“Coram Deo” 1 Thess. 5:16-18 Sept. 24, 1995
There are two ways to take these verses and you find each of them supported by commentators. John Stott, for example, supposes that these short, rapid-fire statements have all to do with worship, indeed the public worship services of the church. He argues that the verbs are all in the plural, and so suggest that Paul is speaking of the congregation together, and that the reference to prophecies in v. 20 and the “holy kiss” in v. 26 suggest a church meeting or service.
I am not myself persuaded and most commentators do not take the verses in this fashion. The fact that he is writing to a congregation of Christians fully explains the plural verbs; it would be unlikely to find him writing in the singular to a group of Christians, even if he were speaking of things that had to do with their lives individually. The reference to prophecies may refer to a church service, but hardly means that everything else in the section is about such a service and the reference to the holy kiss is in the closing paragraph of the letter, a paragraph with its own subject and interest.
I am persuaded that these exhortations, while applying to all of a Christian’s life and so certainly and especially to public worship which rests at the center of that life, nevertheless apply to the whole life of believers and are not particularly related to worship services. The simplest demonstration of that fact, in my mind, is that the Bible speaks this very way about the Christian life in many places.
John Stott, a man I admire very much by the way and who has placed the contemporary Christian church very much in his debt, argues that “Be joyful always” can’t be taken to mean that Christians are to be happy all the time, because, as he puts it, “joy and happiness are not at our command, and cannot be turned on and off like a tap.” He takes it, rather like the opening of many psalms, such as the Venite, Ps. 95: “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord,” as a call to public worship. It is not an order to be happy in life, but to come joyfully to worship the Lord with church on the Lord’s Day.
But, the fact is, the Bible often tells Christians to be joyful — all the time, not just at worship. “Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again I say rejoice!” Paul wrote to the Philippians. In Romans 12:12 Paul writes, in words very reminiscent of these here in 1 Thess. 5: “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer”; later in the same letter to the Romans (14:17) Paul wrote: the kingdom of God is a matter of righteous, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The Lord himself concluded his beatitudes, his immortal description of the Christian character, with “Rejoice and be exceeding glad for great is your reward in heaven.” I could cite many more such texts. But, C.S. Lewis was only being faithful to the constant and emphatic teaching of the Bible when he said that “it is a Christian’s duty to be as happy as he can be.”
The fact is the Bible is always using this surprisingly extravagant language about the Christian life. Measured language and the elegant mean [or average] is not the note of the NT, as P.T. Forsyth put it. As he reminds us, Erasmus is always shocked with Luther.
Love always, hate always, joy always, sorrow always, prayer always, work always, peace always, war always — that is how the Christian life of faith is described in Holy Scripture. And only faith and the experience of faith can explain how this paradox is possible –such seemingly contradictory states of mind and heart harmonized with one another in a single Christian life –; but it is, and every Christian knows that it is possible to be, as Paul elsewhere put it: “sorrowful, but always rejoicing,” or “fighting the good fight while enjoying the peace that passes all understanding.”
So I think what we have here are not instructions for corporate worship per se, but exhortations to a particular kind and quality of life. And it seems to me that what binds all of these three injunctions or exhortations together is that they all describe the life of a Christian man or woman who is dominated by his or her sense or abiding belief or feeling or comprehension that he or she lives always and everywhere in the very presence of God. Or, as they used to say it, Paul is here describing a life consciously lived coram Deo “in the presence of God.”
One demonstration of that interpretation of these verses is that we are so often given to see men and women in Holy Scripture, whose lives are full of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving precisely because of their consciousness that they lived always before the face of their Father in heaven.
Such a man was Joseph, for example, or David or Paul. But think of Joseph. God, his presence, his immanence, his active involvement in the life of his people, his constant care of them and rule of them and direction of them is the unbroken thread binding the entire story of his life together. Not for Joseph some idea of a God who, in Thomas Carlyle’s phrase, “sits on the hills, since the first Sabbath, careless of mankind.” No, Joseph’s God is here and astir on behalf of his child and his servant. His hand is everywhere to be seen, his smile to be felt, his displeasure also, and his care to be counted on.
When Potiphar’s wife propositioned him, Joseph replied: “How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” When Joseph was thrown into prison and the chief cupbearer and chief baker had their dreams and told them to Joseph, Joseph instantly replied: “Do not interpretations of dreams belong to God?” When, later, Pharaoh had a dream and asked Joseph for its meaning, he replied, “I cannot do it,…but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” And when he interpreted the dream he began by saying “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.”
