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Lesson 20: Three Impossible Commands (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

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December 11, 2016

All of God’s commandments in the Bible are beyond our ability to obey in the flesh, so we must rely on His indwelling Holy Spirit. But some of the Bible’s commands are not just difficult, but impossible. Matthew 5:48: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In all of history, no one except Jesus has ever come close to keeping that command! Or, could anyone claim to have achieved perfect obedience to the two great commandments, to love God with your total being and to love others as much as you love yourself (Matt. 22:37-39)?

Our text gives us three impossible commands (1 Thess. 5:16-18): “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” If Paul had only said, “Rejoice a lot, pray often, and try to be thankful,” I maybe could say, “Okay, I’ll try to do that!” But no one honestly can say, “I rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks!” And you can’t resolve, “I’ll start obeying those commands today!” Next week, you couldn’t honestly say, “I’ve kept those commands this past week. There wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks!”

So what do we do with these impossible commands? Curiously, John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 124) argues that these commands are not directed to us individually, but rather to the church regarding our public worship. He says that joy and happiness are not at our command, to turn “on and off like a tap.” But there are many biblical commands to rejoice and be glad in the Lord. And while our corporate worship should be filled with joy, prayer, and thanksgiving, we will not do these together in worship if we haven’t been doing them individually during the week. So I think that they must apply to us individually first.

It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t offer any explanation or help here on what these commands mean or how we can obey them. He just states them in staccato fashion and moves on! But other Scriptures do offer some help in understanding what these commands mean and how we can begin to develop the attitudes and habits that will help us move toward the mark, even if in this life we will never obey these commands perfectly. Paul’s idea is easily stated:

God commands us to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything.

With each command, I want to explain what it means and give some help on how to grow in obeying it. Note, also, that Paul says (1 Thess. 5:18), “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Virtually all commentators agree that “this” refers to the previous three commands, not just to the third. You may have trouble discerning God’s will in some areas of your life. But, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks are always God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

That last phrase gives the underlying clue as to how we can begin to obey these commands: We must be “in Christ Jesus.” Without being in union with Him through His indwelling Holy Spirit, we could never come close to obeying these commands. We are placed into union with Christ the moment that we trust in Him to save us from God’s judgment that we deserve because of our sins. As Paul says (1 Cor. 1:30), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”

So to obey these impossible commands, we must have experienced the new birth so that we are in Christ and He dwells in us. As we learn to abide in Him and trust in Him to work through us, we will progressively become conformed to His image. Jesus was always rejoicing, always praying, and always thankful. So being in Him and relying on Him are the keys to becoming like Him in these three qualities.

1. God commands us to rejoice always.

What does this command mean?

Does “rejoicing always” mean that you always go around with a smile on your face and an upbeat “Tigger” bounce in your steps? Are you sinning if you ever feel sad, depressed, upset, or grieved? I have met Christians who seem to think so. One man I used to know had some major problems in his life. But whenever I asked, “How are you doing?” he would reply, “I’m just praising the Lord!” He seemed to think that it would be unspiritual to reply, “I’m really struggling with some things.” I think he had bought into the positive confession heresy that our words create reality. So he always put on a happy face and said that he was praising the Lord. But he seemed to be denying reality.

If “rejoicing always” means always being upbeat and never feeling sadness, then we have a problem, because neither Jesus nor Paul were always happy. It’s interesting that the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is (1 Thess. 5:16), “Rejoice always,” but the shortest verse in the English New Testament is (John 11:35), “Jesus wept.” As He faced the cross, Jesus prayed “with loud crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7). In 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul described himself, “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” In Romans 12:15, he tells us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” He does not say, “Exhort those who weep to stop weeping and start rejoicing!”

So “rejoice always” does not mean, “Deny your feelings, put on a happy face, and never feel sad.” Regarding the trials that God brings into our lives to train us as His children, the Bible acknowledges (Heb. 12:11), “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

So, what does Paul mean when he commands, “Rejoice always”? First, it’s important to remember that he wrote this to new believers who were suffering persecution because of their faith (1 Thess. 3:3-4). And the command follows Paul’s exhortation that we should not get even when someone mistreats us. Probably Paul had taught them Jesus’ words (Matt. 5:11-12):

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Or, as James (1:2-3) put it: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” In Romans 5:3-5, Paul wrote, “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

So, given their difficult circumstances, this command to rejoice always has to be viewed not primarily as a matter of feelings, but rather of obedience. When we are in difficult trials or if people have mistreated us because of our faith, 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, where our life is hidden in Him (Col. 3:1-4), and rejoice. As Paul commanded the Philippians (4:4), “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” That little phrase, “in the Lord” is the key. Since we are eternally “in the Lord” through faith in Christ, we can always rejoice “in the Lord.” Our joy cannot be totally oblivious to circumstances, but neither should it be governed by them.

