“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” (Philippians 3:1 ESV)
Many of us know the feeling when a gifted preacher begins to circle the proverbial landing strip—“in conclusion . . . ”—only to launch into a new sermonic detour.
In this manner, Paul was not unlike our Bible teachers today. “Finally, my brothers, rejoice” he says—or “farewell,” depending on one’s translation (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:11 KJV, NRSV). Yet he misses the runway and proceeds to exhort his readers to flee legalism (Philippians 3:2-11), pursue Christ (vv. 12-21), and exhibit Christian virtue (4:1ff).
Paul’s seeming failure to land the plane in chapter 3 shows his pastoral concern for the believers on the ground in Philippi. This will become apparent shortly.
Much like his habit of transforming standard Greek greetings into salutations loaded with theological depth, here too Paul unfolds the spiritual reality underlying the valediction “rejoice.” They are to rejoice in the Lord, not in worldly affairs or personal achievements. He summons them to Christian joy—to savor the satisfaction that can only be found in God, irrespective of external circumstances.
In other passages, Paul refers to this kind of joy as the “joy of the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6, Romans 7:14). Christian joy is Trinitarian; we delight in God, through Christ, by the Spirit. To delight in one Person of the Godhead is to delight in all; to delight in all is to delight in each one. Fourth-century theologian and archbishop Gregory of Nazianzus wrote: “No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one” (Orations, 40.41). Therefore, to rejoice in the Lord means to revel in the fullness of God as he reveals himself to us through Christ, with affections shaped by the Spirit.
However, unlike a contemporary preacher who interrupts his own closing remarks, Paul’s diversion aligns perfectly with the overall theme of his epistle. He has already referenced joy and gladness at least eight times (1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17, 18, 28, 29). Meanwhile, he recognizes that the church is facing significant external pressures and internal temptations, in large part due to the presence of insincere preachers (1:15-17) and Judaizing false teachers (2:2, 18-19). Therefore, his apparent shift in topic in 3:1 (“To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you”) is a critical move to address the gravest threat to the Philippians’ joy in Christ. Paul yearns for the Philippians to find joy in their faith (1:25), and he preemptively addresses the strategies the enemy might use to disrupt their tranquility, especially issuing warnings about Jewish heretics. False gospels, after all, redirect our hearts to pride in our personal identity and accomplishments rather than in God’s love and Christ’s merits. This is why one commentator argues that spiritual joy “produces the best safety against errors, especially Jewish [i.e., Judaizing] ones.” No other gospel can satisfy.
Paul’s logical advice to his readers, then, is to strive together for the faith and the spread of the gospel while cultivating an unyielding joy in Christ, resilient to the world’s worries. In other words, they should engage in what C.S. Lewis calls “the serious business of Heaven” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 93)—joy.
Indeed, to embark on this serious pursuit of joy is easier said than done. John Calvin rightly acknowledged it as a “rare excellence” when the Christian, exhausted by Satan’s attacks and the burden of carrying his cross, can yet “take such satisfaction in tasting God’s grace, that all annoyances, sorrows, anxieties, and griefs are sweetened.” This is not merely the result of a naturally cheerful disposition but is a grace from the Holy Spirit.
Paul would not have his readers to be simply warriors for the gospel but jolly warriors. Therefore, we must pray for the Lord to grant us this joy that only comes as a fruit of the Spirit. When we are tempted to focus on our sufferings, disappointments, frustrations, wounds, and trauma in the present age, we risk missing the vast treasure of a deep-rooted joy in Christ that supersedes earthly conditions.
You have saved me so that I may commune with you and taste your joy. I confess the many lesser loves that divert my heart away from the satisfaction you alone provide. The world’s many false gospels all seek to divert my affections from Christ and place them in perishable things, status, identity, or even good works undertaken in your name. Teach me, above all, to rejoice in you, and give me the grace to do so.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray that your church would be marked by a special joy in the Lord. Pray that your efforts to advance the gospel in the world would be the overflow of delight in the Lord.
- Pray that your pastors would be filled with the joy of the Lord. Ask that their ministries would be marked by a godly joviality in the face of trial.
- Pray for missionaries laboring in difficult and depressing contexts in various parts of the globe to rejoice in the Lord always and avoid doctrinal error.