I Thessalonians 5:16-22
Quite often in the news we get images of Islam. We see the strong commitment people have to this religion. We see the crowds of people who follow it. It is a powerful religion not only in the Middle East, but in many countries including North America.
What distinguishes us from Muslims? They have a book, we have a book. They have celebrations, we have celebrations. They have commitment, we have commitment. They have rules and guidelines, we have rules and guidelines. They have an eternal hope, we have an eternal hope. They worship the God of Abraham, we worship the God of Abraham. In many ways there is not much difference and truthfully, for some who would call themselves Christian, there is no difference. If your faith life is about obedience to a list of rules which you keep with the hope of getting to heaven, then there is no difference. Even if you know that your basis of acceptance with God is the death of Christ on the cross, but you live your Christianity as a religion, there is very little difference. So what do we have that they do not have? What is different is that we have a personal relationship with the God of the universe made possible through the death of Christ on the cross. God Himself has come to live with us and in us and the life we live we live in Him. The question is, “do we live in that relationship or do we have a religion based on a salvation that is ancient history for us personally?” How is the life of the Spirit, or spiritual life to be lived for those who know Christ?
I Thessalonians 5:16-22 gives us 8 imperatives which must be happening if we are to have a spiritual life. What is evident is that it involves a 2 way relationship. There are activities which give evidence of our relationship with God and there are things which happen when we open ourselves up to what God is doing in us. Elias says, “A congregation can demonstrate dynamic faith, love and hope only if it renews its inner life through worship and the empowering of the Spirit.”
Let us read the text together from the overhead.
The life we have in God is not a negative life. It is not a life of regulations and rote, rather it is a life of joy, communicating with God and recognizing what God has given us. So Paul begins this section of 8 imperatives by talking about how we relate to God in this life of faith. We rejoice, we pray and we give thanks. That he says “always, continually and in all circumstances” intensifies these acts to our whole life.
This is what God’s will for us is. In our relationship to Him, he wants us to be joyful, praying and giving thanks. So let us look at how each of these things functions in a life of relationship with God.
If I would ask you what is the shortest verse in the Bible, you would probably say, “Jesus wept.” That, however, is only true in English. In Greek, the shortest verse is I Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice always.” In Greek, “Jesus wept” is three words and made up of 16 letters. “Rejoice always,” is two words and only 14 letters. However, one writer makes an interesting connection between these two verses when he says, “…we surely can see the lovely connection between the two verses. The Christian’s joy flows from the sympathy and grace of their Savior. Jesus wept and we rejoice evermore.”
On the basis of Jesus’ suffering, we can rejoice, but is it possible to rejoice in everything. When we look at different stories in the Bible, we find that the apostles were able to do it. In Acts 5, the apostles were put in prison for preaching the gospel. They defended themselves before the religious leaders, but still were flogged and ordered not to speak about Jesus any more. Acts 5:41 says, “The apostles…rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Later in Acts 16, Paul and Silas were arrested in Philippi also for preaching about Jesus. The story goes that they were in an inner cell and fastened with stocks, but, it says in Acts 16:25, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” From both of these stories, we learn that joy is possible, even in the most difficult circumstances. How much more should we who have it so good be filled with joy!
Why can we have such joy? We rejoice because we have received the Word of God which in Christ has given us forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. Luke 10:20 says, “… rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” We rejoice because the name of Jesus is being proclaimed all over the world and it is His truth and His reign that will be the eternal reign. We rejoice because of all the amazing things God is doing in the world. There is joy when a sinner comes to Christ and when a believer matures in faith. Paul expresses this joy in many of his writings, including already in I Thessalonians 2:20 when he says, “you are our glory and joy.” We also rejoice because when we suffer, we are identified with Christ Himself. I Peter 4:13 says, “…rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” We can have joy in suffering because we know that suffering produces character. Romans 5:3, 4 says, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
What does it come down to? Joy is the recognition that God is Lord of this world and He has acted to bring righteousness and good into the world. Joy is an act of worship for it is an act of confidence in the God who loves us. Is joy a mark of your faith life or were you baptized in vinegar?
Another activity of the relationship on our part is unceasing prayer. What does it mean to pray without ceasing?
