Ephesians 5:19-21 “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
We often hear that the Bible is a gloomy book, and we’re regularly told that a religion based on it, and worship that comes out of it is bound to be gloomy and sorrowful. So the Puritans are normally portrayed as melancholic, severe people, and Calvinism is especially targeted as a faith that tends to depression. Yet we come across this exhortation in this extraordinary letter with its immense theology. It is an exhortation to Christians, “Sing!” and, “Make music in your heart to the Lord.” The apostle tells us that our lives are to be characterised by constant doxology – “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
These exhortations are not rare in the Bible. In the heart of the Old Testament the Psalter is full of psalms of rejoicing, psalms of hopefulness, and psalms of abundant joyfulness. They are concerned with people singing to God, possessing an inward serenity, knowing a profound joy and peace. We are faithful to biblical religion not only if we knows its truths and live by its immensely stringent ethic but if we also reflect its praise.
Here is a Christian church in Ephesus, the first generation out of paganism, in a city dominated by the temple of Diana, and the congregation hear this mighty letter read to them explaining the glorious grace of God. They are urged to live in a vitally new way unheard of in Greek or Roman circles before – “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v.21) – and they are being told to sing to one another in their homes and churches and places of work and to make constant melody in their hearts to God. That is the impression they are to make on their neighbours of sustained happiness. This is one of the ways they triumphed over Rome; they out-sang Roman philosophy and religion. They were singing because as they saw things, they had good reason to sing. In the great objective universe around them there were facts and entities, and there had been events; there were great concrete promises unfolding in their own experience day by day, and it was upon the basis of these realities that there was in their hearts music to God and songs of praise to one another.
You will find in the entire Bible this emphasis that this is the heart response of authentic Christianity. If you read this letter you will discover the rational for these emotions. We’re not only told to rejoice and sing but we’re shown why we should. We’re not simply told to exert feelings of delight and contentment; we’re pointed to certain great reasons why we must be gripped by them. In other words, the exhortations to a different kind of life in chapters 4, 5 and 6 are built on the glorious truths of chapters 1, 2 and 3, and within these chapters Paul is presenting us with the glories of God’s love and then exhorting our behaviour to reflect that love.
1. HOLY SPIRIT FILLS US.
Here we are told of the third person of the Godhead, God the Holy Spirit, and that he doesn’t just touch our lives, but that he fills every part of our beings, and that we under an obligation to ensure that he does, more and more. God stands pledged to be within his people, to make them his abode; the church is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and as long as we continue as an authentic Christian church, so long as this particular congregation remains faithful to its divine mandate, just as long as it continues in its testimony to the glory of God’s salvation then we will continue to know the Spirit glorifying Jesus Christ in our midst.
We may go beyond that fact; we will know in the depths of our hearts, in the profoundest realities of our own personal experience, that the mighty Creator of the universe is our God. He is the one who is supplying all our need. He has committed himself not only to the cause in general, not only to particular churches, but to us as individual Christians so that we can say from hearts as Paul said, “He loved me and gave himself for me.”
We sing and make melody in our hearts because God has come to us in his eternal and unconditional sovereign love. He has sent his Son into the world to bear my sin. He has sent his Spirit as the Spirit of consolation and courage into my soul. He is totally determined to present me faultless in the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. My God is a committed God. All his resources, and all his attributes, and all his grace and power he has dedicated to my salvation. There is a love that will never let me go. I am caught up, not in something visible and physical, and not in something temporal and terrestrial, but I am caught up in something eternal, something invincible, and something infinite. I am saying that in my heart there is music going out to the Lord, and on my lips are psalms and hymns and spiritual songs because the mighty God is not simply committed to his cause in the world, or in Wales, or even to this congregation’s testimony, but God is committed to each believer in particular. God is committed personally by his Spirit who indwells us so that we can know “He is my God; he is love; he has given himself for me; he has filled me with his Spirit.” I know that Almighty God is totally committed to my salvation, and that the work that he has begun is a work from which he will never desist until we are presented without spot or wrinkle before the throne. The Spirit of God fills his people. “Make sure you go on being filled with him,” Paul says, “and sing and make music in your heart to God.”
