I listened to this sermon by Mike Riccardi on my way to work yesterday. It is an outstanding sermon on joy and the fact that we are commanded to rejoice in the Lord. You can either listen to it or read the transcript below.
We return again this morning to the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Philippians chapter 4. And we find ourselves in the middle of a collection of Paul’s concluding exhortations—a set of rapid-fire commands to the saints at the church of Philippi. And what unites those commands thematically is that they are the means of achieving the spiritual stability that Paul has called them to in chapter 4 verse 1. As a conclusion to all he’s warned them about in chapter 3—the legalism of the Judaizers, the error of the perfectionists, and the sensuality of the antinomians—and especially in light of their present citizenship in heaven and their glorious future at Christ’s return, Paul culminates in chapter 4 verse 1: “Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.”
And if we are in a right spirit here this morning, the prospect of spiritual stability is attractive to us. Those of us who belong to Christ and who are rightly related to Him deeply desire to be consistently growing into greater spiritual maturity. We want to be spiritually stable—the kind of enduring, unwavering, uncompromising people that are faithful to the Lord and His Word even in the midst of great opposition. We don’t want to be the kind of people who are characterized by instability, whose Christian life is littered with fits and starts and highs and lows and peaks and valleys. Now, it’s true that, given the principle of indwelling sin, some degree of that is unavoidable. But as much as we can, we’d like to avoid that. By the grace of God we want to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor 15:58). We want to stand firm.
And so the important question, then, is, “By what means can I attain that spiritual stability? How can I make this holy aspiration a reality in my life?” Well it’s just that question that Paul answers in this section of his letter. You’ll notice in verse 1 that he commanded the Philippians, “…in this way stand firm in the Lord.” And then following this statement, in verses 2 through 9, come a series of imperatives that make up the means of true, biblical steadfastness.
If we are to be a people who are spiritually stable—who are standing firm in the Lord—we must be marked by (a) a diligent devotion to unity within the body, verses 2 and 3; by (b) an unyielding pursuit of joy in the Lord, verse 4; by (c) an eminent and demonstrable gentleness of spirit, verse 5; by both (d) a repudiation of all anxiety and (e) a devotion to thankful prayer in verse 6; and the result of all of that, verse 7, will be that the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And then verses 8 and 9 conclude centering on the importance of right thinking, verse 8, which is the ground of godly living, verse 9—both of which are essential to a life driven by the Gospel.
And last time we examined just the first of those imperatives. In verses 2 and 3, Paul commanded the congregation at Philippi to be diligently devoted to unity within the local body. And we observed the high premium the Apostle placed on unity as he called out two women in the congregation by name, urging Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord, and by enlisting the help of Syzygus—likely a leader in the church—to be a peacemaker between them. We learned from that study that disunity is a grave threat to the stability and steadfastness of any church. And so in a very practical manner Paul exhorts the Philippians to diligently preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (cf. Eph 4:3).
But this morning we come to the second of those commands, and it is no less essential for the people of God in our pursuit of Gospel-driven, spiritual stability. Not only must we be diligently devoted to unity within the body. We must also be marked by an unyielding pursuit of joy in the Lord. If the people of God are to “stand firm in the Lord,” as Paul prescribes in verse 1—if we are to “conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel,” as he commands in chapter 1 verse 27—then we must be relentlessly pursuing our joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. And I draw that principle from our text this morning. Just one verse: Philippians 4 verse 4. Paul commands us, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”
The Centrality of Joy in the Christian Life
Now there are few topics that are more worthy of our study and attention than the topic of Christian joy and rejoicing. Commentator Gordon Fee hits the nail on the head when he writes, “Joy…lies at the heart of the Christian experience of the gospel; it is the fruit of the Spirit in any truly Christian life, serving as primary evidence of the Spirit’s presence” (Fee, 81). He goes onto say that, “Unmitigated, untrammeled joy is . . . the distinctive mark of the believer in Christ Jesus” (Fee, 404). The great British expositor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, wrote that, “Nothing was more characteristic of the first Christians than this element of joy” (Life of Peace, 143). Elsewhere he said, “The greatest need of the hour is a revived and joyful church” (Spiritual Depression, 5). And perhaps the great Puritan Richard Baxter said it best when he said, “Delighting in God, and in his word and ways, is the flower and life of true religion” (The Cure of Melancholy, 257).
