Do you know what the shortest verse in the New Testament is? The obvious answer is John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” It is the shortest verse in our English translations of the Bible. But the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is 1 Thessalonians 5:16: “Rejoice always.” It is a little verse with big implications.
The word “rejoice” is a call to joy. The term was a watchword among early Christians. More than a term of worship, it was a word of salutation. Jesus used it as a greeting (Matt. 28:9). Paul used it as a farewell (2 Cor. 13:11). We typically greet one another with “Hello” or “Goodbye.” But what an encouragement it would be if we entered and departed one another’s presence with a call to rejoice.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16, Paul exhorts the saints to rejoice. It is a command, which makes it clear that joy is more than happiness. Happiness is an emotional response to favorable, pleasant, or rewarding circumstances. You cannot compel a person to be happy. It’s based on what happens to a person. But Christians are commanded by God to rejoice. This command to rejoice is in the present tense. It means “keep on rejoicing.” This makes 1 Thessalonians 5:16 a hard command. This divine mandate would be easier to swallow if it simply directed us to rejoice. Indeed, there are many times, reasons, and occasions that call for rejoicing. But the command is to rejoice always, not only sometimes. How does the Christian rejoice always?
We are in spiritual rebellion if we are not joyful, prayerful, and thankful.
First Thessalonians 5:16–18 features what have been called “the standing orders of the gospel.” These exhortations apply to all Christians in every place and every situation. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” These commands may be familiar. But the justification for the commands is often overlooked: “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Do we want to know God’s will for us in any situation? It is God’s will that we rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. We are in spiritual rebellion if we are not joyful, prayerful, and thankful. God’s will for our lives is about more than the circumstances we face. It is about how we respond to those circumstances.
It is the will of God for us to rejoice always. But obedience to this command is not accomplished by an act of the will. It is only accomplished by faith in Christ. The believer’s unceasing rejoicing is the will of God for us “in Christ Jesus.” This is the key to the life of rejoicing. Unsaved people do not rejoice in God, pray to God, or give thanks to God. Religious people rejoice sometimes, pray when they feel like it, and give thanks when things are going well. But Christians rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. This is not the believer’s response because we are impervious to life’s dangers, toils, and snares. It is our response to life because we are in Christ Jesus.
As the Lord Jesus concluded the Upper Room Discourse, He gave a provocative explanation for these final instructions He gave to the disciples: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Lord wants His disciples to live in peace. But true peace is not the absence of negative, painful, or difficult realities. The fact is that disciples of Christ will have tribulations in this world. We are not exempt from trouble because we are in Christ. To the contrary, following Jesus will bring faith-testing, soul-burdening, and life-threatening pressures. Sickness. Heartbreak. Persecution. Rejection. Disappointment. Loss. We will even face death itself. Yet, we can take heart in the midst of it all because Christ has overcome the world.
Here are two essential things that you as a follower of Christ need to know about the world. First, the world is filled with tribulation. But, second and more importantly, it is conquered tribulation. The Lord has overcome the world. This bold declaration of sovereign authority is not a post-resurrection claim. Before the cross, with all its moral injustice, physical suffering, and spiritual agony, Jesus had already overcome the world. The One who was crucified for our sins rose again to declare, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
The tribulations of life are inevitable. But they do not have the last word. The crucified and risen Christ is the world conqueror. The Lord Jesus Christ reigns over heaven and earth. This includes all of the blessings and burdens of your private world. Rejoice in this glorious truth now and forever.
Dr. H.B. Charles Jr. is pastor-teacher of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. He is author of several books, including It Happens after Prayer, and he is host of The On Preaching Podcast.