31. Avoid Evil

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  31. Avoid Evil

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

Now this third and final instruction may sound so obvious that we might be tempted not to consider it, but it is the other side of the coin. You may have heard the expression, “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.” The implication behind these two verses almost seems to say, hold firmly onto good or evil may creep in.  To say avoid something means to steer clear of it . Now that can mean that we need to keep away from evil when we see it before us, or be careful that evil doesn’t make its way into your life.

I always remember an illustration of going too close to evil given by a preacher. He said that some people are like a cow he saw grazing in a field and it had its head under the bottom strand of an electric fence. It was just seeing how far it could go without getting electrocuted! The wise Christian doesn’t do that but steers well clear of the fence. Now I am not one who usually says you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that but where there are places or situations in life where you could be led astray, my advice is stay away! Samson was a man who thought he could stretch his boundaries with God and look where he ended up (Jud 16:30)   Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, had the opportunity to capitalise out of his master’s work and ended up with leprosy (see 2 Kings 5:20-27). He allowed himself to be led into evil.

Perhaps we should pause and consider, ‘what is evil’ and what does ‘evil’ mean? A dictionary definition includes, “anything morally bad or wrong; wickedness; depravity; sin; anything that causes harm, pain, misery, disaster.” So we then have to ask what is ‘wrong’ and we have to say anything that is contrary to God’s character and His design for Creation i.e. anything that is contrary to His perfect will. Good is that which conforms to His character and His perfect will. Now because there is freedom of will in angels and humans, behaviour is possible that is contrary to His character and to His perfect will, and THAT is evil. So murder is evil, theft is evil, adultery is evil, lying is evil. Anything that is Sin is evil.

Evil is expanded upon a little in the Law: “if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God…..” (Deut 4:25) ‘Corrupt’ here means being changed from a good thing into a bad thing, being changed from a faithful people to an unfaithful people. That is evil. Making idols to replace God is evil. Moses, referring to this same thing, later put it slightly differently: “all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD’s sight,” (Deut 9:18) where sin and evil are seen as the same thing. Turning away from God is shown as evil (e.g. Deut 13:6-11): Moses made that abundantly clear again and again: “For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD.” (Deut 31:29)

Solomon, despite having started so well, ended up badly: As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done.” (1 Kings 11:4-6) In those verses we see the steady decline and growth in evil: a heart not fully devoted to the Lord, took many foreign wives, allowed them to turn his heart even further, tolerated and then followed their idols and gods thus fully turning away from God. All of these things were examples of evil.

So many times in the Old Testament  the condemnation of a king was that he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and when you look at what he did it is summed up by, he turned away from God and turned to the ways of the world and worshipped idols.  Do you see why the meditation  ‘10. Facing Idolatry’ was so important?

When that happens we find specific behaviour in respect of others also becomes corrupt and described as evil. Consider: “You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother’s son.” (Psa 50:19,20) Speech there is considered evil, because it involves deceit and slander. This absence of truth is emphasised even more in another psalm: “Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.” (Psa 52:1-3)  But is it not only wrong speaking: “Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day.” (Psa 140:1,2) No, acts of violence, anything done physically against another is evil. Words and actions that follow ungodliness, are all evil.

So maybe now we see the importance of this instruction to “Avoid every kind of evil.” We have seen evil starts by turning away or rejecting God and turning to place reliance on other things. That is godlessness which always leads to idolatry.  But that is soon expressed in unrighteousness which may be words and/or deeds that are self-centred and godless and harmful to others. This call by Paul in the last of these instructions we are going to consider screams out to us – “Stay away from any thought or word or behaviour that is turning way from God and leads into destructive and harmful behaviour. You were not saved for that!”  It is a strong call, far stronger than we might have thought at first sight. May we hold on to these things and let them remain as warning to us as we finish with this letter in this particular series of meditations.

30. Hold the Good

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  30. Hold the Good

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

I have a horrible feeling we take good for granted and don’t realise that it is something precious and to be held on to. When you talk about holding on to something there is a sense of clinging on to it to make sure you don’t drop or lose it. 

Consider things that are ‘good’: love, peace, quietness, security, safety, warm relationships, stable relationships, honouring and respecting people, absence of upset and hurt, honesty and integrity, freedom from crime, freedom from violence, being able to look back and be thankful, being able to look into the future with confidence. Look at so much of modern life in the West and realise the absence of so many of these things. When we were a child our parents kept us free from worry and so many of the above list were true for us, but in so many modern single-parent homes (and two-parent homes) these things are so often absent.

