1 Thessalonians 5:18
The Grateful Heart
Dr. Derek Thomas
Turn with me, if you would, in your Bibles to a text in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. While your doing that, I was just wondering, as Ligon and I were walking to the sanctuary this morning, how honored I am to be asked, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, to give the Thanksgiving Day sermon. And I was conscious and reflective that this isn't July 4.
“In every thing give thanks for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. In everything give thanks, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”
I was looking at Eugene Peterson's New Testament translations, and this one was particularly good and insightful. He translates this verse, “Thank God no matte what happens, this is the way God wants you, who belong to Christ Jesus, to live.”
“Fill Thou, my life, O Lord my God, in every part with praise, that my whole being may proclaim, Thy being and Thy ways. Not for the lip of praise alone, nor in the praising heart, I ask but for a life made up of praise, in every part.” Well, of course, you’ll remember those words of the beautiful hymn by Horatius Bonar, written toward the middle of the last century. And they more or less encapsulate the thought of this verse, this text that we have before us this morning. It falls, as you can see by a quick glance, in the section towards the end of First Thessalonians, where the Apostle Paul seems to be giving a whole array of instructions that at first seem to bear no logical sequence to them. He seems to be doing what you and I often do when we write letters, or in these days send email, but when we come to the end of what we really want to say, we add, almost in broken sentences, all the ideas that suddenly come into our head that we haven't had time to expand upon. And I feel somewhat safe this morning in extracting this particular verse from its context, and looking at just at it alone.
There are three things in this verse that I want us to see, and I want us to see these three things not simply as individuals, because all of these admonitions that are given here in the closing verses of Thessalonians, are given in the plural. And I think Paul had in mind not simply the life of the individual believer, but he had in mind the corporate life of the people of God.
And the three things I want us to see from this text, for us as a corporate community, a covenant community of God's people, are first, there is a command: give thanks unto the Lord. And secondly, there is also a context, because he tells us “in everything,” that is to say, in every circumstance, in all circumstances give thanks. And then there is a constraint. “This is,” Paul says, “the will of God for you.”
I. The command to give thanks
unto the Lord.
This is an imperative. Paul is commanding the people of God, as the apostle of the Lord, that this is what they must do. They must give thanks to God. We say to our children, don't we, especially when they are little, if they’re given a gift of some kind, you listen, and then you say, “What do you say?” Because we don't want them to grow up like spoiled brats. We want them to be grateful, we want them to be thankful, and Paul is saying that one of the hallmarks, one of the marks of identity of the children of God, is that they are thankful.
Now, what does Paul mean here by thankful. Of course, he means thankful to God. Thankfulness to God as recognition of His goodness and His faithfulness to us in providing for us and keeping us and caring for us day by day, both physically and spiritually. It means a recognition that you and I are dependent, in an absolute sense, upon the grace and goodness of God for all that we have. That everything we have this morning comes from the Lord.
You remember how Paul, writing to the Romans in the very first chapter, begins to describe one of the characteristics of the natural man, the unconverted man or woman. And the ungodly man or woman, Paul says, is characterized by unthankfulness. God has given them over to a reprobate mind, Paul says, and one of the hallmarks of a reprobate mind is unthankfulness.
You remember that astonishing story in the gospels where Jesus heals 10 lepers. Lepers who by reason of their infirmity and sickness had been ostracized from their families and from their society, having to live somewhere outside the city. And Jesus heals these 10 lepers. And you will remember how Jesus bids them go to the priest in order that they might be declared ceremonially clean. And the staggering thing about that story is that only one of them, only one, returns to Jesus to give thanks. And were it not for the fact that we find an echo in our own hearts of that native ingratitude, we would be more shocked by that story than we are.
You remember the incident of Apollo 13, that ill-fated mission to land on the moon. As I look down, many of you don't remember it, but you've seen the movie, and you remember what happened. There was an explosion and the rocket was sent off course and there was a moment in time when they thought these astronauts would not be able to return. And then there was problem with carbon dioxide, the build up of this gas that even if they did return, would make it impossible for them to survive, and how they cobbled together some means using duct tape and all kinds of bits and pieces in order to extract this carbon dioxide. And you remember how the President of the United States went on television asking the nation to pray, and then when that space craft successfully landed in the ocean, and those three men emerged alive, all the thanks, and you can read it, all the thanks was given to the scientists and human ingenuity, but there was no call for a national thanksgiving in answer to the prayer of Almighty God.
