A Passionate Benediction | 2 Thessalonians 3:16-18 | Dr. David Harrell
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Indeed it is his great love that lifts us up to him and likewise he uses his word in the power of the Spirit which we will enjoy here at this time.
2 Thessalonians 3. It's been a journey of many months to go through both of these wonderful epistles and now we come to the concluding benediction. Let we read the text to you beginning in verse 16.
16 Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all! 17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
The Apostle Paul was a man given to prayer, to supplication. He was a man that dearly loved those that God had placed under his charge. He shepherded them with great care and he was passionate to see people come to a saving knowledge of Christ and to see them grow in him and we have much to learn by his example, even in the text that we have before us. I fear that we seldom share the kind of prayer requests that would reflect his heart. How often do we fervently pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, asking that the Lord of peace himself continually grant them peace in every circumstance; that the Lord would be with them all; that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with them? Do we even have a basic understanding of what these great truths mean? Well, I'm sure that for the most part we do but there are many things that I fear we often neglect because we don't look deeply into what God is saying in his word. And sadly many believers know very little of what it means to enjoy that soul-satisfying peace of God deep within their soul. Like a man in a narrow canoe, their little boat is easily shaken with the current that gets rough and it's easy for their little boat to capsize in the waves of disappointment and uncertainty, and yet this is life, isn't it? We live in a world that is fallen. There are no guarantees. Life is filled with disappointments, it is filled with uncertainty. Now, of course, it's also filled with great joy for we as believers, but we all know that there are no guarantees and therefore we need more than what we can conjure up on our own; more than what the world has to offer. We need the peace and the grace of God. Think of the spouse that marries a man or a woman only to find out that that person wasn't what they thought they were marrying. You can eat healthy and exercise and still contract a disease and die, right? You can catechize your kids, you can guard them from the world, and they can still grow up loving the world more than Christ. You can invest well, you can save and die a pauper. You can study hard, work hard, get a college degree and never find a decent job. By the way, that's not to say that there are certain things that won't raise the probability of these things, but I think you get the point. How can we possibly experience peace in this kind of a world? And think about the Thessalonian believers. They experienced the same types of things only they also were having to endure mounting persecution, conflict with unsaved family members and friends, some of them had lost their jobs. They were dealing with doctrinal confusion due to false teachers in the church, division in the congregation because some of the members were disorderly, they refused to work. Outwardly they were oppressed on every side and we all know what that feels like when you're oppressed with the things of life, the stuff of life. It begins to wear you down. It begins to wear your faith down like heavy seas bashing against the wooden hull of a ship.
Well, Paul knew that those dear saints were in trouble. He knew that they needed more than he could possibly give them. He had given them all that he had and now he's quite a distance away from them, he's unable to help them, and he knows that man is no match for Satan's world system and opposition to God. Human ability is powerless to address the needs of the soul. He knew that. He knew that they were facing great matters that require a great God so he does what we all should do, he intercedes on their behalf, invoking upon them the Lord's blessing in really a two part benediction. And dear friends, I think we should learn a lesson here before we go any further, we should learn that when we have exhausted ourselves to seemingly no avail and we have given all that we can and our heart continues to ache and we feel that all is lost, nothing is bringing relief, what should we do? Despair? Give up? No, really what we should do is rejoice and go to prayer because we know that God is up to something. God is not finished. In fact, he's just begun. In reality, in the hour of our greatest weakness we have an opportunity to experience our greatest strength and for that we cry out for that supernatural effectual energy of the most high God who alone can life our heavy burden; who alone can turn our sufferings into irresistible displays of his grace; who alone can fill the whole of our soul with the manifest fullness of his glory; who alone is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works within us.
So this is what's going on in Paul's mind as he comes to the end of this second epistle. Let me deal with verse 17 first and then we will look at his benediction. He says, "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write." You see, although Paul was the author, he had a secretary that used a technique of dictation to record basically everything that he said. This was a common practice in those days and it was common for an author to add his own handwriting, his own signature at the end of a letter and that's what Paul is doing here. And you will recall that they had a problem in that church, there was a forged letter that some of the false teachers had concocted and confused all of the people and so he wants to make sure that they know that he has written this.
