John Newton, the former slave ship captain who later became a Christian, is best-known for writing the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” But he was also a pastor for about 20 years after his conversion, and he had an extensive counseling ministry through letter writing to people all over England. To one particular couple who was dealing with a difficult situation, Newton wrote: “If the heart be set right, submissive to the will of God, devoted to please him, and depending upon his faithful word, we may be happy in a prison; and otherwise we must be unhappy in a palace.” (John Newton to Mr. & Mrs. Coffin, Letters of John Newton, Josiah Bull, ed., p. 394)
Newton was right: if you’re walking with the Lord, you can be happy in a prison; if you aren’t walking with God, you can be UNhappy even in a palace! Today we are returning to our study of the book of Philippians, and we come to one of the most well-known commands in this book, Chapter 3:1, where it says: “Finally, brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble for me, and it is a safeguard for you.”
“Rejoice in the Lord.” This command is repeated in Philippians; and it is considered by many to be the theme of the book. Let’s look at what it does and does not mean to “rejoice in the Lord”, and how we can have that joy in every situation we face:
I. What this command is NOT:
This command is NOT instructing us to deny the reality of the many difficult things that we face in this world, to act as if they were not real, or harmful, or difficult. Paul himself expressed many times that he faced real difficulties:
— He mentions in this very book that he is in prison as he writes this letter!
— We’ll see in Chapter 4 how he says there were times that he had need, and went hungry.
— In other books like II Corinthians, Paul describes how he endured persecution, physical illness, betrayal, and desertion.
So rejoicing in the Lord does NOT mean that we deny reality, and act as if there were never anything bad ever going on in our life. The Bible is THE most realistic, down-to-earth religious book in the world. God’s word is head and shoulders above every other book; it is not just “pie in the sky;” the Bible talks about the real hurts and pains and tribulations and betrayals that we all experience. It NEVER teaches us to deny reality, and say I’m not really sick, or I’m not really hurting, or this is not difficult.
So God’s command here is NOT that we should go around with what some would call a “Pollyanna” attitude. Pollyanna Whittier was a character in an Eleanor Porter novel from 1913, about a little girl who was orphaned, and faced poverty. But before her father died, he had taught her to play what he called “the Glad Game” — that in every situation, no matter how bleak it might appear, you had look for something to be glad about. The very first time Pollyanna played the game, she was very poor, and she was hoping to get a Christmas present from a missionary barrel (a barrel they used to have in churches where church members might donate things to missionaries and the poor). She had hoped that she might find a doll in that barrel, but the only thing she found inside of it was a pair of crutches. She was disappointed, but Pollyanna’s father said, Let’s play the Glad Game: be glad about the crutches — because you don’t need them!
Well, Pollyanna was a cute novel, and of course by the end of it, everybody in town was now happy and everybody was always seeing the bright side of everything, and even the mean old widow got married and they all lived happily ever after. Of course, things don’t always happen that way (really they don’t EVER happen that way!), and the name “Pollyanna” has come to mean someone who has an annoyingly positive attitude about the reality of difficult things that are going on.
My point is: God is NOT commanding us here to be a “Pollyanna”, and have a trite, lighthearted, “don’t worry; be happy” type attitude about everything. And a lot of people try to do that, thinking that’s what God wants them to do. But God’s word does not command us to deny reality. It teaches us that there are a LOT of legitimate evils in this world, genuine troubles, real sicknesses and tribulation that you can’t just ignore and “blow off” with a positive attitude.
II. It IS a command to REJOICE
Now, many Bible students have noted that that Paul begins Philippians 3:1 by saying, “FINALLY, brethren …”, which might make you think he was about to finish the letter. But then he goes on for two more chapters! So a lot of people have made a joke and compared it to the preacher who says “in conclusion” and gets everyone’s hopes up that he is about done with the sermon, but goes on for another 30 minutes!
But really the word translated “finally” here can also mean “and so,” or “it follows that” or something like that. So if you look back, we just saw how Epaphroditus joyfully risked his life for the gospel, so Paul says, “ SO then, my brethren, (like Epaphroditus) YOU rejoice in the Lord”!
