REJOICING IN THE LORD by R T Kendal
All the passages below are taken from the book, “Pure Joy” by R T Kendall. It was published in 2006.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!… Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
-PHILIPPIANS 3:1; 4:4
THE BOOK OF Philippians has been called “an epistle of joy.” This is mainly because of the repeated use of the Greek word chara “—joy”—-used five times in the epistle, and chairo— “rejoice”—eleven times. There are two ironies in this connection between rejoicing and this letter to the Philippians: (1) there was little evidence for any rejoicing among the believers at Philippi at that time; and (2) Paul himself had no external cause for rejoicing in those days. He was in prison as he wrote and was being persecuted by fellow Christian ministers!
The reason someone is given a command is usually because the person receiving the command needs it and would be unlikely to do what is commanded without that command. Paul puts the exhortation to rejoice in the imperative mood. The Philippians must have needed it or he would have felt no need to exhort them to do it. His first exhortation was in Philippians 3:1, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!” It was repeated in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Paul inserts this second injunction in the context of a church quarrel that was going on in Philippi at the time:
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
It is then that he adds, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Why would he ever say this to them? Had he said, “Lament” or “Be sorry and repentant,” it would have made sense, because then he might have scolded them for allowing this quarrel to take place; we know how important unity was to Paul and its place in this epistle. Of course, one could make the case that Philippi is as much about unity as joy. Early on Paul expresses hope that they will “stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). He then said to them, “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:2). This became the context for the great Christological passage in Philippians 2:5-12.
Therefore when Paul addresses the division in the church at Philippi between the followers of Euodia and those of Syntyche—undoubtedly two powerful women, each of whom had their following and were accusing one another—we might expect a severe reprimand. But no. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” Extraordinary!
But why? That is what this present chapter is about. I want to demonstrate the benefit of rejoicing, even when you certainly don’t feel like rejoicing.
Let us look at Paul’s plight. He had every reason at the time not to rejoice, humanly speaking. All the things that gave him the impetus to rejoice are the very things that would cast me down and keep me there! Consider that he was in prison as he wrote and that he was not being encouraged by fellow ministers at the time.
Rejoicing while he was in prison was something Paul perhaps learned, along with his friend Silas, when he was right there in Philippi a few years before. Paul and Silas were put in prison for preaching the gospel. However, instead of giving in to self-pity and raising the question, “How could God let this happen to me?,” they prayed and sang hymns to God (Acts 16:25). Paul could not have known at that moment that he would one day be writing a letter to the believers at Philippi from another prison, this time in Rome.
While he was in prison in Rome, then, he wrote to the Philippians. His opposition as he wrote this remarkable letter was not only from the world but also from those in the church there who added to Paul’s uneasy situation. He tells us himself what was going on:
It has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ… some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry… out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.
And what do you suppose was Paul’s reaction to these people? It is quite amazing:
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.
There are basically two kinds of rejoicing. The first is spontaneous rejoicing that comes quite involuntarily and from the overflow of good things happening around you when you feel and are, quite simply, happy. The second is rejoicing that comes from effort because it is not what you feel like doing. It is what you do because you know it is right. That is what Paul was doing here, and that is the kind of rejoicing we are focusing on in this chapter.
The ancient prophet Habakkuk chose to do this also, and it is one of the major triumphs of faith in the Old Testament. Hebrews 11, the great “faith chapter” of the Bible, describes many stalwarts of faith who lived in Old Testament times. But obviously a lot of good examples were left out, and the proof of that is this man Habakkuk. The writer of Hebrews did in fact quote from Habakkuk (Heb. 10:38; cf. Hab. 2:4): “My righteous one will live by faith,” but in Hebrew reads, “The righteous shall live by His faithfulness.” In other words, Habakkuk’s faith was based on the fact that he lived by God’s faithfulness; he believed that God was faithful. Habakkuk began his little book by dealing with the most difficult question there is: why does God allow evil, and why do the righteous suffer?
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?
God’s answer to Habakkuk’s question was “wait”:
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.
This passage was the context for the writer of Hebrews in trying to encourage discouraged Jewish Christians. He urged them not to give up. Why? Because God—who is never too late, never too early, but always just on time—will step into their situation:
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith.”
It was a robust faith in the faithfulness of God to step in that kept Habakkuk himself going, and it is what the writer of Hebrews hopes will keep these Jewish Christians going. It is what should keep us all going—God is faithful.
