Philippians 4:2-7

We said last time that what we have in these verses is a concluding string of loosely related exhortation such as we find in other of Paul’s letters. It is by no means the case that the reader of these exhortations cannot find some connection between them. For example, in vv. 4-7, Paul exhorts his readers to joy, gentleness, and inward peace. Obviously, if one has any one of those, it is much easier to have the other two. However, Paul does not draw attention to such connections. [O’Brien, 484] This morning we will consider the first exhortation – that to joy – and next Lord’s Day morning, Lord willing, the next two.

Text Comment


The commentators will tell you that the word the NIV translates “gentleness” carries in it the idea of forbearance, the same sort of state of mind Paul described in 2:2-3: a yielding of personal claims for the sake of others. Obviously the man whose heart is full of joy finds that much easier to do. On the other hand, believers who are joyless tend to be much more concerned about their personal rights, what they perceive to be the way others are treating them, and they find it difficult to prefer others before themselves. [Silva, 194; Moule, 111]

We haven’t yet considered in any detail this emphasis on a Christian’s joy which is a characteristic of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul begins in v. 4 of chapter 1 by saying that he prays for the Philippians with joy; in 1:19 he rejoices on account of their prayers for him; he continues his work in hopes of increasing their joy, he says in 1:24 and 25; he asks them to make his joy complete in 2:2; he rejoices with them and urges them to rejoice with him in 2:17-18; expects their gladness at seeing Epaphroditus again in 2:28 and urges them to welcome their brother home with joy in 2:29; he urges them to rejoice in the Lord in 3:1; and describes these believers as his joy and crown in 4:1; and all of that before we come to the two-fold exhortation to rejoice always in 4:4.

It has often been pointed out that joy is a particular emphasis of the Bible, as it is here in this one book of the Bible. From the Psalms to Philippians joy is a characteristic mark of biblical faith. Now everyone imagines that he knows what joy is and, indeed, the Bible uses the ordinary word for joy that everyone else uses. There is a sense in which everyone knows what joy is. It is something most human beings have experienced to some extent and it is certainly something that human beings crave or long for.

There is a very real sense in which happiness is the great question facing mankind. The whole world is longing for it, searching for it, and taking steps to obtain it. Jesus proceeded on this assumption about human life. He appeals to man’s desire for happiness and tells them where to find it. “Happy are the poor in spirit; happy are they who mourn; happy are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness; and so on.” And to followers of Christ Augustine was only stating the obvious when he said,

“If I were to ask you why you have believed in Christ, why you have become Christians, every man will truly answer, ‘For the sake of happiness.’” [Cited in D. Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 18]

The great tragedy of human life is precisely that people continue to search for happiness in the wrong places and fail to obtain it no matter how hard they look for it. They look for happiness and find misery instead. We live in a sad world amid sad and sorrowing people. Not that there isn’t mirth, to be sure. There is laughter and merriment enough, light-heartedness to be found, of course. But this is a very different thing from what Paul is recommending to us as that joy that is the special inheritance of the followers of Jesus Christ.

The happiness of the world is finally always skin-deep. It is more than a mere coincidence that many of the men who have most profoundly shaped the modern world – think of Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud – were joyless and bitter men. A few days ago Art Buchwald, the well-known syndicated humorist, died. Laughing to the end Buchwald went so far as to film a video obituary for The New York Times, the first of its kind, posted on the newspaper’s website last Thursday. It makes interesting watching. “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died,” the video begins. Even in death, Buchwald was looking for laughs, and he got them. But there is something exquisitely sad about the video obituary. He speaks briefly of his unhappy childhood, his uncertainty about the meaning of life, and concludes that he learned early in his life, that if you can make people laugh you can get all the love you want. And Art Buchwald wanted to be loved, as do all of us, of course, but even more so.

In his 1993 memoir, Leaving Home, Buchwald revealed he was hospitalized twice – in 1963 and 1987 – for suicidal depression.

For years, Buchwald said his mother had died when he was born. In Leaving Home, he revealed she suffered from chronic depression and paranoia. After his birth, she was sent to a mental hospital for 35 years, the rest of her life. Buchwald never saw her. “When I was a child, they would not let me visit,” he wrote. “When I grew up, I didn’t want to. I preferred the mother I had invented to the one I would find in the hospital.” In his midlife depression, Buchwald said, he’d lie in his hospital bed and cry, “I want my mommy. I want my mommy.”

