Tuesday, January 9, 2018

I Thessalonians 5:19-22 – “How Should We Then Live?”

As always, here’s my fairly literal translation of these verses:

19Do not be quenching the Spirit. 20Do not be despising prophecies. 21Examine everything. Retain the good. 22Disassociate [yourself] from every kind of evil.

As I related in the last post, I believe these three verses form a single telic unit. Paul’s basic thought is mirrored in Luke’s description of the Bereans, saying they were “more noble than the Thessalonians, for they received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” The basic admonition here is that we should take seriously the Holy Spirit’s work of bringing us the Word, that we should neither disdain nor make light of any preaching or teaching we hear, but then that we should make it our habit to be personally examining those teachings and only holding on to that which is truly Scriptural.

Isn’t it interesting that our admonition is in a letter to the Thessalonians, while in Acts, Luke specifically tells us this was apparently a weakness of theirs – that this is exactly what they did not do as well as the Bereans! They needed an admonition to take the Word more seriously, which is exactly what we’re finding here in vv.19-22.

I would sadly suggest this problem is pervasive today. I have known very few people in my life who really took the Bible seriously. Again, I say this sadly, and I hope humbly, but I fear we are massively guilty in this generation of having quenched the Spirit, of having despised or made light of Bible teaching, and then been utterly devoid of any real personal effort to know our Bibles, to be able to “see whether these things are so.” In short, I fear there is very little Bible in American Christianity today.

It makes me very sad because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. We can only know real faith to the extent we know our Bibles, and without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith arises from the very great and precious promises of God – but if we don’t really know those promises, there is nothing to build faith on. It is only when we know the Truth that that truth can set us free. The fruit of the Spirit only grows in the soil of God’s Word. If we would know love and joy and peace, we must know our Bibles. If we would buttress our hearts with grace, we must have a real, personal relationship with the Lord. Someone once said, “To look into the Bible is to see the very face of God.” When we read and study the Word, and if we’re doing it because we want to know Him, our hearts take their place beside Mary at Jesus’ feet and we too are doing “the one thing needful.” To see His face is to be changed.

I will be forever grateful that one of the first books I ever read as a Christian was “How Should We Then Live?” by Francis Schaeffer. In that book, Schaeffer argued that humanity must have absolute truth or we will always degenerate into chaos, anarchy, and some form of totalitarian oppression. That absolute truth upon which the human race must base its very existence is none other than the Bible, the Word of God. Schaeffer argues that Bible truth was the strength of Western Culture and that, as that culture turns away from the Bible, they too degenerate into chaos and ultimately some form of totalitarian oppression. He wrote those thoughts in the 1970’s and I have sadly watched as his words have proven true in the 50 years since.

Now the fact is I can’t really do anything about an entire culture that quenches the Spirit – but I can change me. Paul’s admonition is very real and very needed. I can honestly say that I have tried to keep up a constant habit of Bible reading and study down through the years – thanks in some large degree to Francis Schaeffer’s early admonition in my Christian walk. It has been a wonderful freedom in my life to know God’s truth and to have it constantly crashing through all my misperceptions of reality, shattering my paradigms, and allowing me to see the world through His eyes. I just wish so much other people could see this, that they could experience for themselves this miracle of the Spirit’s work to open our eyes and see the truth – the truth that truly sets us free.

Perhaps one of my grandchildren may one day stumble across these feeble scratchings. If you do, then can I say to you, get a Bible and start reading it. You can start anywhere. It’s all good. I promise you, if you will, if you will open a Bible and start reading it, God will meet you there. Or should I say, you will meet Him? I promise you that, as you read, the Word will jump off the page at you. It is not like any other book that just lies there on the table. The Word of God is alive. It reaches out and grabs you. Maybe not in the first ten seconds you’re reading. Maybe not even in the first two weeks. But if you keep reading, it will happen. I promise you. And when it does, it will set you free. If you do and if you find my promises true, then gradually try to learn how to actually study it for yourself. I early learned how to use a Concordance, how to look up Greek and Hebrew words, how to use a Vine’s dictionary, and later had the privilege of learning the Greek and Hebrew languages themselves. But please realize, the Lord will start setting you free as soon as you start looking seriously into His Word. From there on, just make it a lifetime’s journey to ever be reading and studying the Bible – however is the best you know how – and again I promise you, 50 years from now, you’ll be glad you did. 50 years from now you’ll still be learning and He’ll still be setting you free.

