Alfred Place Baptist Church

4:1-5 Later times

1 Timothy 4:1-5 “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

On this first Sunday of the year 2000 none of us know what the future has in store for us. There is no shortage of futurologists in and out of the church. The last decades of the twentieth century have been characterised by many confused people prefacing their counsels with these words, “The Spirit clearly says …” Then they have proceeded to claim to have the Spirit’s authority for telling men to do such things as to abandon singing hymns (‘Dead Men’s Songs’), but to pray to the Virgin Mary, or that certain men should give up their jobs and sell their houses and move to another area, or that all the church pews should be taken out, or that sick people should stop taking medication, or that the minister should be fired, or that they should leave their own wives and move in with someone else. All such things are being exhorted in the name of God. In a recent interview in Reformed Seminary, Jackson, J. Alec Motyer, one of the finest Anglican preachers and scholars of this same period, describes the Christian situation in Great Britain like this: “In England some people live on their emotions, saying, ‘The Lord said this to me,’ or ‘The preacher said this.’ They’re not reading their Bibles to see what’s true. A friend of mine went into a church carrying his Bible and the man at the door said, ‘You’ve no need to bring that in here. God speaks to us directly.’

What did Paul mean when he said, “The Spirit explicitly says”? He could have been referring to the words of the Lord Jesus who warned his disciples that there would be a falling away (Mk.13:22). When Christ speaks to the seven churches of Asia Minor he urges them to listen to what in fact the Spirit was saying to the churches. What Christ speaks the Spirit says. Or was Paul referring to his own farewell address to the Ephesian church when he warned them that savage wolves would invade the Ephesian church and “draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29&30)? What the apostle was saying at that occasion the Spirit was saying. Or is Paul conscious that he was in the Spirit of prophecy while he was writing these actual words to Timothy? Those are the only ways we can be absolutely confident of what the Spirit is speaking. Through the teaching of Christ’s prophets and apostles in the Bible the Spirit is addressing us today. Those men were enlightened, inspired, elevated and purified in a way in which nobody else in our sad century has been. We refuse to give our minds and consciences to lesser gifted men. The Bible alone speaks for the Spirit. It is the God-breathed Bible. What the Bible says the Spirit says.

In 1974 the famous opera singer Maria Callas was attending a conference on Verdi in Chicago and one morning she condescended to answer some reporters’ questions at the Civic Theatre. She informed them that since her retirement opera had gone into decline, because in these days people were increasingly obsessed with authenticity, using primitive instruments and the like. But in her day she ‘improved’ the scores of Verdi. If a baritone solo slowed down the action she would have it cut out. She would also slip in some high notes. She said, “When I had some very good high notes I gave them. Why not? If you’re a wealthy person why not be generous?” So she would interpolate Verdi’s score in such ways.

One of the reporters asking her questions was Charles Osborne, an authority on the life of Verdi, in fact he has written a standard biography of the great composer. Osborne could not restrain himself any longer: “You seem to forget, Miss Callas, that the composer is not there to serve you or your high notes. You are there to serve the composer. You are an interpreter, not a creator. Singers like yourself will come and go, but the genius of Verdi will outlive us all.”

The affronted gaze of the great diva was focused upon him. “If Verdi were alive today, he would agree with me,” she snarled. “That we shall never know,” Osborne replied, “and I’m certainly not taking your word for it.” “I speak for Verdi,” Callas declared emphatically, as though that ended the matter. Osborne smiled politely as he replied, “No, as it happens, I speak for Verdi.”

Who was right? Who was speaking for Verdi? The prima donna who slipped in the high notes and played around with the score? Or the devoted historian and biographer? It was, of course, the historian. If Verdi had wanted to cut out baritone solos and introduce high notes he would have done so.

