In this section of his letter Paul instructs his readers in the church in Philippi about important areas of their spiritual lives in light of the fact that the King is coming. He had reminded them at the close of chapter 3 of this great future reality, that Jesus would return and change their humiliated bodies and make them like his glorious body. In a way similar to how a resident in Philippi would prepare for the coming of the Emperor, so the believers should prepare for the arrival of Jesus.
Perhaps preparation in the city would involve tidying up the streets and removing unsightly objects. The believers should also remove unsightly features and develop beautiful replacements. Paul has already mentioned one unsightly element (the disharmony between Euodia and Syntyche) which they had had to remove, both individually as far as the two ladies were concerned and corporately as far as the ones who were to help them. Unity was essential as preparation for the coming of the King.
No doubt, the prospect of the coming of the Emperor would have created a sense of anticipation in the minds of the people. It would be a privilege for them, and a cause of joy and happiness. Paul challenges his readers to rejoice as a means of preparing for the coming of the King. A person alone on a desert island surrounded by sharks would rejoice if he knew that rescue was on the way, if a communication had been delivered to him that a rescue ship would soon be there. Believers have received communication from heaven about the coming of Jesus, therefore whatever their situations they should rejoice.
Perhaps an expected response would be, ‘Is Paul not being unrealistic here, expecting people to be joyful in such a difficult life situation in which they were facing various troubles?’ Of course, if Paul was writing this letter from comfortable, trouble-free circumstances, the criticism would have some validity. But we know that Paul at the time of writing was imprisoned, waiting for the verdict from his court case. Yet in such conditions, Paul was full of joy. His demand that his readers have joy was an authentic one because he himself knew that this joy in the Lord could be experienced in all situations.
I suppose the word in Paul’s instruction that causes most difficulty is the word ‘always’. This is not the only occasion where Paul states this opinion. He writes in Ephesians 5:20: ‘giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ And in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, he exhorts, ‘Rejoice always.’
We all can imagine situations where great joy can be experienced: in our personal lives, there is joy at marriages, childbirths, friendships, success in careers; in our churches there is joy at conversions, at numerical growth, at restorations of backsliders, in times of fellowship. Yet we know that there are situations that can seem so dark that joy is impossible: marriage break-ups, deaths, bankruptcy, church divisions, backsliding. If the answer to the problem was in situations, then we would have difficulty understanding how it could be possible to have continual joy.
In fact, the solution to the word ‘always’ is found in Paul’s statement, in his phrase ‘in the Lord’. When we reflect on what is included in this phrase, we realise that there are no situations in life that can prevent us from having comfort, rest and therefore joy from the Lord. If there was even one such situation that could prevent joy coming from God, it would indicate that there was a condition in which God’s grace could not be known, where the fruit of the Spirit could not be displayed and developed.
It is hard, as we focus on Paul’s demand here, not to recall the wonderful declaration of Habakkuk. When he saw the effect of the presence of the Lord, he says that his body trembled and his lips quivered. The prophet knew that there were tough times ahead because the Lord was going to punish Israel. Yet he states his attitude in 3:17-18: ‘Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labour of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls – yet I will rejoice in the Lord , I will joy in the God of my salvation.’ Whatever comes his way, Habakkuk is confident that ‘the Lord God is my strength; he will make my feet like deer’s feet, and he will make me walk on my high hills.’