2. THE HOLY SPIRIT IS WITH US TODAY.
“Where can I go from your Spirit?” asks the psalmist (Psa. 139:7) because of the sheer naked fact of his omnipresence. He is everywhere in this universe and beyond. I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the ocean but when I arrive there the first thing I discover is that the Spirit of God is already there. Paul and Silas were thrown into the darkest deepest dungeon in the jail of Philippi, but the first discovery they made in that stinking blackness was that the Holy Spirit was there. So they could sing to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and all the other prisoners listened to them. It is his presence in us in grace, in all the consolations of his personal love, in all his enabling resourcefulness that make us songsters. He is in us to help, and sustain, and guide, and encourage, and bless. It is not his universal cosmic presence that makes us sing so much as his presence in redeeming pity and encouragement.
You remember how the Spirit is with us, in every challenging phase of our lives. God has sent us individually on a mission. We leave this church today and enter our own mission field. We are to go and teach the nations. We are to hold fast to our confession, and we are to point men to the glory of God in Christ. And for us to fulfil this task God provides us with the indwelling Spirit. In every congregation which today is pointing men to that Lamb who bears away the sin of the world the Spirit is present and working. In every pulpit which declares the truths of the gospel – that we deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but Jesus because he loved us died for us – in every such pulpit the Holy Spirit is present steadfastly and consistently and unadornedly. In the life of every single believer who is holding fast to his confession then there is this great reality, the presence of God the Spirit, and as you go and stammer and speak and serve, and as you maintain the integrity of your own Christian witness then this is your privilege, the Holy Spirit’s presence in and with you.
I can put it like this, where two or three are gathered together in the Lord’s name then the Spirit is present, not only in our evangelism and outreach and our witness and testimony but as we meet at a prayer meeting for our own comfort and edification. Then we show forth the glory of our God and Saviour and we have the assurance that the Spirit is there, indeed that the Spirit is here now. He is blessing this sort of gathering right now; he is applying his word to every need of our souls; he is alongside us as we write that difficult letter, or as we turn the other cheek, or as Paul says here, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v.21). We must know that we are indwelt by God’s Spirit permanently and irreversibly, no matter where we are or what we are doing. It is the greatest reality of this Christian life that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, that we have been baptized by one Spirit into one body. We cannot be, without the vitality of the Spirit coursing through our hearts and souls and spirits. We cannot be, and not be temples. We cannot be, and not have the presence of the Spirit. No matter what we are relating to, and no matter what we are confronting, and no matter what we are experiencing, and no matter what we are doing, we are doing it as those energised and motivated by the indwelling Spirit of God. I am saying that God the Spirit is present with us not only in the great evangelistic movements, and not only in the large worshipping congregations with their meetings every night of the week and their huge staffs, but the Spirit is in the heart of each individual believer. He is there with her private sorrows; he is there with her individual stresses; he is there with her personal temptations. The Spirit is there.
Yet, you remember this truth that you never take the Spirit for granted. “Go on being filled with the Spirit,” says Paul. His presence is, in some respects, an irreversible reality, and yet we know from the church of Laodicea something was missing. There was a curious and peculiar relationship to the Lord which they professed. He was very near that church, but he was only near it in so far as he was at the door. It is true that he was knocking; he was claiming admission and begging entry, but none of that alters the fact that he was outside. That church had no right to claim that is was a Spirit-filled congregation. She had the name of a church; she had all the machinery of a church; maybe she had the authentic message of a church, and yet the Lord was outside.
There may be moments in our own individual lives when we have given such offence to the Spirit that we have grieved him, and he has turned away and hidden his face from us. Though his preservation is not withdrawn yet his saving and comforting works are not present. There are Christians today – there may be even some at this meeting – and the Spirit is not filling them. Certainly God will never let them go; they will not fall utterly. Yet they do not know his consolation. They do not know his help. They do not know his guidance because for one reason or another they have grieved him. They are not singing and making melody in their hearts to God.
