Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:4-9
Joy is a theme found all over the Scriptures. In ancient Israel, God often commanded the people to rejoice when observing their sacrifices and festivals (see Lev 23:40; Deut 12:7). The Prophets described the rejoicing that would come with God’s future deliverance of his people (see Isa 12:3; 35:10; Jer 33:9; Hab 3:18). In the New Testament, Jesus told his followers to rejoice in persecution, for it showed they stood in a long line of faithful believers (Matt 5:12). Also, they were told to rejoice that their names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20). At the final marriage supper of the Lamb, joy and praise will resound (Rev 19:6-8). Joy is truly a profound theme from beginning to the end in the Bible. Joy, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, is “the serious business of heaven.”*
In just four chapters of Philippians, the Apostle Paul mentions joy or rejoicing fourteen times. In 4:4, he issues a command to rejoice, and repeats the command lest they missed it the first time! Whatever image rejoicing brings to our minds, Paul here does not invite a superficial kind of happiness. Writing from prison, Paul knows that a superficial joy cannot create the kind of Christian community he longs to see formed. Rather, Paul knows that when the Philippian church grasps the beauty and supremacy of Jesus their lives will be different. In 4:4-9, Paul shows how Christ grounds our joys, gives us peace, and guides our thought life.
It is not insignificant that Paul says to rejoice in the Lord (4:4). People are very good at seeking alternative sources of joy, whether it be our self-image, a career, a relationship, or achievement. While these things may be good, they are not ultimate. When everything else falls away, what can still bring sustaining joy? Paul reminds us that it is the Lord. The Psalmist also says that in God’s presence is the “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). When we see who God is, and what he has done for us in Christ, we can only rejoice.
The God of joy is also a God of peace. The same motive for rejoicing, in the character and work of God, is the very thing that kills anxiety. Paul tells the church not to be anxious about anything, but rather, to pray with thanksgiving. It’s kind of silly to think about, but anxiety is like a young child fretting that their mom or dad will not file their taxes correctly. There are just some things that are over their heads. Mom or dad has everything under control. In the same way, we worry about things that God has under control. When we recognize this and humbly submit to his loving care, he is there to meet us with an incomprehensible peace.
Finally, a life oriented towards this God of joy and peace will affect the way we think. As those living in a crooked and twisted generation (2:15), we can begin to conform to the thinking of the world (see Rom 12:2). Paul reminds us that the believer is to think on things are pure and lovely, excellent and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). Relationship with God leaves no stone unturned, whether in our hearts, our bodies, or our minds. The God who grounds our joy in himself delights to give good gifts to those who ask (see Matt 7:11).
* From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963-64), p. 93