Don’t quench the Spirit. Take the Word seriously.

Then you’ll know the answer to the question, “How Should We Then Live?”

Sunday, January 7, 2018

I Thessalonians 5:19-22 – “Taking the Spirit’s Work Seriously”

As always, here’s my fairly literal translation of these verses:

19Do not be quenching the Spirit. 20Do not be despising prophecies. 21Examine everything. Retain the good. 22Disassociate [yourself] from every kind of evil.

This is a passage where I think the exegesis becomes critically important. Based on a cursory reading (especially in English and with the uninspired verse divisions), this entire passage can appear to be a staccato of (not necessarily related) imperatives. One can easily see each of these verses as independent thoughts, only perhaps generally related, and treat each verse almost as a proverb – what I would call “the Proverbs approach.” As I’ve read a number of commentaries, many people do exactly that and derive from it a great deal of instructive material. It is as if one could preach a series of five messages by taking a different Sunday for each of these verses (v21 containing two possibly independent thoughts). On the other hand, there’s a sort of modified “Proverbs approach,” where people assert that vv.19,20 and v.21 each form single independent thoughts, while verse 22 stands completely alone.

I will argue that all five thoughts express a single very interrelated intent. I support this based on three reasons: First of all, I find this whole section from (at least) v.12 on to be very deliberately structurally organized into telic groupings. In vv.12,13 there are five phrases describing those ministers we are to respect, and how we are to respond to them. Then vv.14,15 contain five main imperatives how we are to express concern for others. This is then followed by the three personal admonitions of joyfulness, prayer, and thankfulness of vv.16-18, which are then followed by another set of five thoughts, our vv.19-22, followed by what appear to be the three thoughts of vv.23,24, followed by three thoughts in vv.25-27. Fives and threes. If one takes the time to look, I think it is apparent that each of these groupings are to be understood as telic units. I do not think Paul intended this entire section to work like the book of Proverbs. For me personally, the order I see in the Greek leads me to conclude otherwise. I think our present passage, vv.19-22, needs to be treated as a unit.

I would argue further that this is particularly apparent in vv.21,22. Perhaps due to the uninspired verse divisions, many commentators will take v.21, “Examine everything. Hold on to the good” as one thought, then v.22 as an entirely independent thought, which they translate something like “Avoid every appearance of evil.” However, the two Greek words for “hold on to” and “avoid” almost rhyme and appear very deliberately intended to be read (and understood) together. Verse 22 should not be translated or understood as an independent thought, but that is exactly where people go when they fail to see the order in the passage – which then leads to interpretations which I feel the text simply does not support.

Finally, on the one hand I find the collective thought of the passage to be quite instructive and compelling, while on the other hand, what I see in those who take the “Proverbs approach” is almost a homiletical free-for-all. Taken separately, it is as if people can build entire messages on each verse, but then make them mean almost anything the writer or preacher wants them to mean. But the Bible doesn’t mean everything at once. In a particular passage, the writer (and the Spirit who inspired their writings) is thinking something. He has some thought he is trying to communicate. You and I are no different. It may be true that someone can take anything you or I say and give it a million different meanings, but the fact remains, we meant something – not everything. I find suspicious any interpretation that seems to almost invite such a homiletical free-for-all and I feel that is exactly what I see in this passage from people who take the “Proverbs approach.”

So, how do I see it all fit together? Taken together, the first admonition, “Do not be quenching the Spirit” is immediately explained by the “Do not be despising prophesyings.” “Prophesyings” in the first century church were the very specific work of the Holy Spirit using gifted people to bring direct revelations from God to the congregation. Today we think of “prophecy” as only the foretelling of the future, but of course that was only ever one very small part of prophesying. God’s prophets down through the ages may have at times predicted future events but their main function was simply to speak for God. Their work in the church is clearly explained in I Cor 14:3, “But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort.” Apparently the very specific way Paul wanted people to avoid “quenching the Spirit” is that they should not despise or “make light of” these prophesyings, which at the time were integral to the teaching and preaching ministry of the church.