There is this whole emphasis on the presence of the Spirit with the Christian. It is a reminder to us of how accessible God is to us. He is within such easy reach. Let’s imagine for a moment that we are in trouble and need help. Where do we get it? We have illimitable access to the indwelling Spirit. Paul is saying, “You don’t have to go miles to look for him. You don’t need some special code. You don’t need outriders and guides to take you to him. He is in you and you talk to him.” Or to put it better, using Paul’s words in Romans, you just send him a message by means of a groan that cannot be uttered. He is so near that he hears that. We sometimes cannot sing a hymn with our voices; we sometimes cannot shout; we cannot send eloquent prayers or beautiful petitions to the Lord, and yet he is so near that if only we mutter a few words he can hear us. Just a wordless groan and the Spirit is so near he understands and cares.
3. WE RESPOND IN SINGING GOD’S PRAISE TO ONE ANOTHER.
We enjoy the blessings of God each day. Success in our exams, the joy of our families, food in our refrigerators, long life, happy relationships, all such temporal mercies from God call for songs of loudest praise. There are also the blessings that the gospel brings in this life and the life to come, justification, full forgiveness, adoption into the family of God, the end of the reign of sin, union with Christ and glorification. How do we respond to all God’s goodness? The world celebrates everything with its drinking, but in our hearts there rings a melody of love, and on our lips there is a song of doxology:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all people here below.
Praise him above ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
We respond to all that the Spirit of God applies to our lives by great praise. Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised. We have to make sure that each one of us praises God. “I am going to sing to him.” We are not going to leave it to others. We are not going to say, “Let all the world praise God.” I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve got breath. I will do it. My old, cracked, weak voice that is tone-deaf will sing to him, with my own powers and initiative, because I am not standing before the Force, or an abstraction, or a memory, but I am standing before the Jehovah Jesus who is “My God.” I will praise my God for myself.
Have you ever been struck by the opening words of the 108th psalm. It says this. “A song. A psalm of David. My heart is steadfast, O God.” A psalm of David . . . my heart is steadfast O God. There seems to me such irony in those words. This is David writing these words, the man who once could babble away outside the gates of a city of the Philistines to give them the impression that he was mad. This is David who could walk on the roof of his palace and spot Bathsheba washing and then draw himself and her family into evil tragedy. Think also of David as he begins Psalm 69, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God” (Psa. 69:1-3). We say, “That’s David, so like me!” and we are glad to know someone as wobbly as David was in the kingdom; then there is hope for me too. If ever there was a man who was not steadfast it was David, and yet he begins Psalm 108, “My heart is steadfast O God.” He has enjoying a day of gospel assurance; he is expressing his highest confidence in God; he has grown in grace; through all his great falls he has kept coming back to God; a new maturity has come into his life. David’s heart is steadfast, and how does he show it? See what he goes on to say in that psalm, “I will sing and make music with all my soul. Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.” (Psa. 108 2-5). David is steadfast in praising God. This is what must characterise the Christian.
Aren’t we in many ways a strange gathering? We are a company of men and women who say that for them to live is Christ. So the challenge comes to us that if that’s our profession and privilege then are we determined to sing our God’s praises? “I for myself will make melody in my heart and on my lips to my Lord.” It is simply marvellous that in this universe there are two such different existences. There is the unsearchable God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and there is puny man, a mere speck. Yet these two can come so close together, “I . . . and . . . Thee.” I may sing to Thee; Thou art pleased with my singing. There is this amazing proximity of us and him. My soul can be totally involved with God. I can sing, and he is listening. I can be making music in my heart with no one around able to hear my praise, but to God my heart-song of thankfulness sounds like a huge cathedral organ with all the stops pulled out.
