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Living in Light of Jesus' Return: A Timely Incitement

Series: Living in Light of Jesus' Return

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 12, 2012

1 Thessalonians 5:16-22

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The Lord's Day Morning

August 12, 2012

“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Timely Incitement”

1 Thessalonians 5:16-22

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. We’ll begin at verse 16 as we continue our way through this short letter, perhaps the first of the New Testament, the first of Paul's letters. In this passage, Paul is going to give us a list of eight dos and don'ts for the Christian life and that may confuse some of you. Some of you have perhaps heard somebody say, “Christianity is not a list of rules,” and of course that's true, Christianity cannot simply be reduced to a series of rules, of commands, of dos and don'ts. Christianity is a message about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, not about what we do to make ourselves right with Him but what He has done to forgive us and accept us and save us and welcome us into His family; that's very true. But it's not true that there are no commands in the Christian life and that there are no dos or don'ts to observe.

So where do we fit those in? Well, as I say, when we find dos and don'ts in the New Testament, it is not, “Do this and don't do that and then God will love and forgive and accept and save you because you've done this and you've not done that.” No, it's actually the other way around. Because God has loved and forgiven and saved you, do this and don't do that. We’re not saved by our doing and don'ting; we're saved to a life of holiness out of our rebellion against God and against His revealed will. And so God saves us in order to be what He made us to be and in order that we can do what He made us to do. And so these dos and don'ts cease to be oppressive things hanging over our heads condemning us. They serve as guides, as standards, for the living of the life that God has called us to in Christ Jesus.

Paul is in fact giving these dos and don'ts as a serious encouragement to Christian living. You know sometimes you need to be incited to do things that you really need to do and Paul's providing incitement to the Christian life. We all need nudges. You know, when you’re exercising perhaps you need a friend who calls you in the morning and says, “We’re running,” or “We’re lifting weights,” or sends you a text and says, “I'm going to meet you at the gym.” Sometimes we need somebody that nudges us, even nags us, to do the things that we know that we need to do. Well in the spiritual life, we need incitements, we need encouragements, we need nudges, and these dos and don'ts - eight of them here in verses 16 to 22 - Paul is giving as an incitement to the living of the Christian life.

And I want you to be on the lookout for three parts. We could just work through each of the eight directives but I think they actually make sense in three clusters. If you look at verses 16 to 18 they all seem to pertain to prayer — rejoice, pray, give thanks. Now rejoicing could be taken as an overarching attitude which Paul is encouraging but even rejoicing can be expressed in prayer. That's part of praise, isn't it? And then prayer would especially mean intercession and then give thanks would especially refer to thanksgiving in prayer. But all of that first cluster pertains to the life of prayer. Paul's inciting us to prayer. He's giving us reasons why we ought to pray in the Christian life. So be on the lookout for that in verses 16 to 18. Then if you look at verses 19 and 21, maybe the first half of verse 21, now the subject turns to being sensitive to what the Spirit is doing in us. And the great, the famous words, “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophecies,” comes in that section. It's all about being sensitive to the work that the Spirit is doing. Then if you look at the second half of verse 21 and verse 22, those may be taken as how to test everything, that's mentioned in the first half of verse 21, or they could be taken more broadly, as I'm going to take them, to refer to the actual goal of the Spirit's work in us in the Christian life which is sanctification. So as we read verses 16 to 18 — prayer; verses 19 and the first half of verse 21 — sensitivity to the work of the Spirit; and then second half of verse 21 to verse 22 — sanctification. Prayer, Spirit, sanctification.