Now, I wish to draw your attention to three categories of blessing that the inspired apostle is concerned with. He invokes the Lord's blessing in three very specific ways. He wants, first of all, for the Lord to bless them with his encouraging peace; secondly, with his enabling presence; and finally, with his experiential grace. And I trust that this will be helpful to you as it has been to me.
First, let's notice his request here for God's encouraging peace. Notice in verse 16, "Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance." Now, what is this peace that he's referring to? Is it merely the absence of conflict because certainly there was a lot of conflict in their lives, in the community in which they lived, even within the church? Or perhaps is it referring to an inner sense of calm? Perhaps both? When it comes to that inner tranquility, there's all kinds of ways that we can achieve that. Many times it's inappropriate. There are many people that achieve that by smoking weed; by consuming alcohol; some people use controlled deep breathing called biofeedback; others use a technique called visualization; then, of course, the Hindus use yoga and that kind of meditation. Millions of people enjoy inner peace although they believe a lie, religious lies. But, you know, all of those things that the world has to offer, all those things that man can concoct, cannot withstand a cancer diagnosis. Those things cannot withstand a heart wrenching divorce. All of man's techniques cannot bring comfort to the deep wounds of rejection or profound embarrassment or the gnawing pain of guilt and remorse. Or the myriad of circumstances that can come into our life that break our heart that are beyond our control.
So what is this peace that Paul is referring to? Beloved, what he is referring to is a God-given assurance that he is in full control of whatever happens in our life and that he is accomplishing his purposes for our good and for his glory. It is that peace that provides stability within our soul and even gives us a sense of joy regardless of the circumstances. This is what he's praying for for them. This is the blessing that he's asking the Lord to lavish upon them. John MacArthur said it so well, quote, "True spiritual peace is completely different from the superficial, ephemeral, fragile, human peace. It is the deep settled confidence that all is well between the soul and God because of his loving, sovereign control of one's life both in time and eternity. That calm assurance is based on the knowledge that sins are forgiven, blessing is present, good is abundant even in trouble, and heaven is ahead. The peace that God gives his beloved children as their possession and privilege has nothing to do with the circumstances of life." Very well said.
Now I want you to notice how he appeals to the only source of peace, the Lord Jesus Christ. He calls him "the Lord of peace Himself." You see, because of his great work of redemption on the cross, those who place their faith in him as their only hope of salvation are instantly reconciled to a holy God. When we are born again, our sins are forgiven, we receive the imputed righteousness of Christ and we are no longer at war with God. In Romans 5:1, Paul put it this way, "Therefore, having been justified," in other words, declared righteous, "by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." You see, this is that objective peace of being reconciled and forgiven and only when we have that objective peace can we have that subjective peace of experiencing the peace of God deep within our souls which is a fruit of the Spirit. The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 119:165, "Great peace have those who love Your law and nothing causes them to stumble." What a great text.
You see, friends, this is the sweet fruit of justification. When the heart has been renewed, it gladly agrees with the will of God and suddenly the soul is conscious of being the special object of divine love. The horror of having offended God's law is suddenly replaced with a profound awareness that we have become children of God. He is no longer our judge, no longer our potential executioner, he is our heavenly Father. It is for this reason Paul said in Romans 8 that we receive "a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" He goes on to say, "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ." My friends, if that doesn't bring peace to your soul, nothing will. You must grab ahold of that great truth.
Oh, but there is so much more. The word "peace" really reflects the Hebrew "shalom" which became a greeting that Christ used with his disciples after his resurrection. In John 14:27 you will recall in light of his promise to send them the Helper, the Holy Spirit that would come and take his place, Jesus said this to his disciples, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." Dear friend, without faith in Christ in obedience to his will, you will never be able to enjoy peace with God. You just won't have it, moreover you will never be able to experience the peace of God because your soul is still at war with him. Only the Lord of peace himself can, as Paul says, "continually grant you peace in every circumstance." You see, only his peace can dissolve your fears, what Paul called the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension. That's what will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.