Paul, on 10 occasions, as he writes these letters, exhorts the people of god to give thanks. And on 18 occasions, he mentions personal thanksgiving on his own behalf. We remember, perhaps, as we've just read together in our responsive reading, those wonderful words of the 100th Psalm, “Enter His gates,” the Psalmist says, “with thanksgiving.” And five psalms earlier, in Psalm 95, “Let us come before His presence,” the Psalmist says, “with thanksgiving. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
And what this says to us this morning, that a failure to give thanks to Almighty God is a sin. It is a just as much a sin as adultery is a sin. That an unthankful heart is something that rends the heart of Almighty God as much as any other sin does. And I wonder this morning, as we gather together on this wonderful day, this day that seems yet to be uncluttered by the commercialism that so marks so many of the national days we celebrate in this country, and there's something wonderful about being able to gather together, especially the reunion of families and friends, and I wonder this morning, if at least a part of what we need to do this morning is to come to God and confess that you and I have not been as thankful as we ought to have been, and that we need to confess to Him the sin of unthankfulness.
II. The context of the command.
The context in which the command to be obeyed is altogether comprehensive. Paul puts it like this, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Or, as your pew Bibles have it, “in everything give thanks.” And I wonder if we can look at the first epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians to provide for us this morning some means of attaining what it was that Paul was actually saying, “in every circumstance.” If you turn back to chapter 3 verse 6, for example, beginning at verse 6 through the end of the chapter, Paul is recounting with a sense of joy and gladness the report that Timothy was giving to him of the Church of Thessalonica.
This epistle of First Thessalonians is probably the first epistle that Paul wrote, and was probably written not long after the establishment of the church at Thessalonica. Paul is eager to know how the people of God are growing in the Lord, and Timothy brings a wonderful report. “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” And then notice what he says in verse 9, “how can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you.”
That is to say, there are favorable circumstances in which the rendering of thanksgiving is altogether appropriate, and these were favorable circumstances. I wonder this morning how often ministers of the gospel long to hear such glowing reports about churches in which they have been involved, as Paul was privileged to hear about the Thessalonian church, for which he could not but give thanks to God. And there are many, many favorable circumstances in each one of our lives.
I wonder this morning if you can think about some of the favorable circumstances in which you find yourselves? For some of you, it will be your marriage, your spouse, your children, your homes, your jobs, and the sense of financial security that God have privileged you with. And a million other things that ought to come flooding into our minds as we think of the way in which God has been so gracious to us and so good to us, far beyond what we deserve. And O that our hearts this morning, as we contemplate all those issues, might overflow with thanksgiving.
But think, my dear friend this morning, think as some of you here, and as many of you here indeed this morning can, that you are saved and redeemed and washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, and that your sins are forgiven, and you think and contemplate of what that involved in terms of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit entering into a covenant of redemption in eternity to save a people for Himself. And how, in the process of time and history, God entered into a covenant of grace, that you can trace from Genesis to Revelation, no matter what book you are in, no matter what century are in, you can trace the signature of Almighty God as He is determined to save His people. And think this morning of how God in His providence applied that redemption to us, in the homes in which we were put, in the families that loved us and cared for us, and the sermons that we heard, and the prayers that were prayed over us, and how the Holy Spirit entered into our hearts and lives and transformed us and gave us new hearts so that this morning we sit in this congregation with the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we have peace with Almighty God. And is not that, my dear friend; is not that alone something for which to give thanks to Almighty God?
But I know this morning, that for some of you, it isn't the favorable circumstances that impinge upon your mind and upon your consciousness this morning; it is rather unfavorable or difficult circumstances that weigh down upon you. I was reminded this week of how Shakespeare in his accounts of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, and when the soldiers had been victorious, you remember that they were bidden to sing the words, Non nobis, Domine, Non nobis, Domine from Psalm 15, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name be the glory.” That's an easy thing to sing, Non nobis, Domine, in favorable circumstances, but it's altogether different to sing that song when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances.
Turn back to chapter one and verse six and I think you’ll see something of what Paul is alluding to. He speaks of the Thessalonian Christians, and he says about them, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord in spite of severe sufferings. You welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit.” In spite of severe sufferings. And Paul is alluding there to the fact that it is part of the experience of the people of God to experience the thorns and thistles and pains and losses and crosses that accompany life in fellowship and communion with Jesus Christ.
Do you remember that wonderful passage in the book of Daniel, when certain officials persuade King Darius that he should issue a decree that for 30 days anyone who prayed to any god or man other than to King Darius should be sent to the lion's den. Now, those were difficult circumstances, to be sure, and you remember the response of Daniel, as it's recorded for us in Daniel 6, that “three times a day he got down upon his knees and prayed, giving thanks unto the Lord, that in the midst of difficult circumstances he found it within himself to be able to give thanks to God. And you see, it teaches us a very profound lesson. That his long years of spiritual discipline in giving thanks in every circumstance meant that his spiritual focus was not destroyed by the sudden crisis that came into his life. He was able to give thanks in difficult circumstances because he was disciplined in giving thanks in every circumstance.
But turn to chapter 4:13, and you’ll see yet another possibility that Paul may be alluding to. And you remember this particular section in chapter 4, how these young fledgling Christians in Thessalonica were troubled. They were troubled by the loss of their loved ones who had departed, and they were troubled in a two fold way, because in the first place they were eager to know what had happened to them, but in a second way they were troubled because they thought that their departed loved ones might now have missed out on the blessings that would accompany the second coming of Jesus Christ. And so Paul writes to them in these difficult circumstances in which they found themselves, and reassures them, first of all, that those who have departed in Jesus Christ have merely, have merely, fallen asleep, Paul says.
