11/24/13 AM, Sharon OPC
Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer
[Thanksgiving Sunday Service]
This has been a favorite passage of mine for a long time, and yet, I’m afraid
that there are times when I find it very difficult to follow. It’s a nice verse to quote when someone else is going through a trial or tribulation of some kind, but it’s an entirely different matter to “rejoice always,” and to “give thanks in all circumstances” when I’m going through some particularly difficult time. I don’t care whether it’s something small, like having to spend hours and hours trying to fix a problem with my computer; or whether it’s something big, like hearing the news that a close loved one has died, or being diagnosed with some scary disease.
The question I want to ask today is this: “How can we “Be joyful always; pray continually; [and] give thanks in all circumstances?” What should be going through our minds when our circumstances are filled with tribulations and problems of various kinds?
Suppose you’re behind on your sleep, the kids have worn you to a frazzle, your husband or wife has asked you to figure out the income taxes this year, and to top it all off, the brakes on the car go out, smashing you into the back
end of a parked car and giving you whiplash and a bunch of extra bills to pay
and insurance forms to fill out? In addition to all this, you’re constantly plagued with guilt because you’re not living up to God’s expectations of you. You’ve blown your stack at the kids one too many times, and you’ve lost your temper with your nosy brother-in-law, telling him to take a long walk off a short pier.
Under circumstances like that, how can you “Be joyful always, pray
continually; [and] give thanks in all circumstances?”
How can Paul write such things as we find in I Thessalonians 5:16-18? How can you be joyful when you’ve just flunked a test at school, the teacher has yelled at you for something someone else did (or worse, for something that you did!), and your girlfriend or boyfriend has just told you to take a long walk off a short pier? Not only that, your parents ground you when you get home because your grades aren’t up to your “potential.”
How can you rejoice in the midst of all that? How can you be joyful when
you’re sick, or in a lot of pain, or when you’ve lost your job, or when you’ve
been raped, or kidnapped, or just plain taxed to death?
Well, first of all, we have to keep in mind that these are Biblical commands. They’re not just polite suggestions!
I believe that there’s an underlying assumption that Paul makes in these verses – an assumption that underlies the whole book of I Thessalonians and colors every command, including the three commands in our text. That underlying assumption is this: God is sovereign. God is in control. And that’s where our joy and our prayers and our thanks to God must find their source!
I Thessalonians 3:2-3 says, “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them.”
Do you believe in “destiny?” I do. Oh, not the impersonal kind of destiny that the world attributes to chance or fate, but the kind of destiny where the sovereign God of creation pre-destines whatsoever comes to pass in this world.
No matter what happens in your life, the Scriptures are clear that God
destined these things for you, and you for them.
After our text, I Thessalonians 5:23-24 goes on to state, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit [or “your whole being”], [both] soul and body, be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”
God is faithful. God is in control. God is sovereign. And that’s why Paul can give these three commands without so much as blinking an eye. His first command is this:
“Be joyful always.”
When your trials come, you need to remember God’s sovereignty. Think of this: God can do anything. He’s absolutely almighty and omnipotent. He can do anything He wants.
Remember also that God is all-knowing. He’s omniscient. He’s all wise and always knows what’s best.
And then remember that this same, all powerful, all wise, and all knowing God has chosen to set His love upon us, His beloved children in Christ. God’s love is a perfect love. It’s a love that’s so great that we’re not even able to fully know and comprehend it!
And that means that God will use all of His power and all of His perfect wisdom in order to bring about His best in our lives. We can rejoice in the fact that, even in the middle of those very difficult trials in our lives, God is
working, totally and completely, for our good. As Peter puts it in I Peter 1:6-7, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” And v. 13 continues, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
“That’s what we need to be thinking about when we go through trials,” says Peter! That’s how we can experience joy, even in the midst of trials and sorrows! We need to remember that trials are given us as blessings of God to help to refine our faith. And we need to remember that wonderful, eternal inheritance that’s been reserved for us, by God’s grace. There’s a better day coming!
So God’s Word offers us joy in the midst of sorrow. The world has exactly
the opposite to offer: Sorrow in the midst of joy. Proverbs 14:13 says, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.”
The world’s joy is an empty joy that leaves an aching void inside. It’s also a joy that’s only temporary. It’s a joy that’s experienced only in this life. It’s a joy that will one day end in eternal grief and sorrow. But our temporary sorrows in this world will end in eternal joy and happiness!
James tells us, in James 1:2-3, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”
Yet, how easy it is to forget God’s sovereignty as we suffer in the midst of our
trials! Because we haven’t truly hidden this truth in our hearts as we ought, we may think that God has deserted us at the very time that He’s actually taking the most special care for our growth and maturity!
As the author of the book of Hebrews puts it in Hebrews 12:5-6, “And have you forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes [or literally, “whips”] everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.”
Isn’t that great? Even as we’re suffering, we’re being reminded of God’s
love for us and of His concern for our spiritual well-being! Whether our suffering is caused by God’s testing our faith and helping us to mature, or whether it’s being caused by God’s discipline for our sin, either way, we can rejoice in knowing that God is bringing about good for us through that suffering. In fact, He’s bringing about His best for us!
All too often, when we go through trials we tend to think that God doesn’t
love us, or that He’s turned His back on us. We think that’s why we’re not successful in our business, or that’s why we’re suffering from physical problems, or that’s why we’re going through trials on every side. But the Bible says that the exact opposite is true! We’re going through those trials because He loves us!