This theme of “rejoicing in the Lord” is actually found ALL THROUGH this book of Philippians. (“joy” or “rejoice” is used 14 times in the 104 verses of this book! NIDNTTE). Many preachers or writers who give the Book of Philippians a “title” or “theme” will often call it something like “The Life of Joy” or “Joy in the Lord” or something like that — because this theme of joy (and rejoicing in the Lord) is all through this book:
— Paul says in 1:18 that although some were proclaiming Christ out of wrong motives, seeking to cause him jealousy in prison, that at least Christ WAS being proclaimed, and he says “and in this I rejoice”!
— He says in 1:25 that although “to live is Christ and to die is gain, that he feels it is God’s will for him to remain on so that they may progress and have “joy in the faith.”
— He writes in 2:2 “make my joy complete” by being unified in your attitude towards each other in the church.
— 2:17 he says even if he is being poured out as a drink offering for their spiritual growth, “I rejoice …”
— 2:28 he say he wants to send Epaphroditus back to them that “you may rejoice …”
— Here in 3:1 “Rejoice in the Lord.”
— 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!”
— 4:10 “But now I rejoiced in the Lord greatly” they revived their concern for him while he was in prison.
All through this book, God gives us this repeated command to rejoice.
So what does it MEAN to “rejoice”? “Rejoice” comes from a Greek Bible word that means at root to “take pleasure in (something); be glad; rejoice.” The noun “joy” and the verb “rejoice” are used together about 150 times in the New Testament (NIDNTTE), emphasizing that God wants His people to be a people of JOY! JOY should characterize us as God’s people; Christians should be people who are described as “rejoicing”!
I just finished reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov. It was a very long, very detailed, but very interesting book. One of the striking things about it was his descriptions of the characters. The father, the 3 sons, really every character introduced in the book, has a particular description of their very distinct personality. In light of what Paul writes here, and what we see in the whole New Testament about Christians being people of joy, I think we should all ask ourselves: “How would a writer like Dostoevsky describe ME?” Would he describe ME as a person of joy? Would he describe me as always rejoicing? Or how WOULD he describe my personality and my outlook? I think that’s a pretty searching question!
Now, some of us might be tempted to say, well, Bro. Shawn, I know I should rejoice, but you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know the situation I’ve been facing, or the trouble I am in. And you know, I may not, but the man God used to write this letter did. Paul knows all about it: remember HE WAS IN PRISON WHEN HE WROTE THIS letter! And yet from PRISON, he could say 16 times or whatever in this book, that HE was rejoicing, and that we too should “Rejoice”!
Now, we might ask — and I think it is a good question to ask — “How is that possible?” How could he rejoice in prison like that? How is it possible for us to rejoice in our difficult situations?” The key is in that last phrase. Notice the command here is not JUST “rejoice;” is it? It is rejoice “IN THE LORD.” THAT is what makes all the difference, as we see in this last point.
III. It Is A Command To Rejoice “IN THE LORD”
This is the key. You cannot possibly just rejoice all the time, no matter what your circumstances. That’s just not natural or possible for us as human beings in this world. There is no real “Pollyanna” who can do that. But that is not what we are commanded to do. We are not commanded to rejoice in our circumstances. We are commanded to rejoice: “IN THE LORD.” THAT makes a HUGE difference. Because if you know Jesus as your Savior, you really can always rejoice “in the Lord.”
Remember that word “rejoice” means to “take pleasure in, be glad in.” A Christian person can always be glad in the Lord. See, God MADE us in the beginning specifically for the purpose of taking pleasure in Him. Adam & Eve rejoiced as they walked with God in the Garden of Eden, enjoying His company and the pleasures He gave them. But when we chose to sin, we cut ourselves off from the joy God made us to experience with Him. But thankfully God didn’t leave us that way; in His mercy He came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ; He died on the cross and paid for our sins so that we could repent of our sins and come back to Him again, and when we come back to Him, we can know the JOY that He originally created for us to have in Him. Psalm 16:11 says “In Your presence is fulness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” In heaven one day we will have “fulness of joy” — we will have all the joy there is to have! — and “pleasures forever.” But we can “taste” those joys even now: we feel a bit of that joy when we appreciate the good things He has blessed us with in Creation and in His provision for us; we feel some of that joy when we worship; and we can sense it especially in His presence in our heart, which gives us a joy, through His Holy Spirit, ALL the time, whatever we are going through.
