Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
There are few more discouraging experiences than growing depressed while listening to a message on Christian joy. There is very little in the Bible describing the psychology of Christian joy, but there is much in Scripture about the Lord Jesus Christ, as though true rejoicing is achieved in the contemplation of the Lord rather than in an examination of our own feelings. This theme of rejoicing figures very largely in this little letter, sixteen times or so in 104 verses. It weaves its way through this letter like a thread of gold, and every time ‘joy’ and ‘rejoicing’ has appeared I have not ignored it, but this 4th verse is its great climax. It is one of the most well-known verses of the entire letter. Paul has been telling them that their names are actually written in the book of life, so rejoice! It is a straightforward command, and commands are to be obeyed. It is a repeated command, and the setting is quite blunt – “I will say it again” – as the apostle is exhorting the whole congregation to be constantly rejoicing. It is as much a sin not to rejoice as not to repent. Do we believe that? Aren’t the implications clear, that Christians are meant to be continually rejoicing in the Lord? This was clearly not something unique about Paul. He doesn’t write in a rather precious way, saying to them, “Let me share with you this; I personally rejoice in the Lord always.” He tells them that their lives are to be characterised continually by joy.
1. THE CHRISTIAN IS ALWAYS TO REJOICE.
This is a duty that God lays upon us, as much a duty as loving our neighbours and praying without ceasing. Then we protest, “but it’s a feeling, and I can’t control my feelings,” and then we are in deep trouble, because if we allow our feelings to dominate us and become the touchstone of our obedience to God then we can justify living barren sub-Christian lives. If we are saying that we are at the mercy of our unpredictable drives and impulses then we have lost the battle for Christlikeness. What fearful consequences will be ours if we say that our feelings control us, rather than we control our feelings. As John Gwyn-Thomas said:
i] “Firstly, we would have to deny that man is a rational being and deny that our feelings should normally be governed by reason. There are times when we are confronted by a problem and if we obeyed our feelings we’d run away from the problem. There are occasions when we don’t feel like doing our Christian duty or being Christlike. Even the Lord Jesus had a battle in the garden of Gethsemane; he was weighed down when he said, ‘Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.’ Instead of giving in to his feelings, he bowed to his Father’s will.
ii] “Secondly, if we all gave in to our feelings there’d be chaos; we couldn’t live together. There would be no restraint in society. Would we be prepared to accept that a rapist or a murderer should be allowed to say in court, ‘I just felt like doing it’? No one would defend that attitude; everyone would condemn it and say that such people must control their feelings. So it is quite clear that basically our feelings can’t be allowed to govern our lives” (John Gwyn-Thomas, “Rejoice . . . Always!”, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1989, pp. 17&18).
So the Christian is commanded to be continually rejoicing. Paul says this absolutely categorically, with no qualification whatsoever – “Rejoice in the Lord always.” There must be in my life, he says, no time, no external situation, no set of possibilities, and no conceivable circumstances in which I would not rejoice. There is nothing whatsoever in the objective and external world that could possibly take my joy from me. I will rejoice in the Lord, and I can do this so effectively that I am able to do it whatever my circumstances might be. That is the great generalisation, and then we can particularise this as we go through the kind of life Paul had lived.
You remember the incident recorded in Acts 16 which had taken place shortly after he had arrived in Philippi. He and Silas had been unjustly arrested, whipped savagely and cast into prison, even in its very bowels. Their feet were locked into the stocks, and yet despite all the injustice, the horror, the darkness, the pain, the frustration and uncertainty you will remember that at midnight Paul and Silas were rejoicing in the Lord. That illustrates his teaching so perfectly. Their circumstances were so adverse, and yet their emotional condition bore no relation at all to their actual providential situation. It was not the injustice that determined their feelings. It was not their bruised aching backs. It was not the stocks. It was not the uncertainty of the future. None of those things determined the way they felt. Their affections and their frame of mind was altogether independent of their objective situation.
