COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 5:16 Rejoice evermore. 17Pray without ceasing. 18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." KJV
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Living by faith involves a certain disposition, temperament, or attitude. Life is lived under the canopy of God-awareness. By this, I mean the facts that God is, and that He is a Rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, overshadow everything else. There are matters that remain prominent in the soul when the individual lives by faith. The works of God, the promises of God, and the will of God, are always brought to the forefront of thought. Christ Jesus, the Savior of the world, is the One through whom all of these things are perceived. The primary message is the Gospel, and the fundamental habitations are the "heavenly places." Apostolic exhortations are always given within the framework of these considerations. It is vital that we see this, not being distracted by "this present evil world" or things confined to the realm of flesh and blood. Our text is an example of this kind of reasoning. It is the beginning of a series of short, but pungent, exhortations. They are not laws, like those uttered from Sinai, which were contrary to the nature of those who heard them. These exhortations are in perfect accord with the new heart and spirit given to those who have believed on the Son. They are a summons for the "new creation" to rise to prominence, dominating the flesh and its various desires and expressions. If you remove eternity from your perspective, none of these exhortations make sense, and none of them are doable. The "new man" not only equips one to do these things, he cannot conduct himself in contradiction of them. This passage is nothing less than a delineation of the manner in which life in Christ is lived. To fail in these matters is to quench the Spirit and refuse Him who speaks from heaven.
" 5:16 Rejoice evermore" Other translations read, "Rejoice always," NKJV "Be joyful always," NIV and "Have joy at all times." BBE The Spirit is urging a consistent manner of behavior - one that relies upon the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the government of faith, the effectiveness of hope, and the sensitivity of love. These are words addressed to the "inner man" (Eph 3:16), where Christ dwells. They have a drawing effect upon the new nature, pulling it into prominence. They also make perfect sense in the Spirit.
REJOICE. This has no reference to fleshly joy or pleasure. It is not natural hype or excitement. Fleshly exultation is temporal, fading from prominence as soon as difficulty looms on the horizon of life. It distracts the soul from reality, and drags one into the domain of flesh and blood. Such rejoicing is never promoted in Scripture, but belongs to "the pleasures of sin for a season" (Heb 11:25). The rejoicing of our text is not induced by humor or the consideration of things that are amusingly ridiculous.
The various ways in which the Spirit speaks of rejoicing assist us in seeing its marvelous scope. We "rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (Rom 5:2). We "Rejoice in the Lord" (Phil 3:1; 4:4), and "in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:3). There is "rejoicing in hope" (Rom 12:12), as well as "in the truth" (1 Cor 13:6). To "rejoice" is to "joy in God" (Rom 5:2) and have "joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17). This is "gladness" that springs from hearing the good news of the Gospel of Christ, and is "obtained" when we are reconciled to God (Isa 35:10; 51:3,11).
Like all spiritual expressions, "rejoicing" is insightful. It is the result of comprehending spiritual realities. Because of this, the heart can "be glad with exceeding joy," even when difficult sufferings are being experienced. As it is written, "But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy" (1 Pet 4:13). This is a joy that blends with eternity, being extended and enhanced by the coming of the Lord. Any form of joy that will dissipate in the full glory of Christ must be allowed no place of prominence in the heart of the child of God.
This is not a mere exhortation to be happy in the flesh, or in a laughing state. It is not a summons to a mere pleasant demeanor. It is quite possible to be happy while dominated by unbelief. A sterling example of this is found in the reaction of Christ's disciples to the sight of the risen Christ. "When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled . . . " (Luke 24:40-41). The NRSV captures the wonder of this expression: "While in their joy they were disbelieving." Other versions read, "they still could not believe it for joy," NASB and "they still did not believe it because of joy." NIV There is a form of joy that actually inhibits faith, anchoring the soul to things that are seen rather than the unseen realities of the Kingdom. I fear that much of the contemporary enthusiasm that abounds in some church circles is this kind of joy.
Rejoicing is the eruption of joy, and is inseparably linked with faith. It is called "the joy of faith" (Phil 1:25). It comes from the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. When the "eyes of the understanding" are opened (Eph 1:18), the fountain of true joy is also opened. The heart that cannot "see" the things of God cannot truly rejoice.
Because of its relation to faith, rejoicing is also related to hope, another form of spiritual insight (Rom 5:2; 12:12; Heb 3:6). "Hope" has to do with the persuasion of "good things to come" (Heb 9:11). It peers past the confusion of appearance into "the world to come," seeing an "eternal inheritance" and a coming reign with Christ (Mk 10:30; Heb 9:15; 2 Tim 2:12). In the glow of the future God has promised to those who believe, "the sufferings of this present time" appear but weightless motes on the scales of eternity (Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 4:17).
