An Unbreakable Joy How to rejoice in suffering and death.

The following was a sermon preached at Christ Reformed Church in Meeker, Colorado, on June 19, 2016. 

your life is a sermon

This morning we’ll be looking at Philippians 1:18-21, where we find Paul’s pastoral example of rejoicing in the face of great suffering and imminent death. God could have sent us a bare message, but as He so often delights to do, He sends us a pastoral biography marked by suffering to show us the value of knowing Christ.

My friend Sam actually pointed this out to me earlier this week: God could have just communicated to the Philippian church with words, but He didn’t. He saw it fitting to use Paul as a living, breathing example of how to rejoice in the face of suffering and death. His life was perhaps the greatest sermon he ever preached.

It’s these real-life biographies that God gives us that change us and wake us up to see what’s really valuable in the day of our death. He doesn’t send a bare message—he sends it to us in the life of others.

Philippians has been personalized for me through the life of my friend Davin, whom I knew for a short time in seminary. Davin was diagnosed with cancer and battled it for a year, and then, a little over four years ago, he died at the age of 33. And throughout that year he said, with his words and with his life, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He said it, and he lived it.

Several weeks ago I stood with Davin’s parents at his grave, where we prayed together, among other things that his life would send ripple effects, for the sake of the gospel, into other people’s lives. It’s already done that in mine. My point in sharing that story is that when you stand at the grave with parents and weep with them over their son, the one who died saying that Christ was better than everything he was losing, that changes you. And so I’m grateful for Davin’s faithfulness, which displayed for me the worth of knowing Christ in ways mere words never could.

Davin’s life, and Paul’s life in this text, force us to ask, “What really matters in light of our death?” Ultimately, as Paul says, knowing Christ. In this letter Paul points us to the one thing of importance in the face of suffering and death, the ultimate source of our joy: knowing Christ.

The question for us this morning is, “How can we rejoice in the face of all of our suffering and pain?” When life disappoints, as it so often does, when you end up where you never thought you’d be—maybe that’s rock bottom—when it feels like there’s nothing left to hope for, Paul shows us that we have access to a joy that can’t be broken by any of that.

So we’ll be looking today at the two major foundations, the anchor of Paul’s joy, in this text, and I’m praying that it would be your joy. I’m calling them God’s Purpose (verse 19-20) and Christ’s Person (verse 21). It is my prayer and hope for you that you would be empowered by the Spirit to rejoice even in your tears—in cancer, tragedy, disappointment, and death. I want you to know the resurrection joy that conquers the grave.


In verse 18 we find the main point of the sermon text this morning, which is Paul’s statement, “Yes, and I will rejoice.” This is his resolution, his firm commitment, to rejoice no matter what happens to him. This is strong language, especially given Paul’s present situation in the letter.

We know that he’s in prison (verse 12 and following), and we know that’s he’s facing a likely death, as we know he eventually stands condemned by a human court. And not only in this letter, but in Acts we see that everywhere Paul went, he faced tremendous suffering. You remember, at his conversion, what Jesus said about Paul: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).

Paul is absolutely confident that everywhere he goes he will suffer. And yet he can say, in verse 18, no matter what happens, I will rejoice. Second Corinthians 11:23-29 gives us the flavor of Paul’s life:

“[I have had] far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

You would think, as is our tendency to do, that this kind of unbreakable joy comes in the absence of difficulty. And yet what makes Paul’s joy so remarkable is that it exists in the face of such horrendous affliction. The soil in which this kind of joy grows is not an easy and comfortable life—instead, this breed of joy grows in the soil of relentless pain and suffering.

“You don’t really know jesus is all you need until jesus is all you have.” tim keller

It’s obvious at this point that Paul’s joy does not depend on things he can lose—things he already has lost (chapter 3, verse 8): like his career, reputation, wealth, a comfortable life, a lavish retirement plan, or the approval of men. So if his joy doesn’t depend on those things, what does it depend on? That’s the vital question for us this morning as we examine the text. What does your joy depend on?

The Characteristics of Paul’s Joy

We’ll look at the two main reasons for Paul’s joy in a moment, but first I want to consider the characteristics of Paul’s joy, so that we know what exactly Paul is committed to and why it’s so important to him.