You know, I have witnessed this so many times. I've been at the deathbed of unbelievers and I've been at the deathbed of many believers and, my, what a difference. One you see a face that is wracked with horror and confusion, anything but peace, and the other is just the opposite. You cannot explain it apart from what God has done. And what an amazing hope to know that as we anticipate the messianic kingdom, there is going to be a time of peace in the whole world; to know that the reality of this kind of peace is going to be secured by the Prince of Peace, right? The Lord Jesus Christ himself. Remember what Isaiah prophesied in chapter 9, verse 7, "There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts," not politicians, "The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this." And how sad to know that there is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked.
I want to digress for just a moment to give you some very practical warnings. There are many ways that we can forfeit that subjective awareness of God's peace within us. Let me give you but three. 1. Doctrinal error. You will recall that the Thessalonians were, as Paul said, shaken from their composure and deeply disturbed. Why? Because of doctrinal error. False teachers had told them that they had probably missed the rapture; that what Paul had said wasn't true and they are saying different things, leading them to believe that now they're living in a season of escalating divine judgment called the day of the Lord. They needed peace but that peace only could come through the clarity and the precision of doctrinal truth. Think of the chronic anxiety of those who live in fear that they might do something to lose their salvation. There is no peace for those people. That's just bad, bad, bad theology. Think of those with weak faith who cannot perceive their liberty in Christ, who are trapped in legalism and moralism. They are always afraid that somehow they're not living up to the divine standard of righteousness and so they surround themselves with self-imposed rules and regulations and there is no end to it. Or those who live on the other extreme, those saints who are so enamored by God's grace that they abuse it by always pushing the boundaries of Christian liberty which leads inevitably to antinomianism and worldliness and great division in the body of Christ. Think of the millions who lack discernment who have fallen prey to false teachers that seem to be breeding like fruit flies today. Millions who believe, for example, the lie of a prosperity Gospel, that God wants you to be healthy, he wants you to be wealthy and successful, so they jump through all of the hoops and guess what? Nothing happens so they are frustrated. You hear this story all the time. They are frustrated. They begin to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to make it worse, they're told, "Well, you just didn't have enough faith." But such is always the promise of false teachers, right? Jeremiah the prophet said in chapter 6, verse 14, speaking for the Lord, "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, 'Peace, peace,' But there is no peace." Dear Christian, doctrinal error is to the soul what poison is to the body, a little bit of it will make you sick, a lot of it will destroy you.
A second way to forfeit peace is through disobedience. We cannot enjoy perfect peace unless our hearts are in full accord with the will of God. You simply cannot enjoy that. Only when we walk by the Spirit are we able to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. I mean, how can we be at peace with God and enjoy the peace of God deep within our soul when we are living in open rebellion against him? How can we do that? It can't happen. I think of David because of his sin, his unconfessed sin, he tells us that his body wasted away through his groaning all day long and on and on it went. There was no peace in his life at that point. You see, dear friends, sin will grieve the Holy Spirit. It can even quench the Holy Spirit in your life and rob you of all of the joy of fellowship and the peace that God would love to give you and that will inevitably lead to divine chastening. The good news there is because our Father loves us, he will chasten us, and if we are repentant, we are also told in Hebrews 12:11 that divine chastening will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness. We serve a gracious God, don't we?
But I must add, often the immature believer is unwitting of his or her disobedience usually because of three things: ignorance, indifference or indolence, which means laziness. I mean, think of the Christian mother who neglects disciplining her child because she doesn't really know she's ignorant of what God would have her do. Or she might know of it but she's just indifferent to it. Or she knows it but too lazy to do it. Or think of the Christian husband who fails to truly love his wife as Christ loves the church and for the same reasons, he fails his wife and his marriage falls apart and he has no peace. Far too many couples have gone from marital bliss to mortal combat because one or both of them are disobedient in certain areas of their life, quietly at war with the God they claim to love. Dear friends, disobedience can rob you of the joy of the peace of God in your life just as quickly as sugary junk food can rob you of your health. It might take a period of time but it's going to happen.
