Selected highlights from this sermon.
How can we please God? How can we know His will? At the end of 1 Thessalonians, Paul gives his readers commands to follow—commands we should all follow. It is by obeying these commands, that we will not only know the will of God, we can please Him… always!
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You know there are many different ways we can categorize people. One way that we can do it is to talk about pleasant people and unpleasant people. Now of course, most of us find ourselves somewhere midway in that continuum. Sometimes we are pleasant and sometimes we are unpleasant, but today what we’re going to talk about is moving from unpleasantness to pleasantness.
What’s the difference? Well, a pleasant person is somebody who can accept circumstances and can accept others, and has a degree of optimism. But an unpleasant person is critical and self-absorbed. They can’t see beyond their immediate opinions. Oftentimes they are angry. But the problem is they see themselves as absolutely right in their perspective and they honestly believe that if people saw reality in the way in which they did that everybody would agree that they are right. And so oftentimes they are immune to change. That’s why we have to trust the Holy Spirit, don’t we, because when God points out our sins and faults we need to respond?
Now the purpose of this message actually is, first of all, to show us how to live life differently. I’ve talked about moving from being an unpleasant person to a pleasant one, but also it has to do with doing the will of God and pleasing God. After all, you do want to please God. In 1 Thessalonians 4:1 Paul says, “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.”
We learn how to please God. By the time this sermon ends today we will have learned how we can please God and how we can do His will, and in the process there’s going to be a heart renovation that’s going to take place in us. And you today who are here, I hope that you will leave differently. I hope that I will, too, because we’ve been in God’s presence and in His holy word.
Well, I want to ask you to turn to First Thessalonians 5, and I’m going to give you three commands that are given here in these verses. There are many commands but I’m simply referring to three of them. Now it’s very important to realize first of all that these are commands. You know, oftentimes it is said that we live under grace and therefore we don’t have commands. The minute we tell people that there are commands in the New Testament, they say, “Well, commands are in the Old Testament, but we are under grace today and we have no commands.” That is very false. In fact, there’s a woman here at the church who has written a manuscript on all of the commands in the New Testament, and I believe she has come up with hundreds of them, including love one another, and forgive each other, and on and on they go. These are commands that we are to obey as Christians.
You see, grace does not mean that we are not under commands. Grace means that God grants us the ability to do as we ought and gives us the ability to obey commands. So today you are receiving some commands, not from me but from God. Also, each of these commands is in the present tense. What that means is that God says you should continuously be doing these things. They should be a habit. They should be a lifestyle. They should be an attitude. And I believe these three commands have to be obeyed together. I don’t think that you can take them and say, “Well, I’m going to do one but I’m not going to do the other,” because if you do one, it shows that you are doing the other.
And now to the commands! Then what we’re going to do is to give you some assumptions that the Apostle Paul is using in this context. And finally, God is going to change us as we look into His word. Are you ready for the commands?
First of all, you’ll notice it says, “Always rejoice.” This is the way we please God now. We can please Him always. First Thessalonians 5:16 says, “Rejoice always.” It’s a command. Now we find that startling because we say, “Well, how can God cause us to rejoice or expect it from us?” because for many of us, joy is so closely tied to circumstances. We rejoice in promotions. We rejoice in an unexpected windfall of money. We rejoice in good health but how can we rejoice when we have none of those? Well, in the Bible, rejoicing and sorrow are compatible. You need to understand that.
The reason I mention that is this past week I heard a story that grips our hearts. In Europe there was a Christian couple. The husband who was in the military drove four hours from Italy to celebrate his wife’s birthday with her. It was a surprise that he was there on Sunday. And she wrote on her blog all of the things that happened and how much she loved him, and how special he was to her, and then she said, “I miss him so much that I will have to go to my happy place to endure the loneliness.” The following Thursday he was killed in a helicopter accident. I wish that I had her blog here but I do not have it. Some day I am going to download it but in it I am told she said this. “Now that my husband is dead there will never be another happy place,” and in it she spills out her soul with all of her loneliness and all of her unanswered questions, and all of her grief.
Now, if you are asking if a woman like that can rejoice, the answer is yes in the sense that joy is not incompatible with sorrow. We’re not talking about the escapism of the Eastern religions here where we pretend that sorrow doesn’t exist. No, but Jesus says that your sorrow shall be turned into joy. And in the Bible in the midst of darkness and emptiness there is at least joy in some of God’s promises, and there is hope.
The young man’s father at the memorial service said, “My son travelled to many different parts of the world and he saw many countries and places that I will never see. And now he is in a place that I have never seen – heaven – but it is the place where I will go to him, and soon I shall be there with him.”