But what do you suppose happened to Habakkuk himself? Did he get his question answered? Did he get the breakthrough he wanted? No. He got a different kind of breakthrough: “I will rejoice in the Lord.” Amazing! He didn’t get what he wanted, but he is still rejoicing:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
-HABAKKUK 3:17, EMPHASIS ADDED
What Habakkuk was saying was this: If things don’t get better, I will rejoice anyway. If I don’t get my theological/philosophical questions answered (Why does God allow evil and suffering to flourish?), I will still rejoice. If my prayers are not answered, I will rejoice. If I am not healed, I will rejoice. If I do not prosper as I wish to, I will rejoice. If I am bypassed for that honor or invitation I hoped for, I will rejoice. If the revival for which I prayed earnestly is delayed, I will rejoice. If success comes to others, but not to me, I will rejoice. If I remain unvindicated, I will rejoice.
If Habakkuk could do this, so can I. If Paul could, I can.
CHOOSE TO REJOICE
Rejoicing is, more often than not, a choice. We all love spontaneous rejoicing. Such comes from answered prayer, the answers to our questions, the manifestation of the miraculous, the success and prosperity we wanted. It takes little faith to rejoice when it is precipitated by happy, external circumstances. But the command to rejoice comes because we don’t always feel like rejoicing, and yet Paul said to do it all the time. Not rejoicing because of all that has happened but rather “in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). The choice we make to rejoice comes because we simply don’t feel like rejoicing. We have to just do it.
There were apparently two kinds of rejoicing in the Old Testament era: (1) because the Law required it, and (2) out of gratitude. The first time the word rejoice appears in the Bible is in Leviticus 23:40: “On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” This was a requirement—what they had to do under the Law whether they felt like it or not, and this kind of injunction appeared frequently under the Law (Deut. 12:7, 12, 18).
But the choice to rejoice in the Old Testament era also came out of sheer gratitude and not from a legalistic motive. “I will be glad and rejoice in you” (Ps. 9:2). In a psalm that indicates the hiding of God’s face came also the words: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Ps. 13:5). “I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil” (Ps. 119:162). “Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice” (1 Chron. 16:10). These are not words that come from the overflow of happy circumstances; neither do they indicate that they are motivated by fear of punishment (which is the way the Law produced obedience), but out of a godly sense of thanks to God. This shows how you and I can live if we put our minds to it.
Some of us have ridiculed the popular idea of “the power of positive thinking,” mainly because it lacked solid dogma. But there is something worthwhile in this saying from which people like me could learn. Negative thinking not only requires little or no grace, but it also plays abundantly into the devil’s scheme for us. Rejoicing, thinking positively, usually requires great effort and is often a sign of great grace in our lives. It is exactly what we are told to do!
Jesus told us to rejoice in adverse conditions. The climax of the Beatitudes is a command to rejoice under the worst of circumstances. The best translation of makarios (usually translated “blessed”) is really “congratulations.” Jesus thus says “congratulations” when people insult us or persecute us. “Rejoice and be glad” (Matt. 5:12).
Jesus also commanded us to rejoice because our names are written in heaven. He implicitly rebuked His disciples because they were so excited over demons being subject to them. There are Christians, I fear, who put a higher priority over the miraculous, the signs, wonders, and gifts of the Spirit, and forget the main objective: our names being written in heaven (Luke 10:20). Believe me, that is something to rejoice about! We should rejoice every day of the year that one day we are going to be in heaven. Life at its longest is still short, especially when compared to eternity, which has no end. Thank God I am not going to hell but to heaven. Whatever is going wrong at this moment, the one thing that nobody can take from us, unless we allow it, is our citizenship in heaven(Phil. 3:20). I will never forget as long as I live the opening words of a prayer offered by Dr. W. M. Tidwell when he visited Trevecca Nazarene College years ago: “Lord, we thank You that we are not in hell.” Not many believe in hell today, but one day they will.
LEARN TO JUST SAY THANKS
How do you rejoice when you don’t feel like it? The answer is you find things for which you certainly should be thankful and then discipline yourself to voice that gratitude. In my book titled Just Say Thanks; I tell how I go through my journal every morning, item by item of the previous day, and thank the Lord in detail for everything.1 I have been doing it for over fifteen years. My wife, Louise, and I frequently do this together.
