Habakkuk 3:16-19, Rejoicing in Adversity

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16 I heard and my heart pounded,
    my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
    and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
    to come on the nation invading us.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.
For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

Habakkuk 3:16-19

Habakkuk the prophet was given a really hard message to deliver.  Because of Israel’s sins, the Lord was sending the pagan Babylonians to devastate their land.  Habakkuk struggled to understand how a holy God could use such unholy people to do his will.  God assured the prophet he would also judge the Babylonians for their wickedness, but it was a hard message to accept and hard to preach.  Tough times lay ahead, but at the end of his book, Habakkuk shows us how a believer is to face testing times such as those we are living through.  Let’s look at Habakkuk 3:16-19.

1. Waiting upon God

In the first part of chapter 3 Habakkuk thinks about the greatness of God and the way in which he has judged evil in the past.  That gives him encouragement, yet as he thinks of what he and Israel are going to have to endure in the near future, he is almost overwhelmed.  His language is very vivid: ‘my heart pounded…my legs trembled’ (v16).  He is rendered almost helpless by fear.  The storm is coming and he can imagine something of what it will be like.

It is good to realise that even a prophet may feel overwhelmed by what God is doing.  He is a man of flesh and blood, just like us.  He is not some cold, unfeeling person, immune to the trials that he and others have to pass through.  He trembles in fear.  At one time or another, we all face such situations, times when we feel we are at the end of our resources and cannot cope.  We may well be fearful about the future, especially in these very uncertain times.  We can identify with Habakkuk.

But notice too he says, ‘I will wait patiently for the day of calamity’ (v16).  He had resources to meet the trials, and we can have the same help in our times of need.

2. Rejoicing in God

In verses 17 and 18 we have a testimony to the power of faith in a fearful man.  Habakkuk is able to overcome his fears because of the strength provided by his God-given faith.  For this reason, he will be able to rejoice, even in the deepest adversity.

First of all the prophet faces up to the worst that may happen – ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine…’ (v17).  He depicts the worst situation imaginable since the fig, vine and olive were staple crops for the Israelites.  If these fail, there will be no food and no income.  The same applies to the flocks and herds he mentions.  It is a picture of economic disaster followed inevitably by famine, and probably starvation and death.  All of this could happen as a result of the Babylonian invasion.  It may not turn out to be as bad as this, but Habakkuk considers the ‘worst-case scenario’.  He does not buoy himself up with false hopes, telling himself ‘it could never happen’.  The hope that God’s people have in dire situations is not some kind of psychological trick, pretending that things will not really be too serious.  As we face a very uncertain future, in both the short term and the long term, we need something better than telling ourselves the worst will not happen to us.

Notice that Habakkuk’s rejoicing is ‘in the Lord’, it is ‘in God my Saviour’ (v18).  That is crucial.  He rejoices in the Lord who keeps His Covenant of Grace with his people in all generations.  However bad circumstances may become, the Lord will not forsake his people, and on both the personal and the national scale his purpose will be worked out for his glory.  Whatever Habakkuk himself may be called to suffer, he is assured that God will be at work in the situation.  For that reason he can not only accept whatever comes – he can rejoice and praise God.

By faith in the Lord, we too can rejoice even in adversity.  We do not know what God in his providence will bring to anyone of us.  It may include suffering, sickness, or even death.  Just because we are the Lord’s people, we are not spared all the hard experiences of life.  We can, however, be assured of his direction of events according to his wise and loving plan, and we can thank him for that knowledge.  This is not ‘keeping a stiff upper lip, nor is it self-deception: it is trust in the God who has saved us by Christ’s redeeming work, and who has committed himself to us in covenant grace.  Only the child of God can respond to crises in this way.

3. Strengthened by God

Habakkuk has not finished yet.  In v19 he makes another great assertion of confidence in the Lord: ‘The sovereign Lord is my strength’.  It lifts him above the present crisis and lets him see beyond it to the fulfilment of God’s purpose.  He is confident that God will give him the necessary strength to endure the test that is coming.  He uses the image of the deer – ‘he makes my feet like the feet of a deer’ – an animal proverbial for its speed and agility.  In v16 his feet were faltering, his legs were trembling, but now the Lord enables him to be sure-footed.  The fearful arrival of the Babylonians will not cause the prophet to stumble in doubt concerning the goodness of God’s plan.

