The Standing Orders of the Gospel

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“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).

Writing over one hundred years ago, Professor James Denney of Scotland called these three commands “the standing orders of the gospel.” They are “standing orders” because they always apply to every Christian in every situation. The Greek makes this very clear because these imperatives are all in the present tense. You could translate it “continually rejoice, continually pray, and continually give thanks.”

This is a great challenge, isn’t it?  After all, we would have no problem if the text said,

“Rejoice sometimes”
“Pray occasionally”
“Give thanks when you feel like it." 

 It’s the modifiers that trip us up:

“Always.”
“Continually.”
“In all circumstances.”

This suggests that the real impact of the gospel will be seen when we don’t feel joyful, when we don’t want to pray, and when we can’t think of a reason to be thankful. That’s when we discover if our Christianity is the genuine article or a spiritual counterfeit. These simple commands reveal the true life-changing power of Jesus Christ. When he enters a life, he changes it from the inside out so that we have both the power and the desire to rejoice, to pray, and give thanks even in the worst moments of life.

Let’s look at each of these three brief “standing orders” of the gospel.

I. Rejoice Always

“Be cheerful no matter what” (MSG).
“Rejoice always!”
(HCSB).
“Be full of joy all the time”
(NLB).
“Be happy in your faith all the time”
(Phillips).

(Do you know the shortest verse in the New Testament? Many people think it is “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). But that’s only true in the English version. In the Greek text “Rejoice always” is the shortest verse.)

The real impact of the gospel will be seen when we don’t feel joyful, when we don’t want to pray, and when we can’t think of a reason to be thankful.

When the angel told the shepherds about the birth of Jesus, he called it good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Years ago we used to sing a gospel song that began with the words “We have heard the joyful sound. Jesus saves! Jesus saves!” Whenever the gospel is preached, it is a “joyful sound” to those that hear it. Is this not one reason that the unchurched have so little use for our Christianity? Having lost the sense of joy in the gospel, and showing it so little by the way we live, why would anyone want to listen to what we have to say? Perhaps preachers would do well to assess our own sermons and ask, “Where is the note of joy?” If the gospel is truly good news, then we ought to rejoice and be glad.

The first proof of the gospel’s power for most people will be what they see in us. For every argument a preacher may make, and for every beautiful song that may lift the spirit, none of it has the impact of a life “full of joy all the time.” Jesus said, These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you” (John 15:11). Because it works from the inside out, joy does not depend on whether or not I have a job or a paycheck or how my friends have treated me. Much less does it depend on my health or the state of my marriage or how my children are doing. Even less does it depend on who is in the White House or how my favorite team is doing or how the stock market is doing.  

The first proof of the gospel’s power for most people will be what they see in us.

Consider what this means when we gather for worship. If we come with our problems first and foremost (as we often do), then we will judge the worship by how lifted up we feel at the end. But as long as church members focus on themselves, there will be no joy in the worship services. Professor Denney has a good word at this point:

Let God be great in the assembly of his people; let him be lifted up as he is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and joy will fill our hearts. If the services of the church are dull, it is because he has been left outside. (Expositor’s Bible, vol. 6, p. 352).      

Some Christians seem to think they have a sacred duty to be gloomy. Years ago we talked about “dill pickle Christians” who go through life acting like smiling is a sin and laughter an abomination. But that is not the religion of the Bible. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) and “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22). Spurgeon said it plainly:

Oh, dear friends, you may rejoice. God has laid no embargo upon rejoicing; he puts no restriction upon happiness. Do believe it that you are permitted to be happy. Do believe that there is no ordinance of God commanding you to be miserable.

When we present our faith as dull, dry, boring and free from emotion, when we give the impression that knowing Christ means becoming a boring “religious” person, who can blame the younger generation for rejecting the gospel? Only in that case, it is not the gospel they have rejected but a pale imitation. Frankly, I’ve seen enough joyless Christians that I often prefer the company of friendly unbelievers.

I’ve seen enough joyless Christians that I often prefer the company of friendly unbelievers. 

The gospel, Jesus said, is like new wine. “If it does not make our faces shine, it is because we have not tasted it.” So we should pray for shining faces and a new appreciation of all that God has done for us.

If we only had eyes to see, we would find reasons to rejoice everywhere. I was struck by a scene from the final episode of the miniseries on the life of John Adams. He is now almost 90 years old, having outlived his wife, several of his children, and all of his contemporaries (except Thomas Jefferson). His health failing, Adams moves very slowly. Yet on a sunny day at Peacefield, his Massachusetts farm, Adams takes a walk on a country lane with one of his sons. "I am not tired of life,” he says. “I still have hope.” Pausing to catch his breath, he bends over slightly. “It’s time to go home, father,” his son tells him.

