4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!
5 Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.
6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [NASB ‘77]
What Paul lays out in these verses isn’t so much a series of commands believers need to obey as much as a lifestyle believers should cultivate based on what they know. What he really says is, “Live your theology. You know what’s true of Christ and you know what’s true of your place in His kingdom, so live accordingly.” What do we know about God that informs this way of life? We know He’s sovereign. He’s faithful. He has our rights. He loves us. We also know this world isn’t our true home and that He’s prepared a place for us. We know He’ll someday judge the world and right all injustice. And we know the gospel is true, and the love in the gospel is real, and we can walk with Him in light of it every day. These truths form the foundation of what Paul says in verses 4-7.
Thus we aren’t to read these and then grit our teeth and try to follow them. We aren’t to live thinking, “I…must…rejoice. Must not be anxious, don’t be anxious, don’t be anxious! Be gentle! Be gentle!” That’s not what he’s calling us to. What he’s calling us to is to adopt a mindset based on who we are in Christ and what we know about Him. If everything Paul’s said to this point in the letter is true, then we can live as these verses instruct. We don’t need to obey as much as we need to believe.
It’s worthwhile to review the circumstances in which Paul writes and the Philippians read. Paul’s in prison. The Philippians suffer for their faith. Neither side is doing well from a human standpoint. Yet this is the second time in the letter Paul admonishes them to rejoice, and he says it twice in one verse. He said the same thing to them at the beginning of Chapter 2, and there he said it was a repeat of an earlier command. He clearly wants this to be a priority for the suffering Philippians.
That both he and his readers are in difficult circumstances shows that the rejoicing he encourages isn’t dependent on externals. He simply says to rejoice without referencing either side’s tough situation at all. And it’s not that he doesn’t want to acknowledge the hard times they’re all in. He discussed both already in the letter. He’s not closing his eyes to difficulties. It’s simply that the difficulties don’t keep anyone from following his command.
As a matter of fact, it’s likely the difficulties themselves that cause him to bring up rejoicing so much in the letter. It’s exactly because they’re suffering that they need to rejoice. Freedom, prosperity, security probably aren’t parts of their lives right now. Therefore they must rejoice in the Lord. God’s stripped away from them what the world says is important for living happily. So it’s a perfect opportunity to rejoice solely in the Lord.
There are four words that are vitally important in this admonition; in the Lord always. The first three of those words show that this isn’t just some empty encouragement that Paul gives them trying to make them feel better. He’s not just telling them to buck up and wait for the sun to come out again. He wants to make it clear that they have a REASON to rejoice. They aren’t just to rejoice. They’re to rejoice IN THE LORD.
When we studied the last admonition to rejoice in 3:1, we said this about rejoicing in the Lord:
To rejoice in the Lord is to focus on Him and celebrate Him and His gospel throughout all the circumstances of life. He’s loving, faithful, merciful, kind, gracious, forgiving, mighty, awesome. He wants a relationship with me personally. He wants me to talk to Him continually. He knows me completely, and yet loves me perfectly and unconditionally and omnipotently. He walks with me and He’s stronger than he who is in the world. He never changes. I’m free because he died. I don’t have to work my way into His presence – He did that for me. He’s working to complete me for Himself. He’s the author of my situations. I live because He died. When I die physically I’ll be with Him in paradise because He rose from the dead. He defeated death so I will too. He promised He would never leave me nor forsake me and that He’d go with me to the ends of the earth and the end of the age. So I rejoice in all these things. I prayerfully immerse myself in them and rejoice. They’re true regardless of what my life’s like. They’re true regardless of what the people around me are like.
We also rejoice in our daily communion with Him. As we walk through trials and difficulties and grow closer to Him as a result, our relationship becomes more and more typified by joy. In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever (Ps 16:11b). Just living with Him enables us to rejoice.
And we can rejoice always. There are probably two ways to understand this word. First, it means we rejoice – as we’ve already said – in any and all circumstances. Nothing can keep us from rejoicing. Second, it means that we’ll never run out of reasons to rejoice. If we rejoice in something other than the Lord – prosperity, youth, success, family, hobbies – there’s volatility and lack of durability to them. Either we grow out of them or they fade away. Nothing lasts or stays the same forever. But the Lord is eternal and unchanging and perfectly faithful. What’s true of Him today is true tomorrow. And His promises never change. Thus we can rejoice always in all circumstances and at all times in our lives.
That’s why this command isn’t fluff. If he simply said ‘rejoice always’, it would be next to meaningless. Just telling us to put on a smile because everything will eventually work out isn’t helpful. But telling us to rejoice IN THE LORD ALWAYS is a wonderful reminder of what our perspective should be. It doesn’t matter what this world throws at me – there’s always reason to rejoice.
