Keepers of the Flame

1 Thessalonians 5:16-28

November 10, 2002 | Brian Bill

A guy from Wisconsin and a man from Illinois are sitting next to each other on a long flight to L.A.  The Illini leans over to the Badger and asks if he’d like to play a game to pass the time.  The cheesehead just wants to take a nap, so he politely declines. 

The flatlander persists and explains that the game is real easy and a lot of fun, “I’ll ask you a question and if you don’t know the answer, you pay me $5.   Then you ask me a question, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll pay you $5.”  The Packer backer politely declines and tries to go to sleep.  The Bears fan is now agitated and decides to raise the stakes: “Okay, if you don’t know the answer, you pay me $5, and if I don’t know the answer to your question, I’ll pay you $50!”

This catches the attention of the man from the Promised Land, and so he agrees to the challenge.  The Illini asks the first question, “What’s the distance from the earth to the moon?”  The Wisconsonian doesn’t say a word, but reaches into his wallet, pulls out a five-dollar bill and hands it to the man from Illinois.  He then asks his question, “What goes up a hill with three legs and comes down on four?”

The man from the land of Lincoln is puzzled.  He takes out his laptop and searches the Internet.  He calls a bunch of people and finally gives up after about an hour.  He wakes up the man from Wisconsin and hands him $50.  The Badger politely takes the money and tries to go back to sleep.  The guy from Illinois is upset so he shakes the other guy and says, “Well, what’s the answer?  What goes up a hill with three legs and comes down on four?”  Without a word, the wise man from the north woods shrugs his shoulders, reaches into his wallet, hands the Illini $5 and goes back to sleep.

Disciplines For the Disciple

Many of us feel like God’s will is an unanswerable question, like a punch line that we just don’t get.  Maybe you’ve tried to figure it out and have decided either to take a nap because it’s too difficult to unravel, or you just plain don’t care anymore.  As we come to the closing verses of 1 Thessalonians, we’re going to discover that God’s will is very clear…and easy to understand.  Last week we looked at practical principles for leadership, followership, and fellowship.  Our focus today is on discipleship.  In bite-sized chunks we’ll discover 8 disciplines for the disciple who wants to stay on fire for God.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 ends with this statement, “…For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  This is the second time in 1 Thessalonians that the phrase “God’s will” is used.  The first time was in 4:3 where we read: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.”  I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating.  God is much more interested in who we are than in where we live, or what we do.  We get wrapped up in questions about our vocation or location, when God is concerned more about our transformation.  

Before we move to the specifics of God’s will as found in these closing verses, let me address a few misunderstandings.  

  • Some of us secretly believe something like this: “What I want for myself will make me happy, but if I do what God wants me to do, I’ll be miserable.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  He wants us to live an abundant life, overflowing with joy and meaning.  
  • The purpose of this list is not to make us feel guilty or overwhelmed, but to realize that whatever God desires for us to have, He also provides.  
  • At the same time, this list is not optional for the growing disciple.  We must take it seriously.  These are imperatives, not options.
  • These eight disciplines are intertwined, not isolated.  As we focus on developing one, it will help us in the others.
  • We don’t have to conjure up these disciplines on our own.  The key is to receive what is already ours.  It’s a cooperative effort with the Holy Spirit.  He gives us what we need, but we must apply it to our lives.

Let’s walk through verses 16-22, where we’ll discover some practical punch lines that will help us live out God’s will for our lives.

1. Be joyful always (16).

In the Greek, this short phrase is turned around: “Always rejoice.”  The emphasis is on the adverb: at all times rejoicing.  All of us desire to have more joy but life often throws up roadblocks on the highway to happiness.  We might experience brief encounters with joy but they seem to be the exception, rather than the rule.  And yet, the Bible is clear that joy is to be a way of life for the believer.  Psalm 5:11: “But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.”  Psalm 32:11: Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” In Philippians 4:4, Paul had to say it twice because we don’t automatically default to a spirit of joy: Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!”

