Joy, Prayer, Thanksgiving

December 11, 2005
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
First Thessalonians 5:16-18

1. "Rather than complain that it is dark, let's move forward and turn on the light." -- It's the catch phrase of the Christian broadcast, "Light of the Heart." That move, whether at home, in church, in society, in the whole world, or even in any community, begins with one single human being. There are definitely many factors causing the dark world of reality. But, the truly important thing is whether or not you and I are becoming individuals who turn on the light.

2. "Always be happy. Pray without stopping. Give thanks come what may," (First Thessalonians 5:16-18). [That's] the message given us for today. How we respond to this message does not only have great significance in our own lives. It has great significance for our homes, for [our] churches, for [our] society, for [our] world. For, when we respond to this message in an appropriate manner, we will certainly become individuals who turn on the light.

The Will [The Heart] Of God In Christ Jesus

3. "Always be happy. Pray without stopping. Give thanks come what may." -- In fact, Paul does not give only the words of this exhortation. There is a basis for his giving this exhortation. In the second part of this verse the text says, "This indeed, in Christ Jesus, is what God wants from you." This is the basis for the exhortation. "[This indeed,] in Christ Jesus, is what God wants from you." Translated literally, it would be "the will [the heart] of God in Christ Jesus." It is the will of God as revealed in Christ Jesus. Paul knew this will of God. For that reason, he says, "Always be happy. Pray without stopping. Give thanks come what may."

4. Before that though, what did he used to believe God's will to be? Paul once belonged to a sect called the Pharisees. According to his own words, he was "a man without fault regarding the righteousness of the law," (Philippians 3:6). I'm sure it was true what he said. The zeal that Paul the Pharisee at that time had in keeping the law must surely go beyond our imagination. If it were the Paul of those days, he would have written it like this: "Always keep the commandments of God. Keep God's commandments without stopping. Keep God's commandments come what may. This indeed is what God wants from you."

5. The top issue to settle for Paul was to keep God's commandments first of all, to be obedient, to be a righteous person who observes the law. It all begins from there. It would all be a reward for obedience to God and presenting one's righteousness to God. That's what he thought; he used to believe that even salvation, eternal life, was a reward for observing the law. There was once a youth who came to Jesus and asked, "Master, what good thing should I do to obtain eternal life?" That question was most likely also Paul's question. What good should I do? Is this enough? Is this not enough?

6. But, when Paul was like that, he saw God's amazing will within the cross of Christ Jesus. God loves us. Though we are not truly worthy to be loved [by him], God loves us. He loves us so much that he gave his one and only son, [he loves us] so much that he made an atoning sacrifice for sin suffering the worst by crucifying his only son, and [he loves us] so much that he was willing to grant us forgiveness of sin by [his having done all this]! -- This is what it means by "in Jesus Christ." Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God's love.

7. For the way Paul used to be, a relationship with God was a sort of business transaction with God. It was a transaction to acquire God's love and salvation. One's righteousness was none other than the price for it. But hold on, Paul's not alone on this. Since we are so accustomed to transactional relationships, relationships of give-n-take, we are always so ready to look to God that way. But, what Paul knew "in Christ Jesus" was a totally different relationship with God from that. It is not a zeal to present oneself with all one's might trying to obtain God's favor that God wants. It is not an appeal that we be obedient enough that God wants to see. That's not it; it is the beaming smiles of God's children that God wants. "Always be happy. Pray without stopping. Give thanks come what may. This indeed, in Christ Jesus, is what God wants from you."

Always Be Happy

8. With that said, when we encounter the phrase "Always be happy," our first reaction might be, "Is such a thing possible?!" -- Because there are all kinds of reasons enough filling our lives to rob us of our joy. Didn't Paul, who wrote this, know that? Yes, he had to have known that because he went through plenty of hardships himself. Therefore, with repeated knowledge of such [hardships], he said "Always be happy."

9. At this point we would do well to recall the reason once again that Paul is writing this. For the children of God to "always be happy" is really what God wants. Since God wants it -- that means God will give it to us. The joy, of which the scriptures are speaking, is obviously not the joy which the world will provide us. It is the joy that God gives us. It is a joy that comes from above. In another passage Paul said it like this, "The kingdom of God is not in drink or food, but is the righteousness, the peace, and the joy, which is given by the Holy Spirit," (Romans 14:17).

10. Of course there is really something like a heavenly joy given by the Holy Spirit, a supernatural joy in the every day experiences and lives of believers. In The Acts Of The Apostles, it is recorded that even though Paul was whipped and imprisoned, he still praised God while filled with joy in that prison (Acts 16:25). Things like that do happen. We've seen it near us, too. As a pastor I have held many a funeral service. At such times I have often seen with my own eyes believers looking like they are being touched by God in the midst of the black darkness, during the lows of deep grief. God does give peace and joy to people while they are in grief. Marvelous things do take place where people, who are supposed to be in grief, shed tears of joy overflowing out from somewhere deep.

11. So, when a person is a Christian he or she ought to know, to a certain degree, the joy that comes from God. The problem is over whether or not the joy that comes from God, the joy that the Holy Spirit gives, has become the keynote in a person's life. [The problem] is over whether or not that joy has started to take control of our entire lives in the way we live. That's exactly what the exhortation to "Always be happy" means. Then, to be specific, what should we do? What should we do then so that the sorrows and the pains and the various problems before us do not control us, but that the joy that comes from God will start to control [us] and keep on controlling our lives?

Pray Without Stopping

12. So then, let's read today's passage of scripture one more time. Paul is not saying just to "Be happy." In addition to that he says, "Pray without stopping." There seems to be a specific tip here.

13. The first meaning of the word "to pray" as used here is "to ask for." Prayer at its fundamental definition means "to ask for." But, most times we don't know what we should ultimately ask for. For example, we ask for healing from sickness. We ask for resolutions to problems in human relationships, for resolutions to economic problems. We ask for the people around us to change. We make various other requests of that nature. There's nothing wrong with that. It's good to turn to God for everything in all kinds of situations. But, it is not just a cup of water that God is ready to give in prayer. He is ready to give even the very spring itself. In prayer what we should truly ask for is God himself. We are calling out for God. We are asking for God's presence. We are asking for fellowship with God. That's right, we are asking for a living relationship with God. [Now,] that's prayer.

14. If you petition only for things that are needed, then the exhortation of "Pray without stopping" would be unrealistic. When it comes to just petitions, we don't have as many as that. Whenever people want their requests to come true by praying long or by praying a lot, that is different from what the Bible teaches. But, in regards to a relationship with God, time to a certain extent does have something to do with it. When the ancient church fathers recommended that "You are to pray without ceasing," "You are to pray at set times," "You are to pray long," [their recommendation] does have some importance for us moderns as well.

15. God wants us to live with joy and if he gives us that joy, then a living relationship with God is the pathway to it. It is a faith and a lifestyle of unending prayer that brings it. If we are to do anything, we are to seek God and live sensing his presence.

16. Furthermore, it is also a lifestyle of unending repentance. Sin hinders the fellowship between God and human. We [must] repent of sin, receive forgiveness, and our sins must be taken away. The lamb of redemption, which takes away sin, has already shed [his] precious blood for us. We ask in prayer for forgiveness of sin, and [God] must take [our] sin away through the blood of Christ. In this way then, a lifestyle of prayer does not place one in darkness but [the person] will always continue to walk in God's light (First John 1:5-10).

17. Anyway, the difference between the Christian who experiences joy from heaven and where that joy controls his or her daily life and the Christian who isn't like that is obvious. It is the difference of whether a person prays or has lost [his or her] prayers. More than anything else, let us become a person of prayer. Even though it is important to be a devout believer, a devotion which has lost its heavenly joy will always fall into a legalism of condemning others. Let us become men and women of prayer.

Give Thanks Come What May

18. So then next, Paul did not just say, "Pray without stopping" but also said, "Give thanks come what may." "Being happy," "praying," and "giving thanks" are interrelated to each other. Praying brings joy from God, and that joy leads to praying still more. Then, the joy that is given through fellowship with God through prayer drives away all kinds of crying and complaining and fills a person with thanksgiving. Then the thanksgiving brings forth more joy.

19. As a matter of fact, we do experience this often in our daily lives. My own nature is that of a person with a lot of moaning and groaning. That's something my wife knows all too well. But, there's always the time when the moaning and groaning out of my mouth fades. Even though the actual situation hasn't changed, the words that come out do change. It is the time when I receive joy from God. It is the time when joy from heaven fills my heart.

20. When God fills our hearts with joy, the various problems of this world work as something that binds us more deeply to God. Thus, our deepened relationship with God produces a deeper trust in God. Then, the deep trust in God produces thanksgiving to God. The words of the exhortation to "Give thanks come what may" will have no meaning apart from God's workings in the Holy Spirit.

21. "Always be happy. Pray without stopping. Give thanks come what may." God wants this for us. This is truly our hope. When we accept this as God's will, we will surely be taking a step out as a person who turns on the light.