My third little point, you guessed it, it begins with a "d": discontentment. Doctrinal error, disobedience and discontentment. We hear this all the time when we listen to ourselves whine about things that aren't going our way. It's the sound of that sullen whine that we hear often with our children. We complain. We secretly resent God because of unpleasant circumstances. I mean, think about it with your own life: what do you do when things don't go right? Do you say, "Thank you, God. Help me understand how to serve you in the midst of this." Or do you begin to kind of get all upset and kind of shake your fist at God and kind of demand an answer from him? You see, when we fall victim to this great sin, and we all do this at times, know this: we have lost sight of God's sweet providence in our life. We have lost sight of that great promise that God is working together all things for our good now that we love God and we are the called according to his purpose.
But, you know, peace in a mature believer looks so different. It's not complaining, it's not whining when things go bad but rather, for example, when there is sickness, the believer will say, "Lord, I don't understand. I don't want this. I beg you for healing but I trust in you to accomplish some great work in and through me. I don't know what it is but I trust you and I will trust you to the end and in that I have great peace." Or in the tragic loss of a loved one, "God, I will not ask you why. You don't owe me an explanation. I wouldn't be able to understand it if you gave it to me, but I will ask what. God, what would you have me do now in the midst of this agony to give you glory and in that I will find great peace." Or in times of persecution, "Lord, I pray for safety. I pray for relief but, Lord, do what you will with me. You know what's best. My soul is at perfect peace with you and though you take me to a cross, I will trust you and I will thank you for counting me worthy to suffer for your name's sake and in this I find great peace." You see, only God can give that kind of peace.
Oh, child of God, he has given us so many opportunities to experience this, this peace that surpasses all understanding. I think of him as our Shepherd, the one who forever cares for his sheep, that we might live in peace and not in fear. Think of the metaphor of the groom and the bride, as our groom, he is selfless in his love for his bridal church, committed to our purity and our everlasting joy. As the vine to which we are attached as branches, we need never worry that we're going to somehow be broken off or that we're going to break ourselves off or that we're going to be transplanted or we're not going to have enough water or good soil to bear fruit. He is going to cause that to happen. Indeed, he is the indefatigable gardener. Don't you love that word? We don't use that much anymore. It's a great word. It means the unceasing, tireless gardener that is ever-caring for us as his tender plant. He is causing us to be steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.
You see, Paul knew that those dear saints needed this and the Spirit of God knows that we all need this so he invokes the Lord's blessing. He asks him to grant them this encouraging peace. "Now may the Lord of peace," notice, "Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance." He doesn't says, "May the Lord send his angels as ministering spirits to grant you this peace." He does not say, "May the Lord bring a comforting friend or a compassionate pastor to bring you this peace." He does not say, "May the Lord bring to mind some great text that will encourage your heart and bring you peace." No, he may in fact use all of these good things but you see he alone is able to satisfy the longings of our soul and to calm our troubled heart for he is the Lord of peace.
So the passionate benediction includes not only his encouraging peace but, secondly: he desires God's enabling presence. Notice at the end of verse 16, "The Lord be with you all!" Now, obviously the Lord is with every believer every moment of the day because he is omnipresent, but Paul is referring to something much greater than that here. He is asking for the Lord of peace to manifest himself to the hearts of these struggling saints so that they can experience the joy and the power and the strength of the living Christ deep within their soul, in the core of their being, so that they can experience his enabling presence. This is so precious to me. You know, whenever I think of Christ, I know that he is fully aware of my weaknesses, of my sorrows, my concerns, my fears, my sin. Whenever I think of the one to whom I have been eternally united, the one in whom I have been hidden, my heart is filled with such joy and the very thought of who he is and what he has done, what he is doing, what he is going to do for me and in me, is a source of great power and strength and in this I find great peace, don't you? I mean, folks, think about it: the one who rebuked the wind and calmed the stormy sea with a word can easily bring peace into your life.