  1. God commands our joy (Phil. 4:4). Lest we think joy is something God merely suggests, we see in chapter 4, verse 4, that Paul, an Apostle, authorized to speak the very words of God, commands our joy. This is not something God takes lightly, nor should we. It’s a staggeringly wonderful truth that God will not rest until we are fully satisfied in him.
  1. Our joy is Christ’s pursuit (John 15:11). “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” What an encouragement to us in our suffering, that as God commands our joy, He’s also the one working for our joy at all times. That’s what Christ’s Word is for—so that you may have joy and your joy may be full. As we are saturated in God’s Word, it is God’s Spirit who is working to fill us with His joy.
  1. Nothing glorifies God more than when we rejoice in Him in the face of suffering and death (Phil. 1:21). When Paul counts suffering and death as light afflictions compared to knowing Christ, he is telling the world about the worth of God, which is what most glorifies him. God is not honored by sulking, reluctant, complaining service. God loves a cheerful giver. He is glorified when we give our lives away and rejoice in Him as gain.
  1. Apart from God joy is impossible. It is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the inner man (Gal. 6:22). God commands our joy, and we cannot produce joy, which means our only hope is the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus said that if we abide in him and his word abides in us, we may ask for the Spirit—pray—and the Father will give him to us. Not reluctantly or sparsely, but willingly and lavishly. God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Spirit (Romans 5). God commands our joy and gives it freely as a gift. What do we do? We open our Bibles and our empty hands, asking God for the gift He delights to give—Himself.
  1. Paul’s joy endures every trial, even death (Phil. 1:20-21). We are not talking about some feeble, flippant joy. Nor are we talking about a stoic resolve of the will to ignore pain and pretend like everything is happy-clappy. We are talking about a deep, abiding intimacy with Christ that produces a joy that death cannot stop. Paul said he was sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, so his joy did not mean an absence of pain or grief. We are talking about a joy that exists even when everything in this life is stripped from us. We are talking about a joy that exists even when our eyes are filled with tears.
  1. Joy is a fight: Paul had to learn, by practice and habit, how to rejoice in all things (Phil. 4:11). This rejoicing in all things is not easy or automatic. It’s not our natural inclination. But we can learn this habit, by God’s help, and get better at it with time and practice. Paul said he could rejoice in suffering because the strength of Christ enabled him (4:13). The same Christ will grant us the strength to rejoice in our sufferings if we ask him.
  1. The heart of Paul’s ministry is his people’s joy in Christ (Phil. 1:25). When describing his ministry to the Philippian church, Paul said, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” His joy in Christ overflows in love to work for their joy in Christ. He says the same thing in 2 Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” There you can see how Paul uses faith and joy almost interchangeably in that sentence. Joy is the joy of faith. And that’s why Paul preaches, serves, and ministers to the body—for their joy in Christ. That’s the fundamental message pastors and elders ought to embrace for their people—a willingness to suffer and die for their joy.
  1. Paul’s joy conquers anxiety and worry through prayer (4:4-6). Again, Paul isn’t pretending that worry, and the situations that give rise to it, doesn’t exist—it clearly does. But his joy in Christ enables him, through prayer, to defeat worry. You can see that he’s defending his joy, he’s fighting for it with God’s strength, so that worry doesn’t shipwreck his joy and faith.
  1. Paul’s joy is rooted in knowing Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). This is the heart of Christianity. Not religious duties, not how many times you go to church or how much money you tithe, important as those things are. The heart of the Christian life is knowing Christ. Knowledge here is not like knowing facts in a book, but like Adam knew Eve, or a husband knows his wife—intimately. This relationship with Christ is the epicenter of Paul’s life; everything he does, his joy, is all rooted in this relationship. If you miss this, you miss everything. So we ask a related question: Why does our church exist? It is not so that people can say, “They’re the liturgical church,” or the place where the pastor wears a funny collar. It’s so easy to let peripheral issues replace the central themes of the gospel. We exist so that people may come to know Christ. We have to be so careful not to let the periphery displace the center, for when we do, as Don Carson has said, we are not far removed from idolatry.

That’s a brief overview of the kind of Joy Paul is committed to. So now we ask, from the text, what is the reason, the anchor, for Paul’s joy? If it’s not based on things he can lose, what is it based on?


The first major ground for Paul’s joy—and our ground for joy today—is found in verses 19 and 20, and I am calling it “God’s Purpose.” He says, in verse 19, “For I know that…this will turn out for my deliverance,” and then he expounds what he means by that deliverance in verse 20.

First, he is absolutely positive, sure, he’s morally certain that God will deliver him—not from trials, but through them. He knows that God will keep his promises, because he knows God. It may be a temporal deliverance, or one post death, but God will not abandon him. Everything looks bad, it looks like a raw deal for Paul, but Paul is showing us how to hold on to the promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).

Included in the “all things” is evil, suffering, and even death. Paul has read the story of Joseph, and he knows Genesis 50:20 by heart: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and told their father he died; he was wrongly imprisoned after Potiphar’s wife lied about him; and then, finally, he was exalted. When he looked his brothers in the face, he was second only to Pharaoh in Egypt, and looking back he could trace God’s purpose for his good in and through what they meant for evil. 

This is Paul’s ground for hope and our ground as Christians: God will take all the things that seem to be working against you—your suffering and your pain, the evil others do to you—and He will work it for your good, which is for your joy in Christ.

prayer and the spirit

Notice also what Paul says about how he will be delivered in the middle of verse 19. He says that he will be delivered, and that this deliverance will come through the church’s prayers for him. This is a good word for Reformed Calvinists who rightly believe in the good, eternal purposes of God that work for His elect. Not only does God ordain our deliverance, He also ordains the means by which they will come. The means are not insignificant or pointless; they are essential.

