οἶδα (oida) + νουθετέω (noutheteo)
English translations of this word in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 range from “acknowledge” (NIV, NET), “honor” (NLT), “respect” (ESV), “appreciate” (NASB), “know” (KJV), “recognize” (NKJV), and “give recognition to” (CSB). Broadly speaking, the two main translation options are that the Thessalonians should either give honor and respect to these leaders, or the Thessalonians should recognize or acknowledge these men as their leaders.
If Paul was asking the Thessalonians to acknowledge as leaders those who labored among them and who cared for them and who admonished them, the implication might be that the Thessalonian church was lacking established leadership, and Paul was calling for the formal recognition as leaders those who were already fulfilling the function. Perhaps the situation in Thessalonica was similar to the situation in Crete when Paul told Titus to appoint leaders and to complete what was lacking in the church (Titus 1:5).
The other option is that Paul was asking the Thessalonians to give respect or honor to those who were leading them. The implication then would be not so much that the Thessalonian church lacked recognized leadership but that the church needed to honor those leaders. Or perhaps both ideas are implied here since the two ideas are not mutually exclusive.
We have translated this word as “recognize.” Given Paul’s limited stay in Thessalonica, it seems possible that the Thessalonian church might have lacked the recognized leadership that had already been established in other churches, and so Paul is encouraging the church to recognize those who are performing the functions of leader on behalf of the church.
Paul gives a series of three characteristics of the leaders that we to be recognized in Thessalonica. They were those who labor among you, who care for you in the Lord, and who admonish you. When we dealt with 1 Timothy 5:17-25, we included a word study of the term translated here as “care for you,” so here we will look at the term for admonish, since this seems to be one of the other roles to the performed by church leaders.
Admonish is a common translation for this word (NIV, ESV, KJV, CSB, NET), but other translations refer to those who give you spiritual guidance (NLT), those who give you instruction (NASB), or those who tell you how to live for the Lord (CEV). Since admonish is not a word often used in day-to-day conversations, we should give careful attention to what Paul means here by “those who admonish you.”
A popular Greek dictionary lists the meaning of νουθετέω as, “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct.” The word is used only 8 times, in the New Testament, but it can carry both a positive and a negative meaning. In Acts 20:31, Paul talked about how, night and day, he had warned the Ephesian church with tears for three years. Just two verses later, Paul used this same word to tell the Thessalonian church to admonish the idle. And in 2 Thessalonians, Paul told the Thessalonians to admonish as a brother those who disregarded what Paul said in his letter.
At other times, the term seems to carry a much more positive meaning. In Romans 15:14, the word is often translated as instruct, as Paul told the Roman Christians that they were able to instruct one another. Paul also paired the word with the idea of teaching in Colossians 3:16 as he told the Colossian church to teach and admonish one another with wisdom using psalms hymns and spiritual songs.
So what does this word mean in this context? To admonish means primarily to warn the church about the dangers sinful living. This of course implies some degree of positive teaching as well, but here the primary emphasis seems to be on warning, the kind of warning Paul was diligently engaged in during his ministry in Ephesus, pleading with them with tears and admonishing them night and day (Acts 20:31). Church leaders today, likewise, must be willing to warn the churches they serve about the dangers of godlessness, pleading with people to repent and be reconciled to God through Christ.