We must make an important distinction when we talk about joy.  Happiness is related to “happenings,” while joy can be experienced and expressed in extenuating circumstances.  Even when we’re persecuted, Jesus said in Matthew 5:12: Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven…” Paul was able to experience joy even when he was wiped out with weeping in 2 Corinthians 6:10, when he said: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

There is no event or circumstance that can occur in my life that should diminish my joy

And yet many of us are only “joyful” when things are going well.  How can we be joyful always? Perhaps it would be helpful for us to state this exhortation in a different way: There is no event or circumstance that can occur in my life that should diminish my joy.  Friends, we are commanded to be joyful always, no matter what is going on, no matter how bad things are around us.  This command to rejoice will never be rescinded due to difficulties.

Let me suggest this morning that the only way to be joyful always is to recognize that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  It is not natural, but supernatural.  But our will must be involved.  The route to rejoicing begins with a deep-down confidence that God is in control of everything and He is working everything out for our good in time and our glory in eternity.  Listen.  Christian joy is not a wild emotion on top of a giddy feeling.  It’s a fruit on top of a fact.  It’s my response to what I know to be true about God.

What do we do if our hearts possess little joy?  We need to receive what God offers to us, not passively, but actively.  If we allow our emotions to control us, we will only taste joy but if we focus on the faithfulness of God and cultivate some disciplines in our life, we can drink from the reservoirs of rejoicing.  Joy is not automatic but we can access it with some work.  Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 1:24 as he summed up his efforts with the church: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.”

Are you working with someone for his or her joy?  Paul didn’t just wait for believers to be zapped with joy; he worked with them to find it.  Are you going after joy?  Let me list some proactive and practical steps we can take to capture this elusive fruit.

  • Focus on the promises of God.  Jesus is coming back, and if you know Him, you will be with Him forever.  Luke 10:20: “…Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
  • Stay close to Christ.  Psalm 16:11: “…You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
  • Read and feed upon the Word of God daily.  Jeremiah 15:16: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight…”
  • Spend time with joyful believers.  When referring to his friend, Paul wrote in Philemon 7: “Your love has given me great joy…”
  • Share the gospel with people.  In 1 Thessalonians 2:19, Paul called the new believers his “joy.”
  • Sing praises of joy to God.  Psalm 71:23: “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you.”

2.  Pray continually (17). 

This second command is simple and very specific as we’re called to pray as a way of life.  Praying is to be as normal as breathing.  If that’s the case, then many of us, including me, have been guilty of holding our breath.  The word for “prayer” here is a general word that encompasses thanksgiving, confession, praise, intercession for others, and personal requests to God.  The word “continually” refers to something that is constantly recurring.  Prayer is like a long conversation with God that is never broken.  Jesus put it this way in Luke 18:1 when he said that we, “…should always pray and not give up.”

If some of us feel guilty about our joy deficit, almost all of us are embarrassed about our paucity in prayer.  More is said about prayer and less done about it than any other subject in the Bible.  I’ve often wondered if this command to pray continually is just for the spiritual superstars, for those who have the gift of prayer, or is it for all of us?   Obviously, this directive is within the reach of everyone.  Instead of quoting a bunch of verses on prayer, I’d like to focus on a couple ways we can become people who pray persistently.  Most of us don’t need convincing that prayer is important, we just need some practical ways to apply this intercession imperative.

In order to permeate our life with prayer, here are some other practical steps.

  • Schedule a set time to pray each day.
  • Pray spontaneously with “popcorn prayers.”
  • Pray while you wait.
  • Pray with others on the phone.
  • Offer to pray when someone shares a burden with you.
  • Pray in the car while you’re driving (but keep your eyes open).
  • Join others in prayer at our Tuesday night prayer meeting.
  • Write out your prayers in a notebook.
  • Pray for what you see and hear.