Since the Scriptures are now complete, we no longer need this activity of direct revelation from God. Our completed Bible is “given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be mature, thoroughly furnished for every good work” (II Tim 3:16,17). The Spirit work of direct revelation is complete. However, the Holy Spirit remains the agent of illumination, using gifted preachers and teachers to open our understanding of that completed revelation, hence the admonition to “Despise not prophecyings” is still quite pertinent to us.

I would like to suggest that the whole point of vv.19-22 has everything to do with how you and I respond to this Spirit work of bringing God’s Word to us. The phrase translated “Despise not” can also be translated “Do not make light of.” The central question is, “How do I receive the Word?” It is easy to despise a teacher or preacher because I don’t like their looks, or I find their presentation boring, etc., etc. But to do so I may actually be “quenching the Spirit.” It is probably easier yet just to “make light” of even a good teacher or preacher’s message – to sit there but not really listen – for whatever may be our excuse this week. On the other hand, as we’ll see in this passage, it is just as much “quenching the Spirit” if we just sit there and take everything they say as Gospel.

In fact, this passage is structurally very similar to Acts 17:11, “Now the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians, for they received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” When it says “they received the Word with all readiness of mind” we know they were not “quenching the Spirit” and “despising (or making light of) prophesyings.” They took it very seriously that someone was preaching or teaching the Word to them.

But then what did they do? “They searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” Here’s where in our passage they “Examined everything; retained the good; and disassociated [themselves] from every kind of evil.” What God wants each individual person to do is to keep their heart and mind open. If someone seems to be teaching or preaching the Word, then listen to them. Take the Spirit’s work very seriously. He may be trying to teach you something – even if you don’t like the person speaking or their delivery, or even the main thrust of what they’re saying.

But then, if you really take it seriously, you will “examine everything.”  That means you will take it a step further by seriously asking, “Is this Scriptural?” Is that really what the Bible is saying? God wants each person to examine what is said, then retain or “hold on to” what in fact was good Spirit-given teaching. If upon inspection you find it was not Scriptural then it is evil. God says to “disassociate yourself from it” – no matter what it was. Any Bible teaching, no matter how seemingly good or moral or appealing, if it does not derive from the Scriptures themselves, is evil. Remember the Lord’s warnings in the book of Revelation about adding to or taking away from the Scriptures? Remember Isaiah’s words, “To the Law and to the Testimony! If they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them” (8:19,20).

I am keenly aware now, late in my life, what a pernicious sin it is to assume the position of a Bible teacher or preacher, then use that as a platform to fill people’s heads with all sorts of maxims which do not derive from the rightly-divided Word. Those ideas fill people’s minds and actually eclipse the real truth of God’s Word in their hearts. Satan loves to raise even wonderfully moral, seemingly religious people – people who actually quench the Spirit’s work by replacing it with “truths” of their own, truths that do not derive from the Spirit-given Word. Such people cannot and will not exude the grace and truth and love of Jesus. The very specific import of v22 is exactly this – that, having found some “teaching” to not derive from the Scriptures, we should recognize it as evil – whatever “kind” it may be – and disassociate ourselves from it. God is saying to do like the Bereans, receive it with an open mind, check it out, then firmly hold on to the good, and reject all else as evil.

I have more I’d like to write down in reflecting on this passage, but I think I’ll end this post and take up those thoughts separately.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I Thessalonians 5:18 – “Thankfulness”

As always, here’s my fairly literal translation of these verses:

16Be being joyful always. 17Be praying constantly. 18Be being thankful in everything, for this [is] [the] desire of God in Christ Jesus into you.

Thankfulness is an interesting thing. As I belabored in my last study, the statement “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” may be pointing specifically to this business of being “thankful in everything.” It might also be referring to the entire triad of vv.16-18, but, regardless, it is obviously something high on the Lord’s priority list for us. It is His will for us, His desire for us.

I think it interesting to compare vv16-18 to Phil 4:4-7: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! …  Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, …” Joyfulness, prayer, and thanksgiving. Those same elements, which Paul tells us there in Philippians are essential to our knowing that “peace which passes understanding.” But I have always thought it curious how the Lord injects into Phil 4:4-7 the “with thanksgiving.” I’ve often wondered, as I prayed over things, “Am I being thankful?” -- knowing from Philippians it is essential to really knowing peace.