Before Christ, before we received our salvation, the apostle Paul quoted from the Old Testament, All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Rom 3:12) In other words, outside of Christ we have little expectation of finding good, real selfless, godly good, being expressed. Indeed Paul was to go on and declare in a more personal way, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” (Rom 7:18) Later on in the practical section of that same book he gave the same instruction that we find here: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good,” (Rom 12:9) and in the closing chapter, “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” (Rom 16:19)  Paul’s understanding sharply contrasts with today’s relativistic ramblings where few are able to say, yes there is good and yes there is evil and we know the difference.

But good for the Christian is not just an idea, it is a practical reality. Again Paul was to say to the Galatians, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal 6:9,10) Some versions in verse 9 have ‘well-doing’ for the NIV’s ‘doing good’ which is another nice way of putting it. The verse 10 reference is clearly to good deeds. In Ephesians he reminds us that, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,” (Eph 2:10) and of the Colossians he said, “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work.” (Col 1:10) Similarly there is Jesus’ teaching, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) 

Again and again the emphasis is not merely on working but doing good in what you do. Goodness is seen, goodness reveals who we are.  When speaking about the widows to be cared for by the church under Timothy’s oversight, Paul described the qualifications of those to be looked after as, “well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” (1 Tim 5:10)  There are some very practical ways of doing good. When speaking to Titus about the qualities of overseers (elders) he said, “he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” (Titus 1:8). Indeed eight times in that letter Paul refers to ‘doing good’.

Indeed we see there the real heart of this call: “Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:13,14) Jesus came to deliver us out of a life of self-centred and godless evil into being those whose life is characterized by doing good, by being good, by being eager to do good. Paul is very specific about it: “I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” (Titus 3:8)

The writer to the Hebrew understood this as well when he wrote about us maturing and receiving good teaching: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:14)  That is what teaching should do, help us understand the difference between good and evil. Echoing Paul’s teaching about good deeds following, James taught, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (Jas 3:13)  Peter also echoes that earlier teaching about good deeds being seen: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet 2:12)

Later on Peter quotes psalm 34 to emphasis this same thing: “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Pet 3:10,11)  The apostle John echoes so much of this in his third letter: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God.” (3 Jn 11). Remember also, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23(+). Goodness comes from God and is to be seen in His people. Good is not only a concept but it is also a practice and it is a vital one that needs restoring to the church in the twenty-first century so that the world may see and believe and be blessed, but it needs working at. May it be so!

29. Test Everything

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  29. Test Everything

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

The temptation here is to take all three instructions and treat them as one. I have the feeling that if we do that we will miss much, so let’s simply start with “Test everything” and see where we go.  That this follows a concern about prophecies must suggest initially that it may apply specifically to prophecies. Testing prophecies is indeed a subject that arises in the New Testament: Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” (1 Cor 14:29) and “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.” (1 Cor 14:32) Whatever else these verses say, they say that prophecies should be checked or weighed. We may also add that any ‘word’ that brings teaching that is contrary to the teaching of the Bible is false.

The danger that comes for those who might be in that band that we considered earlier as quenching the Spirit by denying He works in such ways today and then by treating prophecies with contempt, is that ‘testing’ becomes a tool for unbelief. Testing is a subject that comes up a number of times in the Bible and by this we do not mean the testing that is equated with trials, testing that God brings to strengthen us.

No, testing is referred to in the Old Testament a number of times as an attitude and behaviour that expressed unbelief in respect of the Lord. The Psalmist refers back to Israel’s behaviour in the wilderness: “They wilfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the desert?” (Psa 78:18,19). The apostle Paul echoed this: “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did–and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did–and were killed by the destroying angel.” (1 Cor 10:9,10) The ‘testing’ referred to there is clearly an expression of unbelief.

We must distinguish between testing that is unbelief and times when the Lord challenged His people to ‘test’ or prove Him in some manner, for example, “Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” (Isa 7:10-12) There the Lord invited Ahaz to ask for a sign (?like Gideon?) but Ahaz was not secure enough in God to respond. Through Malachi we see the Lord saying test or prove me: “Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (Mal 3:10)  Those sorts of test were actually positive, stepping out in faith at God’s instigation and finding He was faithful to His word. That is a different slant on the word meaning ‘prove by confirmation of faith.’

In the New Testament we find various other injunctions to test things, for example, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves,” (2 Cor 13:5) i.e. check out the reality of your faith. Then there is, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions,” (Gal 6:3,4) i.e. check the reality of who you are and where you are in the Faith and realise that all you are is from God. The similar call, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup,” (1 Cor 11:28) is to check yourself out before God and ensure you are holding right attitudes and behaviour.

