“Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. ” (Matthew 5:12)
Rejoice. Rejoice and be exceeding glad. Rejoice and be jump for joy glad. Those aren’t suggestions. Jesus, this is how You are directing, commanding me to live my life whether in the absence of trials or in the midst of the deepest, most terrible persecution or hardship. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” “Don’t worry, ” You say, “you are not alone.”
Thinking about my response to hard things, to difficult things, to persecution, because I am choosing to follow You, Lord, takes me to Paul’s words in Philippians 4:4-7. ” Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Here is someone, another person, an anthropos that has been indwelt with Your supernatural person, Your nature inside, like me, like anyone who has surrendered their life fully to You. And he has found the secret to joy that was revealed to all creation through the person of Jesus Christ, by the power of His death and resurrection, and in community with Him through His Holy Spirit.
Paul even penned these words while in a 1st century Roman prison. Bob Fraser wrote about prisons in Paul’s world. They weren’t like our prisons where people are sent for punishment to serve time. It was a holding area, sometimes for an undetermined time, to find out if you would be condemned and what condemnation you would receive. “Prisons were populated mainly by those awaiting trial—however long that wait might be—and by those whose sentence had yet to be carried out.” Now, I need to wipe out of my mind any idea of Paul’s prison being like our prisons today. Way before Paul’s time period, prisons were known as a “house of darkness.” That’s exactly what this could have been for Paul, a house of darkness.
What was this house of darkness like that Paul was held prisoner in, the place where Paul was assigned by God and man to live for this period of his life? Sallust, a Roman historian, wrote of Paul’s prison a hundered years earlier, “[It] is sunk about twelve feet under ground. Walls secure it on every side, and over it is a vaulted roof connected with stone arches; but its appearance is disgusting and horrible, by reason of the filth, darkness and stench.” These prisons were usually dug in stone. There was a manhole size entrance/exit above that also was used to lower items, not only people, into the prison. Now, imagine a guard being assigned to this awful place. Imagine what his attitude toward those prisoners might be like. Imagine the oil lamps or candles that were the only light. Imagine not seeing sunlight. Imagine having to wait for someone to come visit to clean the waste out of your cell. Imagine the smell. I imagine that many of the prisoners had no one who came in to encourage them or to clean their cells. Imagine living in that house of darkness. Now imagine rejoicing in it.
Paul actually did have a visitor while he was in this prison. A slave named Onesimus came to see him. Actually, it was dangerous to come be associated with a prisoner whether you were a slave or not. But it was extra dangerous for a slave because it was up to the guard to let you back out. Now imagine this Onesimus caring so deeply about his brother in Christ, Paul, that he would repeatedly come back and visit and bring needed items to Paul. I’m sure he brought quill and paper and delivered the letters for him. But I bet he also cleaned the straw and took the soiled straw away. Onesimus was such an encouragement during Paul’s bonds that he shared in Colossians 4:9 about his faithfulness and how beloved a brother he was. I think Onesimus even stayed long enough in that wretched place with Paul to help pen for Paul the letter to the Colossians and the letter to Philemon.
Am I in a dark place? Rejoice, and be exceeding glad. You, Lord, are the Light, not only mine, but the light for everyone in that dark place, the Light for everyone who sees me in that dark place. As Paul looked to You, You made him shine in that prison. You made Onesimus shine. And I wonder how many guards and other prisoners who entered with no hope, were effected by Your light shining through Paul and Onesimus? I wonder how many instances they had to jump for joy because of what You performed in a dark prison?
Paul didn’t write about the darkness of his prison. Paul spent time thinking about the brightness of his Lord. He shared about how You, Lord, were encouraging him even from inside the prison. And that went far deeper than the encouragement You allowed Onesimus to bring. You were his encourager. You were his light. You were his sustenance when he had none. You were his sweet savor when the air smelled rotten all around. You were his freedom when he was chained. You were the one who brought Onesimus, who worked the desire into his heart to visit Paul. You were the One who gave Paul what to write to encourage others and be encouraged.