And yet in spite of the centrally important place joy occupies in the Christian life, there is nevertheless widespread confusion about what precisely it means to rejoice in the Lord always. Great numbers of Christians have an unbiblical view of joy. Rather than seeing joy as the dominating characteristic of the Christian life, they view it merely as the “icing on the cake.” For many, joy is a “take-it-or-leave-it” fruit of the Spirit. A popular attitude speaks like this: “Do your duty. Be sure to obey God’s commands. And if you can do it with joy, great! But if you can’t, you just make sure you do your duty no matter how you feel. The feelings,” we are so often told, “will follow.”
And of course, there’s a germ of truth there. I know what the people who say such things are getting at. We are not to be enslaved to our fleshly emotions and feelings. We are not to sit around and ignore our duties of obedience to Christ until we’re struck with some unusual exuberance. But neither are we to relegate joy to such a marginal place in the Christian life as those statements make it out to be. The Bible knows nothing of this “icing-on-the-cake” view of joy and rejoicing. It is, as I mentioned just before, the distinctive and dominating characteristic of the Christian life. It is the flower and life of true religion.
And that teaching absolutely permeates the entire New Testament. I want you to hear this staggering emphasis on the centrality of joy in the Christian life as I read a number of texts.
First, the kingdom of God itself consists in joy. Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Joy is atop the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy….” The Gospel is good news of great joy, Luke 2:10. The Gospel itself—the work of the Lord Jesus Christ—was fueled by joy. Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus “endured the cross” “for the joy set before Him.” Joy characterizes the very beginning of the Christian life. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus describes conversion as a man finding a treasure hidden in a field, “and from joy over it he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.” (See also Acts 13:48.) Joy also characterizes the end of the Christian life. In Matthew 25:21, Jesus describes the welcome of His faithful servants into heaven with the phrase, “Enter into the joy of your master.”
Joy is the great end and purpose of prayer. In John 16:24, Jesus commands His disciples, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.” Joy is the great end and purpose of Jesus’ teachings. In John 15:11, He tells the disciples, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” And again in His high priestly prayer, He said, “these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves.” Joy was the distinctive mark of the early church. Acts 13:52: “And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Joy is the true consequence and companion of saving faith. In Romans 15:13, Paul prays: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” It is the dominating characteristic of all true believers. 1 Peter 1:8: “And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.”
Joy is the inevitable result of serving the Lord. Luke 10:17 records the great joy of the seventy disciples Jesus sent out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Joy is also the very goal of ministry for those ministered to. In 2 Corinthians 1:24, Paul describes his ministry to the Corinthians by saying, we “are workers with you for your joy.” And in Philippians 1:25, he tells the Philippians he’s convinced that he’ll remain on in the ministry “for your progress and joy in the faith.” Joy is what sustains suffering Christians in the midst of affliction. 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Paul says: “You . . . received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” Joy is the result of true Christian fellowship. In 1 Thessalonians 3:9, Paul asks his dear friends, “For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account?” And finally, joy is the very occupation of heaven itself, as we learn in Luke 15:10 that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Friends, can there be any doubt as to the centrality of joy in the Christian life! The kingdom of God, the fruit of the Spirit, the Gospel itself, the beginning and the end of the Christian life, the goal of prayer, the goal of the Word, the goal of ministry, the result of fellowship, the strength to endure suffering, and the occupation of heaven. Joy absolutely saturates the pages of Scripture, and in the same way, it must saturate every fiber of your soul and of every aspect of your Christian life.
Paul knew this. And that’s why in these four short chapters Paul makes mention of joy or rejoicing no less than sixteen times—with two of those occurrences coming in this very verse, as Paul repeats his command to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” Such an emphasis on joy in this letter leads Martyn Lloyd-Jones to conclude that joy was “the thing that Paul desired for these people above everything else. It was their heritage as Christian people,” he says (Life of Peace, 144). It was their birthright as children of God!
