Practicing Joy

Week of February 19, 2017

The Point:  When I focus on Christ, joy and peace flood my life.

Rejoice in the Lord:  Philippians 4:4-9.

[4]  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. [5]  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; [6]  do not be anxious about anything, 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 understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [8]  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [9]  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.  [ESV]

“[4]  The command to rejoice in the Lord always extends the theme of joy and rejoicing developed throughout the letter. Every other reference to joy in this letter encourages an appropriate response to the circumstances described in the immediate context. The command to rejoice in the Lord always calls for a thoughtful response to the circumstances and reasons for joy. The command to rejoice in this context also comes as the first of a series of imperatives and in that way serves to set the tone for all that follows. Written from prison to Christians who are suffering for their commitment to Christ, this command calls for the development of a cheerful attitude in every circumstance to be the dominant theme in the Christian life. The fulfillment of all other goals in the Christian walk flows out of the practice of rejoicing in the Lord. The simple phrase in the Lord provides the essential key to joy in every circumstance. No matter what anxiety circumstances cause, there is still a defiant ‘Nevertheless’ in the Lord we rejoice. Our relationship with the Lord is so central and determinative in our lives that all other factors cannot shake our sense of enthusiasm in the Lord. People caught up in joyful worship of the Lord are united in heart and lifted above the circumstances of life in a vision of the awesome majesty of the Lord. The high point of this letter envisions all people bowing and proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord [2:11]. Such a vision empowers even persecuted prisoners and residents in the Roman Empire to rejoice in the Lord. Lest there be any detractors or recalcitrant members of the church who resist the encouragement to rejoice in the Lord, Paul repeats the command, again I will say, Rejoice. He doubles the command in case there are those who object that rejoicing in a time of suffering is inappropriate. A time of suffering is a time when rejoicing in the Lord is the only way to survive. In no way is Paul simply advocating a positive mental attitude or urging his readers to “cheer up” and “have a nice day.” His double emphasis on joy comes from his own experience of knowing the resurrection power of Christ and participation in His sufferings [3:10] in his Roman prison.

[5]  Those who are truly rejoicing in the Lord at all times will be characterized by reasonableness … to everyone. Reasonableness or ‘gentleness’ means not insisting on every right or letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, and tolerant. The Pastorals include gentleness as an essential qualification for leadership in the church [1 Tim. 3:2] and call for members of the church to be gentle to everyone [Titus 3:3]. Gentleness should not be reserved only for close friends and family or only for fellow Christians; it should be known to everyone. Paul calls for Christians to have a reputation of being courteous. Especially in a society hostile to the Christian faith, Christians are called to respond to opposition with gentleness to all. Paul recognizes that suffering for faith in Christ tests the quality of reasonableness or gentleness. Harsh attacks quickly spark defensive responses. So Paul encourages the small, beleaguered group of Christians in Philippi to let their gentleness be evident to all even when they are stripped of their honor and treated unjustly. The assurance that The Lord is at hand provides needed encouragement to maintain the attitude of gentleness to all in a time of suffering. The phrase reminds the readers again of the imminent coming of the Savior from heaven to transform humiliation into glory [3:20-21]. The shame of persecution will soon be exchanged for the honor of participating in Christ’s victory. The New Testament church is often encouraged in times of suffering by the assurance that the Lord is near [Mark 13:29; James 5:8; Rev. 1:3; 22:10]. Even when Christians suffer under the rule of Caesar as Lord, they can express courteous leniency toward all because they believe that Christ the Lord is coming soon to subject all things to himself [3:21].