Does rejoicing mean we’re always happy? Well, Jesus was called a man of sorrows and Paul told the Romans to weep with those who weep. Those facts would seem to indicate that we aren’t commanded to continually smile. Happiness is ultimately circumstantial. However, it makes sense that we shouldn’t be dour Christians either. We may not have to be the happiest people in the room but we certainly shouldn’t be the grouchiest either. So what does rejoicing practically mean? It means we have our eyes full of our Savior as we walk through life, and we’re continually in awe both of what He’s done through the gospel and what He continues to do through His Spirit. We’re content to pursue Him and grow in knowledge of Him day by day. We see His mercy and love and can’t get over how He continually pours out both in our life. And we revel in His power that’s greater than any problem we’ll face. We may not be happy at any given time, but we staunchly rejoice as we consider who we are and where we stand because of Him.
Paul’s next admonition is to let all men see our forbearing spirit. We’re to be known for our gentleness, our tolerance, our self-effacing manner, our reasonableness, our moderation, our consideration, our patient endurance in the face of trials. All these characteristics are aspects of a forbearing spirit. We aren’t to be concerned for our rights. We aren’t to be concerned about personal justice. We aren’t to live with an eye-for-an-eye mentality.
Why? Because the Lord is near. Paul’s already said we’re citizens of heaven anxiously waiting for the Savior to return (3:20). Here he reminds us that we must look at life differently in light of that expectation (Jas 5:7-9). Christ is coming back and will make all things right. And we’ll give an account to Him for how we conducted our lives. Both truths should affect how we see ourselves, how we interact with others, and how we respond to circumstances. If we live with our eyes only on us and make sure to fight for everything we think we deserve, we show that we have no expectation of Christ’s return.
We see similar teaching to this in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus said to turn the other cheek, go two miles when forced to go one, give someone your coat after they take your shirt, and love your enemies (Matt 5:38-44). These go right along with Paul’s command. The bottom line is that believers must trust God to protect their rights and provide ultimate justice. It’s not about us. And if we walk with our eyes full of Christ, we’re perfectly willing to wait for Him to take care of things in His time. We rejoice IN THE LORD. And in the Lord we don’t care so much about what we get or how others treat us or standing up for ourselves. In the Lord we become more and more like Him, and He humbled Himself to the point of death and took on the form of a bond servant (2:7-8, see also Matt 11:29). If we truly understand our place in the kingdom and have the right perspective on this world, it won’t be hard to let our forbearing spirit be known to all men.
Does this mean we never stand up for ourselves? Something to consider is how Paul reacted when he was unjustly thrown into prison – interestingly enough – in Philippi. In that case, he insisted the officials who acted illegally personally come to the prison and release him (Acts 16:35-40). It’s also telling that Paul made a defense of his ministry during his various trials. In each of those cases, however, there was an overriding gospel purpose. In Philippi it’s likely that Paul made a big deal of his unjust imprisonment to protect the believers he left behind. By pointing out his illegal treatment he publicly restored the reputations of those who preached the gospel and – by connection – those who followed it. And by making his defense in his various trials, Paul had opportunities to present the gospel to men who otherwise never would’ve heard it. So it’s not so simple to say Paul gives us the basis for self-defense.
When all is said and done, the rule we must follow is to do whatever is best for the kingdom. Paul himself illustrates this earlier in the letter when he says that he’s fine with those who preach to spite him because it means the gospel goes out (1:12-18). It’s not about him, it’s about the gospel. In the same way, it’s not about us. So if by standing up for ourselves we further the kingdom, then by all means that’s what we should do. But if deferring to others and submitting to their wants furthers the kingdom, then we most certainly should follow that path. And our overall manner of life should be one of humble trust in God’s provision and wisdom. It’s about the kingdom and God’s glory and His message. It’s NOT about our rights and personal justice.
Verses 6 and 7 give us a third command toward living our theology. We’re not to be anxious; rather we’re to pray and give our anxieties to God and enjoy His peace. Notice that this covers all things. We’re to be anxious for nothing and pray about everything. There is nothing outside the scope of this exhortation.
It’s interesting how he tells us to pray. He uses three words – prayer, supplication, and requests. It’s not entirely clear what the differences are among the words. Prayer could mean intercessory prayer or perhaps worshipful prayer or it could simply be a general word for prayer. Supplication has to do with our attitude in prayer – that of a supplicant or beggar coming to the king on bended knee. Requests likely means just that – specific requests that we bring to God that have to do with what causes the worry. By using all three words Paul conveys that all sorts of prayers are acceptable. We should come to God in all ways and with every kind of request. With one exception – discussed below – we shouldn’t worry about how we come as much as that we come. We stand no chance against anxiety and worry without God’s help. Thus it’s vital that we bring it to God. As James says, we do not have because we do not ask (Jas 4:2c).
