We all enjoy a good assembly conference, especially if we can listen to our favourite speakers and meet our friends during the interval. But, between seasonal meetings when we are on our best behaviour, what of the spiritual quality of our lives in the intervening periods? In this matter, this writer addresses his own heart also.
Let me ask another question: How carefully do we read the New Testament? We are, of course, pleased to teach memory verses to young people in Sunday School, complete with the Bible references, and this is laudable. But we should remember, in this era when the news media projects and distorts reality through ‘sound bites’, that the chapter and verse divisions of the word of God are not themselves inspired, though useful. So often a verse of scripture contains not an isolated set of thoughts but rather finds its significance within the context of its surrounding passage.
For example, it is very interesting that Paul in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verse 16 says, ‘Rejoice evermore’. The very next verse says, ‘Pray without ceasing’. Verse 18 says, ‘In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you’. The subsequent verse goes on to exhort Paul’s readers to be open to the Spirit’s leading.
The themes of joyfulness, prayerfulness and thankfulness are each very worthy subjects in their own right, but here, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul is most definitely linking them together. What does this suggest to us? It surely means that, by their very juxtaposition, the Apostle is not isolating these themes in his readers’ spiritual lives, but bringing them together as a progression of thought. Joyful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are believers with a prayerful attitude. And prayerful believers are thankful ones. As those who profess to be ‘led of the Spirit in the Lord’s service’, we, in principle, engage in all these activities, but it would be to offer strange fire to presume1 – especially in public – to turn on and off like a tap apparent, occasional projections of these spiritual exercises.
As E. W. Rogers said in a context in relation to prayer, ‘Care must ever be exercised lest formality and rigid unauthorised rules tend to legalism. It is the state of the heart that counts’.2
While it can be profitable to make this observation about joyfulness, prayerfulness and thankfulness from 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, yet Paul makes exactly the same point in Philippians chapter 4. From time to time, many of us will quote verse 4, ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, rejoice’. Interestingly, verse 6 of the same chapter says, ‘Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God’.
Separated by just a few words, Paul, by the Spirit of God, is drawing his readers’ attention in both passages to these three spiritual activities, and indeed to others also. In these passages, we should consider whether the Lord is issuing a highly relevant challenge to us to examine the quality of our personal, spiritual lives.
It is most commendable not to be found ‘forsaking the assembling of ourselves together’, Heb. 10. 25. But it is relatively pointless to put on a front of supposed orthodoxy at assembly gatherings if our personal, spiritual lives in between these occasions are not driven by faithful Bible reading, and a spirit of joyfulness, prayerfulness, and thankfulness. Stated differently, what is our ongoing state of mind when, before others, we profess fellowship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ?
Paul’s letter to the believers at Philippi is sometimes read as an ‘Epistle of joy’, in which he stresses the importance of the spiritual life of believers as they serve and suffer for their Lord. In 2 Corinthians chapter 9 verse 15, Paul ascribes heartfelt thanksgiving for the believer’s bountiful blessings centred in the person of Christ.3
If spiritual activities such as joyfulness, prayerfulness, and thankfulness were more to the fore in our personal lives, perhaps we would be more earnest in our gospel endeavours, or spend less time talking about what others at assembly conferences have been wearing; and, in any case, it is to be earnestly hoped that people, ostensibly in assembly fellowship, would be less frequent in filing petitions in the divorce courts! Before the Lord, let us take heed to our spirits, and be exercised in the scriptures!
Lev. 10. 1.
E. W. Rogers, Answers to Bible Problems, John Ritchie Ltd., pg. 200.
For corresponding Old Testament truth regarding ‘sacrifices of thanksgiving’, Ps. 107. 22, see, for example, Ian Rees’s article: Sacrificing to God today, http://www.youngpreciousseed.org/pdfs/yps_2009_vol6_3.pdf.