Joy is the new country we are to explore together. It is the land of God’s mysterious ways and magnificent surprises, the land of music and love and laughter, the land of the earliest Christians, the land of Jesus. Sherwood Eliot Wirt
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! [Phil 4:4-5]
Biblical joy is not a shallow thing. Its roots go down deep into the grace and mercy of God. Years ago there was a prayer that children were taught to pray before their meals. It went like this: “God is great. God is good. And, we thank him for our food.” All of Christian faith is just an elaboration of that simple prayer. God is great. He controls all, knows all and is everywhere present to bring about His perfect will upon this earth. God is good. He is not an arbitrary and mean God who toys with the humans he created. God is for us. He has personally and painfully made a way for us to experience the highest good- enjoying Him forever. So, with joy, deep joy for all that He has graciously provided, we give Him thanks.
This letter to the church at Philippi is the overflow of the joy that is bubbling within the heart of the apostle Paul. Five times in the letter he makes reference to “joy;” nine times he uses the term “rejoice.” He does this in spite of the fact that he is confined in chains for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, there is something about this kind of joy that cannot be squelched by pain or trouble. It is that kind of joy that we want to identify and make our own in this study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
It would be helpful to see how this church was founded. I think it is often true that the kind of foundation upon which an institution is built will determine the kind of structure it becomes. Acts 16 records how God had a direct hand in the birth of this church. First, you will recall that Paul received a vision of a man calling for him to come to Macedonia and help them. Paul concluded that was a direct word from the Lord to go and preach the gospel in Macedonia.
It was a strategic moment. The gospel was to be preached for the first time in Asia. Shortly after arriving at the principle city of Philippi, God “opened the heart” of Lydia and her whole family became the first converts in Asia. Then, Paul had an occasion to silent an evil spirit that had taken control of a young girl in the city. The merchants that had used her ability to predict the future to become rich were enraged that their source of income had been cut off. They stirred up a mob against Paul and Silas and the magistrates had them beaten and thrown into jail.
At this point we discover the root of the joy that was to characterize Paul’s epistle to the church at Phillipi. Luke records what took place next: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” [Acts 16:25] In the darkness of a dank dungeon, constrained by chains, in great pain from the beatings, they were not moaning and feeling sorry for themselves. They were praying and singing hymns to God. Something was inside them, something so powerful and satisfying that neither pain nor prison could stifle it. That indomitable force was the joy of the Lord.
In the midst of worship, the earth began to shake. The power of a mighty earthquake was released upon the city and the doors of the prison were broken open. Thinking that he would be held accountable for the escaped prisoners, the jailer was about to commit suicide when Paul stopped him. As a result of what he had seen and heard in Paul and Silas, the jailer cried out, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul responded, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your household." [Acts 16:30-31] The jailer did believe and he and his whole family were baptized. Then, Luke adds, “he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God — he and his whole family.” [Acts 16:34]
There it is again. Like Paul and Silas, the jailer and his family are filled with joy. They had experienced a chain-breaking, life-transforming, soul-satisfying joy in Jesus. As we will see in our study of Philippians, that joy became the distinguishing characteristic of the church at Philippi. Consequently, Paul would begin his letter like this: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” [Phil 1:3-5]
I see four movements of joy in the life of a Christian. First, joy is birthed when we know that because of our faith in Jesus Christ, he has delivered us once and for all from God’s terrible wrath that we rightly deserved. Some of you might confess, “I have little joy.” J. Gresham Machen would suggest that you get a clearer understanding of how lost and hopeless you were before God graciously saved you. Because of our self-centered culture, many think God had to save us because we were so valuable. Not so, we are saved by grace alone! The war is over. We are his, forever. That is the foundation of our joy.
Second, we are not only delivered from wrath but we are brought to God. [1 Peter 3:18] That means that our eyes have been opened so we can see and enjoy Jesus for eternity. That is why Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, again I say rejoice.” [Phil. 4:4] None of us will ever reach the depth of riches that are found in Jesus. Right now, in the midst of the storm, we can open the scriptures and find more than enough treasure to drive away all self-pity and discouragement.
Third, we have also been given the joy of sharing our blessings with other believers. It is one thing to walk on the beach with your dog and discover a beautiful sunset. How do you communicate your discovery with a dog? It is quite another to see that beautiful display of God’s handiwork and be able to enjoy it with another believer. Our joy in the Lord mysteriously links our hearts with other believers. Paul explains why this church is so settled in his heart, "all of you share in God's grace with me." [1:8]
Fourth, there is the deep and lasting joy when we partner with others in ministry. I have dear friends that I have not seen for over twenty years who are like family to me because we worked side by side in what Paul called “a partnership in the gospel.” [1:5] Just this week, one of the last of the seniors who served with us in Elim Chapel over twenty years ago, called us to tell us how much she loved us. Lasting and precious friendships are the reward of joyful service.
Finally, there is the joy of looking ahead to the return of our Lord when our battles will cease and our chains will forever be removed. It is not a “cop out” to look forward to going home anymore than it is a cop out for our soldiers in Afghanistan to be encouraged by the hope of going home to America. While we wait and struggle we can be confident of this, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” [Phil 1:6] The battle will end and all pain will be forgotten when we experience the “joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” [Ps 16:11]
How to study Philippians: “Beating on Paul”. First, look for joy. Uncover the many means God has given to us so we can find joy in Jesus. Second, read the four chapters every day. It will only take you 12-15 minutes and it will enable you to become familiar with the details of Paul’s letter. Third, we will break the letter into smaller sections. Like Luther, we encourage you to devour the passage by beating on it, asking questions and squeezing out every truth you can. Fourth, journal the thoughts and insights you are discovering as you pour over the text. Fifth, identify a significant passage to memorize that you can take with you through out the day. Finally, pray. Ask the Lord to give you insight into the wonderful things that God has hidden in the goldmine we call the Bible.
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