It is a joy that is not just dependent upon our circumstances, like David describes in Psalm 4, when he tells the Lord in :7 “You have put gladness in man heart, MORE than when their grain and new wine abound …”. He was saying, a lot of people are happy when everything is going good for them: when they’ve got lots to eat and drink; when their “grain and new wine abound;” when they got the good new job; when they got the new car; when they seem to be popular with everyone. There is a kind of “surface happiness” that comes along with all that. But he says, Lord, YOU have given me a gladness that is “MORE than when their grain and new wine abound.” He says You have given me a joy that is not just based on my circumstances. You have given me a JOY that I can always find in YOU, no matter WHAT my circumstances are. It is the LORD who makes that difference. It is not just “rejoicing;” it is rejoicing “in the Lord.” It is because HE with us, and in us.
A couple of weeks ago, I was out playing golf with Drew Culpepper from church. It had been a couple weeks since we had played, and I was really, really rusty. I could not hit an iron shot. And on top of that, I didn’t think it was going to be that hot, so I didn’t bring a Gatorade, but it WAS hot. My shirt was literally soaked through; I had no Gatorade; I was playing miserably. But you know what? I think both Drew & I would say we still had a good time — it was good fellowship. It was just good to be out there together with a good friend. Now, I didn’t rejoice in the weather; and I didn’t rejoice in my horrible golf shots; but I rejoiced in my fellowship with my brother in Christ, and with the Lord out in His creation.
I think that is somewhat like what Paul is getting at here. There are all kinds of circumstances in our lives that are just NOT GOOD. (Lots worse than having a bad golf game!) There are really tough life situations that are truly difficult — and the good news is, you don’t have to put on some kind of “fake Christian smile” and play the “Pollyanna game” and act like you are happy about all those bad things. That is NOT Christianity; and that is NOT what God is asking us to do. But He IS telling us that we can always rejoice in HIM — even when the circumstances we are in may not be good, we can still find joy in HIM, who is with us, and in us, and with whom we will be in glory forever.
That is the privilege and position of every Christian. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we can always rejoice in GOD. Why?
— Because we have a God who loves us, no matter what our golf score is
— Because we have a home with Him in heaven, even if our home here gets flooded or blown away by a tornado
— Because we have a heavenly Father even if our earthly family doesn’t claim us any more.
— Because we have a new body waiting for us in heaven, after this old one has broken down.
— Because we have eternal riches waiting for us with Him in heaven, even when all our riches here on earth are gone
— and on and on.
So Christians can ALWAYS rejoice “in the Lord.” This isn’t just some complex form of “denial.” This isn’t just “playing the happy game.” This is the TRUTH. This is reality. If you are really a Christian, then you really do have all these things, and you really can “rejoice in the Lord” — ALWAYS!! And there will never be a time when you cannot rejoice, if you just remember all that you have in Him. We CAN always rejoice “IN THE LORD”!
Some of you know that earlier this year I began doing a little video preview of our adult Sunday School lessons to help our teachers prepare for their lessons each week. For years I have wanted to meet with the teachers of our churches and just spend 10-12-15 minutes going over some of the highlights of the lesson, give some sample questions they can ask the class, some illustrations that might help them, and so on — they can either “take ‘em or leave ‘em”; just whatever God leads them to do for their class. But the problem was always: WHEN could we do that? It seemed like there was never a good time — and so for years I never did it — until COVID came. And we began doing so many things over ZOOM and video, and I thought, you know, I could just do a little 10-15 minute video overview of the upcoming Sunday School lesson, and post it on YouTube, and send that YouTube address to our Sunday school teachers, and they could just watch at their own convenience. So I did. And several of our teachers have said that this was helpful to them — especially with some of the more difficult books we’ve studied in Sunday School this last year. But what I didn’t realize was that when you put something on YouTube, anyone from all over the country can search for it and find it. If they type in “Explore the Bible Sunday school lesson” it might bring this video up. So as it has happened, over the past months, teachers from all over the country have started watching these videos, like 1000 a week — it was 1400 a couple of weeks ago! I couldn’t believe it! (Now I wish I could say, “Well, I had this great idea to do this,” but I am not that smart; it has literally just been a “God thing.”) And it’s been neat to see it unfold.
