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Lesson 23: A Life of Thankful Worship (Colossians 3:16-17)

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May 8, 2016

That profound thinker, Charlie Brown, asks his friend, Linus, “Do you ever think much about the future?” Linus replies, “Oh, yes, all the time.” “What do you think you’d like to be when you grow up?” Charlie asks. Linus thinks a moment and replies, “Outrageously happy!” (You’re a Winner, Charlie Brown, Charles Schulz [Fawcett Crest Books])

There are basically two ways to try to gain happiness. The first is to try to arrange your circumstances so that you will be content. You try to get a fulfilling job, a satisfying marriage and family life, and enough money to be comfortable. The problem is, none of these things are secure. You can lose your job, there isn’t a trouble-free marriage or family on earth, and the good things in life can be changed instantly by uncontrollable factors, such as war, fire, natural disasters, disease, or death.

The other way to seek happiness is to seek it in the Lord. If you’re happy in God you’ve got lasting happiness. You may go through tremendous trials and be deprived even of life itself. But through it all you’ve got abiding joy in the Lord. The apostles knew that kind of happiness in God. When they were warned not to preach any more in the name of Jesus and then were flogged, they went on their way, “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Paul and Silas had the same joy. When they were unjustly beaten without a trial and thrown into jail, at midnight they were praying and singing hymns of praise to God (Acts 16:25). Paul would later write to the church in Philippi, where that incident happened, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).

George Muller, who by faith and prayer supported thousands of orphans, experienced the same solid joy in the Lord. Roger Steer subtitled his biography of him, “Delighted in God” (George Muller: Delighted in God [Shaw]). Muller practiced and taught that the first business of every day is to seek to be truly at rest and happy in God (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 257).

Are you happy in God? I’m sure that we all can use some pointers in how to grow in that area! In Colossians 3:16-17, Paul describes a life that is happy in God. It’s a life of thankful worship:

The Lord’s people should be marked by thankful worship engaging the whole person in all of life.

Verse 16 describes the church gathering, where we are to teach and admonish one another through the Word and singing, thankfully praising God. Verse 17 extends it to all of life: Everything we do should be done thankfully in the name of the Lord Jesus. Thankful worship should be the aroma that surrounds every Christian, so that, as was said of Mary’s anointing of Jesus, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3).

What do we mean by worship? William Temple’s well-known definition (widely cited on the Internet) is probably the most eloquent: “For to worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.” John MacArthur, in his excellent study of worship, The Ultimate Priority ([Moody Press], p. 127), defines worship as “our innermost being responding with praise for all that God is, through our attitudes, actions, thoughts, and words, based on the truth of God as He has revealed Himself.” Or more succinctly he says (p. 147), “Worship is all that we are, reacting rightly to all that He is.”

Whenever people in the Bible encountered God or His ways, worship was their spontaneous response. They immediately sensed His majesty and at the same time realized their own frailty and sinfulness. Worship was the result. So the key to worship is not to focus on worship, but to focus on God. When my mind, emotions, and will are properly related to God, I will be thankfully worshiping Him for His majesty, glory, and abundant goodness. Our text reveals four things about thankful worship:

1. Thankful worship engages the mind with the word of Christ.

“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you ….” “The word of Christ” refers to Christ’s teaching and the teaching about Him, which means, the whole Bible. All of Scripture points toward Him (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46). The phrase, “the word of Christ,” occurs only here in the Bible. Paul uses it because he is emphasizing the supremacy of Jesus Christ to a church plagued with false teachers who denied Christ His rightful place. The Scriptures are the word of Christ in that they speak to us about Christ and they direct us to Christ as Savior and Lord.

Paul says that we should let the word of Christ richly dwell within us. Richly implies the fullness and completeness of God’s Word for all of life. When you come to the Bible, you come to an inexhaustible treasure. It’s like the universe—the further astronomers peer into space, the more they are overwhelmed with the fact that they cannot get to the end of it. There are billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars. The more you dig into the Bible, the more you discover how little of it you understand and how much of it there is to understand.

To let the word of Christ richly dwell in us also implies that we need an abundant supply of God’s Word. Gorge yourself on the Word! In modern slang, “Pig out on the Word!” While eating too much rich food will damage your health, the more spiritually rich food you eat, the healthier you become. If our physical weight were determined by how much of God’s Word we fed on each week, would we be a skinny church or a fat church?

Dwell implies living in the Scriptures so that the Scriptures live in you. I may visit your home and you give me a tour through all the rooms. But I don’t live there. To live there means that it’s the place I keep coming back to each day. I’m comfortable there. I’m familiar with my home. It’s where I go for refuge and rest. All that’s implied in the concept of dwelling in a home should be true of my dwelling in the word of Christ and the Word dwelling in me.

“In you” means that Paul isn’t talking here only about each of us having personal Bible study. He’s talking about the word of Christ dwelling richly in the church (“you” is plural). We are to teach and admonish one another. To do this, our individual intake of the Word should spill over so that whether on Sundays or during the week, the word of Christ permeates the life of the church.

