By James Metsger
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. (Philippians 3:1)
Rejoice in the Lord. I must admit that sounds very Christian, doesn’t it? It is in the Bible, so I supposed it should sound Christian. But sometimes I read very Christian ideas and hear very Christian words, and I don’t always know if I have a very clear definition of what it is I’m actually saying or believing.
For a number of years now my children have mistaken me for dictionary.com. At first, I was very flattered. I would puff out my chest a little and think, “That’s right. They’re asking me how to define… words.” It made me feel smart because, obviously, my kids thought I knew practically everything. They’re older so now I’m a little concerned that I’m going to get caught just making stuff up.
Our words and definitions matter, so I want us to think together about what it means to rejoice in the Lord. Sometimes in defining what something is, it helps to define what it isn’t. So, let’s give it a go.
Rejoicing in the Lord does not mean we simply feel happy all the time.
Our emotions are largely dependent upon our circumstances; when things go our way, we’re happy. But in the Bible, people rejoice in all kinds of difficult situations; therefore, biblical rejoicing must be more than simply being happy. Just as the Bible gives many specific examples of men and women rejoicing while being persecuted or imprisoned, we’re called to rejoice in the Lord in the midst of hardship and suffering.
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
In the world you will have tribulation.
But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:3)
Paul writes to the Philippians while in prison. That’s a bummer. He had been unfairly accused, arrested without cause or evidence, and severely beaten. Yet he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord…” Our rejoicing in the Lord can’t always be connected to our circumstances.
Rejoicing in the Lord also does not mean we are oblivious or naive to reality. Christian rejoicing doesn’t mean that we make light of our hardships and difficulty. Some events in life just plain stink. And it’s ok to admit your unhappiness over difficult or painful situations.
There are times in Scripture where we clearly see God’s people broken over the brokenness around them. For example, when Mary and Martha faced their brother Lazarus’ death, they mourned deeply. There was no stoic acceptance or denial of their pain. They didn’t slap a smile on their faces to appear “strong” to those around them. They grieved. But they also had hope. He didn’t arrive for three days, but Jesus came to the sisters bearing both his own grief and, most importantly, hope. It is hope that makes the hardship bearable, even though we still feel the pain.
If rejoicing in the Lord does not require simple happiness in our circumstances or intentional blindness to brokenness, what does it mean?
We can find clues to its meaning by looking to other places in the letter to see how it’s used. We use Scripture to interpret Scripture. We see this idea of joy or rejoicing sixteen times in the book of Philippians. It’s one of Paul’s repeated themes, and throughout the book, it’s used in various ways. We find Paul rejoicing in the ministry of gospel partnership and the preaching of Christ; in the unity of God’s people and the growth of fellow believers; in serving and suffering. With joy, he served God in prison and looked forward to seeing Christ face to face even though that meant his earthly death. He had joy because he recognized God as the source of his joy.
From Paul, we see that rejoicing in the Lord is finding joy in the person of God and rejoicing in the work of God. We find joy in God himself and the wonderful privilege of knowing him. You don’t rejoice in someone you don’t know. Paul is calling the church to rejoice in the God who has made himself known in the person and work of Jesus. Our joy is based on the spiritual and physical reality of Jesus. “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
The God of the universe has revealed himself to us and though our understanding is limited, he can be known. At my grandfather’s funeral, my uncle said, “Don lived his life growing to know God, and he will spend all of eternity growing to know him more.” This is true of God’s people. We know God now, and we will spend all of eternity growing to know him more. Rejoice in the Lord.
We can also rejoice in the works of God. Read Ephesians 1-3 and be blown away by all the spiritual blessings we have in Christ. This is the work of God in the lives of his saints.
Last week as I bided my time in my doctor’s waiting room, I looked up at the wall in front of me and noticed a poster of the muscular system. I saw muscles I didn’t even know I had. Admittedly, I’m still not convinced I have them! But I was blown away by the intricacy of God’s handiwork in designing our bodies. I kept thinking, “Wow! Look at what God has done!”
I can’t see God’s created world without seeing God’s handiwork. And in our seeing the created world, we can know something of the God who made it. When we grow in our knowledge of God and see the work of God we rejoice. Paul can’t help but break out in doxology after recounting the works of God: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21). So, finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!
Read Ephesians 1-3. What is God showing you about himself?
How has God worked in your life? How is He working now?