1 Thessalonians was one of the earliest epistles of Paul, if not the earliest. Paul’s ministry in the prosperous city of Thessalonica was recorded in Acts 17 1-10. Having been forced to leave the city of Thessalonica abruptly in a hurry as soon as it was night [Acts 17:10], Paul was naturally anxious about the situation of his brothers. The theme of this epistle is holiness in view of the second coming of Christ, as Paul offers many instructions concerning holy living. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, Paul offers his final instructions to the Thessalonian Church not unlike his instructions to other Churches or brothers. While he did not go in depth into each of these instructions, as they were his concluding words, they offer a quick idea of what Paul desires for the Church. In 1 Thessalonians 5, as Paul ends his letter, he throws out a bunch of short and straightforward final instructions. The verse today may be extremely short, but it serves as an important reminder.
Joyful – there probably isn’t much difference between rejoice always and be joyful always – they generally mean the same things. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! [Phil 4:4] – yet there is a difference between the two terms, and there are different aspects of joy that I’m looking at when I look at these two verses. Rejoice suggests not just happiness – but also a celebration of one’s happiness; while in 1 Thes 5:16 we’re looking at joyfulness, which is probably a joy that permanently resides in our hearts. You may not be celebrating your happiness constantly (though you should often, as Phil 4:4 says) – but even in the toughest of circumstances, there’s still an odd joy that permanently resides in your heart. You may grieve, you may be upset, you may be agitated – but there’ll always be that constant, peaceful joy in your heart. I think this is the kind of joy that Paul wants us to pursue when he says, be joyful always. Not the kind of joy that is perverted or is gained with shady means. Habakkuk 3:18 sums this up well – yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
When Paul wrote this letter (this was likely one of his earliest letters, if not the earliest), he probably hasn’t gone through one of the most telling examples of ‘rejoice always’ – when he was imprisoned and yet worshipping God. He probably hasn’t gone through one of the most compelling examples of ‘be joyful always’ – when he was clear that his time of martyrdom was near and yet wrote his letter to Timothy with such a calm, joyful, peaceful conviction, describing how the Lord stood by him and supported him when everybody had deserted him.
I love short verses. They’re easy to remember – effortless to remember, really, verses as short as 1 Thes 5:16. In fact, ti’s probably harder to memorize the verse number than it is to remember the verse. And the best thing about being able to remember them easily is that they will appear in my mind even without me calling them out. It may be a happy moment that I remember this verse – be joyful always – that would be encouraging and also serve as a reminder to give thanks; it may be an unhappy moment that I recall this, and that will be a short and straightforward command. You probably won’t even have to try to remember this, because you will – be joyful always. It’s a huge call, and it will probably take a lifetime of learning for us to reach the heights of Paul’s extent of calm and joy in dire circumstances, but let us learn step by step, bit by bit, and whenever we happen to recall this verse, thank God for it.