Scholars debate how to punctuate verse 16 (the original text did not have punctuation). You can punctuate it so that the sense is that we use the word of Christ to teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, making the rest of the sentence, “singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (NIV, ESV). Or, the sense may be that as the word of Christ richly dwells in us, we teach and admonish one another through our singing (NASB). Grammatically it’s difficult to decide, but practically, there is truth in each view.

We teach and admonish one another both through the Word and through doctrinally sound songs. That’s one reason I think we should sing some of the great hymns of the faith. They teach solid biblical truth. “Teach” refers to communicating doctrine or biblical precepts; “admonish” means to give correction or warning. “Wisdom” refers to skill in applying God’s truth in specific situations. So whether it’s from the pulpit, in a home fellowship, a small group Bible study, or in a private conversation, whether through speaking or through singing, the word of Christ must be at home in us so that we are wisely applying it, both personally and with others.

This means that biblical truth is essential for worship. The goal of theology should be doxology, or worship. Jesus told the woman at the well that God is seeking those who worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). You cannot worship God in truth unless you know who He is as revealed in His Word. If you worship a god who is loving, but he overlooks sin, you’re not worshiping the true God, but rather an idol you made up, because the God of the Bible is loving and holy. True worship rests on knowing God truly as revealed in His Word. Without God’s revealed truth, all the emotion in the world is misdirected and futile. Thankful worship begins by engaging our minds with the word of Christ.

2. Thankful worship engages the mind and emotions in joyful singing to Christ.

“With songs and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Obviously I view preaching the Word as important or I wouldn’t spend as many hours each week preparing the sermon as I do! But singing is not the filler that allows late-comers to arrive before we get down to the main reason for coming—the sermon. I hope that my sermons lead you to worship as you realize more deeply who God is and all the blessings He has freely given to us. But singing also ought to focus our minds and hearts on God and His gracious salvation, so that we respond with love, devotion, gratitude, and reverence.

While the word of Christ enables us to worship God in truth, singing allows us to worship Him in spirit. While to worship rightly we must know God as revealed in His Word of truth, if that truth doesn’t move our hearts, something is wrong. Singing is one way to express our love for God and gratitude for what He’s done for us in Christ. It’s no accident that the longest book in the Bible is a song book and God called its main author a man after His heart. Throughout history, whenever the hearts of God’s people have been right before Him, there has been joyful singing and the writing of new songs of praise.

Singing is to be done “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” “With thankfulness” is literally, “in the grace” (or “in His grace”; the Greek definite article may mean “His”). So it may mean that the songs we sing should make us mindful of God’s grace to us in Christ. Of course, when we think of God’s abundant grace, it causes us to be thankful.

Also, singing is to be done “in your hearts.” God always looks on our hearts, not on our outward performance. Clearly, our hearts are not right before God if we half-heartedly mumble through a song while we think about other things. When we sing, we should put aside distractions, think about the words, and offer up our songs exuberantly in praise to our God.

While I’m not a charismatic and I think that our charismatic brethren sometimes err on the side of being too heavy on emotions and too light on doctrine, I will say that when I’ve worshiped with them, I’ve always appreciated the fact that they are not apathetic about worship. I grew up in a traditional Bible church where everyone read their bulletins and looked out the window while we mumbled through a couple of hymns before the sermon. The song leader often would try to pump up everyone to sing louder. Visitors never would have gotten the impression that we were serious about praising God.

But the first time I went to a charismatic church, I was impressed with the fact that these brothers and sisters weren’t messing around with worship! They were really into it! Everyone was engaged. Some had their eyes closed and their hands lifted up in praise to God. I got the feeling that we were meeting with God and offering praises to Him. The worship leaders weren’t performing. They were bringing us into the presence of the Lord.

Second Samuel 6 tells the story of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. He was dancing before the Lord with all his might. But his wife Michal looked out the window, saw David’s exuberant worship, and was embarrassed. She thought that his enthusiasm was undignified for a king and she rebuked him when he came into the house. But David defended his actions, which he described as celebrating before the Lord (2 Sam. 6:14, 21). Significantly, the Lord sided with David, not with Michal, and caused her to be barren for the rest of her life. God wants our worship to be with thankfulness from the heart.

But also, as with David, our worship should be to God. We aren’t to be worship-centered; we’re to be God-centered. He’s our audience in worship. We sing to Him. Even if the focus of a song is to teach and admonish one another, the best way to do it is to remember that we’re not just singing to one another—God is present! When we sing, we sing to Him. Do you do that? Do you sing thankfully from your heart to God? If your heart is cold, confess it and turn your focus to the Lord through the words of the songs.

What kinds of songs should we sing? The terms Paul uses are difficult to distinguish. “Psalms” probably refers to the psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures set to accompaniment. “Hymns” are hymns of praise to God. “Spiritual songs” is a generic term referring to any type of song, but qualified by the word “spiritual.” The different terms imply that we are free to sing a wide variety of songs according to the mood and subject.