And so we’re going to take the rest of this morning to examine this crown of Christian graces as we are exhorted to it in Philippians chapter 4 verse 4. And we’re going to cover a lot of ground, and so I’d entreat you to gird up the loins of your minds and to prepare to grapple with the text of Scripture this morning. But we’ll hang all our thoughts on three main headings. First, we’ll consider the command to rejoice. Second, we’ll consider the constancy of our rejoicing. And finally, we’ll consider the cause of our rejoicing. So: the command, the constancy, and the cause.
I. The Command to Our Rejoicing
In the first place, then, let us consider the command for the Christian to rejoice. Paul commands us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
A. Joy is a Duty
Now the first thing that I want to draw your attention to about this command to rejoice is that it is indeed a command. I called it an exhortation a moment ago, but that’s really less than precise. Neither is Paul making a request, nor merely offering a suggestion, as if to say, “If you’d really like to make progress in your Christian life, if you really want to be a mature Christian, you might consider diligently pursuing your joy in God.” No! He’s speaking to all the Christians at the church of Philippi, and by extension to all Christians today, informing us of our duty. And the form in the Greek is emphatic: It is a present imperative, and so even if he didn’t include the word “always” in there, the original language would still have the force of: “Be continually rejoicing.”
And Paul is not doing something unique here. There are numerous other places in Scripture where God’s people are commanded to rejoice. Psalm 33:1 opens with the call to, “Sing for joy in the LORD, O you righteous ones.” The Old Testament equivalent of this verse, Psalm 37:4, commands us to “Delight yourself in the LORD.” Psalm 97:12 calls us to “Be glad in the LORD, you righteous ones, and give thanks to His holy name.” The Lord Jesus Himself, in Matthew 5:12, commands us to “Rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And in a very similar fashion, the Apostle Peter commands the churches under his care, “…to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing,” 1 Peter 4:13.
Scripture makes it emphatically clear that joy is a duty of the people of God. But in spite of that crystal clear emphasis, so many Christians continue to believe that joy is some sort of ancillary, incidental footnote to the Christian life. And I’m sure that response was as old as the commands themselves, because Paul feels the need to repeat himself before the end of the verse! It’s as if, as he sits there and pens this command, he can already anticipate the objections. “Well, surely he can’t mean rejoice in the Lord always! Doesn’t he know what we’re going through?!” And so he repeats himself: “Again I will say, Rejoice!”
I love the comment Spurgeon makes on this. He says, “Do you not think that this [repetition] was intended also to impress upon them the importance of the duty? ‘Again I say, Rejoice.’ Some of you will go and say, ‘I do not think that it matters much whether I am happy or not, I shall get to heaven, however gloomy I am, if I am sincere.’ ‘No,’ says Paul, ‘that kind of talk will not do; I cannot have you speak like that. Come, I must have you rejoice, I do really conceive it to be a Christian’s bounden duty, and so, ‘Again, I say, Rejoice!’”
B. Joy is an Affection
Well, if Scripture is so clear that joy is a Christian duty, we need to clearly understand the nature of true, Christian joy—what it is, what it isn’t, where it comes from, and so on.
The first thing to say about that, is that true Christian joy is not some sort of pasted-smile, superficial cheerfulness or peppiness that is indifferent to the painful and difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Paul is not in any way commanding Christians to always manifest an unrealistic perkiness that has no room for weeping with those who weep and mourning over sin. He’s not saying something so superficial and skin-deep as, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Neither is joy merely a superficial emotional response to the circumstances of life—so that when things are going well we find it easy to rejoice, but when things aren’t going so well we find it difficult to rejoice. That’s the world’s definition of joy and rejoicing. It’s superficial and skin deep. But if there’s one thing Paul has taught us—as he writes a letter overflowing with talk about joy and rejoicing as he sits in prison chained 18 inches away from a Roman soldier—it’s that true Christian joy is in no way dependent on our circumstances. Joy is not merely a feeling. It’s much more than that.