Prayer that leads to peace is not, however, just a matter of us coming to God with our list of requests. Paul adds another element. He says we’re to make our requests known to God with thanksgiving. We’re to come to God with an attitude of gratefulness. We’re to bathe our prayer with thankfulness. There are a myriad of things to thank God for, but perhaps in this context we should specifically thank Him that whatever we’re going through is ultimately under His control and has a purpose. We don’t go through any anxious time randomly or needlessly. We aren’t where we are by chance and it’s not just bad luck or misfortune. And we know we don’t go through this hard time alone. God is sovereign. God is good. God loves us. Because of these truths, we can thank Him in the midst of any trial.
We also thank Him because regardless of how tough things are right now, our biggest problem in the universe is solved. We’re His because He redeemed us. Nothing trumps that. This life may be awful and our future may cause us gut-wrenching worry, but the worst problem we could have is gone. We’re accepted into God’s presence and our eternity is assured. That – in the midst of the worst circumstances – is worthy of thanksgiving and praise.
When we pray as Paul commands, God gives us His peace. Notice that Paul says it’s the peace of God. And God’s peace defies all reason. It’s an absence of anxiety in the midst of times that should cause us to be overwhelmed. It’s peace when it makes no sense to have peace. God takes away our anxiety and replaces it with a confidence that He’s in control, He loves us, He’s with us, and He won’t leave us to face whatever it is alone. He comes alongside and settles us in a way that’s supernatural.
Notice that Paul does NOT say God will change our circumstances or take away the cause of the anxiety. Paul doesn’t mention circumstances at all. The implication is that God will go with us through the trial – not take it away. And the promise – as James makes clear in his treatise on trials (Jas 1:1-8) – is that God makes us more useful for the kingdom and draws us closer to Him as a result. Since there’s always a reason for everything, it doesn’t make sense that all we have to do is ask and God will take all the hard times away.
The peace God gives does more than just fill us. It actually guards our hearts and minds. It guards us against further worry. It likely guards us against temptations that may come as a result of anxiety (it’s easy to become careless during times of stress – to take the attitude of, “Oh, who cares, I just want to get my mind off all that’s happening”). And it does this in Christ Jesus. God’s peace brings us back to our Savior. It enables us to abide in Him during anxious times. It renews our mind and focuses our trust in Christ when our natural impulse is to focus on ourselves. The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You (Isaiah 26:3). The source of the peace is our relationship with our Savior.
Just like the command to rejoice, the wonderful part of what Paul says here about anxiety is that it isn’t encouragement without meaning. There’s a real weapon against worry and there’s an actual solution to our anxiety. Worry is typically irrational. It’s based on feelings and oftentimes on feelings we can’t control. So if someone just tells us not to worry because everything will surely work out in the end, it’s really not helpful unless they’re facing the same problems we are. Just telling me to stop doing something I can’t control doesn’t help me. And at the end of the day there may be real reason for concern and it might not be OK. BUT – telling me that God will take my anxiety away and give me His peace when I ask Him to – THAT’S helpful. That’s lifesaving, actually. What Paul gives us here is the cure for anxiety. Short of redemption, is there anything better than that? [And isn’t it wonderful that God didn’t give us a book of empty platitudes, but gave us actual concrete teaching about dealing with life in a fallen world?]
So here’s what we have to notice about this passage. It all comes back to Christ. We rejoice IN THE LORD. We let our forbearing spirit be known to all men because THE LORD IS NEAR. And we pray for God’s peace to guard our hearts and minds IN CHRIST JESUS. We must live with our eyes fixed on Jesus. Our lives must reflect what we know to be true about Him. We must live our theology.
Something else we can take away from this – we’re armed for encouragement. As believers, we don’t just have to tell each other to keep smiling during tough times. We don’t have to shower each other with meaningless statements like, “It’ll be alright – I’m sure it’ll all work out. Don’t lose hope.” Instead we can encourage each other with Paul’s words. “Rejoice in the Lord in anything and everything. Don’t worry about your rights, trust God. The Lord is near. Give God your anxiety – all of it. Ask Him for His peace that’s beyond all understanding. Ask Him for peace that will guard your anxious heart and mind in Christ Jesus. He wants to give it to you because He loves you and because it ultimately glorifies Him.” We have the words both to encourage ourselves and each other within the community of faith.
So we rejoice and trust and pray – all in the Lord. And all because of who He is, what He’s done, and who and what we are as a result.