Paul’s Practical Theology For The Church, Pt.4: The Mindset Of The Church
1 Thessalonians 5:16–22 16 Rejoice always; 17 pray without ceasing; 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Every church has its character and its characteristics. That is obvious from Jesus’ own description of the churches in Revelation and it will hold true even today. Of course, as in Revelation, we may be looking at serious problems in professing churches; even heresy. But some churches will be known for their emphasis on one thing or another. Some churches display an incredible care and concern for doctrinal specificity. Others are known for their excellent music and singing. Still others are known for their demeanor. Some churches are full of joy, zeal, and casual life, others are known for being cold, austere, and even unfriendly. Many of these categories can be attributed to denominational affiliation, leadership within the church, and doctrine. But however they develop, these are all attitudes that contribute or reveal the mindset, focus, priorities and emphasis of the church for good or bad. Paul is known for giving us helpful lists on practical issues. Lists on various virtues (Gal. 5.22-23), lists on vices (Gal. 5.19-21), lists on various spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12.4-11) etc. Here Paul leaves us with a list of attitudes both positive an negative that will make for a healthy church an assist the Thessalonians along their path of corporate spiritual maturity.
Positive Attitudes In The Church
As Paul gives the church exhortations for positive attitudes in the church, he is really drawing our attention toward the value of these three virtues themselves, joy, prayer, and gratitude. We say attitudes because these characteristics are a choice. The church must choose to pursue these virtues they are not something that happens to us as if we receive them accidentally or mystically through some sort of spiritual osmosis; we must seek after these things actively and intentionally. We need to make them a priority. They need to be cultivated in the church through the teaching of the church. They need to be modeled in the church by the leadership of the church. These virtues need to be increasing in the life of the church individual members of the church until they produces Christlike maturity (cf. Eph. 4.11-13). But for certain, such virtues cannot be neglected by the church. Instead, we need to take them serious, take them in, and take them up in our hearts. I believe Paul wrote these short exhortations in the specific manner in which he so that preachers would slow down and teach systematically on these topics in an in-depth way not overlooking there importance simply because of their brevity and simplicity. Each one of these virtues need to be considered individually and but also in an integrated way that shows their relations and inter-dependence. Here we will look at them with some specific effect or some specific attribute that goes with them.
The Power Of Joy
These attitudes are not simply characteristics of a healthy thriving church; they are the hallmark of salvation. Joy, or the call to “rejoice” (χαίρετε), is a preeminent virtue of the Christian life. This virtue is so powerful that we can say that if there is no joy, there certainly cannot be genuine salvation. Wherever true authentic Spirit-wrought salvation is at work in the life of an individual, by necessity joy will follow. Joy is in fact a gift of God. He grants it to us by His mercy and for His glory:
Romans 15:13 13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
John 15:11 11 “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
John 16:24 24 “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.
John 17:13 13 “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves.
This is call to cultivate this essential Christian virtue both in the life of the church corporately and in the life of the believer individually. In order to incentivize us in this, we should understand the power and potential of joy. Joy is not often an end to itself but it is often accompanied by many gracious after-affects in our lives. True joy, joy in the Lord, the joy of our salvation, the joy of our heavenly hope, and the joy of the Spirit’s gracious influences in our lives has the capacity to overcome our greatest trials:
James 1:2–4 2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Matthew 5:11–12 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Joy should spill out from us in all circumstances (Πάντοτε), in all faith, with all hope, and for all that God promises to us in Christ. In other words, rejoice with a view towards our reward both now and in heaven. In order to have this joy our perspective and vision for our lives and our trials needs to change. We need to make the conscience decision to see beyond our visible categories and physical turmoil whatever they may be:
2 Corinthians 4:16–18 16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
The Habit Of Prayer
Even as joy focuses on the emotional attitude of the church, prayer can be a means of that joy. This call to prayer however, is no mere sentimentality it is a reminder to the church and to the Christian where the lifeblood of the soul is found. It is in prayer that our joy will excel to unknown spiritual heights, and all of God’s graces are brought to the fore and laid on the heart of the believer reminding us where we belong- in the presence of God at the foot of His throne and under His mighty hand. Because this is so essential to our faith, prayer as it has been universally acknowledged, is often the first thing to be neglected in the church and in our walk with God. That is why prayer needs to be zealously guarded in our church, home, and heart.