[6]  Assurance that the Lord is near also encourages Christians to stop being anxious. The present tense prohibition, do not be anxious, indicates that the readers must stop what they are habitually doing. The same verb is used with a positive connotation in Paul’s prediction that Timothy will be genuinely concerned for the welfare of the church in Philippi [2:20]. But evidently the Philippians had crossed the line from having genuine concern to being overly concerned and distressed by their concerns. Paul understands that anxious thoughts naturally multiply in times of trouble. But he calls for his friends to make a concerted effort to stop their obsession with worrying. His comprehensive prohibition allows them no exception: nothing, absolutely nothing, is a proper object of the continuous stress of worry. A comprehensive positive – but in everything – establishes a total contrast with the comprehensive negative – nothing. Only by praying with thanksgiving in everything is it possible to stop being anxious about anything. The continuous positive focus of praying with thanksgiving to God in everything breaks and replaces the habit of worry. The string of three synonyms for prayer – prayer, supplication, requests – with the additional emphasis on thanksgiving encourages all types of prayer. The first term, prayer, often signifies intercessory prayer for others. True intercessory prayer for others overcomes anxious thoughts about them. The second term, supplication, denotes an urgent request to meet a need, exclusively addressed to God. In this letter Paul uses this term when he refers to his prayers for the Philippians [1:4] and their prayers for him [1:19]. Since he and the Philippians were engaged in the same conflict [1:30], their prayers for each other included urgent requests for God to meet the needs caused by suffering for faith in Christ. Paul knew that the petitions of his friends in Philippi for him and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ would bring about his deliverance [1:19]. His experience of the effectiveness of petitions to God gave him confidence that God would meet all the needs of the Philippians [4:19]. Based upon this confidence in the effectiveness of petitions, Paul encourages the Philippians to turn their worries into petitions to God. The third term for prayer, requests, refers to naming specific items. By his use of this term, Paul encourages being specific in prayer to God – not mouthing vague generalities and amorphous meditation, but giving voice to the specific desires of our hearts. By telling us to let our requests be made known to God, Paul is not presupposing that God does not know our needs before we give voice to them. He is calling for full self-disclosure in God’s presence. By expressing our specific requests to God, we acknowledge our total dependence upon God. Prayer orients our lives toward God; we grow in an open relationship with God by presenting our specific needs and desires to Him. With thanksgiving gives the right attitude and perspective in prayer. Paul’s own prayers exemplify the practice of praying with thanksgiving [1:3-5]. Though Paul had good reasons to be anxious for the welfare of the Philippians given their experience of suffering and their lack of unity, his prayers for them exude an attitude of joyful gratitude to God for them. His confident petitions for God’s future blessings rest on his grateful remembrance of God’s faithfulness [1:6]. Thanksgiving means giving God the glory in everything, making room for Him, casting our care on Him, letting it be His care. Conversely, a lack of thanksgiving to God leads to idolatry: exchanging the glory of God for images of created things. As a result, thinking and praying become futile [Rom. 1:21-25]. Absence of thanksgiving to God in prayer turns off the power in prayer. Without thanksgiving, prayer becomes merely a way of complaining to God about all the bad things that are or might be happening. The only way to fulfill Paul’s challenge to do all things without grumbling or questioning [2:14] is to pray in everything … with thanksgiving [4:6].

[7]  After his instructions on prayer, Paul makes a promise that those who pray in this way will experience the peace of God. The transcendent experience of God’s peace is the assured result of praying as verse 6 describes prayer. The condition for experiencing God’s peace is not that God grants all of our requests but that we have made known all our requests to God with thanksgiving. God’s peace is not the result of the power of our prayers or the effectiveness of our prayers. Prayer is not auto-suggestion, a form of self-hypnosis that produces God’s peace. Prayer is our openness about our needs before God, our emptiness in his presence, our absolute dependence upon Him with an attitude of constant thanksgiving and complete trust. When we pray with that attitude, the focus is not at all upon what we are doing or will do, but on what God will do. God will do something supernatural beyond our best abilities and thoughts: the peace of God will guard us. Peace is always the gift of God rather than humanly devised or achieved. The peace of God denotes the peace that God Himself has. In this sense, the peace of God refers to the calm serenity that characterizes God’s very nature and that grateful, trusting Christians are welcome to share. Although the peace of God refers primarily to the peace God has and is in Himself, the peace of God also refers to the peace that God gives. The peace of God is the opposite of anxiety. When we trust God in prayer, God gives to us His peace to guard our hearts and minds against anxious thoughts. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. The verb guard conveys the general meaning of ‘to provide security, guard, protect, and keep’. The heart is the center and source of the whole inner life, with its thinking, feeling and volition. The mind is that which one has as a product of intellectual processes. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul recognizes the sad fact that the hearts and the thoughts even of Christians are susceptible to envy, rivalry, selfish ambition, vain conceit, and selfish interests [1:15; 2:3-4]. But he assures the church that through prayer, God will keep the peace in the community by guarding the innermost emotions, affections, thoughts, and moral choices of the members of the community. By referring to the hearts and minds of believers, Paul is giving a holistic summary of the interior life of the church and all its members. God gives peace and keeps peace in the community in Christ Jesus. This community of believers residing in Philippi lives in Christ Jesus. This significant phrase, in Christ Jesus, appears eight times in this letter [1:1,26; 2:5; 3:3,14; 4:7,19,21] as the unifying thread of the entire discourse.