The great challenge is to be doing it for ever and ever. We will praise him on special occasions when we are members of a vast congregation when every seat in the church is taken. We will praise him when the preacher happens to choose our favourite hymn on a Sunday. We will praise him, on every good day we have; at every gathering of the Lord’s people we will sing to him. “Always giving thanks to God the Father.”
Then there is something else, that it is to one another that we sing our psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs. Often we are told of the existence of a ‘generation gap,’ but we cannot allow a generation gap in the church because in the church there is neither young nor old, but all are one in Christ Jesus. And this is one way that the gap between old Christians and young Christians is crossed; the old praise God’s works to the young. The old commend God’s works of creation and providence and also God’s works of redemption to the young. They do it in the words of their hymns. We have to be sure that we don’t compartmentalise the age groups of the church so that the young never hear the old, never hear them speaking of God’s faithfulness, and shepherding and love. The trend today is for larger churches to have two kinds of services. There is the so-called ‘contemporary service’ and all the young people go to that, and there is the so-called ‘traditional service’ and all the old folks go to that. What a tragedy. What a tearing apart of the body of Christ. The older generation has to praise his works to the younger and declare his mighty acts. We do this by demonstrating their reality in our lives. We believe these things. We commend these things. We praise God for these things, and of course, best of all, we live them. We live them out. As we grow older and become more feeble, death coming nearer, then God’s works are our theme. His mighty acts are the theme of our psalms and hymns and songs.
4. FOR EVERYTHING WE WILL GIVE THANKS TO GOD.
You notice Paul’s insistence on this, “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” Not all days are holy days; not all days are good days, but whatever its character, and whatever my circumstances may be I’m to be “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” Some days are simply dreadful; there are great dark weeks which come into the lives of some of God’s people, and for some of you, today, it may be one of these times. You ask your best friend how things are going, and she says, “Not a good day today.” There is darkness and no light; the waters are rising and going over my soul; deep is calling unto deep. Yet on these days too I am to be giving thanks to God the Father for everything, whatever the storms, whatever the pain and privations, however desolate I may feel, whatever burden is crushing my spirit, thanks . . . always . . . for everything. Matthew Henry was once robbed; how can you possibly give thanks to God the Father for a robbery in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? That night Matthew Henry wrote these words in his diary: “Let me be thankful. First, because I was never robbed before. Second, because although they took my wallet, they did not take my life. Third, because although they took my all, it was not much. Fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.”
Let our minds for a moment contemplate the grandeur of such a spirit. We can recall, I’m sure, some homes and some hospital beds where a word about thanksgiving has a special poignancy – “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” Men and women suffer intensely, and suffer helplessly, and suffer hopelessly, and suffer pathetically with their grieving families gathered around them; they are men and women of faith, but they have no hope of healing or of their lives being prolonged. These are the last months of their lives. What does this “always giving thanks” mean to them? What kind of day is it to them? It is a day the Lord has made. It is his workmanship and from their hearts they can affirm, “We will be glad and rejoice in it.” The Lord has made everything in it and suited grace for this day. You existentialists and atheists – none of you can say that!
Think of the despair of the unbelieving world. Its greatest hope is that men will be annihilated and cease to exist. They don’t want an eternal sleep with nightmares of memories of their lives eternally haunting them. They prefer non-existence, and they dread non-existence. What a life – a life without loving the living God! What a journey into darkness! Think of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the character called Lucky (!) Pozzo’s slave, as he makes his final, long, anguished, monologue. In spite of philosophy, invention and progress what is his life without God(ot)? We “shrink and dwindle, waste and pine,” Lucky intones. Ours is the generation who put its faith in Caesar, that is, in the power of the state to regulate and control and provide for our lives from cradle to grave. This generation is now realising that Caesar’s promises to comprehensively help them are vain. This is the generation who have lived through the political confidence of their twenties but are now sandwiched between young children and ageing parents, burdened with mortgages and fears of dirty bombs and Islamic terrorism. The trust their parents had in the institutions of Caesar they themselves have lost, but there is no other object for their trust. The local maternity unit is so overstretched that new mothers have been turned away to have their babies on the kitchen floor. The neighbouring streets are clubbing together for private security to replace the non-existent police. The Old Age Pension seems to be shrinking as they approach pay day – like the pot at the rainbow’s end. What do they have to praise and worship?
