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Posts Tagged ‘rejoicing’

carthageI want to do something a bit different today. I want to tell you the story of a Christian who’s example can both teach us and encourage us to live more faithfully ourselves. And then at the end I will highlight some specific points of  faithfulness in our story from the Scriptures.

Our story takes place in Carthage, North Africa in the early 200’s. So this was 1,800 years ago. Carthage was a part of the Roman empire. It is now in modern day Tunisia.

At this time it was not legal to be a Christian. Now the authorities didn’t usually seek Christians out, but nevertheless if they became known they would try to force them to renounce their faith and to offer up worship to the Roman emperor. But this appears to be an unusual case of when the authorities were actually looking for Christians to persecute.

Several young people, who were being prepared for baptism were caught by the Roman authorities. One of these was a woman named Perpetua. She was 22, well-educated and had an infant son. (Her husband is never mentioned, so perhaps she was a widow.)

This is her story

1. Her arrest. When she was arrested, her father, who was not a Christian, pleaded with her to renounce her faith so that she could be freed. This is what she wrote in her diary: “’Father, do you see this vase here, for example, or water-pot or whatever?’ ‘Yes, I do’, said he. And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said: ‘No.’ ‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’”

2. Her baptism. Not long after this, while still in custody, she and the others were baptized – and she felt strengthened by the Holy Spirit to endure.

3. Life in the prison. After a few days she and the others were taken away to the prison. She wrote, “I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.”

Two deacons from their church came and gave money to the guards, so that these young people could go for a time each day to a more pleasant part of the prison. After being separated from her son for several days, she writes, “Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.”

4. Encounter with her father. Again, from her diary she writes, “A few days later there was a rumor that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me. ‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on my grey head – have pity on me your father. . ..  Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride!. . .”

“This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer.”

5. The trial. “One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighborhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner’s dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt (of being a Christian). Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: Perform the sacrifice – have pity on your baby!’“

“Hilarianus the governor . . . said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’ ‘I will not’, I retorted. ‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus. And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’ . . . Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts,” which is a death sentence. She went on to write, “we returned to prison in high spirits.” This was to take place in a few days, as a part of the celebration of Caesar’s birthday.

6. Waiting for the punishment. Just after the sentence she learned that her son no longer needed to nurse, and so she was greatly relieved.

She also had a dream in which she saw herself fighting a gladiator. “Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory.”

For their last meal the young people shared in the Lord’s supper together.

7. Her suffering and death. This is an account of a witness, “ . . . they marched from the prison to the amphitheater (see picture at the top of this post) joyfully as though they were going to heaven with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.”

They tried to dress her in the garb of a pagan priestess, but she resisted and they relented. At which point she sang Psalms.

Along with the others, she was forced to run a gauntlet before the gladiators and to be whipped on her back. The narrator tells us, “And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord’s sufferings.”

Perpetua was stripped naked, but when the crowd saw that she was so young, she was allowed her clothing. Then they unleashed a wild cow on her, and it would have had horns for sure. The animal charged and tossed her and she fell on her back. “Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.”

After this she was allowed to go back to the gate, suffering from her wounds. She spoke to some Christians nearby, “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”

Then they were all brought out to the middle of the arena. They gave each other the kiss of peace before they each had their throats cut. Perpetua was the last one. “She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat.” And she died.[Translation from Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford 1972)]

Now let’s look at –

Three characteristics of faithfulness

 – that stand out to me as I think of Perpetua.

1. She was not ashamed of Jesus. Jesus said in Mark 8:38, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

She was fearless in her confession of her faith in Jesus. And so as Jesus said in Matthew 10:32, “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” This is a promise she can certainly claim.

If she could do this in such a difficult situation, how much more should we be challenged and encouraged to have no shame of our Lord in our situations in life where there is no risk to life and limb, but rather to boldly acknowledge our faith in him to others?

2. She rejoiced in suffering. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven . . .”

Her only wrong was being a Christian, but she was killed as a criminal. And yet she rejoiced after the sentence was handed down; when she was whipped she counted it joy to suffer as Jesus had; and she sang songs just before her death.

If she could do this in such a difficult situation, how much more should we be challenged and encouraged to “rejoice in the Lord always” as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, we who are not suffering such persecution? Yet how often do we complain and grumble about our comfortable lives?