The call to “test everything” goes beyond prophecy. It is a call to be aware of what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. One of the condemnations of the Old Testament was that the people had been blurring truth and reality, blurring right and wrong and it is what we find in today’s relativistic ethics: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isa 5:20)

There is also the testing of people. We should not take people at face value: “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7) This is why there is the gift of “distinguishing between spirits,” (1 Cor 12:10) which reveals the origin of what comes from a person – from God, from purely human selfish  thinking, or from the enemy. The apostle John said, “The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 Jn 2:4) This was a whole area that concerned John, false ‘believers’, those who said one thing but did another: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.” (1 Jn 2:9) Indeed he kept on coming back to it: “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning,” (1 Jn 3:7,8) and, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” (1 Jn 3:10)

Finally John hits this subject firmly on the head: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (1 Jn 4:1-3)  THIS is why we have to “test everything”. It is because we are in a spiritual battle and the enemy uses lies and deception to seek to lead God’s people astray. May we not be so lead!

28. Care with Prophecy

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  28. Care with Prophecy

1 Thess 5:20   do not treat prophecies with contempt.

The reason we said in the previous meditation  that we would not look forward linking this verse with the previous one but wait and look back linking it, is that the attitude that quenches the Spirit comes first and because of the attitude, people then treat prophecies with contempt. First they say, “God doesn’t move like this today,” and then they say, “(So) We don’t believe in the prophetic gift.” Both are unbelief and both come out of insecurity and fear.

What does it mean to “treat prophecies with contempt”? Well, first it means to declare that prophecies cannot happen and then, second, it is a denying of specific words. It is also, of course, challenging the person with the gift to say they are deluded. So let’s consider what the New Testament says prophecy does: everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3)  Strengthening, encouragement and comfort? One cannot complain about those things surely? Aren’t each of those three things good, things for building up the body?  Remember what we said in the previous meditation, that people who quench the Spirit write off all the gifts of the Spirit seen in 1 Cor 12 as things no longer needed since the completion of the Scriptural canon, so any words of revelation are denied, including words or wisdom or words of knowledge.

Let’s take an extreme case for those of us living in the West, but not so extreme if you are a Christian in some other parts of the world. Suppose persecution hits even harder and some of your family are thrown into prison. At this point the evangelical Spirit-quenchers try to bring words of encouragement through words of Scripture. “Oh, the apostle Paul warns that anyone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12)” Well as true as that is that doesn’t do much to strengthen, encourage or comfort. When such people then scratch around and try and apply various scriptures, they are in fact saying, “God says these things to you,” which may not be as dynamic but they are in effect claiming divine mandate in exactly the same way as someone exercising the gift of prophecy does.

But supposing someone brings you a word that says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.”  Now that does bring strengthening because a) it claims to come from God who is on your case and b) He warns about something coming, indicating He knows all about it and c) it will not last long. Now of course you know I have taken the verse of Rev 2:10  to illustrate this but if this was a ‘now word’ for you who were living in a land of persecution that WOULD be strengthening, encouraging and comforting. The fact that it is a ‘now word’, a word that applies right now to this unique situation, brings strength, encouragement and comfort in a special way.

The fundamental question we have to ask such people is, “Do you deny that the God who communicates with people right the way throughout the Bible, no longer communicates? Does the presence of a written testimony and teaching (the Bible) mean that God’s character and personality have changed so that He no longer wishes to speak directly to people? When you stop to think about it seriously, you are actually challenging the very Being of God Himself. Imagine a father whose child has grown up saying, “I no longer speak to him/her any longer because I taught them everything they need to know throughout their childhood.”  How silly is that! You deny the very essence of fatherhood which is to communicate with your children – as long as you and they are alive! God is no different! He is our Father and He still loves to speak to His children!

May I give some examples. Over the years I have had the privilege of being permitted to bring the following words. I have been warned by God of a leader’s impending death, so it wouldn’t come as a shock to me and that I could warn his son to put right his faulty relationship with his father before it was too late.(He died within three months).  I have told a couple who had been told they would remain childless that they would have a child within a year. (They did). I told a middle aged lady who had given up any hope of ever getting married that she would be married within eighteen months. (She was.) Now please understand, I intensely dislike bringing such words as these last two, because if I am wrong I am playing with people’s deepest feelings and bringing unfounded hope which only brings further hurt if not fulfilled. When you understand the pastoral dynamics of such things, you never bring words casually.