At the end of the verse, Habakkuk expresses firm assurance in the Lord: ‘he enables me to go on the heights’.  His language suggests a degree of control over his situation – looking down on the trials from high ground.  He is also expressing his freedom from fear – if he stands on the high ground, he does not need to hide.  In difficult times it can be very tempting to try and hide from the struggles that confront us.  It may seem safer, but it is misguided.

Habakkuk has found the secret of true strength.  It lies not in self-confidence, but rather in trusting the Lord.  That is why he is confident of coming through his trials with his faith intact.

Here is a lesson every believer needs to learn.  Salvation begins with abandoning trust in ourselves and turning to Christ.  That is how we are then to live the Christian life – depending on the Lord’s strength.  Only thus can we face testing times.  Whatever comes to us – whether fear, anxiety, illness, loss or some other hard experience – we can face it with confidence in the God who gives us all the strength we need.  As the Apostle Paul learned, his strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  May we know that strength in these testing days.

David McKay

Hebrews 4:14-16, Christ Exalted and Compassionate

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Jesus the Great High Priest

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

Hebrews 4:14-16,  Christ Exalted and Compassionate

It is not easy to live the Christian life in our world.  There are many pressures on those who seek to follow Christ consistently.  In our present circumstances, where there is much suffering, uncertainty and fear, we can find our faith tested and we may be tempted to give up.  We need not think we are unique in this respect. The recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews faced many pressures on their Christian faith and some were tempted to give up and go back to Judaism.  The writer has much to say by way of challenge and encouragement. Let’s consider Hebrews 4:14-16 which turns our thoughts to our great Saviour.

1. The exaltation of Christ

The focus of encouragement must always be Christ and what he has done for his people.  Here the writer demonstrates the superiority of his work as Priest over that of any earthly priest.  He writes in v14 ‘we have a great high priest’. There are several reasons for his greatness.

The writer begins with his present position of glory – Jesus has ‘gone through the heavens’.  The Saviour has ascended to the Father, who has ‘seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms’ (as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:20).  Jesus has been granted the place of supreme exaltation. His exaltation is based on his earthly work as Priest, and so he is referred to as ‘Jesus’, his earthly human name.  As Priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of his people. The price has been paid – that is the good news of the gospel.

Notice also that he is called ‘the Son of God’ – he is a unique High Priest, indeed he is God himself come in human flesh.  On that account, his sacrifice has infinite value.  It is sufficient to save multitudes. It manifests perfect divine love.  His work is fully accomplished and so he sits at the Father’s right hand.  He is not paying a fleeting visit to heaven.  He remains in the Father’s presence to intercede for us (as 7:25 tells us).  That is a tremendous encouragement.

2. Let us hold firmly to our faith

The practical effect of having such a great High Priest ought to be steadfastness in our faith.  To people tempted to give up their faith the writer says ‘let us hold firmly to the faith we profess’.  The essentials of that faith have already been stated in the first part of v14 – a Saviour who is both God and man, who by his death and resurrection has made atonement for sins and who now reigns over all things.  That is the core of the gospel, which is not negotiable.

To an unbelieving world, these truths seem ridiculous – the gospel is ‘foolishness to the Gentiles’ (I Corinthians 1:23), provoking ridicule or hostility.  You may well have experienced something like that. Such a reaction may shake our faith, we may begin to waiver in our commitment. However, we must not give up the truths that determine our eternal destiny.  We know our High Priest personally and we are committed to him and his cause.

The idea of ‘hold fast’ includes a holding forth of the truth of the gospel to a Christ-rejecting world, whatever the response.  People need to hear these truths and in troubled times like ours, some will be more open to listening to the gospel.  We do have new opportunities.

3. The compassion of Christ

Such an exalted Saviour might seem cold and distant.  Does he understand the pressures we have to face? The writer reassures us that we do not need to worry on that account.  Jesus has an unequaled capacity to understand.  It is not the case that he is ‘unable to sympathize with our weaknesses’ (v15).  His exaltation has not destroyed his humanity.

It is marvelous news that he was ‘tempted in every way just as we are’.  Nothing in human experience, except sin, is foreign to Jesus. In fact, he was tested to an extent we will never face.  He spent 40 days in the wilderness battling Satan (Matthew 4:1ff); he was challenged to come down from the cross (Mark 15:30).  Jesus made a public profession before the Jews and Pilate and so he knows the pressures that entails.

