On Thursday afternoon I listened to Bud Burk’s sermon on prayer from last week. I was deeply moved. Christ went to Gethsemane and the cross so that I might be able to pray. Access to God in Jesus’s name was dearly bought.
My assignment today is to do for the Bible what Bud did for prayer. Our custom in prayer week each year is to sandwich the week with a message on prayer and a message on the word of God. Because the two are so intimately related in the Bible and in Christian experience.
The psalmist prays, “Incline my heart to your testimonies” (Psalm 119:36). He prays that he would want to read and meditate on God’s word. Prayer and the word.
He prays, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). He prays that he would see wonders in the Scripture. Prayer and the word.
Paul says, “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17–18). Take the word praying. Prayer and the word.
He says, “Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). Pray that the word break through and triumph. Prayer and the word.
And the apostles said that they should “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Prayer and the word.
So we sandwich prayer week with messages on prayer and the word around prayer week because the Bible puts them together so closely, and because we believe this juxtaposition is the key to living the Christian life. That is what I will try to show today with illustrations of how this actually works. The text we will build on is 1 Thessalonians 2: 13–14:
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.
“We believe that God has spoken in history and the Bible is the authoritative deposit of that word for all time.”
1. God has spoken.
Verse 13b: “You received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” So twice he calls his communication the “word of God.” This is not merely the word of man. Paul is speaking. But it is the word of God. God has spoken and is now speaking through Paul.
We believe that God has spoken in history, and that by inspiration, the Bible is the authoritative deposit of that word for all time.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)
2. His word comes to us in human words.
In the middle of verse 13 Paul says, “You received the word of God, which you heard from us.” You heard God’s word from us. We are human. God is divine. We are speaking on his behalf. His word is heard in human words.
Christ had appointed apostles who would be his authoritative spokesmen. He teaches and guides and inspires them (and a band of brothers close to them) and they speak his word on his behalf with his authority.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:13, “We impart [God’s truth] in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” This is what we have in the New Testament — God’s word mediated to us in the divinely taught words of men. God’s words come to us in human words.
3. The Thessalonians heard the words of Paul.
Verse 13b: “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us. . . .” God spoke, humans gave his word through their words, and the Thessalonians heard that. They heard the sounds. They knew the Greek language. They construed meaning with their minds.
God uses humans to deliver his word, and he delivers it to humans. Human minds hear and understand the word from God, and then another set of human minds receive it from those human mouths and again hear and understand it.
Nothing has been said yet about how the Thessalonians have evaluated the words. Only that they are hearing, and by implication, they are construing. They are trying to make sense out of what they hear. That’s what we do when we hear someone speak. So the Thessalonians heard the words of Paul.
4. As they heard, God acted on their minds and hearts.
What did he do? And how do we know this?
What he did was enable them to receive Paul’s words as the word of God. Verse 13b: “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” That’s what God did. He opened their mind and heart to know that Paul was speaking the word of God, and he gave them the inclination to receive it for what it is, not mere human words, but God’s word.
How do we know God did this? Because at the beginning of verse 13, just before saying that they received his word as the word of God, Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this.” For what? “That when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”
But why would Paul thank God for this? Why would he thank God that the hearts of the Thessalonians grasped the divine nature of the human word? Why would he thank God that the hearts of the Thessalonians embraced the human words as divine word? The reason is that God enabled them to do this.
It’s the same as when Peter said to Jesus: “You are the Son of God,” and Jesus responded, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). In other words, God enabled Peter to see that the human person of Jesus was more than human. And God enabled the Thessalonians to see that the human words of Paul were more than human.
“We thank God that . . . you accepted our word not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” We thank God because God gave you eyes to see the word for what it really is.
If you have welcomed the gospel as God’s word and believed, that’s how it happened to you. God opened your eyes. God inclined your heart. You saw in the words of man, the word of God (see John 8:47; 18:37; 1 John 4:6).
5. The Thessalonians accepted Paul’s word as the word of God.
We’ve said it, but it deserves its own point. Point 4: God acted. Point 5: the result was that the Thessalonians accepted Paul’s word as God’s word.
There is another word for this reception in verse 13: belief, or faith, or trust. “You accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” He is calling them believers now precisely because they accepted his word as God’s word.
So saving faith, involves the work of God, opening the eyes of our hearts (Ephesians 1:18) to see Paul’s message as God’s word and accept it, embrace it, receive it. Faith doesn’t look at the word of God from a distance and pronounce it true. It takes hold of it, receives it, takes it in, embraces it.
“As the word of God!” That is, as supremely valuable. Precious. All important. So the Thessalonians accepted, welcomed, received, embraced Paul’s message as the very word of God, as supremely important and precious and valuable in their lives. It was received as a treasure —whose value is only exceeded by God.
“If you have welcomed the gospel, then God opened your eyes. God inclined your heart.”
6. This word of God was now at work in the Thessalonians.
Verse 13b: “You accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” So God acted to cause them to welcome the word. And now the word itself is living and active in them.
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
And what specifically was the effect of this working? That’s the last observation.
7. The working of God’s word produced joyful endurance in suffering.
Notice the connection between verses 13 and 14. End of verse 13: “which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews.”
