“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4.4)
At a recent funeral service[i] of a brother in the Lord, Rev A Hagg spoke about the command to “Rejoice always”. A funeral doesn’t seem a time to rejoice, said Rev Hagg, yet Paul says rejoice always, and Paul says this while he is hated and oppressed on every side and can look forward to a martyr’s death. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul calls all believers to rejoice in whatever their circumstances.
Speaking on this text William Hendriksen says,
“it seems so unreasonable to rejoice in obedience to a command, and perhaps even more unreasonable to rejoice always, under all circumstances, no matter how trying. Can one really rejoice when the memory of past sins vexes the soul, when dear ones are suffering, when one is being persecuted, facing possible death? But there is Paul, who does, indeed, remember his past sins (Phil. 3:6; cf.; Gal. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9), whose friends are really suffering (Phil. 1:29, 30), who is even now a prisoner facing possible death; yet, who rejoices and tells others to do likewise!”[ii]
Rejoicing, said Rev Hagg, is not necessarily happiness as we tend to think of it but it flows from a heart that confesses that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). It’s a fruit of the Spirit, an act of faith, whereby, in whatever our circumstances, a deep inner joy fills our hearts because our eyes are fixed on His promises.
The circumstances for Christians in Paul’s day were no walk in the park. Not only was Paul beset by troubles and hardships but the believers to whom he was writing were also facing hard times (Phil. 1:3, 7-28). Many believers were prisoners for the sake of the Gospel. Yet Paul tells them to stand fast in all their afflictions. Indeed, they could rejoice. And we too, said Rev Hagg, may rejoice, standing fast in God’s promises.
From this we may conclude that our circumstances, even very sad circumstances – a death in the family, persecutions, terminal illness, financial or other hardships – do not alone determine the feelings of the heart and mind. As Hendriksen says:
“A Christian can be joyful within when without all is dark and dreary. He rejoices in the Lord, that is, because of his oneness with Christ, the fruit of whose Spirit is joy (Gal. 5:22). This is reasonable, for in and through Christ all things – also those that seem most unfavourable – work together for good (Rom. 8:28).”[iii]
To be sure, said Rev Hagg, that doesn’t mean that we don’t weep in times of sorrow. Yet through it all we may rejoice and be glad for our reward in heaven is great. After all, our citizenship is in heaven; our ultimate joy lies there.
But we have a foretaste of that joy now already. Paul was speaking of the joy of faith and of living in the expectation of Christ’s coming. If our circumstances are difficult, said Rev Hagg, we endure it patiently, for we know that the Lord is at hand. He is near, on our side and ready to help. This awareness of Christ’s nearness in our present circumstances, as well as the nearness of His second coming, offers great comfort.
Hence, concluded Rev Hagg, even when we stand at the gravesite because of a departed loved one, Christ’s peace calms our hearts. We stand fast in the faith, in the firm confidence and assurance that Christ gave His life for us, ransoming us by His precious blood. That gives peace and joy both in this life and in the life to come. Our citizenship is in heaven and we have been granted eternal life to praise our God and Father in Christ Jesus.
[i] 24th June in the Free Reformed Church of Armadale, Western Australia.
[ii] William Hendriksen, Philippians, Chapter 4:4, 1962, republished by Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2007.