Who speaks for the Spirit? Not the shining-eyed, intense men and women who claim, “The Spirit is saying,” but the person who teaches by the illumination of the Spirit exactly what the God-breathed Spirit says in Scripture. Bring me to a preacher any Sunday who declares what is in the book. To him I will hand over my mind to be enlightened and my affections to be stirred and my will to obey. What he truly says from the chapter and verse of the Book I know with 100% confidence that that is what the Spirit is saying.

So in our text what was the Spirit saying so explicitly about the future? There will be men and women who will claim that the Spirit is telling them about revival fires about to fall on the land. It is a message greedily received even though for almost a hundred years every men prophesying that has been wrong. But was that Paul’s message to Timothy – “Prepare for a mighty effusion on the Holy Spirit?” No. That was not what the Holy Spirit was saying so specifically to the apostle. It was rather that Timothy should be prepared for trouble and heartache ahead. Paul warns him that some he knew and loved were going to abandon the faith.

I remember almost thirty years ago Professor Paul Helm wrote an article entitled, ‘Darker Yet?’ He said this, “Suppose we are heading towards (in Christian terms) a new Dark Age – an age of plenty and unrivalled opportunities, at least for the favoured few in the West …but an age of ignorance, carelessness, viciousness and barrenness” (Banner of Truth, Issue 101, February, 1972). He did not say, ‘The Spirit is saying,’ what he was writing in that article, but he said, ‘Suppose.’ A friend of mine said to me at that time that it was a depressing article because Helm – not being a Welshman (!) – did not believe in revival. Yet what has happened during the last three decades? They have indeed been years of ignorance, carelessness, viciousness and barrenness. Education has been secularised, there is a contempt for the past, mass entertainment and sport dominates the country, marriage has been battered, abortions have become commonplace and critical standards have been neglected. We are living in a materialistic, superstitious, pleasure-loving nation. To think otherwise is to be blind, or selfish. Those of us who believe in the possibility of God intervening and awakening his people with new vigour cannot deny the apathy and barrenness of our nation. We are living in the twilight years of our Western civilisation. Its foundations were the absolutes of the Christian faith. These have been relentlessly undermined and nothing has been discovered to replace them. We have lost any philosophical entitlement to the very beliefs on which our culture has been built.

So Paul informs Timothy that one of the facts about Christian living in later times was that it was going to be in the context of some who professed to be believers abandoning their faith with all the sadness that accompanies that. Our confidence will not be that such apostatising will not occur but in God’s power to keep his elect and build his church. God can raise in the minds of men a desire to know him. There will always be places where the ministry is going to be energetically faithful, and used by God. We should do all in our power to support, encourage and foster such work by our presence, prayers and gifts. We all know how easy it is to be discouraged when professing Christians fall away, But the survival of the church is not in doubt. And the world goes on presenting intellectual and moral challenges and surprising opportunities to service.

1. When Would This Falling Away Occur?

“In later times” Paul says. He doesn’t mean by that, ‘much much later on, in fact two thousand years’ time.’ He is not referring to a specific brief period of terrible declension before the end of the world, though such a period might occur. Paul is talking about a situation Timothy was going to face. We know that because the warnings are given in the present tense – the teachings “come through hypocritical liars” (v.2), not ‘will come.’ “They forbid people to marry” (v.3), not ‘will forbid.’ This is going to a phenomenon Timothy himself will meet during “later times” in his life time. That is the reason Paul warns him about it.

In the New Testament the phrase ‘the last days’ refers to our present era which began with the coming of Christ and continue until the end of the world. The apostle Peter at Jerusalem at Pentecost quotes the words of Joel to explain the events of that extraordinary day, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17). That prophecy was fulfilled then, almost two thousand years ago, not just before the return of the Lord.

So Paul is writing to Timothy and the whole Christian church and is describing for them one of the features which must always characterise the Age of the Messiah: “Some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits” during this period. Timothy has known great blessings as he has accompanied the apostle on his travels. Let him not think that the future is going to be heaven on earth. There will often be vales of tears that we must pass through. That is the normal Christian life.