I give these examples simply to illustrate the concept of bringing strength, encouragement and comfort through the prophetic word. The prophetic word releases faith in people that is specific in such a way that it goes even beyond preaching, which I hold in the utmost respect for releasing faith. Yes, faith is risky, yes people can get it wrong, and yes churches may not handle it well, but that is true of all aspects of Christian life. People do take words of scripture out of context and wrongly apply them to their lives to justify wrong attitudes (the slavery movement accepted by Christians was the classic example of this), but merely because some get it wrong should not mean we quench the Holy Spirit. Prophecy releases vision, confirms calling and gifting and sets people up to serve God in ways that nothing else does. When God speaks a word to me about me, that is revelation. When He speaks information about the state of another person that is knowledge. When He speaks a word about their state and then brings understanding, purpose and direction about them to be conveyed to them to strengthen, encourage and comfort them, that is prophecy, and we are foolish if we treat such words with contempt!

27. Quenching the Spirit

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  27. Quenching the Spirit

1 Thess 5:19   Do not put out the Spirit’s fire;

There is a temptation to link this verse with the one that follows about prophecy and although that could be of value, we’ll look at that verse and then link it back in the next meditation, but for the moment we will not link forward but simply consider this short little verse as it stands.

Older versions says, “Do not quench the Spirit”, but they say the same thing. Quench does seem to give the picture better, though, of dampening down the Spirit’s fire. There is an implication in this that God’s Holy Spirit will be burning in us and in the local church. What does that say to us? Well when the Spirit came in fire upon the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, He came with the sound of a mighty wind and whether it was the wind or the fire, suddenly new life burst forth and they all spoke with tongues praising God in the languages of the listeners who had come there to Jerusalem from many different lands. The presence of fire reminded us that normally the fire of God burns up sin and unrighteousness, destroying what is bad or evil, but on that day He rested on the heads of each person and they were not destroyed or even burnt a little bit. It was a sign of His presence with them in His most holy form but without them being destroyed, indicating the outcome of the wonderful work of Christ on the Cross. The Cross saved them from being destroyed by the holy fire of God.

And so today we have this same Holy Spirit living within us and Paul’s inference is that He will be burning within us. Now fire was also used to create heat or energy and used to be the means of energising turbines to create electricity. Today we still have coal fired power stations or atomic power stations with nuclear fuel, but the picture is still the same – the Spirit fuels our energy, He fuels the life of the Church, He burns to release creativity and new life.  Now Paul also warns that we can grieve Him (Eph 4:30) but that is more about offending His holy sensibilities by our wrong thoughts or words or even actions.  This present picture is more about us stopping His work, putting Him down, hindering or even rejecting His work.

So fire is energy and energy does work to achieve an end outcome. The Holy Spirit is constantly working in and through us and around us, to achieve the end outcome of God’s will that we considered in the previous meditation. If, therefore, we put out the fire of the Holy Spirit we are working against the will of God. How terrible! But what is the Spirit likely to be doing that we are likely to react against? Well, of course the most obvious things have got to be those things found in 1 Cor 12 – the gifts of the Holy Spirit – or even those things found in Eph 4 – the gifts of ministries. If we say, “Well those gifts are not for today, we deny that the Holy Spirit can bring wisdom (the knowledge of how to do something), knowledge (previously unknown information), supernatural faith (faith that stands in the face of the materialistic odds) healings, miracles, words of revelation for the future  or even the ability to discern the spirit operating in a person.  Each of those things are things that God uses to extend and build His kingdom but some say they are not for today. How foolish. So often, I suspect, people reject the 1 Cor 12 gifts outright because they are uncomfortable with tongues and they talk of excesses, but in so doing they write off the workings of God, they quench the Spirit and put out His works.

And then there are Eph 4 ministries. Some people are comfortable with the idea of evangelists, pastors and teachers because they can cope with that idea but apostles and prophets speak of authority in their eyes and they get scared at that thought and deny they are for today and thus deny the church the gifting of the wise and power-anointed church builder and the bringer of heavenly direction or correction, and in so doing they quench the Spirit.

Why do we do these things? Fear! And fear comes from lack of confidence in God’s love. Yes, it may come from, having observed bad uses of the gifts or ministries but merely because some human beings get it wrong, that shouldn’t mean we flee from the gifts for in so doing we also shy away from the Giver. How much better to seek the Lord for wise teaching how to minister graciously and in humility and put in safeguards to stop the human enthusiasm of people running amok.

But it may not be just about gifts. It may also be – and far more commonly – whenever the Holy Spirit seeks to lead us as an individual to step out in faith, whether that be to share the Good News of Jesus with another by word, or to share His love in some practical way with another. We shy away from such things because of lack of security in God’s love, not being sure that we can do these things, even when he prompts, or we listen to the enemy and fear the consequences thinking either, this won’t work, or what will I get myself into? In other words focusing on self (what others think of me, or what I will end up having to do) is at the heart of quenching the Spirit. We need to remember that whatever God leads us into He will also provide the enabling for, and the outcome will be good. But supposing it doesn’t work, I hear you wondering.  Well remember, John Wimber famously said faith is spelt R-I-S-K. All real faith is that. We hear God, or think we might be hearing Him, and then we step out; that is faith.