Let's pray before we read God's Word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. We need Your Word to live the life that You have called us by grace to live, that You have saved us by grace to live. We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from Your mouth. It is by Your truth that we are sanctified and Your Word is true. Heavenly Father, Your Word is inspired and it is profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that the man and woman of God might be equipped for every good work, so equip us, sanctify us, grow us, mature us by Your Word today as we hear it. In Jesus' name, amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The Thessalonians had been called by God to live the Christian life in hard circumstances. Paul has already described in this letter the fact that this congregation is under pressure and even under persecution. So how do you live the Christian life when the circumstances aren't so good? How do you live the Christian life when the circumstances themselves could actually discourage you, they could discourage your faith, they could rob you of joy, they could so cause you to doubt that you have a hard time praying, they could so discourage you that they could derail you from pursuing holiness by grace? How do you, how do you live the Christian life when your circumstances aren't so good? That's what Paul is providing an incitement to the Thessalonians and to you and me for in this passage. He's urging us and encouraging us and nudging us and inciting us to live the Christian life when circumstances aren't so good.

If we're going to live the Christian life in hard circumstances, we're going to need an outlook, an attitude, that's not derived from our circumstances. You know you didn't have to go to the US Women's Soccer Team this week and tell them, after they won the gold medal, “Okay, now remember to celebrate.” You didn't have to tell them that. Their circumstances provided every incentive that they needed to celebrate. But if they had lost that match, heartbreakingly, you would have had to remind even the Christians there to rejoice because their circumstance wouldn't have been the source of their joy. Paul's telling the Thessalonians and you and me how we can live the Christian life and rejoice even when our circumstances don't supply the reason for that joy. So you've got to have an attitude, an outlook, that's not derived from the circumstances. It has to come from somewhere else. Where? Paul will tell you in this passage.

If we're going to live the Christian life in hard circumstances we're going to need a confidence and a thankfulness in prayer that is not derived from circumstances. So often when we go to the Lord in prayer, especially intercessory prayer, the reason we're going to the Lord in prayer, in intercessory prayer, is precisely because the circumstances that we're in are difficult or encouraging. We’re calling out to the Lord, “Lord, help us! Lord, do something! I'm in a mess! I'm scared! I don't know what to do!” And if our willingness to go to the Lord is derived from our circumstances being good, then what do we do when our circumstances are not? So Paul's providing an incitement to prayer in this passage.

Third, if we're going to live the Christian life in hard circumstances, we're going to need a sensitivity to the work of the Spirit that our circumstances could very well drown out. You know, sometimes the situation that you’re in is so hard that you can hardly hear anything else because it's so painful; it's so disappointing, it's so discouraging, it's so overwhelming that you really can't hear anything else. And Paul's saying you need a sensitivity to what the Spirit is up to in your life and that's not going to come from the circumstances, it's going to come from somewhere else. And if we're going to live the Christian life in hard circumstances we're going to need to understand what God's purpose is in us, what His purpose is for us, and we're going to need to embrace that purpose. And Paul says that purpose is sanctification. So I want us to look at three things that Paul says here about prayer, about sensitivity to the Spirit, and about sanctification as he encourages us to live the Christian life in hard circumstances.

REJPOICE PERPETUALLY, PRAY CONSTANTLY,

AND GIVE THANKS INARIABLY

The first thing that I want you to see that Paul says is that we are to rejoice perpetually, pray constantly, and give thanks invariably. Rejoice perpetually, pray constantly, give thanks invariably. Now those instructions to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, proved by themselves that Paul is talking about our doing these things not because our circumstances help us or encourage us to do them. Did you notice the phrase, look at verse 18, “in all circumstances”? The very fact that Paul has to say, “Give thanks in everything; give thanks in all circumstances; give thanks in every situation; give thanks all the time,” is a reminder that there are times and circumstances in which it is difficult to give thanks. That's why he's giving the exhortation. So your thanks there derives not from the circumstances but from somewhere else.

The second thing that I want you to notice about these first three verses is the phrase at the very end of verse 18. Did you notice that one? It says, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Now here's what I want you to understand — that phrase is not only attached to the exhortation, “give thanks in everything” that you find at the beginning of verse 18, it goes with verse 17 and verse 16 too. It's not that rejoicing always and praying without ceasing is not God's will for you in Christ Jesus and that giving thanks is; it's that rejoicing always and praying without ceasing and giving thanks in everything is God's will for you. So Paul's telling you what God's will for you is. It's not just thanksgiving; it's praying without ceasing and rejoicing always.