Leaning on his son’s shoulder, Adams says, “Rejoice evermore,” as they turn for home. Seeing his son’s puzzled look, Adams grabs his son’s face and laughs. “Rejoice evermore. It’s from Saint Paul, you fool!" Then spying a tiny blossom, he adds, “I have seen the queen of France bedecked with millions of dollars in jewelry, but I tell you (pointing with his walking stick to the tiny blossom), there is more beauty in that flower than I ever saw in the court of France.”

As Adams turns to slowly walk back to the house, he says, “Abigail often told me I needed to appreciate the beauty of small things more than I do. She was right. Now I find that if I look at the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”

II. Pray Without Ceasing

“Never stop praying” (Phillips).
“Pray all the time”
(MSG).

Of the three “standing orders,” this one causes the most problems. What does it mean to pray “without ceasing"? Should every thought and every spoken word be a prayer directed to the Lord? In a sense, of course, the answer is yes. If prayer is viewed broadly, then our life itself ought to be a prayer offered to the Lord. And that certainly is one part of the answer. Years ago I heard a speaker compare “praying without ceasing” to a net used to catch fish. When a net functions properly, it lets the water flow through while catching the fish, but if there is a hole in the net, the fish go free. The same is true when we pray. There are to be no “holes” in our “prayer net.” This means praying often and in a deliberate fashion. It also means staying in communion with the Lord so that we don’t have to suddenly change in order to begin praying. Our default spiritual condition should be, “O God . . .” It’s like having a phone connection open 24 hours a day so you don’t have to punch numbers. You just start talking.  We stay in a state where we can pray all the time, everywhere, about everything. There is nothing we face, no duty too small that it would not be improved by our prayers. We are to pray . . .

If prayer is viewed broadly, then our life itself ought to be a prayer offered to the Lord. 

Consciously,
Deliberately,
Repeatedly,
Persistently,

as we face each new challenge of the day. If this seems too much, then simply think of what happens when you forget God and leave him out of the affairs of daily life. The result must be frustration, irritation, a lack of peace, confusion, a short temper, weariness and discouragement. But when we invite God into our daily agenda, then there is peace and a sense of knowing that the sovereign Lord is guiding us and helping us along the way.

Last week Marlene and I made a quick trip to Chicago so I could speak at the funeral for my dear friend John Sergey who died at the age of 91. I will tell you what I will miss about John Sergey. I will miss his prayers. He had a voice like the voice of God, and when he prayed, he brought the whole church into the presence of God. He loved to pray-and he prayed all the time-and when he had finished praying, no one else wanted to pray. If I had to pray, I always wanted to pray before John, not after him.

One day John showed us his prayer list. Written in his own hand, the list was very long because it included his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, his many friends in America, and the many pastors and Christian workers he befriended and taught during his sixty-plus years as a missionary to Russia. When I looked at the list, I saw that he had written “Pastor Ray and Marlene” near the top of the list, behind only his family members. Shortly after we moved from Oak Park, John called to see how we were doing, to say that he loved us, and to assure of his continued prayers. At one point he mentioned that every night before going to bed, he prayed through his entire prayer list. “It must be a mile long,” he said. Then he added these words, “When I come to your names, I feel warmed in my heart as I think of you and Marlene, and I feel as if I can meet you at the throne of grace.”

We shouldn’t take our blessings for granted or think that we somehow deserve them.

During the funeral service Sergei Nikolaev, pastor of the Temple of the Gospel in St. Petersburg, Russia, spoke of his influence.

I have known many great men, leaders of all varieties, great pastors and spiritual leaders from around the world. Over the years I have known hundreds of leaders, but very few of them want to pray. They all talk about prayer but very few take time to do it. John Sergey loved to pray. To him prayer was simply talking to his Heavenly Father.

Later on Pastor Nikolaev addressed the family seated in front of him.

You are John’s children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. I tell you the truth. You are what you are and where you are because of your father’s prayers.

Think about that for a moment. You live for 91 years, you witness the rise and fall of empires, you build a ministry, you preach via shortwave radio for decades, you establish churches and train pastors, you work tirelessly for the church in Russia, and what do they talk about at your funeral?

Your prayers.

Not all of us can do what John Sergey did as a missionary. But we can all pray. 

Lord, I want to be that sort of man. Teach me to pray and give me a heart for prayer so that when I am gone, people will remember that I prayed for them. Amen. 

III. Be Thankful in Every Circumstance

“Be thankful, whatever the circumstances may be” (Phillips).
Be thankful in all circumstances” (NLT).
“Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ” (CEV).

In those hard moments we must return to God whose love for us does not change.

The question revolves around the expression “in every circumstance.” We know that we should give thanks when things are going well. It is right and good to “praise God from whom all blessings flow.” We shouldn’t take our blessings for granted or think that we somehow deserve them. But if you only give thanks when you have money in the bank, when your marriage is good, when the deal goes through, when the doctor says, “You don’t have cancer,” when your kids are doing well, when the church is growing and your friends are glad to see you, if that’s the only time you give thanks, what will you do when trouble comes?