There will be times when we get it wrong and it wasn’t God or we only part heard Him. He’s not going to kick you out of the kingdom because you sought to do His will, even if you got it wrong. He knows your heart. The more you step out, the more you will get it right.   I am convinced the Spirit is quenched again and again in Christian lives because of fear and because of lack of security in God’s love. The Cross is there to deal with the times we got it wrong and were self-focused, but more often it is likely to be the Spirit – if we are listening – who will be there prompting us, encouraging us to step out to enlarge the kingdom of God. Learn to listen. Learn to step out. DO God’s will and He will be glorified. May it be so.

26. God’s Will for you

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  26. God’s Will for You

1 Thess 5:16-18   Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

These is still one part of this verse that we have not yet covered: for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It may look fairly obvious but we should not take it for granted. These things that Paul has been speaking about are God’s will for us, the things God wants for us, the way He has designed us to be. We speak so easily of ‘God’s will’ but perhaps we should examine it carefully.

God’s will is His particular desire, purpose, pleasure, choice, which may be expressed in respect of us as a command or decree. But what determines God’s will? Why does He purpose one thing as against another?  The whole thing must come back to His character, His very being. Now in previous studies we have noted two things about God: first, He is love, and second, He is perfect. This means that everything God wants, desires, purposes or decrees must be good for it comes out of love but, more than that, it is perfect and cannot be improved upon. Hence Paul spoke to the Romans about His “good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom 12:2)

Now in the meditation on giving thanks we spoke of God’s ‘permissive’ will. We said His loving wisdom has given mankind free will and therefore whatever takes place – including all bad things – come within His permissive will. He permits it for the sake of granting us free will.  Now we should not think that ‘permissive’ means less than perfect. Consider, would God rather we had not sinned? Would He rather Jesus didn’t have to go to the Cross? Would He rather never bring judgment? I am sure the answer is yes to all those questions but because in His perfect design, for love to operate with meaning (and He is love, expressing love and wanting to generate or bring about opportunity for more love) He made us with free will and permitted those things to follow, but they were the perfect responses or outworkings of that free will and the plan of salvation is perfect, which means it cannot be improved upon. The biggest mystery starts with God Himself, the mystery of love, this benign attitude towards all else that wants the best for them. Why IS He love? We don’t know, but He is and EVERYTHING else flows out of that.

Everything He thinks is an expression of love and is perfect, so when He thought of the world to be – including human beings capable of receiving and giving love, they had to be beings with free will, for love only operates within such a state. His ultimate goal is a people who will love Him but without coercion, and we do that only when we have fallen in sin, realised our terrible state, and received His forgiveness through the Cross and been united with Him by His Spirit. At the end we are redeemed beings, but beings who love Him without coercion.  This is His ultimate will, He ultimate desire and everything else is subservient to that, He creates a world of beings united with Him who receive and return His love, and between whom that love flows.

So what do we have this side of eternity, here in the years we have on this earth? We have the start of that eternal life, a life linked to Him by His Spirit, a life where love starts to flow and grow, starts to overcome the Sin that previously bound us.

To understand this more fully we have to appreciate the difference between what we HAVE been made and what we ARE BEING made. One is a matter of standing and the other is a matter of outworking. For example the writer to the Hebrews said,by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Heb 10:14) To the Romans Paul said, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom 5:9) In each case there is the present standing (or reality) set against the future outworking which will be completed in each case when we come face to face with Him.

The point I need to make more strongly is that although we have been established as God’s forgiven children, the outworking of us learning to live as His children will now take up the rest of our lives. We are helped to apprehend that new life by realizing who we now are, but that is only part of it. We are also helped to take hold of that new life as we relate to God by His Spirit in us,  and receive guidance through His word how to live. Thus all the things Paul has been seeking to convey to the Thessalonians have been part of God’s design for us new beings, part of His will for us. Everything you read in the New Testament is about this – bringing you and me into the fullness of sonship. It is what He is working for and what he wants us to be working for.

Paul spoke of this: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” (Col 1:28,29) Note the order: teaching – presenting as perfect – working empowered by the Spirit. We ARE perfect in His sight and He is working to change us to become perfect in daily outworking. THIS is His will for you, to realise who you ARE and who you ARE BECOMING, to rejoice in the first and to work for the second. Hallelujah!