In the midst of all of that grief, there can also be a sense of hope and a sense of joy because real joy ultimately is rooted in God. That’s why it says in the book of Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” There is a hope implanted within us by God. That’s why David said in Psalm 5, “You have put more joy into my heart than they have with wine and the grain that they harvest.” God puts it within us, which is a miracle of a supernatural work of God.
Joy, however, in the Bible is sometimes also connected to people and circumstances - not circumstances in the way in which we think but it is connected with people. For example, it says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” In other words, we can take joy in the good things that happen to other people. In Romans 16 the Apostle Paul says to the folks at Rome, “As a result of your obedience I rejoice.” So we can rejoice in others, but ultimately our joy is in God.
So the command from Scripture is, “Rejoice at all times,” and our sorrows are turned into joy. Now you can’t keep that command unless you go on to the second command. And the second command is in verse 17. “Pray always.” Now this doesn’t mean that all that we should do is pray, that we should shut everything down, and all that we should do is to spend our time in prayer. What it does mean is we don’t do anything without praying about it. Jesus said, “Men ought always to pray and not to faint,” and He said to the disciples, “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” Prayer should be a part of our lives.
Now how can we pray without ceasing though? Well it means that it should be a recurring part of our lives, and we can even pray unconsciously. The Apostle Paul here is talking about a soul that is continuously open to God. Day by day we begin the day by giving ourselves to God, by committing ourselves to Him, and then we open our lives to Him. All day long we stay connected to God. What this really means is first of all we have a sense of dependence. We recognize that we can’t get through this day without Him, so we begin the day with God. We begin the day yielding ourselves to Him and inviting His blessed Holy Spirit of God to help us because we know we can’t do it without Him.
And then there’s something else, and that is that we live in complete agreement with God about everything. Now let me speak with you very candidly. Why is it so difficult oftentimes for us to pray without ceasing? It’s because we know that if we were completely dead honest before God, there are things that are out of agreement. Our lives are not in agreement with God, which is what the word confess means. Confession means that I agree with God.
If our souls are open to Him, immediately God begins to say, “All right, it’s fine for you to be open to me and to pray, but look at this. Is there a person here you’ve not forgiven. What about that bitterness in your life? And what about that deceit in your life? And what about that dishonesty in your life? And what about the secret sins that you are committing?” And all of these things, you see, are matters, in which we must agree with God. We must say to God, “I agree that it is sin. I agree that you have the right to take it out of my life forever, and I agree that I am going to do all that I possibly can to make sure that you give me a sense of deliverance and freedom, because I agree with God.”
Now if you live that way you will be able to pray without ceasing. There are times when you are going to be in a difficulty and even with the difficulty all day long you are simply saying, “Father, this is your situation. Lord, I don’t have the wisdom to know what I am supposed to do here. Lord, this is beyond me, but I keep committing it to you because I pray without ceasing.” And parents have had the experience of having a child or a grandchild on their hearts, continually lifting that child to God, praying without ceasing. It should become a part of our attitude. It is part of a renovation of the soul.
Now there is also a third command, and that is in verse 18. “Always give thanks.” Give thanks, it says, in all circumstances. That doesn’t mean that we give thanks for all circumstances necessarily. It does mean that we give thanks in the midst of those circumstances. We can always find something for which to praise God.
I’ve used this illustration before, but it is wonderful. Matthew Henry, who was a Bible commentator who lived in a previous age, was robbed one evening as he was going home. That night he wrote in his diary his gratitude to God for four things. “First, I was never robbed before.” He was thankful for that. “Secondly, although they took my wallet, they did not take my life. Third, although they took my all, it was not very much. And fourth, I am so grateful that I was robbed and I was not the one doing the robbing.” That’s to be greatly received by God.
This morning God gave me an illustration I could apply to what Matthew Henry had to say. My wife is still with the grandchildren in Missouri and she has my car, so I drove her car today, and getting up I didn’t have any breakfast. I thought I’d stop by McDonald’s and pick up a cup of coffee and some orange juice and an Egg McMuffin without cheese, and I did that. And I took one of those cardboard trays that they gave me and I put it next to me in the seat. I didn’t realize until I arrived here at the church that the coffee had spilled all over, and the cardboard tray was soggy, and there was coffee all over the seat. And I thought, “Oh, okay, I’m supposed to thank God for this.” And I remembered Matthew Henry because I knew I was going to use this illustration, and I said, “Lord, what can I thank you for?” And I began to thank him and I said, “Lord, thank you that even though the coffee spilled, not all of it did.” I did have half a cup left. And then I said, “Lord, even though it spilled on the car seat, thank you that it did not spill on me.” Then I said, “Lord, I thank you that it was only coffee and that it wasn’t syrup.” And then I said, “And thank you, Lord, that it happened in my wife’s vehicle and not in mine.” (laughter) Well, wait till Rebecca hears about that.