But he can do so much more. You see, what we all need is a profound sense of his enabling presence. You're probably like me, I plead for this often, I beg the Lord for this. Many times when I pray, I will say, "Lord, I wish I could just see you." Don't you do that? "Lord, I wish I could just see you. I wish I could look into your face. I wish I could reach out and touch you. I wish I could hear your voice. And I know that some day that's going to happen but, Lord, until faith becomes sight, I need your enabling presence. I need to experience you and I know ultimately I can do that through the power of your word and your Spirit as you bring all of the great truths to bear in my life, and likewise bring comfort to my innermost being." You know, this is the very reason why he comforted his disciples upon his departure by telling them in John 14:16, "I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because," catch this, "He abides with you and will be in you." Don't you love that? He says, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." Oh, dear friends, I hope you'll find comfort in knowing that the Lord can be with us in such a tangible way. I pray that you also will pray for his enabling presence. We desperately need the power of Christ in us to endure the trials of life.
As I was meditating upon these great truths this past week, I was reminded of John Bunyan's testimony recorded in his allegory "The Pilgrim's Progress," and there he described the season in his life of profound fear and weakness. He likened it to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a time where he didn't have peace, probably, by the way, a reference to his imprisonment and the possibility of his own martyrdom. Let me read to you a little bit of what he said in his testimony and I think we can all identify with what he has to say. "It was necessary for Christian," by the way, that's a reference basically to Bunyan, alright? "It was necessary for Christian to pass through it," referring to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, "because it was the only way to the Celestial City." This valley is a very solitary place. The prophet Jeremiah describes it as a wilderness, a land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and of the shadow of death, a land that no one is able to pass through and where no one lives except Christian could pass through it. He went on to say, "Here, as you will see, Christian's testings were even more severe than those he had encountered with Apollyon," referring to Satan. And he went on to describe how he had encountered false professors that were coming back the other direction saying, "Don't go on anymore! It's too dangerous to proceed!" And he described the dangers of deception, his temptation to compromise in the face of persecution. And he described all of this this way, he said that he "encountered a very deep ditch along the right side of the valley as far as it reached. It is into that ditch that the blind have led the blind throughout the ages and there both have miserably died." There he is referring to false doctrine and false teaching. "I could also see that on the left side was a very dangerous quagmire," referring to the temptation of sin. "Even a good person, should he fall in, will not find bottom for his foot to stand on. King David once fell in here and no doubt would have suffocated had not he who is able mercifully plucked him out." He went on to describe the mouth of hell was beside the way about midway through the valley which was really a picture of the hostile world that was in opposition to him. He said so much fire and smoke continually came out with swarms of sparks and hideous noises that he was forced to put his sword away, referring to his word, the Bible, and use another weapon called "all prayer." He went on to describe a terrifying encounter with some wicked fiends that threatened his life and he said when they were almost face-to-face with him, he cried out very vehemently, "I will walk in the strength of the Lord God!" So they fell back and came no closer. Beloved, there it is, there is the power of his enabling presence. As Paul said in Ephesians 6:10, "Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might."