Now what motivation does Paul provide for us to rejoice perpetually and pray continually and to give thanks invariably here? Well, there are three things. First of all there is the return of the Lord. Now we've seen that throughout this book. The whole book, all the exhortations in this book, are given in light of the Lord's return. The content of the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 leading up to this passage has all been about the return of the Lord, so one of the things that is designed to motivate and encourage the Thessalonians and you and me to rejoice always, and to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in everything is the return of the Lord.

Notice how Paul talks about that very same thing in the parallel passage in Philippians chapter 4. Would you turn with me in your Bibles to Philippians chapter 4 and look at verse 4? Paul says this — “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Do you notice the connection? Rejoice — the Lord is at hand! Just like in 1 Thessalonians, the rejoicing comes not from, “Oh, things are good! Things are good; we're going to rejoice about that!” No, “Things are bad; we're persecuted!” So where's the rejoicing going to come from? “The Lord is at hand.” The persecution, Paul might well say to the Thessalonians or maybe to some of you who have suffered long — we sang about that in the very first hymn, didn't we? “You who long pain and sorrow bear, praise God and on Him cast your care.” So it's not the pain and the sorrow that moved you to praise God and on Him cast your care. What did? The Lord is coming. It may feel like an eternity, the trouble that you’re facing, but the Lord is at hand. This is not going to be the last word. He's coming, therefore rejoice. Paul does the same thing in Philippians 4:4-5 that he's doing here in 1 Thessalonians 5.

Then, notice that the context of Philippians 5 has reminded us that God is in charge of everything. What did we hear Bonnie sing this morning? “He's got the whole world in His hand.” Well, that's actually one of Paul's motivations to us to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every circumstance. He's got the whole world in His hands. He's in charge of everything, or to use Paul's language from Romans 8:28 and following, “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him and for those who are called according to His purpose.” He's in charge of everything and He's making everything work for good. Everything is not good, there are lots of things in our lives that are not good, but He's still making them work together for our good. He's got the whole world in His hands and therefore you can rejoice always and pray without ceasing and give thanks in every circumstance because He's in charge.

So first, the Lord's coming again; second, the Lord's in charge; third, you get this explicitly in verse 18 - look at 1 Thessalonians 5 verse 18 — “it's the will of God for you.” Why should we rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every circumstance? Because the Lord's coming soon, because God's in charge of everything, and even though we may be in hard circumstances He's working His good purposes for us out even in those hard circumstances and He told you to! It's the Lord's will! I don't always know what the Lord's will is for your life. I've said before, you can come into my office, I might not know who you’re supposed to marry or what job you’re supposed to do or where you’re supposed to live, but I do know that it's the Lord's will for you that you rejoice always, that you pray without ceasing, and that you give thanks in everything. It's His will. He just comes right out and tells you what His will is. So for all those reasons, not circumstances, Paul calls us to live the Christian life, especially expressing it in prayer — prayers of praise and rejoicing, prayers of intercession, prayers of thanksgiving. That's the first thing that Paul does in this passage.

EXHORTATION TO DISCERNMENT: DO NOT QUENCH THE SPIRIT

Then, if you look at verses 19 to 21, Paul tells us not to quench the Spirit. “Do not quench the Spirit.” He says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything.” In the context, Paul is clearly speaking of extraordinary, prophetic activity. There were genuine New Testament prophets that could proclaim the revelation of God and there were alongside of them false prophets. He's already talked about some of the fanatical beliefs that existed among the Thessalonians so this is certainly a call to discernment on the one hand — test everything. Just because somebody stands up and says it's a prophesy don't necessarily believe that it's true — test everything. It's kind of like the Bereans. You know, Paul taught them out of the Word of God and they went back and they read their Bibles at home to make sure that what Paul was saying was right. This is an exhortation to be discerning of people's claims to revelatory, prophetic messages. And perhaps it's a warning against the Thessalonians against rejecting that kind of prophetic activity out of hand because of its abuse.

