Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thess 5.16-18
Rejoice always. What a command! At first glance it seems like an insane command. How can God tell us to rejoice always? Is he serious? Does he command us to rejoice in times of sadness and pain? To rejoice when nothing seems to be going right? Let’s unpack this…
In context, the apostle Paul is giving final instructions to the church in Thessalonica. In chapter 1 he said they had received the word in much affliction. In chapter 2 he said they had suffered at the hands of their own countrymen. In chpt 3 he said he had told them believers are destined to suffer affliction. Then in Chapter 4 and 5 he assured them Jesus is going to return and we our fellow believers who died will be with Jesus forever. Then as he wraps up the letter he gives some final instructions, including rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.
So one quick summary of 1 Thessalonians would be: Believers will suffer affliction, but Jesus is coming back to take us to himself, so rejoice always, keep praying and giving thanks.
What is the meaning of the word “rejoice”?
The word rejoice here comes from the Greek xaíro (pronounced “KI-roh”) which is related to the word xáris (pronounced CARE-iss) which means “grace” – so to rejoice means to be conscious of or glad for God’s grace. God’s grace is his undeserved favor, or undeserved blessings. Our God is a God of grace, a GRACIOUS God
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. PS 103:8
Our gracious God saved us by his incredible abundant grace.
We all sinned against the infinitely holy, sinless, righteous God, who can allow no sin in his presence. What we deserve is eternal, unending punishment in hell. But God is infinitely gracious and instead of giving us the justice we deserved, sent his Son to live a sinless life then take our punishment and pay for our sins on the cross. When we believe in Jesus, who he is and all he did for us, God in his grace completely forgives and cleanses us of all our sins. But he is so gracious he doesn’t stop there. He adopts us as his very own sons and daughters, and makes us joint-heirs with Christ. He makes us one with Christ and begins his gracious work of transforming us into the likeness of Christ. He frees us from the power of Satan and sin, fills us with his Holy Spirit and gives us power to obey him and conquer sin. And in his graciousness he fills us with love for him.
So to rejoice means to be glad for God’s grace.
Even in the midst of affliction and sadness we can still rejoice in God’s love and grace. I’m not saying this is easy. I’m not saying we don’t feel grief and sadness and devastating pain. I’m not saying we don’t acknowledge pain and sadness. But even in the midst of affliction we can still rejoice in God’s grace to us. Only Christians can do this. Someone who doesn’t believe in God or in Jesus would have no reason to rejoice always.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. PHP 4.4
Here is the key: we rejoice IN THE LORD always.
Yes we can rejoice when God blesses us. But even in good times we aren’t so much rejoicing in our earthly blessings but IN THE LORD. And certainly when we suffer, we don’t rejoice in our suffering but IN THE LORD.
If we only look at our circumstances, we will have no reason to rejoice always. But if we look past them THROUGH THE EYES OF FAITH, we can rejoice. We don’t rejoice in a tragedy or something bad that happens. But we rejoice in THE LORD AND HIS GRACE that is above and beyond the circumstances.
We rejoice in THE LORD because he is in control of all circumstances all the time
We rejoice in THE LORD because he is good and loving – he only does what is loving for us, tho we don’t always understand how.
Because he is infinitely wise – he always does what is most wise for us.
So when we rejoice and give thanks it is AN ACT OF FAITH – we trust God’s word and promises.
Paul told the Thessalonians to be prepared to suffer. We will all suffer. Yet despite our suffering, God’s grace goes much deeper. But it takes FAITH to rejoice always.
Can you imagine talking to Joseph in the Old Testament? At age 17, he unwisely shared some dreams God gave him with his brothers, who hated him and threw him into a pit, then sold him into slavery in Egypt. Can you imagine talking to Joseph as he is trudging through the desert, bound in chains by slave traders dragging him to Egypt to sell him? “Hey Joseph, rejoice always. That means even now! Give thanks in all circumstances.” He would probably have said, “Are you crazy? Rejoice that I’m a slave? Rejoice that my brothers hate me so much they did this to me? Rejoice that I’m ripped away from my father and family?”
When Joseph finally gets to Egypt, he is bought by Potiphar, whom Joseph works so diligently for that eventually Potiphar puts him in charge of his household. It finally looks like things are starting to go well for Joseph, till Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him to sin. Joseph flees from the house. He obeys God. Seeks to be pure for God. And what happens? Potiphar’s wife accuses him of coming on to her! Potiphar throws him in prison. Can you imagine talking to Joseph then? “Hey Joseph, rejoice man! Give thanks!” Joseph would say, “What? Rejoice? Really? My brothers sell me to slave traders, I’m bought by an Egyptian, and then when things are finally starting to turn around for me, his wife accuses me and I’m thrown into prison. Rejoice?
While Joseph is in prison God gives him favor in the eyes of the prison keeper who eventually puts Joseph in charge of all the prisoners and everything else in the prison. And Joseph does a great job with it. One day two former officers of Pharaoh whom he’d thrown into prison have dreams. And Joseph interprets them. He tells the cupbearer he will be freed and restored to his former position. He begs the cupbearer, ‘When you get out please mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of here, for I’m innocent. I was stolen from my homeland and I did nothing wrong here that I should be here.’ Joseph’s interpretations prove true, the cupbearer goes free. But does the he mention Joseph to Pharaoh? Nope! He completely forgets about Joseph. And Joseph is stuck languishing there for 2 more years. “Joseph, give thanks in all circumstances! Rejoice always man!” Joseph: “Oh yeah right! Rejoice always. Give thanks that I’m stuck here in this pit.”
But 2 years later, Pharaoh has troubling dreams and no one can interpret them. Suddenly the cupbearer remembers Joseph, Pharaoh calls him, he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and ultimately Pharaoh makes Joseph the number 2 man in all of Egypt. Because of Joseph’s wisdom and planning, when a severe famine hits Egypt, he is able to provide for thousands of Egyptians and his brothers and father as well. He is 30 years old when Pharaoh promotes him. He was 17 when sold into slavery. So for 13 years he had been a slave, then in prison.
Years later after his father dies, his brothers fear Joseph may hate them and pay them back for what they did to him. They send a message to him, “Before Father died he sent a message that said ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you. They come trembling before him and say, “Behold we are your servants.”
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (GE 50:19-20)
Did Joseph rejoice always during the 13 years in slavery and prison? Did he give thanks? I don’t know. Did he KNOW that God meant it all for good at the time? I don’t know. But if he could have seen what God was going to do with him to save thousands of lives in Egypt and save the lives of his father and his brothers and his brothers wives and children and then to use what happened to him to show millions throughout history who read his story in the Bible the sovereignty and wisdom of God, he could have rejoiced and given thanks even though he was suffering horribly.
To rejoice always we must LOOK BEYOND OUR CIRCUMSTANCES TO OUR GRACIOUS GOD.
We rejoice in God’s grace despite our circumstances.
So no matter what we go through we can always say, “Father, I rejoice that you are in control of what’s happening here, and somehow you are causing it to work for my good. I rejoice that you are infinitely loving and infinitely wise and that someday I will understand your wise and loving plan. Thank you Lord Jesus, that someday you will wipe away every tear from my eyes and I will rejoice forever with you at the marriage feast of the Lamb. Thank you for saving me and making me a joint-heir with Jesus.”
Remember, we don’t rejoice in our circumstances but in the Lord. We rejoice not because we feel like rejoicing but we rejoice in faith.