By Billy Ashworth
While a prisoner of the Roman government, Paul wrote the saints at Philippi who were not in prison, saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Earlier, Paul had written: “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord . . . For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus” (3:1,3).
The epistle has been called “the Epistle of Joy” since the words “joy” and “rejoice” occur about sixteen times in the letter. It is probably the most affectionate and personal letter Paul wrote that has been recorded in divine revelation. It has very little censure in it, but is mostly devoted to encouragement for his brethren and sisters in the Lord. Is it not striking that Paul, a prisoner in Rome, could write such a letter to saints at Philippi who were relatively free to exhort them to “rejoice in the Lord”? Saints there must have needed this encouragement as many do today.
Recently, while walking in the mall with my wife, I saw a sign at the entrance of a business establishment which read: Hiring management Trainees – Only smiling faces – No grouches,” I remarked to Lois, “I wonder how many of our brethren and sisters could apply.” I observe people’s expressions while greeting them at the assembly building. Some are smiling, friendly and seem to be filled with joy. Some appear burdened down with cares, anxiety and almost despondent. Then a few seem to be hostile. (These observations have been made over a period of nearly thirty-eight years. Therefore, I am not referring to any one group of people.) Why such a wide range of attitudes among the people of God?
I call attention to the fact that Paul is not suggesting, or hinting, that the saints at Philippi “rejoice in the Lord.” It is commanded, and therefore not only can be obeyed, but must be obeyed. I find no commands in Scripture that are optional on the part of those who are so instructed. God does not command one thing of us that we cannot obey. He is a just, omniscient God, no respecter of persons; he could not by his very being command things impossible to do, and then condemn his grandest creation, mankind, for failing to obey.
Joy is listed in the catalog of the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22,23). Notice that joy is related closely with love and peace. In fact, in the English construction joy is between the other two. For a person to experience true joy, he must be filled with love and will be at peace with God, his fellow men and himself. A lot unhappiness on the part of people is because they have poor self-image; even sometimes they seem to be overcome with self-hate. I have read “experts” say that many drug addicts, including alcoholics, become such because they do not like themselves and try to escape reality by indulging. in alcohol and other drugs. (Alcohol is a drug – the most abused of all drugs. It is redundant to speak of people indulging themselves in “alcohol and drugs.”)
I believe Paul’s secret to rejoicing, even while in prison is found in the Philippian letter. Let us notice some of the things he cited:
1. In the first chapter, Paul wrote: “Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; . . . I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defense in the confirmation of the gospel, ye are all partakers of my grace. . . And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” Here we find Paul rejoicing in remembrance of these faithful saints for whom he prayed with joy. He was thankful for their fellowship in the gospel and was confident that they would be faithful and without offense till the “day of Christ.” He loved them (” have you in my heart”) and rejoiced in their love for truth (vv. 9, 10).
2. Paul saw in his imprisonment and afflictions a fallout for good. “That the things that have happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel, so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace and in all other places: and many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” This is an example of faith overcoming fear in Paul’s brethren, when they observed his unwavering faith in God and fearlessness of men, and caused then to preach boldly.
Paul saw that, from what looked like a great injustice as a consequence of the maliciousness of the unbelieving Jews, God worked it all out for his good (see Rom. 8:28 and following context). By having been sent as a prisoner to Rome, Paul was able to reach people even in “Caesar’s household” (cf. 4:22). Also, he saw other saints encouraged by his own boldness, to preach Christ “without fear.” Just to think of all the good that came from what seemed to be adversity, filled Paul’s heart with joy.
3. In chapter 2, Paul exhorted, “If there be any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” Here Paul’s exhortation is for the unity of the saints in love in the bond of peace which would prove them worthy of his love and joy in them. And, this is the pathway to joy and peace.
4. In chapter 3, Paul again exhorts: “Rejoice in the Lord . . . For we are the circumcision which worship God in the spirit and rejoice in Christ Jesus.” Notice, that in all these exhortations, Paul exhorts to “rejoice in the Lord. ” How does one become a Christian “in the Lord”? Galatians 3:26,27: “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Paul wrote the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (1:3). How joyful we should be that we are children of God in Christ, and that we have all spiritual blessings if we are faithful.
5. Paul explains how he was rejoicing in the Lord.: “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before; I press toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13,14). Brethren, we cannot rejoice while mourning over things past which we cannot undo or indulging ourselves in self-pity because of mistreatment by others. There are some things we must forget in order to reach toward the goal.
6. Finally Paul learned to be content: “For I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content” (4:11). No person can be joyful in discontentment, always looking at everything as being wrong, looking at everything from a negative view to the point we despair and feel like nothing is right with us and the Lord’s church. When Elijah, the bold prophet of God who destroyed the prophets of Baal, fled from the wicked Jezebel who threatened to kill him, and finally stopped running, God asked him: “What doest thou here, Elijah?” The reply: “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and 1, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it way.” Elijah was far from rejoicing. He was despondent! Nothing looked good. But God told him to get up and get busy. God said, “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kgs. 19:10,18).
We need to learn this lesson. When things seem to “go to pieces” and nobody is faithful any more but “I only,” remember God is still on his throne; Jesus is still at his own right hand, ruling in his kingdom and there are thousands of faithful Christians out there!
I believe Paul’s wonderful words found in 1 Corinthians 15:53-57 when he was refuting the heresy afloat at the time that there would be no resurrection of the dead: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If one believes this, he must truly rejoice!
Then consider these words: “For our light affliction which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 4:17; 5:1).
Christians need to remember that we are the children of God. What a wonderful thing to be recognized of Jehovah God as his children and to be able to approach him in prayer as “Our Father.” We are assured that he will hear and answer our prayers if we are faithful (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-3).
To rejoice, we must: Determine to be joyful. Some people never come to terms with life by deciding to control their thinking. We learn what we should think as given by Paul in Philippians 4:8. After one reads that catalog of proper things to think on, is it any wonder that so many “Christians” today are not rejoicing because they have let the things of this world crowd out the things of God? The liberal media, most modern educational systems, and the world in general are filling the minds of professed Christians with evil ideas and philosophy.
We must keep malice out of the heart, and keep love in the heart. We must love the good, and hate the evil (Amos 5:15; Rom. 12:9; Psa. 97:10). We must be loving and forgiving (Eph. 4:31,32). We must love God supremely and each other dearly (Matt. 22:37-39; 1 Pet. 1:7,8,22; cf. 1 Jn. 4:6-21). We must be thankful people; our hearts must be filled with gratitude (Phil. 4:6,7). Ingratitude is inexcusable, showing one’s lack of love for a loving heavenly Father from whom “every good gift and every perfect gift cometh down” (Jas. 1:17). The Father’s greatest gift to mankind was the gift of his only begotten Son to die for the sins of mankind (Jn. 3:16). What love; what matchless grace the loving Father has bestowed upon us!
Finally, we must keep our eye on the goal of spending heaven with God the Father, Christ our Savior and the redeemed of all ages in the Father’s house where Christ went to prepare a place for his own – in a holy city, new Jerusalem where God shall wipe away all tears. There will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain. Why so? Because there will be no sin there (Rev. 21:2-4,8). How could anyone who truly believes in all these things (promises) fail to rejoice?
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 6, pp. 180-181
March 21, 1991