But I also have to say: Joy is not less than a feeling either. I prefer to use the term “affection” rather than “feeling” or “emotion,” but the truth is just the same. So many people, when they recognize that Scripture commands us to rejoice, conclude that it must not involve the emotions at all, because, they assume, “God can’t command us to feel a certain way!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the assertion, “Joy is not a feeling! It’s a decision! It’s an act of the will!” Now, as I said, I understand that joy is more than a feeling, but it is not less than that. And I’m so concerned at how widespread this misconception is that I want to take a moment to prove that to you from Scripture.
Turn first to John chapter 16. Jesus is nearing the end of His upper room discourse on the night of His betrayal. And as He’s preparing the disciples to live their lives in the absence of His physical presence, He makes an absolutely precious comment in verses 20 to 22. John 16 verse 20: “Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have sorrow now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” The key point to observe here is the contrast between (a) joy and rejoicing, and (b) grief and sorrow. Jesus is speaking of the sorrow that the disciples will feel when He goes away, but He comforts them with the joy that they will experience when they see Him again. That contrast is rendered absolutely incomprehensible if joy is not, at least in some measure, a feeling, an affection, a motion and inclination of the soul. What are we going to say next, that grief and sorrow are not feelings? That the joy a woman feels at the birth of her child has nothing to do with emotions?
Another way to observe the reality that joy is not less than an emotion is to see how frequently it is paired with the command to “be glad,” especially in the Psalms. We’ll take Psalm 32 verse 11 for an example. David says, “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.” To rejoice in something is to be glad in it—to be so delighted in something that it brings about feelings of gladness and satisfaction. And then that is connected to “shouting for joy.” This simply can’t be talking about a mere decision—a mere exertion of willpower. When was the last time you were depressed, and you said to yourself, “I’m going to decide to shout for joy!” It doesn’t work that way! This is speaking about an affection—an overwhelming sense of pleasure and delight that evokes happy shouting!
One more. Turn with me to 1 Peter chapter 1. Peter is writing about the personal experience of all Christians in this opening section of his letter. And in verse 8 he writes this magnificent sentence: “And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.” Now just listen to that! Which of you can say, “OK. I’m going to bear down and exercise my willpower, irrespective of my feelings, and I’m going to decide to have inexpressible joy!” Again, it just doesn’t work that way!
Friends, if we can tear down our prejudices regarding how we may have thought about emotions—prejudices we’ve erected because we understand the very real dangers of emotionalism, or because we know that our own affections fall far short of the biblical standard—and if we just listen to the language of this verse, it becomes plain how foolish it is to seek to kidnap joy from the realm of the affections. “You greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory!” No, dear people. Jonathan Edwards took this very verse as his principal text when he wrote that marvelous treatise, The Religious Affections. And the thesis of that great work—the conclusion he drew from this very text—was that “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (Works, 1:236).
I love what Pastor John says about this. He says, “Christian joy is not an emotion on top of an emotion. It is not a feeling on top of a feeling. It is a feeling on top of a fact. It is an emotional response to what I know to be true about my God” (“Rejoicing Always”).
And so God commands us, in response to the truths we know about Him, to feel, friends. The Christian is not merely someone who has “made a decision for Jesus” and cleaned up his life a little bit via behavior modification. Becoming a Christian means spiritual heart surgery— being given a new heart: new affections and new desires—such that we not only do justly, but also love mercy (Micah 6:8); that we would not only be givers, but cheerful givers (2 Cor 9:7); such that pastors and elders would not only shepherd the flock, but shepherd the flock willingly and eagerly (1 Pet 5:2). God’s Word contains commands that cover the full range of human emotions: We are not to covet (Exod 20:17), but to be content (Heb 13:5). We are to hope in God (Ps 42:5), to fear God (Lk 12:5), to experience peace (Col 3:15), to long for—to earnestly desire—the pure milk of the Word (1 Pet 2:2). We’re to be tenderhearted (Eph 4:32), and we are to come before God with a broken spirit and a contrite heart (Ps 51:17).