2. What Will Occur?

“Some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (v.1). Christ sends forth his Spirit in great abundance and the gospel is spread throughout Israel, Samaria, Asia and Europe, but some abandon their new faith. Miracles are wrought by the apostles. “Crowds gathered from the town around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed” (Acts 5:16), but some abandoned their faith. The gospel came to men and women “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thess. 1:5) but some abandoned their faith. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32), but some abandoned their faith.

So it must always be, even at the best of times. A New Testament church like that in Galatia will turn away from the personal pastoring and teaching of the apostle Paul. We are not going to surprised in our own barren days, when there are mercy drops from heaven, but scarcely a New Testament outpouring of the Holy Spirit, if people apostatize. We interviewed them for church membership and they showed real interest in the gospel and made a credible confession of faith which the most orthodox and narrow preacher in the world would have received as sufficient. Then they began to fall away, and there was nothing we could say or do which could restore them. Those are the heartaches of the Christian life, and they cause much heart-searching, and each pastor personalises every falling away and imagines that if he had been a godlier man he would have kept all the church loving Jesus.

But wherever there is a flock of sheep there are going to be wolves about. Wherever there is a true Christian there will be pressures on that person to abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. How many of this congregation have gone through periods during this past year when they felt like giving up the faith? Nobody knew about it. Perhaps the most mature person here today was on the very brink of falling away more than once in the past months. Maybe that person was … me. Maybe it was you. You were the object of attack by a deceiving spirit, that is a demon from hell. He did not come to you with horns and tail frightening you. He was far more skilful. He appealed to your sense of self-pity. He began to worm his way into your life when there were troubles at home, in your job, with your health, when there were difficulties in the church, in the family, financial troubles, a falling out with another believer, unanswered prayer. Then that deceiving spirit began to intrude into your life and he encouraged you to question this belief and that belief and to take up ideas and practices which were very far from Christianity. You became restless and critical. A grumpy Christian. Your personal relationship with the Lord went.

The devil is a deceiver, and has been from the beginning. The Lord Jesus called him ‘a liar and the father of lies.’ There are surprisingly many occasions in the New Testament letters on which the apostles attribute declension to the activity of Satan. John Stott says, “Is this not why intelligent and educated people can swallow the fantastic speculations of the cults and of New Age paganism, some of the far-fetched doctrines of the ethnic religions, and the barrenness of atheistic philosophies? It is because there is not only a Spirit of truth but also a spirit of falsehood, who is able to delude, drug, bewitch and even blind people” (John Stott, “The Message of I Timothy and Titus,” IVP, p.111).

What reasons can there be for people voting for John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ as ‘the song of the millennium’? It has a pleasant melody and the singer has a distinctive voice, but there is something more that makes that song supreme top of the pops. Its sentiments come from the pit. Lennon wants a universe without justice: an unrighteous creation: no heaven and no hell: lives that do not have to answer to any divine Judge. He wants everybody ‘living for today’ which is exactly what the non-Christian world does, taking no thought of the long-term consequences of their acts. The song is popular because it suits the anti-Christian spirit of our age. The people who love ‘Imagine’ have been taught it by deceiving spirits. Of course, they are unaware of this.

3. Through Whom will Such Teachings Come?

“Such teachings come through hypocritical liars” (v.2). That’s our own conviction which is confirmed from many observations we make. John Lennon was a multimillionaire who lived in luxury in the finest penthouse in New York, but in ‘Imagine’ he even sang of the benefits of having no possessions. The old hypocrite! Imagine kneeling down alongside someone sleeping on the street on a wet cold night and telling them that they are favoured people to own nothing at all. It was a good thing that that Samaritan had some possessions who helped the man he discovered lying half dead on the road, if only to pay the innkeeper for caring for him until he was strong enough to end his journey by going home.