25. Giving Thanks

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  25. Giving Thanks

1 Thess 5:16-18   Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I have in these last two meditations (somewhat with tongue in cheek, I confess) been starting from a point of cynicism, because that is what this verse can evoke in a shallow person. The response could easily be, “Be joyful always? You must be joking! Pray continually? That’s not possible! Give thanks in all circumstances? That’s not real!” That’s what a surface understanding of these verses could evoke, which is why we need to pause up and consider more fully each part of the verse. Thus we arrive at the third of these mini-commands.

So, yes, how is it possible to “give thanks in all circumstances,” when sometimes circumstances can be very bad. Well note, straight away, two things: first Paul doesn’t say, “Give thanks for the circumstances,” and second, he doesn’t say what to give thanks about while you are in those circumstances.

There was a brand of teaching going around a number of years ago (and it may still survive in some quarters) that taught “Give thanks for all circumstances,” and it was based on only a part understanding of what we will consider in the second part. Should we thank God that a loved one is being unjustly imprisoned and tortured, which will be happening somewhere in the world at the moment? Should we thank God that a homicidal maniac planned the murder of millions of Jews in the last world war? Should we give thanks for Lazarus’s death and the unbelief of the Jews in John 11? I add this last one because we find Jesus’ response to those things as follows: he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (Jn 11:33) and then “Jesus wept.” (Jn 11:35)

Solomon taught, “(There is) a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Eccles 3:4)  Indeed if you look up the word ‘weep’ in a concordance you will find there are many times that the prophets speaking for God spoke of their weeping and anguish over Israel. Giving thanks for Israel being in a place of apostasy is both unfeeling and insensitive and plain unloving.

Perhaps we can resolve this more fully by considering the second thing we said: Paul doesn’t say what to give thanks about while you are in those circumstances.  Now when we look at the big picture, we can see that God in His loving wisdom has given mankind free will and therefore whatever takes place – including all bad things – come within His permissive will. He permits it for the sake of granting us free will which is the key thing that marks us out as human beings. Now there is a difference between God being happy that the design and plan for this world is perfect in as far as there is not an alternative way for it all to be worked out, (especially in the light of the salvation He has provided for, through His Son Jesus, on the Cross,) and saying God is happy when He looks and sees people in distress.  Love anguishes over pain and distress in loved ones, and God loves His world. Emotional pain – including His own – is the price God was willing to pay to give us free will and to see the wonder of salvation being brought about in the face of sin.

But there is more to it than that. Verses like Rom 8:28 – we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” – show us that God is active in His world constantly working (see Jn 5:17) to bring good in us and for us. Whatever the circumstance we can thank God that a) He is sovereign Lord over all things, b) He is there for us and c) He is working for our good in the midst of whatever is happening. Those things the Scriptures are clear about.

When we are praying and seeking to give thanks, there are lots of encouraging things about Him that we can give thanks for

–        that He is all wise and wants to share His wisdom with us (I will leave you to look up verses for all of these because they are there!),

–        that he is all powerful and His power is available to us through His Spirit who lives with in us,

–        that He is unchanging and so we can always rely upon Him,

–        that He is love and so we can trust that everything He thinks, says or does in respect of us is an expression of love,

–        that He is perfect and so everything He thinks, says or does in respect of us cannot be improved upon,

–        that He is faithful and will always be there for us.

There is just a handful of really deep truths for which we can give thanks. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances, these things are the same and they are true.

24. Pray Continually?

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  24. Pray Continually?

1 Thess 5:16-18   Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

The very human side of me thinks that Paul is making fun of us in this verse (I know he’s not!) in the way he started out “Be joyful always,” and now “Pray continually.”  It is the words ‘always’ and ‘continually’ which is why I’ve put a question mark behind the title of this meditation. Does Paul mean we should be praying every waking hour of our lives? Well we worked through the first one to a good conclusion so let’s see if we can do the same here.

Now earlier in this letter Paul had said, Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith,” (1 Thess 3:10) which again has a continuous feel to it.  In his second letter to them he writes, “With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfil every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” (2 Thess 1:11) However in those verses, although we could think it has this continuous feel to it, it could easily mean, “When we do pray for you we always ask that…” putting the emphasis more on the content of what they ask for being the thing they ask for whenever they do pray.

When writing to Timothy he says something interesting: “The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.” (1 Tim 5:5) There is an urgency about her praying that causes her to pray, not necessarily every minute but regularly and that urgency comes out of her situation.

Very well, think about this realistically?  When Paul was in the midst of his shipwreck situation (Acts 27) I suspect that his praying focused more on the current desperate situation rather than run through a list of all the churches he knew of, so although the 1 Thess 3 verse was no doubt true – at a particular point of time he kept on coming back to the Lord about the issue – at other moments other things caught his attention.