There are those who think that being a Christian is something instinctive, simple and automatic. Now they ought to contemplate the glory of the notes of praise which run through a mere Christian’s life. You know how you can recognise someone who is full of the Spirit. It is not by glossolalia; it is that when he is in the depths and his heart is breaking he is still able to give thanks to God the Father for everything. Whatever kind of day it is he won’t be quarreling with God; he won’t be questioning the will of God he will be humbly praising giving God.
It is a description of the Spirit-filled life, and it is a commandment, and so by the grace of God it becomes our experience for whatever God commands to do he enables us to perform. We can give him thanks always for everything not because we force ourselves but because on every day there are subjects of new praise and fresh gratitude. Morning by morning new mercies I see. There are times when faith must concentrate; it must focus its attention; it must screw up its eyes; it must scan the horizon; it must look to the short distance, to the middle distance and to the distant horizons. Look every which way and consider every sign of God’s blessing. The apostle says that there will be a cause for thanksgiving always. Every day will I bless thee! Where is today’s reason to be grateful? I ask you.
Some of us have come out of comfortable, affluent, marvellously benign providences. I’ve come from such a background. I often think that I’ve had the easiest and most trouble-free life of anyone. Yet how often do we come to God with complaints? We have a sense of deprivation instead of this great alertness to the marvelous goodness of Almighty God. We grumble and complain; our spirits are hard, and I am saying that at such times, in the midst of so much human grief, could I suggest that you and I might have the discipline and self-possession by the grace of God to look all around and say to ourselves, “Well, God has said that there would be blessing every day, so where is today’s cause of thanksgiving? There must be blessings today because God said there would be. Then when I see it I think, “How good God is in providing this for me,” and I praise him, and bless him for today’s blessing – always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.
“Always”! I will never stop being grateful, even on the darkest days. You know how on many a dark day your prayers had stopped, but Paul tells us that we should never stop being thankful. Paul knows, as you and I know, that one day soon this poor lisping stammering tongue will lie silent in the grave, but when that happens the voice of thanksgiving will not be silent. I shall see the once crucified Saviour; he will bear the marks of my redemption and he now has all authority in heaven and on earth. That day will be the day of the fierce indignation of God, for the great day of his wrath is come and who shall be able to stand? Men will cry to the rocks and mountains to fall on them and hide them from his face.
We shall bow before him – we Christians, lost in wonder love and praise, for through the blood of Christ a sinner is justified, the Father is reconciled and all our sins are pardoned. Doesn’t that give us much to be thankful for? Then in a nobler sweeter song won’t I be grateful for God’s power to save? When I stand before Thy throne, dressed in beauty not my own, then I’ll be so grateful for the robes of righteousness. When I see the Lamb and his fair army standing on Mount Zion then I’ll praise him who loved me and washed me from my sins in his own blood. For ever and ever – “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.”
5. WE WILL NEVER CEASE GIVING THANKS TO GOD.
Now, you see it’s a sad world; it’s a very empty world; it’s full of bitterness and resentment. “What have I got to give thanks to God for?” people say. I want to say to you that out there, objectively, really, sovereignly, there is the only God there is. You might think that he is tremendously august, and wholly other, a God of majesty and righteousness and unimaginable power to have made this whole universe. He is a God who speaks with such awesome holiness in his law and to our consciences, and all of that is true. But out there, I tell you, there is a heart so tender and loyal and generous and forgiving that the man or woman who is reading this and whose life is in the biggest shambles conceivable may go to this God, and ask him to forgive it. He or she may go to God and ask him to bless it with his own generosity. He may go and expect God to be true to every promise he has made.