This century has seen the rise and fall of hypocritical liars. Russia, China and eastern Europe has been governed by such men. Absolute tyrants, who have killed their millions in order to stay in power, they asked their subjects to make sacrifices which they themselves never made. Hollywood has been full of hypocritical liars, men and women acting the role of heroes but in their personal lives behaving like cowards. Betraying their wives, breaking their marriage vows. Slaves of their lusts while championing ‘liberty.’ The pulpit too has had its share of hypocritical liars, preaching all the old virtues and practising all the old vices.

We are surrounded by hypocrites. That great German preacher Wilhelm Busch tells of visiting a community and being asked to go to the house of a local politician who was ruining his life through drunkenness. Busch went to see him, and expostulated with the man about his folly urging him to stop. The man said, “I cannot.” Busch rejected that and pressed him again with the folly of his life. The man grew angry and walked out of the room and brought back a new clothes-line and his 8 year-old son. He proceeded to tie his son to the chair and then said to him, “Get up! Get up!” “I cannot, father,” said the boy. “There,” the man said to Busch, “out of the mouth of a child you have heard my words.” Busch arose immediately from his chair and went to the kitchen and came back with a scissors and cut the new clothes line off the boy and released him. “Now I have a Saviour who can break the ropes that are tying you to your drink,” Busch said, and preached Jesus to the man.

Men will say to us that they admire our faith, and that they wish they could believe, and that they cannot stop their anti-Christian behaviour or beliefs. Hypocritical liars! let them cry mightily to God. No one ever cried to the Lord and went unheard. But if they proceed in their rebellion that that the apostle speaks of here will surely happen to them, that “their consciences have been seared with a hot iron.” Literally, their consciences have been burned, not with a brand of ownership but cauterised, rendered insensitive and deadened. At first their consciences warned them that what they were doing and what they were believing was wrong. But they turned a deaf ear to conscience until it became cauterised. Then they were on their own. They had no scruple about becoming hypocritical liars. They were vulnerable to deceiving spirits and down they went, to their own ruin and the ruin of others. How different was the apostle Paul: “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16).

4. What are Some of the Things They Teach?

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” (v.3). It is not that they opposed marriage while encouraging people to live together. That is not the prohibition at all. These heretics prohibited all sexual relationships. Abstinence from sex and also from certain foods. They couldn’t prohibit abstinence from all food, though that would be their inclination, but there was a grudging agreement that certain foods could be eaten, but no sex under any circumstances. This teaching comes from deceiving spirits, and reaches us via hypocritical liars.

We can understand how such teaching arises. Ephesus was dominated by the impressive temple to the goddess Diana. It was basically a fertility cult and attached to it were hundreds of priestesses who were prostitutes. In the evenings they would enter the city streets and ply their trade. Many people’s lives were destroyed by this cult with the resulting broken marriages, disease, child prostitution, abortion, illegitimacy and the exposure of new born babies. Would there not be some professing Christians who would see this, or somehow be scarred by it and would teach abstinence is the only adequate response?

Now we all know that the Bible is negative with respect to sin. Most of the ten commandments are prohibitory in form. Since sin entered into the world the law of God must, in the nature of the case, be first of all negative. Sin is the contradiction of God, and his law must offer contradiction to sin. This is the only kind of abstinence demanded by Scripture – total abstinence from sin. We see if very effectively in I Thessalonians 5:22, “Avoid every kind of evil”: not only those things that are intrinsically sinful but those things which can become the occasion of sin in us. For example, some men could not be church planters in the red light area of London called Soho – as Michael Toogood has for many years. The surrounding temptations would be too great for them. So they must preach in a more rural settings. There are those who could not work for the media, or in politics, or in advertising, or in sport, or in an orchestra. All those are legitimate callings, but there are Christians who find such environments too demanding. “Avoid every kind of evil.” No doubt the parting is a real struggle, accompanied with the greatest reluctance and much sorrow. We know that the calling of Christians is to be the salt of the earth, and we do not encourage a retreat from any area of God’s creation.