So what does “pray continually” mean? He instructed the Romans, “Be faithful in prayer,” (Rom 12:12) meaning continue to make prayer a regular part of your life.  To the Ephesians he said, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (Eph 6:18) The emphasis there, though, is first of all on the nature of your praying – being Spirit led – and then on taking any and every situation to the Lord in prayer. To the Colossians he said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (Col 4:2) The indication there is that we need to make prayer a vital part of our lives as we watch and see enemy attacks, hostile situations or even great opportunities, as well as realizing the goodness of God to us for which we should be thankful.

That prayer was a key feature of Paul’s life is obvious as we saw above (1 Thess 3:10. 2 Thess 1:11). We might also add, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe,” (Eph 1:16-19) and later in that same letter, “For this reason I kneel before the Father…. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power …… And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (Eph 3:14-18)

The overall thrust of what we have seen must be, at the very least, to ensure you make prayer a vital part of your life so that you are regularly referring matters to your Father in heaven and seeking His heart and mind on all issues in your life. Now to do this supposes two things. First, that we have this relationship with the Lord that we can take things to Him like this. Second, is that we have come to a point where we realise that without Jesus’ leading, without the empowering and directing and wisdom of his Holy Spirit, we can do nothing effective, productive or fruitful: “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5)  We have noted before, Jesus saying, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” (Jn 5:19)  One of the things that happens when we pray, is that we become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit, more sensitive to Jesus’ leading, more sensitive to the Father’s will.

So, to summarise, we will pray continually, will pray regularly bringing any and every situation to the Lord, when we realise His headship and His provision, without which we can do nothing. Prayer is the cry of a man or woman who realises they are lost without Him! Prayer is the cry of a man or woman who realises they are a child of God and want to share everything in their life with their heavenly Father. Prayer is the cry of the man or woman who knows the call of God on their life and realise they need His guidance, His wisdom, His enabling and His direction. Can we not pray!

23. Be Joyful

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  23. Be Joyful

1 Thess 5:16-18   Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I must confess in passing, I sometimes wonder how those who divided the Scriptures up into verses did so and particularly here why they separated off “pray continually” unless they felt that it was so important that it needed marking out on its own. Very well, we shall deal with each part alone. First of all, “Be joyful always”.

Again, while I’m in a confessing mood, I confess this reminds me of Snoopy Cartoons where I think the girl would say to the others sometimes, “Be of good cheer”, and it was almost a cynical mocking  phrase. At first sight (and this just reveals my ignorance) this seems a little glib, and yet I know the apostle Paul doesn’t do glib. So what does he mean? Does he mean be happy all the time? What is the background of this word ‘joyful’?

Intriguingly in the Law, speaking of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Lord says through Moses, Be joyful at your Feast,” (Deut 16:14) and then “For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” (Deut 15:15b) The first verse does seem to suggest happiness and merriment but the second verse seems to suggest that joy  can come in different levels and there is a level that is deeper, more meaningful, more prolonged.

But there is something in those verses that may become clearer with some other verses: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Mt 13:44) The joy or happiness came as a result of finding treasure. The joy or happiness or even merriment in the Deuteronomy verses comes as a result of feasting and the feasting comes as a result of a good harvest. Joy has a cause always. When the angel come to the shepherds after Jesus was born, he declared, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Lk 2:10) The joy within the good news was the arrival of the baby Jesus, the Saviour of the world.

After Jesus sent his disciples out, we read, “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Lk 10:17) Their joy was because they had tasted of the kingdom of God on the earth. When Jesus returned to his disciples after his resurrection we read, “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” (Lk 24:40,41) Their joy was because he was still alive.

At the Last Supper there is an apparently odd connection between love and joy: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (Jn 15:10,11) Jesus experienced joy as he kept his Father’s commands of love, and says we can have that same joy.

Now we need to pause to acknowledge that joy is greater than mere happiness. Although the two are almost the same, joy seems a form of happiness that has greater depth of origin and rises to greater height of expression. A dictionary definition of ‘joy’ is ‘a very glad feeling; great pleasure; delight.’  Joy bubbles out and comes from a well founded reason. When a baby is born we aren’t just happy, we are full of joy. When an athlete breaks a world record, they aren’t just happy, they are full of joy. When a football team scores the winning goal of a Cup Final, in the last minute, they aren’t just happy, they are full of joy.