3. She gave up her earthy life for Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 10:37-39, “Whoever loves father or mother . . . son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. . . Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This is a strong theme in this story. She gave up her son. She gave up her father and family. She gave up her life. She loved Jesus more than all these. And so, as Jesus said, she will find eternal life in the age to come.

If she could do this in such a difficult situation, how much more should we be challenged and encouraged to give up our earthly lives for the cause of the kingdom, even if in much smaller ways than she did? Often our chief concern is how busy we are with the activities and the enjoyment of this earthly life. But we too are called to give up our earthly lives.

__________

May we all be challenged and encouraged this morning to follow God with greater boldness in our faith, greater joy and thanksgiving in our lives, and greater sacrifice on our part for God’s kingdom.

William Higgins

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1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Our text today says, “Rejoice always . . . give thanks in all circumstances.” It may sound a bit familiar since we spent time on these verses last week. We’re actually breaking away from our series on 1 Thessalonians today, I am planning on finishing this up on the last Sunday of the month. But we are staying in the same neighborhood. I want to share more on the topic of giving thanks in all circumstances, specifically – why we can do this even in hard times.

Now it is easy to give thanks when God answers prayers and delivers us from our problems, although sometimes we forget to do this. But it is surely more difficult to give thanks when things are going badly for us. But it is possible. Let’s look at some –

Examples of rejoicing in suffering

The twelve apostles rejoiced in suffering. They were put in prison for their preaching but were miraculously released. Then whey they preached more, they were taken to stand before the governing authorities where they were beaten and warned to stop preaching. Acts 5:41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Paul and Silas rejoiced in suffering. In Acts 16 Paul cast out a fortune telling demon from a slave girl and this made the owners mad. They made money off this girl. They promptly caused a stir and got Paul and Silas in trouble with the authorities. Vs. 23-25 say, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison . . . into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them . . ..” They were unjustly beaten, arrested and shackled – but they were singing praises to God.

This happened just before Paul came to Thessalonica, so he knew what he was talking about when he told them “rejoice always . . . give thanks in all circumstances.”

And the Thessalonians themselves knew about rejoicing in suffering. From the time they first believed they suffered. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They suffered but they had joy.

Finally, the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. They had undergone persecution and the writer reminds them of this in 10:34, “ . . . you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Can you imagine having all your goods hauled away because of your faith – your big screen TV, your new dining set, your couches? Would you be able to keep things in perspective and still be joyful?

Why we can rejoice in all circumstances

– including when we suffer. As I said last week it certainly can’t be based on our feelings, these change all the time. It has to be based on something much stronger and more stable – our faith. So here are 5 aspects of our faith that show us why we can do this:

1. God is worthy of praise – period. Nothing else needs to be said. Whether we feel like praising God or not – God is worthy. Whether we are in good times or in bad times, it doesn’t matter. God is still the same – yesterday, today and forever and is still worthy of our praises.

Apart from anything God may or may not do for me; apart from whether God allows me to go through good times or bad, God is worthy of praise for who God is. God is awesome! God is holy! God is good! None of this changes based on our circumstances.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a difficult time. The people were unfaithful to God. And he knew that judgment was coming – things were going to get worse. But he praised God anyway, because God deserves to be praised. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord . . ..” I believe that this is the purest form of praise to God because it s not dependent on something that we get from God.

2. God has blessed us in many ways. Even in the worst of times, if we are able to think about it, we can recognize that this is true.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” You have been given the gift of life. Also think about your abilities, your strengths, your family, your friends, your home – whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And this includes our salvation – God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of our sins, new life by the Spirit, a relationship with God, fellow believers who walk with us, strength and peace in difficult times – all these are gifts from God as well.

And so despite whatever else may be going on we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

3. Our hope for the future. God allows each of us to go through hard times, and a part of this is simply living in this sinful and broken world where evil is normal. But in the midst of this as Christians we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

When Jesus talked about suffering for our faith; being reviled and slandered, he said, “Rejoice and be glad” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven . . .” – Matthew 5:12.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It is because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will suffer in this life. But we will be blessed in the world to come.

And in fact the blessing will outweigh the sufferings. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” – Romans 8:18. Similarly he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. Our suffering may well be great, but what awaits us is far greater.