The Scripture calls for abstinence from sin, but it also denounces asceticism which demands that people abstain from institutions God has made, and from things God has created to be received with thanksgiving. The slogan of these false teachers is “touch not, taste not, handle not” (Col.2:21). Paul says about such prohibitions, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col.2:23). They are the prohibitions of men, not God. They are the doctrines of demons. The prohibition of marriage, imposed as a requirement upon Christians, is the epitome of iniquity. It prohibits what God has created and given to mankind so generously. It is a satanic deception, and it is a total failure in teaching self-control.

That people should abstain from marriage and certain foods was taught by the group of Essenes who lived in the wilderness valley of the Dead Sea. It was taught by certain Greek philosophers like Plato. He writes, “the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement for food… Whence come wars and fightings and factions? Whence but from the body and lusts of the body.” Socrates taught that “in the life to come we shall have got rid of the foolishness of the body.” This theme was adopted by the Gnostics, and soon it was being taught by some of the church fathers – in spite of what Paul writes here. The hermits and monks of the fourth century made it their philosophy. One such ascetic became famous because he allowed his body to become so dirty and neglected that vermin dropped from him as he walked. Simeon Stylites remained on top of a pillar, exposed to wind and weather, for over thirty years. We call that heresy ‘Manicheism.’ Its teaching was that matter itself is evil, and so the body must is evil.

Apocryphal books were written in the fifth century, forgeries claiming to come from the apostles John and Paul. In the ‘Acts of John’ he is invited to a wedding, and he solemnly speaks to the bride and groom and tells them that going to bed together is a crime! In the apocryphal ‘Acts of Paul’ he writes some new beatitudes, “Blessed are they that abstain… Blessed are they that possess their wives as though they had them not … Blessed are the bodies of virgins” It is so sad to read such doctrines of demons put on the lips of men of God. Even Augustine, who was a very great man, deplores the fact that God ever created sex, and is embarrassed by the fact that he ordained it as the means of human reproduction. For Augustine it was all unclean, shameful and a hindrance to the holy life.

We find it this century in the works of Bernard Shaw with his contempt for the human body. In his play ‘Back to Methuselah’ Shaw talks about the world to come where, “you escape the tyranny of the flesh … you are not an animal at all; you are a ghost, an appearance, an illusion, a convention, deathless, ageless, in a word, bodiless.” It is utterly incompatible with Christianity which teaches the resurrection of the body.

You meet it again this century in the writings of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ T.E.Lawrence, in his book ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’ in which he delights in mocking and ridiculing the body, how weak, how ludicrously absurd it is, and that attitude leads to all sorts of unspeakable practices.

5. What Does Christianity Teach?

Here the apostle gives us one of the plainest teachings in the whole New Testament about marriage and food, that “God created [them] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (vv.3-5).

Paul tells Timothy that the basic answer to these heretics is this:- we are dealing here with God’s creation. It is he who spread the heavens, dug out the oceans and planted the great forests. It is he who designed the bird, stocked lakes and seas with fish and released the animals to wander through the world. He made man and woman to work and rest, to play and sing, to love and hate. He made them like himself. Why did God create? It wasn’t that he was lonesome because there was always the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit to enjoy an overflowing of love. Cornelius Plantinga asks, “Was God absentmindedly doodling in creation – the way we do, sketching out houses and stick people to amuse ourselves when we are bored? No, the universe shows every sign of having been created on purpose. Did God tell himself he had to create or else he couldn’t b e God? No, God was free either to create or not to create. He is sovereign. It was up to him whether to make a universe” (“A Sure Thing,” p.30).