Paul is giving evidence that God’s word is at work in them. And he says that receiving Paul’s word as the word of God had led to suffering. But that by itself would not prove God’s word was at work in them, because they might have responded to their affliction with anger and doubt and unbelief. But they didn’t. How do we know that? Because Paul had already said it clearly, which is why he didn’t need to here. Look at 1 Thessalonians 1:5–6:
Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
By the Holy Spirit, God had powerfully given them joy in the midst of their affliction. “Our gospel came to you in power and in the Holy Spirit . . . And you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
Now when we go back to 1 Thessalonians 2:13–14 we see how God does this. He does it by his word. Verse 13, at the end, “The word of God, which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered. . . .” Indeed you suffer with joy. Joy in the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was giving them joy in suffering by the working of the word in their hearts and minds.
Applying the Text to Your Life
So here is the truth that I draw out of this for living the Christian life: by the work of the Holy Spirit, God defeats temptation (like the temptation to be angry and depressed that you are suffering) by awakening joy through belief in the word of God which is at work in us. And that word is most centrally the good news that Christ died for us so that all the promises of God are Yes in him (2 Corinthians 1:20).
So let’s say the lesson another way now. We live the Christian life, we walk by the Spirit, when the Holy Spirit overcomes our temptations to sin by awaking joy through faith in the blood-bought promises of God that are at work in us. So you see the dynamics at work here: the Holy Spirit, the word of God, faith, and joy. By the Spirit, we trust the promises which bring joy which defeats temptation. And all the while we are praying!
So now let me illustrate how this works. It helps me to have an acronym called APTAT.
A — I admit I can’t in myself do what needs to be done.
P — I pray for God’s help.
T — I trust a particular promise he has given.
A — I act to do whatever God is calling me to do.
T — I thank him for his help when I am done.
So here’s how it works with temptations for specific sins.
The Temptation of Fear
God has called you to do something. You know it’s right, but you’re afraid. What do you do?
You admit honestly and humbly: “I am afraid and I cannot do this by myself.” Then you pray: “O God, grant me courage. Please don’t let me be ruled by fear. Take it away.”
Then you call to mind a specific, tailor-made, blood-bought promise that Christ has guaranteed for you by his blood: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). You trust this promise. You say to God, “I take this promise for myself. I trust you. You are now my help.”
And you act. You act, believing that God, the Holy Spirit, is acting in you by his word through your faith. And when you are done, you bow your head and say, “Thank you. Thank you.”
The Temptation of Covetousness or Greed
You desire something that you don’t need. And the desire grows and starts to be very powerful. You’re losing your contentment in Christ — starting to feel that if you don’t have this, you will be miserable and maybe even give up on God. What do you do?
You admit you can’t beat this. It’s too strong. You need God’s help. Powerful help. Then you pray: “Father, I need your help. Please conquer my covetousness. Take away this craving. Restore my joy and my contentment.”
Then you call to mind a specific tailor-made, blood-bought promise like Hebrews 13:5–6: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
And you trust that promise. You say, “Yes, Lord. Yes. You will never leave me. You will take care of me. You are enough. You are my contentment. I trust you. I believe you.” And you act. You turn away from the idol. And as you turn away from the coveted idol, you thank him. “Thank you, Lord. Thank you.”
The Temptation of Bitterness for Being Wronged
Someone has hurt you very badly. Or perhaps they’ve hurt someone close to you. A huge injustice has been done. You know it was wrong. Everybody knows it was wrong. Efforts at biblical reconciliation have been made. Maybe you made progress, maybe you didn’t. And you find yourself eaten up with recurrent anger and bitterness against the offender. You may even be married to him or her. Or it may be your father or your former boss.
“Call to mind a specific, tailor-made, blood-bought promise that Jesus has guaranteed for you by his blood.”
And you know the bitterness is wrong, but you can’t seem to shake it, because every time you try the sheer injustice of it all rises up with such ugliness you clinch your fist and grit your teeth that this wrong is not being properly punished. Justice is not being done. In fact he or she may not even think they did anything wrong. Life may be going on just fine for them while you deal with the wreckage. What do you do?
You admit: “I can’t shake it, I need help. I am being enslaved by this bitterness. It’s destroying me, and no one else.” Then you pray: “Father, I really need your help. I can’t stop feeling rage at this person. Help me. Please take it away.”
Then you call to mind a specific, tailor-made, blood bought (and that is especially relevant here, because Jesus bled instead of being bitter) promise, like Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
And you trust this promise: He will repay. He will repay. Vengeance belongs to him and he will see to it that perfect justice is done for every sin against me, indeed every sin in the universe. He will deal with it, either in hell or on the cross. I don’t need to carry this cause any more. I can hand it over to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). And I do that now. “I trust you, Father, to settle this matter perfectly. I trust you.”
And then you act. You get rid of the reminders you’ve been using. You don’t go to the brooding places. You burn the letters you’ve been simmering over. You stop rehearsing all the scenarios of vengeance. When they come up in your head you say, No, and turn to the word of Christ, the cross, the promises, the judgment.
And you look up to God, your merciful Father, and thank him for being a perfectly holy and righteous judge who lifts the deadly burden of vengeance from our back.
The Word at Work
So I commend it to you: APTAT — admit, pray, trust, act, Thank. I think this is what it means to walk by the Spirit. To walk by faith. I think this is what it means for the word of God to be at work in those who believe.
And I pray I will be able to look back on 2012 with you and say,
I thank God constantly that all year long you received the word of God, which you read in your Bible and which you heard from me; and that you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe, to set you free.