Now the question is this. How can we give thanks in every circumstance? As I mentioned, we don’t give thanks for evil. The woman who lost her husband in that helicopter crash doesn’t say, “Lord, thank you that my husband was killed.” No! But what she does say is, “Thank you, Father, for your grace in the midst of this. Thank you, Father, for your grace that is going to sustain me. Thank you, Father, that even though I do not experience any comfort at this moment, I thank you that that comfort will come.”
One day I was counseling a widow whose husband died suddenly. They were very greatly in love and she was contemplating suicide. She was a Christian and she simply could not imagine going on without her husband, and so she wanted some assurance that if she committed suicide she’d go to heaven. I mean, how can you go on living? That was her thing, and I remember promising her something. I said, “If you simply live through one year one day at a time with only one responsibility each day as you wake up in the morning, and that responsibility is to get to the end of that day, and after you get to the end of that day, you get to the end of the next day, and then oftentimes the second year is more difficult, but if you do that for two years I have a promise for you. The sun will shine again. Hope will come back to you. The joy of the Lord will be your strength.” Many years later I saw her and I asked her, “Has the sun come back?” And she said, “Oh yes, the sun is shining again.”
What does the Bible say? It says, “Rejoice all the time.” It says, “Pray all the time,” and “Give thanks all the time.”
You say, “Should we give thanks for sin?” No, it does not say give thanks, as I mentioned, for every circumstance. We don’t give thanks for sin, but we do give thanks for God’s grace in the midst of sin. We thank Him for His love and His mercy toward us so that in everything we give thanks.
Many of you know that the man with whom I played tennis for 20 years died just about a year and a half ago. I visited Mark a number of different times before he died, as often as I was actually able to – at least once a week I believe. And one day I said to him, “Have you ever given thanks to God for your cancer?” I didn’t know how he would answer that, but he said, “Many times.” He said, “I thank Him every day for cancer because of the glory of heaven I have already experienced here on earth.” He said, “To me, heaven was just a concept, but now I look at it so differently. It’s a real place and a real reality and I never experienced the nearness that I now have to God before because I was so earthbound.” Wow! Give thanks in everything.
I remember reading an article that my wife gave me. I wish I had kept it. I’m not sure if it can be found. It was about a couple who had a special needs child, and they said that when this child was born their entire lives were just turned topsy-turvy, and everything was up for grabs because they loved to travel. They both had careers, and now in the midst of this, this child needed 24/7 care. And now this article was being written 15 years later when they had their first vacation in 13 years, and they said that this burden that they thought God was giving them was an incredible blessing. They said, “We thank God over and over again for this special needs child.”
“In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will in Christ concerning you,” the text says. Sometimes the will of God is thought of as something elusive. We can’t ever find it. Well, here it is. In everything give thanks.
Now what I’d like to do is to give you some assumptions that the Apostle Paul is making behind these commands
because what God wants to do, as I’ve emphasized, is to renovate our hearts. There are four of them.
First of all, Paul assumes that God supplies what He demands. He demands and requests and commands us to rejoice in all things. If that is to happen He has to supply the joy because it doesn’t come naturally. That’s why the Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, and the second fruit is joy. Joy is one of the indisputable marks of the Spirit, but God has to put it within us because it isn’t within us. He has to put it there. And if He wants us to pray He has to give us the grace and the strength to be able to do that. And if God desires that we give thanks, what He needs to do is to give us the ability to see Him from a larger perspective so that we can do that. Paul is assuming here a supernatural relationship with God with power and help from the outside. So that’s the first assumption that the Apostle Paul is making.
Paul’s second assumption is that our attitude will follow obedience. You see, because we live in America we are so feeling oriented. We think to ourselves, “Well, you know why should I give thanks, because I don’t feel thankful?” Well the answer is it is a command so you do it whether you feel like it or not.
Those of you who do housework and dislike it, whether male or female, know what that is like, don’t you? And you say to yourself, “Well, I’m going to do it whenever I feel like it,” and your house certainly looks like it, doesn’t it? And so what you do is you sit on the couch and munch chocolates, watching television, hoping that the day will come when you’ll feel like it. Well, you’ll never feel like it. The way in which you’ll get better feelings about it is to just simply do it. And these commands to give thanks, and to choose to rejoice in God (even in sorrow and when we do not understand what is happening) are in Scripture for us to do. And we don’t just wait around until we feel like doing it.
Now there may be times when we might not feel like doing them very much at all. You think of the life of Jesus who was in great sorrow in Gethsemane. Was Jesus always filled with the Spirit? Yes. Was He always bubbly and effervescent? No. There were times of great sorrow because He recognized that we do not live by feelings. We live by faith and we live by the power of the Spirit. So these are commands, and the Apostle Paul is assuming that our attitude, the renovation of heart that we’re talking about, follows the choice of obedience to give thanks in all things.
