What does it mean to rejoice always? How can we put it into practice? This week, Dr. Marty Baker takes us through those two words in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and helps us understand how we can have joy in the midst of our varying circumstances.
After describing how one day believers will lay down their tattered and worn out earthly tents we call bodies and pick up glorious, unimaginable bodies likened unto magnificent temples (1 Cor. 5:1-8), Paul offers this sagacious and sobering counsel:
9 Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. 11 Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Cor. 5).
Verse 9 tells believers how they should attempt to live each day. We should try to please God in everything we think and do. This mindset should impact how we work when on the clock, how we care for troops under our command, how we respond to testy teens who think they are wiser than us, how we feel when someone else gets a coveted promotion, how we respond to our parents’ rules and regulations, how we react to a rude person, how we read the Word, how we get ourselves and our families to worship, how we serve God with our gifts, how we share our faith with those who are hostile, and so on. We are supposed to focus on pleasing God like a laser beam.
Why should this be our goal? Verse 10 gives you the answer. Every believer will give an account to Jesus at His Judgment Seat after the Rapture for how well they walked with Him. He will reward us for good deeds, and bad deeds will cost us (1 Cor. 3:10ff). It will be a joyous day to see Christ face to face in all His glory, but there is also a modicum of reverential fear about the moment of judgment for service rendered. He knows everything about us: why we did what we did in private and public, what our inner motivations were at any given moment, why we read what we read, and went where we went, how often we read His Word, how often we applied it to our lives, how we treated saints and sinners, and so forth. Christ’s utter holiness and omniscience should create a reverential fear that motivates us to live well in light of His future analysis of our spiritual walks while on earth.
Paul’s teaching about how the coming of Christ for His saints in 2 Corinthians 5 should motivate them to follow hard after their Lord wasn’t the only occasion where he developed this motif. The Apostle gave the same message to what we might call the First Thessalonian Church in ancient Thessalonica. After explaining the order of the Rapture and the fact that saints are not destined to experience the divine wrath to be unleashed during the seven-year tribulation (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11; Dan. 9:24-27), Paul closed this particular letter with answers to this practical question:
How Should We Live In Light Of Christ’s Arrival?
(1 Thess. 5:12-14)
He applies the prophecy of Christ’s Rapture to three key areas.
- Our Duty Toward Leaders (1 Thess. 5:12-13). We should follow their lead as we head into tumultuous, wicked times so the local church remains a place where saints can grow, and Christ’s gospel light can shine to the community.
- Our Duty Toward Followers (1 Thess. 5:14-15). We should live holy lives toward all people, whether Christians or non-Christians. Precisely what this means is spelled out in these two challenging and convicting verses. How are you doing at applying these six durative commands to your life? Did you make any life corrections this week? Did you offer any confessions? Did you mend any fences?
In verse 16, Paul turns to address a third area of application:
Our Duty Toward The Lord (1 Thess. 5:16-22)
How Christ’s imminent return for His Church should impact the lives of believers covers seven verses. Paul’s teaching here is so valuable that it warrants our rigorous and thoughtful analysis. In other words, we need to slow down, understand what he says, and determine how to apply these truths more readily in our daily lives. Up first is another concise command designed to prepare us for future divine testing. We will call it . . .
The Rule (1 Thess. 5:16)
The Greek rolls off the tongue for easy memorization:
WHT 1 Thessalonians 5:16 Πάντοτε χαίρετε . . . pantote chairete
By using rhyming words, which is a rhetorical technique called paronomasia, Paul emphasizes a command so it will not go unnoticed. What is the command in English?
“Rejoice always . . .”
In Greek, the adverbial modifier, “always,” precedes the verbal command. This grammatical structure, which is not seen in English, also heightens the importance of the imperative. Literally, it reads: Always rejoice. The present tense nature of the verb doubles down on our responsibility to perpetually give ourselves to rejoice in any situation we encounter. You might need to read that again. This time let it sink into the spiritual soil of your life.