After his father, a Jewish immigrant from Austria, ran out of money, Buchwald and three siblings were sent to an orphanage in New York and a series of foster homes. At 17, he ran away and joined what he said was his favorite foster family, the Marines. [Posted to me by Nate Hoeldtke]

There is laughter to be sure; he was a funny man. But was there joy? I preached on joy in a sermon back in 1985 and ironically made this same point from the lives of a set of then famous American comics: Freddie Prinz, the young Hispanic who made so many laugh until he committed suicide; John Belushi, the funny man who died alone in a California motel room of a drug overdose; and Richard Pryor whose life had nearly ended not long before in a drug related accident. Merriment, to be sure, but a very hollow laughter, perhaps a laughter meant to be a kind of whistling in the dark, keeping our fears and our sorrows and the pain of our existential despair at bay. Laughter is often a thin veneer brushed over the altogether unfunny reality of someone’s life. Don’t call such a temporary elevation of spirits by the sacred name of “joy.”
Paul means something else than a superficial, ephemeral, and temporary merriment when he commands us to rejoice in the Lord always. Consider what we may say about this joy of which Paul speaks.

  1. First, what we have here is a command. Christian joy is an act of obedience. Joy is something that should be true of every Christian life. It isn’t something that characterizes a certain personality type or temperament or that one finds only in a life that enjoys a certain measure of prosperity and success. This joy of which Paul speaks is part of what Christians are to be, every Christian. In the same way that every follower of Christ is to love others in Christ’s name, so every Christian is to be happy in the Lord. In the world, whether people express these thoughts to themselves or not, joy is generally regarded as the product of one’s circumstances or the luck of the draw. Some people have it and others don’t and there isn’t much anyone can do about that. Not so in the Bible. Christian joy is an obligation, a duty, an act of obedience. It is for every Christian, not simply the super-Christian or saint or mystic. It is, in fact, a dereliction of duty for a Christian to be chronically miserable or morose. As C.S. Lewis once reminded a friend: “It is a Christian’s duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can.” [A Severe Mercy, 189]
  2. Second, there is nothing breezy or superficial about this joy. Paul is nothing if he is not serious in the Epistle to the Philippians. He doesn’t find his joy by ignoring the facts of life or by working it up by some psychological technique. This joy is a condition of the heart and a posture of one’s life that is impervious to circumstances, whether internal or external. It is a joy that is compatible with genuine sorrow – as when Paul describes the Christian as sorrowful yet always rejoicing – or even with persecution – as when Jesus tells those who are persecuted for his name’s sake to rejoice and be very glad. This joy can be felt even together with fear. “Rejoice with trembling,” we are commanded. The world cannot understand how joy can co-exist with the fear of God, with mourning over one’s sins, with heartfelt sympathy with the sorrows of others, in the face of death and the misery that one sees everywhere in the world, but this is precisely Paul’s point. This joy can and does.

    Paul, remember, was in prison and facing an uncertain future when he wrote about his joy and urged the Philippians to rejoice. They were themselves facing opposition from unbelievers and internal tensions in the congregation. But Paul tells them to rejoice. If you remember, Paul had already shown them what he commands them here. On his first visit to Philippi some years before he and his associate Silas had been arrested, severely beaten, and thrown into prison, their feet fastened in stocks. And yet they spent their night, bruised and aching, singing hymns to God, and singing so well that they rest of the prisoners in the jail were listening to them. Nor were Paul and Silas the first to rejoice when given the opportunity to suffer for the sake of the Name! We are often enough told to rejoice in our tribulations in the Bible, often enough to learn that the joy of which Paul is speaking does not depend upon our daily circumstances. It is to be in a Christian’s heart and animating a Christian’s life no matter what is happening to him or her at the moment.