4. God harnesses trials for our good. We go through fiery trials. This is an image that is used in Scripture. And it makes a point. Fire can consume or it can refine. If we go through the fire in faith we will not be consumed. Rather, God uses them to refine and purify us.

God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever evil befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us.

James tells his readers, “Count it all joy” when you suffer various kinds of trials. Why? “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4.

Along the same lines, Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .” – Romans 5:3-4.

The world will throw hard times at us left and right. But when we endure them in faith, God brings something good out of them for us. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this.

William Higgins

 

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Paul mosaic

We are in the fifth and final section of the teaching portion of 1 Thessalonians, which Paul began in chapter 4. And so we have looked at relationships with one another in the church, respecting Christian leaders, living in peace with one another, and helping those who struggle in various ways. We have also looked at relationships with everyone, inside and outside the church. And here Paul taught us not to return harm for harm, but to be patient with all, and to do good to everyone.

Today we look at vs. 16-22, focused on our relationship with God. There are eight statements which are held together by two themes:

– vs. 16-18 have to do with speaking to God in praise and prayer

– vs. 19-22 have to do with God speaking to us by means of prophecy (Ben Witherington)

  Let’s begin with vs. 16-18.

Talking to God: Praise and prayer

 “16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Rejoicing has to do with expressing our joy. This is quite similar to giving thanks (Psalm 97:12; Philippians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:9), which is the expression of appreciation for benefits and blessings. Given that there is a prayer focus here (prayer comes right between them) these expressions of joy and thanks are given to God. I am calling this praise to God.

Now, rejoicing and giving thanks are a kind of prayer, but here Pau distinguishes prayer from these, so the focus in on petitionary prayer, or making our requests known to God.

  The phrase, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” applies to all three of these things. It is God’s will for us to rejoice, give thanks and offer up our requests to him. God wants us to be in relationship with him; for us to communicate with him our praises and our concerns.

But how can we do these thing always? How can we rejoice always? How can we pray without ceasing?

If we take this literally, it doesn’t make sense. We have to sleep for one thing. But more to the point, you can’t both talk to God and also to someone else – at the same time. Or again, you can’t both rejoice with those who rejoice and also weep with those who weep, as Paul says (Romans 12:15) – at the same time

Rather, Paul is referring here to set times of daily prayer according to the biblical pattern. That is, morning and evening prayers, or perhaps also afternoon prayers. We see this all throughout the Old Testament in the Psalms and in Daniel for instance, as well as in the New Testament. In fact, there is a reference to this in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 – “we pray most earnestly night and day . . ..” This was a common Jewish way of talking about daily prayers in the evening and the morning.

Paul is saying, keep to your daily prayers, continue day and night; morning and evening. Always rejoice by coming before God constantly morning and evening. Unceasingly pray by coming before God morning and evening. And, of course, we can also pray and rejoice as we are able throughout each day. 

But there’s another part to this. Paul is saying keep praying even when things are hard. They were going through persecution, so the message is:

  • Keep on rejoicing, as individuals and as a group, not just when things are good, but when things are hard. This echoes Jesus in Matthew 5:11-12. When you are persecuted “rejoice and be glad.”
  • Keep on praying, as individuals and as a group, not just when things are easy, but when you have difficulty after difficulty. This echoes Jesus in Luke 18:1. “And he told them . . . that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”

This also fits with v. 18 – give thanks “in all circumstances.” It’s easy to give thanks when things are just fine, but we are also to do this when things are not good – that’s what “in all circumstances” means.

But how can we rejoice and give thanks in bad times? Well, it’s certainly not based on our feelings or that we’re having a good day. It’s based on understanding what God is doing in our lives, and the bigger picture of the hope that we have, which is far greater than whatever temporary suffering we may have in this world. And we can do this because the Holy Spirit within us is the source of our joy (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

Some questions to consider . . . How is your prayer and praise life? Rate yourself:

  • Do you only come to God in an emergency?
  • Do you only pray and give thank on Sundays at church?
  • Do you have a private prayer life?
  • Are you constant in your prayer life?

Paul is teaching us here to be in this last category. Think about it. God spared nothing to be in relationship with us. He created us, bore with us, gave his only Son. But often we make little or no effort to spend time in relationship with God. This helps put things in perspective.

Are you overwhelmed by hard times? Paul calls the Thessalonians not to give up in persecution. And his word to us is don’t lose heart. When you have difficulty after difficulty piling up on you and it seems like praying is useless – keep at it. Press through. God will take care of you.