As you know, many churches are divided by “worship wars.” Many offer contemporary services for those who prefer the newer songs and styles, and “traditional” services for those who prefer the old hymns sung to piano or organ accompaniment. I believe that we need some of both and that we should not divide the congregation along those lines.

There are many great newer songs, such as “In Christ Alone,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Also some of the older hymns are being set to modern tunes or arrangements. In my opinion, we shouldn’t repeat the same words over and over to build up emotions. If we’re thinking about the words, a few repetitions should be enough to drive home the truth. I don’t need to repeat that our God is an awesome God ten times to get the point!

But we also need some of the older great hymns of the faith which not only teach us about the greatness of God and of our salvation; they also connect us to our Christian heritage. Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” reminds us both of solid truth and of the Reformation that recovered that truth. During the revival of the 18th century, the Wesley’s taught theology to illiterate blue collar laborers through their hymns. Think on the truth in hymns like, “And Can it Be?” I love the final stanza,

No condemnation now I dread: Jesus and all in Him is mine!

Alive in Him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine;
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!

If you don’t own one, buy a good hymnal and learn some of the great hymns of the faith (you can listen to many of the tunes online). Sing in your private times of worship and then join in with all your heart when you gather with the Lord’s people. Thankful worship engages the mind with the word of Christ and the emotions in joyful song to Christ.

3. Thankful worship engages the will in submission to Christ.

The idea of submission to the lordship of Christ permeates these verses, but it is explicit in two places: “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus”; and, “giving thanks.”

“The name of the Lord Jesus” refers primarily to His supreme authority. His name “is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11). To do something in the name of the Lord Jesus is to do it under His sovereign authority. Implicit in a life of thankful worship is that we do everything in submission to His rightful lordship.

Sometimes Christians ask, “Can I do such-and-such an activity?” Verse 17 is your answer. It’s a succinct summary of Christian living. It applies across the board to every thought, word, and deed. Ask yourself, “Can I do this in submission to Jesus Christ?” If you’re not sure or if it would dishonor Him, then don’t do it. If you’re sure that you can do it in submission to the Lord in line with His Word, then do it joyfully and thankfully!

The second place where the idea of submission to Christ is explicit is in the words, “giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” To thank God, especially when difficult things happen, means that I must submit to His sovereign dealings with me. I’m acknowledging that all my circumstances are under His control and in harmony with His love. Like Job, I can worship Him even though I may not understand what He’s doing if I submit my heart to say, “Thank you, Lord! I trust Your sovereign, loving dealings with me.”

The opposite of thankfulness is grumbling. Israel in the wilderness grumbled repeatedly and because of it, God kept a whole generation out of the promised land. Grumbling impugns the character of God. It implies either, “God isn’t good,” or, “He isn’t sovereign over my problem.” I confess, I’m prone to grumbling. But one thing that has helped me fight it is to read a Psalm each morning, to meditate on it, and make it my prayer. For example, Psalm 5:11-12 exhorts,

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.

You just can’t read those verses very many times without shouting, “Thank You, Lord!” Finally,

4. Thankful worship extends to all of life.

“Whatever you do in word or deed ….” This extends thankful worship beyond Sunday to every day of the week. There’s no sacred-secular division for Christians. All of life is to be a sacred experience of living gratefully under the lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that we do not need to gather on the Lord’s Day for worship and teaching. We do. But it is to say that in every aspect of life we can reflect the joy of salvation as we speak and act in the name of Christ.

This means having the word of Christ percolating through your mind and having songs and hymns of praise bubbling to the surface as you go about your day. It means living thankfully under the lordship of Christ while you’re at work or playing with your kids or unstopping a clogged toilet or fixing dinner.


Dr. John Hannah, one of my seminary church history professors, told a story I’ve never forgotten. He and his wife were moving to Dallas to begin his first year of seminary. They had stuffed all their earthly belongings into an old Volkswagen. As they drove along a deserted highway, something malfunctioned and the car caught on fire. They pulled to the side of the road, jumped out, watched helplessly as everything they owned, except for the clothes on their backs, went up in smoke.

What would you do at a time like that? It would be easy to get angry with God. “Lord, I’m going to seminary to prepare for serving You! It’s not like we were heading for Las Vegas to sin or something! And it wasn’t as if we were living in luxury. We only had these few things and no extra cash to replace them. Why did You allow this to happen?” That would be a normal reaction.

What John and his wife, Carolyn, did was to kneel down on that highway next to that gutted car—and sing the doxology! They were happy in God. You can be happy in God if you’ll learn to thankfully worship Him with your whole being in all of life.

Application Questions

  1. What has helped you most in getting into the Word? What has been most difficult about it?
  2. Is the excuse, “I’m just not an emotional person,” a valid reason for not being intense about worship?
  3. Are we really supposed to thank God for trials (See James 1:2-4)? How can we do it honestly if we don’t feel it?
  4. Is it sin to feel down at times? Must I always be joyously thankful? Is this even possible?

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: Worship (Personal)

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