When he saw his brothers again and revealed himself to them finally he explained all that had happened by saying “God sent me ahead of you…it was not you who sent me here, but God.” He said of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, born in Egypt, “They are the sons God has given me.” At the end of his life he said to his brothers, “You meant to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish…the saving of many lives.” His last recorded words were “I am about to die. But God will surly come to your aid and take you up out of this land…. God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”
This is the authentic life of the believer; this is the only authentic human life — life lived before the face of God, always conscious of him, always looking to him, always interpreting the events of our days and nights in terms of him, always seeking to please him, always aware that he sees you and all that you do, always aware that your life –in its greatest matters and its smallest–is of importance to him.
And that is why it is right to tell Christians that they ought to “be joyful always,” “pray continually,” and “give thanks in all circumstances…”
Think about it.
I. In the first place, to know that one’s life is lived before the face of God should make real and solid happiness in life both a possibility and an obligation.
Now, remember, we are not talking about laughter and gaiety or about a happy-go-lucky and ebullient personality; we are not speaking of that person who by make-up and constitution always has a smile on his face, who wakes up cheerful in the morning and goes to bed whistling at night. That, Dr. Packer says, is to confuse holiness with bone structure.
We are speaking about a joy that is perfectly compatible with all the sorrows that a holy man or woman must feel in this world of sin and death, is compatible with the agonies of the spiritual warfare, and with a true reverence for and fear of our holy God. Paul commands us to rejoice always, but he also commands us in other places to weep, to agonize, to fight.
We are speaking of a joy that is rooted deep down in the facts of one’s life, a solid and indestructible gladness in the knowledge that all is well, the soul’s basking in the pleasure of knowing that it is loved by God and that God is near.
Listen to Bishop Ryle on this Christian joy that Paul is recommending to us here.
The true Christian is the only happy man, because he can sit down quietly and think about his soul. He can look behind him… He can think calmly about things to come, and yet not be afraid. Sickness is painful; death is solemn; the judgment day is an awful thing: but having Christ for him, he has nothing to fear. He can think calmly about the Holy God, whose eyes are on all his ways, and feel “He is my Father — I am weak, I am unprofitable: yet in Christ he regards me as His dear child, and is well pleased.” Oh, what a…privilege it is to be able to think and not be afraid.
Sometimes this joy wells up in a giddiness and a gladness of heart we can scarcely contain and sometimes it lies quiet, but still present as the context in which we face all the trouble and trials of life — the happiness of knowing that, at the last, all is well.
This is what Chesterton meant when he said “For the Christian joy is the central thing in life, sorrow is peripheral.” Because joy is the lasting thing, the great questions have been answered.
Now see how a Christian who lives consciously coram Deo, before the face of God, is, in that way, brought to a life of continuing joy. Whatever his difficulties he is conscious that the Almighty is at his Right Hand and will never leave him or forsake him. If he has troubles to bear, trials to endure, difficulties to undertake, he has his Father’s smile both to steel him and to reward him for the efforts of endurance that he must make. If she fears this or that in her life, she is at the same time conscious that “he who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” and that “he watches over her and will keep her from all harm; he will watch over her life; over her coming and going both now and forevermore.”
If God is for us, who can be against us; if God loves us, and if he is present with us always; if he has his eye always upon us, what can anyone do to us to harm us — other human beings or the devil himself. Indeed, as Pascal put it: “There is some pleasure in being on board a ship battered by storms when one is certain of not perishing.”
Be joyful always! God is present and he loves you. If you could see him with your eye, see him standing over you to protect you, see his smile, see his hand directing your ways, you would wake up happy and go to be whistling no matter what your bone structure! But he is there. Open the eyes of your soul, your faith, and see him there.
II. Then, to know that one’s life is lived before the face of God and to live one’s life consciously coram deo should inevitably lead to a life of uninterrupted prayer.
Now when Paul urges us to “pray continually” or, as the KJV had it, “pray without ceasing,” he didn’t mean, obviously, that we were to do nothing else with our days and nights but pray, that we are to engage in the act of prayer without a break. Paul didn’t pray continually in that sense and no one can who keeps the commandments of God which also require him to do many other things.
Paul, as with “be joyful always,” so with “pray continually” is speaking of the constant bent and drift of the soul. Prayer becomes the habit of the heart, the tone of one’s nature, the tension of one’s disposition in such a way that when a man or woman is released from the grasp of our other occupations the soul immediately springs back, rebounds to God.
Or, to put it another way, prayer becomes the appetite of the soul.