Notice too the end of v15 ‘yet was without sin’ – he never capitulated to pressure or temptation.  That does not distance him from us so that he does not understand our struggles and failures.  Instead, it shows how he endured far beyond the point where we would give up and so knows the full force of temptation in a way that we do not.  Our Saviour endured all the kinds of trials we face, including the temptation to give up when our faith is under pressure. Jesus, however, came through it all triumphant and he understands us and our struggles fully.  That should be a great encouragement in our trials, especially when we feel we have reached our limit and cannot carry on any longer.

4. Let us approach the throne of grace

In v16 the writer makes a very practical application of what he has just said about the compassion of the Lord.  We are exhorted to be praying people.  He exhorts us, ‘Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence’.  What would once have been the throne of judgment for sinners like us is now a place of grace for Christians.  On that throne is a crucified and risen High Priest. We can thus come ‘with confidence’, not rashly or self-confidently, but in humble faith, not fearing rejection or wrath.

What will we obtain?  We will obtain ‘mercy’, dealing with our past failures, and ‘grace to help us’, for present and future needs, whatever they may be.  The Lord’s supply will not fail. He promises, ‘my grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Help comes ‘in our time of need’ – at the right time, not before we need it. Grace is always provided for our present trials.  So we dare not be prayerless. To neglect prayer is to say we can cope without the Lord’s help, and we know we cannot. With such wonderful assurances, let us trust in the Lord and approach the throne of grace daily.

David McKay

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 12-20 “Christ is risen!”

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1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 12-20

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Christ is Risen!

Does the resurrection matter?  It might seem that it doesn’t. A recent survey of over 2000 adults (commissioned by the BBC) found that 25% of those who would call themselves ‘Christians’ do not believe in the resurrection of Christ, against 31% who believe the Bible’s account ‘word for word’.  Among ‘active’ Christians (who attend a service at least once a month) 57% believe in the resurrection. Of all those surveyed, 50% do not believe in the resurrection. Perhaps it really is a matter of opinion, and not that important.

The attitude of the Apostle Paul was very different.  He writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14 ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’.  In fact, the resurrection of Christ is crucial to Christianity – a dead Christ means an empty and futile religion.  Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15 and remind ourselves that ‘Christ is risen!’

1. Did he rise?

The whole of the New Testament, including all 4 Gospels, answers ‘Yes!’  The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is overwhelming (however you explain it).  There is no doubt he died on the cross – the Romans made no mistakes about things like that – and equally there is no doubt that on the third day he rose again.

All the Gospels contain accounts of the empty tomb – it is an essential part of their message.  To suggest that despairing, defeated disciples could or would steal his body and pretend he had risen is incredible.  If the authorities had still had the body, they would have produced it and snuffed out the Christian movement at its very beginning.

Notice what Paul says in v5-7 – he provides a list of post-resurrection appearances of the Saviour – to ‘Peter…the Twelve…more than 500 of the brothers at the same time…James…all the apostles…me’.  It is impossible that this could be some kind of psychological hallucination or delusion. Many of the witnesses were still alive when Paul wrote and could be consulted. Our conclusion must be – he has risen!

2. What did he achieve?

Accepting that Christ really did rise, we now ask – what does his resurrection mean?  What did it accomplish? The New Testament clearly leads us to view the resurrection as a victory.  It is a victory in 3 ways:

  1. Victory over sin: Note v3 ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’.  In fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, Christ in his death took the sin of all who would ever believe in him, along with the punishment they deserve.  All that our sin deserves from a holy God has been taken by Christ. In 1 Peter 3:18 we read, ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’.  God’s Son was a willing sacrifice. All we need in order to be forgiven is provided in him. The resurrection proves that the full payment has been made.
  1.  Victory over Satan: It is sin that gives Satan power over sinners.  If our sin is dealt with, Satan’s claim on believers is destroyed.  Jesus’ death on the cross, therefore, includes victory over Satan. The first gospel promise is in Genesis 3:15 the promise that the ‘seed’ of the woman will crush the head of the serpent – the promise has been fulfilled in Christ’s defeat of Satan at the cross and the empty tomb.  In Colossians 2:15 Paul writes of how God ‘having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’. The resurrection is the guarantee that Christ really won the victory.  Satan’s dominion over believers is broken.
  1.  Victory over death: Death is ‘the last enemy’ (v26).  It is a fearful thing for most people, but the empty tomb is proof that Christ has conquered death.  Death exists because of sin – the sin of Adam (v21) that we inherit.  Christ has dealt with sin and so, in the words of Peter in Acts 2:24, ‘it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’.  Those who belong to Christ will share in his victory – he is the firstfruits (v20), and at his return, the very presence of death will be abolished (v26).