The exhortation to "Rejoice!" is a summons to consider the marvelous glory that is to come, and the remarkable benefits that faith has brought to us now. What we have received in Christ dwarfs all of the difficulties that we experience while strangers in this world.
EVERMORE. Why does the Spirit admonish us to "Rejoice evermore," or "always"? Why not declare that there are certain times, or seasons, of the soul when rejoicing will simply happen independently of any effort from us? It would sound good, indeed, to those living on the periphery of the Kingdom, to hear of a rejoicing that descended upon us like an overpowering wind from heaven, forcing us to laugh uncontrollably and experience some sort of mystical strength. But even a fool knows that such rejoicing cannot be "always," for it renders the individual unproductive and nearly worthless to others. "Evermore" means this rejoicing is always appropriate. It also emphasizes that it comes from the focus of the heart, not by Divine imposition. In Christ, no facet of life or period of time makes rejoicing impossible! Everything about spiritual life can contribute to our joy, accenting the future and de-emphasizing temporal experiences. Thus, the joy of the Lord becomes our strength (Neh 8:10).
PRAY WITHOUT CEASING
" 17 Pray without ceasing" Other versions read, "pray continually," NIV "pray constantly," RSV "pray unceasingly," Darby and "keep on praying." NLT Here is an expression that has been greatly misunderstood. Consequently, much of what has been said concerning it has neutralized its truth, putting it beyond the reach of the saints.
WHAT IT DOES NOT MEAN. This is not an admonition to pray unendingly, as though life was a sort of continual prayer. There may be a general sense in which this is true, but that is not the meaning of our text. Not even Jesus prayed without any interruption. In Gethsemane, Jesus told His disciples, "Sit here while I go and pray over there." When He returned from that prayer, the Scripture says "went away again the second time, and prayed," and again, "went away again, and prayed the third time" (Matt 26:36,42,44). Earlier in His ministry, Jesus "withdrew Himself into the wilderness, and prayed" (Luke 5:16). Yet, of all people, Jesus Christ prayed "without ceasing."
Nor, indeed, is the admonition to merely maintain an attitude of prayer, ready, as it were, to lift up any crisis to the Lord. While such an attitude is necessary and comely, that it is not the intention of this admonition. This is speaking of prayer itself. It is not to cease.
REGULAR AND CONSISTENT. In this sense, prayer is never to be found removed from our manner of life, reserving it only for crises and great difficulties. It is to be regular, a daily part of life. The truth of the matter is that spiritual life cannot be sustained independently of meeting with God. Prayer comes in a variety of forms, all of which are essential to living by faith. These include petitions (special requests, Phil 4:6; 1 John 5:15), supplications (urgent needs or entreaties, 1 Tim 2:1), thanksgivings (insightful recognition, 2 Cor 9:12), intercessions (pleading for others, 1 Tim 2:1; 1 John 5:16), praise (perceptive acknowledgment, Heb 13:15), inquiry (Gen 25:22), etc.
Praying without ceasing is always resorting to the Lord like seeking people did during His earthly ministry (Mark 10:1). It is said of Christ's custom to go to Gethsemane with His disciples, "Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with His disciples" (John 18:2). It was a first resort, not a last one. It was a frequent one, not an occasional one. He prayed "without ceasing."
Life's circumstances must never cause the spring of prayer to dry up! Nor, indeed, can we allow our responsibilities to push prayer into the background of life. Prayer always blends with the legitimate duties of life. At the point prayer is out of order, the individual has become involved in something that is not lawful. Nothing that is right turns our eyes away from God. Everything about living by faith involves dependency upon the Lord.
NOT GIVING UP. Praying without ceasing also involves importunity, or persistence. In my judgment, this is the emphasis of this admonition.
The teaching of Jesus. In a stirring parable, Jesus spoke "to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint [or lose heart]." He told of a widow who was being treated unjustly. She resorted to "a judge," seeking to be avenged of, or get protection from, her adversary. The judge ignored her petition "for a while." However, the woman persisted in her petition until the judge finally relented saying, "I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me." The Lord then expounded the parable with these stirring words, "Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" NKJV (Lk 18:1-8).
Here, God's "elect" are depicted as crying out to Him "day and night" with no apparent relief. Instead of running quickly to their aid, the Father "bears long with them," like Jesus did with the Syrophenician woman with an afflicted daughter (Matt 15:22-28). The same type of forbearance was seen in Christ's lingering response to the cries of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). Both the Syrophenician woman and Bartimaeus persisted in their petitions, confirming it is the nature of the Lord to honor importunity, or perseverance in prayer.