If your doctrine of God’s sovereignty leads you to prayerlessness, your doctrine is not Pauline, it is not Apostolic doctrine. Paul says, “I am so sure of God’s purposes; therefore I will pray for the deliverance I am so sure of.” Our hope in God’s working all things out for our good should make us a prayerful people.

And then if you wonder what to pray for, Paul also tells us that—the Spirit of Christ. This same Spirit produces joy in us as we abide in Christ and ask the Father for Him (John 15:1-11; Galatians 6:22). And in context, Paul says to pray for each other this way, especially your pastors. When you see others suffering, pray for God to deliver them by sending His Spirit to give them joy in the midst of their trials. It is our privilege and duty as Christians to hold one another up in prayer.


Verse 20 clarifies what Paul means by deliverance. There’s an obvious tension at this point in Paul’s writing—part of him hopes for a temporal deliverance so that he can go on in ministry, while the other part of him is eager for his final, eternal deliverance. Later in verse 23 Paul said this decision actually tears him apart. Ultimately, Paul’s hope in deliverance is based on two things:

First, Paul says his confidence is based on the fact that Christ will be honored in him whether he lives or dies. No matter what happens, suffering or death, Christ will pursue His honor in my life. Christ’s purposes will be carried out in and through your trials, rather than being hindered by them.

Second, Paul states his hope in the negative: that he won’t be ashamed. I want to look at this word, “ashamed,” because understanding it is at the heart of understanding Paul’s joy. Paul does not mean shame in the sense of being personally embarrassed, like I forgot the meal for the potluck and now I feel stupid.

Most commentators agree Paul is quoting Job, who was looking to God’s vindication, his judgment. His friends accused him, and his life fell apart, but Job looked for God to say, “Righteous.” And that’s what Paul has in mind here—like Christ, and Job, he stands before a human court that is going to condemn him. His life is full of trials and immense suffering. And yet, like Christ, he will be justified through the resurrection.

Paul’s joy is secure because he is sure that he will be justified. Why is he so sure? Does he think that he’s done well enough in his life to merit God’s favor? It’s exactly the opposite of that. Look with me at chapter 3, verse 8 and following.

“In order that I might gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul is confident because his justification and resurrection—which are the means by which he is united to Christ—depend not on his works or righteousness, but on Christ’s. It is based on God’s purpose, not his own.

It is God’s righteous work, in and through Christ, that makes his hope of being justified secure, and thus his joy is secure. That’s what Romans 8 is all about. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul said. Romans 8:31-end:

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If our relationship with Christ was dependent on our purposes, our resolve, our ability to be faithful to God, then our joy would be fragile and feeble and ultimately destroyed. We are weak and sinful. But this is the gospel: It is God who justifies. Our salvation—at the heart of which is knowing Christ—is based on His Purposes. Our joy is secure in Christ because God is the one who secures it. This is why Paul can so confidently say, “I will rejoice, no matter what.”

SECOND REASON: Christ’s Person (v. 21)

The second reason for Paul’s joy, and the final point I’ll make, is found in Paul’s statement in verse 21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” What does Paul mean by that?

I think he means that he embraces a life of suffering and death because both suffering and death bring him more deeply into the knowledge of Christ, which is his greatest joy and pursuit. This is his reason for everything.


So, first, how does suffering increase Paul’s joy in the knowledge of Christ? Verse 10 of chapter 3, Paul says he suffered the loss of all things “[so] that I may know Him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings.” Do you see the connection there? Our knowing Christ is tied to our willingness to suffer the loss of all things with him. We know him most deeply in the fellowship of his sufferings. Are you suffering? Rejoice! For in these sufferings you will know Christ more deeply.


Second, how does death bring Paul deeper into the knowledge of Christ? He tells us in verse 23 that he’s torn between a life of suffering and death but that death is better. He says, “My desire is to depart—to die—and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

Why does Paul want to die? Because then he will be with Christ, he will know him more fully. He will fully and finally be vindicated before God.

The reason Paul can embrace suffering in life and in death is because of the joy he has in Knowing Christ. If he suffers, he will know Christ more deeply. If he dies, he will know Christ deeper still. God is working all things out for his joy in the knowledge of Christ.


My prayer for you, as we conclude, is that you would know this joy, and that your joy in Christ would be full. I pray that your joy would overflow in a life of glad sacrifice for the joy of others in Christ. I pray the joy of the Lord would be your strength in life and in death.

I pray this joy would would cause you to say, “For to me to live is Christ, and to Die is Gain,” in everything you face. So look to the promises, look to God’s Purposes, look to the Person of Christ. And as you do, the Spirit will fill you with joy, so that the world would stand in awe at the kind of life you lived and ask, “Why?”

Because knowing Christ is better than everything.

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