Many of you have been greatly challenged in your own prayer life by reading “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” by Jim Cymbala from the Brooklyn Tabernacle.  We’d like to play a brief clip from a message he gave about the necessity of pervasive and persistent prayer.  We’ll pick it up as he’s bringing his talk to a close.  He’s just described his prodigal daughter and is talking about what happened after his church rallied around him in prayer.

We’re to be joyful always and pray continually.  As we practice these disciplines, we can’t help but transition to a theme of thanksgiving.

3. Give thanks in all circumstances (18). 

This third command will help us get a jump-start on Thanksgiving!  I want you to notice that we don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us, but we can give thanks in our circumstances, even if they stink.  If you fall into a pit, you don’t have to be thankful for the pit, but while you’re in the pit, you can be thankful.  No matter what our circumstances, we can always give thanks to God for His blessings.  When things happen in our lives that we don’t understand, we can still thank Him because He’s in control.

In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom relates an incident about thankfulness.  She and her sister, Betsy, were prisoners of the Nazis, and had just been transferred to the worst prison camp they had ever been in.  The barracks were extremely overcrowded and infested with fleas. Their Scripture reading from their smuggled Bible that morning was 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 where they were reminded to rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances.  Betsy told Corrie to stop and thank the Lord for every detail of their new living quarters.  Corrie at first flatly refused to give thanks for the fleas, but Betsy persisted.  They both finally agreed to thank God for even the fleas.

During the months they spent at that camp, they were surprised to find how openly they could hold Bible study and prayer meetings without interference from the guards.  Several months later they learned that the officers would not enter the barracks because there were too many fleas!

Are you giving thanks in all circumstances?  You can tell how well you’re doing in this area by listening to how much you grumble or grouse.  When you’re tempted to complain, force yourself to give a verbal word of thanks.  You’ll be surprised by what happens.  When Daniel got some bad news, it’s very interesting what he did in Daniel 6:10: “Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”  No matter how bad things look, give thanks!  By giving thanks when we don’t feel like it, we are proclaiming that God’s wisdom is greater than ours.

4. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire (19). 

The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit indwells every believer at the moment of conversion.  When we are saved, we are saved forever.  But, it’s possible for us to squelch the Spirit’s influence in our lives.  Verse 19 can be translated, “Stop putting out the Spirit’s fire.”  This is an indictment because it suggests that there were some spiritual fire fighters in Thessalonica.  The phrase, “put out” is the idea of extinguishing a fire.  

Have you ever noticed how “on fire” new believers are?  Unfortunately some older believers can pour cold water on them by dousing their enthusiasm and joy.  Let me ask you a question.  Is the Spirit’s flame flickering in your life, or is He burning bright?  Some of us are smoldering spiritually, either through neglect of the daily disciplines or because of deliberate disobedience.  Whether we are wayward, worried, or weak, most of us could use some fresh wind and some fresh fire.  

I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to young Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6: “…I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…”  That phrase literally means to stir up the coals again by blowing some air into the embers.  Here’s the good news.  A smoldering wick can burn with a white-hot passion for God again.  Fan into flame that which once burned bright.  Don’t squelch the Spirit.  Take this list of discipleship directives seriously – and look for ways you can use your fire to ignite those around you.

Brothers and sisters, we are keepers of the flame.  Let’s keep the fire burning bright.

5. Do not treat prophecies with contempt (20). 

The early church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of making sure his message got to His people.  Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this prophetic ministry takes place as the Word of God is taught and preached.

We need to be on guard so that we don’t treat the Scriptures with contempt.  That’s a pretty strong word that means, “to make utterly nothing.”  We can do that by checking out when the Bible is preached, we can treat it as nothing by simply refusing to read it, and we can treat it with contempt when we ignore what it has to say about our lives.  Whenever you hear yourself say something like, “I know what the Bible says, but…” then you know you’re guilty of contempt.  