So “rejoicing always” is a conscious attitude of contentment, hope, and happiness that comes from deliberately focusing on Christ and the eternal treasures that we have received freely from Him. Sometimes, as John Piper puts it (When I Don’t Desire God [Crossway]), we have to “fight for joy” in the Lord. We see this often in the Psalms. The psalm begins with the psalmist crying out to God for help in the midst of some life-threatening trial. But by the end of the psalm he’s praising the Lord and rejoicing in Him, even though his circumstances haven’t yet changed. What changed was his deliberate focus on the Lord. For example, Psalm 5 begins with David mentioning his groaning and his cry for help. As the psalm unfolds, we see that he was groaning because of enemies, whose inward part was destruction and their throats an open grave (Ps. 5:9). But having meditated on God’s abundant lovingkindness (Ps. 5:7), David concludes on this triumphant note (Ps. 5:11-12):

But let all who take refuge in You be glad,
Let them ever sing for joy;
And may You shelter them,
That those who love Your name may exult in You.
For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O Lord,
You surround him with favor as with a shield.

Of course, Paul himself had displayed this deliberate joy in the Lord when he was unjustly arrested, beaten without a trial, and thrown into the stocks in the Philippian jail. At midnight, he and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God (Acts 16:25). The same was true of the apostles. After the Jewish leaders flogged them for preaching the resurrection of Jesus, we read (Acts 5:41), “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” So to rejoice always means that we must make this deliberate choice to focus on the Lord and the unfathomable riches that we have in Him, not on our difficult circumstances. And this joy shines the brightest in dark situations. If we do all things with joy in the Lord rather than grumbling or complaining, we will stand out as lights in this dark world (Phil. 2:14-15).

Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 172) observes about these first century believers:

Persecution was always threatening and often actual. The believers were usually in straitened circumstances and compelled to work hard for a living. Their lot can rarely have been other than hard. But if we fasten our attention on these things we put our emphasis in the wrong place. They thought more of their Lord than of their difficulties; more of their spiritual riches in Christ than of their poverty on earth; more of the glorious future when their Lord should come again than of their unhappy past.

So the question becomes,

How can we develop a habit of rejoicing always?

First, daily focus on the riches that God has freely given you in Christ. For example, Ephesians 1:3-14 says that you have all spiritual blessings in Him. God chose you in Him before the foundation of the world. In love, He predestined you to adoption as His child. He freely bestowed His grace on you in Christ. In Him you have redemption and forgiveness of all your sins, lavished upon you by His grace. He has made known to you the mystery of His will. He has given you an inheritance and has sealed you with the Holy Spirit of promise. Now, what is your problem?

Second, walk in the Spirit, not the flesh. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). To walk in the Spirit means daily to yield to Him and to rely on Him to control your life in every situation. It takes time to produce fruit. It doesn’t pop out on a tree the day after you plant it! But if you walk consistently by the Spirit, eventually the fruit of joy will be yours.

Third, sing! If you’re feeling down, get out a hymnbook or put on some solid Christian music and sing of God’s goodness, grace, and love. Singing is one way of implementing the first strategy—focusing on the riches that God has freely given to you in Christ. I have not verified it, but I heard once that the most frequent command in the Bible is, “Sing!” The longest book in the Bible is a songbook. Use it often to set your mind on the things above.

2. God commands us to pray without ceasing.

What does this command mean?

Does this mean that you must pray every waking moment? Obviously, not, because neither Paul nor the Lord Jesus did that. It is helpful to know that the word translated “without ceasing” was used of a hacking cough. A person with a bad cough doesn’t cough continuously, but often and repeatedly. It was also used of repeated military attacks. An army would attack a city but not succeed. They would regroup and attack over and over until they won the victory.

Even so, our prayers should be frequent and persistent. Like the friend who came at midnight to ask for a loaf of bread (Luke 11:5-13), we keep knocking until we get what we’re after. Like the widow who kept bothering the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), we keep coming back until we obtain what we were asking for.

Rejoicing always and praying without ceasing are related, because it is through prayer that we lay hold of the riches that we have in Christ, which are the source of true joy. Prayer claims the promises of God in our trials. Laying hold of God’s promises brings joy, because we know that He is for us. As Paul wrote (Rom. 8:31-32), “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”

How can we develop a habit of praying without ceasing?

It’s a lifelong process. But, first, (in the words of Paul Miller, A Praying Life [NavPress], p. 44), “Know that … you can’t do life on your own.” In other words, recognize your need to depend on the Lord in every situation. Prayer is the language of trusting in the Lord.