But all that to say: a couple of weeks ago, a retired pastor in a church in Georgia who is leading their adult Sunday School wrote to tell me thank you for the videos and that he has been using them to help his teachers prepare on Wednesday nights — but in the letter he also asked me to join him in prayer for his wife. He said she has recently been diagnosed with leukemia and the outlook is not good; she is not supposed to live. He asked, would you please pray for her? But then he added, we know that we are in a “win-win” situation: if God heals her her, that is great and we will rejoice in that; but if not, we know she is going to heaven, to glory with God — and we will REJOICE either way.
(So would you say a prayer for Fred Tubb and his wife Jo this morning?)
But see, what Fred and his wife have is not just some “Pollyanna” attitude. They know what they are really facing. But they also know they have a real joy in the Lord — because she’s really saved; she’s really going to GLORY; she will really get a new body; she will really have pleasures unimaginable in heaven with Him! If you are a Christian, this “joy in the Lord” is REAL. It’s not just “let’s make up this attitude and try to be happy if someone dies.” NO! We really can rejoice in the Lord, because Jesus has purchased for us a place in heaven, and when we leave this earth we REALLY ARE going to a place like Paul said in Philippians 1 that is “much, more, better” than anything we can ever experience on earth. That is not “Pollyanna;” that is reality! That is the Christian life. That is rejoicing “in the Lord;” in who He is, and what He has done for us. It’s something the world doesn’t have; but that we really do have as God’s people. And what God is saying all through this book, over and over, 16 times — is THIS is the attitude I want you to have; this is the attitude you CAN have as My people: “Rejoice in the Lord.” “Rejoice in the Lord.” The ability to really do this is one of the best gifts God has given to you as a Christian. But we have to remember it; and practice it every day.
And this is yet another good reason why we need to get up first thing every morning and read our Bible and pray and sing some worship songs to God — because it REMINDS us first thing as we start our day, of what we have in the Lord, and it helps spark that “joy in the Lord” in our heart, and get us started on “the right foot” for the day, rejoicing in Him. And if we’ll start every morning rejoicing in the Lord, there’s a good chance that we will KEEP on rejoicing in Him all through the day.
THAT is what God wants for us as His people. He wants us to rejoice in Him. Someone has said the best witness you can give for the Lord to the world around you, is to rejoice. Show people that the servants of the King have joy; that the Lord is enough to make you happy. That is what the message of Philippians is here: Follower of Jesus, “Rejoice in the Lord”!
— I think this could be an “eye-opening” message for some of us today. Some of you are thinking: so THIS is why I can’t “rejoice in the Lord”: because I don’t really know that I have what you are talking about inside of me … and that’s what you need to do today.
You need to make sure that God IS your Heavenly Father
You need to make sure that Jesus IS your Lord & Savior
You need to make sure that the Holy Spirit IS in you.
THEN (and only then) will you really be able do what this scripture says, and “Rejoice in the Lord” — ALWAYS!
If you’ve never done it, why don’t you do it right now …
— others of might say, you know, I AM a Christian, and Jesus IS in me, and I have all that — but I have been letting the things of this life just kind of “crowd out” my joy; and you need to ask God to help you remember to rejoice in Him. Get up each day and rejoice in Him in worship — and then carry that attitude all through the day
— Some of you are spending all your time focusing on some bad things in your life — and I am not saying they are not bad; they are REAL, and they are bad. But you also need to stop focusing on them, and focus more on what you have to rejoice in, as a follower of Jesus. It doesn’t compare. Ask God to give you the grace to help you do that.