God talking to us: Prophecy

“19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies, 21but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22Keep away from every evil kind.” I want us to look first at what is the key to understanding these verses, prophesy. And so I ask what is prophesy? We have to turn to 1 Corinthians since it is just mentioned here in 1 Thessalonians.

  • It consists of words the Spirit prompts you to say. It is a manifestation of the Spirit, like all spiritual gifts, which in this case comes in words – 1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:12. It might be a word of encouragement, insight or even challenge.
  • It is directed “to people,” in contrast to speaking to God – 1 Corinthians 14:3.
  • It is intended for “their strengthening and encouragement and comfort” – 1 Corinthians 14:3.

So prophecy is simply speaking out a word from the Spirit in your own words. It’s a part of the promise of Joel 2:28-29 that all believers will have the Spirit and prophesy. Although some are classified as prophets since they have a specific ministry in this, God can speak through any of his children to say a word of encouragement, insight or challenge.

Prophecy was a completely normal part of the life of the New Testament church. We see references to it throughout the New Testament. And it happens among us as well – from the pulpit, from Sunday school teachers, in our Sunday school classes and small groups and in our praise time. We don’t call it this necessarily, but it happens.

I wanted to give you a specific example today and so I asked God to give me a word for us today. I have actually already said it as a part of my teaching. If I were to say it as a prophecy in the congregation I would say it like this, “I believe the Spirit is asking us today – God spared nothing to be in relationship with us. So why do we make such little effort to be in relationship with him in prayer?”

Now let’s break down these verses and see how they fit together. “19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies.” These two phrases basically say the same thing. For it is the activity of the Spirit that animates prophecy. And so to quench the Spirit is to despise prophecies.

Quench is a fire metaphor. It is when you put out a fire. The Holy Spirit is compared to fire in several places (e.g. Matthew 3:11). And so to quench the Spirit is to suppress or restrain the movement of the Spirit among us.

To despise prophecies is to look down on them, reject them, to treat them with contempt. So both of these phrases are about restricting prophecy.

Why restrict prophecy? The answer is simple – it’s easy to abuse. I have seen this and perhaps you have as well. People can speak out their own opinions as if they were God’s, or mix the two together. People can speak out wrong teaching (see 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). People can speak out things that come from the flesh, from the world, from the evil one – and not from the Spirit.

  So there is certainly a temptation, perhaps especially by leaders, to suppress it; to look down on it. But Paul’s word to us is don’t quench it or despise it because of abuses, rather the answer is test prophecies (also 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 John 4:1-3).

He doesn’t’ say anything here about how to do this but certainly testing it against the apostolic message, now written down in the New Testament is foundational (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Once we test what is said, we are to “hold fast what is good.” That is, receive what is truly from the Spirit. But if it is not of the Spirit we are to “keep away from every evil kind” of prophecy – that is, keep distance from receiving bad or evil prophecies. (Notice the spatial language hold on to the good, keep away from the bad) (Gordon Fee’s discussion of these verses is very helpful).

So any prophecy has to be tested. Any if you want to share I encourage you to test it yourself before you share. It might be a bit embarrassing for me or the Elders to have to correct you in front of the whole group. But I will if necessary.

Some questions to consider . . . Are we OK with people speaking out by the Spirit? (Maybe we are more comfortable when we don’t call it prophecy). We will find out because I want to give you a chance to do this next week during the praise time. Think about this. Can we expect the Spirit to move among us, which is what we pray for and desperately need, but only on our terms and in ways that we dictate? “Oh Spirit come and do your work; give us revival; transform lives among us; bring people into your kingdom. But don’t do anything that we are not comfortable with; don’t use any spiritual gifts; don’t let our routines get messed up. We want you, but only on our terms.” Do you think God hears this prayer?

Finally, do you quench the Spirit in other ways? Do you restrain the work of the Spirit in ways beyond the topic of prophecy. When the Spirit speaks to you, but you don’t like what you are hearing – do you suppress the Spirit? When the Spirit seeks to lead you but you don’t want to go – do you quench the Spirit?

I will tell you plainly – we need the renewal and transformation of the Spirit among us as individuals and as a congregation. But we will only receive this when we open ourselves up fully to the Spirit – no strings attached.

William Higgins

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