We also know the Lord chose to include in His Scriptures one parable specifically about thankfulness – the ten cleansed lepers, of whom only one returned to thank Jesus. “Where are the other nine,” He asked. It is easy in our hearts to condemn the other nine, but do we really think we do much better? Do I render to the Lord the thankfulness He deserves for all the blessings and grace He showers on me? I’m sure I don’t.

But then, in my own life, in spite of my resolve to “be thankful,” I have found its consistent practice elusive. I like a quote I ran across:

“It is not to be reached by a single resolution, or in a day by an outburst of excited feeling. We may say sincerely, henceforth I resolve to trust God in everything. But little vexations soon shake our trust; greater troubles break down our resolution; the emotion has declined, and we say, “No man can be always thankful.” It is the gradual result of a life of earnest fellowship with God--a life that in daily meditation realizes the presence of the Father; that by prayer feels the reality of God’s love--that comes at length to walk through all toils and temptations under a deep sense of the all-surrounding God” (E. L. Hull, B. A.).

“…the gradual result of a life of earnest fellowship with God … under a deep sense of the all-surrounding God.” Hull’s words seem more in keeping with my own experience. Although I could try to “be thankful” at specific times, what I have found is that becoming a thankful person has been a slowly growing reality and that it almost entirely arises from the closeness of my heart to God. The more I know Him, the more I let His grace amaze me, the more I see His ever-present hand around me, the more calm and thankful I become.

I suppose, like the nine, we most naturally see the blessings, not the Blesser. I suppose too perhaps it’s part of the impetuousness of youth to be in too big a hurry to look past the blessings to see the Blesser. Maybe some of it just comes with age, with the slowing down so we do see past the blessings? I don’t know. But there’s no question it has been a growing thing in my own heart and again, it seems to have grown in direct proportion to my relationship with God. The more I see Him, the more I simply am thankful. Interesting back in Phil 4:4-7, right in the middle are the words, “The Lord is at hand.” He has to be, or none of the rest of it works.

I also think it’s interesting to note the statement, “For this is the will of God for you.” I’ll go ahead and include the whole triad in this thought, but isn’t it interesting that what the Lord wants for you and me is joyfulness, prayer, and thankfulness. His desire for us, His intent for us, is that we be joyful, praying, thankful people. As I often point out, the world has this perverted view of God, that He is the cosmic kill-joy, that He makes people into dour, gloomy people, that all He cares is that we keep His rules. That is so sad, when the Bible would tell us what He wants for us is love and joy and peace, joyfulness and prayer and thankfulness. The world forgets that He is the God who plans to give us heaven -- an eternity of uninterrupted happiness! That same God wants you and me to enjoy heaven’s blessings even while we live here on earth. The only thing preventing us from enjoying all of those blessings is our own sinfulness. It’s not Him who withholds joy from us, it’s us!

What a wonderful God we serve – to think His will for us is that we enjoy joyfulness, prayer, and thankfulness.

The more we know Him, the more we’ll enjoy of His blessings, and the more thankful we’ll become!

Isn’t that something to be thankful for!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

I Thessalonians 5:18 – “The Journey Continues”

As always, here’s my fairly literal translation of these verses:

16Be being joyful always. 17Be praying constantly. 18Be being thankful in everything, for this [is] [the] desire of God in Christ Jesus into you.

This has been an unusual study. If I simply focus on v18 and the “Be thankful in everything,” there are mountains of very helpful, practical, encouraging thoughts to scratch down – and I probably will – but, what has caught my eye is the final phrase “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

At first I simply wanted for a minute to consider the “this.” “This is the will of God.” What “this?” Is it specifically the thankfulness, or is it the “Joyful always, praying constantly, thankful in everything”? Or is it the whole array of admonitions from (at least) v14 on?

What I found is no consensus (even in my own heart) to pin it down. Some note that the “this” is singular and assert therefore that it points only to the immediately preceding phrase, “Be thankful in everything.” This line of logic would say, had it been intended to include more, instead of the singular “this” it could have been written with a plural “these” to read “For these things are the will of God …”

Others would (legitimately) note that there is some very deliberate order in Paul’s writing here where vv. 14-15 contain 5 verbal phrases, vv.16-18 contain 3, then vv.19-22 again contain 5 (followed by it looks like groupings of 3 in vv.23,24 and again 3 in vv.25-27). This apparent structure can reasonably be argued to say that our vv.16-18 actually form a logical triad which should be considered together. In this case the three verses should be punctuated with commas rather than periods, and the singular “this” is apparently seeing them all as a sort of singular set of virtues.