Third, Paul assumes that God is sovereign. This is critical to these commands. There was a famous theologian who would listen to young men preach in a seminary, and they would, of course, preach sermons, and that is the responsibility of professors to listen to young men who are going to be preaching some day. And this professor said that when he listened to a message what he wanted to know was how big this man’s God was. And as he would listen to the sermon he would think to himself, “Is he a big Godder, or is he a small Godder.” And that’s critical.
You see, if you say to yourself, “I have no way of believing that God can be glorified in this situation,” what you are really saying is that you believe you have no way of knowing how God can be glorified, and that God Himself doesn’t know how He’s going to be glorified in this, and therefore you cannot give thanks. You ask, “How can you expect me to give thanks for something that on the surface at least can never possibly glorify God? How can I thank Him in the midst of those circumstances?” But if you have a big view of God, you can say, “God, I don’t understand. This makes no sense. I don’t see how you are going to be glorified through this. I don’t see how my pain is going to contribute to some hidden purpose, but I believe that that is possible, so even though I don’t give thanks for sin or for sorrow per se, I thank you for the way in which you will use it. And therefore, Lord, I do give you thanks in every situation because I am going to be a thankful person.”
In everything give thanks. I’ve discovered this personally. Giving thanks just changes everything. When you are in the midst of a situation that is very trying, the minute you begin to give thanks what you are really saying to God is, “God, I believe you are bigger than this situation. I believe that you are bigger than what is happening. I believe that this is something that you can use. I believe therefore that in and through this, Your purposes are going to be accomplished. Thank you so very, very much.” And your spirit immediately begins to lift, and your attitude then begins to change, as I mentioned earlier. So Paul is assuming here that his believers in Thessalonica believed in a big God.
Finally, Paul obviously is assuming here continual openness to God. As I stressed earlier, if our lives are not open to God, and if we find ourselves closed to Him, we will never be a thankful people. And we will be the kind of people I described earlier – the unpleasant ones who are critical and angry and unable to see God in the midst of circumstances, unable to see God in the midst of human failure, whether our own or that of someone else, and all the time just looking at this earth and never taking the time of looking up.
Is it not true in Pilgrim’s Progress that there was a man like that who was sweeping floors, and all that he could do was look at the earth? He never looked up to God to see that God was greater than all of the things that sometimes drag us down. In everything give thanks, but Paul is assuming a heart change. “A new heart,” God says, “I will give you.”
In World War I there was a chaplain who was walking through a hospital (and this was a military hospital), seeing all of the men who were wounded and in various stages of recovery. And there was nothing but pessimism, gloom and despair. But as he walked through the hospital he noticed that on the table there was a bowl that was upside down, and he said to the men, “What’s in that bowl?” And they all agreed that there was nothing in it but darkness and uselessness. Then he took the bowl and he turned it right side up, and he said, “What is in the bowl now?” “Light and hope,” they said, “because now this bowl can be used for porridge or soup or something helpful. Now the bowl can bless others.” Well, you know there are people just like that bowl, living in darkness, in pessimism, and in hopelessness, and they affect the attitudes of everyone around them.
Paul says in First Thessalonians 1, “You folks at Thessalonica turned from darkness to light, from idols to God,” and Paul is assuming that transformation when he gives these commands. So I have to ask you today, have you turned from darkness to light? It says in Colossians that God transferred us from the kingdom of darkness and translates us to the kingdom of light. The bowl is turned over and it becomes a receptacle of hope and help and healing.
God wants to change us. There’s no doubt about it, and part of that change happens when we are willing to obey these commands because God says, “This is what I expect you to do and you’ll please me more and more.”
Let’s close in prayer.
Our Father, forgive our thanklessness because we know it is sin. Your word says in Romans 1 that part of the fall of humanity was that they were not thankful, and that played a great part in the fall of man into deeper sin. We ask that You will help us to see beyond the circumstances, and that we will see You at work even in times of distress and need. And even for those who sorrow, we ask, Father, that You will give them hope and the knowledge that the day will come when their sorrow will be turned into joy, and joy is their everlasting possession. Help us, Father, because we are so needy.
And now, before I close this prayer, what is it that you have to say to God today? You talk to God because He is listening.
Father, hear the prayer of Your people today. We ask that we will take these three commands and put them before us. May we write them out and put them on our desk or on the refrigerator so that we might know that this is our obligation every single day. And we shall do Your will and we shall bring You pleasure. And for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior help them, Father. May they all be turned the other way to get light and to give help we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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