3. What does it mean for us?

  1. The answer to sin: Christ crucified and risen is the answer to our sin.  Note Matthew 1:21 ‘he will save his people from their sins’.  Having taken the burden of our sin, he saves us from the punishment due to us.  As Isaiah 53:5 tells us, he was pierced for our transgressions’.  There is now no punishment due to those who trust in Christ as Saviour.  We are righteous in God’s sight. Christ also saves us from the power of sin as day by day he gives us grace and strength to ‘walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6:4).
  1.  The answer to tragedy: In the resurrection, we have proof of Christ’s victory over all the forces that damage our lives and cause us pain.  The risen Christ is ‘head over everything for the church’ (Ephesians 1:22). All his power and authority are used for the benefit of his people.  Thus he gives us all the grace and help we need to face pain, loss, uncertainty, disappointment, bereavement. For the Christian, Satan is a defeated enemy and so we may, by the Lord’s strength, resist his attacks and temptations.  The Lord always says to us, ‘my grace is sufficient for you’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
  1.  The answer to death: Those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ share in his victory over death.  As ‘the firstfruits’ (v20) he guarantees that the rest of the harvest will follow – ‘when he comes, those who belong to him’ as Paul puts it in v 23.  Having been raised from spiritual death at conversion, we will be raised from physical death at his return.  Our bodies share in salvation.  Although much must remain mysterious, we know Christ ‘will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body’ (Philippians 3:21).  There is nothing for us to fear in death. On account of Christ’s resurrection, Paul can ask triumphantly, ‘Where, O death, is your victory?’ (v55). We have a glorious hope in the risen Christ.

David McKay

Philippians 4:14-20 ‘My God will supply’

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Reading: Philippians 4:14-20

14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

One of the first effects of the arrival of coronavirus was panic buying.  Suddenly supermarket shelves were cleared of a range of goods, sometimes the obvious, sometimes the unexpected.  Whoever thought that toilet rolls would be so valuable? The results were unnecessary shortages and unfair pressure put on the vulnerable.  Most stores have had to introduce some form of rationing to ensure that all customers are provided with the basics.

Uncertainty is hard for most people to live with.  Fear of not having the essentials can be paralysing.  Concern for survival would crowd out most other thoughts.  For the Christian in such circumstances the temptation may be to focus on those needs to the exclusion of spiritual matters.  Our proper Bible-based perspective can be lost and our outlook becomes very like that of the world around us. Paul in prison faced great uncertainties, yet his focus was on the Lord and he was confident God would provide whatever he needed.  In Philippians 4:14-20 Paul shows where our trust is to be placed.

1. Thanksgiving for God’s provision

Sometimes the pressure of trying circumstances makes us forget God’s goodness to us in the past.  Paul does not fall into that trap. He recognises that gratitude for past blessings and past answered prayers stimulates us to depend more fully on the Lord’s provision now and in the future.

‘It was good of you to share in my troubles’ (v14), he writes.  Paul’s certainty that God will supply the strength he requires (v13) does not lead him to despise material help sent from Philippi during his time in prison.  In fact, it is clear this is one of the ways in which God supplied his need. The God who provided manna (Exodus 16) can equally well provide by means of his people’s actions – ‘I am amply supplied’ (v18).  The provision is viewed from three points of view:

(i) Paul.  Their generosity relieved his material needs (v18), but even more important was the expression of fellowship the gifts represented.  Note ‘share in my troubles … shared with me’ (v15) – they expressed love and unity in Christ. That explains Paul’s joyful spirit despite hardships.  Fellowship should be expressed in all kinds of caring actions.

(ii) The Philippians.  They were enriched by their giving – how is that possible?  Note ‘what may be credited to your account’ (v17) – as if by giving to Paul they made an investment of material things that would produce a spiritual dividend.  This is not a crude ‘payoff’ mentality, yet God does bless generosity (Proverbs 11:25). Giving is not to be done for profit yet God blesses the generous.