But I want us to think specifically about how this applies to us totally apart from extraordinary revelation because the Holy Spirit is always after the same thing, whether He is speaking extraordinarily or as we might say, ordinarily, through His means of grace. What's the Holy Spirit up to and what does it mean to quench the Holy Spirit? Because Paul is warning us against it. Well there are four things that I want you to see. What does it mean to quench the Holy Spirit? It means to resist His work. You know the image of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament as a fire. That's where this language comes from — “Don't quench the Spirit.” What's the first way the Spirit appeared visibly in the New Testament after the resurrection of Christ and the ascension of Christ? By tongues of fire on the heads of the gathered disciples in Jerusalem at Pentecost. So the Spirit appeared as a fire and the image is, “Don't extinguish that fire. Don't put out the fire of the Holy Spirit. Don't quench the Spirit.” What does that mean? It means don't resist His work. Don't resist His work. The Spirit is always at work, extraordinarily and ordinarily, to produce conviction, godly sorrow that leads to repentance. The Holy Spirit is always at work in that. Don't quench the Spirit.

You know there are some things that you have to resist. When you round the bend on Ridgewood and go down the hill and see the “Hot Donuts Now” sign flashing on Krispy Kreme, you've got to resist the temptation to give in! But when the Spirit is convicting you of sin, you must not resist that; you must not resist that voice. It's very interesting, Bill Wymond has been reading Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer and he shared with the other ministers yesterday a section in which an American evangelist actually went to Germany before the Second World War to try and share the Gospel with the Nazi leadership and he actually got in to speak to the high ranking Nazi official, Himmler. And in sharing the Gospel with him, Himmler said, “I do not believe that Jewish idea of laying one man's sin on another. I am an Arian. I take my sins upon myself!” Those words will ring out in the judgment day and all will tremble. What was he doing? There was a man sharing the Gospel with him and he was resisting — not going to deal with a conviction; not going to repent. Did you hear what Billy read in Revelation 16 this morning? With the world falling down around their ears in the final judgment of God with reality staring them in the face, over and over what's the phrase? “But they did not repent.” They were seeing God's judgment with their own eyes and yet they did not repent. Do not resist His conviction. If He's convicting you, if He's holding up the mirror of His Word and you’re seeing your reflection and it's not so pretty, it hurts, I understand that, it happens to me all the time, don't resist that conviction because it's a sweet pain that's designed to lead you to repentance and grace and forgiveness and joy. Don't quench the Spirit. Don't resist His work in you to work conviction and repentance and forgiveness and grace and restoration.

Don't delay your response to the overtures of the Spirit. That's the second thing. Don't delay your response to the Holy Spirit. We’re on the Holy Spirit's timetable; He's not on ours. The Spirit comes when He wills to convict. We don't say, “Look, I’ll get back with you tomorrow on that.” You remember Acts 24? Paul is preaching to Felix and among the things that Luke said that Paul is preaching about is the judgment to come. And you remember what Luke says? Felix, this great Roman official, got scared! He got scared during Paul's sermon and he stopped Paul during the middle of the sermon and he said, “Um, I’ll hear about this more later.” And he left Paul in prison for two years and never spoke to him again. Those are some of the most frightening words in all of the New Testament and just like Himmler's words, they will ring out on the last day - “I’ll hear about this some other time.” Felix, you had Paul in your presence. Paul for crying out loud! He wrote half of the New Testament! He could have opened to you the gateway of grace and glory and salvation and you told him, “Some other time” and that other time never came. We’re on the Holy Spirit's schedule; He's not on ours.

A number of years ago, a prominent businessman came to one of our elders, an elder who's known for being an expert in time management and this prominent businessman said, “I want you to teach me about time management.” And they set up an appointment and they were going to have a series of meetings where this elder was going to teach this prominent businessman about time management. Now let me quickly say, the elder did not tell me about this story. The businessman told the story on himself. And so in the first meeting the businessman got there late, for a meeting on time management. And it was when Smartphones had just started to proliferate and his Smartphone went off like four times in the first three minutes of their meeting and he answered it every time! And the elder said — he had his book open and he was getting ready to work with him on his time management — he closed the book and he said, “We’ll do this some other time when you’re on time and can pay attention.” Now the businessman told me this; the elder's never told me this. The businessman told me this. He said, “It was a valuable lesson. It was a very valuable lesson to me because I was not being respectful of his time and I wasn't paying attention.”