Once when returning to Key Largo, Florida (where we now live), from the airport, Louise said, “Let’s thank the Lord for twenty-five things that took place over the weekend.” We had returned from a wonderful weekend in Connecticut. We began taking turns, and naming particular things, such as: seeing the color of the leaves at the height of the autumn in New England; standing on the spot where Jonathan Edwards preached his historic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’; the good meeting at Groton; the lovely pastor and his wife, Jim and Louise Schnider; the sweet time with John Paul Jackson and his wife, Diane, in New Hampshire. We enjoyed noting the English names of cities and towns wherever we went (did you know there is an Acton in Massachusetts?), the way our ministry was received, and many other little things in between. When we finished, Louise said we had mentioned fifty-three things. I think God liked that. It is the sort of thing you can make yourself do whether you feel like it or not. There is always something for which you can thank God. In other words, even if you don’t feel like it, do it anyway.
There is a place for doing nothing but
praising the Lord without any reference
to a present need or myself.
On Christmas Eve 2002 our local newspaper, the Miami Herald, had an article on the front page with the headline: “Grateful attitude can make all the difference.” The article was based on a study carried out at the University of Miami. A scientific study based on two thousand people over three years found that “the most grateful people tend to be the happiest.” Dr. Michael McCullough, professor of psychology, said that “with gratitude, there is virtually no downside” and that there is a “major upside: most grateful people have low rates of depression and negative moods—but high self-esteem.” Dr. McCullough said that people can learn to be grateful. One study he worked on asked respondents to make daily notes on four or five things for which they were thankful, even if it was just a sunny day. The results: “In just two to three weeks they reported being happier” and that “people close to them could see the difference, too.” Another psychologist, Dr. Andrew Wenger, also involved in the project, which was called the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness, concluded that “grateful people are more likely to be resilient, and they seem to have an easier time overcoming obstacles.”2 I can only conclude that if a project like this, carried out on a secular basis, reached such conclusions, how much more should we who are believers be determined to voice gratitude every day to our heavenly Father!
There is nothing better for overcoming depression or turning a negative mood away than thanking God for things and, simply, praising the Lord. If I may refer to my book just Say Thanks! one more time, I mention in it how I became convicted over the lack of emphasis on worship during my era at Westminster Chapel. Happily this not only changed at the chapel but also in my own private devotional life. Louise and I try to sing together for fifteen minutes every morning, and I sing for ten minutes nearly each evening before retiring to bed. Sometimes the hymns or choruses that we sing have a way of speaking to us as to where we are in our pilgrimage and perspective, and that is, of course, quite wonderful. But there are other times I have wanted to choose hymns that do nothing other than proclaim the goodness of the Lord without any reference, if possible, to my present situation. Hymns like “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath,” “And Can It Be That I Should Gain an Interest in My Savior’s Blood?,” or “0 Worship the King.” Why? Because there is a place for doing nothing but praising the Lord without any reference to a present need or myself. The funny thing is, believe it or not, doing this often has the effect of blessing you more than ever! In other words, you don’t do it because you feel like it; you do it because it is the right thing to do it. But the good feeling often follows the sheer discipline of showing thankfulness and praise to God.
Peter said that we “greatly rejoice” because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the hope of an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade, even though we may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1 Pet. 1:4-6). Not only that; if we are in a painful trial, we should “rejoice” that we are participating “in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 4:13). There can be no grander or greater privilege than this. But Peter learned this the hard way. Had Peter boldly stood up for the Lord while Jesus was taken into custody—what could have been Peter’s finest hour—Peter blew it instead. He was immediately found out, as Jesus predicted, by the crowing of a rooster. Peter sobbed his heart out in bitter shame (Luke 22:54-62). He could never get that moment back. That moment would stay with him as long as he lived.
However, Peter was given a second chance. Our God is the God of the “second look,” as the hymn writer John Newton put it.3 A few weeks later Peter stood in what may well have been the very spot where he denied the Lord Jesus. This time he himself was on trial for preaching that Jesus had been raised from the dead. After being flogged, the authorities severely warned him not to teach in Jesus’ name. Instead of feeling humiliated (which was intended to be part of his punishment), the opposite was the case! Lo and behold, he and John left “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41, emphasis added). God gave Peter a second chance, and he grabbed it with both hands. Suffering shame is not what most of us want to experience, but it became the most wonderful moment of Peter’s life after having let the Lord down a few weeks before. This is why he said later:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
-1 PETER 4:12-14
Do you feel that you let God down sometimes? Haven’t we all? God will come again, one way or another, to let us have another chance, and (perhaps) save face! Rejoice in His faithfulness. Rejoice in the way He covers for us and does not expose the skeletons in our closets. God is so kind and gracious.
When Paul told the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord in the context of a church quarrel, he didn’t mean for them to be happy about the situation between Syntyche and Euodia. In the same way, Paul is not asking us to be excited about the bad things that may have happened in our lives or in the world around us. But he is trying to get our minds on something useful and positive because, one day, we will be glad we did. Whatever we are going through, this too will work together for good (Rom. 8:28).