Purpose in Divine delays. We must see that Divine purpose is found in what appears to be delays in answers to prayer. Persistence, or praying "without ceasing," causes faith to more fully assert itself. It summons our reasoning faculties into play, as we "order" our "cause," presenting our case to the Lord as a discerning priest (Job 5:8; 23:4). Every cause does not require persistence. A single and very brief request was uttered by sinking Peter (Matt 14:20), and the Philippian jailor as well (Acts 16:30). However, there are other times when persistence is required, as when Paul prayed about his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 12:8), or Jesus did in Gethsemane (Matt 26:39-44), or Paul in his desire for Israel to be saved (Rom 10:1). Persistence in prayer causes the flesh to lose strength and the spirit to gain it. Do not be drawn into the foolish notion that repeated prayers evidence unbelief. They often are the evidence of faith!
IN EVERYTHING GIVE THANKS
" 5:18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." The very fact that we must be exhorted to engage in thanksgiving speaks of the liabilities associated with living in the world. Like all activities related to living by faith, thanksgiving is not mechanical, or mere empty and lifeless routine.
THANKSGIVING IS RECOGNITION. Thanksgiving flows from the recognition of God's mercies and gifts. It is not possible to give acceptable thanks for something that is not, to some degree, perceived or understood. For this reason, thanksgiving abounds "to the glory of God" (2 Cor 4:15), for it is the recognition of what the Lord has done. This is why "thanksgiving" is the seasoning of all prayer. It is to prayer what "salt" was to "every sacrifice" (Lev 2:13; Mk 9:49). When, therefore, we make requests "known unto God," it is to be "with thanksgiving" (Phil 4:6). Among other things, this confirms that no circumstance of life can effectively obscure what the Lord has done in and for us. No matter how urgent the request, our minds much reach into the past and bring back an offering of thanksgiving for the things the Lord has done. Many a request is offered in futility because it lacks thanksgiving.
IN EVERYTHING. Elsewhere we are exhorted to "give thanks always for all things" (Eph 5:20), acknowledging that it is God alone with whom we have to do (Heb 4:13). However, that is not the point of this admonition. Here is yet another dimension of prayer. Thanksgiving is to be given to God "in all circumstances." NIV Whether we are on the mount of transfiguration or the furnace of fire, thanksgiving is in order - "in everything."
It seems to me that the Spirit is emphasizing the appropriateness of thanksgiving even in our trials - like the persecutions the Thessalonians were enduring. The fountain of thanksgiving can erupt in the desert of trial, like "rivers" of water "gushed" from the rock in the wilderness (Psa 78:15-16; 105:41). What hardship of life is capable of stopping the well of thanksgiving? Only the stone of unbelief can cause thanks to cease! When sorely afflicted like Job, "give thanks." When enjoying seasons of peace and prosperity like Joseph on the throne of Egypt, "give thanks." When imprisoned by your enemies like Paul, "give thanks." When you perceive the working of the Lord in your life as Jacob did, "give thanks." When your enemies are aggressive against you, as those of Daniel, "give thanks."
"IN everything, give thanks!" It will bring refreshment to your soul and joy to your heart. It will reduce your load and increase your hope. It will accent what is ahead for you, and diminish what you are going through. It will assist you in not understating the good things you enjoy now, or overstating the evil that comes upon you. "In everything, give thanks!"
GIVE. Thanks is something you "give" to the Lord. It is a sacrifice you offer to God of your own will. One of the great benefits of being in Christ Jesus, and having Him intercede for us at the right hand of God, relates to the giving of thanks. "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" NKJV (Heb 13:15). Our lips, which once spewed forth "the poison of asps" (Rom 3:13), can now be the source of thanksgiving to God. At some point, thanksgiving must find expression from our lips. Our energies must be marshaled to voice our thanksgiving to God. This is involved in yielding our members as instruments of righteousness to God (Rom 6:13). When we were in the world, we spoke sinfully, let us now speak to God with thanksgiving.
THE WILL OF GOD. It is not often that men think of God's will as giving thanks to Him. We must remember that heaven is effected by our prayers. Certain exalted "living creatures" are said to stand before the very throne of God with "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" NKJV (Rev 5:8). Here are prayers rising from the domain that had been completely dominated by the wicked one (1 John 5:19), and they are filled with insightful thanksgiving! This is a testimony to the effectiveness of God's great salvation! God wants these thanksgivings to be offered to Him by us. It is His "will." Clearly, therefore, when they are not offered, we are not in His will.
IN CHRIST JESUS. This expression means that in Christ Jesus full provision is made for the offering of thanks "in all things" or under all conditions. Christ's atoning death, empowering resurrection, and effective intercession work to this end. Nothing about salvation inhibits such thanksgiving. This not merely what God wants from us, it is what He desired to be realized through His great salvation, as implemented by His Son. This is one of the appointed outcomes of life in Christ Jesus. If that life is not quenched or neglected, thanksgiving "in all circumstances" will take place. It is the nature of the new man to engage in such lofty and satisfying activity. Among other things, that means the closer you are to the Lord, the more thanksgiving will be expressed through your lips in prayer. Be convinced that this is well pleasing to the Lord, especially when circumstances seem to be against it.