Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
- Philippians 4:4-6
Sometimes you reread something in a different light and what is said is significantly changed. This was one of those instances for me.
Firstly, the call to "rejoice" is a directive; because this is appears at both the beginning and the end of the sentence, we can assume that the directive is emphasised.
Secondly, because it appears as an active and present directive, the instruction means "do this now".
Thirdly, the word "always" which in the Greek is the word "pantote" (as in the poor will always be with you and appears 38 times in the new testament) defines no boundaries upon this directive. In other words "do this now; you must not stop".
However, what is really quite extraordinary about this passage, is the context from which it was written. I make deliberate use of the word "from" rather than "in" here because I think that this is utterly singular.
We can find the context from where this was written by looking back further in the letter:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.
- Philippians 1:3-7
Paul presumably wrote this letter whilst in chains in prison in the Praetorian Guard's complex, the Castra Praetoria on the outskirts of the seven hills of Rome. The Praetorian Guard weren't particularly nice people. They were responsible for assassinating Caligula, installing Claudius, deserting Nero, overthrowing Galba in the year of the four emperors, and eventually setting up Titus and Domitian as emperor from within their own ranks.
They were so influential in the running and political intrigue of the capital of the City of Rome that it is their red festoon helmet which is what we often think of as the stereotypical Roman soldier's helmet even two millennia later. Don't believe me? It is the Praetorian Guard's red festoon helmet which appears on American Express' credit cards.
Paul would on occasion find himself in a rented house in Rome (still under house arrest) but more than likely, the letter to the Philippians was written within their high walls. It is likely that whilst under guard there, Paul would have been cut off from the outside world; save for the letters and visitors which he had, and probably even unable to see the outside world because the walls of the Castra Praetoria stand up to 70 feet high in some places.
I don't think that a Roman prison cell would have been even remotely comfortable either. I doubt for instance whether he would have even had the luxury of straw bedding for instance.
How then is Paul able to contemplate, let alone write to the church at Philippi to "Rejoice", and to "Let your gentleness be evident to all"? The very thought seems bordering on madness. The answer is contained only a few lines later:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
- Philippians 4:11-13
I don't think for a second that Paul found this easy. He notes that "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances". A fun way to remember the Greek word for learned is to look inside it. The word "eMATHon" contains the word "math*" and anyone who has ever done maths to any level knows that the higher you go, the more difficult and downright hair-pullingly frustrating it can get.
Learning something and especially under difficult circumstances, such as being in a prison cell; under an emperor (Nero) who was mad, bad and evil and actively wanted to kill you, surely can not have been an easy lesson. Paul points out (possibly resignedly) that "I can do all this through him who gives me strength."
Paul's exhortation to "Rejoice" then, only appears to gain another element of semi-madness. I wonder if in writing this to the church at Philippi, whether or not to some degree he was also writing a set of instructions to himself. There is a trite saying that we learn 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear and 90% of what we teach to others.
Whatever the case, Paul learned to be content whatever the circumstances and his instruction to "Rejoice in the Lord always" is a definitive one; even if circumstances are difficult; even if you don't really want to. Someone under instruction like a student or even a soldier like the Praetorian Guard rarely wants to do what they have been told because its fun but because ultimately it is to their benefit.
This directive is a hard directive but because of the word "pantote", it is a directive with out end -
"do this now; you must not stop".
*yes, I know that "math" is wrong. Mathematics is a plural; I've already written about this in Horse 1503: