In the marshmallow test a researcher places a marshmallow in front of a pre-schooler and tells them that if they can wait about 15 minutes before eating it, they will get a second marshmallow. The choice is: one treat right now or two treats later. It demonstrates the power of habit and willpower (or self-control).
Our habits affect or control our lives. A habit is something we do regularly and that tends to occur subconsciously. It involves our attitudes, behaviors, characteristics and customs. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form. But it is possible to form new habits through the repetition of new actions in small steps (that take no more than 5 minutes). And It takes at least 60 consecutive days to establish a habit.
God lists three habits in the Bible that go together like the layers in a sandwich.
When he wrote a letter to encourage the Christians at Thessalonica who were enduring persecution, Paul said, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18NIV). This is comprised of three commands: to be joyful, to be prayerful and to be thankful. It would have been easier if the Bible said, “Rejoice sometimes, pray occasionally, and give thanks when you feel like it”. Instead the standard is higher than that: always, continually, and in all circumstances.
These three commands cover our past, present and future. We rejoice in the present, pray for the future and give thanks for the past. Paul repeated them to Christians in Rome, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).
The first command is to rejoice always.
“Rejoice always” means to be cheerful or joyful all the time, not just sometimes. This includes good and adverse circumstances. Paul was joyful when he heard about their ongoing faith in the Lord (1 Th. 3:9). But the Christians at Thessalonica were to rejoice although they were being persecuted (Acts 17:5-9; 1 Th. 2:14). And Paul and Silas sang joyfully in prison (Acts 16:25).
When we face difficulties, we have a choice: either we can focus on our trials and lapse into self-pity. Or we can set our minds on the things above, where Christ is at the right hand of God, and rejoice. Paul also said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). So to rejoice always means that we must make this deliberate choice to focus on the Lord and the inheritance that we have in Him, not on our difficult circumstances.
Joy is different to happiness. Joy is an inner attitude whereas happiness is an emotional response to good circumstances. Because it works from the inside out, joy does not depend on our circumstances. God and Jesus are the source and subject of our joy. Biblical joy comes from who God and Jesus are and what they do. And we know that God is in control of the circumstances. As joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit, it’s a consequence of a godly life (Gal. 5:22-23). It depends on our relationship with God.
So there is some truth in the Monty Python comedy song “Always look on the bright side of life”. For a Christian, there is always a bright side of life. And that’s eternal life.
The second command is to pray continually.
“Pray continually” means to pray at regular times and to be persistent in prayer. Our prayers should be frequent and persistent. It includes always being willing and ready to pray as the need arises. This indicates one’s dependence on God.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy continually prayed for them and Paul asked them to pray for him and his companions (1 Th. 1:2; 5:25). Likewise, we need to pray for one another.
Our communication with family and friends is hindered if our cell phone is switched off or the battery is flat. Likewise, our communication with God is hindered if we don’t pray continually.
The third command is to give thanks in all circumstances.
“Give thanks in all circumstances” means to give thanks in all circumstances because “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28). Note that it is “in” the circumstance, not “for” the circumstance. If we gave thanks “for” everything that would mean that we give thanks for Satan and his plan for the world!
Instead we thank God no matter what happens, as long as we don’t excuse sin. Whatever comes in our lives comes in by the will of God. Like joy, our thankfulness depends on our relationship in Christ rather than on the circumstances of life.
Paul also said, “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).
Paul usually includes thanksgiving at the beginning of his letters. In this case, Paul thanked God continually because they accepted the message that he brought from God (1 Th. 1:2; 3:9).
Thanksgiving is the time of year when North Americans spend time with family and friends and reflect on all that they are grateful for. But God wants us to be thankful every day of the year.
Each of these three commands are God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.
In Christ Jesus
“God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” means that that God wants His people to be joyful, prayerful and thankful. In these areas of life we can know God’s will without a doubt. This part of God’s will is also especially revealed by the example of Christ Jesus. But we can only obey them if we are “in Christ Jesus”. Christians are in union with Christ because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And they are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Paul told them that as Christians they are collectively and individually “in Christ” (1 Th. 1:1; 2:14; 4:16). And their hope was “in our Lord Jesus Christ” – they were waiting for His return (1 Th. 1:3).
Lessons for us
It’s God’s will for His followers to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. God wants us to do these three things regularly. Every day of our life. Jesus taught about them. And He modelled them in His daily life. Let’s imitate Him in being joyful, prayerful and thankful.
Written, March 2018
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me
“Joy to the world” was a silly singalong song with a catchy melody released by Three Dog Night in 1971. It’s silly because some of the words are nonsensical. In her 1994 Christmas album Mariah Carey changed the third line of the chorus to “Joy to the people everywhere you see”. Although this song sounds joyful, the only sources of joy and happiness it mentions are drinking and sex, which are fleeting. But at Christmas we remember a source of “great joy”, which is enduring. A hymn writer expressed it as: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” According to the Bible, the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
On the first Christmas night, an angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). The Greek word translated “joy” chara (Strongs #5479) means joy, gladness, delight, and a source of joy. So the baby Jesus would bring great joy to humanity as the Jewish Messiah who would enable people to have their sins forgiven so that they could be reconciled with God.
This feeling of joy is conveyed in the Christmas carol that’s not a Christmas carol! The words of “Joy to the World” were written in 1719 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). And the melody was derived from portions of Handel’s (1685-1759) Messiah. It’s based on the Psalm 98:4-9, which celebrates Christ’s triumphant second coming, not His humble first coming. Watts published it under the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
In verses 1 and 2 Watts writes of heaven and earth rejoicing at the coming of the King. In Psalm 98 and Psalm 96:11-13, all of creation is called upon to make a joyful noise before God, for the Lord has come to “judge the earth,” and restore His creation. Verse 3 of the song speaks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin. In Genesis 3, a great tragedy occurs when Adam and Eve sin against God, and are banished from the garden as God puts a curse upon the ground (Gen. 3:17-18). Verse 4 of the song celebrates Christ’s rule over the nations.
Psalm 98:4-9 says:
4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 96:11-13 is similar:
11Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for He comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in His faithfulness.
So the Bible associates true joy with both the first and second advents of Christ. True joy comes from God, and not from our circumstances. That’s why the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
The distinction between the two advents of Christ was unknown until the New Testament era. For example, Isaiah 9:6a described the first advent, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” and it’s followed by a description of the second advent, “and the government will be on his shoulders …” (Is. 9: 6b-7). And when Jesus read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:16-21), He only read about His first advent (v.1-2a) and not the second advent (v.2b-3). That’s why many Jews failed to recognize their Messiah when He came as a humble servant instead of a powerful king. It’s interesting that the Magi (Wise men) recognized that Jesus was a king (Mt. 2:2). And Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record that the notice on His cross was “The king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:25; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19).
The first advent is when the Savior came to die sacrificially, and the second one is when He comes to reign on earth. The first is the precursor (predecessor; something that happens before something else) of the second. And the second is the consequence of the first. We live in the period in between the two advents when people have the opportunity to have their sins forgiven.
We can have true joy by looking back at the first advent and looking ahead to the second one. Jesus is the joy of Christmas and the joy of the future peace on earth during Christ’s reign.
I have just seen The “Lights of Christmas 2016” screened on St Mary’s cathedral in Sydney. This was a spectacular lightshow to “Celebrate the magic of Christmas”. It was advertised as follows:
“The theme we have chosen this year is Joy to the World and it is revealed through nature. The audience will be taken on a dream-like journey of enchantment and imagined worlds. Fireflies lead us on our expedition through underground caverns, then rising up to the skies and returning to the ocean. Along the way we meet a family of animals, all bringing colour and joy to the world!”
So this show, screened on a gothic church, depicts animals and nature as bringing “joy to the world”! What a comparison! The temporary joy from animals compared to the eternal joy available through Jesus! Secular joy compared to true joy. A person’s idea of joy, compared to God’s idea of joy. But the true joy of Christmas is Jesus, not animals or any other part of the celebration.
God’s Christmas gift
Jesus is God’s gift to humanity. God sacrificed His own Son so that we could have eternal life and be spared from judgment. The coming of the Savior, which we remember at Christmas, brings “great joy” because:
– It’s “good news” for sinners like us – He came to save people from their sins through His death and resurrection. That’s why He was named Jesus (Mt. 1:21).
– It’s true news – fact not fiction, legend, myth or a fairy tale. It was a normal birth in an unusual location.
– It’s about the unique Lord Jesus Christ who reconciled sinful people to God. He was Savior, Messiah and Lord (Lk. 2:11). Messiah (or Christ) means “chosen one” and “Lord” is a synonym for God.
– It was for everyone – “a Savior has been born to you” was initially addressed to the poor uneducated shepherds.
– It has eternal value.
But a gift only brings joy if it is received. Have you received God’s Christmas gift? Do you believe that Jesus came for you?
We can seek happiness in many ways. But the Bible reveals the source of true lasting joy. At the first Christmas an angel announced that Jesus would bring “Joy to the world”. And the song by Isaac Watts describes the joy associated with Christ’s second advent. The joy of Christmas is Jesus. He came so that we could experience joy. Not always happiness, but an inner contentment of joy. The true joy of Christmas lasts all year long and for a lifetime. Do you know the joy that only Jesus can bring? May you have a joyful Christmas.
Written, December 2016
I went to a funeral yesterday, which had been postponed until after the birth of a baby. The safe arrival of a baby can bring joy amidst despair. It is good news. This was particularly true in the days before modern medicine when some mothers and babies didn’t survive child birth. It’s a significant event that is anticipated by the parents and their family and friends. But the birth we remember at Christmas was unique in bringing joy to both earth and heaven. We see that God changes despair into joy.
Joy on earth
At Christ’s birth the shepherds were told, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). This was good news for a nation that despaired for at least 500 years when they were ruled by foreign powers and lacked a proper king (Herod was not a Jew). They were looking for the promised Messiah to lead a rebellion against the Romans and bring them lasting peace and prosperity (Is. 9:6-7; Lk. 23:2-5). They also knew that their Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2, 4; Jn. 7:42).
God revealed to two elderly people that baby Jesus was the promised Messiah. Simeon could now die in peace (Lk. 2:29). Anna thanked God and told others who were looking forward to being freed from foreign domination (Lk. 2:38).
But the good news was not restricted to Jews in Israel. Gentile astrologers from east of Israel came to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:1-2).
On 22 July 2013 a son was born to Prince William and Kate Middleton The birth of an heir to the throne, such as Prince George, brings joy to a nation. Because Christ’s was a royal birth, there was joy in Israel. But what made this event different to the birth of Prince George?
Joy in heaven
Prince George was given a family name. Jesus was also given a family name (the same as Joshua: “Jesus” is from Greek, while “Joshua” is from Hebrew), but it was “because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). The Jews wanted to be delivered from Roman rule. But instead they are promised to be saved from their sins!
There was also joy in heaven at Christ’s birth – the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They also declare that Christ is the source of peace on earth. This peace is available to those who repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That’s how people are saved from their sins. This joy continues today because there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and turns to God (Lk. 15:7, 10).
From despair to joy
Through the birth of a baby, God changed the Jewish despair into joy. However, Jesus wasn’t only a Savior for the Jews, but for all the people of the world (Jn. 3:16; 4:42). Through Jesus joy is available to those who accept His gift of salvation and this joy extends to heaven.
Do you realise the significance of Christ’s birth? The significance of His life, death, resurrection and ascension? Have you caused rejoicing in heaven? Let’s remember these things at Christmas (Lk. 2:19).
Remember God can change despair into joy.
Written, December 2013
In Scripture, the word translated “heaven” has three meanings: the atmosphere/sky, the universe, and the dwelling place of God and the angels. The meaning is determined from the context in which the Hebrew or Greek word is used. In this article we are looking at the heaven where God is.
Revelation 21:1 – 22:5 is the main Biblical passage about the eternal state, which we call heaven. This passage describes the change from time to eternity.
Everything is new
Chapter 21 begins: Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away (21:1NIV). Here we see that God will create a new heaven and a new earth. The creation of the first heaven and earth is described as the beginning of the Bible (Gen. 1:1-2:4). The change described in Genesis was from eternity to time, while that in Revelation is from our temporal world where there is past, present and future to eternity where time is meaningless. Of course, the heaven that will be renewed is not the place where God lives, but the universe that has been affected by the sin of mankind.
When we become a Christian, our soul is redeemed. It’s like a new life has begun – it has been called being born again (2 Cor. 5:17). It’s a new spiritual creation that is not completed until our bodies are also redeemed at the rapture. In fact all of God’s creation is looking forward to when Christ returns to the Earth when it will be changed and redeemed. In this part of Revelation we read about the final change into the eternal state. The old universe is transformed and replaced with the new. It will be free from death and decay, which are the results of sin (Rom. 8:20-21). It will be paradise, like in the Garden of Eden before sin entered. Also, believers will have new bodies, like that of the risen Lord (Phil. 3: 21).
God says I am making everything new! (21:5). Then He says It is done. When He has created the new universe, redemption is complete. God has finished His great plan of salvation. So, what is heaven like? It’s different to anything that we have experienced. One of the reasons it’s so hard to describe is that it is not just another place but another dimension, another creation.
No more …
The Bible says that in heaven, He (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (21:4) and No longer will there be any curse (22:3)
In heaven there will be no more: pain, crying, sorrow or death (21:4). No more sin or its consequences – the curse of God (22:3). Everything that caused pain and sadness on earth will not be present in heaven. The old sinful world has passed away, and Satan, his demons and those who chose to follow him will have been cast away from God’s presence (Rev. 20:10-15).
Besides no more crying, sighing, or dying; there will be: No hospitals or graves! No aging or wrinkles. Nothing will ruin, rot, or rust. There will be no thirsting, or hungering. No itching, no blindness, no deafness, no diabetes, no cancer, or heart attacks, or scars, no witchcraft, no drugs, no alcohol, or tobacco! No divorce, child abductions, accidents…and no more bills! What a place to look forward to!
So pain is replaced by peace and joy. Heaven is a place of relief. There will be no need to worry. As we found out earlier, it’s different to anything that we have experienced.
John wrote The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city (22:3) This is the city in heaven, which we will look at shortly.
“The throne” is mentioned four times in this passage and 39 times in Revelation. When John was taken to heaven, the first thing he saw was the awesome throne of God the Father (Rev. 4). The throne is central in heaven and in the book of Revelation. From it God reigns over the whole universe; both physical and spiritual. He is the Lord God Almighty (21:22).
“The Lamb” is mentioned four times in this passage and 26 times in Revelation. In heaven John “saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre before the throne” (Rev. 5:6). It symbolises that the Lord Jesus Christ was a sacrifice for our sin. He receives honor and praise because he died so that many people can be in heaven. He paid the price for their entry.
So heaven is God’s home.
The home of the redeemed
An angel told John, Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:9)
“The bride” is mentioned twice in this passage and 4 times in this context in Revelation. It refers to “God’s people” or those whose names are written in the “book of life” (Rev. 19:7; 22:17). This metaphor illustrates the close intimacy we will have with the Lord in heaven, who is the bridegroom. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads (22:4) – just as a bride bears her husband’s name and sees his face, the redeemed have a close relationship with the Lord.
This intimacy is also shown by Him calling us His children (21:7). God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God (21:3). Like in the Garden of Eden, they will be able to walk with God in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). It will be Immanuel, “God with us” and us with God; forever.
Paul wrote about the rapture: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:17). Heaven is being with the Lord forever.
So heaven is also the home of the redeemed, our common home with the Lord.
The new Jerusalem – city of light
Jesus told the disciples “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (Jn. 14:2). This place is described in our passage as a spectacular city. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:2) and One of the … angels … came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God (21:9-10).
As the city comes down towards the earth from heaven where God lives, we see that in the eternal state the distinction between heaven and earth loses its significance. God now lives with the redeemed and the redeemed live with Him.
It (the city) shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal (21:11). Is this literal or symbolic? I think it is both at the same time. God loves to use literal things as symbols. For example, the prophecy of Joel in the Old Testament opens with a vivid description of a plague of locusts that ate up every green thing. Joel describes them in dramatic and accurate terms but his description soon becomes a description of the invasion of a great army from Babylon that would come into the land. So the plague was also symbolic of the invasion.
God also pictures something invisible by means of a literal event. For instance, the sun is literal, but it can be a symbol of light, knowledge and truth. Likewise, fire is literal, but it can be symbolic of torment, torture and judgment.
Revelation is an unusual blending of the literal and the symbolic– many events and things in it are both literal and symbolic. Fortunately, most all of these symbols are given to us elsewhere in the Bible.
The New Jerusalem seems to be a great visible magnificent city which will also illustrate activities and relationships of the redeemed (21:12 – 22:3). What can it symbolise?
|City||A community; filled with people who interact with each other|
|High wall||Protection; separation from others; intimacy|
|Brilliant appearance (eternal light, no darkness)||God is light|
|12 Gates (entry and egress; always open)||None of God’s people will ever be shut out from His presence; Widespread service|
|Names of tribes of Israel on the gates||A reminder that salvation came from the Jews (Jn. 4:22)|
|12 layers of foundations||Stability; permanence|
|Names of the apostles on the foundations||Taught the gospel; enabled it to spread across the world.|
|Number 12||The number of government (12 tribes; 12 apostles)|
|Shape (maybe a pyramid; symmetry)||Perfect proportions; harmony|
|Building materials (precious gemstones)||Valuable|
|Pearl gates (beauty out of pain)||Christ sacrificed His life for the redeemed (a pearl of great value; Mt. 13:45)|
|River||Holy Spirit (Jn. 7:38-39)|
|Tree of life||Jesus; spiritual nourishment|
What a wonderful place! A place of great beauty.
What will we be doing?
You may wonder if we don’t have to work to pay the bills, what will we do in heaven? Here are three things that are mentioned in Revelation.
First, offering thanks and praise. Worship and praise to God characterise all the descriptions of heaven in Revelation (Chs: 4, 5, 7, 11, 15, 19). For example, after God has dealt with sin and the fall, He will be honored universally (Phil. 2:10-11; Rev 5:13). Second, serving the Lord (22:3). The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him (22:3). We will be active. Third, reigning with the Lord (22:5). As God reigns over the whole universe, I’m sure there is a lot to look after.
So in heaven we will be worshipping, serving and reigning.
Before the eternal state begins, Jesus promised to return for His people at the rapture and then to return in power and glory to judge the sinful world and usher in his millennial reign over the earth. Although believers look forward to this time, we don’t know when it will occur. Later in Revelation 22, Jesus says three times “I am coming soon”.
But you may think, John wrote Revelation about 1,900 years ago and the Lord hasn’t come yet. Remember, we have just looked at our destiny and the transition from time into eternity. For us, this transition happens the minute we die, which could be very soon. Although there may be some time before the events described in Revelation occur, it will not be long before each of us leaves time and enters eternity. In this sense, heaven and hell could be a breath away.
Lessons for us
John has given us a glimpse into what Heaven is like. In the Bible, future events are always foretold in order to bring about changes in our present actions. What does this mean to us today?
Firstly, will you be there? The Bible clearly states that heaven is only for God’s people; those who have trusted in Christ’s sacrifice for their sin. The rest are said to be outside suffering in the lake of fire. They are unbelievers and their names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 20:12; 21:27). If this is your case, please consider God’s gift of salvation and eternal life in heaven. The Bible says that God loved the people of the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him will not perish in hell but have eternal life in heaven (Jn. 3:16).
Christians have a wonderful destination. Knowing our destination is important because it provides direction for the journey of life, makes it meaningful, and fortifies us when the journey is difficult. It doesn’t matter what we face, if we have the hope of heaven, we don’t have to give in to fear.
All the above is a promised inheritance for the redeemed; it’s also called “the heavenly prize” (21:7; Phil. 3:14). Peter calls it a living hope for an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Pt.1:4).
Heaven means being forever with the Lord; Paul says it’s being “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6). Peter wrote: “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). Are we all looking forward to heaven?
Written, May 2010
See the other article in this series:
– What is hell like?
Surviving difficult times
Life doesn’t always go smoothly. We all face times of sadness, sorrow, struggle and disappointment. However, for the believer the sorrow of difficult times should flow into joy. This is an important principle for the people of God.
The Promised Messiah
The Holy Spirit made revelations to the Old Testament prophets which they didn’t always understand. Nevertheless, these were recorded for the people of God down through the ages. Many prophecies concern the Messiah who would restore Israel as a nation, judge wickedness and rule over the earth (Is. 9:6-7). Peter said they “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11TNIV). This is also what Jesus told the two on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:25-27). With hindsight we see that passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 describe the sufferings of Christ, but this may not have been evident in Old Testament times. In particular, they didn’t know that the suffering would occur during His first visit to the earth and the glories during His second visit to the earth. However, Daniel was told that the Messiah would be put to death (Dan. 9:26).
When the long-awaited Messiah was born in Bethlehem, the angel told the shepherds “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). The Jews were waiting for the Messiah to come and release them from the oppression of the Roman Empire. Instead they had to learn that honor and glory is preceded by suffering.
Although Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, he could not accept the idea that Jesus would be rejected and killed (Mt. 16:16, 21-22; Mk. 8:31-32). Because their concept of the Messiah was one who would be a victorious leader, the disciples didn’t understand when Jesus told them that He would suffer (Lk. 9:45; 18:34). They were looking for a Messiah who would release them from Roman domination and set up His kingdom immediately (Lk. 19:11; 24:21; Acts 1:6).
Near the end of His ministry Jesus told His disciples: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (Jn. 16:20-22). He foretold that they would experience sorrow at His crucifixion, but this grief would turn to joy after the resurrection. This transformation would be like the pain of a mother giving birth being replaced by joy. They were assured “no one will take away your joy”.
Jesus said that the reason for this teaching was: “so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The prospect of joy enabled the disciples to have peace of mind amidst their troubles.
Today we can learn from these examples in Scripture. When we face sorrow and grief let’s remember that Christ had to go through the sorrow before He will experience glory, honor and joy at the second coming. The sorrow is temporary, while the joy is eternal.
Unlike the disciples, we don’t have to wait for the resurrection to experience joy. Instead we look back on the resurrection as the basis for our joy. Likewise, we don’t have to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell us to experience joy. Instead we rejoice that He is always present within us (Gal. 5:22). That’s why we can have peace with God despite the trouble in our world. But we do look ahead to the second coming as another basis for our joy. Until Christ comes to reign on earth, God’s people anticipate His final victory.
Written, December 2007
In this Series on 1 Thessalonians we have seen that Paul visited and preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. Because he couldn’t visit them for some time, he wrote a letter of encouragement. From 4:1 to 5:11 Paul reminded them how to please God – avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. Instead of grieving for those who had died, they were to look forward to being reunited with them and to be awake and sober as they looked forward to the Lord’s return. Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with the elders, other believers and God.
Living With Church Leaders
“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 NIV
These verses address leadership in the local church. The Bible teaches that each church is to be led by a group of qualified elders who share this responsibility. Several characteristics of elders are mentioned here. They are to “work hard” at caring for people. They are to be “over” the congregation, meaning that they are to maintain or rule. In other letters Paul said that they “direct the affairs of the church” and “lead” (1 Tim. 5:17; Rom. 12:8). Both Paul and Peter likened their care to spiritual parents caring for a family (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Elders are also to “admonish” or gently reprove the congregation. Paul used the same word when he told them to warn anyone who didn’t obey his instructions (2 Th. 3:15). Elders are to remind the church of God’s truths and the dangers of living a self-centered life.
In this passage, the congregation was given two responsibilities with respect to the elders. It was to “respect” them. This Greek word is translated as “acknowledge” (TNIV), “know” (KJV), “recognize” (NKJV), “appreciate” (NASB) and “honor” (NLT). The congregation needs to know the elders if they are going to trust and follow them. They are also to “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else.
In this context Paul encouraged Thessalonians to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (1 Th. 5:23; Gal. 5:22). There is a need to value all the elders, as favoring one divides the congregation. Also, elders should serve the whole congregation, not just part of it. Paul wrote elsewhere that we should “make every effort to do what leads to peace” and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 14:19; 12:18).
Living With Believers
“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15
Here Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working in order to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-11). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that “anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior (2 Th. 3:10-13). This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.
“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work.
“Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. Paul also taught that we shouldn’t stumble those who are weak in the faith (Rom. 14:1-15; 1 Cor. 8:13). They need our encouragement, friendship and help.
Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). When someone hurts us, we should not get angry and retaliate, but rather seek reconciliation (Mt. 18:15-17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.
