Year B Advent 3 15/12/02 6 p.m. 1 Thess. 5:16-24
16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Do not put out the Spirit's fire; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
Colin Chapman, in "The Case for Christianity," quotes Ugandan bishop Festo Kivengere's account of the 1973 execution by firing squad of three men from his diocese:
February 10 began as a sad day for us in Kabale. People were commanded to come to the stadium and witness the execution. Death permeated the atmosphere. A silent crowd of about three thousand was there to watch.
I had permission from the authorities to speak to the men before they died, and two of my fellow ministers were with me. They brought the men in a truck and unloaded them. They were handcuffed and their feet were chained. The firing squad stood at attention. As we walked onto the centre of the stadium, I was wondering what to say. How do you give the gospel to doomed men who are probably seething with rage?
We approached them from behind, and as they turned to look at us, what a sight! Their faces were all alight with an unmistakable glow and radiance. Before we could say anything, one of them burst out: "Bishop, thank you for coming! I wanted to tell you. The day I was arrested, in my prison cell, I asked the Lord Jesus to come into my heart. He came in and forgave me all my sins! Heaven is now open, and there is nothing between me and my God! Please tell my wife and children that I am going to be with Jesus. Ask them to accept him into their lives as I did." The other two men told similar stories, excitedly raising their hands, which rattled their handcuffs.
I felt that what I needed to do was to talk to the soldiers, not to the condemned. So I translated what the men had said into a language the soldiers understood. The military men were standing there with guns cocked and bewilderment on their faces. They were so dumbfounded that they forgot to put the hoods over the men's faces!
The three faced the firing squad standing close together. They looked toward the people and began to wave, handcuffs and all. The people waved back. Then shots were fired, and the three were with Jesus. We stood in front of them, our own hearts throbbing with joy, mingled with tears. It was a day never to be forgotten. Though dead, the men spoke loudly to all of Kegezi District and beyond, so that there was an upsurge of life in Christ, which challenges death and defeats it.
The next Sunday, I was preaching to a huge crowd in the hometown of one of the executed men. Again, the feel of death was over the congregation. But when I gave them the testimony of their man, and how he died, there erupted a great song of praise to Jesus! Many turned to the Lord there.
Today's epistle is about how we are to live as we prepare to be with Jesus. What we are to do is inspired by God the Holy Spirit who lives within every believer. This does not mean, however, that we do not have to co-operate with the Spirit, as evidenced by the warning not to put out the fire of the Spirit, verse 19.
16 Be joyful always; Some people are more cheerful than others. People are likely to be happier when things are going well for them. But this is different from joy. Joy is a free gift from God. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, something occurring naturally through what God has done and is doing in us. Therefore, it does not depend on outward circumstances. So Christians can be joyful even when suffering. 1: 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. We can see from this that joy is linked to the salvation that is ours in Jesus. It is a quiet but nevertheless secure confidence that we are in God's hands. That He is working in our lives by His Spirit, making us more like Jesus.
This joy is, I am sure, linked to the 'peace' mentioned in verse 23 which is also one of the nine fruit of the Spirit. Just as it is within the nature of an healthy apple tree to produce apples. So it is in the divine nature of a believer to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control ( Galatians 5:22f ).
17 pray continually; Traditional Jewish worship involved prayers in the temple at 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and sunset. However, this is referring to much more than formal prayers in a place of worship. It does not mean that we are to spend every moment of our knees either. It is referring to a continuous communication with God all of the time. An awareness of His presence. A willingness to listen to what he is saying.
We can pray in different ways. This will include praising God for who He is, worshipping Him, thanking Him for what He has done, praying for oneself and for others. As we go through the day we can, perhaps silently: thank God for something as it occurs to us; ask for God's wisdom and guidance as we have to make a difficult decision; pray for someone or a situation - for example when we hear the siren of an emergency vehicle we can say a quick prayer for those who are in it and the people and situation they are going to;
Paul followed his own advice. We read of his prayer for the Thessalonians in verse 23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although the second letter to the Thessalonians is Paul's shortest letter to a church, it contains four of his prayers which show his concern for them.
Paul mentions thanksgiving in the next verse, 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. People normally give thanks when things are going well in their lives although, perhaps , many would actually take things for granted and not give thanks at all! Sometimes it is only when things go wrong when God is considered and then He is blamed.
For the Christian life is different. We recognize that God is sovereign and that he will use circumstances to bring us on in our faith. Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Life with God is about becoming more like Jesus who was "made perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10). If God used suffering to fashion His own Son, why should He not also use it to mold Christians? We are to be continually thankful in all situations. That God is in control. That He loves us. That He has saved us, even though we do not deserve it. That He is working for our eternal good. These things are true whatever our circumstances.
Even though we may not feel like it we are to 18 give thanks in all circumstances. Why? for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. We are to do it for no other reason than it is God's will.
Mother Teresa told this story in an address to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994: "One evening we went out, and we picked up four people from the street. And one of them was in a most terrible condition. I told the sisters, "You take care of the other three; I will take care of the one who looks worst." So I did for her all that my love could do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand as she said two words only: "Thank you." Then she died.
