Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Philippians 4:4 is probably the most quoted verse on joy, in fact, the epistle to the Philippians is arguably Paul’s most joyful letter in the Bible. The word rejoice appeared eight times in the book of Philippians, and the word joy another 6 times – a large number for a short book with only 4 chapters. The gist of the book is really summed up by this verse, with a theme on joy. The book of Philippians is known to be one of the four prison epistles, generally considered to be written by Paul during his imprisonment in Rome. I would not assume that Paul’s circumstances as a prisoner in Rome was relaxing and peaceful. Even though he was obviously granted certain unusual liberties that a common prisoner wouldn’t have – his two years of Roman imprisonment was perhaps what we would today call a ‘house arrest’ – there were still troubles. In this study, let us pay special attention to how Paul was able to be jubilant even in his unusual circumstances.
Rejoicing while being imprisoned is not unique to Paul alone. Peter was also once imprisoned, and Herod had wanted to kill him, but even with those threats, Peter was able to sleep in prison. In Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome with Silas, they were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them [Acts 16:25]. Why could they be so relaxed? Why weren’t they acting more appropriately to the circumstances that they were caught in? They should have been afraid, they should have been pleading desperately for God to ‘prison break’ them, but they didn’t. Peter somehow could sleep, even though he knew that Herod intended to kill him – James was just killed for goodness sake! Paul and Silas did pray, but it didn’t seem like those desperate prayers one would make when one is pushed to a corner or deeply in sorrow. No, they could even sing in prison – that was quite something. There was a sense of peace in these apostles which allowed them a serenity that most people who were freely walking out there away from the shackles of the prison cell would never have enjoyed before.
There is a similar verse mentioned by Paul in his first epistle to the Church of Thesaalonica – [1 Thes 5:16|Article]. There probably isn’t much difference between rejoice always and be joyful always – most versions actually use them interchangeably – and they generally mean the same things. Yet I would like to suggest that 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. In Phil 4:4 the term 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.
He was imprisoned, yet Paul was able to celebrate his joy. This is one of the most telling examples of ‘rejoice always’ in the Bible – when he was imprisoned and yet worshipping God. At this point he probably hasn’t gone through one of the most compelling examples to ‘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 – but throughout Paul’s life, his joy had never been too far away from him, despite his circumstances.
In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Paul chronicles some of these circumstances:
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
A man like that, a man who had been through all that, rejoicing always. How about you, would you be able to rejoice in a shipwrecked? When you are starving? When you are stressed? When you are near death? Paul isn’t asking us to laugh like a lunatic even when our life is in danger. He’s talking about a christian joy, a satisfaction and contentment of the heart despite the circumstances. A christian joy that exists because hope still exists. And that christian hope still exists because we look to God and his promises.
Paul said it once, but it wasn’t enough. He said it again: Rejoice! How important it is to be able to rejoice always – no matter our circumstances. For some people, or in some conditions, it might be harder to rejoice in a seemingly fortunate and successful life than an ordinary and hard life. Yet in your own lives, in your own time, in your own ways, rejoice always. When you learn how to be able to find joy in the Lord, that is when you rise above your old self and issues become smaller and God becomes bigger in your eyes. Let God be your source of exceeding joy – Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy: yea, upon the harp will I praise thee, O God my God [Psalm 43:4|Article].