[8]  Finally, Paul wraps up his directives for the Christian life with one long sentence containing two appeals: think about these things – the virtues of a good life [8] – and practice these things – what they learned from Paul [9]. As a result of God’s peace guarding the hearts and minds of believers, their minds focus on all that is excellent or praiseworthy. Paul defines all that is excellent with a list of six adjectives and two nouns arranged in an impressive rhetorical fashion. As a result of repeating the relative pronoun whatever before each of the six adjectives and omitting any conjunctions between these six clauses, Paul’s list of these six virtues appears to be expansive and comprehensive. Then two parallel conditional clauses summarize this list in terms of two nouns. This list of eight virtues presented in the six adjectives and two nouns leads up to the imperative and its direct object: think about these things. The challenge to think about whatever is true requires the search for truth in the most comprehensive sense. Thinking about whatever is true requires discernment to see the difference between what is true and what is false. Paul’s command endorses the claim that all truth is God’s truth. In obedience to this command, Christians work out an integration of whatever is true with the truth of the gospel in all areas of life. Paul’s encouragement to think about whatever is honorable leads to a life of respectful admiration of people who are honorable and above reproach. Calling for a focus on all that is honorable or noble also implies a deliberate turning away from all that is ignoble, dishonorable, and vulgar. Attention to whatever is just means fulfilling all that is obligatory in view of certain requirements of justice. To think about whatever is pure requires focusing on those things that are morally blameless. Paul’s call to moral purity reverberates throughout the early church [1 Tim. 5:22; Titus 2:5; James 3:17; 1 Peter 3:2; 1 John 3:3]. For Paul, purity in all of life begins in the thought life. Thought must also be given to aesthetic appreciation: think about whatever is lovely. The term translated lovely means “causing pleasure or delight, pleasing, agreeable, and lovely.” Consideration of this virtue leads to an enjoyment of genuine beauty that gives pleasure. The term translated commendable or admirable occurs only here in the New Testament. The word denotes whatever is praiseworthy. Whatever words, works, or persons are well spoken of by people deserve our careful consideration. After pointing to these six virtues in this list of adjectives, Paul now reinforces the significance of these virtues in his two conditional phrases: if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise. These two phrases qualify the six  qualities already listed in terms of moral excellence. The form of the conditional phrases assumes the certainty of the condition and could be translated: since there are things that are excellent and praiseworthy. Paul desires to direct the attention of the Philippians to those people who embody all the virtues in their character and conduct. The command to think requires his readers “to give careful thought to a matter, consider, ponder, and let one’s mind dwell on something.” Paul is calling for followers of Christ to be attentive, reflective, meditative thinkers. Developing a Christian mind and character requires a lifetime of discerning and disciplined thought about all the things that are excellent and praiseworthy.