What will you do when your company downsizes and you are out of a job, when your retirement fund loses 45% of its value, when your marriage collapses, when your daughter gets pregnant out of wedlock, when the cancer returns, or when your friends betray you?

In those hard moments we must return to God whose love for us does not change. While flying back from Chicago after John Sergey’s funeral, we spent several hours above a vast cloud bank that stretched from one horizon to the other. Underneath the clouds, no one could see the sun. But above the clouds the sun was shining brightly. Sometimes the clouds of life seem to obscure the face of our Father, and we think he has abandoned us. But above the clouds of dark circumstance, the sun of his love shines forever.

I freely admit that often things happen to us (and to our loved ones) that make no sense. Try as we might, we cannot trace God’s hand in every circumstance because God paints on a canvas much larger than our tiny vision. How do we give thanks when our hearts are broken? How do we give thanks when we are confused? How do we give thanks when we are angry at what sin has done in the world?

By giving thanks when we don’t feel like it, we are proclaiming that God’s wisdom is greater than ours. 

I think it is biblical to give thanks in the following manner even in the worst moments. We give thanks . . .

That God is sovereign.
That nothing happens by chance.
That God causes all things to work together for good for his children.
That hard times reveal our weakness, break our pride, and show us our total need for God.
That God has triumphed over sin and death through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
That God uses the worst that happens to promote our spiritual growth.
That God is faithful even when we are faithless.
That God’s Word will be vindicated.
That God’s promises are true.
That evil will not reign forever.
That heaven is real.
That this world is not the “real” world.
That when we are weak, he is strong.
That his grace is sufficient for every situation.
That nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
That our salvation rests on God and not on us.
That there is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.
That the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from every sin.
That God delights to save sinners.
That the Lord can soften the hardest heart.
That there are no impossible cases with God.
That even when we feel alone, we are never alone.
That our Father will not test us beyond what we can bear.
That the Holy Spirit abides with us always.
That the Lord Jesus feels our pain.
That the Holy Spirit prays for us when we are too weak to pray for ourselves.
That the Lord Jesus intercedes for us so that we are finally saved.
That God uses everything and wastes nothing.
That our doubts cannot cancel God’s work in us.
That someday we will be conformed to the image of Christ.
That God is faithful to finish his work in us.
That our hardships equip us to minister to others.
That we are invited to come boldly to the throne of grace.
That God’s plan far exceeds our puny imagination.
That weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
That we are still God’s children even when our faith falters.
That while we suffer outwardly, we are being renewed inwardly.
That our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory.

Eugene Peterson nicely captures the meaning of verse 18 this way. “Thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live” (MSG). I like that phrase “no matter what happens” because it perfectly describes life in a fallen world.

Stuff happens.
Bad stuff happens.
Really bad stuff sometimes happens to some very good people.

Even the happiest people know their share of sorrow. And some people seem to receive far more than their share of pain.

There is no escaping this while we live on a sin-cursed planet. No one gets a free ride through life. I have lived long enough to know that behind every smiling face there is a story. Even the happiest people know their share of sorrow. And some people seem to receive far more than their share of pain. We will never be able to give thanks always without the Holy Spirit’s help. Left to ourselves, the pain of life will drive us to bitterness and ultimately to despair. But when we factor God into the equation, when we rest upon the rock of his sovereignty, then and only then do we have the grounds for saying “Thank you, Lord,” no matter what happens around us.

I do not mean to suggest that this is easy, only that it is absolutely necessary. As hard as it may be to rejoice always, what is your alternative? To give in to despair and anger? If you refuse to give thanks in every situation, you are virtually saying that you know better than God how to run the universe. By giving thanks when we don’t feel like it, we are proclaiming that God’s wisdom is greater than ours. That simple act of giving thanks in the midst of sorrow is a testimony worth more than 10,000 words spoken when things are going well. 

The final phrase of our text answers a great question. What is the will of God for your life?

Rejoice always.
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks.

This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. As my final word, remember that these three things will be more clearly seen in the darkness than the light. When times are tough, if you can still rejoice in God, if you can still pray, if you still give thanks, then you’ve got the real thing and even those who don’t know Jesus will know that you know him.

Lord Jesus, without your help we will never live this way.  Forgive us for complaining when we should be rejoicing. Teach us to pray continually. You have given us so much. Give us one thing more-grateful hearts.

May your life flow through us this week so that no matter what happens, we may be always rejoicing, continually praying, and giving thanks in everything.

Grant that our lives might be one loud “Thank you, Lord” for all you have done for us.  Amen.

2009-01-11-The-Standing-Orders-of-the-Gospel

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