And then, because of that constant disposition toward God — that is often breaking out in actual acts of prayer but often lies still beneath the surface in the fundamentally Godward orientation of a man or woman’s life — (when you look down on the Tacoma Narrows from the heights above you see only the flat surface of the water; only the one who has sailed those waters knows what tremendous currents lie beneath the calm on top) — I say because of this constant disposition toward God it is possible for the Bible to describe a believer’s entire life as prayer, or, in Origen’s wonderful phrase “one great connected prayer.”
This is what John Donne meant with these wonderfully encouraging words about the life of prayer as so much more than the act of prayer itself, but the fundamentally godward disposition of life.
That soul that is accustomed to direct herself to God on every occasion, that, as a flower at sunrising, conceives as sense of God in every beam of his, and spread and dilates itself towards him, in a thankfulness, in every small blessing that he sheds upon her,…that soul who, whatsoever string be stricken in her, bass or treble, her high or her low estate, is ever turned towards God, that soul prays sometimes when it does not know that it prays.
God is there you see. All is thought of and experienced and responded to in terms of his presence. If you could see him with your eye you would be always turning to him to see what you could read on his face, to ask him what you ought to say in response to what that person said to you, how you ought to behave in the light of what had just happened. When difficulties must be faced you would turn to him for encouragement and when afraid would stretch out your hand to take his.
Well, is not the Scripture and the Lord speaking in the Scripture always promising us just that. That he is that near; that he stands that ready to help us, and that the man or woman who trust in him will not be put to shame.
Think of this in Nehemiah’s life. So conscious of the presence of God, so aware of his life being before the face of God that when the Persian King asked him what was troubling him, there in the throne room, in the presence of the King, sitting there, looking at him, waiting for an answer, in the few seconds before he had to make an answer he looked to God, he turned to The Presence with him, sought and found his help.
And this is what we find in the Bible always: God’s people who live coram Deo turning to God at all times of the day or night; in every conceivable condition — in palaces, under the night sky, in jail cells — praying all manner of prayers. Always looking to God, always turning to God, always putting the matter to God, because he is right there!
And the man or woman who lives in the consciousness of God’s presence and whose life is then a life of continual prayer, both the deep and underlying Godward disposition of the soul and the act of prayer itself, finds that over and again in the small and the great matters of life God proves himself present and listening to the prayers of his children.
I remember the delightful anecdote of Robert Blair, the 17th century Scottish pastor and friend of Samuel Rutherford. He was travelling from London to Ireland and wanted to see both of his friends, Rutherford and Anwoth and Marion M’Naught at Kirkcudbright, but not knowing how to accomplish both visits in time, he prayed for direction at the fork in the road, laid the bridle on the horse’s neck and let the horse take its own way. The animal led him to Kirkcudbright where, upon entering Marion M’Naught’s home, found her deep in conversation with Samuel Rutherford. And so it is so often been for the man or woman for whom
Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath
The Christian’s native air…
III. And, of course, we could say the same kind of thing about giving thanks in all circumstances.
Once reckon with the fact that God himself is there and that you live your life, every moment of your life, before his face, before the face of that God of infinite wisdom and unchangeable love for his children and everything, absolutely everything becomes a gift: the trial, the setback, the car-trouble, the burnt dinner, the unexpected bill, as well as the good food, the good health, the great time, the love of friends, the light from the Word of God, the sense of divine love in the heart, the provision of some need in answer to prayer. It is all from God and all seen to be because he is there; it is all good because nothing comes from him that is not good and for our good.
You see, once accept that God, the God who cannot lie, has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age,” “The Lord knows the way of the righteous,” “The angel of the Lord camps around those that fear him,” “He cares for those who trust in him,”…
Once let a believing man or woman say, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand…with your right hand you save me,” [Ps 138:7] “You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. If I go up to the heavens you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there…even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast.”
Let this be said and believed and it is no longer remarkable, no longer difficult to understand, and it no longer seems an extravagance for Paul to say: “Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances…”
It is simply the answer of the Christian soul, the answer of the heart that believes in Jesus Christ, to the knowledge that God is there and that we live our lives before his face!
In his immortal Devotions, Lancelot Andrewes, English bishop and translator of the KJV, in one of his confessions of sins, acknowledges to God that his radical sin, his root sin, is “I have neglected Thee, O God.” I have neglected God. Neglected to think of him, to remember his love, his promises, his presence with me, his sight of all I think, say, and do, his rule over every detail of my life.
When we neglect God joy and prayer and gratitude wither. When we remember him they thrive. It is as simple as that!