That makes the conclusion inescapable, friends: Joylessness is just as much a sin as stealing, coveting, or lying. If we are commanded to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” then to be characterized by a constant gloominess, moroseness, or depression, is to disobey this divine imperative. Spurgeon said, “If any of you have taken a gloomy view of religion, I beseech you to throw that gloomy view away at once!” Listen to what God says in Deuteronomy 28:47–48: “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you….” For God’s people, united to Him by covenant, granted access to Him through the forgiveness of our sins by grace alone—for those of us who have so much to be joyful about—joylessness is sin.
Which means that the counsel that says, “Just do your duty, and your feelings will follow,” is a confused piece of advice, because joy, gladness, hope, cheerfulness—all of that is our duty! If God loves a cheerful giver, and you give begrudgingly, without cheerfulness, you’ve done your duty to give, but you haven’t done your duty to give cheerfully! Now, I’m not saying, “Neglect your duty to give until you feel like doing your duty to give cheerfully.” No. It’s never right to compound your disobedience because you’re in a sluggish frame of heart. Do your duty to give. Do your duty to serve. But confess your lack of joy and cheerfulness as sin, and ask God to give you the heart to do all of your duty with joy.
And so if I can give a summary definition of the joy that Paul calls us to here: Joy is the affection that is produced in the soul when one finds delight, pleasure, or satisfaction in something, and then responds in gladness. How gracious of our God to command us to rejoice—to make delight our duty! Spurgeon said, “Come, brothers and sisters, I am inviting you now to no distasteful duty when, in the name of my Master, I say to you, as Paul said to the Philippians under the teaching of the Holy Spirit, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice!’”
II. The Constancy of Our Rejoicing
Such, then, is the command to rejoice. In the second place, let us consider, just briefly, the constancy of our rejoicing. We are to “Rejoice always.” Again, literally, the command is, “Be continually rejoicing always:” at all times and in all circumstances.
You say, “Now Mike, I can understand that God commands us to rejoice, as high of a calling as that is. There may be some special times in my life that I might be able to attain to that gracious frame of heart that you’ve just described from the pages of Scripture. But to rejoice always? Mike, you just don’t know what my life is like! You just don’t know what I’m going through!” Well, maybe I don’t. But you see, the beauty of that is that I didn’t write this. The Lord God Himself has laid this standard upon His people. And you know what? He does know what your life is like. He does know what you’re going through. And not only does He know what you’re going through, but according to His infinite wisdom He has decreed these circumstances! And with infinite knowledge and perfect wisdom, He commands you to rejoice always.
Now what this teaches us immediately is that true Christian joy is not dependent upon our circumstances. If we are commanded to rejoice always, no matter what situations of life we find ourselves in, then our joy must not be tied to our circumstances. You say, “Even in suffering and trials and affliction?” Especially in suffering and trials and affliction! Think of the mountain of texts which call us to joy in the midst of suffering. We are to consider it all joy when we encounter various trials, James 1:2. We are to exult in our tribulations, Romans 5:3. To the degree we share in the sufferings of Christ, we are to keep on rejoicing, 1 Peter 4:13.
As Paul pens these words, he is well aware that the Philippians had been facing opposition from their pagan neighbors. He speaks of their “opponents” in chapter 1 verse 28, and their “conflict” in chapter 1 verse 30. His repeated calls to steadfastness emphasize this as well. And of course they were tempted to be robbed of their joy by worrying about Paul as he was in prison, and by worrying about Epaphroditus since they heard he was sick. And yet he insists that they rejoice always.
And it’s not like Paul doesn’t have any skin in the game himself! Remember where he’s writing these words from! It’s as he sits in a Roman prison, chained 18 inches away from a Roman soldier, awaiting a trial before a madman that will determine whether he lives or dies, and while he’s in prison there are rival preachers in Rome who are aiming to cause Paul distress by their preaching. And yet in chapter 1 verse 18 he says, almost defiantly, “Yes, and I will rejoice!”