Don’t you find this command amazing, perhaps even slightly unrealistic and unreasonable? Are you serious that maturing Christians are known by how their inner lives are always full of joy regardless of what they encounter in life? Yes, that is the answer. Show me a saint who possesses an inner joy that is never spasmodic or intermittent, and I’ll show you a saint who walks close, by faith, to His Lord.
This is a jaw-dropping command, especially in light of the new Christians’ opposition and adversity in their hostile hometown.
6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, (1 Thess. 1).
14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, (1 Thess. 2).
4 For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know (1 Thess. 3).
Idol-worshipping friends didn’t like it when these saints no longer refused to enter the local temples, choosing to worship the unseen and risen Lord Jesus Christ. So they made their lives complicated by verbally mocking and attacking them. Some might have even lost their jobs because they wouldn’t pay monetary homage to the gods of the trade guilds when they went to work. You know, some were shunned by family members for daring to forget the various gods of their forefathers. Life for these saints, as Paul writes, was challenging and dangerous.
But still, Paul commanded these saints to “rejoice always.” This seems paradoxical to us. Logically, we think we should rejoice when times are great, pleasant, and awesome, and we should gripe, complain, and evidence bitter attitudes when times go south on us. Paul taught otherwise for maturing saints. No, this imperatival clause doesn’t mean believers should walk around with smiles on their faces all the time. That would be weird. There are times of sorrow, but there is always the call to balance grief with the inner joy of knowing that the living Lord is present and at work, even in this sadness.
Notice the balance between sadness and joy when Paul describes to the Corinthian church what he faced in his ministry:
4 but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, 6 in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, 7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left,
8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; 9 as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, 10 as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things (2 Cor. 6).
Paul’s life was full of hardship, disappointments, and pain, but he always possessed an abiding, inexorable sense of joy in all of this. How? How did he do this? We’ll talk more about this in a moment, but for now, let us say Paul had a firm and deep understanding of the person of Christ. The same Lord who appeared to him on the Damascus Road when he became a believer was the same Lord who was with him no matter what he encountered. This understanding formed the bedrock of his life and caused him to understand how to truly rejoice always.
Before we dig deeper into why Paul maintained an inner life of joy, whether he faced triumphs or tragedies, let me ask you a personal question: Is your inner life known for joy? Let’s make it more practical:
- When your air conditioner breaks in your home, and it’s 90 degrees and 95% humidity, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
- When you’re hit with an expensive car repair on your new, used car, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
- When a sudden storm drops a tree on your garage, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
- When your sump pump fails in a heavy downpour and causes rainwater to flood your newly carpeted basement, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
- When your girlfriend . . . the love of your life . . . drops you for another guy, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
- When your health company bounces you all around to secure a diagnosis for a medical issue, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
- When you lose your job right when you just sent your daughter to college, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
- When you face opposition to your faith in your battalion, are you rejoicing or recoiling?
I could go on, but I know you get the practical point. It’s easy to rejoice when times are excellent. It’s another thing to have joy when the car doesn’t pass the smog check, and you suddenly have to shell out some significant money to fix the issue. True happiness isn’t related to how we feel about a given situation but to how we feel and think about the Lord.
Now that this command is on your life radar screen, I guarantee you will face numerous issues this week to test your level of obedience and to show you your level of spiritual growth. Go forth and make the Lord proud.
I promised to drill down deeper into why we should respond to all life events with a spirit of inner joy, so now, let’s get on with it.
The Reason (Selected Texts)
A maturing Christian rejoices in all things because he possesses a firm, abiding understanding of the sovereignty and providence of the Lord. Put differently, the more you understand the Lord’s sovereignty and providence in this world, the more you’ll be equipped to rejoice at whatever comes your way on a given day.
- I. Packer offers this excellent definition of God’s providence:
Providence is . . . “The unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill, He upholds His creatures in ordered existence, guides and governs all events, circumstances, and free acts of angels and men, and directs everything to its appointed goal, for His glory.”
