The Worthy Walk—Part V:
Reverend Bryn MacPhail / November 10, 2002
The apostle Paul did not lead a comfortable life. It is probably safe to say that few, if any, of us will ever experience the hardship that Paul endured. If you doubt that, listen to this resume of suffering he provides in 2Corinthians 11, “imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labour and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure”(2Cor.11:23-27).
With this resume of suffering, it is nothing short of remarkable to hear this command come from the lips of Paul, “Rejoice always”(5:16).
‘Paul, are you out of your mind? Are you a glutton for punishment? You spend much of your time in prison, you are constantly being beaten on, and you seldom have a full stomach—how can you say, “Rejoice always”?’
The best way to understand Paul’s command to “Rejoice always” is to consider the object of his joy. Now, admittedly, the object of Paul’s joy is not named in our text, but it is named in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”
So you see, Paul is not saying, ‘Rejoice in your trials’, but “rejoice in the Lord”. I would expect that there would be times, that there would be circumstances that would cause you to grieve. In Philippians, chapter 2, Paul said that if his friend Epaphroditus had died, he would have had "sorrow upon sorrow"(2:27). Certainly there are times when we experience sadness because of our circumstances, but what Paul is saying is that there is no occasion where our contemplation of our Lord should leave us devoid of exuberant joy.
I admit that our joy in our circumstances diminishes as our circumstances worsen. But, thankfully, Paul is not commanding us to rejoice in our circumstances, he is telling us to rejoice in the Lord. And while our circumstances are continually changing, we must remember that God never changes. God is as perfect today as He has been every day for all eternity. For this reason, the command to "rejoice in the Lord" has no time limitations—we are to rejoice in the Lord "always".
Friends, I use the word command very intentionally. When Paul closes his letter to the Thessalonians, he does not leave us with a buffet of options to choose from. To the contrary, rejoice always is given in the imperative form; it is given as a command.
Now, before we draw out the implications of this command, let us pause and consider what kind of God we are worshipping here. I think we can learn a great deal about the character of God by looking at His commands. And when I consider the character of the God who obligates us to make Him our chief delight, and Who commands us to rejoice, I can only infer that the God of the Bible is a happy God.
The God of the Bible is a happy God, and He commands His followers to be characterized by this same unceasing joy. The implications of this command should be clear. The command to rejoice in the Lord always precludes the Christian from complaining or harbouring bitterness. The implication of this command is that you are not permitted to fret and fume. It is not as if you can turn to another portion of Scripture and find the command, ‘Groan in the Lord always, again I say groan’. If you are one who is prone to melancholy and complaining, make no mistake, giving in to these tendencies is a transgression against the Divine injunction to rejoice evermore.
But let us not stop at the Divine injunction for our motivation to rejoice always, for there are purposes behind this injunction. The first, or the primary, purpose behind the command to rejoice always is the honour of God. Joy is one of the chief ways we demonstrate honour. Can you imagine being introduced to someone and not smiling? Smiling indicates our joy in meeting the person, which, in turn, honours them. Can you imagine a man, on bended knee, offering a diamond ring to his beloved only to be greeted with a cold, stoic, response?
I reckon that God has promised an eternal inheritance, and the cost of providing this inheritance was the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. Shall we not then honour God’s generosity by rejoicing evermore?
The second purpose behind rejoicing always is that it is an effective Christian witness. Charles Spurgeon writes, “There are many more flies caught with honey than with vinegar; and there are many more sinners brought to Christ by happy Christians than by doleful Christians.”
If we struggle to rejoice always, know that there is help available. The God who calls you to rejoice in Him is also the One who provides the ability to obey His commands. So we should not be surprised to see that what follows the command to rejoice always is the command to “pray without ceasing”(5:17).
In fact, it could be rightly said that obeying any command of Scripture depends, first, on this command. Without prayer, without enlisting God’s assistance, we are incapable of effective service. Remember Paul’s exhortation from last Sunday, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak”(5:14). Look at all of these needy people draining you: the wayward Christian is challenging your patience; the worried Christian is requiring your assistance; the weak Christian is leaning on you. You are expected to admonish, encourage, and help them. Your only hope is to “pray without ceasing”.
But what does this mean? What does it mean to pray without ceasing? What I think it means, most obviously, is that the Christian should pray often; it means that prayer should be a habit for the Christian. I don’t think this command requires us to pray every minute of the day, and I base this on Romans 1:9, where Paul says, “For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how I without ceasing make mention of you.” Now, it is safe to say that Paul did not mention the Romans every minute of his prayers. We know that Paul prayed about many other things, and for many other people. We conclude then, that to pray without ceasing means to pray repeatedly; it means to pray often.
Secondly, and again obviously, to pray without ceasing means to never abandon prayer. As long as there is kingdom work to do, as long as there are wayward, worried, and weak Christians to help, we will need the sustaining power of prayer. Paul’s command is don’t ever give up the practice of prayer—don’t cease.
Sometimes we think we are too busy to pray. This is a great mistake. Martin Luther would often say, “I have so much to do today that I shall never get through it with less than three hours’ prayer.” Think of yourself on a busy day, you need to go grocery shopping, but you determine that you do not have time to sit down and draw up a list. So you dash off to the store, buy some items, and return home only to find that you forgot to purchase some essential items. (Sound familiar?) Now you have to return to the store—all because you would not take the time to think, and draw up a list.
It is the same with prayer. If we do not take the time to pray we will inevitably suffer and be forced to return to that thing we should have done in the first place. O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!
It should also be said that prayer does not require a particular posture, and it does not require you to speak audibly. To succeed in praying without ceasing, we need only to engage our heart and to enlist the Holy Spirit’s power.
Prayer must not be mechanical; if prayer for you is a mechanical exercise, you will soon find it to be a wearisome exercise. English Puritan, Thomas Watson, maintains, “To say a prayer is not to pray” (Watson, Heaven Taken By Storm, 20), reminding us that one of the early church fathers taught his parrot to pray the Lord’s prayer. For prayer to be prayer, our soul should must be engaged, and in communion with God. In this form, our prayers must be without ceasing.
What follows rejoicing evermore, and prayer without ceasing, is thankfulness in all things. Charles Spurgeon puts it beautifully, “When joy and prayer are married their first born child is gratitude.”
19th Century, Church of England minister, J.C. Ryle, writes, "I know well that asking God is one thing, and praising God is another. But I see so close a connection between prayer and praise in the Bible, that I dare not call true prayer that in which thankfulness has no part."
Augustine has written that the early saints, when they met each other, would never separate without saying, "Deo gratias!", which means "thanks be to God". Frequently their conversation would be about the persecutions that raged against them, but, even still, they finished their conversation with "Deo gratias!" Sometimes they had to tell of dear brethren devoured by the beasts in the amphitheatre, but even then they would say "Deo gratias!" Frequently they mourned the prevalence of heresy, but even this did not keep them from exclaiming, "Deo gratias".
So should it be with us. The motto of the 21st Century Christian should be "Deo gratias!", "Always giving thanks to God for all things". The habit of the 21st Century Christian should be “prayer without ceasing”. And the disposition of the 21st Century Christian should be “rejoicing in the Lord always”.
We are not to be Christians in name only. Christians are to be marked by joy, prayer, and gratitude. This is our living witness to the power of the gospel. Let us lift this gospel banner high, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.