So when Paul says in our text, “Be joyful always,” he’s encouraging us to set our thoughts on God’s loving, sovereign care over us, and he’s encouraging us to remember that God is working out His perfect plan for our salvation through these very trials. Paul calls the trials of this life, “light and momentary afflictions.” We need to remember that these trials are only temporary, confined only to this life. One day we’ll inherit that marvelous and wonderful eternal life in glory, all due to God’s sovereign working! That’s why Paul can say, “Be joyful always!”
Paul’s second command is this:
People who truly believe that God is in control of all things have every
reason to go to God in prayer. Even though God tells us that He controls and determines all things by His wise and sovereign predestination, and that He foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, yet He also commands us
to pray. You see, it’s through the means of answering our prayers that God works out His perfect will in our lives!
But all too often, we’re all too quick to shut God out of our lives. Bitterness, anger, disappointment, fear, guilt, and resentment all tend to block out our communion with God. If we truly believe that God loves us and knows what’s best for us and is willing and able to help us, then we should be eager to “pray continually.”
In fact, God often uses our trials to force us to be more fervent in our
prayers. People who forget to pray regularly don’t seem to have as much
problem remembering to pray when they find themselves in deep
When Paul says, “pray continually,” that means that there should never be a time when we stop praying regularly. There should never be a time when we “shut God out” because we’re either too embarrassed by our guilt to come to Him, or because we’re too angry and bitter against Him to come to Him in prayer. Usually it’s those same periods of time when we “shut God out” that we also fail to “be joyful always.” We need to remember God’s sovereign control and then bring our needs and cares to Him and lay them at His feet. We need to remember that if we come to Him, humbly, and with repentant hearts, He always welcomes us into His presence, and He always answers our prayers in the best possible way for us!
Third, Paul commands:
“Give thanks in all circumstances.”
“Now wait just one minute,” you say. “In all circumstances?”
Yes, that’s what God’s Word says!
Again, it’s people who forget Who God is and what He’s done and what He’s doing for us who fail to give thanks.
You shouldn’t be able to think of even one circumstance, if you’re a
Christian, where you’re not able to give thanks to God and to be thankful to
God. Not one!
What’s the worst tragedy you can think of? I can think of no worse tragedy than sinful mankind, putting to death the perfect, loving Son of God on a shameful cross. Jesus Christ, Who left His throne in glory and Who humbled Himself to become a man in order to reveal the love of God to a
sin-darkened world, was tortured and murdered by the very people He came to help!
And yet, Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:23, could say, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
This worst of all tragedies has become our reason for the greatest rejoicing and thanks of our lives! If God can bring His good purposes to pass, even
through such a tragedy as that, surely He can bring good for us out of the
trials and tragedies we face in life as well!
Look at I Thessalonians 3:2-3 again: “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them.”
God predestined those very trials you’re now suffering! And so, it’s no surprise then, that Paul writes in 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.”
That means that, for a Christian, there’s always reason to give thanks in all circumstances. The reason is that God is sovereign. The reason is that God controls all of those circumstances for our good and for His own glory!
But now I need to ask you an important question. And your answer means
everything to the application of this text.
The question is this: Are you “in Christ Jesus”?
If you are, then “this is God’s will for you,” says Paul. God’s will for you is that you “Be joyful always,” that you “pray continually,” and that you “give thanks in all circumstances,” because God has promised to work all of the circumstances of your life for your good. If we can only remember that, we’ll always have something to rejoice about, and we’ll always have something to give thanks about!
Quite frankly, it’s not too difficult to give thanks when we’re going through
wonderful circumstances, is it? Many of us have been richly blessed in the
past year by happy circumstances, or by salary raises, or by new friends, or by good food, or by beautiful music, or by fishing, or golfing, or watching
football, and even once in awhile by seeing our teams win! – you name it.
Thanksgiving and rejoicing comes very naturally in the midst of circumstances
But many members of our congregation have “been through the mill” at various times and in various ways in the past year as well. Just one look at our Wednesday prayer list will show you what difficult trials many have been
suffering. Some have experienced health problems, financial problems,
marriage and family problems, lawsuits, serious illnesses, death of loved ones, loss of jobs, heavy pressures at work – you name it.
Add to that the normal, everyday difficulties and annoyances like flat tires and
dead batteries, computer crashes, family arguments, and naughty kids who pour grape juice on the sofa or flush toys down the toilet.
We may have to suffer from brother and sister squabbles, hammered thumbs or stubbed toes, or even a simple thing like the Miami Dolphins or the Miami
Hurricanes getting beat by their opponents. I know that sounds funny to
some of you, but many people actually go through a brief period of grief and depression when their team loses a big game!
If you look back over your life, my guess is that the times you grew the most,
spiritually, the times that you prayed the most, and the times you leaned upon the Lord the heaviest, are exactly those times when you were in the worst trials.
But isn’t it great to know that God controls all such circumstances in our lives for our good, if we’re “in Christ Jesus”? As Christians, we need to look through all of these circumstances in our lives. We need to see the hand of our sovereign God Who is behind them all, working them all for our good. It’s only when we remember God’s sovereign, wise, and loving plan for us – only then will we be able, with Paul, to “be joyful always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.”
May His wonderful Name be exalted and thanked and praised in our hearts every single day of our lives as He works to bring each one of us to eternal