Paul, who understood the value of prayer through many of his own tribulations is now directing these young believers to see the value of unceasing prayer, “pray without ceasing” (ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε). The word, “without ceasing” (ἀδιαλείπτως) is used in the NT only by Paul, once in Romans (1.9) and three times in this letter, always in the context of prayer (1.2; 2.13; 5.17). But Paul’s emphasis on prayer was often borne out of a deep dependence on God. No greater expression of that dependence can be seen other than Jesus’ own prayer especially His prayer in Gethsemane where His sweat was like great drops of blood (Lk. 22.44). The man who wrote one of the most helpful little volumes on prayer entitled, “The Method of Prayer” was Matthew Henry who himself was deeply acquainted with suffering. Henry is famous for his massive multi-volume commentary on the entire Bible but few are acquainted with his afflictions. Aside from living under persecution by the English government at that time, Henry saw his father’s pulpit taken from him, and he lived during the time of severe persecution the Puritans during the 17th century (1660s-1680s). But Henry also had deeper personal loss. His first wife died in child labor and his second wife later gave birth to three children all of whom died as infants. This did not stop Henry from rising as early as 4:00 am and study Scripture for at least 8 hours a day. He wrote the Method for Prayer before dying from a fall off his horse suffered late in his life (see, Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 877–878). For Henry, the ability and obligation to pray without ceasing was a matter of access— unfettered access to God. For Henry, and of course, Paul, prayer opened the way to seeing God in everything and in everything how God comes to our aid. As Henry put it, in prayer the believer has:
“… a companion ready in all their solitudes, so that they are never less alone than when alone… a counselor ready in all their doubts … a comforter ready in all their sorrows … a supply ready in all their wants… a support ready under all their burdens… a shelter ready in all their dangers, a city of refuge… strength ready for all their performances… salvation insured by a sweet and undeceiving earnest” (Ibid, 878).
All of this is robbed of our experience when we cease to be marked by unceasing prayer. Instead, the constant experience will be strife not sweet serenity, doubt not full assurance, fear not power and sobriety, anxiety not confidence and peace, an estrangement from God rather than intimacy with God, pride not humility, restless covetousness and greed not a God-like contentment. When we are not with God in prayer we will not be like God in life.
The Wonder of Gratitude
If there was a progression in the mind of Paul when he wrote this up to this point, so far it would make sense because we know that the way to true lasting, truly God-centered, and soul-satisfying joy comes through the means of our spiritual disciplines like prayer and then in turn, in prayer we are awakened to our true state before God where our true happiness is found and in what it consists of. Prayer reminds us of what matters. Prayer reminds us that nothing matters more than eternity and God’s great glory. Prayer humbles us to the dust and exalts us to the right hand of God in heaven where Christ is seated (cf. Col. 3.1). Prayer subdues our complaints and reveals the goodness of God in the cross so that the only proper attitude left is a gratitude that follows us home from that prayer, that prayer meeting that private moment of prayer. When you have had truly God-centered, gospel-centered, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered and soul-satisfying prayer in communion with God your heart is left with a sense of awe and wonder.
This level of gratitude will make our trials seem small, our hope seem large and our God seem eternal and vast so that we trust Him again and if we trust Him, what can man do to us, “if God be for us, who is against us” (Rom. 8.31). Paul’s calling for gratitude is a calling to live in conformity with God’s will for us, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (ἐν παντὶ εὐχαριστεῖτε· τοῦτο γὰρ θέλημα θεοῦ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ εἰς ὑμᾶς). It is God’s from the standpoint of what God desires for His people and it is God’s will for us in that it conforms to His commands. It is God’s will be being grateful “in everything” (ἐν παντὶ) reveals an understanding of God’s providence and trust in God’s faithfulness. Logically then, it God’s “will” (θέλημα) because God is indeed fully and completely sovereign over all that concerns us in the universe, and God is faithfulness to supply us with all that we need. When we are grateful “in everything” we are grateful for God.
Conversely, when we grumble in everything we are grumbling against God. Ingratitude therefore reveals a lack of faith, a casting of doubt upon the character of God; His goodness, love and wisdom in our lives. Is it any wonder that ingratitude is the hallmark of unbelievers, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1.21)?
Again, in 2 Timothy, Paul identifies the unregenerate as “lovers of self” and “ungrateful” (3.2). MacArthur rightly comments:
“But when God regenerates an individual, He produces a new heart that longs to obey Paul’s injunction and in everything give thanks. That simple, direct statement allows believers no excuses to be ungrateful. In everything (en panti) refers to all that occurs in life. No matter what struggles, trials, testings, or vicissitudes occur in the lives of Christians (with the obvious exception of personal sins), they are to give thanks (Acts 5:41; cf. James 1:2–3; 1 Peter 1:6–9). Thankfulness therefore should be part of the fabric of the regenerate life (Ps. 136:1–3; Dan. 6:10; Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:17; Heb. 13:15), a gracious fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work within the believer’s heart (cf. Col. 2:7).” (John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 189).
No wonder Paul’s next focus is on the Spirit. In once sense we could say that failure to give thanks is failure to walk in the Spirit and will result in the quenching of the Spirit. Thanksgiving arises from regeneration and overflows in our hearts when we walk according to our gracious calling:
Colossians 2:6–7 6 Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.
And much of what we do corporately should consist of giving thanks. Congregational worship should be viewed as one massive giving of thanks for in the church we are reminded that God graciously and mercifully put us in the church (Col. 1.12), uses us in the church (1 Pet. 4.10), and equips us through the church and her servants (Eph. 4.11). Paul tells the Colossians that thanksgiving should naturally follow in the worship of the church where the word is administered, songs are sung, and fellowship is spiritual:
Colossians 3:16–17 16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.