“…the post-apostolic Church soon came to call the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours of the day the “apostolic hours” of prayer (based on the apostolic precedents in Acts 3:1 ; 10:3 , 9 , 30 ). These hours of prayer were connected generally with the trinity and specifically with two stages of Christ’s passion (the 6th and 9th hours) and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (the 3rd hour). At first these were times for purely private devotions by all Christians, but later the stated hours of prayer became so extended and so regulated that they could be kept only by the religious orders under vows. Support for the monastic regulations was also found in the OT . The Benedictine Rule (xvi) calls for seven daytime hours of prayer and the night office. Warrant for this is found in Ps. 119:164 , “Seven times a day I praise thee …” and Ps. 119:62 , “At midnight I rise to praise thee ….”
But is that what unceasing prayer is all about? J.B. Lightfoot says, “It is not in the moving of the lips, but in the elevation of the heart to God, that the essence of prayer consists.” What a wonderful phrase this is, “the elevation of the heart to God.” It speaks of a heart which is God directed and expectant of God at all times. It speaks of a heart which knows that life is found in God alone. It is this attitude of heart which makes unceasing prayer possible.
Henri Nouwen has said, “As we are involved in unceasing thinking, so we are called to unceasing prayer.” Another writer says that unceasing prayer is “every activity carried on in a spirit of prayer which is the spontaneous outcome of a sense of God’s presence.”
Martin Luther tells a story about his puppy. “When Luther's puppy happened to be at the table, he looked for a morsel from his master, and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes; he (Martin Luther) said, "Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish or hope."
Prayer is an act of our relationship with God because it recognizes the presence of God with us at all times and the willing help of God which is always available. Imagine if you will that God is walking along beside you every day, everywhere you go. Like a friend, you may not always talk to Him, but you are always aware of his presence. Like a friend present with you, you can ask him a question at any time. May we see unceasing prayer as a walk with a friend and a friendly conversation with one who is near at all times.
Another aspect of the relationship is “give thanks under all circumstances.”
Thanksgiving is a frequent topic of Scriptural. Ephesians 5:20 instructs,
“always giving thanks to God the Father for everything...” Philippians 4:6 encourages, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Colossians 3:17 challenges, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Thankfulness is so important that Romans 1 identifies the absence of it as a part of the journey away from God.
A famous English Bible scholar named Matthew Henry was once attacked by thieves and robbed of his purse. He wrote these words in his diary: "Let me be thankful. First, I was never robbed before. Second, although they took my purse, they didn't take my life. Third, although they took my all, it was not much. Fourth, let me be thankful because it was I who was robbed and not I who did the robbing." - John Yates, "An Attitude of Gratitude
Thanksgiving is God directed because it is a recognition that God is at work in us and that He gives us all that we need and more.
So our part of the relationship with God is to be filled with joy because by doing so, we express our trust that God is good and that God is in charge. It involves prayer which is the recognition that we need God and have access to Him in a loving relationship with Him. Thanksgiving is the recognition that all we have is from God.
These three, Joy, prayer and thanksgiving are essential in our relationship to God. They are the things we must do as we express our part of the relationship.
But the relationship to God is not only us moving towards Him. It is also God moving towards us. As we relate to God, do we receive His movement towards us?
O. Hallesby in Prayer writes, “The air which our body requires envelops us on every hand. The air of itself seeks to enter our bodies and, for this reason, exerts pressure upon us. It is well known that it is more difficult to hold one's breath than it is to breathe. We need but exercise our organs of respiration, and air will enter forthwith into our lungs and perform its life-giving function to the entire body.
The air which our souls need also envelops all of us at all times and on all sides. God is round about us in Christ on every hand, with his many-sided and all-sufficient grace. All we need to do is to open our hearts.”
How are we relating to the indwelling Spirit of God.
God’s Spirit works within us to help us live the life of God. Thus, it is important that we not quench what God is trying to do in our lives. This message is repeated in other places. Isaiah 63:10 tells us the sad story of Israel when it says, “Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them.” Ephesians 4:30 encourages, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit.”
We were sitting in the growing darkness at the shore of a beautiful lake by a fire and enjoying its warmth. The fire had already heated our supper for us and now we enjoyed the ambiance while we had a great conversation. But it was time to go to bed and so we went to the lake with a pail, filled it with water and poured it on the fire. The flames quickly disappeared and soon the embers were not even glowing any more. It was wet, cold and dark. How quickly a strong fire can be put out by one or two pails of water. How quickly the fire of the Spirit within us can be put out!
How is the fire of the Spirit quenched within us? We quench the Spirit when we try to live without God, but listen carefully, for there are different ways of living without God. We live without God when we live in disobedience, when we live by self indulgence or when we live by legalism. In disobedience, we quench the Spirit by saying, “God, I don’t believe your way is the best and I refuse it.” In self indulgence, we quench the Spirit by saying, “I don’t have time for you, God, because I want to please myself.” In legalism we quench the Spirit by saying, “God, your way is good but I can live it in my own strength.” If we live in any of these ways, we quench the Spirit.