  3. Third, the reason for this is that this joy is joy, as Paul is careful to say here, in the Lord. It is joy because of and in and through Jesus Christ. It is the joy of salvation, the joy of the knowledge of God, the joy that comes from knowing that no one can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, the joy that bathes our lives in the anticipation of heaven. At the end of v. 5 Paul reminds his readers of the coming again of the Lord Jesus. This is a theological joy rooted and grounded not in the changing circumstances of someone’s life but on the unchanging reality of salvation. Nor is an inward looking joy, as if the basis for a lifetime of deep and abiding happiness could be found inside ourselves. It is found looking up and outward to God and Christ and to the family of God into which we have come by God’s grace. A family with a surpassingly wonderful future. The history of mankind in the world has demonstrated with a melancholy certainty that superficial and ephemeral happiness is the best one can expect if one’s life is not known to have a happy ending; if one cannot look forward without seeing nothing but darkness and a pitiless end.

    A famous poem of the 19th century was W.E. Henley’s Invictus. You may remember its lines.

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate;
    I am the captain of my soul.

    Yet in a review of one of Alexander Whyte’s books in a journal edited by Henley, we read, “No healthy man believes that he is going to die; when the inevitable sword falls upon him he bows his head with the best grace he can muster and says nothing about it.” [In Barbour, Alexander Whyte, 393] Then the First World War and its overwhelming despair turned Invictus into a museum piece, a relic of Victorian sentimentality. We’ve had a number of atheists recently trumpeting the happiness and fulfillment of atheism, and how knowing that there is nothing but extinction ahead is actually a good thing; but it always has about it this air of whistling in the dark, this sense that one is trying to make the best of a very bad situation. We have every right to reply to these exhortations to give up such outdated notions of knowing a personal God, of resurrection and of heaven, by asking those who make them if they are happy and if they dare say “yes,” to ask them what they mean by happiness. Whatever they say, I guarantee you it will not be this joy or the happiness human beings were made to crave! As Shakespeare reminds us,

    “A man may smile and smile and be a villain.”

Human beings are not after all longing for merely the outward smile that covers over the sad tale of human life. We human beings are after those things for which we have obviously been made and have sometimes got a brief taste of: pure delight, true fulfillment, ineffable peace, and a joy in love and goodness and satisfaction in human activity that penetrates every part of us. To be truly happy the highest wants of man’s nature must be satisfied. Place a cow in clover and it is content. But put a man in a material paradise and he is content only for a short time. Then comes that strange thing we call boredom. Man is made for something more, something greater, vastly greater than temporary material satisfactions. Something deep within him cries out for the satisfaction of his created nobility, his God-likeness, and for the fulfillment of his obvious capacity for a pure, deep, lasting and genuinely human joy. These are ineradicable facts of human nature and as much a part of man as his stomach or his heart. It is, therefore, worth our asking whether those who nowadays in the name of truth and flinty realism so bitterly attack religion in our elite culture are not simply giving vent to their resentment that others may be much happier than they.

Paul is obviously after something more wonderful for Christians: true joy, a deep-seated delight in life and in the prospect of the life to come, in the love of God and Christ, in the high purposes for which one may now live his or her life, and in the sense of contentment that comes from the knowledge that we are always, everywhere, and in every circumstance in our heavenly Father’s all-capable hands and that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from his love. To be truly happy, to have genuine joy, a person must have sources of gladness that are not dependent upon anything in this world of temporary and fleeting things. A human being must be able to look forward and backward without his joy being blasted by the reality that he sees.

The 19th century Anglican bishop, J.C. Ryle – the 19th century’s John Stott or J.I. Packer – put it this way.

“The true Christian is the only happy man because he can sit down quietly and think about his soul. He can look behind him and before him; he can look within him and around him and feel, ‘All is well.’ He can think calmly about his past life, and however many and great his sins, take comfort in the thought that they are all forgiven. … He can think calmly about things to come, and yet not be afraid. Sickness is painful; death is solemn; the Judgment Day is an awful thing; but having Christ for him, he has nothing to fear. He can think calmly about the holy God, whose eyes are on all his ways, and feel ‘He is my Father – I am weak; I am unprofitable; yet in Christ he regards me as his dear child, and is well pleased.’ Oh what a blessed privilege it is to be able to think and not be afraid! I can well understand the mournful complaint of the prisoner in solitary confinement. He had warmth, and food, and clothing, and work, but he was not happy. And why? [Because] He said, ‘He was obliged to think.’” [Practical Religion, 160]