It was the same thing at that very moment when Paul was writing this letter to them. He was in prison in Rome, and had been for some time. Before him was a trial, and then a fearful sentence if he were found guilty; they were all uncertain of the outcome. The time in prison was not easy. There was rigour, and a total lack of privacy; there was inconvenience and discomfort. He was unable to do what he had been called to do and loved to do – go and preach the gospel to the Gentile world. Yet in that situation he rejoices. His imprisonment is not controlling his emotional situation. You go right through the life of the apostle, he tells us that he was often abased, disinherited by his parents at the moment he committed himself to Jesus Christ. He was persecuted by the Jews, and he carried the cares of all the churches. He endured the hostility of many Christians, and the contempt of false prophets and apostles. Still he rejoices in the Lord.
Paul endures all the hardships of his missionary journeys, shipwrecks, imprisonments, whippings, hunger and thirst and nakedness, and yet none of those things succeeded in taking his joy away from him. His rejoicing was utterly independent of his own objective situation. Now surely we can apply all this to ourselves today, because it is laid down here as a great principle that the Christian always rejoices in the Lord. That is normative Christianity. We have no right before God to disobey this commandment. If we are not rejoicing in the Lord today, then we are sinning against God, and we are sinning against our whole Christian position. In other words, the living God has become our heavenly Father. We are on our way to spend eternity in his glorious presence. Our sins – O the bliss of this glorious thought – our sins, not in part, but the whole, have been nailed to the cross and remembered no more. We cannot but rejoice in the Lord who has done this for us. We have come to him as weary and heavy laden men and women and have found rest. This living Saviour has now become our protecting Shepherd, and he is always with us, leading and guiding. He is working all the things that happen to us for our good. That is our Christian position. So it is a sin for a believer to cease rejoicing in the Lord Jesus and everything he is and has done for us.
It is as sinful as disobeying any of the other duties the Lord has given to us. He has said to us, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”; “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;” “Take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye;” “If your right eye offend you, pluck it out.” We might find all or any of those duties to be irksome, but they are to be obeyed as we must obey this command to rejoice in the Lord always. It is utterly wrong for the believer to defy what the Holy Spirit has written.
Then you see what we do? We say, “Yes, but if you knew my situation, and if you knew my circumstances, and if you knew my problems then you would realise why I’m not rejoicing in the Lord, and you would realise why I have every right not to rejoice in him.” But if I understand Paul’s insistence throughout this letter and his specific command here then it is saying to us that there is no situation, and no circumstances, and no combination of circumstances which can ever justify the child of God not rejoicing in the Lord. In fact it present to us the great possibility that the Christian, no matter how appallingly difficult his outward circumstances may be, is bound to rejoice in the Lord, and by God’s grace can be enabled to rejoice in him. We have no right not to rejoice, and we can never plead the circumstances as a justification for our woe.
Can I really ask this question? Can I ask it for myself first of all? Do I really think that no matter what the Holy Spirit of God inspired Paul to write here, and no matter what the Word of God teaches (and I boast that I am a Bible-believing Christian) there is something so different and so unique in my situation that I am exempt from this commandment, and beyond the scope of this marvellous passage? Am I saying to myself, “If Paul knew about the troubles I have seen, and the difficulties I am going through, then Paul would understand and condone?” I am suggesting to you that we are taught in this passage that no matter what our inheritance has been, and no matter what our temperament is, and no matter what our circumstances might be today we have no right to refuse to rejoice in the Lord. No matter what our circumstances are we are not beyond the scope of the great promise that is built into every single command. As Augustine said to God, “Command whatever you wish, and enable me to do whatever you command.”