Jerry Bridges defines God’s providence like this:
“God’s providence is His constant care for and absolute rule over all His creation for His glory and the good of His people.”
Nothing we encounter ever escapes Him or catches Him completely off-guard. He knows about everything which comes our way, be it good or bad, and because He is all-wise and full of love for us, He is always working in our best interests . . . even if we don’t feel or think He is. This truth is what inspired Paul to write those memorable words to the Roman saints:
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8).
Paul’s thorn in the flesh, which was probably an eyesight problem related to malaria he contracted on his first missionary journey (2 Cor. 12:7ff), served to humble the intellectually gifted Paul while also causing him to understand the rich reservoir of Christ’s grace for the trial. Paul’s arrest, unwarranted beating, and imprisonment in Phillipi, along with Silas, met with singing praise to God from a joyous heart because he knew the Lord’s providence actively worked in this unjust situation (Acts 16). And the Lord did work mightily in this scary situation by using the joy of Paul and Silas, coupled with a strategically timed earthquake designed to open the prison doors, to win the jailer and his family to Christ.
The Lord is so in control of life that a little finch cannot die without Him knowing about it. He said this much:
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 "But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matt. 10).
The argument here is from the lesser, viz., the bird, to the greater, viz., you. You are so valuable to the Lord as His child, He always has His eye on you, and He’s always working to use all the events of your life to shape and hone you into His holy image, to deepen your faith, and to increase your witness to the world. The more you understand this truth, the better equipped you will be to rejoice always.
To drive this truth home, let’s continue digging into the rich soil of the Word of God. Let’s remind ourselves of verses that speak of God’s providential and sovereign concern and care over all of life:
6 That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun That there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, 7 The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these (Isa. 45.)
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth? (Lam. 3).
Speaking courageously to King Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful king on the planet at the time, Daniel said this before he divinely interpreted the king’s vision of the giant statue:
20 Daniel answered and said, "Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. 21 "And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, And knowledge to men of understanding. 22 "It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, And the light dwells with Him. (Dan. 2).
Even in captivity, Daniel had a profound inner joy because he understood the providence and sovereignty of God Almighty. He knew King Nebuchadnezzar wielded power in his day, but this would be short-lived because the King of Kings, the Messiah, was coming to end all weak and inferior earthly empires. In God’s providence and sovereignty, He used the fall of Judah to strategically relocate the young prophet, Daniel, to Babylon, where he would be positioned to speak truth to power and to give us all hope of the coming kingdom of the Lord. He will do no less in our lives. He will providentially and sovereignly work in your tragic and triumphant life events to position you to accomplish His lofty, eternal goals. Who cannot rejoice in a God who is this forward-thinking, wise, and concerned?
I remember the first skin cancer surgery I had when I moved here. I put the funny gown on and laid down on a surgical table, and waited for the surgeon to appear. After numbing me, he talked as he worked on my collarbone.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“California,” I replied.
“What are you doing here? Why did you move here” he questioned me.
“I moved here to pastor a church,” I said.
“Oh, so you’re a Christian. I’m a Buddhist and have never spoken to a Christian, let alone a pastor. Would you talk to me about spiritual things? Can I ask you some questions I’ve always wondered about?”
“Hmm. . . let me think about it.” That was not my reply. We talked so long that the nurse finally came abruptly into the room: “Doctor, you have another surgical patient waiting for you.”
Was there room to be sorrowful about the surgery? Sure. However, that sorrow and anxiety were tempered by God's providence and sovereignty. I could rejoice after the surgery, not just because the doctor “got it all,” but because he spiritually got it all that day by God’s loving design.
How can Paul give us a divinely inspired command to “rejoice always?” He can provide us with this imperative because he understood the providence and sovereignty of the Lord. Since the Lord works in and through all life situations, we can always have inner joy. Do you have this joy? Are you rejoicing in all the things you’re facing right now? If not, I challenge you to grow in appreciating the Lord’s character. When you do this, not only will He give meaning to all you are facing or experiencing, but you’ll find joy welling up in your heart because you know He who loves you is walking with you.