So what is our joy, our very glad feeling, our delight?  It must be the realization of the wonder of our salvation. Within that must come, not only the knowledge of His saving grace that brought us to Himself, but the wonder of His Holy Presence within us and the fact that He is there for us and leading us into His perfect purposes for us. Whatever happens today, He will be there for me, working to bring good for me (Rom 8:28) and He will continue to do this until the day I die and go to be with Him for ever. If that knowledge doesn’t bring me joy it means either I haven’t yet appreciated the wonder of it all, or I have allowed the enemy to distract me with lies. Work on coming to an ever greater understanding of these things we’ve just said and when necessary (which is always) “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee.” (Jas 4:7)

With the Spirit within, joy is part of our inheritance: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.” (Gal 5:22) and “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet 1:8,9). This joy is not a surface, frothy happiness, but a deep-seated inexpressible and glorious ‘very glad feeling; great pleasure; delight,’ that comes from knowing Jesus, knowing God’s love for us, knowing the power and presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit within us.  Prophetically the Son declared about Creation, “I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Prov 8:30,31)  There was the Son, full of joy as he worked alongside the Father. Remember what we saw earlier, I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  Jesus’ joy comes from working alongside the Father, doing what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:17,19), working in perfect harmony. There is the model for us.

22. Good Heartedness (2)

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  22. Good Heartedness (2)

1 Thess 5:15   Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

I realise as I look at this verse that we have only dealt with the first part of it as we considered the subject of vindictiveness and getting back at people. I suggested four ways of overcoming that sort of attitude and behaviour and the fourth one, somewhat belatedly added I took from 1 Pet 3:9 where Peter suggested instead of repaying in like kind, repaying with a blessing. Of course the second part of our verse above adopts the same approach: respond to bad with good.

Now we quoted Paul saying to the Romans, Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” (Rom 12:17), but actually in that same chapter twice he uses this same principle: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse,” (Rom 12:14) and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:21) There is that same thing: instead of retaliating with bad, respond with good, and now in our verse above, respond with kindness.

So let’s think on the second half a bit more: “always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” A dictionary definition for ‘kind’ includes, ‘sympathetic, friendly, gentle, tender hearted, generous,cordial,  loving, affectionate’. In one of his ‘comparison’ sets of verses Paul says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another.” (Eph 4:31,32) He sets kindness off against a whole raft of hostile behaviour.  In his famous ‘love verses’ Paul starts off, “Love is patient, love is kind.” (1 Cor 13:4)  i.e. being kind to others is one expression of that love that Jesus calls to exhibit.

If we consider the word ‘kindness’ we see first Paul uses it of God: “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons.” (Acts 14:17) God’s provision of the Creation is an act of His kindness. But this kindness is part of God’s character, part of the way He expresses love: “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer.” (Isa 54:8) Jeremiah brought the same sort of thing: “let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” (Jer 9:24) Now note that he didn’t use the word love in respect of the threefold description of what He does.

When speaking of justice and righteousness the more appropriate word the Lord uses is ‘kindness’ because although we have said it is an expression of love, it has about it an element of mercy in it, acting favourably to others who perhaps may not warrant our good will – but we give it anyway. If we look back at the two previous verses quoted we see how it is applicable there. God knew how we would turn out, using our free will to reject Him but nevertheless, in kindness, He gave us this wonderful world to bless us.  In the Isaiah quote, they had sinned and His holy response was to turn from their evil, but yet with kindness He expresses compassion. It is mercy within His love.

Do you see why the instruction to ‘be kind’ to those who speak ill or do ill towards you, is now appropriate? If it is love with an element of mercy within it, it is definitely us acting favourably to others who do not warrant our good will – but we give it anyway! Suddenly this instruction in the second half of this verse takes on more power.  The natural response to being treated badly is to respond badly, but that is not Christ’s way, it is to respond with kindness, mercy within love.

When we become aware of this we find it again and again in Scripture, for example, “do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Rom 2:4)  This ‘mercy within love’ was there all the time in God’s work of drawing us to Himself. We didn’t deserve good but ‘mercy within love’ brought it anyway!  Suddenly we spot kindness in places we had never noticed before, for instance consider Paul speaking about their behaviour: “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God.” (2 Cor 6:4-7) In the midst of all the other things that testify to God’s love and grace through them as they ministered, there was ‘kindness’. Kindness – mercy within love – is to be a characteristic found in us Christians. It is part of God’s character and therefore as he lives in us and expresses Himself through us, we will express it, for, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23)

So we are to express this ‘mercy within love’ “to each other and to everyone else.” It is not to be limited just to the way we treat our brothers and sisters but, even more, to every one we meet. It is more likely to be needed with non-Christians because they are more likely to treat us unfavourably. So, ‘mercy within love’ to all we meet today. We’ll only be able to be like that by His grace but as He dwells within us, it is there for the taking. May it be so.