Now, I need to emphasize that this constant joyfulness to which we are called as Christians does not mean that we are to shut our eyes to the sorrows of this world, that we are to be unmoved by the pains and troubles of others, that we are immune to the grief and the pains that accompany life in a fallen, sin-cursed world. We are called not only to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). Paul himself tells us in Philippians 3:18 that he weeps as he thinks of those enemies of the cross of Christ who deny Christ by their loose living.
And so this joy that we are called to be constantly marked by is not indifferent to the pains of this life, nor is it mutually exclusive with the heaviness of sorrow that inevitably accompanies life in a fallen world. I think one of the most profound phrases Paul ever penned was 2 Corinthians chapter 6 verse 10, where he described himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” In 2 Corinthians 7:4 he says, “I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.” And so even in the midst of sorrow, even in the midst of affliction, even as we experience the pains of this life, we are commanded to be joyful—to rejoice always.
III. The Cause of Our Rejoicing
But you say, “Mike, how am I supposed to do that? Given all that’s going on in my life, how can I rejoice always?” Well, you’ve got to recognize that the command is not merely to rejoice always, but, look at our text, we are to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” And so we’ve seen the command to rejoice, as well as the constancy of our rejoicing. And now we come, number three, to the cause of our rejoicing. We are to rejoice in the Lord.
And that little phrase is the essential key to rejoicing always (cf. Hansen, 287). “The only sure, reliable, unwavering, unchanging source of joy is God” (MacArthur, 274). If you pursue your joy in your circumstances, you will be disappointed, because your circumstances are often unpleasant. If you pursue your joy in other people, you will be disappointed, because as much as we love our family and friends and our brothers and sisters in Christ, they will at one time or another let us down. If you pursue your joy in success and prominence and money, you will be disappointed, because those things all come and go. But if you pursue your joy in all that God Himself is for us in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will never be disappointed—you will rejoice in the Lord always—because He never leaves, He never changes, and He never wavers. Spurgeon says, “If the Lord be your joy, your joy will never dry up. All other things are but for a season; but God is for ever and ever.” And Thomas Manton says, “Whatever falleth out, God’s all-sufficiency and heaven’s happiness are everlasting grounds of rejoicing” (Works, 17:473).
The Lord Jesus Christ is to be the source of our joy, the sphere of our joy, and the object of our joy. As Paul sat chained to that Roman soldier, he was adamant that he would go on rejoicing. Now that would be impossible if true joy was a superficial, surface-level, phony cheerfulness that came as a response to circumstances! It would be impossible if joy came as a result of just whipping yourself up into an emotional frenzy! No, the source of Paul’s joy wasn’t the pleasantness of his circumstances, but the pleasantness of His Savior. He says, in Philippians 1, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know…that Christ will even now be exalted—be magnified—in my body, whether by life or by death.”
And that, my friend, is where your joy is to come from! Joy doesn’t come from fame, or power, or riches, or ease. It doesn’t come from a trouble-free marriage, or a better job, or this or that human relationship. True and lasting joy comes from the experience of the all-satisfying vision of the glory of Christ displayed to the eyes of your heart! And when you can see Him like that—when you can see Him as He is—then you can speak like Habakkuk the prophet, who in chapter 3 verse 17 of his prophecy said, “Though the fig tree should not blossom And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold And there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.”
To rejoice in the Lord, friends, means to experience Him as so precious—to have a real sense of his surpassing value, as Paul says in Philippians 3—that whether I am free to move about or whether I am in prison, whether I am suffering or whether I am prospering, whether I am amply supplied or whether there is no money in the bank, whether I live and serve Christ or whether I die and go to be with Christ—the fact that I know Him, and see Him, and have communion with Him, and belong to Him, brings me unshakable, unalterable joy! It means that I can lose everything in my life, as long as I gain Him, and be happy.
So you see friends, the call to rejoice in the Lord is a call to the relentless pursuit of our joy and delight in Him. True, biblical, Christian joy is the affection that is produced in the soul when one finds delight, pleasure, or satisfaction in God Himself or the truth about Him, and then responds in gladness. This is the duty to which this verse calls us.