Should you choose to “rejoice always” because it’s a command from the Lord and you know God’s hand is on you, what are . . .
The Results (Selected Texts)
Permit me to click down through a few of them:
- Your trust in the Lord will flourish. No longer will adverse circumstances through you a spiritual or emotional curve, but you’ll stand sure-footed with joy in your heart because, like Daniel, you’ll know you’re on a life mission for God.
- Your perspective will flourish. No longer will you push back against unwanted events, but you’ll start looking for what God is up to. No longer will you throw your hands up in the air while you scream, “Why me? Why now?”
- You’ll be happier knowing God is up to something extraordinary in your life.
- You’ll praise God more because He’ll show you His handiwork in complex events.
- You’ll win non-Christians to Christ because your unflinching joy will intrigue them.
I don’t know where you are in your spiritual walk with Christ, but I’m sure there’s room for improvement in the “rejoice always” category. Make this day, therefore, a time when you say to the Lord, “Lord, forgive me negative, downcast, and angry spirit, and give me a greater understanding of who you are so joy can flourish in every corner of my life.”
For those saints who think they have a handle on this call to rejoice always, I leave you with a story from my life.
In the early 1990s, Liz and I left northern Californian to take the children to see Liz’s family in San Diego. While there, I took our Chevy Caprice Classic to Liz’s brother’s auto repair shop to service the brakes and transmission and install new spark plugs and rotor cap. Doing the work at Mark’s shop was fun because I have a lift, Snap-On Tools, and seasoned mechanics if I needed some advice.
Later, while driving home to Stockton, we cruised in the fast lane of I-5 while descending the final leg of what Angelenos call The Grapevine. This is a steep 40-mile freeway section stretching just north of Castaic Lake to the bottom of the grade at the start of the San Joaquin Valley. Sand off-ramps are provided for vehicles that lose their brakes on this major descent into the valley. I could never imagine driving into one of those areas to stop my car, but I’ve seen diesel trucks that had to.
I heard an electrical popping sound as we headed downhill at about 75 mph in thick traffic. Suddenly, I lost all power. Left with few options, we coasted in the fast lane for several miles. I pulled over to the slow lane when traffic broke up a little. Eventually, we stopped a few miles onto the hot, treeless valley floor.
I exited the car and attempted to flag down some help, but everyone kept whizzing by. So, we did what we had to do. We locked the car, Liz grabbed Nathan, I placed Amanda on my shoulders, and we started walking back up to a small gas station at the foot of the Grapevine. I must say, I wasn’t in the best of moods, especially when I discovered my new rotor cap had shorted out.
While walking up the grade, little Amanda started singing (yes, singing . . . at a tense time like that),
"When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still
And with all who will trust and obey
Trust and obey, for there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey"
John Henry Sammis (1846-1919)
Daniel Brink Towner (1850-1919)
It’s funny when your children innocently teach you how to respond to adversity. She joyously sang to Jesus because she knew He was with us and He had this situation firmly in hand. [Addendum: For those who want to know the rest of this final story, here is what happened: We walked to a gas station, called for a tow truck, and had a mechanic fix the rotor cap, which had shorted out. In a few hours we were back on the road again.]
How quickly I, the spiritual leader, had forgotten what I had taught my wife and children. Have you ever had that happen to you? One moment you drip with faith, and then one little trial throws you into an uncontrollable tailspin. And while you are griping and complaining about the adversity, God uses someone in your life to grab your attention and radically remind you how to respond to the challenge before you.
If some adverse event has suddenly caused you to drift off the spiritual course of joy today, then I’m here right now to say it’s time to joyously sing trust and obey, for (really) there is no other way to be happy in Jesus.
 J. I. Packer, “Providence” in the New Bible Dictionary (London: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1962), 1050-1051.
Jerry Bridges, Trusting God (Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1988), 25.