(iii) The Lord.  The giving of the Philippians pleased God.  Note the very striking words ‘They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God’ (v18).  The act of giving and its motivation delighted the Lord. This emphasises the God-ward dimension of giving – it is to be done as service to him, for his glory.

2. Trust in God’s promise

The Philippians’ gifts are but one example of a general principle stated in the promise of verse 19 ‘my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’. These words are full of encouragement for God’s people.  They help us face difficult and challenging times, such as those in which we are now living. There are several things here to notice:

(i) The Scope.  We need to be careful, of course, that we do not try to make the verse say something that it does not say.  This is not a promise that Christians will receive from God absolutely anything that they request. There are varieties of supposedly ‘Christian’ teaching that suggest we can ‘name it and claim it’ – that if we have enough faith, God will give whatever we ask.  That is not what the Lord promises. He does not offer us a blank cheque that we can fill in however we wish. Often we do not know what would be best for us – we ask amiss or with selfish motives. No good parent will give his child everything he asks for, and our perfect heavenly Father will certainly not do so.  The promise relates to ‘all your needs’ – the things we need in order to live for his glory and to serve him as he has planned.  We are assured unequivocally that these things will be provided, and we can rest content with not having things we think we need or would like.

(ii) The Author.  Paul speaks of ‘My God’ – the God who loves him, who has saved him and who will provide for him.  This is the God who accepted the ‘fragrant offering’ of the gifts made to Paul by the Philippians (v18).  Our God is concerned for both bodily and spiritual needs. The physical is not beneath the notice of the Creator (see Psalm 145:16 ‘You satisfy the desires of every living thing’).  More than that, as Ephesians 1:3 reminds us, God has ‘blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ’. Have we not proved his ability to provide many times?  People make promises that often they are not able to keep, but God is able to supply our needs. Paul says that [literally] God will ‘fulfil all your need’.  His infinite love and wisdom decide what is a need and what is a desire, and he makes no mistakes.  Desires are sometimes granted: needs always are.

(iii) The Source.  Problems have arisen in shops recently when demand has outstripped supply, sometimes by a considerable margin.  The resources of the Lord, however, are unlimited. Paul refers to [literally] ‘his riches in glory’. The resources are infinite and can never run out.  The key to blessing is made clear – the riches are ‘in Christ Jesus’. All God’s provision flows to us through Christ. How is that so? The answer is that his saving work secured every blessing that his people will ever require.  By his death and resurrection, Christ has secured not only forgiveness of sin (wonderful as that is). He has also secured all that we require to live the Christian life, to face every trial that he permits to come to us and to reach final glory.  Christ is now ‘head over everything for the benefit of the church’ (Ephesians 1:22). Our Father has already given the greatest gift – Christ himself as our Saviour – and so all other gifts will certainly follow. Listen to Paul’s assurance in Romans 8:32 ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’  United to Christ, we are in the place to receive God’s infinite provision.

(iv) The Supply.  It is abundant, not just the bare minimum for survival.  Notice that God supplies ‘according to his riches’.  It is not merely ‘out of his riches’, but ‘according to his riches’.  The Lord supplies in proportion to his infinite resources. He is not like a millionaire throwing a few coins to a beggar – that would be ‘out of his riches’.  To those who themselves give generously, God will give ‘A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over’ (Luke 6:38).

Note also the certainty of the supply.  Paul does not use the language of possibility.  He does not suggest that God ‘might’ or even ‘probably will’ meet all our needs.  He simply states that he will meet them. This is not an arrogant statement since it expresses the very opposite of self-confidence.  Our confidence rests on the nature of the God who promises and on the full the provision made in Christ once for all. You can share Paul’s confidence when you look to the Lord and trust in him.

In view of such a promise, Paul bursts out in praise in the doxology of verse 20 ‘To our God and Father be glory forever and ever’.  He ascribes ‘glory’ to ‘our God and Father’ because this is his doing, from start to finish, and all the glory is his.  Evidence of our Father’s provision should fuel worship and praise from his people, even when they are called to endure hardships and trials.  Sitting in prison, writing this letter, Paul knew what it was to practise what he preached. Let us do likewise.

David Mckay