But it is one thing to explain this joy as the fruit of Christian conviction, as the inevitable consequence of the knowledge of Christ and salvation; it is another thing for Christians to remain faithful to this joy and to practice it amid all the temptations to sadness, disappointment, and despair thrown up by life in this world of sin and death. It is good for us to be reminded here that we are under orders to practice this joy, just as was Israel in the Old Testament, whom, you remember, the Lord warned he would punish for joylessness. [Deut. 28:47] To receive the gifts that God lavishes on his people and the promise of so much more and to live unhappy, gloomy lives is sheer ingratitude. It is to dishonor God’s grace for Christians to live or even to appear to live without a deep and firmly fixed joy. And when Christians fall into a state of joylessness, it is the easiest thing to prove that they have forgotten or nearly forgotten the great, the powerful reasons they have to be indescribably happy.

This past week, a young husband and father of 32 years of age, the youth pastor of a Presbyterian Church in American congregation in Maryland, getting ready to stand his ordination trials for the ministry in the PCA, died suddenly during a pick-up basketball game. He leaves behind a wife and two year-old son. There is great sorrow to be sure. There is no denying the pain, the heart-break, the desolation. But then, even then, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Even to say that Anton McCollum left behind a wife and infant son, is to confess that he went somewhere and that his wife and son will follow him in due time. And those who have suffered this loss in this way – Christians who have lost Christian loved ones – can and will tell you that all the words in all the world can’t describe the difference it makes to know that and the deep and profound joy in sorrow that they experience because they know their heavenly Father’s perfect will was done, that their loved ones are in heaven, and that the painful separation is only temporary. The joy of which Paul is speaking here, this rejoicing in the Lord is as invincible as Christ’s righteousness, the Father’s love, and the Spirit’s power. Habakkuk said that long before Paul.

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are not 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.” [3:17-18]

In God my savior! Rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord always. And it is ours to obey Paul’s command, for our own sake – for a life that is truly happy and joyful is in every way a better life. The joy of the Lord is our strength. And for the sake of others. Joy is an infectious thing, it encourages the saints and bears a powerful witness to the unbelieving.

So put your sins to death for sin is everywhere in Holy Scripture the enemy of joy. David had to pray to God for the return of the joy of his salvation precisely because his sin had robbed him of his joy. Holiness and joy go together in the Bible. As the 17th century Puritan, Thomas Brooks, quaintly put it:

“Divine joy ebbs and flows as holiness ebbs and flows. …Indeed happiness, like Rachel…is so fair and so beautiful a thing, that everyone is apt to fall in love with it, and earnestly desire it, yea, many there be that would serve twice seven years to enjoy it. But by the standing law of that heavenly country above, the younger sister must never be bestowed before the elder, you can never enjoy fair Rachel – happiness – except you are first married to tender-eyed Leah – real holiness.” [Works, iv, 3]

Sin may be the friend of some pleasures and certain forms of merriment, but it is the deadly enemy of real joy! And then meditate upon the mighty reasons a Christian has to be joyful at every moment of every day.

A bleeding savior, seen by faith,
A sense of pardoning love,
A hope that triumphs over death,
Give joys like those above.

To take a glimpse within the veil,
To know that God is mine,
Are springs of joy that never fail,
Unspeakable! Divine!

These are the joys that satisfy,
And sanctify the mind;
Which make the spirit mount on high,
And leave the world behind.

You remember that wonderful passage, that immortal passage in John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, in which Bunyan recounts how, when he was still an unbeliever but searching for salvation, he came one day in the course of his work to Bedford and found himself listening in on a conversation between three or four Christian ladies. They were done with their morning chores and were sitting outside in the sunshine on one of their stoops and were talking about their salvation. We can see the tinker seeming to be working at some repair but all the while straining to hear this conversation about Christ and salvation between some Christian ladies. He said that it seemed to him as if “joy did make them speak.”

Well that’s a good way to apply Paul’s exhortation to ourselves. It falls to us to speak our way through the day as if joy were making us speak. Always mindful of the extraordinary goodness of the Lord to us, of his love and sacrifice, of heaven so near and thinking and speaking of everything in terms of such infinitely happy things. How good for us; how good for others!