Why then did God create? Of course, it would be to his glory that he did it. But another great reason originates in the goodness of God. Parents make room for their children and show their affection and support of them for the rest of their lives. So it is with God. In creation God made room for others. God had already existed, utterly self-sufficient, without beginning or limit. But at creation God did something new. “God began to share his life and existence with whales and frogs, birch trees and bluegrass. And God made persons like himself. The God who was overflowing with goodness opened his home to guests. Many of us have been guests in somebody else’s home. It is often a wonderful experience. A good host or hostess welcomes you with a restful place to sleep, nutritious and attractive food, interesting things to see and do. A host or hostess makes room for you in a generous way. This practices is called ‘hospitality.’ It flows out of human goodness. It is, after all, not so easy to be hospitable. You have to do extra work to make your guests feel at home. You might have to sleep on the couch. You have to take responsibility for your guests and try to protect them” (ibid. p.31).

God went that step beyond us, making the universe in all its richness and creating our first parents in his own image and likeness, giving them faculties to appreciate the creation and the Creator. He loved them, and they could love him in return. The creation reflected his own goodness. The first chapter of the Bible echoes with the word ‘good.’ “Not only is God good; God also saw that what he had made was good. Then he saw again that it was good. And again and again. All of it good. At last God stepped back, looked over all that he had made room for, and called it very good” (ibid. p.31). So the apostle says here that, “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected” (v.4).

When he saw Adam and Eve in all the difference of a man and a woman he said, “that’s good.” God is not male and female. God is like a family of three wonderfully fellowshipping persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We human beings are then made to have similar fellowship – not only with God but also with each other. Because we are made male and female we can have families. We can know and love other human beings intimately. And our loving fellowship images the God who made us.

When God designed the way for the human race to multiply he said, “that’s good.” Each one of us began that way. The man Christ Jesus began that way too. There was at first a single cell that came from the union of a sperm and an egg. Then that cell divides into two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, on and on to millions and billions of cells. God said that that was good. At a certain stage in the process one particular cell appears. This one cell, as it divides, will become the human brain. Everything needed to learn to talk, to write, to play music or football is in that one cell. All we need to learn to argue or give up an argument; every ability to be surprised, thoughtful, or bored; every raw material for thinking, imagining, or planning – all of it is in this single cell that keeps dividing and dividing until one day it becomes that billion-cell wonder, the brain. God says, “that’s good.”

But when there was only Adam, when he was alone in the world, without any sexual counterpart in every other creature, God said, “That is not good.” It is the very reverse evaluation from that of the false teachers that Timothy would meet and that would plague the early church. They were forbidding people to marry, but God had delivered man from solitariness by creating a bride for him and instituting marriage. The woman is made for the man, and the man is made for the woman. We must say this that it is only when a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves unto his wife, and they become one flesh, that he discovers the secret of his manhood; in like manner, it is only when a woman leaves her father and her mother, and cleaves to her husband, and they become one flesh, that she discovers the secret of her womanhood. When a man learns to ‘know’ his wife, he learns to know himself. This self-discovery marks his initiation into manhood: in finding what he calls his ‘other half’ or more generously his ‘better half’, he finds himself. So the apostle is insistent that when elders and deacons are appointed in the church that they are married men.

Instead of marriage and foods being rejected they are to be received with thanksgiving. Notice how insistent Paul is on that point, “God created [them] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (vv.3&4). When the family sits down on Christmas Day and there are the prettily wrapped presents we have bought for one another, before we unwrap the first gift we feel like thanking God, “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.” When we line up the tablets we have to take every day, and some of you are taking more than half a dozen, you thank God for them and ask that his blessing might be on them. In some unpublished notebook jottings of G.K.Chesterton he wrote, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the play and the opera, and grace before the concert and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” I am sure that many of you do those things. If there is an activity about which you cannot give God earnest thanks, and on which you cannot beseech his blessing then that is an activity which is out of bounds for the Christian. I know of a lady who listened on the radio each day to the fifteen minute ‘soap’ of farming life called “The Archers” and she would unfailingly ask God to bless that programme to her.