A lack of response to the Word of God can hinder the work of God in our lives.  Numbers 14:11 reveals what God thinks of people who slight Him: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will these people treat me with contempt?  How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?’” And Malachi 1:6 provides a strong indictment to the professional clergy of the day to guard against becoming bored with those things that matter to the Majesty: “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.  But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’ You place defiled food on my altar.  But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’  By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible.” 

The best way to guard against treating God’s Word with contempt is to keep the fire burning inside through a joyful heart, continuous prayer, and a thankful spirit.

6. Test everything (21a). 

When you hear someone preach or teach the Bible, including me, it’s important to test what is being said.  We’re called to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who “…Received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”  We should be eager but not gullible.  1 John 4:1: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…”  Here are a couple of ways to test teachers and preachers:

  • Do their words square with Scripture? (1 John 4:5-6)
  • Are they committed to the body of believers? (1 John 2:19)
  • What is their lifestyle like? (1 John 3:23-24)
  • Does their message stand up to reason and revelation? (1 John 4:1-3)
  • What do they believe about Jesus? (1 Thessalonians 5:10)

Examine what you hear, scrutinize what you see, and measure all things by the standard of God’s Word.

7. Hold on to the good (21b). 

Don’t trade God’s timeless truths for a fling with the world

Once we’ve tested to make sure things are true, then it’s imperative that we embrace what is exemplary.  This literally means, “to hold down or seize” that which is good.  The word translated “good” was used for something genuine as opposed to a counterfeit.  Romans 12:9 captures it well when we’re told to “cling to the good.”  When you find something that is true, don’t let go of it.  Don’t trade God’s timeless truths for a fling with the world.  

8. Avoid every kind of evil (22). 

When we test something and find out it is good, we’re to hold it down in our life.  If we test it and it is not good, then we are to abstain, or “hold ourselves away” from it.  There is no room to dabble.  If it’s good, embrace it.  If it’s evil reject it.  While we can’t withdraw from the world, we are to make sure we don’t give sin a foothold in our lives.  The King James Version translates this as “abstaining from every appearance of evil.”  Even if something just seems sinful, we should consider running away from it.  Far too many of us get as close as we can to things that will only destroy us.

God’s Design for the Disciple

These 8 disciplines are impossible to implement fully from a human standpoint.  We won’t naturally rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in every situation.  Left to ourselves our fire will go out, we’ll treat God’s Word with contempt, we won’t test things, those things that are good will slip through our hands, and we’ll embrace evil.  We’re a mess, aren’t we?  Yes, we are.  And no, we’re not.  Paul did not expect the Thessalonians to do all this in their own strength, so he prayed for them in a beautiful benediction.  Let’s look at verses 23-24: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” 

In essence, Paul is saying, “I’ve told you how to live, but only God can make your efforts successful.”  This prayer of sanctification is calling on God to make sure we turn out right.  When the Holy Spirit takes up residence in a life, He begins the process of setting that believer apart and moving him toward the goal of becoming like Christ.  To be sanctified is to be reserved for God’s exclusive use and has three elements to it.

  • Positional.  This happens at conversion (Hebrews 10:10).
  • Practical.  This takes place on a daily basis as we surrender to Christ (2 Corinthians 7:1)
  • Perfect.  Everything will be completed when we meet Jesus face-to-face (1 John 3:2)

Paul’s closing prayer is really a short course in sanctification.  This outline is not original with me but is very helpful.

1. The Person – “May God Himself, the God of Peace.” 

In legal terms, God is the guarantor, the one who personally stands behind the promise.  Friends, only God can make you better.  James Denney put it this way: “How many have tried to work off a vicious temper, to break for good with an evil habit…to sanctify themselves and to keep out of God’s sight until the work is done.” In our battle against sin, many of us crawl into a corner and try to get better on our own.  After a while we stand up and say, “See how nice I look, Lord?  And I did all by myself.”  And from heaven comes this reply, “Without me you can do nothing.”

