Joy and rejoicing were at the forefront of Paul’s mind, as he sat in detention awaiting trial. What did he have to be so joyful about?
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi from prison in Rome. It was more of a house arrest than a prison as we might think of it, but still, he did not have freedom of movement and was under guard. Awaiting trial. He was pretty sure he would not be condemned to death. But still, the possibility of execution was real. If it were me in that situation, I might not feel a lot of joy. But he did. He wrote about it, and apparently really dwelt on it.
In the KJV of this letter, we find Paul talking about joy or rejoicing 18 times. It’s 16 times in the NKJV and the NASB, 13 in the NIV, 12 in the ESV. Some of the difference among versions is due to varying use of “glorying” instead. The “rejoicing” and “glorying” are not all from the same word family in the Greek, but that’s not the point here. The point is that joy and rejoicing were at the forefront of Paul’s mind, as he sat in detention awaiting trial. What did he have to be so joyful about?
He tells us! He prays with joy for those he’s writing to (1:4). He rejoices that the gospel is proclaimed, even if it’s by people who are attempting to make things harder on Paul (1:18). He will come through his ordeal, for their progress and joy in the faith (1:25), so that they will glory in Christ (1:26). He implores them to complete his joy by being of one mind (2:2). He looks forward to rejoicing over his readers on the day of Christ (2:16). He is glad and rejoices, even if he’s to be “poured out” (i.e. killed), and wants them to join him in this (2:16-18). He urges his readers again and again to rejoice themselves (2:28, 3:1, 3:3, 4:4).
Paul’s clear intention was to provoke joyfulness
There’s more—we don’t have to mention all of them. We do, however, need to take notice! Not just read over, mindlessly, all this talk of joyfulness. Paul’s clear intention was to provoke joyfulness, and he sets himself as an example. He is full of joy, and they (we!) should be too.
Under threat, confined, attacked by pseudo-brethren—he’s full of joy.
If you want to dig into the Greek words, you’ll find that “joy” is the perfect English word. It could be “cheer” or “gladness” or “happy” or “well off”. You get the picture: he’s talking about being really happy, to the point of glorying, even given his circumstances.
When you read the letter (please do, and I mean the whole thing at one sitting—doesn’t take very long), you can feel that he’s genuine. This isn’t a false front, a phony brave face, just saying what he thinks people will expect or want to hear. He’s genuinely happy—happy in his connection with these brothers and sisters, happy in his service to his Lord wherever it takes him, happy the gospel is spreading. Looking forward in joy to the day of Jesus Christ.
Do you wish, like I do, for some of that to rub off on you? That, I suggest, is Paul’s very intention. His joy is genuine, and he wants us, his readers, to feel it too. To allow genuine joy to be established in us.
Can it really work that way? Can we consciously decide to be joyful, and have it happen, genuine and not fake?
Qualified yes. We do have to decide. But to be genuine we have to know what we’re joyful about. Otherwise it is fake. What is there to be joyful about, in a world of inequity, immorality, lies, pain, godlessness, death? Paul shows us: The gospel is proclaimed. Brethren are united. Christ is coming. We have each other, and we have salvation in Jesus Christ. These are genuine sources of joy, and they have nothing to do with the circumstances we happen to be in at the moment. It’s a matter of focus. Where do we direct our attention?
Near the end of the letter, Paul famously writes, “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.” (4:8) This is how we can remain joyful, no matter what.
We don’t just happen to have an example in Paul. He intentionally presents himself as an example. The next verse: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (4:9)
Paul says to you and me, “Hey, I’m really, deep-down happy. It’s so much better than fear, despair, surrender. Go ahead, let it rub off on you! Makes me even happier when you do.”
Love, Paul (not that one…)