When writing to Christians in the city of Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul instructs them, "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). These words are instruction to a church newly founded by Paul, composed of people who left Greco-Roman paganism to embrace Jesus Christ by faith. Rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks in all circumstances should characterize the lives of these new Christians in the face of heated opposition from those who do not understand why people would worship a Jewish rabbi from far-away Palestine who claimed to be the Son of God but was put to death by the Romans.
To command Christians to rejoice under difficult circumstances is hard to understand without a context. We can understand why people who are facing opposition would need to pray—they must seek the grace of God to sustain them during their trials. We can understand why they should give continual thanks for the mercies of God that they continue to receive. But why must God's people rejoice during times of trial and persecution?
Paul's teaching about Jesus reveals the Apostle to be a critic of Greek Stoicism, a philosophy of life that taught people to live resolutely in accordance with fixed laws of nature. Yet, at first hearing, Paul's command to rejoice during trials sounds a bit like what Greeks might expect from a Stoic philosopher. Why would Paul command this if he was not a Stoic himself?
The answer is found by looking to the future and the eternal hope promised to every Christian, which is the context for the command to sufferers to rejoice in difficult times. In Romans 12:9–21, Paul is addressing the marks of a true Christian—the manifestations of new religious affections in the lives of those who have been justified through faith in Jesus, who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and who are being conformed to the image of their Savior. The key manifestation is love for Jesus and for those redeemed by Him (v. 9). Such love is drawn toward the good while abhorring evil. It can be seen in brotherly affection and honor (v. 10), as well as in zeal and sincerity in serving the Lord (v. 11).
In verse 12, Paul gives us the context for rejoicing in times of trial: "Rejoice in hope." The reason why Christians are commanded to rejoice in the midst of trials, suffering, and persecution now becomes clear. By looking to the future, Christians know that their trials, however difficult, are temporary, and that when all is said and done, God promises to turn every current trial to our eternal good (8:28). True joy is not grounded in personal sentiment or emotions ("I feel joyful"), nor in a stoic resolution to bravely face the future. Rather, it is grounded in the fact that the crucified Savior who died for our sins so as to turn aside the wrath of God was also bodily raised from the dead and will come again in ful llment of all His promises.
Christians rejoice in times of trial and suffering because doing so emulates the saving work of Jesus, who suffered and died before being raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father, where He rules over all things. The pattern established by Jesus—suffering precedes glory—holds true for all those who trust in Him and are united to Him by the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus suffered and was raised, we are promised the same thing. Our suffering, trials, temptations, and persecution will give way to all the blessings Jesus has promised to us—the future hope of which Paul often speaks (see 1 Cor. 15:19; 1 Thess. 5:8; 2 Thess. 2:16–17).
Rejoicing in times of trial is not some meaningless religious ritual in which we focus on how we feel or in which we resolve to be brave. Instead, we are following the example set by Jesus in His own life, death, and resurrection. Suffering and trials give way to the resurrection of our bodies, future glory, and eternal life. Paul makes this point earlier in Romans:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (8:23–25)
Christians can rejoice in the midst of suffering because of Jesus, who has secured and now guarantees a future joy for all those whom He redeems.