2. WHAT DOES THE APOSTLE MEAN BY THIS WORD ‘ALWAYS.’
Let me qualify what I have said in certain directions, though there is a great principle here that we may never abandon, that whatever our circumstances may be we are bound to rejoice in the Lord and by the help of God can be enabled to do so. Yet I would clarify what I have said in a number of directions. What are those? Again, I wouldn’t modify the principle at all – “The Christian Is To Rejoice in the Lord Always” – but I want to guard it against some possible misunderstandings. If Paul had written barely, “Rejoice in the Lord,” we would nod our heads sagely. If he had written, “Rejoice in the Lord often,” we would all agree. But the sting in Paul’s words is found in his choice of this word ‘always.’ So let me clarify what the Bible teaches.
i] I believe that there were times in Paul’s when he felt unable to rejoice.
In other words, I am saying this, that I do not think that the apostle Paul personally had always been rejoicing ever since the Damascus road. I do not think that he was able to obey his own commandment completely. I think he stood under this duty, and he ought to have been always rejoicing in the Lord, and I think by the powerful grace of God could have been joyful, but we see the apostle as a Christian in a state of grace, not a state of glory. The good that he should have done he failed to do, and the evil that he should not have done, he did. So he fell into despondency at times just like all of us. He tells the church at Corinth that there had been a period when he was pressed down beyond measure, he despaired even of life, and in his heart he felt the sentence of death. There were times when he was perplexed and struck down. He knew his outward man was perishing
There was a particular occasion when God prescribed for him a thorn in the flesh and Paul didn’t respond, “I rejoice in it. Praise God!” He didn’t call his friends around for a party to celebrate this thorn. It hurt, as they say, “it hurt real bad.” He found it almost impossible to live with, and the future with this thorn seemed bleak, and so he turned to the Lord and held three sessions of prayer focusing on God removing the thorn that God had given to Paul. That was his response, not a rejoicing. God could understand that.
I am saying to you two things: firstly that rejoicing always in all circumstances is the great possibility facing us as Christians. That is God’s will for us, and by God’s grace we can attain that, but I don’t want those of you who don’t feel this way to go away and say to yourselves, “We can’t be Christians, because we’re not rejoicing today.” There were days, I am saying, when the apostle Paul, judged by his own commandments, failed. The testing providence of God seemed to have brought into his life a huge burden, too much for him to bear. That seems to me to be immensely important, that both as a creature and as a sinner he found crosses and losses utterly enervating.
Let us go a step higher: isn’t it sublime that the sinless Lord Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, seeing more clearly than ever before God’s will for the next day in the looming anguish of Golgotha, didn’t immediately respond, “I’ll rejoice in it.” He inquired rather, “Can this cup be taken from me, Father?” It reminds us of God’s tolerance of this frame of mind, when we feel with the man Christ Jesus our creaturely frailty, and are pressed down beyond measure, and we wonder whether we are going to survive. Of course, unlike him, with us our frailty is compounded by our sin.
I am saying to you that that the great commandment which the apostle sought to obey was to rejoice in the Lord always, but that he was not always able to keep that commandment blamelessly (any more than you or I can) either as a creature or as a believer in a state of grace. There were days when, because of sin and the weight of the providence, he was in the depths, sad and despondent, and that is something that you and I know ourselves. Even Christ, who was without sin, could as a creature called to a high and holy work, feel the weight of an almost unmanageable providence, and he could long as a man that the Creator might modify his destiny of pain.
ii] I want to refer to a second qualification to this principle that the Christian should always rejoice in the Lord, and it is this: our moral and spiritual condition may properly prevent us from rejoicing. When Nathan the prophet came to King David and said, “You are the man,” convicting him of his terrible sins David didn’t say, “Well, praise the Lord anyway.” He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Alongside the psalms of rejoicing there are penitential psalms, one of which was drawn out of the anguish of David’s guilt and shame.