[9]  All the virtues listed in verse 8 now receive redefinition in terms of Paul’s teaching and practice. Paul does not pose a contrast or disjunction between the qualities listed in verse 8 and the content of his teaching and conduct [9]. He is not correcting a wrong view of the virtues in light of his teaching and practice of the gospel, nor is he presenting two unrelated subjects: think about the virtues [8] and practice my teaching and example [9]. Rather Paul points to the virtues as the focus of his teaching and the form of his life. To remind his readers of the transformative experience of receiving his teaching and observing his example Paul strings together four verbs: learned and received and heard and seen. The verbs learned and received refer primarily to his teaching of the gospel, and the verbs heard and seen refer to the paradigmatic value of his life. To learn means to gain knowledge or skill by instruction. The Philippians learned of the gospel through Paul’s instruction and through their personal experience with Paul as they saw him embody the gospel in his life. The verb receive is often used by Paul as a technical term for receiving tradition. Since the verb received is also used for receiving Christ [Col. 2:6], it connotes more than an intellectual reception of traditional teaching. The Philippian believers received Paul’s teaching of the early church traditions of the gospel of Christ, including the hymn of Christ [2:6-11], and they also received the power of Christ’s life through their personal experience with Paul, who exemplified his motto: For to me, to live is Christ [1:21]. Personal observation of Paul’s example receives special emphasis in the verbs of sensory experience: heard and seen in me. Paul combines these two verbs earlier in the letter to remind the Philippians in their own struggle that he also suffered for the gospel of Christ [1:30]. Paul’s response to suffering in his own life provides a tangible pattern for the Philippians to follow. Although the prepositional phrase in me follows and modifies the last verb, seen, the phrase directs the Philippians to remember that all that they had learned and received and heard and seen was embodied in Paul. Paul not only preached the gospel, but he also showed the way to live the gospel. Paul’s command, practice these things, challenges his readers to move beyond contemplation to action. The imperative calls for them to bring about or accomplish something through activity. The time has come to get out of the chair of theoretical reflection about Christ and he Christian life and press on toward the goal [3:14]. Paul knew that these recent converts needed more than an instruction manual; they needed a mentor to know how to have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus [2:5]. The call to be like Christ is not enough; Paul sets forth his own life as a model for following Christ. The challenge appears often in Paul’s letters to his churches. Paul’s call for imitation of his example was entirely appropriate in the context of his day and conformed to the understanding of the teacher-student relationship in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. Although Paul takes the role of the teacher when he challenges his readers to think and to practice, he writes to them as a friend and gives them this challenge to strengthen his friendship with them. By calling the Philippian believers to think about the virtues and to practice his embodiment of the virtues in his Christ-centered teaching and life, Paul places his friendship with them on the firm basis of virtue in Christ. When believers think about these things and practice these things, they will enjoy the presence of the God of peace: and the God of peace will be with you. Those who focus their minds on all that is true and set their wills to do all that Paul has taught by word and example will experience the promise of the presence of the God of peace. Paul uses this name for God, God of peace, in prayers for his churches [1 Thess. 5:23; Rom. 15:33]. And this name, God of peace, introduces promises [Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:11]. Peace in the biblical sense is nearly synonymous with messianic salvation. Through the Messiah, God will bring the condition of peace: reconciliation with God and harmony in all relationships. Peace is not so much a subjective tranquility as an objective reality created by the reign of God through the Messiah. The promise of God’s presence assures the church that God, the source and sustainer of peace, will lead them to experience the reality of reconciliation with God and with one another. The God of peace will bring good order and harmony in their community worship of God and in their life together [1 Cor. 14:33]. When the God of peace is present, the peace of God rules in the hearts and minds of His people.”  [Hansen, pp. 286-304].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. This passage contains a series of commands and promises. List all the commands. What areas of your life do the commands cover? Note that the first command is to Rejoice … always. What does this command tell you concerning the nature of biblical joy? Do you wait until you feel joy or do you commit yourself to be joyful in the Lord? The two promises concern the peace of God in verses 7 and 9. What is the relationship between the commands and the promises? What must we do in order to experience the promise of God’s peace?
  1. What does Paul teach us concerning prayer in these verses? What types of prayers does Paul list? How does prayer cure anxiety? Why must our prayers be done with thanksgiving? When we include thanksgiving with our prayers, what are we saying to God?
  1. In verse 8 Paul describes eight virtues by using six adjectives and two nouns. Then he commands us to think about these things. What are these eight virtues? What do you spend time thinking about? What we put into our minds determines what comes out in our words and actions. Commit yourself to developing the Christian discipline of thinking about these eight virtues.
  1. In verse 9 Paul moves from thinking to doing. He commands us to practice these things. As you spend time thinking about the eight virtues, ask God to enable you to then put your thoughts into practice; to use these virtues in order to change your behavior.


The Letter to the Philippians, G. Walter Hansen, Eerdmans.

The Message of Philippians, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

Philippians, Moises Silva, Baker.

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