Then someone else can suggest it simply refers to the whole book, that Paul, for whatever reason, simply chooses here to assert the thought that “all of this is God’s will for you.”

Probably the cleanest, most defensible position would be to limit the “this” to its own near antecedent “Be thankful in everything.” My problem is that I said “most” defensible. Especially the argument of letting it point to the triad is so compelling, I simply cannot dismiss it. The “it points to everything in the book” makes the statement almost seemingly frivolous to me. So in my own mind I have to say it is either specifically the thankfulness or the triad of joyfulness, prayer, and thankfulness together.

My problem is I don’t believe it can be both. When Paul wrote those words, and as the Holy Spirit inspired him to write them, they didn’t mean both. They meant one or the other. As Paul wrote, “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you,” in his mind, the “this” was very specifically referring to something. For me, the fact that I don’t see clearly which it was means I don’t really understand thoroughly what he’s saying or exactly what he’s thinking. Which means I don’t really see the world through his eyes. Which means I don’t really see the world through God’s eyes.

In a sense, this is exactly why I study the Bible. Of course I don’t see the world through God’s eyes. That is precisely my problem. “And when you know the truth, the truth shall make you free!” … And I want to be free. So I study the Bible and ask Him to open my eyes, to show me the world through His eyes. “Call unto Me and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things thou knowest not.” And He does. And He has. And when He does it invariably rocks my world. His truth isn’t just, “Oh, yeah, isn’t that cool.” His truth to me is like an atom bomb that goes off in my soul. It’s a bomb that goes off in that instant I do understand, I do see the world through His eyes (in some small new way) and it’s a bomb that always leaves in its wake whole new vistas of love and joy and peace. It blows away some vestige of my pride and arrogance and selfishness. It feels like deep in my soul in some way my world was cold and dark and misty with confusion and suddenly the Day Star rises in my heart, floods me with light and warmth, gives me hope, and in that one perhaps even small way, suddenly to me the world makes sense.

Of course that’s the way it is. My heart is desperately wicked -- But He is a Redeemer. He is a saving God. His name is Jesus “for He shall save His people from their sins.” For me to go on being “conformed to this world” is to go on dying with them; but “to be transformed by the renewing of my mind” is life itself. It is part of the resurrection of Jesus that invades my dark world and resurrects me. “Lazarus, come forth!” He calls to my soul, and “when the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed!”

Love, joy, peace. Faith, hope, love. Joyfulness, prayer, and thankfulness. The cordials of His grace.

 I want them all.

And so I go on studying.

And very often His bombs go off.

And sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes I come to verses like here in I Thes 5:18 and there is something I know I don’t understand. And I know I’ve found a jewel. If only I did understand – there is something of love and joy and peace awaiting me that I don’t possess now. And sometimes if I linger and pray over it, He does reveal it to me.

And sometimes He doesn’t. When He doesn’t I know He knows that somehow I’m not ready. “He will, but not yet.” And then I love to leave things like Habakkuk, “I will stand at my rampart and watch and see what He will answer me.”

In the end, it’s okay if He doesn’t show me (now). Of course I will die with unanswered questions. The work of redemption must, by definition, ever continue an unfinished work in this life. “Beholding His image, we’re changed into that image, from glory to glory.” “He who has begun a good work will continue it until the Day of Jesus Christ.” “And when we see Him, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

So … to what is Paul referring when He says, “… for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you”?

I don’t know.

“You will, but not yet.”

And so the wonderful journey of love, joy, and peace continues.

“For God, who said,
 ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’
made His light to shine in our hearts
 to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God
 in the face of Christ”
 (II Cor 4:6).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

I Thessalonians 5:17 – “Constantly”

As always, here’s my fairly literal translation of these verses:

17Be praying constantly.

This is an interesting little verse. I believe the old KJV translated it “Pray without ceasing.” The NIV translates it “Pray continually.” One minor (although not insignificant) exegetical observation is that the Greek verb here is in the present tense, which, as an imperative, in and of itself possesses the idea of “continually, habitually.” That is why I translated it “Be praying” rather than the simple “Pray” that others use.  I wanted to draw out the fact that the verb itself expresses continuity. To that we add the adverb which could variably be translated with our words like “constantly, continually, without ceasing, etc.”