On the other hand, we live by the Spirit when we recognize that God is always present with us and when we live in communion with the Spirit of God, obeying His voice as it is revealed through Scripture, through the church and through the leading of His Spirit from day to day.
Another part of the way in which God relates with us is that He speaks to us. Although there are different ways in which God communicates with us, Paul particularly mentions prophecy in this text and thereby raises an issue that we need to think about.
The Bible has a lot to say about prophets who have spoken the Word of God. In the early church, prophets were important. In Acts 11:28, Agabus predicted a famine in the whole Roman world. In Acts 21:10, Agabus predicted that Paul would be bound in Jerusalem. At the same time, the four daughters of Philip also prophesied that Paul would be bound in Jerusalem. These are illustrations that show us the place and work of prophets in the church.
The New Testament indicates that the church has been given prophets who speak God’s word to the church. I Corinthians 12:28 identifies prophecy as one of the gifts of the church. Ephesians 4:11 says that the Spirit has given “some to be prophets.” Prophets have one main function. They are the ones in the church who are able to say, either through a truth that comes from the Word of God or a truth that has been revealed to them by the Spirit, “thus says the Lord.”
This is what the Word of God says about prophecy, but when was the last time we really had a sense that a prophet of God spoke to us? In this text, we are told not to despise prophecies.” Yet, it seems to me that we have done exactly that. Are we open to God speaking through those He has gifted to do so? Will we listen? Is it the voice of the prophet we are shutting off or the voice of God?
Our fear, is that prophecy will be taken without evaluation. Many think, “if a prophet has spoken, then, who are we to question the voice of God?” Unquestioning acceptance of the word of a so called prophet has contributed to the destruction of one of the ways in which we hear from God. Paul, however, deals with this and encourages us to test everything. The word for test first of all means testing metals. If you want to know if there is gold in a sample of ore and what the purity of that gold is, you use a combination of heat and chemical analysis in order to test the quality of the gold. The same kind of careful testing is required to see if a person has really spoken for God. How do we do that testing?
Even in the Old Testament, there were false prophets, so the Bible is well equipped to teach us how to test the prophets. I Corinthians 14:29-32 says, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said…The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
The first test is to see if something is consistent with the Word of God. The Bereans were commended in Acts 17:11 because they examined Scripture to see if what Paul was preaching was true. Another test is the test of orthodoxy. I Corinthians 12:3 says, “Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” A further test is to see if it builds up the body of Christ. I Corinthians 14:26 says, “Let all things be done for building up.”
We have become so reluctant to hear the voice of God that this is a lesson that we don’t understand. It is outside of the realm of our experience. I would encourage us to be open to the voice of God and carefully allow ourselves to listen for those who are prophets among us so that we can hear what God has to say to us.
Having discerned the voice of the Spirit, we must then act on what we discern. The section concludes with two commands - hold on to the good, avoid every appearance of evil. The life in the Spirit is also a life of obedience.
As we discern what God is saying and we discover a word from God, we need to hold on to that. When we discover that God has communicated with us, whether through His Word or through a prophet, then we must grab on to that and live it. What are the positive lessons God is teaching you? Are you doing them?
On the other hand, whatever is evil must be avoided. Anything which God reveals as destructive must be avoided. There is a world watching us and so we must avoid even the appearance of evil. That does not mean we put on a good show, but rather, we stay so far away from evil that we even avoid what looks like evil.
Although we must be careful to live our faith life in relationship, that relationship also includes obedience to the one we have come to love and to whom we relate as a friend.
I have two sticks. At a distance, they don’t look much different, but upon close examination, it is obvious that this one is dead. The bark is off, there is no life in the branch and no matter how long it sits in water, it will never grow. The other, I picked a few days ago and put in water. If you look closely, you can see the beginning of life in this branch.
What is your life like? Is it like a dry stick, or is the life of the Spirit of God active in your life? Are you living in response to the grace of God with joy, prayer and thanksgiving? Are you open to the voice and the work of the Spirit of God in your life and not quenching it? Just as the life is in the branch and there is growth which comes from that life, so also your life will have growth and health only if you are allowing the Spirit of God to live the life of God in you.
OT Old Testament
Bromiley, G. W. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001, c1979-1988. Vol. 2, Page 769.