When I reflect upon the phrase, without ceasing, the word that comes to mind is constant. Webster’s dictionary defines the word as characterized by steadfast resolution or faithfulness. Two of the best synonyms listed for constant are steady and unchanging. The apostle Paul uses the phrase without ceasing as an exhortation to the Thessalonian Christians with respect to prayer. Here is the scripture text in question, “…pray without ceasing…” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, ESV). This directive occurs within the closing remarks of the last chapter to the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Many of the commands and exhortations between verses sixteen and twenty-two rattle off like machine-gun bullets. They occur in such rapid succession that there is very little time to marinate in any of them. It seems like the importance of any of these exhortations could get lost in the fray. Do I think that Paul’s audience in the first century missed his point about praying without ceasing? No, I do not.
For starters, Paul includes the words to “…[pray] without ceasing…” among the final words of his letter (1 Thess. 5:17, ESV). This assigns his exhortation with importance. When it comes to letter and essay writing, both require a solid concluding section to round out the central argument or message. It affords the writer an opportunity to restate the main points in succession with added emphasis. Concluding remarks enable readers or the audience to recall the key points in order to assess the strength of the argument or message as well as points of application or takeaway. One of the main points that apostle Paul stresses to the Thessalonians is the importance of faithfulness or steadfastness with respect to prayer. Their walk with Christ depends upon a lifestyle of constant prayer. It makes no sense to include this lesson within his closing statements unless he wanted the early church, and all churches throughout all ages, to get it, to really hear him on this point.
Now, if the exhortation to pray without ceasing occurs within the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, then this means that he addressed it earlier on in the text. Let me highlight some juicy morsels about letter writing, and this applies to essays and speeches, too. The writer or speaker lays down the main points in the introduction, indicating where he or she intends to go, then the body of the letter or the speech becomes the ground for developing those key topics. The following gardening analogy might be useful: the introduction contains the seeds, which blossom into fully, mature flowers at the conclusion. Both the beginning and the end are corollaries to each other, inseparable in terms of logic and content. What is the point, you say? Because Paul includes the exhortation to “…[pray] without ceasing…” in his concluding remarks to the Thessalonians, I would expect to find it in both the introduction and the main body of the letter (1 Thess. 5:17, ESV).
Because the apostle Paul is a sharp thinker, speaker, and writer, he uses the word constantly one more time within the body of this first letter to the Thessalonians. Here is the verse and how Paul uses the word constantly or without ceasing: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13, ESV). Again, Paul unites the without ceasing with a spirit and attitude of thankfulness within the context of prayer. Timothy, Silvanus and Paul have been engaging in constant prayer, in constant thanksgiving, for these believers and their churches. These men have heard about the Thessalonians’ growth in the faith, in their efforts in bringing the gospel to others, and in accepting their words as coming from God himself (1 Thess. 1:3-8, 2:13, ESV). All of which grow out of the constant, vigilant prayers of Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus.
One of the major lessons that comes across in 1 Thessalonians is that prayer is essential for gospel living and ministry. It characterizes the lives of Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus. Sometimes the church and its pastor-scholars have elevated men like Paul and the apostles to a status unreachable by today’s layperson. It is clear from my examination of this simple and clear clause, “[pray] without ceasing,” that it forms the bedrock of Paul’s life and ministry (1 Thess. 5:17, ESV). This seems to be a good argument for why the apostle includes this exhortation about prayer in his conclusion. He has reminded the Thessalonians of how prayer has guided the lives and ministries of his colleagues Timothy and Silvanus and himself. Paul highlighted to Thessalonians how his prayers have borne fruit in their lives and gospel ministry. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for the apostle to exhort the Thessalonians to engage in constant prayer for their lives and the gospel. I submit to my readers and followers that we must do the same. May we pray without ceasing.