There were often days when Paul looked at his life and said, “I can’t defend what I’ve done. I know it. That which I’ve done I hate. I feel like this – ‘O wretched man that I am.'” Paul could never rejoice in his own spiritual attainments, in the perfection of his obedience to God, in the fruit he had borne for Christ, in the consistency he had shown, in the depth of his prayer life, in his growth in Christlikeness, in his knowledge of the word, in his love for his neighbour, and so on. He could not rejoice in his marvellous attainments in any of those areas. He has already made a categorical statement – “not that I have already . . . been made perfect . . .” (Phils. 3:12). He knew how far he fell short. He was most conscious of wrong within his own soul. His rejoicing was in Christ, in his accomplished redemption and present reign. It was not a rejoicing in all the things that he did or failed to do each day, because there were many things about which Paul couldn’t rejoice, and I would suggest again that as Christians we will follow that, and must follow that. We cannot be happy with our spiritual condition and our progress in holiness.
iii] I want to refer to a third qualification to this principle that the Christian should always rejoice in the Lord and it is this. The Christian does not rejoice in all he sees in the body of Christ around him. It is one thing to rejoice in everything about the Lord, it is another thing to rejoice in everything about his people. Paul loved these brethren; they were his joy and crown and his dear friends, and he tolerated those who were preaching Christ out of envy and strife, but he couldn’t rejoice in Euodia and Syntyche’s estrangement from one another. He couldn’t rejoice that everyone looked on his own interests and not those of Christ. He couldn’t rejoice in those dogs infiltrating the church, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. When Paul looked at the Galatian church he couldn’t rejoice unequivocally. When he looked at the Corinthians congregation there was much in that church over which he could not rejoice. Paul didn’t say, “Well, I must rejoice in everything that I see in the professing church. I’ll just turn a blind eye to all their aberrations, and heresies, and inconsistencies and the way they grieve the Spirit.”
This is something tremendously painful., and we live on a knife-edge in our relationship to any congregation, especially to the one we know the best. On the one hand we rejoice in the presence of the Lord with us, the Word of God coming to us week by week, the presence of so many who love God and are seeking first his kingdom and righteousness. We rejoice in all that is done so faithfully and prayerfully in his name week after week. At the same time there is the need to do all in our power to reform and revive the church of the living God. There was much in the New Testament churches in which Paul couldn’t rejoice.
I think there is a danger of Christians wresting this principle of our rejoicing in the Lord so that it can become a principle of inertia: “Let’s turn a blind eye to the problems in the congregation and sing for forty-five minutes.” The professing church is full of ministers, and church leaders who are determined to make every service one of uniform praise no matter the pain and disharmony in a church, saying, “Why get excited? Why get disturbed? Why can’t we simply rejoice in our salvation?” I don’t think we have any right to wrest the principle of perpetual joy in that way. Paul could rejoice in his imprisonment. When God told him that his grace was sufficient for him then Paul could glory in his infirmities, in the thorn, in hunger, in pain and loss. But Paul didn’t rejoice in heresy, and error, and inconsistency, and injustice in the church of the living God. And I would suggest to you that no matter how perfect a church may be – one particular congregation – that we ourselves have no right to turn a blind eye on anything un-Christlike in it. I would suggest to you that when a day comes and we are simply rejoicing in the professing church as it is then all our discernment has vanished, and we are no longer walking in the truth. It is time for re-acquaintance with the Word of God, and the Spirit of God. The day we can rejoice without any reservation in our own selves, in our own spiritual condition, then we are done for. The day we think our congregation could not be improved upon we are useless, cumberers of the ground, and it is time to move on.
Let me say it like this, that if rejoicing makes us self-satisfied and dulls our desire for reformation and revival, then we are living on enchanted ground. The Christian has to rejoice in the Lord, and yet that rejoicing must never take from us the dynamism that wants change. The Christian must never lose the determination to change. He is a person who is going to change the world, and if he loses that it is an enormous loss. I must stand before the deficiencies of my own personality, and the weaknesses and inconsistencies of Christ’s church, and the injustices in today’s society and I will not and cannot rejoice in them. I must retain the determination by the grace of God to conform them more perfectly to God’s will.