2. The Purpose – “Sanctify you through and through.”

This phrase actually translates an unusual two-part word.  One part means “whole” and refers to being “complete” or “at the end.”  The idea is that we are being wholly sanctified so that in the end we will be complete.  It’s a process that leads to a final product.  In commenting on this text, John Calvin said that God intends “the entire renovation of the man.”  That’s a job so tough that only God would attempt it.  Some of us have been in the process of renovation for a couple years, others of you for more than 50 years.  Guess what?  The job is still not done, is it?  But it will be at the end.

3. The Prospect – “May your whole spirit, soul and body.” 

While Paul is not trying to give us a definitive treatment of human psychology, he is saying that God intends to renovate us in all of our parts.  Nothing will be left out or overlooked.

4. The Position – “Be kept blameless.” 

This word comes from the courtroom.  It means to be acquitted.  No one can bring a charge against us because we will be blameless.  That’s not true of most of us now.  Those who know us best know our weaknesses and could testify against us.  When born again believers eventually stand before God, He will be able to say, “Does anyone in the whole universe know any reason why this person should not enter heaven?” At that point there will be a loud silence because no one—not the angels or the demons, not the saints or the sinners—no one in all the universe will be able to bring up anything.  Just then, Romans 8:33 will echo through the hallways of heaven: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  It is God who justifies.”

5. The Point – “At the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

1 Thessalonians is filled with references to the second coming of Christ.  When He returns for His church, and we are raptured to meet Him in the clouds, our sanctification will be absolute.  Our character will be revealed and our perfection will be complete.

6. The Promise – “The One who calls you is faithful.” 

This is the foundation of eternal security.  Because God is faithful to His promises, believers can have confidence that what He says will be fulfilled.  Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will fulfill [his purpose] for me…” God is committed to our completion.

7. The Performance – “He will do it.” 

These four words are simple and direct with no qualification, no hesitation, and no doubt of any kind.  Notice it’s not, “He may do it” or “He might do it” or “He could do it” or “He’ll do it if he feels like it.” Not even “He will do it if we do our part.” When it’s all said and done, what matters is not my strong hold on God, but his strong hold on me.

This prayer contains God’s design for the disciple and should help us in at least three ways:

  • It should give us enormous confidence in God.  If you have doubted God, doubt no longer.  He is faithful to keep his promises.  He has ordained that some day you will be like the Lord Jesus inside and out.  And he is working even now to make you a better person.  Don’t doubt his purposes even though you can’t always see his hand at work.
  • It ought to give you assurance of salvation.  Sometimes believers struggle with assurance because we don’t “feel” saved.  But feelings have nothing to do with it.  If you feel saved, that’s good, and you should be grateful.  But if you don’t “feel” saved, trust God to keep his word anyway.  Salvation rests not on your fickle feelings but on the unchanging promises of a God who cannot lie.  
  • It ought to give you motivation to grow.  After all, if God has said he is going to sanctify you, you can rest assured that you will be sanctified—whether you want to be or not!  Your only choice is whether or not you will cooperate with Christ while you’re still alive.  A little collaboration goes a long way in the area of sanctification.  That’s why we’re challenged to be joyful, prayerful and thankful as we guard against putting out the Spirit’s fire, and not treating God’s revelation with a lack of respect.  As we test everything, let’s avoid evil and hold on to the good.

Closing Words

Paul concludes with some closing comments.

  • Brothers, pray for us.  He recognizes his need for prayer.
  • Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.  Don’t ignore your brother and sisters but embrace them with the love and holiness of Christ.
  • Have this letter read to all the brothers.  Listen to God’s Word.
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.  Everything we have and everything we are is a result of grace.

I want to close this morning by doing two things.  First, I want to pray this benediction over you.  Second, when I’m finished I’d like each of you to greet someone you don’t know with a holy handshake or a holy hug (we’ll pass on the kissing part for now).  In fact, I’d like us to practice the three-minute rule.  Spend the first three minutes after the benediction talking to people you don’t know and extending God’s grace to them.  Look them in the eye and say, “Keep the fire burning.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?