Any thinking reader, of course, pauses on this idea of “continually” and has to question how such an employment in prayer is possible in a world of other responsibilities. How could even the most devoted person actually be constantly engaged in prayer?

There has been plenty of commentary written on this little phrase of a verse, so there is probably little need for me to add to the cacophony but, in this case, I think I will. In case one of my grandchildren ever stumbles onto these feeble scratchings, I want to record some thoughts specifically because the pondering of this simple command actually causes one to consider some other very profound matters of genuine faith.

First of all, I would like to say that I think the objection to continual prayer perhaps arises from what I perceive to be a typically legalistic, mechanical, and impersonal view of prayer. I am referring to the idea that prayer is something that is only happening when someone has their head bowed, when they have ceased from other activities, and when they have somehow totally dedicated their mind to “focusing on God,” when they are “doing prayers.” Although the specific activity or “prayer” is certainly a necessary part of our spiritual life, it is just as possible to be “praying” even while we work. Nehemiah was an excellent example of this. Upon learning of Jerusalem’s desperate condition, the Bible tells us “for some days” he “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of Heaven.” That was an example of his formal time of prayer. But then, as he was going about his duties as the king’s cupbearer (his job) and the king (his boss) asked him “What is it you want?” Nehemiah says “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king …” There we see him praying even as he is working, right in the middle of conversation with the king.

I’d like to assert here what I believe Nehemiah had figured out -- that prayer is simply talking to God. Just as in any other relationship, it can have very formal moments when we say even rehearsed words (like wedding vows) to each other, but it is also includes just the casual exchange of two familiar people. If you “know” someone and you’re “with” them, the two of you will talk. Such it is with the people who know their God. Jesus is our Immanuel, our “God with us.” He will never “leave us nor forsake us.” As an old book title admonished us, we should “Practice the Presence of God.” The more we grow in our faith, the more we realize and are actually aware that God is in fact present with us. He is there. David of course observed this is Psalm 139:7-10, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.” This of course is a great comfort to a real believer, to enjoy this “ever-present” God.

I have very deliberately tried to cultivate in my life this constant mental awareness of God’s presence. Even while I am at work, perhaps even doing complicated hydraulic calculations, or sitting in meetings, I want to be very aware that I live in the presence of God, that He is “with me.” And the natural consequence of that realization is that we are “constantly” talking to each other. Even as I’m working or talking, He reminds me of specific Scriptures or simply the importance of love. The older I get the more aware I am it is true (and always has been, in spite of my youthful arrogance) that “Without Him, I can do nothing.” The old hymn-writer got it right, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” That said, I am constantly (like Nehemiah) asking Him for His help. I’m also of course constantly aware of my evil thoughts and so constantly asking His forgiveness and help to think rightly (which by the way is not some forlorned groveling but simply an expression of the love relationship between a son and his father whom he desires to please).

Our loving Father urges us to “Come boldly before the Throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Since my “time of need” runs pretty much 24 hours a day, so the constant conversation of even the little words “Help me” run continuously.

I believe that is the “constant” of the prayer we’re discussing in I Thess 5:17. It is the “constant” of our God who is always there and the “constant” of our needing Him, loving Him, worshipping Him, and telling Him so.

Can I also say that prayer doesn’t always require words? Romans 8:26 tells us “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” There have been specific times in my life when I was so overwhelmed, all I wanted to do was just sit in God’s presence and trust that the Spirit was carrying my heart to the Throne of Grace. Other times, it is not so much that I am distressed as that I just want to “be” in the presence of God. Sometimes it is nice (and once again, it can happen even while I’m working or engaged in something else) just to be in the presence of God – just to enjoy that He is there. Such a thought is not really so foreign to us, as I can do the same with my wife. Sometimes we can chatter away for hours and other times, though we may not say a word, I am enjoying just being with her. That is still an expression of relationship and I believe the same applies to my relationship with God.

Praying “constantly” is really just an expression of our relationship with this God who is constantly with us. The catch I suppose is not that He is always available, but rather that we have to learn to recognize His presence. Knowing Him more, knowing Him better, feeding on that relationship is perhaps one of the most pleasant benefits of growing faith.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

I Thessalonians 5:16 – “Awesome!”