I have a great problem and that is this, that I speak to such ordinary people, and I have the impression sometimes that so many are trying to make themselves different. You are trying to make yourselves special, and if you achieve that then you think perhaps you may be converted. There are some very odd people and they’re afraid of being saved. They are afraid of some outburst of emotion and embarrassment. They don’t want to make fools of themselves. They are more afraid of missing a dance because they imagine being converted means missing a dance. That worries them far more than losing out on the love of God and experiencing a lost eternity. So you are doing all you can to avoid being converted.
There are others of you and I believe that you are very anxious to be converted, but you want to make yourself special first. You don’t want to come to God ordinary; you want to come to God standing. But everyone I’ve known who’s come to God has come kneeling. He has come to God ordinary, feeling unqualified and unprepared, wishing he was more sincere and with more conviction, hungering and thirsting for that. Some of us try to come breaking our hearts from guilt, but in spite of all this when we come to God we feel terribly unprepared. Yet many of you are playing with your souls because you are trying to prepare first, and you won’t come ordinary. I am saying, let’s come just as we are, with many a conflict and many a doubt.
That’s not a bad thing, as all of us can testify, to come to God saying, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.” That’s not a bad way to come, and all who come that way say, “God met all my desires.” Why shouldn’t Christians go and tell people that? The world thinks of all that it will have to give up, and the difficulties it would face and how narrow the road would be. Well, let us go and tell the world we are so thankful to God for all he has given us every day. We are abundantly satisfied with him. What glory it has been to have Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and what hopes we have of eternal life.
Where is your music? Why is your heart silent? Where have your convictions gone? If the Lord is your salvation, and if you feel convinced by the great gospel themes of our preaching then where is the melody? Bring your heart under the control of your theology. “My heart is steadfast O God. I will sing and make music with all my soul” (Psa. 108:1&2).
You are seeing the enormous pressures coming on the Christian church. There is militant Islam and militant humanism. Two mighty threats. And yet throughout human history the church has faced such challenges. In the Old Testament there was Egypt and Assyria and Babylon. In the New Testament there were terrible attacks on the church of Jesus Christ, and where are those enemies now? Some of them seemed so mighty that they were the occasion for the writing of New Testament epistles. Yet where are they now? We don’t even know what Gnosticism was, and yet at one time it threatened to destroy the Christian church. Where is it now – Gnosticism? Where has it gone? All those enemies that emerged for a while, look what the Lord did to them. Today where is Hume? Where is Rousseau? Where is Voltaire? Where is Bertrand Russell? They are all dead, but the church lives on, as Christ lives.
In other words the gates of hell have not prevailed against the church. Is that not cause for praise? Time and again men have written the church’s epitaph; they have described the world as ‘post-Christian’; they have said that the influence of the church is gone never to return, and yet the men who wrote those epithets are forgotten and the church lives. In the 1950’s I remember the fuss George Orwell’s book and play called ‘1984’ made. What a bleak world it portrayed. No singing; no music in the heart; no church and no gospel would exist in 1984. There were the common prophesies of science fiction, that life in the 21st century would be a bleak dictatorship. We boys in school asked ourselves, “Is that what it will be like in 30 years’ time?” But the year 1984 has come and gone and another twenty years have passed, and the church is, and the gospel is, and there is still melody in our hearts. “Come, behold the works of the Lord!” The very facts are saying to us that our labour in the Lord is not in vain. We are not whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. We are singing and making melody in our hearts to the living God. Of course we would be facing enormous difficulties even if we gathered here in Aberystwyth all the Christians of mid-Wales with all their gifts and resources. Even then it would still be a huge battle, but is it an impossible one? Does any Christian here today hold to the principle that labour in the Lord is in vain? Not one. How can we possibly hold to such despairing ideas if the living God is our Shepherd, and Rock, and Teacher, and the Sovereign Ruler of earth and heaven? Then we will sing our praises to him and to one another. Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.
29th August 2005 GEOFF THOMAS