Some people think to live is to have a life of extreme adventures, or to attain a good status, or to attain something that this world has to give. The Greek idea of rejoicing, the root chairo, has to do with achieving pleasure from the release of cares in this world. The ultimate temporary nature of this was signified by the occurrance of death which came to all. So rejoicing was based on man’s ability and only temporary, just like it’s promoted in our world today. But the real idea of rejoicing, is based in the nature and person of God in Christ Jesus. And it is not just an individualistic “thing.” It’s 100% based on community. We have a reason to rejoice, a way to find pleasure despite the cares of this world because we know we are accepted and cared for by our Creator. Jesus paid the price for me to be released from the pressures of this world into the hands and fellowship of God Himself. Jesus went to the cross, sacrificed Himself, paid my penalty, suffered the wrath of God for me, and rose again victoriously so that I could stand in grace with Him. I can stand in a house of darkness and see the Light because He already paid that costly price for me. But I, like Him, am called to stand in the same dark places that He was called to. Remember, “as the Father has sent me, so am I sending you.” I must choose to deny the “reality” of this world and affirm God’s truth in Jesus Christ. It’s a costly experience to experience grace but the unspeakable joy and fullness of Him who called us is worth, oh, more than worth every experience!
Even Peter wrote to encourage exiles in their own “house of darkness” outside prison walls. They weren’t where they wanted to be, they were exiles! Yet they had this hope as Paul did and we do. And it’s not a hope of only something to come, it’s a hope and promise of what has already begun in us and what we are in the process of attaining. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Wow! I need to read that over and over and over and over again. It doesn’t matter how dark my prison, I have this Light of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ within me! I am born again. No matter what happens in life and death I am already an heir with Him. My inheritance in Christ is not affected by death, by the defilement of nasty conditions and harmful conditions in prison or life, it’s not affected by man’s treatment or negation of anything. God, by His power, is keeping me!
He’s not just holding me. He is keeping guard over me. So while Paul was in prison. God was His ultimate keeper, not the guard. When trials come my way, the world is not my keeper or controler, You, Lord are. Your are my guard and You have me totally surrounded and taken care of. It’s like when I walk in some parts of Manila with my friend and I feel totally safe. And it’s not just because she has my back and I have hers, it’s because I know that You have more than our backs. I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to worry. I’m going to be OK. We both will, because we’re Yours and in Your hands.
And it’s not that I’m waiting for a future salvation in that verse. It’s already begun but we’re living out the reality of it in life now until it becomes fully realized in heaven with You. And it’s all because of Your power and submitting to living in that power. Because then I can “greatly rejoice, though now, for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested guineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Now I just can’t help think that my faith being found unto praise and honor and glory isn’t just for in the future. That my faith ought to be already beginning to look like this and exhibit praise and honor and glory now. Why? Because You, Lord, have already begun unveiling Yourself to me. And You even use these hard situations to manifest Yourself even more. And I think that’s what Peter is saying I have to rejoice in, because he continues.
“Though you have not seen Him, you love him. Though you do not see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” No, I have not seen You like John and James and Peter. But You have begun to make Yourself known to me. You loved me first and I experienced that love and came to know You through it. That’s why I love You. That’s why I believed. Because “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) But I don’t think faith is the assurance of “things” hoped for. I think that faith is the assurance of confidence in You and Your plan and Your power and Your provision and Your guarding and Your presence and everything in You and of You and for You. And it’s that reason that I can be sure that those promises that haven’t come to be yet, have already been proven to be true when their time comes, though yet it hasn’t. Why? Because Jesus, You are the Proof, and You are my Confidence.
And like Paul, I can confidently say and live rejoicing and jumping for joy in the midst of the most terrible trial or persecution because “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) If this isn’t grounds for rejoicing every moment I don’t know what is! Oh, Lord, keep my focus on You. You are continually doing this supernatural work of Yourself in me. Teach me to rejoice no matter the situation, and I mean truly rejoice in You and in what You are doing in the midst of that situation, even if You are being silent and teaching me to trust. May my faith be my confidence in You and may that be based on my continued growth in Your proving Yourself to me as I learn to rely on You more and more every day. Rejoice, and again I say rejoice. I pray that someday, someone will say of me, “You know what, no matter what, that woman always rejoiced, always.”