Living Before God In All Circumstances
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Paul began with “Be joyful always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. In Philippians 4:4 he added that our rejoicing should be “in the Lord.” This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1 Th. 1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.
Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. For example, when Peter was in prison, the believers prayed and he was released (Acts 12:1-19). We should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests … and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18).
Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Believers should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7) even in the trials and difficulties which mature us. We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. Daniel prayed three times a day, “giving thanks to his God” even though his life was in danger (Dan. 6:10-12). We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.
Living Before God As He Guides
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church. This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to keep the Spirit’s fire burning by following Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and by following the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything.” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. Paul also said that those listening to prophets should discern or “weigh carefully” what they say (1 Cor. 14:29). They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
“May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful. There are different aspects to sanctification (holiness), and here he addressed progressive sanctification. Paul prayed that their sanctification would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul.
It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.
“Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28
After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him. The kiss was a normal greeting of that day, similar to a handshake in western countries. It expressed friendship with fellow believers. Paul wanted “to have this letter read to all” brothers and sisters, a statement not found in any of his other letters (5:27); he thought it was that important. We should read it with this in mind.
Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.
Lessons For Us
Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.
May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.
Published, June 2009
See the next article in this series: Encouragement during trials and suffering (2 Thessalonians 1)
In this series we have seen that Paul preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. These people turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. They were also a good example for all believers in Greece. Paul loved new believers like a mother caring for her baby, and coached them like a father training his children. He was a hard worker. He knew the opposition the Thessalonians faced because he had faced it as well.
In Part 3 we look at Paul’s joy, which is mentioned three times (1 Th. 2:19,20; 3:9). We will see his priorities in life and his attitude towards new believers.
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1 Th. 2:17-20 NIV)
Paul explained his failure to return to Thessalonica (2:17-18). Perhaps his critics accused him of being afraid to go back because of the opposition he faced, but Paul said that his separation from them was like being “torn away.” He felt like an orphan – their close relationship was like family.
His concern for the Thessalonians is clearly evident. Although he was forced to leave the city, he still thought about them regularly. In fact, he had an “intense longing” to know how they were doing, and did all he could to visit them again. He tried at least twice, but his plans were blocked by Satan (2:18). But God always overrules Satan’s opposition, and in this case He used Paul’s delay so this letter would be written and believers in all eras could benefit from Paul’s example.
Satan wants to hinder the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of believers. When we face hindrances in God’s work, Satan is often behind them. Paul wrote: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Satan and his demons are the real enemy, not the people or circumstances that they use. Satanic opposition is permitted by God. Remember how Satan got God’s permission before he afflicted Job. It is God’s way of getting our attention. Nothing happens by chance to Christians.
Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. He also said that the believers in Philippi were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1).
The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and our efforts might have been useless” (1 Th. 3:1-5).
Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.
Hardship And Opposition
Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). When he revisited Pisidia he said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The journey for believers before they share in Christ’s glory involves suffering (2 Tim. 3:12; Jn. 16:33). The Lord warned His disciples that to follow Him meant facing opposition: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). We know that Christ and the apostles were persecuted (1 Pet. 2:21). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.
God uses opposition, persecution, suffering and trials to discipline and train us (Heb. 12:7-11). They can test and prove our faith and weed out those who profess but don’t have true faith (Mk. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). As we experience God’s comfort, we can encourage others who are going through difficult times (2 Cor. 1:4). Difficulties also develop character (Rom. 5:3; Jas. 1:3) and make us more zealous in spreading the gospel (Acts 8:3-4).
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 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?” (1Th. 3:6-9).
Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were clearly evident. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter.
They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. To the Galatians Paul wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And to the Ephesians he wrote: “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints I have not stopped giving thanks” (Eph. 1:15-16).
Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9). His attitude was like John who wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn. 4).
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Th. 3:10-13).
When it’s hard to know what to pray for Paul wrote: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).
When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically. “Most earnestly” is a compound Greek word meaning “most exceedingly.” He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). He also wrote, “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-17).
Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.
In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1 Th. 1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually.
Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).
Lessons For Us
This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.
The Lord’s command to His disciples was, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Making disciples was Paul’s passion.
Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?
Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong in the midst of suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?
This was Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians, and for us.
Published, March 2009