Here is this great rule: Paul is urging us always to rejoice in the Lord, in days of disappointment, and heartache, and bereavement, and pain, and family problems, and failure and loss. I can list our fallen condition like that, glibly and uninvolvedly, and yet each of those conditions is so tremendously painful. Yet, no matter what happens to the Christian, no matter its frequency and duration and agony, we by the grace of God, can rejoice in the Lord in them all.
3. HOW CAN WE REJOICE IN THE LORD ALWAYS?
Let me again begin by clearing away so much of the debris that surrounds this theme.
i] It has nothing to do with our temperaments. If you discuss the problem of melancholy with a Christian then he will say to you he cannot help it, that it’s his temperament. You discuss with a Christian the problem of being discontented and she will say the same thing that it’s her temperament. You talk about worry and the same excuse will come up, that it’s their temperament. They admire, they say, the cheerful happy temperament that they see in others, but their own temperament is different and they find it well-nigh impossible to rejoice in the Lord. In our text Paul does not address those alone who have happy temperaments and tell them to rejoice while excusing all the rest who are not so blessed. Paul doesn’t say to the Philippians, “Remember how I was when with Silas I could rejoice in the prison in Philippi all those years ago at midnight? Well, I am just the same today, so don’t worry about me with my blessed temperament.”
Paul was enabled to rejoice in the Lord not because of his temperament. When we meet Saul of Tarsus first of all what sort of temperament did he have? He was a forceful, driving, impulsive, cruel, mean-spirited man. That was his temperament then. But that was not the way he was when he wrote this letter, because it was not his temperament that determined his joy. We have to realise for ourselves the importance of that, that we cannot justify our impatience, critical spirit, melancholy, bad temper and so on, by saying simply that, “this is my temperament.” Your temperament is you. Your temperament has been fashioned by the fall of our father Adam and by our own different sinful patterns of behaviour. It is a sin to have a particular temperament. It is a sin to have a selfish, lustful, proud, self-centred, superior temperament. Do I simply accept my temperament and acquiesce in it? No, I have to control it, and alter it. Here again there is this insistence in the Bible on the utter necessity of change. The Word of God, as it is preached to me week by week, teaches, reproves, rebukes and instructs me in righteousness. I must sit under a ministry that will change me not one that confirms all my prejudices. I must hear the word, and then do it, or I will be like a man who looks in a mirror and sees mud on his face and promptly does nothing to clean it up.
No one here must accept his temperament. You may be very lazy by temperament. You may be hypercritical by temperament. You may be utterly conservative by temperament. You do not accept your temperament. It is fundamental to the Christian life that you do not sit back and say, “This is how God made me.” No! Sin has made you like that, not God. Each one is tempted when by his own evil desire he is dragged away and enticed (James 1:14). It is fundamental to the Christian life that we do not accept our temperaments. Every one of us has personality problems. No Christian is without a certain awkwardness of temperament and none of us has a right simply to accept them We are to get to grips with them, and modify them, and alter those temperaments of ours. There is a second confusion:
ii] The joy of conversion cannot sustain a whole life of rejoicing. Think of the transforming grace that changed a man like the Ethiopian eunuch. He trusted in Christ, was baptized and we are told that he went on his way to Ethiopia rejoicing. The men and women healed by our Lord rejoiced and even leapt for joy because of the radical change in their lives. Once they were blind but now they could see. They carried a burden of guilt, but now they have known forgiveness for all their sins. There was a joy they possessed that they had never known before. But my point is this, that joy needs to be educated and nurtured and nourished. Yesterday’s joy is a day late for today.
Some plead their temperament, while these others are now challenging you as to the genuiness of your conversion to Christ, but I cannot say from this pulpit that no one here is a Christian if he is not rejoicing at this moment. I cannot say that this joy is given in the new birth and that it creates a self-perpetuating energy which endures until our death. We know that is untrue. We sympathise with William Cowper when he cries,
“Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where are the soul refreshing views
Of Jesus and his word?”
