The New Testament begins with a promise of joy. When the angel stepped onto the stage of human history and announced to the fear stricken shepherds that the long awaited Messiah had just been born in nearby Bethlehem, he proclaimed good news of great joy that would be for all the people. The rest of the New Testament takes its tone from that first message of hope and joy; and the people were not disappointed, in that generation or in the many since. The Christian life is a life of joy for all.
Joy is like a colour, in that everybody knows what it is, and nobody can describe it to someone who hasnít experienced it. Maybe that is why the Lord in his good providence has given an experience of joy to all, whether they are pagan or Christian, so that all might recognise the true joy of the Christian life when they see it in others, or read of it in the Bible. Scripture speaks of all kinds of joy which even non-believers experience. Paul tells the pagan crowd that had just come to worship him and his companion as gods about the real God, who "provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy", and so barely prevents them from offering sacrifice to him and Barnabas.
Joy in the world
We can experience joy about all sorts of things, in a way that is good and God-given. Just to take a couple of examples from the Bible, in Isaiah 9.3 there is the scene of men rejoicing over the harvest. Thatís a very real experience for many people. Literally, if you are a farmer, you rejoice over your harvest, or the well-being and productivity of your herd or flock. A builder can rejoice in the house he has just made and a joiner in the cabinet he created out of his materials with the tools of his trade. Or just the things you have grown in the garden to feed yourself and others are a source of real pleasure and satisfaction and give a sense of joy. God has given this sort of joy to us, and it is good to be happy because of these, though never forgetting to return thanks to God for them.
Jesus knew human nature through and through, and he didnít need anyone to tell him of the joy a new born baby brings. He used the example of the joy of a woman at childbirth, after the pain of birth, at the birth of a child. In everyday family life there is much to be joyful about, like the love between man and wife, the happiness of children, and God has given this to pagans and Christians alike.
All of these are good in themselves, and given to us by our Creator. But scripture recognises another kind of joy. David sang of the good God had given him, and of the delusion the ungodly were living under. "You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound" he wrote in Psalm 4.7, because he knew there was a better and stronger reason to rejoice than over the material benefits the Lord had poured out on his creatures.
This reason is in God himself, and in all the things God has done specifically for his children. The New Testament clearly tells us about these, and in fact tells us that one of the things the Kingdom of God is all about is "joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14.7). Here is the basis of it all: "we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Romans 5.11). That God should send his own Son to earth to become a human being, and to live the life of a common man and die the death of a criminal is a thing of wonder and amazement. That he should obtain my salvation through it is a thing of joy and happiness.
Joy burst brightly into human history with the coming of Christ. The record of the events and the explanation of them seem crammed with references to it, and the New Testament uses no less than eleven different Greek words to express it *. Christians should be joyful; of all the people on earth, we have the most to be glad about. If Christ has died for our sins, if he has bought eternal life for us, if we are reconciled to God - what else would we want on earth? And what more could we have?
Not just a feeling
Christian joy is not just a feeling, though it does give great feelings of hope and happiness. It is an energy or a motive power for us too, and it is a frame of mind that immunises us against the debilitating effects of grief. Now grief is a natural reaction to a situation of loss, be it a loved one, a job, a country or other thing we held dear, and is not wrong for us; and so the record in Acts 8 is that "Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him". As Christians it is not wrong to mourn over a loss, but we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but as those who have the hope of the Gospel.
Sadness can be of a kind that has no particular cause, and in this case hinders our usefulness to the Lord and to each other. I am not thinking of medical depression here, but a frame of mind that always looks on the negative side, always sees the drawbacks in something, is forever looking at the hole and not the doughnut. We have everything to be cheerful about in Christ. The antidote to sadness is the Christian virtue of cheerfulness, which is really a form of joy.
And there is a Christian joy that is pure spiritual joy. It overcomes all the circumstances, rises above every pain and hurt, and though it can sometimes go underground comes rippling up to the surface again like a spring of bright water. This was the joy that enabled Paul and Silas to be singing hymns of praise to God after a beating, fastened in the stocks of a filthy prison cell and facing an uncertain future. It is the joy that enabled the prophet Habakkuk to survey a bleak scene of destruction left by an invading army and turn and say "yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour".
It will surprise us and amaze us as Christians how this pure joy will come to the surface at the most unexpected times. It is not from ourselves, or out of our own ability or personality, but it is the fruit of the Spirit which is joy.
Mr Chris Kavanagh is Pastor of the Reformed Church of Palmerston
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised July
1999 / Copyright 1999