Second, send up short prayers whenever you can. When you think of a loved one or friend, send up a short prayer for him or her. When someone asks you to pray for some need, don’t promise to pray later and then forget. Pray right there with the person. I love the scene where Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the pagan King Artaxerxes, had been sad in the king’s presence. This was a serious offense and Nehemiah was afraid. He explained to the king that he was sad because his home city, Jerusalem, was desolate and destroyed. The king asked what Nehemiah would request. Nehemiah (2:4-5) reports, “So I prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king ….” I’m sure he didn’t excuse himself for a few minutes of prayer! Rather, he shot up a silent prayer to God and then spoke to the king.

Third, spend time in God’s word and prayer each morning. Pray the word back to God. The Psalms are helpful in this way, but also all of Scripture (see Donald Whitney, Praying the Bible [Crossway]). Keep asking until you receive, seeking until you find, and knocking until the door is opened unto you (Luke 11:9-10).

Fourth, read some good books on prayer. Two that I’ve found helpful are Paul Miller’s A Praying Life [NavPress] and Bill Thrasher’s A Journey to Victorious Praying [Moody Publishers]. Also, Answers to Prayer [Moody] from George Muller’s Journal, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], by A. T. Pierson, and the 70 pages in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 3:20, are very helpful. On our church website, I have a short list of “Insights on Prayer” I gleaned from Calvin and Muller.

3. God commands us to give thanks in everything.

What does this command mean?

This command means that in every situation we are to give thanks to our sovereign and good God and Savior. In Ephesians 5:20, Paul puts it, “always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father.” Giving thanks in every situation does not mean that we must be happy with every situation or resigned to accept matters without praying and working for change. I was not satisfied when I was single at age 26, and so I prayed often that God would change that. But by faith I could still thank Him, knowing that He was using that lonely time in my life to deepen my relationship with Him. And, ever since He answered my prayer when I met Marla on January 5, 1974, I have been overflowing with thankfulness for His giving her to me.

Also, we don’t need to feel thankful before we give thanks. When God takes us through hard trials, we don’t feel thankful. But by faith we can say, “Lord, I trust that You are good and that You know what You’re doing in this difficult situation. I submit to Your sovereign hand and purpose, knowing that You will work it together for my good.” So, like rejoicing always, giving thanks in everything is often a choice to believe God in difficult circumstances.

How can we develop a habit of thankfulness to God in every situation?

First, and most importantly, deepen your understanding of God’s sovereignty and goodness. The story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) illustrates this truth. Joseph’s brothers hated him and planned to kill him until they saw a caravan of traders heading toward Egypt. So they cruelly sold their brother into slavery. He ended up getting thrown in prison, even though he obeyed God by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He begged the cupbearer to mention his case to Pharaoh so that he could be released, but the cupbearer forgot. Two years later, Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and was instantly elevated to the second most powerful position in the country.

Later, he was able to be reconciled to his brothers and to see his aged father again. But after Jacob died, the brothers feared that Joseph would get even with them for what they had done. At that point, Joseph wept and asked, “Am I in God’s place?” Then he revealed the theological perspective that had sustained him during those awful years of slavery and imprisonment (Gen. 50:20): “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” Joseph saw God both as sovereign and good. Submitting to the sovereign goodness of God in every situation the key to a thankful heart.

Second, thankfulness will be our habit when trust in God is our habit. Thankfulness and trust are bound together. If you are trusting God, you’re thankful. If you are not thankful, then you’re not trusting God. This is illustrated with the children of Israel. God delivered them from slavery in Egypt by the ten miraculous plagues on the Egyptians, while sparing Israel. He miraculously brought them through the Red Sea and then closed the water on top of the pursuing Egyptian army. You would think that by this point, they could thankfully trust in God. But we read (Exod. 15:22-24) that they then went three days into the wilderness, found no water, and grumbled at Moses, which really was grumbling at God. They didn’t trust that the God who had powerfully saved them from slavery could provide water in the desert.

If you’re grumbling, you’re not trusting. If you’re not trusting, you’re not thankful. Develop a habit of trusting God, especially in trials, and you will thank Him both for His great salvation and for the opportunity to see Him work in your time of need.

Conclusion

Thirteen years before his conversion, John Wesley had a conversation one night with a porter of his college that impressed Wesley that there was more to Christianity than he had found. The porter had only one coat. He had eaten no food that day and yet his heart was full of gratitude to God. Wesley said to him, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon? What else do you thank him for?”

“I thank him,” answered the porter, “that He has given me my life and being, and a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.” (A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze [Eerdmans], p. 100)

“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.” Even though we’ll never obey these commands perfectly, we should be working at making progress, because, “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Application Questions

  1. Where is the balance between not denying our feelings and yet not living by feelings, but by faith? For example, see Psalm 44.
  2. Discuss: Is depression a sin? Always? Never? Sometimes?
  3. Agree/disagree: Whatever one’s personality, every Christian can consistently experience God’s joy?
  4. What has most helped you to grow in prayer and thankfulness?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Prayer