He is not confessing that he has lost his salvation, but he has lost the blessings of salvation, and that is very different. I cannot say that once you have been converted it’s going to be rejoicing all the way, and all the problems of dealing with a thorn in the flesh and a cup we are given to drink will vanish. I am sure that the apostle Paul for years after the Damascus Road could not rejoice always. He wasn’t living at that level, one moment a morose figure of hate, breathing out threatenings and slaughter against Christ, and the next a figure of total happiness. It wasn’t all given to him in h is sight of Christ, and the darkness, and the laying on of Ananias’ hands. I do not think it commonly happens that a Christian’s infirmities of temperament are overcome in one single experience. For me that is a delusion, to think, “If only I had been dramatically converted and I knew the day and the spot when the scales fell off my eyes then I would find constant rejoicing easy.” This rejoicing that Paul speaks of here you pick up in the long discipline of a living growing relationship with Christ, walking with him, and trusting in him, and learning from all the ways he deals with you.
iii] There are others who say this rejoicing all has to do with a second blessing, a sealing or filling of the Holy Spirit. I would not speak disrespectfully of that concept. There is a very pertinent word at the very end of Acts 13 which has been describing the rough treatment Paul and Barnabas endured in Pisidian Antioch. Rejected by that people they had then brushed the dust off their feet and gone on to a place called Iconium, and then the Scripture says this, “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). Now let me ask you this: is Luke simply telling us that these disciples were regenerate? Is he describing their status before God or is he doing more? Isn’t he saying that God came near to them in their distress and blessed them, filling them with his Spirit and with joy? Surely it must mean that. There cannot be any other interpretation. Isn’t the coming of the Spirit often linked to new joy? Don’t we have the case of Samaria where Philip preaches, and the crowds are gripped by what he says and does, and “there was great joy in the city” (Acts 8:8). Surely when the Spirit of God comes in an awakening one of the results of many believing upon Christ is the spirit of rejoicing in the church? Think of the joy of the people in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London as they heard Spurgeon preaching with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. Don’t we all consider the possibility that the Spirit is coming upon the Word somewhere in Wales today and mighty things are being wrought, many being converted and Christians being filled with great joy? Don’t we pray week by week, “Lord please come and meet me afresh. We need you. We will not let you go except you bless us.” This is something which comes directly from God through the Holy Spirit, something supernatural which God himself gives us. So there may be persecution and enormous physical pain, as there was in Pisidian Antioch, but then men are lifted above their circumstances and filled with a sense of being in Christ, under his loving care, knowing his joy and peace. I am saying that these disciples in Iconium were filled to overflowing with a consciousness of his love.
There can be no doubt of that reality, but I do not think that Paul is talking principally about these special experiences of joy in the Holy Ghost here in Philippians 4. He is saying that the whole life of the Christian is a life of rejoicing in the Lord. We must have both the special anointings of the Spirit and the daily life of rejoicing in the Lord.
Let me stress this again, for I cannot emphasise it enough, the importance of seeing rejoicing as a duty to be done. When did you learn that it was a commandment? I would ask you this, whether you have ever realised that your refusal to rejoice always is a sin. I think Christians can lapse into a surly, restless, unhappy frame of mind because they don’t realise at all that such an attitude is sinful. Maybe the prime lesson we learn from today’s message is that God actually requires us to rejoice in the Lord always. Perhaps this understanding first came to Paul in a meeting like ours when one of the other teachers was exhorting the congregation. Maybe he said that he wanted to read to them some words from Proverbs 8:30, “I was filled with delight day by day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” After he had read it he turned to the congregation and he said, “What a striking picture of this truly wise man, that he is filled with delight day by day, and rejoices always in God’s presence. Are we like that? Don’t we have so much to rejoice in my brethren?” And so he spoke for a while, and Paul was sitting, and listening, and not saying, “Yes, but . . .” Rather Paul like ourselves was learning that God commanded him to rejoice in the Lord always.
