“Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
We all have responsibilities toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s especially true when the going gets tough. In this verse, Paul briefly identifies some common spiritual problems and our duties toward those who have them.
The word unruly described a soldier who was insubordinate or a laborer who neglected his work. This brother’s behavior is disorderly, out of line. He is not following the rules (i.e., the commandments of God; see 2 Thessalonians 3:6b). He knows what he ought to do but chooses not to do it.
Paul’s command is that we admonish (warn) such a person. We work to persuade him to do better. Whether it requires gentle words of encouragement or stronger words of rebuke, our goal is to get him to change his conduct to conform to what God instructs—in other words, to repent.
The fainthearted (literally, “small-souled”) brother is easily discouraged. He may be overly sensitive to criticism. He may quickly lose heart when he makes mistakes, or when he sees the failures of others. He may be fearful of opposition to his beliefs. Without help, this disciple could become disheartened and depressed to the point of giving up.
Our duty to this brother is to comfort him. He may need a cheerful word or just a sympathetic ear. He needs to know he is not alone. “Let them know that the battle is not theirs, but the Lord’s; and those that trust in him shall conquer” (Adam Clarke). “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble” (Hebrews 12:12).
The weak brother has many faces: the student who is experiencing doubts about his faith; the new convert who still has much to learn; the brother who is weak in conscience toward some matter of indifference (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14). This Christian lacks the depth of knowledge or conviction that he needs.
Paul tells us to “uphold” or support the weak. The word here can mean either (1) to endure or withstand, or (2) to cling to or pay attention to. I believe both meanings could apply. “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his neighbor’s good to edification” (Romans 15:1-2). When a brother is weak, we must “put up” with his weaknesses and try to “build up” what is lacking on his part. The goal is not for him to be complacent in his weakness, but for him to grow stronger.
When a brother or sister struggles with problems, it may be hard to determine which of these descriptions best fits. Is the person willfully disobedient or just struggling with temptation? Is his problem due to a lack of self-control or a lack of knowledge? Does she need reassurance or rebuke? It may take careful consideration and time before we know. And that leads us to one more exhortation…
Be patient with all. The word is literally “long-tempered”—being patient with those who try our patience. Warning the unruly, comforting the fainthearted, and upholding the weak can put a strain on us. Satan seeks to frustrate and discourage us. He would rather we just gave up on those who need our help. But we must not. Remember that we all need the support of our brothers and sisters from time to time. Imitate the longsuffering of God (2 Peter 3:9,15). “And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 2:12).
By Jeff Himmel