Bunyan went on to express the great confusion that came his way. Sometimes the battle is so intense we lose objectivity, don't we? We begin to believe stupid things, believe lies even about ourselves. We begin to catastrophize. We feel like giving up. We believe the very worst about ourselves and we go around manipulating other people to feel sorry for us. You know how all of that works. We've all done that before. That's what was going on in his life and Bunyan goes on to describe it. He said, "I noticed that poor Christian had become so confused that he no longer knew his own voice. Just as he was passing the mouth of the burning pit, one of the wicked creatures crept up behind him and whispered many grievous blasphemous suggestions in his ear. The trial was worse than any of the others because Christian thought these suggestions had come from his own mind." He went on to say, "After Christian had traveled in this disconsolate condition for quite some time, he thought he could hear a man's voice somewhere ahead of him, the voice was saying, 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.'" Why, dear friends? "'For you are with me.' Then Christian was glad. He realized that God was with him even though he was in a dark and dismal state. He reasoned, 'Even though I cannot feel his presence because of the hindrances in this place, why wouldn't he be with me here too?'" He went on to say that, "Before long it was daybreak and Christian rejoiced. He rejoiced saying, 'He has turned the shadow of death into the morning!'" Isn't that great? "All of the chaos, the fear is gone. The peace has come. Now that there is daylight, he could see more clearly. Looking back, he was deeply moved by his deliverance from all the dangers he had encountered on this desolate way." Christian said, "He lighted the way before me and I walked safely through the darkness." Oh, dear friends, how we need his enabling power.
Let me move ahead. Finally, to his third desire, his experiential grace. Notice in verse 18, he says, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all." You see, here Paul concludes by expressing his desire for the Lord to continue to lavish his grace upon them, grace being that transforming reality of God's undeserved goodness, the full expression of all that is involved in his saving and sanctifying work. All of us realize that apart from grace we cannot be saved, right? We all know that but likewise apart from grace we cannot be sanctified, we cannot be made holy, therefore we cannot be happy. And apart from grace, we cannot endure trials, we cannot endure temptation. Apart from grace, we cannot serve Christ, we cannot grow into his likeness. So Paul knew this and he prays that God will lavish his grace upon them. In fact, the New Testament authors would often open their letters by saying, "Grace and peace be unto you," and, of course, we see these great blessings expressed here in Paul's passionate benediction. Don't you know this must have been a great encouragement to those dear saints? And the text doesn't tell us but we have reason to believe that Timothy would have taken these words and expounded upon them probably like I'm doing to you here today.
Well, I want to leave you with a challenge, three very quick things to make this very practical for you, to challenge those of you who know and love Christ. 1. Meditate upon these truths and make it a practice to pray for peace and grace in your life and the lives also of those that you know and love. And then, secondly, for those of you who are constantly struggling with a lack of peace, you're disturbed about your future, you're forever restless with fears, you're filled with doubt and confusion and discouragement, here's what I would suggest you do: ask the Holy Spirit to bring conviction to your heart concerning those categories of sin that I mentioned to you that will cause you to forfeit peace and I will guarantee you, having dealt with thousands of people over the years, those that are dealing with a lack of peace are going to find somewhere they believe bad doctrine, they are discontent and they are disobedient. Look for those things. Ask the Spirit of God to reveal those truths to you and then repent of them. And then, finally, whenever God's providence puzzles you, learn to be content with it. Relax. Don't demand an explanation. You wouldn't understand it if he were to give it to you. Instead, take it as a sign that he wants you to trust him with things he never means for you to understand and all along know that he is up to something, once again, for your good and his glory. Relax in that and with that kind of an attitude, you will experience the very peace that Paul was describing here.
And for those of you who do not know Christ, oh how I plead with you to be reconciled to him today because what you are going to find is that you will continue to live a life where there really is no peace, not the type of peace we're talking about here. You're going to pursue all of the fleeting pleasures of this world and yet in the quietness of every night and in the cold loneliness of death, you will be forced to realize that you have no peace because your soul is at war with a holy God. Dear friend, deal with that today, I plead with you as a minister of the Gospel, and the moment you place your trust in him, you will be at peace with God and be able to experience the peace of God, a peace that surpasses all understanding, one that will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.
Let's pray together.
Father, thank you for these eternal truths that are so powerful when we think of them, and certainly we all struggle in the various ways that have been mentioned here. We thank you that there is that kind of peace available to us, not only the objective peace of being reconciled to you but also the subjective peace of experiencing joy and even confidence in your sovereign care regardless of circumstances. So take these truths and cause them to bear much fruit in each of our lives, I ask in Jesus' name and for his sake. Amen.