And we’re in good company in understanding it this way. John Calvin comments that “The chief activity of the soul is to aspire to happiness in God” (Institutes, I.15.6). The Puritan Thomas Manton very simply defines “Rejoicing always” as “Delighting ourselves in God” (Complete Works, 17:470). Spurgeon defined rejoicing in the Lord as being satisfied in God and overflowing with delight in Him (“Joy, a Duty”). And the great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote that one of the essential elements of the knowledge of Christ is the “feeling of adoration, delight, desire, and complacency” that accompanies truth about Him (“Excellency,” 214).
And so what are some of those “truths about Him” with which we are to flood our minds and over which we are to rejoice? What reasons do we have to rejoice in the Lord?
Well, more than anything, we have cause for rejoicing as a result of being beneficiaries of the grace of Christ in the Gospel. We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1–3), hopelessly enslaved to our own lusts and desires (Tit 3:3), alienated from God and hostile to Him as His enemies (Col 1:21; Rom 8:7), powerless to do a single thing to change such a wretched state (Rom 5:6), and thus headed for the horrors of eternal punishment under the just wrath of Almighty God (2 Thess 1:9). And at just the right time, God sent forth His Son—fully God and perfectly holy—to take on human flesh and be born under the law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (Gal 4:4–5). He lived the perfect life that we were commanded to live, but couldn’t live. And taking our sins upon Himself, He died the death that we were required to die but couldn’t survive—the unmixed outpouring of the wrath of His dear Father, whom He had always pleased and in whom He had always rejoiced. He bore the punishment of our sins. And because He did, we trust in His perfect righteousness and His perfect sacrifice to earn God’s favor on our behalf. And by that faith—which is itself a gift from God—our sins are forgiven. We are counted righteous in Christ, we are accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6), and thus we know the adoption as sons (Eph 1:5).
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1)! Heaven is certain, and we can eagerly await the return of our Savior from heaven, who will clothe us with a glorified body that is free from all sin, perfectly suited to life in obedience to God (Phil 3:20–21). We can joyfully anticipate the eternal pleasures that we are to experience at His right hand (Ps 16:11).
But we also can enjoy communion with Him at this very moment. Because of the work Christ has done on our behalf we have restored fellowship with the Father, so much so that we have access to speak with the God of the universe at any time we desire (Heb 4:16)! We get to know God, in the immaculate purity and holiness of His nature (Manton, 17:471), in His infinite wisdom and understanding, in His indomitable sovereignty, and in His bountiful goodness. This God, who because of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ is kindly disposed to us, is in control of all things in this life, promises to work them all for our good, and has the immeasurable wisdom necessary to make that happen! This God is our God! Because of Christ, He is our Father! Behold your God, GraceLife! And having seen Him in all His infinite majesty, rejoice in the Lord always!
Oh, what could keep you from rejoicing in this magnificent Lord always? What circumstance could you find yourself in that changes who God is and the position you enjoy before Him because of the work of Christ? As Paul stood locked in the stocks of the Philippian jail—his wrists and ankles sore from the metal cuffs digging into his bones, and his back torn raw from the lashes, at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God. And that was not because they couldn’t feel the sting of their wounds! It was because he knew that all the stocks and lashes that Rome could dole out couldn’t alter one iota of who he was in Jesus Christ (cf. Martin).
And so Spurgeon entreats us: “Let me invite, persuade, command you to delight in the Lord Jesus, incarnate in your flesh, dead for your sins, risen for your justification, gone into the glory claiming victory for you, sitting at the right hand of God interceding for you, reigning over all worlds on your behalf, and soon to come to take you up into his glory that you may be with him forever. Rejoice in the Lord Jesus. This is a sea of delight; blessed are they that dive into its utmost depths.”
Application: How to Fight for Joy
This is how you fight for joy, friends! You say, “Mike, you tell me that joy is not merely a decision of my will, but an affection of my heart. You tell me that joy is a gift and fruit of the Spirit of God, but then you tell me to pursue it. How am I supposed to do it?” Like this, I tell you! You don’t fabricate or manufacture joy by seeking to manipulate your feelings, or by whipping yourself into an emotional frenzy. You pursue the means by which genuine joy comes. True, Christian joy is a result of flooding the mind with the truth of God and Christ and the Gospel—the result of saturating the eyes of your heart with the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ. The inevitable result of beholding that all-satisfying sight is affections of love, delight, satisfaction, and joy!