Now, don't misunderstand the Apostle. He is not advocating in any way, shape or form, not in a million years is Paul suggesting that they have gone into some kind of soul sleep. That's not what he's saying. But he's saying that we need to fear death no more than we fear the blessing of being able to put your head down on a pillow at the end of a busy day and simply fall asleep. But Paul says something else to them that's far more profound than that. Far, he says, far from missing out on the blessings that will accompany the second coming of Jesus Christ, they will be the first in line. They will be the first in line. And in these circumstances of pain and hurt and loss, Paul says, we are to give thanks to Almighty God. We may not be able to understand and comprehend this morning everything that God is doing in our lives, and the complexities that mark out some of your lives this morning are unfathomable. “Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will,” William Cowper said.
And it may be this morning, that as you come on this Thanksgiving Day, that your heart is heavy and your spirits are low because of the difficulties of the circumstances that you find yourself in. And the word of Scripture to you, my friend, this morning, and hear it, hear it: is not that you will be able to comprehend those circumstances, because you may never be able to comprehend them. But the word of Scripture to you, this morning my friend, is that you must trust Him, trust Almighty God that though you may not understand what He is doing, He is understands perfectly and fully, so that we are enabled, you and I as the Lord's people, to give thanks in every circumstance.III. The constraint — God's will
But there is also a constraint. There is a command to give thanks, and there is a context in every circumstance, but there is also a constraint. And that constraint is, and Paul puts it in typical apostolic fashion, “This is,” he says, “God's will for you.” Now, Paul had said this before. He said it in chapter 4 verse 3 about sanctification, “It is God's will that you should be sanctified.” In precisely the same way, it is God's will that you should give thanks to God in every circumstance.
This is a strange age in which we live, isn't it. And part of that strangeness is that this is an age amongst the people of God when confusion reigns about the will of God and guidance. If you were to go Amazon.com or RTS, if you go there this morning and look at the religious book section, at the number of books that are now currently in print on guidance, you will find that there are 36 of them currently in print on the subject of guidance. Now, I put it to you, that if it were possible to go to that spot on the internet and look for books on guidance written in the 18th and 19th centuries, you will come up with “0” books. Because they didn't write books on guidance. And you’re asking, as I hope you’re asking, “Why is that the case?” And let me suggest to you a possible reason: because this is an age in which antinomianism abounds. This is an age that does not want to hear and does not immerse itself in the law of God. One of the characteristics of the 18th and 19th centuries of our forefathers, and of the pilgrims, was that they so immersed themselves in the law of God that Spurgeon said of Bunyan, “This man is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere – his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved.” So that we ought to be so much in the word of God and our thoughts an principles so molded and shaped by the principles and statutes of the word of God, that if we did that, my dear friend, 95 percent of the questions that we ask about guidance would be solved in an instant. Paul says, “You don't have to pray about this one, it is God's will for you, that you be thankful.”
But let me say something by way of a conclusion, because you’re asking, as indeed I am asking, “How in the world is it possible for me to give thanks in these circumstances, in this difficulty, in this trial, with this hurt, how can I give thanks to Almighty God when the world seems to be coming apart all around me?” And Paul gives the answer: “It is God's will for you,” he says, “in Christ Jesus.” It is because of your relationship to Jesus Christ that you will be able to give thanks.
Do you ever watch those programs on TV about antiques? These scholars and professionals who can look at a piece of furniture or painting or a piece of porcelain, and though it may be unsigned, they can detect the signature of its creator and author. And I put it to you, that when you read the pages of the New Testament, you can detect the signature of the Apostle Paul, because 167 times he uses this little signature, “in Christ Jesus.” And I’ll tell you why. It was because of what had happened on the road to Damascus, after he was involved in the death of Stephen, and he heard a voice on high that said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” So that when he laid a finger on one of Jesus’ disciples, he was laying a finger on Jesus Himself. Paul never forgot that. Not for all the length of his days did he ever forget that. And he couldn't put pen to paper without adding that familiar signature, “in Christ Jesus.”
My dear friends, this morning will you think with me and meditate with me on your relationship to and union with Jesus Christ the Son of God? Do you remember how Paul puts it, when he writes to the Colossians, and he writes to the Colossians in chapter 2 verses 6-7, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Isn't that a beautiful metaphor? That as you think about your relationship to Jesus Christ, you will overflow with thanksgiving.
From the annals of the rich heritage of this country, there has been preserved this announcement that was made 376 years ago. “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, squashes and garden vegetables, and made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from the pestilence and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, now I, your magistrate do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of nine and twelve in the daytime on Thursday, November ye 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings. William Bradford, Ye Governor of Ye Colony, AD 1623.”
Let us, this morning, do the same, with all of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
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