As always, here’s my fairly literal translation of these verses:

16Be being joyful always.

I’ve been looking forward to studying this verse. As I have often lamented, in my life I have found joy to be an elusive virtue. I could look over that list of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, etc. – and honestly say the Lord had taught me a lot about the other eight virtues, but the “joy” thing … not so much. As I have often said, I know I have much to be thankful for and I know I am blessed beyond my wildest imagination, yet the fact has remained that life is very painful, and then, of course, there is that awful load of regrets that seem to drag along behind us.

Into that world, the Lord has this simple encouragement: “Be joyful always.”

Just in the last year or two He has taught me a lot about what this means and how it happens in my life. The greatest thing He showed me was that this really is His world and that the life I live I get to live only because He is allowing me to be a part of what He is doing. Like most people, I’ve always seen it as me living my life and I need His help. I thought I needed to pray to get Him to come be a part of my life. But He has shown me that I had it all backwards. This is His world. My life is His life. He is at this very minute accomplishing His unfathomable work of grace in this world. And, in fact, I am alive because He, in His infinite kindness, is allowing me to be a part of what He’s doing. What He wants from me is for me to be a willing part of what He’s doing. The whole universe is sweeping along in His great eternal plan. Out of all the universe, He gives us humans the freedom to choose whether we will be a willing part of that plan or not. Those who choose not still end up a part of the plan. “The wrath of man shall praise Him.” He is so great and so infinitely wise, He can give every single human being complete freedom to choose every second of every day who they will be and what they will do and, then,  whether they choose right or wrong, He will still weave it all ultimately into His great eternal plan. The key for me is to be a willing part of what He’s doing.

That realization actually gives me joy. And because it is completely rooted in Him, I know it is real Holy Spirit joy. That has actually made my life a lot more consistently pleasant for the last couple of years. I wake up in the morning looking forward to the day just knowing I’ll be a part of whatever it is He’s doing. And even though I know it may be hard, what matters is that it will be a part of what He’s doing. This is my chance. Today is one more opportunity to walk along with Him.

All of that has allowed me to actually experience what I know is real, grace-given, soul-deep joy.

Yet, I come to this passage, “Be joyful always,” and still my heart wrestles with the idea. In the Garden Jesus said, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death.” Paul said in II Cor 1:8, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself;” and in Philippians 2:27, speaking of Epaphroditus, he said, “Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.”  The Bible clearly doesn’t hide from the fact that life is very painful. In this world, Jesus Himself was called “a man of sorrows,” yet He calls us to “be joyful always.” My puny brain struggles to reconcile it all.

Yet I know the answer and it is Him. David said, “You have made known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand” (Ps 16:11). The face of Jesus is the face of love, the face of grace. A night sky is filled with the light of a million sparkling stars, but when the sun rises, they all disappear. So it is when the Sun of righteousness arises in our hearts. He is joy. And in His presence, nothing else really matters. The pain and the troubles may all be very real, and very painful, yet, as believers we have the freedom to say (and really mean), “For to me to live is Christ.”

Once again, how awesome is this? Jesus calls us to leave our cherished sins and follow Him and what do we get for it? Joy. Real, true, soul-deep joy. He calls us to die to ourselves, to give up our aspirations of pleasure and possessions and power. The common human perception is that He is calling us to a life of grim joylessness, of harsh self-denials – that basically we have to give up any pleasure at all. But what is the truth? The truth is that He is the only real source of joy. Giving up our dirt and straw, we find in Him the pure gold of joy.

That is what He wants for us. That is what He intends to give us. The closer we get to Him, the more of it we’ll know.

How awesome is that???

A couple of passages that I’ve enjoyed reading in these regards:

“But let all who take refuge in You be glad;
    let them ever sing for joy.
Spread Your protection over them,
    that those who love Your name may rejoice in You.
Surely, Lord, You bless the righteous;
    You surround them with Your favor as with a shield” (Ps 5:11,12).


“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

How awesome is that? He wants us to have joy.  In Him we find joy. If we don’t have enough of it, it’s because we don’t have enough of Him. More Jesus, more joy. That is our God. That is the King we serve. Awesome.

“Be joyful always.”