The rejoicing that Peter experienced after being rebuked and flogged by the ruling council in Jerusalem showed how much he had changed. He was cowardly after Jesus was arrested, but now he was as bold as a lion. God wants to do this for all of us. He lets us have a second chance after we have blown it. This alone is cause for rejoicing.
There is a word that is closely related to rejoice, and that is delight (Greek eudokeo). Paul used it in 2 Corinthians 12:10: “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” He said this because of the “thorn in the flesh” that God had allowed in him to keep him “from being conceited.” (I discuss this subject in detail in my book titled The Thorn in the Flesh 4) Paul had prayed for God to take it away but was told instead by the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). This is when Paul used eudokeo: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses. … For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Eudokeo means “to take pleasure in” but strongly implies volition. In other words, Paul made a choice to delight in what was painful because it gave the Lord a greater opportunity to display His power in Paul without Paul getting the glory.
I myself was comforted by this insight when I found it in one of my books on Greek. I refer to a Greek word if I think it will be helpful for the reader or listener. In this case, it certainly helped me! I used to feel guilty that I did not naturally delight in weaknesses, insults, and the like. I used to pray that God would make me spiritual enough to delight when adverse things happened, but when I learned that it is a word that implies volition, I was set free to realize that Paul did not naturally rejoice, but rather he chose to delight in these things. I can live with that! I can choose to rejoice, but I cannot help it if I do not feel like it at first. As for a thorn in the flesh, which all of us have to some extent, it is very, very painful. It is an acute form of chastening. Paul chose to delight in it because of its benefit to himself and the kingdom of God.
But there is one further important clarification: we are told to rejoice in the Lord. We do not rejoice in things or ourselves. We rejoice in the Lord Jesus. This we can always do because there is no fault in Him, no disappointment. We rejoice in His person—that He is totally God and totally man. He was and is God as though He were not man, and man as though He were not God. There is a Man in glory as you read these lines. He is there in heaven at God’s right hand, doing two things: (1) reigning over all creation (1 Cor. 15:25), and (2) interceding for those who come to God through Him (Heb. 7:25). No matter what our circumstances, we can always—with integrity—rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ. We rejoice that we have been forgiven (Eph. 1:7), that we have been set free from the Law (Gal. 5:1), and that we are heaven bound. We can always rejoice, as I have said previously, that we are going to heaven and not to hell. Even at our lowest point we should always be able to rejoice in the Lord.
The same Lord we rejoice in, however, is not only in heaven. He is with us wherever we are. Paul said that He was at hand (Phil. 4:5); Paul could thus speak of Jesus being right there with him: “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength” (2 Tim. 4:17). How could this be if He is in heaven? Is it because He miraculously remains there and yet comes to us where we are? Certainly, but it is also because He lifts us up to where He is! “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). After all, among Jesus’ last words were: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). In this place the writer uses a word that really means, “I will never, never, never, never leave you or forsake you!” That is therefore perpetual cause for rejoicing.
I love the psalm in which David says, “God is for me” (Ps. 56:9). There is no greater feeling than to know that “the LORD is on my side” (Ps. 118:6, KJV). “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). To know that God is with us and “for” us is a great cause for rejoicing. This always makes me think of my Grandpa McCurley, who was practically the only relative who stood with me when my theological views changed in 1955-1956. “I’m for him, right or wrong,” he said to the rest of the family in those days. I needed that kind of support at that time. Yet that is how much God is with us and for us all the time!
This does not mean He approves of all we believe and do. Yes, He is for us, but He will not uphold our unrighteous cause. He is able to be for me—whether I deserve it or not in order to demonstrate patience that I might be brought to repentance and get sorted out, if that is what needs to happen. The amazing thing is that He still maintains love and support for me when I am unworthy. He sees the end from the beginning. He does not have to defend His love for me to anybody. In the same way that Jesus did not defend His choice of disciples (some of whom raised the eyebrows of self-righteous people), He does not have to explain Himself for maintaining an everlasting love toward us, even when we are in the wrong. This is why we should not be self-righteous if we feel the presence of the Lord and claim this proves we are in the right. God has a way of manifesting His presence to the most unworthy child! That is why He can be real to me. It does not mean I am better than others or that God approves of all He sees in me. He is that way with all His children! He stays with them until they get sorted out. What love! Amazing love! This is why we rejoice—always—in the Lord. [pg 89-104]