I could not help but examine my conscience before her. And I asked: What would I say if I were in her place? And my answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself. I would have said, "I am hungry, I am dying, I am in pain," or something. But she gave me much more; she gave me her grateful love. And she died with a smile on her face." Gratitude brings a smile and becomes a gift.
19 Do not put out the Spirit's fire; In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit is represented by tongues of fire, showing the power and purifying ability of God's Spirit. We don't know exactly what problem Paul was addressing here. He is clearly concerned about Christians not letting the Spirit work in their lives. It could be that they were being religious and trying to do things in their own strength. Verses 20f seem to suggest this. 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything.
Prophecy is a word from God to a particular situation. It does not have to include a prediction of what will happen. In some circumstances, however, it may involve a warning that if people do not repent then God will judge them in a certain way. Alternatively it can have a more positive message. 1 Corinthians 14:3 But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.
Reading between the lines in verses 20 and 21 we can envisage a situation where prophecy, and perhaps other 'gifts of the Spirit' were being ignored or ridiculed in the Thessalonian church. However, Paul doesn't want prophecy to be glibly accepted either. So he tells them to 21 Test everything. How is what is claimed to be a word from God to be tested? Paul doesn't specify this but we can be sure that the prophecy is consistent with what we know about God and his character as revealed in the Bible. So, if someone brought a "prophecy" that I should run away with Cameron Diaz then this would have to be rejected because I am married and God doesn't approve of adultery.
A second test is of common sense. God has given us brains and we are to use it. So, if someone brought a "prophecy" that I should run away with Cameron Diaz then this would also have to be rejected on the "common sense" grounds that (1) she lives in America and we have never met and (2) even if we had met she wouldn't want to run away with me!
22 Avoid every kind of evil. It may be that the Thessalonian Christians were engaging in conduct that was and is inappropriate for a believer. Or it could be that rejecting prophecy that has been tested is evil. The Modern King James' version translates this verse, perhaps more literally, "Abstain from every appearance of evil. " This seems to suggest that this is a more general prohibition of anything that is against God's perfect will. It also conveys the idea that not only should believers not do evil, but they should also be seen to avoid anything that may appear to be wrong.
About thirty years ago my father and I were sleeping overnight in a large marquee type tent on the North Norfolk coast. The next day we would be joined by the 'Holiday Club' from our church, but we had arrived early to set the tent up and guard the not inconsiderable amount of food that was stored inside. That night it was windy. It was so windy that it got inside the tent and started to fill it so that the tent poles that were supporting the perimeter started to lift up in the air! So, lit by torches my father and I were rushing around the tent in the early hours of the morning, hanging on to the tent and its poles to ensure that it did not blow away!
As well as avoiding evil we are to 21b. Hold on to the good. Katecho ( kat-ekh'-o ) means to have, hold (fast), keep (in memory), possess, retain, seize on, stay, take, withhold. We are to cling on to the good, like me and my Dad and the tent.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God has made peace between sinful humankind and himself. He gives that peace as one of those nine fruit of the Spirit I listed earlier. Peace is the presence of God, not the absence of conflict. It is a serenity based on a firm trust in God and the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus. Christ brought, preached, and is our peace.
Ephesians 2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Sanctify means to 'make holy' or 'set apart for the service of God'. The fact that Paul had just encouraged his readers to 'hold on to the good' seems to suggest the former. However, the use of 'blameless' does not suggest that believers are expected to achieve moral perfection this side of glory. But, when everyone is judged by Jesus, those who are his true disciples will be seen as blameless because they will be clothed in Jesus' perfection, not encumbered by their own sin which he bore for them on the cross.
It is God who will sanctify believers by the work of His Spirit. It is God who through the death of His Son and the work of His Spirit will allow them to appear 'blameless' before Him, and, therefore, able to spend eternity in the presence of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Sanctification consists of us becoming more like Jesus and less attached to the world. It is to be a progressive, continuing way of life for every believer. There is no room in God's kingdom for those who think that they are good enough or have done enough.
24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
We have seen how believers depend upon God for their salvation and sanctification. Verse 24 reminds us that this is rooted in God's faithfulness and, therefore, we can depend upon it. God is in control of history, including our lives and the end of the world. He has called believers to follow Him. Therefore, we can have a confidence that He has things under control. Like Magnus Magnusson, host of 'Mastermind, 'I have started so I will finish'.
God has started something in our lives. Let us not dampen the work of the Spirit. Let us reject evil, cling on to what is good. Let us keep going in the strength and power of God the Holy Spirit so, when he returns, God the Son can present us as blameless to God the Father. Whether that be tonight or in 3002.
On his deathbed, British preacher Charles Simeon smiled brightly and asked the people gathered in his room, "What do you think especially gives me comfort at this time?" When they all remained silent, he exclaimed, "The creation! I ask myself, 'Did Jehovah create the world or did I?' He did! Now if He made the world and all the rolling spheres of the universe, He certainly can take care of me. Into Jesus' hands I can safely commit my spirit!"
Hudson Taylor, founder of China Inland Mission, in the closing months of his life said to a friend, "I am so weak. I can't read my Bible. I can't even pray. I can only lie still in God's arms like a little child and trust."
We are called to trust Him and let Him to the rest.