformed into the light of the Lord, into the beauty of His holiness and glory:
Matthew 13:43 43 “Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
1 John 3:2–3 2 Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
That is really all that Paul is hoping for here, that the hope of God’s preserving power and the hope of glory will produce in us purity and behavior that is “blameless.” Paul always saw everything in light of eternity and eschatology (cf. 1 Cor. 3.13; 2 Cor. 5.10-11). It was as if he always contemplated how he would appear on that great day and the knowledge and awareness of that produced a sobriety and sanctification in him that motivated him to live sensibly and godly in the present age (Tit. 2.12). The second coming of Christ was that great day, “and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (καὶ ὁλόκληρον ὑμῶν τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ ἡ ψυχὴ καὶ τὸ σῶμα ἀμέμπτως ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τηρηθείη). This then corresponds with Paul’s teaching earlier; namely that we would be light, prepared, sober, full of faith and love:
1 Thessalonians 5:4–8 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. 7 For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.
Lest the church should come to the false conclusion however that this sanctification is ultimately owing to man’s effort, mans’ work, man’s zeal, man’s holiness, devotion or obedience; Paul’s final encouragement emphatically removes the possibility of that, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” (πιστὸς ὁ καλῶν ὑμᾶς, ὃς καὶ ποιήσει). In a sense there is a perfect symmetry at work here. The Sovereign God who alone can be credited for our election and effectual calling, that is, calling unto salvation (e.g. 1 Cor. 1.9) is also the “faithful” (πιστός) One who will “bring it to pass” (ποιέω). The simple future tense verb of the Greek here means, “He will do it” or “He will perform” the work of our final preservation to the end. In a similar way, Paul prayed for the faith of the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 1:4–9 4 I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, 6 even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Sanctification seems daunting especially when we are tempted to think that it all depends upon us. Sanctification is a razor’s edge. If we get too imbalanced one way or another we can land in the errors of license or law, antinomianism or legalism; and yet, verse 24 was designed to comfort the church, to encourage them in their struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, sin and salvation (cf. Rom. 7.14-21; Gal. 5.16-18). The passage above (1 Cor. 1.8-9) reminds us however that in all our warfare, what is not at stake is our positional righteousness; that has been settled at the cross by faith alone (cf. 1 Cor. 1.30; Phil. 3.7-9). Thus, when Paul says that Christ will “confirm you to the end” (1 Cor. 1.8), the term “confirm” (βεβαιόω) literally means ‘to put something beyond doubt’ (e.g. Rom. 15.8; see, BDAG). That is what Paul is comforting us with. Our final preservation, our glorification will be put beyond doubt by the God who called us into the fellowship of His Son so that we will be blameless when Christ returns. Not because of our righteousness but because we stand under the confirmation of Christ’s righteousness alone. This how and why He called us:
2 Thessalonians 2:14 14 It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Remarkably, Paul’s benediction corresponds with the Lord’s own prayer for us, His people. We are not kept for safety’s sake. We are not kept to be preserved from harm. We are not kept primarily to be kept from trouble, suffering, sickness or pain. Instead, we are kept and sanctified, and preserved for holy use. The dynamic here is not inaction, its holy action, holy living:
John 17:13–19 13 “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. 14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.