More than that, Paul learned by the all sufficiency of God’s grace he himself could rejoice always in the Lord, whatever his state, however he felt, whatever his health was like, whatever his financial condition, however he himself was treated. This rejoicing was not some ideal to be admired – but yet utterly unattainable. I cannot believe that the God who made the world and everyone of us, and knows us far better than we know ourselves, this God, who has made his people partakers of the divine nature, could possibly have given us hopelessly impractical rules. He who commands us to act like this will also be our enabling to do it.
iv] It is in union with the Lord that we rejoice. It is not an experience that can be worked up by people called ‘good communicators’, or by music, or by a religious figure putting his hand on your head, or by any psychological techniques. You don’t get it in tongue-speaking. This is not what our text is talking about. This joy stems entirely from the fact that at salvation each Christian is joined to Christ. As Paul says, if any man is in Christ he is a new creation. The church is a branch in Christ who is the true vine. So daily we receive from his fulness of life, and power, and all graces. The joy of the Lord becomes our strength. As John Gwyn-Thomas says, “If we look for happiness we will never find it; if we keep searching for joy we will never attain it; but when our relationship with the Lord Jesus is right the result will be joy in him” (John Gwyn-Thomas, op cit, p.20). So the Lord Jesus is the source of our joy.
Christ is also the object of our joy. A lively loving only child goes off to college and a technicolour home becomes monochrome for a time. Remember the church at Laodicea? Where was Christ? He was outside, standing at the door and knocking. In his absence from the church joy was also absent. I spoke to one of our members this week who couldn’t worship with us last Sunday. He went to a church where the minister preached about the possible war with Iraq and never mentioned Jesus once. There was no rejoicing in that church last Sunday. Christ was left outside. But when we all bring him with us, and hear again of what he has done for us, how he really loves us with an indescribable depth of love dealing with all our shame and blame – that is how much he loves us – then new joy rises in our hearts. It comes from him.
Consider the prophet Habakkuk. He couldn’t rejoice in the state of Judah; the leaders were oppressing the poor. Why did God allow the wicked to prosper? When was the Lord going to do something about it? God told him that the Babylonians were coming to punish Judah. Habakkuk couldn’t rejoice in that. The Babylonians were more wicked than the leaders of Judah. God assured him that whatever the Lord did was right, and that in due time the Babylonians, like the wicked in Judah, would be judged and justice would come to the people of God. When Habakkuk looked around he saw a people under the judgment of God for their sins and there was nothing that gave him cause to rejoice, but when he looked to the ever blessed, wise and glorious God his Saviour he could always rejoice in him. So this is what he prayed: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stall, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be thankful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (Hab. 3:17-19). There was so much around him that could drive him to despair, but he turned his eyes upon the Lord and rejoiced.
We can always rejoice that Jesus Christ lives and is saving us to the uttermost. He never forgets us for a moment because our names are indelibly written upon his heart. He has prepared a place for us, and soon we will be with him in paradise where our unanswered questions will be explained to our eternal comfort. Until then he will supply all our needs by his abounding grace. He will accomplish his will for us and in us. We shall persevere through him until the end. At times “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cors. 6:10). Our rejoicing is in his immeasurable grace and love to us in Jesus Christ.
In other words, it is in the eternal and everlasting truths of the gospel focused upon our Saviour himself that we rejoice in the Lord. We need those truths constantly to come to us afresh, that our eyes be opened again to see what a great reality is being “in the Lord”. Let us begin now to rejoice. In the mercy of God may this servant of God, the apostle Paul, be to us a spark that will kindle a flame of joy on the mean altars of our hearts. Let us take this verse seriously and live daily as those who have a mighty Saviour in Jesus Christ, who is the cause of unspeakable rejoicing for all of us.
16th March 2003 GEOFF THOMAS