The fight for joy—the unyielding pursuit of our joy in the Lord—is a fight first of all to see. If seeing the glory of God in the face of Christ is the fuel of all true joy, then I must avail myself of every means by which His glory is revealed. You say, “What are those?” Here are five of them.
First, Scripture reading and prayer. God is supremely revealed in His Word, and so we must prayerfully meditate on Scripture with a view to seeing and savoring Christ’s glory. Friends, it’s so simple, and you hear it commended to you so much that it seems commonplace. But don’t allow familiarity to breed contempt! Communion with God through Scripture reading and prayer is the freshest source of the sight of His glory. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “We must maintain contact with Christ by prayer and communion. … What fools we are in this Christian life! We depend on so many other things, but the secret of the saints has always been the time they spend in conversation and communion with the Lord and in meditation upon him. We must maintain that contact; we must go to the source and fount of joy and go there readily and frequently” (Life of Peace, 150).
We must also pursue the spiritual sight of Christ’s glory in fellowship with other believers. I quoted it at the beginning of the sermon, but in 1 Thessalonians 3:9, Paul exclaims, “For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account!” Because of the progress the Thessalonians had made in sanctification—because they had been becoming increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, being made to reflect more and more of Christ’s glory—Paul could see the glory of Christ in them, and that caused him to rejoice in the Lord. That’s why the local church—the body of Christ—is so important. That’s why it’s so essential to be thoroughly involved and active in relationships with fellow believers. And it gives direction to what fellowship with your brothers and sisters ought to be focused upon: and that is reflecting and seeing and treasuring the glory of Christ in one another.
And further, we must open our eyes to the glory of God revealed in creation and providence. The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim His handiwork (Ps 19:1). And so look up and around once and a while! Behold this beautiful creation that God has provided for us to enjoy, and in all the gifts that we enjoy in this life, trace the joy you find in them up to the Giver, and rejoice in Him. And even in the circumstances of life, remember that your circumstances the providences of a sovereign, loving, and good God who is unwaveringly committed to His glory and your joy. Recognize times of suffering for Christ’s sake as opportunities of unique fellowship with Him (Phil 3:10), and to the degree that you share His sufferings, keep on rejoicing (1 Pet 4:13).
And finally, fight to see the glory of Christ in the path of obedience. In John 14:21, Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” So, keeping Christ’s commandments results in greater disclosure of the Savior to the eyes of our hearts. He promises that when I forsake sin and obediently follow Him, I get to see and enjoy more of Him! So fight sin like that! When you’re tempted to sin, and you don’t feel like obeying, reason with yourself. Tell yourself that all sinning will get you is a fleeting, false pleasure that destroys joy rather than satisfies; and that obedience will bring you a greater vision of the glory of your Savior, who is the greatest satisfaction your heart can experience and only source of true and abiding joy.
Oh friends, is it your desire to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel (Phil 1:27)? Do you long for the kind of spiritual stability and resolute steadfastness that characterizes faithful followers of Christ? Well if so, we must relentlessly pursue our joy in the Lord.
And I’ll close, again, with the words of Spurgeon, because I don’t believe I can improve upon them. He says, “So may you feed and so may you drink until you come unto the mount of God; where you shall see his face unveiled, and standing in his exceeding brightness, shall know his glory, being glorified with the saved. Till then, be happy. … If the present be dreary, it will soon be over. Oh, but a little while, and we shall be transferred from these seats below to the thrones above! We shall go from the place of aching brows to the place where they all wear crowns, from the place of weary hands to where they bear the palm branch of victory, from the place of mistake and error and sin, and consequent grief, to the place where they are without fault before the throne of God, for they have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Rejoice in the Lord always, GraceLife. Again I will say, Rejoice.