And you see, my friends, that's so often how it is with the Holy Spirit. We think He's on our schedule but He's not; we're on His. That's why Glenn Knecht used to say, “The sermon you need is the sermon you missed.” That's why we attend to the means of grace because we never know what and where and when and how it is that the Holy Spirit is going to speak precisely the message that we need to hear, precisely the words that we need to give us guidance. Do not delay in your response to the Holy Spirit because we're not on our own time frame with Him; we're on His schedule and you never know whether there's going to be a tomorrow or not.

Third, quenching the Spirit means entertaining opinions and views that are contrary to His. You know it's very worldly and wise to say, “I don't believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. I don't believe in the inspiration of Scripture.” Well, the Holy Spirit does. He inspired it, so if you disagree with Him, I kind of think I know where that's coming from and I know who's right and I know who's wrong. It's very fashionable not to believe in the deity of Christ. Interesting, the Holy Spirit does believe in the deity of Christ, so if you don't believe in the deity of Christ I think I'm sticking with the Holy Spirit on that one. In fact, the Bible tells us that only the Holy Spirit can enable us to say, “Jesus is Lord.” If you find yourself entertaining views and opinions that are in contradiction with the Holy Spirit, you are quenching the message of the Holy Spirit which we have right before us in the Word of God. He inspired every syllable of this Book, every syllable. And we quench the Holy Spirit when we engage in behaviors, in actions, that are contrary to what He says in His Word.

You know, over the last twenty-five years I've lost count of professing Christians who have said to me, “I know that the Lord doesn't want me to be unhappy and therefore I am going to ———.” And what they fill in the blank with the “I am going to ———-“ is something that the Word of God explicitly says that they are not to do but they are convinced that the Lord wants them to be happy and therefore they’re convinced that doing what He says not to do is going to make them happy. Now by the way friends, have you heard that somewhere else before? “Take this fruit and you will be like God” — that's the oldest one in the Book, literally! And people still go for it! And see what they’re doing, they are taking upon themselves a behavior and action that the Holy Spirit says, “Don't do that! It will ruin your life!” And they’re going to say, “Well in order to have a happier life I'm going to do this.” That's quenching the Spirit. Oh brothers and sisters, do not quench the Spirit.

THE GOAL OF THE SPIRIT’S WORK IN US IS TO SANCTIFY US

One last thing. In this passage, Paul goes on to say that it's the Spirit who is at work in us to sanctify us. “Hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We hold fast to the good and we abstain from every form of evil not to justify ourselves before God, not so that He will love us and accept us, not so that we can save ourselves, but we abstain from every form of evil and we hold fast to what is good because that's what God the Spirit is at work in us doing. That is the result of His saving work in us and for us, so that we are sanctified — we love the things that Jesus loves; we hate the things that Jesus hates. We believe the things that Jesus teaches; we reject the things that Jesus rejects. We hold fast to what is good; we abstain from every form of evil. That's the goal of the Spirit's work in us. It's His purpose in us.

Now in all of these things, you see, Paul is inciting us to live the Christian life in hard times. How do you do that? You remember that the Lord is returning, is in charge of everything, and it's His will for you to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything. You remain sensitive to the Holy Spirit, you know what His work is in you to do — to convict, to bring repentance, and forgiveness, and restoration, and blessing, and to make us like Jesus. That's how you live the Christian life in hard circumstances. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Work it into our hearts we pray, in Jesus' name, amen.

Would you take your hymnals out and let's rejoice, all you believers, using number 320.

Receive a word of blessing from the God who equips you to live the Christian life even in hard circumstances, but He gives you everything you need. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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