John Stott waxes lyrical when he says about these verses, “We should determine, then, to recognise and acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate, all the gifts of the Creator: the glory of the heavens and of the earth, of mountain, river and sea, of forest and flowers, of birds, beasts and butterflies, and of the intricate balance of the natural environment; the unique privilege of our humanness (rational, moral, social and spiritual), as we were created in God’s image and appointed his stewards; the joys of gender, marriage, sex, children, parenthood, and family life, and our extended family and friends; the rhythm of work and rest, of daily work as a means to cooperate with God and serve the common good, and of the Lord’s day when we exchange work for worship; the blessing of peace, freedom, justice and good government, and of food and drink, clothing and shelter; and our human creativity expressed in music, literature, painting, sculpture and drama, and in the skills and strengths displayed in sport” (John Stott, “The Message of I Timothy and Titus,” p.115).

Every new disciple does it early on in their Christian lives. In his autobiography Ernest Reisinger describes the beginnings of his new life: “My habits began to change. The day after my conversion, I traded the flask in my lunch pail for a Bible. Instead of shooting dice with my co-workers at lunchtime I began hiding behind the lumber pile to read God’s Word. I noticed that my vocabulary began to change as well. I didn’t swear anymore. Taking the Lord’s name in vain began to bother me, when two weeks before I was doing the same. I decided that my family should begin ‘saying grace’ at the table before meals. It took some for me to work up the courage to broach the subject with Mima. When I finally did, my heart was pounding wildly. This was silly, I thought. All I wanted to do was ask her if we could thank God for the food. I forged ahead. ‘Honey, I think we should thank God for the food before eating,’ I stammered. ‘Go ahead,’ she casually said. How easy that was. And we’ve been doing it ever since.”

We distinguish ourselves in this way from the animals or TV families who simply graze. Paul tells Timothy that all God’s gifts are consecrated when we give God thanks. It is not just a pile of vitamins and roughage with a certain flavour that we are putting in that hole under our nose in order to survive. We are being satisfied by the delightful things our loving Father is giving us, and it is fitting that we respond in doxology. We encourage our children to react to gifts they receive, pushing their gratitude buttons with a “What do you say?” “Thank you,” they say. We do that for years, hoping the time will come when they will no longer need our “What do you say?” but will have developed an appreciative spirit. People who are all ‘take’ with no ‘Thanks’ are unattractive folk. A grateful person is a happy person. An ungrateful person is miserable. It’s as simple as that. But when we pray a prayer of thanksgiving truly from our hearts at the beginning of a meal we feel richer and more complete people. We are noticing how faithful God is, how personally and intensely he cares for us.

A New Year’s Resolution for us all is to be more thankful to God than last year. It is sad when there is nothing for which we feel grateful to God, but it is serious when there is something and we fail to show gratitude, and it is tragic when we are so buy asking for more that we forget to thank him for what we have received.

Let’s determine to give the Lord pleasure this coming year. We all like to be thanked and praised, although we don’t always deserve it. God is worthy to be pleased. He loves to hear us lisp our gratitude. We don’t know why he bothers with us at all, but he does. Surely we are not wrong in saying that, next to the pleasure God has in his dear Son, is the pleasure he has in the sons and daughters he has begotten through Christ.

How sad when we are full of the praise of mere men with never a word for his boundless, matchless grace! Is he not a jealous God? Although he is so generous to us in the friends and loved ones he gives us, yet he seeks the first place in the thoughts of our mind and in the affections of the heart.

God never tires of giving. Even when we are not grateful, he gives and gives and gives again. When we have grieved him we imagine God will come and deal harshly with us. Instead of that he comes and lavishes more love upon us that he might win us back and teach us to be more forbearing. Are we missing the love and peace and joy of God because we have failed to give thanks? IS that why our Christian lives lack lustre. There could scarcely be a better testimony awarded to our congregation than for it to be said that they are an appreciative people.

2nd January 2000 GEOFF THOMAS